Friday, December 11, 2009

Singing in the Choir

About 5 weeks ago I joined the Ananda choir, singing tenor. (Major thanks to Ramesha for helping me figure out how to sing in that range, which will be much better for me in the long run than faking bass.) Tonight I'll be singing in the annual performance of Swami Kriyananda's oratorio: "Christ Lives."

This is a bit of an adventure for me, since a lot of the choir members have sung this many times before, and so we've been pretty light on the rehearsals this year. Which is trickier if you're the new guy. In addition to keeping up with the songs we've been singing for Sunday services, I've been trying to learn the 12 oratorio choir pieces, with just a few rehearsals and a practice CD. Last night at the dress rehearsal was actually the first time I ever sang some of the songs with the choir. But I think I've got it okay. I've learned the music enough that I don't need to carry my binder with me, which was my main goal. It's easier to pay attention to the director and tune in to the rest of the choir if I'm not looking down at music all the time.

At the dress rehearsal we mostly did the full-choir pieces, with just spot checks on the solos and small group pieces. It'll be nice to hear all of those in their entirety tonight, because we've got some fantastic singers, and beautiful songs. So I'm really looking forward to tonight, getting to both sing and listen to a lot of wonderfulness.

If you want to attend the concert, it's free (donations accepted) and at 7:30 tonight. Here's the info. It'll be great!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Visiting Quena in Vermont

I just got back from spending several days in Vermont with Quena and having an absolutely lovely time. The excellence included, but was not limited to, the following:

Really, it doesn't matter where I'm going. Quena's been my best friend for 12 years, and spending time with her is always the most wonderful part of such a trip.

I was in Vermont for four nights, and danced on every single one of them -- three contras and one English. The contra dance scene out there is fantastic, with lots of fun dancers of all ages, and music that just blew me away. I think my favorite night was probably the Brattleboro dance, with music by Ethan Hazzard-Watkins, Anna Patton, and Peter Barnes. I love Anna's clarinet playing especially, and there were lots of good dances that beautifully matched the music (and vice versa). The Saturday Greenfield dance was also excellent, and I really liked Clew Bay's music, their 10-year-old drummer, and the surprise extra lindy hop at the end.

On the gray and rainy Saturday morning, Quena and I went to the Scott Farm apple orchard, which was delightful. We spoke with a guy who looked like some craggy old wild man of the mountains, but who turned out to be extremely sweet and as enthusiastic about his apples as a wine connoisseur. He sold us a bunch of Calville Blanc d'Hiver apples for our pies, which "sparkle, like champagne." We also got an assortment of other varieties for applesauce, including Cox's Orange Pippin, Red Spy, Empire, and others I don't remember.

These apples inspired a great deal of our cooking, baking, and eating for the rest of the trip. We made a full size apple pie, and 10 mini pies in muffin tins (which we took to the Saturday dance to share with friends and with the band). We also made 5 jars of applesauce (some with ginger), and apple-onion crepes. And there were still enough for me to bring a bag home. Yum!

(We also baked other things that didn't involve so many apples, like a cabbage pie for dinner. That was the same day we made all the apple pies. I kept inadvertently mis-quoting Lt. Worf: "It is a good day to pie!")

On Sunday the sun came back and we went hiking around Kilburn Pond in the Pisgah State Park (in New Hampshire). We had to wear special "don't shoot me I'm not a deer" colors, since it's hunting season, but we had no encounters with either the hunters or the hunted. The woods are gorgeous, and I loved my first taste of the fabled New England fall colors. My favorites, though, are the evergreens that still pop up to accent all the bright oranges, yellows, and reds.

Celebrity Sighting
One afternoon, Quena and I were in the co-op buying more supplies to help us bake all our apples, and she pointed out that Keith Murphy (of Nightingale) had just walked into the store. I'm a big fan of him and the band, so I allowed myself a moment of fan-boy excitement before deciding not to bug him, and just let him buy his groceries in peace.

Shortly after that, we ran into a friend of Quena's, made some introductions and small talk, then continued shopping. But then I heard behind us that the friend had also found Keith and started talking to him. She was saying something along the lines of "you probably don't remember me, but you stayed at my parents' house in New Mexico several years ago when you were on tour..." etc. So at that point I just had to go over and join in. "I hate to interrupt," I said, "but I couldn't help overhearing, and I wanted to mention that you also stayed at my parents' house about 12 years ago when you were playing some dances in Santa Cruz..." (it's true). He took it all very good humoredly, turning next to Quena, extending his hand, and asking "and when did I stay at your house?" I found it all highly amusing.

Delta Blooper
I'll wrap it up with one other funny story from one of my plane flights. Lots of the Delta employees were wearing pink shirts for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. One of the stewardesses also made an announcement to say that they'd be selling pink lemonade to raise money "for breast research." There was general laughter until one of the co-stewardesses nudged her to correct herself and clarify that it's breast cancer research.

Anyway, it was a wonderful trip all around, and you can see a few pictures here. And now I'm home.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

New Address

I got the keys to my new apartment today! I don't have to be out of my old one until the end of the month, though, so I'll probably be moving in in stages (with the moving van / furniture / helpful friends and family stage being on Saturday). Anyway, it's time to update my address if you care about snail mail, or actually finding me, or things like that. If you're reading this on Facebook, the new address is in my info tab. If you're not on FB, want my address, and don't already have it, just let me know.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Farewell, Fair Wall

Living Room Wall Well, it's time for the next and last update on my living room wall art project. (See previous posts: 1, 2, 3, 4.) This was never the sort of project that would have an actual end point, but given that I'll be moving in a couple weeks, it seems time to declare it "finished." I'll be taking all the little squares down soon and packing them up to take with me, but I very much doubt I'll have a similar wall space in which to recreate the overall mosaic. Though I wouldn't necessarily want to, really. This is something that's just sort of grown up here at The Live Light Ward, and it would seem out of place if it were transplanted elsewhere. I could conceivably start a new overall design using the same pieces, of course. But I think I'll more likely just retire it all and see what new project the new apartment suggests to me, once I've moved in. I'll miss this guy, though.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Moving to Ananda

I just signed the papers yesterday to move into an apartment at the Ananda community in Mountain View. I'll be doing the actual move in late September, and I'm greatly looking forward to it.

I'd been vaguely wanting to move to the community for a while now, especially after spending two weeks at Ananda Village, the original Ananda community, for the Living with Spirit retreat. But I hadn't let myself get too attached to the idea, since I didn't think I could justify raising my rent as much as I thought I had to. Then last week I found out that there's a "junior one-bedroom" apartment there with almost exactly the same rent as I'm paying now. So I just tossed the excuses out the window and went for it.

Since the apartment is a "junior," I'll have about 1/3 less space than I do now. But I don't really need all the space I currently have, and there's a bunch of stuff I've been wanting to get rid of, rearrange, and/or simplify anyway. So I think it'll be a fun challenge to find a way to fit well in there.

And it's a nice little apartment, in spite of being small. It has a lovely fenced-in patio, with space for all my potted plants, and even some actual dirt to plant things in. (And of course there's the community garden I can play with, too.) It's probably one of the sunniest apartments in a complex with lots of big, shady trees, so that's sort of the best of both worlds in that department. And I think it's literally the closest apartment to the meditation temple, which is just a very nice place to be.

Add to all that the fact that I'll get to live in a beautiful community with a spiritual family of wonderful people, and I think this will be a very good move. "Ananda" means "Joy" in Sanskrit, so as we say at the end of service every week, "I will live in joy!" (Literally!)

Sunday, August 09, 2009


One thing I was appreciating during this latest season of So You Think You Can Dance was the solos. It seemed to me that more people were actually putting some thought into choreographing their solos to the music, and we had less of the "just turn on some song and do your stuff" kind of thing. I find that hugely important, since to me dance is inextricable from music. If you really want to have the biggest impact, you've got to get the most out of each part of the equation.

Brandon, however, deserves special props for taking this to still another level during the penultimate week of the show. He went beyond simply choreographing with the music, and also optimized both his choice and editing of the music. I didn't know the piece he used, but it was orchestral, choral, and hugely dramatic. Not only that, but he used the ending of it, with a powerful, bravissimo!-sort of ending that practically commands you to stand up and applaud your hands off. Combine that all with the fact that Brandon is a fantastic dancer, and it's no surprise that he got a standing ovation from the judges.

In fact, I think it's incredible that I've seen 4 seasons of this show now and this is the first solo like this that I remember. You'd think it would be a no-brainer, but so many dancers just let their music get cut off wherever the 30-second break comes. So even if it was a beautiful solo, you're left with a sense of frustration at the interruption, rather than a sense of satisfaction from the completion of an excellent performance.

As for the actual results, I thought Brandon had it in the bag after that solo. But Jeanine was tied with him in my own preferences, so I was quite please with her winning in the end. (And she had a wonderful tango-esque solo the last week.) I was surprised at Evan making it into the top 4. As much as I love him, Ade was honestly the better dancer. But oh well, it was still good to see the "nice guy" get that far.

And as for the choreographies, I thought the final competition show was kind of weak for a finale, aside from the Paso Doble, which was probably the best one of those they've had on the show yet. Throughout the season, though, there were some really good routines, so the final results show with the judges' favorites was excellent. I thought the hip hop routine that started the whole season was excellent, and I was also very impressed with the "Addiction" contemporary piece, and Brandon and Jeanette's tango. Lots of good stuff.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Worms Eat My Garbage

A little while ago I read Worms Eat My Garbage, by Mary Appelhof, which got me inordinately interested in worms. It's hard to have a regular compost pile if you live in an apartment, but a worm bin solves that problem perfectly. It's compact, neat, doesn't smell, you can keep it inside if you need to, and the worms do most of the work for you. They'll even regulate their population based on how much space and food you give them.

The Worm Bin So on Saturday I picked up a "Wriggly Wranch" worm bin at a discounted price from the San Jose Environmental Services. They sell these and other composting systems periodically, and also give composting workshops (see the schedule). You might have to be a resident of Santa Clara county for all that, but other places offer similar things (e.g. San Mateo county). The Worm Dude was also there selling worms, so I got them at the same time.

Worms! And so now I've got about a thousand worms (1 lb.) all munching away at the compostable portions of my garbage, making nice fertilizer for my plants, and keeping more stuff out of the dumpsters and landfills. Yay for worms!

(And before any more people ask, no I'm not naming them all....)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Living with Spirit Recap

Welcome to Ananda! I got back from Ananda Village on Sunday, and finally posted a few photos from the retreat I was on. I've been a bit slow in processing the experience for presentation to the external world, but I wanted to say a bit about it before I got too far away from it.

The Group
Everyone on a Rock The Living with Spirit participants were about 25-30 people (it fluctuated, because some folks who live at the village came and went), between the ages of 16 and 30 (I think I was the oldest). And it was a really good, cohesive group of people. The program doesn't have any requirements about specific spiritual beliefs, but this year it seemed like everyone there was either already involved with the Ananda path in some form, or was taking to it right away. And that was really good because however much you want to affirm the ultimate oneness of all Truth, it does help to be on the same page with how you talk about it with everyone. But there was also enough variety in everyone's background and experience and skills that each person brought something really unique and valuable to our little community. It felt like we all really quickly formed a close family, with everyone having an important role of their own to fill, which was a really good way for the group to function.

The Camp
The Kitchen Our campsite was located about a 7-minute walk along a dusty dirt road from "downtown" Ananda (which is about six buildings, plus our showers). We had a pretty good kitchen setup, since someone had gotten running water, electricity, and gas out there. That let us have a sink, stove, and refrigerator, so we could do all our own food. We also had a couple outhouses, to save us some of the walks back to civilization, and then we all just set up tents wherever we could find the most shade. (It was 100+° the first few days.)

The Food
Ananda-associated food has always been excellent, in my experience. Being a clever vegetarian cook (including being able to piece together gourmet meals from random campsite supplies) seems to be a very common quality among people there. I was even inspired to buy two Ananda cookbooks, and I hardly ever buy cookbooks. But heck, the sun burger recipe alone would have been worth the price.

I also had some food-naming amusement, thanks to Greg and Briana. Greg made minestrone soup on the day that Swami Kriyananda arrived at the village, and dubbed it "mineswami" soup, after which he also decided we should have "chakra chip" cookies. At breakfast on the last day, Briana came up with "om-meal" and "Anandamoyee Ma-shed potatoes." Awesome.

Willow Tree Meditations We had two sadhana periods each day (well, most days) -- one at 6:00 AM, which was usually the best temperature of the day, and one in the afternoon before dinner. They usually consisted of energization exercises, yoga, and meditation. For me, yoga was the new part and I took to it, as they say, like a duck to investment banking. But over the course of the two weeks, I learned to relate to it a bit better, and grok it a little more. I still don't care for the more stretchy poses, or anything that I don't feel like I can even approximate. But I do feel the benefit of a lot of them, and even started rather liking some of the balancing poses. (Maybe that's just the dancer in me enjoying that kind of a challenge.)

The Farm
Garden Crew A lot of this retreat was not just spiritual practice, but also "karma yoga," meaning detached action solely for the sake of service. Which is, of course, a spiritual practice in its own way if you do it right. The theme this year was sustainable agriculture, so we spent a lot of time just working on the Ananda farm, mostly with the vegetables and fruit orchards, but also doing occasional other stuff like building fences or trails. I've been gardening enough this year that I think I enjoyed this all more than I would have in the past. It's especially nice, after just having potted plants on a balcony, to get out and work with plants in the actual ground for a change. The hardest part for me was thinning the apples on the apple trees. It seems so horrible to pick and throw out so many baby apples, but it does let the remaining ones grow bigger and sweeter.

Swami Kriyananda
Swami and the Choir Swamiji arrived from Italy in the middle of the first week, so he could be there for Ananda Village's 40th anniversary celebration on the 4th of July weekend. He's 83 but in better shape right now than he has been in years, which made everyone very happy. He even sang a few solos at the concert on Saturday night, effectively getting "Love Is a Musician" stuck in everyone's heads for the rest of the trip. (I really want to do a cross-step waltz to that song.)

Our group also got to spend an evening with Swami at the Crystal Hermitage. He didn't give a lecture or anything, just plunked himself down and asked what we wanted to talk about. There were a lot of us, and I wasn't one of the few who actually got to ask him a question. But Swami has a way of managing to talk about everything, regardless of what questions actually get asked. So I think everyone comes away satisfied at the end anyway.

The Yuba River
The Yuba River We had a field trip day each week, and on the first one we went swimming in the Yuba River. It's a gorgeous place, and delightful to swim in, but getting there was more of an adventure than I'd expected. To try and pass up the most crowded, close-to-the-road, areas, we hiked up hill for a while, then hiked/slid back down to river level, then ended up fording the whole river to get to a small, untenanted beach on the other side. All this while carrying our towels, other personal items, boxes containing picnics for 30 people, a large cooler full of drinking water, and a guitar. I was the one carrying Parkle's guitar, and I gotta say it made me pretty nervous clambering over rocks in the middle of the river with that. But we made it okay.

Head First We swam upstream for a while, getting out occasionally to clamber over small waterfalls and such things. I can't remember the last time I swam against a current, so that was pretty interesting. There was one spot of relatively calm water with a 30-foot rock over it that was good for leaping off of ("the Acid Drop") though I passed on that, myself. Some of us took a little detour off to the side of the river to find an old mine tunnel with great echoes, where we chanted some extremely satisfying "OMs." The turnaround point for most of us was at a place with a waterfall inside a cave inside a waterfall. Then we swam back, with the current this time. That was mostly easier, though the waterfalls were still tricky. We went over the first one with just a few bumps and it seemed okay. The second one looked easier, but completely bashed everyone up. (I still have bruises and scrapes on my legs from that. At least I went feet-first.) After that I was a bit more careful and went around some of the others. Back at our home beach we had our afternoon meditation wherever we could find places on the rocks or the sand, which was a lovely way to wrap it up.

The Donner Pass
The Cloud Monk Our other field trip was to go hiking up Donner Pass in the Sierras. We started around 7000 feet in elevation and got up to a peak at 8500 feet. That's a beautiful place to hike. I love all the mountain rocks and trees, and the trails are good, and we even found a patch of snow to play in (in July!). We stopped and had lunch just short of our destination, then Greg and John had us all close our eyes while they led us around the last outcroppings of rock. They lined us all up and had us all open our eyes at once, to a spectacular view looking all the way down to Donner Lake. We went down to the lake itself later on, but since that water had been snow just days before, I opted not to go in. (It was cooler there around the mountains, anyway, so I wasn't frying as much as usual.)

The "Point" of It All
Ananda Sunset A lot of people have asked me whether I got what I wanted to out of this trip. It's a fair question, though I don't think I feel like writing a complete answer here on my blog (nor could I if I tried, I expect). But yes, it was good, and I'm glad I went. While some specific experiences were especially powerful (the evening we spent on healing prayers, for instance) a lot of the real benefit came just from being in that environment. That land has been a very intentionally, devotedly spiritual community for 40 years now, and you can feel it, just being there. It's also very good to spend time around people who are constantly helping each other to remember to think of God, and to find the spiritual aspect in everything they do.

Om. Peace. Amen.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Living with Spirit

I'm leaving today for the "Living with Spirit" retreat up at Ananda Village. So for the next two weeks I'll be camping, meditating, doing yoga, taking classes, experiencing life in a spiritual community, and doing other fun things. Oh, and hoping I don't miss my first tomatoes, though Cathy will be looking after them for me. See y'all mid-July!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A New Favorite Narrator

I just finished listening to Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, narrated by Humphery Bower, and I have to say I spent every one of those 43 hours completely enthralled with his voice.

First of all, he's Australian (appropriate for the first-person protagonist of the book) so everything is delightfully accented, even just the "base" narration. But it's the character voices that always really sell me on a good narrator. Most of the book takes place in Bombay, so there are umpteen different Indian characters, all with distinguishable, recognizable voices. Aside from that, though, there are numerous characters from other countries, with accents as diverse as French, German, Spanish, British (London and Liverpool versions), Canadian, American, Iranian, Pakistani, and Afghan. And as if juggling all that weren't enough, he also handles cases like British-educated Afghan, New York Pakistani, and an Australian faking an American accent while speaking Hindi. The guy is a genius.

And even beyond the accents, the overall narration is just exquisitely done. Every little shading and coloring of emotion and meaning is conveyed perfectly in the intonation. Not too much -- I've heard narrators that overdo it -- but just right. This goes both for matching explicit descriptions in the text and for applying his own interpretations to the rest of it. There have been a number of times when I could tell that I would have read something in a very different way in my head, but that Bower's version worked much better.

So if you're a connoisseur of good narrators, definitely listen to this. (Or I expect any of the other books he's read would be excellent as well.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


It's ready!
Pea Flower
Pea Plants
I think peas really have to be just about the best plants ever. Lacey gave me a couple small Cascadia Bush Snap Peas about a month ago, and I got to pick and eat the first one last night. I love these little plants. This is how awesome they are:
  • They grow quickly.
  • Their vines climb with delightful little grasping tendrils. (I always think vines are wonderful.)
  • You get to build trellises for them (or, in my case, tie crazy arrangements of string and sticks to balcony railings).
  • The flowers are adorable.
  • The peas are delicious!
I mean, really, what more could you want?

Monday, June 08, 2009


It's true I'm getting older, but there are still many good hugs left in me.
(Potshots #2797, by Ashleigh Brilliant.)

Well, it's a new year and a new decade for me today. Thirty still sounds like too big a number, but I've also kinda been looking forward to getting out of all the late-20s nonsense of the past few years. So I'm assuming it'll be good. :-)

I got to do several fun things this weekend, starting back on Friday with dinner and birthday stuff with Mom, Lacey, and Cathy, before going out waltzing. Then a Waldon gathering on Saturday (more of a general family reunion, but family + apple cobbler + double chocolate brownies is close enough to a birthday celebration for me). Then yesterday Cheryl and I made one of my weirder ice creams (about which, more here) and other amusing sillinesses.

So today, the actual day, will probably be a bit different. But I always like to make sure I get some quiet, introspective time around my birthdays, to think and write and such. And to plant a lot of new seedlings in my garden. And to work my way through the leftovers of five different, excellent desserts from this weekend. That'll make for a good day.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Homemade Vanilla Extract

As with many good things of this sort, this was inspired by my sister. Turns out it's actually quite easy to make vanilla extract.
  1. Get a bottle of vodka.
  2. Get 6 vanilla beans.
  3. Slit the beans, stick them in the bottle, shake it up.
  4. Put it in a cupboard for a few months.
You can take it out once in a while to give it a shake, and to watch the color deepen as it goes along. I find this kind of thing rather fascinating, actually, so I took photos at intervals:

Homemade Vanilla Extract

As you use it up, you can top it off with more vodka, and if you need a vanilla bean for something, you can pull one out and replace it with a fresh one. So it can be a fun sort of ongoing thing. Yum!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

And Hills for Climbing

Nightingale has a beautiful song on their third album called "Hills," which I only started really hearing properly a couple weeks ago.

It's actually from a poem by Arthur Guiterman, and apparently they turned around the last two lines, but that's the part I now like most about it:

God, give me strength to climb,
And hills for climbing.

We can pray for strength, but what is strength without a use for it? Both sides of the equation have to go together.

Those lines for me resonate back two years ago, when I saw the movie "Evan Almighty." I think it was a decently entertaining movie, but one part burned into my brain and crowded the rest of it out. Morgan Freeman, as God, is comforting Evan's wife, and says:

Sounds like an opportunity. Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, do you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If they pray for courage, does God give them courage, or does he give them opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for their family to be closer, you think God zaps them with warm, fuzzy feelings? Or does he give them opportunities to love each other?
(video clip)

It's a good reminder. If we're going through difficult times, we're not just suffering -- we're learning to be patient, or brave, or loving, or whatever our own personal lessons need to be. It's an opportunity to consciously acknowledge and accept those lessons. Sometimes it may be hard even just to tell what's going on, but we can still keep climbing our hills, and trust in the strength that goes with it.

So let me hold my way,
By nothing halted,
Until, at close of day,
I stand exalted.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Dance Limericks

In honor of Limerick Day, which I only just found out existed, I dug up a bunch that I wrote probably about 8 years ago. In Richard's social dance classes, we had to write a one-page "essay" each quarter, to justify him giving us an actual unit. After a few years of this, I occasionally had to get more creative, like when I submitted the following collection of limericks. Many of you Richard-Powers-groupies out there may recognize some of his teaching metaphors. :-)

An arrow protrudes from my chest,
And a laser beam comes from my vest,
I take the blow with my back,
As we roll, Jill and Jack;
The waltz tends t'wards violence, at best!

The hustle, as a dance, isn't funny,
Except when one hops like a bunny,
I simply can't stand,
To see a one-two-three-AND --
It just makes my insides all runny.

Occasionally persons pontifical,
Say the waltz is a dance quite centrifugal,
But whether forces act out,
Or around and about,
Is a question considered most difficul'.

There was a young lady named Cindy,
Who danced a remarkable lindy,
Her skirts and her hair
Just flew through the air,
Whether or not it was windy.

Some people may think you are odd-ish,
When the ska plays, and you dance a schottische,
With a one-two-three-hop,
And some pivots on top,
That makes their legs tangled and knot-ish.

There once was a dancer named Luke,
Who made a bet with a good friend from Duke,
That he could waltz 'round and 'round,
And around and around,
And around, until ready to ... stop.

While attempting to waltz on my toes,
I repeatedly fall on my nose.
It is quite a treat,
To get off of my feet,
But my nose flows a rose on my clothes.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Son of Contra Plus!

So if you missed out on Contra Plus!... well, you missed out. But Bob and I are going to be DJing for the first couple of hours at Big Dance this Friday, so you can come get your fix of contras + couple dances there. We won't have the incredible band we had a week ago, but we've still got plenty of good stuff lined up, so it'll be fun. Come dance! (And then stay up all the rest of the night and dance some more!)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Contra Plus!

Bob, Lacey, and I have been organizing a new dance event. It's called Contra Plus!, and will be about half contra dances and half couple dances -- waltz, swing, polka, tango, etc. The music will be awesome, Decadance will be performing for us, and Bob and I will be calling. If you haven't done contra before, just come to the class beforehand and we'll get you up to speed right away. If you're primarily a contra dancer, it'll be a fun chance to do more couple dances. Full event details are on Facebook -- feel free to pass it around and invite all your friends!

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Thirteen Moons

A little over a year ago I was beginning my first Vipassana meditation retreat on the evening of a full moon. On today's full moon, I'm going to start level 1 of Ananda's meditation class series. I like the symmetry of that.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Living Wisdom of Mirabai

Mom canceled our plans to go to a Patrick Ball concert last night, because she had been to see the Living Wisdom School play the night before and was so impressed she wanted to see it again with me. So we went to that, and I'm more than happy that we did. I would recommend that everyone go see it, except that last night was the final show.

Every year, LWS puts on an original play about the life of a great spiritual figure. In the past they've done Buddha, Jesus, Moses, St. Francis, Martin Luther King Jr., Kuan Yin, Yogananda, and others. This year it was Mirabai, a 16th century "mystic poet princess of India." I'd never known much (well, anything) about her, nor have I ever been particularly interested in devotional poetry such as she wrote, but this was a wonderful way to learn. What really struck me, though, was an overall sense of how truly uplifting the whole production was for everyone involved -- actors and audience alike.

The cast is made up of about 60 kids, ages 4 through 14. A few of the larger roles are played by more than one child -- there were five Mirabais, for instance, who would sometimes take scenes individually and sometimes work together (it sounds odd, but made sense in practice). This probably makes it easier for the littler kids to make it through a full length play, but it also lets more of them have more types of roles. And nearly everyone had multiple roles, even if they weren't Mirabais. The way Mom put it, this gives everyone a chance to experience lots of different ways of being -- they can express their royal nature, their devotional nature, their warrior nature, their peacock nature, etc., one right after the other. It's like the karmic actors concept I wrote about recently, but compressing multiple lifetimes into a single play.

And a lot of these kids really rose to the occasion in their roles. The three primary Mirabais, all age 10, were especially impressive. They tended to look kind of like you'd expect awkward 10-year-olds in costume to look, but it was amazing what they put into their performances once they started speaking. The smallest of these, in particular, had such a powerful presence that she seemed to be just absolutely channeling Mirabai herself when she was reciting some of the poems. Another of them sang a song in some Indian language, which of course I couldn't understand, but which was just so heart-achingly beautiful that I couldn't do anything but stare at her and cry the whole way through.

Of course, watching all of the kids was an absolute delight. They're all wonderful and they're all putting so much of themselves into such a good work that it's impossible not to just sit there and love them. Even crying through Mirabai's song, even during the treacherous or tragic parts of the plot, I just had an immense grin on my face and in my heart the whole time. And I realized that this is giving us a glimpse -- on a human scale -- of the sort of love God must have for us. We may be acting out all sorts of wonderful or ridiculous things here on Earth, being a priest in this lifetime or scene, and a warrior in the next. But He loves the souls behind all that, just like we love the children doing the acting, and a constant sense of joy and love permeates everything as the true core of what's going on.

I'll leave you with one of Mirabai's poems. Perhaps not the most typical of them, but the one that still makes me laugh when I think of the five little girls in blue dresses up on stage, reciting the last lines together.

Mira Knows Why
The earth looked at Him and began to dance.
Mira knows why, for her soul too
Is in love.
If you cannot picture God
In a way that always
Strengthens you,
You need to read
More of my poems.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Karmic Actors, and Forgiveness

I've recently been listening to a lot of Asha Praver's talks and classes, which are all available to download from the Ananda website. A couple of points really caught my attention as a very elegant description of, well, everything that truly needs to be summed up:
  1. The spiritual path is a continual process of becoming aware of and understanding the laws of cause and effect at progressively subtler levels. I find this fascinating for the sheer range of human experience it covers, i.e. all of it -- from a clueless jerk who doesn't understand why nobody likes him, to a guru who can describe the karmic path of your soul across lifetimes.
  2. This learning is part of the overall quest to seek joy and avoid suffering. This sounds like a rather selfish cause, and at a lot of the lower levels it does manifest that way, but the point is that you eventually realize that only divine joy and not worldly joy will really achieve this fully. So it's okay. :-)
In the course of this quest, our souls try to have literally* every possible experience, trying to figure out what will make us actually, lastingly happy. The more we do so, the more we learn and the more we evolve spiritually. Paramhansa Yogananda teaches that if we have no desire to do a particular thing (e.g. commit murder) that is only because we have done it enough in the past that we've learned it doesn't work. And absolutely everything that people do, including both committing murder and being murdered, is a continuation of this learning process.

I like this because I try to make a habit of learning whatever I can from whatever happens in life, whether good or bad. But it also has important implications for the topic of forgiveness, which I think is a major lesson that's been trying to work its way through my life for some time now. David Praver spoke about this at the service today, specifically about just accepting whatever comes as being for our own ulitmate good, learning, and enlightenment.

This isn't to just completely condone any and all actions, of course. If someone hurts me, I should still find the best way to resolve the situation, and not just give up and take it. If I'm being cruel to someone else, I shouldn't justify it, but try to catch myself in it and make a change. But I suppose that's because I've already had -- somewhere in the past -- the experiences of just giving up, or of being mercilessly cruel, and now I'm ready to start doing better.

The important point in terms of forgiveness is to recognize the essential role other people play in this process, even if it seems horrendous or hurtful. Tormentor and victim are each going through their own necessary experiences, while at the same time acting as a foil for the other. And they will each flip and take on different roles for different experiences, if not in this lifetime then in another. A movie wouldn't be very interesting without a villain for some conflict, even though that actor isn't inherently an evil person and may play the hero in the next movie.

Deepak Chopra makes this point beautifully at the very end of Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment (a parallel to his Buddha book that I wrote about previously). The narrator is an old Himalayan yogi who met Jesus and has been sharing his story with us:

Sometimes I went to the bright line etched between this world and that. I met Jesus there. We never talked but simply bathed in the radiance that conquers all illusions.

I didn't tell Thomas about these journeys. He would have believed me. But he never would have believed that Jesus brought Judas along.

"You are a great soul," I told Judas. "You were willing to play the villain on earth. You must love Jesus very much."

Judas was modest about accepting praise. All he would say was, "The earth is God's child. How could I not help a child?" It was understood among us that without Judas, there couldn't be this new thing, Christianity.
[pg 249]

Isn't that a glorious way to look at Judas? "You must love Jesus very much." May we all aspire to see that level of good in everyone around us.

- - - - -
* This is one of those things that is easier if you accept the idea of reincarnation, but which still conceptually "works" even if you restrict it to just one lifetime. For instance, I've at various times noticed myself in one relationship acting out the reverse role of the same issue from a previous relationship. Even if one role felt very foreign to me, it was as if some part of myself had to check, and try it out, just to make sure.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Waltzing in Bozeman

After the Dance Lacey and I flew out to Bozeman, Montana this weekend to visit Antonia for her birthday. (And in the process, met Keri, another visiting friend who, it turns out, lives just a few blocks from me.)

I must admit that I was moderately terrified of leaving comfy California for somewhere with highs that barely cross freezing temperature. But it turned out to be not too bad. Going to the Norris hot springs at night was quite a contrast, though. It's very daunting to change into a bathing suit in 20° weather and make the scurry over to the warm water. (Which you want to go into slowly because of the dramatic temperature change, but also quickly to get out of the cold.) Then your body gets all cozy but your head is sticking out in the freezing air. Golly. But the core warmth stays with you for a while afterwards, which is really nice.

Apple Pie We spent a lot of time in the kitchen over the weekend. In addition to actual meals, we made oatmeal raisin cookies, brownie bites, an apple pie, several lemon cheesecakes, and perhaps other stuff I've forgotten already. Most of these were snacks for Sunday's event. Oh, and Antonia has the most wonderful gigantic drawer of tea. It's an absolute delight to behold and sample from.

Cross-step Waltz Lesson On Sunday night we had the "excuse" for the whole visit: Bozeman's first ever Waltz Night. Antonia has always liked Friday Night Waltz out here in the Bay Area, and has been wanting to take the concept out to Montana for a long time. So she organized it all and I agreed to help by teaching a cross-step waltz lesson and DJing.

Me and Antonia It was a very satsifyingly successful dance. Not a huge group for what I'm used to, but for a smaller town and a brand-new event, it was very good. We had contra dancers and tango dancers and ballroom dancers all show up, and we did the usual FNW sort of mix of dances, plus a contra and a circle mixer. The last waltz was fun, too, since we developed an amoeba of about 9 or 10 people that found several amusing ways to all dance with Antonia at once. A lot of folks thanked us for running it and seemed very happy about it overall, which made us all glad.

After the dance, we had a celebratory late night "dinner," which in my case consisted mostly of ice cream and cheesecake. Which didn't help me sleep much last night. Which in turn made it harder to get up at 5AM for the plane flight this morning. So I'm probably going to go to bed soon....

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Detachment, Unity, and Choice

[A bit more here on the subject of choice, since it seems to be a theme in my mind these days.]

When I was learning Vipassana at my first meditation retreat -- almost a year ago now -- I had one main concern about it. It seemed to me that if you really did manage to let go of desires and aversions, then you would end up never doing anything ever again. How would you make choices? Why would you bother taking any actions? I forget precisely what the teacher told me when I asked about it, and I don't think I fully got it at the time, though I decided it was enough to be getting on with, at least.

The idea is that detachment actually allows you to make completely free choices, unencumbered by fears, worries, selfish desires, etc. That leaves you open to base your decisions and actions solely on whatever knowledge, wisdom, and love you may have. Which is generally better than what we usually do.

I recently read a couple of excellent books by Deepak Chopra that illustrate this really well. The first is Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment. I was surprised to find a portion of the story that took place between Gautama losing his sense of self and his becoming fully enlightened. A peasant girl has found him emaciated and nearly dead, and is nursing him back to health. He's aware of everything around him, but is so detached that there's just nothing there -- no great spiritual leader, no nothing. I found it somewhat alarming but also fascinating at the same time, because that was exactly the fear that came to me last March.

So what is left to do at this point? The final change occurs when he stops identifying with nothing, and begins to identify with everything. That is what makes a Buddha.

But there's still the question of choice. If anything, the Buddha has far more choices after enlightenment, with knowledge and options far beyond what most of us realize. He could even choose to simply remain sitting under the bodhi tree and enjoy his oneness with everything forever. But in his omniscience he also realizes that there are countless other souls out there, still imagining themselves to be separate, alone, and suffering. And the same spiritual passion that drove him for years to find his own enlightenment now guides him to do the same for his newly expanded, universal "self." So he again picks up the body that "he" started in, because all the individuated souls will need that in order to understand how to relate to him, and he uses that to go forth and teach.

The other of Chopra's books I wanted to mention was The Book of Secrets: Unlocking the Hidden Dimensions of Your Life. This is an incredible but very challenging book, because I think it takes you as far towards complete universal oneness as you can get through mere words and intellect.

But even if we don't get so far as believing/understanding that we are the universe, hopefully we can all agree that we're at least a part of the universe, simply by virtue of being in it. So our choices and actions at any level really are affecting, changing, and therefore creating the universe. We can't help it. Thinking about things that way gives us an interesting new framework of significance or even responsibility in which to evaluate what we do. How might we make different choices if we view them in terms of creating the universe we live in?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Love, Obedience, and Choice

One of our (extended-)family traditions is picking an angel card at the beginning of each year. If you aren't familiar with angel cards, each one has a positive quality written on it (e.g. "Happiness," "Freedom," etc.) and you just choose one at random. It's not meant to be predictive or anything, but more of a suggestion. It challenges you to consider how that quality manifests in your life, and to see if you can be more aware of it, or encourage it more for that day, or within whatever context you chose it for. Again, they're all positive, so you can't really get a "wrong" or "bad" one.

That said, there are definitely a few cards that tend to elicit more groans than others. The card I drew on New Year's Day for 2009 was "Obedience." That tends to get more of the "ha ha, now you have to do everything we say" sort of response from the people around you when you draw it. But given that it's my card for the year, I've been doing some thinking to see what else I can make of it.

First, I'll back up a bit. I also like to pick a "personal year" (as opposed to "calendar year") angel card on my birthdays, so at any given time I have two overlapping "themes" to be conscious of. For my current personal year, which I'm right in the middle of, I have "Love."

"Love" has the obvious emotional readings regarding romantic love, familial love, etc. and those are certainly all good. But another aspect to it is that of choice. Where does "following your heart" take you? What people, or activities, or paths -- out of all the world -- do you choose for yourself and your life? Older Tarot decks sometimes depicted the Lovers card with two women and one man, to illustrate this aspect. Sometimes one of the women would also be shown or interpreted as the man's mother, accentuating the difference between families of birth and families of choice.

(There is also the lesson here that truly loving someone is a deliberate choice, which implies a different relationship approach once you've passed the emotion/hormone-driven limerence stage of things. But I'll save the relationship discussions for another time, and stay closer to the general theme of choice for now.)

So let's come back to "Obedience." What I see happening here is that obedience brings choice into a different context. Whereas love is an internal choice (you can have unrequited love, for instance, where the object of your affection perhaps isn't even aware of it), obedience is more external, rooted in the world around you. Someone (a person, God, etc.) or something (a law, a moral principle, a street sign, etc.) requires something of you, and only then can you choose to obey. (If you were going to do it anyway, then it's just coincidence, not obedience.) That's why this angel card is illustrated with a street light, as an example of an external requirement. The angel could, of course, run the red light, but she chooses to stop.

This interpretation of obedience as choice has two important results. First, it puts the power back with you, not with other people or the world around you. Rather than just helplessly doing whatever everyone wants you to, you're consciously thinking, examining, and deciding.

That examination leads to the second point, which is that you can become aware of what you are obeying and why, and start making decisions between these sources and reasons. Do you obey your religious upbringing, or peer pressure? Your boss, or your spouse? Speed limits, or your impatience? Because it will make you happy? Because it will make someone else unhappy? Because it's better for the world at large? If you consider your obedience a currency, what causes will you invest in or support?

Listen to the difference, just in a simple case: "I'm driving the speed limit because that's the law and I have to do it." (Alternatively, "I'm speeding because I'm impatient and I feel like going fast.") VERSUS "I'm driving the speed limit as a way of keeping the streets safer, reducing accidents, and setting a good example for other drivers to do the same." Which would you rather have?

So how will this play out in my own life? I don't know yet. I'm definitely in an extended transition time these days, which means there are lots of choices to be made and I have no clue where it will all lead. This past year of being unemployed has given me some good opportunities to choose to do a number of things that I want and love to do. But this phase has also been less "obedient" to the structure of society at large, primarily in the areas of financial stability and employment. I've been feeling that tension for a while now, and it will have to be reconciled at some point. So I hope I'm able to make the right choices and find the right way to fit my life into the world.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Camp New Harmony

We got back from Camp Harmony yesterday afternoon, and camp was, in a word, fantastic. At the peak day we had twice as many people attending as last year, so there were lots of new friends to make as well as old ones to see again. And since everything is volunteer-run there, having that many more people just meant that much more great stuff to do. Camp has been needing to have a knock-it-out-of-the-park year for a while, I think, and this was it.

Friends The new location (Camp Newman, in Santa Rosa) is quite lovely. It's still nice and woodsy, which I like, and it's decorated all over. There are murals on all the buildings, tile mosaics lining the pathways, etc. It's quite hilly, though, which is rough on people with bad knees, and dangerous when frosted over and slippery, so you have to be careful. There were a lot of good workshop and jamming spaces. I was worried about having to rent a portable dance floor, but that ended up working out quite well. There were a wide range of accommodations. At the top end they have a few buildings of what are basically two-bedroom, furnished apartments, complete with a small kitchen, living room, couches, and everything. At the other end they have the "youth dorm" that we stayed in: rickety metal bunks, saggy crinkly mattresses, cold tile floors, and a miniature space heater working day and night to try to keep the place warm. The cabins in between were probably the best places to stay, in terms of being more comfortable but still with lots of your friends.

New Year's Eve Dancing I taught three dance classes. The first two were beginning East Coast Swing and beginning Lindy Hop, getting people ready for the swing dance evening. I was super lucky to have Sylvia Herold and a bunch of other great musicians playing music for the classes. It's hard to get used to interrupting fantastic live music just so you can teach another basic swing move, but it was really a privilege to have them there. And the lessons went really well, I think. I also taught a Cross-Step Waltz class, again with live music. Lacey and Rowyn very graciously helped out by being my lovely assistants.

Sylvia was also teaching a swing guitar class all week, so I went to all of those. Swing guitar has always seemed frightfully complicated compared to the folky stuff I'm used to, but she did a really good job of breaking it down and making it accessible. I'm going to have to see if I can keep that up and get better at it.

Dancing It was a very swingy camp for me all around, actually. The swing night was my favorite evening dance. There were a number of new campers this year who were good swing dancers that I got to dance with. And a lot of the younger kids are also starting to pick things up. I danced with several of the girls who don't have much in the way of basic steps or technique but who could still more or less follow all sorts of stuff, which is wonderful. In fact, I'm just getting more and more pleased with that next-younger generation overall, because more of them are getting to the point where they're really participating in the music and dance activities at camp. I was thrilled one evening when I saw Adam and Mary dancing an excellent cross-step waltz that they had just learned in my class that afternoon. They told me later that they were on a mission to become "superdancers" like me and Lacey. Talk about melting a Graham's heart.... I caught them practicing a few other times throughout camp and piled more moves on for them to learn.

Shapenote Singing I played tunes for the Irish dancing again, as usual, and also got in a couple nice late-night sessions. The new location had drawn in some more of the Lark in the Morning contingent, so there were some Irishing folks I haven't gotten to play with before. I also played some Quebecois tunes, though I only know a handful and they're hard to pick up on the fly. I mostly did fiddle the whole time. Never even took my mandolin out of its case, since I didn't figure my wimpy calluses could handle that after the guitar classes every day.

New Year's Eve Masks New Year's Eve was good, though strangely it felt smaller than usual. Probably because the dining hall there was bigger and because people were off in other places around camp as well, and not all congregating at the same place. The real heart of camp for me, though, wasn't so much the New Year celebration as Bob Reid's annual kids concert. He had an even bigger crowd with an even wider age range than usual this year, and it's amazing what an intense emotional experience gets created between everyone. We laugh like crazy, and some of us bigger kids go down the crying end of things, too. When it was all over we had a giant hug pile on Bob, and then just stayed there for a while, milling around the room, hugging people and playing with some of the littler kids. That's the time you really remember that everyone there is really just one huge family, and it's beautiful.

Calling a Contra Dance Other fun stuff:
  • Shapenote singing. (Missed one session but scheduled a second to make up for it.)
  • Calling my first contra dance. (On minimal preparation, but it went well enough.)
  • Mask-making for New Year's Eve outfits. (And "leading" the workshop for Quena who was on a quest to retrieve her missing dance shoes from Davis.)
  • Katie's surprise birthday party. (With 12 silly people crammed into a small, dark, stifling room for 20 minutes because she was late.)
Anyway, all around it was a very successful camp. I was glad to sleep in my own comfy bed last night, though. Now it's sort of sad, post-Harmony time, but there are also a lot of music and dance things that I'm inspired and excited about, so that's good. Happy New Year!