Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Believing in the Power to Change the World

I recently finished reading "Creating a World Without Poverty" by Muhammad Yunus. Yunus and Grameen Bank received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for their revolutionary work in addressing the issue of poverty in Bangladesh.

It started very simply. Yunus was an economics professor at Chittagong University. But when faced with the very real poverty in nearby villages such as Jobra, his theories seemed like the leisure play of the well-off, doing nothing to address what was really plaguing his fellow countrymen.

He noticed one woman making beautiful bamboo chairs. Talking to her, he found that although she worked long, hard hours, and made beautiful products that were in demand, she was not able to adequately provide for her family. The reason? She had initially bought her supplies using a small loan from a usurious money-lender, and he required that he sell all of her products back to him as repayment, at a fraction of their worth. She could never get out of debt.

Yunus asked around, and discovered that 42 people in the village were in bondage to this same money lender. And how much money would set them free? A mere $27 - in total. Yunus loaned the money to the people, from his own wallet, a few dollars to each of them, and told them they could pay it back at low interest. Every single one of them paid back the loan, got their family out of debt, and was able to launch a successful family business.

This is the radical concept Yunus came up with - the idea of "micro-loans" - small loans with no collateral required. After his initial success, he tried to get a bank to support the idea. But no one believed in him. It was crazy. It went against all common sense. In the end, Yunus had to start his own bank. He called it Grameen Bank, which means Village Bank. That bank has proven wildly successful, with a 97 percent return rate on loan repayment (much higher than normal banks). It is owned by the poor themselves, and 97 percent of those owners are women, because Yunus saw that empowering women brought the greatest good to poor families.

Grameen Bank has gone far beyond micro-loans, branching out into housing, scholarships for students, medical care programs, and more.

All of this because one man walked into a village in his country and said, "I believe in the power to change this."

May I have the courage to feel that belief on a daily basis as well.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Gift of a Writing Weekend

After another crazy work week, I'm off for two and a half days of a much-anticipated retreat. In a couple of hours, I will be heading to Mendocino with my friend Christi to stay two nights at a cabin. We met three years ago when a writers' group was being formed in Cloverdale, and have become best friends. She is working on a novel about a young American woman who ends up in Germany just before World War II, marries a German man, and then finds herself alone with young children while he goes off to fight. My own writing has been sadly neglected in recent weeks, and needs a kick start.

I just got back from the grocery store, stocking up on easy-to-fix food. The plan is to hole up in the cabin, and write, write, write. It will also be the first time that we have ever been able to spend such a long time together, uninterrupted. Christi is a mother of two grade school children and a full-time high school teacher, and between our relationship/family obligations and work schedules, we're usually lucky to eke out about two hours at a time. So the conversations on the drive and over meals, etc., are another thing we're looking forward to.

This is something I have to thank my partner, Sabrina, for. After my writing retreat in New Mexico last summer, I rather wistfully mentioned one day that Christi and I needed to do something like that. Sabrina jumped on it immediately and said, "Do it! Make it happen! Even if it's only for a weekend." So, with her support and encouragement, we managed to figure out our schedules, find the perfect place, and this weekend it's finally going to become a reality.

It's partially fulfilling a fantasy of mine that I've had ever since reading Anne Morrow Lindbergh's "Gift from the Sea." The book is about relationships - primarily about marriage/love relationships, but also about motherhood and friendships. The section that spoke most strongly to me is in the section "Argonauta," where she describes spending a week at a cabin with her sister, and "a perfect day."

The perfect day, as she delineates it, involves the natural, right combination of everything: a morning swim, hot coffee and breakfast, shared morning chores. Then to work, in separate rooms, writing, all morning. Coming together at lunch, the relief of social contact. In the afternoon, errands, then a long walk on the beach. Evening is a return to warmth and intimacy, sharing the chores of preparing supper, and having deep, long conversations. Before bed, once again, a walk on the beach, under the stars. Then "back again to our good child's sleep."

What Lindbergh finds so perfect in the day is the freedom - it is not cramped in space or time, and is not limited in kinds of activity. There is a balance in physical, intellectual and social life. She says, "Work is not deformed by pressure. Relationship is not strangled by claims. Intimacy is tempered by lightness of touch. We have moved through our day like dancers, not needing to touch more than lightly because we were instinctively moving to the same rhythm."

So, that is what I hope to capture this weekend. A natural balance, moving easily from work to conversation to preparing meals to walks to sleep.

I'll let you know Sunday night how it works out. Happy weekend.

Upcoming Schedule, April 17-20 and Beyond

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, April 20
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and dharma talk by Darlene Cohen

Tuesday, April 27
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and dharma talk by Deborah Karish

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, April 17
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk by Darlene Cohen and tea
12:30 p.m. Precepts Class

Monday, April 12, 2010

Finding Center

Sara wrote earlier this week asking me where I find my "center" when work is crazy - darn good question, that one. I'm wishing I had a really good answer.

I do have answers, of course. Answers like:

I walk myself through my tasks at work one step at a time, avoiding the temptation of falling into sheer panic about the workload. If I do just one thing, with full attention, each bit falls into place.

I sit regularly, and use my zazen practice to keep me balanced and steady.

I make sure to keep my sangha commitments without fail, because I know that showing up for others takes me outside of myself, and somehow that giving replenishes me in a way that no other activity can.

I am gentle with myself, cradling the critic like a cranky child instead of sending her to the corner for a time out.

I get enough of the basics (food, sleep, exercise) without overindulging in any of them.

I turn to those I trust (my wife, my friends, close family) and allow them to hold and comfort me through the hardest days.

But (and this is a big "but") - when things are falling apart for me, as they have been in recent days, all of this seems to fall by the wayside, and I completely forget everything I have ever learned.

So, thank you, Sara - for reminding me to conjure up that list once again. There is always a new day, always a fresh start. A chance to find center.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Saving Dog Souls

At the end of March, police officers discovered an illegal dog breeding operation at a home in Cloverdale. There were 16 golden retrievers in a filthy home, some of them two to a kennel, lying in their own feces. They were lethargic and unresponsive. They were being fed, and watered, but clearly neglected. The home was mildewed, full of garbage and broken glass, and had floor boards broken clear through.

Making it even more horrific was the fact that a 17 year old boy was living in this home with his mother. It was his job to feed the dogs. Somehow, in this chaos, he was managing to get to school every day, putting on a front for the world that all was well when in reality he was living with a severely mentally ill parent.

Cloverdale has no contract with animal control services, so a local boarding facility, King's Kastle, stepped in and took over care of the animals. An immediate call for help was put out to the community, asking for help in defraying the overwhelming costs for spaying and neutering, veterinary bills, food, grooming, etc.

We found out about it early on, and stopped by to donate as much as we could within days after the dogs were found. Today, we made a trip to Costco for our own bi-monthly animal food run, and picked up extra food for them. We went to King's Kastle today to deliver two large sacks of dry dog food and a case of wet dog food.

Up to this point, the dogs have been quarantined for health reasons. But Colleen of King's Kastle surprised us today, and gave us a special treat - she brought two of the dogs out to meet us.

Two big, beautiful golden retrievers came bounding out of the back room, full of energy and love. They were well groomed, with beautiful coats. They were playful and open, acting like the puppies that they are.

It was a huge transformation from the initial photographs that were posted on the website, where the dogs looked submissive and dejected. These dogs have responded so quickly to the love and care that they have received over the last two weeks, that it is nothing short of miraculous.

And on the front desk at King's Kastle there is a stack of application forms from people who are interested in giving these dogs good homes.

I am so touched by the way the community has responded to this situation, and reached out to creatures in need.

I hope that the teen-age boy is equally lucky - because I know that his scars run much deeper, and his recovery will take much longer. May he find loving, caring adults to bring him healing and wholeness as well.

(For updates on the dogs' care, and pictures, go to this King's Kastle link.)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Absences...

Forgive my absence from the blogosphere...work life has been hectic, with my boss very ill, and many long days and nights at the newspaper. Tomorrow should be a better, more rested day, with recommitted vigor for all things not work related.

Please, friends, feel free to comment on any blog entries that you read along the way. I would love to know that you are out there. It helps keeps me motivated to continue writing...

Hope you are all enjoying the beautiful blue skies.

Upcoming Schedule, April 10-17 and Beyond

Healdsburg Sangha:

Tuesday, April 13
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and dharma talk by Lisa Hoffman

Tuesday, April 20
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and dharma talk by Darlene Cohen

Tuesday, April 27
7 p.m. sit and kinhin
7:45 p.m. service and dharma talk by Deborah Karish

Russian River Zendo:

Saturday, April 10
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk by Tony Patchell and tea

Saturday, April 17
9 a.m. informal sit and service
10 a.m. formal sit
10:30 a.m. dharma talk and tea
12:30 p.m. Precepts Class

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Small Town Frictions

One of my "beats" at the Calistoga Tribune is education, so I routinely cover school board meetings, high school plays, hiring of new teachers, the doings of honor students, etc. Much of the time, that news is positive and upbeat - a celebration of successes. But occasionally, it gets more political, and then, it can be just as gritty and challenging as covering City Hall or state politics.

Our much-loved school superintendent of 25 years retired last summer. His replacement, a woman from San Diego, was the top choice from a field of 27 candidates, and at first all looked rosy ahead. But it just happened that right at the moment she took over her post, there was a rift in the school board over a possible facilities bond (a proposal to build a new school gymnasium), and in the ensuing months, there has been increasing tension as two distinct camps have formed. They finally seemed to have come to an uneasy truce around January - and then three weeks ago, out of nowhere, the new superintendent announced that the principal and vice principal of the high school had requested "reassignment" to teaching positions. Of course, as the story came out, they had been given a choice of being let go completely or being reassigned. The high school principal happens to be another member of the community who, although admittedly quirky, has been thoroughly commited to the kids and the city, and has been involved in the administration for over 20 years.

The town exploded into two divisive camps once again, one backing the superintendent's right to make changes and head in a new direction, and one demanding answers and reasons, wanting to know what in the world had led her to make such a radical decision when she's only been in the community for nine months.

At last Monday's school board meeting, more than 200 people showed up, packing the community room beyond capacity, many willingly standing outside in the rain to hear the proceedings. And when, after all of that, it was clear that it was simply a formality, and the board (and superintendent) had no intention of reconsidering their choice, I began getting phone calls about the possibility of the initiation of a recall movement. (Neighboring St. Helena recently recalled their entire school board, so this is a very real threat.)

As a journalist, my job in these situations is challenging. I often have my own opinions about things, especially since I have quite a bit of insider knowledge because of my continuous scrutiny and coverage of these events. But, my role is to make sure everyone feels represented and heard, and that the news is presented on the page in as balanced a format as possible.

It's hard. I like the new superintendent. But right now, she's doing things that I don't like - obvious things, like not answering my calls, or sidestepping my questions. She's being evasive with me, which in turn makes it difficult for me to present her in the best light to the public. And other people are also expecting me to take "their" side - or, contrarily, assuming that I will NOT take their side, and so they won't return phone calls. It all turns into a ridiculous headache at times.

People frequently say to me, right after these meetings, "I hope you're going to be fair." As if I would purposefully try to be anything else. I want to say to them, "You have no idea. I labor over these stories, trying to make sure that I have given everyone their say. And then I go home, and spend the weekend worrying about how everyone will react to the quotes that I used. I know that I wrote down exactly what they said. And I also know that people sometimes get furious when you quote them. Sometimes, especially in heated situations, there's just no winning. Even fair isn't perceived as fair."

For the last three weeks, I have been covering this story. And unfortunately, I'm afraid it's just starting to heat up. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it will blow over. But my sense is that this board of trustees and this superintendent have no idea what Pandora's box they have opened with this high-handed approach.

The thing that makes me crazy is that it all could have been avoided if it had been packaged differently, if the community could have been made to feel included, if they had been told that this was part of a larger vision that was for their benefit. Instead, they have been treated like children, left completely in the dark by the "parents know best" attitude of the board and superintendents. And that is no way to build community.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Exasperating the Dead

I am continually amazed at the unlikely places that house Zen philosophies and thoughts. I seem to stumble upon them when I am least suspecting.

I just finished reading "Sing Them Home," a novel by Stephanie Kallos. It is about a family in Emlyn Springs, a small town in Nebraska with a history of tornadoes. In the first pages, we learn that the children's mother was at home one day when their physician father was at work and the children were at school. A tornado swept through, carrying their mother and the house off into the sky. Her body was never found, and to this day, the now-grown children refer to her passing not as "the day mom died" but as "the day mom went up."

The novel is framed with Greek chorus-like observations from the dead. Our novelist explains, first of all, that the dead are tetherless in time, existing entirely in the now. "They are blessed with an ability to be fully entraced by what's in front of them." As you can imagine, that's where my Zen radar started to pick up a blipping sound.

The passage continues:

No wonder the living are such a constant source of exasperation. The living - pathetically obsessed as most of them are with calendars, deadlines, delivery and expiration dates, estimated hours of departure and arrival; with measurements, quotas, statistics;; always casting their eyes toward the room beyond the room in which they're standing - exude this energy, for lack of a better word, that frustates the dead to distraction, makes them so nervous that they'd jump out of their skins if they had any.

The living are like spinning tops, powered by a need for atonement, or revenge, or by avoidance, guilt, shame, fear, anger, regret, insecurity, jealousy, whatever, it doesn't matter because it all derives from the same pop-psyche alphabet soup and oh Lord here comes another best-selling book on the self-help shelf when really if they would just smash all the time-keeping devices excepting sundials, do a crossoword puzzle, study the backs of their hands, notice their breath going in and out, drink their food and chew their water, relax, it would be a great step forward in the evolution of the species and the dead would be so grateful.

It's all right there - notice your breath going in and out. Get rid of the clocks and watches. Relax. Stop living like a spinning top.

And this in a novel about a Welsh community in a small town in Nebraska. With a few brief mentions of Judaism. Not a Buddhist in sight. Go figure.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Sit Lightly in the World




I am listening to a CD of readings of poetry of William Blake. Last night, this was among the series of those poems known as the "Gnomic Verses":

He who bends to himself a Joy
Doth the wing├Ęd life destroy;
But he who kisses the Joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity's sunrise.


Four simple lines that sum up an entire range of human behavior - grasping for pleasure, trying to hold on, and in the end killing that which we most value with our clinging and possessiveness - or, counter-intuitively, releasing that which we treasure the most, letting it fly off into the world, gracing it instead with just a kiss of blessing, and being blessed in turn by "eternity's sunrise," or the world of the ten thousand things, our presence in that one moment of universal awareness.

Beata Chapman, visiting on Tuesday night at the Healdsburg sangha, spoke about sukha dukkha, the suffering of pleasure, brought about by our knowledge that good things will end.

From that talk, I gathered that we tend to focus on the transient nature of the pleasure, and so lose our ability to truly enjoy the moment. It seems that this "bending to himself a Joy" is similar, destroying the "winged life" by trying to trap it, capture it, hold it fast and forever. When the answer is, really, to embrace fully the flying nature of the good thing, the short life of the cherry blossom, and kiss that life as it flits past, giving it full and complete attention, in the moment. The return gift will be an eternity of pleasure in an instant, ten thousand years in a moment.

I bought tulips today, yellow and purple. They are gorgeous. I found myself thinking at the moment of the purchase, "I hope they last until next week." Already, I was anticipating the drooping stems, the wilting flowers. I shook my head, and took a deep breath. I looked at the flowers again. They are beautiful today. They are stunning and colorful and full of the promise of spring. I will enjoy them, without thought of the length of time we have together. There will be time enough then to plan for next steps. For now - tulips in vases and spring in the air.