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The other day, I gave a talk at the Barnstable Senior Center about my three-week meditation retreat in Burma. I showed slides of children in Mandalay and the ornate roofs of Kyaswa Monastery. I talked about our 3:30 a.m. wakeup bell, the pinked-robed nuns who chanted for us each evening, and the sunrise and moonrise over the Irawaddy River as seen from the porch of my kuti (hut).

But I know from talking about this retreat with friends that what people really wanted to know was, “Was it life-changing?”

Fair question! But a hard one to answer.

When one of the attendees asked if the trip changed me, I said it had, though I declined to say how. (I don’t even know if it’s true, except in the way we all change constantly in reaction to conditions.)

But if he had asked me what I learned…Well, THEN I could have bent his ear for hours!

I might have talked about how frequently I saw my thoughts being tainted with the  feeling, “I should be different.”

And about how the words, “Of course!” had the power to cut through a lot of this self-judgment.  Feeling restless, sleepy, inadequate? Oh sweetie…of course!  Of course you feel that way!

I’d talk about how things I expected to be difficult turned out to be easy, and how things I expected to be easy were difficult.

But, as is the nature of all retreats, many of the things I learned were quite small and mundane. Because once our mind starts to quiet down, the small things start to shine.

I learned about the pleasure of sleeping under a mosquito net bathed in moonlight. I learned about the natural social behavior of dogs from watching the pack that lived on the monastery grounds. (Turns out dogs don’t actually do it doggie style once they get hooked up.)  I learned about the taste and scent of clementines.

Last year, at the end of a retreat at the Providence Zen Center there was a sharing circle. One young guy who had been on retreat for three straight months  shared what he had learned: that oatmeal is really awesome with peanut butter mixed in.

Did the teacher think he was being  a smart ass? I don’t think so. He told the kid to try oatmeal with peanut butter and kimchee.  He said it was life-changing.

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There’s a nor’easter blowing outside so I’m hunkered down in the house. No matter…this is the first real weekend I’ve had for maybe five months. By “real weekend” I mean two consecutive days when I can do as I choose – in this case, hang at home, clean out the refrigerator, restock food supplies, make a pot of soup, and read a book. Heaven.

All summer and most of the fall, I’ve spent the weekends either working at farmers markets and craft shows, going out of town, or having house guests.  It’s been a good summer all in all – some of those out days away were purely recreational, and it was wonderful to have old friends and family visit. But by now, I’m exhausted by the relentlessness of it all.

We all need a little down time when nothing demands, nothing is scheduled, and we can be as unproductive as we choose.

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A bad situation is a good situation. ~ Zen Master Seung Sahn

Staff turnover is never fun, especially in the middle of the busy season. When a soap maker leaves unexpectedly or a new farmer’s market hire fails to materialize as scheduled, its rough. We all have to take on extra work to keep the business running till the open positions are filled.

It’s exhausting, but not completely without a silver lining or two.

I didn’t get into the soap making business because I wanted to spend 40 or 50 hours a week in front of a computer, but over the years my job has gotten increasingly administrative and sedentary.

When we’re short-staffed, however, I have to get back in touch with the hands-on parts of the business – with the tactile, physical jobs that I started with long ago. I weigh fats and make soap. I get outside and start selling at the farmer’s markets, just like in the early days. It’s a nice change of pace.

And as this happens, I look at our processes with fresh, critical eyes. Gosh, this part of the operation is a pain in the neck! I’ll think. Is there an easier way to do it? Is there a piece of equipment or something that would alleviate the “pain points” in this job?

Anticipating bringing on a new person, I’m more motivated to clean areas that have gotten grubby, sort drawers full of clutter, and replace tools that have gone missing. I update instruction books that are full of notes that only the original author can decipher, and post clearer signage in the production area.

But wait – that’s not right! you might say. Why do these improvements have to wait till someone leaves! Shouldn’t they be happening continually, no matter what? Of course, of course! But I guess it’s human nature to settle into complacency when things seem to be chugging along without trouble.

At any rate, doing someone else’s job for a while gives me new insight into the work, and appreciation for those who do it. Especially the employees who hang in, keeping the ship sailing through the bumpy transition.

A friend who built a very successful business once told me that each time his business went through a big upheaval, it came back stronger than ever.  May it be so.

Greenpoint

John and I spent a day poking around in Brooklyn last week. In parts of Brooklyn, you feel like you’re in a sci-fi world where where every being is a perfect specimen of youth. I felt a bit like this:

IMAG1017 (2) (from the Pratt campus in Brooklyn sculpture garden.)

But no matter. We had a great day in Brooklyn.

With its mix of old and new, its vibrant neighborhoods and acres of underused industrial spaces, Brooklyn has become an incubator for all kinds of hip young businesses. The place in bubbling over with “makers,” a broad term that includes tech innovators, traditional arts and crafters, and artisanal producers like whiskey distillers, soap makers and chocolatiers. As a “maker” myself, I love to see the spaces that other such producers work in. Here are several of the businesses we checked out.

SAIPUA SOAP AND FLOWER SHOP in Red Hook Beautifully scented handmade soaps. The blood-red peonies were being prepped for a co-workers wedding that afternoon.

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BELLOCQ TEA ATELIER IN GREENPOINT.(I got some really good lapsang souchoung.)

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MAST BROTHERS CHOCOLATE in Williamsburg.The Red Velvet cupcakes were an OMG experience (and I don’t usually like cupcakes).

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10,000 mind-moments:
sleepiness
trying too hard
worrying
comparing
breath-holding
fussing
planning

10,000 mind-moments:
cool breeze, warm sun
roosters crowing
the smell of wood smoke
slow boats on the river
my feet touching cool brick
monastery bells tolling
deep contentment
relief

 

 

 

 

 

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My complete Burma photo album:

Burma, 2014

I wrote this post last month, just before leaving for Burma.

It’s been a month driven by lists. There has been so much to do before my trip.

This weekend I started one final list that I titled The Last List, with just a few items on it. I’ve checked them all off, so surely I must be ready, right?

Now, with nothing more to do, I’m left with just me – with my jittery excitement and a touch of melancholy, because I’m making this journey alone, and I’d rather not be.

So here’s one more list. I’ll call it The Last Last List.

1. Remember that being alone is just an idea. Look around you. You’re surrounded by people, plants and animals – in fact, the whole world.

2. Remember that (in most cases) you can always rely on the kindness of strangers.

3. Remember that you can also rely on yourself.

4. Remember to bring kindness and curiosity.

4. Remember to bring the inner child along, but let the adult drive the bus.

5. Remember that you don’t know what’s going to happen next, but of course, that is always the case.

I’m going to wear my Solmate Socks, in part to keep my feet warm, but also because they make me smile, and might attract good juju as I traverse the globe. Here we go:

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The other day, I was chatting with a customer in the shop about her life since her recent move to the Cape. One the things she said was, “I must like being busy, because I’m very busy all the time.”

A bell rang in my head, and I thought, yeah, me too.

I write a lot about being busy, about the anxious, stressful side of having too much to do and not enough time. What I rarely look at are the ways I like being busy.

But I can honestly say that I often enjoy having a big list of things to prioritize, juggle, and check off.  It makes me feel competent and effective, and gives some focus and structure to life.

And the to-do list this past month was vast. Not only was it our first real holiday season at Summer House Soaps (with all its decor, product ordering, and staffing tasks), but there were lots of other things to organize as well.

# 1… in a little over a week I’m flying to Bangkok, and then on to Mandalay in Burma for a three week meditation retreat. Besides preparations for the trip, there are many things that need to be in place so the business can run in my absence.

#2….At the same time, we’ve been packing our gear for the NY NOW Gift Show, which starts on February 2nd. I’m flying 29 hours back from Asia and going directly to the show. (Talk about whiplash!) Fortunately Sarah and Chelsea will set up and work it for the most part…I’m just making a brief appearance.

With all this stuff to think about over the last couple of months, I kept waiting for the anxiety to kick in, for the sleepless nights.  But it hasn’t happened. I’ve been sleeping like a baby.

Which maybe is the real reasons I like being busy – it gives me no time to be scared, or depressed, or whatever else is lurking around. Is this a healthy strategy? Probably not. But it’s been working for me, so far.

Eight days to go.

Summer House Soaps all dressed up for the holidays…

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I wish my mother was around to see my little shop. Two things she often said to me were, “You always get such a kick out of life,” and “You always like to make things pretty.” I’ve been getting a such kick out of making things pretty this Christmas.

In early September, a few days after a pep talk from my friend Deborah, I went to the Y for the first time. I thought I was going to swim but the pool was closed, so I took my first ever Pilates class instead.

Since then, I’ve gone to the Y most days, pulling myself out of bed at 5:15 or 6:15 in order to get the workout done before going to work.

Hope I don’t sound like I’m bragging, though I do feel proud of myself because I was pretty much a couch potato. Please indulge me while I share a few thoughts about it.

For one thing, it’s mysterious how sometimes we are able to make changes in our lives, and sometimes (usually) we are not. I’ve been intending to join the Y for years. It’s a beautiful facility, recently renovated, and only five minutes from my house. Why not take advantage? But somehow, I just didn’t.

Then last spring, a friend gave me a copy of Younger Next Year, which makes an impassioned case for vigorous, daily exercise as the key to healthy aging. I found it persuasive, even compelling (I’m on my third reading), but still it took me five months to take action. All I can say is, sometimes you’re ready and sometimes you’re not.

Perhaps launching a significant lifestyle change requires that you be in a position to make a “project” out of it. The only time I ever lost weight on Weight Watchers was when I was really into it, when I actually enjoyed filling out the booklets and weighing my food. Your diet or exercise program or whatever has to be your new hobby for a while, something you’ve got sufficient time and interest and energy for.

Which would not have been possible for me when I was working two jobs, or during the crazy/busy summer. This September, there was simply more breathing room.

Unfortunately, life has gotten crazy/busy again, and I’m acutely aware of how easy it would be to fall off the wagon. But maybe I won’t, because I’ve discovered how good an antidote to stress and overwork exercise is.

Usually, when I’m feeling weary and stretched too thin by life, I want more than anything to curl up in a ball, lick my wounds and get some rest. That’s what I think I need.

However, exercise tackles the problem from a different angle. Instead of aiming for recuperation and repair, it increases our up-front capacity. It helps keep energy and mood from tanking in the first place, so we are better able to deal with a demanding life.

Of course this is nothing new. Everyone tells you this all the time. But there’s nothing like discovering it for yourself.

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