ant

Tonight, on my desktop,
four black ants scurry around.
How did you get up here, my little friends?
And what are you searching for so intently?

One by one, I urge them onto a sheet of paper
And lower them down to the floor.
Then I consider how fortunate it is
That I am large and they are small.

The ants with their steely black armor,
their locomotive legs and implacable will.
Me with my slow movements,
my soft meaty parts,  and sometimes,
my tender foolish heart.

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I’ve been coughing violently for almost two weeks. This has meant cancelling a slew of engagements, some of which were fairly important.

I’ve only recently come to recognized how much people appreciate my not bringing my germs into their airspace. They see it as considerate when I bow out of their dinner party, cancel the meeting, and skip yoga class.

Call me dense, but this comes as a surprise. I guess I thought I was being heroic when I popped some OTC drugs and soldiered on in spite of a minor bug. I was being a trooper, keeping the wheels of commerce turning! Heaven knows, I didn’t want to disappoint people, miss out on anything, or upend plans that had taken a lot of work to arrange.

These are not just my values, they are cultural values. The worker who stays home because of a minor illness is often viewed as a malingerer. A day or two for a cold – maybe! Any longer than that, and you’d better be in the hospital. “Don’t worry,” my boss used to croak when she returned to work wheezing and coughing, “I’m not contagious!”

It’s an example of our tendency to override the body in the interest of getting things done.

A line from the latest newsletter from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship: In a busy capitalist world, sometimes rebellion looks like rest.  Or to adapt it to my circumstances, Sometimes rebellion looks like staying home when you’re sick.

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For several years, I’ve been selecting a Word of the Year – a word chosen to serve as a touchstone, a reminder of my aspirations. In 2015, my word was embodied.

This year, it’s listen.

Sounds are one of the primary ways we receive the world. When there’s movement in our surroundings, waves are generated that touch us intimately, setting up vibrations in tiny, delicate structures that are passed to the brain and unfurl into vivid, colored stories about what’s out there and what we need to do about it. It’s pretty amazing.

Of course, hearing is not the same as listening, which implies a degree of intention and attention. To listen well requires a quieting of the mind, a stilling of the mental chatter that distracts us from the messages the world is sending. For this reason, sounds are often used as an anchor, a  focusing point in meditation.

This deep listening isn’t limited only to sounds. We can direct the intention and attention of listening to subtle communications from our bodies and our hearts. We can listen when a friend speaks, and receive the tightness, the sadness, the joy that underlies their words.

At the retreat in Burma this January, a group of pink-robed Burmese nuns came every evening to offer metta (lovingkindness) chanting. As the days passed, I learned how to make tiny adjustments in the heart that allowed me to receive this offering (I called it tuning into Radio Metta). I discovered how, with practice and remembering, that delicate tuning and receiving was possible at any time.

So listen! The spring peepers are peeping. Can your heart hear what they’re saying?

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The daffodils are opening, announcing that spring is really here.  And you know what that means…it’s time for spring cleaning!

But here’s a confession:  I rarely clean my house.

It’s not that I don’t want to, but between the business and the Airbnb apartment and trying to have a life, I just don’t have time. If it weren’t for my excellent husband with his strong domestic streak, we’d be living in total squalor.

Perhaps because it’s so rare, I yearn to spend more time taking care of my house. I’ve just been reading the mega-bestseller, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up. The idea of spending a week (or a month) de-cluttering and organizing the house is so alluring! But it’s not gonna happen, any more than finding a big chunk of time for spring cleaning. (Frankly, spring cleaning seems more like a charming artifact from a simpler era than something that women — especially working women — actually do anymore.)

Still, we all do our best, even if it’s in small increments. Yesterday, for example, I pushed aside my Things to Do list and spent a couple of hours sorting my home office.

I get that clutter saps energy, while clean desktops and countertops create space for creativity and serenity to enter. I aspire to a more orderly life. Maybe today I’ll tackle one drawer in the bathroom.

One reason I like to write is that my mind is a busy little metaphor machine. Comparisons come bubbling up all the time, and a really apt one tickles me and I want to share it – especially when it comes to Buddhist topics that can only be approached through metaphor.

Hence, The self is like the Red Sox, and I am a self-driving car. (More about these some other time.)

Here’s one that’s been lurking at the edge of my mind lately, begging to be put it into words: The Internet is a metaphor for annata (the non-self nature of existence).

The thought arose recently when I was working with our young website designers on Summer House Soap’s new site.

I studied graphic design way back in…well, never mind when it was, but let me tell you that when we wanted to position an image or some type on a layout, we had to glue it in place with rubber cement.

Even after I migrated to digital graphic design, (I was mostly designing for print) I could position things where I wanted them and they would stay there. Fonts, line spacing, etc. were under my control. And when everything was to my liking, I’d convert the file to a PDF, essentially creating a fixed solid object.

Not so with designing for the internet! It’s frustrating to see how different a design can look on different devices, depending on what browser is used, whether it’s mobile or laptop, and so on. What I had to get used to is how the design gets assembled anew in each setting. It’s a living aggregate of pieces, coming together in the moment according to conditions.

Isn’t that a nifty metaphor for the non-self (non-solid) nature of existence?

The young seem to take this fluidity in stride because they grew up in a digital world. I wonder if that makes them more able to intuit the dharma.

Dune shack

This being my last full day at the shack, I’m ready for some human contact. It will help with re-entry.

Coincidentally, this morning I exchanged greetings with the neighbor as we pumped water at our respective wells, and he invited me over to his shack to meet his wife. The two of them are part of the vanishing tribe of shack owners who have had their property taken by the National Seashore.

When I arrived at their shack, their first words were, “We’re in the middle of a situation here.” Turns out that their shack had just become infested with crabs (no, not the kind you make crab dip out of) and they were in the process of removing all bedding for laundering.

It was quite an icebreaker! I perched on a wooden chair on their porch, trying not to touch anything or scratch at psychosomatic itches, and we chatted about a wonderfully broad range of topics. I could not help but be aware, though, that the very situation that was breaking their hearts – their shack lease from the seashore expires next year and they don’t know what the establishment will do – was what made my blissful week in the dunes possible. All the shacks that are available to the public were once privately owned.

Later in the day my friend Carolyn came to call. She’d just arrived for a week at another shack not far away. The mung had receded so she coaxed me into the water. Cold!! Exhilarating!! My week now feels perfect.

If you want to learn more about opportunities to stay in a dune shack, contact The Provincetown Community Compact or the Peaked Hill Trust.

Dune 4

I could live happily here all week in just my crinkly pink tee shirt and tan shorts.

One of the benefits of solitude is being able to wear the same clothes day after day and be as be as unwashed and unkempt as you like. This week has been a good test of my “I don’t get BO” theory. (I believe this because I’ve been testing our new natural deodorant. First I tested it against my regular deodorant (right armpit natural, left Mitchum.) No discernible odor! Then I tested it against an untreated armpit. Still no difference, so the test was inconclusive.)

Staying in a shack with no running water or electricity necessitates some creative personal hygiene. I’ve worked out a routine with two stainless steel bowls and two washcloths. One set is for my face, the other for grubbier ablutions like dirty feet. It’s also good for laundering undies.

Today I took my first outdoor shower. There’s a tank on the shed roof that collects rainwater. It runs thought hoses that are exposed to the sun, so the water came out scalding hot at first. I partially filled one of the bowls with well water and topped it off with the hot stuff.  This made a nice temperature for dumping over my head. Suds, rinse, and repeat. Nice!

Toileting is done in an indoor composting toilet for #2 and outside for #1 because the toilet is nearly full. Not a problem, except for last night. As I squatted in the bushes in the dark, a large noisy insect dive-bombed me. I lurched out of the way, bopping my head on an overhead branch and peeing on my pants in the process. Tomorrow: laundry day.

While I have some flip flops with me, bare feet are the best way to get around on the dunes, unless it’s midday. Then, the sand is like a frying pan, and it’s best to wear some socks.

Here are the two bars of soap that have been my companions this week. One is Nantucket Sea Clay, a spearminty soap which was great in the outdoor shower. The other is a yet-to-be-named experiment created by Jules. It fascinates me. It really goes well with this shack – very smokey and woody with notes of vetiver, cedar and clary sage. I think it’s a keeper. Maybe I’ll call it Dune Shack. Or Sand Dune? Sand Bar?

soap

seals

I walk on the beach every day, but so far haven’t gone swimming. I’m intimidated by the cold rough surf that will probably knock me down, the undertow, and the sharks. They tell us not to swim where there are seals because there may be sharks nearby too. But there are seals all over the place.

Consequently I’m grateful for the mung – an invasion of smelly seaweed that has turned the waves into brown mud. Nobody would want to swim in there! I’m off the hook, and don’t have to pester myself to push past my fears.

When I come down to the shore, a dozen or more seal heads turn their black lab faces my way. A little farther down the beach, a sandbar emerges from the receding tide that becomes a gathering place for hundreds of seals. It’s like a party every six and a half hours. A mournful chorus of seal  talk fills the air – whoa! whoa! whoa! It must be nice to take a break from worrying about sharks.

While those who have grabbed a spot on the sandbar loll in the sun, dozens more circle in the water, waiting for a chance to climb aboard. In the green mung, it looks like seal soup. If I were a shark, I would be all over this place. But so far no sign of them.

Nature question: if seals are mammals, do they have breasts? Do the nurse while they swim?

Dune 5

I’m spending a week barefoot in a sand dunes of the Cape Cod National Seashore. I’m here alone in my little shack, though there’s another inhabited shack nearby. It’s been several days since I’ve talked to anyone except a couple of short conversations with John on my cellphone. The quiet and space are a balm to my psyche, which has worn thin from too much of everything this summer.

The dunes of the outer Cape are an amazing landscape. They have a grandeur and yet such a feeling of  intimacy. I feel like I’ve found my “happy place.” During the daytime I take long walks on the beach. In the evening, I climb to the top of a nearby dune for a 360 degree view the sun setting to the west, the sea to the north, the moon rising in the east, and the endless undulation of the dunes in every direction.

The week is shaping up to be sort of a retreat/vacation hybrid.  I’ve been practicing in the morning and evening (bowing, chanting, sitting, walking) but giving the afternoon over to reading, napping, trying to write, and exploring my new camera.

Every night I listen to a dharma talk. Last night it was Pascal Auclair. A word I liked was specificity. This breeze, this wave, this bow, with its cracking of cartilage, pinpoints of sand underfoot, and flavor of surf sound and smell.  Specificity…a useful little talisman to carry through the day.

(One thought worth recording: God is in the details. Details like sweeping sand off the floor, feeling the breeze, hearing crickets, watching sandpipers skittering along the waterline. All very specific.)

Details

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The past couple of weeks, I’ve felt like a giant to-do list walking around on two legs, full of jazzy anxiety and tension. Each day is a battle to slay as many items on the list as I can in the time available.

Nights are worse, because there are no distractions. No matter how tired I am, I am capable of lying in bed for hours, my mind cycling through undone tasks. That paperwork I should have filed! That order that’s scribbled on a napkin…where did I put it? I seem to be always on the edge of losing complete control of my life– and the to-do list is the only thing that stands between me and catastrophe.

But of course that’s not true. And in a couple of days, I’m daringly thumbing my nose at the to-do list. I’m going to a meditation retreat where I will immerse myself in non-doing, instead of doing. And hopefully reconnect with a sense of myself as a limited human being who is only capable of so much.

Sounds good!

(Of course, much of the reason I’ve had so much to do is because I’m trying to get away. There’s definitely some irony there.)

picture by Jill Ross, JustJillToday.com

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