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,

Last year, I went directly from a three-week silent meditation retreat in Burma to selling at the New York Gift Show, jet lag, bronchitis and all. Talk about a rough re-entry!

This month history repeated itself, though not so intensely. I returned from a week at the Providence Zen Center and immediately had to set up for the Boston Gift Show. It’s hard to go from sitting in silence to high-energy selling, but in many ways a Zen retreat is great preparation for any demanding life situation.

Just do it!  A lot of Zen practice is about showing up, paying attention, meeting the unexpected, and doing what needs to be done. Lots of opportunity to do that at a show!

Don’t know mind. I packed for the show with no idea of how our booth was going to come together. The organizers had just informed us that the booth drapes were going to be black instead of white, and I feared it would be weird and Goth and definitely un-Summer-House-y. There was no time to arrange alternate drapes…what to do? No choice but to figure it out once I got there.

Don’t make good and bad. As it turned out, our colors just popped on the black background – especially the turquoise banners — and the yellow daffodils and summery linens looked elegant. I was quite surprised.

Follow your situation. I was also surprised to find myself with a 10 x 35 ft. space to fill instead of our usual 10 x 10 booth. (There were a number of no-shows among the vendors.) I wrangled some piping for extra lights and spread our stuff out  and it turned out great.

Everything is no problem! All in all, I appreciated my new-found ability to chill when tensions were high and curve balls were flying. And during the long stretches where nothing much was happening? No problem when you’ve just spent a week sitting and staring at the floor for eight hours a day!

Don’t get me wrong…I don’t recommend this schedule if you have an alternative. But if you don’t? Just do it!



John and I were in New York last week attending the NYNow gift show. Last year I went as an exhibitor; this time I was a buyer. Or, I should probably say, a “looker.” I did place some orders, but mostly I spent my time looking, my senses wide open and tingling, absorbing the dazzling array of colors, textures, scents, fonts, graphics  – all the facets of what’s happening right now in design and merchandising.

I’d ask myself, What attracts me? What feels fresh? What feels  a bit stale? And how would our customers respond? I was taken with the oranges and reds and intense turquoises, with moss and galvanized steel and soft fluffy spring things.

There were workshops and seminars that left me buzzing about all the things I should be doing for my business but probably don’t have time to do: Re-arrange the shop weekly!  Pitch our “story” to the media!  Send samples to prominent bloggers in hopes of getting reviewed! Update our photography!

How to digest this over-stimulation, this kaleidoscope of wonders?

Nature is providing an answer: it’s telling us to hunker down at home, surrounded by mountains of dirty snow and ice, waiting for the next blizzard to arrive sometime tonight. John has the flu. I have started to sneeze a lot. Maybe I’ll go make some soup.

What a difference a week makes!


January is coming to an end.  I say this with some sadness, even though the weather outside is dreary and I’ve been sick most of the month.

But I love January because it’s traditionally been the one month during the whole year when I get a chance to reboot my life – something I look forward to all year long. Sometimes this reboot takes the form of a complete get-away, as when I went on a three week meditation retreat last year. This year I didn’t do that, choosing instead to staycation at home, and recoup, assess, and catch up.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the past year and making plans for the coming one. I’ve also been tackling some seriously overdue housekeeping. By this I mean clearing away the detritus of the past year and restoring a little order, both in my home and in my business.

I sorted a clogged closet, for example, and hauled the excess to Good Will. I cleared clutter off of my actual and virtual desktops, and updated some computer programs. I’m hoping to empty out my inbox before the week is over. My husband is good at keeping up with maintenance tasks through good daily habits. I don’t seem to have that temperament, so an annual binge will have to do.

The truth is, I’ll never really be caught up, and I’ve learned to accept that. I regard my token efforts as more symbolic than practical –  sort of a ritual cleansing before the next season begins. By next week, the call to get back to business will be getting insistent.


Oh the tyranny of the to do list.

Originally posted on Mindfulbalance :


In many Muslim cultures, when you want to ask them how they’re doing, you ask: in Arabic, “Kayf haal-ik?” or, in Persian, “Haal-e shomaa chetoreh?” How is your haal? What is this “haal” that you inquire about? It is the transient state of one’s heart. In reality, we ask, “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?” When I ask, “How are you?” that is really what I want to know.

I am not asking how many items are on your to-do list, nor asking how many items are in your inbox. I want to know how your heart is doing, at this very moment. Tell me. Tell me your heart is joyous, tell me your heart is aching, tell me your heart is sad, tell me your heart craves a human touch. Tell me you remember you are still a human being, not just a…

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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

tea2tea 4

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










10,000 mind-moments:
trying too hard

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








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