The Unseen. Felt.

After four days of suffering in hurricane Sandy’s aftermath, a bitter Long Islander said, “I am screaming mad because this is an inhumane way to live in the highest property-taxed area of the state.”

Some years ago I’d have agreed with him, but now I take exception. Money can, no doubt, reconnect power lines and repair damaged homes, but it won’t solve the problem underlying the cause of this inhumane living. The destructive winds and rains of hurricane Sandy, widely seen as a result of global warming, are byproducts of our modern lifestyle. Lower impact living, not higher tax dollars and levies, is the answer.

Lower impact living means being satisfied with less. But how is that possible in a culture that continuously beacons us to buy? It’s not possible—until we realize the deep flaw in our modus operandi: rampant consumerism not only creates ecological disasters, it doesn’t even deliver its promised satisfaction. Our possessions don’t bring lasting happiness, and the cumulative effect of consumption creates the havoc of a Sandy. The intelligence we used to create the global warming disaster can also be used to make the life changes necessary to counteract it: By reassessing and simplifying our wants we can become responsible consumers.

At Saranagati Village, B.C., the community where my family and I and about twenty-five other families live, our electricity is homemade (from solar panels), our water gravity-fed from mountain streams, and our heat from wood. If you ask any one of us, we’d tell you our happiness level hasn’t declined from this simple lifestyle. On the contrary, we’ve become more appreciative of life’s beauty, of its bounty, and of each other.

Most people won’t choose to live so naturally, but everyone can do something to help reduce humankind’s negative impact on this planet. The alternative, as the bitter Long Islander has discovered, is bleak.

 

Inside Nostalgia

To visit a dear friend, last week I drove to Upstate New York. As soon as I crossed the state border I was surprised to feel the green, undulating hills say, “You’re home!”

New York is my birth state and where I lived and studied for my first twenty years. I’ve moved around in the forty years since, so I had to laugh at that “homelike” feeling and the swell of my dusty pride in the state’s geographic beauty and cultural diversity, long history (one of the original thirteen states of the Federal Union), industrial and economic strengths, and famous residents (Groucho Marx, Robert Oppenheimer, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Walt Whitman). As I drove, I rejoiced in the deep, saturated oranges, reds, yellows, and greens of the wet fall leaves, sights I miss now, living among evergreens. And later, when I kicked a pile of fallen leaves during an evening walk, I had an acute rush of nostalgia for those fall days, half a century ago, when, after playing soccer with my friends until it was too dark to see the ball, with similar kicks I’d sent colorful leaves flying high into the evening sky.

Looking deeper, my nostalgia isn’t really for the state I happened to grow up in or the kicked leaves but for that place I know, in the innermost chamber of my heart, is actually home. It’s a place where my friends don’t suffer from life-threatening diseases, where time doesn’t gnaw at my and everyone else’s vigor, where no one lives with assorted internal and external misery. That place is an emporium of rich relationships – richness glimpsed at in this world in a mother’s love for her child and that child’s charmed laughter, and in the joy of selfless service and the inner glow of that service accepted graciously.

The beautiful verses of the Bhagavad-gita, one of the most brilliant stars on the horizon of the spiritual sky, describe our real home as a world of pure love and service. That world is not so utopian that we can’t touch here and now; it’s a matter of meditating on sacred teachings and inviting their wisdom into our heart, thoughts, and daily life.

 

One Dear Friend, One Dear Daughter

Yamuna Devi, my close friend of forty years, passed away last December. She was prepared to go; she passed with dignity and grace and in good consciousness. I miss her piercingly truthful insights, her charm, wit and laughter, and the loving pokes she gave me to draw me out. Yet I’m relieved that she’s finally relieved of her many bodily troubles. Her mature, confident God consciousness shores up my hope that one day I may be likewise.

Last month, Priya, my sweet eighteen-year-old daughter, left for her first year of college. Fearful, tearful, and confused about her career goals, her luggage weighed in at 150 pounds and her heart seemed heavier. She hasn’t liked change her whole life, which is a bit problematic since everything in this world changes.

One who’s practiced at flying soars when the final test comes. And one new to the art flies when she pushes herself out of the nest.

Cycles and Their End

One morning last month we woke to find our entire bed of lettuce had been eaten to the ground by a bear and her cub (we saw their pawprints). Also last month, my husband suffered a severe backache, our daughter got a painful sunburn, I had a toothache that caused a fever, and it was over a hundred degrees for weeks together.

after a black momma bear and her cub visited our garden last monthNow it’s August. The lettuce has grown back, all three of us have recovered, and the weather is glorious. Our little garden is prolific, providing lunches of salads and steamed greens, which, combined with dressing and homemade whole wheat bread, fully satisfy us. But this phase will also be short-lived. Soon approaching hibernation time will make the bears ravenous, the lettuce will go to seed, and our daughter will be leaving for her first year of college.

The Gita tells us miseries and pleasures come and go like the winter and summer seasons and that we shouldn’t be gloomy in one and elated in the other but equipoised in both. Although it seems like we’ve been in this world forever, we’re here only for a lightning-strike visit. This place is not where we’re supposed to be.

“From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery where repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains My abode never takes birth again.” (Bhagavad-gita 8.16)

Settling

After months of traveling, with its constant stream of new people and places, I’ve reunited with one small tract of unhurried land and watched my seedlings grow into Swiss chard, red leaf, romaine, and butternut lettuces, basil, oregano, and parsley. Here my good-hearted neighbors, the pulse of country life, evenings filled with the cows’ bellows and the bluebirds chanting their final chorus, all give me a sense of rightness, of connectedness. Life’s frailty and temporariness, as well as my body’s inescapable, gradual demise, somehow become vivid during the quiet, closing moments of a country day. I won’t be getting out of this world alive.

In my simple, off-the-grid life, I don’t want to settle into complacency but into soul qualities: faith, gratitude, happiness, and the sense of abundance. Why splendid and tragic things happen in this world is beyond me, but I know it’s not happenstance. The hand behind all happenings may appear tender or iron-fisted, but the heart behind that hand is always a loving one. We miss that point when we think the sliver of life we’re experiencing now is all there is. Actually, this one lifetime is like one drop is to the Pacific.

Last Saturday was Sharangati’s annual farm festival, complete with a parade, singing, dancing, an epic play by the students, games, a bonfire, and feasting. My husband and I got more than a few compliments on the bean salad we spent two hours making. Plus there was rice, vegetables, fresh salad, cauliflower pakoras with chutney, sweet potato fries with ketchup, cake, and a refreshing lemon drink. Please join us next year!

water dunk game by Lake Sharanagati

Rite of Passage

Last Saturday here at Sharanagati Village in British Columbia, we had a ceremony for the three students who graduated from our small, K-12 school. All the village parents, children, friends, community members, teachers, and former teachers attended. Many spoke at the event.

Ms. Cummings said, “I’ve been teaching for nineteen years, and that one year some eight years ago when I taught at the Sharanagati school remains my best teaching year. I don’t expect that to change in my teaching career; my year here will remain my best year.”

graduation gratitude and ecstasyGopal Fournier, one of the graduates, said “At first I didn’t want to be emotional at this time, but then I realized when I see all of you, the beautiful people who have sheltered, supported, encouraged, and loved me my whole life, I couldn’t help but be emotional from the gratitude and love I feel for each one of you.”

Afterwards, some of the teachers and I talked about how small village schools are healthy for both students—who, with their friends, are nurtured close to home—and the community—which is infused with the youthful energy of their own children. Students at our Sharanagati school are happy, which means discipline problems are virtually unknown and academic achievement is often high. Schools like ours aren’t experimental but were the norm a century ago.

I also considered that for those who accept the idea of reincarnation, high school graduation, which marks the end of childhood and beginning of adulthood, is a bit like death: it means stepping out of one stage and into another—it’s a change of bodies. In the words of the Bhagavad-gita:

“As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from childhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.”

family, friends, teachers, neighbors, students

Resilience

I notice with dismay that an apple tree my daughter and I planted seven years ago as well dead for no apparent reasonas my dear Montmorency sour cherry tree that my friends and I feast from each summer aren’t leafing out this spring. It was a mild winter, so it wasn’t the cold that killed them.

I’m discouraged. Why buy trees, chip holes for them into the rocklike soil, plant, fertilize, water, and prune them only to have them die for no apparent reason? I’d rather lie in the sun reading the Bhagavad-gita.

That reasoning wilts before my wise, pious friend Patricia. Now nearing 60, she’s successfully battled serious cancer and today has the buoyancy and brightness of a youth. Unhesitatingly she tells me, “Try again or try something else.” Her simple words lift me from my defeat. She’s right. Two trees died but ten lived. Why not see that?

Humans are not meant to give up—on trees, problems, people, or ourselves. In consistently, optimistically trying to bring health and spirituality into the world and its occupants, we gain the same for ourselves.

I can try again. And then I can read that book in the sun. And when I do read, the Gita’s words will enter my heart – the heart of a budding optimist – and resonate there, as they would never do for a cynic.