Sunday, 30 November 2008

Belated Beets, etc.

Just like with the cabbage earlier in the year, I had been neglecting the red and golden beets in my crisper. The beets were from our last CSA pick up day, which was many weeks ago now. Only two were past saving - the rest were still very firm, and a couple had a few green leaves growing out of them even.

I don't have a lot of experience cooking beets, but I do recall really liking the taste of beets in Harvard sauce, like my mom used to serve when I was small. So I decided to try and make them. I must say, they turned out deliciously! The red and golden beets are a nice contrast to each other, and the sauce was sweetly tart, just the way I like it. Mmmmm.... I had my fill of beets today, and I still have six more servings ready to pop in the deep freeze for future enjoyment.

Three of the smallest beets that had new leaves growing I decided to plant in some moist sandy dirt. I figured if some beet greens were growing out of them just sitting there in the fridge, maybe some really nice beet greens would emerge if I actually helped them along a bit. I have no idea if it will work, but I thought it was worth a try. I doubt I will get enough beet greens for me to eat, but our guinea pigs will love the fresh treat in the depths of winter.

I was glad that my beets were relativley successful, because my cinnamon buns were not. I had tried out a new dough recipe from the latest edition of Mother Earth magazine. The dough was supposed to be as good for sweet dough recipes as it was for regular bread. And it probably is, as long as you don't keep the dough until it gets to its more sourdough stage, a week later. The buns look nice, and they are edible, but a sourdough cinnamon bun is not really the flavor I was after. Oh well - bake and learn!

We got a couple other things done this weekend as well, namely having the chimney cleaned (after several failed attempts to do it ourselves - but now we know how!), and putting up two wooden shelving units in the basement so my food storage efforts will be a bit more organized (pictures to follow). So, it was a nice practical weekend, which felt good after an otherwise surreal kind of week.

Wishing everyone peace and contentment in these strange days :)

Friday, 28 November 2008

In which a person dies on Buy Nothing Day

Today is North American Buy Nothing Day. In a sickening irony, a worker at a store that shall not be named, was trampled to death by those wanting to buy their 'fair share' of discounted consumer goods (a.k.a. cheap plastic crap). Does this not just say it all about what has gone so horribly wrong in our society?

I don't know if a cup of tea is going to cut it for this one.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Holding My Breath

I've had the itch to blog lately, but no appropriate topics have come to mind. I've had some thoughts running through my head, but nothing really cohesive worth writing about. I'm on edge, waiting. Wound up, taut.

Just now it hit me: I've been holding my breath, metaphorically speaking. I feel like the world is teetering, tense. In some respects it's been this way for a long time, but this Fall I have felt it more and more acutely, and most acutely of all today. There are so many things in limbo, so many awaited things. Here are a few that spring to mind:
  • Obama taking office - will it happen? Will some kind of traumatic or other event prevent it from going ahead? Does George W. have one last trick up his sleeve to hold on to power?
  • Will the whole world's money be used to save banks and car companies? Will they go under anyway?
  • Will the stock market stop plunging, or just keep heading south? Will our diligently saved RRSPs be whittled away to virtually nothing?
  • Will it snow before Christmas? It's November 27th and we have no snow, and above-zero temperatures - that just seems wrong.
  • Will the attacks in Mubai escalate and lead to a nuclear war between India and Pakistan?
And the one that finally made me realize I was holding my breath:
  • Will the Canadian government fall, again, within months of the last election? Or will a minority coalition form instead?
Things seem to get more surreal by the day. Time to stop for something real, like a cup of tea. And time to exhale, both figuratively and literally.

Any other breath-holders out there?

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Book Review: The World We Have

What with the increasingly dire (but not surprising) economic news, I was glad to read Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh's latest work, The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology. It was a definite respite in the midst of so much uncertainty.

In the interest of simplicity and out of respect, I'm going to adopt the practice of referring to Thich Nhat Hanh as 'Thay', which means 'teacher.' While I'm not an official or formal follower of his, he has certainly taught me much in the short time since I discovered his writing.

I sped through this 141 page volume, eagerly taking in Thay's wise words. He has composed the book in three sections and I'll write a bit about each of them in turn:

1) "A Collective Awakening"

Thay begins by reminding us that "the bells of mindfulness are sounding." These 'bells' are things like floods, droughts, and massive wildfires. He says plainly that while some people are hearkening to the sound of these 'bells,' most people have yet to become awakened to them. But yet, he says we don't have to despair; we can take action in our own lives, and we can help others to "awaken to the true situation": the fact that "the American dream is no longer even possible for Americans. We can't continue to live like this."

Thay goes on to talk about the five mindfulness trainings of Buddhism, the fifth of which is the practice of mindful consumption. Thay says that mindful consumption helps us to "recognize what to consume and what not to consume in order to keep the body, mind and the Earth healthy." He goes on to say that the energy of mindfulness, concentration and insight are what is referred to when we speak of the Buddha, or the Holy Spirit, being within us. It is through this energy that transformation can take place.

In the remainder of this section, Thay focuses quite a lot on the Buddhist ideas of interbeing and impermanence. He illustrates these points with examples from Nature. The concept of inter-being can be illustrated by the case of kernel of corn growing into a corn stalk: the seed has not died, it has become the plant. The plant could not exist without the seed's existence; and the seed can not exist without the plant. Similarly, nature and humans inter-are. Every single thing coexists with every other single thing. In Thay's words:
We human beings have always singled our selves out from the rest of the natural world. We classify other animals and living beings as 'nature,' a thing apart from us, and we act as if we're somehow separate from it....Human beings and nature are inseparable. Just as we should not harm ourselves, we should not harm nature. To harm nature is to harm ourselves, and vice versa." (pp 34-35)
I've talked about this concept of interconnection before - it really is the foundation of things I think, pretty much literally. From the concept of inter-being, stems the idea of impermanence. They are two sides of the same coin, really. A yin-yang relationship. Since everything is connected to everything else, any particular thing has no discrete beginning or end. Thay uses another natural idea to illustrate this concept: that of the rising and falling wave in the ocean. If one focuses on the wave itself, one might rejoice at the building up of the wave, and lament its cresting and tumbling into the shore. But if one focuses on the ocean into which the wave is being re-drawn, then there is no need to grieve the loss of the wave, because the water itself is all-encompassing. I can't say this as eloquently as Thay can - here are his words on the subject:
A rising wave has a lot of joy. When the wave is falling, there may be some anxiety about the ending of the wave. Rising always brings about falling. Birth gives rise to death. But if the wave practices meditation and realizes she is water, she can collapse and tumble with joy. She may die as a wave, but she will always be alive as water. The teaching of the Buddha helps us to touch our true nature and receive the insight that will dissipate all kinds of fear (pp 49-50).
It is from this idea that I gained the most comfort from the book. Like Thay says, my fear has dissipated somewhat. Like everything else, civilizations rise and fall, turn and return. Recognizing this, I can let go of the idea that things need to stay the same to be good. Thay goes on to describe The Five Remembrances which practitioners of Buddhism meditate on to help them accept the idea of impermanence. When we no longer fear impermanence, we have a measure of peace, and so we can get on with the task of doing what needs to be done.

2) "Our Message is Our Action"

Thay says that our individual thoughts, words and actions are our continuation. In death, "all we take with us and all we leave behind are the fruits of our thoughts, speech and action during our lifetime. That is our karma, our continuation." Because of this, a path of "service, love and protection" directly influences the world in a positive way, the same way we have been influenced positively by others' compassionate actions before us. Thay goes on to say that "we know that our parents, our ancestors and our teachers all expect us to live our lives in a way that will protect the planet. We have to allow our ancestors, our teachers and the Buddha in us to act."

But what to do? We can't do everything that needs doing - there is just too much. One of Thay's students asked him a similar question, to which he responded, "take one thing and do it deeply and carefully, and you will be doing everything at the same time." This came as quite a relief to me. In order to do our One Thing well, and for as long as it needs doing, we need the strength of peace. Peace is found through the well of mindfulness. Thay says,
It's important that while volunteering or taking part in environmental activism, we find ways to continue with our practice of mindful breathing, mindful walking and mindful speaking. Let us not give in to anger or despair when reflecting on the current state of the world or when confronted with those who engage in the wasteful use of resources. Instead we can make our own lives an example of simple living (p. 76).
Thay goes on to describe the type of actions taken at his monasteries and practice centers in Europe and North America, actions such as powering one monastery entirely with solar power, and having 'no car days' at several others. As the founder of the Engaged Buddhism movement, Thay and his followers certainly 'walk the walk.'

3) "Practices for Mindful Living"

The third section of Thay's book is full of several different ways that we can learn to be more mindful and connected with 'the world we have.' The first of these are some gathas, reminding us during every day activities, such as eating meals, washing our hands or walking outside, that "the Earth provides us with precious gifts every day." There are several gathas in the book, but I will quote just one (p. 108) -- this one is to be brought to mind when washing one's hands:
Water flows over these hands
May I use them skillfully
To preserve our precious planet
Thay also describes a breathing exercise to do when reciting the Five Mindfulness Practices, as well as outlining a deep relaxation method, and some meditations called the Five Earth Touchings. He concludes this section with a checklist of changes in behavior the reader can complete and commit to, and carry along in one's purse or wallet, to be reminded of the commitments made. The reader is also invited to mail the list to the Deer Park Monastery, and the practitioners there will then send email reminders to the reader to encourage follow through with the commitments.

In conclusion, I can only say that this book seemed to simplify a lot of things for me, and provide some relief from the self-imposed burden of feeling that I had to do everything but yet couldn't do enough. I'm a little bit better now at stopping to appreciate the beauty of the moment, just doing one thing at a time, and taking care to do that one thing deeply and well.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

A few nice things....

I've had a few neat experiences over the last week that made me smile:
  • The lady I buy my honey-based face moisturizer from at the farmer's market said she would refill my plastic containers for me.
  • I ran out of the dried sage leaves I picked over the summer for my tea, and I found a really good deal on a sage plant at a local nursery that should get me through the winter.
  • One of the guards at work told me how he makes his own dry oatmeal raisin mixture to take to work for breakfast, and just adds boiling water to cook it when he gets to work. I'm going to copy him. Now I don't have to buy the pre-packaged (and sugar-filled) stuff anymore.
  • My dad showed me how he's hooked up his furnace to deep cycle batteries and an inverter in case the power goes out. The same set up will be good to hook up to a solar panel.
  • Gord and the 'bag girl' at the grocery store chatted about being vegetarian while packing our groceries into our cloth bags.
Just a few nice things to be grateful for....

Picture courtesy this website

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Is it just me?

Is it just me, or are other people finding themselves transfixed by the falling price of oil and the stock markets? I check on the current price/level of these things many times a day. And kind Is that strange?

I feel bad about smiling...sort of. But I've been hoping for something to shake and wake people up to the fact that the world is changing, and a stock market crash seems like a perfect way to get this done, in the Western world. It hits us right where we feel it most - in the bank account. Ice storms, fires, tornadoes and other natural disasters are other types of 'wake up' events, but they generally involve terrible physical harm and suffering for people and animals. And in the long run they are just seen as anomalies anyway, not as wake up calls to the reality of global climate change and to the damage we are inflicting on the earth. Sadly, the rich and powerful nations only consider something a true emergency if it damages the uber-precious 'economy.'

I realize however that you have to be careful what you wish for. Sure, I'm glad now that the price of oil is tanking, and that the bitumen upgrader scheduled to be build on prime farmland just a few miles from me is now on hold indefinitely. And I'm glad also that people may be waking up to the fact that true wealth is not found in a stock portfolio or a savings account. But I haven't lost my job, and no one I know has lost their job, at least not yet. This can, and probably will change. So in the meantime, I will keep learning how to grow and store my own food, pay down my debt, build up the wood pile, and get better at making do with less. And try and encourage others to do these things too, even if they think I'm kind of weird for harping on and on about it. Although, with each drop in the stock market those things are looking less and less weird.

As I type this, crude oil is down to $49.94 USD. The TSX is at 8087 and the Dow is at 7904.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

May I Direct Your Attention To....

I'm still in the middle of writing my review of Thich Nhat Hanh's book, and I hope to have it up within the next day or two if I can get my act together. In the meantime, please take a look at Sharon's terrific post today. I know it sure reminded me that I have to not just think about doing helpful and compassionate things, but actually get out there and do them! Venerable Wuling also had a good post about something similar, come to think of it.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

A small step for Fair Trade

Back in the Spring I had written a little about a resolution that I had proposed for consideration by my trade union at the annual convention. The resolution I had submitted was basically a request that organic, fair trade beverages be used at union functions. Well, this weekend I was at another union meeting and I found out that my resolution passed at the convention last month! The wording was weakened somewhat, in that the version that passed said that use of such products would be encouraged at all union functions. But it seems to have worked at least a little bit, because fair trade coffee was served at our meeting yesterday.

I had hoped the resolution would pass, but hadn't really expected it to. So I was pleasantly surprised to hear that it had. I guess it goes to show how small things can have a positive effect, even if it takes a while.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Sources of Optimism

I haven't had much to post about lately. I've got a bunch of things going on in my head, but nothing cohesive to write about, it seems.

I'm still in a bit of a pleasant daze after watching Barack Obama win the US election last week, and I've sort of just been mulling that whole thing over. I'm looking forward to January when President Obama will be in a position to start doing some things differently than they've been done before. I'm trying to strike a balance in my expectations and be hopeful, but realistic.

I was also happy to receive three new books in the mail last week. I went ahead and ordered these particular ones new, because I had a feeling they would be very hard to come by in the used book store. In nearly a year of looking, I hadn't found any of them yet.

The first one is Steve Solomon's Gardening When it Counts. I've only just read the first few pages of this book, but it strikes me as being a very practical book for those who need to make sure they grow enough food. This will be all of us pretty soon I think. It is written in a straightforward style, much like Sharon Astyk's Depletion and Abundance, and I think I will like it very much.

The second book I bought is the Encyclopedia of Country Living, by Carla Emery. This huge tome seems to contain everything anyone would want to know about virtually all aspects of homesteading, be that rural or urban, mundane or emergent. Some topics include how to lay out the dead, how to make a chicken coop, how to avoid poisonous herbs, and everything in between. There are also some personal anecdotes included by the writer, some of which seem to be a bit overly religious for my taste, but obviously very important to the author and relevant to why she undertook writing such a huge book, now in it's 10th edition.

Last but not least, I couldn't resist picking up Thich Nhat Hanh's latest offering, The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology. I'm only a few chapters into this one, and already I'm thinking about things differently. Somehow his writing in this book has already managed to quell some of my apocalyptic angst, and helped me to look forward to the coming changes with less fear and anxiety. As one example, he talks about meditating on the impermanence of all things, using waves in the water to illustrate the point: Focussing only on the waves, one sees that the wave exists one minute and is gone the next. But by focussing on the water, one no longer laments the passing of the wave, since it is still inherent in the water. In this way, we don't have to fear the passing away of one type of civilization, we can take comfort in the knowlege that the elements for a renewed one still remain. I'll definitely be writing a review of this book when I'm done!

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Breathing in the World

I'm not quite sure how to write about this - my ideas are not yet fully formed. But maybe that's ok. We'll just see how it goes.

Over the last few days I've been reading the short stories and articles in a book I picked up at my favorite used book store a while ago, called Best Buddhist Writing 2006. One of the first articles I read this weekend talked about how our the idea that we are separate individuals, distinct from other people and other things is an illusion. A delusion, really.

David Loy, author of the article "Ego Goes Global," puts it this way:

"The most fundamental delusion, individually and collectively, is our sense of a self/other duality -- that "I" am inside and the rest of the world is outside. "

In another article in the same volume, Judith Toy speaks about learning how to stop and enjoy her breathing, and how doing so was one step on the way to unexpectedly forgiving the boy who murdered three of her family members years prior. About breathing, she says,

"I was welcomed into paradise through noticing my breath. The breath became the gateway to my heart....the rising sun, the sound of sirens, a crying child, the squealing of brakes, a Mozart sonata, even a war -- reminds me to breathe, to breathe in a universe that, while full of anguish, will always, always breathe with me."

And there it was, the way to dissolve the delusion of duality: breathe. I breathed. Fully and mindfully for the first time, I think. As I breathed, I felt the air being shared by the universe and my lungs, back and forth. A cooperative ebb and flow with no distinction between inside and out, just a giving and receiving. No difference between "me" and "it," just unified flow of all things. I slept easily and well that night, for the first time in many years.

It reminded me the next day of an activity called "push hands" in Tai Chi. This is a practice where two people keep their hands and/or forearms touching at all times, moving forward and backwards as a means to develop responsiveness and sensitivity. To see people doing this, you would think it was a pre-rehearsed set of movements, but it is not. It is instead a balanced and dynamic flow of responsiveness to the movements of one another. It's hard to describe, but you can see a short video of what it looks like here. It's a transcendent thing - there's no you and me, just conjoined unity, sort of what the yin-yang symbol represents.

All I can say is, try it. Try breathing while being mindful of the flow of the universal atmosphere moving in and out and see if you can notice the dissolution of self into the myriad things. Imagine, now, the consequences if people could shed themselves of the delusion of duality and feel the very intimate connection with the universe, as we literally take in and release a part of it with each and every breath.

Push hands picture courtesy this tai chi website.