What the Ancients Wear

Laundry (Wash It), Essay (Write It), Melon Patch (Weed It), Tikkun Olam (Work It), & More from My To-Do List

Alice Learns to Bake?

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“What in the world do y’all wear up there?” Pablo asked me the last time I was home. I’d arrived in what looked like a white cotton nightie — long and plain, crisp and clean as new snow — with a light-blue-and-white-checked pinafore-style apron over it. Bit of  “Alice in Wonderland Goes to Baking School,” I mused as I unloaded my backpack… or, better, reminiscent of the Von Trapp children.

Absently I sang a few bars of Dîtes-moi pourquoi…” before I remembered:

Nothing wasted…

The dress and apron had once served as a sort of uniform at a 19th-century convent orphanage. Earlier still, the dress fabric had been bed sheets, and dozens of tablecloths had given their lives so the orphan girls could have aprons, which, I think, were more than decorative.

In Mama and Daddy’s living room, I was spinning gleefully in dizzying circles, generous fold upon fold of white cotton spreading out around me… managing heroically to avoid tripping on the hem… and loving the country quaintness of the dress and pinafore… though if Pablo had knocked on the front door five minutes later I’d have already changed into Levi’s and a flannel shirt, which I prefer to voluminous dresses, especially white dresses, no matter where I’m staying.

But nowhere on earth, not even at the United Nations, are you likely to see a more eclectic assortment of clothing styles than on the Ridge. Visitors and newcomers, expecting to find the Ancients living and dressing like Quakers or Mennonites… or huddled in caves, clad in animal skins… gape at the array of red-and-gold saris, white turbans, and Italian suits… along with the odd pinafore and the preponderance of jeans and flannel shirts.

What is of ultimate concern to me?

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Pablo and I spent the warm afternoon on Sister Alma Rose’s grass-green wraparound porch. I had been assigned a short essay: an answer to the question “What is of ultimate concern to me?”

Pablo worked on his own essay, because that’s the sort of thing Pablo considers fun. Sister Alma Rose shelled peas and looked at our drafts, as we had asked her to. She knows better than we do when we are bullshitting, which is to say, writing what we think will please our mentors rather than what is in our hearts.

Here is my draft, about 60-percent complete. I’ll spend all the time it takes, because one certainly desires to know what is of ultimate concern to one, n’est-ce pas?

TO FOLLOW MY BLISS, joyfully occupy my place in the universe, effortlessly expand to accept and release streams of love always… thus to nourish the world… thus to swim in the tide of abundance (in the spiritual sense, but I wouldn’t say no to a cushy cabin cruiser and a circle of friends and maybe a roasted chicken).

Without my striving or struggling, my ultimate concern is to get out of God’s way so that God’s love can flow through me unobstructed. I pray, “God, surprise me.” I open my heart to accept the blessed assignment of repairing the world (tikkun olam, in the Kabbalah; or even, à la Gregg Braden, attuning my heartbeat to that of the planet — many metaphors are helpful).

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I could have said merely “to love one another” (Mother Teresa: “Spread love everywhere you go”), but there is also the clearing away of barriers and stumbling blocks.

Or I could have said “to love God and have no other Gods,” but that too means waking up and shedding addictions to stuff, to people and their regard, and to cream-cheese pie with hot fudge on the side… while remaining capable of enjoying cream-cheese pie and so forth.

The Ancients, most of them, are not ascetics. You will not see obesity on the Ridge, but there is no shortage of cream-cheese pie. Sugary desserts are enjoyed in moderation, usually after a meal.

After I’d been a year on the Mountain, immoderate displays of obscenely sweet pastries and frozen treats turned my stomach; but not so long ago, I could stick a spoon into a just-opened jar of hot fudge… slip into a trance… and emerge from it with an empty jar, a sticky chin, and a seriously offended stomach.

Love is not one of my attributes. It is my essence, as it is yours. When I move with confidence and courage and in integrity, no matter what I do I am love in motion and cannot help but bless the world.

So simple a message, and I still forget, and my mentors won’t allow me to tattoo it on my forehead….

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Of Kabbalah and Kings

The Power to Change the Universe

Rabbi Isaac Luria

Rabbi Isaac Luria 1534-1572

The most influential teacher of Kabbalah was undoubtedly Rabbi Isaac Luria [1534-1572]. According to Luria, things went terribly awry at the moment of creation. The world we live in, he said, is made of the fragments of the universe that God had intended to create, but which literally burst while He was assembling it. Some of these shards still carry traces of the divine light. So long as they are polluted by matter, those sparks are the source of evil….

In Luria’s teachings, the Jewish ethical obligation to purify oneself and “repair the world” (known as tikkun olam) was taken literally. Every good deed [mitzvah] that a Jew committed, every mandated prayer and ritual obligation that he or she performed, each of the 613 Torah commandments fulfilled, freed one of those stray sparks from the gross, corrupting matter it was trapped in and returned it to God, purging a little bit of evil from the world…. Prayer and observance were not just passive gestures of piety and obedience; they were part of the divine work of creation — they had the power to change the universe. The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah, by Arthur Goldwag, p. 11

MITZVAH (plural MITZVOT) — literally “commandment,” that is, the law commanded by God. Throughout the ages the term has also come to mean “good deed,” since by definition everything God commands is for the good of the people. — http://templebethtorah.org/bneimitzvah/glossary/, accessed September 27, 2008

Have you mitzvah’ed today?

Random Card of Kindness #1, front

Sister Alma Rose don’t know if Creation happened exactly like Rabbi Luria figured it. She don’t much care. She wasn’t there at the time, at least not in her current form. She’s here now, though, and pretty dang pleased about it, all in all.

But she loves the idea of the mitzvah: purifying oneself and repairing the world. Small and large acts of kindness — making phone calls to ailing friends, sending Random Cards of Kindness * to people in the military and folks at random (Sister Alma Rose picks them from the phone book), sitting in her grass-green rocker on the spacious grass-green-painted porch of the big house at Hilltop Farm and listening to people pour out their troubles, praying for the sick and the bereaved — these have “the power to change the universe.”

You don’t have to be a Kabbalist to perform a mitzvah every day. Make a big pot of Sister Alma Rose’s special Mitzvah Soup and give it to someone you love. **

Mitzvah Soup

I call this “Mitzvah Soup” because it is full of healing, so taking a quart of it to a sick friend is a satisfying mitzvah. I also call it “Kitchen Sink Soup” because you can throw in Everything but the Kitchen Sink. It’s a good recipe for when you’re cleaning out your refrigerator and freezer.

Random Card of Kindness #1, inside

Random Card of Kindness #1, inside

Ingredients (quantities are approximate)

  • 1 to 2 cups dried beans. You can use any combination of navy, kidney, and pinto beans, black-eyed peas, and black beans. Go light on the black beans; they have a strong flavor and can make the soup look like mud. If you use split peas or lentils, add them later; they cook more quickly than the beans and get mushy.
  • 1/2 cup wild rice (white and brown rice get mushy too)
  • 4 or more skinless, boneless chicken or turkey breasts. The very best are Schwan’s frozen mesquite chicken breasts. I thaw and lightly brown them in the microwave, then cut to bite-size.
  • 3 to 4 cups frozen, fresh, or canned mixed vegetables. If canned, use the liquid too. I usually use whatever I have around. One medium-size potato, scrubbed, unpeeled, and cubed thickens the soup. Zucchini, celery, green beans, corn, peas, and other mild-tasting vegetables are good. Snow peas add a nice texture. Use broccoli sparingly if at all. Too many carrots can overpower the flavor as well. I’ve used spinach chopped very small (otherwise it looks like seaweed), a tomato… anything that doesn’t have a strong taste (I find beets, cabbage, eggplant, and yams much too strong).
  • Dried chicken broth, enough for 3 quarts of soup. I use “Better than Bouillon,” which is kind of a paste and has to be refrigerated after it’s opened.
  • 1 small chopped white or yellow onion, raw or, better, sautéed in olive oil.
  • Garlic. I use a couple of small cloves or about two teaspoons of the kind that comes in a jar.
  • Seasonings: You shouldn’t need to add salt. A handful of Trader Joe’s 21-Seasoning Salute is perfect; otherwise, I use lots of black pepper, a dash of cayenne, sweet basil, and a couple of bay leaves. Also: parsley, chili powder, cumin, a dash of cinnamon, a dash of cloves, a pinch of dried rosemary, 1/2 teaspoon ginger, and a tablespoon of brown sugar or honey.
  • Nice to add if you have them: chopped mushrooms, leeks, green and red pepper, barley, chopped fresh herbs such as thyme, sage, and lemon balm, a splash of liquid mesquite flavoring

Preparation

Cover the beans with water, bring to a boil, let boil for 2 minutes, then soak (covered) for 2 hours or overnight. I add a teaspoon of baking soda when I set the beans aside to soak to make the beans less gas-inducing.

peas, lentils, beans, and chickpeas

Mixed legumes: peas, lentils, beans, and chickpeas

Drain and rinse the beans well and rinse out the kettle. Put the beans back in the kettle with about 3 quarts of water. Add the chicken broth, the chicken in bite-size pieces, the rice, the onions and garlic, and the seasonings. Simmer (covered) for an hour.

Add the vegetables, chopped, and simmer for another hour or until the vegetables are tender and the soup has thickened a bit. If the flavor isn’t as full as you like it, try adding more Worcestershire sauce or chicken broth.

The quantities, as I said, are approximate. It’s hard to make a mistake. Just keep tasting it and add this or that till you’re satisfied. My biggest flops have come from an excess of carrots, broccoli, or black beans.

Mitzvah Soup

Mitzvah Soup

Prayer Soup

Cooking for someone you love is a sacred thing. Think of it as a prayer ritual. Start with gratitude — for your family, or the friend you’re helping to heal; for the bounty and your ability to put it to good purpose; for good smells and tastes and for variety.

Pray for your friend’s health as you add ingredients:

Garlic, leeks, and onions are high in flavonoidsphytochemicals for healthy cholesterol levels. Highly colored vegetables are rich in other phytochemicals with benefits including cancer prevention. Parsley and peppers are high in vitamin C. Rosemary is said to aid memory. Dried beans, peas, and lentils are little jewels of nutrition. With little or no fat and no cholesterol, they are rich in complex carbohydrates, fiber, iron, and folate. Research suggests they reduce “bad” cholesterol, help prevent certain cancers, and normalize blood sugar. Tomatoes get their red color from lycopene, which is cancer-protective. Chicken and beans supply protein, which, along with complex carbohydrates, provide sustained energy. Turkey contains a substance that can ease depression.

There’s so much more! I haven’t even started on mushrooms. Plus this soup tastes great! Thank you, God. Amen. Let’s eat! —from Unfamiliar Territory, by Mary Campbell, 2006 ***

* Shameless self-promotion

** Sister Alma Rose does not mean to trivialize Kabbalah, the centuries of scholarship it represents, or the intricacies of its practice. She is well aware that taking an eggplant casserole, no matter how lovingly prepared, to a new neighbor is not, in the strictest sense, a mitzvah. She is fairly sure that there is nothing in the Torah about eggplant. She hopes she will be forgiven for taking a page, as it were, from the Zohar and embracing the concept that acts of kindness and self-purification do, indeed, change the universe.

*** More shameless self-promotion

Sunset over Padre Island, 1974 (National Park Service)

Sunset over Padre Island, 1974 (National Park Service)

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Sister Alma Rose — Our church has replaced all our hymnals with new gender-neutral ones. “King of glory” has become “clothed in glory,” and nowhere will you find the word Lord, not even in “Holy, holy, holy; Lord God Almighty.” Now it’s “God the Almighty.” Even in the responsive readings, the words Him and He have been replaced with God, as in Psalm 11: “God provides food for those who fear God; God is ever mindful of God’s covenant. God has shown God’s people the power of God’s works,…” and so on, and so on, and so-frigging-ON. Plus, they excised all the thees and thous, and then the hymns don’t rhyme and they think up stupid new words. How do you feel about this? —Politically Incorrect on Padre Island

Dear P.I. — Sister Alma Rose feels that you should praise God for Padre Island and not worry about too much else.

 

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Why Meditate? The Beautiful Benefits of Meditation

Blackeyed Susans along a Nebraska Road
Meditation is – can be – so many things. There are meditations to relax you or to energize you; meditations for visualization and manifestation; meditations to empty your mind or to focus it. The more entrepreneurial among us have made meditation a commodity designed to cure the ills of a selected audience, which is a nice way of saying that some meditation resources are sham.

Meditation, at its most basic, is resting the mind. Most of us garden-variety meditators can’t empty the mind completely, but we can, at least for a few minutes, give it a respite.

Everybody has problems. The mind is usually engaged in solving those problems, and the problem-solving process often entails stress, anxiety, regret, maybe some guilt, maybe even depression and hopelessness if we lack the resources we believe will solve the problems: health, energy, money, ideas, courage, influence, whatever.

Stress, anxiety, regret, guilt, and depression weigh on us. They sap our energy and cloud our thinking, becoming fuel for more stress, anxiety, regret, and so forth. They are colloquially and aptly called “baggage.”

Nebraska Sunset; Geese flying north over Lake McConaughy

 

Meditation sets the baggage aside

In 1976, my daughter, Marian, and I were rushing through Washington’s Union Station, hurrying to catch the Broadway Limited, which was departing early. We were loaded down with suitcases and Christmas presents for our visit to our family in Omaha.

Marian was eight years old and was carrying everything she could manage, but I had the heavy stuff, both arms straining until I had to stop and give my muscles a break. After thirty seconds or so, I could pick the bags and packages up again and forge ahead, and then my arms would insist on being rested again. My arms were very vocal about it, and they refused to accommodate me until I let them have their little reprieve.

Our psyches don’t complain as clearly as our muscles. Headaches, backaches, stomach aches we can ignore or medicate. But if we keep going on overload, mentally or emotionally, something’s gotta give.

Meditation, like restful sleep, is a way of setting the baggage aside and giving our psyches a break. During the time we’re meditating, there’s no past to regret; there’s no future to worry about; there’s only now, and right now, everything is all right.

There’s no such thing as meditating badly

The only “bad meditation” is one that carries unrealistic expectations, so don’t go out and buy a “meditation kit,” CD, or book that promises wealth, romance, or power. Meditation is good for you—for body, mind, and spirit; for relationships and work and problem-solving and achieving your goals. But your life won’t change overnight, and anyway, expectations are about the future, and meditation is about this moment.

If you’re new to meditation, you may find it difficult at first to interrupt your churning thoughts, but there are some excellent and simple techniques to deal with them. For now, I’ll just give you three axioms to hold on to:

1.      The intention to meditate is a giant step in the right direction.

2.      Thirty seconds of meditation is better than no meditation at all.

3.      It’s not how often your mind wanders that’s important, it’s how many times you return to the meditation, gently and without beating yourself up. It is, as Jack Kornfield says, like training a puppy. You don’t yell or scold; you just keep at it, patiently and compassionately.

When I worked at the University of Arizona, our department invited one of the trainers from the wellness center to give a presentation on “becoming fit.” The presentation was excellent and inspiring. It was especially motivational for me because the presenter emphasized “starting where you are.” If you want to walk or run on a treadmill, she said, and you can only manage two minutes, do the two minutes.

 

I had recently had a baby, and I wanted to start riding my bicycle to work—a five-mile journey that sloped gently uphill most of the way. So for a few days I rode my bike around the neighborhood, which was very flat. One morning I decided that I’d start for work on my bicycle, ride as far as I could manage, then lock the bike to a lamppost or something and take the bus the rest of the way. To my surprise, the five-mile trip was relatively easy and I locked my bike to the bike rack outside the Administration Building. My legs were spaghetti, but I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment, coupled with the knowledge that the trip home would be all downhill.

So just start. Begin with thirty seconds. Try to add a little time each day. Be patient. Don’t scold yourself if you miss a day, or a week. One of the purposes of meditation is to learn compassion for yourself and, by extension, for others.

The benefits of meditation

The potential benefits are almost too numerous to mention, and to some extent they depend on what form of meditation you adopt. But – again, we’re talking about very basic meditation here – a regular meditation practice can significantly reduce the negative effects of stress, including heart rate and blood pressure. It can be a vacation from emotional turmoil, and you can learn to make that “vacation” into a way of life, making the attitudes you cultivate during meditation into a habitual way of being.

Meditation cultivates compassion, the ability to love, and acceptance: of yourself, of other people, of your circumstances. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever try to change your circumstances. Acceptance doesn’t mean rolling over. But through meditation you can learn to be at peace wherever you are even when you’d rather be somewhere else.

It might seem paradoxical, but through meditation you can become both (a) your best self, genuine, unique, distinctive, and (b) in harmony with your environment, however you define it: your family, your friends, your colleagues, your home, your neighborhood, trees, buildings, stars, the universe. You can, at the same time, know your limitations and continually test them.

There are “nonreligious” forms of meditation, but I believe that meditation is intrinsically spiritual. It requires a leap of faith to part with your ego, and that is exactly what meditation requires. Whether you’re practicing Christian meditation, Jewish meditation (Kabbalah, perhaps), Sufi meditation, Buddhist meditation, Transcendental Meditation, or the Meditation of Not Being in a Plummeting Aircraft, the movement is always out of Matter into Spirit. For me, in any case, meditation is communion with the Divine.

Find hours of music for meditation and relaxation, nature sounds, meditation instruction, and other meditation resources at Zero Gravity’s website, www.LifeIsPoetry.net