I woke up this morning with not much sleep. This has been customary for my life – and especially customary when I’m working a lot. I just finished teaching a training yesterday and there’s the always “pile” of admin work looming around and both the high and intensity in my nervous system of having held some intense space for the past 5 days.
I woke up in the middle of the night due to a ceremony in the temple nearby. “Quiet” isn’t a common word any of us who actually live in Bali would ever use to describe this island. Village life, at heart, I believe, in many places, isn’t so quiet. And here in Ubud, with the construction and motorbikes during the day – and then the ceremonies that happen at night – that’s part of the running chorus as much as its water, frog, bird, insect counterpart.
When I don’t sleep enough there’s a potential for grumpiness. But this morning, despite the mild congestion due to the mold growing in my roof and only 5 hours of sleep, I woke up feeling, “I’m alive!”
I think praying’s helping. I’m not much for rules but for us free spirits, to keep our freedom, do need discipline. My discipline usually stems from feeling in and listening to what my needs are – and making sure I actually do my best to meet them. One promise I made recently, more because my guides and guardians in other worlds have coaxed me of its importance, was to pray every day. I’ve written about this in previous posts. So I make sure that before I leave the house in the morning, I gather some frangipani in the yard, put it on my altar, and do my own ceremony.
What I love is that in the mornings and evenings when biking in and out of town, I’ll notice my Balinese neighbors shaking trees. Instead of picking flowers, they shake the trees to see which ones are ready to fall. To me, it’s an acknowledgement that nature always provides and there is a timing to everything. There’s a paying attention to what’s ready to blossom now as a gift. I used to ask permission before picking a flower or using some wood or stone – but the Balinese way of seeing what’s already ready to be used to me is acknowledging how the Earth says, “I would like to share this with you.”
In the year of 2000, I worked on an organic farm – through the Heifer Project in Perryville, Arkansas during both spring break of my junior year in university as well as during that summer. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Project, its focus is sustainability and it gifts out livestock, seeds, and trees to those in need worldwide. What I do like is that while it is an American organization, each headquarter is run mostly by participants from its own community. I was working at the International Headquarters in the organic farm section where we learned different sustainable ways to farm and how to grow the more diverse/heirloom kinds of fruits, vegetables, and flowers that have been thinned out over the past century(ies). It was fun to learn that the way scarecrows work is that they keep birds away by their SMELL. So we would take turns wearing really dirty flannels and long pants, sweating in the 100 plus degree Farenheit sun getting them ready.
I think before that time, I still had this Romantic (referring to the era) view of nature having taken English classes in high school and college that focused on Emerson and Thoreau. I definitely had more respect after my 6am-6pm work day out in the sun for how hard this work truly is and realized that even a small farm is a lot of work. I also had come back from living abroad in Niger, West Africa and was still in shell-shock from being back in the USA. When I first returned, I remember thinking how big my family’s ranch house was as in Niger I was living in much smaller quarters with many more people – and how their yard – which wouldn’t have seemed huge by American suburb standards, could have fit a few more families. I marveled at the dishwasher and the washer and dryer – recalling how the women in the Nigerien community washed together – without machines there was less efficiency – but there was more community. I’m definitely not glorifying one culture or way over another but the one loss I noticed in my culture was how our use of machines created more of a separation instead of the miraculous leisure time or even more connection that perhaps was one of the first motivations of these inventions. Again, I’m saying many things that can be loaded and there are many layers and sides to all of this, and I have no interest in getting into that. All I know is that when I came back to the US, although I’d already traveled in South America, the Caribbean, and a bit in Europe, there was a change in my psyche and it took me a long time to integrate. In a lot of ways, I didn’t want my American-ness to ever become “normal” again and that could be one of my underlying motivations for traveling as much as I have. To keep this global perspective of how all of us are living together on this planet.
The Heifer Project was a beautiful opportunity for me to work directly with the land – and it literally grounded me and gave me respect for how hard this work truly was.
One day the head farmer – Chuck- told me that I had to go out and pick 275 peppers and 408 tomatoes. We were part of a CSA – community supported agriculture – so every week we would drive into Little Rock in this rickety van that pleaded its own death to give out the shares of fruits, vegetables, and flowers to everyone who had joined. It was a fun way to get to know the community and being a college student who had very little income, I was amazed by the generosity and open hearts by the community. I was taken to some amazing yoga classes in a beautiful studio in the middle of the woods near running water and was welcomed into the homes by different women in the community and was cooked some nourishing meals. I also loved our weekly jaunts as that was my way to escape Perryville. We were in a “dry” community – meaning no alcohol – and I turned 21 (legal US drinking age) there and I remember Buck, my 18 year old Texan friend who caught squirrels in the backyard, made his own strawberry alcohol brew (sounds better than it was) and we’d go fishing every week together – he and I smuggled back some red wine and beer to have down at the fishing hole for my 21st birthday. I don’t know about you, but for me part of the fun of drinking was that it wasn’t allowed. My inner-rebel probably had the most fun when I simply knew I was getting away with something. 😉
Back to the day when Chuck gives me my picking list. So I’m out in the blazing sun – my skin already dark from being out every day (my nephew didn’t understand that I WASN’T actually African) and I’m picking the vegetables according to quota. From that picking meditation I would do every day, along with weeding, I got to understand how plants have their own defense system and know how to protect themselves so you actually would get harmed if you tried to intrude. Okra is a great example of this – and you have to wear thick gloves up to your elbows to get through the prickly attack system. So I always paid attention to which vegetables were ready to give up their goods and I found myself thanking them.
This was a good system until this day. Chuck’s request exceeded the amount that were ready to be picked. I didn’t know what to do. I found myself picking tomatoes that weren’t ready. Instead of the light loosening of the heavily juiced tomato off the vine – it turned into a hard pulling of a thick tomato that still wanted to stay. I didn’t know what to do.
Being wired the way I am, I’ve never perceived things the way most people do. This picking tomatoes against their “will” really bothered me. I sat down in the middle of the fields, with two knots on either side of my head (Princess Leia style) my pants rolled up over my knees and my thick rubber boots on. I cried. I guess I cried for a lot of things. I had been vegetarian/vegan since I was 14 and thought I was “saving the earth” that way. Then I get to Niger and realized most people were starving and to even HAVE food was a gift. That for me to have so many choices and to say no to so many different kinds of food was a privilege – and that I forgot to see food as food and I made it into so many other things. I would show up in a village and they would say (paraphrased), “We’re starving and can only afford a few goats a year – and in celebration of your arrival – we are offering up a goat!” How could I say, “I don’t eat meat?” The celebration and gift of meat. That’s when I started to rewire some of my ideas around food. The sacredness of meat, of life. The Nigeriens, in killing an animal, would wake up very early. Any killing was done with a prayer in the quickest and, if we can say “painless” way possible. At least there was gratitude, true gratitude for this gift of life. I realized then how much life sacrificed itself for the little me to stay here. And here I was, starving myself or throwing up what I ate, worried about the size of my thighs and stomach, not seeing the gift of the sun, of the smiles, of being able to walk and breathe. In Niger, life was short. Death was daily, fast, and normal. There were a lot of lepers in our town so it was more uncommon to see people with all of their fingers and toes or limbs or faces. To see how people didn’t let their not having legs or arms stop them. The instant creativity of fashioning something out of old wood, rope, and cardboard to make makeshift legs and scooters. What I saw their in terms of refashioned limbs and toys that children made for themselves made me realize how inherently creative and resourceful we are – and in a way – with the access to everything that I have – some of my creativity has gotten a bit lazy. Again, there’s more to say, many more layers and depths to this…but this is what I will say for now.
So here I am in the tomato fields crying. Crying for my friends in Niger, with my own confusion of why I was born into having so much – even when my family went bankrupt – we always had so much. Not understanding this distance between having and not having. Knowing my own stinginess at not giving any money to a begger in Niger – and then my friend – who maybe only has money for himself for 2 days – would share part of his. “We take care of one another,” he said. I would hand out a piece of candy to one child and without a thought she would share it with her 4 brother’s and sisters – even if each of them got perhaps half a pinky sized taste.
That part of me that hated my own American-ness. I went through a period of sleeping in the worst conditions –wanting to understand my own conditioning – I guess rejecting some of the wealth I was given. I spent many years ashamed of myself on many levels. I remember sleeping on a dirt floor and being surprised because, contrary to my own belief, cockroaches actually don’t mind crawling over you while you sleep.
My dad would watch me and ask me to use my talents to something more helpful and productive. “How will you help others by sleeping on the ground and digging ditches?” But there was this part of me, first hand, who needed to know how other people felt. And yet, this knowledge that no matter what, I will always have my past and memories and the ability to go back to where I came from. As much as many people from other countries have their own judgments about Americans, I did know that my passport gave me certain freedoms that others wouldn’t have. I couldn’t fathom, while drinking tea with friends in Niger or even my Indonesian friends here that it’s actually really hard for them to come visit the US with me.
Back to the tomatoes. I thought about how I was so privileged to eat mostly plants – and how I thought we only need to think about the animals. And I know there are arguments that I’m not acknowledging about how animals are treated and perhaps the hierarchy of consciousness – but all I know is that that moment what I was thinking and feeling was: “We don’t ever have compassion for the tomatoes.”
That’s what I said to Chuck when he walked up in his usual uniform of a flannel shirt, long dirty pants, boots, and his hat. He had skin cancer on his ear when he was in the Peace Corps in Panama years ago and never let his skin touch the sun after that.
“What?” he said.
“I can’t pick any more tomatoes, Chuck.”
“Why?” he asked. He was used to emotional females. He had 3 daughters and a wife.
“They don’t want to be picked.” And, I didn’t want to add, I suddenly realized that I didn’t have the same gratitude and appreciation for plants in the way that I did for animals. That life force was life force and I was making certain life forces more sacred than others. I hadn’t, up until that moment, seen the totality in everything.
He had me “try” to pick a few more. I know I was, to him, a 20-year old hippie. Of course I was. But there were deeper realizations going on for me that I was realizing about my own confusion about the world. How I didn’t understand how certain people “had”, and certain people didn’t – how certain people were more valued than others – and our – or at least I knew – my own skewed values around food. I was surrounded by abundance and stopped seeing the gifts.
So this morning, I woke up in paradise. Yeah maybe not so much sleep. I celebrate the mornings thatI’m not in pain or sick. And I remember to celebrate the mornings I am in pain or sick because I’m still breathing, my heart’s still beating. I’ve got two legs, two legs, two eyes, two ears, and a heart. I always remember to say thank you.
That’s my morning prayer. Every day, “thank you.” As an offering, I gather the flowers that are ready to be given, and I love to see the gifts, the surprise that the day brings.