Monthly Archives: August 2011

Nature, the Ultimate Thriller

I used to think cities were where it’s at.  My European travels and my years in Philadelphia, London and New York found me gaping at skyscrapers, hitting hot clubs and trendy restaurants, and finding endless entertainment in the tapestry of skin tones, hairstyles, languages, and fashions around me. Having grown up on Cape Cod, I was hungry for the thrills of city life.

But I started to fall out of love with cities in my late-30s, when I went to live at a yoga center in the green, green Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. I went for three months and stayed for two years, soaking up the environment and spiritual teachings. When I finally left the Berkshires (too frozen in the winter, with too few eligible men for this single gal), I relocated to a peaceful suburb of Boston, with tree-lined streets and plenty of parks. I’m now just minutes away from Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau famously found tranquility in the wilderness, and it suits me to a tee. Because these days I’m paying more attention to Mother Nature, the great artist, architect, and companion.

When I stroll the bike path near my home, a majestic cathedral of trees shelters me, receives my prayers, and keeps my secrets. When I need to walk off some anger, the dirt under my feet absorbs my ire. My immigrant husband strides along this same path on his way to a low level job that’s unrelated to his chosen profession, reporting, “The trees and birds talk to me, telling me to hang in there, and giving me encouragement.” I think of the line from Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese, promising that the world offers itself to our imagination and calls to us like wild geese, “harsh and exciting, over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”

I recently heard a news report that said we humans are spending more time with machines than people, which makes me guess that time in nature has probably dropped way down the list. How sad. As much as I love my lap top, it rarely gives me the same thrill as the red flash of a cardinal across my path, the sight of a hummingbird at a feeder, the eerie sound of an owl or a mourning dove outside my window, or the spectacle of shooting stars in the night sky. I’ve seen lightening storms over the Stockbridge Bowl, full yellow moons rising over the desert and the ocean, the playfulness of elephants and whales in the wild, technicolor Caribbean sunsets, and the awesome power of hurricane winds disturbing waves on a beach. To me, they all trump anything I can watch on a screen.

We had a particularly long, snowy, humorless winter in Massachusetts this year. A few months later as the land was finally turning green, I was arrested on my morning walk by the sight of a shining silver birch tree. An exuberant “Hi!” came out of my mouth before I was even aware of the impulse. I looked around, wondering if anyone had heard me talking to a tree. Later, I was met with nods of recognition when I told the story to friends who were equally starved for the rebirth that comes with spring.

Last year during springtime my husband and I were astonished to find a nest full of tiny blue eggs in a geranium plant that hung on the front porch. Like an expectant mom, I hovered by the nest for days to see what would happen. One afternoon, picking up on tiny chirping sounds coming from the geranium, we grabbed the camera and took a quick shot of the new babies. You would have thought they were mine, the way I showed off that picture, and the response from those who saw them was equally passionate. I see why animal videos go viral all the time.

The surprise in the geranium plant

My mentor and guru in my work as a creativity coach is Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, who says in the book that, “The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.” When nature is putting on a show 24/7, how can we not pay attention? And how delightful, and thrilling, it can be.

Kindness is My Religion

Back when I was single, I created a few personal profiles for online dating sites. When asked to name my religion, I wrote “Kindness.” It sounded kinda cute at the time, but it’s also what I truly believe in and try to practice.

Kindness touches the soul, or at least my soul, and connects us all on such a primal level. Raised as a Christian, I knew all about the Golden Rule of doing unto others as we’d have them do to us. And who doesn’t want to be treated with kindness?  The hard part is doling it out on a regular basis in our stressed out, fast-paced, I’ll-trust-you-when-you-prove-trustworthy culture.

And that’s why I’m a sucker for strangers (and others) who extend kindness to me.

I have struggled with depression in my life and, even though it no longer overtakes me, I’m still what they call a highly sensitive person on the planet.  Some days, I just feel things very deeply. When I see people with physical challenges moving tentatively on the street, I recognize that they are moving through space and time in the same way that I do when I’m in a tender place, emotionally. Sharp words, like sharp objects, can slay me on those days, and being rushed or dismissed can feel like violence.

So when someone takes the time to be kind to me, it feels like a big deal, and pierces through the emotional haze like Cupid’s arrow. It could be the barista who compliments my shirt while making my latte, the deli clerk who helps me to choose the best sliced turkey and offers me samples, the women with the umbrella offering to escort me (sans umbrella) to my car in the driving rain, or the gas station attendant smiling and wishing me a great day when all he really had to say was “Thanks.”

No matter the source, kindness really sticks.

When my husband moved to the U.S., he arrived from Senegal with a duffel bag and a knapsack, which obviously didn’t allow for a lot of clothes and accessories. Not that he had much of those, because he’d given nearly everything away to friends and family before emigrating. He did have sandals, sneakers and a pair of slightly small working boots that a friend had given him.

As it was March in New England, the sandals went straight to the closet. As funds were limited, we took the boots to a shoe repair shop for stretching. The Ugandan man behind the counter welcomed my husband to the United States with a 1,000-watt smile, unlike the airport worker who’d met him with hostility a few days before. (Note, my dear husband did unknowingly trigger this reaction by wearing a Yankees cap as he entered Logan airport. It was in the trash before we hit the highway home.)

Upon exchanging a few welcoming words to his “African brother,” the cobbler handed my husband a pair of shoes that another customer had long ago abandoned. My husband, while not so fond of the shiny shoes, was grateful for this kindness during a time of traumatic change.

One day I dialed the yoga center where I teach and left a message about some business. Moments later, I got a call back—from a guy in Brooklyn who gets such calls “all the time” because his phone number is similar to the yoga center’s.  “Namaste from New York,” he said into my voice mail. “You dialed the wrong number and I didn’t want you to think that no one returned your call.”

Namaste, indeed, for being considerate enough to call me with that information.

A real King of Kindness in my book is Narayanan Krishnan, who gave up a promising career as a chef to start feeding the homeless, hungry, and destitute in his Indian hometown. The astonishing part is not the succulent meals he delivers, but the love that he feeds to his people—cutting their hair, and bathing and hugging them, even as his caste rules forbid it. As Krishnan says, “We all have 5.5 liters of blood,” no matter our race, class, or bank account balance.

And so I try, and sometimes fail, and try again to be kind to those around me. It helps when I remember to start with myself, because practicing self-compassion often makes it easier to feel compassion for others.

I also try to remember that I can never know what trouble is in the heart or mind of another person. The guy who cuts me off at the rotary may have just lost his job. The woman who lets the door shut in my face may be worried sick about a sick child. “If you’re gonna make up a story, make up a good one,” my friend Karen used to say when I’d get all twisted up about a perceived slight from someone.

Of course, sometimes people just behave badly. But when I remember to cut them (and me) some slack for being human and having bad days, life just feels…kinder.