Art at She Haven

Have you ever visited a place for the first time and felt immediately as though it is your home away from home? Today, for the second time I visited Sidhehaven, and that’s how it feels. An hour and a half from Seattle there is a modest two-and-a-half acre parcel with a small house on it. It’s far enough away from the city that there’s room to breathe. It might look like a hobby farm, or relaxed retiree oasis, but it’s more than that.

What happens there and what’s been added to the property, is what makes it really special. This is a home and a haven for Sherry Kirk, who also uses it as her artist’s studio.

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The first time I went to visit, I went to play with clay in an active potter’s studio. I went to put my hands on a potters wheel and remember the feeling after more than 15 years. She led me across the wooden porch, through a screen door, to her studio. The smell of clay dust, wet metal, glazes, and moist sponges is still familiar and beautiful to my nose. It transported me to my college studio, where I spent hours every day perfecting my own art so many years ago. It also took me back to that time in my life when art came first.

As I spun clay, Sherry spun stories of her past. I heard about her military history. We have a mutual friend who lives in Chicago. One day we both appeared side by side on Facebook, and the friend suggested we connect, so we did. They were in the military together in Turkey and Iraq and Afghanistan. Sherry told of helicopter runs over borders; some as a recon, some as unsanctioned “supply runs” for a group of her buddies on one side or the other of a border she was or wasn’t supposed to be on. “Yeah, I got an a little bit of trouble for that one,” she says with a smile and a giggle. My original thought was that she was standard military personnel, now retired and relaxing on her rural parcel not far from the military base she once worked at. “I’m a much different person now than I was in the Army.” And the person she has become is what decorates Sidehaven.

Sherry and I spent hours trading stories and going back-and-forth the first time I visited. She told me about the seeds she received from one community member and the plants she traded with another, and dinner in trade for massage, or tools. The barter system works well here. She gets art supplies as donations from other members of the community because everyone knows she’s good at passing things around to other people who need them. “We just received a welding setup and I am excited to get that up and running.”

Once I sat at the wheel, it was just like riding a bike. Well, after a few tries it was. Muscle memory is a beautiful thing. But while my hands were immersed in earth-red clay, I spent as much time studying the studio as I did making pots. Wildly creative drawings and paintings mingle with army plaques and decorations along the walls of her studio. A T-rex in chalk, a Master Sergeant award, a fairy holding a machine gun, a scantily clad vixen with a whip and sergeant stripes tattooed on her arm. Most are gifts from people in her community. On the floor, in the center of the studio begins a poem or a manifesto; words to consider if you live here, work here or visit. The words spiral out in a circle, decorating the floor as they reveal the poem’s message.

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“None of this was here when I bought it, but when I retired from the military, I wanted a place where I could enjoy doing pottery,” she says. So she converted the master bedroom into a pottery studio, two years ago, and that became the heart of Sidhehaven, pronounced “she haven”. The Sidhe are a group of elves and dwarves who live underground in Irish mythology, she explains. “So that’s where I got the name, but it’s a play on words as well. It’s a haven for me, for the community.” Her pottery is often adorned with Celtic knot work and designs reminiscent of Gaelic imagery, and with a decidedly Hippie flair.

She has an Etsy store that keeps her business hopping; she’s often backed up on orders for her latest designs of coffee mugs, pitchers, and other functional pieces.
She has also put in a stone labyrinth and herb garden, food garden, hot tub, performance stage, two fire pits, flower beds, and a yurt, where interns or guests often stay. The renewable, reusable and environmentally friendly live here. There’s a composting toilet surrounded and secluded by tall bamboo which feed on the wastewater that the toilet produces. There are chickens and ducks roaming the property between the gardens, and a very affectionate cat.

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But at the heart of Sidhehaven are Sherry’s stories. Today I am here again, and brought my children this time, to let them experience the art I love so much. They’re working on the potter’s wheel.

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As she walks us through her home and then through the gardens, there are stories of each place, each room, each stone. She tells of when she was in the military, of what she wanted when she was done, why there’s no carpet on the floor, and why there’s money from around the world decoupaged onto her dining table. The deck is covered in beautiful hanging things that spin in the wind and make delightful sounds, and a cat stretched out in the sun, under them. There are ceramic pots and bowls filled with shells and sea glass, and plants trailing down small steps. It’s eclectic and shiny and unique. It’s every bit Sherry’s heart and vision, brought to life in a place, a haven.

She said she tried to make it an intentional community living space once, but was surprised when the people who were most excited about the idea, didn’t understand that it involved doing some of the work in order to make it function.

She explains some steps of converting a regular house into a haven. “We couldn’t afford real flooring, but we couldn’t leave it bare, and I hate carpet. So we put outdoor paint on the subfloor, then painted the stone design. It was supposed to have lacquer on top, but we didn’t get that far.”

In the main room hangs a large batik of a graceful, bountiful tree with Gaelic knot work designs around it. “That’s the design for Sidhehaven,” she says. It’s repeated perfectly in the tattoo on her right arm, and in some of her pottery pieces.

I run my fingers over the molds and pieces she has in production, enjoying her delicate craft work in the red earthenware. “I never want to spend my time just to make 20 pieces all exactly the same.” She’s interested in the unique, the individual, each piece with its own personality. And that’s what her customers get. Right now she’s working on a steam punk series of coffee cups. She shapes and places each gear on cups in preparation for tomorrow’s bisque fire.

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We’ll go back soon to see the bisqued pieces that the kids made when they were there today. I wonder what she’ll be working on then.

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Writing Circles

I picked up my book again. The one that’s already published. Yes, again. Among my comedy of errors in the world of first-time publishing, I made the mistake of looking at the final draft of my book before it was a even back from the printer (I know!). So by the time the glossy, printed version was in my hands, I already knew there were errors, exactly where they were, and I flogged myself for each of them over and over. I did this for several months after the success of the book wore off. I kept going back to it and re-writing sections. Then I spent a bunch of time asking people if it was worth it to go back and rework, or if I should just let it be the jagged edge that I rub up against forever. I let it sit for a year and wrote other things. It’s been five years now since I wrote it, and I’ve forgotten most of the words. I could almost read it as if it was someone else’s.

In the time since I put it down, I didn’t work on my own stuff. I was tired of it and needed to work on someone else’s projects for a while. I worked on a human trafficking project for a photojournalist, I worked on an international photo project for some photographers, I made other people’s websites and graphics. I wrote other people’s newsletters. Some of it was really great, inspiring, and moved me forward. Some of it was time filler. Some of it- the most important parts – served to remind me that I have my own story to tell. So I am back at my own story, which apparently begins at remembering the story I already told. The recipe also includes remembering what I learned, telling other people’s stories, and new experiences.

Oh, and photographs. My own photographs. I ran across this one the other day. It’s a start.

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What’s in a Seed

I found and an elm seed on the ground this morning. What I did immediately after that was smiled. Then after I realized the smile on my face, I picked it up and spun in a circle twice, looking for the source.  There were giant trees everywhere, in full green – fir and sequoia, maple and alder. But I know this seed. This seed is something I’ve known since I was tiny. We had an elm tree in our backyard where I grew up. It was the biggest tree in the neighborhood. We couldn’t even try to climb it because it was so big around. Every spring it would cover our postage stamp lawn in pale lime-colored circles the size of a dime. We’d throw the piles up like fresh snow after a storm. They’d flutter and float willingly back to the ground.

Then when I was about eleven, Dutch Elm Disease ripped through the neighborhood and all of the big elms came down. They were spray painted with orange, then day by day the cutting crews came through and thinned the neighborhood block by block. The shade trees all but disappeared. A volunteer mulberry grew in it’s place; nothing anyone planted. We picked the sweet berries whenever we were bored, and they squished between our toes when we ran barefoot in the yard. But it’s the elm tree I’ll remember. We’d lay under it to watch cloud animals chase each other above its friendly canopy.

So when I bent and picked up this single seed, I couldn’t believe that I’d found it, and that there was no trace of any others or of the giant who made it. I turned again, looking at the treetops. I thought about writing about this. I thought about another recent elm tree experience. And I thought about the elms seeds I still have in a glass jar. I harvested them right before leaving Minnesota to live in a new city, a new state for the first time. I kept them with me for the seven years I lived in Michigan. Since I was transient to that area for all those years, I never thought about planting them there. I’ve thought about planting them here, and imagine how big they’d be today if I had, the first year we moved into our house. They’d be fifteen years old now and who knows what kind of space they’d command. But instead they still sit in that jar.

I interrupted my workout in the park (maybe I didn’t really want to work out anyway) to take this one seed over to the edge of a field where the tallest cottonwoods were shedding their fluff. I looked at the ground and the false snow that had accumulated, at all the seeds this one elm seed would have to compete with in order to grow. I thought about the hundreds and thousands of seeds each tree gives for the chance to plant just one seedling. When I got to the edge, I grabbed a nearby stick and dug a hole in the hard ground just large enough to hold the seed, dropped it in, and covered it with almost damp soil, then tamped it down. The rest is hope. Maybe that tree will grow. Maybe I’ll finally plant those elm seeds in the jar.

There was a sugar maple in our front yard. I have a jar of those seeds too….

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Following Ansel’s Path

Way back in 1989, I had to declare a major in college. I toyed with an architecture major, but the prof for the prerequisite: History of Cities was horrific and scared me from that path. I considered math (very briefly) before settling on Fine Art with an emphasis in photography and ceramics (yes, two opposite ends of the fine art spectrum). Art degrees are funny, you spend hours practicing this thing you know very little about, and then you read about and memorize all the masters in your specialty. Then you’re meant to fill in the giant chasm between your work and theirs from your own guts before graduation.

Since my college years I’ve had it on my list to see Yosemite. I mean, it’s been there since 1890, so I’m a bit over due. So when the chance came, I went… with 27 teens on a school trip as a chaperone. Below is my photo essay of the three national parks we visited in that six day stretch last week. Happy 100 years, National Parks! Descriptions in line.

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Aah Frisco. The tourist tour. The entire week was spent on this tour bus – the one whose wind shied I am shooting through. Hey, you do what you can.

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We began a series of about 10 hikes by walking across the Golden Gate. It was a good break-in.

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This was the visit to San Fran that let me see things a bit differently. Through childrens’ eyes, perhaps?

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Sunset from our city camp site at the Presidio. Who knew you could camp there? As we set up tents, the tour bus owners brought halibut from one of their Alaska tours, and crevelle (like a grouper) from one of their recent Baja trips. He fried it up in camp while I gushed over the fact that he was feeding these hard-caught delicacies to kids!

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Before we knew it we were on a gorgeous California beach. “Where are we?” We asked… Marin county, so this is the Marin Headlands beach. Quintessential.

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I watched the surfers when I wasn’t on alert for random kids running into the sea.

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Before we knew it there were dorsal fins in the surf. I noticed all the surfers were turned away from the beach at once. I thought they were looking for the next wave, but then I realized they were spotting the fins.

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By their spray we could tell it was mammals, not sharks. The surfers relaxed and paused, even, to watch the small pod pass. But the dolphins paused as well and played in the surf along with the surfers.

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You can see one on the left of the image above.

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And closer here.

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Photographically I had several challenges. The largest was shooting with available light. Meaning, high noon most of the time. This is what Yosemite looks like at noon. (Photographers cringe, but I like the challenge.) El Capitan on the left, Half Dome in the middle, Bridal Veil Falls on the right. I look forward to playing with these in black and white.

Another challenge is that I have done no post production work on any of these shots. They are all right out of my new camera, jpg crunched at the moment they were shot. (At noon, can I say that again?) I hate spending time in post production (done enough darkroom hours for a lifetime), so this was a fun challenge: Get it right the first time; no messing, no fixing. (And bless Fuji for making this camera like my Minolta of 1985!) For the first time since my film days it felt like it should. And it feels luxurious. I love it.

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Of those 10 hikes we did in a week, this was the doozy. I offered to lead the Upper Yosemite Falls Hike. It spends 3.4 miles going up switchbacks next to the waterfall and tops out 2700 vertical feet later at 6500 feet elevation. So it’s like Mt Si, but starting at 3800 feet elevation instead of ending there… in about 80 degree weather. We felt it. And we almost got to the top, but since I only had 9 of the kids, we had to meet back up with the rest of the group at a certain time. We were all pretty tanked anyway (yes, me.)  But 4 of the kids really wanted to make the top and ran ahead of me for the last 10 minutes. By my estimates they had 3-4 switchbacks to go until the top. So there you go. A peakbagger I am not. I turned them around.

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This will be a pretty black and white when I get to post. Taken on the way back down.

Here’s the fun part about this tour bus: You eat dinner under El Cap, you fall asleep on this moving hotel, and you wake up to imminent sunrise over Death Valley. As a landscape photographer I truly appreciated rolling over in my sleeping bag, so I could face the giant picture window, and run video of the sun rising over the thirsty brown mountains.

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By noon we were fed, sweaty and marching across the Mesquite sand dunes in 105 degrees. This is where I will tell you my third photo challenge: I was limited to one lens: 18-55 mm. That’s wide angle to standard portrait. No telephoto. I knew this, but these dunes are one of the few places where I wished for more reach. But more than that, I wished for sunset. I’ve always had visions of standing in the Sahara as the last camel caravan crossed a shaded ridge in the low light. This is what I’ve got. It’s more than I had a week ago.

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After cooking in daytime temps with the kids as they attempted sledding (in saucers) down the dunes, I strolled back to the parking lot shade shelter. Along the way I studied lizard tracks…

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And snake tracks, and wind tracks.

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And I realized in looking at these, there is no way to express how freaking hot it was at this moment, as sweat evaporated before it dripped from my head to my camera, and every step was … well it felt like an old Western. The cracked-lipped-dry-wineskin-stumbling-through-the-desert-type. We hadn’t showered in three days.

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Our third hike of this day was a loop around the rim of this lovely volcano: Ubehebe. I took the short route and turned around here, so I could (rest) take photos of the other group. And sit in the shade of the bus, and drink water.

We pitched tents in an oasis that night: Furnace Creek. Appropriately named. One thermometer read 120 degrees. It looked like this (below).

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This is also my Ansel-channeling moment: All I could think was, Moonrise over Hernandez must have felt like this. It’s a fun read if you want to know the history of that photo. Sotheby’s probably doesn’t want my rendition, however. It was still steaming as the sun went down, colors and light realized after the heat of the day dropped to a level that we could actually appreciate the space we were in. It was about 95 degrees as we tucked into sleeping bags that night.

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Death Valley Sunset

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More hiking the next day. Zabriskie Point – a photographer’s trap in the desert. It was gorgeous at mid-day. I can imagine the row of photographers who gather at sunrise to shoot it. We hiked down into it instead.

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We took a wrong turn along the path through the Golden Canyon and ended up on a slightly longer hike than we planned. It was 105 again. We were hiking. This sign caught my eye. It felt so perfectly placed.

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Traveling light, 1.5 mile trail down from top to bottom… the bus will grab us at the end… if we find it.

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An hour later we were at the edge of Death Valley, visiting a date ranch. I must admit, this is the first time I connected the term “date palm” to the actual thing you eat. Hmm. They grow here. Along with the saguaro cactus.

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So of course we had to hike through them. And if you’re counting (I left out the salt flats) this is six hikes in two days. All in Death Valley. It’s a dry heat.

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I trotted up one of  the near ridges and got a good look at the date farm (and the oasis that feeds it). It looked like what I imagine Saudi Arabia looks like. Gorgeous in its inhospitable terrain and climate.

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A few cactus shots… these guys were dancing in the last of the sun.

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Aloe vera

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last light on the rocks.

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The remains of beehives among the junk and rubble of the date farm. Bees are really useful creatures, folks.

Once more we converted the bus into what they called “the miracle” so that we could sleep during a night drive. When the bus stopped it was dawn in Joshua Tree. I was itching for some early light (and temps) so I grabbed my camera, crawled over a dozen sleeping bodies, and ran kidless (!), amok through the poofy trees and rocks as the day came alive. Click. Breathe. Click, click, scamper… look. Listen. Silence. Click.

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As I returned, the bus was waking and setting up breakfast.

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And on our final hike in J-Tree, we ran across this lovely gopher snake. He was about four feet long, and played it really cool when 27 kids encircled him to get a look.

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If you look on a map of California, Joshua Tree is in the southeast – almost centered in the triangle that is made by Los Angeles (west) Phoenix (east) and Las Vegas (north). So it took one more night drive, aka The Miracle, to return us to San Francisco for a 11 am flight the next morning.

Thanks for reading.

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The Origins of American Excess And Enoughness

I was visiting New York for the first time since the 1980s. My friend Gambu is an immigrant from Nepal living in Queens, so he picked me up and took me to his flat for a warm Sherpa welcome complete with multi-family homemade meal, and precious idle time spent communing slowly over spicy brown food. More about the time I spent with him here. But after a quiet family-oriented evening in a very modest, two-family flat, he dropped me off in Times Square at my hotel. And it felt like I’d eaten an entire chocolate layer cake. Alone.

That’s how it felt to go from Gambu’s flat in Queens, to Times Square. Gambu’s family and another family share a two bedroom flat on the second floor of a row house. It’s decorated only in a few wall hangings – Thanka – or Buddhist monk paintings surrounded in silk cloth, and the family shrine above the TV. We’d just had a handmade Nepali meal: While Gambu and I entertained the other family’s young daughter, I heard the slam of a meat cleaver repeating on a wood board in the kitchen, cutting fresh pork into pieces for curry. The smell filled the house as much as bubbly conversation and laughter. Gambu’s teenage son joined us for the meal as we ate from the simple seating, off our laps in the living room. It was comfortable and genuine and unpretentious.

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When it was time, Gambu took me back to my hotel in Times Square. Right in the middle, on the 19th floor, overlooking the bright lights, digital activity, sensory overload. Overlooking the giant advertising that shouted its way into my room. And it felt horrible. Like someone scooped me up off the sidewalk of my childhood and dropped me in the original pool of excess.

There is so much visual overload in New York, it’s hard to know what to be overwhelmed by. The million theaters, the giant screen with flawless models walking toward you indefinitely, the stacks and stacks of playbills, animated advertisements, the masses of tourists gawking, camera snaps, selfie sticks, the repeating vertical columns of window squares up almost to infinity, and the light reflecting off of everything metal and glass.

But I also thought about the core of this place. This giant city with people from everywhere, built from dreams and desires of generations of hopeful people. I think of the hundred-year old photos of workers on I-beams high over the city streets, when the buildings were just going up. The history of taking immigrants into open arms, from homeland to island to new home. And what does it now display? At its heart, giant electric billboards of excess. Too much of everything. It’s what taught us to eat American portions, and want McMansions and then fill them with all that American-sized stuff. It was born here among the hopes and dreams.

New York is beautiful. It transcends everything that’s ever been said about it, and every song that’s ever been written. From what I remember of thirty years ago, it’s become immaculate since I was there last. Its people are friendly, proud, hardworking, especially the public servants. Adversity and diversity has made it a very strong and tolerant city. During my most recent subway ride a NYPD cop boarded at the stop after mine. I watched his demeanor as he entered. He was acutely aware that the gun on his hip carried a myriad of messages, and the passengers dictated what it conveyed. He made eye contact with everyone who noticed him, a relaxed smile on his face. His body language said so much in a single second. At that moment I took a relaxed breath, and thought, every city should train their PD like the NYPD is trained to interact with people.

The city is so easy to navigate. A glorious, numbered grid. A haven for logical, orderly people like me, who can keep 46th Street straight from 146th and 64th effortlessly. I live in Seattle, whose numbered streets change every few blocks, and randomly shift from north-south to NE-SW while intersecting with several other roads at once. I think we love roundabouts here because we can just go around and around until we can snatch a view of the water and guess which way is correct.

But New York is full of everything. Every imaginable kind of food, every sort of shop, lights, activity. It’s hard not to want to buy, eat and own the whole entire thing. But I think about Gambu, about many of the immigrants who have come to New York and settled, and what they might think about America, if they use New York as their barometer. There seems to be never enough in New York. That’s part of its mystique. It never sleeps because there is so much, that if you slept… you’d miss it. You’d miss your bite of the Big Apple… how could you do that?

While it’s not the only place in America full of excess, the empire city flaunts its excess without the passive aggressive tendencies that Seattle does. While Seattle may ramble on in a dry whisper from behind the log home near a hill that was recently covered in pine trees, and from behind a wall of smoke from a joint, pausing only to nod and take another toke, NYC just says it in a brazen Brooklyn accent, like, “Hey, I’m walkin’ here!”

So by example we’re teaching excess when we should be teaching enoughness. The articles are endless about filling our simple needs with artificial, purchased band-aids. Instead of a weekend with friends, you’re running to appointment A, meeting B and obligation C. No time for simple people interaction. No time for making your own food. The city beats and we pace to match it. So we acquire more and more superficial content – a closet stuffed with more Prada, Gucci and Armani than we could ever wear, because we deserve it, from working so hard. A fridge stuffed with more food than we could ever eat before it goes bad, because all it takes is money to do that. And then we go out to eat anyway. And water. The way we use simple, gift-of-life things like water from our tap, electricity, gasoline, air. We don’t have time to think about that. And it’s killing us. We’re ignoring it and chasing excess instead.

My friend and photographer, Cristina introduced me to the idea of enoughness. The idea that things which make us most fulfilled, most happy, are the basic, life-giving necessities: A simple meal together, an unhurried conversation with friends, a roof over our heads that doesn’t suck resources from the earth, or endless money from our pockets. Growing our own food. Raising our children as a village. Things that developing countries still do. People who leave their country to come to the US leave those simple, beautiful, life-giving things for Times Square. And I won’t say I don’t see the draw. But I also see the damage that it has caused us. As a society of unhappy, depressed, underemployed, overworked people, we’re sick from excess. And we seek more of it instead of remembering enoughness. It’s not taught here. It’s taught back there, where we all came from. Before we decided to chase excess.

I only hope we can re-learn enoughness before it’s too late.

 Reflected flawless models (complete with handbag and shades) walking toward me on the 40-foot high video screen.
Posted in American Dream, Cristina Mittermeier, Culture, enoughness, excess, Immigrants, New York, opportunity, Times Square | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

On Wealth and Poverty

“Genius is only a superior power of seeing.” – John Ruskin

I was in a Sherpa home last night. It was a business meeting, but with people I already knew, so they invited me and my family in for dinner, because that’s how Sherpa culture works. Over seven amazing handmade courses, some pulled right out of their backyard garden, we discussed the business, but also talked about culture and home life. We talked about Nepal and I listened intently to their thoughts about the recent Indian blockade and political issues surrounding the little country. I can spend endless hours contemplating how different life is for a first generation American Nepali than it was for their parents. And I ask a lot of questions. So between them, “Is your sister in New York, too? Tell me the name of your home village again… I remember going through there. What is this dish called? What do you do for your other job?” I enjoy seeing how their perspective and experience affects their answers. How the things they see are different because of their heritage and culture. She reminded me that we had stayed in her sister’s lodge when we passed through her home village in 2013. Nunthala is off the tourist track, so it’s unusual that random American trekkers would pass through. I didn’t know her then, but I had met her brother who lives in New York, when he came to Seattle with one of my other Sherpa friends who lives in New York. Sherpa circles are tight and tangly. There is rarely a time when I meet a Sherpa and they don’t know most of the Sherpas I know. Sherpa names repeat frequently, so most people are described through family association or where they live, or what their occupation is. A sumptuous amount of time is spent describing friends, acquaintances, relatives, before talking about them. That way we’re all sure who we’re talking about. The only confusion tends to happen when I describe someone as a climber. That doesn’t narrow the Sherpa lot very much. I’ve gone into Sherpa names before. Calling someone by their given name doesn’t work, so we talk in personal descriptions instead. It’s lovely.

As we talked, my kids played basketball and skateboarded with their kids in the cul-de-sac down the street. Then their cousins arrived, followed by auntie Lhakpa, “My older sister, I am youngest of six. She just lives a few blocks away and they come down all the time.” Appetizers were served formally, each plated individually, but Lhakpa and her sister shared a plate, complete with sisterly bickering about “you eat that one, no, you, that’s enough,” in Nepali.

We talked about Nepal’s struggle to regain its footing after the blockade (which is widely believed to have been more detrimental to the country than the earthquake that killed nearly 10,000 people). “It’s such a poor country,” they said more than once. Nepal lists in the world’s poorest countries by GDP and by purchasing power pretty regularly. To make matters worse, it’s land-locked, dependent on the two largest economies and powers in Asia for enough food, fuel and medical supplies to feed and care for its people.

But I see beyond the financial poverty, privileged as that might be (financially). It might take a lot of looking and some experience in financially barren places to see this next part. I don’t see poverty first when I go to Nepal. I see a wealth there that we lack in our own culture. I see families that will move across the country to be closer to each other rather than farther away. I see the time they take every day to fill seven silver bowls on the altar of the family shrine, as an offering to the gods. “And we empty them before dark… or anytime after four.” I see shared meals as a regular happening, and a pile of kids playing in the street with no watchful eyes hawking them. I see a desire to give to each other, to community and to strangers without reservation.

The kids came in after a half hour and my oldest asked about some of the Tibetan Buddhist decor in the living room. We shared a second cup of tea and noticed the ornate symbols in Himalayan rugs over hardwood floors. There is an amazing luxury of time that happens during a Sherpa meal… the relaxed conversation, the enjoyment of the food, discussion over the preparation. I asked about the spices in each bowl of their spice box. He chopped chives, cilantro and mustard greens fresh from their yard. I only asked about them, and was instantly ushered out to the garden and offered some seeds from the mustard greens and cilantro they were growing (seeds originally from Nepal, of course) and a green vegetable that we don’t have here, from the chayote family. “Put it on good supports, let it grow big.” In the living room one of the girls played on piano, the notes spilling into the kitchen. “Is she taking lessons?” She’s teaching herself… unstructured music and art time happens regularly in this home. Values we have shunted, over-structured and commercialized so they are nearly sterile in our culture, are radiant here. We’ve managed, in our “wealthy” culture, to manipulate every bit of love out of our food, our creativity, our play time. And that’s the wealth I think about when I think of Nepal. If we could only see it when we consider wealth, perhaps countries we see as impoverished would be realized for their depth in wealth instead.

Nepali Food

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The Value of Grassroots Efforts

I’ve steeped in heart work over the last few years. Five years ago I was a photojournalist in Nepal on a tour raising awareness on global warming and how it affects the inhabitants of the Himalayas. Three years ago I worked to install education infrastructure in rural Nepal. After that, I worked with a travel organization that does volunteer homestays in developing countries, building community projects and infrastructure. And in the past two years, I’ve done a little work with two other creative non profit organizations: One is a photo-based project to tear down media-built stereotypes, called The Everyday Project. The other is Leaving the Life, about the reality of human trafficking in Seattle and your own community. All of them are grassroots operations. Incredible work is being done in places where you never hear about it. Small groups are going to great lengths to build a better world. Sometimes it feels incredibly fractured, to be doing random work for organizations because I connect with them on some level. Sometimes it feels like so much work for small, local progress. But working at this level feels like where I should be.

Last night I attended a screening of The Mask You Live In, a documentary about how boys are raised in our culture. The short of it is, our culture bends boys toward growing up without the ability to share emotion, without being able to show feeling or connection to anyone, even though that’s what they desire most during coming-of-age years. Violence is bred in the isolation created from this lack of emotional connection. During the course of the documentary, we’re taken to an Oakland school where the kids are dealing with the toughest of the tough: Homeless in high school, beaten by parents, estranged from fathers, gang activity, drugs, shootings, on and on. Or, that’s the story that I latched on to. There was also a story about an ex-NFL player, who has turned from the tough-love, hazing culture of sports, to being the supportive, emotionally-aware father figure that many athletes need. He coaches with heart. And there was the San Quentin juvenile lifer who, after years of reflection, described in detail how his low self-worth and emotional disconnection led him to taking someone else’s life. Many of the men in the movie talked about taking their own lives. Gun violence, video game violence, media violence, sports violence, and Hollywood violence were all sited as contributors to breeding men with armor, men with masks over their emotions who are unable to live an emotionally engaged life. Quick clips of data supported it. And still our gun culture flourishes.

See the film. Every man in America should see the film. It’s a great example of several grassroots organizations in action. You can stream it for $6, but of course it makes a bigger impact if you screen it in your community (also an option on that same page). It’s done by The Representation Group, the same operation that made Miss Represenatation in 2011.

The Mask You Wear screening

Now back to Oakland – the story I latched on to. Ashanti, who graduated from this high school, was accepted to Stanford for an engineering degree. Raised by a single mother in the ghetto of Oakland, he wanted to be an engineer, and had his sights set on the lucrative career that would come following that Stanford degree. But instead of engineering, he steered toward his high school community when he saw them faltering. He saw that the boys needed to be freed from armor and masks they are being forced to wear so they can be accepted members of their school, their community, society. Ashanti quit engineering and became a teacher (and assistant principal) for his own high school instead, where he immediately saw how the kids needed a place to connect and father figures to connect with. He offered to buy them lunch once a week if they would sit in a group with him and tell him how to be a better teacher. Simple but beautiful ideas like this always make me sit up and pay attention.

(Side note: not excluding women here, rather removing the pressure of having female players in this forum allowed the boys to open up more readily. The impact on women is reflected in the way men treat them and can relate to them better, especially on an emotional level, once the masks have come off.)

Some boys volunteered, showed up and gave him feedback. He fed them lunch. “I still had some engineering money back then,” he added in story, after the screening. And so his organization was born. Now he leads groups of these same kids (all joined voluntarily) in removing their masks. He gives them a safe place in their own community to be who they want and need to be: People with real emotions who can express it in ways other than through violence and anger. Incredible work from the inside out, instead of from The Capitol Building down. And while politicians belt out catch phrases on primary stages across the country, and many of our state and federal officials can’t seem to move related laws forward at all, this method, the grassroots work that is being done at the community level, feels all the more effective, necessary and useful.

After the screening there was a panel of speakers, including Ashanti and even one of his students who had become a mentor in the program himself. They each told stories, answered questions. It was a packed house, but afterwards, I made my way down and talked to Ashanti for a minute. On the car ride home, five of us moms-of-boys talked over the key points of the evening. Someone asked me what I talked to Ashanti about. “I tried hard not to cry while I shook his hand and thanked him for the work he is doing.” I would have hugged him, but that would have surely opened the floodgates. Hmmm. Heart work.

Mask photo 1

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Cooking School

One of the common threads for PKU kids (and adults) is that they play down the emphasis that our society places on food. Think about it – if your meal is restricted every day such that most things that are offered aren’t viable options for you, you spend less time being absorbed with that topic at all. I think of it as a coping necessity. You don’t regularly go play in a field of daisies if you are allergic to them, even if everyone else is out there. As fun as it would be, it’s not the reality you can easily live with. So imagine my surprise when I realized how much my little guy with PKU enjoys being in the kitchen, helping me cook. We make dinner together, and bake cookies together, we figure out what goes on a sandwich. He slices the fruit or peels the carrots, but will also ask to crack the eggs or take the meat from its package (both things he can’t eat). This struck me as strange, since it seems a bit like an amputee who designs shoes: how do you?… and then how can you want to? But he enjoys the creativity and the mixing and everything that goes into the process. It often doesn’t matter at all if he can’t eat it. So I involve him when I can. Enter culinary experts.

Le Cordon Bleu, the acclaimed cooking school, hosted our entire group of PKU families for an afternoon of cooking! Three master chefs, teaching chefs, and assistant chefs led us through recipes that were all acceptable for the PKU diet. As you might expect, the creativity in their solutions to the PKU diet were wonderfully refreshing. I spent the first two years of my son’s life scouring lists and committing foods and protein numbers to memory. I consider it my nutrition-degree-by-fire. Those two years of knowledge have carried me to most of the recipes that I make for him regularly. I have hundreds of items in my head and their respective protein and phe amounts per serving. I use that list to make every food decision for him. Having pro chefs and master chefs run through this process was incredibly refreshing. To have someone else do my homework, look through new foods, and make familiar foods into new epicurean delights. They had done their homework and prepared an amazing, creative menu.

So here’s some of it.

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Making pizza dough that he can eat!img_7723_std

Rolling pins are so fun!img_7729_std

Waiting to taste…

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He loved using the giant chef’s knife

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And roasting romaine lettuce (what?! – it’s pretty good!)img_7739_std

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Three amazing main course saladsimg_7746_std img_7749_std

This chef made me cry. He’s been teaching students in standard culinary school for years and I could tell how much he enjoyed the PKU food challenge. He was truly impassioned by the challenge of finding a food solution for these kids. I suppose it’s like taking brushes away from the painter; he will still create, but the format changes, the rules change, but the methods and creativity shine through just the same. So he showed us amazing ways to make low-protein burgers and stirfry dishes. He showed unique ways of using cellophane noodles and low-protein rice. In the middle, occasionally, like he does when teaching regular students, he offered a substitution, and then paused, remembering the restriction. “Does this have too much phe? (Phenylalanine, what we call phe, or “fee” is the component of protein that is counted for PKU folks, the way sugars are for diabetics.) And we, the parents of PKU kids, could all tell him without a pause, yes, or no. It’s in the mental catalog. Then he would offer another substitution and wait to see if that was a better choice. “No, but you could use A, B, or C.” we’d occasionally offer. He’d think about it, then say something like, “Ok, that would work, but that one doesn’t have the body or the texture that this option does. Let’s see what we can figure out.” I watched the artist at work, struggling just enough with the tools he’d been given, to find a viable solution to the problem. Those few moments filled me up and made me realize that what I create every day in the kitchen is pretty magic. That the knowledge I have absorbed from this method of feeding my child is not inconsequential, and not an easy set of parameters to work with.

On our way out I thanked this chef for his insights and suggestions for new foods for our kids. “Oh, no, thank you all,” he said, “you have taught us all so much. This is a very challenging menu and I very much appreciate what it takes. Thank you for showing us for one day, the things you work with everyday of your life.” It’s rare to find that level of passion and gratitude, so I spent a moment soaking it in before I wiped my tears.

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Soulshine Concert and Bali Green School

This is a photo story about a unique day we had in Bali. It included a giant bamboo structure, snakes, a concert and yoga. Grab a cup of cleansing organic tea and have a little holiday.

Before we began our Bali escapade, we selected our hotels, flights and vaccinations. The rest we left open, except one thing: All eight of us bought tickets to a concert fundraiser to benefit Bali’s Green School. They weren’t cheap tickets, but it was for a good cause… The only thing I knew above that, was it involved Michael Franti. He’s what I would call a free-love music front man, conservationist and yogi. He calls himself a poet, musician and activist. He calls Bali home, or at least spends a lot of time there. And he was headlining this fundraiser to benefit the school where it was held.

I’ve never been to a yoga concert before, so why not make Bali the place to try it out, right? As it turned out, it was the most Western of our adventures in Bali, and much of it felt comfortable, like a Hippie home away from home, in a gorgeous tropical setting.

The venue and grounds were one of the most interesting things about the evening: a school  called The Green School, it is aptly named. It’s a lovely, heartwarming idea, and also a great example of reverse innovation – creating solutions in developing countries that can also translate to developed countries. The sisters in this TED talk are Green School students talking about how they are making environmental change in Indonesia – a very populous, developing country (which includes Bali, Java, Borneo and Sumatra, among others). The central building of the Green School is a gorgeous two-story structure made entirely of bamboo. (Bamboo, being a fully sustainable building material, and readily available locally, made this a wise choice.)  But it’s also a unique form. Not a box, like most other schools – they sent packing the architects who suggested a cube-like structure and made it a double helix shape – natural, organic, open air. It’s called The Heart of School rather than the box-proposed “administration complex”. A very bold statement for thinking outside the box.

It’s a school where they make 70% of their power needs from solar.  I was impressed enough that I took a photo of a photo of their solar panels (which are tucked away, invisible to all but the sun). They do more than that, though. They grow their own food to feed the students, cook with sawdust and reclaimed methane from their farm animals, and they teach forward thinking about how their own students can become leaders to promote environmental change. It was voted the greenest school on earth in 2012. I love that a developing country is home to this. It is a hopeful sign. (In case this is intriguing to you, the founder of the school has a TED talk about why he did what he did.) My only further hope was that the school itself included local, indigenous folk as much as the expats who were there on this day.

Gentle marimba music trickled through the bamboo gate as we arrived. Late afternoon sun spilled through palm fronds onto the grassy center lawn. Spicy satay wafted on the air, and musical acts were entertaining gypsy dancers, half-dressed children and long blonde dreadlocks in the gathering crowd. It was the biggest Hippie party I’d been to in a while. Probably the biggest since that Hurricane Hugo raggae fundraiser I went to at some Minneapolis community center gym years ago, but back to Bali…  The event was comfortable, relaxed and low key, if not entirely attended by expats. I sat for a long while and thought about how it might feel to live on this island and send my kids to this school.

 

The audience sprawled comfortably on blankets across the lawn with naked babies, listening, and chatting (mostly in English) while their children played on rope swings and bamboo playgrounds. Ours blended in and did the same. It was a little taste of familiarity, a break in the middle of an otherwise very foreign trip for my kids.

 

 

Inside were jewelry vendors, artists, dancers, body painters (and related photo shoot) and as you would expect, snakes.

Just outside there was a pig. For eating.

And across the lawn… there were drum circles blooming organically on the grass, casting a warm, woody rhythm across the crowd.

The star of the show wandered among the people, randomly spotting aerial yoga poses. That’s Franti, on the right, drumming, (above) and on the left, spotting (below).

Across the grass, under another cover was the stage. As the sun fell, the volume rose, encouraging dance and revelry.


 

 

And as I had taken to capturing the food we ate…

This is locally grown (on the school grounds) raw-foodist pesto-vegan pizza, I think. Served in typical Bali style – on a banana leaf. Perfect Franti-concert fare, but I stuffed myself on satay instead.

 

Then the light faded and we faced a four-hour drive back, along thin, winding, dark roads, to the villa, so before Michael Franti even took the stage, we headed out.

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Blinders Off

I almost titled this “There is too much, let me sum up…” but that’s actually counter to the point I am about to make. There is so much to read now, so many people casting words and videos and snaps into the ether, that if you aren’t careful, you drown. And from what I’ve noticed, you tend to drown in a very narrow slice of the thoughts which are cast out. Meaning, all the algorithms that send us article after article of “you may also like” are doing us a disservice.

This week an absolute jerk (who doesn’t deserve to be named) proved to the entire world just what an asshole he can truly be, when he is at his best. The entire cyberworld paid attention and countered his idiotic thoughts, and much of the next three days was nothing but rallying, countering, counter-countering, ass-covering and miles of words cast into the ether about this one topic. I said almost nothing because clearly, it would have drowned unseen. My friends who cast a wider net were saying more effective things along the lines that I would have written. They were doing it better. So I let them, and I liked and shared it. Because I like and share those sentiments. Nota bene: What I am about to say should not be construed as me not caring or not taking a side in the above issue.

There are, believe it or not, quite a few other things going on in the world. The asshole above simply stole your attention. I’d encourage you to not let him do that. Just a quick trip down NPR’s top international stories, and a few other sources reveals much more intelligent and worthy content:

Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive large countries, is allowing women to vote in this “partial election.”

The Climate Change Conference in Paris is making strides, in session overtime.

I am always looking for the bright lights after a black cloud is cast over media and the majority of our cyber-attention. I found one in this piece. One of our local philanthropist’s companies was integral in creating this beautiful campaign. You might notice that some commenters think it’s stupid. To which I’d reply with this piece.

Just in case you can’t stand all the positivity, and need negative headlines in order to consider it “news,” here’s your lede: India has been blockading Nepal’s borders for more than two months. The reason: Nepal wrote the country’s first constitution (following monarchy and civil war) and ratified it in late September. India didn’t like what Nepal’s constitution said, so it cut off the tiny land-locked country from supplies of fuel, food and medical supplies. The article above has a poignant snipit: “The impact of the Indian blockade on Nepal’s economy has now far outstripped damage from the earthquake.”

Me meeting the Prime Minister of Nepal in 2011.

“Oh, right… that’s the country that had 10,000 die in a 7.8 earthquake in April. I had forgotten….” Because perhaps you’d rather wallow in the attention-mongering asinine actions of certain presidential candidates. The UN has called for India to quit the blockade and they haven’t. I know a handful of Nepalis who are posting occasional images from nearby the border blockades. They’re showing up on Everyday Nepal. I’ve written more about my personal experience with this situation here. But my guess is, if you didn’t know me, you’d know nothing of this situation. Because of our cyber-blinders. Think I’m full of it? This should help. As  much as I hate that style of journalism, it’s a good teacher.

We view the world through our own very narrow tunnel, whether we mean to or not. And perhaps we’re taught to own our convictions. But that’s exactly what’s caused the polarization we’re experiencing now. Especially once we reach a certain age, we repeat very small circles. Media since the internet has encouraged and honed this because it’s algorithm-able. Pile more on what you clicked on. Add to the base coverage that was clicked on most yesterday, feed it to the people who ate it yesterday. I’m tired of the internet telling me what I should eat.

So after you’ve clicked on the tenth asshole-political-candidate article which supports your view, try clicking on one of the links above or below that you know nothing about.

I know I am in the minority of people who actively goes out and searches for information outside of my own interests, but I encourage you to try it. If you are a devout Christian, go learn something about Hinduism. If you are an animal rights vegetarian, go learn about the benefits of meat as a protein source, or about hunting. And I don’t mean the raw-vegan site that talked about it one time, in language you are accustomed to. Go to a hunting site and listen to what the other side has said. (Not about guns, for cripes sake, about meat as food… start reasonably.) And prepare to quell your own heart palpitations and red-faced denial. Sit outside of your own ideology for just a minute and listen. Or if you’re a hunter or devout carnivore, research a couple of meatless meals you would be happy eating. Find the intelligence there (and by intelligent, I don’t mean, “things that agree with you”). Find curiosity in foreign topics and figure it out a little bit.

Learn what people who are NOT like you know. Wait, read that last sentence again… I’ll wait here. Good, now I’ll place quite possibly the most intelligent of all these links. (Though, as an editor and like being inclusive, I’d change “Buddhists are not free of it either” to Athiests. Everyone. Humans.) It’s about how your own truth is no more valid or truthy than all those you hold counter to your own. It’s about being devout in any belief, and how that devoutness can damage you. Seriously, even if you didn’t click on any of the links above, you deserve the wisdom in this one.

Read something outside your own comfort content. Most of us haven’t done that since high school or college. Who knows, you might learn something new that opens you up to a more complete, fulfilled life.

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