One Small Act: Courage

Hello from Tulsa, Oklahoma; the center of the universe. Here for the Society of Municipal Arborists and Partners in Community Forestry conference, I am among friends. When I shared with my Airbnb host that I am an Arborist, she refrained, “I love trees.” Not a Tulsan herself, she is here as a graduate student in Computer Science. She warmly welcomed me into her home, and so trees connect strangers.

The two day Partners session had an underlying theme. All the speakers emboldened the conference audience to seek courage in their professional work. This got me thinking about our inner strength and determination to seek out happiness and also health.

In Tulsa’s Brady Arts District new galleries, restuarants, shops, and breweries are revitalizing this area of downtown that was neglected for many decades since the 1960s. This has been historically the center for culture and arts in Tulsa with locations like the Brady Theater, The Cain’s Ballroom, and Guthrie Green. At Made, a cute boutique featuring local artists, handmade goods, and vintage finds, I discovered a bookmark that captured the message of courage for my personal life.

“If you don’t like the road you’re walking, start paving another one.”–Dolly Parton.

My host cautioned me to not walk by myself from downtown the 1.5 mile to her home. This really strikes me in my post conference reflections on Courage and the final plenary session which focused on the health benefits from our connection to trees and forests.

“The main argument for planting trees is public health.”–Dr. Cecil Konijnendijk

Streets: Mark Lewis exhibit at 108 Contemporary Gallery.

Urban Foresters will cite one benefit of trees being their ability to reduce crime. The inherent beauty of trees create enjoyable places and the evapotranspiration happening through each leaf’s stomota create microclimates that are attractive to people. So the idea is that trees bring people outside and their eyes to the street or to their local community and incidents of crime decrease.

All this feels good to say and tell people that trees make our built environment better and heal us too. But do you believe it? Trained in landscape architecture I am inclined to ask what features make a place walkable or not? Urban planning, history, politics, race, decision power, and economic status all play a role.

Arbor Ann Productions presents a short One Act Play I am calling Vivian Q. Bicolor.

The Scene: It is early morning in mid November.  The front porch provides the stage, and the backdrop is an armature of wooden columns with arching lateral scaffolding meant to be American Elms, a street tree commonly planted in cities across the midatlantic and midwest. Yellow spreads over the stage’s edge and slowing fades to the horizon point and into wintry silhouettes. A car is idling. A dog barks. The lighting simulates a cloudy day.

Vivian: Enters through center stage at front door. She is not from the area and at this moment is still undecided about calling for a Lyft or walking to her appointment which is approaching in thirty minutes. She ate and drank heartily last evening enjoying a fun evening with old and new friends. The walk will take her close to half an hour. She is lacing up her boots.

Vivian’s soft voice: I shouldn’t have ate so much last night. Especially the Hurt’s donut before bed.
From side right. Courage enters. A pigeon, a fluttering hologram sits perched in an open gold bird cage atop a mechanized walking ladder.

Vivian: I should walk. I haven’t exercised since Monday. What a pleasant morning it is. I never get to walk to work.

From side left. Fear, indifference, and idleness creeps out onto stage. A cardboard box with headphones motorized by a child’s miniature car who continues to make its way right stage and cycles continuously through the scene passing the pigeon with each lap.

A short piano arietta is played to draw out action and is the backdrop to a modern dance troupe.

Vivian said poco a poco: If I don’t leave right away, I will be late. It could take me longer than the map shows. Could be a strange intersection with heavy traffic. There might not even be a sidewalk the entire way, and Simon said not to walk (A chorus of Simon Says is spoken from the cardboard box). People will look at me if I’m the only one.

During this dialogue, scenes of various urban landscapes some harsh, others reflecting urban design idealism, others something in between  are flashed on a screen that has dropped in slowly.

A scintillating light appears next to Vivian. She hoists her backpack on and buckles the waistband that makes her feel secure. She steps down three steps and out onto the sidewalk and as she marches and makes her way across towards right stage, she passes both the box and Pigeon who peeks out the opening in the cage, and in the passing of the three figures, the cardboard box flattens and sinks into the stage and a humming bird emerges from the bird cage, darting a little crazily at first and then gracefully partakes in the native flora.

The End.

If you were Vivian, what entice you to walk? What would be a deal breaker? What prevents you from walking? If your physician prescribed you a Rx to walk in the forest once a week would you then step out?

Is planting trees to green our cities enough?

In my bathroom is a piece of hanging driftwood with these words etched, “Health is wealth.” We will need more physicians directing us to better well being through the nature Rx program, but I also know it is going to be an uphill battle with more and more things demanding our attention. We will need Courage to step out when others haven’t yet. When the path is empty and when it is dark. When other routes are faster or easier. Partners can help us feel more safe and encourage us forward. Education can turn on lights.

Leaving the conference I feel both threatened by the future yet invigorated too. As I write this on the flight home, a movie is playing on screens to my right and left and my window seat mate has headphones on and is playing a game on her phone. I am not a pessimistic luddite but I worry about our future mental well-being and physical health. Disney’s Wallie, I always thought was a non-fiction science movie.

I wonder how many people are carrying books about trees in their carry-ons or luggage. I am curious how many know about the power of walking in a forest. I wonder how many people will play outside this afternoon.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful.

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Lavos los Platos. War and Then Peace on Dishes.

We created a new home rule that no dishes could be left in the sink overnight.  I confess I have always liked doing the dishes.

I am calculating in my head if for more of my life I have had a dishwasher or lacked the modern convenience. Besides the home I grew up in, there was the place on Megan Drive that I shared with K that had a dishwasher. The apartment on Ashley had one too. But for the last eight years I have been making suds and scrubbing grease off plates.

There is a reason why they call it doing the dishes. It’s like doing time. Just run a quick search of “do the dishes” memes. “Why does cooking take like six hours, eating like three seconds, and the dishes seven days and seven nights!” Even “lavos los platos” retrieves some good finds.

Most people probably would eat off a paper plate rather than have to wash dishes, but doing dishes has been therapeutic lately.

Because I have been on a cooking kick, the dish doing has been a part of my nightly ritual before bedtime. We have had a cockroach problem, hence the new no dish rule as one tactic on the war on bugs. The clean-sink hygiene has drastically improved the situation by eliminating the water source for the night creepers.

My favorite part is drying. Maybe I was the dryer as a kid, helping my mom. But we had a dishwasher then. So no. It’s the motion. The labor wiping and rubbing everything clean. Doing the dishes is relaxing.

A Florida State University study, as reported in Time magazine, found that those who washed dishes mindfully, “upped their feelings of inspiration by 25% and lowered their nervousness levels by 27%.”

To mindfully wash the dishes means being focused on the water temperature, sensing the fluidity of water or bubbles, the smell of soap, and the texture and shape of dishes.

Mundane activities can promote wellbeing.  

For me the peace comes in completion. A full circle. The cycle of cutting vegetables and prepping, mixing spices and oils in bowls, sauteeing in pans, plating dishes, running water, making bubbles, scrubbing, drying off, and the act of placing away completes the last step. It’s the part of the day when I have total control of the process, almost with no interruptions (because who wants to do the dishes, aka my husband has deserted the area), and the end result of a spic and span kitchen is so gratifying. Does emptying the dishwasher feel the same?

This nightly ritual has been sticking.

“Last call for dishes!”

Source: Cuantocabron.com

But sometimes I cheat. We eat cookies off the sheet pan, and I stick it back in the oven.

Swimming Meditation

My husband swims regularly for exercise. I like to run, but since it was going to be a very hot day, I joined him to swim laps at the pool.

For Christmas I gifted my husband pool time. Meaning I committed two days a week to getting home early after work in order to take care of the dog and free up my husband’s time so he could swim. Today was my first pool visit since last summer. I forgot how relaxing swimming is and am reminded of its benefits.

More so than running, when I swim I feel more focused on the moment: my breathing, my legs kicking, my hands entering the water.

Yoga instructor, Rachel Long writes on Manlyyoga.com (Manly is a beach-side suburb of northern Sydney) that there are three parts to cultivating mindfulness in our meditations: Pranayama, Pratyahara, and Dharana.

emergee
Emerge; clear waters. Oil on canvas. Samantha French.

These yoga terms are breath control, the withdrawal of energy from the senses, and concentration. Swimming easily comprises these three steps.

I breathe in. Inhalation. Hold the breath. Count four strokes. Exhalation. This is a practice in pranayama.

“When you dive in all the noises and sights surrounding you dissappear and all that is left is the water.”–Anonymous

Pratyahara is concerned with taking our mind, emotions and intellect that are focused on the outside inward. This stage is so crucial, getting our mind to shut-up so we can concentrate. When running, I find myself thinking about work, friends, and to do lists. In the pool, I rarely am thinking about anything except the motions of my muscles and my breathing. Being under water reduces external stimuli, especially sound I feel, and facilitates concentration. There are very few visual stimuli. I focus on the shape of my cupped hands entering the water and the black line running below me and terminating into a tee. Occasionally I marvel at the dappled sunlight on the pool floor.

Dharana stage is fixing the mind on one place or object. You can test your concentration on how well you keep up with counting laps. Sometimes I lose track and end up starting back with the previous lap. I like to mix up strokes, and I will grab a kickboard to break up the laps. I concentrate on kicking and not making any splash.

Many say the joy of swimming is the ability to merge mind and body in mindfulness. Moving meditation which merges brain and body can have a powerful, lasting effect on the brain. A study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital and published in a January 2011 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging found noticeable changes in the brain. Participants spent eight weeks in a mindfulness based stress reduction program which included practicing a mindfulness activity 27 minutes each day.  MRI scans were taken before and after the eight weeks and found increased density in the hippocampus, a region of the brain responsible for learning, attention, and emotional intelligence. None of the changes were seen in the control group.

Suggestions found for swimming mindfully:

Notice the sensation of water touching your body when you enter the pool.

Focus on each movement and stroke.

Observe how water feels when your arms are moving in and out of the water.

Terry Laughlin, founder of Total Immersion Swimming, recommends focusing on a specific thought or intention every time you push off the wall.

Swimming is a full body workout. A vatiety of strokes all engage the core abdominal and lower back muscles. A beneficial side effect is improved posture. Swimming greatly reduces the risk of heart disease (leading cause of death in women), stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Swimming also improves running performance. A study published in the February 2015 Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports found that swimmers who followed a controlled breathing technique improved their running economy by six percent after just twelve swim sessions.Utilized as a mindfulness activity, swimming is very restorative. So keep calm and swim on.

1. Lavin, K. M., Guenette, J. A., Smoliga, J. M. and Zavorsky, G. S. (2015), Controlled-frequency breath swimming improves swimming performance and running economy. Scand J Med Sci Sports, 25: 16–24. doi:10.1111/sms.12140

Basketball Meditation

I asked my father what motivates him in life. He did not have a direct answer over the phone, but I did find one answer tonight in basketball, game 5 of the NBA finals.

“A thousand years from now, no one will care who the greatest basketball player of all time was. Who was the greatest chariot racer in Roman history? The best Mayan to ever play pitz? All any of us can do is find some meaning in our striving, some goal to get us out of bed every morning and go to work. LeBron James has the Warriors. One must imagine him happy,” Jonathan Tjarks stated profoundly on theringer.com.

James Lebron averaged a triple double in the finals. The four time MVP has three championship rings, and he is arguably the best player in the league’s history.

I have written about James before, so how many times makes it a cliché to find inspiration from this sports god? The Dubs celebrate their second NBA championship in three years and Tjarks says the rising Warrior’s dynasty may be the best thing to happen to Lebron. The comment could not have summed up my introspection any better.

The mid thirties are approaching and I still equate myself to being a child. I am self sufficient, have a decent job, and have not over drafted my bank account in several years! But I feel stagnation. Cracking this thing called life and finding the gold nugget inside continues to elude me. That is why I admire Lebron. He has this complete drive to excel in basketball in addition to helping his friends and serving his family.

I was touched by Lebron’s sportsmanship and post game hug to Kevin Durant. KD’s mom, Wanda, astutely commented that who you are in the valley of life is reflective of your true self. She was referring to Durant’s adversity in his decade played in the NBA, so relevant here when the tables are turned.

It is not productive to list all of Lebron’s accomplishments. I recognize his work ethic as my inspiration. Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, writes that passion is the result of doing. So when it is easy to feel depressed about not knowing what to do with life, scroll pinterest, and nap for several hours or binge on Breaking Bad, I remind myself to get up, grab the ball, and start shooting for that goal.

Garden of Your Mind

garden
Top of Greenwich Steps in San Francisco.

San Francisco gridlock. While some choose to sit idling behind the wheel in the 3rd worst traffic congestion in the nation, I read. My two hour commute allows me to read a lot of books. Riding the BART on the way to welcome in the new year at 111 Minna Gallery, my eyes were racing to finish the last pages of book 57, T.C Boyle’s When the Killing’s Done. 

Last year I failed at the act of practicing gratitude. From my 1,000 mile objective the prior year, I know that I am successful when there are increments to track forward progress. I didn’t journal or write gratitude poems, so the habit or mindfulness acts did not work themselves into muscle memory. Hindsight being 20/20, there are some things I wish I would have implemented to be more successful, but let’s catch up with where I am currently with my emotions and well-being.

Opening Dance. L.A. Freeway.               La La Land

Today I emerged from a fog. Maybe influenced by La La Land’s musicality, I basically skipped from the kiss and ride to board the train. The janitor and I exchanged morning pleasantries, and the uplifting power of a sincere “Good Morning” greeting from the stranger was like a five hour energy drink.

It was the first time in several months I have felt happy. Bouncy happy as if I were the Wal-Mart smiley face logo. There was no rolling of the eyes nor muttering commentary on my pedestrian encounters thickened with my self righteousness: “Cough, geez do you have to light up your joint at 8:00 in the morning; run, run, ha, run to the train, I’m not going to be on somebody else’s schedule; hey distracted, stop walking down the stairs while looking at your phone; could your Bollywood techno music be any louder; I know you’re a man and don’t like to stand or wait behind a woman, so go ahead get in front of me.” And personally, I wasn’t beating myself up about my position in life: not owning a home, no children yet at halfway to 40, and not making a six figure salary.

Where did these sour thoughts originate? How to curb the negativity?

Buddha said, “What you think, you become.” I would rather be what I ate than thought, like some baked granola and yogurt with blueberries right now or yesterday a burrito. How much do our thoughts inform our behavior, our relationships, or our success? Reminds me of this podcast “Dark Thoughts” produced by Invisibilia about a guy who could not stop thinking about stabbing his wife. The man (call him S) saw a therapist who was so freaked out by S’s thoughts, his next appointment was cancelled. The next therapist S saw challenged him to hold a knife to his throat. This form of therapy sometimes called third wave therapy teaches us better mindfulness to let go of our thoughts. The focus is on thought process and not content. In other words thoughts are just random synapses firing so we shouldn’t over think them. Maybe some thoughts need to be analyzed in a Freudian manner but not all. Not every thought is connected to something in our subconscious or past. Agree?

It is normal for humans to have negative thoughts. We are constantly scanning our environment for threats and problems. This adaptation allows us to react and respond quickly to a crises. Mindfulness practitioners say the trick is to let these distracting thoughts float away and not ruminate on them. By being mindful of the bad thought, we can start to change the pattern and cycle of negativity.

In contrast, cognitive behavioral psychologists and therapists advise patients to accept bad thoughts and question them with a Socratic approach. A study of 55 patients at the Ohio State Depression and Research Clinic found patients reporting improvements in depression using Socratic questioning. Feeling unloved, than write a list of people who love you. Feeling like a loser with no accomplishments, ask yourself “What did I accomplish this week?”

Socratic Questioning for Negative Thoughts:

  1. What could be assumed instead?
  2. What alternatives are there?
  3. What evidence is there otherwise?

“Neurons that fire together wire together.”– Donald Hebb

There is another class of thought on neurons that believes thoughts release chemicals. These chemicals are positive or negative messages feeding the body. So you really are what you eat.

I am going to keep a journal for five days of my thoughts every hour and try practicing both behaviors above.

If you’re wondering, S was eventually able to hold the knife to both his therapist and wife’s throats and let the bad thought melt away. Ever since the killing thoughts have ebbed.

The Age of Self Fulfillment

June 19, 2016 was an important moment in history. Most sport fans will know that NBA’s King James led the Cavaliers to a National Championship in game seven after being down 3-1 to the Oakland Warriors. These two teams are close to me because one is my hometown team and the other is back east where many of my family are from.

Going into game 7, this is what a local sports radio host had to say about the meaning of a win for Cleveland, “What the title would mean to Cleveland you have to understand Cleveland and you have to understand Ohio this is the Rust Belt we’re talking about. When the steel industry collapsed in this region in the midwest and northeast extension that comprises the Rust Belt you had economic decline and poverty. You had loss of population. You had urban decay. These are people who have fallen on hard times; they have very little. It’s not as if they live in a beautiful area where they are staring out at a beautiful day. Beautiful ocean to beautiful bridges, beautiful weather all year, and beautiful people. Harsh winters, hard life. Tough times, tough to find jobs, this is a region in the country that has been on really hard times.”

This is my family he’s talking about! So it was hard to root for the Warriors. Cleveland fans needed this win. If God were on a side it would have to be Cleveland’s.

style-and-vignette-7-638

So I was ecstatic about the win. Then I read an article in the New York Times that put into words perfectly what I admired in Cleveland’s hometown hero, Lebron James. The article describes the arc of Lebron’s career to the bildungsroman novels of the 20th century. The bildungsroman is a coming of age novel where the protagonist experiences immense growth. Novels in this genre typically feature fatherless figures like Pip in Great Expectations or Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The full arc brings these characters home and into their place in society. Like these characters, James has completed his narrative, and that is what is bittersweet. It’s the climax, and there will be no future moment, at least an athletic victory of his to succeed this.

He made it happen. He chased his dream down and delivered a Championship title for the fans of Cleveland. He knew exactly what he wanted and accomplished it. That is what I find so admirable.

I have a cousin who just recently finished Physician’s Assistant School. She knew many years ago that this is exactly what she wanted to do. I admire her too for having set a clear goal and achieving it.

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Sailboats are heavily dependent on the direction of the wind for both which direction they can sail and how fast they will go. Jimmy Dean says, “I can’t change direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”

I am a wanderer, with no set destination. I think a lot of my own unhappiness and internal struggles come from searching for personal fulfillment. What is my purpose? The gifts and talents God has given to me, have I used them fully? Repeatedly I feel I am molding myself after others, thinking their path is success. Two weeks ago I signed up for anatomy course as a prerequisite for nursing. I’ve already dropped it. I am realizing I am getting further away from what I felt really connected to at the end of highschool, art and the process of making. I need to accept my flight path and not be afraid to follow my own internal compass.

20160714_112236Monarch Butterflies have an internal clock in their antennae and in conjuction with their complex eyes they can monitor the sun’s position in the sky to migrate each year generation after generation. “If a monarch gets off course due to a gust of wind or object in its path, it will turn whichever direction won’t require it to cross the separation point.”1

Identity and Fulfillment

“If I seem happy, it is because I know I am loved for who I am.”―Hector and the Search for Happiness.

“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves?”―Mad Max Fury Road

“Well, I always know what I want. And when you know what you want–you go toward it. Sometimes you go very fast, and sometimes only an inch a year. Perhaps you feel happier when you go fast. I don’t know. I’ve forgotten the difference long ago, because it really doesn’t matter, so long as you move.”― Ayn Rand

“There can be no richer man or woman than the individual who has found his or her labor of love.”―Dennis Kimbro

“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.”―Martin Luther King Jr.

Parting Thoughts

Sports psychologists state there are three main sets of goals set for athletes: process, performance, outcome goals. The most important being process, in other words taking those incremental steps.

The NYT article said that the coming of age period for protagonists in the bildungsroman is usually between age 30 and 33 (probably younger for women in the novels of the genre). I turn 33 this year, so no pressure!

In a Forbes article, writer Gianpiero Petriglieri tells us that the search for the true self should be less like digging for a diamond and polishing it and more like nurturing a seed.

1. Eli Shlizerman, James Phillips-Portillo, Daniel B. Forger, and Steven M. Reppert. Neural Integration Underlying a Time-Compensated Sun Compass in the Migratory Monarch Butterfly. April 14, 2016. http://www.cell.com.

Opening the Blinds

I wasn’t sure how to get out from this dark gray cloud. In late March it started looming. The vet told us six months, “and that’s being very optimistic.” Our dog’s liver was failing. His ALT values were so high the technicians had to dilute the sample in order for the machine to run. My husband and I left shattered. I cancelled my plans for the rest of the day.

Moses would be 14 this November. In April, one year had passed since his ACL surgery. There would be no heroics, not another surgery we decided. Instead we switched his diet to raw meaty bones and gave him some pain meds and supplements.

moses in car happy

He loved eating the new food. Chicken quarters and raw salmon. His eyes were ravenous with delight in eating like a wild dog tearing through sinewy breasts and thighs of meat and chomping bones. We hand fed him to monitor his eating, and this interaction I think strengthened our bond.

Everthing seemed to be going well. I planned a first hiking trip to Yosemite for the weekend of Mother’s day. We asked the dog sitter if she could care for Moses in June while we would be away in Kentucky for a wedding. The weekend before the trip we went shopping for some hiking essentials. Then he started refusing the raw meat patties, so we gave him some salmon and he ate it happily.  The next day he refused the fish. He started rejecting everything to the point where he would not accept even peanut butter or his favorite treats.

Tuesday and Wednesday brought vomitting. My husband was away on business set to return Thursday. I left work early that day to be with my pet, and tried to accept he was dying. At dinner he ate some wet food I scavenged from the pantry trying to get something in his stomach. I rejoiced. This no eating bullshit was just a phase. Over now. He was back.

Hard decisions came abruptly, quicker than the six months I held on to in my mind.

Friday, I cancelled my spot on the hiking trip. My husband and I slept most of Saturday and escaped to Litchfield and the lives of women in orange jumpsuits. Nyquist won the Kentucky Derby. That evening we watched the sun set at the park we took Moses to regularly, and we shared our memories of him, reading aloud. Like how he exterminated at our command silver dollar fish bugs in the bathroom. Moses sat in my lap the whole time.

Sunday, Mother’s Day

A call was made to the vet to ask about the process. A time was set after waiting an agonizing two hours for a call back. Hours lost not wanting to make the call to delay the inevitable. It was dark; the blinds were still drawn shut. My husband finally said, “Let’s get some light in here for him.” We hung out on the porch and went to the pool. Moses had been trying to drag me there all week. The body of water must have been like a siren. We let him partake, though as his mom I still hovered over him and chirped, “Not too much.”

moses stoic

Our vet was performing a surgery at the designated time we were told to come in. So we were told to come back in forty-five minutes. To leave and have to gather the courage to come back seemed like torture. We bought a cone and french fries at McDonalds and drove to a park. Moses reluctantly ate one fry.

I think he was telling us he was ready. I like to believe that when we left the park for the ride over finally to say goodbye, he was ready and did not want to walk around. We said goodbye and parted with Moses to be cremated with his blanket and favorite chew toy, Mr. Sheep.

Time does heal all wounds. When we made the raw food transition, my thumb got punctured by his canine while I was trying to have him slowly eat a chicken piece. Two months now and the nail is half grown out and the wound sealed. The period of devastation following the loss of Moses has ebbed with the busyness of summer: weekend trips, softball, and picnics. Enough time has passed for the grief, anger, and denial to move through our systems, but the tears are still plentiful as I think back on the events and the last images of him in my mind.

It took me awhile to feel like writing and to find some happiness among the grief. I know now that sorrow is not the opposite of happiness. Sorrow can be beautiful when the feeling comes from a mixture of great appreciation and extreme longing. That is exactly how I felt saying goodbye; there was something profoundly beautiful in that moment. In the following days my husband said, “We made the decision out of our love for him.” I have peace knowing that.

These are some helpful quotes I liked about finding light in the dark.

“When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” Charles A. Beard

“Twilight fell: The sky turned to a light, dusky purple littered with tiny silver stars.” J.K. Rowling

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” Rachel Carson