To a well-loved grandfather on International Yoga Day

 

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International Yoga Day is June 21, 2016. Grateful for the gift of yoga, I thought I’d share a poem for this special day. Namaste!

 

to a well-loved grandfather

with a name as delicious as

italian puff pastry

i say

thank you

from the bottom of my heart

thank you

for your patience

stretched three thousand years ahead

that despite our fighting and unfriendliness

improper care of the soil and waters

and unsavory behavior

we might somehow

sooner or later

figure it out

for deeply knowing,

 Patanjali

the light that shines in every creature

for always watching

without judgment

unconditionally affirming our innate sense of oneness

for believing that the words you gave us

would carry us along

you gave us the code

thank you for

the road map and melody

knowledge you placed in our human consciousness

an instruction manual

on how we operate and think

the wild tiger qualities of the mind

your quiet supportive energy

with a variety pack of names

Charaga, Adisesha, the essence of a prayer with feet

after all these years

we’ve accumulated a lot of rumors

turned you into a King of Snakes

three different men under the same pen name

an incarnation of the serpent Ananta

arriving on your virgin mother’s open palms

grammarian herbalist maharishi

with excellent organizational skills

a multitasking author of Ayurveda

you took piles and piles of scriptures

knowledge both written and unwritten

a cloud of papyrus mildew encircling your head

demystified clarified

the ancient secret texts

a supreme organizer of wisdom

repackaged into 195 sutras

in simple beadlike form

each potent phrase building upon another

carefully chosen sound therapy

in palatable morsels

we string together with understanding

how to eat breathe exercise

stand tall and de-stress

where to find the nectar of inner peace

teaching behind a curtain

in call and response

scaring away the sneaky and undevoted students

yet humbly and lovingly

watching us humans grow all these years

and climb into our inner divinity

so just in case

we forget to tell you

in another place and time

we shoot an arrow from the heart

arching back three millennia

to thank you for loving us

 

Everyday Stories of Peace, Green Scarf Stories, entry eighteen, June 14, 2016

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The Be-nice Lady

Everyday Stories of Peace
Green Scarf Stories, entry seventeen, December 31, 2014

One of my many high school obsessions, aside from the very cute drummer in the school band and keeping up with the latest hairstyle, was a woman we called the “be-nice lady.” This petite woman had the job of roaming the halls of our high school, especially the areas of high density and other zones of potential conflict as 500 teenagers with raging hormones, frail egos and sometimes divergent agendas of what is a good time tried to get through the school year under one roof.

The be-nice lady was the most powerful woman I have ever met. If two strong boys were in a heated discussion and on the verge of throwing punches, she would place her petite self between them, hum a tune, and tell them to “Be Nice!” which, believe it or not, always worked. To me this was nothing short of a miracle, because to my teenage brain the world seemed to operate, paradoxically, in a might-is-right fashion. So whenever I had the chance, I would shadow the be-nice lady between classes to see if I could learn the tricks of her trade.

Her two most salient characteristics were a lack of fear, and a deep well of love for the teenagers she was trying to help. Even if she was jostled a bit, or poked fun at, she never relented in her firm belief in their inner goodness. It was as if she had a super evolved sense of intuition to know the root of their anger, or hurt, and why it came out into the world through harsh words or through their fists. She had this aura of peace around her, which she spread around with a simple hum, a word, a look, and through her sheer presence.

The be-nice lady was one of the most influential role models of my formative years, even though I never did learn her real name. Thanks to the be-nice lady for inspiration; I hope to be more like her in 2015. Happy New Year!

Here’s Sophia gazing at the moon while skiing this afternoon.

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Moon Language

Everyday Stories of Peace
Green Scarf Stories, entry sixteen, December 25, 2014

Here’s a poem for this special day, with wishes that the season of hope, joy, peace and love lasts all year long.

WITH THAT MOON LANGUAGE

by Hafiz

Admit something:

Everyone you see, you say to them,
“Love me.”

Of course you do not do this out loud;
Otherwise,
Someone would call the cops.

Still though, think about this,
This great pull in us
To connect.

Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye
That is always saying,

With that sweet moon
Language,

What every other eye in this world
Is dying to
Hear.

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Happy Noodles

Everyday Stories of Peace, Entry 15, December 13, 2014

It’s cold and dark outside and the lack of sunshine in December makes me feel like a three day-old piece of overcooked pasta. I’m not thinking about macaroni, penne or tricolore fusilli, but something akin to a wavy egg noodle that is hard to scoop off the plate. This is how I feel on my yoga mat this morning: dull, lifeless and tired. I’m a soggy old noodle stuck to the mat.

Keeping a morning routine is extremely hard for me, especially this time of year in Sweden. Somehow I manage to do a few sun salutations, trying to move the tiredness out of my body and bring more energy to my cells and positive thoughts to mind. Just a few easy poses and I’m already feeling better. Soon I imagine myself to be a polar bear on a piece of melting ice (my mat), with a warm coat balancing in a peaceful warrior pose. I move on to tree pose, and I’m standing a little taller. My energy level and outlook have improved. All the world’s problems seem a bit smaller. With belly on the mat and hands holding feet, I’m now a boat, floating to safe shores.

Suddenly I’m not that piece of soggy pasta that couldn’t move on the mat. A few yoga poses and I’m feeling more like a bowlful of happy noodles, cooked with just the right amount of spice. All that changed, really, was my perspective, and I’m bouncing out the door to enjoy the day. After all, today is the celebration of Saint Lucia, and one never knows what interesting things might happen.

Thanks to some of the yoga teachers who help get me moving:

Caroline and Ratheesh www.yogamakes.com

Kambiz Naficy www.joyoflifeorganization.com

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Thanksgiving Carrots

Everyday Stories of Peace, entry fourteen, November 27, 2014

Our plans for this year’s Thanksgiving dinner began six months ago with a pack of seeds and a bit of dirt. As soon as last winter was safely past and the sun had sufficiently warmed the topsoil, my daughter and I went out to the vegetable patch to plant a few rows of carrots. This was actually a difficult task. Carrot seeds are almost imperceptibly small and resemble a fleck of black pepper. It takes a steady hand to sow a straight line of seeds, and coordinated fingers to thin out the seedlings once they have made it to the soil surface. We planted the seeds last May and hoped that there’d be enough sun and water to bring a few of the orange vegetables to our Thanksgiving dinner table this November.

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Carrots became a permanent dish at our family’s annual Thanksgiving table the year we helped serve dinner at a local soup kitchen near our home in Massachusetts. Once a month, a group of people through our church would take turns cooking and serving a warm home-cooked meal. That November, our family was in charge of vegetables. This meant that we had to prepare enough carrots to feed anywhere between 60 to 100 people, depending upon how many came to the soup kitchen that day.

That same year, I was helping at a nearby community farm to finish up projects before winter. One of our tasks was to go through the carrot patch with pitchforks, overturn the soil and remove any carrots which had been overlooked during the harvest. I came home with two large bags of extremely muddy roots. It took our family several days to scrub clean all the carrots, and even more time to scrape and chop them into bite-size pieces. We took shifts at the kitchen counter, the kids taking a break from homework to peel a few carrots at a time. After all that hard work making so many carrots ready for the pot, we wanted to cook them just right. I found the perfect recipe in a French cookbook. The year we served our Thanksgiving carrots, there were a lot of people who came back for seconds.

We’ve cooked and help serve many times at that soup kitchen. Once my son and his friend made and served sandwiches. In the process, they discovered that their production speed was thirty sandwiches an hour. The bigger realization for all of us, however, was a deeper feeling of gratitude. It’s like the the happy feeling you get when cooking for a large extended family.

So when our family sits down to Thanksgiving, we always look at the carrots and remember the year we were able to pick, scrub, peel, chop, cook and serve carrots at the local soup kitchen. I think that everyone in our family felt grateful that they had the opportunity to help in some small way, getting the carrots from the Earth all the way to a table where they were most needed. Our Thanksgiving carrots help us think about all the factors concerning food, from growing it to sharing it and making sure that everyone has enough to eat.

This Thanksgiving there will be carrots at our table, but not ones we have grown ourselves. A backyard bird helped herself to our seedlings. Perhaps she had a full nest to feed; a few more members of our extended family.

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Building Global Resistance to Ebola

Everyday Stories of Peace, entry thirteen, November 7, 2014

“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.” – Dr. Paul Farmer, Co-founder of Partners in Health

Everyone’s been thinking a lot about the Ebola virus outbreak these past few months. So when a friend and I decided to put together a Halloween party for our students, it seemed like a good venue for raising money to support the efforts of Partners in Health www.PIH.org, a global health care organization working to help the poorest of the poor.

We had our party earlier this evening (Halloween in Sweden is celebrated through the first week in November), and the children and parents who attended seemed to have fun. This year’s Halloween party included a “pumpkin walk,” face painting, crafts, music, and a used book sale. We also sold baked goods and sandwiches for our “fika” table. For those of you unfamiliar with “fika,” it’s one of the main national pastimes in Sweden where one takes a pause during the day to sit in friendly conversation with old or new acquaintances, often with a cup of coffee and a tasty home-baked treat.

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There are many fantastic organizations working to meet the health care needs of people across the globe, but what is especially appealing about the work of Partners in Health (PIH) is its emphasis on communities in extreme poverty, as well as its philosophy of putting health care in the center of the larger conversation about human rights. Founded by Dr. Paul Farmer and Ophelia Dahl over 25 years ago, PIH operates in Haiti, the United States, Mexico, Peru, Russia, Rwanda, Malawi and Lesotho. PIH’s current response to the Ebola virus disease focuses, among other things, on preventative care by providing community health care workers with information and materials to educate people about how to stay healthy. You can read more about it on their website: www.pih.org/priority-programs/ebola.

Since learning about PIH when were living back in our hometown near Boston, I’ve been extremely impressed by how the sheer determination of a few people can make an impact. I’ve heard Dr. Farmer speak twice, and even saw him once in Geneva many years ago leaving a WHO meeting. I’m pretty sure it was him because, as far as I could tell, he looked extremely indignant. He’s definitely the kind of doctor you’d want on your side, looking out for you as if you were an extended family member.

If you are interested in reading more about the founding of Partners in Health, I can recommend Track Kidder’s book, Mountains beyond Mountains, “The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who would change the world,” first published in 2003. This book has been a popular read, especially for high school and college students looking for inspiration as they think about their life direction.

Another book which is extremely useful in understanding the global health care situation is Dr. Farmer’s Pathologies of Power, “Health, Human Rights and the New War on the Poor,” published in 2005. He talks a lot about how a “preferential option” for the poorest of the poor is a social justice issue which should be at the top of the global to-do list. He discusses health care in the context of human rights, and has an extremely impressive list of endnotes and sources. As one of those strange people who reads a book by starting with the endnotes before the first chapter, I have to say that Dr. Farmer is the “King of Endnotes.”

My favorite endnote in his book pops up when he talks about the class divisions in European sanatoriums at the “dawn of the era of antibiotics.” Here he quotes from George Orwell’s journal entries written in a sanatorium the year before he died of tuberculosis. Orwell comments on the shrill tone of indifference in the voices of people visiting the sanatorium on Easter Sunday. “It is as though I were hearing these voices for the first time. And what voices! A sort of over-fedness, a fatuous self-confidence, a constant bah-bahing of laughter [about] nothing….” (Farmer, P. Pathologies of Power. 2005. Endnote 22 from Chapter 5, pp. 300-1.) This quote from Orwell has haunted me since I found it buried in Dr. Farmer’s endnotes a few years ago. Surely we wouldn’t want the collective voice of humanity to have a shrill tone of indifference to the suffering of any of us.

Building global well-being takes all of us together to do our small part from wherever we find ourselves. Thank goodness the people at PIH are doing what they do best, as well as the other healthcare workers involved in helping people and families affected by the Ebola virus. Even more than building the global resistance to Ebola virus is the need to build global resistance to the fact that there are too many people out of the more than 7 billion of us who lack adequate food, shelter, water, health and hope.

The well-being of all of us is inter-connected. This was so eloquently said 800 years ago by the Persian poet Saadi. His well-loved poem is carved in Farsi inside the door of the United Nations building in New York. (Here’s one version – there are several different translations.)

What it is to be Human

Human beings come
From the same source.
We are one family.
If a part of a body hurts,
All parts contract in pain.

I read this quote to a group of teachers while I was in Uganda this past June, and we all cried.

Resilience

Everyday Stories of Peace
Green Scarf Stories, entry twelve, November 2, 2014

Today is the New York Marathon, the largest in the world. About 50,000 people woke early this morning, laced up their sneakers and began a 26.2 mile run through the five boroughs of New York City. More people also woke early to help the runners get organized, make their way to the starting line, serve water and gatorade along the course and help with the endless logistics involved in putting together a marathon. Numerous others will spend their day cheering from the sidelines and lending supportive energy to this massive display of human endurance.

Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and achieving something you never thought you could, like running a marathon, brings a whole lot of gratitude for the things we do to help each other every day. One year ago today I was one of the runners in the New York Marathon, and my wobbly old legs did get me to the finish line in five hours and nineteen minutes. It was an awesome and humbling experience.

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The awesomeness was being part of a large number of people who came from all over the world to run the race. We ran over the Verrazano Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the United States, as well as through every single red light going up First Avenue. It was a fantastic traffic-free way to sight-see through Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan. I saw New York at its best. The live bands, gospel choirs, school marching bands, DJs and people cheering along the whole race course were inspirational. You can’t beat New Yorkers for enthusiasm! It was also awesome to find out that I actually had a bit of resilience in me as I chugged along at an even pace. I’m not sure how much mileage I have left on this body, but I enjoyed the entire race, even the aches and pains.

It was the humbling-ness of this experience, however, which was even more impressionable. Every single runner had his or her personal story of why they were running. It could be to support a family member going through cancer, to raise money for a worthy organization, to support the runners injured during the Boston Marathon bombing earlier that year, or to show how New York could bounce back after Hurricane Sandy. (The previous year’s race was cancelled due to the after-effects of a hurricane). I ran in support of Team for Kids www.runwithtfk.org thanks to the donations of friends and family members. Many people might have run, I guess, to prove that real resilience is mental – to set a goal and not give in to that little voice inside which tells you to go home because nothing really matters at all.

The New York Marathon is one of the most coveted races to run, and I think it’s because of the immense support and enthusiasm from both sides of the street for the entire 26 miles. It brought me a deeper understanding of the collective desire we all have to bond together for a brilliant life journey. I’ve always loved to run. Not that I was ever the fastest, or had the best technique, but I loved the freedom of travelling on my own two legs. The marathon was something I couldn’t have done on my own. It took a lot of support from family and friends, being part of a team, and the energy from all those people cheering on the race course to get me over the finish line. Life is teamwork, and resilience is built as a team effort.

What kept me going? Of course the hug from my daughter at mile 16 was a huge boost. If you push me on this point, however, I’d tell you that a lot of my resilience comes from a deep well of faith. If I had to make a list of life’s “dos” and “don’ts,” I’d probably say that having some kind of faith, in whatever shape or form works for you, makes a difference.

NY marathon 2013

Contentment in the Mundane

Everyday Stories of Peace
Green Scarf Stories, entry eleven, October 31, 2014

Our family’s spider-in-residence is back in his spot by the front door and I’m feeling content. He’s not the kind that spins webs and eats whatever comes his way, but a much larger not-in-the-books kind of arachnid, a home-made version created by our daughter Sophia a few years ago. I love his feather eyebrows.

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It’s Halloween today and our pumpkin is ready, thanks to our son Oscar. We don’t usually have many children coming to our door here in Sweden, but sometimes we’re pleasantly surprised.

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It’s been a good week. School’s out for fall vacation, giving students and teachers like me a rest between the busy days in the classroom. I’ve had a chance to catch up on a few projects like sewing curtains and getting together materials for a Halloween party that a friend and I are having next week to raise money towards the effort to contain Ebola. I’ve even finished the draft of a few chapters of a book I’ve been working on, so the punch list is shorter. But most of all, at this moment, the big worries about taking care of the people I’m responsible for seem so small. Just now, between the busy days, everyone in my immediate circle is OK. The extended family, including parents and in-laws, is happy and healthy. Our daughter is in Hawaii on a school trip and staying with a wonderful family. Erik finished his exams at university this week and Oscar, home from ski gymnasium, actually liked the haircut I gave him. Life feels full and good.

But the real contentment this week came from the most mundane of tasks – washing the window blinds. These blinds take forever to clean because you have to wipe both sides of each and every slat by hand. It’s a job I have been putting off for months. But the thing is that while I was cleaning, the sky was doing amazing things. The clouds kept producing the most fantastic combinations of shapes and patterns, and the colors reflecting from the sun were almost unbelievable. It was as if the sun and sky were putting on this little show just for me.

Almost as wonderful is the half moon on this crisp clear autumn evening. The moon has a halo of white around it, with a tinge of deep blue. On my way to the compost pile to give our kitchen scraps to the worms, I stood for a long time just taking it all in. Cooking for a lot of hungry boys produces a lot of kitchen scraps, especially if you are trying to increase their vegetable intake. I think I can hear the worms singing in our compost bin.

Thank goodness for life’s mundane tasks, it gives me pause to reflect on the endless beauty around me. I’m grateful for this peaceful lull between the turbo-busy days.

Children as Peacemakers

Everyday Stories of Peace
Green Scarf Stories, entry ten, September 26, 2014

As I was walking into the schoolyard the other day, I noticed a group of children in the middle of a discussion. The soccer ball was held steady under the foot of one player as he and his classmates tried their best to resolve whatever it was that had stopped the game.

“We’re working it out,” they told me as I came closer. Indeed, they were working it out. Whatever the issue had been, perhaps a difference in the interpretation of the rules, or maybe it had been a question of taking turns, they ironed out the differences as a group and got back to what they really wanted to be doing, which was playing soccer and having fun.

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The ability of children to be peace-makers always astounds me. They have this innate wisdom of what is fair, especially when they are able to put themselves into another’s shoes. Empathy is a wonderful thing.

We’ve been talking a lot about peace in class these past two weeks as a way to mark the International Day of Peace, held every year on September 21st. This always brings up interesting discussions, but it is even more heart-warming when you see children’s peace-making skills in action. If only the world’s big conflicts could be brought to the level playing-field of the playground!

I’ve also been thinking a lot this week about the power of children, through their sense of clear-sighted honesty, to bring peace to those around them. One of my favorite examples of this is a story told by Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote The Color Purple. She describes an incident in her own life as a young mother where her daughter, in a loving and honest way, put to rest a whole armful of worries which Alice had carried around with her for years. She writes about this incident in her book, In Search of our Mother’s Gardens.

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When Alice was eight years old her brother accidently shot a copper pellet from his BB gun. What remained in her blinded right eye was a glob of white scar tissue, which was later fixed to resemble a blue crater. For years, Alice worried about what people would think about her eye, and those thoughts intensified after the birth of her daughter. Alice dreaded the day when her daughter would discover that her mother’s eyes were different from other people’s eyes.

This discovery happened when her daughter was age three. She had been watching a television show called “Big Blue Marble” which began with a picture of the earth taken from the moon. Afterwards, when Alice was putting her daughter down for a nap, her baby daughter steadied her mother’s face in her small hands and looked intently into her eyes. “Mommy,” she said, ”There’s a world in your eye.” From that moment, all the worries Alice had carried around about her eye disappeared, and she came into the peace of being herself, whole and free.

Thinking back to my own childhood, I remember looking into the crisp clear blue eyes of my own mother and thinking that they were the most beautiful eyes I had ever seen. Even today, her eyes are still beautiful.

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The Peaceful Days of Summer

Everyday Stories of Peace
Green Scarf Stories, entry nine, September 13, 2014

IMG_2538Those of us living in Sweden are about to say goodbye to warm weather as we head into the winter months with fewer hours of sunlight. Our friends in Uganda, and others who live near the Equator, where sunlight follows a seven-in-the-morning to seven-in-the-evening pattern every day, all year round, don’t have this shift into a period of diminishing sunlight. I’ve been watching how the change in the patterns of light affects our moods and rhythms of life.

IMG_2516Closing this year’s chapter on the warmer months gives me pause to reflect on the adventures and unexpected discoveries my family enjoyed this past summer. We had the opportunity to visit New York City with my brother for one fully-packed beautiful day. In the middle of this concentrated mass of over eight million people, we found the High Line www.thehighline.org, an elevated freight rail line which has been transformed into a public park full of art exhibits, dragonflies, daisies, purple cone flowers and a hard-working crew of honey bees. We spent a wonderful morning exploring this oasis thanks to the creative imagination of those who wanted to keep a bit of nature in the middle of the New York City urban jungle.

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There was also the much cherished peaceful time spent on the coast of Massachusetts catching up with family and friends, listening to the sound of the cicadas, swapping stories, watching the moon, laughing at nothing and everything.

One of the highlights of every summer is visiting my parent’s home. There’s always something new, as well as the comfort of things that do not change. By now my own children know just about every hiding place in the house. Childhood drawings and other creations still hang in various nooks and crannies. Creativity is still valued and nurtured, with love.

Even my grandmother’s artwork remains tucked into the shadows of the garden, reminding us of her. My mother’s mother hailed from Pender Island off the coast of western Canada and because of her formative years as an island person, she could make anything and everything. After all these years, her legacy of creativity is still treasured in my mother’s home. Underneath the crocosmia flowers sits one of her clay frogs, next to a toad planter.

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Amidst the seasonal shifts, there is always comfort in the pansies which my father painted at a young age. Since she first saw it, my mother has loved this painting. She framed his childhood masterpiece and hung it in the living room, over the piano. I love that my mother has always loved this about my father; that she has always seen and valued his inner creative loving self. Here it is.

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Happy Birthday, Dad!