a little something extra

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

I made somebody feel better

Today, I had an impromptu phone consultation with J*, a friend of mine who lives in another state but does similar work in my industry.

She and I had been in a common professional orbit for a few years, but we really only got to know each other this past summer when we both worked at a new play conference for a couple of weeks. The conference places a deliberate focus on building community, so we had ample opportunity to hang out, and it was rewarding.

So today I got an email from J*, asking whether I had time in the next couple of days to talk about a couple of questions she had. A brief game of phone tag put us in direct touch early this afternoon. Turned out she had gotten an old button pushed by a new experience, so we talked about that. She was concerned about something her Big Boss had said off the cuff, so we talked about that. And she was feeling pressure about some volunteer work she does for a professional organization we both belong to, so we talked about that and brainstormed a little.

As we wound up our conversation, she said, "I feel so much better now! About everything!"

So when I get to the end of my day, what am I going to be proudest of? The plays I read? The letters I wrote? The weekly meeting I had with my assistant? The conversations I had with my colleagues here at the theatre where I work?

Nope. I'm going to be most proud that I made somebody feel better today.

Hope you did too. Or if you in a position to need somebody to make you feel better, I hope someone stepped up for you.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sabbath 3

Another Sunday, another chapter. This one is called Legalism and the Dreary Sabbath. It is a warning against both of those things, and it calls readers to use Sabbath time to rest and delight themselves. And this is a very God-ridden chapter, so for any of my readers who find themselves annoyed by an overabundance of God talk, you should feel free to skip this entry if you like.

The chapter starts with several paragraphs of description of how the idea of God-given rest on the Sabbath was corrupted into the Sabbaths some of Muller's readers may have known -- dull, restricted, devoid of joy. The Dreary Sabbath indeed.

I didn't spend a lot of time with those paragraphs. I recognize the information they offer, but church history (no matter what the church) is not my thing.

The good stuff comes at the end of the chapter, where Muller advocates for a vision of God and Sabbath that puts these words in God's mouth:

Let me make it easier for you.

Now, how many of us hear those words as often as we'd like to? Heck, how many of us say those words as often as we could? It bears meditating on. Whom could I make things easier for? How? What could other people make easier for me, if only they knew it? How can I invite them lovingly into that knowledge? And, for the God-inclined, what can God make easier for me, if I will just get with the program and rest already?

This weekend has been a good one for ease and rest. The theatre where I work was closed on Thursday and Friday, so it became a four-day weekend. And forsooth, on only one of those days did I go to work anyway -- I attended a preview performance of A Christmas Carol on Saturday afternoon. But apart from that, my time was my own.

One of the ways I spent it actually fit right into the exercise at the end of chapter three. The exercise is called A Sabbath Meal, and it basically calls for making and eating or sharing a meal mindfully, taking time to enjoy each element and each step of the process. Mindfulness... the portable Buddhist Sabbath.

On Thursday I spent a good chunk of the day gradually making the dish I would take to Thanksgiving dinner. A colleague had invited me to join him and his family and a couple of other friends, but he had warned me that it would be a pretty meat-focused meal. (Go figure!) So I told him I would bring a vegetarian dish to share.

This was a dish I had made several times before, but it had been a while and I had forgotten how relatively labor-intensive it was. As I reviewed the recipe last weekend and made my shopping list of ingredients, I was glad that I would have no other commitments of my time that day, so I wouldn't be rushed.

Thursday morning I cleaned and baked the acorn and buttercup squash halves. The seeds came out easily, and my vintage pink stove warmed the kitchen nicely as the oven came up to temperature. When the squash came out, I put the bread cubes in to dry and toast a little; when they were done, the pecan pieces went in to toast. Then there were onions and celery and mushrooms to chop; tofu to dice and marinate; herbs to organize. I built the stuffing in my Dutch oven, sauteeing the vegetables then adding the bread and tofu with a little water to moisten it up. Pecans and a little lemon juice went in last.

Ordinarily one would stuff the baked squash halves, then put them back in the oven to finish. But since I was going to have to transport my dish about 45 minutes away (if traffic was good, and I wouldn't know that until I got out into it) I decided to layer the baked squash flesh and the stuffing in a casserole dish. That worked out well, but it was heavy, and moister than I remembered. I think if I do it that way again I'll eliminate the water from the stuffing, trusting that the moisture from the squash will be more than adequate.

I made the sauce to go with it -- orange juice with a little soy sauce, thyme and fresh ginger, thickened with cornstarch. Squash and orange flavors go so well together.

Putting this together over the course of several hours left me plenty of time to get off my feet. I started early enough that I knew I wouldn't be rushed getting out the door. And I had the fun of wondering who else would be at this dinner -- I didn't know what other friends were on the roster.

Most of my cooking experiences aren't as mindful as that one was. But it's a good standard to shoot for, at least some of the time.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Sabbath 2

This week's chapter in Muller's book is entitled The Joy of Rest.

My brother-in-law Lee has grasped the joy of rest. Now, Lee is an incredibly hardworking person. At this moment he has a demanding full-time job and is getting his MBA while rearing a newborn and a toddler with special needs. Lee has been a triathlete and has run at least one marathon that I know of. He is no stranger to hard work.

Yet, how does Lee define a good day? By miles run, studying accomplished, work finished?

No. Lee's system is as follows:

A good day is a day on which you get one nap.
A great day is a day on which you get more than one nap.

At the beginning of this chapter, Muller sketches another couple of quick examples of how exhausting contemporary life is. The first thing I found particularly compelling appeared on the second page, in which one of Muller's case studies says "I am with people all day and night, but still I feel so lonely." Eventually, our fatigue becomes so great that we cannot draw sustenance from the company of others -- even if we have contact with people we love, we still feel lonely. Our exhaustion isolates us as surely as walls or miles could. And I really believe that loneliness is one of the major problems/diseases/whatevers of modern life. It's vicious cycle: we grow lonely, so we push ourselves to do more with other people, which leaves us more tired, and eventually the exhaustion makes it impossible to feel un-lonely even when we are un-alone.

Another note Muller makes in this chapter is that one translation of the Biblical phrase "to pray" is "to come and rest." I think this is a very different idea of prayer than many of us grew up with. We absorbed the idea that prayers are Things You Say, or that prayer should be so much work that you'll sweat like drops of blood a la Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, etc. etc. So the idea that rest can be a prayer is rather radical. Muller characterizes this type of prayer as "allowing the mind to rest in the heart." He uses this phrase twice. It bears thinking about.

And here's the exercise that appears at the end of the chapter:

Choose at least one heavily used appliance or device -- the telephone, television, computer, washer and dryer -- and let them rest for a Sabbath period. Whether it is a morning, afternoon, or entire day, surrender to a quality of time when you will not be disturbed, seduced, or responsive to what our technologies have to offer. Notice how you respond to its absence.

[A brief digression: this is the first place that I have a little class disorientation concerning the content of this book. Muller assumes that everybody can afford a computer, a washer and dryer, etc. One must recognize that he is not necessarily writing this book for people who juggle three minimum-wage jobs to keep the kids fed. There is an unconscious process of self-selection among relatively well-off but overstressed people such as myself who can afford to consider how to change their lives -- they are the people for whom this book is written.]

It's interesting that this exercise touches gently on how closely we can identify ourselves with our possessions. Muller tries to get us to practice resting by convincing us to let our Stuff rest.

I'm fortunate that my work doesn't require me to carry a Blackberry, and that my colleagues are extremely unlikely to call me on my cell phone during the weekend. After all, they all have lives too! So my technological tether to the workplace is pretty much what I make it. I can choose whether and when to check my work email remotely from home, when and whether to dial into my work voicemail and check messages there. I know a lot of people in other lines of work have a much harder time balancing their accessibility to their workplaces during their purported "down time."

So, OK. Given that I've self-selected into the group considering Muller's book, there is a big obvious candidate for the technology to be laid aside as I consciously create Sabbath time for myself. I live in southern California -- I need to stay out of the car.

My car has given me trouble lately. Some repairs, and a rental car while they were accomplished, ran up a bill that I wish I didn't have. I always feel particularly sharp stress when some mechanical element in my life isn't working properly. This is because I don't understand anything mechanical very well, so their malfunctions pose an especially sharp challenge to my sense of well-being and partial control over my life. I even got a parking ticket the other morning, to top it all off. But now the ticket is paid, the car is fixed and all seems to be well (knock on wood).

My neighborhood is very walkable. Within blocks, there is a grocery store, a drugstore, a great coffee house, numerous restaurants, a hair salon, a dry cleaner's -- really, every kind of business I would need in the course of an ordinary day. I welcome the days when I don't have to get in the car from sunup to bedtime. But those days are rare. Even today, which is the Official Sabbath according to the faith tradition I practice, I got in the car to go downtown in the morning to attend a church service and visit the main branch of the library.

My car is also a way I connect with other people. Could I have made yesterday a day with no driving? I could, but then I would have missed the dinner party at the home of one of my friends, where I met four new people, plus the dog that my friend and her paramour recently adopted. Which is more restful -- the choice not to drive, or the convivial time with friendly folks? That's the judgment we're challenged to make.

This is another bias I notice in Muller's book. He tends to assume that people don't live alone, and that friends are easy to get to. Clearly he doesn't spend much time in this neck of the woods. :-)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

music in space, or not

In the comments on the most recent post, the subject of music as experienced in space and time arose. It's a big idea, at least in my life, so I wanted to give it its own post before I went forward with the next Sabbath installment.

Most folks who comment on this blog are accomplished musicians of one stripe or another. Wanda is a professional soprano; Tripp is a former professional bass. Ben has sung with the Mighty Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus (hereafter MASOC) for years, and is a skilled recording engineer. Colleen sang in a very popular rock band for a bunch of years. Shannon has studied opera. Erin sings with an a cappella ensemble, at least until she moves in a couple of months, and I hope if she wants to she'll have an easy time finding a group to sing with in C'ville. Etc. etc.

So of course, everybody here knows that the shape, spaciousness and composition of a room (or outdoor auditorium) where a musical performance takes place has great influence over the resulting sound. For a quick at-home comparison: go sing a song in your shower. Then sing the same song in a carpeted room elsewhere in your home. Hear how different that sounds?

But I posit that, while space greatly influences any musical performance inhabiting it, the experience of music does not require space.

How is this possible? Strictly speaking, it's not. During our lifetimes, we exist in 3-D space. We are born small; we grow big. We gain weight, lose weight, alter our bodies by surgery (plastic or otherwise). Throughout our lives, we occupy space; we cannot exist without occupying physical space. In addition, the sound vibrations we name "music" require air to travel through. You got it: more space.

But. The experience of music includes our internal soundtracks. Ever gotten a song stuck in your head? (No, I'm not suggesting any particular songs here, I don't want to saddle you with an earworm.)

Does the version of Morton Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium currently playing inside my head require space? Well, the space inside my head is already there. (Both true, and a joke!) But the music I hear on my mental soundtrack isn't affected by what room I'm in. I can manipulate it the way I can manipulate my experience of listening to any music -- I can "tune in" to the violins, or the percussion, or the alto line, I can make it louder or softer, I can skip around inside the piece. And what space I'm in does not alter that experience of music a whit.

I maintain that the internal experience of music is as valid as any other experience of music. And, it doesn't require space, isn't affected by exterior space, and doesn't respond to changes in space.

That's all!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Sabbath 1

I've recommended this book -- Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, by Wayne Muller -- to several friends. It was first recommended to me by my friend Margaret. Later I recommended it to my friend Sara. Most recently, I brought it up with my friend Tripp.

Tripp has recently taken up a job as senior pastor of a church outside Chicago. One of the challenges this job has brought him is the temptation of the seven-day work week. He mentioned that he was having trouble figuring out how and when to take the down time he needs. I mentioned Muller's book to him, thinking he might be able to use some of the tips and encouragement it offers.

So now, the two of us have decided to read the book "together." Though we're not able to sit in the same room and read, we have agreed that we'll each read a chapter every week, and write a blog posting about it on Sunday. In this posting I'll address the introduction and chapter one.

But first, a few explanations. This book is not about religious practice. The author notes that the practice of designated time for rest and rejuvenation turns up in most organized religions throughout the world. But beyond that, the practice of a biologically mandated period of rest turns up everywhere in the natural world. Everything, from soil to microorganisms to plants to vertebrates, experiences periods of growth and productivity regulated by periods of fallowness and rest. So. We'll have no God-freaking-out in the comments, please.

Muller interleaves his short chapters with some recommendations for action that express different Sabbath practices from different traditions, and open different paths to rest and rejuvenation. I've decided to include in my weekly posts the exercise that goes with the chapter I've just read. If I do the exercise myself, I'll write something about my experience of it.

Muller's introduction is titled "Remember the Sabbath." This is one of the ten commandments given to the Jews and included in the responsibilities of practicing Christians. But the full commandment is typically translated along these lines, "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy." Muller doesn't stress the holy part. He discusses the importance of rest and the risks we run when we fail to rest. He notes that our current culture puts artificial value on simply being busy, and on appearing to be busy. And he translates the Chinese pictograph for the word "busy," which is made of two characters: heart and killing. Too much busyness kills the heart. My heart has certainly felt that strain at times.

Muller notes that "Sabbath time is not spiritually superior to our work." I agree with this. Work time is positive for one set of reasons. Sabbath time, rest time, is positive for another set of reasons. Ideally we'll each be able to create the balance of work time and rest time that sings in the best harmony for us. I know very few people, though, who live this way.

Muller stresses that there are some human qualities that can grow only in the medium of time. It reminds me of a science fair project I did in seventh grade, in which I grew some plants in potting soil and other plants of the same species in a hydroponic medium called nutrient agar. Time is the medium in which certain qualities grow, and without enough time, they simply won't grow. I would say that wisdom, the ability to see the big picture, and patience with others are all qualities that require a significant amount of time to develop. If we starve ourselves of time, we will never develop these qualities.

And that takes us to chapter one, "Rest for the Weary." It is the first part of a larger section of the book entitled "Rest" -- one of those lovely words that is a verb and a noun. In this short chapter, Muller tells stories of several people he has known who conducted busy modern lives until they were diagnosed with catastrophic illnesses. During their periods of illness, they changed their lives to include more rest. His own story is one of these.

But the thing that seemed to touch Muller the most deeply was how several of those people told him that they were secretly grateful to be struck with cancer or AIDS or heart attacks, because it finally gave them an indisputable, gold-plated excuse to indulge in the rest that they craved to the point of tears. He writes, "If we do not allow for a rhythm of rest in our overly busy lives, illness becomes our Sabbath."

The experience he describes sounds familiar to me. I enjoy utterly fabulous health -- and yet I have fantasized about contracting an illness grave enough to confine me to home, if not to bed, for weeks at a time. This is not a thing I actually wish for in my real life. It's a fantasy, and that fantasy expresses the need for rest that has grown up in me over years of overwork. Happily, I'm actually less overworked now that I have been in some past periods in my life. (The price of that reduction in overwork is food for another post sometime, but for now I'm going to press on.)

The exercise that concludes chapter one is "Lighting Sabbath Candles." Detour for a quick anecdote: one of the coolest experiences I've had in the past year was a restaurant dinner with a friend on a Friday night. We met at a casual bistro, and when our waiter brought us bread to nibble on while we waited for our order, my friend blessed it with the Hebrew blessing for bread. I had not been thinking about the fact that my friend is Jewish by heritage, nor did I know how much that was in active practice. But it was after sundown on a Friday. It was a very simple, very open thing to do, and I was moved by it.

Muller discusses briefly how candles are significant in the commencement of Sabbath in different traditions -- many Christian worship services begin with the ceremonial lighting of candles, as does the Jewish Sabbath meal. Here's his exercise:

Find a candle that holds some beauty or meaning for you. When you have set aside some time -- before a meal, or during prayer, meditation, or simply quiet reading -- set the candle before you, say a simple prayer or blessing for yourself or someone you love, and light the candle. Take a few mindful breaths. For just this moment, let the hurry of the world fall away.

Since I moved into my present abode in July, I have lit a candle on my table during every dinner I've eaten at home. In the past, I usually only lit a candle when I had company. But now, without a cable TV subscription, I'm not tempted to carry my plate into the living room and eat on the couch. Instead I eat at the table, and I enjoy the sense of well-being that the burning candle induces in me. It's inexpensive and satisfying. It also reminds me of architect Christopher Alexander's discussion of the hearth and fire. He places great emphasis on the power of fire to indicate home and safety. While I don't have a fireplace or a hearth in this apartment, I can mindfully let a candle flame bring a delicate sense of home.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Good thing they love me anyway

This is the email I just sent to my family:

Dear folks,

This is it! The holiday decorations are up at all the shopping malls, the chorus is rehearsing Christmas music, the ground is white with snow (well, okay, not so much with the snow part, at least not around here). That must mean...


Yes, it's early. Yes, I mean it. See how charmingly unpredictable I am, sending this a few weeks ahead of the usual time?

So let some visions of sugarplums dance in your heads, and then publish those visions (haiku or sonnet format optional, and I dare you) forthwith. ErinKathleenthismeansyou.


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

recalibrating the karma cannons

Now that Erin is on her way to Charlottesville in a month or two, it is time to aim all the good-new-job karma towards Shannon. She has a meeting in New York tomorrow that could result in a good new opportunity in Richmond. Please input those new coordinates and fire off a round of prayer, mojo and good vibes Shannonwards. Richmond, ho!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Everybody Say "Wahoowah!"

Good news! Sister E* has been offered the opportunity to return to the bosom of her undergraduate alma mater, but this time as a professional rather than a student. And there is much rejoicing throughout the land.

I'm so happy for her, I might even learn the lyrics to the Good Old Song this time around. ;-)