Friday, October 14, 2011

Coffee and "The Hidden Discipline Of Familiarity"

Everything is Waiting for You
Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.
  -- David Whyte, from Everything is Waiting for You
     ©2003 Many Rivers Press
This poem by David Whyte inspired me last year when I was struggling with coffee withdrawal. I love coffee, and now that I've admitted this publicly I can show you how I work with this embarrassing urge. I theoretically feel like I'd be better off without it, but like anyone with a charged relationship to a psychoactive substance, I struggle. It was actually my mother who introduced me to this sacred elixir when I was 10 years old. My mother and I would share a cup of instant coffee (yuck!) and eat cookies together after lunch when no one else was at home. That rush of energy and alertness, combined with the secret we shared that we were a little naughty drinking something that we shouldn't be, imbued it with even more appeal. 

I've always felt that it is a dietary transgression, and I wish I didn't like it so much. I've always had rules about drinking coffee, and felt that if I could stick to them, I wasn't a "coffeeholic."
  • I wouldn't drink it on work days. 
  • I wouldn't drink it past noon, or maybe 3 pm if I had to stay up late.
  • I wouldn't drink too much at once. 
  • I wouldn't drink little bits all day. 
  • I wouldn't drink it if it tasted bad.
  • I wouldn't drink it to override my natural bedtime, except if I were driving a long distance and my safety depended on it.
I'd give it up at least once a year for a few weeks or months, just to prove that I was in control. Once I worked with a homeopath and went 6 years without any, and when I was diagnosed with cancer I felt like it was time to give my system another rest from it. I had none for almost a year, and then like any addict, I began making deals with myself to convince myself it was okay.
  • I could have a little, but only in the morning, and not every day. 
  • It would have to be organic. 
  • I'd learn to love it black, to avoid the additional evils of half-and-half or soy milk. 
  • It would have to be freshly ground to preserve the valuable antioxidants.
  • I'd have to roast it myself. 
I found a source of organic green coffee beans and bought a home roaster. I figured that if I had to go to this extreme, I wouldn't drink that much, and I'd seriously enjoy how precious a cup could be. I thought I would adapt Michael Pollan's Food Rule #39 to the roasting and consumption of coffee, "Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you cook it yourself." I'm definitely not drinking as much as I want, but I am limiting myself to my own home-roasted, organic brew, which caps the amount I consume.

I drank a cup one day last year before I went off to my Santa Cruz writing group, where Carolyn Flynn read the David Whyte poem that introduced this entry. I was inspired to write the following scenario about my beloved beans to sanctify our personal relationship and pay homage to their origin. I'm filled with gratitude for their journey across the world, and for their ordeal of transformation which results in giving up their life for my alertness and euphoria. Perhaps it's just another excuse to make me feel better about my tiny transgression, but I want to believe that cultivating a conscious relationship to what I eat and drink somehow augments its potential benefits and dampens the deleterious effects.

“Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity,” was the only line of the poem they could hear from inside the burlap bag. Many a poem was uttered by heart, by the clerk who worked at the Berkeley coffee supplier while she filled green coffee bean orders over the internet. Most people who work here have at least a master’s degree. Many have PhDs in subjects that make them virtually unemployable, like vertebrate paleontology, seventeenth century Dutch painters, or Aramaic, but this makes for profound small talk over the coffee, which the beans deeply appreciate.

They arrived last Tuesday from Guatemala, then on to Oakland, and finally Aptos, before preparing themselves for the ritual roasting. As their small pale green bodies began to tumble and dance in the roaster, under my careful eye, they rose like the Phoenix. As they began to heat up and darken I inhaled their toasty aromatic essence wafting from the top vent of the roaster. Our joining was ecstatic.

Their small round bodies plumped and darkened, sizzled and popped telling me they were ready to rest and cool. Later they would surrender their individuality to the burr grinder who would bless each of them as their fragments blended into a dark pile of coarse grounds.

They met a sacred stream of hot water as it poured into the cool glass container of the French press pot, and dissolved into their final realization of their destiny. I poured this potion into my blue cup with the Celtic knot etched into the glaze covering its rounded sides, and felt the familiar mingling of spirits from across the world feed me this elixir of alertness. No longer a tiny hidden transgression, this state invited me through the doors of alertness and filled me with anticipation of the everything that is waiting for me. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

We're All Just Passing Through

I picked up Jack Kornfield's newest book, A Lamp in the Darkness: Illuminating the Path Through Difficult Times, looking for some grounding guidance and inspiration during this challenging phase of moving and unpacking. He opens the book with the description of a cartoon he saw in the San Francisco Chronicle which shows a nomadic family crossing the desert on camel-back. The daughter must have just asked her father the classic childhood question and he replies, "Stop asking if we're almost there yet - we're nomads for crying out loud!"

This made me laugh and lighten up. It is an illusion to think that any of us are anywhere permanently. Even if we live in the town where we were born, we're all just passing through. Life in essence is temporary.

I've made some big moves in my life: Philadelphia to Miami, Miami to Sarasota, then on to Gainesville, New York City, Brooklyn, 10 days in Jamaica, Queens (that was a terrible mistake), then back to Brooklyn, Woodstock (NY), Santa Cruz, and now Vermont. Perhaps moving gets harder as I get older, or maybe it's that pesky cancer-thing that slows me down. This move has been the hardest thing I've ever done in terms of sheer endurance. With my impaired and painful hands, my sore chest, and limited energy level, I have to rely on Steve and others to do all the lifting and gripping, as well as many other things. It's challenging for me to be so much more dependent than before. 

It took 6 weeks to sort and pack to come to Vermont, but the task really began when we decided to close the office last February. It's actually been 7 months of shuffling "stuff" around. Feeling the simplicity and lightness of having rid ourselves of a great volume of stuff is the reward for all the grueling effort. It is beyond a profound relief to be here and be almost settled.

Arriving here was somewhat wonderful, but moving to a state that's been declared a disaster area put a damper on the excitement about being some place new. Although Hurricane Irene did no damage in our part of the state, we could see the frightening height of the water marks on the bridge footings, and everywhere we went the first week or 2 people talked about the floods. The water was still high when we got here. The river was so raging that we could hardly sleep with the roar. In the 4 weeks that we have been here the waters have receded and quieted a bit. The sound of the river is always there in the background. I'm hoping it never gets so low that it can't be heard.

It is so beautiful here - lush and green and full of life and rushing water. There are the first signs of fall: a few orange-tipped trees here and there, that rustling sound of dry leaves in the wind, and flocks of birds en masse flying south. Yesterday was the first day I wore a scarf - very exciting for a woman with a scarf and boot fetish! In 1985, I was given the "Jane Jetson Little Black Boot Award" by my medical school class in honor of having the most pairs of black boots anyone had ever seen (they must not have known Imelda Marcos). I look forward to regaining my title.

Everyone drives much more slowly here. Even on the highway (I-89) the speed limit is only 55 mph, and it's not uncommon for cars on the entrance ramp to merge while driving 40mph.

There are so many great radio stations, we've run out of preset buttons on the car radio. Our refuge and rest from the chaos at home has been the movie theater. There are 2 fabulous theaters here that show a mix of independent films with some mainstream movies. They show all sorts of interesting things, like live HD simulcasts from the Metropolitan Opera (my mother's old stomping ground), a live lecture by Jane Goodall, The Rolling Stones in a concert from Texas, and Phantom Of The Opera live from Royal Albert Hall in London. Every time we see a film the theater is packed with a wide array of ages ranging from teens to elderly - definitely a wider demographic than in Santa Cruz where young people are often mysteriously absent from the audience. And for some strange reason, the people here are like me; they don't get up and leave while the credits are still playing. I feel like the music and the credits are part of the complete experience of a film and I always stay until the end. In my 14 years in Santa Cruz, the only film I saw after which the people sat through the credits was The Lives Of Others. What's that about?!

We may have missed Hurricane Irene, but we do have a flood story. However, the only water involved came from our hot water heater. We sent our stuff cross-country on a 28 foot truck. They delivered it to a terminal about 20 minutes away and we had to shuttle it on a smaller truck to our apartment building. The movers who were supposed to unload us had to cancel to go south and help with the flood relief effort. So instead of having 3 men for a full day, we could only find 2 men for a half-day. Steve rented a U-haul and did the rest himself. It took 3 days (in the rain) to get all the stuff off the 28 foot moving van and into our apt.

At about 11pm on the night we did the majority of the move, a strange sound emanated from somewhere in the house. I thought I had left an alarm clock set and packed it inside of a box or my dresser, which was still wrapped in moving blankets. We searched for the beeping and discovered that it was the water alarm on the floor at the foot of our hot water heater, which had sprung a leak. I crumpled in a big chair in the living room, cried, and passed out as Steve dealt with it. Thank goodness for apartment living! The night property manager came and drained it, and by 8 am the maintenance crew were in here installing a new one.

And now, almost a month later, it's still not over; we have to finish unpacking and make a nest. I actually enjoy unpacking, organizing, and setting things up, but I'm exhausted. There's an important distinction between wanting to have things set up so that I can relax, and being patient and relaxing in the moment, regardless of the mess in the external environment. Isn't this always a struggle? I get concerned that I'll spend too much of my life trying to complete my illusory list so that I can "relax" and that I'll never be done. I don't want to live like that!

"Dysrhythmic" is the word Steve uses to describe this strange feeling of being out of synch with time and place. After a month, we're starting to feel like maybe we're not on some strange vacation, and we don't have to pack up and go back to Santa Cruz. We can't believe that we bought a one-way ticket. We're still in shock that we live in such a new and different place.

Each day brings more feelings of being at Home. We are slowly replacing the furniture we left in California. It's amazing how much a couch makes a living room feel like home. We bought a new one and it's not here yet, so we're managing with some comfy chairs. We know where to go for most things we need. We don't need a map to get everywhere anymore. We are starting to know the people in the building and the neighborhood people, like the mail carriers and some Farmer's Market vendors. We went to our first city council meeting and were welcomed.  I am checking out the movement scene and I went to a class taught by someone who went to UCSC in the late 70s and took dance classes with Beth at Cabrillo. Small world!

We have no lack of entertainment possibilities. We saw a fabulous Cuban jazz trio (Alfredo Rodriguez) and we're going to see David Sedaris, Richard Thompson (solo guitar), and Gogol Bordello in the next few weeks. We're in week 2 of a conversational French class. Steve is signed up for a bread-making class so he can get some new sourdough starter. I'm off to my old Osteopathic study group, which meets in November, after my 14 year absence. We went to the monthly open-house at the Burlington Shambhala Center and found it a very sweet place to meditate with a group. They have open meditation sessions 6 times a week. They are quite laid back and flexible - they even serve coffee!

Today I had my appointment with my new oncologist. She's wonderful and in total agreement with the treatment plan and how I've been caring for myself. Today I attended a wonderful retreat for women with metastatic breast cancer, followed by the yearly Breast Cancer Conference sponsored by the Vermont Cancer Center. This year's topic is, "Being Well Throughout The Cancer Journey".

I am hoping to start feeling settled and have more regular writing time. Sorry about the long wait and then this rambling post. I'll aim to make them shorter and more frequent. I have a few pieces of more "literary" entries almost ready, so be on the lookout for them. Subscribe, if you haven't already, so that you get emailed automatically when I post an entry.

I think back to that crazy week that began with my comment about not wanting to die staring at the back of that damn bush and I am so profoundly grateful that I made it here. I have the  Health, hope, creativity, and curiosity to make it through this transition gracefully. I have Steve, who is wonderful beyond belief in his sense of presence, love, and commitment to making a new life together here. And I have all these old friends and colleagues who have surfaced to welcome me Home, even though we're all just passing through.