About Me

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Born in the US, raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, lived in Italy, the US, and Canada. Lover of language, travel, colour, and the natural world.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Little gifts of summer

I woke up this morning to sunshine streaming in my windows and the sound of birdcall outside in the garden. There are many things I find challenging about life in California, but the weather is not one of them. Having grown up with hot summers characterized by long lazy days hanging out on the beach and swimming in the crystal clear turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, sitting in cafes sipping cold Nescafe frappes and long nights out at outdoor bars until the wee hours of the morning, anything less than scorching hot weather makes me feel like I have skipped a season altogether. A glance at the newspaper tells me it is going to be my kind of day: 40 and counting.

I have been living, or as I tend to tell people, “visiting” California since May, having decided to uproot myself from my home of the last six years on Prince Edward Island, Canada at the beginning of February and blaze a trail through the snow covered contours of the continent in my Toyota Corolla, visiting friends and places of significance to me along the way. I moved to Prince Edward Island to do my Master’s degree in Island Studies in 2004, graduated in 2008 and then stayed on past graduation to get hands on experience working on Raymond Loo’s Springwillow Farms and Anne’s PEI Farm, a group of innovative and creative farmers scattered across the Island who are developing new markets for Island produce. The grant that was supporting me ended in January 2010 and something in me kept telling me that it was time for a change.

Despite the objections of my family and a number of friends (“Alone? You are driving a used vehicle across the country in the middle of winter alone?”) and my own uncertainty about leaving a community I had come to love and appreciate so deeply, I left Canada on the heels of a snowstorm, spending the next six weeks weaving my way through northern Maine, Montreal, Connecticut, Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, rural Iowa and Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Arizona and California. My first stop that was not snow-covered was Tucson. My destination was my parents’ home in Sacramento, California.

I have been in California for about three months now. I intended to use this as a base to catapult me into my next adventure: farming in Latin America or teaching English in China. Instead, after my initial push to send out my resume and connect to potential work opportunities yielded no results, I have spent the last three months spinning my wheels in a seemingly ever-deeper rut in the road.

This past week the news of the death of a very close friend, Ruth Hampson, helped me to realize that it was time to change my approach to my new surroundings and situation. I had driven out of my way on my journey west to see Ruth. I had been visiting a friend in Boulder, Colorado, and intended to head from there to Prescott Arizona. Ruth was living in an elderly people’s home in Salt Lake City, Utah. I was starting to get a bit tired of all the intense driving in bad weather conditions, so driving into prime ski country was not terribly appealing at the time, but I had not seen Ruth in years, and at 90, I was not sure when I would get to see her again, so I took the detour and stopped to see her for a weekend.

I had met Ruth when I was about 8 years old when she and her husband Arthur moved to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus from the US in their 70s. They made a strong impression on me as a child, moving around the world to a country where they did not speak the language, buying mopeds as their primary means of transportation and bringing along their mountain bikes for when they felt the need for more vigorous exercise. Ruth was a beautiful, classy and mentally sharp woman with a courage that seemed unshakeable. She had been approached to do movies as a young woman but decided to turn away from the world of film because she wanted to have the time to dedicate herself to serving humanity in her day-to-day life. Ruth was a Baha’i, and she taught a childrens class that I attended as a child. She was an excellent baker and cook, loved to read, and had no qualms about jumping off the top of a waterfall, speeding along mountain roads on her moped or learning Greek in her 70s. Ruth taught me was that we only get one chance at this life, so we had better seize the day and get out there and live it. She had no patience for people who wallowed or felt sorry for themselves, and more than once gave me a rather sharp piece of her mind when I made me mistake of complaining about a situation that I felt I wad enduring that did not seem fair or pleasant.

Ruth and her husband Arthur left Cyprus years ago to return to the US because he had had a stroke that left him paralysed on one side of his body. I continued to visit them over the years: in Cortez, Colorado; in Eloy, Arizona, and elsewhere. When I visited Ruth this last time she was suffering from Alzheimer’s, so our conversations followed a cycle of reminding her who I was followed by a period of very deep discussion about life, love (“I miss Arthur a lot. I love him very much. He was a wonderful man”); friendship (“Who did we know when we were in Cyprus? Tell me about the friends we had in Cyprus”) and God and death (I really feel I am ready to die, but I am still here so apparently God is not ready for me yet. He must still have something He thinks I should be doing, but I just cannot figure out what that might be”) and then back to determining who I was again (“who are you again?” “I am Ariana.” “Really? Well I knew an Ariana once, but she was just a little girl.” “Yes, I am that little girl. All grown up.” “How old are you now?” “I am 31.” “Really? Well then how old does that make me?” “You are 90.” “Oh dear. Am I really? That is just too old. I really should be dead. You really are a very kind lady, Ariana. Thank you so much for coming to visit me and saying prayers with me"). Despite her memory loss, we discussed deeper themes than I usually reflect upon with my completely lucid friends. I had no idea that five months later Ruth would pass away, but I was deeply impressed by the fact that despite being incapacitated by age and memory loss she was not content to just pass her days idly in bed. She was still asking herself what God wanted her to do in this life in the brief time she had left.

When I received the news of Ruth’s passing I was in the midst of a wild wheel spinning party, wondering where I had gone wrong and why I had still not found my next step in life after all the heartfelt prayers I had sent out to the universe to direct me on my way. The news of her passing made me realize it was time to stop wallowing in self-pity and make some positive changes in my daily activities.

The first thing I did was sign up for ten days of unlimited yoga classes at a local studio. I have never been all that into yoga. I have always preferred activities that are more vigorous, like running. But many of my closest friends are yoga teachers, and have explained to me that one of the primary focuses of yoga practice is to learn how to be present in the here and now so that you can really focus your life’s energies towards living the richest, fullest life you are capable of. I figured it was worth a try. I started on a perfect hot sticky Monday evening with a meditation class and then decided to challenge myself to doing two yoga classes a day: a dynamic class at 6am, and a balanced or mellow evening class to stretch out my sore muscles so that getting up the next day and doing it all again was even an option.

I have been doing yoga for four days now, and somehow managed to drag myself out of bed at 5.15am four days in a row and be in class at 6 sharp despite not being a morning person by any stretch of the imagination. The morning classes are intense and require my body to do things that I have not asked it to do in a long time. We do sun salutations; we balance on one foot with one hand reaching towards the floor and the other towards the ceiling and our other leg floating out behind us parallel to the floor; we do all sorts of headstand varieties; downward dog; sphinx; cobra; we kneel on our elbows and balance on our wrists; we do push-ups masquerading as releases from other poses; we do back bends and back arches and side bends and child’s pose. We challenge our bodies to be strong and flexible and our minds to be courageous and open to the unfamiliar. Most importantly we practice presence through focusing on deep breathing and letting go of the constant chatter that fills my mind all day long. It has been so long since I did these types of movements that I have to learn to rebuild the strength I used to have. Accepting where I am and finding compassion for where I am while still being willing to push myself through moments of discomfort and struggle is humbling. Experiencing my body grow stronger and more sure of itself reminds me how grateful I am for a strong healthy body.

The evening classes are more about breathing and learning to surrender, to be vulnerable and to accept my present reality and who I am in this moment without being critical or judgmental. As we move through a series of slow poses our teachers share thoughts, ideas and reflections with us to help us focus our minds and hearts. My first evening class the teacher shared: “Maybe you are exactly where you need to be. Maybe you don’t know what is best for you right now and you just need to trust that whatever is happening – wherever you are – is precisely what you need right now to help you move forward to where you are supposed to be going.” Last night I went to a mellow yoga class that was very quiet and meditative. Lying on my back with my eyes shut my teacher came around the room placing smooth hot black stones in the centre of our bellies, and asked us to visualize planting a seed in our body and then watching it grow and turn into a tree and blossom. Holding the hot stone in my palm took me back to an early evening walk I had taken on Brackley beach on Prince Edward Island a year ago. I had found a beautiful swirling olive green pebble that I carried cool against my palm as I walked along the shore. When it came time to go, I did not want to take it with me. I was already wondering where I was headed and had been praying for inspiration. Before leaving, I knelt down facing the ocean, dug a hole in the sand and ‘planted’ my stone as a seed of hope. Lying on my back in the yoga studio, the smooth black rock in my hands seemed to be a confirmation that although I could not see how, I was on the right track.

After leaving my Friday evening yoga class I floated across the city to join my parents and some friends at the Shakespeare in the Park festival for a picnic supper followed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream outside under the clear starry summer sky. Lying back against pillows on my back, my laughter merging with the laughter of those around me, I recalled the many hours I spent over the last two summers nestled in tall grasses on Prince Edward Island watching the black vault above get streaked by shooting star after shooting star and the moon wading her way through silver clouds.

This morning while I was eating breakfast barefoot in the kitchen I heard the sound of mail being slid into the mailbox. Louise Mould, a close friend living on Prince Edward Island had told me I should be expecting something in the mail so I had been expectantly dashing to the mailbox every morning hoping that the mysterious envelope had arrived. This morning I was lucky. Sitting at the kitchen table I sliced open the envelope and reached inside, drawing out a tiny notebook that looked familiar and a handmade card with a print of one of Louise’s beautiful paintings on the front of it. The notebook, it turned out, was one I had discarded in my rush to get out of my house on the Island in January. Louise had picked it up, taken it home and filled the pages with beautiful, intricately patterned and textured pen and ink drawings. Having filled the last page, her note in the front cover said, she thought I “might like it back.” I have been flipping through the pages all day soaking up the shapes that shift through the seasons, noting the incorporation of southwestern shapes during the time Louise had been in New Mexico and the lotus and flowering shapes that slowly emerge as she moved through spring. Louise is always full of beauty and wisdom that seem to float like water lilies upon a deep green pond in late summer. Her brightly coloured paintings swirl blinding sunshine, saturated lush vegetation, rolling hills and swaying Cypresses across the walls of my parents’ house.

Opening my email I find more inspiration. An email from Andy Adams from Prince Edward Island – a reincarnation of the BFG (Big Friendly Giant) from Roald Dahl’s children’s books who mastered the art of gluten free baking while I was living on the Island so that he could bake pumpkin scones (his specialty) that I could eat. Andy, a tall man with a big beard and a booming laugh, is one of the most gentle and loving souls I have ever met. He is also a supportive husband, a loving father and an enthusiastic and active volunteer, always stepping up to help out with cooking and catering, hosting and making everyone feel welcome at community events. Andy’s email was full of encouragement for me on my journey, and I finish reading feeling awe at the brilliant friends I have made during my six years in Canada.

I also have an email from my friend Rafael who is visiting her boyfriend in Chile before heading to Mexico to continue her PhD research on desert oases; Ahava, a woman who is in equal measure a writer, story teller, healer, mediator and organic farmer who, having just completed her PhD is establishing a centre for women on her organic farm on Saltspring Island in British Columbia and who was writing to invite me to come up to the farm; Margie Loo, an organic farmer on Prince Edward Island and woman of immense power, grace and strength who has taught and continues to teach me the beauty to be found in following my heart, and Daniel, a newfound friend whose enthusiasm and commitment to serving and growing in new directions and his light hearted approach to everything is a constant delight to me as I watch him teach yoga, learn about green architecture, write children’s stories and spend weeks of his summer volunteering in Bulgaria to help restore an old farm and turn it into an artists retreat.

Taking a break from writing this blog, I find that the lettuce seeds I planted only a few days ago are already sprouting, tiny green shoots pushing up through the soil. The fine line of green reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend last summer who was struggling through a rough patch in life. We wandered out into his olive grove under which he had planted a vegetable garden, most of which was dead due to lack of watering. Usually very conscientious, I asked him why he was not watering it and he replied that he just didn’t see the point. The only thing still alive were his hardy onions, their green stalks a tribute to the ability of living things to survive even the harshest conditions. An avid farmer, I pointed out that the onions were still alive, and that even that little bit of green was worth hoping for. As we watered the onions, the hot dusty wind blowing through the grove I remember thinking how inspiring and healing working the earth can be. We nicknamed his onions “onions of hope.”

I have no idea where I am headed, but I am learning gratitude for the gift of rich, inspiring friendships, the miracle of planting a seed and watching it grow, and the process of learning to remain present with my heart, my mind and my body.

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