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.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

On Being Connected

The wind is blowing through the enormous oaks outside. It is the third week of October and I went out to breakfast this morning with my journal and pen wearing a t-shirt and sandals. Sunlight filtered down through the Japanese maple that formed a canopy above my head. In the background a fountain bubbled peacefully. It is almost 20 degrees Celsius today. Ok so maybe it is not exactly hot, but still rather disorienting after six years of chilly autumns on Prince Edward Island. I am missing the dramatic shift through flaming fall colours that I looked forward to every year in Atlantic Canada. When I call friends there they bemoan the onset of winter, and I ask myself if the only reason I am missing it is because it is no longer my present reality.

This past Saturday I went to a yoga class in McKinley Park. There were about 60 of us out there under the trees. By the end of practice it was so hot I was sweating. The class was amazing, but I found myself feeling, as I have been feeling frequently since arriving in California, like I was on a movie set. Yoga in the park in October? Sunshine and lush vegetation and coffee shops and perfectly manicured gardens whose owners I never actually see working in them. I am surrounded by a culture of abundance and ease and comfort, and it makes me uncomfortable for some reason. If I want to pay a bill, I can get online and pay it. With most coffee shops offering free wireless, I could pay my bills while sitting outside in a lush garden sipping a latte and talking to a friend on an iphone. I find myself comparing this to hours of pushing and shoving through a line in Rome only to be informed by an irritated bureaucrat enveloped in cigarette smoke that pours out through the slot intended to receive money that I am in the wrong line. Most people would prefer paying online while comfortably seated in the local coffee shop, but for some reason I feel more comfortable when I am less comfortable. When I have to struggle a bit. When I have to engage with another human being, however frustrating that process proves to be, in order to pay my bills. And yes, I do recognize the irony of my considering life in Rome less comfortable. In comparison to many areas of the world, my entire life has been a steady flow of abundance. My discomfort fills me with questions.

I was watching a comedy act about the “iphone culture”. The one where everything the talker in a conversation says is compared visually (by the “listener”) with whatever is happening on the phone’s screen, and where the person with the phone takes frequent, albeit subtle downward glances at their phones. At one point the comedian asks: “what kind of culture is this? Is it ok for me to hold a magazine up in front of my face while someone is talking to me?” The clip was funny. But it was funny because it points out how unable we are to simply be present with each other. How we have this almost addictive need to be over-stimulated. Since when was an uninterrupted conversation with a friend not stimulating enough?

I was talking to an acquaintance the other day on Facebook chat. He is a photographer, and has a few pieces in a show that just opened in Philadelphia. His photographs are of people being distracted. I am intrigued by the idea of going to an art gallery to look at photos of myself being distracted. How would that make me feel? How would that make people who enjoy their phones and computers, watching television and playing video games more than I do feel? I ask him if he thinks it might make people change how they spend their time. He says he doesn’t know. “Why would they want to?” he asks me.

I know. I sound old. I see it in the expression of horror on the faces of my peers when they ask me why their text messages are not going through to me and I explain that it is because the number I gave them is a land line. Admitting to not owning is cell phone is akin to social suicide in California. I do not get invited out on social outings not because I am not welcome but because I am simply not in the loop. Not connected. Watching disbelief flash across the faces of new acquaintances has become my favourite new source of entertainment. I stand in social circles watching the introductions and flashing screens as names and contact information is exchanged. Connections being made at the speed of light.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not against progress. I just would rather hear a person’s story before I record their contact details. I would like to be able to associate a name and phone number with a personal story. A few days ago a friend asked me if I had the phone number for a mutual friend because his cell phone was not working, and that was the only place he had it recorded. I recited it to him from memory and he stood there staring at me aghast as if I had grown a second set of ears. “Do you know all of your friend’s phone numbers by heart?” he asked me. I had to admit that yes, I do.

I was walking through the park the other day and found a piece of folded up paper blowing along the sidewalk. I stopped to pick it up. It had a woman’s name and number neatly printed across it. It made me wonder what connection had potentially been lost when the recipient of this piece of paper had dropped – purposefully or accidentally—this woman’s contact information? It also made me think about the envelopes I have in my bedroom labelled by country with contact names and numbers and email addresses for friends scattered all across the world, some of them ripped off the corners of envelopes that had contained hand written letters, some of them scrolled on the corner of a newspaper or on a piece of art paper with a small doodle next to the information. One woman, a painter, wrote her contact information on a thick piece of high quality painting paper that she had used to test out the hue of a deep blue paint she had been using for one of her pieces. Whenever I wanted to call her I would thumb through my pile of contacts looking for the blue paint that reminded me of a late summer meal we enjoyed on the back porch of her home bathed in early evening golden light, after a long day on the beach, looking out at the deep blue Atlantic Ocean.

The Mexican yard crew are outside blowing leaves into piles and bagging them up and taking them away. They are on our block every day pruning, weeding, and bagging leaves. Interacting with the soil and making sure that all the gardens are beautiful. I struggle with the lack of intimate interaction between landowners (or in our case, renters) and the places we call home. Yes, it creates more jobs and is perhaps a more efficient use of time. While homeowners are at work, our homes are cleaned and our gardens manicured so that when we come home we can use the little time we have when we are not working to actually enjoy being at home. But what about jumping in the crunchy fall leaves? What about the excitement of planting bulbs that we know will push up out of the soil and blossom come spring? What about watching the squirrels dig holes to bury nuts and seeds for the winter months? What about those connections?

Every culture has its way of experiencing life. In Canada we rubbed up against the natural world – the soil, the sky, the snow and rain and wind, and the salty smell of the ocean every day. With the vastness of the natural world around us, it was hard not to. It was a rare night that I did not look up to see what phase the moon was in or search for the big and small dippers or the North Star. We moved slowly and inhaled deeply. Here I drive on six lane highways, do yoga to slow down, and catch glimpses of the moon through the trees every now and then as I am closing the blinds at night. I find remaining present to the natural world more of a struggle. I find myself surfing the Internet while talking on the phone and eating my breakfast. I find myself paying bills online. I listen to the wind whispering through the oaks and the roar of traffic rushing back and forth up and down the oak-lined street we live on. I wonder about connections and presence, sip hot herbal tea, think about what I will cook for supper tonight, what my friends back on Prince Edward Island, in Cyprus and Lebanon are doing in this moment, and about calling a friend that I have been too busy to connect with for over a week. I ask myself how I can remain connected but not distracted. Live in abundance, but still find the balance of moderation. 

How do you stay present and connected to your community and the natural world? What does presence look like for you?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Willing to Not Know

This last week I made a big decision. I decided that I am going to give myself a chance to write. This is no small feat, having been unemployed for going on nine months now. There are things I want to do: like attend friends’ weddings; travel to Iceland, Central and South America, China, and Japan; go out to delicious, colourful meals with friends and family; yoga classes. The list is endless, and it all costs money which I am not, in this precise moment, actually earning.

Talking to close friends over the last few weeks, it seems like we all come to places in life where, although at some level we know with absolute certainty that this is just a finite low period in our lives, we ask ourselves where we are headed? What are we intended to do with our lives? What purpose do our lives have? Ultimately all of these questions lead me to the question: how is my life of value to the world?

I don’t know about you, but I know when I am in a space where these questions are spinning in my head and unsettled in my heart, the silent answer that I never give voice to because I generally would rather people not know is “none.” It’s not that I actually think that I am not of value as a member of the human race. It’s just that for brief windows of time I seem to be momentarily unable to see the larger picture – how this valley fits into the mountain range of life.

I was reading a book this past week. It is called My Grandfather’s Blessings. It is written by Rachel Naomi Remen, who is a physician with a remarkable gift for looking through whatever might be momentarily obscuring a person’s innate spiritual truth and identifying and nurturing the gems that lie hidden within that individual’s soul. Fortunately, in addition to working with individuals, Rachel is also a master story-teller, and she recognizes the power of sharing the stories of the many miraculous lives that have rubbed up against her own over the years with the rest of us. You know how when you meet a truly remarkable person, and their story inspires you to push onwards on your own journey? Well her book is infused with story after story of inspiring lives lived with integrity, passion and courage.

I had lunch yesterday with one of my best friends. Like most of my friends, who want to see me happy and feeling like a valuable member of society again, she was asking if I had found work yet. I explained to her that I was trying to give myself a chance to explore my writing as a career. She suggested I get a part time job to supplement my income while I do this. She also explained that if I told someone in India or China that I was taking time to figure out what I wanted to dedicate my life’s energies to – to explore work that is a natural expression of who I am instead of pouring my energy into work that fits the mould of what others would deem acceptable or successful for a woman with my background and abilities – that they would shake their head and say I must be a spoiled brat. I was shocked. Not that someone would think this way, because I recognize that for those who are just trying to put food on the table for their families, following your heart is usually not a priority. I was shocked that she would share this with me because she had been told this by an elderly woman in China as a young woman when she was trying to figure out her own path in life. But I think that I was most shocked because her comment gave voice to a silent question that hangs over my head every day: what right do I have to follow my heart and find work that I love when so many people around me are struggling? And what makes me think that I will have anything of value to say that people will actually want to read?

I have a nagging suspicion that I am not the first writer to ask myself if I really have anything to say that has not already been said, and said better than I could ever say it. Still, part of what makes the illusion of being in an endless valley of uncertainty so hard, is that when you are in it, it feels like you are there alone, and that you are the only person ever to confront your own purpose in life in this way.

Thankfully, we all have friends who are more than happy to shatter the illusion that nobody else has ever wondered what their purpose in life is. And we have books that share the stories and dreams of other people, who just like you and I, went through periods where they were standing on a cliff trying to decide whether it would be better to remain on the cliff enjoying the view that they knew was certain or to leap off into the unknown, hoping that the act of faith they were taking by leaping would induce wings to grow in the place where none had existed before. As Ruth Naomi Remen says, “sometimes someone dreams a dream for us all.”

People ask me whether I think there is a market for what I have to say. I feel myself getting defensive, and then I realize that it is a valid question coming from a society where we are taught over and over that only certain forms of expression are valuable. When I look back through my still relatively short life, there is not one person I have come into contact with who has not had something of value to share, and more often than not those friends and acquaintances who have not inspired me in some specific way are simply those who I have not listened to. If I gave them my time and my focus, I feel quite certain they would have stories that would move me, inspire me, make me feel something that I did not feel before.

One of the stories that moved me in Rachel Naomi Remen’s book is about an epiphany she had once while walking through a labyrinth. Last fall a friend of mine did a one-day workshop on the life of the soul. She had us all drive out to a beautiful remote area on the north shore of Prince Edward Island. The beach was endless and open, the waves were crashing on the shore, white and frothy, the water itself the colour of grey pearls. The air was salty. Behind the beach were tall sand dunes and behind them a scrubland of wild rosehip bushes covered in ruby coloured rosehips. Behind the bushes was a stand of evergreen trees through which wove an intricate network of walking paths. My friend explained to everyone present that we were going to walk silently through the forest in a sort of walking meditation. Our walk would end at a labyrinth made of shells collected from the beach. We would stand silently around the labyrinth and then slowly and silently walk it, leaving a space of a few minutes between us so that while we were having a collective experience in that we were doing it together, we were also very much on an individual journey with plenty of space for personal thoughts, prayer and reflection. 

I have to admit that I had my uncertainties about it when she explained what we were going to do. I had not expected any such activity when I agreed to attend her workshop. But I decided to open myself to the moment, and found it to be a deep and profoundly moving experience. 

My own experience made Rachel Naomi Remen’s insights more profound. She explains that when you walk into a labyrinth, you seem to be headed right towards the centre, when in reality you are as far from the centre as you could possibly be. And that right before you reach the centre, you are actually walking near the outermost edge of the labyrinth. Her epiphany was that although many times in life it had seemed that she was headed in what seemed to be a random direction, perhaps every step had in fact been very purposefully headed toward the centre. Perhaps, she says, the times that seem to be meaningless or wasteful only seem random because she is still on her path, and that one day, when she is at the centre point, looking outwards, she will realize that the perspective afforded by being at the end of life might completely alter the value and meaning of every one of her life’s experiences.

I was talking to a friend on the phone today back in Canada who also feels as though she is walking through a valley right now. She was with me when I walked that labyrinth back on Prince Edward Island so I shared Rachel Naomi Remen’s story with her. She told me that it resonated with her, and reminded her of something her mother had shared with her once: “Be completely present in whatever moment you are living, and enjoy that moment.” She explained that it was easier to do this when her kids were young and at home. That she enjoyed being a mother. But presence is harder for her now that her kids are married and living on the opposite side of the world. We agreed that presence always seems easier in the past than it is in the present. She and I are in different places in life, but our dream of finding joy, purpose and acceptance in the present moment is shared.

Some of us are better at giving ourselves permission to pursue and succeed at what we love. For some of us, giving ourselves permission to follow our hearts takes practice. Rachel Naomi Remen says that “wisdom comes most easily to those who have the courage to embrace life without judgement and are willing to not know, sometimes for a long time.”

Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada. In California the leaves are still green, the cool breeze blowing through the oaks the only sign that we are finally moving into fall. I woke up this morning grasping for something to move me into this day, and am ending it feeling grateful for many friends that enrich my life. Friends that question, reflect, remind me to laugh and look to the natural world for wonder and awe and healing. And friends that believe in me when I am in a valley. I am also thankful for words and letters. For the gift of writing. And for the recognition that I am one of those who is going to have to learn how to give myself permission to pursue my dreams. And to succeed. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Indulging in Napa

This past weekend my parents and I took a day trip to Napa, a.k.a. California’s very own Tuscany, and the heart of wine country. Napa is rolling hills of fertile soils sown with grape vineyards, long driveways that curve up the sides of hills lined with Cypress trees, and enormous wineries with accompanying mansions. Many of the wineries are open to the public, so visitors make a day of it, driving from one winery to the next tasting wine and cheese, and stopping at one of the many restaurants offering a wide variety of delicious, often locally grown food.

My parents and I are not wine drinkers, but we do love the view of an endless sea of grape vines trailing off in perfect rows of sun-struck green and red-tinged braids of colours, and lit up by the golden fall sun and contrasted against the clear blue sky above. Napa is also known for hot springs that are scattered across the valley in profusion, and provide visitors with breaks between the drinking and eating that fills the rest of the day and night. 

My parents and I wanted to check out a restaurant called Mustards Grill (http://www.mustardsgrill.com/), which is the mother ship eatery of master chef and avid gardener Cindy Pawlcyn, who named the grill after the wild mustard flowers that bloom in Napa’s vineyards every spring. Cindy is considered a pioneer in the development of wine country cuisine, and went on to open two other restaurants in Napa Valley: Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen and Go Fish. My mother had wanted to dine at Mustards because she was excited about being able to take a stroll through the grill’s adjoining two-acre organic garden that provides 20% of the restaurants produce year-round. Unfortunately, not realizing how popular her restaurants are, my parents and I made the mistake of waiting to make a reservation until Saturday morning, which meant the first lunch reservation opening was at 3 – a bit late for lunch dining. Fortunately, Mustards website provided links to Cindy’s two other restaurants, so we opted to eat at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen. 

Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen (http://www.cindysbackstreetkitchen.com/) is located in the quaint town of St. Helena, nestled right in the middle of Napa Valley. It feels small and cosy despite having a rather large floor plan with seating outside in a garden filled with colourful blossoms, indoor ground floor seating as well as upstairs dining. Before being served what struck me most about Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen was how simple the décor was and how light seemed to saturate the space from every direction. In many ways it reminded me in style of the many whitewashed stone tavernas that I have eaten at on the Greek islands. 

The menu was one page but had a wide array of vegetarian, meat, fish and gluten-free options. They also had a number of creative, refreshing non-alchoholic drinks. I ordered a “No-heat-O,” which was a combination of fresh lime juice, an extremely generous amount of fresh mint leaves, sugar cane juice and sparkling water. Unlike many drinks that have mint in them, this one really tasted like mint, and was delicious. So good in fact that I ordered a second! 

Before our meal, our server brought us a basket of fresh, warm bread with butter. They did not have any gluten free bread, which was a disappointment, but my parents said the bread was excellent. For starters my mom and I had papaya and avocado salad -- tangy and creamy – perfect for a late summer/early fall day. 

I ordered wild mushroom tamales for my mail course and it was one of the best meals I have ever had. The tamale was wrapped in chard and filled and garnished with at least three different varieties of mushrooms that were juicy and richly flavourful. The stuffing also included blanched almonds and garlic. The dish had a tomato sauce over it that was also delicious. I have to say that this was one of the most exceptional dishes I have ever eaten. And the presentation of the meal was a work of art. High points for the entrée!

We did check out the dessert menu, but we were all too full to seriously consider ordering anything from it. I did notice that there was only one gluten free option – so not a lot of choice there.

After lunch we walked up and down St.Helena’s streets enjoying the funky/classy shops, trying on colourful free-trade jewellery, browsing the books in a used book store, and enjoying the modern art and furniture stores (including one place that had an eclectic mix of things: an inlaid carved bone coffee table, a ruby pendant on a gold chain, an intricately hand-carved Moroccan table and a hand-woven wall hanging/throw that combined rusts, ruby, oranges and crimsons to create a tapestry that, had it not been for the price tag, we would have snatched up immediately).

Our meanderings culminated at a local coffee joint that serves up some pretty good freshly ground joe and unsweetened mango iced tea which I will probably pass on next time (I have yet to understand why all iced tea in California is unsweetened). The place had a welcoming warm atmosphere though, and outdoor seating for warmer days. 

We decided to spend the rest of the afternoon out enjoying the beautiful scenery of Napa, so we got directions from a fellow working in an outdoors recreation shop to nearby Lake Hennessey, wine country’s trout and bass fishing Mecca. It was about 6 or 7 miles out of town, along a narrow road that winded through beautiful grape vineyard countryside. Unfortunately the directions we were given did not take us to a place that we could access the fire road that apparently circles the lake, so we had to walk along the paved road, which had little shade. Still, the lake was stunningly beautiful and amazingly peaceful. 

Many of the trees, which were enormous and beautiful, were being attacked by some sort of parasite that looked like a hairy kind of moss. 

The air was filled with birds, which made me wish I had brought my binoculars. And the only two other people there were both fishing. We even saw a snow crane arc gracefully over the surface of the water, its wide wings fluid like white silk. 

It landed high up in the branches of a pine on the shore – a white mirage resting high up in the tree limbs.

We left the lake as the sun started sinking into the earth, and stopped in Calistoga (well known for its hot springs) for another hot drink before hitting the road. The coffee shop was next door to a tax office that had a fantastic array of old typewriters in its display window. 

The coffee shop itself was colourful and eclectic, and afforded a great view of everything happening on the town’s hopping main street. They even had what seemed to me like a great service policy, and one I cannot imagine seeing anywhere but California: 

We left and headed back to Sacramento watching the tangerine and peach coloured sunset stretch long across the furrowed hillsides in the rear view mirror. 

Overall a super day. Note to self: must return to Napa soon to indulge in some hot spring pampering. And maybe next time I’ll book myself a reservation ahead of time at Mustards.