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.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

20,000 chances to change a life

I found out late this afternoon that Vanessa Diffenbaugh, author of The Language of Flowers, which I finished reading late late last night, was giving a reading this evening at the library downtown, so I grabbed my book and headed out to hear her.

Vanessa's novel intrigues me for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is about using the language of flowers --the secret meanings that various flowers were given in the Victorian era--to express emotions and sentiments that are difficult (or impossible, as the case is for the main character in this novel) to express any other way. When I was a child I came across the Victorian definition for flowers. I do not recall now where it was, but I recall very distinctly making a list of flowers and their meanings on a piece of paper that I am certain is still stuck between the pages of one of my childhood journals. I distinctly remember the yellow rose, which my source said stood for jealousy (why I remember that flower in particular stumps me). I have not seen that list in many years, but the minute I read about Vanessa's novel, it took me back to the little piece of paper that I carried around with me (and no, in case you are wondering, I never gave anyone a yellow rose).

The second reason that Vanessa's novel interests me is the amount of re-writing she had to do to get it to the point where it was ready to be published. I could not be more grateful for the honesty with which she spoke about the process or writing and re-writing and re-writing, and then trying to get it published. Hearing her reaffirmed for me that people do actually make it through this process of writing and re-writing a novel, and come out the other end successful. For some reason in my mind I have this idea that the people whose novels are a success write the perfect first draft with no significant editing necessary. I know people SAY that they had to do a lot of editing, but I always had this idea that they were just saying what you are supposed to say when you publish a novel. But Vanessa confirmed it this evening. It is a hell of a lot of work to write a novel, and the writing is only the first step in a very, very long journey. It requires humility, and a dogged determination that THIS NOVEL is THE NOVEL you are supposed to be writing, and that you will keep working at it until it IS ready.

The third thing that interests me about Vanessa is that she is from Sacramento. She actually is from the neighbourhood that I currently live in. She grew up here. Also, as I found out this evening, she actually did a good deal of her writing sitting in a coffee shop that I sit in to write on a regular basis. Another misconception blown out of the water -- I always pictured published authors as living in exotic places, or at least big cities like Paris or New York. Wrong again. She has traveled to Amsterdam and Paris and London on her book tour this year, but before that she was sitting just down the street from me typing away at a table I may have been sitting at yesterday. Yes-- Vanessa has given me a lot to reflect on this evening.

One thing that had not intrigued me was the topic of foster children. Adoption is something I have thought about. Foster children I have never thought about. Not once. But it turns out that foster children are one of the reasons that Vanessa wrote her book. At age 21 the children she had babysat every weekend became homeless. Vanessa took them home at the end of the weekend and was met at the door by their grandmother who held out bags packed with their clothes and told Vanessa that she could not take care of them. I cannot imagine being given such an enormous responsibility at age 21. Vanessa took these children home with her and took care of them until she realized she was going to have to turn them over to the foster care system. She explained that it was heartbreaking to give them up, but even more heartbreaking to watch as they were moved from home to home, separated from each other, and made to live in truly sad living situations. From that point forward improving foster care became an issue that Vanessa has devoted her time and energy to bringing to people's attention. 

At the end of the reading tonight Vanessa explained that today over 20,000 teenagers in the United States emancipate from the foster care system every year, and many of these youth become homeless or incarcerated within two years. Many of these youth have dreams and skills and passions, but are simply lacking the support to pursue them. Often what they need to help them take the next step is something extremely simple. An example she gave was the story of a local youth living here in the Sacramento area who had been given a full scholarship to go to college, but he had decided not to go. The reason? He had no way to GET TO college, and he had nowhere to live between June when he finished high school, and when college actually started in August. Fortunately the young man connected with some of Vanessa's colleagues, and they hooked him up with a ride to college and talked the school into letting him move into the dorms early. Those two simple gestures of love changed that youth's life.

Vanessa is using her novel as a way to highlight the ways that regular people, like you or I, can help these youth to make that transition, and move on to lead happy, successful lives. That a new pair of shoes, a ride, or even a ten dollar bill could save a youth's life. Small things really, when you think about it, in comparison to the capacity that these kids have to change the world when they are empowered by their community to be agents of change. 

At the end of the reading Vanessa signed books and passed out blooming bookmarks (yes, they actually bloom flowers if you plant them in the soil and water them) to promote an organization that she is spearheading, along with a few local dynamite friends. The organization is called Camellia Network, and the group's mission is to invite you (and me) to be part of these kids' stories. Sound inspiring? That's because it is. And apparently a number of former and current foster kids think so too because a number of them turned up at the reading tonight to support this initiative. If you are interested in finding a way to be of service to your community, check Camellia Network out. It is a practical, personal way that we can build stronger, richer, happier communities.

So glad I took the time to go down town. If you get the chance, do pick up a copy of Vanessa's novel. It is a great read, and hopefully it will inspire you to reach out to a foster youth in your community. Maybe not as a foster parent, but there are so many other ways to support these youth as they begin their lives as adults.

Have a great day! And see you on Friday!

Monday, August 29, 2011

The language of flowers

The sun is shining through my window as I write this. It is yet another clear blue hot sunny day here in California. I am sipping a hot cup of tea with milk and honey. The flowers in the photo above are ones I planted from seed, grew, and harvested from the youth garden at Soil Born Farm, where I volunteer. Over the last few weeks Guy has invited me to harvest vegetables and flowers to take home. There is something magical about flowers that you grow with your own hands. Flowers that you have seen in a garden, peering at you over the tomato vines, buzzing with feeding bees in the sunshine after the drip irrigation has gone off and everything smells sweet. I experience all of that when I look at this vase of flowers on the table.

I am started reading a novel late last night called The Language of Flowers: A Novel, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. I had seen a review of the book in the paper, and then last night I came out to dinner and there it was, sitting on my chair at the dinner table, a gift from my mother. After a weekend of working all day and half the night both Saturday and Sunday researching an article that is due to an editor on Wednesday, it was heavenly to be able to climb into bed last night with a new novel, especially one with such a gorgeous title.

I have been practicing gratitude lately. I keep thinking that I will forget, but every night before I fall asleep I lie in bed and come up with five things I was grateful for that day. Last night I was totally exhausted, and feeling slightly frustrated by how long the research for the article I am working on was taking me, so I was surprised when I managed to come up with my list relatively quickly (yes, sometimes I have to really think. Hard).

My list last night was:

1. The delicious supper of pasta and large, colourful salad that my parents prepared last night while I worked on my research.
2. The novel that my mom had sitting on my chair when I came out to join them for supper.
3. That I am another day closer to finishing this article I am working on, which is in a genre that I am realizing has taught me a lot about writing and editing, but is not bringing me as much joy as writing about food and drink or more creative fiction or non-fiction pieces. I am grateful that I have persisted in getting this article written even though it is has been a bit grueling.
4. The way the sun shone through the trees and dusted the back garden late yesterday afternoon when I wandered outside barefoot for a breath of fresh air, and to look at the sky for a while, instead of my computer screen.
5. My parents. Their never-ending love and support no matter what. 

I have been noticing that taking the time to be grateful is slowly but surely increasing my conscious awareness of the good things in my life. The light. Friends. My family. It is definitely making things shift. I am not sure how this will reverberate out into other areas of life, but I will keep you posted. For now however, I am going to sign off, enjoy the rest of my cuppa tea, and tune into my dear friend Ahava Shira's Monday afternoon radio show, Love in the Afternoon (1pm, every Monday).

I think I already know what one of my five things on today's list is going to be :-)

Have a great, gratitude-filled week friends!!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Creating a vision

“.. almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” - Steve Jobs
I love this quote by Steve Jobs. He has given so much to the world by being a living example of his own advice in this quote, too. Walking the talk.   
Wednesday evening the group of women that I usually join for devotions on a particular spiritual virtue met up to make vision boards for our lives. Our host, Robin, had baked delicious quiches (and she made me my own little quiches that looked like egg muffins, but were really cute little quiches without the crust!); one of the other women brought a salad, and I brought Lady's Slipper iced tea. We enjoyed our supper outside on the patio next to a sign that read: "Hippies use the back gate." 
After supper we pulled out all our art materials and spread out across the living room, covering it in sheets of stickers, pens, magazines, paper, scissors, sparkles, and glue sticks. The next four hours we worked and played, talked and laughed, all while creating a vision for the next year of our lives. 
We cut and pasted, flipped through page after page of magazines, ripped paper, wrote, and reflected on our process out loud with each other. 
It was a really enjoyable evening, with lots of laughter, and time seemed to rush past. By the time we left at close to 11pm, our eyes were fluttering shut. Not everyone was completely done, but most of us were most of the way there.
The images in this photo are the property of Ariana Salvo, and are not to be reproduced
I am very pleased with my vision board, which is now firmly mounted on the wall at the end of my bed so that I am staring at it when I wake up and go to sleep every day. 

Images in this photo are the property of Ariana Salvo, and may not be reproduced without permission

My mom took a rather less literal approach to the project. Her board represents the spiritual journey that she is on. 
Some of the other creations were incredibly beautiful and inspiring: 

This photo is the property of Ariana Salvo, and my not be reproduced

This photo is the property of Ariana Salvo, and may not be reproduced

This photo is the property of Ariana Salvo, and may not be reproduced

Aren't they incredible? I was inspired. I have heard so many stories about the power that visualizing something daily has in making it happen. So when I look at the various components of my vision board: 

Photo is the property of Ariana Salvo. May not be copied or reproduced.
...I think about what an important role perspective plays in accomplishing goals, how many big, rich, joyful dreams I have, and how much richer, more joyful my life will become as I integrate all of the things on my board into every day, like gratitude, taking the time to enjoy the natural world and relax, owning my own farm, having or adopting a child, being courageous, being excited about the unknown of the future, falling in love, being the change I want to see in the world, writing and writing and writing, and having the courage to call myself a writer, writing in my journal, radiating confidence, being playful and joy-filled....
This photo is the property of Ariana Salvo and may not be reproduced
...travel to placed I have yet to explore, surrounding myself with strong, graceful female friends, enjoying many more summers, staying fit with running and yoga, strengthening my relationship with God, writing novels, becoming financially sustainable....and finding a home and community to settle in (which is what Louise Mould's painting, Upton Farm Butternut Tree, in the bottom right corner of this piece symbolizes to me.    
As I work on staying true to my heart, and continuing to develop my writing career, every little thing I do to reinforce and encourage myself is a step towards accomplishing my goal. The vision board helps me to keep my goals foremost in my thoughts every day. 
Another thing I am contemplating signing up for is Karen Walrond's course that will help people in transition to find their passion in life, and take practical steps towards realizing their goals. Her course begins in September, but apparently if you register by Monday at midnight, it is only 55 dollars. Given the amount of experience Karen has with transitions and pursuing her passion for photography and writing, I'd say that is a steal. I encourage you to check out her website and blog (which I read daily). 
And with that, I wish you all a long and gorgeous weekend! I hear it is raining on the east coast. What I wouldn't give for some rain in the land of endless sunny days. It's funny how you start to miss it when it happens so rarely! 
Happy Friday friends! Whatever the weather is doing, have a great weekend, and see you all back here on Monday!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Savouring the last drops of summer

The sun is low in the sky on another hot, clear blue sky day. It is amazing to me that the summer is almost over. It has sprinted past me this year--probably because it is the first summer in years that I have not gone home to Cyprus. I associate summer with swimming in the Mediterranean and lounging at outdoor cafes sipping Nescafe frappes and chatting with friends for hours on end. Yeah. So I've been spoiled. I am a bit of a summer snob. The Mediterranean has given me high standards for summer. 

All that said however, I have done a number of things this summer that I would not normally take the time to do if I were in the Mediterranean:

I've read way more novels, which is always a luxury of the best variety, in my opinion.

I have been able to keep my Wednesday morning writing dates with my friend Ahava, which is encouraging me to make a good deal of progress on my novel, which I otherwise might have dismissed for the summer. I am also making lots of progress with the research for my novel, which is set in Europe in the 1940s, and have had multiple life-changing conversations in just the last few weeks with a woman who survived the Holocaust and has gone on to be an artist and healer. If I had not been here, we would never have connected.

I have been around to attend the women's devotional gathering that I am heading off to again this evening with a group of incredibly funny and wise women.

I am writing in my journal daily.

I have more time to volunteer.
My mother and I have been able to enjoy more blended blancos together at our favourite local coffee joint :-) 

And I am getting to know my local community better. Having conversations with folks that I might otherwise never have stopped to talk to.

Speaking of doing things this summer that I would not ordinarily do, it's time to go meet the wild and wise women in my women's devotional group.

What are you filling the last days of your summer with? Whatever it is, I hope you are savouring every last drop of the heat and golden sunlight. The first leaves on our street have already started falling, reminding me to notice and enjoy what remains of the season. I'm heading out to do just that! 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Gratitude Mondays

I have been meaning to write this post since Friday, but was in need of some time away from the computer screen, so I practiced self compassion, and took a digital sabbatical over the weekend,  indulging instead in a number of other delicious things including yoga in the park, and reading my novel, The Invisible Bridge (Vintage Contemporaries), at the kitchen table, while lounging on the living room couch, curled up with a duvet on the back porch in the late afternoon sunlight, and even out in the garden under the walnut tree. I sipped golden tipped Assam tea and munched on sun dried apricots while I read, and when I got tired of reading at home I grabbed my journal and my novel and headed over to a local coffee house called Old Soul for a hot chai with my friend Dionne and her son Lucas. It was a sublimely relaxing and rejuvenating weekend.

I was reading a blog entry by Karen Walrond about gratitude the other day. She has a blog that I read called Chookoloonks, but she has a number of other gigs, including a page she is writing now for Babble Voices called Bliss Your Heart. Karen is an incredible photographer, so her blog focuses on her gorgeous photos, however her Friday Bliss your heart features focus on gratitude, and what she is grateful for in her life. Scrolling through her entries left me feeling incredibly lighthearted, and I thought to myself--"why don't I have a gratitude day on my blog?" And so here it is. My gratitude day is going to be Monday (officially), but I am hoping that by practicing on Monday I will get better at being more conscious of what I am grateful for every day. I may or may not always include photos, as what I am most interested in is writing, but I am hoping this will create a bit of a domino effect, you know? Make you think to yourself "maybe I should make a gratitude list..." Maybe you should!

Here's my list this week:

1. I am grateful for my dear friend Dionne and her gorgeous son Lucas. I only met Dionne this year, but I already feel like I have known her for years. She is great company; is incredibly inspiring as a mother of a 6-month old baby boy (read: patience and perseverance beyond ANYTHING I have even begun to experience in my life) and an athlete (she runs nine miles every other day....did I mention that she has a 6-month old son? Well she runs those nine miles pushing the little fellow, and she is training for a half marathon)....In addition to inspiring me, Dionne makes me laugh at life; we both love to read novels; we are doing a spiritual study of the Baha'i Ruhi materials together; we pray together; we hit yard sales together, and she is one of the most devoted (and encouraging) readers on my blog (Louise, you are the other one!)

Watching Dionne with Lucas has been teaching me a lot about continuing to do your best, even when you aren't sure how you are going to keep trying. Lucas himself has taught me about joy. He is a non-stop source of it. When he smiles at you, his eyes smile. My entire day shifts on its axis when this little man smiles.

2. Prayers. The ones in my Baha'i prayer book most especially. The ones I whisper in the morning before I start my day, and at the end before I sleep. They bring me back to my true self -- my spiritual reality. It is really good to be reminded at least twice a day.

3. My community. The folks that I go out to breakfast and dinner with. The people who join me for movies. The people I teach children and youth classes alongside. The people I go to the beach to collect pebbles with. The ones I eat ice cream with. The ones I write with. The ones I dance with. The ones I farm with. I cannot imagine this life without them.

4. My writing. I write daily now, and it is such a blessing to be able to put pen to paper. There are few things I love as much as writing. Taking the time to stop and be present with what is around me, and to record its tiniest details.

5. The free yoga in the park classes that I go to on Saturday mornings. Starting my weekend outside under a blue sky with birds singing in the trees around me and the smell of roses in the air is truly incredible. I leave feeling full of joy and energized for my weekend.

6. My volunteer work on a local organic farm. There is really almost nothing that makes me happier than spending the day with my hands in the soil growing and harvesting colourful, healthy food.

7. The women that I do a women's devotional gathering every other week with. I love the level of unity that exists in our group despite the fact that we all come from completely different cultural, ethnic and faith backgrounds.

8. The crunch of the leaves beneath my sandals as I walked to the movie theatre last night in the golden summer light, and the same sound as I headed home again later at night, the trees all lit up from beneath by the yellow streetlights, the starry sky laid out crisp and clear above, and the gushing sound of sprinklers shooting water back and forth in arcs across the lawns on my street. 

9. The sound of semi-eaten walnuts, discarded by careless squirrels, falling from the giant walnut tree in the back garden, hitting our roof with loud thuds like it is hailing golf-balls, and then rolling down the slope of the roof and falling down to the ground. I do not know why, but despite startling me (every. single. time), the sound also makes me smile. August is the month of raining walnuts.

10. The breeze that blows into my bedroom at night while I sleep. Having grown up in Cyprus, where no such breeze blows during the summer, it is incredibly refreshing to sleep with a cool breeze blowing and blowing, and to wake up snuggled up warm with the cool air all around me.

What are you feeling grateful for?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Spiritual beings having a physical experience

I promised to write about the Association for Baha'i Studies Conference that I attended in San Francisco this past week, so here I am to fulfill that promise. The conference was entitled 'Transforming Habits of Thought,' and was about precisely that--how to re-envision everything we are doing within a spiritual framework.

There were over 1,500 individuals at the conference from all over the world. I even ran into folks there from New Zealand. There were a number of talks given in the main hall, and then in the afternoons there were multiple, simultaneous breakout sessions on rethinking our habits of thought in every area of our lives. In the evenings we enjoyed incredible music performed by professional musicians. It is hard to identify specific elements that made this conference so incredible, but I will try to mention a few things that stuck out to me, as well as my overall impression.

So many of the presentations were excellent, but a few stuck out to me, and are still making me reflect on how I think about particular issues and ideas. One was the first presentation I attended, by Keyvan Geula, a marriage and family counselor from the L.A. area. She is Iranian, and is dynamite! She addressed how to build and maintain happy, strong relationships with humour and great insight and wisdom, fully integrating the Baha'i writings into her presentation. She spoke about the importance of looking not only at whether we speak to each other, but at HOW we speak to one another; the distinction between emotions (unconscious) and feelings (emotions you are conscious of and must therefore take responsibility for); our lower, or physical self and our higher, spiritual self; the difference between empathy and sympathy; the fact that although we do have genetic predispositions, WE decide how we express our genes; the fact that marriage is a moral and social institution; the nature of our interactions--what is the spirit of our interactions with our partners/friends/colleagues, etc; and the faculty of meditation, which the founder of the Baha'i faith, Baha'u'llah, said is a characteristic of a human being (and the person who does not develop this faculty cannot be called a human being). Strong ideas to reflect on, for sure.

Another presentation that influenced me deeply was one given by a wonderful African American woman named Billie Mayo, about changing our habits of thought and practice around race. Billie has been transforming classrooms around the country through a program called Ubuntu (and I remember that word because she had the entire audience of 1,500 repeat it OUT LOUD -- I'm telling you, the woman is a genius). She is challenging educators to question their own attitudes towards children of different races, and how these attitudes influence the achievements of the children, the point being that if the teacher expects little, the children will aim low, whereas if a teacher has noble, high expectations of a child, the chances that the child will succeed are much, much higher. She followed her presentation up with having the entire room split into pairs and discuss our assumptions and experiences of people from various racial groups as we grew up. Having grown up in a country with very little racial diversity, and a lot of racial prejudice, this exercise still has me thinking about how I unconsciously treat people of different races without even being aware I am doing anything differently.Making change requires that we first become conscious of how we are thinking, right? So I guess I am on the right track. Lots to think about.

There were two other presentations that made a big impression on me. One was given by Fariborz Sahba, the architect of the Baha'i lotus temple in India and the terraces of the Baha'i World Centre on Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel. The man has completely revolutionized what is possible in the world of architecture, and contributed works of tremendous beauty to the world. As he said, he has lovingly interpreted each place he has built in, bringing one of the names of God (beauty) into the physical realm of existence. He bases his creations on the idea, presented in the Baha'i writings by the Bab, that human beings have the duty of refinement--that it is forbidden to bring something into being in a state of imperfection when it could be made perfect. Perfection is his task rather than compromise, he explained, because beauty is a reflection of God on earth, and God is perfect.

Mr. Sahba also spoke about the four main dimensions of architecture: height, width, depth, and movement, mentioning that there is, in reality, a fifth dimension, which is the relationship between all things, because relationships are inherent in the reality of everything. He explained that for him, beauty is created through relationship, and that for him, the aim is not to have just a beautiful garden, but to have a garden that creates a space that speaks to the spirit. He highlighted the fact that God is in the details, which means that even the tiniest details that we cannot see are important. It was a truly impressive presentation, and his slide show of his creations was even more impressive. I have included some of them in this blog entry.

The last presentation that is still lingering with me is Rainn Wilson's. Rainn is an actor who plays Dwight on the T.V. show 'The Office.' He is also a Baha'i, which I think is excellent because he adds a great deal of humour to the Baha'i community. The man not only knows how to make people laugh, he knows how to make us laugh at ourselves, which is SO vital in any community. His presentation was about the intersection of art and faith, and he spoke extensively about Soul Pancake, an online community that he helped create that provides a space for young people to explore life's big questions through the arts. It is a super resource with loads of good ideas. I highly recommend checking it out if you have a minute. Rainn also reminded us of the Baha'i teaching that we are spiritual beings having a physical experience, not the other way around, and that as such we need to keep spiritual reality at the core of everything we do as artists. As Abdu'l-Baha said, "Art is Worship." To illustrate this point, he shared his favourite quote by Rumi: "The true work of art is but a shadow of divine perfection." He also encouraged the audience to allow their children to follow their hearts, quoting Oprah's favourite quote by Howard Thurman: "Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do that. What the world needs is people that have come alive." Point well taken. And well illustrated by a performer from the Canadian prairies with some powerful pipes who charmed the entire conference hall with her tunes. Munirih Sparrow is going places, fast. Check out her music here (my favourite piece is Midnight Prayer).

It was an incredibly thought-provoking conference this year, and I am happy I made the trek down to San Francisco to attend. Have you had any experiences/conversations, read any books or seen/heard works of art that have made you think differently about something lately?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Guilty as charged

I want to use today's entry to talk about justice. I spent this past weekend with over 1,500 other inspired and inspiring folks at the Association for Baha'i Studies Conference on Changing Patterns of Thought in San Francisco. I will write more about the conference later this week. What I want to focus on today is something that most of us take for granted: the right to obtain a university education. Growing up I never once doubted that I would go to university. The only thing between me and a higher degree was hard work to get into the school I wanted to go to. 

Young Baha'is in Iran are today, in 2011, being denied access to higher education. Not because they are not good students--many are actually some of the highest achieving students coming out of Iranian high schools. No. The reason these students are denied entry into university is their religious beliefs. Those of you who have been following my blog for some time will know that I am also a Baha'i. My faith is founded on the principle that all religions come from one God; on the essential truth of the equality of men and women; on the oneness of science and religion; the belief that all races and people are one family, and that human beings should devote their lives to the service of humanity, the elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty, to educating our children, taking care of the environment, and eliminating injustice. It is true that I may be slightly biased, given that I am a Baha'i, but when it comes down to it, there is nothing that the Baha'i community is doing that is negatively impacting the world -- in reality, the global Baha'i community helping to build a better, more tolerant, just world for everyone. 

You might wonder, therefore, why a community with such universal beliefs is being denied such a basic human right as higher education. This question is one that international governments and the United Nations has been asking the Iranian government repeatedly for many years now. The answers have varied, but have generally been based on ludicrous claims of espionage, dishonesty, and heresy among other things. None of these claims have been backed up by any concrete evidence by the Iranian government. 

In the meantime, barred from public education, the Baha'is set up their own university in an attempt to provide for themselves what the government was denying them. This university has been raided, books and materials confiscated, and professors arrested and thrown into prison before. With few other options however, the Baha'i community of Iran re-established it, and continued to educate their youth. Recently the university was again attacked, and its faculty arrested and imprisoned. 

The thing about injustice that is as true today as it was 100 years ago is this: it can not be perpetrated without the compliance (or silence) of ordinary people like you and me. Not speaking up against injustice is, in reality, condoning it. 

This past weekend at the ABS conference a couple of initiatives were brought up. One is Called "Conspiracy to Educate: Guilty as Charged." This is a facebook initiative in which ordinary people (like you and me) can go to the website, "like" it, take a mug shot of ourselves holding a sign that lists the university we went to and the words: "Guilty as charged," and upload it as our profile photo, tagging it appropriately so that the group administrators can keep track of how many people are supporting this initiative. It may seem like a small thing, but when it comes down to it, every small effort each of us makes to highlight injustice in the world is a huge step towards eliminating it, and the more people join in this effort, the more media attention it will get.

Another initiative that is happening is that people are sending postcards to Mr. Kamran Daneshjoo, the Minister of Science, Research and Technology of Iran, stating clearly that they do not agree with Iran's policy to discriminate against the Baha'is of Iran; that the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education "prisoners" should be released immediately; that Baha'is should be able to enter universities as faculty and staff and as students who can get a degree, and urging the Minister to instruct all schools in Iran to respect freedom of religion or belief, including the Baha'i Faith, and take specific measures to reprimand any individuals who are intimidating or discriminating against Baha'i schoolchildren.

I want to invite you to join me in either joining this facebook initiative or sending a postcard to the Minister of Science, Research and Technology (or both). It does not matter what our religious convictions are, or where we live in the world. If injustice persists anywhere, it is impossible everywhere, and denying a person access to education is effectively denying him or her a place in the global community. 

You can send your postcard to the following address:

Minister of Science, Research & Technology, Mr. Kamran Daneshjoo
Piroozan Jonoubi Avenue, Hormozan Street, 
Khordin Street, Sanat Square
Shahrak Ghods

Thank you for listening, friends. I hope you will join me in supporting one of these worthy causes, and thereby support the right to higher education for all people, everywhere in the world. I wish you all a superb week!

Monday, August 8, 2011

The point of no return

Today's date has been on my mind for the past few months. Ok -- the past year. The reason is that August 8th, 2011 is the date that Immigration Canada chose to type in as the day that my Canadian work visa would expire. When I left Canada over a year ago, feeling a good deal of fear along with the excitement of the journey ahead, I asked one of my best friends Alanna "what if this move does not work out?" She shrugged and said "so you come back to Canada." At the time knowing that I could always go back to my community on Prince Edward Island gave me the reassurance and support I needed to let go of the life and community I had built there and set off for new adventures and lands.

Over the past year I have thought about going back many, many times. But in the last few months I thought of moving back to Canada a few times pretty much every day. In the last couple of weeks the looming 8th of August date had me having thoughts of packing a backpack and dashing back across the Canadian border as fast as I could before it was too late. I laughed at myself, but the desire to make a run for it was entirely heartfelt.

Fast forward to today -- August 8th, and it is amazing to me that I have not only not had a meltdown -- I actually made it through almost the entire day without even thinking about the date. The reasons for this are numerous. One is that I sent off an application to extend my work visa one more year. But I know in my heart that this visa may well not be extended, given the terms under which it was given to me to begin with. The real reason I barely thought about the date once today is that this past week I have come face to face with the wall of my own fear and uncertainty, and after many attempts to go around it, avoid it or ignore it, some part of me finally decided that the only way through the wall of my own resistance and fear is to kick it in.

I have been carrying the weight of my decision to leave Canada around with me for over a year now, and it has been a heavy weight indeed. I have deliberated and dragged my uncertainty round and round in circles, getting absolutely nowhere. I have tried to find the perfect job to give myself something to go forward with and focus on. What I am beginning to realize, finally, is that there are certain aspects of my life that I am not intended to engineer. I cannot determine whether or not I get a particular job or end up in a certain country. I do not get to decide who my community is or whether I will meet my soul mate or have the blessing of having children. I can put the intention out there, and try my hardest, but if the path is not the right one for me at this time, the door is not going to open.

I am listening to a series of CDs right now called 'Clear Mind, Wild Heart,' by David Whyte. It is a set of six CDs that use poetry to illustrate the journey of life, with all its ups and downs and incredible experiences and challenges. If you have not heard it, you should track down a copy. It is truly incredible. A friend of my mother's gave this CD set to her last summer for me. For some reason I took the box, wandered over to my shelves of CDs and added it to the pile. It has sat there for the past year, collecting dust. This past week I had reached the extreme limits of what I was capable of handling. I was sick of hearing my own discontent voice. Sick of my own frustration and discouragement. Then three things happened. One was that I received my friend Louise's CD of music (which I mentioned a couple of posts ago). The second was that I received a letter about spiritual growth from Louise that contained extracts that she had taken from the Baha'i writings that put my entire life experience in a new light. The third thing was that I wandered over to my CD case and picked this series of CDs up and threw them into the bag I took with me to Bosch Baha'i School this past weekend.

It is interesting to me how such small things can have such a major impact on the human psyche, but I am telling you -- the difference between my perception of the path ahead last week and today is night and day. On the three hour drive up into the mountains of Santa Cruz, I alternated between listening to Louise's music and listening to David Whyte read and talk about poetry. By the time I got to the school a deep sense of calm that had settled over me like early morning mist over a meadow.

One thing that David Whyte discusses on his CDs is the reality that as human beings, our role is not to be the engineers of our lives. The only thing we are responsible for is shaping our identity -- the values and spiritual characteristics that define who we are. Whyte explains that as we take steps to consciously shape who we are, we necessarily as also altering how we relate to the world, and how the world relates to us in return. Whyte also explains that when we are living lives that are true to our true nature, or spiritual self, everything flows gracefully and there is no awkwardness or uncertainty about where we are or what we are doing. He uses as an example a poem by Rainier Maria Rilke called 'The Swan.'

The Swan

This laboring through what is still undone,
as though, legs bound, we hobbled along the way,
is like the akward walking of the swan.

And dying-to let go, no longer feel
the solid ground we stand on every day-
is like anxious letting himself fall

into waters, which receive him gently
and which, as though with reverence and joy,
draw back past him in streams on either side;
while, infinitely silent and aware,
in his full majesty and ever more
indifferent, he condescends to glide.

What David Whyte is trying to highlight by use of this poem is that when we stop struggling to figure everything out, just let go and move towards our true nature, everything falls into place, and we find our true grace and majesty. This poem, and the concept that Whyte was using it to illustrate resonates with me deeply. Maybe it will with you too. What spoke to me the most was that the natural progression for human beings is growth -- spiritual growth. And when we let go of everything else and focus solely on this responsibility, and leave the rest up to a higher power, everything starts falling into place.

For human beings, growth necessarily means change, because in order to continue growing, we have to meet and overcome new challenges, which we will not encounter if we continuously do the same things with the same people over and over endlessly. Change, letting go, moving forward and embracing new experiences is therefore moving towards our true nature. Fighting it--clinging to what we know and are familiar with is actually limiting spiritual growth. It is going against the tide. And as I have found over the last year, it is utterly exhausting.

This weekend I was asked to go assist with a class of 24 youth between the ages of 12 and 14. One of the two teachers that had been working with the group had had to leave, and the man who was teaching it was in need of a co-pilot. When I first heard the words twenty-four, a voice in me said -- "Quick! Run! You do not know how to handle 24 youth that age". Children and older your I have more experience with, but junior youth? I immediately started fighting against my nature--the voice in me that knew the minute I was asked that of course I would say yes. The thing is though -- whereas in the past when I was fighting that inner voice of my true nature I did not know I was doing it. Now I have somehow acquired the annoying capacity to see and identify my own fear, and the fact that it is my fear alone that is leading me to want to pull away from what is right, which leaves me with a very clear understanding of what I must do if I want to reclaim my peace of mind and heart. Embrace it and keep moving forward. Which is why despite my initial (and perfectly justified, it turned out) fear about working with such a large group of teenagers, I found myself in Santa Cruz this weekend, working with and learning from said group!

The weekend was an important one. It was full of beauty, but it was also full of awkward and uncomfortable and even painful experiences. It was full of great lessons in humility and resignation, flexibility and acceptance. I was challenged to let go of even the remotest trace of pride or self as I dealt with kids questioning everything I did or said; kids ignoring me, talking over me, refusing to pay attention even when I had asked them to repeatedly. But I also learned to listen better. To collaborate better with my co-teacher, whose ideas and process were very different from my own. And to appreciate the joy, enthusiasm, and purity with which the youth prayed, laughed, and shared with me and with the rest of the group. It was an incredibly hard weekend, but despite all the challenges -- or perhaps because of them, I left to drive home on Sunday feeling a deep sense of grace. As David Whyte says, in these times of personal transformation there is great beauty and also a good deal of what seems at the time like ugliness. Both are necessary parts of growth.

On Saturday evening I was sitting at inspiration point -- a place from which you can take in the view all the way down the mountainside over the redwoods down to the Pacific Ocean -- with my co-teacher Michael and the kids in our class. We were saying prayers to close our class. Despite the chaos that I had felt permeated most of the class sessions, this final session was completely peaceful. As Michael and each of the youth spoke or sang prayers out into the clearing, and the sun sunk slowly down into the Pacific Ocean, I felt that sense of peace return, and I joined them by speaking my own prayer into the spiritual space our class had created in the forest. 

I do not know whether August 8th will be the end of my Canadian visa, but August 8th does mark a very definite point of no return in that I see quite clearly now, in a way I did not before this, that I do not want to be awkwardly making my way along solid ground when I could be gracefully gliding through water. The process may not always be pleasant, but there is a deep sense of connection and confirmation that I feel when I am giving in to my true nature, and pressing forward to meet both the challenges and the joy of the unknown.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Seven boxes

I was out at Soil Born Farm today, where I volunteer one day a week. It is that time of year when everything is full fruit, and much of it is very ready to be harvested. When I arrived at the farm, Guy, my partner in garden crime handed me a pair of clippers, and led me down a path overgrown with cucumber vines under which nestled bucket after bucket of three varieties of cucumbers. Lemon cucumbers are round and look vaguely like miniature yellow and white marbled watermelons on the outside. I slipped on my gloves and got to work pulling vines up and peering underneath, yellow globes hiding underneath the prickly leaves, resting against the warm earth, sunshine and pale green leaf-shadow dancing across the bed. These particular cucumbers are perfectly ripe when they are mostly white, with just a pale yellow glow radiating out from one end of the fruit. Most of ours were over-ripe -- the result of Guy being far too busy to keep up, and his not having enough volunteers to be able to monitor the fruit as it swells beneath the canopy of vine cover. After sorting through the piles of yellow cucumbers, we hauled the over-ripe ones to the green compost and emptied bucket after bucket into the pile. When we were done we moved onto the Syrian cucumbers--long, ridged, pastel green cucumbers that look so delicate and proper that they seem far more English than Syrian. After the Syrian cucumbers we harvested the deep green field cucumbers, and then on to the bumpy, melted wax bright orange-yellow squash, and then the gigantic zucchinis which had clearly been growing so long that they looked more like stone-age clubs than anything that could possibly be edible.

Done with the massive zucchini, I moved on to the peppers while Guy harvested potatoes. I have never grown peppers before, and they are a humbling vegetable to be sure -- especially the green bell peppers and the jalepinos, because they blend right in with the plant, making harvest a real hunt. In addition to the green peppers, I harvested banana peppers (which, you might have guessed, look exactly like bananas), chocolate peppers (which like look similar to bell peppers, only much smaller, that turn a lovely melted chocolate colour as they ripen), and some bright orange wrinkled peppers whose name slips my mind now. When I had them all in their box, they were a bright, Autumn-hued collage.

After the peppers Guy let me do what my fingers had been wanting to do all day -- harvest some tomatoes. We have beautiful cherry tomato vines climbing up trellises, but there are also a number of larger tomato varieties that I had been noticing swelling bright crimson beneath the thick layer of foliage.

These tomatoes are gorgeous friends. Sun-ripened, smelling of sunshine and that sharp, invigorating smell that tomato plants grown outside ooze like honey. It was hard to not sink my teeth into one (although Guy kindly gave me a few to take home which I fully intend to sink my teeth into over the next few days!)

The larger tomatoes were hard to find -- most of them were hidden deep inside the vine, so I searched with my hands, pulling out bright red fruit after bright red fruit -- the colour alone was dazzling in the afternoon sunshine.

I am telling you. You would have been drooling...

It made me want to make insalata caprese with fresh basil and Mozzarella di bufala, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with coarse sea salt crystals.

While I was drooling over the tomatoes, Guy was hard at work harvesting carrots. Many of our carrots suffered from not having been thinned very well (for which I take full responsibility, since I started the job and then never managed to get around to completing it), but we were very happy to see that some of my thinning efforts did pay off, as he managed to find a good number of well-sized carrots in the rows, which made him exceptionally happy. This is what Guy looks like when he is exceptionally happy:

Ok. So as he pointed out, I need to discover the zoom, but this is Guy looking exceptionally happy from a distance, with our gorgeous youth garden all around him (which you would not see as much of if I had discovered the zoom before snapping this shot!)

I had to take off early, but I heard from Guy later today that he washed up everything we harvested, and made seven boxes of fresh produce, which he delivered to seven lower income families in the area. He said they were really psyched to receive the boxes. Very excited to receive all this fresh, tasty food. The image of their joyful faces makes me so. incredibly. happy. 

I did a few other things today that I did not get photos of. The best thing, that I wish I had taken photos of, was my visit with my friend Dionne and her gorgeous son Lucas. We sat on her living room floor and said prayers together, and studied Ruhi Book 2, which totally transformed my day for the better. We also took a walk around McKinley Park, beneath the huge oak trees in the late afternoon sunlight, trying to lull Lucas into a deep sleep (it worked, but only temporarily).

This evening I had a delicious supper with my parents, using some of the freshly harvested ingredients from the farm. It has been a day of bright colours, divine aromas, good company and sunshine, and I am looking forward to a very full weekend of service. I am heading down to Santa Cruz to learn how to facilitate a group of 24 Junior Youth who are in the redwood forest for the weekend. I love working with youth -- mainly because it is deeply humbling, and I learn SO much from them, and at the same am forced to grow beyond what I think I am capable of. I am looking forward to the challenge, and to meeting lots of new, radiant souls.

Whatever you are up to this weekend, may you enjoy it fully, friends. I hope you have a weekend saturated with colour, flavours, friends, laughter, and blue skies!

Monday, August 1, 2011

A little compassion

"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there." ~Rumi 

The Rumi quote above was one shared with us at the yoga class in the park that I do every Saturday morning. It is interesting how certain quotes speak to us at particular times. When my yoga teacher shared this with us it did not really resonate with me at all. But tonight the words came back to me, and they seemed perfect for this blog entry. I am practicing compassion tonight, you see. Compassion for myself, that is. It has been an incredibly hard day. I still do not have full time work after all my hard work to find a job. Establishing myself as a freelance writer is some of the hardest and (thus far) economically unsustainable things I have ever done. No matter how hard I try, I feel like a black sheep in a very white flock here in California. I have reached the farthest limits of my capacity to live with my parents, and I am ready to have a vehicle again so that I do not have to depend on rides or borrow a car every time I need to go somewhere. My Monday was one I am very grateful is over. 

 I reached the end of the day feeling at my wits end, with no brilliant ideas of how to remedy my situation because I do not have the resources to move right now. I even wrote a blog entry (not this one) which I promptly deleted upon completing it because, frankly, who wants to read about another person's struggles when each of us already has so many of our own? Then I read my friend Sharon's blog entry, which is all about what a rough time she is having right now, and how she is dealing with it, and finding ways to practice compassion with herself, and suddenly my black day got ever-so-slightly less bleak. Let me me clear: I do not take pleasure in other people's misfortunes. But I realized that her willingness to be vulnerable to the world and share the hard things she is going through as well as the good things makes her far more easy to relate to. It also reassures me that I am not the only black sheep out here who feels like her life is coming apart at the seams.

We live in a world where the media is always showing us images of happy, beautiful people with flawless skin and designer clothes. Where the only emotions that are acceptable in public are happiness, excitement, joy, enthusiasm, etc. Periods of sadness or loss locked up behind closed doors. But in reality life is about the happy times and the sad times. Every low means there is a another hill ahead, and every hill is followed by a valley. So why did I delete my first blog entry tonight? Why do we censor some of our most profound moments of being human? Why do we pretend that we are doing great when in reality we could really use a good chat with a close friend or to have someone call and cheer us up? Why are periods of sadness or struggle looked down upon as blemishes in our lives--as something we feel we need to hide?

I was visiting with my mother's best friend Cheryl the other day on our seven hour drive down to L.A. I was telling her about my attempts to find work in the United States this year, and how discouraged I am feeling right now. She listened a long time, and when I was done venting, she smiled, and said "I think this is good for you." "What is good for me?" I asked her. "These tough times in your life," she said. I asked her to elaborate, and she said "I've always thought that people who have never experienced real hardship in their lives lack a certain degree of depth that those who have confronted tests and struggled through them seem to have." Cheryl has had many long and hard tests in her life, and is one of the happiest and most optimistic people I know, so any thoughts she has to share on the subject of tests I always listen to carefully.

Reflecting on both Sharon's blog entry and Cheryl's thoughts on the matter has brought me to the conclusion that human beings are vast, beautiful and powerful landscapes which pass through many seasons, and that sharing only some of these landscapes and seasons undermines the resilience of what makes us as human beings so distinct -- our spirit or soul. Tough times are good for the soul. So to glaze over them and only write about the good times gives a false impression of who we are and how we came to be where we are in our lives. When I read other people's blogs I am curious how this person became who they are, with their distinctive qualities and strengths. Knowing that they had to get through hard times to get where they are makes them feel more human -- I can relate to them better as a reader. 

So anyway, getting back to compassion....after reading Sharon's blog post I decided to get away from the job hunting sites that I have been staring at numbly all day long, light some candles, fill the bathtub, pour in some essential oils, and take care of myself a little. Invite my mind to stop spinning endless stories of when and how and where and how much longer, and just inhale the warm air, rest my eyes and breathe. It took a very long time to convince my mind to let go, but when I finally stepped out of the bath tonight I felt about fifty pounds lighter, and after I had rubbed tingly peppermint lotion on my feet I felt even better. It is getting later now and I think maybe time for a hot cup of tea. There is a lovely cool breeze coming in the window.  Being compassionate with myself does not take the tough times away, but they do help me to stay hopeful and positive. How do you treat yourself with compassion?