Cultivating True Security in a Post-9/11 World

There are only 2 kinds of actions to take in life: a reactive one, or a proactive one, and if you want to know which corner you’re in, just climb down your basement stairs and see how much is floating. Drenched as we’ve been lately on the east coast, all ‘state of emergency’ and ‘the sky is falling’ factions have conspired to either congratulate you on your preparedness or illuminate your lack of it.

I ponder my placement on this why-axis as I pull on my rubber boots to survey the damage from yet another weather frenzy. Glad as I am in this moment to be a nomad instead of a nester, I’m even happier that the house I’m temporarily calling home has been tended to: toolboxes on shelves, washer + dryer raised on pallets, no flotsam and jetsam to reel in. Phew. No soup for FEMA today.

Flashing back to 1999, I recall sitting in front of the loan officer at the bank I’d been affiliated with my whole life. I was applying for a mortgage for my first house, and it was proving tricky. Apparently my occupation at the time – waiter – wasn’t what he liked to call traditional. Gratuity-based income didn’t seem to please his rather narrow bankerly mentality, and despite years of consecutive, steady income, tips tripped up his ability to ascertain my cash flow.

“You just can’t count on them,” he said.

“I’ve been counting on them for years,” I replied. “It’s no different from your salary. Look at my taxes – they’re the same year after year. They’re as real as this desk.”

No matter the black and white numbers on the official forms before him, he just couldn’t see it. He was using the wrong mechanism. Security, financial or otherwise, is not something you measure with a calculator or even calipers. Indeed, all we do to protect ourselves out in the big, bad world merely proves it to be an illusion. Don’t be fooled by the necktie. It’s just an expensive, strangling accessory anyway.

I got the mortgage eventually (of course, at a higher percentage rate to compensate for my “unusual” situation), painted the library, unpacked cartons of books, and settled into my new home. It was in this room one morning, in fact, listening to the radio I heard the unfolding news that rocked our cushioned world. Confusion, horror, overwhelming sadness…we all felt it – our sense of safety crashing all around us. From mighty steel…to dust.

In the aftermath, I searched for wisdom and meaning. My philosophizing called into question words like security and patriotism, like my nephew as he learns to speak his world, asking incessantly, what’s this, Aunt Kellie? What’s that called? Why?

In the ten years since, what I’ve come to realize is that security is not collateral to be measured concretely like a regular paycheck or the automobile industry or our ranking in the world or all the crap we stuff into our buildings. It’s nothing we can lay our hands on and say: this technology, this law, this bomb will protect me.

What gives us staying power, the ability to keep calm and carry on is how we proactively position ourselves – the resources we build well, within: Our constitution in the face of great force, whether flood or famine. Our emotional athleticism – being limber enough to feel beyond our own periphery. Our intellectual agility – informing ourselves with multiple perspectives to counteract propaganda (especially from authorities we tend to trust). Our ability to pause – for when the shit hits the fan, we need to move intentionally. And, overall, our lovingkindness – because an open heart always trumps envelopes and embraces fear.

The best place to find shelter…is inside. It’s the strongest, most resilient structure you can create. Just make sure to keep the base(ment) clean, because if you don’t do it now, it’ll be that much harder when you’re forced to.

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“If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born.
“Come in,” she said
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm”.

~ Bob Dylan

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The Words Of The Prophets Are Written On The Subway Walls

Back in October, a few weeks after I left the cacophony of NYC to the more ambitiously inclined, Forbes Magazine ranked Maine dead last in its yearly Best States For Business survey.  Where’d they get that notion?  Are there less corporate tax breaks here, or is it the geographical remove, tucked way up in the top corner of the country?  There’s a lot of coastline, though;  shouldn’t that be good for commerce?  Or maybe it’s the sparse population;  heck, more people live below 110th St in Manhattan than in our entire state, it’s just that a three-piece here means Carhartts, flannel and a tool belt. A real DIY kinda place.  We all need income, so we’re not adverse to making a living, and there’s that New England work ethic, so sloth and idleness are not to blame.  Last, really?  Hmmm.

Maybe with a slogan like Vacationland, we sell ourselves as a place to play, not work, and stats in a survey tell whatever story you want them to. Those suits at the money magazines can spin a yarn just as well as any Down East denizen, apparently.  There’s certainly no shortage of busyness here, especially if you listen to an oldtimer when he notes, “Yah know spring’s here when folks start either diggin’ in their gahden or sandin’ down their schooner.”  If you’ve done either, you’ve no doubt the industry of the task.  The curious thing is that Mainers tell themselves a story:  that finding work is hard, that jobs aren’t easy to come by, that economic times are always tough here.  Maybe Forbes didn’t rely on statistics for their survey.  Perhaps it was a write-in campaign.

Now six months later, the Institute for Economics and Peace perches the Pine Tree State in peak position as the #1 Most Peaceful in the US.  ‘The Way Life Should Be,’ the state tagline, is cliche for a reason.  Peace.  Stillness.  Ah, yes.  Shhh.. listen.

**ribbet ** ribbet ** ribbet **

Does this mean that economic enterprise and peacefulness are at odds?  Mutually exclusive?

I’ve had a long, snowy winter to contemplate this.  My ear’s better attuned now to groundswell and scuttle.  So much gets drowned out in our technolife, but November to April in the Northeast is like being on silent retreat – aside from the chainsaws, listening to Labor Mural dramas on WERU, and Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman report on waves of change in the Middle East and waves of destruction in Japan.  It’s mostly tranquil here – a grand environment to ponder and listen.  And listen I do.

Seems the more we pare down, the richer life gets.  By reducing noise and distraction, one of my primary goals for leaving the city – (Who can write there anyway?  Well, except for Jonathan Franzen, Rick Moody, Colson Whitehead and, oh – never mind.  Focus, Kellie, focus.), I’ve gained a keen ear.  By tuning into ever-sensitized wavelengths, I’ve gained endless wisdom, all locked in a virtual Maine zip file.  I hear the messages of prophets everywhere:  in the peeping frogs in vernal pools near Lucia’s Beach,  in the profundities of seemingly mundane chats with new friends, in the warning calls of hawks, as they spy prey below, running on battened-down earth.  I hear it in my own words, even, when they’re reflected back to me;  funny, I often miss them the first time out.

But for all the halcyon moments, impatient desires rustle and poke at my new peace.  I WANT to be busy.  Isn’t activity essential this season?  My mind is fertile with ideas and wanderlust.  I want to strap on stilts, take this expanding me out for a stroll with purpose – I want my steps to cover ten times as much ground as they did before.  I want to move like a giant, calling up the wind like The Alchemist, and sweep away everything not rooted down.  The earth is shifting so wide and deep, down to its mantle, and loosening what’s on the surface.  The blasting sandstorm, the blizzard, the waves are all churning and eroding.  I, too, am shedding and recalibrating.

Indeed, Paul Simon knew.  The prophets are everywhere.  Their words ARE on the subway walls, and tenement halls, and in your mouth, and in mine.  Discerning what to believe, Ah! That’s the key!  Do I listen to Forbes, pack up my bags and head back to a Brooklyn job?  Or do I believe peace lives here, on this ground?  Or maybe, just maybe, both are mobile and malleable?

I wonder – these stories that Maine, and we, tell, are they real – are they true, or are they all talk & no listening?

Nester Versus Nomad. Which Are You?

Snowfall has its silent beauty, but as March days breath deeper, the first rains of spring patter and tap the poetry of awakening.  The rhythmic rattle on the cellar bulkhead hypnotized me into a sleepy haze last night, and I dreamt of eddys and gushes and gurgles and whirlpools, but when I woke this morning at my sister’s house, the romance of thaw and melt drowned like the Wicked Witch of the West.  Streams cut gorges down the driveway, carrying away gravel and gutting a narrow bend down to axle-width.  Dirt roads are gullied, riverbanks ragged and schools shuttered.  In the basement, a laundry basket and litter box bob next to flower pots, scrap lumber and that last bottle of Chardonnay we were saving.  Worst of all, the furnace, hot water heater, washer, dryer and dehumidifier are Katrina’d under more than a foot of murky water.  Lucky for us there’s cordwood and a sump pump to rent.  But wouldn’t it be nice to just call the landlord?

My real estate obsession began in the mid-nineties as I fantasized about buying, renovating, and selling houses as a means to a financial end.  I audited the New York State realtor’s class and skipped certification because I didn’t want to sell houses as a vocation, I just wanted to understand the process and the legalities.  After years of renting, I finally bought a charming 1929 Arts & Crafts Bungalow with hand-milled kitchen cabinets, (now extinct) American Chestnut trim, and gorgeous hardwood floors on a corner lot.  What a feeling to own a little piece of the world!  It was all mine.  No downstairs neighbors, no sharing the driveway, no cheap remodels.

But you know the story…

When I finally sold it, almost 10 years later, I was glad to be rid of it:  shovelling the sidewalk, replacing the roof, painting the clapboard, cleaning the attic, spackling the plaster, replacing cracked windows, mowing the lawn, spring/fall cleanup, paying for insurance, fixing the plumbing…if you’ve owned property, then you know:  all mine means ALL mine.  Picking out Bee Balm Red to paint the library is fun, cleaning up the electrician’s mess is not.

Although a happy renter now, I can still imagine doing it again…shopping at Brimfield Antiques Market for treasures, finding just the right shade of Farrow and Ball, designing the Japanese bath I’ve always wanted.  I can picture an orchard of peach, plum and crabapple trees, rows of raspberry bushes and the long table set for 12 with handmade napkins and vases of wildflowers.  I see the writers and artists retreat in the renovated barn and a couple of guest cottages down a stone pathway.  However, visualizing your dream home is like visualizing your soulmate – we don’t conjure the hiccups and crashes, just the bear-skin rug in front of a wood-burning fireplace.

So I wonder…is it worth it?

As the coda of my hibernation approaches, I think of how I want to spend my money and my time.  Spring signals a new cycle, and I contemplate the lightness of living simply versus the responsibility of stewardship and maintenance.  Both have their merits and drawbacks.

Given your druthers, which would you prefer? To be or not to be – Lord of the Manor?

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Open (Screen) Door Policy

I stand in the doorway this bright, blue sky morning, holding open the screen door so that nothing comes between me and the young man outside with telltale pamphlets tucked under his right arm. Smiling awkwardly with his silver-braced teeth and acne, he greets me with practiced lines and hints of nervous eagerness.

“Hello!” he chirps.  “How are you?”

“Hi,” I reply, “I’m fine.  How’re you?”

“I am well, thank you.  I have some magazines here for you to read, if you’d like…” he trails off as I politely cut him short.  I am familiar enough with Watchtower News and Awake! to know I am not interested in prolonging his discomfort and our conversation.  I send him on his way back down the icy driveway to the dark sedan that awaits, older couple in the front seat – his parents perhaps, or Witness elders.  They back out and drive to the next house.

Instead of feeling relief, I hesitate and pause to wonder:  was I too hasty?  Why not invite him in and hear what he has to say.  Rather than supposing a one-way conversation, I could have offered the benefit of doubt, made my assumption charitable.  Why not entertain the possibility of dialogue, and if it didn’t materialize, then I could say goodbye knowing I stood open, and listened.

It is not unusual to have strangers rap on the door here, and that’s heartening – real world places still exist for strangers to ask for invitation and to receive it.  How easy it is to keep the door closed, to ignore a request for connection as our inboxes are overflowing and our bills are mounting – we’ve got pressures to parse and stress to manage.  But what if something meaningful was behind that knock?  What if relief lies just outside our door?

When I’ve turned that doorknob, kind people, always, are on the other side, trying to make their way in the world, just like I am:  a woman looking for a friend’s house, someone wanting to buy the truck in the driveway, or a man wanting to lease the back fields for farming.  We rely on each other to show us the way when we’re lost, to offer financial opportunity when we are in need, or to join in a new, sustaining venture.  The can-do attitude is alive and active here, and in a climate of economic scarcity and struggle, old-fashioned grassroots door-to-door isn’t just a way of making a living or promoting a cause, but of connecting to the people around us – it can pick us up and remind us that we are all in the same boat, if we would just stop putting different names on them.  In true exchange at my dining room table, I might find income, friendship, community, or just simple human contact with someone I wouldn’t meet otherwise in our tight-knit circles.  The world would get simultaneously larger and smaller.

I remember sitting at my back porch table years ago and my roommate, T, was writing out a mission statement.  I had never heard of such a thing before, so she detailed its whys and hows to me, and of course I wanted one, too.  At my last job, the mission statement was an important tool, a measure of the space between who we said we were and how we were actually operating.  Whenever I faced conflict or dilemma, I asked what stance or action would best serve that mission statement.  Clarity almost always swept in on those wings.  Now that I’m creating a new paradigm for my life, one where everything underscores my integrity, truth, and desires – no more clocking-in-clocking-out jobs, no more being who you want me to be, no more swallowing bitter pills of the cults of consumerism, conformity or competition – I must distill my belief system down to one guiding star.  Easy?  Try drawing a straight line without a ruler.  Then pull out that microscope and look even closer…

Once I write it, I wonder, will I be drawn to knock on doors to spread the word?  Probably not, but I empathize with missionary zeal – when you’re full of excitement and clarity don’t you want others to share in your happiness and peace?   Perhaps, but I believe it’s better to lead by example, lead by invitation, lead with liveliness and verve, while trusting each other to craft our own routes, or roots, even.

There are many forms of missionaries – diplomatic and religious ones initially come to mind, but don’t overlook the less obvious embodiments that are spreading their worldview, and want us on board their bus: for-profit corporations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), patriotic nationalists, New Age spiritualists, political ideologues, climate change environmentalists, organic farmers, 2012 Mayan Chicken Littles.  It’s not that wanting to share your point of view is good or bad, but we tend to duck when the dogma flies.  The end is nigh!  Buy now, save later!  You’re with us or against us!  Save the children!

It is a full spectrum, with chewy morsels on which to ruminate the entire length.  I have found usefulness in all platforms.  I’ve sought out and worked for a corporation that provided me with health benefits, a stable paycheck and some of the best colleagues I’ll ever know.  I’ve participated proudly as an American citizen, and a global one, too.  I’ve contributed to and benefited from both governmental programs and NGOs.  I’ve embraced capitalism and railed against its bottom-line mentality.  I’ve gleaned wisdom from traditional holy books, and rejected chapters that didn’t resonate.  The world is dynamic, complex and interwoven – and I find myself choosing more and more the kinds of preachers I want – based not on ideology, but on intention and how I feel when I hear their message. As much can be gleaned from a blade of grass as in the mire of our trillion-dollar deficit.  It is not enough to adhere to the saints or the sinners, to the left or the right anymore – I want to run my fingers along the spine of life and feel each bump and valley, the skin that covers it, and the pulse that beats beneath us all.

So I sit and craft words of meaning and truth until I come up with these:

My mission is to listen and obey my intuition, and when I falter, to correct myself with forgiveness and compassion, and treat others with the same. I will practice non-judgment and equanimity.  I will unceasingly look to see the positive and I will remember to have as much fun along the way as I can.

It’s a work in progress and in the meantime, I’ll maintain that open door policy.  Feel free to knock anytime, come in, and tell me your story.  I promise to listen this time.

Ode to Kenmore

It’s not a mere appliance to me; it’s a Temple of Corporeal Transmogrification, a kind of gastronomic tattoo parlor where I enter sapped and hungry, and emerge energized.  It’s like my God Jar, my box o’ buff body dreams, stocked with the amino acids and omega 3’s of the indestructible soon-to-be me, the one I proclaimed would recover its optimal weight, strength and yogic flexibility by year’s end.  It’s my refrigerator and I am kneeling at its altar.  Scrubbing it out.

I didn’t always have such a soft spot for it.  Growing up, cleaning ours out was one of the least-liked chores, more often outsourced to our friends who for some strange reason relished climbing in and purging it.  Maybe it was the subversive peek into our dietary secrets or just a contest to see who could find the oldest expiration date.  Even now, when we visit home for the holidays, my sister and I marvel at the 23 jars of mustard & 14 kinds of cheese, and wonder how long it’ll take the styrofoam box to biodegrade behind the cans of V8.  But who among us hasn’t been guilty of icebox neglect at some point?  I can almost identify the particular penicillin strain in that Chinese to-go box in the back of mine.

But now my soft spot has gotten a little too soft around the middle, and I’m redefining the frozen Lean Cuisine model of my 80’s childhood to a more streamlined, whole grain version. Not an extreme makeover, as I’ve been in a beans & greens trajectory for years, but it’s time to give the fridge an enema, a cooler colonic to clean out what poisons may be lurking on the bottom shelf.

This morning’s date with Mr. Clean rejuvenated the big white box.  Inventoried, purified and reorganized,  it’s now full of yummy goodness, nary a sugary snack in sight.  There’s chard and freshly soaked yellow eye beans, a jar of red cabbage sauerkraut (biodynamic), oyster mushrooms, scallions & miso for soup, the best cider you’ll ever sip (Ricker Hill, local), and, I’m happy to say Dad, that there’s only 4 jars of mustard.  The drawers are full of crunchy veggies I’ve been shaving into salads on my Muji mandoline and Bob’s Red Mill (flax, rolled oats, wheat bran, cornmeal) has taken up whole shelf residence.  Best part, chilling in the door: a couple of bottles of vintage bubbly – because I sense there’ll be lots of celebrating in my near future!

All the lovin’ isn’t reserved for the interior – I create a visual bonanza on the outside, too – all good houses of worship are welcoming so I curate the door like an artful gallery – affirmations like “I’M LIVING THE LIFE I IMAGINED” to “THE UNIVERSE REWARDS ME FOR TAKING RISKS ON ITS BEHALF” greet my ravenous self.  There are photos of my nephew (who makes my heart melt, which is what I want the excess lbs to do) and of gorgeous landscapes that remind me of the inherent beauty in all things natural.  There’s a ticket stub to that Michael Franti concert where I sweated & bounced like a pogo stick last summer and a red, handmade, save-the-date card for the Iowan wedding-in-a-barn with the delicious roasted goat. There’s even one of my first watercolors, a postcard of a ripe Anjou pear.

Now, even before I open the door, I am uplifted, buoyant with good spirits, which is just how I want to feel before the Commencement of Nourishment.  Like setting the table with your wedding porcelain and lighting delicate tapers for romance, I want my edibles to be given as much care as the farmers who grew them.  I may have inherited a full-pantry sensibility, so my fridge won’t ever look spartan, but my Shrine of Healing is bursting with all nutritious ingredients to transform me back into the SEXY, ROBUST, GREEN GODDESS I know I am.

Now where did I put that yoga mat?

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