Coffee and Changing the World

The most monumental and lasting changes are brought about by a slow, quiet strength and patience not by dramatic flashes that strike quickly leaving chaos and headlines in their wake. Obviously a tsunami can sweep in and eliminate an entire coastal town but it rarely changes the coastline. Often, in time, it’s impossible to tell that any such event ever happened… Buildings are rebuilt, foliage grows back, lives return to normal and it all looks fairly similar to what existed before. Instead, it’s the ocean currents slowly massaging the land, strong and persistent, gently over time, and simply following their own pattern, that shape and reshape entire continents. Some of nature’s greatest sculptors created the Grand Canyon. Water- soft, giving and pliable- has been working the rock and soil for millennia creating an ever changing wonder that would be impossible to accomplish any other way. Those rivulets, streams and rivers did not set out to make such artistry, they simply did what felt right and natural… flowing downhill, clinging on in places, seeping through in others…all quietly without fuss or fanfare.  

 

   I think this can be used as a direct metaphor when we think of our role in life and society. We are each a current in this vast human sea and when we focus on flowing in the direction that we feel pulled and doing what we feel is right within the microcosm of our own lives, we slowly begin to change the world one person at a time. In truth, we are each the only person over whom we have that power yet many prefer to try changing those around them or systems outside of themselves instead. Perhaps it’s the pull of heroism, fanfare and notoriety, or it could be as simple as the need to be part of a group, but often the quiet work of understanding, believing in or improving oneself is put on the back burner in favor of the more public action of trying to change others, their opinions or beliefs. It seems to be an accepted conclusion that dramatic gestures, wars or revolutions bring about change, and while I will admit that in many respects they do, it seems to me that, often, as after a tsunami, the issues, problems and habits of the previous system or structure are rebuilt or grow back on their own. How could they not when, metaphorically speaking, the soil is the same? Until each individual is committed to working on themselves, greater change within any population, whether family, community or the world, appears impossible to sustain. One cannot happen without the other.

 

    As Ghandi said so well, ““If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

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Do-overs and Perspectives

Entering the Whole Foods parking lot was a bit surreal. In front of the boarded over window, still unrepaired from last weeks vandalism, the crowd, a mix of professionals with their shiny, efficient cars, hipsters at the bike racks and an array of other various Oaklanders were beginning their Thanksgiving shopping. The lot was full so, seeing there was room, I went to go around a woman waiting for a space that was just about open so that I could park on the street. The woman, very sharp in her black hat and rimmed glasses, immediately turned her car into my path to block me, straining in the driver’s seat to mouth something to me, presumably thinking I was out to steal her space. I waited,  disconcerted. While a small part of me got offended, I was more concerned that here was someone I didn’t know assuming the worst of me and I found myself fantasizing about leaving a note on her car explaining that my intention was purely to get out of the parking lot. It was a gorgeous day; so parking a block away on a side street and walking in the sun to get the weeks groceries was more of a pleasure than a burden.

My shopping cart filled to the brim with supplies for the holiday, I suddenly remembered something my daughter had asked for. Turning into the aisle, I was pleased to find exactly what I was looking for but it was blocked by a cart.

“Oh! I’m sorry. My cart’s in your way!” said the owner of the cart who had been engrossed in reading a label. She smiled.

“No problem at all,” I replied. “Hope you don’t mind if I move it!”

We both laughed and after a few more pleasantries we wished each other well and a happy Thanksgiving. The woman, dressed sharply in her chic black hat and rimmed glasses, gave me a smile and waved as I walked away. It wasn’t until I had turned the corner that the recognition set in….

Returning to my car was a tougher job than I had expected. The two shopping bags that I had carried with me into the Whole Foods had quickly become four, which meant I had to push the shopping cart a block with one hand while balancing a pecan pie in the other. To be honest, it wasn’t difficult to find the humor in my situation and I was kind of enjoying poking fun at myself. As I was unloading the last of the purchases into my car, I noticed a young man sauntering down the street in my direction. He was thin, baseball cap off to the side and huge pants that apparently defied gravity in their ability to stay off the ground considering his skinny frame. He wore the dull stare that youth get when they are out in the city and don’t want to show their cards. As he walked past me, I closed the door of my car and reached for my emptied cart, ready to take what now felt like the Gandhi salt march back to the store. At that point, the young man turned, his face softening at the edges, “Ma’am? If you like, I can take that back for you. I’m headed that direction anyway.”

“Thanks! That would be great!”

As he took my cart and headed off I called to him, “Hey!”. It felt like I needed to say more…

He turned.

“Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!”

He froze for a second. Then his face broke into a smile that looked like the a million watts.

“Yeah, you too!” he replied and we headed in our separate directions.

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Positively Tired

It’s been a tiring week. A bone weary, wish I didn’t have to get up, OMG maybe I have no idea what I’m doing, finding ways to trip over even my own best intentions kind of week. I’ll bet there isn’t a person over the age of twelve that doesn’t know the feeling I am talking about…

I’m usually a very positive person, not one of those brightly glowing sunny people perhaps, but always carrying around a certain optimism and belief that something good is on its way. Oddly if you are positive, when you have a down or off week and indulge in a bit of grumbling or withdraw into your cave, certain acquaintances, family members or coworkers have a difficult time figuring out what to think of it all. (There is something kind of sweet in their befuddlement, but don’t tell them I said that! It would just confuse them more.) I even had one friend tell me point-blank that they rely on my upbeat nature to see them through and that their call with me this week was a disappointment. Thankfully, it amused me more than it pissed me off.  Note to self: Try not answering the phone as often until you are through any sort of mini-identity crises.

Thus, I quit fighting it and surrendered myself to my need to keep myself to myself as often as possible lately. And I decided as long as I am slowing life down for a minute, I may as well go all out for a week or two (as much as I can anyway). Not only did it mean re-exploring what it means to hang out at home in silence with only my own input, but it also meant refraining from logging into Facebook or messaging services, abstained from calling people unless necessary or needlessly spending time “out” just to be in groups (think shopping areas, cafes, etc).

At first it felt odd. Our culture has become one in which being busy, “doing something”, having a large ‘list’ of friends or having a social calendar filled with exciting people, places and things is a sign of leading the ‘good life’, of being a success or even of being a decent person. Interestingly, I have been feeling like, for many groups, adult life has become a souped up version of high school with cliques, status climbers and stress inducing one-upmanship every way you turn. Since I hadn’t been into it in high school, I have no desire to enter that lifestyle now. I don’t need to fill my date book with the grownup version of AP classes or seek out Mr. CEO so that I can show off my ‘catch’ to friends or come in in the top percentile of this class called the human race in order to feel fairly content with myself as a person. It confounds me how spending my energy and time chasing things because others value them might be thought to make me happy.

Don’t get me wrong! I admit I stay very busy but I try to keep it real and give my energy to those people and activities that matter to me; some for the pleasure factor, some due to my beliefs and commitments but, more often than not, a lovely combination of the two. So, while “Carpe diem” is one of my own personal mottos, I have found that sometimes it’s a good idea to step back and take an inventory of all that I have taken on. I adore my friends, enjoy all of the projects that I have chosen to say “yes” to and am lucky enough to live in an area where there is always something fascinating to do, but that only makes it more critical that every so often, I reassess my dance card. Just as the band’s set only has so many songs, the day only has so many hours and when I spend some time dancing alone, I find I step on less of my partners’ toes later on.

I’m thankful for my time alone.

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Living Rich

If you wake up in the morning and find that you are able to open your eyes, that you still have a heartbeat and can feel the rise and fall of your breathing, if you feel the sheets against your skin and air on your cheeks, if by some fabulous bit of luck you find that you are still alive, then live.

Get up and LIVE.

Why not dive into life full stop? I want to savor everything! From every nuance of flavor in my morning cup of coffee to the slight ache in my back from sleeping in a funny position. It’s all a part of this amazing lottery that we have already won simply by being the lucky one’s to be born in the first place. Slow down! Stop multitasking. Give yourself over at any moment to the task at hand. Allow yourself that experience and whatever fulfillment it might give you. Perhaps that means giving your full attention to your work and being rewarded by successfully completing your goal or, at the least, knowing your gave it your all and did the best you could do at that time. When it is time to relax, then really relax. Don’t just have your body sit still for a break, but your mind and heart as well. (I think a lot of people cheat themselves the worst in this part of their lives. Truly resting doesn’t mean sitting your body down and yet continuing to scroll through your obligations or planning out future business emails in your head!) At other moments, it may mean giving your full focus to a conversation, not just the words being bantered back and forth, but the context, body movements, eye contact and meanings being shared with the person in front of you. When I remind myself to do this, even the most mundane exchanges become full and rewarding and I like to believe that the other person involved gets more from our meeting as well. That’s not to say that all experiences are joyful. There are times in life when experiences of sadness, anger or even boredom deserve our full attention as well. But that’s part of what makes us whole people and makes us who we are.

In simply living my life as though each movement, interaction or event is something that was gifted to me instead of foisted upon me, I remind myself that every good thing that happens to me here is frosting, a bonus, pure unadulterated lottery winnings. I could be ‘not here’. That will happen soon enough. One day I won’t get woken by a garbage truck that comes by loudly too early in the morning or feel those soft sheets in the morning or the cool dawn air on my cheeks or a quick hug from one of my kids. Will I miss those things? The honest answer… Hell if I know, but since I am not presumptuous enough to hazard a guess, I prefer to savor it all for now…

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Smile Bombs

I lose track. I guess we all do.

We all get so busy since the ‘to-do’ lists get long, new problems spring up and even dealing with the new dreams we would like to make real… So whether we know it or not, we begin to put our heads down and go to work making our lives happen.

I was in that mode earlier today. Silently counting off all I needed to do as I sailed down the sidewalk at a brisk pace. I was actually feeling pretty good that I had been accomplishing as much as I had but intent on the remainder of my ‘list’ and how I would fit it into my day.

That was when a man came out of a doorway. It was the local Japanese restaurant. A nondescript gentleman, average height, average weight, slightly darker complexion, carrying a to-go container, probably his lunch considering the time…. But I didn’t see any of that at first. I was in my head, racing through my own future errands, completely unaware. Until he suddenly appeared in front of me out of the blue, a little surprised at our near collision, but immediately slipping into a huge smile. A real one. You know the kind… The one when someone looks you directly in the eyes, their crows feet crinkling in silent laughter and an inner light sparkling as though they are sharing an intimate, silly joke with you?

Suddenly, I was there. In that moment, sharing a 10 second occurence with a stranger who had chosen to really look at me instead of racing past or grumbling about my walking too fast and not being more careful. What else was there to do at such a display of kindness and our shared recognition of one of the tiny foibles of city life? I smiled back. A real smile. And in that 10 seconds I was saved and given something precious. I saw and was seen. I was welcomed in and in turn opened my spirit to another person. And best of all, I was brought back to remembering why I have that damned to-do list in the first place….

While we work to make our lives happen, I need to remember that life already is happening.

Thank you smiling to-go food guy 🙂

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Giving Locally: It casts a light

I’ve been watching people, whether online or locally, here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the calls for helping out seem to be growing with people generously assisting others through natural disasters like the earthquake in Japan or sending aid to war torn areas across the world or helping those here in the U.S. to make it through the latest economic free fall. When I see that kind of response and outpouring of care for our fellow-man, it automatically fills my heart with warmth and gives me hope for us all.

But when I turn my eyes from the headlines and finish inputting my credit card number into yet another donation site suggested by a friend and head out my door into the ‘real world’, I wonder what happened…..

Perhaps I should start with a definition. When I say ‘real world’, what I mean to say is the world that you interact with everyday, the world that you touch, breath and effect on a daily basis; from your family at dinner to the guy that makes your morning cappuccino to the fellow commuters you share the freeway with. In no way am I suggesting that the people of Darfur, the Congo or a hurricane ravaged New Orleans are not real, nor am I implying that they do not need and deserve every bit of the help we can spare. But what happens to that astounding sense of generosity and love for one another when it gets down to a day-to-day level? When you really take the time to look around your community, your neighborhood, your friends and family or even the stranger you pass on the sidewalk? If you really pay attention, you will find more than enough people who can use a helping hand or kind word directly in front of you. Yet in our fast paced lives, it seems as if the closer we are to something, the less we see it. The more accessible and mundane the problems; the less likely we seem to be so enamored of giving aid. It just isn’t that exotic to offer to pick up a friend’s kid from school since you heard they were ill or be aware enough to open the door for someone whose arms are full or to take the time to buy some dime store shoes for the homeless man you saw who had none. Lord knows, on those days when the ‘to do’ list overwhelms me, it’s hard for me to see pretty much anything…

I admit it, giving locally is a big ‘thing’ with me. You might even call it a passion. It could be said that my belief is that a person’s community is an extension of their home and even of their self. In your home, you say hello to other’s as you enter a room or pass in the hall, you offer hospitality to guests and generally try to make your home a pleasant place for yourself and others to spend time. Many people take pride in their hospitality. In a healthy household, the people involved support one another in many ways. There is an awareness of what others need and, hopefully, even in what will bring them pleasure. Granted, to stay aware of the needs and desires of those around you takes work, as does tactfully and honestly  discerning and expressing your own needs or wants clearly. But when we are able to share this reciprocal respect and energy with our family members or housemates, each individual flourishes as well as our relationships to one another. The moments that it all flows in sync become some of the most fondly remembered of our lives!

Radiating out from our closest family into the community, that respect and awareness takes on a slightly different hue. We are not on an intimate basis with most people we pass on the street, talk with in stores or drive past in our cars. We may not know all of their needs, problems or wants but we can still be aware of their immediate desires by staying alert and really looking at those around us. We can easily tell by the turn signal when a driver wants to pull into a parking space or when a pedestrian at a cross walk needs to cross. When the cashier at the grocery has darker circles under his eyes than usual and isn’t wearing a smile, we can surmise that he is either tired or having a bad day. Just by facial expression and body movements, we get glimpses into other’s hearts and feelings. And even if we can’t ‘know’, we all hazard guesses at the stories of those we interact with. At times when we are feeling positive and open-hearted, our guesses reflect our inner state. The woman hurriedly pushing past us becomes a woman racing to make it to a romantic dinner on time or someone late for work whom we empathize with and we smile as she passes. We understand. That very same incident can cause you to declare the woman rude or self-centered and possibly lament the downfall of manners in Western civilization, should you be in a darker mood or at a difficult time in your life.

On the days that we try to stay aware and look at our surroundings with a positive lens, our reactions can enhance, and even heal, the world around us. We tend to be more forgiving and empathetic. “Forgiving” has “giving” contained within it you’ll notice.

Making that effort to live in the moment and really be aware of those around us- on the street, in our homes, at our work- gives us the opportunity to realize our effect on each person we encounter during our day. Giving at this level does require letting go of a certain sense of autonomy. Looking a stranger walking by on the street to say hello requires a level of intimacy that more and more we in our culture are uncomfortable with.  While many may note that the grocery clerk is having an off day, it takes a little more to smile and ask, “And how are you today?” And while it will always be a worthy instinct to reach out to those in devastating circumstances far away, I would repeat the old adage, “Charity begins at home”. Perhaps it’s not newspaper worthy that you made it a point to smile at people you passed on the sidewalk today or that you quietly loaned a friend in dire straits some money or gave up that lovely close parking space to the silver-haired woman who could barely see over the steering wheel… But those are the seeds of kindness, respect and civility that grow and spread. They are the quick, easy and oddly fulfilling ‘donations’ that you can make an endless supply of everyday.

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