The art of being Californian, it seems, is to cultivate a loose-limbed insouciance while secretly working away like a frantic ant.

--Richard Fortey The Earth: An Intimate History

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Hungry for Change

A group of friends and I decided that the week of May 7-11 (Monday-Friday) we would eat on $2/day in solidarity with hungry of world. We had heard about it from Trade as One's Hungry for Change which sells packets that help you with your challenge. The packets cost $25 and have enough beans, rice, and oatmeal that mimic the caloric intake of someone who was eating at $2/day. That $25 dollars goes to supplying a farmer in an impoverished area with enough beans to grow and sustain him and his family for a year. Further, at the end of the five days, Trade as One encouraged use to calculate exactly how much we would have spent on food this week and to donate it to an organization that helps the poor of the world.

Later, I found out that this week is also Live Below the Line's $1.50/day (USD) global fast for the world hungry. How exciting it is to think of all those out there who are also (albeit unwittingly) together with me during this time. Live Below the Line nicely has a place where you can raise money in support for your fast as well as direct links to where the money raised goes. They don't have a proscriptive diet (which I actually like better but for others could be super hard), so you are left pretty much on your own to define the rules and ways you will eat on $1.50/day. One couple scavenges from the neighborhood. Another person gets free samples from various stores. People are definitely being creative. And most are limiting themselves to a very set diet with staples that are used around the world because they are filling and inexpensive if not perfectly nutritious.

Further, in my obsession about what I was not eating, I stumbled upon a North County San Diego couple, Kerri Leonard and Christopher Greenslate, who, way back in September 2008, decided to live on $1/day for the entire month of September in order to build awareness of world hunger. Since then, they've published a book and seem to be strong advocates of eating well and also providing out of our richness for those who don't have the ability to eat well.

I love these ideas (and still do). I could totally regale you with my own personal limited-food drama (lack of variety is the hardest thing for me) or how we need to act concretely to ensure that no children starve, that no families suffer hardship and malnutrition; however, all that's being done way way better on those other sites.

My thoughts during this week (besides the obvious) focused more on how this fast was marketed (and yes, I am using that term intentionally) to us. It was promoted as a fulfilling and exciting experience that would be fun, and baring all that, "at least you'll lose some weight." Yes, I suppose that at the end of this week, I will feel fulfilled in that I will be tangibly giving something to others. Yes, I suppose that at the end of the week, I felt a sense of success that I finished something that was difficult. Sort of like finishing a marathon or something, I guess. And yes, I suppose that at the end of the week, I lost some weight (not from the eating so much as the complete lack of alcohol these five days). And I was be stoked to be more svelte--however short-lived that was. But is that why I did this?

Is it about me? What I get out of this?
Or is it about the hungry of the world?
Is it about dying to myself?

Why can't we just do this fast solely because we are doing it for others? What happened to just doing something because it is hard and we need the mindful discipline?

We are a culture of mindless ease. We are inundated constantly with a paradigm that tells us to adamantly seek our personal comfort. We eat out because that is easier than making dinner. We choose the shortest line in the checkout and don't let the old lady behind us go first. We hire people to watch our kids so that we can pursue what is more interesting to us. We pay someone to clean our house. We stream movies instantly wherever we are. We have phones that will post to Twitter for us.

I am not against babysitter or housekeepers or eating out or Twitter. In fact, I love all those things. However, in the midst of all my food "deprivation" that week, I thought about all the times I say, "I gave myself permission to" do something. As if I lead this austere and deprived life of great discipline and that permission is my only treat.

When I say that magic phrase to people, they nod sagely as in "you are so self-sacrificing normally. You work really really hard. It is good for you to indulge." But really I give myself permission to indulge so many time a week, it is no longer an indulgent activity. I could have given myself permission to end this fast. I could have still donated the money and told people that I was just not able to be a good parent or friend or wife or something because I was so calorie deprived (I won't tell them that I chose to drink my calories in the form of wine). And people would nod sagely, telling me that I did the right thing that relationships matter more than an esoteric fast.

And they are right.
Except then it's back to being about me.

We aren't good at dying to ourselves.
I am not good at dying to myself.

If everything lived up to the hype about how awesome and fulfilling an experience it will be for us, then this world would be amazing and a much better place. If life were easier, there'd be fewer of us in therapy. If living a true and considerate and loving life didn't require dying to self, there'd be more successful marriages, friendships with greater longevity, more breastfed babies.

But dying to self isn't easy. And no amount of promotional hype will trick you into feeling it is because eventually there's that long night when it is really hard and you are all alone and sweating blood and all you want to do is just give yourself permission.

What then? Do you think, "This is so fulfilling and exciting. And I bet I've lost some weight"?
Probably not.

I think that if more people were honest about how hard things can be with little to no reward, we wouldn't feel so desperate and convinced that it just doesn't work for us because everyone else is fulfilled, excited, and skinny. I think that we would have more people completing hard things that actually change the world.

Part of dying to self is getting to the courage to say "I don't want to die to self": I don't like my kid most days, I don't want to be married anymore, or I don't really care about hungry people I don't know or see, I want a big mac. With that honesty, you may be received with scorn and appalled stares. Or you may be greeted with recognition and love in someone else's eyes and they say, "Oh me too." That's when real dialog starts. That's when we do get the benefits. That's when we can operate as a community to take our focus off our individual selves and put it on others. That's when we stop giving ourselves permission and simply do. That's when we realize that living a life of hard truth does entail suffering. But it's also when we know it's worth it because in dying to self, you get to live for others.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Seeing Miracles

The other day was one of those rare rare almost-summer days when the sun actually shone, the constant sea wind calmed down, and it was warm enough to not be in long pants and a sweater. So, of course, we went to the beach. While there the quintessential family, mom-dad-little boy-little girl, arrived. It was obvious by the careful way the boy placed his feet and the squeals of delight the little girl breathlessly released when sand filled the holes in her crocs that these children had never been to the beach before.

They took their shoes off and wriggled their hips to work their feet into the warm sand while Mom discussed with Dad where exactly they should lay their blanket (the beach was fairly deserted). "Should we moved closer to the water or is this fine?" She asked; it was clear this decision was important to her. She weighted the pros and cons of being closer to the water that seemed as if she were talking to him but were really her talking to herself. Eventually, Dad shrugged his hoodie-covered shoulders and dropped the motley of brightly-painted buckets with the CVS tags still on them. That seemed to settle it, and Mom turned to the kids. "Now we're going to make a sand castle," She chirped in that high-pitched kid voice that some parents use. "First, we need to put sunscreen on." Mom pulled out a newly-purchased bottle of spray-on sunscreen and attempted to take the label off. She picked at it with her fingers, pulling, until, frustrated with the impossible packaging, began gnawing on it with her teeth, impatiently brushing the strands of brown hair that had escaped from her ponytail away from her mouth. A few bites into it to no avail, she examined the packaging again, "Oh, you just twist this. There's no plastic seal." She declared triumphantly as she eased each of her sensible sneakers off, her white legs flashing in the sun. First she sprayed her legs and wrists (she too was wearing a hoodie) and then sprayed a bit in her hand to wipe over her face. The whole time, the kids hadn't stopped marveling at the shifting capability of the sand and were still moving their feet back and forth and back and forth, making excited high-pitched huffing sounds.

Mom applied sunscreen to the kids while Dad took pictures (he didn't take his sensible sneakers off). Then, "To make a sand castle, we need to get the sand wet," chirp chirp chirp, unmindful of the ten or so other wild, sand-covered, half-naked children nearby who were happily digging a hole and exposing the water table only six inches below the dry sand. Mom's excitement bordered on the frantic. You could tell she really really wanted this to be THE beach experience. The one that they would put in the photo album and show all the people back home, "Yes, we did this. Here we are at the beach. That is the Pacific. We build a castle." She pulled the kids from marveling at the miracle of sand and gave them each a bucket. "Follow me," she gaily called and crab-ran over the loose terrain towards the water. The kids followed for a bit, each wallowing in the unfamiliar shifting ground. As a larger wave crashed on the beach, the little girl gave up and turned back to Dad who was still happily photographing away.

Mom and son fought the wash, so intent on their getting non-silty water in their buckets that they missed the thousand upon thousands sand crabs that scuttle just in the break and the dolphin pod that was moving in and out of the breaking waves. They struggled back across the sand with their buckets, dumping them so close to the towels and shoes that a few got wet. "Here, here," Mom called, pulling even smaller buckets and cups out of a bag, "Let's make a tower." She packed sand in one cup, turning it over quickly. Her release was too slow or the sand wasn't wet enough, so the tower collapsed as soon as she pulled the cup away. The kids didn't mind. They were engrossed in the contrast between the damp sand and the dry. "I'll get more water," Mom cried, desperately shaping this experience into what she thought a beach day should look like as Dad continued snapping and twenty pelicans flew overhead.

This family made me remember that I need to be intentional about seeing. That times I can get so focused on what I think an experience or place should be like that I completely miss the point.

I miss the actual miracle of that place. I can miss things because I am so familiar with them. I find that being from California, I take the beach completely for granted. Both my parents are from SoCal beach towns and made going to the beach a priority since I was very young even though we lived in the Sierras, and since I was 16-years-old, I've never lived in a town that didn't have a coast. While there is an elemental part of me that responds to and knows I need to be near that magic cusp of sand and surf--of silence and susurrate sounds--still I don't really think too much about what a miracle it is to be here. To have the blessing of living on the edge of a continent.

I can also miss out on the new experiences because I already have the photo album laid out in my head and know exactly what pictures I need to take to record this experience. I am so focused on what I think something should be that I miss the miracle of what is.

I forget to bury my feet in the warm sand and instead am rushing, pail in hand, to the wash oblivious to the dolphins surfing through the waves.