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Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category


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I have always loved those moments in life when you find yourself in a time and place that you never in a million years would have imagined. Right now is one of those moments. As I sit on the vast, green lawn, overlooking the lake at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, in the beautiful Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts, I am pondering, in amazement, the many dots that had to connect to lead to this moment in time.

It all started in Boston, just about one year ago, when my mother’s boyfriend handed me the Kripalu catalog, knowing that I am an avid practitioner of yoga. Greatly appreciative of his thoughtfulness, I happily took it home with me to San Francisco. After thoroughly browsing through (and drooling over) its offerings, it took up a permanent residence on my coffee table.

Fast forward a few months: In the midst of a job search, I took to my regular practice of meditation, hoping to get clarity on my direction. During what would be one of those rare (but fortuitous) occasions when an insight pops into my awareness, the name “Kripalu” appeared in the forefront of my mind. If there is one thing I’ve learned through my meditation, it’s that when these random “messages” occur, I need to pay attention.

I immediately halted my meditation and pulled out my laptop. I navigated straight to the Kripalu website, where I found a job listing that greatly interested me… this despite my deep down feeling that I really had no desire to move back east, nor  to return to the harsh cold of winter. Listening to my rational mind, I applied for the job anyway.

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Forever being a master networker, I reached out to my network to see who might have a connection for me at Kripalu. As it turned out, a fellow writing friend of mine happened to be friends with one of the foremost yogic scholars, a well-known author and senior teacher at Kripalu. My friend very graciously passed my resume on to this connection. But as fate would have it, the Universe had other plans in store for me. I did not get that job at Kripalu, and I eventually realized that I do belong right where I am, in San Francisco.

But this connection did bear other fruits for me, as I ended up working as a consultant to this well-known yoga author and teacher. Having the great privilege of working with this man, as I learned more about him and read his books, I recognized that this was a person I wanted to know better, and whose great work I wanted to follow and support.

And so here I find myself, breathing in the fresh and fragrant spring air of the Berkshires, having very excitedly journeyed from San Francisco to the wilds of Western Massachusetts, to attend this teacher’s workshop on cultivating the practice of Loving Kindness (Metta).

As part of our meditation practice for the weekend, and in order to take advantage of the spectacular spring weather, he spontaneously changed the day’s agenda and sent us out to the great lawn for some walking meditation- something I did not particularly enjoy doing just a few weeks ago, back home in California. But here, in the brilliant sunshine of Massachusetts’ spring, my feet found themselves unexpectedly in paradise as I slipped off my flip-flops and stepped into the thick, lush grass, warmed by the sun. As I walked amongst the field of dandelions, each blade of grass playfully tickling my toes, I was struck by the fact that I cannot often (if ever) do this in San Francisco.

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In our cool San Francisco climate, it is the exception, rather than the rule, that we get weather that is warm enough for sandals. And even the few wonderful times when it is warm enough (believe me, there is much rejoicing!), the climate of our “Fog City” very often leaves the grass wet and cold- not exactly an inviting environment for your cold little piggies! In that very moment, as my toes sank into the soft, warm grass, it occurred to me that I haven’t walked barefoot in the grass for years!

I was immediately struck by how much people take for granted this simple pleasure. And in that instant, I paused and held such gratitude for my toes being able to experience this heaven beneath my feet. And at the very same time, I was grateful for my life in San Francisco affording me the opportunity for this moment of perspective and profound appreciation.

I continued to move my feet slowly, tuning in closely to the focal points of walking meditation: placing the foot, rolling the foot, lifting the foot, rinse and repeat, all the while being acutely aware of the feeling of my feet touching the Earth. As I did so, the sounds and smells of spring came into my awareness: the freshly cut grass, the bees buzzing around my feet, the soft breeze on my ears… and then there it was- the bird off in the distance singing his “see-saw” song, something that I then realized is an iconically New England sound. We don’t hear that particular bird, with that unique song, in California. Once again I delighted in gratitude for the wonder of Mother Nature and all her diversity.

As I absorbed the see-saw song, I was immediately transported back to the childhood swing-set, swinging by the school yard. That bird, and that song, represent the sounds of my childhood. And then I was flooded with the countless childhood memories of running barefoot through the grass: backyard barbeques, graduation parties, badminton matches, pool parties, camping in my grandparents’ back yard, summer concerts on the common- of all the moments when we unconsciously allowed ourselves to run barefoot in the warm grass, never thinking that there was anything particularly special about it.

And in this very special moment in time, here on the great lawn of Kripalu, during this very unexpected trip, I realized that never again would I take that simple pleasure for granted….and never again would I forget that feeling of heaven beneath my feet.

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For years I have been traveling alone, and for years I have wished that I didn’t have to. During my 20s, I had a great international travel job that took me overseas multiple times per year, to wonderful places the likes of Madrid, Paris, London, or even Costa Rica. These were fabulous opportunities and I took full advantage, exploring as much as I could while there. But yet there was always something missing and I always wished I could share it with someone.

And when it came to love, it just never worked out timing wise that I had a partner with whom to travel and share my adventures. Inevitably I was always involved with someone either too broke or disorganized to get a trip together, or I was involved with someone on the other side of the country; always finding myself in circumstances in which I would end up traveling alone. And after experiencing a string of brutal broken hearts, travel became not only lonely, but sad, as I would find myself thinking of my lost loves, everywhere I would go, thinking of the “what-ifs” and the missed opportunities.

The good news is that experience changes us and time heals all wounds. And the longer we are alone, the more we learn to embrace our solitude, the more we learn to love our own company and to become our own best friend; and the more we come to crave our time alone. That is the place in life to which I have very happily arrived. So when I have recently found myself at a crossroads, unsure of which path to take next, I knew I needed to take a soul-searching journey…and I knew I needed to do it alone.

So I set out on a road-trip down the Pacific Coast Highway, just me, my trusty stick-shift, and the radio; ready for adventure, ripe for epiphanies, and open to whatever might come…

DSCN1364My first stop along the way was at the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where I set out on a hike towards a waterfall. This was really my first time hiking alone and as I set out over tree stumps and craggy rocks, I contemplated the solitude, consciously taking in all of the beauty around me. I passed a pair of couples who had stopped to take a breath and were laughing amongst themselves. As is always the case when hiking, we greeted each other with a friendly “hello” and I walked by smiling to myself at their obvious enjoyment and laughter.

When I arrived to the waterfall, I scrambled up onto a rock and perched myself against a tree to eat my lunch, with the sound of water flowing in the background. I was immersed in the serenity of nature and I made note of my happiness, in spite of my solitude. As I was eating my sandwich, the two couples made their way to the falls, we greeted each other again and I offered to take their photos. We shared a few laughs and I delighted at the opportunity for human connection with complete strangers.

A few minutes later an older lady arrived on her own. I offered to take her photo as well and then we began chatting. We immediately began talking about the adventures of hiking alone, of all of the other solo hikers that you come across, and discussed how being alone presents such a great opportunity to connect with other people along the way. I was happy to connect with her in such a way and I felt proud of myself for venturing out on my own. I looked forward to whomever….or whatever… I would encounter next.

The encounter that happened next is one that would take my breath away. As I was walking down the last part of the path, almost back to the parking lot, I saw what I thought was someone’s dog, off leash, approaching me. I thought nothing of it. A few moments later, I wondered where his owners were, and realizing that there was nobody in sight, it occurred to me that it may not have been a dog at all. I heard it rustling around in the woods just to the side of me, so I stopped and cautiously peeped into the brush to take a closer look. That is when I realized that I was only a few feet away from a wild bobcat! Now, anyone that knows me, knows that I am not only a supreme animal lover, but I am also a huge lover of cats, having two kitties of my own.

My mom will tell you that as a kid, I was always the one who would stay in the petting zoo for hours, and that I had no fear at all of any of the animals. I was the kid that would constantly bring home wounded squirrels and bunny rabbits, attempting to nurse them back to health with an eye dropper. My mother was of course always worried about me getting rabies, but I never had any fear. I knew that I had a deeper connection to the animal world and that I was attuned to their energies. So when I found myself face to face with a bobcat, once again, I had no fear. This was probably a good thing, because had I been fearful, the cat would have sensed that and would likely have reacted more negatively towards me. Instead, he was cautious and moved away from me slowly, keeping his eyes locked on me the entire time.

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I watched him with absolute awe and wonder, observing in him the very same behaviors that I see daily in my own cats. I admired the pointy tufts on his ears and the beautiful spots on his coat, and watched, fully captivated, as he moved gracefully and with great agility, up through the trees and brush and eventually onto the upper ledge of the hill beside me. For me this was an unforgettable moment that I will carry with me for the rest of my life; a powerful moment of connection with the natural world.

Absolutely thrilled with my magical encounter, I got back in my car and headed south down The Pacific Coast, continuing along my journey. Anyone who has ever traveled The Pacific Coast Highway knows that there is no shortage of mind-blowing, breathtaking vistas, all along the way. For that reason, one generally takes their time, pulling off to the side of the road often to take in dramatic views. At one point, while I was driving along, I saw a bunch of people pointing up at the sky. I pulled off the road to see what they were looking at. It turned out this was a prime location for spotting the great California Condor and there was a gaggle of birdwatchers, waiting patiently with their binoculars. I stopped and looked for a while, but after not spotting any, I hopped back in the car and continued on my way.

And then, there it was. As I was cruising down the highway, I looked up and saw him soaring directly overhead, a graceful, powerful Condor. Such majesty, such absolute freedom. I imagined myself flying like a bird, high above the Earth, taking it all in. I felt my spirit once again expand at the great fortune of having yet another beautiful connection with nature. Filled with amazement and gratitude, I continued on my way.

A little further along the highway, I stopped to take a picture at another fantastic vista point. And low and behold, there was the pair of couples from my first hike. We greeted each other again and this time chatted more about where we were from, where we were going, etc. I would bump into these same couples two more times over the course of my three-day journey, and each time we laughed with delight at the synchronicity; each time it confirmed for me the interconnectedness of all beings on this Earth. How wonderful it is to connect with other people, to get to know a little bit about complete strangers, reminding me once again that although I was traveling by myself, I was never alone.

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After taking in another marvelous vista, I got back in my car and continued on my way, a smile on my face. I coasted around the windy, curvy highway, having an absolute blast driving my stick-shift, the windows down, the music blaring, and the wind blowing through my hair. I thought to myself, “it doesn’t get any better than this.” A few moments later, I rounded a bend, and in the turn-off to my left, I saw a man with his Great Dane. The dog was up on his hind legs and the man was dancing with him. I laughed out loud… and then my eyes filled with tears… tears of joy.

I realized in that moment that life is not about what we’ve accomplished, how much money we make, or about any of the material things we’ve amassed. It is not about whether we are alone or with another. It is about connection: connection with other human beings, connection with animals, connection with spirit. It is about living in the present moment, and taking in the beauty, the magic, and mystery that surround us at every moment. It is about the experiences that leave an indelible mark on our soul. It is about the moments that take our breath away. It is about living. And it is about dancing with your dog…

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Flickr Photo by Amanda Nichols.

As my head lay heavy on the pillow, my eyes awoke to the morning sun. I rolled over to stretch and as I did so my ears were tickled with the sweet sound of the birds chirping happily outside my window. I consider myself very fortunate. I live in California and therefore am blessed to have flowers blooming and songbirds singing all year long. It is the first sound I hear each morning, and a sweet symphony that immediately puts a smile on my face. This day was no exception.

A few hours later, I had set out for my routine walk to yoga, up and through the beautiful park and down the hill to my favorite yoga studio. As I entered the park, the sun sparkling on the city below, I saw dogs happily racing around with their sticks and balls, babies being pushed in carriages, and the trees lightly waving “good day” to me in the light ocean breeze. Then I heard it and a smile immediately came across my face. Once again, I heard the song of birds…birds all around me, dancing atop the tree tops, delighting in one of the first days of spring, singing to one another, and perhaps to me.

Flickr Photo by Michael Newman.

In that moment I was immediately transported to another time and place. I suddenly found myself back on the swing-set of my childhood school playground, swinging back and forth and listening to the birds whistling their springtime song. As I listened to the playful sound of the birds, I watched the kids playing baseball on the baseball diamond, and other kids monkeying around on the jungle gym before me. It was in this moment that I realized just how much I revered springtime, even as a child.

I grew up in the northeast, in a climate where winter is often the longest season; a place where all of the vegetation withers and the trees are left naked and barren during a long, stark winter; a place from which many of the birds flee, in search of warmer weather to the south. Each spring I would anxiously look forward to the re-awakening of the Earth: to the re-sprouting of life from her skin, to the budding of leaves, to the return of color and fresh breezes, to the sound of lawn mowers and the smell of freshly-cut grass, to the buzzing of the bees… and to the return of the springtime chirping of the birds.

As I walked through the park with a smile on my face, I was immediately reminded of the youthful innocence that the birds represented for me; a simple, happy time in my life; a time when I had no care in the world, other than to listen to the birds sing. These are the great moments in life.

I have now lived in California for almost five years, and I have never since had to endure the starkness of winter and the quiet absence of the birds. For this I am grateful everyday. It seems as though from the time I was a child, swinging on that swing-set, that I was always destined to come to California, a place where the birds would always be singing their song. The birds have welcomed me with their beautiful songs from the day I crossed over California’s border, and they have remained with me since. But on this day, when I traveled back in time to that swing on the playground, I realized just how much I appreciate them.

It seems perfectly poignant that only a few months ago, my mother unearthed a childhood Haiku poem that I had written when I was just 10 years old. She sent it to me and I have to laugh when I read it now. It seems that my childhood self always knew the birds were special and that they would eventually lead me to this place, to this beautiful home where I am awakened each day by the sweet song of the birds.

I leave you with this poem, an ode to the birds from my 10-year old self:

A chirp from the sky,
I hear a little bird’s call,
like a playing harp.

Flickr Photo by Black Thumb.

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Me and my brothers in front of the Golden Gate Bridge

My very first introduction to San Francisco was at the tender age of six when my mother took me and my two brothers across the country on a 2-week train trip. I don’t remember much of San Francisco, except for this photo missing my two front teeth. That and the crookedest street in the world. It, like many experiences of my early years, faded into the recesses of my memory.

Some 20 years later I would be sitting in my office in Boston, daydreaming about moving to San Francisco with one of my best friends and colleagues. I’m not sure why we had it in our heads that San Francisco should be our destination; perhaps it was the fact that both of our older brothers had already moved there, perhaps it was the adventure of moving west towards a new frontier, perhaps it was the romanticism of a place we couldn’t fully imagine, some place new, different, exciting. Perhaps it was simply the fantasy of leaving everything behind and starting over, a new person in a new life.

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Despite our daydreams, life had other plans for both of us. She, my colleague and friend, ended up on her own adventures between New York City, Paris and Washington, DC. My own path led me to Washington, DC and then finally west, but to a different destination… Los Angeles. Though I had spent all of that time dreaming about San Francisco, circumstances had led me elsewhere, and San Francisco just didn’t appear to be in the cards. That is until 2009, when a series of events “inadvertently” led me right to the place of my previous daydreams… I had finally landed in San Francisco.

At first it was a love-hate relationship. My heart was stuck in Los Angeles, and that coupled with my love of the warm weather of Southern California, meant that I was pretty miserable and found every reason to complain about San Francisco. It was not living up to my dreams of all those years before.

But as it always does, time went by and things began to change. My heart-strings began to release their tight grip on Los Angeles and I began opening up more to the idea of San Francisco being home. Little by little I began to acclimate to the weather, I began to find a new community of friends, I began to plant roots. San Francisco was becoming home. As it did so, the beauty around me began to become more and more apparent. Every time I would walk to yoga, I would stand in awe of the spectacular view of the skyline that was simply the backdrop of my walk through Alamo Square. The succulent scent of California’s year-round flowers wafted into my nostrils everywhere I went. The breathtaking view of the Golden Gate Bridge would render me speechless each time I passed over it or caught a glimpse of it from atop a high vista point in the city. The stunning views of the San Francisco Bay, dotted with beautiful sailboats, would come into my eyesight during a routine walk or drive. On almost a daily basis I would find myself amazed by the staggering beauty around me and exclaiming to myself, “My God. How on earth do I live HERE?”

View of Golden Gate Bridge from Marin Headlands

As a writer dedicated to focusing on the positive and seeking out the joy of life, I strive every day to appreciate the beauty that is all around me and to not take it for granted. But like any human, even I have my moments when I lose sight of it. Tonight was one of those moments. As we just changed the clocks and it is suddenly getting dark much earlier than it was previously, I found myself disappointed by the loss of light in the day. As I was preparing to leave for yoga this evening, I posted this update to my Facebook page:

“Really not thrilled about it being DARK for my walk to yoga.”

Looking out the window I could see that it was dark and I was not looking forward to the walk in the cold, especially when I was so used to taking this lovely walk with the warm sun on my back.

I headed out the door and onto my usual route to yoga, which takes me through Alamo Square, home of The Painted Ladies. The minute I set foot into the park, I once again stood in awe. In the crisp fall air, the city was sparkling with absolute brilliance against the night sky, cradled by the glow of the bright moon above. I was immediately humbled and realized the error of my ways with my previous Facebook post. It was ironic that I was on my way to yoga. One of the themes that we frequently explore in yoga is the embracing of not only the light, but also the dark, the shadow side of life. As the seasons change and we move into a darker time, the yoga invites us to explore the darker side of ourselves, our experiences and our emotions. And it invites us to embrace both, to see the beauty in both, the opportunity for growth which comes from each. As I reflected on my dissatisfaction about the days turning into night, I realized that I was missing out on the opportunity to embrace both the light and the dark. And as I walked through Alamo Square and marveled at the beauty of the night scene around me, I felt nothing but wonder and gratitude.

San Francisco at night, from Alamo Square

I thought about the 6-year old me sitting in front of the Golden Gate Bridge with my brothers, completely unaware of the fact that this would one-day be my home. I thought about the 20-something me daydreaming with my friend about San Francisco, about how we would get there and what it would be like. And I thought about the current me who had evolved from a place of daydreaming, to ambivalence about a city, to embracing it as my home. And as I looked at the stunning skyline glittering beneath the light of the moon, I was overcome with emotion and I once again thought to myself, “My God. How do I live HERE?”

This post is dedicated to Jules, who has forever been my ally and friend
along this journey.

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Cathedral of Cusco

I remember the moment as if it were yesterday. We were walking through the main square of Cusco, Peru, towards the majestic Cathedral glistening in the afternoon sun, when Danielle said to me, “It’s all perfect Jeannie. You are simply in the gestation period, things are incubating. You are getting ready to have a rebirth.” Who is Danielle and to what on earth was she referring? Danielle Hougard was the Anusara Yoga teacher who was leading me on my first ever yoga retreat. But she was not just any yoga teacher. Danielle is one of those special “Earth Mother” types, the type of woman who exudes love and motherly instincts from every cell of her body, the type of woman who is truly in touch with her intuition, the Spirit of Earth and Sky, and the energies of every living creature around her. This is a wise women who just seems to “know” things, and somehow when she says them you just know that you can trust her.

Danielle was responding to my story of how my life had fallen into ruins: I had moved across country to fight for love, only to find myself rejected and abandoned. If that wasn’t enough I had arrived at the beginning of the recession and was thrust headfirst into months of unemployment. Running out of money and desperate for work, I was compelled to take a minimum wage job at a retail store. It was depressing enough that I had gone from a successful, high-paying management career in Washington, DC, to making minimum wage, but in the depths of my own heartache, I was now forced to endure hundreds of happy couples strolling about arm in arm as the irritating Christmas carols pumped out incessantly through the loudspeakers of the shopping mall. But worst of all, every day I lived in fear that the man who had broken my heart would stroll in with HIS new girlfriend on his arm. This was my rock bottom. If there is a Hell on Earth, this was definitely it.

Fortunately through a stroke of “luck,” I was finally able to find a “real” job. Things were looking up, I could finally leave my minimum wage job and get back to building my career….Or so I thought. Sadly my luck would not last and I was laid off several months later, and found myself yet again in a period of protracted unemployment. So here I was in Peru, six months after having been laid off and I hadn’t had a single bite to the hundreds of resumes sent. My life was completely stagnating. I was having no luck on the job front, no luck on the love front, every cell in my body ached and mourned for the loss of my best friend, and I was depressed to the point where I did not want to get out of bed in the morning. The only thing I could feel in my life was a palpable feeling of stagnation. I was completely stuck.

Danielle’s response to this story was a friendly smile and a reassuring nod, telling me that everything I had just described was actually “PERFECT,” that although on the surface it felt like things were stagnating, that actually behind the scenes there were forces at work, and that I was simply in the gestation period…that I was simply getting ready for a powerful rebirth. Though to my rational (and depressed!) mind this sounded a little bit unusual and way too good to believe, the certainty with which she spoke these words gave me a momentary peace. I prayed that she was right.

By now you may be wondering what I was doing in Peru after the story I just described and given my obvious state of unemployment. Well, call me a risk-taker, but when life gets really dark and gloomy, that’s when something deep inside of me says “SCREW IT” and propels me to go do something incredible and adventurous, to try to drag myself reluctantly out of the muck. All of my life I had dreamed of going to Peru. When I was in high school Spanish class, my teacher would show us pictures of Machu Picchu and I just knew that I had to go there one day. So when I found myself in the midst of my “dark night of the soul,” and completely stuck, I knew I had to do something to try to unstick myself.

Several days after walking through that square in Cusco, we found ourselves on the very tip-top of Huayna Picchu Mountain, high above the breath-taking, mind-boggling and awe-inspiring creation that was Machu Picchu. This masterpiece defied human logic and comprehension. Its ruins were perfectly intact, each of its thousands of individual stones stacked so flawlessly and at such exquisitely engineered angles that they would remain intact and stable for hundreds of years of enduring the elements. There are honestly not any words I could ever use to adequately express what it felt like to be standing up there at 8,920 ft, literally on top of the world. As I looked around us, I was overcome with goosebumps at the beauty of the jagged, majestic mountains that shot dramatically up into the heavens, hugged and nurtured by the blankets of fog. If there was a God, he/she was certainly here. I felt the great Spirit of the Earth in the wind that whispered into my ears, in the Sun that warmed my back, and in the solid stone beneath my feet, stones that had held the weight and cradled the souls of hundreds of thousands of humans across the centuries. I was awed to my core. Standing up here at this great height, surrounded by the magic and mystery of Mother Earth, I knew I was being supported.

Me on top of Huayna Picchu Mountain, with Machu Picchu far below

At the end of our 10-day journey, completely moved and humbled by the Grace, beauty and humility of the Peruvian people, we returned home to the States, and I back to the chains of stagnation in Los Angeles. The minute I touched down in Los Angeles, I knew I had to leave. I am a stubborn person. And because I loved Los Angeles and felt a profound spiritual connection with her, I had previously been determined to stay there, despite the fact that the signs seemed to point elsewhere. But now the Universe had given me a breadcrumb to follow. You see, this yoga group, led by this sweet soul Danielle, was actually from San Francisco, and I only found them through an “accidental” twist of fate through a web search. Nobody on the trip could figure out why I was staying in Los Angeles after the horror I had described. They encouraged me to move to San Francisco. Considering that my life was completely stagnant and that I had already lost everything of importance that I could possibly stand to lose, I decided it was time to break free of my prison.

This is when Grace took over. Only five days after moving to San Francisco, for what was intended to be a one-month temporary sublet to test out the waters, a job offer had fallen unexpectedly into my lap. Over the weeks that followed, I frantically looked for a permanent apartment in San Francisco, searched desperately for someone to take over my lease in Los Angeles, packed up my entire one-bedroom apartment in 24 hours and drove the entire load, by myself, the six-hour drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and then started my new job the next day. Just like that, my life had shifted dramatically. Danielle’s words about an impending “rebirth” were ringing in my ears. But what I didn’t know was that this was just barely the beginning. I was only in the earliest contractions and still had over a year of “labor” ahead of me.

17 months later, after months and months of undue stress and anxiety in my corporate job, I was let go. Bowled over by the unexpected blow, I picked myself back up and threw myself immediately back into the job search. But the minute I did so, another breadcrumb was laid down for me. I had written my very first blog post, about my journey of healing through yoga, and it had felt good. But not only did it feel good, it got a good response. Somehow, as if in a daze, I suddenly found myself with my own blog and I began writing. Never having had any interest in being a writer, it was as if a higher force had suddenly taken over and was simply pulling my puppet-strings and moving me along a new and unexpected path. But this path felt right.

Now only eight short months since losing my job, I have over 20,000 beautiful, bilingual fans in 35 countries around the world, my work has been published in several different publications, I am now a regular contributor to Elephant Journal, writing in both English and Spanish, I’m about to be featured in Martha Stewart’s Whole Living Magazine, and I have just completed and submitted my very first book proposal, with the hope that I will soon be a published writer. I couldn’t have imagined this dramatic turn of events in my life even eight months ago when I lost my job. In fact almost daily I look back and scratch my head with delight and wonder. But there would be no way in my wildest, craziest dreams that I could have imagined this, as we walked through that square in Cusco talking about my impending “rebirth.”

A few weeks ago we had a reunion from our Peru trip, now just past the two-year mark since we took our trip, and I was reminding Danielle of this moment from Cusco. Danielle then told me something that I hadn’t yet known, something that made this entire experience even more unbelievable and magical to me: the name Cusco means “navel of the Earth.” Danielle had been right, I was in the gestation period and I was getting ready for a “rebirth.” What I hadn’t realized was that I had to go to Cusco, the “navel of the Earth,” in order for the “rebirth” to begin…

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Balinese Offering

As previously featured on Elephant Journal.

I had been warned that I would experience reverse culture-shock upon returning from Bali, one of the 17,000 islands of Indonesia. I have a little bit of first-hand experience with this concept, having spent my junior year of college living abroad in Spain. When I returned back to the United States and then to a small, rural college town in New England, I felt like I had landed on a different planet. I had gone from a diverse and international community in the midst of a pulsating urban center with a rich cultural and artistic history, to being in the middle of farmland in one of the least diverse states in the nation. So yes, I knew all about reverse culture-shock. But I was only going to Bali on a two-week yoga retreat; surely that was not enough time to experience any kind of culture shock upon my return. I was not worried.

I guess I should have heeded the warning. After the 24 or so hour journey home from Denpasar, we landed in San Francisco late on a Sunday night. My body had no idea what time it was; it didn’t know if it should eat, sleep, or go for a walk! It happened to be just before midnight on what would be the 4th of July, a surreal time to be arriving back home from my first ever trip to Asia. As we drove into the city, headed down the Octavia St. ramp and then made the turn onto Fell St., I was very aware of the fact that I was experiencing the exact same sensation I had had when I found my feet back on the rural earth of New England, all of those years prior; I felt like I had entered the twilight zone. San Francisco is a very vibrant and lively city, full of energy, and as the city was teeming with tourists for the 4th of July festivities, one would imagine it being even more so; and to the average bystander it probably felt exactly that: alive. But to me that night it felt like a dead zone. As we drove past the dark and austere buildings of brick and wood, the city seemed almost depressed to me.

Why did it all of a sudden look so different to me? Bali had provided a stark contrast. The island is famous for being a “spiritually elevated” place with some of the world’s most happy and smiling inhabitants. And that description couldn’t have proved more true. In Bali the idea of community is one of their most important themes. Within a particular village, all of the men are required to join what is called a “Banjar”, essentially the Balinese equivalent of a community organization. The Banjar meets weekly to discuss and decide on issues that impact everyone in the village; such as when to fix a road, rebuild a side-walk or whether or not to allow a bar to open. The men of the village take their Banjar responsibilities very seriously and any men that neglect their Banjar duties are fined accordingly.

In addition to the Banjar, the rest of the villagers are heavily involved in their communities as well. They all work together to organize and perform in local, traditional dance performances, which take place often on a daily basis. They help one another out in times of need. If someone’s house catches fire, you will see the entire community grabbing buckets of water and running to the scene to help. The community also comes together in times of ritual and celebration. In Balinese Hinduism, the highest honor that a person can receive is to have a cremation ceremony. When it comes time for this elaborate and beautiful ceremony, the entire community will come together to assist with the building of the cremation tower and to celebrate the life and right of passage of the deceased.

Balinese life very much takes place in the streets. You see the happy Balinese people out and about (amidst the dogs and hundreds of chickens!) walking, talking to one another, welcoming tourists. And everywhere you look you will see smiles, wider ear to ear smiles than I have ever seen. You see men and women alike bringing their sacred offerings to their Temples, multiple times a day; all to honor and appease the Deities in order to bring blessings upon their village, and the citizens within the village. Community is everything in Bali.

So imagine I come home to a society where it is rare for anybody to talk to their neighbors (unless you have a complaint!), where we spend much of our time isolated either in our homes or in our cars, or in our offices working like dogs, and where if you regularly smile at strangers who pass you on the street, you will more likely than not be taken for a crazy person! This city that had once felt so alive and energized to me, now felt very cold and harsh…and concrete.

What shocked me most of all was the number of homeless people in San Francisco. Knowing that I live in a city with one of the highest populations of homeless people in the country, this should not come as a surprise to me. I see it everyday, day and night, no matter where I go. But the reason that this was suddenly so glaring to me is that in Bali I saw none. Here I was in what the US would consider a “Third Word Country” and I did not see a single person sleeping on the streets or pan-handling. How could this be? I’ve traveled to plenty of Third and even Second and First world countries and seen ample and visible homelessness. So how is it that on this island of nearly four million people, I didn’t see any? The answer is the “family compound”.

Balinese family in their family compound

Anyone who knows me personally knows that this term has a funny, personal connotation to me. You see, my dad comes from a large Italian family, and because several of the siblings built their houses on the same plot of land, side by side and back to back to one another, they have created what we in my family call the “compound”. Well, it seems that my Italian relatives may have been onto something. In Bali, everyone lives in what they call a “family compound”. The oldest brother is the head of the compound, the wives then follow their husbands to their family compounds, and then the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and grandchildren all live together, all working together to support the family compound and its members. So you see, it would be really difficult to become homeless in Bali, because even if a member of the family finds themselves jobless or down and out, because they live in the family compound, they are supported by the rest of the family. Very simply put, the Balinese take care of their own.

So to come home to San Francisco, where on any given day I can see 10-20 people, without homes, without any way to wash themselves, pushing around all of their Wordly possessions in their grocery carts, wondering where they will find their next meal; was a sobering experience to say the least. I found myself wondering how this can be in the richest country in the world when a “Third World” island like Bali has no such problem.

Another element of Balinese society that stood out to me is the way they care for their elderly. They remain in the family compound, as the family elders to impart their wisdom on the grandchildren, and they are very much involved with the day to day functions of the family unit: cooking meals, making offerings, contributing to any family artisanship (ex. mask-making, puppet-making, etc). I came back to America thinking about the fact that we so often put our elderly in nursing homes, that we essentially pawn them off on someone else to take care of them. Now I recognize that this has just become somewhat of a norm in our society and that many people do it out of necessity, and certainly not out of any lack of love. I know it is a horrible decision for many people to have to make. But when I saw this very distinct society that has found a much more humane way to take care of their elders, through the family compound, it simply seemed barbaric to me that our society has developed in the way that it has.

The last aspect of Balinese society that really struck me as beautiful and contrasting to our own was their devotion; their devotion to Earth and Spirit equally. When Hinduism came to Indonesia from India, as early as the first Century, it mixed with the animist religions that already existed on the Indonesian archipelago, forming a unique brand of Hinduism, which today remains only on the island of Bali.  Animism encompasses the belief that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical worlds, and that spirits exist not only in humans, but also in all other animals, plants and all other parts of nature.  The Balinese people very much live off of the land, and because of this belief that we, the Earth and everything on it, are all part of Spirit, they have a deep respect and reverence for all parts of nature. Being an agrarian society, with rice being the most important crop, the Balinese take special care to nurture their fields. They understand that if they disrespect the land, that it will cause everything and everyone to be out of balance. For that reason they spend pain-staking amounts of time and energy to honor their Deities, the Gods of the sky, the Gods of the rice, etc, by making beautiful little baskets of offerings. To walk about Bali is to see hundreds of offerings, everywhere. You will see them on cars, in front of storefronts, in restaurants, at Temple gates, and on sidewalks. As a tourist you really have to watch your step to not step on them as you go. Multiple times a day you see men and women alike coming out in their lovely sarongs and Temple scarves, to leave a beautiful offering at a Temple.

Balinese woman leaving daily offerings at temple gate

When is the last time any of us went outside and thanked the land for providing us with our food and water? What does our society do to stay in balance with Earth and Spirit? I’ll let you answer that for yourselves. I have my own thoughts on the matter.  But I do know that many of our own Native American tribes do this. The society that I have described above is very similar to Shamanic societies all around the world. I have studied much on this favorite topic of mine, as it is something from which I believe we can learn great lessons. I am intrigued by how native societies all over the world, thousands of miles apart, have developed very similar rituals and ways of living that honor the Spirits around them, the Spirits of Earth and Sky. If I can apply a pop-culture reference, if any of you have seen “Avatar”, then perhaps you know what I’m talking about. That film was poignantly timed and did a powerful job of illustrating the beauty and wisdom of a Shamanic society, of the importance of respecting, honoring and integrating with the land around us. Picture the scenes in “Avatar” and you can pretty much picture Bali.

So what is my point? Am I saying that Bali is a better place to live than America? Bali is a beautiful, magical, spiritually “elevated” place, that is absolutely true. And would I accept an invitation to live there, even if only for a while? You better believe it! But I am not saying that any one place is better to live than the other, and I have to state that because I know that there will be people who read this and make that mistake. I definitely recognize the wonderful things about the United States (as I did after my adjustment home from Spain as well), but the beautiful thing about travel is that it gives you perspective, perspective to see what is good about one’s society and what we have to be thankful for; but it also provides us with the perspective to see what is not so good about our own societies, what can be improved upon and where we have room to grow as a people.

I believe the true definition of a Patriot is someone who is not so arrogant to believe that they are better than everyone else, but rather is humble enough to know that he can learn from other people, other cultures. And while a country that still performs animal sacrifice, a country that does not use toilet paper and a country where offerings are made to appease the Gods, would most often be considered “primitive” by the Western world, instead I would argue that it has a lot to teach us. The real question is, are we humble enough to learn?

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Volunteers at Capay Organic Farm (Photo by Tara Luz Stevens, http://www.tlsimages.com/)

I am a city girl at heart. So what on earth was I doing walking around in the mud at an organic farm in the boondocks? Good question! A friend of mine had discovered an opportunity to volunteer at an area farm, to be able to see first hand the true source of our food. Though I had grown up in a semi-rural suburb, and we did have a chicken coop in our backyard, that was the closest I had ever come to living a farm experience.  I immediately recognized this as a fantastic opportunity to step outside of myself, out of my comfort zone, out of my daily life and habits.

We set out on the 2+ hour drive up to Capay, CA. As we drove further and further away from the urban life that I know and love so well, the landscape became more and more rural and remote, with nothing but farms and the occasional dusty gas station. Convinced by the beautiful rolling hills all around us that I could be in Tuscany, we pulled into the dirt road that was the entrance to Capay Organic Farm. I chuckled at the directions we were given: “turn left up the dirt road, go past the grapes and turn right at the old tractor.” I was immediately reminded of an area of Vermont where my mom used to live, where I was often told to turn left at the manure pile! What ever did the UPS man do before GPS? A far cry from the urban jungle I call home.

When we arrived on the farm, we were told that they were currently working to address an aphid infestation, and that since it is an organic farm (meaning no pesticides!) we would be releasing 250,000 live lady bugs: nature’s perfectly designed solution for an aphid problem. Remembering that years prior my brother had tried this experiment on his tiny yard in the city, I had a general idea of what we would be doing, though this was on a scale thousands of times greater than my brother’s cute little garden. I was excited to experience something completely new and unique.

As we walked down to the particular field of crops that we would be treating, I admired the stunning rose garden to the left, and then smiled as I saw the chicken coop to the right, reminded of a more innocent time gone by, when the highlight of my day was fetching fresh, warm eggs out from under a hen in our backyard chicken coop. I laughed to myself at the memory of our sweet dog Freckles chasing an escaped chicken around the yard.

We continued down the dusty path, sizzling in the hot afternoon sun, until we came upon the main fields of crops. As we walked by each row, our host told us about the different crops: strawberries, cilantro, lettuce, bok choy, asparagus, beets, etc. I reminisced about my jovial grandfather, who in life had been an avid gardener and was always teaching us about the different vegetables in his little garden. I was once again reminded of a simpler time, of a generation that had more conscious awareness of and respect for the land, of a generation who tilled their own land and cooked from their own garden. I thought about how far removed most of us are from our food source, especially those of us living the urban city life, and I contemplated our society’s lack of connection to the land. I yearned for the return of such a grounded and connected way of life.

As I surveyed the scene I was in awe of the pure bounty of nature, of how perfectly each crop sprouted from the earth, of how each fruit and vegetable had such a unique and specific color and design, that allowed it to grow precisely in its own way, whether underground, above ground on a stalk, or hanging from a tree; all so different in their forms, but yet so similar in their perfection and their source. All had sprung from the same beautiful and bountiful Mother Earth. I was immediately moved and humbled by the pure wonder of it all.

I began to feel the sun scorching my shoulders. Coming out of the often foggy city of San Francisco, it had been a while since I’d been in such intense sun and heat. My thoughts turned immediately to the farm workers, to the incredibly hard-working, tough, and resilient men and women who spend 10 hours a day in this blistering sun, doing the back-breaking work of picking each crop by hand. Had I ever had the opportunity to thank a single one of them for the fresh fruits and vegetables that I buy at my cute little neighborhood farmers’ market? Had any of us?

Gavin Taylor, Farm Fresh to You & Capay Organic (Photo by Tara Luz Stevens, http://www.tlsimages.com/)

We arrived at the crops with the aphid infestation. First we would work on the beets, then the spinach. We opened up the first bag of stirring lady bugs, eager to escape from their trap. Our host reached his arm in and took a handful of the beautiful little creatures; they quickly covered his forearms. He began to walk the fields releasing lady bugs as he went. I hesitated. Though I’ve always loved nature, was I brave enough to take a handful of live bugs? Well, thankfully these were a less scary variety of bugs. I mean, who doesn’t love a ladybug?! I squinched my face as I reached my hand into the pulsating pile of lady bugs. I pulled my hand out and stared at the mound of life in my hands. I marveled at the hundreds of vulnerable and delicate little creatures that walked all over each other and up my arm, tickling me as they went. “What an incredible Earth we live on, what an amazing web of life, ” I thought to myself.

A few hours later, as we embarked on the long drive back to the city, I was deep in thought. I stared into the darkness that enveloped us, gazed up at the night sky full of bold, bright stars, and admired the tiny sliver of the moon. I reflected upon the totally unique and awesome experience that we had just had. What had started out as a 2-hour volunteer stint in the hot sun would turn out to teach me some beautiful lessons: I had a new-found appreciation for a simpler time and way of life and wondered if and when we might return to that, I had a renewed and profound recognition of the intricate design of nature and the pulsation of life all around us, and lastly… I knew I would never again go to the farmers’ market without saying a sincere “thank you.”

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About Farm Fresh to You & Capay Organic:

Growing organic produce since 1976, Farm Fresh to You harvests over 100 types of fruits and vegetables on their Capay Organic Farm and offers over 14 different types of produce boxes for delivery to homes and offices in California.  To learn more, please click here.

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