Monday, January 31, 2011

Voluntary Simplicity, part 1

This is a topic I approach with trepidation, especially over the web. I want to talk about living simply in this modern world. I have been reading literature about voluntary simplicity ever since the term first became common, somewhere back in the 90’s. I became a convert. I was already attempting to live green or to live by the precepts of whatever we called it in the 70’s … the era when the Nearings became really popular and everyone was trying to get “back to the land.” The simplicity idea was not new to me. I just got re-invigorated or re-inspired by the new way of calling whatever it was I was already trying to do.

I really like the term “voluntary simplicity (VS)” and so that is my preferred term for the lifestyle to which I aspire. I do not think there is such a thing as having arrived at VS as a terminus. I think of it as a journey without end. And for me it’s a journey without imposed, inflexible rules. For me there is no right and wrong here. I think there are just good ideas and less good ideas under the circumstances. Always under the circumstances. There are good ideas for me now in this place and under the conditions that I live; this is what I try to find. More good ideas that work for me here and now.

I have found quite a number of people now who blog about what they and others call the minimalist life. First off, I admire all these people tremendously. Second, I do not aspire to be like most of them. I look at modern minimalists as exemplars, people whose lives are inspiring and whose lives hold many ideas that I might or might not want to take up myself. I find that reading about how others live so minimally helps me to stay on my path.

I suppose the path I am taking could be called The Middle Way. Like Goldilocks, not too big, not to small, just right. The word that captures it for me is the Swedish word “lagrum” which doesn’t translate to English exactly, but which generally means something like “just enough” or “just the right amount.” I aspire to a life characterized as lagrum.

People may say why aren’t I trying to be minimal especially if I am talking about possibly becoming a Zen monk? To start with I am talking about becoming a community dwelling monk, not a monastery dwelling one. If I were thinking seriously about moving into a monastery for the rest of my life, of course I would be giving stuff away left and right.

I have a friend in our community who recently did that. She moved into our Zen center intending to stay for the rest of her life. She took with her some clothes, some books, her computer, some art pieces and perhaps a few other thises-and thats (she didn’t give me a list and I didn’t help her move so I don’t know exactly what she did). She said she wrecked her car just before she moved in, so that was a good excuse to get rid of it, and she just let go of all her other furniture and stuff that she would not be needing in her new residence. She’s doing fine. But she is also in her 70’s and considers this to be the last move of her lifetime.

Our sangha does not operate a monastery. They used it, but it was gone long before my time. We have instead a residence. You don’t have to be a monk to be a resident, and many young people start out with the community as residents, eventually becoming monks … or not.

Residents pay rent and can move out at any time. Each has to provide and prepare his/her own food. There is no tenzo who plans and cooks meals in common. Each has to be self-supporting. Except during shesshins, there is no typical monastery schedule. Once a day in the morning, there is formal zazen. Sometimes that happens once a week in the evenings too. But that’s about it. Monks spend most of their time dressed in regular street clothes. Right now, none of the teachers live in residence. Many of the most devoted and devout monks live in their own houses with their families and earn their livings doing any number of things. That’s the way our Roshi wants it to be.

So at the moment, I am not aiming to end up living the traditional monastic life. I could find that kind of life in another place if I wanted it, but right now, that’s not where I see myself heading.

I’ll be taking up the general topic of the simple life many more times, so this is where I will stop for now. I will say that you will not get much in the way of advice from me. All I want to do is to describe some aspects of my life. I do not want to advise anyone else on how that person should live. I can’t do that. And I know I am highly imperfect at this whole thing. But I keep trying. I keep walking down the road, and I intend to share some parts of it with anyone who cares to read about it.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Adieu to Cafe Noir

I AM going to write about how Salt Lake City is a good place to get coffee. But as of this coming week, it will be a little less good. Cafe Noir is closing when they run out of coffee, or at the end of the month, whichever comes first.

To a certain extent, it does not surprise me. It's a very small business trying to make it $2 - $4 at a time. It's not a business I would ever consider undertaking. But the closing makes me and many of my neighbors very sad.

Cafe Noir is nearest to my home. It's located in a tiny building that used to be a real scary C-store. It was the kind of store where you might pick a box of cereal off the shelf and find on the back a printed coupon that expired 5 years ago. I never went into the store and don't know anything about it. Perhaps it used to be beloved by neighborhood children, but by the time I saw it .... well I never ever considered even touching the door handle.

Then Ben came along and made Cafe Noir. He totally cleaned the place up and decorated it all in his signature colors, orange, browns and gray. He has a sweet little logo with stylized coffee tree beans leaves. I wish he had gotten around to having it put onto his own coffee ware. I would love to have a permanent souvenir, especially now.

The interior became bright and welcoming. There is a counter up by the window, a round table with several chairs and in any kind of decent weather, even in January when we have a nice blue sky day, tables and chairs outside.
The coffee is all organic, free trade, etc that comes from an award winning roaster in Wichita KS. They serve pastries, bagels and oatmeal. They also serve frozen drinks and a few smoothies.

Many neighborhood people like myself hung out there. But I suppose that my regular $2 cup of dark roast just wasn't enough to defer expenses. I would go there, get my coffee in a to-go mug with the logo from a different local coffee shop on it, and then sit as long as took me to drink my coffee and accomplish a variety of things. I usually began with writing in my journal book. Then I might move on to writing a letter, reading something or knitting. Or all of the above. I usually stayed a little more than an hour.

I already knew some other people who would stop in,and I got to know a few others too. At Cafe Noir I was more likely to spend time talking to someone else compared to other neighborhood shops.

One person who comes in regularly is a man named Ron who is mentally ill. I don't think he is homeless because he does not carry his belongings with him. But he admits to having a mental illness. "Don't ever get mentally ill," he said. "It's a terrible thing." Mostly he is quiet. He doesn't bother people, never asks for money or anything. He comes in and asks for a glass of water, which the staff gives him, and then he sits for awhile. Sometimes he goes outside for a smoke, but mostly he just sits quietly, drinks his water, uses the restroom and then leaves. I have spoken with him a little bit which is how I know a few facts about him .... he's from Milwaukee for example. On Jul Eve I sprung some money for him and bought him a drink. He picked a latte which I think is something he had never had, although he had heard the word a lot. He enjoyed it very much, and that was a nice Jul gift for me. But the fact that the staff and patrons at Cafe Noir all have no problems with Ron just being there says a lot about the whole gang, I think.

I would go to Cafe Noir at least once a week when I was in town, but I didn't go there every day. I went, in turn, to many of the other shops in my neighborhood, including a Starbucks at times. I probably couldn't have saved the place even if I had gone twice daily and ordered the most expensive thing on the menu, but I wish I had gone a bit more often.

But now it won't be there. My friend says that some patrons are talking about the possibility of "taking it over" but I won't hold my breath waiting for that. This week, though, I will go there every day until I can't go there any more. I will really miss Cafe Noir.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Walking on ice

I fell down on the pavement today while walking in the Avenues. I fall down about once a week or so in the winter. I always fall onto my knees and hands. I suppose one day I will break my wrist, but so far so good. Once I took the knees out of a fairly new pair of trousers, and I have ended up with badly bruised knees from time to time also. Mostly my dignity is injured.

When I walk in the winter, especially in the Avenues, I do walk much more slowly that I am able to walk because I try to be careful about this falling thing. Today I was concentrating on the irregular pavement and looking out for sticks or small rocks which can destablize my balance. I did not see the ice until I was kneeling on it.

Today the pavement is mostly clear because it has been warm the past few days. Even the places where people don't clear their walks seemed ok. But this was a shady spot, and it was morning. Probably a thin layer of water froze overnight.

I have found that the north and east sides of the streets tend to get clear faster. I think they get more afternoon sun. And after I fell I started to notice things like the fact that buildings without front yards have wetter pavement because, I think, they also get less sun. The place where I fell today was outside a building that obviously used to be a store ... close to the sidewalk. But later I noticed the same thing outside other similar buildings. Big trees obviously are problems. They cause more pavement buckling, leave more droppings and produce more shade on the walkways. I love big trees, but they do cause problems for winter walkers in the city.

A friend said I should get some of those crampon things you put on your shoes. I have some, but find for city walking they are more dangerous than not. Even right after a snow, there is still a lot of pavement that is pretty open, and the crampons are very destabilizing on unless I am walking on a decent sized layer of snow. On a day like today where there really was no snow or thick ice on the pavement, they would have been terrible to try to walk on. I wouldn't have even considered doing it. And I don't think they would have protected me from the black ice.

So I will just go back to trying to walk mindfully. Too bad that means that my eyes are always on the pavement and not looking up to the sky. But there is a lot to notice on the ground too. Quite interesting if I let it be so.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The air in Salt lake City

The picture here was taken at about 0945. It wasn’t rainy or foggy. I didn’t do any color adjustment. The gray sky that you see is air pollution.

It’s our dirty little secret, one we try to  keep from the rest of the world, that Salt Lake City often has terribly bad air pollution. It’s bad every season, but particularly awful in winter. We routinely fail by miles to meet federal air quality standards, and Los Angeles generally has much cleaner air than we do. TV shows that I have seen of Chinese cities do look like they have much worse air than we do, but that’s not saying much when you live here and experience what we experience. I had a coughing episode today at the Zen Center soon after I arrived after walking outside (and taking the pictures.) I had to leave the zendo, go get some water and cough up a bunch of gunk.

The weather people often announce that today is a red air quality day, and people are supposed to stay inside and not drive cars and such. That works brilliantly, of course. Who has the luxury of not going to work just because it’s a red air quality day?

Part of our problem is geography … the way we are a valley situated between two mountain ranges, both of which go north-south. We live in a kind of tunnel in between the two mountains. Air of all kinds gets trapped here.

But the fact that we are very car dependent, having sprawled out in all directions to form suburbs after suburbs after suburbs also has a lot to do with things. People simply have to drive cars from so many places where they like to live. And of course, people drive cars all the time when they don’t have to. How many people who live in the city center ACTUALLY walk, bike or take public transport for most or all of their everyday life? Very few, like most places in the US. How many people might like to use public transport more often but find the buses and things don’t go where the people want or need to go at the times the people want or need?

Public transportation IS improving. There are new TRAX lines opening up soon, and another under construction. In certain places bus service is all right … where I live for example. But I know we have terrible bus service compared to many other cities. But I think it’s going to take a huge crisis of some kind before the demand for public transportation will enable the powers that be to expand the service to where it is really needed to make a dent in improving our air quality.

And the Church is putting a lot of money right now into redeveloping downtown as a place to live. It’s going to take a lot of convincing though for people with families to actually think that central Salt Lake is a good place to raise children. People are still totally sold on the idea of the single family big house on the cul-de-sac with the big yard and the good school system and all the children’s activities.

I heard on the radio that our public health people are putting together a plan to make us meet EPA standards. But I wonder if that is all that it will be … a plan. Our politicians have no plans to introduce new legislation or regulation to help address the problem. Like many politicians, few are brave enough to do anything visionary, and almost nobody will go up against “business interests”. That is so vague, who knows what it means? Doesn’t matter. “Business interests” are against regulation to improve air quality, we are told, so that is that.

I need detachment from this, I guess.

Here is a link to a blog that I really like which happens to have some lovely photos of a gray city … Paris. But the author is writing about the buildings and pavements and other features of the lovely built environment of Paris, not the color of the air.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

What is it?

Thursday was the last day our teacher, Genpo Roshi, was going to around town for awhile so the zendo was pretty full for the evening teaching session. He didn't really have a planned talk  for the evening, although I think the producers of his videos wanted him to say some things that could be cut and used for various purposes ... probably introductory words about Big Mind. So he said he needed to warm up a bit at first and needed some questions.

Tell a Zen student she can ask any question of the teacher, and you're off. There was no shortage the whole evening, and we even went over time a bit.

Several monks wanted to talk about the identity of being a monk. One said he just didn't tell anybody he was a monk, but another said he told everybody. Roshi said that on airplanes and things he told people who asked him that he was a teacher. "What grade do you teach?" "Elementary students." "What subjects?" "The basics." He said he used to tell people he was a realtor and that he sold space. Little Zen jokes these.

My friend sitting next to me said she found herself pondering "What is it?" when she thought about being a monk. (You may see me here if you go view the video on ZenEye because I turned so I could look at her, and I know that the camera often catches things like that.)

Roshi answered that was a very good question and one worth sitting with. He said he had sat with that question many times. Of course, he told us the answer right there. The answer is "I don't know", but it's a Zen thing, isn't it, that what you have to do is to sit and sit and sit with the question until finally you arrive at the place where somehow you ARE the answer .... doesn't matter that you already know what the answer is.

As I wonder about the idea of being a monk, I want to know if I know what it is. I know I don't know right now. But I guess the thing to do is to sit and sit with it and eventually I'll come to the place where I can say "I DON'T KNOW!!!!!!!!" and that will be that.

For awhile anyway.

It's a Zen thing.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Jizo Knitting Circle

I was late arriving at the Jizo Knitting Circle on Saturday; because I don't drive regularly in the winter, I tend to forget about things like planing extra time to scrape the ice and snow off the car so I can drive. There was a lot of both on the car Saturday morning. I even tore one windshield wiper off the arm trying to get it unstuck from the ice.

I hate to miss attending the knitting circle, and I want to be on time so I can get in on ALL the talking and knitting time. This week I missed about 30 minutes. It was all right, others arrived even later, It's just that I felt I missed out on every minute.

Kay started the circle a few years ago. I was not an original member, but I think I joined fairly close to the beginning. Kay always hosts it at her house, and she says she doesn't mind at all because the day is a highlight of her month. There are a lot of people on the e-mail list, but maybe 6-8 show up most of the time. New people are always welcome. I don't know how the folks who are not connected with the Zen Center found us, but several people did, and I am so happy to have friends from "other" places. But of course, now we are all friends via the Jizo circle.

Kay's home is totally lovely. She calls it "the little house," and it is kind of small, but it feels spacious. It's a mid century modern house in the upper avenues (very high up ... they can have different weather up there at times) which isn't terribly distinguished from the outside. She and her husband totally rennovated it so it now has new energy efficient doors and windows, is all nicely insulated and has fully modern "guts". The kitchen has big corner windows that look out on a great view of the city and the Oquirrh Mountains. There is a gas fireplace in the main room where we meet. The furnishings are minimal but comfortable and practical, Goldilocks style ... just right. Recently Kay's husband built her a tiny studio building out back where Kay does her caligraphy work.  Kay also plays the harp which sits in the main room. On saturday she played for us an "antiphon" that she recently composed which was just beautiful to hear.

People who attend don't have to knit. Some do crochet or embroidery. Kay and Claire often spin yarn with hand spindles. Some people often do charity projects, some seldom do that.

Late last year we did a group project where many of us (and many more who didn't attend the meetings) made small bags in various styles. Each bag holds a little mouse or other stuffed animal with a note that says "My name is .... Won't you be my friend?" We called them "critter pouches." Kay gave them to a place called the Children's Center. It's a therapeutic pre-school for kids  with mental heath or other behavioral issues (autism, for example). Kay says many of these kids cannot easily make friends and have very little of anything that is their own. The staff will carefully give the friends all away to the kids. We intend to make more.

We have also given things away to people with Alzheimer's, to a hospice and to the Catholic cathedral where they give things to homeless folks. It all depends  on what the knitter wants to make .. mittens and hats go to the homeless, lap robes to the hospice, textural scarves to the Alzheimer's people.

(Sherri gave me this Cascade 220 for free after getting it from somebody else. So I'm now making it into mittens to give away. There will be enough for a hat too.)

But the best part for me is the time spent with great friends. Jizo Knitting Circle day is a highlight of my month too.