Friday, April 30, 2010

Buddhist Thought for the Day

There's a reason I chose the poem on Love in the last post. I'm realizing more and more just how much of the disruptions, disagreements and misunderstandings we have in our lives are related to love or a feeling of the lack thereof.

Look back at your most recent or even your furthest memory of this type of disruption in your life and ask yourself, "How much of this was related to someone's feeling of 'not enough love'?" My guess is you'll see that nearly every single one comes down to the same thing.

We all want love, and to feel safe within love. But I don't believe we are necessarily here just to make each other feel safe. I think we're here to challenge each other, to learn and grow together and feel safe enough within ourselves to share love, honesty, intimacy. But people erect all kinds of barriers and methods of protecting themselves because they don't feel safe enough, loved enough.

In Pema Chodron's "Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living", she writes about the very barriers we construct with perfect clarity. We work so hard to set up our lives in just such a way that only the things we want can touch us, and in controlling our surroundings and constructing our world in the 'me-victorious' fashion she mentions, we inevitably control the people within our surroundings though we are loathe to admit it.

"The armor we erect around our soft hearts causes alot of misery. But don't be deceived, it's very transparent. The more vivid it gets, the more clearly you see it, the more you realize that this shield--this cocoon-- is just made up of thoughts that we churn out and regard as solid. The shield is not made out of iron. The armor is not made out of metal. In fact, it's made out of passing memory."

"We shield our heart with an armor woven out of very old habits of pushing away pain and grasping at pleasure. When we begin to breathe in the pain instead of pushing it away, we begin to open our hearts to what's unwanted. When we relate directly in this way to the unwanted areas of our lives, the airless room of ego begins to be ventilated."

"No matter what the teachings are...the point at which they all agree is to let go of holding on to yourself. That's the way of becoming at home in your world.

This is not to say that ego is sin. Ego is not sin. Ego is not something that you get rid of. Ego is something that you come to know--something that you befriend by not acting out or repressing all the feelings that you feel.

Whether we're talking about the painful international situation or our painful domestic situation, the pain is a result of what's called ego clinging, of wanting things to work out on our own terms, of wanting 'me-victorious'.

Ego is like a room of your own, a room with a view, with the temperature and the smells and the music that you like. You want it your own way. You'd just like to have a little peace...But the more you think that way, the more you try to get life to come out so that it will always suit you, the more your fear of other people and what's outside your room grows.

Rather than becoming more relaxed, you start pulling down the shades and locking the door. When you do go out, you find the experience more and more unsettling and disagreeable. You become touchier, more fearful, more irritable than ever. The more you just try to get it your own way, the less you feel at home.

To begin to develop compassion for yourself and others, you have to unlock the door...Sure enough, in come the music and the smells that you don't like. Sure enough, someone puts a foot in and tells you that you should be a different religion or vote for someone you don't like or give money that you don't want to give.

Now you begin to relate with those feelings. You develop some compassion, connecting with the soft spot. You relate with what begins to happen when you're not protecting yourself so much. Then become more curious than afraid.

To be fearless isn't really to overcome fear, it's to come to know its nature. Just open the door more and more and at some point you'll feel capable of inviting all sentient beings as your guests."

I recognize and witness all of the above within me and am so very grateful to those in my sphere~ friends, family and Pema Chodron alike~ who challenge me and help me to become the person I am becoming.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Delphi~ Travelin' Tuesday

Back to our Greece Tour~
Welcome to The Oracle at Delphi!

...Located on the slopes of Mt. Parnassus,
a mountain sacred to Apollo
and home to the Muses.

Seen here (in the work of an anonymous Athenian painter)
crowned in a wreath of myrtle leaves and offering wine as libation,
Apollo was considered the prophet of the Oracle
and the patron god of poetry and music.

It's said that Apollo spoke through the Oracle
by way of a priestess called the Pythia,
an older woman chosen for her purity and good character.

People came from all over the world
to consult the Oracle
on matters ranging from public policy to personal issues.

Myth has it that, up here on the side of this mountain overlooking olive groves,
while holding a laurel branch and holy water from a nearby stream,
she was seated over a fissure and inhaled vapors emitted
from the decomposing body of a python serpent once killed by Apollo.

In busy times, as many as three priestesses might be needed
to attend to the many seekers and their questions
from the highest-ranking policymakers regarding polis issues
to the lowliest peasant requesting guidance in love.

Love is a most frightening thing, for all of us.
I have great mountains of respect for those who are willing
to share honestly of themselves,
regardless of their fear, courageous without walls,
to make themselves vulnerable and thus reach ever-higher states of love.

So in honor of the Oracle
(just in case you had questions about love)
and the god of poetry and leader of the Muses,
I offer a piece of poetry
from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.

On Love:

"When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.

And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.

And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you
so shall he crucify you.

Even as he is for your growth
so is he for your pruning.

Even as he ascends to your height and caresses
your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots
and shake them in their clinging to the earth.

Like sheaves of corn
he gathers you unto himself.

He threshes you to make you naked.

He sifts you to free you from your husks.

He grinds you to whiteness.

He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire,
that you may become sacred bread
for God's sacred feast.

All these things shall love do unto you
that you may know the secrets of your heart,
and in that knowledge
become a fragment of Life's heart.

But if in your fear you would seek
only love's peace and love's pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness
and pass out of love's threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh,
but not all of your laughter, and weep,
but not all of your tears.

Love gives naught but itself
and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not
nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.

When you love you should not say,
"God is in my heart," but rather,
"I am in the heart of God."

And think not you can direct the course of love,
for love, if it finds you worthy,
directs your course.

Love has no other desire
but to fulfill itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires,
let these be your desires:

To melt and be like a running brook
that sings its melody to the night.

To know the pain of too much tenderness.

To be wounded by your own understanding of love;

And to bleed willingly and joyfully.

To wake at dawn with a winged heart
and give thanks for another day of loving;

To rest at the noon hour
and meditate love's ecstasy;

To return home at eventide with gratitude;

And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart
and a song of praise upon your lips."

Stay tuned next week to continue
our tour of Delphi.

(All photos copyright: Kirsten Steen)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day!

Happy Earth Day To You!!!

I have a great idea for Oprah! But first...

This from an interview in the New York Times between Dot Earth's Andrew C. Revkin and Robert Stone, the Oscar-nominated documentarian of the film, "Earth Days":

Stone: "I think people are more motivated by competition and nationalism than by do-goodism and altruism. The extraordinary technological innovations we’ve witnessed in our lifetime sprung forth in part out of a competition with the Soviet Union, particularly in the wake of Sputnik. We were summoned to do great things, to think big. People were inspired and we did great things. I think we need to summon that spirit again, perhaps in a competition with China. There’s nothing wrong with competition. It can bring out the best in us. But people are not going to be inspired by compact fluorescent bulbs and driving a Prius."

"...our best successes come from harnessing what is innate in human nature. And that is what needs to be harnessed now if we are to deal seriously with the greatest challenge ever to confront us as a species since the last ice age. All our problems in the end come down to how we use and produce energy because that’s one thing we can actually control. Fortunately it also taps into what human beings do best, which is innovate. So there is hope there. But let’s get away from challenging us all to think like planetary citizens. Some of us will but most of us won’t, particularly when push comes to shove, as it will as the seas start to rise and the fields start to dry up.

As Americans, let’s start at home by making the United States the most fuel efficient country with the cleanest air, the cleanest water, the most advanced electrical grid, the best educated work force, etc., and let others follow our lead."

There is much more to this interview as well as in between these two paragraphs so I highly recommend reading the whole thing for yourself to more fully follow the context. To read, click here.

In the meantime, I have a great idea for Oprah, if she's not contemplating it already!

I happen to love and admire the way she enjoys giving things away and inspires others to give of themselves and live the best life they possibly can. Why not dedicate some of her last shows or a show on her new network to giving away scholarships and/or grants to those young, up-and-coming minds interested in new Clean Energy fields?!

If we are to compete successfully with China (and quickly find the answers to our most pressing problems), why not give funds and greater access for schooling and start-ups to the smartest minds of the next generation? Why not help them become a part of the new work being done to solve our upcoming lack of water issues, clean energy issues, helping our American-car-industry-stuck-in-a-GoodOldBoys-rut-issue?

Who better to tackle our need and further our innovation and production in wind and clean energy? In putting more and better electric cars on the road? Helping businesses find a way to make clean and green practices pay for them? Figuring out how we will fly once our oil is gone?

Anyone else like to see a show where the best minds of our next generation are given the funds to help solve some of our most pressing needs?! (As well as shows focusing on exactly what the science-minded are working on right now to solve the issues of our -very near- future!)

Let's get more scientific minds interested and funded! Whaddya think, Oprah?

(Photo courtesy of

Monday, April 19, 2010

Grenelle Bridge~ Missing Paris Day

Just near our apartment in the
15th arrondissement in Paris is the Grenelle Bridge,
connecting the 15th to the 16th and, as you can see above,
allowing the above-ground metro
to cross the Seine.

All the Haussmann-style apartment buildings in view here
were at one time rolling-hill estates outside
the city limits of Paris and once housing guests with names like
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
(One can see what I call "painting snapshots" of these estates at
the free Musee Carnavalet~ a favorite haunt for views of historical Paris.)

little turn
out on the bridge
is one of my favorite
"Champagne Walk" locations
to take visiting guests for an evening
stroll with a bottle of bubbly and this lovely view
of the sparkling Eiffel Tower which shimmers every evening on the hour.

(And while I like to think this idea was purely my own creation, we frequently
find remnants of others 'partays' in empty champagne bottles left strewn about.)
(BTW~ We carry ours home!)

Like everywhere in Paris,
there are a myriad of walking choices from here.

While I love to walk the cobblestone path along the Seine,
I love even more to study the decor
of the seafaring owners and renters
who inhabit these river homes, picturing myself
sleeping in the little hull,
swaying with each boat's passing.

In the summertime,
outdoor tables and chairs are set up
to take the greatest advantage of the sparkling tower
while they wine and dine themselves and their friends
in the warm evening air, flowering potted plants
spilling blossoms at their feet and
the peal of laughter
and clinking wine glasses
dancing out along the water.

In winter, as you can see above, some of the boats
erect Christmas trees to light up at night.

From Grenelle Bridge,

even in the worst weather,

Montmartre can be easily viewed,

sometimes even glowing in a puddle of sunshine

that hasn't reached us yet.

"The Chef" and I often get off at the Passy Metro stop

across the river and walk the last several blocks home
to be able to cross our bridge,

take in the view and enjoy the neighborhood.

I sometimes wish our Grenelle Bridge

could connect the centuries so I could walk across time

and glimpse more of the city as Jefferson or some medieval figure saw it.

But Paris is already filled

with so many time portals that I'm grateful for what I can get

and give thanks to those artists

who stopped time

just for a moment

in all kinds of weather,

financial situations, health crises

and questionable mental states to give us their own snapshot

and send it over the bridge.

(Photos copyright: Kirsten Steen)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Finding Yourself ~and Angels~ in Paris

Travelers have gone to Paris to "find themselves" for ages. Some have found romance, some women (not mutually exclusive). Some find friendship and others, future relatives. Some find their writing and some (comme moi), even better excuses for not writing (it IS Paris, for G-d's sakes). And some simply enjoy a love affair with the city, the food, the Seine. For awhile I actually treasured a love affair with the aroma of Paris' smog and exhaust on the drive in from the airport (it lasted a few years but it's over now).

When I lived there for a year (a glorious, pre-recession, carefree year), I frequently found myself walking the Champ de Mars park, taking in spring, writing on a bench and feeding the ducks (not in that order), that is until I shared my experience over lunch one day with my sister (who is a full-time mom with a full-time job in the full-time Big City of Light). I confessed that I'd nearly killed a baby ducklette by aiming the little stale, torn baguette pieces directly at him so he could grow big and strong like the others, not realizing that said others would just as soon tear Baby to shreds than share food. I was slightly traumatized after watching Baby Ducklette nearly lose its neck because I'd favored it. My sister stared at me for a moment and then said,

"Ok seriously, you have wayyyy too much time on your hands!"

I did not stop feeding the ducks (despite either experience) but I did stop sharing. I've heard this phrase before. It's not usually a compliment. The last (short-lived) friend who said this to me was wriggling out of having to respond to my heart-felt "Something's been bothering me. I'd like to talk about it." Somehow the phrase brings up remnants of my 7th grade Home Economics teacher (Home Ec, mind you!) telling me at Report Card Time, "You have so much potential and yet you choose to waste it!" (Maybe this is why I live with the one I've nicknamed "The Chef" --and BTW--why is it these 'helpful' teacher units can't just cap that 'helpful' kind of sentence at "...potential!" and leave it at that, maybe with a blank stare or better yet, a smile?)

During my most recent visit to Paris, I found myself on Pilgrimage (when finished here, see book list in margin). This time I visited major sites with an eye toward the sacred. On this visit I entered Notre Dame with intent, with purpose. I went specifically in search of angels and guidance.

I've walked Notre Dame at least every other visit to Paris for the last 20 years. I've seen the sites, the statues, the murals. I've breathed its dusty, ancient essence and even tried early on to feel its centuries-old energy locked in column and stone within my hands. Nothing happened. I tried, it laughed and held its secrets.

This time I strode purposefully through the cathedral in walking meditation, going from chapel to chapel, waiting and watching. I knew there were angels somewhere, I just had to get mindful of my breath and let them find me. I spotted a few little cherub lookalikes, figurines on glass shelves but something told me, "Not the ones you're looking for." I stopped at every chapel, took a deep breath, got centered and asked my pilgrimage question, "What do I need to know?"

I sat on a prayer bench in front of a long row of lit candles, focusing on my question. When I opened my eyes, my sight fell immediately on the flames and I heard the answer I knew was meant for me. But the meaning wasn't quite clear. I didn't understand it. I sighed and walked on, now searching for an answer to my next question: "What does my message mean?"

As I stood in front of one of the chapels, a loudspeaker announced an English-speaking tour at half-past two. In all my visits, I'd never heard the loudspeaker say anything other than"See-Lonce!" and I'd never heard of a tour in English. I hurriedly went in search of "The Chef" and confirmed a place to meet for the tour. I made one more circle in hurried meditation (Hah!) asking what my message meant and if it could possibly come sometime in the next 20 minutes.

After coming full circle again, I sat at the back of the pews and looked out over the crowds. I was feeling frustrated, a little disappointed at what my meditation had brought me, wondering why a message would come that I couldn't fully understand immediately. And then I looked up and saw what I did not ever remember seeing in all my previous visits. A pair of angels perched atop the magnificent old, carved, wooden pulpit.

They appeared darker than everything else, sentinels hiding in plain sight. They stood in a most viewable position but difficult to see, easy for the eyes to pass over.

It reminded me of Girl's Night Out with my sister and friends a few nights earlier. About 1am near Place de la Republique after leaving one wine bar and in search of another (much of this crowd was a tad younger than me), I looked up and stopped, halted in my tracks, jaw flung open. There, on the outside of a building several stories high, was the tallest, white angel relief I'd ever seen. It actually ran the length of the building. My sister looked at me and stopped to see what my eyes and the inside of my mouth were gaping at. Two of the other women stopped and stared as well. Both lived in the neighborhood, walked by here nearly everyday and exclaimed that they had never seen it before.

As I sat in Notre Dame and admired the recently-appeared black wooden angels, my face grinning ear to ear, I silently applauded having found them (and them me). I got up and circled them, snapping their pictures, admiring their capability to hide in wide-open spaces. But my pilgrimage wasn't over. "Ok you, I still need to know what my message means."

At half-past two, "The Chef" and I joined the tour which had started outside for a lecture on the front of the cathedral. As we stood in the freezing cold of January, rubbing our hands together, I was thrilled to get my first real tour of Notre Dame in 20 years but secretly a little disappointed and miffed that this might actually be taking me away from my message from G-d. I realize now that like so many modern-day church-goers, I was under the illusion in that moment that I would only find it 'inside the church'.

As I looked into the face of this short, middle-aged yet pixie-like tour guide in hat and gloves speaking halting English, it dawned on me. The booming (female) voice in the loudspeaker announcing her tour had rained down at nearly the same time I'd asked the meaning of my message and just before spotting the angels. My new message, I realized, the next clue I was looking for might very well come through her. I listened more intently and at the end of her speech, just before heading back inside for the rest of what would be a fascinating 2 hour tour, she said it.

"So the builders of the church were very specific in the things they included and every aspect of every figure and scene has a meaning and a purpose. Everything contains a message. And the message is...".

Needless to say, the message referred directly to the first one, explaining it fully. I must have looked like the kid in E.T. when the bicycle lifts off the ground and into the air. Like Elliott, who in the film is trying to make an escape, the message was exactly what I needed when I needed it.
Sorry, it's between me and the angels but I will tell you that it had to do with Light.
I highly recommend to you your own pilgrimage with your own question and the book, "The Art of Pilgrimage" by Phil Cousineau.

And I always recommend Paris because...well...Paris has so much potential. (~smile~)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Buddha~ on PBS

Don't miss the PBS film this Wednesday
April 7th, 2010 at 8pm on
The Buddha!

Directed by award-winning filmmaker David Grubin
and narrated by Richard Gere, the 2-hour
documentary explores the stages
of Siddhartha's life and journey
through ancient art...

... and the words of contemporary Buddhists
and experts on the subject such as, among others,
His Holiness The Dalai Lama and poets
W.S. Merwin and Jane Hirshfield.

The film is in conjunction with
the Asia Society Museum in New York City,
Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art Exhibition
March 16-June 20, 2010.

For more information on the film,
the director, story or teachings,
click here.

For further information on the
exhibit in New York,
click here.

(Photo copyright: Kirsten Steen)

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Book Giveaway Winner!

Ok, Easter Weekend, curled up in bed,
watching the little birdies sprint
back and forth to the suet feeder.
All the names have been put
into a hat
and the winner of...
The Best Travel Writing 2009...
is Ms. Lucy!!!
Congratulations Ms. Lucy!!

I have to admit that I took a quick peek into the book
while awaiting the big day
and feel I must share
just a few quotes.

From Matthew Gavin Frank's excerpt
"Raw Meat, Barry White and the Brothers"
from his food and wine memoir "Barolo",
these quotes made me
put the book down
and stare out the window
in awed laughter.

"I straighten without thought, my hands grip the table,
and I turn to see the source of heat
as a pea-sized glow of perforated orange light,
winking in a desperate tango.
It is the cherry of Ercole's cigarette,
dangling ashen from his lips.
His hands are on his hips, hands far too large for his arms,
flaring from his wrists
like the persimmons from their branches.
He is barrel-chested and young---early thirties, maybe---
and he has the face of that one small-town boy who has never left home,
but somehow knows everything about the world.
He is plainly intense, eyes squinted,
nose perplexed from countless childhood fights;
he lifts his giant hands to the capped blades of Loredana's shoulders,
mysteriously materializing directly in front of him.
I am both comfortable and uneasy,
as if sleeping in my own bed,
but with a brand new blanket."

"I run my eyes from her hand to her face
and am arrested by her worn beauty...
She has the face of an old house--
the only one in the neighborhood
that survived that fire all those years ago."

"Guiseppe offers his glass to the ceiling shadows.
I hold mine to my nose and:
hay, sawdust, slaughter;
then: truffle, blackberry, pine;
fruitcake baked in a coffin."

To check out his website, purchase his book
or read further excerpts
click here.

Congratulations again Ms. Lucy!
And Happy Easter to all!!