The Truth I Live By

I shared this piece written by my younger brother on this blog in May of 2014. He wrote it before he died of cancer at the age of 39. This seems like a good time to share it again.

The Truth I Live By

(William John Smith 1953-1992)

 Everything makes sense. This can be paraphrased many different ways, although many attempts are less accurate. One of Voltaire’s characters stated, “All is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds.” This is unnecessarily optimistic. My phrasing doesn’t imply that everything that happens to us is good either in the short or the long term. Everyone experiences moments or long periods of unpleasantness. One can hope that over the long period of a lifetime these sad times may not add up to much overall, but most persons with a little thought can think of individuals whom “fate has treated unkindly,” i.e. who have received more than their share of agonies. I think this is one of the hardest things for you, C., that what has happened is just not fair. I’m not sure how long ago I came to believe (or realize) that fairness isn’t the issue. There is nothing fair about life, either in distribution of rewards or unhappiness. And what’s to say that it should be fair. If each of us had an opportunity to create a world, then maybe that’s an attribute that we would build in. But this world is not of our making, and all of the mental checklists that we might make comparing who’s gotten more breaks than we have, etc., will never change the fact that we have to make the best of what we’ve got, not despair over what we perceive as inequities. So life isn’t fair. How do we cope with that? One way might be to remind ourselves that no matter how bad things seem to be at any one time, a little time spent flipping around the TV channel or reading a news magazine will serve as a reminder that we should be embarrassed to be heard complaining about the vast majority of things that concern us. I don’t doubt for a second that I have lived a very privileged existence compared to 90% of the world’s people.

I’m not sure that that is the best way to approach a new tragedy, though (i.e., making ourselves feel better by thinking of others doing worse). I would appreciate a more optimistic approach. The best way to greet each unpleasant event is to grab it by the throat and make the best of it. C. and I have both had our share of suffering, almost all of it, I’m happy to say proceeding our first date. There is no doubt that led to a degree of maturity that made our time together (pre-diagnosis and post-diagnosis) much more meaningful than the lives of those growing up “with the silver spoons.”

Is cancer unfair? Is it fair that we should expect billions of cells in our body to reproduce over and over again, over an entire lifetime, and always get it right? Doesn’t it make more sense to recognize the initial miracle of our birth, the magnificence of our growth into feeling, loving, praising adults, the privilege of experiencing enough of life that we can despair over not having the time to spend longer doing the same? One of the things I am most grateful for is that many, many years ago I learned to be grateful for what I’ve been given. I didn’t, as occurs with many, only get shocked into this realization by a terminal tragedy. This type of appreciation often does begin in the midst of despair, and for that reason I am actually glad that I had enough hard times as a young man, to allow me to think hard about what things are and are not important. Accordingly, for the past 15 or 20 years, I’ve been able to ignore aspects of 20 th century American living that are of no consequence to me (parties, cars, frivolous chatter, clubs, etc.) and concentrate on things that touch me personally. I am forever grateful for what it was that dropped the blinders from my eyes so many years ago.

I am very sad that people seem to see so little of the world around them. I can’t walk outside without seeing the beauty of our created world, from the rainbow in a line of earthworm slime, to another visible ring on Jupiter. We have been given this magnificent world to study and enjoy in limitless detail at any level, microscopic to cosmic. Even though I have enough things to interest me another 10 lifetimes, I must take solace in knowing that, at least compared to others, I’ve had much more than my share even in half a life time..

I am blessed to have had a brother who could embody these attitudes.  I hope those of you who read this find his words meaningful in your lives as well.

Greenbelt Restoration Work Parties: February 26 and March 4, 2020

When we held the February 26 and March 4 work parties none of us knew that they would be the last work parties of the quarter. The remaining ones would be canceled due to the pandemic.

February 26

When I went outside to make last minute preparations for the work party, I got a big surprise. A big tree had fallen not far from our toolbox. I hadn’t been to that part of the site for several days, so I didn’t know when it fell but guessed it was during or soon after the big wind and rain storm that had occurred the previous weekend.

The tree had fallen from the top path, over the old house foundation that is on the property, and partially over the planting area that is below the foundation. I hadn’t realized how big the tree was until it fell; it must have been at least 80 feet tall. The photos in this post are primarily from the tree’s bottom and top so in no way do they show its magnitude. 

(To enlarge the photos click on any of the galleries.)

The side-lying rootball is about 8 feet long and 12 feet high! 

The tree fell between two drying racks. It touched both of the racks but didn’t damage either of them. Even though it had fallen over numerous planting areas, none of our native plants were significantly harmed; in fact only one branch on a bald hip rose shrub and one on a pacific ninebark shrub was damaged. Once again, against incredible odds, Mother Nature had protected the plants.

The tree had fallen from the top path, over the old house foundation that is on the property, and partially over the planting area that is below the foundation. We hadn’t realized how big the tree was until it fell; it must have been at least 80 feet tall. The photos in this post are primarily from the tree’s bottom and top so in no way do they show its full magnitude. 

Soon after I discovered the fallen tree, I called my supervisor at the Seattle Parks Department to inform him that the tree had fallen. He told me it would probably be left on the ground to provide habitat for birds and insects. 

So, after all of us spent some time looking at the exposed tree roots, we began the planned activities for the day. Most of the students started removing weeds, wood chips and leaves from around all of the trees, shrubs and ground covers we had planted on the site since 2017. Having bare ground around each plant helps water reach the plant roots when it rains. The UW Capstone interns were team leaders for the UW service-learning students during this work party.

An intern found some snail or slug eggs as she was working.

A student that loves to dig out invasive blue bell bulbs did that instead of clearing the areas around the plants. The photo of her shovel shows how wet the soil was that day.

While all of this activity was occurring, Antje, one of our regular team leaders, cut back bamboo shoots.

Later, one of the student teams removed some of the smaller fallen tree branches that were near the native plants.

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While those students removed branches, the other team finished clearing the areas around the plants on the site and then picked up litter. Sorry, no photos of that work!

March 4

During what turned out to be our last work party, the interns took the service-learning students back to the area along Cheasty Boulevard that they had started to clear several weeks before. Weeds were already growing through the wood chip mulch they had spread at that time. On March 4th, they dug out those weeds and cleared more of the area, and then spread more wood chips over all of the cleared area. I don’t have photos of the work but I do have photos of the results!

The fallen tree covered all but one of our Greenbelt paths. While the students worked, Antje identified and marked new ways to get around the lower part of the site without walking through the planted areas.

I feel so grateful to all of the students who chose to work on our site for their service-learning or internship this quarter. I also feel grateful for those who have worked here in the past or will work here in the future. Every volunteer leaves having made a significant contribution in creating “Another Future Healthy Forest”.

Only in America?

When I went to my blog’s stats page yesterday, I noticed that six people had read a post I had written in July of 2015. How had they found it? The “referrers” and “search engine terms” sections of the stats page didn’t give me a clue.

It was interesting for me to read the post again. In the last two weeks there have been many stories on the news about the run on toilet paper. Since then, the store shelves where the toilet paper once resided have been empty every time I’ve been to the grocery store. Some stores are putting a limit on how much toilet paper people can buy as a way to prevent the hoarding.

I’m thankful that I had bought some toilet paper just before the run on it began. I’m even more thankful for the 30+ years I’ve been going to India. Especially in the early years, there was generally no toilet paper available. I know I would survive even if I had to live without it.

It seems a fitting time for me to repost this 2015 article.

***

When I went to the supermarket yesterday, these displays caught my eye.

The three displays were next to each other and all were devoted to the sale of toilet paper!

A few minutes later I found another display directly across from the check out counter:

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Yes, it was more toilet paper!  I wonder if any other country in the world would devote this much supermarket space to toilet paper.  I doubt it.

This morning, I decided to go back to the store and take a look at the packaging.  I thought it might be interesting to read the advertising comments and it was! These words and phrases were used:

  • Clean Care
  • Ultra Soft
  • Mega Roll
  • A Soft Clean
  • Septic Safe
  • Ultra Strong
  • Cleans Better
  • More Absorbing
  • Plus Absorbent
  • Soft and Strong
  • Silky Comfort
  • Soft Layers
  • Strong and Absorbent
  • Gentle Care
  • Removes More
  • Angel Soft
  • Extra Soft
  • Quilting
  • Clean Stretch
  • Confident Clean
  • Softness and Strength
  • Long Lasting Value
  • 3x Stronger plus Resistant
  • Soft and Affordable
  • Soft on Nature, Soft on You
  • Soft and Absorbent

I have to wonder how toilet paper can have clean stretch or long lasting value!

I wish I had counted how many different types of toilet paper there were.  I know one company made three or four types, on a scale from Basic to Ultra!

I don’t know what kind of summary statement to make about this post.  I think I will let the information speak for itself and look forward to hearing your reactions.  Does toilet paper receive this much attention where you live?

A Time of Letting Go

As I mentioned in my posts from India, I have been having trouble with balance. It started about two years ago but has been getting worse. With my doctor’s support, I had dealt with it by working with a personal trainer at a gym and doing physical therapy. Both have been valuable, but it was while I was coping with uneven ground in India that I realized how much worse my balance had gotten in the last year. And I also noticed that the balance problem was often accompanied by a sense of wooziness and exhaustion. The India heat and jet lag made those symptoms even worse. It was towards the end of the trip that it first occurred to me that I should stop leading work parties in the Greenbelt. I let that thought percolate in the back of my mind.

Seeing that the symptoms were getting worse, and that strength building at the gym and physical therapy weren’t sufficient for dealing with the physical problems, once I returned to Seattle, I started getting medical tests to rule out underlying causes. (Some of those tests have been delayed because of the pandemic.)

Around the same time, it occurred to me that my physical problems might also be due to overthinking, overdoing and letting myself get overly stressed. After all, from the time I started working in the Greenbelt, I had thought and even dreamed about the restoration work incessantly.

Overthinking, overdoing and letting myself get overly stressed and exhausted have been life patterns for me. There were times in my life when I felt as if my mind was like a computer that was about to explode. My present-day physical symptoms were eerily similar to those experiences. My old pattern was to keep doing all of those behaviors until I got so sick that I couldn’t do the work anymore. I believe that was why I got Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in the mid 80’s and in the 2000’s developed high blood pressure.

Having these insights felt very helpful, but what was to be done with them? Since August of 2016, my life had been primarily focused on the Greenbelt restoration project. I had loved working on the land as well as working with the team leaders and the many hundreds of volunteers who had helped. I had treasured watching the land transform from space overrun with blackberries, ivy and bindweed to land filled with native trees, shrubs and ground covers. But the joy had been accompanied by hardship. The ground is sloped and uneven and I had tripped and fallen many times, once even breaking my wrist. It had taken a tremendous amount of effort to find volunteers to help with the work parties. All of the planning and administrative work had practically turned into a full- time job.  And everything had gotten more difficult for me to do as the balance problems and wooziness worsened.

I realized that almost all of my overthinking, overdoing and stress was related to my Greenbelt restoration work. I knew myself well enough to know that cutting back was not an option; I wouldn’t be able to stop the overthinking with that approach. I knew I needed to stop doing the restoration work as soon as possible. In addition, I needed to accept the fact that I am 71 years old now and have limitations that go with aging.

But I would not make the change immediately. If at all possible, it was important to me to finish Winter Quarter activities since I had University of Washington Service-Learning students as well as Capstone interns from the UW School of the Environment. Even though it was difficult, I was able to complete that commitment!

I have never questioned my decision to stop my involvement in the restoration project, but I knew that I would feel devastated if the land reverted to its 2016 state. I felt relieved when the Green Seattle Partnership staff told me that they were committed to finding another Forest Steward to continue the project.

Several friends and family members told me that my replacement would be revealed. One day, our newest team leader came into my mind. She knows so much and has so much energy. And she had participated in almost all of the student work parties this quarter. I contacted her and asked if she had ever thought about becoming a Forest Steward. I was astounded when she told me she already was one, she had taken the Forest Steward training in 2014. And she was interested in the position!

She prefers to work in a team, so hopefully one or more of our other team leaders will take the training when it is offered in October. But the fact that she is already a Forest Steward means the project can continue now. The saying “what you need will be provided” has certainly come true.

I will miss leading the project but know that I can potentially help in the future. And since the site borders my property, I can still watch the new plants grow and take nature photos. What I am primarily experiencing is a sense of relief.

Just before I sat down to write this post, the title of a book I used to recommend came to mind.

Life is Goodbye,
Life is Hello
Grieving Well Through All Kinds of Loss

I know I am saying both goodbye and hello in my life and realize that I may experience a myriad of feelings as I continue this process of living, learning and letting go.

***

I’m not the only one letting go. While I am feeling a lot of relief about my decision about my own life, I’m much more excited about another person’s transformation. Have any of you wondered why you no longer can find my son’s blog, The Seeker’s Dungeon?

Sreejit deleted The Seeker’s Dungeon when he found out he was going to receive the yellow robes of a brahmachari. (To learn more about brahmacharis and brahmacharya click here.)

The decision to delete his blog was part of letting go of his Sreejit identity as he moves into the next stage of his life.

His name is now Brahmachari (Br.) Sattvamrita Chaitanya. Chaitanya is like a last name for all brahmacharis so would only be said in a formal setting. Most of the time he will be called Sattvamrita. The phonetic spelling is sut VAAM ri tu.  The u’s are like the short u in hut, the aa is long like the a in psalm or alms, and the i is like the i in knit. The capitalized letters are for the syllable that is emphasized. 

I have loved seeing him so excited and happy.

Here are a few photos of Sattvamrita. Cutting off his hair and beard was part of the initiation process.

His sister is so happy for him too. (BTW The sleeves on Sattvamrita’s shirt will be hemmed at a later time! 😁)

A person standing in front of a store

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You’re Being Called…..

My daughter sent me a quote a few days ago that made me laugh, but it also made me think. I have found it helpful and so have some of the people to whom I have sent it. I tried to track down the author but have been unsuccessful in that endeavor.

I’ve also noticed that the quote comes in several forms. I have decided to share it even though I don’t know who wrote it…. because of the importance of the message. I am using the form that I was sent and that I like the best.

Your grandparents were called to war.

You’re being called to sit on your couch.

You can do this.

A Helping Hand

I’ve had a post I’ve wanted to write since my last days in India. Today is the day to finish it!

My plane was scheduled to leave India at 4:30 a.m. on Thursday, January 9th. That meant I had to be at the airport at 1:30 a.m. that morning. I have found that it works best for me to stay at a hotel in the vicinity of the airport the day before to make sure I get some sleep before starting the journey back to Seattle.

I decided to leave the ashram on the evening of January 7 and take a taxi to Kovalam. I arrived at the hotel at 10 p.m.

If you read my posts throughout the visit, you might remember that I had stayed at hotel in Kovalam when I arrived in India. At that time, I discovered there was road construction between the hotel and the restaurants. There was no way to get food without walking through the construction area. That is common in India, but it meant that at times I was walking through hot tar and gravel. Needless to say, the soles of my shoes were a mess.

When I walked to the restaurants on January 8, however, the roads had been finished. I was able to walk down a street that was free of potholes and hot tar!

There are many restaurants that border the beach. I decided to go to one called a German Bakery and get scrambled eggs, shrimp and cucumbers. Afterwards I went to the gelato shop and got chocolate gelato. The food in both restaurants were works of art.

Then I decided to walk down to the beach.

When I was standing on the balcony of my hotel room, later in the day, I noticed that I could see a different beach.

View from my balcony

It occurred to me that the hotel might have an exit that opened up to a path that led to that beach. I asked at the front desk and learned that was indeed true, if I walked down another flight of stairs, I would find the exit.

After leaving the hotel, I started walking down the path. One of the first things I saw was this beautiful shrub.

Then I walked through a short tunnel. I thought this rock was interesting.

Along the way I had to make some choices. When I saw this turn on the path, I thought “I don’t think so” and continued on.

This choice seemed much more likely to lead to my destination.

Soon I was near the beach; but I ran into an obstacle. To get to the beach I would have to go down many stairs, and there were no handrails. I had my cane, but I was having balance problems and didn’t feel stable enough to do that. I would have to be content with just looking at the beach from afar.

At that point, a young man who was with a group of his friends saw my dilemma, walked up to me, and offered his hand. He then walked me down all of the stairs! I felt so grateful.

I enjoyed being at the beach but soon realized it was nearing sundown. It gets dark quickly in India, so I knew I needed to head back to the hotel. I looked at all of the stairs ahead of me.

I had no doubt I could climb the stairs with the help of the cane as I am more stable going up stairs than going down them. So I started walking back to the hotel

I hadn’t taken many photos as I walked down to the beach, so as I returned to the hotel, I took some pictures looking backwards, so I would have them when I wrote this post. I’m not sure, because of the placement of the rocks, where in my journey these last two photos belong. Since I really like them, I decided to end the post with them!

Living and Learning in Amritapuri, India: December 27, 2019 – January 4, 2020

Sunrise and Sunset Photos

The sunrises and sunsets in Amritapuri are spectacular. I’ve been frustrated, both here and in Seattle, that my sunrise and sunset photos never come close to the view I see with my eyes. One day on this visit, I did an internet search to see if I could find tips for improving those photos.

One of the tips I read was to turn on the HDR setting. I took the photos below soon after I did that. The HDR photo looks crisper and I like it better. I look forward to experimenting with HDR and trying some of the other sunrise and sunset photo tips after I return to Seattle.

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Amma’s Paripally Orphanage

Generally, during December, groups of children from Amma’s orphanage in Paripally come to Amritapuri to receive Amma’s darshan (blessing in the form of a hug). This year, I noticed that there were no such groups and wondered why. I got my answer Christmas week when it was announced that Amma was going to the orphanage to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Everyone was invited to attend. I heard there would be cultural performances followed by Amma giving darshan to each of the children.

I decided not to go, but I did reflect on the past. My first trip to Amritapuri was in January 1990, a few months after Amma had taken on responsibility for the orphanage. I have been there several times. The visit that I remember best was when Amma stopped at the orphanage after she held programs in Trivandrum. Those of us who had attended the Trivandrum programs went with her.

Oh how it has changed over the years. The children who lived at the orphanage when Amma had taken responsibility for it were starving. Under Amma’s care, the orphanage and the generations of children who have lived there have thrived.

I had assumed that several busloads of ashramites and visitors had gone to the orphanage celebration, but during bhajans at the ashram that night it became obvious that most of the ashram had gone. There was no sound system in the auditorium and none of the normal bhajan leaders were present. The number of people in the normally packed auditorium was tremendously reduced.

I had expected the orphanage visit to be a half a day experience but it turned out to be an all day one. The buses started returning to Amritapuri twelve hours after they had departed that morning.

I learned later that many previous alumni and teachers attended the event, in addition to the current orphanage residents. They had also received Amma’s darshan that day. To read more about the festivities… and to see photos… go to: https://www.amritapuri.org/76883/19parippally.aum.

New Year’s Eve

Some visitors left the ashram after Christmas, but many more arrived. In fact, I think the New Year crowds were bigger than at any other time during my visit.

New Year’s Eve was similar to Christmas Eve in that after dinner Amma came back to the auditorium. There were performances, Amma’s New Year’s talk, singing and other activities. One of those activities was a chant for peace in the world.

Like Christmas Eve, I knew it would be unhealthy for me to stay up late and I had a 7:30 a.m. cafe shift, so I watched three or four of the performances and went to bed. Unlike Christmas Eve, I went to sleep immediately and slept through the night.

Again, I feel sad about all that I missed, but know I made the right decision. I also believed I had Amma’s support in that decision because there were several times on the U.S. tour last summer, after I talked to her about my balance problems, that during late night programs she told me to go to bed!

To read about and see photos from the New Year’s Eve programs, go to: https://www.amritapuri.org/77089/20newyear.aum

Prasad Assist Seva

Amma continued changing the directions for the prasad-givers every time I did the assistant job. I got a bit cocky about being able to go with the flow. That cockiness ended the day that darshan was held in the temple.

I wasn’t worried about the change since I had done another prasad assist job in the past and I knew the system that had been used when darshan was held in that location. As strange as it may seem, I didn’t consider the possibility that anything could have changed.

I panicked when I came to my shift only to discover that the chairs had been removed from the area and everyone, except for a few people in the darshan line, was sitting on the floor. I didn’t know how I would get down and I was even more concerned about how I was going to get up. That would not have been a problem in the past but that day it seemed like a BIG PROBLEM!

I also discovered that there were other changes. There was no longer a small line of people waiting on the balcony to give prasad and I didn’t know where the other prasad assistant was. There was no way I could be repeatedly getting up and down as the job often requires. I was near tears and felt desperate.

I was able to get down and had no trouble sitting on the floor throughout the shift. I talked to my supervisor about not being able to get up and down and she let the other prasad assistant know that I would not be available in that way. When it was time, two people helped me get up. Even though I had been shaken, I had survived the challenge and done well.

Shoes/Thongs

In India, people take off their shoes/thongs when they enter a temple or a house. In Amritapuri, we wear shoes/thongs in the auditorium now but still take them off when we are in the temple and when we go up on the auditorium stage for darshan. As a result, there is always a hodgepodge of thongs going every direction not far from those areas.

One day during this time period, I watched as one of the darshan line monitors meticulously picked up pairs of thongs with her toes and one after another placed them in straight lines. It was like a work of art. No one took the hint though. People kept taking them off and leaving them wherever they fell. The line monitor soon gave up.

This scene reminded me of a time when Swami Paramatmanda, one of Amma’s senior Swamis, remarked that how we place our footwear when we take them off, is representative of the state of our minds. That felt true to me then and it still does, or at least it is representative of MY “monkey” mind. I usually take off my shoes in the entry way when I enter my house, but there are times when I take them off in the hallway, or the kitchen, or the bathroom, and occasionally even in the living or dining room. And I certainly don’t take care to see that they are placed side-by-side neatly.

Monkeys

On Tuesday, December 31, there were FOUR monkeys in the café courtyard, two big ones high up in a tree, the small one that I’ve seen many times during this visit and one that is considerably smaller than the one I consider small. They apparently had been chased away from the back of the café earlier because they were stealing food.

One monkey had been hard enough to deal with but now there appeared to be a whole family. I watched as the small one started opening trash can lids and attempted to turn over the bins. Luckily, the trash cans the monkey looked into didn’t have food in them and it was unsuccessful in turning any of them over. I can imagine the mess it would have made if it had found the trash cans that held the food waste. (In Amritapuri the recycling stations have separate bins for hard items, soft plastic, paper, food waste, etc.)

Weather

Two years ago, it was hotter than normal when I came to Amritapuri in December. Last year it was back to “normal.” I got fooled into thinking the weather might not be shifting. But this year it’s been even hotter than it was two years ago. As I write this, it is 90 degrees and very humid. I’m sweating even though I am in my room with a large fan nearby.

I am so ready to be back in Pacific Northwest weather which this week is in the upper to mid 40’s for a high and high 30’s to low 40’s for a low. Hummmmm. I see the forecast for the Sunday after I get back is for snow. Oh, well that could change by then, or it could just be a little bit of snow that goes away fast.

To read previous posts in this series click here.