Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

On A Train

I’m writing this while sitting on a train to Boston. My family from Ohio is up here with us and that means doing touristy things. This and the snowboarding lessons tomorrow are the two big highlights of the trip. Yesterday, we went around Portland and I showed them some of the things that make it such a great city. As often happens when entertaining guests, rules about eating are relaxed a bit and I had some things I wouldn’t normally eat. I didn’t want to get on the scale today but I did. I was happy to see that my weight wasn’t impacted by indulging in fried foods and cheeses and white breads. It looks like the exercise is already paying off.

It’s great to see my family again. I hadn’t seen my dad since February and my brother since March. I’m very fortunate to have them here and it is a great reminder of how much they mean to me. It’s so easy to lose sight of what’s important in life as we get caught up in the demands of day to day living. Why does it take something so big as a vacation and a trip on a train to keep our priorities straight?

Take some time to think about what’s really important to you. Stop the madness and the rush of living and focus on the important stuff. It’s good for your mental health and well being and it reminds you of just how wonderful your life really is.

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The other day, we had a friend over for dinner. This is someone who shares my (new) taste in food and I love it when she comes over for dinner since it means I get eat the food I’ve made with someone else. My wife can’t usually eat what I do for a number of reasons, not just because she may not like it. The one thing I need to be concerned about with our friend visiting is that she’s got a gluten sensitivity and that means avoiding using wheat flour in anything. While I was at the store, I was going to grab some quinoa for dinner. The store was selling the quinoa for $11. I couldn’t believe the price they were charging for it so I put it back on the shelf and decided to save myself 8 dollars by buying it in bulk from the health food store down the street.

However, my trip down the health food aisle was not a total waste as sitting there, near the quinoa, was a mix for a gluten-free bread. I’ve never been a big fan of gluten-free breads but this was from a brand that I knew produced high quality items so I had a bit of trust in it. I brought it home and proceeded to make it. The first, and biggest problem, I had with this stuff was that the dough was incredibly sticky. Since gluten is what gives bread it’s “oomph”, going without it means that you need to come up with some other way to hold the bread together while it bakes. This stuff was almost like glue. It stuck to my spatula, my board, my hands and anything else it came into contact with. The recipe on the bag suggested using a loaf pan but I don’t actually own a loaf pan as I prefer to shape my breads by hand. That was the first time I’ve ever found myself wishing for a loaf pan. I managed to get the dough into a decent shape, covered it with foil and stuck it in the proofer for 45 minutes for the yeast to do its thing. I couldn’t believe how well it had risen after that time in the proofer. That’s when I first felt good about this particular recipe.

I switched the oven from proofer mode to bake mode and popped the dough back in to sit for a good long time. Shortly after this, the whole kitchen started to smell like fresh bread. Even gluten-free, the stuff smells amazing in the oven. I think we’re biologically geared toward loving this smell. I couldn’t wait to rip into this loaf!

That evening, our friend came over and she smelled the fresh bread as soon as she walked in the door. She entered the kitchen and saw the loaf sitting on a cooling rack and mentioned how wonderful it smelled. My wife gave her the good news that it was a gluten free loaf that I had made special for her. I wasn’t there to see this but my wife told me she was extremely touched by this simple gesture. She hadn’t had bread of any kind in a very long time and was overjoyed at the prospect of having fresh from the oven bread with our dinner.

Once it was time to eat, we started by cutting open the bread and putting some fresh, softened butter on it. This was the best gluten-free bread I’ve ever had. I’ve had three or four other types but this was the first one I had ever enjoyed eating and the first time I ever went back for seconds on it. We proceeded to have a wonderful evening eating dinner (curried quinoa and lentil stuffed peppers), sitting around the table and enjoying spending time together. Throughout the night, the bread was there on the table and every once in a while, we would reach down, cut off a piece and eat it while we talked. It reminded me of why for so many centuries, eating with another person was referred to as “breaking bread” with them.

The next day, we got an email from our friend thanking us once again for the great night the good company and the wonderful food. She expressed her gratitude once again for the bread and told us how touched she was that we had it for her. As we talked about this, my wife felt so happy that we were able to do this for her friend that she began to cry (not much, but it was crying nonetheless). Who would have thought that as I stood in the store contemplating buying one item that something else I bought almost on impulse would be the highlight of the evening? That’s the power of a simple loaf of bread. Cooking for someone else is always an act of service and is rewarding for those preparing and those consuming it. To give someone something special to eat is to show them how you care for them and that they are important to you. This is why some flour, milk eggs and yeast can turn into tears when they have been properly mixed and cooked and consumed.

If you have someone special that you care for, take some time to think about what they enjoy to eat and then try to make them something special for them by preparing it in a way that they will enjoy. It’s a great way to let someone know how you feel about them. Food, even a loaf of bread, has the power to transform a visit with a friend into a memorable experience that will stay with you for years.

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Wow. That’s about all I can say at this point. It’s been an amazing week full of family and fun and lots of opportunities to practice right action and be mindful about what I’m doing. Wow. I’ve just returned from a great week in San Diego with my family. We spent Thanksgiving there and had an amazing time. We went to Legoland, Los Angeles where I met Stan Lee, Disneyland, the USS Midway, the Gas lamp District, the San Diego Zoo, the Air & Space Museum, the Old Globe theater to see How The Grinch Stole Christmas and hung out with family enjoying one another’s company. It really was a whirlwind of a week.

Now, I’m home in the crisp winter air of Maine where you can see your breath and the frost has finally found a home on the ground. My ears haven’t handled the return flight too well and I’m dealing with quite a bit of pain from them and I think I’ve gotten bronchitis and I’ve lost my voice but I’m too happy to care. Suffering happens, I’m not going to make myself any better by moaning and being depressed about my state. That’s the clarity that I’ve gotten on this trip.

One of my main concerns before I left was being able to eat well while I was gone. Except for the days I spent traveling, things were very easy for me. California makes it very easy to be a vegetarian. Everywhere we went to eat there was something vegetarian on the menu. The best thing was, it wasn’t something that sucked either. In California, having a good selection of vegetarian entrées is a necessity for most restaurants. I had the best vegetarian burger I’ve ever eaten at a place that really was more of a “how many things can we do with a cow?” kind of establishment. Even Thanksgiving dinner had some really good vegetarian options. My aunt made a curried lentil dish special for me and another family member who is also a vegetarian. She gave us the recipe while we were eating it and at the moment we both had a fork full ready to go into our mouths revealed that she uses two cans of chicken broth when making it! We both kind of looked at each other, shrugged, and popped it into our mouths. My aunt is not a vegetarian and made a mistake that many non-vegetarian cooks do by using something derived from meat and still thinking the dish was vegetarian because it didn’t have any visible chunks of flesh in it. Since neither of us is militant about it we embraced the thought behind it and enjoyed it anyway. We both had seconds on it and loved every bite.

I was also able to exercise a lot while I was there. The hotel’s exercise center was just down the hall from our room and I was able to use the elliptical machine and the treadmill on three different mornings. The other days we spent a long time walking around. I used a pedometer on my phone to track how much walking we did at the zoo and by the end of the day we had clocked in over three miles of walking around. I don’t even want to think about how much walking we did at Disneyland yesterday. It had to be more than the zoo by at least a mile.

I have a number of things that I will be writing about over the next few days but don’t have the clarity of mind to do it now. Any day where you see both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans is a long day and I’m feeling it. Tomorrow morning we pick up my cats from the cat-sitter and we check on our hamster who is nearing the end of her life (that’s another blog entry altogether). I have pictures to clean up and publish and I’ll be writing a lot both here on the blog and on another project I’m working on. Spending the week away from home has renewed my enthusiasm for a writing project that I’ve been working on for almost a year but haven’t touched in the past few months since I was too busy doing other things. There’s nothing like a change of pace and perspective to really help you get your priorities in line. Now, I’m going to go get reacquainted with my zafu and then it’s time for bed.

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A Lazy Saturday

This is the first Saturday in well over a month that hasn’t been a crazy day. It’s been great to not have to run around from one place to the next and to just hang out at home and watch movies with the kids and set up my new Droid 2 phone. I don’t think I’ve really done anything “productive” today and I’m totally cool with that. It’s refreshing to have a day like this every once in a while. We get so wrapped up in the day-to-day distractions that we almost begin to feel bad if we’re not doing something or going somewhere. In fact, I’m so totally into not doing anything today that I think I’m just going to go take a nap now. Have a good day everyone and remember to avoid the candy tomorrow. I know I’ll be trying my best to leave my kid’s candy buckets alone.

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That’s My Girl

As I’ve said before, my daughter has my sense of humor. When I got home from the retreat yesterday, I found out just how similar we really are. On Saturday, I dropped her off at a friend’s house before I left for my trip. Unknown to the rest of us, she had stolen a pair of her brother’s underwear. She proceeded to stuff and sew them into a pillow with the help of her friend. When I came home, I found the most amazing pillow that had been specially made for my son. Apparently, when her friend’s mother asked her where she got her sense of humor from my daughter simply replied, “From my dad.”

How my daughter puts her arts and crafts knowledge to good use.

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This past weekend I was in the woods at a retreat with my Sangha from Northern Light Zen Center. It was a great experience and I am very glad that I went. It’s amazing what spending two days in meditation will do for your clarity of mind. This retreat was a mixture of sitting meditation and walking meditation. The walking took place outdoors in the woods and was an opportunity to see a lot of beauty in the autumn trees, the moon and the stars and the sunrise and sunset. It was also a time for me to experience practicing through some hardship. I’ve already gotten a post about that half-written but didn’t want to publish it yet since I want to focus on the positives of the experience before I start speaking about the challenges I had to overcome.

As with all Zen retreats, this one was designed to push the body and mind to their limits in order to quiet the mind so that it could focus more easily while in meditation. I think I spent at least five hours in sitting meditation this weekend and another four in walking meditation. I would have done even more had I been able to attend the full retreat but I had to arrive late because my wife works on Saturday morning so I stayed home to watch the kids while she was at her job. I arrived at the perfect time at the retreat though: right after lunch. I met my Sangha as they were walking back to the yurt we were using for meditation so I was present for the entire afternoon and evening sessions.

At first, I had a hard time concentrating on sitting because I’d had a hectic morning trying to get ready to go and deal with the logistics of everyday life and then trying to find the camping site in the Maine wilderness. Once you leave pavement behind, a GPS becomes a little less reliable when trying to reach a destination. Let that be a warning for you if you plan to come to Maine. We have a lot of unpaved roads up here. However, I did begin to finally quiet down my mind and began to focus. About three minutes after that, it was time to get up to begin walking. We spent 20 minutes wandering through the woods and I realized that even though I am in much better shape now than I once was, I’m not much of a hiker. All of the exercise I do is as low impact as possible so my feet are not used to being picked up and put down over and over as I exercise. This meant that I was pushing my body in a different way than normal and I began to wear out more quickly than I ever thought possible. Fortunately, it was only a 20 minute walk and then we were back to sitting for 20 minutes. My body was worn out so it took me about 15 minutes to finally calm down and get back into the calm state that is conducive to sitting meditation. Five minutes later, time for a walk. This went on for a few hours: sitting, walking, sitting, walking. My body didn’t quite know what to do and my mind was mirroring the state that my body was in. That evening, after dinner, my mind and body were quite worn out and in the last sitting meditation session, I found that I achieved a level of calmness and focus unlike any I’d ever experienced. My mind was at a point where it was too tired to wander around as my aching butt sat on the cushion.  I actually came out of that sitting session feeling better than when I had going in. I had turned the corner just in time to go on an evening walk under the stars.

The night sky was amazing. The moon was full and so bright in that clear sky that it hurt ones eyes to look directly at it. We didn’t even need our flashlights it was so bright. I’ve never seen shadows cast by moonlight as clearly as we had them on this evening. As we looked up at the stars (facing away from the moon), we could actually see space debris and satellites moving slowly in orbit around Earth. We even saw a few meteors flash across the sky as they burned up in the atmosphere. It was a perfect way to end the evening. My mind felt as clear as the sky we were looking up at. After the walk, we had a brief period of chanting meditation and then went to bed. I was asleep before 9:30. I was probably asleep before my kids at home had gone to bed.

The next day started at 5:00 A.M. I’m not sure why Zen retreats start so damn early but I think it has to do with keeping the body and mind worn out. That, or those who run the retreats are just a bunch of sadistic bastards. However, since I know the leader of our Sangha isn’t a sadistic bastard, I quickly dismissed that hypothesis. The day started with 108 bows. Once again, I entertained the thought about sadistic bastards but dismissed it again. Last week I did 108 bows for the first time. I was thankful that I had done it because I knew what to expect from this session. I did 107 half-bows and did the final one as a complete bow. This helped me from getting too sore but it was still murder on the muscles in my neck and back. We then spent time in sitting meditation and, once again, I was amazed at the clarity of mind I still had. We went out for a morning walk and then went back for a longer session of sitting while interviews were conducted.

On a Zen retreat, if you are with a Zen Master, you will be given a koan to answer. Since the leader of our Sangha is not a Zen Master, the interview process is a bit more laid back. For me, it was a time to see that Colin, our leader, was concerned about how I was handling the schedule and concerned that my being gone from home for a weekend wasn’t causing any problems for my wife or family. He was very concerned about this and he shared some stories about how he had to face the stress that came with going away for a weekend when his children, now in college, were young. After I had my interview, I was able to go back to the meditation yurt and spend the rest of the interview session in sitting meditation. That was about 40 minutes of uninterrupted sitting. It was the most amazing 40 minutes of meditation I have ever had. I was able to be present in the moment, with crystal clarity of mind and really feel my connection to the world around me and see my true self a little more clearly. This isn’t the self that we normally relate to, but our real innermost self. It was a liberating experience for me to know that I was having this experience without extending any effort as I had no energy left to extend. I see now, more clearly, why Zen stresses the importance of sitting just to sit and not being attached to thoughts or feelings or perceptions or impulses. Now, my goal is to learn how to achieve this state of calm without having to go away for days. The challenge I now face is to not get attached to that experience and to try to force myself to have it again. I cannot repeat the past and the next time I have this experience, it will be different. It will be a new and different experience but will be just as amazing.

After breakfast, we went on a “five-mile hike”. The goal of the hike was to reach the top of Frost Mountain and to eat our lunch up there. The five miles was actually only the distance to the top of the mountain and didn’t include the five miles back to camp. I’m not going to write a lot more about this here because much of the other post I am working on includes my thoughts and feelings while on this trip. For now, I’ll leave it at the joyous news that I made it to the top and back and received a round of applause from my Sangha on my return to the camp site. Once we got back, we had time for one session of sitting and chanting. Then, it was time to clean, pack and go home. We all agreed that we would love to stay for one more day but clinging to the experiences we’d had on the retreat would not be a good thing so we reluctantly got into our cars and headed home.

I got home and fell into bed and slept until it was time to go to dinner with my family. It was a great dinner and I loved being back at home with them. After putting the kids to bed, I started to work on a blog post but I was still exhausted and went to bed earlier than normal. I was surprised to find that I wanted to sit and meditate before going to bed but I knew I needed to give my body some rest. Instead of meditating, I just lay in bed and watched a bit of a movie and then fell to sleep. Now that it’s all said and done and I’m sitting here with a sore body and a clear(er) mind, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a weekend separated from my family.

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Happy Birthday Sweetheart

There are three days in my life I would consider to be the happiest I’ve ever had. The first one was when I married my beautiful wife. That’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s a tie for second place between the birth of my kids. Ten years ago today was one of those days. I still remember the day vividly: the hours spent waiting at the hospital, the excitement building as we knew each minute got us closer to meeting our precious baby girl. Then, the real work began of labor and delivery. When the doctor put this newly born, wrinkled, pink and crying creature into my shaking hands I couldn’t believe the waves of joy and love that poured over me. I attempted to cut through the umbilical cord and was so weakened by emotion that I couldn’t quite do it. The doctor gently squeezed my hand so that I was able to complete the cut and she was completely free and on her own for the first time. I quickly handed her over to my wife who was crying from joy and the relief that comes after labor. Seeing the two of them together for the first time is a sight I will carry with me to my grave. For the first time in my life I was truly speechless. I just didn’t have words to describe how amazing and beautiful and wonderful she was. I was madly and deeply in love with this little girl and it hasn’t changed one bit in ten years.

The past ten years have had so many wonderful memories. Watching my little girl grow and learn to speak and walk and jump and run are moments I will never forget. Now, she’s ten years old and such an amazing person. Her ability to sing and play music on the piano after having heard it only once still amazes me. Her voracious appetite for the written word is wonderful. Her sense of humor is so similar to mine that it’s scary. She’s sweet and wonderful and amazing and I am so proud of her and I love her so much it hurts sometimes. Having a daughter brings out the best in me. How else would I have learned the names of all the My Little Pony dolls? Only a little girl can make a grown man crawl around on the floor playing with dolls and horses. As I have watched her grow and mature and become the person she is today, I too have grown and matured in ways I never thought possible. I don’t see how I could have done it without her influence. Sure, it’s my job as a parent to help her grow, but it’s my joy as a parent to grow along with her. In another ten years, she’ll be a grown woman and I will be looking back on this day with fond memories. We’re going to the American Girl store and even though I’m a big, hairy man I’m going to be excited to be there with her today. That’s the paradox of having a little girl: you find yourself feeling like a total and complete man while holding up pink dresses saying “Doesn’t this look CUTE?!” Happy birthday sweetheart. I love you in the way only a daddy can.

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