spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily
Geese at Montour Preserve / Audreyjm529
It’s easy to see why we Unitarian Universalists, among others, connect with Mary Oliver’s poetry. The nature people love the specificity of her connections to nature – geese passing overhead in Massachusetts, irises growing wild in nearby fields, her dog, Percy, eating books. Human nature people, and that doesn’t necessarily exclude nature people, love her insights and the comfort she offers us about being human.

Among her wise words that I try to live by are these: “Instructions for Living a Life” “Pay attention, Be Astonished. Tell about it.” So let me tell you about me and Carlos and how we came to translate “Wild Geese” into Spanish at Starbucks. It is my habit to walk somewhere early in the morning and often I stop at a Starbucks for morning coffee because they open at 5:30. After I moved onto Gough Street, I walked through the civic center to the Starbucks at the intersection of Polk and Market. I would place my order and tuck myself into one of the big chairs near the window. Soon I was joined by a young man from Nicaragua named Carlos. I learned that sometimes when he did not come, he was in the hospital because he was, he told me, diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and felt safe there. Most of the time he lived in a residential hotel on 9th St. He told me he had a sister living in the Mission who wanted him to live with her, but he was afraid because Cubans in the Mission glared at him. He suspected they knew he was from Nicaragua and had been tortured by the FSLN. He told me many stories about his past in military service, former marriages, girl friends, fears. Sometimes, he would meet me in the United Nations Plaza at the farmer’s markets on Wednesday and carry my produce.

Once, I suggested we go to the movies, a terrible mistake because it was in Spanish and about wife-beating and he said it dropped him into a hell of remembering how he beat his wife when he suspected her of being unfaithful. I thought, oops, I have been unwise. And then, unwisely, he hugged me. In no way was I encouraging more than a friendship, so I hoped his hug was just friendly. But I knew we would see no more movies together and there would be no more hugging.

Yet I wanted a comfortable way to be with this Spanish speaking Nicaraguan on Thorazine and Haldol who yearned for a female other than his sister to help him in his life.

And I did find a way to relate to him – with a table between us. He would teach me Spanish by translating poetry I would bring in, and for his being my teacher I would pay him.

And so once a week at Starbucks we would ask the barristas to turn down the music and for an hour, work on translating into Spanish a poem I loved. The poem we worked on was: “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver. Ganses Salvajes in Spanish.

 Here is what the first lines of that poem sounded like to me. Tu no tienes que ser bueno. You don’t have to be good. Tu no tienes que caminar sobre tus rodillas.  You don’t have to walk on your knees por cien millas otra ve del desierto, arrepindiendote  For a hundred miles thru the desert, repenting. Tu solo tienes que dejar el animal suave de tu cuerpo amar lo que el ama. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Dime acerca tu problema, y yo te dire el mio. Tell me about your despair, yours and I will tell you mine. Mientras tanto el mundo sigue. Meanwhile the world goes on

Yes, meanwhile the world goes on. And one morning, Carlos did not come for our lesson. And I waited. I came back the next morning. None of the other “regulars” who often sat with us in the window corner knew where Carlos had gone. After a while, I stopped waiting for him and went other places in the morning. Perhaps, he stopped being afraid and went to the Mission to live near his sister and he is having coffee with the Cubans. I hope that Carlos finds his safe place “en la familia de cosas,” in the family of things.

And so far regardless of which early morning Starbucks I wander into, I have not regretted any time I have spent listening to lives far different from the “safe and sane” one I am living. I believe that Mary Oliver got it right when she wrote: "Ten times a day something happens to me …- some strengthening throb of amazement - some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness."


Slice o cake / The Pink Peppercorn
The whole idea of lust leaves a lot to be desired. I don't like lust, most of all because the word itself sounds too much like lost. And lost, as in being subsumed in the pursuit of an object, sounds like the beginning of the end of being present and authentic.   

Lust, just like envy or gluttony, or pride or sloth, or any "sin" I plan to reconsider isn’t bad as long as no one disappears in the pursuit of their desire. 

However, if you are a child at your third birthday party where there really is no polite way to refuse all the goodies Mommy puts in front of you, the image is of a lusty appetite for fun and frolic. No sin being committed here.

Nevertheless, from a grown-up perspective,  the word itself, lust sounds too much like lost. 

Risking whatever reputation I might ever hope to have, I admit to lusting for objects I imagined would increase my worth. Because I now know the difference between lusting for people once viewed as desired objects and being in  genuine relationship, I will name no names and limit my lust-list to material objects, such as, the paperback edition of Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” newly translated. I once desired a large flat screen TV, an espresso maker, I had to own a microwave, I was powerfully attracted by a digital camera, another digital camera, heavy breathing for a wireless modem, a laptop computer. Believe me, this is not the end of the list. However, none of these objects, the pursuit of which felt overpowering and compelling at the time ever generated the joy and meaning I now experience as I fiercely desire to be authentic, pursuing goals not produced by marketplace pressures to conform.

Conformity. Yuck. Several years ago, I watched conformity get a black eye  on YouTube as Susan Boyle sang Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Miserable” on Britains Got Talent. I am one of millions of Internet surfers who saw Susan Boyle, at that time a frizzy-haired, frumpy 47-year old transform the snickers and sneers of the studio audience and the panel of judges to cheers and shouts of approval for the soaring beauty of her vocal performance.

Watching disbelief turn to wonderment stirred my soul. But it wasn’t only Susan Boyle’s beautiful voice, but how quickly the crowd and the judges recognized the error of jumping to judgment based on appearances and stopped sneering to begin cheering. Later, interviewed on CNN, Susan Boyle said, "I wouldn't want to change myself too much because that would really make things a bit false. I want to receive people as the real me, a real person."

Real people are beautiful when they fully commit to being truly who they are and take seriously, as we do in  the  Unitarian Universalist community, the first and seventh principles which articulate our conviction that all people have worth and dignity and that we are all part of the interconnected web of  life.  Speaking, sponsoring, gathering, attending events, standing behind tables, marching, going to jail, risking foolishness – it’s all a kind of witnessing for what matters, especially as we join forces with many communities to effect change.  In San Francisco, Oakland, throughout the United States and the world, the Occupy Movement exemplifies  lusting for justice and for change that will improve the lives of many more than currently count as the one percent.

For in the throes of such a lust, people trust their actions to spring from deep, though not always popular, personal truth. And thus wittingly and willingly, choose to lose themselves in what they must and most lust for: “tikkun olam” healing the world. So if lust we must, I can see no better use for lust than this.    

Ginna Rosewarne at Regular Exercise
Can Ginna be believed?  She assures me if I keep to our exercise regimen, eventually, I will look like her.  Personal trainers, especially fit and fabulous trainers who specialize in older adults, may exaggerate to convince their older ladies that sweat and a pounding heart are worth the effort.

Much as I like Ginna, her looks and her powers of persuasion, I don’t like gyms, never have, even classy gyms like the gym in the Jewish Community Center. I was there a couple of times when I had a girl friend. She generously offered me a guest pass. At no cost I could take advantage of JCC cleanliness and order. And I could watch my own TV as I pedaled or ran. No thank you.

I lean more toward people places like the YMCA in the Tenderloin. Briefly I had a personal trainer, but she had a nervous breakdown. I don’t think it was my fault. I did the routines she prescribed without too much resistance and showed her loyalty by walking to the Y on days I didn’t feel well just to say I wouldn’t be there. But once she opted out of training me, I opted out of the Y. It’s a wise woman who knows her limitations. And then the Y shut down temporarily, and I shut down more or less permanently.

But inactivity and lax self care go against my beliefs. As a Unitarian Universalist, I take to heart these words by Henry David Thoreau, “We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones.”

 And as a Buddhist-leaning learner, I might just prefer to sit in meditation. But the Buddha said: “Our body is precious. It is a vehicle for awakening. Treat it with care.”

I am in no position to ignore the body-mind-soul connection or to take false refuge in inactivity, which has, as I remember, led to neglect and overeating. 

When I taught weight-loss classes, I promoted exercise, pretty much ordering members to take care of themselves, their bodies, their minds, their spirits, the whole gestalt. And what about me? I couldn’t just be walking to cafes. Not that walking isn’t wonderful. But upper body strength matters too.

So, I ambled across the street and joined a gym in the shopping mall, though unhappy with the blasting rock radio stations – not so much the music as the commercial breaks, and the pounding feet of exercise addicts running at breakneck speeds on treadmills, then pedaling noisily on stationary bikes.

Of course, I paid for a personal trainer, otherwise it would be a no go. My first trainer, an upbeat young man let me lie around a lot if I complained. Then he disappeared. No one at the gym could explain his disappearance. Ginna was his replacement. and I was satisfied. Her body-side manner pleased me, and she practiced a gentle form of coercion.

What really irked me for Ginna’s sake was the money the gym took and the little she got for doing all the work. It didn’t seem right, so I championed her move to independence at Regular Exercise on Clement and 15th. It’s a lovely gym and there she rents time and keeps what she earns as a trainer. We can choose our own music.

Yes, my body, soul and mind approve of working out with Ginna, but sometimes after heaving a ball at the wall, hefting a Viper or crumpling in and out of yoga positions, body, soul and mind are content to walk with Ginna to a coffee shop to sip cappuccinos, compare philosophies and rest comfortably in our companionship. I bet Ginna will agree when I quote Walt Whitman. “If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred.”    

If you want contact Ginna go to ginnafit.com.

Japanese eggplant with noodles/Ben Ostrowsky
Yaaaay gluttony, Yum, Yum. Why the exuberance? It was gluttony after all that plumped me up enough to be hired to instruct people with weight issues on how to practice self-control, portion control, and to say no or “not now” to food, food, and more food.

Of course, the weight control company I work for would never have hired me if I hadn’t followed their program and lost my excess weight, which had been clearly visible in my Sponge Bob Square Pants-like shape. By following the program marketed by my future employer, I shed enough poundage to be trained as a leader and receive an employee number.

I must have been ballooning up for close to 30 years before “gluttony” crossed my mind. What finally convinced me I might be more than occasionally splurging was a birthday spent in intensive care at a local hospital to undergo a test so life threatening, I had to sign a form saying I knew this test could kill me, but the doctor says do it or else. Frightened and suffering from a fierce headache, I agreed to exit this life on the date I entered it if fate dealt me those cards. I had the procedure, which resulted in medical bafflement. Eventually the headache subsided, and some doctor suggested I had been suffering from food poisoning.

Food poisoning? Could that be? Well, a few days before dragging myself to the emergency room I remember thanking my son and daughter-in-law for bringing me their leftovers from an intimate dinner at a Clement street restaurant to which I had not been invited. It’s hard to say what was in the carton they deposited on the table in my living room because the room was dark, it was late, and the grease on the food had congealed hours ago, but I ate whatever was in that carton. Immediately, I was violently sick, and a headache ensued. That could have been a brain tumor, couldn’t it? That could be why the hurry to inject dye into my brain.

So in summary, as a result of that gluttony-related scare and finally acknowledging that unflattering photos of me taken over the years weren’t entirely the fault of the photographers, nor were the doctor’s scales spiking toward the high end due to a flaw in the metric system or malicious health care providers, I accepted the fact of my gluttony and turned myself in to weekly meetings, sage advice and healthy weight loss precepts. And so I lost weight and got that job, but, and it’s a big but, was I cured of gluttony?

Happily, absolutely not. And why should I, or anyone, wish to be free from such a delightful capacity for excess, so closely tied to the experience of pleasure? In the words of the venerable Grateful Dead, “Too much of everything is just enough.”  And my partner, Corky, who is also a glutton, gave me this Mae West quote, “Too much of a good thing... can be wonderful.”

From the hell and damnation angle, gluttony refers to overindulgence in food and drink, but from a happier perspective, gluttony is hunger for new experiences, for warm and caring contact, for eye-to-eye communion with friendly dogs, for speaking one’s mind, for being heard, for listening, for learning, for weeping through La Boheme or Butterfly for the fourth or fifth time, for reading voraciously, books stacked by the side of the bed. If that sounds like gluttony, then that’s what you call it.

My oldest son, Guy, recently undertook an MBA program online from Wales. Blogging about making this choice in an uncertain economy, he called himself a “glutton for punishment.” But he went on to say that in the process of undertaking new learning, he found he is good at it and thrilled that being caught up in what he is doing is still part of his nature.

It’s not my plan to give up gluttony, but to continue to teach that old habit new tricks, tricks that will serve me better than eating past my point of true delight, what I used to do. I will be a glutton for choices, so if I feel like going to a potluck and nibbling chocolate truffles and sipping shiraz or cabernet rather than slogging through tepid garlicky spaghetti on soggy paper plates or chipping away at the cheese ball elbow to elbow with everyone else, thank you, I will. I’ll be practicing gluttony on my own terms.

So let me conclude with this glutton’s prayer: “Yaaaay life!! Yum, Yum.” Keep it coming. Pour it on. “Ayum.”