Call me crazy (I don’t care): I consider it a compliment

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” —Krishnamurti

I’m not mentally handicapped and no one has declared me to be mentally ill, though I’ve been evaluated by licensed professionals. My accolades, among other accomplishments of merit, would indicate that I’m highly intelligent: I was valedictorian of both my high school and college class, which means that I graduated with the highest academic achievements of my classes and delivered the valedictory speech at my graduation ceremonies. I’ve written and published over a dozen books.

I’d like to think that my intelligence would port over into all aspects of my life, including relationships, but history would demonstrate that I’ve fallen short in that area. I suppose that’s one reason I’m still alive: I have more opportunities to learn and grow, at least in terms of relationships. But then, I know a lot of smart people who are challenged in relating well to others, probably because our brains have the capacity to entertain, ponder and originate far more ideas, concepts and theories than most other people. For those of us whose minds are firing at the speed of light, we typically don’t relate well to others.

Consider the bell curve. For those on the far end of the spectrum, we are fewer in number. We prefer to spend time alone. We tend to isolate ourselves. We are geniuses. Prodigies. Anomalies.

Like autistic people, we can’t help but express—sometimes nonverbally—what we are actually seeing, thinking and feeling. Everyday social interactions become uninteresting and difficult, because most people can’t seem to get beyond superficialities. We tend to relate better to animals and nature.

As a highly intelligent woman who speaks her mind and follows her heart, I’ve been accused of being “crazy” on numerous occasions by people who are not worthy of mention here. I take no offense, because I know that the designation “crazy” bears no real meaning: “Crazy” is a label that is often slapped onto people, especially women, whose ideas, behavior and/or actions stray from the norm. Again, consider the bell curve. For women on the far end of the spectrum, we are fewer in number. We end up alone because there are fewer men who make suitable matches, and we prefer not to compromise. Our standards are … higher than most.

When a woman is considered to be “crazy”, it is most likely due to the fact that she challenges and therefore compels others to question reality. She is courageous enough to examine her assumptions, therefore inciting others to do the same. Willingness to look more profoundly and honestly at oneself and the world inevitably makes one more accountable to self and others. Women, in general, possess the uncanny ability to intuitively “know” things that are beyond the purview of most men. It’s something we do because we nurture life. We are in tune with the cycles of nature.

Women understand the cycles of life more naturally than men, while men often try to control and dominate the natural cycles. Women know this isn’t possible, so we gracefully and graciously stand aside while the men run around asserting themselves, to no effect. Look where it’s gotten us.

When a woman is labelled “crazy”, it’s probably because she doesn’t accept things the way they are…. She probably misbehaves and gets called a “bad girl”… She doesn’t politely say “yes” and follow directions like an automaton. She is probably stubborn, strong-willed and unwilling to accept the status quo. A lot of people probably don’t like her. In the past, she was burned at the stake, whereas in modern times, she gets unfriended on Facebook and smeared on social media.

I know, because I am one of these women. I don’t know whether or not I’d prefer not to be one of these women.

In a patriarchal society marked by gender inequality, men seem to assume that they are in control and pretend to dominate nature. When outspoken women like me take a stand—regardless of how eloquent or compelling our verbal expression—it’s common for us highly intelligent women to be labelled “crazy”, especially those of us who are change-makers: Our words and actions challenge the sociopolitical norms. Women who catalyze change in a patriarchal society will inevitably be vilified, ostracized or, at worst, killed by the sociopathic patriarchy.

It’s been happening for centuries. Consider the Middle Ages. The Salem witchcraft trials. The classic novel, The Scarlet Letter. Women who push the envelope often end up pushed overboard, burned at the stake, or sliced into pieces and buried.

Like the elephant tied to a rope on a stake, perhaps we women have gotten so used to it that we don’t realize we have the strength to break free. For some of us, we’ve given up. We’ve stopped making waves. We’ve gone into hiding. We probably cry a lot. We’re probably accused of being “overly emotional”…. Here, I’d like to reiterate the masterful Krishnamurti’s incisive observation on this topic:

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Do I need to convince my readers how and why our society has become profoundly sick? I think not. I surmise that the latest news media can make the case convincingly enough without further commentary. This, incidentally, is why I live the way I do.

I practice “non-participation”, at least politically speaking. I don’t bother keeping up with the news. I make my own news. Every day.

I believe that I make a powerful statement by living the way I do and being who I am.

Since I am living within a profoundly sick society replete with sociopaths all over the world, I realize and accept that I could die any day, at any moment. I could be intentionally or inadvertently killed by a wild animal or, more likely, a member of my own species.

I am proud to be “overly emotional”…. I make a sincere effort to cry and wail as often as possible: Not only is it cathartic, but I believe that it is spiritually uplifting and therefore necessary for anyone who wishes to be honest with themselves about who they are, especially living within a profoundly sick society. Most people can’t handle a woman wailing. It’s easier to simply call her “crazy”… when in actuality, she is the sanest one of all for shedding heartfelt tears.

We women have good reasons to cry and wail. We need to. We ought to. We must express our heartfelt emotion and not suppress our emotion. Perhaps this would serve men, too, but in order to do so, men would need to overcome significant social constructs that limit men from being openly vulnerable and emotionally expressive. Here, I digress.

Proverbially speaking, I wear my heart on my sleeve. I’m honest with myself and therefore I make it possible for other people to be honest with me and maybe with themselves too.

It appears to be my role to hold myself and others accountable to their actions—actions that they otherwise wouldn’t be accountable to, were it not for their happenstance interactions with me. Consider my history: I have played a pivotal role in landing five men in jail and having two men reported to the local police and/or FBI for their unlawful activities. Over the course of my life, I’ve noticed that when people get close to me, whether physically or emotionally, I catalyze some kind of transformation for them, whether it be physical, emotional, mental, and/or spiritual. I suppose it has something to do with my role as what could be called a “healer”: I fervently hold a clear intention, which I put out to the universe in prayer every morning, to be of utmost service to my fellow humans and to myself.

I remind myself of the female protagonist in Terry Goodkind’s fantasy novel, Wizard’s First Rule. “The Confessor” is the woman from whom anyone can receive redemption by revealing and confessing their most egregious sins. I don’t claim to be a “confessor”, though my history would demonstrate that I’ve played a similar role in the lives of people too numerous to keep count. When I interact with people to any significant degree, I always manage to be some sort of influence in making them accountable to themselves and to the world. I’d like to think this means that I hold myself accountable, but I’m not certain. I think I’m still learning.

An experienced Mayan astrologer once explained to me that my day and time of birth designates me as “Toj”, which means that I am instrumental in rebalancing what would otherwise remain imbalanced. This implies that wherever I show up, everyone’s dirty laundry is bound to come to the surface, be scrubbed clean and aired out. Including my own transgressions. It’s not an easy or envious job, and it’s certainly not glamorous.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that I seem to have no choice in the matter. I catalyze transformation, wherever I go, no matter how hard I try not to. It just … happens. It makes for challenging relationships. It’s an unpopular role. Who wants to hang out with the lady who makes you confess your most embarrassing sins? It’s a lonely job, but I suppose somebody’s got to do it. Apparently, somewhere along the way, I volunteered for the job. Since it appears I have no choice in the matter, I might as well make the most of it.

My friend, a fellow therapist, once described her perception of me thus: “You are challenging. You bring stuff up.”

What I assume she meant by this comment is that I have a way of bringing hidden “stuff” to the surface to be looked at. Examined. Questioned. Transformed into something different. I incite change. I know others who seem to do the same, though we are few in number, and we’re not sought out for Saturday night parties. After all, we’re… challenging.

I’m proud of who I am, but, as I’ve already mentioned, it’s not an easy job. I need breaks, which is why I prefer solitude and remote places surrounded by nature. In isolation, I can turn my shit-stirring penchant inward and focus on myself. But in due time, I need other people to act as my mirror. After all, they’re all me, anyway. Where do I end and you begin? If I can see it in you, then I must have it somewhere inside of myself. Ultimately, I’m responsible for myself, which implies that I am responsible for everything I experience, including whatever I observe in others.

I once related these insights to a dear friend of mine who is the author of a historical romance in which the goddess-like female protagonist is imbued with superhuman powers of intuition, beauty, and far-reaching influence.

“I keep sending guys to court and putting them in jail,” I told him, expressing my dismay.

He replied, tongue-in-cheek, “Callin’ court, Queenie?” referring to what he perceives as my “larger-than-self” role as an empowered woman, holding men accountable to their actions within an otherwise imbalanced, patriarchal society. The Confessor.

It’s no wonder that many men—and women who side with them—would prefer to call me “crazy”: It’s easier to invalidate the person who is holding up the mirror than it is to take a good, long, honest look. I know, because I’m guilty of it, too. I confess. And I don’t need a priest to make my confession. I confess of my own accord, within my own heart, which I believe is precisely what “The Confessor” character symbolizes: She is the goddess within all of us; the unconditionally loving female who listens, nurtures and loves us, no matter what. We all need a good dose of her medicine on a daily basis.

I suppose I am capable of offering this kind of medicine, to the extent I’m empowered to do so, with specific people under specific circumstances. I’ve put out my proverbial shingle to wit, and it appears that the universe colludes to support me in my intention to be available as a catalyst for peoples’ inner and outer transformation. My client testimonials speak for themselves.

I don’t say this to boast; on the contrary, I point this out as a testament to my own courageous journey, which has taken me deep down into my own rabbit hole, through countless wormholes, up into nameless galaxies, and back down again, where I must integrate all I’ve learned along the way. And I keep learning.

Call me crazy; I don’t care. I consider it a compliment. In a society gone terribly awry, I am proud to be an anomaly.

In addition to holding a Master of Arts in Education, I am a Licensed, Certified Massage Therapist with over 1,000 hours of formal training and years of experience. Over the past twenty years of my professional practice, I have seen thousands of clients, most of whom I’ve had the privilege to impact in a significant way beyond the physical. As soon as I placed my hands on one client’s shoulders, she sighed and remarked, “My God, you have such a healing touch. Where does that come from? What is that?”

I appreciated her forthright, sincere feedback.

Without thinking, my first reply was, “Well, I don’t know. If I knew, I don’t think I’d be able to do whatever it is you’re feeling.”

A hollow reed. An empty vessel. I’m just a channel.

I prefer to stay out of my own way. I just… show up and breathe. I just… am who I am, like it or not.

 

On a daily basis, starting with my 4:00 AM meditation, I attempt to examine, observe and empower myself through personal, transformational practices that I believe have served to engender a tremendous amount of inner strength and willpower. The long-term effect is that my influence on the world seems to be… impactful.

I conscientiously and deliberately swim against the stream. I do so because I don’t want to be well adjusted to a society that I believe has gone terribly awry. For me, my spiritual life is purposeful. Practical. Powerful. In my case, a lifesaver.

I consider myself a strong-willed, successful, highly intelligent woman who’s accomplished mostly everything I want to in this lifetime, except for publishing my novel and living in a house of my own, the latter of which appears to be imminent, once I nail together a ladder to climb upstairs into my bedroom loft.

My curriculum vitae attest to the fact that I’m highly intelligent. Even so, in the past twenty years of my adult life, I’ve been accused of not only being crazy, but being mentally ill and generally being ostracized because of how I think differently than most people, and I seem to have the capacity to strongly influence the people around me on an energetic and spiritual level, thereby challenging myself and others.

I’ve given up on being well liked. I’m okay with not fitting in anywhere. I seem to fit in more with the howler monkeys in the tropical jungle than with most humans. I realize that it comes with the territory. I’ve grown to be comfortable with solitude. I’ve actually grown to love and appreciate myself far more than I used to. I accept my role as a change agent. I own my power and I wield it as responsibly as possible. I’ve failed in the past, but hopefully I’ve learned.

I courageously ask myself, “Who am I” and “Why am I here?” as often as possible. I believe that these questions are becoming especially relevant and urgent, not only for myself, but for humanity as a whole: Who am I? Why am I here? What am I here to do, and why?

It appears most people would prefer not to ask these uncomfortable questions; at the very least, most people avoid or deflect them with any one of the myriad distractions available in our modern society.

As for society, I suppose you could say I’ve dropped out. I’ve become somewhat of a recluse, though I still welcome the opportunity to engage with people, as long as they are prepared for the highly probable outcome that something significant will change as a result of our interaction. It’s my honor to play this role.

I’m proud of who I am.

Call me crazy; I don’t care. I consider it a compliment.

Battling fears: I unsheathe my sword and fight

I’ve never fought in a real war, but I imagine that if I were a warrior in battle, I wouldn’t want to back down just because I felt suddenly stricken with fear. I imagine that fear would act as a driving force to propel me to stand tall and fight with all the courage I could muster.

I’m a woman, and I don’t fight in real wars, yet my battlefield spreads before me far and wide. I fight battles every day of my life, as I imagine most people do. Inner and outer battles. Especially women.

As women, we live in a patriarchal society dominated by men who enjoy far more privileges than we do: Men can get paid more in their jobs; men can walk around shirtless on a hot day; men can get us pregnant in one second and then abandon us for life with only a financial burden to carry; men can take a piss standing up; men can go walking alone at night with far fewer risks of bodily harm than we can; et cetera, et cetera.

It’s tough to be a woman in a proverbial “man’s world”.

It’s even tougher to be a strong-willed, stubborn, “manly” woman in a man’s world. And I’m not referring to a manly appearance.

Many people tell me I’m more like a man than a woman, in terms of how I behave and show up in the world. I stand up for myself and insist on getting paid well in my job. I take my shirt off on hot days (whenever there are no cops around to arrest me). I have a man’s libido and would much prefer to have male anatomy than the complicated, intricate female reproductive organs. (No, I don’t want a sex change. I make the most of being a woman). I piss on the grass. Sometimes standing up. (Who cares? I live in the jungle). I go walking at night alone. Because I live alone.

Generally, I tend to stir things up wherever I go, because I challenge myself. I take calculated risks. I therefore challenge the people around me. Because I’m different. I’m open to new experiences, people and places. Nobody can figure out which category to fit me into. I don’t fit into anyone’s mold. I’m an anomaly. I prefer solitude and remote places surrounded by nature. As Aristotle quoted, I must be a wild beast.

A friend of mine once told me that “I have to wear the pants” because I have no husband. I suppose that’s true, but not because I have no husband. I wear pants because it’s practical and more comfortable. Especially as a farmer.

I own an acre of land in a rural area of southern Belize where I’m growing a small vegetable garden and gradually building my own off-grid, thatch roof bungalow. I’ve joined the “tiny house” movement, but I’m doing it south of the border on my own land, and I’m doing it all with my own hard-earned money, not with a bank loan. I’m not financed by an investor or cashing in any retirement check, like most American and Canadian expats living in Central America. I came here in my mid-thirties and over the past five years, I’ve successfully managed to diversify my many talents and skills, thereby cobbling together a decent income to support myself.

The last time I visited my grandmother, she said, “What happened to you? You used to be so sweet.”

I had flown back up to the States to visit my family for a few weeks. It was the last time I ever saw my grandmother before she died months later. She was 93 years old. I hadn’t seen her in almost five years. I’d been living, traveling and working in Central America, and it was too difficult for me to save enough money for airfare to visit family.

I didn’t know what to say. I agreed with her. I wasn’t as sweet as I used to be when I was growing up as a privileged, upper middle-class white girl. I chuckled at my grandmother’s comment, thinking that old people don’t mince their words because they don’t care about offending people anymore. They’ve been through it all, and they know they’re going to die soon.

“I’m still sweet,” I told her. “I just don’t show it as much.”

I’d masked my sweetness for much the same reason old people tend to stop acting nice. Facing death has a way of making you more honest with yourself and others. Because there’s no time left to make up stories that simply aren’t true.

Over the course of my life, I’ve faced my own death on numerous occasions. In the past year, I’ve accepted that I could die any day, at any moment. Most recently, I’ve committed to a one-year vow of celibacy, during which I intend to practice yoga and meditate daily on my imminent death. Because I want to be ready for that moment. I don’t want to die with any regrets. I want to live fully every day until I die. And I’m willing to die for what I believe in. I’m preparing to die, living the way I want to live.

At the time, I didn’t know how to explain to my grandmother that living as a single woman in a Third World country had made me grown a tough skin. I’d acquired a rough exterior to hide and protect a vulnerable, young woman with a tender beating heart still very much alive on the inside, despite having defied death on numerous occasions.

I would like to think I have a choice in life, but I’m not convinced that this is the case. I’m not certain that I really have a “free will” in anything I do. I would side with quantum physicists whose research indicates that everything is interconnected and therefore inextricably intertwined. The “vibration” of what I think about today immediately affects how my life will be in one… five… ten years.

I’m really not in control, so I might as well give up trying and just enjoy living. It is each moment that matters. Right here, right now. How I react to the goings on is my constant “Lord and savior”…. I am redeemed by how I live in the moment, because (as the latest scientific research points out), everything is right here. Right now.

I don’t think life is complicated. I think it’s simple. Just be. See. Do. Everything I need is always right here. Right now. I am empowered by everything. Every situation. Every interaction. Each moment is salvation. The eternal promise of reality.

While I muse existentially, I co-exist with other humans, animals and plants that originate in a country that is still mostly foreign to me. I live in Belize, a tiny country with more biodiversity—and cultural diversity—than most places its size on Earth. A tropical country with coastline along the Caribbean Sea, Belize is a hot cauldron and crucible for strong-willed women like me who want to take on the challenge of living close to the earth, sweating profusely from sunrise to sunset, and hacking away at relentless jungle habitat with a sharpened machete.

When I harvest food from my garden or walk around outside in the tropical jungle where I live, I generally stick to the tried-and-true way of the local people: I carry a sharpened machete, which is essentially a big, long knife with a hilt and a blade that I have to sharpen every couple weeks, otherwise the blade rusts and gets dull. Last year during my travels I purchased a leather sheath, a scabbard with embossed letters that say “Guatemala” to encase my machete, a gleaming metal sword that I use for a variety of purposes here in the tropics, including self-defense.

When I’m not working on my house and garden, I am teaching yoga classes in a riverside bungalow at a charming eco-lodge nestled deep in the jungle. This morning I had the privilege of teaching yoga to a family of four, including two young boys who showed up with eager, smiling faces at sunrise, ready for their yoga lesson. I happily spread out five mats and one of the boys announced, “I brought my dad. He’s never done yoga. But I told him it’s awesome and he had to try it.”

I guided them through an hour-long journey through the jungle, where we wriggled like snakes in the grass, gathered fruits and flowers into our imaginary baskets, roared like howler monkeys, flew like a little tourist hopper airplane, and fought in battle like warriors armed with a sword.

I imagined I was holding my machete as I modeled “Warrior Pose”, a yoga posture in which the two legs separate into a standing lunge with the front knee bent and the back leg strong and straight.

“Feel your legs holding you up, strong and stable on the earth,” I said to the family. I tailored my delivery for the young boys. “You’re a brave warrior going into battle. Make sure you have your feet firm on the ground, so nobody can knock you over.”

I made some suggestions for proper body alignment and mechanics. I offered hands-on adjustments to legs, hips and arms.

“Are you breathing?” I asked them.

I heard them breathe. They all started to sweat. It was only 7:15 AM, yet the tropical heat and humidity had already set in. “Welcome to hot yoga in the jungle!” I said.

I raised my arms straight overhead as my legs stretched and held me in a stable lunge position.

“Hold your sword firm and point it with focused intention at the sky,” I said. “We’re getting ready to lunge forward and strike with our sword.”

The boys smiled. They were really into it. I think they had transformed the yoga bungalow into a raging battlefield with enemies surrounding us.

I pitched myself forward onto my front foot, now balancing on one leg. I held my back leg up high and straight with my toes pointed, and I extended my two arms in front with my hands together.

“Hold your sword tight. Don’t drop it. Point your sword in front of you. Don’t lose your balance!”

The boys giggled and teetered on one leg as they stretched their arms out in front of them.

Dad sweated and took deep breaths. He actually seemed to be enjoying himself, in spite of his obvious reluctance when he’d entered the room, groggy, holding a cup of coffee. Mom was busying herself snapping photos to post later on Instagram. She appeared to be enjoying the class, too. As long as her two boys were happy and entertained, Momma was happy.

We practiced “Warrior III” posture on the other side. As we all struggled to balance on one leg and hold our arms out straight at the same time, it struck me that this was one of those pivotal moments in the life of a yoga teacher where I could sneak in a little bit of yoga philosophy into my class. I lunged at the opportunity.

“Sometimes life is a balance challenge. When life presents us with a lot of things at once, we have to try to stay balanced. We have to stand strong. We can’t back down. We have to hold ourselves up firm and strong, with our feet firmly planted to the earth.”

In that moment, I heard myself talking and realized I was lecturing to myself. I just happened to be sharing the room with four other eager students, including two young boys. Apparently, I needed the reminder.

“A warrior in battle must hold his head up high and be ready to strike with his sword at any moment. Are you ready? Are you breathing?”

The youngest boy, ten years old, nodded and smiled. He was ready.

During the final few minutes of class, I encouraged the boys to pretend they were frozen popsicles getting a deep freeze in a dark, cool freezer. “Imagine what color you are. Let’s breathe in all the colors of the rainbow.” We started with red and ended with violet. The youngest boy said that green tasted sour like a lime.

Refreshing. (“Ya put da lime in da coconut…”)

After the hour-long class, Dad said, wiping the sweat from his forehead, “That felt really good.” Mom’s smile beamed from ear to ear. She had accomplished what she’d imagined to be an impossible mission: She got her two kids and husband up out of bed first thing in the morning to practice yoga together. To exercise. While on vacation. To take deep breaths. To laugh. To make animal noises in the jungle.

I love my job. I love what I do. I love being alive. I love myself.

Most of the time, I try to emulate the dog I’m caring for, an adult German shepherd named Tucker. He loves me unconditionally. Tucker is a faithful and loyal companion. He looks, listens and notices with zeal what’s surrounding him. Dogs just want the good things in life: companionship, a back scratch, good food, a cool place to relax, and water. It ain’t complicated. Life’s simple… when you’re a dog.

Life is simple, slow and rich here in the tropical jungle. It teems with life. I am learning to co-exist with everything the jungle has to offer. Even so, it isn’t easy. I come from a very different culture and climate. It’s a good thing I have a dog to remind me of the simple joys in life and my yoga practice to keep me strong.

Like our classic hero Dorothy on her yellow brick road, I’m not “in Kansas” anymore. When Dorothy ventured away from home, she was forced to face terrifying people, places and situations. She learned to summon her inner strength and to stand up for herself. In the end, she realized that her true home was inside of her all along…. As a kid, I played the lead part of Dorothy in my sixth-grade musical. I sang a solo rendition of “Over the Rainbow” and got a standing ovation. I’m still Dorothy. Like Dorothy, I now live in a foreign country, and I’m a sweet, single woman. As Dorothy learned, being “sweet” and “nice” doesn’t always work very well. Sometimes, it’s necessary to behave more like a manly warrior. Strong. Self-assured. Stubborn and determined.

Like the epic story of Arjuna on the battlefield in the ancient Vedic scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, I must go into battle and fight without being attached to the results. I must go into battle without trying to be in control, because the reality is that I’m not in control of the show. I must don my armor, pull out my sword from my scabbard and defend myself and my right to live. That’s the role I’m acting out, for now.

I’m prepared to die. After all, what’ve I got to lose? My life? Do I “own” my life?

I accept that my life can be taken away from me at any moment. Every day, I practice for the moment of my death, because I’ve been preparing for it my whole life. My body—a suit of skin and bones—is just my costume. My life is a dress rehearsal for the moment of my death. Like a courageous warrior firmly rooted to the earth, I’m strong. I’ll fight to the end and I’ll end up somewhere over the rainbow. I’m ready.

Goodbye to people and places I’ve loved

Since moving to Central America over five years ago, I’ve voluntarily and happily accepted many different roles for which I otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to volunteer: Over the past five years, I’ve been an English teacher, yoga teacher, dish washer, house sitter, dog walker, among other volunteer positions for which I’ve gladly stepped up to the plate.

I spend most of my days surrounded by people who are from a different cultural background. They are not my blood family, but, given my circumstances, I now consider them my family. Humans are animals, after all, and since I’m human, I default to wanting the safety and comfort of other humans around me. Kind of like monkeys, I imagine. We don’t really like to be alone for very long.

Now that I am living in Belize, a tiny country with rudimentary infrastructure, I no longer enjoy the privilege of being surrounded by modern conveniences like Walmart, McDonald’s and strip malls replete with fast food chains and trash cans. People burn their trash where I live. Or bury it. Literally. I’m in a very different part of the world now, where most people get by fairly well on $10 or less per day. Seriously.

In the past five years since I’ve moved here, I’ve grown to appreciate having and doing less. I’ve actually grown to appreciate it. I no longer crave McDonald’s fries. I no longer miss going to movie theaters. I no longer search for the nearest trash can, because I know it probably won’t be there. I’ve learned to be more responsible and accountable to myself. That includes my trash.

I’ve learned to be more self-reliant and self-sufficient. Kind of like Thoreau, I suppose. I am from Massachusetts originally, where the transcendentalists first penned their missives on self-reliance while living sort of like I am now, in a remote area surrounded by nature and few humans.

Here in Belize, I’ve benefited from having a lot of time to myself to reflect on what’s important to me. I’ve had the privilege of being surrounded by pristine nature, virtually untouched by human hands, and therefore in a natural state of balance, for now. I’d like to think that by living close to nature in a balanced state, I too am becoming more balanced. I’d like to think that I can better weigh what I need versus what I want. I’d like to think that I am better at discerning what’s good for me versus what’s not so good for me. But time will tell whether or not that’s the case.

One among many things I’ve given up by moving to Central America is the convenience of hopping in a car and visiting friends and family. I live simply and frugally. Currently, I use public transportation. I can no longer indulge in the habit of spending time with people out of some kind of obligation to fulfill my duty as a sister, a daughter, a friend from college, or whatever. I don’t have that privilege anymore, because I’ve given it up in exchange for being where my heart calls me to be, to do what my heart calls me to do, out of some kind of obligation to fulfill my duty to live a life of service to humanity. Because it seems like a good idea, to me.

As a single woman at forty years of age, I’ve made a deliberate choice to remain free of children and to therefore slough off the obligation I see most women my age beholden to; namely, suckling and raising a miniature version (or multiple versions) of themselves. I don’t think this makes me better or more intelligent than other women; it just gives me more freedom: I have more time, money, energy and other resources that I can dedicate to other endeavors.

Since I’ve voluntarily become a self-proclaimed “nun” with no religious affiliation in my last days on this earth, I figure now would be a good time to say goodbye to the people and places I’ve loved. Because I might never get another chance. I might die today, at any moment, at any time. You could too, for that matter.

There’s not only therapeutic value in saying goodbye; there’s some kind of liberation gained from expressing gratitude for stuff and memories, identifying what I like about the person and generally attempting to bring some closure to what might otherwise be an incomplete relationship where a lot could be left unsaid.

I don’t want to die leaving a bunch of stuff unsaid. I’d rather go out with a clear conscience and a sense of inner peace that I’ve said what I needed to say to the people who matter most.

First, I’ll make a list of all the people and places I’d like to say goodbye to, in the order they spontaneously come to mind…. Then, I can launch into writing letters to each person and place, which I’ll do anonymously, since anonymity matters to people who think they have stuff to hide from the world.

Dear —

I miss your oatmeal cookies. I miss the way you would stand at the door and smile and wave goodbye when I drove away. I miss being a kid and looking forward to sleepovers and talking about what we’d make for breakfast the next day while snuggling in bed.

Thank you for always encouraging me. You gave me strength to keep on going. I always knew you loved me. I always knew you were proud of me. I’m sorry that maybe I didn’t become the successful doctor or whatever you thought I was capable of becoming. I probably could have gone on to have a more lucrative profession, but I doubt that would have made me any happier. I understand your desire to see me become the best you thought I could be.

Dear —

What happened? I guess I was hoping we could at least be friends, but I suppose we both screwed that up, didn’t we, with our self-destructive tendency to give more to others than what is healthy for us. I know we met at the right time, because we were both ready to start the arduous healing process of coming to terms with the pattern of trying to be the savior for everybody but ourselves.

I miss everything about you. Your voice. How you only said the most important things that needed to be said. Your poetry. Your music. I wanted to see more of your smile. Maybe I never will. I guess I wanted to save you, too. But now I know you can only do that for yourself. And I can only do that for myself. So I’m doing it, damn it. With or without you.

I really fell for you, hard and fast. I think you lured me in: You showed up out of nowhere offering me everything I ever dreamed of, I had a taste of all of it, then Poof! you were gone. Like a dragon with a secret den of hidden jewels. Now you live in my dreams.

I suppose it makes sense to apologize for the pain. I can’t say for sure who’s responsible for the pain. I think we both are. But I don’t ever expect you to say you’re sorry to me. I guess there’s really nothing to forgive. I guess there’s really nothing more to say.

Dear —

I’m sorry I didn’t play with you more often. I’m sorry I kicked you out of my room and ignored you when I should have spent more time with you. I don’t know what the hell was wrong with me. If there is anything I regret most in my life, it’s definitely that.

Some of the best memories I have are with you. Watching MTV in the basement to escape the hot days of summer. Playing Nintendo. Watching “The Princess Bride” over and over again until we could recite all the lines from memory. Riding bicycles down the street and back again. Eating popsicles. I always wanted the red ones and you the purple ones. Good thing.

It kind of sucks that we live so far away from each other now. Of all my friends and family, you are the one I can tell pretty much anything to and I know you will listen and understand because you’ve been through it, too. You know what it’s like to live in a foreign country and to be scared every day for your life that you could die or be killed. You know what it feels like to be far away from everything and everyone familiar.

I’m thankful that I can get on Facebook anytime and vent about whatever is going on, and since you live with your cell phone at your hip and it chimes whenever you get a message, I know you will be there to answer me in an emergency or whatever. Nobody else can do that for me.

I would like to think I was a good — to you. But I know mostly I wasn’t. I feel bad that I wasn’t. I hope you can forgive me. I feel bad that we probably won’t spend much time together ever again, because we live so far away from each other and it’s hard to get together. I feel sad about that. But at least we got to grow up and learn how to survive together. At least we have that in common, and that’s kind of a big deal.

Dear —

You were great while you lasted. I got the most I could out of you, like an excellent education, good dental care and access to the best hospitals and universities in the world. I will miss going into your art museums, theaters and labyrinthine libraries stocked full with books that smell like the earth: dirt and mildew and sweet raindrops.

I’m pissed that you wrested most of my hard-earned money from my pocket with your usurious economic system and service to a small percentage of ruling elite whose agenda is planetary destruction. How could you let that happen?

It was unfair that even though I worked fulltime and paid my taxes and student loans on time every month, I still could only dream of owning land and a house. I mean, what kind of f*@#ed up system you have, to obligate everyone to work their asses off at jobs they mostly hate, to never have time for themselves or their families, leaving them just enough money and time to take a shit in their tiny apartments and go to the drive-through for fast food because they don’t have time or money to cook a decent meal. Plus, all the food’s adulterated. How could you?

I left you because you betrayed me. You insulted me. You abused me. I’m glad I left you when I had the chance, before our relationship got even crazier. I truly don’t miss you since you’ve been gone. All I miss are a few good hiking trails and a few good men I left behind there. For all I care, you can go away forever, and the world would be better off.

Dear —

Bummer that you had to crash and burn because some idiot forgot to put out his campfire. Glad it wasn’t me. Back when we had our love affair, I fantasized about making a campfire and sleeping all night against your chest, well-endowed with the magnificence of a thousand redwood trees, now charred and abandoned. Especially you—the tall, handsome one I loved to embrace.

I’m sorry I abandoned you. I left you alone but I never forgot about you. I can still close my eyes and smell you. Feel you. Imagine myself on top of you. You were my favorite place in the whole wide world. I doubt that will ever change. Thank you for giving me solace and solitude when I needed it most.

What I’ve learned from old people about life, death and love

parama-and-patti-at-hearthstoneOld people often say that getting old’s a bitch. At the age of forty, I barely know.

Sensei Harvey Daiho Hilbert, a retired PhD professor at New Mexico State University and abbot of the local Las Cruces Zen Center, was one of my teachers in my early years of voracious study of Buddhist philosophy and avid meditation practice. When I went on a three-day silent retreat led by Sensei Harvey in the mountains of Cloudcroft, New Mexico, I did yoga postures on the scenic balcony atop the meditation temple. Sensei commented, “When you’re seventy, I want you to come back here and do yoga on the porch.”

Years later, I still haven’t forgotten his comment. I took it to heart. I’ve used that idea as a rocket fuel to propel me further into the space of my daily yoga and meditation practice.

I would like to think that I could live to be seventy; and if I do, I would like to think that I will still be dancing and doing yoga.

Geshe Michael, founder of the progressive, tuition-free Diamond Mountain University in Bowie, Arizona and one of my favorite teachers of Buddhism, talks a lot about death. He says that we should think about our death on a daily basis, because it makes us happier people.

(Say, what? Thinking about my own death is supposed to make me happier?)

At first I didn’t believe it.

But then, all kinds of crappy things started happening in my life … all at once: My grandma died; I was told I might have cervical cancer; I got a hemorrhoid; I almost got murdered; I had to move twice; I twisted my knee; I broke up with the most gorgeous, amazing man I’ve ever met after he told me he didn’t love me….

All of this crappy stuff happened all at the same time; like, within the span of a few months. It was a living hell. I almost killed myself over it.

I think I could have killed myself, were it not for a few kind-hearted doctors I consulted and were it not for my having listened to Geshe Michael’s dharma talks about death meditation: “Don’t pretend you’re not gonna die someday. Just be honest with yourself. Pretend that today could be your last day.”

After all that crappy stuff happened, I didn’t have to pretend anymore. I knew I could die any day, at any time.

Maybe if I knew that at a younger age, I’d be an even happier person than I already am. But maybe not. I don’t know.

I’d like to think that I’m about halfway through my lifespan. Maybe I have a few more years to go before I’m actually at that point. For all intents and purposes, let’s just say that at forty, I’m halfway to my death, but that’s just according to statistics on the average modern human lifespan. In making this assumption, I fail to consider a whole host of factors which are completely out of my control.

Let’s consider all the factors that could cause me to die unexpectedly, any day or at any moment:

 

(1) I live in the tropics of Belize, Central America. I could contract and die of dengue or Zika or malaria … or all three combined.

(2) Every day I go swimming in an emerald green river in the jungle. I could get eaten by a crocodile.

(3) One my favorite geeky scientist friends predicts that climate change (melting glaciers, anyone?) could lead to near-term extinction of the human race. Like, within the next decade. Bummer. Human extinction includes me. (Damn it).

(4) Not only do I live in the tropics, but I also happen to live in a jungle with a lot of wild animals (jaguars and venomous snakes included). Any one of them could bite me or eat me… any day, at any time. This could cause my unexpected, unplanned death.

(5) I could get run over by a bus. That could happen pretty much anywhere.

Reading this list back to myself makes me laugh out loud (lol)…. It’s somehow funny to think about all the ways I could die. Yet I’ve spent most of my rather enjoyable, uber-privileged young adulthood in a state of ignorant denial that I could die on any given day, at any given time.

Sorry to point out, dear reader (Hey, thanks for reading!): You could die too. On any given day, at any given time. But how often do we really allow ourselves to seriously think about that undeniable fact of life? (That fact that we all have to die, I mean).

Let me remind myself, just in case I forget: Someday, I’m going to die. That day could be today. At any time.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve already died hundreds of times in my life. I suppose, in a way, I have. I’ve experienced innumerable losses, as most people have. And each loss is like a mini-death.

Let’s consider all the ways I’ve died already:

(1) I’ve quit too many jobs to keep count. Loss of a job is like a death. It causes loss of money in the wallet, relationships, status, respect, and lots of other things that lead to grief, sadness and possibly depression and suicidal ideation;

(2) I’ve gone through three or four divorces and probably dozens of break-ups. (I can’t keep track.) Losing a beloved partner, for any reason, definitely feels like what I imagine dying could feel like;

(3) I’ve moved in and out of dozens of funky apartments and even a few tents. Once I took up residence in the trunk of my own car, not because I was too poor to afford my own place (I had a fulltime job with a decent salary), but just because I wanted to see if I could live in my trunk for a week. It turns out that I could. Living in the trunk of my car was like dying, because I killed my need for a bigger apartment.

By the way, I’m not mentally ill or retarded. I just like living life on the edge and taking risks. Calculated ones.

(4) I have almost been deliberately killed by other members of my own species for reasons that are not worth mentioning here. If you’re curious, you’ll have to wait for my novel to be published. Novels are good for telling stories about almost being killed. Stephen King does it all the time and makes a killing off his books…. so, I assume people like to read about death.

 

What was my point in making a list of all the ways I’ve died already?… Oh, yeah. To point out that death is a part of life. Life and death always go together, like eating beans and farting.

Older people are generally less apologetic about basic bodily functions and the fact that their teeth have fallen out. They seem to be more honest than younger people. I suppose there’s a reason for that. Experience and wisdom seem to go together, like old age and dentures.

Talking with older people has helped me learn a thing or two about life and how to live more fully while I still have the chance. I used to try having deep conversations with my grandmother, but I could never seem to get beyond superficialities. I guess some people just don’t really like to go deeper than what’s visible to the human eye. That’s okay. Grandma’s dead now. I loved her. She was a kind, generous woman. And she baked the best oatmeal cookies.

Some older people are actually capable of accepting the fact that they are going to die soon instead of denying it or complaining about it incessantly. Some older people are actually willing to engage me in an honest discussion about what it’s like to get old. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a few of them and enjoying meaningful conversations about a wide range of interesting topics like marriage, jobs, finances, illness, diet, adult diapers, and dentures.

I assume that people who are older than I am might be pleased to offer me advice about how to avoid making the same mistakes they did.

Recently I had the honor of meeting one such refreshingly forthright older gentleman whom I’ll call Gary. I saw him sitting alone in a rocking chair looking rather sullen and somewhat lonely. He was on vacation with his wife at the eco-lodge in southern Belize where I live and work as a Certified Massage Therapist and Yoga Teacher.

Gary was part of a tour group that had left that morning to go on an excursion into the jungle. He thought that the trip would have been too physically challenging for him, so he’d opted to stay at the hotel and spend the morning sitting in the rocking chair by himself.

As an ardent student of life, I’m compelled to seek and find teachers in everyone I talk to and in pretty much every situation, not excluding this crotchety old dude in the rocking chair. I approached him and asked with the utmost sincerity how he was doing.

My genuine concern for his wellbeing was met with a sullen expression and a mumbled, gruff reply. He kept his head down, staring into the dim glow of his tablet device. Apparently, he was busy reading something, so I turned and walked away, pretending I had somewhere else to go, feeling somewhat spurned and justified in not wanting to talk to him ever again.

But then I remembered the wisdom of always trying to find the teacher in every situation. Despite logic and reason, I returned to the man’s side, reached out my hand to gently touch his shoulder, looked straight into his eyes, smiled and asked him, “Sir, is there anything I can do for you?”

I was prepared for any one of several possible responses: He could have spat on me or yelled at me to leave him alone. But he didn’t. He slowly shut off the hand-held device, took a deep breath and looked up at me. His pondered his words carefully before he spoke in a deliberate, calm manner:

“Well, thank you for asking, young lady,” he said. His face softened. He went on to explain that he was in severe pain from nerve damage to his spine.

I could have said, “Oh, I’m sorry,” or “I understand,” or any one of several possible responses, but I didn’t. Instead, I opted to invest some of my precious, valuable time listening to this old dude in a rocking chair.

There were hundreds of other things I could’ve opted to do instead; like do laundry, go swimming in the river, write my novel, eat chocolate, or wash my hair. Instead, I spent an hour chatting with Gary. He told me he was seventy years old. I told him he had thirty years on me, so I should probably listen to him for a while.

He laughed. I guess he thought I was funny.

We never even bothered to ask each other’s names until after we’d talked for an hour and realized neither one of us had ever asked.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to get old or be in constant pain,” I told him. “But I’d like to know what it’s like, for you.”

“It sucks,” he said. “You lose things. All the time. Your friends start to die. You get sick. You can’t do as many things as you used to be able to do.”

I listened. I didn’t say much. Again, I’d deemed that he was the wiser one of the two of us.

He wore a collared, button-down blue paisley shirt and tan shorts. He had a full head of white hair, wore wire-rimmed glasses and appeared to be in good physical shape, with a slim waist, athletic legs and smooth, tanned skin. He didn’t move while he talked, maybe because moving caused him pain, or he was content to simply stay still. I suspect both could have been true for him.

A former university professor with a PhD in molecular biology, he was well-read, articulate, thoughtful and intelligent. He and his wife traveled the world together.

“One thing I’ve learned about getting old is that you lose your concepts about what is true. You realize you don’t know anything.”

I smiled. I wanted to hear more, so I kept my mouth shut and listened.

Gary rocked the chair slightly and continued, “I was trained as a scientist. I used the scientific method. I’m a show-me kind of guy.”

He looked off for a moment. His speech was frequently filled by brief moments of pregnant pauses during which he’d look up toward the ceiling, ponder and collect his thoughts before he’d reply in an articulate manner.

Unlike the entertaining stimulation of a YouTube video, listening to Gary required some degree of patience on my part. I was willing to give it a try. I determined that listening to Gary was better or at least as good as the best YouTube videos I’ve ever come across. Unlike most online media, at least Gary was willing to be honest with me.

“I can’t prove there’s a God using the scientific method,” he said, looking up and going quiet again for what seemed like an eternity. Finally he mused, “Faith is beyond science.”

Then Gary turned to me and asked, “Is there a God?”

I followed Gary’s lead. I stayed quiet for what seemed like an eternity while Gary waited patiently for my reply.

Then, I said, “I don’t know.”

Gary laughed. Apparently, he thought I was funny.

“Well, I don’t know either,” he offered. “But I try to meditate a little every day,” he said.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn this about Gary. It was the last thing I expected, since my first glance at him had given me the impression that he was a crotchety, old man better left alone. I was glad to learn how wrong I’d been in judging him so superficially.

I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t need to tell him that I too meditated every day. I wanted to learn what he had to say about it first.

“I learned to meditate with a mantra. The mantra is meaningless. It focuses my attention away from the other thoughts, like the argument I had with my wife, that I have to mow the lawn, that I have to go walk the dog,” he said.

I listened. He continued, “I don’t know what happens or what to call it, but sometimes when I meditate, I get to a place where I lose all thoughts.”

Gary had completely sucked me into some kind of vortex. I suddenly felt like I had entered an alternate reality in which Gary was the only thing that existed in the entire universe.

Maybe he was. At that moment, anyway, and only for me.

“I used to be an avid runner,” Gary said. “I ran sixty miles every week. I wouldn’t listen to music. I would listen to my thoughts.”

He looked me straight in the eyes and asked in his deliberate tone, “Do you have a goal when you meditate?”

I gave myself ample time to pause for reflection before I responded that I didn’t think it was helpful to meditate with a goal in mind, because, I said, I’m probably not focused on meditation if I’m busy thinking about a goal.

Gary laughed again. I realized that he really did think I was funny.

Then I realized that I was genuinely enjoying our conversation. It was the first time in weeks that I actually wanted to spend time talking with someone for more than five minutes.

Gary said, “I try to think about what I am about to do before I do something or say something.

“I try to analyze my motivations for what I am about to do before I react. In my experience,” he said, “I find that it helps me avoid saying or doing something hurtful to myself or another person.”

Then, he said, “Am I boring you?”

“Well, yes, maybe a little bit,” I admitted to him.

He laughed. I laughed too. We laughed together.

“I like to talk,” he said.

“I like to listen,” I said.

“I think you would be a good meditation teacher,” I told him. Then I corrected myself and said, “I think you are a good meditation teacher. I’ve learned a lot just by sitting here and listening to you. I think I can honestly say that I love you,” I told him.

He chuckled and his face softened even more. He paused for reflection, looking skyward.

“I don’t know what love is,” he said. “Is it hormonal? I don’t know. I mean, I know I love my wife. I could explain to you why I love her, but if I did, I would only be telling you about character traits and behavior.”

Then Gary shared that he had been divorced twice before. He said that he has learned not to share his opinions all the time, because he’s noticed that opinions usually start arguments.

“I’ve learned to be comfortable with the idea that I don’t know anything,” Gary said.

Later that day, as I reflected on my conversation with Gary, I thought about how most of the time, we humans seem to prefer believing that we know something. Somehow I am supposed to feel more comfortable with the idea that I know how something works or that I’m in control of whatever is going on.

When I went to visit a few old people in a nursing home last year, I noticed that many of the old people had lost control of their bowels. They required regular diaper changes. Yet, most of them still had fully functioning intellectual abilities. They could talk to me while knowing that they smelled like piss, but it didn’t matter because they knew they were going to die soon anyway. A lot of things seem to become unimportant in the face of death. And a lot of things seem to become more important.

I played piano for an old lady at a nursing home where I volunteered last year. I knew that I wasn’t the best piano player, but it didn’t matter, because she knew she was going to die, so she could fully enjoy my company and the fact that I was there, playing the piano, even if I wasn’t all that good at it.

Age seventy seemed to be the theme of the day I met Gary, the old dude in the rocking chair. Later that night, I facilitated a singing circle and African dance class accompanied by live drumming by my friend and neighbor Emmeth Young. We had mostly older people dancing with us. One of the most enthusiastic dancers happened to be a woman who was celebrating her seventieth birthday that very night.

When the staff of the eco-lodge served her a birthday cake, she cried. I don’t know if they were tears of joy or sadness or a little of both. I think she liked the cake.

I think age helps. I think getting old means going through a lot of loss, which I think facilitates acceptance of one’s death.

I think about death every day. I would like to think it helps me be a happier person.

I don’t know.

Radical reform: Why I quit my teaching job in the U.S.

krista-with-monkey-copy

Over the course of my adventurous and unconventional life of self-imposed nonconformity, I’ve been able to discipline myself rather well, at least in terms of my diet and exercise routines. I suppose it’s something I learned from my industrious, multi-talented father, who completed every project he ever started and got up before sunrise every day without an alarm, like clockwork, to read the newspaper and start his workday as a geeky computer engineer.

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I was born into the privilege of hearty New England stock and raised in an upper middle-class Boston suburb where I was given an excellent education, graduating as valedictorian of my high school class and again four years later as valedictorian of my college class. For my krista-and-shawn-copyvaledictory speech, I braided my hair in corn rows, dressed in a traditional African style gown and quoted the transcendentalists, urging my classmates to live a life of nonconformity. Both my parents and my grandmother taught me to not only refine my intellect, but to also be conscientious of my diet and to take good care of my physical body.

My grandmother collected innumerable glossy magazines with color images of slim women eating salads and promoting the latest diet trend. She kept scrupulous recipes of everything she cooked in a categorized file system with notes about nutrition content and caloric intake. Grandma frequently baked oatmeal cookies and bran muffins and brought them to our house when she visited. She’d point out the merits of her specialty baked goods: “I didn’t use much sugar. Too much sugar’s not healthy for you, you know.”

Years later, when she was too old to live by herself, she would move into my parents’ house in Florida and keep up her healthy diet routine. When I visited for what I suspected would be the last time, she said, holding her salad bowl and munching, “See, Jen, I still eat my salad every day.”

“That’s good, Grandma,” I humored her.

She said, “When I went to see the doctor, he told me I must be doing something right. To keep doing whatever I’m doing.” She chuckled.

krista-nmsu-student-copyAs an educator, I assumed that teaching my students about how to keep their bodies healthy with a thoughtful diet should be an integral part of their education. Luckily, as an educator in a private school, I was granted enough freedom by a relatively progressive administration to start a small organic garden in large plastic tubs I obtained from a farmer friend who donated the materials to help me get started.

In the classroom I would share a little something from my own snack bag, like raisins or trail mix or fresh fruit. Apparently I had this freedom before the time when kids were stricken with rampant nut allergies. I attempted to make a positive influence on my students’ lives in the same way my parents and grandmother had on mine. Sharing healthy food and commenting about healthy diets.

In the U.S., I had established over ten years of a successful career in special education as a consultant in public and private schools; in addition to earning certification and practicing professionally as a Licensed Massage Therapist and yoga teacher. I earned a Master of Arts in Education and gained a wide range of experience working with children and adults who were diagnosed with developmental and learning disabilities. I enjoyed working in the field of education, but I felt deep dissatisfaction with what I deemed to be a restrictive, top-down model that limited my creativity and freedom to design my own curriculum.

I became disillusioned with the public school system in the U.S. and envisioned an innovative approach that involved outdoor, experiential education on an organic farm. I published two books that instantly became bestsellers in “Experimental Methods in Education”—a good sign that I have the support of people I’ve never met but, nonetheless, they must share my radical ideas about education.

Absenteeism due to sickness—a cold, sore throat, flu, stomach issues—was all-too-common over the course of my years as a schoolteacher. It seemed to worsen as the years went by. I noticed the same ill fate of my colleagues, who seemed to suffer from carrying too much weight, lethargy, fatigue and general malaise. It appeared to me that physical sickness and the concomitant complaints about said sickness were part of the everyday fabric of the school day, an obvious problem that was rarely addressed in ways that would make a significant difference.

When I proposed to the director that we start every day with physical fitness that included exercises, breathing and maybe a few minutes of silent meditation, I was given a cordial smile, told thank you, yes, but we already have PE, and besides there are more important things to talk about at the beginning of the school day. Morning meeting consisted of boring talks where the kids sat in a huge group, fidgeting and listening reluctantly to two men, the director and assistant principal, set the tone for the day by reinforcing the rules and generally reminding everyone who was in charge. And, oh, by the way, your tiny physical body in need of movement can wait till after lunch to move around in any satisfactory way. Until then, stay still and listen to the boring lecture.

If I had been in charge of the school, things would have been a lot different. A lot of things. But the differences I wanted to see were forced into under-valued, under-paid, after-school offerings to a small percentage of the student body who were corralled into taking my yoga classes because they didn’t want to play other competitive sports. I would have preferred to make yoga a daily part of the school day for both my students and my colleagues.

Years later, teaching full-time as a special educator at a similar private school in California, I would propose similar ideas to an even more progressive administration. But still, there were more important, pressing matters, like stuffing mostly useless information into the kids’ heads.

Never mind the scientific literature indicating that kids’ brains and circadian rhythms are wired in a such a way where academic, rote learning doesn’t come naturally to them until well after mid-morning. The healthiest, most natural thing for young bodies to be doing is what agrarian families in a homesteading situation would do at the start of the day: take care of the animals, work in the fields, shovel dirt and poop, haul heavy things, get dirty…. Yet, in our schools—places where we are supposed to be teaching people basic skills—we seemed to be ignoring the things that mattered most and forcing our kids to be dutiful, unthinking automatons following arbitrary rules that they would prefer not to follow, if my observations were at all accurate. It seemed like the kids were always breaking the rules, anyway. So, why were the adults so determined to enforce rules instead of giving the kids an opportunity to discipline themselves?

In my opinion, self-discipline can only be taught by example. It can’t be forced on anyone. People need to discipline themselves of their own accord. It’s not my job to dumb anyone down with rules and useless information that they will soon forget as soon as the exam is over. But it is my job to take care of myself and be the best person I can be, which might have some kind of positive influence on the people around me.

Parama w students

Although my ideas for radical reform of the education system failed to take root in the country of my birth, I haven’t given up on my ideas, yet. I doubt I ever will.

Parama w guitarists at ComitanI quit my last teaching job at a public school in the U.S. over five years ago, gave up the comforts and conveniences of my privileged lifestyle, and took my innovative ideas with me south of the border to the tiny country of Belize, where I purchased an acre of fertile land and started building an off-grid homestead in the company of like-minded neighbors.

I published a series of books in 2014 that have been on Amazon’s bestseller list in “Experimental Methods in Education” since their publication date, indicating to me that people seem to support my ideas for radical reform of methods in education. You can check out my books here, and if you would like to visit me in Belize and participate in an interactive workshop where we explore these ideas, you can find out more and register for our next workshop here.

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Cotton Tree Lodge in southern Belize

 

Boat Pose: “Whatever floats your boat!”

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Tally ho, yogis and yoginis! Don’t we all love how a good Boat Pose (Navasana) feels from head …. to buttocks … to toes? What’s not to love about Boat Pose? Arr! Come on, let’s get stronger abs!

img_7832Boats have been a significant part of my life for the past five years, since I left the U.S. and moved to Belize, a tropical country just south of Mexico. I can hop on a motorboat and arrive at the northeastern shoreline of Guatemala in 45 minutes, after a pleasurable trip across warm Caribbean waters and occasional sightings of enormous, brown manta rays leaping into the air.

With easy access to ideal conditions for sailing on crystal blue waters, I’ve been invited to be a crew member on many memorable nautical adventures: I’ve driven a 40-foot sailboat up a winding river, swabbed the deck (while sipping piña colada), pulled up anchor (albeit with vociferous complaints about the weight of said anchor), driven a tugboat in tropical waters, and made passionate love on said tugboat….

I savor the freedom of being on an actual boat: the sensation of buoyancy, surveying a clear, expansive horizon of sea; the excitement of dolphin sightings, the rocking of the waves, and the pleasure of a good captain who knows how to expertly handle both the boat and me, the latter of which requires … special skill.

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As one experienced captain pointed out, “When you’re on a boat, your body is always working.” While on boats, I’ve experienced this to be true: The muscles must constantly adjust to the persistent rolling to and fro, back and forth of the boat; especially the abdominal, lower back and leg muscles — which is why every good sailor girl should regularly practice Boat Pose.

Here’s how this butt-balancing posture can benefit you:

  • Strengthens the abdomen, hip flexors, and spine
  • Stimulates the kidneys, thyroid, prostate glands and intestines
  • Relieves stress (now, who doesn’t need that?)
  • Improves digestion

Parama w clay body wrap 2I currently offer daily sunrise yoga classes at Cotton Tree Lodge, an ecolodge nestled deep in the rainforest of southern Belize alongside a magnificent, emerald green river. For centuries, this area has been home to the Mayan people, who live in off grid, thatch roof huts in tiny villages, where nearby ancient Mayan ruins can be explored. This is a remote, isolated area: I imagine there still remain many ruins deep in the jungle that have not yet been discovered.

I’m a spoiled yogini. I can’t imagine going back to teach or practice yoga in a climate-controlled yoga studio enclosed within four walls. Here, I practice yoga outside, surrounded by some of the purest, most pristine nature left in the world.

Suffice it to say that I am blessed to practice and teach yoga in a magical place, beside one of the last remaining rivers on the entire planet that has not been polluted by industrial inputs. Here, the Mayan people live simply and self-sufficiently. I have had the privilege to become friends with the local Mayans, whom I find to be hard-working people with strong will, tremendous patience, endurance and a mischievous sense of humor.

Living in the jungle has a way of teaching you to be patient and to honor the rhythms of nature: Here in the rainforest, nature will take over and kick your ass if you’re not … capable and willing to work in harmony with the land, the fertile soil, the animals, and the lush plant life. Not to mention harmonizing with the spirits who protect the land, but that’s another topic, perhaps worthy of a separate blog entry….

This morning I encouraged and guided my students to courageously hold Boat Pose for five full breaths, intentionally eliciting giggles when I exclaimed, “Whatever floats yer boat!”

For anyone who’s done Boat Pose, you know how it gives your abs a good, steady burn and makes your hip flexors work hard. But it’s so worth it…. You never know when an actual boat will show up in your life, at which time you’ll be better prepared for the adventure after having practiced your Boat Pose.

canoe-floatingThe unexpected arrival of a boat into my life is precisely what transpired after this morning’s yoga class: I was sitting at my desk overlooking the Moho River, when in the corner of my eye I spotted a large floating object that I thought at first must be a log* …. I stood up, got a closer look and realized it was actually a wooden canoe floating upside down, drifting slowly downstream, as if being delivered straight to my door. (Thanks, spirits of the river and the land!)

I dashed outside and called for Mr. Bo, my coworker and foreman at Cotton Tree Lodge. I found him knee-deep in mud beside the river, tending to the motorboat that we use to take guests out on snorkeling adventures — just a half-hour ride down the Moho River to where it meets the Caribbean, where crystal clear waters of offshore island cayes can be explored to your heart’s content. (Yes, I am reminded that I live and practice yoga daily in a veritable paradise. Thank you).

“Mr. Bo!” I said, catching my breath, “There’s a canoe coming our way! Will you help me get it out of the water onto shore?”

mr-bo-martin-lasso-canoeBeing the helpful, cooperative Mayan elder that he is, Mr. Bo immediately jumped to action: He retrieved a long rope, ran to meet the canoe just as it was passing by, waded through the water and lassoed it so that he could haul it up (with help from Martin, a fisherman who happened to be passing by in his own canoe) onto the nearby embankment while I stood by and watched, cheering the boys on.

Again, I’m such a spoiled yogini. I have a whole crew of able-bodied men who do all the dirty work for me. I have to make a concerted effort to go out into “the bush”, as we call the jungle here, put on my boots and sweat while I swing a machete. The Mayan men–and women, for that matter–are much better at manual labor than I’ll probably ever be, though I do at least make the effort to learn basic survival skills.

img_0930When I’m not busy offering therapeutic massage and spa services here at the riverside Wellness Center and Spa at Cotton Tree Lodge, I am building my own off-grid, 16×16 foot thatch roof hut and cultivating a small garden on an acre of fertile land on the outskirts of the closest town. I had been picturing how cool it would be to make a couch out of a dugout canoe and put it in my living room, like the one we have in the main lodge here at the resort.

Well, my wish for a canoe couch came true. Within hours after this morning’s yoga class, the Moho River gifted me my very own handmade dugout canoe … and all it took was me holding Boat Pose for 5 focused, meditative breaths, and –bing!– there was my very own boat!

village-boy-in-cayucoLike all dedicated yoga practitioners, we must sometimes practice the art of “letting go” and “detachment” … Later that afternoon, two village boys paddled their canoe to shore and stopped to inspect mine, now drying out in the sun. I greeted them and asked if the canoe belonged to them.

“Yes,” they said, “We came to get it for our father.”

My heart sank (pun intended). “There goes my canoe couch,” I thought. I practiced deep yogic breaths and resolved in my mind to … let go.

I thought to myself, “If you love it, let it go. If it comes back to you, it’s meant for you.”

This maxim proved to be true for me today. After inspecting the sides and bottom of what I thought was my very own wooden dory, the boys abandoned it and headed back home, telling me that my boat was leaking from too many holes. In the end, it would make a perfect … couch.

village-boys-inspect-cayuco“Why do you want this dory?” Mr. Bo asked me. “It’s no good. You can’t use it for anything” (an astute observation from a self-sufficient, practical man of the jungle).

“I want you to deliver it in your truck to my house!” I replied. “It will make a great bench!”

My friend and coworker Mr. Jose Bo, a well-respected, lifelong resident of nearby San Felipe village, laughed at my proposed idea of turning the now useless canoe into anything other than a vehicle for doing work.

Then, he launched into what I thought was an interesting story, which I was careful to catch (again, puns intended)….

“I used to haul 200 bags of rice in my dory down the Moho River from the village of Boom Creek all the way to Punta Gorda town three times a week to sell rice at the market,” he told me.

“Each bag of rice weighed 100 pounds.”

Wow, that’s one sturdy dugout canoe!

I was impressed and interested in Mr. Bo’s story, so I asked him to tell me more (keeping his native Kekchi Maya dialect intact in his quotes)….

“I learned to be a dory maker when I was 20 years old. The full story, I make 40 feet in length and 4 feet wide. It took me one month to carve the dory with five guys to help me.”

Skilled at the art of canoe-making, Mr. Bo has taught his five sons how to make their own canoes from the logs of local hardwood trees (namely, Santa Maria and emery).

“It was my belief that if I could somehow pass this skill to the younger generation, they could also practice dory making.”

“Today, it is a tradition of Maya transportation for farmers to cross the rivers to work on their farms. We still use dories to haul materials from the jungle that we use to build our houses.”

Now, that’s what I call sustainable living with a minimal carbon footprint.

[A side note: We have a lot to learn from the indigenous people, if we privileged elites can get over our hubris long enough to let them teach us, instead of the other way around.]

The nearest town of Punta Gorda used to be a tiny, remote fishing village accessible only by a dirt road, until a highway was built within the past two decades. Three days a week, Punta Gorda hosts a bustling market where local farmers can sell fresh food grown and harvested from their own land; including rice, corn, beans, and plantains, as well as a plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Before there was a dirt road connecting the surrounding villages to the marketplace in Punta Gorda, farmers like Mr. Bo traveled via dugout canoes via the Moho River and Caribbean Sea.

The market, which is still active to this day in Punta Gorda town, was one of the most compelling reasons why my used-to-be-husband and I chose to buy an acre of land and settle here 5 years ago, until he left me to revert back to a more civilized living arrangement (that’s another story).

Years later, I’m still thriving as a single woman, living as frugally and simply as possible, paying skilled workers like Mr. Bo to help me build my off-grid homestead and plant cash crops like coconut, cacao, and bananas. One day, I might be selling my organic produce in the local Punta Gorda market. I’ve gone from a successful, lucrative career in the U.S. to a much simpler, more enjoyable life in a third world country where I can own land and grow my own food: the culmination of my dream to be self-sufficient and walk lightly upon the earth. Living my yoga.

Mr. Bo continued to share more details about the art of canoe-making: “We used many different tools to build our dories: axe, adge and drill bit.

“The adge is used to fall the tree. The drill is used to maintain the thickness of the dory. You have to drill the dory carefully so it keeps the same thickness all around.”

“Do you still grow rice in Santa Ana village?” I asked Mr. Bo.

“Oh, yes, I’m still a rice farmer, along with many other villagers” he said. He paused to think about the details, then continued, “Land clearing starts in the month of February. That is slash and burn. The planting time is May 15th before the rain, and then the rice will be harvested in the month of September.

“We have to flog the rice and then bag it. You have to make sure it’s not too moist so you can get a good price.”

I asked him, “Do you notice climate changes in recent years? How is that affecting your rice yields?”

“Oh, yes,” he replied. “The climate changes are causing us to get a high yield sometimes and sometimes a low yield. There is a time when we get hurricane or flooding. It damages the crops. This year, we are getting a lot more rain than last year. A lot. It is flooding the crops. That will make us get less grain this year.”

For now, the Moho River area is virtually untouched and unadulterated by the impact of human civilization. Maybe I can help keep things in balance by practicing my butt-balancing Boat Pose regularly beside the river, deeply meditating on gratitude for the life I’ve been given. After all, if we can’t stop runaway climate change, as the science indicates, then at least we can practice yoga postures to get stronger abs and to stay calm, which makes for better, longer-lasting lovemaking and resilience in general.

Don’t miss the boat: Live fully! Laugh often! Love all of it (even the ab burn). After all, love makes life worth living.

I’m in love and always will be….

Thanks to Boat Pose and other core body strengthening yoga postures, I will surrender and go down (peacefully) with this ship.

*For readers who care (hey, thanks for reading!): There is both legal and illegal logging going on regularly in the Moho River area, for which the local Mayan people lament. When I brought up the topic of nearby logging in the jungle to my friend Mr. Jose Bo, a well-respected, lifelong resident of nearby San Felipe village, he commented, “Oh, we are so sad about that going on. It’s too much. They are cutting down all the old trees — the trees that our kids will need to build their houses. Soon there will be none left.” (Now, this is another topic, about which I probably won’t get the chance to write a blog entry. I don’t want to rock the boat too much).

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Parama K. Williams is a published author with a Master of Arts in Education and fifteen years of international experience as a U.S. Licensed, Certified Massage Therapist and Yoga Teacher. Five years ago, she left her career in the U.S. to purchase an acre of fertile land in Belize, Central America, where she currently lives in an off grid, thatch roof hut. She offers yoga classes, therapeutic massage and retreats internationally.

Check out her latest published books here.

Join Parama on the next wellness retreat (March 11th, 2017) with live drumming, yoga and dance on a white sand beach overlooking the Caribbean Sea in tropical Belize!

 

Scorpion Pose: The “don’t fuck with me” yoga pose

img_4060Since I live in the tropical jungle of Belize, Central America in the company of many men and scorpions of various colors and sizes, I remember to include the “Scorpion Pose” in my yoga practice.

Scorpion Pose is the master “don’t fuck with me” pose: It has a distinct quality of self-empowerment and focused intention that reminds me to assume an intimidating, protective posture when necessary, as it often is in life (off the mat), especially here in the jungle…

Don’t mess with me, or I’ll strike back. So don’t even think about trying to knock me off my center. Even when I’m upside down, I hold myself strongly, firmly and closely to the earth, stable, and I will rise above anyone and anything that would try to take away my life force.

Fortunately, in my five years living in the tropics, I’ve never been stung by a scorpion or killed by a large feline like the spotted jaguar, though I do come across live scorpions on an almost daily basis. I hear from my friends that being stung is a painful experience, as I would expect, for such a gruesome looking creature.

scorpionOne morning, I woke up to find a large, black scorpion in my bed inches from my nose. I know I’m not like most girls because I didn’t emit an ear-piercing scream like I would expect most girls to do. Instead, I did the practical thing: I swiftly killed the scorpion, before it could sting me. The common household method for dealing with such situations is to grab a nearby machete (long sword-like knife carried around by farmers like me), slice off the end of its tail, and squash the now defenseless creature beneath your shoe. I’ve done this countless times, fortunately, without feeling the sting.

Luckily for me, I’ve also managed to assume the Scorpion Pose countless times. I hope I can continue to practice this pose for many years, as I hear it has anti-aging benefits. Maybe if I practice it enough, I’ll become immortal. And then nobody can ever fuck with me ever, ever again: The power and proof of a good, solid yoga practice.

Vrishchikasana (Sanskrit for “Scorpion Pose”) is an inverted pose and an advanced yoga asana that should only be practiced after mastering the classic headstand (Sirsasana) — which could take years — but it’s never too late to start. In the final position, Vrischikasana resembles the scorpion with its tail lifted upwards, ready to strike.

Vrishchikasana gives all the benefits of the inverted asanas like Sirsasana. It reverses the effect of gravity on the body:

  • Increases the flow of blood to the head and brain
  • Nourishes the pituitary glands and improves the health of all the endocrine glands
  • Alleviates piles and varicose veins
  • Tones the reproductive organs
  • Stretches and loosens the muscles of the back and spine
  • Strengthens the arms
  • Sends out a telepathic message to the world: “Don’t fuck with me” (which is good for yoga girls in the jungle)

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Parama K. Williams is a published author with a Master of Arts in Education and fifteen years of international experience as a U.S. Licensed, Certified Massage Therapist and Yoga Teacher. Five years ago, she left her career in the U.S. to purchase an acre of fertile land in Belize, Central America, where she currently lives in an off grid, thatch roof hut. She offers yoga classes, therapeutic massage and retreats internationally.

Check out her latest published books here.

Join Parama on the next wellness retreat (March 11th, 2017) on a white sand beach overlooking the Caribbean Sea in tropical Belize!