The whole of my being is humming with gratitude and joy. The weather has shifted, and the heat is milder, kinder for pedestrian travel.
Rounding the corner on a block where I do not normally walk, I pass three houses when a toddler steps out from behind a parked vehicle in one of the driveways, arms waving wildly as I pass. This is a holy gesture, a blessing of the highest order. I want to bow to him in a formal and dramatic fashion—in honor of the Rumi* story I know—but we sparkling souls settle for reciprocal wave of joyous enthusiasm over the gift of this day.
*On his way to work, the great Persian poet and mystic, Jalal ad-Din Rumi, is said to have bowed to each young child he met on his path. One day, after Rumi had already conferred the blessing—a simple bow—of acknowledgement to each child in his sight, a young boy was seen running across a neighboring field. The boy’s arms waved wildly, while he shouted, asking the Master to wait. The boy did not want Rumi to pass without receiving the gift of his blessing.
Kneeling next to a large recliner with her hand resting gently on the chair’s arm, “Nancy” (not the individual’s real name) invites a cardiac patient in respiratory distress to change his breathing pattern. The house is a familiar call. Two additional Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT’s) are on Nancy’s heels setting up the equipment to deliver the required medical treatment.
During one of my CPR trainings, I learn about Nancy and her unusually calm demeanor from one of the instructors who also teaches EMT certification courses. As an EMT certifier, the instructor is required to complete several active-duty EMT shifts annually, which is how he has come to know and work with Nancy. If she is on duty, Nancy is the preferred first responder in situations where respiratory distress is involved. Her “uncanny ability” assists other EMT’s by granting them valuable time for the set up of critical-care equipment. As a professional meditation and yoga instructor, listening to what is described as Nancy’s almost “magical effect” in such circumstances, I note that Nancy is employing the use of a technique known as entrainment.
Entrainment is what happens when an individual gives up his or her own independent breathing pattern or rhythm, for a time, to accept the breathing pattern or rhythm of another individual or group. Entrainment is a formal pedagogical tool in some spiritual traditions. It is used primarily to ready an individual or group for receipt of a teaching, to grant an aspirant the opportunity to stand in another’s shoes, thereby, assisting in the teaching of compassion. Or, it may be employed to share experiences of certain emotional states (joy, freedom, calmness) or states of consciousness (forgiveness, surrender, unconditional love).
The most critical component behind the employment of entrainment is a sincere desire on the part of the lead breather, if you will, to serve selflessly.
“I do not know how you feel about dreams and dreaming, but I have been having a reoccurring dream about you,” the sentence comes out with explosive apprehension. “Sometimes I see things—in real time or in dreams—and, I feel an ethical obligation to pass them along, unless there is an observable, radical shift in behavior.”
Deciding not to wait for feedback, I proceed, “In the dream, I keep seeing you in this space, splayed out on the floor. You have died of a heart attack. My sense is that you need to slow down professionally—to make some changes in the number of work duties that you are committed to. That is all that I have to relate.”
Flipping through a tabloid glossy, to keep up with some of the new faces, names and films, I come across a section specifically devoted to what “the stars” are buying: $4,800 handbag; $1,200 shoes; $3,600 coat; $2,700 wrist bling; etc.
I thought, “Wouldn’t it be grand if there were a program so that each time a purchase by a Hollywood personality was made a matching donation could go to a charity or foundation that digs fresh-water wells in Africa; works to end food scarcity for children in the United States; ensures the purity of existing water supplies in India; educates new parents on effective methods of raising children without abuse?” Wouldn’t it be grand?
“Why did you leave the weekend program early?” The question is posed to me over the phone on a Sunday evening by one of the program’s key organizers.
“This morning, I reached a point in the teachings where I had been given what I needed to continue my own work. I left early to apply
those principles,” I answer trying not to express my surprise about the late-evening call.
“The teacher was concerned about what might have happened to you. He felt that a connection was made over dinner last night. Your departure prior to the closing session was confusing. It seemed abrupt.”
“Please reassure him that everything is fine. I am fine. The light bulb came on during the morning session, so I went home to apply what had been presented. Thank you for checking in with me. Give him my regards.”
I hung up the phone thinking, “How odd to actually have someone call me at home.”
Years prior, when I was functioning in the role of a teacher, working as a paid intern in a secondary school, there was a particularly difficult traditional piece of literature which was part of the curriculum. With so many new and amazing voices available in modern, global literature, I felt the crunch and crush of the classics taking the wind out of my students’ sails. To accommodate for the rigidity of the traditional reading, I decided to make the choice of projects about the reading as broad and inclusive as possible. Think paper-machéd theatre masks, live musical presentations, silk-screened t-shirts, Greek food dishes and one-act, in-room dramas.
What had been one of the most reputedly dreaded of academic uglies, in terms of assigned readings, blossomed into an amazing, impromptu project fair. Students were able to choose how best to express their comprehension of the material in a manner closest to their individual skill sets and expressive hearts.
Walking through the halls with my mentoring faculty member near the week’s end, I observe, “The amount of pride I feel about the projects coming out of this assignment is absurd. I did not personally create any of these things. These students are not my children. This pride or ownership is embarrassing really—hubristic.”
Thoughtfully my mentor answers, “Yes, but you created the environment—the assignment parameters—allowing these kids to shine. Some of them have never experienced this level of creative freedom before, especially in a classroom setting with a traditional reading.”
“Nonetheless,” I ruminate, “there is something discomforting about the degree of emotional involvement I am experiencing.”
Whatever role we are playing—the person on the seat of the two-wheeled bike learning how to ride or the person hanging on to the back of the seat assisting with the mastery of balance—there comes a time to let go.
It is day two of my trip home on the Greyhound bus, crossing expansive landscapes of many states and artificial boundaries that comprise part of the United States. We sway and move to the inaudible music of the road passing beneath us, together for purposes of travel, while trying hard to remain apart out of respect for each others’ sense of space.
Sometimes there is conversation—sometimes not. Many passengers have spent days on the bus, traveling to see family and friends. Frequent breaks for passenger pick-up and drop-off, the humane stretching of our legs and the respectful nod toward nature seem to serve mostly as cigarette breaks for the majority of passengers.
At one stop, watching most every man and woman file off the bus for a ten-minute cigarette break, I am virtually alone when I hear this giant of a man in the seat kitty-corner and behind me exclaim with amazement into the empty air, “You’re all a bunch of smokin’ b*tches.”
I smile at the forthrightness of the observation and turn to give him a quiet nod of affirmation. My compatriot is as big and black, younger than myself, with jet-black lashes that are so thick, long and curly they look artificial. He could be a line-backer.
At one stop, where we have enough time to purchase something to eat, I note my non-smoking, line-backer friend has picked up a salad for dinner. Turning to him, I comment on the obvious, “It is really hard to eat healthy foods on these trips.”
He nods as an over-sized, plastic-fork-full of salad travels the distance to his mouth. I wonder how he keeps his frame going on iceberg lettuce, bits of shredded carrot, a few slices of cucumber and three anemic cherry tomatoes. He and I do not appear to have anything in common, except that we both do not smoke and seem to favor healthier foods.
“Eavesdropping” on a conversation between two wiry, retired veterans—one white and one black—both hard-of-hearing and diabetic, I learn that one of the men is traveling across country, back to the east coast after a visit to Vegas. This means days on the bus. After the conversation finishes and one veteran gets off at the next stop, I plop down beside the remaining vet. He draws a curtain of privacy around himself by plugging in his ear-buds and listening to tunes. With the shift in seats, I can hear a melody seeping from around his ear-buds, so I decide to do the audacious thing and ask about his music.
“What are you listening to?” I pipe up.
Pulling one ear-bud from my side of his head, he turns to introduce himself, “My name is Martin,” while extending his hand. “‘Part-time Lover’—you know that song?”
Taking his hand in my own, we shake. “My name is Julian. Just like a guy’s name. Can you call up anything by The Gap Band?”
“The Gap Band, you like them?” Martin asks, expressing a subtle level of surprise.
“Yeah…something with a heavier beat. I am not a huge fan of late, Stevie-Wonder songs,” I confess. My truth is out.
At this point, my line-backer friend starts the call and response, “You like The Gap Band?”
Martin finishes scrolling through his options, “Okay. Here it goes.”
We listen quietly (Greyhound rules), “You dropped a bomb on me, baby. You dropped a bomb on me…”— as an extended three-some. More conversational popcorn happens. And, at some point, I am asked about what I do.
“I am a writer.”
“Hey, me too,” my line-backer friend responds. “I have two books coming out.”
It is then that I understand why the economic disparity in wages and in living conditions remains intact and largely unchallenged in the United States. We are a bunch of madcap gamblers. The majority of Americans and United States émigrés still hold a fundamental belief and trust in the ability of an individual to better his or her personal lot, through skill, creativity, luck, originality, invention, investment, avarice, altruism, parsimony or some combination thereof.
Whether we call ourselves writers, musicians, politicians, do-gooders, investors, bankers, hard workers or adventurers, we live in a nation of risk-takers. My sense is that the majority of Americans would rather play and pay for a high-stakes, all-out win than go through the process of changing our economic system. In accepting this condition, we fail to assist those who may never possess a winning scratch card, and we lose the opportunity to devise a more equitable way of compensating people for the hours they work. We are, as my fellow writing peer might say, a bunch of gamblin’ b*tches.
“Is that a permanent tattoo I see on your leg?” I approach one of my newer yoga students who is lying flat on her back with her legs straight up the wall. Her pant legs are hovering just above (or below—because of the inversion) her knees.
“Yes, it was my birthday gift to myself when I turned sixty. I am thinking about getting another one for my sixty-fifth birthday,” she responds reflectively.
At this point the class becomes involved.
“What is it?” I hear another student pipe up. Voices begin floating and drifting as if from the very floor. Everyone is in the same reclining posture.
“It is a huge pattern—beautiful and fully pigmented—in the shape of a long lozenge,” I report; then, cue, “Pull your toes toward your knees. Push through your heels. Enjoy the stretch on the backs of the calves. Have some fun with this. Alternate between pushing through your heels and your extended toes. And, then, alternate what your feet are doing as well.”
“Mmmmm. This feels good. Just what I needed,” another student intones, “What possessed you to get a tattoo?”
“It’s my body. I wanted to celebrate turning seventy. My conservative children think it is awful—that I am awful—a terrible influence on my grandchildren. In fact, I have to keep it covered when I go to visit my daughter, which is rather difficult in southern California with the beach and pool and all. I would do it again though. ” A mischievous smile breaks through her intonation.
I take the break in the conversation to remind everyone, “Coming back to the breath, exhale to a count of seven. Inhale for a count of seven, then hold the lungs comfortably full for one count. “
Settling into a culture and among a “demographic” both of which are completely new to me and my husband, I decide to enroll in a short, eight-week budgeting course hosted in a local church a few blocks away. Hoping to learn about the people of the region and local economic circumstances, I figure it may be a real boon if the course also serves to uncover a way in which we might further economize. Our relocation in 2010 came on the heels of the economic recession and both of us come from families that value frugality and modest living.
The budgeting class is telling—shocking really. I learn that poverty is a way of life for the majority of people of this region. I also learn that there are families going without regular food in order to afford cellphone coverage and internet services. Some employers—especially if a class participant has a slightly higher paying organizational or clerical job which involves company communications—are requiring their employees to purchase and maintain phone accounts and internet services so that employers have 24/7 access to employees via telephone, voice mail, texting and email.
“What are they thinking?” I walk through the door of our house addressing my husband. “How are these people supposed to budget when there is nothing extra at a minimum-wage position? And, if the pay is slightly higher, what I am hearing is that any possible “extra” income is immediately taken up by an employer’s requirement to have the employee purchase technology, rendering the employee accessible at all times and via as many communication methods as possible. What happened to the forty-hour work week?”
Over the next eight weeks, it becomes apparent that the budgeting course’s materials are outdated. Wages are assumed too high, rents too low and the cost of food in the exercises has not kept pace with current prices—then factor in the issue of needing to be technologically up-to-date—and the economic picture presented in the class does not match a family’s current economic reality at all.
The exercises, instructional in a pedagogical sense (we should all practice our math regularly), are not reflective of people’s present circumstances. When asking the program coordinator about updating the curriculum and its materials, I am informed that there is not enough money in the budget to make that change.
The course is taught at locations throughout the community. I am further informed that the course was originally created because some members of the community saw a need “to help those who are economically disadvantaged or less fortunate learn how to handle their money properly.” I receive this information as a quiet aside because my speech patterns define me as someone “other” than a typical attendee.
In American culture, I bump up against this conceit with amazing frequency: Poor people are poor because they don’t know how to manage their money. True in some cases? Yes. True in most cases? No.
“What money?” the question comes flying out of my mouth as I walk through the door of our home after class one night. I find the statement about teaching the economically underprivileged of this community how to manage their money especially ironic when I run across the program coordinator’s annual salary while looking for part-time positions online. Unless there is something in the program coordinator’s past, about which I do not know, I wonder what an individual earning almost five times more annually than the course’s target audience could possibly offer to the people in these classes—to those living at or below the poverty level in real time?
Though the program coordinator may hold the belief that she is there to help the under-educated and the economically disadvantaged (the program does help some people uncover unwise spending habits), she is really there to collect a hefty paycheck, grow her own 401K, enjoy health benefits, manage her own money properly and feel good about working her I-serve-the-poor job.
This is a field report about earnestly striving human beings, who may be poor or homeless or under-educated and next to whom I have learned and sat. After basic expenses are paid and technology requirements are covered, there is little to no opportunity to get ahead because there simply is not enough income or money left over to save, invest or otherwise be managed. There is no extra. And, we would all like to be able to manage our own money—to receive a viable paycheck—or at the very least an adequate one. We would all like to afford a place to call our own–to participate in The American Dream.
“Dude, I can help you with that,” one man is leaning over another seated man filling out an online registration form for homeless services at one of the public library’s computers.
At the adjacent computer terminal, I drop into a chair to check email. My skin is prickly from the long, hot walk to the library, and I am looking like a boiled lobster while trying hard not to overhear the conversation next to me.
“I got it bro,” the response comes. “But, thanks for the help. Hey, man, you know about this place?” the seated man asks gesturing to the screen.
“Yeah, they got a ten-o’clock curfew. That’s alright. What I don’t like is the showers and beds and sh*t. They’s all communal. I ‘m real clean. I can hardly stand to shower there, let alone sleep. I got to get me a job, so I can have my own place—my own shower. You hear me? Family sent me ahead, ya see?” (There is a formal recounting of all of the immediate and extended family members relying on this man’s ability to find and retain employment.)
“Yeah, yeah. I hear, ya. Who’d ya say was hiring?”
“There’s that warehouse. They’s taking applications. Do you need me to help you with that? I can help you. I got me a bar of soap and found a stream.
Cleaner washing in that stream than some of those places. I know they [the local Christian charities] mean well—but germs, man, I’m really funny ’bout germs. Family is counting on me. You see what I’m sayin’ bro?”
“Yeah. I got it,” the seated man replies. “Thank you, though.”
“I’ll catch you later.” The other man moves away, returning to perch on one of the library’s high stools facing the windows looking out onto the pedestrian traffic on the street.
Exhaling, I finish my computer session, grateful for the home I have. Gathering my things together, I exit the building to breathe the hot, heavy air and begin my walk home. I consider how alone the man with the extended family must feel, I hope Grace keeps him safe.
Sampling ethnic cuisine new to me, I am a third of the way through my plate when I realize it would be an act of kindness to share my exotic food with my husband who is dog-sitting at home.
Conversation circles about my head as I eat my meal among a large group of new acquaintances. Only half-attentive to the conversation, I begin thoughtfully dividing the food items in front of me, finishing only what my body requires while saving the rest.
Still fairly new to this community, my husband and I discovered that, according to local perceptions, we live on the “wrong” side of town. The first time this observation was made for us, we had only been in our house a few days when a visiting plumber diplomatically asked us whether or not we were sure we had found the right place to live, further hinting that we might find our community on the south side of town.
There is, apparently, no hiding our differences in speech patterns and vocabulary when compared to the local folks in our neighborhood. Nonetheless, for me, and for us, the wrong side of town has proven to be exactly right.
In our neighborhood, we have a large, fenced-in backyard surrounded by natural lawns, a real plus when you enjoy the company of dogs and organic gardening . I personally prefer to walk or ride my bicycle whenever I can; thus, we are in the best quadrant of the city for both lighter traffic and convenience with regards to amenities. Having learned to prefer international neighbors, our neighborhood, in its initial configuration, was reminiscent of the positive experiences we had in graduate-school housing, living among people of different cultures. My husband loves picking up snippets of foreign languages. He shouts good day in Romanian to our gardening neighbor to the east of our yard, who brought us mounds of fresh produce and eggs our first two summers. And, we receive a Southeast-Asian type of squash from our Cambodian neighbors.
My dining companions live on the right side of town, having ventured out tonight to explore new things. And, although my dinner companions are technically parallel in many ways to some of our socioeconomic considerations, I feel strangely out of place here—hemmed in.
The meal progresses to its logical conclusion. Unfinished plates of food are pushed away for the server to pick up and dispose of. A clip of John Lennon’s lyrics floats through my head, “They’re starving back in China, so finish what you’ve got,” which echoes my birth family’s love of economy and reverence for food, where waste is considered inexcusable.
A few members from the party ask for take-home containers. The server brings pressed-paper boxes to our table. This restaurant, more conscientious than most, has made an effort to stock sustainable take-home containers. Assessing my own food gift, I realize I could easily pack everything in the extra-large, unsullied napkin on my lap. “Why waste the life of another tree?” I reason.
The neatly wrapped parcel slides into my handbag. I catch a few looks going around the table—or not. Looks or not, what I can tell you is this, you misread me. I am not disadvantaged or excessively parsimonious; I like to share—most especially precious food. And, I believe consciously caring for the earth is socially appropriate. Consider it. Imagine.