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Another great fortune. October 8, 2014

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Last night, we had Chinese/Japanese/Thai takeout for supper. (Thanks to the miraculous rise of Pan-Asian restaurants.)This included two fortune cookies (much appreciated by our black German shepherd, Shiloh). I’ve never understood why anyone would want to eat a fortune cookie (Shiloh excepted), but I’ve always been fascinated by them.

When I was a child, fortune cookies told fortunes: You will be this, you will do that, this will happen to you. But for many years now, they have contained maxims, proverbs, truisms, rather than telling fortunes. An example is my all-time favorite, “There’s more to balance than not falling over.”

I still miss the good old days of “You will win the lottery this week” or “A handsome prince is heading your way” or “Stay inside on the next full moon.” And I still wonder why it seems like all fortune cookies suddenly changed to maxim cookies. (Market research?) I’ll admit, however, that for those of us on the Reiki path, these latter-day cookies occasionally turn up hidden gems that can prod us to think and act in new ways.

Last night, my fortune was “There is no one so rich that they don’t need help or so poor that they cannot help.” What a wonderful point! And it was really timely, too. I’d been sitting here staring at a stack of bills thinking “Yeesh,” and feeling demoralized because it seemed like everyone I knew was traveling, going on cruises to fabulous places, while I was sitting here moping. Then I got an e-mail from my undergraduate school asking me to donate money to help endow a fund to send students to France!

I would love to go to France, to Normandy, my ancestral home (ca. 1066), to the Loire River Valley, to Provence (so I can pretend to be one of my heroes, Julia Child), to Chartres, to Paris and the Louvre. But I could never afford such a trip. And here’s my school asking me for money!

“There is no one so rich that they don’t need help.” Blessed Mother Teresa said that the greatest poverty she had ever encountered was not in the gutters of Calcutta but in the arid, isolated emotional lives of the well-to-do in America and other first-world countries. As Pope Francis puts it, “The great threat in today’s world is the loneliness of hearts oppressed by greed.” Clearly, these people desperately need help getting back in touch with other people, with animals, with nature. Think of the people who run companies of horror like Monsanto: Could they really poison the world if they were in touch with it? Could the monsters who pay people pennies to work in mines and sweat-labor factories that fall in on them and kill them do such a thing if they were connected to other people?

“There is no one…so poor that they cannot help.” I found this part of the fortune especially affecting. It made me think again about the e-mail from my school asking for money. The fund was going to be named in honor of one of my own French teachers, Scott Bates, who has apparently now died. I remember Professor Bates for his kindness and for how much he loved that I wrote poems in French. Now I feel sorry that I didn’t send him some of the English translations of French poems I did in grad school; I think he’d have been far more impressed by those. I can’t give the school money; I don’t have any. But I’d like to honor Professor Bates in some way. Maybe I’ll write a poem, or translate one, and send it to the French Department in his honor. Maybe they’ll find a way to use it that will “help.”

There is no one so rich that they don’t need help or so poor that they cannot help. Offering a free Reiki session to an ailing neighbor, or offering to get groceries for elderly neighbors, or spending a few extra moments with your dog or cat or adopting a dog or cat or bunny from a shelter, volunteering at a soup kitchen, suggesting that your Reiki share end with sending Reiki to the world: All of these cost nothing, yet they give so much. And recognizing that we all need help, we all need connection, we’re all interdependent, and that this is the mortal condition, not some sign of weakness or failure, will set all of us free.

Just for today, offer help and take it.

Walking with God. September 15, 2014

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“Whoever approaches Me walking, I will come to him running.”

—Mishkat Al-Masabih

“The Lord always forgives us and walks at our side. We have to let him do that.”

—Pope Francis, @Pontifex

The concept of God is so variable, from a vengeful old man taking personal revenge on everyone in sight to the serene Self within that is seamlessly connected to the All, to All That Is, through the experience of enlightenment, satori, anshin ritsumei. Nature worship, the realm of the shamans and medicine men and vision quests of the indigenous people of so many countries, is another way of connecting to the All.

It fascinates me that these two quotes, divided by centuries and cultures, both depict God walking with us. “Whoever approaches Me walking, I will come to him running.” What an image! “The Lord always…walks at our side. We have to let him do that.” What a concept! In both images, we are first of all walking. We aren’t just sitting there texting on our smartphones or watching an episode of “Orange Is the New Black.” We are walking towards the Lord, or we are allowing the Lord to walk by our side.

Even if we’re speaking of the Lord within, we had better get moving. Walking Zen, walking (even virtually) with Thich Nhat Hahn, a brisk walk as recommended by Sri Eknath Easwaran to clear negative emotions and tone the body, walking meditation, walking in general, all are wonderful for body and soul. Those of us on the Reiki path might repeat (silently or aloud) one of Usui Founder’s Five Reiki Principles (aka Precepts, Ideals) as we walk, in synchrony with our breath. Who knows? We might see God running towards us, or walking by our side.

Just for today, start walking.

(Don’t) buy, buy, buy. September 9, 2014

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“It is not only corporations who carry the responsibility for pollution. Insofar as we tell them, ‘Produce all you want! We’ll buy whatever you make’, the rest of us are responsible too.”

—Sri Eknath Easwaran, Words to Live By

“If you hoard material possessions, they will rob you of your soul.”

—Pope Francis, @Pontifex

I assume that most of us who can read (or write) this blog aren’t living in a tin shack with seven other people, or sleeping under some plastic trash bags and cardboard and going to the bathroom on the sidewalk, or forced to flee to a refugee camp and wonder how we’ll feed our children, to say nothing of ourselves. Instead, many of us have the opposite problem: too much disposable income and too much disposable time to spend it.

Shopping as entertainment has become so commonplace it’s taken for granted across all age groups, from teens hanging out at the mall or video games arcade to bored corporate types hitting the upscale stores after work, hoping to find a deal on something to impress their coworkers. It’s such a sad comment on our society when a celebrity wears a multi-thousand-dollar couture dress a second time and every press release covers that. And of course, every season has its trendy colors and styles, and every site you visit is filled with pop-up ads begging you to buy this, buy that, whether you need it or not, so that before you know it, you’re rushing off to buy that leopard-print maxidress and margarita-green purse and earth-toned eye makeup because, hey! Isn’t everyone wearing them?

I’m certainly guilty of this, too. Now that everyone says Windows XP isn’t safe for financial transactions anymore, and it’s still my operating system, I no longer buy anything online, which certainly limits my purchasing power. And since my car and most of my clothes date back decades and were bought used to begin with, that’s not an issue. But take me out someplace that carries things I love—books, rocks and fossils, incense, antiques, a farmers’ market or specialty grocery—and it’s certain that I’ll emerge with something, just because I can’t resist that exotic spice blend or luscious cheese or beautiful crystal or stack of books and magazines. Do I need them? No. Do I love them? Yes.

Sri Eknath says that our mindless purchasing pollutes the world, since as long as we keep buying, manufacturers will keep producing, and advertisers will keep teasing what they produce. (“20% off everything in our store, for today only!” “Buy one, get two free!” “Lowest prices of the year!” “Dr. Oz says eating this will make you look 40 years younger!”)

But, horrific as pollution is, Pope Francis says something even worse: That mindless shopping, accumulating “stuff” just to entertain ourselves, will rob us of our souls. Those of us who follow the Reiki Way can’t afford to lose our souls, to possessions or anything else. That $2 bag of sand dollars at the thrift store might seem harmless enough (it did to me)—a steal!!!—but if you already have baskets of shells all over your home (as I do), maybe it’s time to give them to some children instead of hoarding them yourself. (I did.)

Better to do that, better to give that $5 you were planning to spend at Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts, or the $160 for a stadium ticket to a sports event, or the money you were planning to spend on a BOGO shoe sale when your closet’s already bursting with shoes, to one of those homeless people huddled under the trash bags and cardboard. Better to do that than to lose your soul. And maybe you’ll help combat pollution, too.

Just for today, don’t buy what you don’t need.

The surffering which doesn’t affect us. September 6, 2014

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“We run the risk of forgetting the suffering which doesn’t affect us.”
—Pope Francis, @Pontifex

“One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.”
—Josef Stalin

Maybe your news feed is better than mine, but if it isn’t, what’s been dominating the headlines so far this week is that nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities have been hacked from their smartphones; that Hello Kitty is supposed to be a girl, not a cat (shock! shock!!!); that a cat who became an internet celebrity because of her “sad” eyes has been adopted; that one of the 3,000 members of the disgraceful Duggar family is looking forward to her first kiss; and that Joan Rivers has died. As always, there’s a whole lot of sports news, too, not to mention spoilers about upcoming TV series. Oh, and which celebrities have the worst hygiene.

Geez. Between these massively important stories, you might find an article or commentary about scientific discoveries about what started the Ebola epidemic or how HIV spreads, or a report about the millions who’ve been forced to flee Syria, or the torture and murder of minority communities in Iraq by ISIS/ISIL forces, or how they rose to power and what their ultimate aim is. Or how Napa Valley is responding to being hit by an earthquake. Or how the California coast has been deluged with huge jellyfish die-offs, and how fish that are normally never seen in warm waters have been washed ashore or caught as trophies thanks to global warming.

But more likely, you’ll see a big feature story on Angelina Jolie’s wedding dress: a triumph or a travesty? Mercy. Maybe those looking at her wedding photos would do better to notice her skeletal arms and hands and think about their tragic import instead. I can’t imagine that a photo of any other bride clutching her groom with those skeleton hands wouldn’t draw a horrified response, but everybody’s talking about her dress, not her body. After all, she’s Angelina Jolie, the luckiest woman in the world! Married to Brad Pitt! If she’s a living skeleton, why should we notice?

Sometimes, tucked between all the celebrity gossip and sports writing and adorable cat videos, we’ll see a feature on, say, women who’ve had acid thrown on them in India, an apparently common practice when they spurn a suitor’s advances or their in-laws don’t like them, or women who are raped and sometimes killed in India for going to the bathroom, or children and pets who’ve been left to die in hot cars here in the good old USA while their parent shops or sexts or simply forgets about their existence (until, in the last case, watching a “Game of Thrones” episode with a crying child reminded him, oh wait, I left my foster daughter in the car!). Or the fad here in America of punching strangers in the street, desperately harming and often killing them, including pregnant women, called “the knockout game.” How tough those guys must look to their watching buddies when they punch out an old man or woman! But hey, it’s just a game.

There are also stories about the crisis in the Ukraine, the crisis in Gaza, the protests in Pakistan, the ongoing monstrosity of the Taliban, the horrors that the Supreme Court has allowed to take root in American soil, the devastations that soulless companies like Monsanto have wrought all over the world, the monstrosities of the druglords in Mexico and Central America. Not to mention the volcanic eruptions in Iceland and other natural disasters. But why should we bother about them when we can read about the new lineup for this season’s “Dancing with the Stars” or Princess Diana’s makeup secrets?

I’m as guilty of this as anyone: If I see a feature about some especially luscious-looking recipe or a health tip or breakthrough, I’ll almost certainly click on it. Not to mention just about anything about science, archaeology, natural history, or paleontology (including today’s story about the discovery of the world’s largest dinosaur, Dreadnoughtus). When eBay sends me an e-mail listing marbles (which I collect) for sale on its site, I eagerly look them over and drool appreciatively, though I’ve not bought anything on eBay for many years, since it switched to PayPal-only payments. Ditto for peonies and other plants I love, including edibles like curry plants and Meyer lemons from nurseries, or product tests from America’ Test Kitchen (which Dijon mustard is really the best?).

Why do we spend our time on these frivolities when the world is suffering? I think it’s because they make us feel good. When I read about the latest discoveries at Stonehenge, I’m not thinking about the atrocities of ISIS/ISIL or the potential horror of the Russian aggression in the Ukraine or the effects that the prolonged drought in California and the citrus greening disease in Florida will be having on our food supply, not to mention the horrific aftermath of GMO crops and the monstrous amount of herbicides being dumped on them, the effects of global warming, the horrors inflicted by the Taliban on women. I’m not thinking about the rise of cancer and diabetes and dementia and so many other diseases. Instead, I’m reading about something “interesting.”

What’s someone who follows the Reiki Way to do in the face of so much global horror? Just reading the local police blotter about the street fights, stabbings, rapes, crashes, fires, pet abandonment and abuse, and so on is overwhelming. But fortunately, there actually is something we can do: send Reiki. I’ve written about this before, but it’s something I believe strongly in and suggest that all Reiki practitioners do, even if they haven’t progressed to the second level of Reiki, which teaches practitioners the symbol and technique that will allow you to transcend time and space.

It’s simply this: Hold a marble of the world in your hands. (They’re readily available for very little money at Land of Marbles, http://www.landofmarbles.com.) Look at this “Earth Marble,” observing the continents and landforms and the oceans, before you fold your hands over it and feel it warming as you call in the Teachers, Usui Founder, Hayashi Sensei, Takata Sensei, and any other Sensei you feel especially connected to. Ask them to help you with the world’s problems, to heal the world. Name any problems of special concern to you that you’d like them to focus on, such as global warming.

If you’ve been trained in the Third Symbol, draw it and the First and Second Symbols over the marble globe in your hand, 1-3-2-1. If you’ve been trained in the First Symbol, just draw it and put your hand down over the marble globe. If, for whatever reason, you’ve been trained in no symbols, just put your hand down over the marble globe and let the Reiki energy flow out to our suffering world. When you feel the heat (or tingling, or cold, or however the energy comes to and through you) diminish, open your hands, thank the Teachers for spending this time with you, and either blow the First Symbol over the glass globe or, if you don’t know the First Symbol, simply blow over it, set it down gently and with gratitude, close your hands in gassho (prayer position), and bow. Your easy exercise is over, and you’ve sent Reiki out to the whole world.

Just for today, Reiki the world.

The call for peace must be shouted. July 30, 2014

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Pope Francis, in a recent interview, noted that we were living in a time of many wars, and that “the call for peace must be shouted.” The Pope added that “Peace sometimes gives the impression of being quiet, but peace is never quiet, peace is always proactive.”

This reminded me of one of my favorite spiritual writers, Sri Eknath Easwaran, whose hero was Mohandas Gandhi, called Mahatma, “great soul.” Gandhi liberated India from British colonial control, not through violence, but through non-violent resistance, ahimsa. Decades later, Martin Luther King urged this approach to Blacks who were seeking equal rights and the end of race discrimination. Nelson Mandela used it to end apartheid in South Africa. The Dalai Lama uses it when he protests the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Most recently, the LGBT community has used it to gather support for full marriage rights and benefits.

To be successful, those who practice ahimsa must be media-savvy and know how to get the word out. Gandhi was a genius at this; the world watched the “little brown man in the loincloth” and his every move with fascination. Pope Francis is also a genius at it, with his press conferences, off-the-cuff remarks, unexpected, crowd-thrilling gestures, and tweets.

Given the ubiquity and power of social media today, it’s not necessary to protest social injustice or war or domestic violence or school shootings or drug wars or whatever by setting yourself on fire in a public place, as one American minister recently did. Instead, you can make your voice heard on Twitter or Facebook or your blog or website or Instagram or Pinterest or a million other open media sites. You don’t have to shout. If enough of us simply speak out, and continue to speak out, against every form of violence, our combined voices will shout for us.

Just for today, speak up for peace.

Inequality. June 3, 2014

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“Inequality is the root of social evil.”

—Pope Francis, @Pontifex

I could go on quite a rant about the obvious irony of this statement, given that the Church the Pope heads will not ordain women as priests or even deacons, much less elect a woman Pope; that Popes have recently been recognized as saints while the greatest saint of our age, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, still languishes; that nuns whose only crime was trying to address “the root of social evil” have been relentlessly persecuted by the watchdogs of the Church and placed under the control of a (male, of course) bishop. This is institutionalized inequality of the most hurtful and damaging kind.

But “the people’s Pope” isn’t aware of the irony, for his sincere focus is on righting economic inequity and bestowing the dignity of personhood on every human being, such as the elderly homeless person dying on the street of whom he famously asked, why doesn’t this make headlines, but a 2% drop in the stock market does? Francis is, genuinely, a man of good will. He also said this (also on @Pontifex), which is a beautiful warning:

“A society which abandons children and the elderly severs its roots and darkens its future.”

So true. I would add that a society that abandons the ugly, the overweight, the ignorant, the diseased, the mentally ill and mentally challenged, the disabled, the different, the very shy; a society that tolerates and/or promotes racism, bigotry, religious intolerance and hatred, discrimination against those whose sexual orientation differs from ours; a society that still uses stereotypes for those of different nationalities, that still defines itself in terms of “us” and “them,” darkens its future. And those who mock those who are different from, or less fortunate than, themselves, who sneer at them, who tell jokes at their expense or are rude and dismissive, are even worse, since their behavior is active rather than passive.

This doesn’t even begin to address the violence directed at those who are perceived to be different from us: The murder of homeless people. The torture of prisoners. The sentencing of a pregnant woman in Sudan to 100 lashes, followed by hanging, for daring to convert to Christianity in order to marry the man she loved. (After international outcry, this sentence has reportedly been commuted.) The abduction by (male) Islamic extremists of 200 little Christian girls from their school in Nigeria, still held hostage and being subjected to mercy knows what as I write. The helpless people in nursing homes and hospitals who are abused by the very people who have been hired to take care of them. Gang rapists in India. Murderous road rage and school shootings in America. I could go on, and on, and on. (And on.)

What can we, as Reiki people, do about the evil of social inequality, of mockery, denigration, discrimination, and actual (physical, mental, and property) damage? What would Usui Founder do?

As always, he pointed the way (and the Way). When the great earthquake leveled Tokyo in 1921, he rushed to give Reiki to its victims, treating thousands, whatever their social standing, appearance, age, sex, or limitations. Having grown up in the rigidly structured society of the Shogunate, a feudal society where the Imperial Family and court were at the top of the social ladder, the Samurai (including Mikao Usui’s family) next, and pretty much everyone else serfs or worse, this was a remarkable, radical act on Usui Founder’s part. Like the Lord Jesus, like Lord Buddha, like Mother Teresa, like Dogen Zenji, like all great healers, he saw the suffering person, not the artificial distinctions that set some of us above others.

He also set up his dojo and travelled constantly to teach Reiki to as many as wanted to learn, training thousands in the years between the earthquake and his death in 1926. He didn’t invite certain highborn individuals to join an elite secret society. He made his teachings available to all. And at the heart of his teachings were his Five Reiki Principles (aka Precepts, Ideals): Just for today, don’t get angry. Don’t worry. Be grateful. Work hard. Be kind.

This is the blueprint for banishing inequality. When you banish worry and anger, are grateful for your own blessings and those of everyone and the world around you, work hard to help others and further your own spiritual progress, and are kind to everyone, plants and animals and people alike, there is no room for inequality. You may not be able to cure the world’s ills, the selfishness and superficiality of a society that cares more for the latest shoe fashions than for starving people and abused animals and exhausted resources. But by pursuing Usui Founder’s model of Right Livelihood, you just might.

Miracles can happen. Maybe we can save the world. Maybe we can stop seeing people as either/or, rich or poor, clever or dull, ugly or gorgeous, fat or thin, old or young, brilliant or stupid, educated or ignorant, successful or failures. Maybe the Church will even start ordaining women.

What is a saint? April 25, 2014

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“The true saint goes in and out amongst the people and eats and sleeps with them and buys and sells in the market and marries and takes part in social intercourse, and never forgets God for a single moment.”

—Abu Sa’id

“How good it is for us when the Lord unsettles our lukewarm and superficial lives.”

—Pope Francis, @Pontifex

“We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

—Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God

“The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees before the Blessed Sacrament.”

—Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God

“When [13th-century Zen Master] Dogen asked the Zen cook in the Chinese temple why he didn’t have his assistants do the hard work of drying mushrooms in the hot sun, the cook said, ‘I am not other people.’ In the same way, we have to realize that this life is the only life we have. It’s ours, right now. If we don’t do the cooking ourselves, we are throwing our life away. ‘Keep your eyes open,’ Dogen instructs. ‘Wash the rice thoroughly, put it in the pot, light the fire, and cook it.’… When we cook—and live—with this kind of attention, the most ordinary acts and the humblest ingredients are revealed as they truly are.”

—Bernard Glassman and Rick Fields, “Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master’s Lessons for Living a Life that Matters,” tricycle

As I’m sure you know, two popes are going to be canonized (recognized as saints) this weekend. It’s unlikely that any of us will become popes, but, as these quotes show, we all have the opportunity to become saints, right where we are.

Just for today, don’t burn the rice.

Not taboo. March 24, 2014

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“Sickness and death are not taboo subjects. They are realities that we must face…”

Pope Francis, @Pontifex

I was reminded of this while attending a “welcome spring” Reiki feast on Saturday night with members of my Reiki share. Our host, who also hosts the share in her home, is a superb macrobiotic cook who had pulled out all the stops to make a lavish spread. Wine and sake were poured and we all assembled at the table to enjoy each others’ company and the bounty spread before us.

But, as my partner Rob pointed out, the theme of the evening’s dinner seemed to be sickness, death and dying. People talked about their parents’ and in-laws’ struggles in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. They talked about pets who’d recently died or were dying. One member of the share was on his second kidney transplant and talked about that and how he was recovering. A nurse talked from her perspective about caring for the ill and terminally ill.

It wasn’t what most people would think of as a cheerful or festive conversation. But Reiki people are healers, and no one seemed even slightly put off by the conversation or tried to change the subject. We all get sick from time to time, and we’ll all die. It’s how we confront those situations in ourselves and others that define us, as Reiki practitioners and as human beings.

Refusing to talk about or acknowledge sickness and death won’t make them go away, and increases the fear and stress we experience when we think of them. Usui Founder told us “Just for today, don’t worry.” Making these topics as ordinary as any other integrates them into life and helps us prepare for the inevitable.

Reiki helps in other ways as well. When we work on our Reiki self-healing every day, and aren’t shy about asking others for hands-on or distant healing if we aren’t well, it raises our Reiki level and helps us heal. And when we “work hard” (another of Usui Founder’s Five Reiki Principles, aka Precepts, Ideals) on our Reiki practices, it helps us truly see our connection to the All, which is the breakthrough of enlightenment, satori.

If you aren’t a separate entity, an ego swimming alone in space, but rather part of the whole, you know that death isn’t really a big deal, just a giving back to the All for what had been given you. And really, there’s nothing scary about that.

Just for today, don’t be afraid to talk about it.

Finding heaven. March 10, 2014

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“Who has not found the heaven below
Will fail of it above.”

—Emily Dickinson

“The Lord has strewn little signs of his presence throughout the universe.”

—Sri Eknath Easwaran, Words to Live By

“The Lord is knocking at the door of our hearts. Have we put a sign on the door saying ‘Do not disturb’?”

—Pope Francis, @Pontifex

Whether you believe in an afterlife, or that our earthly paradise is the only one we’ll ever know, it’s important to make every minute count. And that means living fully in each moment, appreciating each moment, enjoying each moment and the beautiful world around us.

It doesn’t mean rushing around multitasking, never seeing anything farther away than the latest text message, never giving our full attention to anything or appreciating the beauty of our world, the great gift God Creator has given us.

Fully being present to each moment is the way to find “the heaven below” and prepare for the one above. This does not mean being idle, but it certainly doesn’t mean mindless busyness for its own sake. As Jesus Himself said, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

And let’s not forget the enjoyment part of ‘finding heaven below’, in the here and now. One of my favorite quotes is from a man who’d clearly mastered this art, Ryokan:

“Ten days’ worth of rice in my bag;
a bundle of twigs by the fireplace.
Why chatter about delusion and enlightenment?
Listening to the night rain on my roof,
I sit comfortably, with both legs stretched out.”

Just for today, find heaven.

The Food Stamp Challenge. February 24, 2014

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“Let us leave a spare place at our table, a place for those who lack the basics, who are alone.”

—Pope Francis, @Pontifex

I’ve been reading a lot lately about the Food Stamp Challenge, in which people try to eat on $4 a day like those who receive SNAP (Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program, formerly food stamps) assistance must do. Just this morning, I read about a group of students who took up the challenge for a week.

Given the cost of groceries at my house (and mind you, I cook our vegetarian meals at home from scratch), the thought of a $56 weekly grocery bill (for a family of two; each family member is allowed $4 a day, or $28 a week) is mind-boggling. And what if you lived alone and were only allowed $28?!

I guess if I were trying to live on $28 a week, I’d buy the staples the first week: a big bargain bottle of olive or canola oil, a cheap plastic set of salt and pepper shakers, curry powder, a shaker of Italian seasoning (oregano, basil, thyme and rosemary), and a bottle of hot sauce. I’d buy bags of rice and lentils (or yellow split peas), a big bargain box of spaghetti, and some cans of beans (black, pinto, kidney, whatever was on sale; I’ve found house-brand beans at 59 cents a can). Then I’d buy a can or two of crushed tomatoes (some brand is always on deep discount at our local stores), and a bag of small and therefore sale-priced onions.

Of course, I’d have my calculator with me. If there was enough money left, I’d buy the cheapest head of lettuce in the house, a bottle of vinegar or a lemon (whichever was cheaper), and either a bag of tiny apples (always on discount) or tiny apples combined with tiny oranges (ditto). If red bell peppers were on sale at 10 for $10, I’d get one or two of those as well.

This would allow me to make a simple dal with the lentils or split peas, an onion, and curry powder, and have it with rice. I could make a very simple spaghetti sauce with the crushed tomatoes, oil, Italian seasonings, and onion, and have it over pasta. I could saute an onion in oil, add a can of beans and some Italian seasoning, and serve it over rice with hot sauce, or saute the onion and seasoning, add the can of beans and a can of crushed tomatoes, add enough water to reach the preferred consistency, add rice or pasta if desired, and have soup.

If I’d been able to afford the fresh produce, I’d make a salad with the lettuce, diced red bell pepper, diced onion or diced apple, and dress it with a sprinkle of Italian seasoning and a splash of oil and vinegar or a squeeze of lemon juice. As long as I didn’t add the dressing to the salad except for my own small bowl, leaving the rest plastic-wrapped, refrigerated, and undressed, I could hope to eat it for many meals to come, along with any of the dishes described above.

The following week, if I still had enough of my staples and seasonings, I could add potatoes, eggs, tacos or tortilla chips, salsa, and shredded cheese (on sale, two bags for $4, and of course, you only have to buy one). Maybe even butter and block cheese on sale. More lettuce and/or super-healthy coleslaw mix (green and purple cabbage and shredded carrot, often extremely inexpensive bagged). More bell peppers and onions on sale. More sale fruit. More sale pasta and crushed tomatoes. Maybe a few bags of frozen veggies.

Imagine, enjoying a salad with lettuce, coleslaw mix, chopped bell pepper and onion, and a sliced hard-boiled egg, maybe even a little shredded cheese! The secret is to stick to your Italian seasonings and black pepper and a splash of your bargain oil and vinegar; forget bottled dressings.

Could you really eat like this? Well, that depends on whether you were willing to shop in a discount grocery like Aldi or Bottom Dollar or Wal*Mart, whether you were willing to change the way you looked at food (such as skipping breakfast or eating leftover rice and beans for breakfast), and how many mouths you had to feed. (For every additional person, you could add more to the weekly menu, such as eggs, cheese and butter in the first week, while amping up the supplies of staples like pasta, beans and rice to serve as a base for your dishes. Mac’n’cheese, anyone? Butter, shredded cheese, a couple of beaten eggs, and maybe a splash of milk will get you there.)

I love to cook, so I know when I set these options out that they’ll never taste as good as food that you can make with as many ingredients as you wish. They’re bare-bones meals, and, having not gone to the store with my calculator and added up the cost, I can’t even vouch for their SNAP affordability. I deplore the lack of fresh produce, and the rich, appealing salads that I make for our suppers. But at least these meals will be nutritious and filling.

I’m sure there are plenty of people who are wondering where the bread, pizzas, breakfast pastries, snack foods, frozen convenience meals, cereals, desserts, candies, chips, coffee, sodas, and above all, meat are in this scenario. But on $28 a week, stuff like that, plus all fast food and takeout, much less eating out, simply have to go. We don’t like drinking plain water at every meal, either. We love pizza and takeout Chinese. We’re okay with skipping breakfast, but we hate skipping both breakfast and lunch.

Take your calculator and do the math. What can you afford on $28 a week?

As Pope Francis says, let’s save a space at our table for those who can’t afford food, who are trying to survive on $28 a week. Let’s be grateful that we can afford to eat as we please, and share our bounty with our neighbors, friends, and family. The winter before this, one of my dear Reiki friends brought homemade soup to my house every week or two, much to my partner Rob’s delight. I often send my own hearty and warming creations along to my partner’s son, my godson, and our neighbors, and bring them to a weekly gathering of friends.

Just for today, be grateful.

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