A pretty blouse, another tear masked

Stories about appearances.

A year ago, in my day-job in Dakar, we were having a horrible time coming to terms with a jumble of various damaged rice bags belonging to different receivers. Imagine thousands upon thousands of bags, some in containers, rotting, others thrown into warehouse corners covered in cobwebs their colourful logos faded with dust and water, containing caked, dirty, wet and dusty rice in various degrees of unfit-for-human-consumption. As insurance surveyor it was my responsibility to try to determine what was what, belonged to who, and to propose depreciation rates at which the damaged goods might be sold. So far we were having limited cooperation from the handling company. Granted, I’m sure the sight of me in their warehouses drawling on about how poorly they had sorted and kept the merchandise to arrive at such a level of mess was enough to make anyone resent the sight of me. But they didn’t…they couldn’t help but like me. As the warehouses coordinator herself exclaimed the first time she met me in person, after many months of email exchanges centered around our unhappiness with mixed-up and damaged merchandise..she could not believe that her mind now had to associate the curt and cold emails my work demands of me with the young, friendly, smiling woman before her. Yet it wasn’t until I arrived in their office on a Friday morning many weeks later, dressed beautifully in a long dress of blue African material that I fully understood the importance of appearances and being well groomed. Everyone who I knew from the field was pleased to see me. Until then we had only interacted in the warehouses where I’d be wearing jeans, t-shirts and sandals, given that I’d often need to climb on top of dirty piles of rice to estimate quantities and check for additional damages. It was my practical attire for the messy field-work. Covered in dust, my hair astray, I would then cheerfully ask for the handling company’s inventory lists and be kindly refused. Of course by “refused” I mean that they would say “Yes” to everything, after which I would in reality receive nothing. That Friday, my office and well-groomed self kindly requested stock lists and received them instantly. I stepped out into the sunlight of Plateau, papers gladly in hand, a moment of business victory mine, and I marveled at the power of appearances.

Humans are such visual creatures, as predators our eyes set firmly forward, like those of a lion or tiger, a biological sign of relying so much, too much perhaps, by what we see before us. We need forward vision to hunt, to achieve, to move through the world. Knowing that we observe and are so observed by others we step out our front door and, whether or not we realize it, we tell a story of who we are today.

I wonder if this may even be more true of women than it is of men.

Six years ago I was teaching French in an elementary school and living in Granada, Spain when my long-time boyfriend and I broke up. Not for the first or the last time I’ll add since our long-distance relationship went through many ups and downs before ultimately collapsing. At the time of course I took it hard. Undying romantic that I am, I was hurt and I felt it was a clear ending to a life chapter. What better way to begin a new chapter, I reasoned, than by showing through my appearance my internal, emotional evolution. So I cut off all my hair. It had been quite long and now it was very short (I was inspired by Emma Watson who had finished filming the Harry Potter series and had cut off all of her hair too). I had left school as myself on a regular Tuesday afternoon and arrived on the Wednesday morning someone new amid shocked looks from my 10 and 11-year old students. The boys gaped and then got back to their activities. The girls just gawked at me.

I’ll add that short-hair styles for women in Spain, at least at that time, were a no-no. I can confidently say that I was one of very few white women in Granada with boy short-hair. My students’ varied reactions were unforgettable. Their beloved teacher had clearly gone mad. Some were shocked while others were impressed. “Why did you do it?” they asked me, “your hair was so beautiful”. “I wanted a change” I said. Some of the girls shook their heads and told me they did not like it. One girl, named Africa, came up to me at the end of our class and told me in whispered confidence, “Madame, je pense que vous êtes très courageuse. Et ça vous va très bien les cheveux courts”. I remember the gleam in her eyes, the look that says : do what is right for you who cares what others think. She thought me strong, courageous. Inside I was quite a mess because I missed my man. But at least the outside world had taken notice that I had turned a new page.

Last week, I chatted with one of our Senegalese secretaries about this very thing. She complemented me on a nice ensemble I was wearing. I smiled, thanked her and remarked that although it was not the case this time, it was often when I was feeling my worst inside that I dressed my best. With my hair and make-up done I could more easily access my courage to face the day. She said, a wide smile spreading across her face, “You know when I wear a simple dress and less make-up and you look at me concerned, and ask if all is well”, she asked. I nodded. I was so used to her beautiful clothes and elaborate make-up (Senegalese women in general dress beautifully and take great pride in their appearance) that I wondered if a more sober look meant that she was feeling ill or unhappy. She laughed saying that oftentimes the days of her more humble attire were the days when she felt her happiest and her best.

We women are emotional creatures. It’s easy to get caught in an internal struggle of wanting to be seen in our truth, in our depth of feeling and so too in our vulnerability…and the strong need to build walls and to protect ourselves from those who would use our openness against us. We play with appearances. We change our outfits, our hair, our colours in order to communicate something to others about our values, about who we are or how we are feeling. The feminine exists to feel. So too it makes sense we want to share some of that feeling with others too. The trick is not to get too caught up by what your eyes alone can see..

Dakar to me, like many women, is a city of appearances. I often need to look at something or someone for a long time, and closely, before starting to see its truth. Beautiful villas hide behind high, grey and rough cement walls. Just like pretty exteriors may open up to messy, uninteresting interiors. In so many ways, things are simply not as they first appear to be.

A Timeless run around the Pink Lake

It’s not usual that I’m up at 6:30 on a Saturday, and on the highway to the Pink Lake (“Lac Rose”) by 8am. We’re headed for the first 10km race around the lake – heading there not to race so much as to enjoy the jogging and walking around the unique pink waters of the salt lake lying a short distance away from Dakar. It’s only a 40 minute drive, we assure ourselves as J. and I zoom out of the city in my newly repaired car. I hop out a few times along the way to make sure the engine isn’t overheating and the new pump working properly. To add to these mechanical checks we blunder through small villages as we take the wrong exit off of the highway on our way to the lake. We stop, impatiently asking directions in a mixture of French and Wolof and get redirected a few times until we finally get to the edges of the pink waters… only it’s 9:20 and so we’re 20 minutes past the start img_7438time. We jump out of the car quickly arranging water bottles on our backs and strapping music devices to our bodies eagerly looking up to the organizers with half apologetic-half hopeful faces. They are not impressed that we are late and inform us that the last trucks taking the runners to the starting line have already left and no one is going to come back for another trip.  We can’t even get our paper numbers pinned to our shirts since the keeper of numbers has left the area… voices falter and the organizers are about to shrug their shoulders in surrender when I exclaim that we will happily do the race without our numbers and in the opposite direction if we have to. All we can see before us is the finish line anyways, the starting point hidden behind a small village and trees a few kilometers away. “But we won’t be able to measure your time!” the French organizer exclaims at which point I assure him that the objective of our coming to run around the lake has little to do with knowing how quickly we can do it. Privately, I’m amazed that anything at all has actually started on time in Senegal! Just my luck that this time it’s me that’s late. I had been looking forward to running together with a big group of people yet evidently my run today is to be a solitary, meditative one. I’m glad to accept the change in plans. I happily tighten my running shoe laces and start off at a light jog away from the finish line backwards along the course towards the start line.  J. will be walking the trail instead. The dusty, grey road next to the gigantic piles of salt extracted from the lake is all ours…just like on the promotional poster for the race – a lone woman running off into the distant sand dunes, only her and the sun on the horizon. My favourite tunes are playing from my phone and my spirits are high. I can’t remember the last time I ran as far as 10km, yet something tells me that it will be effortless today.  And it is.

Once at the finish line, still numberless, I join the other runners enjoying their rest. I pick up my t-shirt, goody bag, water and mandarines and chat with friends. J. joins me after her walk of the lake, content and full of new photos, videos and encounters from the road, not to mention a free artistic souvenir from one of the artisans. We watch some of the awards ceremony to the fastest runners and decide to leave the hot sun for a tour in the village. We meander from hotel to hotel among palm trees, sometimes stopping for a fresh local baobab-fruit juice, sometimes chatting with local sellers. I find beautiful new, leather flip-flops. J. films some more videos in Polish, part of our own promotional materials (see YouTube channel here) encouraging our fellow Polaks to join us in Senegal for tourism and retreats. We’re becoming more selective with our video settings – should we choose to film inside of a colourful fishing boat, or near a pretty little fresh-water pond complete with frogs? Either way the relentlessly hot sun is high in the sky and thoughts turn to shade and to rest. We stop by to buy more mandarin oranges, papaya and watermelon and settle in the car for a fruit snack. Meanwhile one of the French officers (it turns out the event is organized by members of the French military based in Dakar) approaches us and asks us if we are the ladies who ran without our numbers today. Why yes we are.. well, he informs me, one of you has won a phone in the raffle! I spell out both of our strange sounding Polish last names to the gentleman as we ascertain that indeed it’s my complicated name that has won the draw. I received my prize gratefully, amused and thrilled at my good luck while joking that for someone who arrived late to the event and also ran without a number it’s pretty ironic that I should win a phone. At least it is well equipped with clock and chronometer! The main event organizer is there to award me the prize while we can also congratulate him on his tenacity and a whole year’s effort of bringing together sponsors and organizers for the race around the lake.

img_7439I help organize monthly events for Internations, I explain to him.. even that small taste of event planning in Senegal allows me to personally sympathize with his efforts. Still on the high of the morning’s excitement he tells me that they’ll soon begin planning for next year’s event. May we have an enjoyable run around the lake like this every year, we say…may it be so… Inshallah

Arms raised to me

Now.

Raising one hand, marvel at the mechanisms, the magic, the life-force creation here around, in soil, sun and sand.

Raise the other hand and the spirit slips through my fingers, its natural rhythm is in flight with the flocks, in tune with trance of trickling of the stream, with the whistle of the wind. It would flee from me.

Instead it is trapped, worse off than the wild mustang brought to the bit to be broken,
it is chained inside a human body,
this, this so wondrous and so futile, so fragile,
flung here to be ripped apart yet again

and in the light spilling through the gaps

to be brought to our knees to laugh, to smile, to cry again.

To gaze at ourselves now opened, perhaps more free this way, perhaps more.

The ocean’s waves next to me, the bird’s wings above, a constant reminder.
The ultimate tease.
To say
You, there. You on the ground below with your arms raised to me.
You are everything,
I’m not mocking you.
The bird’s beak twists to the side, and says again, in animal wisdom,
and yet
you,
yes, you
you are so helpless.

The Journey of a single bag of rice – Part I

At first glance, unloading cargo from a vessel looks like a horde of ants invading a juicy piece of cake. The vessel is huge, the people are little, and up and down the swaying ladder attached to the side of the ship, we (underwriters), insurers, other surveyors, dockers and supervisors climb on board to join the crew and get down to work. On the paperwork side onboard, everyone gets settled in the Chief Officer’s cabin and starts producing and signing tally sheets, daily reports and other papers. This temporary office will be the creation space of a vast paper trail that will allow the tracking of every single bag of rice during the unloading operations.*

lifting cargo out

unloading cargo

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Meanwhile, the discharging shift has begun and some of the other ants crawl into the belly of the vessel to manually lift and load bags of rice unto the slings that then lift and swing over to the dock to be unloaded unto delivery trucks. Dozens of shirtless, sweating men, with their gleaming muscles in the African sun move with dexterity on top of the bags that will soon be lifted out and unto the land. Other men sit inside the holds with clip boards and count the amounts discharged and the number of bags torn. On the docks, the same frantic scramble continues, this time on and beside the trucks. Lift, carry, pile, count, classify, smack a tarp on it, and off we go to the warehouse. This continues day and night, hundreds of bags after hundreds of bags…until the cake is all done.

We can imagine that the bag of rice we’re following has made it out, safe and dry and untorn, unto the truck now on its way to the warehouse. We learn that while out at sea during the vessel’s 4-week journey, somewhere near South Africa, the crew was slow to close the holds during a moment of passing rain… and some of the rice inside got wet.  What’s more there’s been many additional torn bags today, as there’s a faulty sling and a new, inexperienced docker ripping bags right and left. We’ve noted an infestation in hold number 3. In short, for a bag of rice to make it out of the vessel unscathed today is a rare treat.

And, alas, getting to the warehouse is another perilous journey. Bags are stolen during transport, torn and ripped, their rice-fillings swiftly sifted into nameless, plastic bags. There may be rain on the way. Some of the trucks encounter accidents on the road…spilling it all on the asphalt.

It’s difficult to know what may happen next and just how our bag of rice will do!

*unloading operations can take anywhere from 10 days time to 3 weeks, depending on many factors such as the amount of cargo, cadence of the dockers (workers) and the weather.

——————
As a cargo underwriter I represent the interests of the insurance companies that insure various imported and exported merchandise. Here in Senegal we’re doing a lot of imported rice (mainly Indian, Thai, Pakistani and Brazilian) which means that my days are full of rice discharging operations, lost bags of rice on the way to the warehouse, wet bags of rice because its rainy season and torn bags of rice because, well, lots of bags get torn. These need to be counted, recounted and accounted for. Damages have to be avoided or otherwise assessed, explained and fixed, if possible. All the while we create and sign all the necessary documentation. The logistics and amount of coordination necessary to successfully unload, transport, store, sell, ship and then retail the rice is astonishing. The amount of things that can go wrong during the process – countless.

Numbers and paperwork aside…what drew me initially to this work, and what intrigues me still, is understanding the intricate process that my food goes through before it actually arrives on my dinner plate. 

Stay tuned…

Greetings from two months in

Me: Salam aleekum.
Taxi Driver: Malekum Salam.
(conversation around destination and taxi price ensues, in (my) patchy Wolof)
Taxi Driver: How long have you been here?

(a trickle of sweat slips down my back)
Me: Two months. Ñaari wer.…Two months, and a bit.
Taxi Driver: You are Senegalese now.
Me (to myself): It’s time I write something about Senegal now.

(replaces sunglasses back on nose after getting settled in taxi).

Dakar is located on the Western-most point of Africa, on a peninsula called Cap-Vert which is across from the islands of Cape Verde, not to be confused, please.
In many ways I feel we are far West from much of what goes on in Sub-Saharan Africa. But then again…what would I know. I’ve never been anywhere else except Abidjan on a one week work trip spent at the office, port and in a fancy hotel. I can only imagine, and listen to what others have to say. Supposedly – so the people say – elsewhere the beaches are not as abundant, the food less good, the people less friendly. Here, life is good here, real good. I’d say I’m smitten with Senegal (it slides off the tongue nice).. but I’m more like really jiving with it.

It doesn’t matter how short or long the work day, I come home satisfied. Perhaps it’s the lengthy greetings and taking many minutes with each person to ask them about their family and everyone’s well-being, I enjoy it. I’m satisfied to be in the warmth
and sun and to never worry about its lack when I’m inside with papers and computers. We have excess sun and heat here. Here, take some, there is plenty to share.

The dust is plenty too. The colours so near the Sahara, faded. The colours the women wear in the bright African textiles – bright. The music, Mbalax, a different lilt. Hard to describe. My current anthem ft. Akon (who is of Senegalese origins, by the way) – see if you like it.
Plenty. Life is slower, this is true, I like to think it’s more deliberate and less rushed. Nothing works anyways if you rush here. Doubly true if you get angry about the lack of rush. I find it’s hard to get angry when you’re warm and well fed, but hey, some people are persistent. Granted, in some ways, hustle is sought after. Ask Taha. Then again, if you’re OK to mosey along at your own deliberate pace then Senegal is happy to mosey alongside you.

Sooner or later, you’ll get hungry after all your mosing and nosing about. Personally, I’m addicted to the mangos. Ripe, golden flesh – I enjoy quality time with mangos in private so as to allow the juice to properly drip down my chin. Very attractive.

Other meals, these must be enjoyed with people. Key ingredients: abundant rice, seafood, vegetables, onion sauce, spicy sauce. Add generous helpings of conversation on many topics followed by a sprinkle of Ataya, traditional green-tea-mint infused with kilograms of sugar. Delicious. The Senegalese are talkers. We chat about everything, while drinking tea, while finding shade, while working, while hailing taxis, while negotiating.

Big cars, small cars drive next to horse-drawn buggies. The horses hooves slip and look for traction where there is none on the smooth asphalt. You turn one way, you see the coast. An airplane above. You turn the other way, you see the ocean. High in the air, above the water, falcons circle. Below, colourful fishermen’s boats brave the many breaking waves. Everywhere I look, there it is. Goats bleat. Motorcycles zoom by. Horns honk.

Plans change, energy moves. Ocean, dust, air, spirit and the burning sun…perched on the edge of black Africa.

A day trip to the Island of Gorée, in images

A journey in images from yesterday’s trip to Ile de la Gorée.

The island is a 30 minute ferry ride away from Dakar.

Arriving into the port.

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Then, an impromptu photo shoot near a beautiful, bright blue door. This is my first adventure with having custom-made clothes sown using the local fabrics. I’m convinced that us Caucasian ladies can pull off some of the darker, lighter designs like the one on this skirt. Your thoughts?

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We visited one of the artisans that turns different coloured (and sourced) sands into charming artwork. Would love to come back and make a few of these myself!

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Views from our walk through the streets of Gorée. Relaxed, clean and quiet streets and beautiful flowers at every corner.

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Yup, that is the big city out there on the horizon.

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.. and a few shots of some of our fellow travellers on the ferry coming back.

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On blessings, dreams, new beginnings and giving myself the recognition that I long for

I count myself as one of the blessed on this planet, the oh-so-very blessed. Not only because my cup overflows with good health, happiness, a quick wit and an ease and pleasure for contact with others. These are infinite blessings in and of themselves, you might think I have it all already… and yet I humbly recognize that there is more. My greatest blessing I believe to be this one special something, this mystery, this force, this connection that allows me to dream my dreams, plan their realization and then – I shudder with happiness and amazement just to type the words – live my dreams in reality.

It is a sudden, heart-stopping surprise to realize in this moment that I am living a reality I dreamed of and planned for in my past. When thought becomes material, when my heart recognizes that it has been heard and is being cared for… this is pure magic to me.

This week, a new dream I have dreamed has taken form. I have moved to Africa, I am living in Africa, and I am blessed with work that fills my career values in a most beautiful way, in Africa. Yes, I dreamed of Africa (lol). My fourth continent, a new expatriation, my desire to feed this curiosity and longing to understand the world and its people is being nurtured. I feel fulfilled, and it’s only the beginning! I am in the sunshine of Dakar, Senegal after a vibrant week of meetings, training and integration. My boss who accompanied me during this first week has returned to France, and I am here now to continue the work with our local team, clients and partners. I also have the time and opportunity to pursue so many other pleasures, be they music, travel, culture, sports or activities or places I have not even heard of yet. Again, I marvel that all of this can really be true.

Also, I am amazed and humbled to see some of my own wisdom and life experience and especially all that I have learned from Tara Shakti, my study and work as a coach with Awakening Coaching and my beginning steps into the exploration of Buddhism serving me oh-so-very well. All speak of practice and of looking inside to recognize the comings and goings of the internal Universe. In the last years I have been slowly and surely incorporating many practices into my days – different forms of meditation, yoga, internal dialogue and regular nudges out of my comfort zones are a part of my world now.

This week my practice has been simple and profound: it is the practice of recognizing and loving myself.

For as I find myself living my dreams and connecting with my gratitude for all that I have, I also find myself in completely new surroundings, in a place I do not know yet around people who do not yet know me. In addition, I am new to the industry I am working in (maritime insurance and merchandise surveying) and this triggers ancient beliefs of “I’m not good enough” or “I am not competent” which in turn trigger a profound desire to shout from the Dakar rooftops into the hot sun all of my prior accomplishments. I am competent and smart in so many other things, darn it! Perhaps if I force-feed this information into whoever cares to listen then and only then will all of my intelligence, big heart, sensitivity and depth be recognized. “You do not know me yet Dakar, so let me scream to you my value so that you will recognize me now!” …and when I realize this internal desire, this feeling like a bruised ego, I chuckle to myself. The chuckle turns into a smile. Perhaps this is exactly the opportunity my heart has been asking for. The opportunity to give recognition and to give love to myself.

And so, in the midst of this bustling work week, in the pauses in the back of taxis as we inch our way through traffic, I close my eyes and I pray and speak to myself. “I see you, I recognize you“, I remind myself. “I can see your bravery, I can see how much in your life is new right now”. Brand and shining new, from location to work to people. and “I recognize you and your journey”. I take a deep breath and let the recognition sink in. And I recognize you again, and again and again, Katalina. I speak to me.

And I needed (continue to need!) to hear and to feel it again.

It it not so much a mantra, as a strong reminder. Beyond the reminder it is a big, internal hug to myself. A bear hug.

This is turning into a profound exploration of what it means to be my own best friend. What it means to be my own anchor, my own center. It is also the first time in my adult life that I am single. This too is an opportunity! Before, it was one kind of a teaching to share my life, hopes and dreams with a partner and to be recognized in his eyes…and it is a whole other kind of teaching to share my life, hopes and dreams with my own light and to recognize myself and my own wisdom in my own eyes. It fills and fulfills me in a way that feels right and healthy. And, what’s more, I believe it greatly influences all of my relationships, new and old. I hope that it means that meetings with others and sharing can be enjoyed for their own sake and for the complementary nature and pleasure of another energy and heart. It all shifts, doesn’t it, when I’m not seeking outside of myself to fulfill my own basic needs.

So here I am…stepping out yet again to meet and discover this new place and new people. I continue to pray and to recognize that Universe always has my best interests at heart. I am well cared for, and I am exactly where I need to be right now.

And, I am discovering, I already carry within me all that I have so deeply longed for.

Photo by Jonathan Kos-Read

The Greatest Gift

I couldn’t ask for a better dose of inspiration this morning then to work on compiling all of my notes, materials and recordings from the past 8 months of Awakening Coaching…and to finally write this blog post that has wanted to express itself for some time.

It’s Christmas.

Some time at around this time in 2014, I was sitting on a stone wall in the sunshine of Cap-Haitien, in a courtyard green with palms and shrubs, a wall away from a busy street.  Hot, afternoon haze, women walking by selling fruits, peanuts, soap and underwear, and stray dogs barking, motorcycles flying by and horns honking.  I was visiting the office of my first host institution in Haiti; I had come there a year earlier on an internship.  Now, I had a different job, but I was still in that area, keeping touch with the dear people who had first introduced me to their unique country.  I had an afternoon off, or perhaps the week (I think in the Caribbean it’s harder to tell when you’re working and when you’re not!) and one of my favourite drivers had a moment free too. So, we had a chat.

We had always had good conversations, this driver and I.  He tells me about his big family and extended relations.  We both love the mountains and the Haitian countryside as well as the more festive and party atmosphere of the city. And we both enjoy driving. He’s just one of those people, those kindred spirits, that I can see eye to eye with right away. Every time we cross paths he embraces me warmly, as if I were one of his many daughters.

He’s a smart guy; he’s curious and an observer. That day, he got me going on a familiar topic: The how and why of the Haitians in Haiti dreaming a singular dream – get the heck out of their country and find a “better” life elsewhere.

“You know, people are people, so it’s not like it’s so very different elsewhere”, I began, “It’s love, life, work, daily activities, and people’s emotions wherever you go.”

I continued.

“Your problems don’t just magically disappear when you leave Haiti (contrary to popular belief). Yes, these other countries are much more organized.  Physically, they are more comfortable.  There is plenty of electricity, water and food.  You can get these things when you have some money. You can also rely on the police when you call them in an emergency; the systems work, the government is pretty stable and we don’t have political uprisings every week.  Then again, I assure you, people in Canada, the USA and all over the world, have many problems of their own. Simply, they usually have problems of a different nature.  People have depression, anxiety, they live in a lot of mental fear. They often feel very alone. Some people commit suicide, some young people too.”

Thinking back on that conversation now, it’s as if I were saying that a migration out of Haiti is a move towards freeing oneself from material-based problems and going deeper into thought-based problems.  Like fighting less external demons and facing more inner demons.  Point being, for most, the fighting continues.

We continued our talk. I was not surprised when I asked him, that a suicide occurring in Cap-Haitien is a very rare event.  A once-in-every-twenty-years kind of thing. In this city bustling with activity, full to the brim with youth and with the adamant need for survival, no one is seriously considering taking their own life.  Communities know each other, families interact constantly, many people live together in close quarters and privacy is an occasional concept. Then again, you never feel alone or separate.  In general, people don’t struggle with existential questions of what they should or shouldn’t do – they simply do.  When you’re poor, daily survival takes up a lot of time – getting the water, hauling it in buckets, making your food, taking a shower and washing the dishes all take more time and more logistical creativity.  By the time you’re done surviving, it’s time to sleep again.  The intellectual or the spiritual realms are rare treats, to be dabbled in perhaps, but for which there is little time left over and relatively few resources available.  Sitting around and asking big questions is a luxury left over for the wealthy.

But do we, as the wealthy ones, actually take advantage of this luxury? Or, instead, do we set the bar higher for what is considered “survival” (an annual salary like this, a sizeable home like that, a nice vehicle) and continue in this crazy dance forever?

We as Westerners, live in a world of thought-based problems. Problems that can be argued are real (planning for retirement, choosing a career and doing our part to halt global warming) and that, in this very moment, for you, exist uniquely in your mind.  As you are reading these words, you are simply here.  You are hearing sounds around you, you are seeing shape, colour and texture in the images that are before your eyes, and you are experiencing sensations in your body.  None of these experiences, of hearing, seeing and feeling actually take any effort or thought to occur.  How often do we experience the present moment as it is? How often are we in our thoughts, thinking of a past we have a skewed memory of and dwelling on a future we can’t predict? And for what? One might say, to work hard now to gain the freedom for resting later.  In my experience, however, this is simply not true, because constant doing and thinking are forms of addiction. If we do not practice being present with what is real now, today, we will not master it for later… and our mind will continue to create problems and introduce more fear regardless of whatever security we think we have gained.  We will be caught in the endless cycle of surviving our mind’s increasingly inventive insanity. We will very likely change our standards for survival to continue the addiction we have grown used to.

Right now, some of us have a unique opportunity to live in comfort, in relative luxury, and to learn the nature of mind and connect with our hearts’ inner longings.  I wonder how many of us are actually taking advantage of this luxury. I wonder how many of us are squandering this incredible gift.

It’s Christmas.

Rest assured, I wonder this for myself also.

The books we read matter: my 2015 literary highlights

Dear fellow book lover,

I’m one of those people who is usually reading a half-dozen books at the same time, jumping from chapter to chapter, readings parts, coming back to titles later than planned or never at all.  You’ve likely met a few of my breed before 🙂 So, while 2015 has been a transformative and unique year…it has also been special in that I have actually started and finished a few great books! Some are novels, some are spiritual, some are from the realm of awakening coaching and others are in a class I have yet to define.  Each one comes with a unique story about the how and why the book came into my life, so in sharing these titles with you, I can also share some of 2015. Enjoy!

lenigmeduretourBefore the year began, I had returned to Haiti with an audiobook version of Dany Lafarrière’s “l’Énigme du retour“. This favourite Haitian-Canadian author shares his own experiences returning to his home country after many years of exile.  He describes Haiti and its colours, odours and experiences so perfectly.  As an immigrant he understands in full this incredible pull to that place where we come from and to which we no longer belong.  I started this book while leaving my own ancestral land, that place called Poland, after a half-year return of my own after many, many years of living elsewhere (see: “la polonaise-canadienne“).

agroforestryguideThe Agroforestry Guides for Pacific Islands” by Craig R. Elevitch and Kim M. Wilkinson was my Permaculture and polyculture guide for learning about useful plants, herbs, trees and companion planting in the tropics. Reference books are never read cover to cover (are they?) but rather skimmed for the useful bits…plenty of which are found in this incredible volume.

wholesomefearTaking a look at “Wholesome Fear: Transforming Your Anxiety About Impermanence and Death” by Lama Zoma Rinpoche and Kathleen McDonald was inspired by a desire for a deepening on the meditations on death and impermanence found in McDonald’s book “How to Meditate” that I have been using as my main meditation guide for the past several years. I love the meditations on death and impermanence because they always change my perspective on my own struggles and bigger questions by making me refocus on my priorities. As the book description states: “With the right perspective, our anxiety around sickness, old age, and death can be a “wholesome fear”–a fear with a positive quality that ultimately enriches and nourishes our lives.” I enjoy the authors’ compassionate sincerity and simple, clear messages in this book.

theprophetI am still flabbergasted that it took me nearly a quarter of a century to discover Kahlil Gibran and his incredible book “The Prophet“.  Thank you Osiris for this introduction! It’s only after reading it, that I learned it is in fact a very famous book.  Perhaps that is why it felt so special in the first place; I thought I had unearthed a gem few had ever seen before. 😉 As it turns out the pure love and wisdom that flows here is of the life essence itself and absolutely to be shared by as many as possible! If you have not read this yet, treat yourself to heart-healing-by-poetry right away. My favourite chapters are those on Love, Work, Marriage and Friendship. I continue to read and re-read them. I remember sitting by the water in Fort-Liberté with friends and reading bit of it to each other out loud : )

bettersexNext on the list is Arjuna Ardagh’s “Better than Sex” a mandatory (ah, should all new chapters in life come with a mandatory book this good!!) read for beginning my education in awakening coaching.  If you are curious about what on this blessed Earth could actually be better than sex… this short, sweet and direct book will quench your curiosity right away. Highly, highly recommend!

tomsawyerAs chance would have it this past spring, I also meandered over to the municipalhobbit library in Fort-Liberté, essentially one big room with a lot of books in many languages piled sky high with little order to them, and found Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer” lying there.  A needle in a haystack would have amazed me less than these two, classic novels (in English!) found in a library in a small city in very-far-away-from-anywhere Haiti.  That circumstance alone made these two great titles all the greater for it.  I had forgotten how quaint “The Hobbit” really is. I think it was my first time reading “Tom Sawyer”. Yes, yes… that last comment deserves almost the same level of flabbergastedness as with Gibran 🙂

thehelpSince we’re on the novel train, I absolutely need to mention “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett. Thank you Sarah for this recommendation! It’s a tale about the making of a powerful and well-told tale, and it’s set in small-town Mississippi in the 1960s in the midst of the civil rights movement.  There is a good movie based on the book too!  Two thumbs up for sure.

leaplookSometime in the early summer, “Leap before you look” came to me as a holiday read between awakening coaching classes.  The practices in this little book are magical, sometimes daring and always guaranteed to snap you out of your mind and right into the present moment.  This is my current go-to book when I’m looking to get un-stuck about something in my life.

feedingdemonsNext, and very importantly, I dove into Lama Tsultrim Allione’s “Feeding your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict“.  This title I turned to out of need in a time when I felt that my own inner battles needed to be addressed using a fresh approach and new tools.  I found an excellent tool here.  It is a meditation and visualization practice that uncovers and addresses a practitioner’s demon’s needs directly – thus ‘feeding’ the demon (and preserving the practitioner from being ‘fed on’ unconsciously). The author herself explains “that if we fight our demons, they only grow stronger. But if we feed them, nurture them, we can free ourselves from the battle.” I think this book has been my initiation into recognizing and accepting the darker parts of myself.

languageemotionsThe “Language of Emotions” by Karla McLaren has also been a very important title for me this year. I’m very grateful to my sister for recommending both this title and “Feeding your demons” to me.  In “Language of Emotions” the focus is on understanding what our different emotions are trying to tell us.  The truth is, anger, fear, confusion, grief, joy and so many of our other emotions, whether we think they are good, bad or we try not to think about them at all, carry important messages to us all the time.  The book description starts with: “Your emotions contain brilliant information. When you learn to welcome them as your allies, they can reveal creative solutions to any situation.” Currently, I’m using this as something of a go-to book as well in situations when I’m confused about why I’m feeling what I’m feeling. Ah, the learning continues! 🙂

endpovertySwitching gears somewhat, I certainly enjoyed Jeffrey Sachs’ “The End of Poverty:Economic possibilities of our Time” especially in its excellent and summary of world history and the different geo-political divisions present today. There certainly are economic concepts here that are over my head, and so I’ll be happy to go back and re-read some sections soon.

diamondcutterMeanwhile, the “Diamond Cutter: The Buddha on managing your business and your life” by Geshe Michael Roach came into my willing heart while staying with friend Ania in Cabarete.  I took it out for a first, evening read on the grass by the beach and knew that we would be friends for life.  When spirituality meets business, I’m very satisfied 🙂 This is an excellent book full of Buddhist wisdom intertwined with really interesting stories of the diamond industry. “Geshe Michael gives fresh insight into ancient wisdom by using examples from his own experience as one of the founders of the Andin International Diamond Corporation, which was started with capital of fifty thousand dollars and which today has annual sales in excess of one hundred million dollars. Much of the success of Andin has come from applying the business strategies presented in The Diamond Cutter. Geshe Michael’s easy style and spiritual understanding make this work of timeless wisdom an invaluable source for those already familiar with, and those unfamiliar with, Tibetan Buddhism.” Highly recommend!

desiremapShortly after, a new genius entered my life of the name of Danielle Laporte and her book “The Desire Map“.  Why a genius, you may ask? Because the concept is so simple and so right that it has stuck to me like glue.  Laporte argues that in our intentions and goal-setting we are not actually chasing the outcome or the thing itself: the better relationships, bigger businesses or new houses.  We are actually pursuing the feeling that we think we will feel once we have these things. Truth bomb. So, the book walks you gracefully through identifying what it is that you want to be feeling. We call these core desired feelings. This book and method speak to me in a big way. Thank you, sister!

alchemistA few weeks ago, Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist“, this time in French, found its way unto my lap. I loved this the first time through, and it’s even better the second time around. This is also a big bestseller, if you haven’t boarded the alchemist or the Paulo Coelho bandwagon yet… there is still time! 🙂

ciderhouseOh, the power of the written word. I also decided to dabble in John Irving for the first time with “The Cider House Rules“.  The writing style amazes me; it is craftsmanship absolutely worthy of praise. The topic is… heavy. We’re talking about a story about an orphanage and about the abortion debate for goodness sakes.  This novel is to me like the jaw-dropping admiration of an incredible art piece in a gallery – an art piece that is quite sinister and makes me feel uncomfortable, so that I am certain I would never, ever hang it in my house.  I did not finish this novel; I left it half done.

There have also been parts read and re-read of “The Transluscent Revolution” also by Arjuna Ardagh that are inspiring with their clarity, as always.

Rumi has also entered my life although in sections and chapters and never yet a full book in one go. I am so happy to welcome poetry into myself… I am in good company with Gibran and Rumi!

For all of these incredible books and time spent in reader’s paradise I have to thank my sister, Osiris, Ania, Florence, Alex, Adèle, Sarah and of course Arjuna and all the authors. It’s good to know that all the wisdom is within me and reassuring to be able to reach for a great book, poem or a story when I need someone else to spell out that wisdom letter-by-letter to me 🙂

Well it has been a beautiful year, and one for which I am filled with gratitude.

What about you? What have been your favourite books, poems and stories this year? How did these authors come into your life? From one reader to another, I am eager to hear about your own literary pearls of wisdom!

With warm wishes,

Kasia

The Muddy Shoe

Sometimes, I feel righteous. Like I’m the most important one in the room and everyone else forgot to notice. In that context, acts that looks like they come from kindness or generosity are actually fuelled by the desire for recognition or approval. You really are a lovely human being, I expect to hear. Wow you have an intellect and yet you know how to wash dishes. Congratu – freakin’ – lations.

So, enough of the sarcasm.
Today in particular, I am reminded of an event in Haiti that took place earlier this year. It was a short moment in time that marked me. It happened in a backdrop of lush, green rice fields and cute, laughing kids. It happened because of a muddy shoe.

It involved my landlady’s nephew, Rodlin, a young guy from Fort-Liberté who helped us out around the house and who I was getting acquainted with. He had helped me to plant a baby avocado tree  in his uncle’s yard, and he occasionally gave me motorcycle lessons. I listened while he told me of his plans to immigrate to Chile and of his troubles with his father at home. That day, he stopped by my house and we went on a walk together. He showed me some of the neighbourhoods, and we meandered into a part of town I had not visited yet. People were yelling ‘blanc‘ in their usual greeting to a white person in their streets, and Rodlin was getting teasing remarks from other young men passing us. We ignored it as best we could. I was grateful to have a guide as it meant much less heckling from the locals than usual.
I had been living in Fort-Liberté for several months and had explored a little bit on my own. Still there was much I did not know. Rodlin took me that day to see the rice fields. I had no idea there were plots of growing rice only a kilometer or so from the main road I had been navigating daily. Then I remembered reading agricultural reports about it and my mind finally put the facts all together. I was amazed by the lush greenery and the intricate network of water canals that could flow or halt the water to the fields to flood them at the right time. The reports had failed to mention it was a beautiful spot. Rice likes a lot of water to grow. In the North-East of Haiti we were in the middle of a severe drought. Here, everything was green, vibrant and abundant.
So we came to the edge of the rice fields, having gone around a huge, smelly garbage heap first. The path became increasingly muddy until the only way to continue our exploration was to walk on top of the water canals themselves. Imagine cement walls about as wide as one adult foot and a half meter width between them where the water flows. One wrong step off the canal and you’re off the ledge and thigh deep in mud and water. Rodlin got up on the canal first and turned to give me a hand up. I lost my balance a bit and took a step sideways…right into some mud. With a juicy squelch I pulled out my sneaker now fully covered in goo. I looked at Rodlin and he just smiled saying we could wash the shoe further up the canal. So I traipsed behind him on the cement ledge, carefully, one white sneaker following my muddy sneaker and getting closer to an intersection of the canal where water was flowing more quickly. Once there, Rodlin crouched down and with one hand on his back I leaned on him. He undid the laces of the muddy shoe and wiggled my foot out of it. By that time a half dozen smiling children had gathered around us and there we all were, perched on some edge of this thin line of walls, surrounded by the green wetness of the rice fields and that relentless sun beating down on our heads. Like birds come to rest and chat after a long flight. There was laughter and pointing from the kids – look at the white woman and her dirty shoe! It felt funny, exotic and very normal all at the same time.

I hadn’t even offered to wash my own shoe, as Rodlin had so fluidly taken on the task and was now attentively rinsing every nook and cranny so that it shone brighter and whiter in the water of the canal than the clean one did on my left foot. Rodlin’s whole manner was unquestioning and completely peaceful. He was not seeking my approval or looking for any reward. I’m not sure he was even aware of the kids and their pointing. He was simply doing what needed to be done in that moment. And for some, right then, I felt the full meaning of what it means to be of service. A definition formed in my mind: doing what needed to be done to serve another in the moment, with no intention of recognition or reward. An act of service. The simplest, most necessary thing to do, and also one of the most beautiful and loving.
In that same moment, I realized also that in all of my intellectual wanderings I thought about many things and worked on many projects, and yet I left very little time or space for this kind of service. Perhaps because to engage in an act of service one has to simply be…and in that being you become present to what needs to be done in that moment. It is often as simple as attending to your companion’s need or cleaning up after someone else without being asked to. I remembered this kind of service when I took care of my dog many years ago, and I imagine being a parent is to continuously be in this service. Simply, it felt to me, that it is this quality of action that requires no calculation. It is doing what needs to be done to serve another. And doing it with love and kinship in your heart.

So these days…
Whenever I feel my righteousness creep up…I remember Rodlin and the rice fields and my muddy shoe.

Gratitude for the Camino de Santiago

“And that’s why I have to go back
to so many places in the future,
there to find myself
and constantly examine myself
with no witness but the moon
and then whistle with joy.
ambling over rocks and clods of earth,
with no task but to live,
with no family but the road.” – Pablo Neruda

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Just let go of the bar – Kite-surfing’s big life lesson

Rule #1 when you’re learning kite surfing: when it gets challenging, too strong or scary, just let go of the bar.  The bar is how you steer and control the kite flying above you, this fabric and lines that captures the incredible power of the wind and propels you forward with it. It takes practice to be comfortable and consistent in manoeuvring the kite well, and in the meantime you’re making mistakes and getting thrown around by the force of the wind. The first thing you learn is the golden rule of kiting: when it gets to be too much and too strong, all you have to do is let go of the bar.

When you let go of the bar, releasing it away from your body, the lines slacken and the kite loses its force and comes back down to the ground (or water). It’s still attached to you so you won’t lose it, but you are safe and you can’t get pulled, as the kite no longer has any power over you. You can take a breath… and try again.

It is this release, this surrender in light of ‘too much’ that first attracted me to kite-surfing. 

You see, I’ve noticed in myself that when I get scared and when I panic in real life, my natural reaction is to bring my panic closer to my body, to bring my stress back into myself. In the world of kite surfing this would be the equivalent of bringing the bar closer to you instead of away from you when the kite feels unstable.  This is disastrous because in this way you tighten the lines and give the kite more, not less, strength…and that’s when things get super crazy and the kite spins completely out of control, taking you along with it for a hellish ride.  In this panic you can easily hurt yourself, and you endanger other people and kite-surfers in the water with you.

In a moment of ‘too much’ in kite-surfing when you react with more fear, tension and closing in on your body, you only create more trouble, give more strength to the kite and end up falling flat on your face.  Instead of freaking out when it gets too tough, you just have to let go.

This past June I really freaked out when my own life got to feel like ‘too much’ and my plans and projects in Haiti came shattering down.  I reacted by applying more tension on the events and ended up putting even more stress and pain in my life and in the lives of those affected by my decisions.  The result was a sudden and dramatic departure from Haiti, and many weeks of healing and reconciliation with myself just to be able to breathe again.  I could have let go, I could have ‘released the bar’, but I reacted with panic and fear instead. This did not serve me at all.

Of course I’ve known about letting go and surrender for a long time and I did my best to apply the theory to my life.  But it also really helped to feel this ‘letting go’ directly in my body as I went through the kite-surfing course, learned, screwed up and then had to release the bar.  The ten-ish hours I’ve spent on the beach this past week learning kite-surfing has shown me time and time again, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that releasing in times of fear and panic is the only safe and sane thing to do.  If you don’t you’re likely to not only hurt yourself but you can also easily hurt and scare others.  Just like back in June.  Just like well… so many other situations in life.

Right now, it is irrelevant whether or not I continue working in Haiti in the future, just like it’s irrelevant whether or not I continue kite-surfing.  What matters is that in this moment, in order to release the pressure of ‘too much’,  I learned to completely let go. So that I can take a deep breath, come back to centre and… start again.

That being said, kite-surfing is a pretty sweet sport.  With my instructor’s voice in my ears ‘suave’, ‘despacio’ and ‘suelta la barra’ ringing in my ears, my appreciation of kite-surfing and of its golden rule grows stronger every day.  Plus, it’s an amazing workout and you get to hang out on the beach and in the water – what’s not to love?

As an aside, if you’re ever in Cabarete, Dominican Republic, look up Aryen of AGK: www.AGKiteboarding.com He’s a great teacher and professional and also has tons of experience teaching kids. And when you do, don’t forget to tell him that you already know about the golden rule of kite-surfing… at least, in theory 🙂

Day #1 of kite-surfing. Learning the kite, on the beach.

Day #1 of kite-surfing. Learning the kite, on the beach.

kiteday1(2)

kiteday1(1)

Where is home…or where is my home next?

I recently met a Dominican, born and raised in Santo Domingo, my age. Early on in our conversation it came up that his mother is considering selling the house he’s living in now.  This in itself is not a problem… but it’s the very same house he grew up in and in which he “took his first steps”.  It has a lot of sentimental value, he reasoned. I paused to state what I thought to be the obvious “You’ve lived in other places since; every home carries sentiment with it”, he looked surprised and said “No, I haven’t. All of my life I’ve lived in that house.”

You can imagine that as an immigrant and a traveller, the idea of sleeping every night of my life under the same roof is as foreign an idea to me as is a day without rice and beans to a Dominican. Thus taking a moment I began to wonder about these places I have made my home, and the sentiment…

What is the strangest place you have ever called home?

The refurbished chicken coop in Alberta, the summer of 2013, takes the prize.  It’s also one of the homes I was most fond of, one of the quaintest and prettiest places I have ever lived.  I was living and working on a small farm that summer, and I can remember the day that the farmer, Nolan, texted me that he had located an abandoned chicken coop on the neighbour’s lot.  He sent pictures of the run down little shack with a note saying that the neighbours are aghast at the idea of my sleeping there and welcome me to their own home in case of need. I fully trusted Nolan and knew that he would transform it into something amazing.  The result was a charming room, comfy bed, with sloping roof and a little desk and chair where I fancied myself a real writer and wrote down my thoughts by the golden, setting prairie sun. Read: Oh but to live in a chicken coop again.

Where was it most beautiful?

Granada, in the south of Spain.  Some days it still feels like a dream to me that this beautiful city in Andalucía was my home for the 10 months, the duration of a school year that I lived there.  The streets and the squares comprised my home; it was my first experience living in a southern culture where lives take place outdoors, in the cafés, in the parks and in the plazas.  Weddings, families, learning, playing, everything happened in front of my eyes while taking in the warmth on Plaza Nueva or meandering through the Albaicin. My flat was special to me, and looked out on a beautiful, old style courtyard filled with sun and light.  With my roommate, a Slovenian student who became a good friend, we shared so many conversations about Granada’s charm, its essence, its magic.  The same magic that led many travellers to rest their backpacks for good and stay there.  My flat was primarily my bedroom, my resting spot, the corner where I first tinkered on a new guitar and tried to make bits of music while the melodies of the flamenco guitareros in the streets rang in my ears. While my life played out-of-doors, as I discovered my favourite nooks, visited the Alhambra, and explored much of the big park behind the Alhambra also, so my eyes were filled with and mesmerized by the beauty of that Moorish city.

What makes a home a home?

There’s some kind of tipping point in the quantity and quality of relationships and memories made in a place that etch their mark, and thus transform a resting place into a home.  I spent a memorable month in Bolivia, in 2012, volunteering at a little organic farm in Tarija where fantastic stories including “Bolivian army helps us weed our garden” and “Permaculture presentation in Tarija” came to life. But I can’t say that that dear place was a home to me.  Not compared to, for example, the summer of 2009 in Montreal, Canada where I came for a four month summer internship.  A beautiful stranger became my roommate and transformed into a great friend today – the most wonderful gift anyone could hope for.  We spent hours that summer talking and cooking (and eating) while enjoying our first taste of independent living, our first time also in Quebec.  I remember the Jazz festival so well, the surprise visits from my boyfriend, the long, very long, bike trips through and around the island city.

Something about the kitchen and cooking my own meals also makes a home, a home.

What about Haiti?

Privacy is a foreign concept to Haitians.  Understandably so when you consider how many family members usually live together in close quarters.  When I’m out in the street, at work, at a meeting or going for a jog, most of the town and my neighbours know where I am and what I’m doing.  To them, I am another form of public property and I’m rarely left alone.  They think I’m expressly there to talk to, ask questions, ask favours and generally be engaged in what ever is going on.  Being a visible minority also makes me very, well, visible (“Letter to the white person in Haiti”).  So my homes, my corners of Haiti that I have called my own, have been a safe haven like no other.  My space where I am not the blanc, or the director, or the friend, or the anyone or anything. Just where I can rest and recharge my batteries and wake up to another hot, blazing day in the Caribbean.

Read: “Every house its own kingdom, ever man for himself

So, where is home now?

Home is always where I am, although for the next few months I will be without an address.  In the coming weeks I’ll be finishing up my kite surfing course here in the Dominican Rep., and move on to visits with friends and family in Europe.  In September I’ll be walking part of the Camino de Santiago in Spain.  My home will be my backpack, my writing, my iPhone, myself.  You might say that the exciting question is, where will home be next?

Every house its own kingdom, every man for himself

An island nation of islands.

Identifying problems in Haiti is a national pastime. Numerous are the meetings and conversations which begin or end with the phrase “You see, the problem in Haiti is _________.” Fill in the blank. It’s the government, it’s corruption. It’s the mentality of the people, it’s the lack of competent human resources, it’s the power outages and in any event it’s all the damn President’s fault.

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Typhoid is typical and everyone is an electrician

As I write this I’m laying on my bed and flailing my legs above me as I let the fan bring some air to my body and liberated nether regions. I take in this very full, and very social day in Haiti. My feet are heavy with the heat and humidity.  It’s summer in the Caribbean and we are somewhere between 35 degrees Celsius and open fire.

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