The Search for Simplicity

The sweet, satisfied sigh that ensues a Sudoku puzzle accomplished.

The chubby rolls of a baby’s leg.

The quickly abated tragedy put aside with ice cream and a game of catch.

The nightly news that speaks of a neighborhood robbery, not the salacious stealing of our souls.

Counting on the World Order.

Counting on World Leaders.

Counting our blessings.

These are the days I miss.

As I looked about the lush, green lawn on a self-imposed smartphone sabbatical amidst hundreds of fellow bathers today, I recognized how complicated our lives have become. Admittedly, everyone appears on the same level when they show up in bathing suits. Fat or thin, mal- or well-nourished, dark skinned or light skinned, freckled or frowning. Nothing smacks of grassroots democracy more than a day at the community pool.

My children are no longer small or even medium-sized kids. They are in their mid- and late-teens. The intricate web of complication called growing up has begun as they navigate this world under very different circumstances than I did at their age.

They have to battle the constant onslaught of (mis)information. Of competitive Instagram appearances. Of snap-chat that and oh, please this. We can never start a meal until someone has photographed it first to share with the universe.

Simply put: Life has gotten complicated.

So I recognized, even as I put away my phone last night with no excuse that I needed it on my nightstand to serve as an alarm clock, that I struggle with my habitual need to be needed. Or to be needy. Or to be — simply put — on.

On what? God knows. On much of social media, I’ve witnessed rampaging rants and rude thrusts of opinion; excusing misbehavior and playground bullying.

Only the world stage is not a playground. And it is hard with each passing day not to succumb to equally ruthless wickedness that has besieged us since November.

But the hopeful are the last to die. And I shall not perish without a good fight. It is time to find pockets of simplicity.

You can find it

  • in the dusty pages of that Sudoku puzzle book at the foot of your nightstand
  • in the gloriousness of homemade lemonade on a bright sunny summer morning
  • in the accomplishment you feel when you walk 10,000 daily steps (FitBit fans unite!)
  • in the sweet smell of your loved one’s neck that says “I am here for you. Because I am here.”
  • in re-watching that old movie from the late 1980s that reminds you of the times when you knew less and it didn’t matter
  • in the kindness you show every single day to those you know and to those you don’t simply because the world deserves your care
  • in the absence of malice when you could have chosen otherwise
  • in the words “I am thinking of you”.

The search for simplicity may never end as we combat the avalanche of our modern world. I vote for its pursuit anyway.

In my view it is a battle worth attempting. Yes, indeed. It’s that simple.

Uprooted, upended, upside down

Change. The thing you find lying randomly on the sidewalk. And that other thing that defines what being alive means.

My one and only daughter turned eighteen the other day. I experienced a mixture of sadness and elation. Sad that her childhood is slowly coming to a close. And elated that she is now responsible (at least legally) for the actions she takes.

“I can shop online now!” she said.

“You can do your own paperwork now.” I said.

“I can drive a car now.” she said.

“You can look into how much it will cost. And pay for (most of) it.” I said.

Image used with permission (c) 2013 Klaus Polkowski

Image used with permission (c) 2013 Klaus Polkowski

Her younger brother congratulated her and said in the same breath, “Now you are no longer under Mom’s thumb. You can do whatever you want!” he said.

“I’m still under her thumb,” she said. “You’ll see.”

Ah yes. That pesky financial dependence thingy.

This past week we looked at a one-year college prep program. It is as far away as she could possibly get and still be in a German-speaking country. I duly took note of it, but then realized how perfect it all seemed for her. She will attend for a year, then see if she might apply elsewhere.

And when her birthday — in the midst of our college tour — came around, I felt the swirl of her roots, the tangle and gentle sprouts, twirling in a new direction, branching out farther away than I felt comfortable with and yet so appropriate to gain the nourishment they need to sustain themselves away from the Mother Tree.

I felt upended and it wasn’t only the grueling 1,000 mile drive that did it. It was the sense that freedom comes with a cost. She may not know it yet. But she will. And, speaking from experience: living in a different country will indeed be the best thing for her to experience what being on her own is really like.

I may never get over it. Neither will she. And that is exactly what is supposed to happen. Even when the tree topples.

Upside down and all.

When Great isn’t Good Enough

Even when we create miracles, sometimes the people who have asked for them aren’t able to receive them.

Life can be like that. And it’s frustrating. And somehow nearly amusing.

The smile hasn’t left my face in over an hour. It is an odd reaction, really, having just learned my major client will no longer be in need of my services.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Need and ability are too different things.

The client is no longer able to be in need of my services.

Despite the miracles created. Despite the level of effort. Despite the best foot put forward. Over. And over. And over again.

blueberrypieMy mama never told me life could be like that. She alluded to it with the “Did I ever say life was fair?” adage. But if you tried really hard, knocked things out of the park, did your very, very best, people were bound to reward you for it, right?

It turns out life is not about fairness at all. It is about the events and the moments to which we respond.

And my response is this:

Causality in this instance is misleading. You may do exactly what people ask and then they change their minds. Just like that. You did not cause their reaction. Something else did. And there you stand holding a steaming hot pie, that you thought might be blueberry, wafting a delicious aroma throughout the room that suddenly no one wants. Even though you strapped on your boots and hiked to the Andes to retrieve the berries. And then harvested the wheat to make flour until your hands bled. And ground the flax seeds until they turned to oil. And chopped down a tree to fire up the wood stove. And bent the iron cast to shape it into a pie form.

And you baked it and tended to it and stood proudly as it bubbled syrupy to the top.

The pie is burning my hands now. And yet my smile lingers, as if an inner knowing said: “You’ve been set free. You never wanted to be a baker anyway.”

When great isn’t good enough. Yes, life can be just like that.

Slow Culture, Fast World

The honeymoon is over. The bubble has popped. Reality slammed me in the face at 6 am this morning.

That tender space of suspending thinking, in which you float between the time you return from vacation and the return to the day-to-day, is filled with wonder. Your brain has emptied. Your thoughts are fluid. Your consciousness is elevated. You are on a cloud, feet barely scraping the ground. You wonder how long you can keep up the feeling. You hope it lasts far longer than it will. But you hope nonetheless.

2017-02-23 13.49.05“Maybe it will be different. This time.”

And then Monday morning comes. You wake up before the alarm with a startled thought. It’s nothing really. You made a less than optimal decision about something so banal that it’s not even worth thinking about. But you do. And then you get mad that your bliss has been disrupted by something so meaningless.

Just yesterday I chat with my neighbor, revealing I had just returned from the most life-changing trip to Nepal and India. His eyes lit up and he began his tirade about what’s wrong with Western civilization.

“Why do we keep running? Toward what?”

He summed it up beautifully.

“We are distracting ourselves from the thought of death.”

Perhaps he is right, I thought. But I wasn’t ready to take on those thoughts just yet. I guarded my bubble carefully, going on to my yoga class for a moment of “Om”.

In the evening I wasn’t feeling particularly fearful or distracted or worried or annoyed. I drank lots of water and went to bed early. And then morning came with the reality that I had some even harder decisions to make that might rattle even the most Zen-like person. I watched my age-old fear awaken from its slumber, stilled only for the time it took me to realize it is alive and well.

Stay in your center, stay in your center, I told myself as I brushed my teeth, feeling like Julia Robert’s character, Elizabeth Gilbert, in Eat, Pray, Love.

Momentarily, I have regained ground on myself. Filled with Slow Culture, I cannot deny that it feels strange to be back in a fast, fast world.

The feeling is slipping slightly. I have lost a noticeable grip on the ephemeral sensation of alignment. But I know where to get it when I really need it.

Deep within in the archives of my memory of what has been, what is and what shall be.

 

Our Nightmare Ride to Delhi on the Shanti Express

Life in India is like a mandala. So many pieces and parts, colorful and blending, fitting together in harmony in an ebb and flow of energy and stamina.

Roads in India sometimes abruptly end. Without warning. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Roads in India sometimes abruptly end. Without warning. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Nothing reflects that truth like a car ride on an Indian highway. The roads aren’t like the asphalt strips with which you may be familiar. They are ribbons of Earth and holes and dust — sometimes the roads cover miles made of tar. But always there is an abrupt ending, sometimes so sudden you have to screech to a halt to acknowledge them.

This man sells model airplanes near the airport outside Delhi. On the highway, where else? (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

This man sells model airplanes near the airport outside Delhi. On the highway, where else? (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

The road in India is also a place of commerce. A chance to sell toys or food or to beg for money inside the windows of stopped cars.

The gaps in the road are the kind of holes that make give your coccyx a new meaning in life. As the vehicle regretlessly slams your body to the ground without shock absorbers or any type of protection between you and the machine that carries you forth, your tailbone involuntarily stamps a circle in the sand, an ethereal moment of “Yes, I was here.”

We hired a car and driver to make it back to the country’s capital by lunch time.

We awoke to the sound of Sadus’ breath blowing through conch shells, their fingers laced over bells ringing in intervals. The music lured us out onto our balcony for one final look at Pushkar Lake before leaving for Delhi.

The driver greeted us at the hotel entrance in Pushkar. In the pitch black pre-dawn air, we only saw the glint of his eyes.

“Bonjour, ca va?”

We blinked, blinded by the darkness.

“Oui, ca va. Allons-y?”

Numbed by the early hours, we sat in the backseat, clutching our backpacks and wondering how long the ride would take.

The driver, who had introduced himself as Kamal and who had a French girlfriend (thus the greeting), tried to encourage our mood.

“You only need three things when travelling through India: Good brakes, good horn, good luck!”

It was only then that I observed his head periodically spitting brown juice out the window.

My well-travelled love explained:

“He’s chewing a stimulant to stay awake.”

It turns out he had been driving a young married couple since 10pm the night before. It was 5am and he had an eight-hour drive ahead of him.

He hadn’t slept a wink.

Horns in Indian traffic are desired -- and used often.

Horns in Indian traffic are desired — and used often. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

“Don’t worry, my dear,” my love assured me. “There’s so much to do while driving in India that he won’t fall asleep. Ever.”

Somehow I found his statement to be only vaguely reassuring. And I knew I wouldn’t be sleeping much either. In fact, I spent most of the eight-hour ride doing this:

Holding on for dear life. (2) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Holding on for dear life. (2) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

For the first two hours we drove in the dark, getting to know one another. I figured if we knew each other’s life

These mushroom-like bulges are transported everywhere and anyway they can.

These mushroom-like bulges are transported everywhere and anyway they can. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

stories, perhaps even loosely, it would create a bond that would hold us together – and out of harm’s way – for the duration of our ride to Delhi. We stopped for chai and what passed for coffee at a roadside stop. As dawn broke, we fell into a comfortable silence.

That is until, in the span of sixty seconds somewhere between breakfast and the first thought that my bladder might burst, we witnessed the following amazements:

 

  • a shepherd ushering a herd of cows across the entire six-lane highway crossing both directions;
  • a troop of camels hauling firewood and galumphing their load serenely to our left (on said highway);
  • a young child racing across three lanes to get to the other side;
  • tuk-tuks filled with twenty people that any Western family of four would consider tight for their standards; and
  • always, always, always the plea from trucks’ backsides to blow your horn.

Kamal got us to our hotel safely and in record time. He manoeuvred through potholes, toll booths, animal crossings and blinding sunlight. He is the only one working to support his entire extended family.

As I held on for dear life, I wondered if we were going to make it back in one piece. Occasionally, Kamal would spontaneously break out in song or chant something in Hindi. It sounded like a choral prayer and so I began to silently pray with him to the Shiva on his dashboard, then Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and Whoever Else Was Listening. His job is dangerous and he is not able to say “no” to 2 am requests like ours for delivering tourists to their destinations.

“My family is counting on me.”

We thanked Kamal for his courage for getting us to the city in tact.

May the mandala of life continue its endless cycle of flowing energy and endurance.

It was an experience of a lifetime I won’t ever forget.

Alright then...

Alright then… (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I lost count after 15 as to the number of people in this tuk-tuk. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

I lost count after 15 as to the number of people in this tuk-tuk. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

No doors? No problem! The easier to hang out the opening to ride along. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

No doors? No problem! The easier to hang out the opening to ride along. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

Oh the driver did. Constantly! (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Oh the driver did. Constantly! (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I deleted Facebook

Sometimes self-control is not enough. Sometimes you have to carefully position your own roadblocks to force saner living.

With the press of an “x”, I dismissed the vitriol that had become my daily breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not only have I found myself pining for past Republic administrations that now don’t “seem that bad”, I have also started missing those adorable cat videos and those pumped-up versions of themselves that people like to have us believe is true about their fabulous Facebooked lives.

no facebookI miss the tinge of envy I’d feel at pictures of palm trees in places I definitely was not.

I miss the giggles elicited from videos of furry animals, preferably baby ones, tumbling on top of each other.

I miss hoping someone will “like” my post because they like me.

I miss the Facebook I used to know that I’d sometimes playfully call “Fakebook” because we often use it to look better than we are.

But we have entered a new era now. Many of us have become activists, something I truly applaud. And what better way to broadcast sensible causes than the world’s largest online platform?

Unfortunately, there is a flip side to it. Facebook, in my view, has turned into a shouting match, a place of posturing and yes, at times, a platform to share invaluable information. But the more I’ve tried to digest the unfathomable messages, especially from politicians vying for fame and glory, the less I began to trust it as a source for anything real or true or good about this world.

What motivated me to finally hit the delete button on my iPhone app came after reading a post by a Kentucky Senator who mocked the women’s march, calling women “cute” in the most patronizing way possible.

In his eagerness to earn likes and commentary (at any cost, I might add), he has joined the legions of people who will do and say anything to attract attention. It is so sad.

A like is even more short-lived than a soap bubble on a hot July afternoon. It is meaningless if there are only words without positive action behind them.

It broke my heart to see how broken our system truly is.

Fighting against virtual reality is like trying to capture wind in your hands.

What could I possible do then, in the face of such powerlessness, to make a difference?

Then it hit me. I have invested so much time in conversations with people I don’t even know. What if I were to start conversations with the ones I do know? What if I were to reach out to someone in need, right here, right now, in front of my very eyes? What if I were to dedicate all the time I have spent clucking at the injustice online to a cause in my very own town? Not only would I feel better, but that person would too.

So that decides it. Less Facebook. More face time. In real life.

Yes, a new era has dawned and I am ready to take on the challenge. Will you join me?

 

Why I choose to march

It is time to put on those Big Girl pants and act. I have comfortably, and often not so quietly, lashed out at the state of the world. While it may have felt good for the moment, I knew my days as self-important, indignant complainer were numbered.

The moment we lose the will to do something about an issue is the moment we lose our right to complain about it. We need to take action now.

Remarkably, I have come to terms with the fate of our nation, at least for the moment. But that does not mean I have resigned myself to it. Like many of you, I experienced the five stages of grief as I realized how much power we were handing off to a man filled with vitriol, viciousness and vindictiveness. I oscillated between anger and despair, practicing the utmost restraint (and failing miserably) to not be swept up in the online venting we have witnessed since November 8th. Every day we were fed new fodder from well-meaning celebrities or Senators or reporters. It seems to fan the flame of hatred, catapulting so many of us into a new level of confusion.

Not all of my online interactions have been bad. Many of you have helped me see what I can do to make a difference. I have called my senator, signed numerous online petitions, voluntarily watched C-Span (!) and shared information with people far and wide. It may have budged the conversation only a millimeter for a nanosecond, but doing something felt like a better choice than doing nothing at all while saying even less with a ton of empty words.

It seemed, for a while, that if I fed facts to the faltering followers of the PEOTUS, I would gain new ground. I would, in some hapless way, save the world from its self-inflicted insanity.

It may appear arrogant, and perhaps you are right. I see now that I was wrong. We all have our entrenched ways of thinking. Words alone will not do it. For a writer, it is a hard pill to swallow. After all, don’t we shape the world with the words we share?

Talk without action, words without movement, will do little to sway the hearts we so desperately wish to reach.

And so I will march. On January 21, 2017 I will join the marching million on this planet who care deeply about the future of our world. Places as far as Tblisi, Georgia, Calcutta, India and Dublin, Ireland, Lima, Peru and Nairobi, Kenya are joining together to show their support. To show they care.

This is not just an American issue.

The nearest march to me is taking place in France. It seems appropriate — no essential — as an American living in Germany to participate in an act of peaceful demonstration in France to support all that I have said I care about. While it is easy to cackle at the mean memes circulating on Facebook, it will do nothing to solve the issues we face.

And so I will march.

My son, who is a budding photographer, will join me. My love and his kids will too. We will stand on an historic place in Strasbourg that has showcased many a demonstration in the city’s long history. We will unite to show that action can speak louder than words.

And so we will march.

We will build bridges, not walls, dialogue, not diatribe. We will stand up for what we believe in.

And that is saying a lot.

 

Happiness Before You

Some days I will search and search for “misplaced” sunglasses or keys or some such only to find the item right before my very eyes. I call the phenomenon “displacia”, an affliction caused by a crowded mind.

The search for happiness is similar. We think it isn’t “here” so we search and search for it elsewhere only to find (if we’re lucky) that happiness has been right before us all along. In fact, happiness cannot be pursued (although the Founding Fathers in the United States would have us believe it is our right to pursue it). It can only be discovered from within.

Perhaps it is the privilege of getting older, but I find sustained happiness to be easier now that I have found the secret to it. It has nothing to do with material gain or wealth or external adoration. It has everything to do with cherishing our innate joy with which each of us was born.

We receive the ticket to happiness the moment we arrive in this world. For some the road is long, the journey agonizing, the destination just ever so slightly out of reach. For others, who may experience similar things, the road is bumpy, yet instructive, the journey is challenging, but manageable, the destination irrelevant.

Resilience is essential to maintain that joyful equilibrium in the face of anything. Self-care ensures we remain centered in a state of abundance regardless of the circumstances. A sense of curiosity about the world provides a richness that no bank account can fulfill.

Happiness lies before you. Or better said: within you. There is no need to chase after that which you can create in the workshop of the heart.

Declutter the mind and happiness will follow.

Tug of War

It is so very tempting to split the world into us versus them. And if you examine yourself closely, you will recognize that there is a part of you that doesn’t look away when passing the scene of an accident. You might not physically look, but that 2% of yourself that wants to take a peek cranes its neck to look at the horror. So even in your “us”, you are a part of “them”.

Our fascination with the ugliness of life seems to be at an all-time high. We digest the diatribes, shake our weary heads at the injustice of the world, toss our hands heavenwards at the nasty behavior of a Delta Airlines passenger whose rants cost him a lifelong ban to ever fly with Delta again and feel sorry. So sorry. For ourselves and the state of our world.

Admittedly, I too have joined the lurking legions who read blog entries, newspaper articles and opinion pieces of those so deeply infuriated by the results of the US election. I am a part of the none too little fraction that is truly up in arms about the blatant lying and unfounded claims of Orange Boy. As I watch our society split into fractions, I realize that our anger is fueled by something even deeper than fear. It is fueled by hateful revenge on both sides.

You can’t build bridges by pointing fingers toward the other side of the river. You’ve got to make a plan, find common ground, view things from different angles and understand that together we are stronger. Apart we are broken. Apart we build walls. Apart we tear down cities, break hearts and destroy human dignity.

I am in no way condoning injustice or favoring acceptance of that which is utterly unacceptable. I am fighting for a collective spirit that is quickly evading my grasp.

(c) 2010 used with permission, Georg Sander, Flickr

(c) 2010 used with permission, Georg Sander, Flickr

A few years ago a boy in my son’s class was bullying my son. And so I went straight to the bully and said:

“You are far greater than this. What is going on? I mean really going on?”

The boy burst out in tears, saying his parents were separating and he was miserable. I gave him a big hug and told him his pain wouldn’t get any better by passing it on. Instead, it sounded like he needed a friend. And my son? He became that kid’s friend, easing his pain and letting him know he is not alone.

It may be hard to believe, but I truly do think that even that hillbilly on the Delta airlines flight loves his family. And if he does cry, he sheds salty tears like every other human being. His behavior was disruptive, grotesque and positively unacceptable. His outbreak frightened people. He has no right to do that. He should be prosecuted.

But he remains, as we all do, a human being. And we know human beings are capable of both good and bad. In fact, every human being is capable of both. Does a mean act justify an even meaner retaliation? If we lower ourselves to that level, we risk getting caught in a bottomless pit. When Orange Boy makes baseless claims, we retaliate not with meanness, but with cold hard facts.

As we tisk-tisk our way through Facebook, we may be frightened because we see our shadow side, that 2% we try so desperately to hide from the world. If you are human, you are able to build bridges or tear them down.

During these turbulent times, I am reminded of a beautiful Native American story. A grandfather tells his grandson that inside each one of us reside two wolves. One fights for goodness, justice and beauty. The other fights for evil, anger and wrong-doing. They are in a tug of war with one another at all times. When the grandson asked which one wins, the grandfather simply said:

“The one you feed.”

It takes the same amount of time to commit an act of kindness as it does to commit an act of meanness. How will you spend that time today?

 

Angry? Go Off(line)

The dream ended with a thought: one day even the Internet will be obsolete. One day everything will be.

The thought comforted me as I snapped on my phone in the middle of the night, unable to sleep as the turmoil of the past few weeks clouded my mind. It was most un-Slow of me to look to my phone for comfort instead of meditating or even doing one of those adult coloring books. But then, I thought, so what? In my recent efforts to be mindful, I have become too full of mind and less of the heart.

And so we return to the Source of All Things. That lovely energy that flows through us more strongly than any petulant, careless tweet from Orange Boy.

Love.

As I lay with my mind’s eye wide open, I tapped into that love flow. After a few deep breaths,  I caught the wave and harmonized with its intention.

We are here to make a positive difference. We are here to learn from one another. And to teach one another how we want to be treated.

Being a parent has helped me understand the value of being a role model in the world. How we behave truly matters. The Internet is not exactly the best place to be when trying to model good behavior on a bad day. It’s too tempting to engage in low-level anger. Flame wars and misinformation rage, especially in times of great distress. The term “information overload” has taken on a new meaning as we struggle to sort through the data and our own feelings about it.

Life offers us so many opportunities to show up greatly. We get to choose at any given moment how we wish to be. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it does not. But with every choice we make, we add a lesson to the overall curriculum of our lives.

And so when a friend, or someone you thought was a friend, turns his or her back on you, that person was meant to do so. Consider it sharpening the tools in your toolbox. You understand life is the greatest teacher. Perhaps that person was developing in a different way than you are. That’s okay. Let it go.

And when a client turns foul-mouthed, learn from it. His behavior speaks volumes. Walk away.

And when your family causes you great despair, know that it is a part of the great experiment called life. We cannot control other people’s actions or feelings, only our own.

Magic is everywhere if you have the eyes to see it. Believe it is so and it will be.