Archive for December, 2011


On December 18th Peter arrived in Seattle to spend my birthday and christmas with me. Yay!!!! After a morning with Penny we headed to San Juan Island to spend the week at Ryan’s. Ryan is one of Peter’s best friends from LEAPNOW, an experiential education program with a strong focus on travel and personal development and evolution, and for all of us to be in one place at the same time was definitely a dream come true for Peter and something I have also looked forward to.

When we arrived at Friday Harbor I got to meet Kaia, Ryan’s girlfriend, who is also a total sweetheart and would be spending the week with us as well. From the first night I could tell that this was going to be a good week.

Our first full day here we went on a hike which turned into an epic adventure of building a drift wood bridge over a lagoon. It took us about three hours but we succeeded! In the evening we went to cribbage night, where we played a close game of the girls vs. the guys. Girls won of course 🙂

On the 21st Ryan and I took a sunset solstice dip in the ocean; my first swim since arriving in the northwest! The water was cold, but honestly with Kaia’s wetsuit I felt surprisingly comfortable, and being someone who loves water I had been itching to get into the water. With the wetsuits we were able to put on snorkels and flippers and swim out into the bull kelp forest that grows just off the shore of Ryan’s parents beach house. The water was so clear! Very different from the Atlantic in the Northeast, at least where I have been. And of course Ryan knows tons about the critter of the ocean. We saw a crab, many star fish, a sun star, sea urchins, and of course, lots of bull kelp. Did you know that bull kelp are hollow and store CO2 within them? They also can be cut into rings, pickled and eaten. It was pretty cool to be out there in the ocean. I was also amazed at how buoyant I felt in my wetsuit; it was hard to dive down! but Ryan gave me a few pointers and I was able to get a a few feet under the surface.

Ryan and I after our solstice dip into the Pacific

My 23rd birthday was pretty much a perfect day in every way. It was understated, which is how I like things, no big parties, but three awesome people, and full of the outdoors and precious moments and experiences. We woke up early and caught the ferry to Orcas Island, known to some as the gem of the San Juan Islands, and the home of the highest peak on the islands; Mt. Constitution. After a stop in town where we bought some food and drank some delicious chocolate from around the world we headed to Moran State park, where Mt. Constitution is located. Before driving to the peak we took a few hours to hike around the lower parts of the park, which was filled with huge old growth Cedars, Doug Firs, and many other plants. With Ryan’s wealth of knowledge and Peter and my curiosity this hike quickly turned into a plant walk with us quizzing each other and asking about every plant we saw. I am getting better at telling the difference between a Grand Fir, Doug Fir, Lodgepole Pine, and Spruce. I also can now tell the difference between a Cedar and a Juniper, and am learning some of the native underbrush such as the salal, the oregon grape, nootka rose,  trailing blackberry, and bracken ferns, to name just a few. And then there is the weird, slimy orange fungi called Witch’s Butter! And these are only the plants that are still identifiable in the middle of winter! I love understanding the place I am in, and it is awesome to have someone like Ryan around who is probably one of the most knowledgeable people on the islands when it comes to natural history. Having a strong sense of place is something that he feels is really important and so he has made it a priority to understand his surroundings.

Me hugging a huge Doug Fir in Moran State Park

After our hike in the lower parts of the park, which included some beautiful waterfalls as well, we drove to the peak of Mt. Constitution. After we parked the car I ran to the top to discover one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. Imagine sparkling ocean dotted with islands all around you. And then, in the same view you have snow covered peaks on the horizon. AMAZING! I couldn’t help gasp at the beauty. And the sun was out, with just a few clouds for effect. I could not have asked for a more perfect day. And yet it got even better!

Ryan, Peter and I climbed to the top of the lookout tower they have on Mt. Constitution while Kaia went “to the bathroom.” But really she was going to get absolutely delicious carrot ginger vegan cupcakes that she and Peter and baked while Ryan and I had been swimming in the ocean. When Kaia walked in to the lookout tower and Ryan and Peter started singing I was totally surprised! What better way to spend my 23rd birthday then on the peak of the highest mountain in the San Juan Islands with an absolutely gorgeous view and three of my favorite people in the world.

Peter, Me, my cupcake, Ryan, and Kaia at the top of Mt. Constitution

I also learned that Kaia has a gift for giving presents. Although she and had only met me a few days before she and Ryan got me a watercolor postcard set. How perfect!

This blissful day continued as our next stop was Doe Bay, a little spa right by the ocean with soaking tubs and a sauna. Here we relaxed and soaked, two happy couples at the end of a wonderful day. There was even an ice cold natural spring to dunk into when you got too hot, and of course Kaia and I took advantage of this after getting nice and hot in the tubs.

Then it was finally time to head home, tired and happy. Once we reached home we opened a bottle of Peter and my homemade anniversary dandelion mead- quite yummy if I do say so myself, and I got two more wonderful presents from Peter. First was a delicious chocolate bar for us all to share and second was a beautiful, turquoise-green-blue shawl that will be perfect for meditation, the fancy occasion, and  perhaps to even curl up on the couch and read a book with. It truly was a perfect birthday.

The next few days were low key and gave Peter and I some good time to catch up and reconnect. Long distance relationships aren’t always easy but we both seem to be committed enough to make it work thus far.

Then came the Browne’s Christmas Eve party. Yummy food, some hilarious rounds of Telestrations, Christmas caroling (a tradition I have never experiences having grown up in a Jewish family) and more presents. Kaia continued to amaze me with her gift giving talents and gave me beautiful earings she had made herself; of course she remembered that I was worried my ears might close up as I hadn’t brought any earrings with me! And the earrings went perfectly with the shawl Peter had given me, which I was wearing for the night. And Ryan also gave me a perfect gift; Northwest Foraging by Doug Benoliel. I can’t wait till spring when I can try some of the recipes using foraged plants!

Christmas day was also wonderful and relaxed with a delicious christmas dinner that rivaled thanksgiving, provided by Ryan’s parents. Given that this was Peter’s last night it was only fitting that we ended with Ryan, Peter and I curled up on the couch in front of a fire having a juicy conversation about Nature and the Human Soul (a book by Bill Plotkin).

The 26th meant it was time for Peter to fly back to the Boston. This good bye was no easier than any other, but I know that we will see each other again and that both him and I are doing good work where we are that is necessary for our personal growth. And so with a few tears we gave each other hugs and I wished him safe travels and Ryan and I headed home alone.

Peter and Me on the top of Mt. Constitution with Mt. Baker in the background

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Man, I’ve fallen behind on blog posts due to the holidays…. Well, back tracking a bit, lets first go to my last week in Seattle with Penny ( Dec. 12th – 19th)…

This week has been a week full of exciting opportunities, connections, and learnings.

First, Penny got me in the door of one of the largest architecture firms in Seattle; Callison. Although the work that this firm does is, in many ways, on the opposite end of the spectrum from the kind of work I see myself doing I am always interested in learning about the other side and hearing other perspectives. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that at least some of the people in this firm were equally interested in hearing about my side of the building spectrum and what I am interested in doing. John, a wonderful Principal in the firm, was incredibly unassuming and talked with me with great interest for almost three hours! I showed him a bit of some videos about earthship building in Haiti as part of disaster relief efforts, some of my own drawings of houses I hope to build one day, and just shared my knowledge about the natural and alternative building world. It was quite an empowering experience to realize that I could reach across the lines of the building world and find a receptive audience.

After my visit to Callison Penny and I took a break from our architecture/building focused tour of the Seattle area and took a trip to Fidelity where I learned a bit about investing and money managing. Money is something that makes many people, including myself uncomfortable. Often I wish I just didn’t have to deal with it. But Penny has been really helpful in talking very frankly with me about money and walking me through things like why it might be important to start building a credit history or investing, and how one can make the system work for you. One thing Penny does, which I think is quite brilliant, is she uses a zero APR credit card to get miles for almost all her purchases and bill paying which has allowed her to travel on many of her trips practically free. And since she is good about managing her money she has never paid a cent in interest or other fees to the credit card company.

When Penny found out that I also knew nothing about investing she decided to invite me to come with her to Fidelity and learn a bit. I was a bit hesitant at first, and still have my questions and doubts about the world of investing, but I must say that the whole investing process seems much less scary and intimidating now. Here is how I understand it (beware, I am NOT and expert, so don’t take my word on any of this money stuff); there are four “pots” that people generally put their money into: 401k’s, IRA’s, Taxable accounts, and emergency money.

A 401k is always attached to an employer. It is money that you ask your employer to take directly out of your paycheck, before taxes, and put aside to invest in a pool of mutual funds that they have already chosen. Often employers will match what you put in your 401k up to a certain percentage of your total paycheck. This match is basically free money that you can now use to invest, so I can’t see a reason to not at least put as much money as they will match into your 401k. But, this money cannot be touched until you are 59, at least with current laws.

Then there is an IRA: an Independent Retirement Account. There re two main kinds of IRA’s: Traditional and ROTH IRA’s. Traditional IRA’s are money you set aside to invest that is not yet taxed. So when you reach retirement age (59) and take that money out you will have to then pay taxes on however much you now have. A ROTH IRA, on the other hand, is an account in which you put money to invest after taxes. So, lets say you put $5000 in that account. Then you would pay taxes on that original $5000 but when you go to take the money out at age 59, even if that money has now grown to 1 million through investing, you do not have to pay any additional taxes. That is kind of incredible, if you ask me. Any money put in an IRA cannot be touched until you are 59, but one could at a certain point decide that you have made enough money and do not want to risk a market crash and pull the money out of all stocks, bonds, etc. and just let it sit in your IRA. Or, you could put the money in lower risks investments, such as only bonds and CD’s. There is also something called a SEP IRA which is for people that are self employed. These work like a traditional IRA, so they are before taxes, but one thing I am not clear on is why a self employed person cannot have a ROTH IRA since as far as I can tell IRA’s in general are independent retirement accounts and not attached to an employer.

Then there are your taxable accounts, which are just things like your savings and checkings account from which you can invest money at will and take money whenever you want (You don’t have to wait until you are 59 to touch this money).

The last pool is your emergency money, which is money you will not invest and is basically always available. Remember, money invested is not really available for your to spend until you sell the stock or bond. So your emergency pot is the money you keep under your mattress for hard times, if you know what I mean. And it seems that it would always be smart, if possible, to have at least 1 year’s worth of saving in this pot in case you lose your job and/or the market crashes, or both happen at once….

So those are the four pots of money. And then you have the different kinds of investments you can make with money from each of these pots (except the last, emergency pot. That stays out of the volatile hands of the market).

First there are mutual funds, which are a portfolio of companies or stocks that change in order to maintain the goal of the mutual fund, which, for instance, could be at least 5% returns annually. These are generally pretty low risk but also somewhat lower returns.

Then there are Index funds. These have a predetermined set of companies rather then a predetermined goal of a certain amount of returns. So, for example, an index fund might consist of 5 of the largest companies in the world, or it could be focused on socially responsible, small businesses, or businesses related to the computers software…. My understanding is Index funds can be higher risk then mutual funds but they can also have much higher returns if chosen carefully.

Then there are Bonds. A bond is basically an amount of money you “loan” to a company that they then pay back to you over a set amount of time with a set amount of interest. So you generally know exactly how much you will make if you keep your bond for the life of the bond. These are low risk for exactly this reason. But you could still be screwed if the company from which you bought the bond were to tank.

Lastly there are CD’s, or certificates of deposit. These are like bonds but you buy them from the bank, so they are even more secure. They are actually government insured so even if the bank were to fail, for some reason, to pay you back the government would pay you. But the interest rates are also generally much lower so the gains are much smaller.

Overall, it seems that most people recommend maintaining diversity with all these different kinds of investments; having some in lower risks investments and some in higher, and also diversifying in the kinds of companies and stocks you invest in; large, medium, or small, and once focused more on value, growth, or a blend of the two. And, on a site like fidelity.com you can look at all these different kinds of investments and buy and sell them on your own right from the site if you hold an account with fidelity.

Ok, enough talk about money. Back to architecture, building, and design….

A few days later Penny and I met with Martha Rose, a woman who is doing her part to make an impact on the building world. Martha comes from a construction background but now designs and builds extremely tight homes in the Seattle area. She strives to build homes that are highly efficient, comfortable, and use as little chemically treated materials as possible. Her homes are in many ways catering to those who experience chemical sensitivities. For me, the most inspiring part was to see a woman builder who does not have an architectural background but is designing the homes she builds and is succeeding in making a living building these homes and marketing them to the mainstream.

After receiving a tour of Martha Rose’s latest project, City Cabins,  we went to meet with Terry Phalen, who is the founder of living Shelter Design, a small architectural firm. Terry is a licensed architect but she got her license not by going through an architectural program but by apprenticing with architects and then taking the licensing exam. This is something that can only been done in some states, Washington being one of them, and an architectural license obtained in this way is also only recognized in certain states.  As I learned about Terry’s alternative path to becoming an architect I also found out that another possible way to become an architect is to do a 2 to 3 year master’s program rather than go through the usual five year programs. These were all interesting alternatives that I will keep in mind for myself if I find that a license or degree in architecture is something that I want. But it was also interesting sitting at a table with Terry and Penny and hearing from both of them that hands on building experience is not something that most architects have and both of them seemed to agree that an architectural degree or license may not be necessary for the kind of work that I want to do. They also pointed out that with an architect’s license comes increased liability and responsibility, so in some ways less freedom to be creative or take small risks. Its like being a doctor; once you have an MD you are also liable for malpractice and expected to deliver a certain quality of care.

The finale of our day was meeting Sam, a friend of Penny’s that I knew from way back in Boston and getting a tour of Sam’s kung fu teacher’s place. Johann, Sam’s kung fu teacher, has a sweet set up on a piece of land that he has been working on for years. He has created a maize through an edible forest garden that he has been growing for over 15 years! In this maize he has many different species of bamboo, fruiting trees, and little boardwalks, to name just a few things. His land also had lots of out buildings that demonstrated creative ways to build alternatively but still to code, including a yurt, a beautiful little “god house,” which is basically a little temple, and and kung fu training room with a rope ladder up to a second floor!

For now, I think continuing to gain hands on building skills through apprentice like programs is what interests me most. Two “schools” that I have bookmarked in my mind as possibilities for my future are Yestermorrow, and the Earthship Biotecture Academy.

Yestermorrow especially intrigues me. It is a design and build school in Vermont  that offers over 15o different hands on courses and a range of options for how one can enroll, from taking individual courses that range from a day to 2 or more weeks long when one has time and money to do so, or doing a certificate or semester program, or interning and obtaining a certain amount of class hours for free in exchange for “work,” which really sounds in itself like a hugely educational experience.

So there are my highlights from my last week in Seattle with Penny. It’s amazing how much you can learn without actually being in school when you have a little bit of time on your hands and the freedom to follow your own interests.

Some quotes Penny has shared with me

“and the time came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”  – anais nin
“What you bring to a relationship are your roots. What you give to each other are wings” – unknown

So, the last person I found who was building there own cob house at Dancing Rabbit I first thought was a woman but then realized is probably actually a man. Still cool, but not quite as cool.

But at my meditation retreat I met a young woman, small and petite like me, who has just put the roof on her own earth bag house that she is building in Taos, NM! Talking to her made me light up. She did it all herself, with no prior relevant experience and in less than a year she has the roof on! Her house is close to 500 square feet (around what I am thinking for mine) and from pictures it looks amazing!

She said building became like her meditation practice. The idea came to her soon after her first 10 day Vipassana sit and she just started reading and reading and drawing plans and then she broke ground! In her own words, when she started she didn’t even know what a 2×4 was! And now she has almost completed her wonderful home. It was all she did for about nine months. She is also a nomad in many ways and she said she was just craving having a place she could call her own. And now she has it! What a beautiful and inspiring story that feels like it mirrors my own journey in many ways and is a sign telling me, yes, I CAN DO THIS! And what does she want to do as her own home project is coming to a close? Build more.

Her wonderful blog is alysearthbaghome.blogspot.com.

Hmmm… How to write about 10 days of silent vipassana meditation…. 110 hours of silent sitting…. (yup I did the math while sitting.)

Day 0: Ok, I can totally do this. Other people are nervous too, so that is normal. Oh my! Look at this beautiful place! Is that Mount St. Helen’s in the distance covered in snow?? … oh wow! A deer! Hello there. I almost didn’t see you munching on the bushes. And an owl! Owl of wisdom. That is a good sign 🙂 Yes. I will be alright…. Hmmm… I don’t really like Goenka’s chanting… I hope this isn’t going to be 1o days of listening to that.

Day 1: Up before the 4 am bell. I guess I am excited. Beautiful white frost all around. 4:30 am I am in the meditation hall. It is peaceful and quiet. I like this 🙂

Day 2: Oops. Slept through the 4am bell. Glad I heard the 6:30 am bell and didn’t miss breakfast! Ok, this is getting harder. Focus on the respiration. Yes, the breath, the breath…. Oh my dream house. How would I build the bed? And it should have a meditation nook that will look like this. What about that dilemma of the cooking stove…. Oh wait, I am supposed to be meditating. Focus on respiration….

Day 3: Focus on respiration. The breath, the breath…. I want my house to be part of a community. The land would be a beautiful south facing hill with a river at the low point and mountains in the distance. There would be just a few houses, all built using different natural building techniques…. and by the roadside we could have a little store for our CSA, community member’s arts and crafts, maybe a few offices…. Oh the breath, right. The breath…… Zzzzzzz Zzzzzzzzz….. Zzzzzz…. what? oh yeah, right. meditation. Not sleep. The breath the breath….  We should have a gong, yes, like the meditation gong here, rung for meals, wake up, and meditation times. Yes what a nice way to call people to meetings or announce a meal! … Focus on respiration, respiration…. Ok, thats it, I am going for a walk…. Ahhh fresh air. Look at these grand firs! So many grand fir trees. But grand firs usually die young due to some beetle or fungus and the douglas firs usually take over. Hmmm… Well, that does look like a christmas tree farm in the distance. That makes sense as those are usually grand firs… meditative walking, right. The breath, the breath…. Oh! Look at the deer! Mama with who two babies leaping. Awww. They look so free and joyous! All these little signs saying course boundary; no students beyond this point. But what’s down that path? Hmmm… if I ran would they chase me? Ok, I am being silly, this isn’t prison this is a meditation retreat!

Day 4: Focus on the breath, focus on the breath…. ok, this focus on the breath thing is getting old. Am I really not even half way through? I told myself this is only ten days of my life. Ten Looooong days…. Oh, but today is Vipassana day! Wait, are you telling me that for the last three and a half days we have not been doing Vipassana???!!! WHAT? This better be good…. “Now, … from top of the head to tip of the toes, tip of the toes to top of the head, top of the head to tip of the toes, tip of the toes to top of the head…” You have got to be kidding me. That is Vipassana? That’s it!? What have I gotten myself into. Can I really do this? Ok, bed time. Sleep and tomorrow is a new day. Sleep…. sleep…. What time is it? 10:30 pm… still no sleep. 11:pm still no sleep. Ok, it’s midnight and I have still not fallen asleep. This is not ok. First I can’t seem to keep myself awake during meditation and now I can’t fall asleep.

Day 5: Me: “Teacher, I can sleep *sobs* I am exhausted and cranky and I can’t sleep.” Teacher: “Yes, that is a common affect of meditation. Try not to get worked up about it and just be aware of your sensations and breath as you lie there.” …. Ok, lets give this Vipassana thing another try. Top of the head…. tip of the toes… tip of the toes… top of the head… wow what is that sensation? Its like shivers but not quite… tingles all over! This is it, isn’t it? This is what it is about! But wait, don’t crave this. No craving or aversion. No craving or aversion. Equanimity. Equanimity. Equanimity.

Day 6: What is this whole idea of enlightenment anyway!? I mean, you sit and meditate your whole life and then you leave enlightened and then what? You are done? I like this world. How is this any different then a religion where you are living for whatever comes after? …. and Goenka says the enemies of any meditator are drowsiness, agitation or sleeplessness, and doubt and uncertainty…. Did he know I was doubting everything? How did he know??

Day 7: Well, I am here to give this technique a fair trial. Lets put aside the doubt and work. Just for four more days. That isn’t too bad…. Top of the head, tip of the toes… tip of the toes, top of the head…. ouch, pain…. tip of the toes…. top of the head…. ooo, pleasant sensation…. top of the head…. ouch, more pain…. tip of the toes…..

Day 8: Ahhh, So this is what a meditative space feels like….. such peace, such calm…. such equanimity! such quiet…. yes, I want to keep this quiet….

Day 9: Ahhh, more peace…. head…. toes… head… toes…. ouch! that hurts there…. ok, breathe…. head…. toes… head…. toes…. still hurts…. head… toes… head…. ahhh, tingling…. toes… head…. still hurts…. What a beautiful full moon! Such a perfect last night.

Day 10: Wow, is that really a full lunar eclipse?? Yes, I think it is! I wish those trees weren’t quite as tall so I could see just a little better! …. Today there is no more Noble Silence? We can talk?? I am not sure how I feel about that…. ok, I can do this. Go out of the meditation hall. Yes, I can do this…. Uh oh, nope. Too much sound. That laughter is waaayyyy too loud. Turn around. Go back in… Ahhh yes, quiet…. Peace…. Ok, I have to go get lunch soon… Go back out, walk around alone first…. Ok, brace yourself. You can go into the dining hall…. WOW! SO LOUD! One BIG hummmmmm of SOUND! …. Ok, it’s ok. Here comes the girl who shares my birthday! Yup, we are both capricorns, born on december 22nd, an hour away from each other, twelve years apart. So we are both dragons as well! Ok, I will get food and go sit with her. It will be ok….

Day 11: Time to leave. All this talking is bring back the skepticism. Are we really all expected to blindly accept this practice? Goenka says look at all the happy faces; notice the difference from before the course. Come on, Goenka! We were all nervous before and now we have all be released from ten days of torturous ten hour a day sitting in complete silence! Of course we are happier now! No way am I gonna be able to meditate every day for two hours… And if I don’t what are you, Mr. Goenka, gonna do about it?? Who cares if by the tenth day I actually liked your chanting…. Ok, back at Penny’s now and I want to meditate. Yes, I admit it, I want to…. Ahhh, so soothing, relaxing, calming…

***

So hopefully some of you got some amusement out of that 🙂 Planning on writing this, oh, somewhere on day 6 or 7, definitely amused me during my meditation. But maybe it is one of those things where you have to be there.

All in all though, I think I really did get a lot out of the course and it will serve me very well into the future. I now feel like I get meditation; I understand what it means to meditate. This is huge for me as before it was always hard for me to tell if I am meditating or just sitting. What’s the difference? And what is the point, really, of all this sitting? But now I think I have gotten a little glimpse of what is the point, and that is invaluable and something I will bring with me to any other meditation practice I try.

Yes, I did have a lot of skepticism come up in me  at different points in the course (all that education teaching me to think critically and all those north east intellectual skeptics….) but I also am already feeling like the practice itself has indeed done something for me. And that, the practical benefits of practicing, whether or not I believe or agree with all the philosophy, is another invaluable tool for me.

Thirdly, despite the many different, sometimes ridiculous paranoid critiques of buddhism I came up with during the course, the hour long dhamma talks given each evening were a wonderfully entertaining crash course in Buddhist philosophy. Goenka has a wonderfully adorable Indian accent and provides a very structured and clearly thought out progression of practice and philosophy that, for the most part, built off each other and helped me “speak the language” of Vipassana. As I have often found before, obtaining just a small piece of knowledge often lets you know just how much you don’t know but gives you the tools to now ask the questions and find the resources to continuing gaining the knowledge and exploring. Each piece of knowledge leads to more questions and more desire to experience and learn, and that, in my mind, is how it should be. With this new experience and new vocabulary a whole new world to explored has begun to be unveiled to me. I am excited to see where it takes me. May all being be well. May all being be happy! Remember, everything is Anicca (always changing). Yup, that’s right, the whole world, including you, is just made up of all little wavelets of constantly changing, vibrating molecules.

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