schirin oeding

under a peregrine star


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Swimming Lessons

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Life at university has felt like a series of dips into a deep, deep pool. The bottom is still murky, but the possibility of diving, deeper and deeper, is exciting. There are gems and secret doors, portals, to be found. It’s a process of exploration, and experimentation—of again and again refining my ability to notice and see.

What drives someone to keep studying (at a university, in this case)? A professors asked a group of us students this question sometime last week. Is it money? Is it the possibility of a brilliant career? Is it an inability to imagine other options? Or is it a deep hunger, a ravenous sense of curiosity? Take your pick, and I’ll take mine—and perhaps you can guess that it’s the latter.

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Here are a few dives into this deep pool—a few little gems (and splinters):

(All these pictures are, like the words, glimpses of this place. It’s all Germany—bogs, and lakes, and gummy bear cakes.)

In my economics lecture, we were told, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Most people in the lecture hall took this as a given—isn’t it something economists have believed for almost ever? Nothing, no nothing is free or comes without trade-offs. Still, there was a rumbling that went through the hall. A little huff of disappointment, maybe. Aren’t most of us still trying to be optimists? Somewhere to my left, a hand popped up and a small-ish voice said, “And what about sunshine? And love?”

(And yes, well, who cares if the asker is right or not. There must be room in our hearts for a little nebulous selflessness.)

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On a disoriented bike ride that was supposed to take me from the university down into town, I pedalled, accidentally, into a field of brilliant flowers. Cosmos, sunflowers valiantly blooming away the October blues, dahlias, malvas, zinnias, statice, sky-blue cornflowers. A little sign hanging from a post read, “Pick your own flowers.” Underneath the sign hung a little jar with a coin-sized opening. Two knives were provided. I got home with a backpack full of flowers, of course.

I discussed weather with a new friend from central Africa. We’re sitting outside, and I’ve stripped off shoes and socks. The grass is damp, but warm enough for autumn, thanks to the sun. He laughs. At home, he tells me with a smile, it’s never less than 20 degrees Celsius. I impress him with my story of living in a canvas yurt during a northern Vermont winter. I describe the feeling of blinking in weather so cold your lashes freeze together in an instant. I gleefully count layers for him: scarf, mittens, hat, sweater, thermals, woolen socks (2 pairs, maybe), felt-lined boot or mukluks… I get enthusiastic about ways to avoid frostbite. I suspect I adore winter. Together, we worry about this upcoming season in Germany: will it be too cold (him)? will it be unspectacularly balmy (me)?

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I go to class in a castle. It’s got an undeniably magical quality to it. Most people are blasé. They shlump around from class to class, trailing backpacks, coffee mugs, textbooks, stopping to smoke their cigarettes in hasty puffs. I, on the other hand, get giddy just thinking about it. Yeah, childish, perhaps. I might get over it. But I doubt it.

Little inklings of homesickness, every once in a while, have left me breathless. I’m falling for this place, but there’s still the essence of who I am—mostly, it’s a yearning for specific people, or trees and trees and rocks. Distance. Wildness. My cat. A certain smell almost moves me to tears. Woodsmoke still clinging to a sweater I haven’t worn in a year. I crave a spectacular October frost, the kind that leaves everything covered in diamond dust. And at the same time, there are a dozen or more hands reaching out to me wherever I turn, and for this I am so grateful.

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Impostor Paints Picture

“As it is, we are merely bolting our lives—gulping down undigested experiences as fast as we can stuff them in—because awareness of our own existence is so superficial and so narrow that nothing seems to us more boring than simple being.  If I ask you what you did, saw, heard, smelled, touched and tasted yesterday, I am likely to get nothing more than the thin, sketchy outline of the few things that you noticed, and of those only what you thought worth remembering. Is it surprising that an existence so experienced seems so empty and bare that its hunger for an infinite future is insatiable? But suppose you could answer, “It would take me forever to tell you, and I am much too interested in what’s happening now.” How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such a fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself as anything less than a god? And, when you consider that this incalculably subtle organism is inseparable from the still more marvelous patterns of its environment—from the minutest electrical designs to the whole company of the galaxies—how is it conceivable that this incarnation of all eternity can be bored with being?”

~ Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

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(I’ll spend no time recounting what has happened since the last post. Why? Why not? It’s too much to tell, here, and more than enough of it has seeped through to all future words you’ll find here. I’ll keep consistently wallowing in inconsistency, I promise.)

Paying close attention to details has always been a skill of mine. Maybe it’s my superpower? It’s my refuge from the almost constant feeling of being out of place. At my college commencement a few years ago, our speaker introduced us green grasshoppers to the thrilling (ahem) official term for this feeling: impostor syndrome, she called it. Way to send us off into the world, you say? Well, why not. The fact is, I’ve found this definition delightfully useful. And flattering, since she put herself into this same category I immediately assigned myself to. Impostor syndrome: it sure put a handle on this feeling, which I safely say I’ve had almost my whole life, of being a foreigner somehow mistaken for someone else (someone who should be here, in this place). Don’t get me wrong—it’s not about feeling excluded or uninvited. It’s the feeling, which many of us have, of having been undeservedly included in some inner circle. Of looking out from the inside, rather than looking in from the outside.

When we watch something, we’re generally not participating in the same way we would be were we not consciously watching. We become impostors in a slightly different sense. Actually, it probably boils down to obsessive constant vigilance. (Two words that always make me think of the Harry Potter character Mad-Eye Moody. Remember him?) It’s fun to indulge in this obsession every once in a while—though I try to leave it behind on a healthily regular basis, too—especially when exploring new places.

I’m thinking about all this as I wander the streets of one of my favourite cities: Portland, Oregon. It’s hot and breezy, and the air is tinged with the scent of jasmine and buddleia. A homeless man (by the looks of him) is picking unripe rosehips from a rose bush by the side of the road and popping them into his mouth, one at a time. He chews slowly, eating around the seedy centre, which he spits out with an enthusiastic “Thwack.” His hands meander over the rosehips left on the bush, deftly examining them before choosing another one. On the other side of the street, small wooden tables crowd the sidewalk. It’s before noon, and men with sylvan tattoos and Converse sneakers drink coffee, while women in short skirts and bare backs sneak sidelong glances at their Iphones. An old dark blue Volvo pulls up beside me—no rust: it’s the West Coast, after all. On its roof, rolled up tightly and bungee-corded to the roof-rack, are carpets and black rubber dry-bags, the kind usually used for camping. The car itself is stuffed to the roof with duffle bags and boxes of books, stray volumes propped unintentionally open at some page or other. From the rear-view mirror dangles a tightly wrapped bundle of smudging sage, its edges already singed. Colourful feathers crowd the dash. A man emerges, smoothes one hand over his hair—which is long, gathered in a ponytail that reaches the small of his back, and used to be blond.

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I started listening to recordings of Alan Watts when I was about sixteen. A friend gave me a collection of CDs, long, meandering Watts oratories that I listened to over and over again. I think it was in these recordings that I first learned about what Watts refers to as “witnessing.” I spent weeks trying to perfect this method of imagining myself floating a few feet above myself, just watching. What ended up happening, in the process, was that I learned to pay better attention to the world around me. It’s a skill that’s come in handy often. The world, in fact, is endlessly entertaining.

The long-haired man from the dark blue Volvo makes his way to the sidewalk, where he walks over a tiny literary detail in the pavement. Someone, at some time, scratched the words “Wow = Me” into the setting cement. Certainly better than “Woe = Me” isn’t it? I like it. He ambles off into a nearby building and is gone. The Volvo stays behind, windows rolled slightly down, metal crackling in the mid-morning heat. A few steps further down the street, someone has parked an old VW Westfalia—hands down one of my favourite cars. This one’s acid green, rusty in spite of its California plates, and bedazzled with bumper sticker upon bumper sticker upon bumper sticker.

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The poet Mary Oliver said it best, or at least, most simply:

Instructions for living a life.

Pay attention.

Be astonished. 

Tell about it. 

The tiny details of the every day are indeed the secretest (a word? why sure it is.) and simultaneously most accessible of messages from the universe. They are the dialogue between the semi-permeable realm of magic and enchantment that hovers just behind us and the tangible world we think we live in. These details are, if nothing else, fodder for stories. And stories are the building-blocks of our lives, so what better way to begin a story than by paying attention?

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PS— Don’t think the magic is real? Try thinking about it this way.


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Let the beauty we love be what we do

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Hiya friends,

It’s been a little while since my last post (all about student debt), and here’s why: since last Sunday, I have been sequestered away on the campus of a beautiful center for holistic learning with a group of twenty-eight brilliant minds, delving into a six-week course of study ranging from permaculture, agriculture, and resilient design all the way to biomimicry and forest mapping. Life on campus is slowly setting into a routine, which includes daily yoga classes, swimming, journalling, work, and maybe some ice cream, too—and our 9am-5pm class, of course! Our first days were spent working with architect-turned-green builder Bill Reed. With Bill, the over-used, misunderstood concept “sustainability” was on the chopping block. I’m still digesting many aspects of our examinations from those days, so I won’t say much here. Just a few tidbits I picked up, to jog the memory and maybe spark some ideas:

  • The major problems of the world are based on the difference between how nature works and how people think (or are taught to think).
  • Resilience is the threshold of sustainability.
  • When designing, remember: the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts.
  • All life can be seen as a balance of activating and restraining forces. When the two meet, we face an option: compromise (and loose something on both sides) or reconcile (and identify potential).
  • Life is exchange.
  • Become a tracker: look for patterns everywhere.

Bill’s time with us was brimming with information, stories, examples, and design guidelines. It was rich and nuanced and colourful. His classes left me exhausted and curious, inspired, and tired. 🙂

Ethan Roland, of Appleseed Permaculture in Stone Ridge, NY, was our next teacher. Ethan’s focus, of course, was permaculture design. The groundwork we had done with Bill suddenly gained dimensionality. With Ethan, we spent time outside (phew! finally!), sitting and walking in the woods, and examining the minutia of our classroom building, which is nested inside a living machine (check it out) that processes about 50,000 gallons of  wastewater per day—oh, and no, it doesn’t smell. Again, I’ll leave you with a few tidbits from my notebook:

  • “Permaculture emerged as an immune defense to the degradation of the land.” —Bill Mollison (one of the first permaculture designers and teacher in Australia)
  • (Bill Mollison also said, “Permaculture is the art of not shitting where we sleep.” So there.)
  • A simple exercise you can do: draw a map of your personal needs and yields. Remember that your yields include things like creativity, ideas, love, toenail clippings, manure, and carbon dioxide.
  • What you design and plant should yield more than it needs.
  • Remember: humans can be positive co-creators of their eco-systems!
  • Understand the patterns of place. (Aka. Become a tracker: look for patterns everywhere.)

All that is just a tiny glimpse I wanted to share. More will come! The title of the post is quoted from a poem by Jalal al-Din Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks. One of the magical things about being here is the convergence of seemingly unrelated streams—becoming a tracker reveals worlds hiding in plain sight. Last night, for example, I attended a reading: Coleman Barks reading and reciting Rumi poems, accompanied by David Darling on cello and Glen Velez on hand drums. So many of the poems I heard last night struck me right at my core: design is just another word, but life, that process of becoming, has the potential to be a real masterpiece. So, let the beauty we love be what we do.

I want to leave you with a short video showing Bill Mollison in his Australian garden. Maybe you’ll be charmed, too.

xo


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Newly Minted

I resisted doing the blog thing for the following reasons:

1. It’s been done. And what could be worse (and more unavoidable, apparently) than being unoriginal?

2. I was lazy. I say “was” simply because I am no longer lazy. I’m not. Really. Ever.

3. I couldn’t figure out how to make my blog look as fancy as all the other nifty blogs I read. I still haven’t figured it out, but I am working on getting over it/not having blog-envy/being satisfied with (hopefully temporary) blog mediocrity.

4. I run out of things to write about.

Whatever the case may be. I am happy you’re here. I’m here, too, and so that makes two of us. It’s a party. I just celebrated my twenty-forth birthday, and by way of celebration, I made all kinds of resolutions (like you do), and this blog is step seventeen or something in keeping them. Another one is running three times a week. I am well on the way to success on that one, actually. Though I have yet to get over the pointlessness of running nowhere. I’m not very zen. Nevertheless, springtime is providing a variety of entertainment on my tri-weekly runs: green grass, flowers, melted ice. And the feeling afterwards is fantastic. As they say, it’s “type two” fun: the kind that’s great when it’s over. I’m preparing myself physically for a month of haying by hand (with scythe and rake) at 45˚ slopes in the Swiss Alps. That is not a joke. This will be followed by wall building as well as long-distance bicycling. The “long-distance” part may be up for interpretation. I say 200km is far. Like everybody else, all my resolutions are three parts self-improvement, and twelve parts self-entertainment. Adventure-seeking. Thrill-seeking? Perhaps. (Though Tuesday morning jogging is far from it, I admit.)

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Switzerland (2011): Tools of the Trade