Monday, November 21, 2011

Canning Tomatoes

Ah, a rainy day free from teaching commitments, a day to have a leisurely yoga practice, putter around the house, perhaps spend some time curled up with a good book and lovely cup of tea. But wait... who put those two huge boxes of tomatoes on my porch? I did?

Oh well, so much for tea and a book, I'll be processing these tomatoes for a few hours, at least. Step one: round up pint canning jars, lids, and rings. Step two: wash out the water bath canner, and get it going on the stove. Step three: wash tomatoes, while watching golden leaves leap and dive outside the window. Step four: drop tomatoes into boiling water to loosen their skins. Step five: put on some good music- this is going to take awhile. Step six: I may need that tea after all. Step seven: where was I?

Oh yes, I believe I was up to my elbows in beautiful red and yellow tomatoes from the Elmer Farm! I put the peeled tomatoes into two large pots on the stove, to cook them down a bit. Usually about half way through this process I begin asking myself WHY  I took on this project. It's not like I can't go to the store any day, in any season, and pick up a can of tomatoes. So why do I do this, year after year?

One of my favorite folk singers, Greg Brown, sings about his grandmother "putting summer in a jar." There is something amazing about that flavor we capture, when we take the time to put our harvest into mason jars. I guess that's why I make homemade salsa, applesauce, blueberry jam. All of these things are easily purchased, and when you add up the expense of buying fruit, canning jars, and electricity to heat water and run the stove, it probably doesn't save much money to do it yourself. But whether or not it makes economic sense, it makes sense in my heart, when I see all those jars lined up on the pantry shelves.

And Muir Glen, the brand of canned organic tomatoes, is owned by General Mills, the same company that brings us Cocoa Puffs, Lucky Charms,  and Count Chocula "breakfast cereals." I'd much rather give my money to the Elmer Farm!

A beautiful Buddhist teaching describes the Jeweled Net of Indra. This mythical net unfolds infinitely in every direction. At each node of the net is a multi-faceted jewel, sparkling with light, and reflecting the brilliance of all the other jewels at every other node in the net. A metaphor for the interconnectedness of all things, Indra's net reminds us of how we are all woven together, and can reflect one another's light. Some scientists have suggested this analogy as a way to describe the universe and the functioning of the human brain!

For some reason, buying my winter supply of tomatoes from my good friends down the road, and putting them up in jars I've used season after season, helps me feel more connected to the section of Indra's net that we call Addison County, Vermont.

There are so many forces beyond my control, so many things I wish I could change. I wish I could wave a wand and stop arms merchants from profiting from human suffering on every continent. I wish I could give my daughter and all our children a world free from war. I wish I could sequester all the carbon heating our precious earth, and give every village in the world clean, pure water to drink. But for today, it may just have to be enough to can some produce. Now the 21 gleaming pints of tomatoes are on the shelf. They look like jewels to me.


This was previously published in the Addison Independent under the title "Canning Tomatoes on a Rainy Day."

Friday, September 23, 2011

Getting in Trouble

I got in trouble, a little bit, teaching my yoga class yesterday. I came into class quite upset, and decided to share where I was with my students. Usually I put my burdens aside, before I begin teaching, but this day was different. Not even twelve hours before I began teaching, the state of Georgia had executed Troy Davis, an innocent man.

When we had gone to bed the night before, there was a small glimmer of hope.The execution had been at least temporarily stayed, while the Supreme Court decided whether or not it would rule on the case. When we woke up in the morning, in our soft bed, in our cozy home, we got the news that the Supreme Court had declined to rule, and the execution had gone forward.

I was raised to oppose the death penalty, although my home state of California frequently executes those it deems deserving of the ultimate punishment. My parents believe it is wrong for the state to have the power to kill its citizens, and I grew up hearing about the racism and injustice in how the death penalty is administered. You are so much more likely to receive this punishment if you are poor and black!

One of my students did not appreciate my bringing my views on capital punishment into the yoga room, and she had the courage to say so. But yoga is just such a rich and complex subject. There is no area of our embodied life it does not touch on, so nothing is off limits for discussion during class! I also feel strongly that if we don't have the courage to discuss controversial subjects we will never be able to transform, as a society.

I think what distresses me most about capital punishment is the hard heartedness it seems to encourage in our society. Recently, at the Republican candidate's debate at the Ronald Reagan library, the moderator began his question to Governor Rick Perry with the statement that Texas had executed 234 death row inmates. At this point the audience broke into spontaneous applause.

The people applauding in that auditorium, I'm guessing, are utterly certain that "those people" deserve to die. The people applauding feel absolutely and totally sure that they are different and separate from death row inmates. They feel sure that they are good and deserving of life, while the crimes those inmates committed cancels their right to live. But can any of us ever be completely certain of how we would be behaving today if we had had a similar start to life as someone in prison? If we had been moved from abusive foster home to abusive foster home for our entire childhood? If we'd been addicted to drugs from age 10? If we'd suffered traumatic head injuries in early life?

Personally I am not at all sure. And that not knowing is a groundless, uncertain place. I am sure of one thing though. Inside of each of us, whether we are a prison warden, a prison inmate, a lifelong republican, an investment banker, an organic farmer or a third grade teacher, inside of each of us is something bright, clear, eternal, and untouched by the outer circumstances of our life. The reason we are alive is to discover this truth for ourselves. May we dedicate ourselves to this quest, and to cultivating compassion in our world. May all beings be well and happy.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Miso Noodle Soup

I'm pretty sure the first thing I ever learned to cook was Top Ramen. I remember coming home after school and cooking myself up a batch. I even used to add vegetables, so it would look like the picture on the package.

These days I never buy packaged ramen, though I am still very fond of a steaming bowl of noodle soup. Last night I made this, and it was delicious!

The wonderful thing about noodle soups is that you can use whatever you happen to have in your fridge. We had recently cooked up a bunch of fresh corn to freeze, so I had a lot of corn water to use for my soup stock. Here's my recipe, you will notice I don't worry too much about quantities- trust your instincts!

Take about 2 quarts of  stock, and start heating it in a large pot. While the soup stock is heating, sliver up some carrots, onions, cabbage, and red bell pepper, or whatever vegetables you have on hand. You could also add tofu, if you like it.

Sauté all the veggies in a large pan, and remove them from the pan into a bowl when they are becoming tender but are still a little bit crunchy. When the corn stock came to a boil,  put in a large handful of udon noodles. While the noodles are cooking, beat 2 eggs. Heat some oil in the same pan that you cooked the veggies in. When the oil is hot,  pour in the eggs. This is just like making an omelet- add salt and pepper. (If you are not an egg eater, just leave out this step- your soup will still be delicious). Cook your egg circle until it is getting golden spots on both sides, then remove from pan and cut into strips. By now your noodles should be tender. Add some freshly grated ginger, along with your sautéed veggies, and turn off the heat.

To finish the soup, ladle about one cup of the hot stock into a bowl, and whisk in a couple tablespoons of miso paste. When this mixture is smooth, add it back in to the pot. If your soup doesn't taste salty enough, you can add more miso or some tamari.

Now ladle the soup into individual bowls, and top each bowl with egg strips and slivered scallions or chives. This is way better than Top Ramen- enjoy!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Welcome to the Mindful Otter

Hello and welcome to the Mindful Otter. On the banks of Otter Creek, in Middlebury, Vermont, is a yoga center we call Otter Creek Yoga. My name is Joanna Colwell and I am the director of this yoga studio. The aim of our studio is to offer yoga teachings to all who wish to receive them. We are dedicated to the health and well-being of our community. In this blog I'll be posting about yoga, breathing, relationships, healing, food, money, compost, and other tasty topics.

This essay appeared, in a slightly different form, in the Addison Independent, on July 7, 2011

Approaching the Altar

We all had trouble falling asleep the night before my cousin's wedding. The friends we were staying with had set up a very comfortable guest room for us, but no one seemed able to settle down. Our daughter crawled into bed with us and promptly fell asleep, smashing me in the middle, between her lanky frame and that of my husband. It was going to be a long night. I extricated myself from the bed and looked out the window. Rain was pouring down, clattering on the roof.

With the exception of my own, eleven years ago, I don't remember ever having trouble sleeping the night before a wedding. But this one was different- I was the officiant! My mind raced with everything that could possibly go awry. Although I had spent weeks writing the ceremony, and going over it again and again in my mind, although friends had looked it over and said it was lovely, although the bride and groom seemed to have nothing but confidence in my ability to pull this off, still I worried. The rain was not letting up.

I decided to practice some yogic breathing. In yoga class, when we need more energy we focus on the inhalation. When we want to calm down, we emphasize the out breath. It was definitely time for some serious exhaling! After a few moments I could feel my breath slowing down a bit, and my mind starting to feel less like a frenetic hamster. Then I remembered my dress. Oh no! I left it out in the car! Why did I do that? I should have brought it inside and hung it up like any normal person would have done. It's probably getting all wrinkled out there. Maybe I should go and get it. No, it will get rained on. And what about my daughter's outfit? She was to be a flower girl in the ceremony, and had picked out her favorite blouse to wear with the matching skirts all the girls had for the wedding. But she'd been growing so much these last several months, and I hadn't thought to have her try on the blouse before driving down to Massachusetts. What if it's too small, and she's walking down the aisle with a bare midriff? Breathe. Listen to the rain.

A couple weeks before the wedding, my friend Shari and I had driven down to Wood's Market Garden to get plants and fresh strawberries. I had told Shari how nervous I was about officiating a wedding, something I'd never done before. "Relax," Shari had said. "It will be exactly like teaching a yoga class, only with everyone sitting in chairs, wearing nice clothes, and not doing yoga!"

The great writer Anne Lamott says, "My mind is a very dangerous neighborhood. I try not to go there alone after dark." Maybe I was nervous because my family is supremely unreligious, to the point of rejecting most things overtly spiritual. And yet here I was, in this role of spiritual leader, standing up in front of my entire extended family and helping my cousin and her fiance bind their lives together. Surely they chose me for this because, rather than in spite of, my spiritual leanings? Yet on the eve of the wedding, I wondered whether the ceremony I'd written would rub my family the wrong way.

I've known the bride, my thirty year old cousin, since she was born. This was her wedding, and she chose me to be the officiant. So that night, listening to the rain pounding the roof, I made a choice to let go. My mind would no doubt continue to conjure up unfortunate scenarios of offended relatives, wardrobe malfunctions, and missing wedding rings, but I was going to exhale out good wishes toward my cousin and her almost-husband. I breathed in toward my heart, and imagined the energy of my heart radiating outward toward the betrothed. Eventually, I feel asleep.

In the morning, umbrella in hand, I dashed out to the car and retrieved my dress, which looked fine. My daughter's blouse still fit her. A glance at the Boston Globe informed us that the state of New York had just legalized gay marriage. A good omen for the day's events, to be sure! We met my father and his wife at a cafe and celebrated the happy news with much needed coffee. Back on the sidewalk I saw a beautiful sight: two people wearing sunglasses. The rain had stopped, and the sun was making a surprise guest appearance!

Two hours later, standing at the altar, I watched the groom walk toward me, escorted by his grandfather and aunt. Next the procession of flower girls, each holding a giant sunflower. Now the bride, flanked by her parents. Did I mention she is six months pregnant? And so very beautiful. We began the ceremony with a meditation from the Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. I asked the congregation to look at their hands, and to recognize that we are each a continuation of our ancestors. If we look deeply, we can see all of these lives in our own life. Now the bride's family and the groom's family are being woven together. Standing at the altar together, we can see the past and the future, all contained in this present moment.