place, poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

Growing Older

A friend of ours will soon turn 50. We’ve known each other for years, and he will be having a party to celebrate. When my father turned 50, he let us all know he was half a century old. That seemed old at the time, but Dad didn’t really seem that much different than what he was when he wasn’t yet that age. When are people actually “old”? That probably differs from person to person, and from era to era, but something changes in the way you feel in the world when people perceive you as old.

In a capitalist culture where what’s new on the market drives people’s perception of what is “cool” and worth noting, old things are generally considered passé–out. People change their Facebook profile pictures sometimes daily. The new computer or phone model comes out and people discard the old one. The average American, for example, replaces his or her cell phone every 22 months, according to Scientific American. Following along with this mindset, Mother Nature Network reports that “[t]he U.S. produced 11 million tons of e-waste in 2012.” It’s expected to grow 33% by 2017.  Maybe the capitalist consumer perspective affects the way we look at old people and causes them to be seen similarly to old products. They aren’t “cool” anymore, and are put on the back burner or are tossed out, even though they still might have much to offer–and though throwing them out, so to speak, creates toxicity in the way we relate to each other.

Researcher on aging and consumption patterns, Michelle Barnhart from Oregon State University says on the University’s News and Research Communications site “Our society devalues old age in many ways, and this is particularly true in the United States, where individualism, self-reliance, and independence are highly valued.” This may account for why our thinking about older people is mostly negative, she suggests.

The general public’s thinking about old people is erroneous. Why should it be true that if you’re old, you’re obsolete as well–that your ideas and ways of thinking, perhaps even your being, doesn’t quite count for as much? As democratic societies, we say we value human rights, but how do we demonstrate the value of what older people give to society? The Guardian describes a study by the Royal Volunteer Society in the UK in 2011, and notes that older people are in fact an asset, not a drain to society. “Taking together the tax payments, spending power, caring responsibilities and volunteering effort of people aged 65-plus, it calculates that they contribute almost £40bn more to the UK economy than they receive in state pensions, welfare and health services.” In an effort to make visible the positive and tangible impact of the caring and volunteering that elderly people do, the study goes on to say that the “calculations on the net contribution of older people have been made by economic analysts SQW. It estimates that older people benefit the economy to a total of £175.9bn, including delivering social care worth £34bn and volunteering worth at least £10bn, compared to welfare costs of £136.3bn.” This is a considerable influence in monetary terms, even more so in human terms. Instead of fading away into irrelevance upon old age, the elderly make significant contributions to society–contributions that are not necessarily recognized.

Additionally, contrary to the cranky, negative stereotype many have of older people, elderly people are actually more adept than younger people in social emotional skills according to Helen Fields, in her article “What’s So Good About Growing Old” on the Smithsonian magazine’s site. Fields explains that, “Subjects in their 60s were better than younger ones at imagining different points of view, thinking of multiple resolutions and suggesting compromises.” It takes decades to learn how to manage social skills, Fields asserts, and older people are on the whole actually happier than younger people. Psychologist Laura Carstensen, at Stanford “led a study that followed people ages 18 to 94 for a decade and found that they got happier and their emotions bounced around less.” There is a stereotype that persists regarding older people, says Cornell sociologist Karl Pillemer, “and that stereotype is typically incorrect.”

Forgetfulness is something often associated with old age–forgetting the name of an author you read some time back, or the name of the book, the name of a co-worker, or a place visited. Billy Collins’ poem “Forgetfulness” describes a number of these incidents, and how little by little, the numbers, figures and names depart,

“as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.”

I love the way Collins’s poem brings us to a new view of forgetfulness–

“No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.”

In fact, some new research emerging might change the way we understand aging and the mind as well. NY Times blogger Benedict Carey, in a recent post, “The Older Mind is a Fuller Mind”, quotes the lead author of recent research about memory and aging, Michael Ramscar from the University of Tübingen in Germany, that puts into question how steep the age-related decline for cognitive processing is, as well as bringing into question some of the research measures cognitive scientists have used. According to this study, “the larger the library you have in your head, the longer it usually takes to find a particular word (or pair).” The amount of information in long-term memory might be affecting the retrieval of short-term memory. “It’s not that you’re slow. It’s that you know so much,” suggests Carey.

Quite a few years back when my husband and I first began living overseas, we used to often spend the evening with an older couple we worked with at a school in Turkey. They were probably 25 or more years older than us, but we loved being with them. They would share the unique foods they scoured the markets to find. We’d share stories, and laugh with them for hours. We traveled with them as well, driving up the Turkish coast to visit Troy, and then on up to Alexandropolis in northern Greece—the area where the Cyclops from Homer’s Odyssey is traditionally believed to have lived. This older couple inspired us in our journey of reaching out to understand and explore other cultures, to step inside history, and to connect to it anew. They had a deep love for the culture we were living in, had returned to live in it a second time, and helped us to love it in all its variety and uniqueness. The role this older couple played in our lives was an important one, influencing the direction we moved into with our lives, and I am very glad for that friendship and its lasting effect on who we have become.

Old age might, for some, be seen like a foreign country, with different reference points and ways of living, thinking, and being. When we encounter older people, do we really see them? Do we notice them and allow ourselves to know them, and to learn from their perspectives? Age and death will surely come some day. How are we living now that will enable us to be the person we want to be when our own end comes? This is a question Joan Chittister explores in her book The Gift of Years. The pain of the wrongs that occurred when we were young is the thing older people must come to terms with, she says in the YouTubes, part 1 and part 2 about the ideas she presented in her book. We must go down into the innermost part of ourselves and learn how to find peace, she explains. Old age is the time to look at ourselves in the light, and come eye to eye with the mirror of who we are. “If we’ve been dishonest,” Chittister asks, “can we face the truth of ourselves? Can we see ourselves as the small part of the universe that we truly are, rather than the center? Can we speak our truths without having to be right?” Chittister says life isn’t about age. “It’s about aging well and living in to the gifts offered in every stage of life.” We all must come to terms with growing old. More than that, we can use our life to learn how to live well between whatever age we are, and whatever age it is when we realize, that “yes,” we are old now. Is it because it is hard to look closely at our interior selves that our culture has difficulty appreciating old age or valuing those who are older? The end time of life, Chittister says, is the time to “put down the remnants of the past and to learn from the present moment, and find it enough. It is the time to live with life as it is, and find it, too, is enough, to live with ourselves as we are and find it enough.” This is challenging, but something that seems worth doing at any age. Noticing, listening to, and cultivating friendships with older people seems a wise thing to do to set us on that path.

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Can Beauty Save the World?

“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at a rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it–but all that had gone before.”– Jacob Riis

I spent this past week in the Himalaya foothills with students from my school on a camping trip. It was an excellent week of hiking, rappelling , creating art using things found in the natural environment, swimming in a mountain stream. I loved experiencing all the things I don’t get to participate in while living in Delhi. Walking up a forest road, I looked up to see a group of yellow butterflies swirl through the sky. Later, I stood at the foot of a waterfall, staring up into the mossy ledges of brilliant green through a rainbow arc. Another day, while hiking I noticed the shining gossamer wings of a dead cicada lying on the path as I walked by. The world is indeed full of wonder and magic, or at least it can be if you are in the right location.

As we drove down the mountain and back toward Delhi, I experienced a different kind of world–one filled with honking horns, a layer of trash covering the roadside for miles, traffic congestion, and road-side fires–a world where where smoke and the resulting haze made visibility increasingly difficult. As the sky grew increasingly dark and the sun went down in a great ball of pollution-orange, I thought to myself, “What has happened to beauty?” People who grew up in this world, who have never been outside of it, are bound to think that this is the whole of the world–the way life is. Three mornings in a row now the sun has risen as an orange ball into a haze-filled sky, the kind of sky I have seen before in California when the hills have caught on fire. We have made a kind of hell for ourselves to live in it seems. We light the fires. We burn the world. How is it that we have come to this state of being?

Yesterday I received this poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay in a letter from Monasteries of the Heart.

God’s World
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!
Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart. Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year.
My soul is all but out of me, let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

What a very different world Millay was observing than the one I live in with its pollution filled skies–where the natural world is pushed aside for the demands of roads and buildings, where people live in substandard housing or live on the streets, where there is so much trash that it has become a literal mountain in the city. Given this reality with such pressing social and environmental needs, what is the role of beauty? A prince in Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, states that “Beauty will save the world.” How can this really be and what does this mean? Beauty can lift us above the mundane, restore and renew us when we feel worn down, but can it save us?

If we look at the work of the journalist and photographer Jacob Riis, we can see one way in which it’s possible for the artist’s eye can lead to change in the world. Riis is noted for raising social consciousness through his photographs in the late 1800’s of the tenement houses and slum areas of New York City, in particular of Mulberry Street, where many Italian immigrants lived in some of the city’s worst slums. The Italians were willing to live in these areas because many of them found them no worse than what they came from, and in some cases actually better, and they looked on their living situation as somewhat temporary. They had dreams of building a better world for themselves. Riis looked at the plight of those who lived in these conditions, and looked deeply. He used his photographs to not merely document or bear witness to other’s suffering, but to motivate others to make social reform. While some may have questioned his relocation efforts, nonetheless, the effect his photographic work had on others is remarkable. His work led to more diligent police patrol in NYC after President Roosevelt walked with him through areas Riis had been photographing. Riis photographs of sewage falling directly into New York state’s water supply led to the state becoming aware of the connection between these behaviors and the possibility of an outbreak of cholera after Riis spoke with doctors about the connection between this behavior and the disease. His photography work also helped others to see the need for replacing unsafe tenements with parks. Because he looked deeply, and use that sight to create powerful photos that helped convince people of the need for change, Riis made a difference for good in the world. While it was not Riis’s main goal to create works of art, nonetheless, his photos are a kind of work of art. Social reform, however, is not generally the goal of art. Should art be political? Maybe from a certain perspective all art is political, but I wouldn’t argue that art should be political, though artistic efforts can lead to social reform, as did Dickens’ writing.

Though I’ve not yet read Gregory Wolfe’s book, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, the title attracts me, as does Wolfe’s own comments about the book, and I want to put it on my wish list of books to read because since living in Delhi, I’ve been struggling with this question of whether my need for beauty is frivolous or a true need. I long for access to the natural world, a walk in a forest rather than a city park. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a place where I could roam the hills behind my house, climb up granite bolders and look out over the valley and hills beyond. Maybe it is just a part of my spiritual geography that I think I need this access to the natural world. On the other hand, couldn’t it be that we really do need beauty to survive? Humans have made art since the days when we lived in caves and were hunter-gatherers. I have been working on accepting where I am–learning to be happy where I am, even if where I am doesn’t have the beauty I need that feeds my soul. In truth, I have been given much to be utterly grateful for every day of my life. Could it be, however, that I long for beauty because as human beings we truly do need it?

I don’t have to have the kind of beauty every day that Millay talks about in her poem where I feel  stretched apart. It would be too much to actually bear that kind of beauty every day. My first trip to Italy several years ago made me wonder how people could live every day with so much beauty all around them. After a while, one must just accept it as the world as it is, just as here in Delhi with the polluted skies people accept this as the given world. Though they saw it, the children on the bus ride down from the Himalaya weren’t focused on the lack of beauty around them. They simply continued singing as we rolled through the streets lined with trash and burning fires. This is a way to survive–to just keep singing. Which leads me back to the question of what role beauty can play in helping us act in ways that create a better world. Just because art exists around us or because people are producing art doesn’t necessarily make the air pollution go away. Riis took the photos which piqued people’s awareness, but he also had to get out there and motivate the change of policy. We need policy changes to make the world a more livable place, and in order to preserve the beauty.

Is the role of imagination, art and beauty at its base a political action, however? Does political action trump imagination? Dr. Eric Cunningham explains in his review of Wolfe’s book, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age that Wolfe asserts that it is beauty, not ideology, that will save the world. “Throughout this twenty-five year exploration Wolfe has struggled with the most nagging characteristic of the time, i.e., the tendency of modern consciousness to reduce all forms of cultural expression to the status of propaganda, leaving those who would strive for the spiritual redemption of our culture with few strategies other than political action.” I care about preserving that beauty so I can continue to enjoy it, yet my life is wrapped up in work not directly related to preserving the natural world. Our modern world’s love of “stuff” plays a big part in the destruction of natural beauty, and while I make efforts to reduce my needs and to recycle, I struggle with what I should be doing in order to make a difference in the world when I am not a political activist. Cunningham in his review of Wolfe’s book responds to this question and presents Wolfe’s alternative viewpoint, “Where I have long argued that the tendency of modern people to politicize every aspect of their lives, religion included, is the inevitable product of a flawed historical narrative, Wolfe argues, with convincing clarity, that “the problem” is essentially an aesthetic one, and can be remedied through a renewed appreciation, and a re-appropriation of the aesthetic sphere.” So, what is the role of aesthetics in saving the world? What part does the imagination play? Art does, indeed, bring people of divergent perspectives together. To what extent does it or can it change the way we relate to the world at large?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn when pondering Dostoyevsky’s statement about beauty said, “It is vain to affirm that which the heart does not confirm.” It is not a matter of one thing over the other he seems to suggest. If the heart isn’t involved, nothing is going to happen. The trajectory of western history has made us rely on reason and remain skeptical of the heart. If the heart is not involved, however, the brain isn’t in full function. The heart and brain work together. (You can attend a conference in Paris about this idea if you are interested!) The heart helps engage the brain, and in fact acts as a second kind of brain. Solzhenitsyn goes on to say in his essay about beauty, that if  “Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light—yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three.” Beauty, he suggests, will serve in the place of Truth and Goodness if they are destroyed. Beauty is somehow stronger. When it comes to matters of basic survival, however, is it enough that a person offer poems, or make music, or take photos when people across the street from me live without water, when people are without adequate clothes, medicine or food? Is it okay that some offer beauty while others assist with the other more basic needs? Can we work together to meet the world’s needs?

Joan Chittister, a follower of the Benedictine tradition, talks about three aspects of what it means to do good works; celebrating beauty, honoring the word, and practicing nonviolence. It has never occurred to me before that celebrating beauty is doing a “good work.” Chittister explains that “The monastic life exists in pursuit of the beauty of the invisible God. Wherever you find the beautiful you discover another incarnation of God. Members of Monasteries of the Heart know that to revive the soul of the world, we ourselves must become beauty, become contemplatives. And to be contemplatives, we must surround ourselves with beauty, and consciously, relentlessly, give it away until the tiny world for which we are responsible begins to reflect the raw beauty that is God.” She lists the following as ideas for celebrating beauty:

•Begin a garden in an inner city neighborhood or your own neighborhood
•Donate art pieces to inner city schools
•Give away flowers or art postcards on street corners
•Take inner city children to hear an orchestra or to the museum or to a play or dance performance
• Join or start a threshold choir. These women choirs visit those who are sick and dying:www.thresholdchoir.org

Chittister suggests that yes, beauty is a basic need. After reading the list she provides, I can begin to see new ways in which beauty can, indeed begin to save the world by helping people to honor the natural world and to see ourselves in relationship to it as well as to each other. I love the idea of sharing beauty with people living on the street, of taking art to the homeless or offering flowers. Maybe I can’t assume that because I need beauty, they, too need it, but who could reject the beauty of a flower?

I remember several years back when our biking group had been out for a ride in the rural areas several hours outside of Delhi. Our van broke down on the way home, and we had to wait four or five hours on the road for a car to be sent from Delhi that could carry the van to a location where it could be repaired. In the mean time, we sat on a charpoy in a roadside farmhouse compound where joint Muslim families were living together. They fed us a dinner of chapati and vegetable curry. While there, I asked one of the children what he thought was the most beautiful thing where he lived. He replied, “The mosque, and the pond.” His response makes sense. In God’s house we are brought in touch with the wonder of life and the world. In nature, we are brought in touch with the wonder of God, and of Life itself–we see how we are part of the bigger wonder of the universe and can stand in awe.

Riis watched the stone cutter hit the stone with the hammer, and it wasn’t until the hundredth time that the blow made a difference. Singing our songs, writing our poems, telling our stories, carving our stones, maybe they don’t make the pollution go away but these acts in the least help to restore the soul and the more we grow toward wholeness, won’t it also help others to know how to create wholeness as well? I am not a politician. Neither am I Jacob Riis. I don’t know how to change the things in this world that are much bigger than what is in my power to change. Suffering, such as living in a world of polluted air, is part of life. We have collectively created our suffering. But inside this place of suffering it is still possible to find a way to share beauty with others. Are the ones who long for beauty those who Jesus was speaking of when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit?”  When we share beauty with others, we are brought into their heart, and perhaps through touching others we can be brought into the heart of seeign our connection to the world and to Life itself.

The threshold choirs sing to the dying, singing to people as an act of healing and beauty in the midst of suffering. Can beauty save the world? Mark Helprin in his novel, Solider of the Great War says, ” To see the beauty of the world is to put your hands on the lines that run uninterrupted through life and through death. Touching them is an act of hope, for perhaps someone on the other side, if there is another side, is touching them, too.” Perhaps if we all offer the beauty we have to those spirits choking in the world’s pollution in its myriad forms, an answer will emerge that we didn’t expect. Perhaps it takes more than a hundred strikes on the stone before we will be able to move into a different way of living and being. As in Poco’s song, we can keep on trying.

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Finding Courage

I receive weekly messages in my box from Joan Chittister, of Monasteries of the Heart, and this past week when I received her message, I couldn’t help but think she was speaking directly to me as I am seriously asking what am I meant to do with my life. Here are Chittister’s words:

“We are all on our way to somewhere, however undefined, however unconscious. Without really knowing it, perhaps, we spend our days looking for the way out of the maze of indecision, of discomfort, of unfinishedness that can so easily become the soul’s permanent residence. We struggle for the way to an egress that is not there. We live looking for something that beckons but is not clear. Why? Because we can feel it within us, that’s why. It never quiets; it never sleeps. It just keeps urging us on. But to where? Answer: to nowhere I know, to do nothing I can see right now. Sometimes closer than others, always tantalizing, always just out of reach; the feeling of being in the wrong place gets so strong it can be painful.

The problem is that without clear intention, without ever stopping long enough to determine where we will end up if we stay on the road we’re on now, the purpose of life can sink into the routine of routine and little more. We simply go along, turning with the turns in the road but never plotting a course of our own. Never facing the single greatest question of life: Why was I born? Meaning, what am I meant to be? What was I made to do?

If those questions are never dealt with, never answered, then we may be breathing but we are not fully alive.

We must come to understand that the residual dissatisfaction with life as we have shaped it for ourselves is the very essence of what we name “call.” Clearly, it is at the moments of dissatisfaction with life as we know it now that the door to the future swings open for us. There is something missing in the making of who we are meant to be that we are being goaded to pursue.”

I have chosen to be a teacher, and have truly loved what I do, but something is goading me these days from inside, making me wonder if I am really giving to my life the fullness of all I can be, all I am here on Earth for.  When I listen closely, I am hearing a still, small voice rising up saying there is something more to become and do, what you have been doing so far has just been the preparation. There is another life in the making, working its way slowly toward birth.

If you look at the flowers after they go to seed, like the lettuce that is currently turning to seed in our window box, you will see that before death, there is the seed. The seed can give birth to new life once planted. What especially intrigues me in Chittister’s words above is that the answer she gives for where to go when we are searching for our new direction in life. Of course most of us want that place we go to to be somewhere concrete and tangible, somewhere secure, but Chittister tells us the place we go to is “to nowhere I know, to do nothing I can see right now.”  This is the existential leap, isn’t it–the faith or courage to step out when you can’t see?

Anais Nin said, “Life shrinks or expands according to one’s courage.” Learning to live with courage is a bit like rock climbing. My husband Michael took me rock climbing in the early years of our relationship. When I did my first climbs, I wanted to cling to the rock and pull my body in close to it. The rock seemed so solid and safe, but in reality, to keep my balance when climbing it was better to stand up on my toes and give myself a bit of distance from the rock. That was non intuitive and a bit frightening, but when I did it, I could see how much easier it was to climb up the rock’s face.When we reach out for this new place we want to go with our lives, it seems intuitive to want to hold on to something secure and solid. Maybe this is the right thing to do if you want another version of what you already have, but what if you want a whole different way of living and being?

I don’t know. And I don’t know if I’m ready for the big leap into the dark at this point. Change that endures is, or needs to be a process of organic growth, a slow process of change over time. Can a person become more courageous through practice? I don’t know.  But I can practice going toward a place of change in small ways. I can use my mind and imagination to stretch out into the unknown. Arms open, I can sit quietly saying to the universe, “Here I am,”  practicing opening to a new way of living in my heart. I can lean in to life and listen for the way I should walk. As the Thai proverb says, “Life is so short, we must move very slowly.” Slowing down purposefully each day can help me to listen to what it is my life is telling me. I can pause purposefully each day and come home to myself in an attitude of openness to what it is I am being called toward in those areas I feel dissatisfied with, and simply listen for what is surfacing.

Since all of life is a journey and the process is just as important, if not more important than the end of the journey, while waiting to understand what the next direction of my life should be, it is important, in the mean time, that I go to work and let myself dwell with the questions and uncertainty as an important part of the process. There is deep value in living out the questions, as Rilke pointed out in his letters to a young poet, until you someday live into the answer. Living with the uncertainty in this way allows for the answer, when it eventually becomes clear, to be understood from the inside. The work I have now, and the way I give myself to that work is the seed of the work I will be able to do in the future, when I have transformed into a different way of working, living and being.

Though part of me wants to know what the next phase of my life is, I recognize that I don’t need to know the plan. I can just walk step by step toward knowing. I don’t have to become all at once. At our wedding ceremony, Michael and I had a friend read the passage from The Velveteen Rabbit where the rabbit is asking the skin horse about what it means to be real and the horse tells him, “Real isn’t how you are made…It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long, time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” Maybe you need to love your questions, need to live with, walk with and love them, so that when you live into the answers, you can speak them from the heart.The journey is as important as the destination. We have the gift of time to learn. Each day is our gift. I want to see the questions as a gift.

Buddhist priest and author, Thich Nhat Hahn in a conference for educators here in India in September of 2008 spoke about how important it is that headmasters at schools take care of the teacher in order to take care of those they are educating. I am not a headmaster, but I want to discover more of what I can do as an educator in order to take care of myself so that I do not pass on to my students a sense of over-activeness. Deep understanding arises from a calm mind. Feeding the mind, body and spirit the nutrients and qualities it needs in order to nourish our own spirits and those of who we meet–that is the foundation I want to act from.

In his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton, quoting Quaker professor and theologian, Douglas V. Steere said:

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

I belong to a culture of activism where doing is important. But perhaps there is too much of life given over to doing. Without pause, without a balance of being, the doing looses impact and meaning, and I want to live a life of meaning–to live with more weight given to being. I can’t learn how to live this by myself. I am not strong enough to pull against the tides of culture. There are others who seek greater balance between doing and being. How can we together walk our way toward a different way of living?

Today it is hot, the air, still, as I look outside my living room. But the monsoon wind and rain is sure to arrive soon.