Letters from Oahu, Hawaii |Part I

February 28, 2017

The Ocean and Ourselves

As I write this I’m sitting on the sharp rocky edges of an island, a six-hour plane-ride away from the closest continent. It’s the furthest away I’ve ever been from mainland, but I feel free, not isolated. Or perhaps it’s because I have only been here a few days. (Oh, the magic of novelty.)

The ocean is royalty here. The waves move in and out, methodical and hypnotic, an expression of peace and power. The ceaseless whooshing a lullaby, an orchestra, a narrative that tells the story of existence, if only we could comprehend its language. We try; we listen. It fills our senses—I am like a sea shell. Clouds kiss the horizon, reflections on the water.

The water—so much water. We were whale watching earlier, from the shore. From where we stand their tails are tiny. If we’re lucky, we see the subtle movements in the waves, the way the puffs of water spray upwards from their breaths, a reminder that we’re not so unlike them. Water and air is life for us both.

The ocean is a reminder of the breath in your heart. As the civilizations of modern man churn on, the ocean rolls on; it just is. A treasure of a billion secrets, so trust-worthy. Nothing humbles me like the ocean. Perhaps we are each one of us a teardrop of the ocean. Our veins are mini-streams and currents—trapped. And so we yearn for greatness, for the grandiose body of which we were once a part; we are constantly drawn to that which we can never hold in the small palms of our hands. The great tragedy of our yearning.

I will miss this sound. I know I will come back to it in daydreams. The breathing of the waves, like a thousand distant showers, endless exhales; they vibrate in my soul, clear out all the useless noise, wipe clean my mind’s pathways.

I think we are drawn to the ocean because we are made of water. How simple a conclusion! Seventy percent of our body is water and 100 percent of our life is dependent on water. And so we see the ocean as an extension of ourselves. Of the power we hope to someday achieve. (We have yet to conquer the ocean, and ourselves.)

When we see the ocean we recognize something in ourselves in all of creation—an alignment suddenly clicks. The answers we seek lie somewhere in the depths, we can feel them. (Are they destined to remain unknown?)

Somehow knowing they are merely there brings us peace, even if we cannot touch them, and so we watch, we listen, from the safety of the shore, from the semi-safety of our boats. We bob on the surface of life’s great mysteries and inhale the grains of salt and wind; oh majestic fear of the unknown; we wrestle with wanting to jump in, and not wanting to disturb the beast.

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5 Things I Learned from My Month as a Vegetarian

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Black bean & chickpea salad

Meatless March: A 31-Day Challenge, or Shall I Say, Lifestyle Change

A few months ago, I wrote a post about me contemplating the idea of becoming a vegetarian. While I haven’t taken that leap as of yet, I did go meatless this past month and have decided to make it an annual tradition, one that I’ve cleverly named—you guessed it—Meatless March.

Meatless March turned out to be not as difficult as I’d thought it would be. When I first began, it was more about shifting my mindset than resisting meat cravings. In fact, my meat cravings were surprisingly minimal. (There was that one time on the bus when a guy sat next to me with an oil-stained paper bag filled with fries… the smell reminded me of burgers, and, well, I had a few daydreams about eating a burger. End of confession.)

A month may not be a very long time, but it was long enough for me to reflect on my food choice tendencies. So now that Meatless March is over, post-reflection time is at hand. Here are my 5 takeaways from the month:

1. An Experience for the Palate

When you think about putting restrictions on your diet, you don’t think expansion, you think elimination. But Meatless March actually expanded my palate by encouraging me to experiment with new vegetables and ingredient combinations. I’m sure it helps that I’m in no way a picky eater and I love vegetables, but even if that’s not the case for you, going meatless can be a great way to branch out of your regular go-to foods. It will just take some additional thought and effort. Which brings me to…

2. Creative Cooking Fun

I had a ton of fun discovering new recipes and food blogs! I would have never come across this delicious West African peanut and sweet potato stew were it not for this awesome recipe list, which I would have never sought out if not for Meatless March. And because I enjoy cooking, it was a fun creative challenge coming up with new recipes or making vegetarian versions of familiar ones. Also, this eggplant lasagna is amazing.

I’ve heard that people who become vegetarian can sometimes gain weight because they end up eating more carbs to substitute the lack of meat. I made a concerted effort to not fall into this trap. I love pasta, so I could have easily forged a million different pasta recipes to get me through the month, but I ended up making pasta only twice. I actually became addicted to lentils—there are so many ways to make lentils!

As a result of these cooking adventures (and the consequent commitment to meal planning), I ended up dining out less frequently and packing lunch for work pretty consistently. So I saved money that way, in addition to saving at the grocery store since I wasn’t buying meat.

3. Mindful Eating & Living

Taking a break from eating meat made me more mindful of my food choices. When you have to be selective, you naturally have to think things through and scan for options you may not have considered before.

One of the main reasons I did Meatless March was a desire to become more aware of my eating habits. It was also part spiritual, as practicing this restraint made me appreciate food more—as well as my easy access to the plethora of food options around me. Fasting of any kind opens up windows for reflection.

We tend to live on auto-pilot most of the time, reaching for the same ingredients whenever we grocery shop, rotating the same recipes whenever we meal plan. It’s comfortable and easy to stick with the familiar. But comfortable and familiar is not how we expand our perspective.

That said, grocery shopping and meal preparation definitely required more thought. Because I’m a nerd and love learning new information, I took it a step further and actually took to looking up nutritional facts on various vegetables (curiosity for what I was eating had increased) as I thought about what to buy for the week.

And Meatless March was a great conversation starter. By talking with friends and family about what I was doing and why, I’d like to think I was shining a light on our culture’s obsession with eating way too much meat. (There’s endless information out there on how meat consumption direly affects our health and the environment, not to mention the unimaginable cruelty animals suffer in the meat industry, so I will not even open up that can of worms. That’s another post entirely.)

The point is—everything we do, every choice we make, has an effect. Too often do we turn a blind eye to those effects because we’re too afraid or can’t be bothered to face them. This experience has really made me want to know where is my food coming from?

I believe we are all connected—all living creatures, the earth, our consciousness, all of it. So I want to know where I stand in the context of the larger system. That chunk of meat in the freezer section, how did it get there? How long has it been sitting in its packaging?

I want to know what are my choices contributing to? How can I make better choices? I don’t want to be a blind consumer. I don’t want to feed an ugly beast.

4. I Eat a Lot of Cheese

c23214a0f75f661f6f12d5a1dea27e72Okay so now to lighten things up a bit: I love cheese and I have always loved cheese. 🙂 (I even love cheesy jokes—ha.) This would have been an ENTIRELY different experience, and a true challenge, if I had gone vegan instead of just meatless.

As I look back on the meals I’ve had over the course of the month, I must say… I see a lot of cheese. I’m not really sure if this has always been the case and I’ve become more aware of it because no meat cleared the way for a clearer view—or if I ate more cheesy dishes and snacks because of no meat.

I try to avoid processed foods as much as possible, but cheese… cheese is a processed food VIP in my book. Still, now that I’ve observed that I probably eat more cheese than I should, I will take some steps towards moderation. (Yes, there was cheese in my dinner tonight…)

5. I Don’t Really Need to Eat Meat

I suppose my biggest takeaway is that meat doesn’t need to be on my plate in order for me to enjoy a meal. Meat to me is definitely delicious but it’s not a necessity for deliciousness. And while I admit that the last week of the month had me craving certain meat dishes, I think it was more that I was craving those dishes as a whole, as opposed to the meat specifically.

Throughout the month I rarely felt that my meals were lacking. I always felt full and fulfilled after eating. In the beginning it did take some getting used to and I did miss the substance of meat, but after a while, it felt pretty natural.

A month may not be a long enough time to make me officially “enlightened” on the subject of vegetarian living. I’m sure this blog post would look differently if I’d gone an entire year without meat. But the truth is, if you would have asked me a few years ago how I felt about vegetarianism, I would have probably told you that I didn’t understand why people did it.

But over the years, and especially now, I finally understand it in a way that I hadn’t before. To all the vegetarians and vegans out there—I respect you, and I guess I feel that my increased understanding has helped me connect with you more.

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So Now What?

Without going too deep into this, I feel I must also share that I don’t believe there’s anything inherently wrong with eating meat. But I do believe there’s something horrifically wrong with the way the meat industry operates. And this desperately and urgently needs to change. 

I don’t have any grand solutions to offer (I’m no Temple Grandin), but my own personal solution is to reduce my overall meat intake, to incorporate more vegetarian and perhaps even vegan dishes into my eating rotation.

Because at the end of the day, I enjoy food very much. I love trying new recipes and cuisines. And I love my body. And I love animals. And I love the earth and the bountiful gifts she has to offer. So moving forward, I will strive for variety when it comes to my food choices. Variety and balance and mindfulness and always—without exception—deliciousness.

So until next year’s Meatless March, stay healthy and merry… and savor your food as you chew!

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My zucchini & chickpea stew creation

The Spirit’s Strength is Infinite

My triathlon experience taught me many things last year, but the biggest lesson remains this: Persistence, dedication and hard work can take you anywhere. You just have to have the courage and will to keep going, no matter what perceived obstacles litter your path. The body may be limited in its physicality, but the spirit’s strength is infinite. Discipline is channeling that strength, and perseverance is believing in its power.

The Miracle of Mornings

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Even though waking up early can be a struggle, I’m glad I have somewhere to go to every morning. I’m glad that I’m needed, that people are expecting me, waiting for me, and happy to see me when I arrive.

Sure, I could opt to live a life of sleeping in. Of dreaming for just a little bit longer as I clutch my dog and smell her ears for just a little bit longer. I could opt to wake when I please, without urgency, and I could make showering optional (imagine the gallons of water I’d save).

But what kind of life would that be? A cyclical drudgery. An eventual restless wandering. Even larvae live with purpose.

We are creatures of habit. Some of us thrive on routine, some of us thrive on the thrill of not knowing what’s next (though really, nobody knows what’s next). But we are all creatures of habit. So I will make my new habit this:

To rise each morning purposefully and gratefully, a willing recipient to the day’s embrace, which is in no way owed to me. To recognize the miracle of mornings. The way they kiss my cheek each day, without fail, without judgement, never wanting anything in return save for gladness, as I flutter my eyes awake.

What if… I were a vegetarian?

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I’m thinking about becoming a vegetarian… possibly, maybe. I love eating chicken, beef, turkey, lamb, bison, goat, and seafood. So if I do become a vegetarian, it would be purely an act of mind over matter.

I was privileged to be raised in a household where we could afford to include these meats in our diet. And I was fortunate to have an excellent cook for a mother (from whom I draw so much of my cooking inspiration).

My mother was so good about keeping our diet balanced with plenty of vegetables, many times making veggie-only dishes for the occasional break from meat. I guess my mother was pretty fortunate too to have non-picky eaters for kids. (My brother doesn’t like onions but I’ll give him a pass…)

I’ve never questioned eating meat because… eating meat is something I’ve done all my life. I love food. How can you question something that smells and tastes so good? Besides, meat is deeply integrated in the cuisines of my heritages, so it’s a cultural experience too. Plus there are nutritional benefits.

But… now that I’ve experienced and been exposed to more of the world and lived through some pivotal years of my life, I’ve decided it’s time to reevaluate my values and ideologies on matters that I’ve always accepted as is. I think it’s good practice to reevaluate your way of life at various intervals, in an effort to live consciously. A sort of “Are you good?” “I’m good” “Okay, let’s carry on then” check-in with yourself.

The winds of life inevitably bend us, break us, or make us determined to stand our ground. So where am I determined to stand my ground? And where would I rather adapt, change, grow… based on what I know now that I may have not known before?

Deciding to become vegetarian is definitely not something I would do overnight, for a New Years resolution, or off an emotional whim. This isn’t an announcement that I’m moving in that direction (a- I’m not one for announcements and b- I have turkey chili waiting for me at home). This is merely an exercise in reflection… me sharing a topic I’ve been ruminating over recently for a number of reasons. So I welcome your thoughts… meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters alike.

More to come in an upcoming blog post.

Don’t Let Life Pass You By

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It’s easy to get lost in the folds of everyday. The countdown to the weekend seems to rule our lives. It’s a vicious cycle that blurs together days and weeks and months, until you forget how old you are on your birthday, and you no longer want to celebrate.

To-do lists are endless highways, as though life were a road trip, and you stay up all night just to get to where you want to be, and by day you’re too exhausted to enjoy the views. Attempts to workout or eat right or quit that habit or say the right words or commit to that perfect routine seem to follow you like a recurring daydream (or nightmare). Then you wake up one morning and realize six months have gone by (or worse — years), and you still haven’t taken the steps to accomplish all that your heart wants to do. Your passions are hanging on a hook behind your bedroom door. I’ll get to it tomorrow, you say as you make your usual exit, walk down the path of your usual routine. Because first things first: bills need to be paid, and your boss is expecting you to be somewhere on time — on their behalf.

And all the while your dog is getting older as he waits for you on the couch each day. You are getting older. The days continue to dissolve and you continue to put off calling up that friend or family member whom you haven’t seen in ages. You don’t remember what you did last weekend because every weekend looks the same, and it doesn’t matter anyway. You seem to be constantly saving for something and constantly broke. Not because you don’t have money, but because you’re worried that like time, you’ll never get back what you spend, so you tuck it away hoping something worthwhile will come along, something that will give you a good return on investment. And you’re constantly searching for that one thing that’s certain. Because better safe than sorry, right?

When I was about 6 or 7 years old, I remember having what was probably my very first moment of clarity. I was sitting at the dining room table eating alone, looking across the room to the wall that held a round-faced clock. I remember staring at the second hand, focusing every thread of my being on its incessant ticking, its endless quest to move forward, to keep going. And for some reason, I remember feeling an immense sadness at the sudden, stark awareness that seconds were falling away from me. Falling away as I sat there on that table with a spoon in my hand, into a place I could never visit. It was the first time I realized that time is irretrievable.

We all have things that we want to do and things that we must do — sometimes those things align, sometimes they conflict. But no matter where those things fit in your life, I’ve learned that it’s important to prioritize what makes your heart catch fire. To do what makes you feel alive. Too many of us walk around drugged by coffee and obligations — utterly subdued into mindless routines that undo the threads of the heart by night and numb the passions of the soul by day.

Until you wake up and your skin is stale, and the pages of the novel you’d never written are sitting on your bedside table, yellowed by years of neglect. And your boss doesn’t exist in your life anymore, and you don’t remember how old you are, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Suddenly your life’s priorities involve getting to the bathroom before you let yourself go, and making your doctor’s appointments on time (they’re very busy so it’s important to be on time) because those shiny-eyed doctors with their sympathetic nods hold the answers to elongating your life (at least that’s what your mind has you believe) — though you’re unsure what you would do with your time if you did live longer. Because by that point, your best years are gone anyway (at least that’s what your mind has you believe). And dreams are for sissies anyway. Dreams are for street musicians and artist hippies and young inventors and college students who think they can change the world. Who are you to dream? Who are you?

Animals and Compassion

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Cruelty to animals is the epitome of evil to me. Cruelty to ANY being, in general, young or adult, is of course evil. But animals… they have always, since I was young, occupied a special place in my heart. (I decided against veterinarian school after I realized it involved science… and blood. Long live my liberal arts brain.)

Even after surviving a dog attack as a child, I have always loved animals. Especially dogs, funnily enough. I have always felt that animals embody the essence of innocence and of oneness with nature; they represent to me the natural balance of energy. They are untainted by vanity and ill-intention, undisturbed by ambition, pride, and desire. They just are. They only react. Their wants are tied only to survival.

Recently, I somehow came across a disgusting video of two men maliciously driving over a dog, killing him. Unfortunately, there isn’t much animal advocacy or protection of animal “rights” in the Arab world, where this happened, where animals are not often viewed through a compassionate lens. It’s not that people there hate animals or intently seek to harm them—many are working to change public perception and laws on the treatment of animals (I’ve lived in the Arab world almost all my life). It’s just that pets are not a cultural norm there, so the opportunities for people to experience animals, to interact with them, learn about them, and value and connect with them on a personal level, is close to zero. It’s lack of exposure and education around the treatment and nature of animals, not lack of heart. (Of course, like anywhere, there are bad apples… really bad apples.)

So when I read this follow-up article today on these cruel men being charged for their inhumane actions, I was surprised but elated… and filled with hope. This is a big deal for a country like Saudi Arabia, where this incident took place (and where I happened to live for many years). I’m so glad they’ve acknowledged this disturbing, ignorant behavior as evil—that they actually hunted down the culprits! I hope education around compassion for animals continues in that region and everywhere else around the world.

C2I’m not writing this post to draw gasps over this dog’s fate, criticize ignorance, or spark debates about going vegan. Rather, to simply draw attention to the fact that as fully capable human beings, we have the power and responsibility to be kind and gentle to all beings who cannot speak for themselves, both humans and animals alike. Compassion is what separates us from evil. It’s what makes us human.

Compassion is necessary for life, love, and goodness to thrive.

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Being Present in Everything You Do

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It’s been three months and life without a microwave surprisingly hasn’t been that bad. (This wasn’t some kind of personal experiment, I just haven’t gotten around to buying one since I moved.) The process of reheating food in such a conscientious way forces you to slow down and contemplate what you are about to eat. The effort becomes a ritual of patience, anticipation, and appreciation, as the aroma tickles your nose and entices your appetite. It reminds you to reflect on those daily mindless things we do in the bubble of instant gratification. In other words, it reminds you to turn off auto-pilot and live life intentionally. Not by dumping your microwave… but by being present in everything you do.

Trials are like fertilizer

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Hello, wonderful readers and bloggers. I have been absent from my blog for pretty much this entire month, which makes me sad, but I am still here, I assure you. I have not fallen off the blogging stratosphere, at least not yet. Blogging isn’t easy, as I’m sure you know. It’s a commitment, like a relationship, one that must be nurtured and constantly fed, and I’ve enjoyed the challenge of holding myself accountable to keeping this blog of mine, ‘the little blog that could’, alive and worthy of your time.

The truth is, and though this is a sappy excuse (I hate excuses), I’ve been battling some personal trials and tribulations these past few weeks (non life-threatening) that have completely taken over my mental, physical, and emotional energy. I will spare you the details because my blog is not a diary or journal; it is meant to be a place of inspiration and thought (at least that’s my hope and intention).

Trials.

As much as they cause pain and discomfort, sadness, confusion, or anger, they are very necessary. We need trials, we need moments of failure, we need our bubbles to burst sometimes. Trials push our mental, spiritual, and emotional development. Without trials, we would remain stagnant, floating on a plateau of ignorance and self-absorption. Trials force us to look inside ourselves, to reexamine what is important to us, what is worth fighting for.

Trials help us recognize the blessings we might have taken for granted were it not for the knife that stabbed the force fields of our comfort zones. Trials test our courage; they make us face our fears. Trials soften our hearts so that we can be more compassionate and empathetic towards others.

We need trials.

Trials are like fertilizer. Though repulsive and unpleasant, they help beautiful things to grow. A tiny, helpless seed must push its way out of darkness, through the thick, heavy soil, in order to reach the sunlight, in order to thrive and transform into a new being with a new purpose.

Every trial has its purpose.

Right now, I am in the thick of it. I am soaked in fertilizer. But the important thing to keep in check as we endure our trials and tribulations… is perspective. No trial lasts forever because nothing lasts forever. Without trials there can be no sigh of relief. Without trials there can be no shaping of character and strength and perspective and inspiration. There would be no tales of heroism—no inspirational autobiographies. No lessons learned.

Yes, I have moments of weakness where I’m in no mood to be positive, to try to trace the silver lining. Sometimes you just need someone to sit with you, hold your hand, listen, and tell you, “yeah, that is pretty bad.” Those moments are okay—they make us human and keep us human.

But after a good night’s rest, after a long, tight hug with someone you love who loves you, after a good cry or punching bag session, after silent reflection, after all the volatile emotions diffuse… it becomes a little easier to invite perspective back into your heart. To realize that, like all the centuries that have gone before you, this too shall pass, this too you shall overcome.

It may seem like the end of your world when you’re in the thick of your trial, but it really isn’t. Life moves on and life moves fast. Our bodies may be destructible but our spirits were built to endure. No matter how big and powerful the storm, sunshine always prevails.

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Giving up and Letting go…

Letting-GoGiving up and letting go are two very different things.

When you give up, you stop believing in your strength, in the essence of possibility. Your fear of failure and disappointment trumps all. You retreat, succumb, decide that effort is futile, and sulking usually follows. Giving up inhibits growth; it stems from fear and lack of passion.

When you let go, you release what is no longer of use to you. You understand that in order to grow, you need to let go. Letting go brings a sense of freedom and relief, a feeling of euphoria mixed with thrill. Letting go is fueled by courage, which is why it takes such a toll on the heart.

Letting go is essential for a balanced life. You can’t possibly carry everything with you.

A fisherman needs patience so as not to miss his catch. If he gives up, he fails to eat. A bird must let go of her nest to learn to fly. If she holds on, she fails to thrive.