Monday, November 21, 2022

Homeostasis in Honolulu

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.

-      Wu-men


In a recent talk, poet David Whyte talked about the seasonality of life and how we lean heavily toward the new life of Spring and the effulgence of Summer, lean away from the cold and darkness of Fall and Winter and thus, embrace only 50% of our full seasonal splendor. To which I say, “Guilty as charged!”


Well, growing up in New Jersey, I actually thoroughly loved the Fall and still do, though it’s not even close to the same in San Francisco. And the first snows of Winter were always magical— it was the February sludge and relentless cold that I was so happy to be away from when I moved West. But still, I understand his point. Not only do we resist the dark months physically and literally, but also psychologically, as we are trained to think that “Have a nice day!” and the laughter of the Pepsi moment are the default.


Though I will never move to Florida, thank you very much, I understand the urge to stop fighting the cold, all the effort it takes to protect oneself from the assault of freezing temperatures. Here in San Francisco that means temperatures in the 40’s, as they are now in the early morning and evening and while true Winter dwellers will scoff and call that a Winter heat wave, still I go out on the deck in the morning and feel the cold on my face and tend to scurry back inside to stand at the heater for the moment. 


Yet I remember going to Zen meditation retreats in December up at Mt. Baldy and walking to the dining hall amidst snow wearing flip-flops and thin cotton robes (with a thermal undershirt on). I cultivated the art of breathing into the cold, accepting it rather than resisting it, welcoming the way it woke me up and kept me alert and to some extent, that worked. (Though I still lived for the 2 seconds when I walked past the big heater in the dining hall and felt the blast of its welcome warmth). 

Back here in San Francisco, I bundle up with three or four layers to walk in the Park and pass these young people in shorts and T-shirts and wonder how they do it. Even more incredible, I sometimes walk by the Dolphin Club Members near Fisherman’s Wharf swimming in the freezing waters of the Bay and think, “These people are certifiably insane.” But perhaps they are simply well-practiced in the art of accepting and welcoming cold, that discipline I experienced in my Mt. Baldy days. 


And yet. My version of paradise is waking up in a Honolulu hotel room with the outer air temperature the exact same temperature as what I felt inside. Skin was neither a border guard to resist the cold invasion nor a swinging gate struggling to sweat out the attack of extreme heat. It is the perfect homeostatic balance. 


Remember homeostasis from high school biology? It’s defined as the tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes. That constant adjusting to achieve balance and equilibrium is why we heat our houses or turn on the air-conditioning, why we choose the right clothes for the occasion. It might also apply to the daily cycles of eating and digestion, sleeping and awakening, exercise and rest— that constant juggling act to achieve (if only briefly) that sense of equilibrium. 


As physically, so psychologically. We can’t control the outer elements— like weather— but we can choose whether to resist them or flow with them, to refuse them or welcome them. There’s a marvelous folk tale from Greece called The Month Brothers that I put on as a ply with the kids many times during my decades of teaching. A hungry step-child goes into the woods in winter to find food and stumbles into 12 men  gathered around a fire. She discovers that they are the Month Brothers and they agree to help her if she tells them her feelings about the seasons. She talks poetically about the beauty of leaves falling and apples ripening in the Fall, the musical silence of the snow and the cozy indoor fires of Winter, the exuberance of the flowered Spring and the beautiful long nights and refreshing lake swims of the Summer. They wave their wands and give her strawberries and other sumptuous foods to take home.


The evil step-mother finds out and makes the child tell her where to find the Month Brothers. She shows up and demands strawberries and when they insist she share her feelings about the seasons, she complains bitterly about raking leaves in the Fall, shoveling snow in the freezing Winter, sneezing from allergies in the Spring and sweating profusely in the too-hot Summer. Needless to say, it doesn’t go well for her.


And so I decide to take the old Chinese poet Wu-Men’s advice, to embrace and welcome whatever November and fast-approaching December have to offer. This will be soon put to the test as I fly off to Toronto this weekend into 30 degree temperatures. It ain’t gonna be Honolulu! But still, homeostasis awaits.


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