Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Lake Victoria, or how water hyacinth is like the chatter in our minds

utterly consumed

I was in Kisumu last Saturday, interviewing candidates at the dusty old Imperial Hotel. On the way to the airport, my colleagues and I stopped at a beach resort, expecting a view of Lake Victoria. As we picked our way across the grassy yard and whispering palms, the shore came into view. From the coastline to the horizon, all we could see was green - the surface of the lake completely covered in a carpet of water hyacinth. I could see it multiplying - the tentacle-like stolons reaching through the murky water, doubling again and again, thickening the field of bulbous plants. I imagined the hyacinth devouring the boats that were anchored in the bay, patiently waiting for a wind to free them from the suffocating grips.

I walked around the waterfront, Bob Marley wafting through the humid air as I took snaps of the hyacinth. A breeding ground for mosquitoes, a haven for snakes.

hyacinth at the apocalypse

With broad, thick, glossy, ovate leaves, water hyacinth may rise above the surface of the water as much as a meter in height. The leaves are the size of a human palm, floating above the water's surface. They have long, spongy and bulbous stalks. The feathery, freely hanging roots are purple-black. Their flowers, a softer shade of purple, are beautiful; long-coveted for colonial water gardens across the tropics.

From the Victorian shore, I felt for the water, invaded as it was by this unwelcome visitor. I envisioned the similar infestation creeping in on me day by day. A "what if?" followed by more "what ifs" until the mind, unable to fend off the reproduction, is completely consumed. Suffocated by thought. Choked and paralyzed by the vastness of too many creeping opportunities. What was once calm, blue water is now something entirely different. The lake's only option is to wait it out, to wait for the winds to disperse the hyacinth.

a "beach resort" no longer

The owner of the beach resort joined us at the shore, a Kenyan-Indian with a magnificent white Fu Manchu mustache and a large belly hanging over a giant anchor belt buckle. He talked about the old days - before the hyacinth - sweeping his arm across the scene so as to erase the green and replace it with white sand beaches. He gestured to empty dirt pits on the shoreline - he decided to build fish ponds on the property instead, to give guests something to do.

the no-longer-useful recreational equipment

An hour later, on the short flight to Nairobi, we took off over the lake. The waters finally came into view, fringed by an innocuous green mist - from afar the scene seemed fine; pretty, even. I laid my head back on the seat, closed my eyes, and began to count my breaths. I envisioned a strong wind pushing the hyacinth away from the shore, leaving behind a white sand beach, waves gently lapping, and a calm, impenetrable surface.

Listening to heart sounds

I just finished reading Cutting for Stone, a book I received as a gift at Christmas and have been toting around on my travels since then. A beautiful book - here's a section from a dog-eared page.

"Looking back, I realize Ghosh saved me when he called me to feel Demisse's pulse. My mother was dead, my father a ghost; increasingly I felt disconnected from Shiva and Hema, and guilty for feeling that way. Ghosh, in giving me the stethoscope, was saying, Marion, you can be you. It's okay. He invited me to a world that wasn't secret, but it was well hidden. You needed a guide. You had to know what to look for, but also how to look. You had to exert yourself to see this world. But if you did, if you had that kind of curiosity, if you had an innate interest in the welfare of your fellow human beings, and if you went through that door, a strange thing happened: you left your petty troubles on the threshold. It could be addictive."

Take a peek at my bookshelf on Goodreads.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Rediscovering yoga on the road

It was late 2009 when I broke up with yoga. Earlier in the year, after my big move to Uganda, I was ecstatic about both practicing and teaching, and I'd found a great community with daily classes. I was madly in love with my practice.

yoga at sipi falls

Then I found a boyfriend. Cooking dinners, drinking wine and snuggling seemed way more enticing than my nightly yoga practice. Falling in love didn't seem like a good enough reason to stop practicing altogether, but before I knew it, it was Christmas vacation, and then a road trip, and then I was on my way to Pakistan. I spent most of 2010 living out of hotels, telling myself that I'd find balance in my life "when the trip was over."

It turns out that the trip is my life, and while I was lucky enough to visit and/or work in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Pakistan, Turkey, Kenya, Mexico and Ecuador, my well-being was taking a serious hit. Stress, coffee and an unpredictable emotional roller coaster were my new practice.

One of my biggest crutches in yoga began as an amazing blessing - I started practicing in a community. My friends and I traded yoga schedules and planned our entire social schedule around our combined practice. I put heavy emphasis on the physical presence of a teacher, and the benefit of the combined breathing of all the students - taking you to a completely different place. Yoga classes were often followed with food, friends and comfort. When I traveled, as much as I loved the journey, my practice felt lonely, and the solitude drove me far away from my mat.

my lonely jade travel mat

When I started packing for yet another trip - a two-monther in Kenya and Uganda - I sighed as I folded up my yoga mat and stuffed it in my suitcase. A nagging little voice in me said "put it back, you know it's just extra weight and you won't even use it." Before I left, I stopped by my friend Dan's place (a yoga teacher) and asked him for some new music. He loaded me up with Beirut, Cinematic Orchestra, and one of his yoga class playlists.

my yoga teacher on the road - yoga downloads

One slow afternoon on the other side of the earth, I convinced the spa receptionist at my fancy hotel to let me use the 'relaxation room' to practice. Looking over the leafy streets of Westlands, I rolled out my mat, took child's pose, and came home.

My rediscovery of yoga has not been what I expected - trumpeting angels rejoicing in my return. My body feels weak. I can't do poses I used to do with ease. My breath often feels strangled and it sometimes takes 10 minutes for me to be able to fully breathe through both nostrils. I sweat buckets doing what used to be simple. But, oddly enough, instead of feeling ashamed or frustrated, I feel liberated. I wake up each day with a new soreness, and feel newly alive.

I'm beginning to realize that somewhere around this globe, maybe somewhere between Turkey and Kenya, I lost my compass. Before this trip, I was walking down 18th Street to meet a friend for enchiladas. The winter day was beautiful, but I felt wildly out of body. Wildly out of touch. I looked around at the streets crusted with ice and snow, and felt displaced.

A million miles away in a town in the dry, hot and dusty Northern Rift Valley, I arrived in my decrepit old room at Sirikwa Hotel, overlooking an eerily green swimming pool - the floor covered in an old dusty green wall-to-wall carpet. I dropped my suitcase on the bed, pulled out my yoga mat, and brought myself home.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

I can be the product

excerpt adapted from my journal, early December, 2010

I can’t believe it was only this morning that I woke up to the chime of my alarm clock bells sounding off the hours of my scheduled bio-holistic massage.

my most frequently-viewed page, advice to my little vulnerable self

It was still dark out when I creeped out of the room and to the main building to meet Adrian, who spent the next 90 minutes working on my energy with vibrating tuning forks and hot rocks.

We spent the day today working on a combination of our takeaways and the convergence of Heart & Meaning and Gifts & Flow.

little blue archers help me find the sweet spot

Each day we’re writing down 10 takeaways from the workshop – sort of little a-ha moments (and some big ones too). After sitting in the studio flipping through my pages, suddenly I wrote down:

“I can be the product.”

We spent the better part of 45 minutes answering the question “What if I can be the product?” Each skeptical, doubtful question was immediately followed by a positive one (not necessarily intentional, but that was the flow of the discussion).

What if it’s a complete failure? What if it’s a complete success?

the inner critic is a real bitch, but I am a BAD ASS

We really do walk a fine line when we follow the convergence and stay true. It could tip in either direction based on tons of different factors. Nevertheless, the question is never whether or not I’ll try. I know I will still try, regardless of the potential outcome; regardless of the fear.

Talking about convergence, stamping, creating and writing my way into the first two paths of the mandala reawakened the massive energy I received when One Mango Tree came into alignment. It’s the sweet spot – the embodiment of both my heart and meaning, and my gifts and flow. I know how to ride that wave. But, putting it all down on paper gives me something to pull out and remember when I’m having a hard time paying the bills and everything seems to be falling apart. I reconnected with the WHY behind One Mango Tree, and it’s much more personal than what I thought.

Now, what’s next? On to the next challenge? Can I be the product? What am I doing with this consulting career? What do I do with myself if I go to Ecuador?

what's next? opportunity exploration

If I am, in fact, the product, then how do I package it up and ship it out? I’m happy to say we’re still going over all of these issues, and I’ll have plenty of time to turn back to the journal and work them out in the morning. At least I’m excited to try, because working things out now also means that I get to paint and create beauty while I’m problem-solving.

Tonight we decided to end class early and head into town to check out ArtWalk. It turned into several quick trips into craft shops, looking for the perfect little altars, embroidered stuff and those hand-blown glass hearts. We stopped off at little art supplies shops and picked up more “notions” – ribbon stencils, funny Mexican bingo cards, more acrylic paints, and a bundle of magical pom poms on a rope. I have no clue what I’ll ever use them for, but I had to buy them.

art supplies: magical pom-poms and bingo cards

Halfway through our journey, we came upon the Virgen de Guadalupe. She rose above the cobblestone street in her blue cape, in front of a cloud-dotted blue sky. Bells pealed from the old cathedral. I ate another tamal.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Rubber stamps as meditation

excerpt adapted from my journal, December 2010

Rubber stamping has been a big surprise. I was in love with it as a little kid. I had a whole Caboodle box (pink and teal) in which I stored all my stamping supplies. I’ve been borrowing Lisa’s alphabet stamps, taking the time to stamp out words slowly, one letter at a time.

stamping out my "I love being messy" page

It takes on a rhythm, and each time I stamp a letter, I repeat the word to myself. I pick a letter from the box, ink it, stamp the page, dab the stamp to clean it, and replace it in the box. Over and over. I wish I could be as deliberate as this about so many other processes in life. The sheer inability to skip a step, or to make the steps any shorter requires a lengthening of pace. I want to stamp out poetry. Novels.


If when I’m having a hard time accepting something, maybe if I put the word on a page using stamps, I’ll be able to accept it more readily. I’ll fully grasp the consonants and vowels, and their almost-but-not-quite alignment on the page. They’ll come together as a full word and I’ll smile, pleased at the reward for all of the effort.

I want to stay in the flow all the time, and learn to swim in it – to float sometimes, but also to actively move with it. To stay still within the flow when I need to. I so often get going on a project or an idea and my brain speeds up to the point where I can’t slow it down. My heart races – I feel excited, but I also feel panicky. I’m not sure what to do with all the thoughts flowing into my very open brain and heart. Sometimes it feels like too much – filling up the tub to soak and relax, but then forgetting you left the tap on and walking into a bathroom flooded with suds.

opportunity statement, in stamps

I have a lot to give, and I feel comfortable contributing. I know what it takes to take a dream and turn it into a functioning business. I can walk through all the things that often seem to suck life from the dream: legal business registration, import/export regulations, shipping documentation, supply chain gaps, training, quality control, accounting and finance, cash flow management (still getting the hang of that one), finding capital (any ideas?). I guess we’ll work on those tomorrow. We started with the fun stuff.

Filling the Well: A Retreat

You're invited!
Filling the Well: A Mixed-Media Creativity Retreat for Women
March 5-6, 2011
Lagoon Resort, Lake Victoria

Align LeftPlease join us 5-6 March 2011 for an incredible weekend retreat with Lisa Sonora Beam, author of The Creative Entrepreneur. I attended Lisa's retreat in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, in November, and found it to be a transformational experience (check out recent posts here to read about my experience in Lisa's workshop). I knew that women living and working in Uganda would appreciate this type of retreat. I was thrilled when Lisa agreed to come to Uganda to teach a workshop. We're excited to host the weekend at Lagoon Resort, a beautiful (and quick) escape from Kampala.

Visit Lisa's site for a detailed workshop description.

We have three pricing options, depending on your lodging preference - prices include the retreat, optional yoga classes (vinyasa flow classes taught by me on Saturday evening and Sunday morning), all meals, and lodging. Most art materials are also provided. Boat ride is also included.

Camping (bring your own tent) $305
Banda (shared) $350
Banda (single) $370

Please let me know if you have any questions - space is limited, so reserve today! Send an email to to arrange payment and secure your spot!

Hope to see you at Lagoon Resort!

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Gifts & Flow

excerpt adapted from my journal, early December 2010

Another beautiful day at Hacienda Mosaico – Venessa woke up at 5:30 and went out with her computer. At 7:30 we did yoga in front of the blue mosaic fountain wall.

our yoga studio

Today’s focus was on building the Mandala itself. The mandala has 8 legs – we’ve explored four at this point – Heart & Meaning, and Gifts and Flow. Every time I think of “Gifts and Flow,” I think of the walk between Starbucks and my house – the one I take late every morning to pick up my cup of coffee and head back to my office for whatever is waiting there to be tackled.

gifts & flow spread

With caffeine coursing through my veins, the world transforms a bit – the colors are all amped up. Images, designs, and wacked out design ideas start to bombard me so much that sometimes I feel like sitting down on the sidewalk to just soak it up. It’s a huge surge of creativity – creativity I was previously unable to put down on paper to communicate in any productive way. I would just use it as a motivator to go home and focus on email / Facebook / Twitter, etc.

Journaling is going to be a new way of life for me. A new way of work.

finding the sweet spot of the entrepreneur's mandala

It’s the communication tool with myself that’s been absent. Everything I’ve created seems so intangible, and I repeat the mantra “I’m not a designer” over and over again to anyone who asks a question about One Mango Tree products. But why shouldn’t I be the designer? Do I need to go to RISD to be a designer? Harvard GSD? I can develop color stories and ideas for textile designs – or at least I have found a language with which I can better communicate with designers to achieve what I want – to get those ideas from my head onto paper or a screen.

The feeling of immersing myself in the creative process is complete.

Heart & Meaning

excerpt adapted from my journal, early December 2010

Our second journal prompt was part of the entrepreneur’s "mandala" – Heart and Meaning. We spent what felt like eternity flipping through magazines, looking for images that expressed our heart and meaning. Lisa read out prompts, but each one left me feeling a bit lacking – like I just wasn’t finding the right stuff in the magazine images.

glass-blown hearts and sunshine

I felt super anxious tearing images out of magazines, yet internally I ridiculed my own anxiety. I kept thinking "it's just collage! Chill out!"

Somehow, at the end of this arduous image collecting stretch, I had a pile next to me. Some of it was overtly negative – representing the stress I feel on a day to day basis; the burden of risk and financial responsibility of playing this role of entrepreneur. The fact that I spent more time finding images of stress than heart and meaning was telling. It's not unlike how I spend most work-at-home days.

I pushed those stress images aside for later and laid out the pieces that best represented heart and meaning. I added an extra page and made a sort of map of blue calm. On the left was Africa, with the firm grounding I found there, and the empowerment I felt and created with my work on One Mango Tree. The middle showed even more grounding – inner calm, a Hindu diety, a lone mountain gorilla contemplating the forest, two people kayaking on a calm sea, aerial views over the middle east, reminiscent of chaos and order of Pakistan. On the far right page was South America, with the taunting parrot claw pointing to Ecuador.

my heart & meaning spread

Can I take it all with me? Will Ecuador be the next part in this journey? What will it all mean?

I found so much meaning through my work in Uganda, and I found strength and calm through yoga and meditation. I found new confidence working in Pakistan. What will I find in Ecuador? How do I make this place a new part of my own story? Where does it leave the other plot lines (Uganda, Pakistan)?

We took our page spreads into the garden and took on the role of a scientist, collecting field notes about the images. Some excerpts:

1. What surprises you? blue blue blue calm instead of red red red passion

2. What's not here? text. a silent film with no words.

3. What is the mood? contemplative. neverending exploration.

4. What do you want me to know? warm, coffee-stained and aged with time. beautiful, complete calm with the journey. You found a place of meaning within - through meaningful work - it's okay to take it with you.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Take away

excerpt adapted from my journal, early December 2010

Dos tacos pastores, con frijoles, cebollas fritas, queso y cilantro. Una quesadilla de pollo. Una margarita con sal.

taco stand menu near Hacienda Mosaico

All eaten by twinkling lights pool-side back at Hacienda Mosaico. Venessa and I discovered that the only thing we like more than our visual journals is food. When the afternoon workshop wrapped up at 6:30, we hit the corner taco stand. I practiced my espanol, and marveled at the wonder of a taco stand, and the bewilderment that there isn’t one in my hood in DC.

get rid of the blank page

Today’s workshops were a dive (head-first) into creativity. Within minutes, Lisa had our journals open, smocks on, and paints blurted all over the page. The only thing more intimidating than creating is looking at a blank page, so to confront this initial fear head on, we squirted our craft paint onto the page and then used old gift cards to scrape the paint horizontally and vertically, creating gorgeous color and texture. I quickly realized that I preferred working with bright colors and deep hues – blues/greens, greens/yellows, reds/oranges, pink/yellows. Purple/yellow didn’t work out so well. Lisa was right – I instantly fell in love with every single thing I was doing on the page. It brought out an artistic confidence that I hadn’t felt in a very long time.

What do I really, really, really want?

Our first prompt of the day required that we take out a pen and take on this issue head-on, in writing, right on one of those perfectly painted bright, beautiful pages. It was scary, but then again, I wasn’t doing this for anyone else – only myself, so I just started writing whatever came to me, without judging what was being put onto the paper. It’s a process; not a product. Adding magazine cut-outs and text, I framed the spread with beautiful images of work. I don’t exactly know what it means, but it’s something about overcoming obstacles, giving first in order to get back, and doing what equates to “beautiful work.”

take away #6: I love being messy

It is strange how in this visual journal, I’m completely messy. It’s a trait I don’t allow myself in real life, keeping everything tidy, in its place, organized. Yet on these pages, I’m splattering stuff. I don’t care about lettering or handwriting – somehow the messier it all gets, the better. The more color, the better. It’s so different from the self that I put out there to others, yet I still love it. I love that it’s me.