Noticing

Another entry for you, Alice, as your teachings continue to unfold.

Noticing comes naturally as I practice slowing down. You once said to me,

“You don’t have to do anything.  Just let the layers unfold until your radiant soul shines through.”

Slowing down allows the light of consciousness to flow more freely; my attention, in a more relaxed and diffuse state, picks up sounds, scents, images that I wouldn’t ordinarily notice.

So, I return your poem to you with my pictures.

Pastor’s Pastorale

rYour poem, my pictures

our mother in springOr were there time enough

x

to sleep and dream

y

and mull the mind

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on things as they might seem —

a

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but, no

b

we plod

r

(and stumble on our guilts)

d

to God.

How simple then to walk the night

s

IMG_4309and touch the stars or taste the dew

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smile at such gifts

w

and count ourselves among the few

t

IMG_3904who yes

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who pray

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yet kiss

IMG_4122and sing to others what they miss:

It’s this! It’s this!

 From the Archives of the Heart

Everything was opening its secrets to me in silence, without a word. Everything shone in my heart now instead of my head. The more I appreciated, the more I could see. It was a whole new way of learning, by listening to silence.         ao, The Beejum Book

Thank you.

The Sybil

Alice O. Howell,  at whose feet I sit in this picture, whose student I will always be and whom I love without reservation, is 91 now. Cosy, kind or crotchety, she is being tended by family and friends in her home, Rosecroft, nestled in the Berkshires. It’s quite a winter they’ve had there, so I’m happy to pass on news from a friend who visited her last weekend. He writes that she is very much her old self and suggests reading her poem “The Sybil.” Thanks so much, Greg.

(I wish I could get the placement of the lines right but I don’t know how to do it here. Click on the title to see the poem properly.)

THE SYBIL

“Old Granny Larkin had age by the toe

and hollering for help.

She just shriveled up a little

every year with them boiling-downs.

Her watery grey eyes

went on and off like a light

depending on the kind o’ day it was

for her.

Her white hair kind of exploded

off her head – like it had a life all its own

and I mind, as a little girl

watching it raise up and move

this way and that

with her thinkin’.

She was so old not a body ’round

knew about her young times.

She must o’ been born old

like a owl.

 

Click here to continue The Sybil.

 

Neighborhood magic: spring in California

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer. – Albert Camus

The first fall Tom and I came to California’s central coast from upstate New York, my neighbor Dana – raised in Connecticut – taught me about the seasons in California.

IMG_4176I was sitting on the ground in the front yard just after the first rain of the season, wrenching weeds from the unforgiving clay soil, missing the rich dark Eastern loam, already sated with eternal sunshine and cloudless skies. In those days, California had two obvious seasons, wet and dry—we’re hoping that’s still true.

What Dana said was much more subtle – and exciting to me – than wet and dry. She said the best way to recognize the seasons here is by noticing what’s blooming. Oh my goodness, who can resist that?

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.  – Cicero

Now, regardless of the drought—which is feeling like it really will be over tomorrow—it’s spring! My favorite season. So, I ‘ve been taking pictures of the flowers. The first two are hibiscus, a mallow native to tropical and sub-tropical regions far south of here. The flowers are maybe six inches across. Exotic, bordering on garish.

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Right now, it’s flowers are covered in bees (thank you, forces of good, thank you).

This bee is in jasmine, which burst into exuberant bloom this week, releasing penetrating waves of sweet musky fragrance. Pink buds open into luminous white flowers, half an inch across, scattered everywhere on a too-easy-to-grow vine—drought-tolerant once it’s established—that gets its curly little tendrils into everything near it, capturing whole trees if it isn’t tamed. It pulled our rain spout right off the wall (with some help from the cats, who liked to use that downspout to climb up to our balcony.) Like mock orange that graced us with its fragrance last week, the scent is worth the trouble.

 Read a wonderful LA Times article on jasmine.

 

There are people who live their whole lives on the default setting, never realizing you can customize – Robert Brault

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The delicate and graceful flowers of the Butterfly or African iris are about three inches across and grow on long elegant stems rising out of clumps of grassy leaves. They bloom almost year-around, though at times, the flowers are more abundant. One spike will produce flower after flower for weeks on end. Native to South Africa, the plant is very well-suited to our Mediterranean climate: it’s happy with lots of water or hardly any at all and grows well in sun or shade. In fact, it’s so adaptable and spreads so many of its seeds around that it’s another charming and worthwhile nuisance to add to the list.

Awe is what moves us forward. – Joseph Campbell

IMG_4180Morning glory, ipomoea purpurea, falls into the same category. The graceful flowers unfurl in the morning and follow the sun through the day, collapsing in on themselves in the afternoon. I had a gorgeous crazy-wild crop of them spilling over the fence some years ago. Purple ones and pink, too. When the fence fell and my neighbor replaced it, he pulled out the morning glory as a favor. I haven’t replanted it because there’s a reason it’s also called bindweed. It strangles its neighbors relentlessly even as the breathtakingly stunning flowers bring hummingbirds, bees, and countless smiles.

Life’s picture is constantly undergoing change. The spirit beholds a new world every moment. – Rumi

IMG_4170Pincushion Protea is another South African native that does well here provided it’s planted in a place where the soil under it can drain well. It has a strangely stiff flower and tough leaves, very exotic indeed. Each plant needs a good bit of space around it, so unlike most of the plants I’ve chosen to share here, it only shows up in well-manicured, carefully tended gardens. The weirdest thing about it is that each one of those petal-like parts is actually the pistil of a tiny separate flower.

See amazing close-up views of Pincushion protea.

Amazingly, this is just a small sample of all the flowers in bloom on the sunny central coast of California this spring.  It’s less than a third of the varieties I’ve photographed over the last week. Not one of these beauties is native to the area. As the climate continues to change, some of them will be impractical or impossible to grow here. But what joy they bring now!

From joy springs all creation, by joy it is sustained, towards joy it proceeds, and unto joy it returns. – the Upanishads

Neighborhood magic: walking the dog

This is Lily Bear. Normally she’s a fluffy chow-type with a good four more inches of fur. In this picture she’s sporting a three-day-old, very short haircut. She’s eight or nine years old, a chow mix (golden retriever?) who came to us from the pound five years ago.

One of the many wonderful things about having L. Bear around is the joy of walking her in the neighborhood. In the morning, Tom, Lily Bear and I go together, and then later in the afternoon she and I go on our own. Watching the landscape change, talking to the neighbors, developing real relationships with them, building community – trying to be in the place in which I find myself as fully as I can – it all feels so good.

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Because she’s getting older, the Bear is happy enough to stop wherever I want her to so I can take pictures. She’s done with tearing over the hill into the chaparral after anything moving. The horses in the Cal Poly pasture no longer drive her nuts. Now she sniffs around a bit and then she lies down to wait till I’m ready to move on.

Every so often I’ll share some pictures and reflections on our walks here.

Our neighborhood, Monterey Heights, occupies the northeast corner of San Luis Obispo, a college town, population 44,000, equally distant to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Our house is five blocks from the entrance to Cal Poly, a state university best known for its architecture, engineering and agricultural programs. We live in what’s called a “mixed” neighborhood here: students and permanent residents.

IMG_4149Right now, the moment you step outdoors you  take a deep breath. The enchanting scent of mock orange is everywhere, a delicate, complex citrus so delicious it stops you in your tracks. Breathe! it says. Breathe again! The scent’s source is Pittosporum Undulatum, a messy, invasive Australian tree guilty of dropping sticky red berries which get tracked into our house year-round unless they’re swept up. (Thanks, Tom).

The week or two of bloom is worth all the trouble.

IMG_2655From the top of our hill, you can see the freeway winding its way up Cuesta Grade on its way north. Between here and San Francisco is the extended metropolitan area of San Luis Obispo, including Paso Robles, and about 300 miles of lightly used land, painfully dry ranch land interspersed with military properties: Camp Roberts and Fort Hunter Liggett, and the mountainous Los Padres National Forest. The highway crosses the mountains in the graceful way it does because of one brave, good-hearted man, a true conservationist, Harold Miossi. I’ll tell his story another time.

Though the name Monterey Heights covers more area today, our house is not in the original 1925 Monterey Heights subdivision. It’s half a block into the Slack tract, a softly sloping grid of oddly wide streets and mostly small 1950’s houses lying between Cal Poly and the older neighborhood. Of the original Monterey Heights, the city’s Cultural Heritage Committee writes:

In designing the new neighborhood, MacRorie-McLaren Company used an innovative design approach, much different from conventional neighborhood designs elsewhere in the City. Their approach reflected a more “naturalistic” approach to creating neighborhoods, a movement pioneered by Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmstead and popular in the 1920s and 1930s. The Monterey Heights neighborhood features pocket parks and curvilinear streets, a layout which deviated markedly from the traditional street grid patterns common at the time.

Many of homes in Monterey Heights are as beautiful and unconventional as its design:

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The woman who lives in this beautifully painted house paints houses for a living.

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 Swanson house detailThe man who built this fairytale of a house built whimsical walls of misshapen bricks all over town in the 1920’s. I think there are about six.

Needless to say, Lily Bear is is more interested in homes belonging to animals than those of humans. This got a good long stretch of her attention.

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It’s a gopher hole, one of many thousands in the area. Last week’s rain washed this one out.

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Grace, grace, grace.

Slowing down in SLO

Not long ago I changed the name of my Airbnb listings to Slow Down in SLO. It took a while for me to decide if SLO, San Luis Obispo, really is slow, but I concluded that it’s actually true. Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, SLO is a too far away to commute. Imagine: 44,000 people, virtually no traffic, everything you need a few minutes away, year-round access to an extraordinary outdoor environment, and a culture of kindness rooted in a Franciscan heritage and enhanced by a mild climate. I feel immensely grateful to find myself here – it is grace – but slowing down doesn’t happen from the outside. It’s internal.

Nature does not hurry.

Yet everything is accomplished.

– Lao Tzu

It was Lao Tzu’s poem that brought the deeper truth home to me a few years ago. Since then I’ve been reflecting on the virtues of slowing down, so it seemed like an obvious topic to write about  – except that the entire week I gave myself to put this together disappeared into a whirl of activity.

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Necessary activity. Did I consider slowing down in the midst of the hurly burly? I did – but only for the time it took to laugh at myself and at the lila, divine play, of life – and to refocus on slowing down.

Internal slowing down doesn’t mean doing less. It means doing whatever you’re doing more mindfully, more passionately, more fully, giving it the full focus of your attention. In the long run it’s more efficient – I’m sure your mother already told you this. Indeed, the benefits of being present to a task, whether it’s cleaning the wet leaves off the deck—which I’ve been doing in between paragraphs because a photographer is coming to take pictures of the exterior of our house, a sad mess because of the drought until this week when the rains came and now a much happier mess—or brushing your teeth or talking to your mother, are countless.

Hafiz says,

Time is a factory where everyone slaves away earning enough love to break their own chains.

The key that will let you out of slavery is to love what you are doing, whatever it is: catching your mind when it wanders into the future or the past, or to some place other than where you are, and bringing it home to the moment: celebrating the stillness of the center.

Tom and Lily Bear at the dog beach

Ganesh Baba talks about the four phases of our existence: the physical, the biological, the psychological and the spiritual. Slowing down involves all four: consciously releasing stress and tension in the body, slowing the breath and consequently the heartbeat, lowering the emotional pitch (“Don’t screw up the pitch!” he would scold), and using spiritual practices to find the still center within.

It’s the mind that’s moving too fast, rarely using the power of attention at its true worth, skimming the surface of experience instead to allowing it to be absorbed and processed at all four of the levels of our being. Unless we slow down we sacrifice the richness and beauty of life, of any life.

What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality. – Plutarch

For those of us who believe in physics, this separation between past, present and future is just an illusion. – Einstein

All life is fleeting. Cling to that understanding, and seek, then, within yourself that which alone endures. – Yogananda

Sophia in the Kitchen Sink

It took me most of a lifetime to find Sophia in the kitchen sink.

 

Coming of age in the 60’s, my consciousness raised by Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer, I set myself free from the monotony of housework and never look back.

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It doesn’t help that my mother, a brilliant woman who’d studied with Alfred Adler in Vienna, relinquished a promising career to keep house and raise me. As I see it at fifteen or sixteen, she wasted her life on ironed pillow cases and clean dishes.

I rebel.

Luckily, the hippie world is waiting. By the mid-1970’s I have a bearded husband, two small children and a ramshackle house in upstate New York. For a while we go off the grid: wood stove, 1/4 acre garden, goats. We pay for gasoline and our $29/month mortgage by renting out extra rooms in our rambling house and doing odd jobs. Household responsibilities are meant to be shared but it doesn’t really work out that way. I do the cooking and the cleaning, torn between the romance of the back to the land movement (remember Alicia Bay Laurel’s book, Living on the Earth?) and the rhetoric of the women’s movement.

By the time I find myself pregnant with my third child, I’m in graduate school and teaching elementary school full-time. Housework is delegated or done as quickly as possible. Everyone is busy. A divorce follows, then remarriage and a blended family: two jobs, 5 growing kids. My mother moves in. We get a dishwasher and a part-time housekeeper. The kids have chores they sulk about. Tom, my new husband, does the outside work and the big jobs, and joy of joys!!! He cooks!

Years pass. The kids grow up. My mother dies. Then, a dozen years ago or so, while alternating reading Alice O. Howell’s The Dove in the Stone with painting the kitchen, I’m blessed with a moment of satori. The central message of the book, something I’d understood intellectually for decades, sinks into my cells.

Everything is sacred. Every thing is sacred.

That is Sophia, the sparkle in things, the living wisdom of the manifest, the reflection of the ineffable in the effable.

In Love and the World, Robert Sardello says,

Sophia, the unity of the all, is not to be understood as a dissolving of the particularity and multiplicity of the world, the many becoming one, but rather of the many as one.

Sophi in the sink

A few more years go by before the new understanding penetrates my routine thought patterns, but one day it comes to me that I can choose to like washing the dishes instead of feeling resentful that it’s me doing them again. The dishes and the process of washing them is sacred, too.

I start by paying attention to the parts I like: the feeling of warm water on my hands, the satisfaction I find in arranging the shiny clean utensils and pots and pans in the drainer, the tidiness of the clean counter and sink. The preciousness of water becomes more and more obvious as California’s record drought continues. I develop a washing system that is efficient and pleasurable. I draw in family and friends and washing up becomes a pleasant social time. When the dishwasher breaks I have no desire to spend money fixing it. I like washing the dishes.

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This is how to tend Sophia:  by paying attention to her, by loving her.

The first real rain we’ve had in thirteen months is falling as I write. The relief the rain brings, even though it’s far from enough to end this apocalyptic drought, is truly marvelous: the release of long-held stress in my body, my mind and my heart. A couple days ago a new moon rose, in Aquarius this month, the second new moon in a month, a super-moon. The Chinese year of the green wood horse is here, a year of dynamic new growth after five years of degeneration and dissolution.

May the new growth spawned this year be in appreciating the value of maintenance, of attention and love put into caring for the things we have instead of into acquiring more, into recognizing the treasure in our own back yard.

Sophia's wink

Sophia’s wink in the sink

beginning with thanks

The weekend after September 11, I went to a writers conference where Carolyn See, the keynote speaker, suggested the practice of writing “charming notes,” one handwritten thank you note a day. Refocussing on who and what I was thankful for at a time like that seemed wise and very appealing. Collect beautiful notecards, she told us, and if you can’t think of anyone to thank for something that happened recently, go into your past and thank people you haven’t had contact with in years.  I was ready.

For the next year I diligently wrote a note a day. I wrote to my family, my neighbors, my teachers, my friends. I dug up the addresses of middle school friends, camp counsellors and therapists. I wrote to the city council and my congresswoman. After a year, I slowed to writing notes in a more standard way, for dinner parties, gifts, and once in a while, for a memory or shift in my thinking.

Years passed like that. I still kept a collection of cards, but I let the daily practice go.

Then, a few months ago, I was moved to begin again.

Now I begin almost every day at my desk handwriting a note.  Before getting up, I lie in bed thinking of who I will write to. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it takes some meditation to allow the recipient to surface in my consciousness. Buying notecards is pure pleasure.

So, it seems appropriate to begin this new blog with thanks. To Tom and to all the people who make it possible for me to begin a new project in this almost unbearably beautiful place, surrounded by people who love me and whom I love: thank you!

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California flowers blooming regardless of the drought