Two Suitcases and One Pallet

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The current state of the pallet.

We’re experimenting with what to take and what to leave behind, and piling up various configurations of it on the driveway. Pretty soon we’ll have a good enough idea of how and what will fit and the pile will move indoors.

Since my project is called Two Suitcases, I took the idea of moving to France with two suitcases pretty seriously. Well, with two suitcases apiece. Eventually it came to me that, though it would offer me to opportunity to partially replicate my parents’ arrival in the same part of the world in 1940, it was a thoroughly romantic – and therefore impractical – notion. We shifted our thinking to shipping one pallet of boxes.

Right now the boxes making the cut contain: the library I’ve collected to use as background material for Two Suitcases, a few boxes of my papers and other books, some of Tom’s papers and books, framed photos of the family, art, kitchen things, winter clothes, and some items to make our new home feel like our old one. Carpets, my computer, Tom’s keyboard, and more art will be shipped separately.

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Most of my days are filled with sorting and packing. This box has our favorite mugs at the bottom, some delicate pieces of art and glass in the middle, and at the top, some of the birds that lived in our houseplants or flew around the ceilings in our home here.

At its center, packed very carefully, is the crystal bell my father bought my mother with his first paycheck in 1943, less than a year after they arrived in Philadelphia. He always said he bought it to remind her of what is important.

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A thoroughly romantic notion.

 

 

 

 

 

Om is Home

Ganesh Baba used to say that. Such a delightful aphorism – so full of broad and deep meaning.

To me, it means wherever you are is exactly the right place for you to be. The central secret is at your center. The treasure is buried in your own garden.

We didn’t move. Tom and I are still living in the same house, and working at the same business, Mama Ganache. The house, in my mind all ready to be someone else’s, wanted to be ours a little longer. Everything seemed to be in place, and I’d done all kinds of symbolic, metaphoric, ritual,  and inner work around letting go—I even led the session called “Letting Go” in a Year-to-Live class I co-teach—but the fates had it that we’re here, at home again.

It’s a fortunate thing, although fraught with difficulties and very hard work. This house is filled with light and beauty. And now it’s clean and repaired! What a gift!

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During the weeks the house was on the market and the first few after, I was tired and depressed and sick. Not all at once. Yeah, all at once.

Still, underneath all that physical, biological and psychological stress, I managed to retain a small, frequently imperceptible, sense that everything was going to be alright. It’s true I was wearing my little ceramic disk that says THIS TOO SHALL PASS, which always helps, but it was the way life itself unfolded that gave me the message most profoundly.

The very moment Tom and I decided that we would stay here, a text arrived from a friend, who had another friend, who was in need of a furnished room or two. Our new housemate moved in an hour later. Best housemate we’ve ever had. It would have been enough.

Events had almost inevitably been turns for the worse over the weeks before that. Things broke down, big things, the water heater, the sewage pump, the washer, all within a short time. The toilet overflowed and needed to be replaced when Airbnb guests were here. Everything took forever and cost too much. Then, in a flash, a helpful, upbeat, mature, and kind housemate moves in.

A week later, Mama Ganache lost both of its weekday shop employees at the same time, and it became clear to me that I should step back into the business. So here I am, Mama Ganache again.

I spent the last month on a new website: mama-ganache.com. I set up a chocolate club and free delivery service to hospitals and nursing homes. Tom and I are hosting two weekly events at the shop, a tea on Sundays, and a conversation on Thursday afternoons. We’re hosting two parties a month, Art after Dark on first Fridays, and the chocolate club pick-up party on second Fridays. I’ve been crazy busy.

In the middle of all that, Eva came on Thursday last week. She and I already have a long relationship with hummingbirds, so I knew the hummingbird who flew into the living room just before Luana dropped her off, had some message for me.

It was another rufous hummingbird, West Coast parallel to the ruby-throated hummingbird. It was trying frantically to fly out of the window above the dog’s bed. Lily Bear thought it was very exciting indeed, but she backed off when I asked her to. Almost immediately the bird fell, stunned, onto the window sill. When I tried to lift it up gently, it awoke and dashed into the upper corner of the window again. In my hand were three tiny hummingbird feathers.

As I stared at them, astonished, the bird fell again, very nearly into my open hands. This time I could lift it and carry it outdoors. I put it in a flower box and went to get a succulent leaf to make a sun shield for it.

When I came back with the leaf, the hummingbird looked at me with one eye and took off, circling around once and then landing high in the oak tree.

The feathers must have slid out of my hand when I put the bird in the flower box.

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I picked them up and put them in a special box. Hummingbird feathers, so tiny, so exquisite. Extraordinary.

These are hard times. The large, slow-moving astrological configuration (Uranus/Pluto) that’s been putting so many obstacles, small and large, in my path, will affect us all in one way or another. But surely something bigger is afoot, or, perhaps I should say, in the air.

 

Letting go

Our beautiful house is on the market at last. It took me well over a year to sort and organize before releasing it into the world to be enjoyed by new occupants. Almost eighteen years in a place is a long time.

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At first the house was filled with our growing family: three of our five kids, my mother, and, for a while, our oldest daughter, her husband and their new baby. Then we let rooms to new faculty, especially from the English department, grad students, and younger students, too, to mothers with young children, and many friends, older and younger.

IMG_4393For four years the house was full of Servas, Warm Showers, and Airbnb visitors from all over the world. I just took down the map because the hundreds of map pins were crowding each other put and falling onto the floor.

IMG_3686Because we had the space to do it, we hosted hundreds of community dinners, house concerts, book groups, women’s circles, poetry readings and book signings, political meetings, trunk shows, workshops, cooking classes, and celebrations of all kinds.

IMG_7504.jpg Just last year, we hosted a series of neighborhood potlucks that involved knocking on on 250 doors and hand-delivering invitations.

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Letting go, then, is more than selling the house. It’s a lifestyle change. We’re looking a houses a third the size of this one!

Nonetheless, I’ll still be me and Tom will still be Tom. Monday night dinners will continue, the first Friday salon will continue. I’ll have less cleaning to do, and more time for writing. We’ll take what we really need and love with us, and pass the the rest on.

Here’s what we’ll leave behind. May it serve its next owners as well as it has served us.

(If you’re interested in buying our place, it’s listed here.)

 

Sacred Geography in San Luis Obispo

This is more or less the text of a 2007 talk I gave at Tridosha, the yoga center where Smiling Dog Yoga is now,  where Marsh and Higuera Streets meet, just south of downtown. Roxanne’s Cafe, one of my favorite places for lunch, is in the courtyard where the talk was part of a new moon ritual. I’ve updated it a little.

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Long, long ago, before the world was as we know it today, the People knew that the shape of the land around them reflected the Cosmic Order.

In India, Shiva meditates on Mount Kailash, physical manifestation of Mount Meru, the axis mundi  that pierces the center of the earth.

Native Americans knew the land held the stories. Aboriginal peoples everywhere recognize the myths and metaphors that surround them in the form of geography: sacred earth, sacred stories.

When people traveled by foot, and lived in one place for generations, they knew the hills and valleys with their bodies and their souls. They knew where the springs were; they knew the seasons of the tides; they knew the power of the rocks, and they knew the patterns of the planets.

As time passed, places grew stories, as trees grow fruit, and the stories were passed from one generation to the next. The stories that connected heaven and earth, the ones that resonated in the soul, the live ones, gave meaning to life in ways that we barely remember today. They provided deep connections to our physical environment that opened the heart to a kind of peace that most of us only long for.

Recently, I’ve become more aware of the intertwined geography and history of this place, San Luis Obispo, of the stories this land tells. I’d like to share a couple of those stories, beginning with one about the piece of land below our feet.

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The Mission from across San Luis Obispo Creek

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa sits in the shelter of Cerro San Luis Obispo, the mountain with the big M on it, on a low mound between two year-round creeks, San Luis Creek and Stenner Creek. In wet months, a third creek, Brizzolari, joins Stenner a little way up. San Luis and Stenner Creeks come closer and closer to each other as they wind toward the sea.

They join across the street from Tridosha (now Smiling Dog). San Luis Creek meanders in from northeast of town, down the grade near the 101. It goes through Cuesta Park and between Monterey and Marsh Streets, crosses to Higuera near Black Horse uptown, runs underground for a while and emerges near the Mission to become the heart of the downtown.

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San Luis Creek running through the center of the city

Stenner Creek comes down from the northwest, near highway 1, with Brizzolari joining it at the southwest corner of Cal Poly’s campus. San Luis and Stenner form a Y behind that new red building, 444 Higuera Street, across from Tridosha/Smiling Dog, and a little to the north, just south of the end of Dana Street.

In India Triveni Sangam, the confluence of three streams, one of which is invisible, indicates the holiest of places. Feng Shui teaches that rivers and creeks are channels for qi; how auspicious then, that a yoga studio should sit just at the point where the creeks meet. Tridosha, three forms of subtle energy, channelled into one, as reflected by geography! An apt name and place for a yoga center.

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The second of my stories is about two men who had a tremendous impact on the lay of the land of this area: Alex Madonna and Harold Miossi.

So interesting archetypally. Consider the places we associate with them.

Remember Alex Madonna?  Of the Madonna Inn?  “A fantasy-theme hotel of outrageous excess and enduring California charm,” the New York Times calls the inn in Madonna’s obituary.

Another obituary, this one in the English paper, the Telegraph, quotes Umberto Eco:

The Inn was immortalised in Umberto Eco’s collection of essays Travels in Hyperreality (1991), in which the Italian scholar analysed the American love of grotesque fakery.

“The poor words with which natural human speech is provided,” wrote Eco, “cannot suffice to describe the Madonna Inn . . . Let’s say that Albert Speer, while leafing through a book on Gaudi, swallowed an overgenerous dose of LSD and began to build a nuptial catacomb for Liza Minnelli.” But that, he reiterated, could not convey its true ghastliness. In fact, the Inn’s architect was Madonna himself, who, in the mid-1950s, had spotted the perfect location for a motel at San Luis Obispo, on the highway running between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Alex_Madonna6930_100404Madonna and his wife Phyllis built the inn in 1958. He designed the outside, she the interiors. It took on its present uniquely kitschy look after a 1966 fire. Today their daughter runs it. To much of the world, San Luis Obispo is the Madonna Inn.

Madonna, larger-than-life, magnanimous, was a huge presence in SLO when Tom and I moved here in 1998. He partnered with John Wayne to raise the beef for the steak house. He was friends with Ronald Reagan. There’s a piece of the freeway and a shopping center named after him. And still he took the time to dance with every one of the little girls at my daughter’s friend’s birthday party at the Inn.  

And Harold Miossi? Oh, you don’t know where he lived? If you’re local, you know his name, but you aren’t quite sure who he is?

Alex Madonna and Harold Miossi graduated from San Luis High two years apart, Madonna in ‘37, Miossi in ‘39, and they died two years apart, Madonna in April, 2004, and Miossi in November of 2006. Their grandparents came from the same region in Switzerland, near the Italian border, and their families spoke the same Swiss-Italian dialect at home. Both lost their fathers when they were young. But their personalities and their lives were as different as the terrain they inhabited.

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Alex and Phyllis Madonna’s portraits are in the inn

Alex Madonna, in addition to gaining world renown for building the one and only Madonna Inn and local renown for several environmental disasters, was the owner of the construction company (started when he was in high school!) that built the freeway from Buellton to Salinas.

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Harold Miossi and Pecas

Harold Miossi, as the Tribune’s headline said at the time of his death, is the “Man Who Saved Cuesta’s Hills.” He saved the hills from being chopped down and tossed into the Cuesta Valley so that eight lanes of the freeway could go straight through to Santa Margarita.

Madonna wanted to bulldoze right through and Miossi opposed him. As a result, freeway winds through the hills in broad curves; the grapevine prevails.

Local environmentalists remember Harold Miossi well; he was a stellar conservationist of the old mold. A leader of the local Sierra Club, Miossi fought valiantly against the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, he wrote the master plan that is still keeping Montana de Oro and the Santa Lucia wilderness wild, and much, much more.

Miossi was born, lived, and died in a little house down a dirt drive lined with neatly planted native live oaks that follows a tributary of San Luis Creek. It’s in a canyon off a concrete piece of the old highway near Cuesta Park, the extension of Loomis Street called Miossi Road. The piece of the old highway is a tribute to Harold Miossi’s victory over the straight road Alex Madoona wanted to build through Cuesta Grade.

Miossi driveway

The red arrow points to the Miossis’ driveway

Alex Madonna was warm, generous, and also cantankerous, fiery, and very, very pro-development. The fight against the legacy of his pro-development views is still as dominant in local politics as Cerro San Luis is in our topography.

Harold Miossi was a stubborn man, too, but he was known for his ability to bring people together. The wonderful introduction to the Miossi archives at Cal Poly says his tactics in winning the battle to save the grade could “well serve as a syllabus for coalition-building.” A 1980 article in California Today titled ”How to Beat Mr. Big” reads in part:

When Miossi undertook his fight, it was a lonely one against what seemed great odds. But he had faith in the justice of his stand, and in the democratic process, in his friends and neighbors, and in their good sense and love of the land, If faith can move mountains, it can also sometimes keep them where they are.

So we have Alex Madonna in his cowboy outfit on the mountain: a masculine symbol on a masculine symbol; and we have Harold Miossi, a gentle soul, living in the valley, doing good works for the city, the county, the state, the people, the land and all those who live on it—living in the valley, a feminine symbol.

Madonna lived as large as a mountain. His funeral procession was led by his riderless horse, his empty boots backwards in the stirrups. A team of horses pulled his casket down Higuera Street.

Harold Miossi took care of his mother at home till she died at 97. She was Vera Gnesa Miossi, the same Vera Miossi, who, with other women in her family, donated the land at the top of Bishop’s Peak to the city. The plaque on that property reads,
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This Peak is given to the People of this community by Lena Negranti, Vera Miossi, Hilda Giacomazzi and Josephine Johnson, in memory of and in tribute to their parents, James and Sofia Giorgi-Gnesa, who in 1870 as youths emigrated from Canton Ticino, Switzerland, settled in this County, raised a family, prospered, and contributed to the betterment of this Community.
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And the legacy of each man to the community?
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Harold Miossi made provisions for his 1700 acre ranch—all that open land northeast of the city along the freeway before the grade—to be preserved in its current state in perpetuity. He established the Miossi Trust, which funds efforts to improve the quality of life in our area.
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Southwest of town, Alex Madonna left us the Home Depot and acres and acres of other big box stores.

What can I say?

As the Upanishads say, man is the mean between the macrocosm and the microcosm. These men lived out the stories of the land, and the land is living out their stories.
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We both create and are created by our environment. The physical world reflects the patterns of the world of ideas, and the world of ideas reflects the physical world. Plato knew it; Pythagoras knew it. Native people worldwide know it.
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There is meaning in the landscape. We are not alone in a meaningless universe! We are all connected in ways that we cannot imagine!
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What a profound, profound relief.

This is how Black Elk puts it:

The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers.

Slowing down in SLO redux

Guests enjoy themselves in the dining room.

Recent pictures of the Airbnb part of my life

all three rooms and Lily Bear too
Lily Bear is finished inspecting Juliet’s room. Trudy’s room is on the left, Linnea’s on the right.
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I just moved Meg Johnson’s pretty little table into Juliet’s room.
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The sun pours in Trudy’s room in the afternoon. The print above the bed is new.
Linnea's roomLinnea’s room is ready for tomorrow’s arrivals.
Aras's girlsSome guests play in the dollhouse
Monday Night Dinnerand others join us for Monday night dinner, a potluck Tom and I host once a month.
Pillowcases on the linePillowcases dry on the deck
IMG_4396where sweet peas bloom.
Easter tableGuests from Vienna join us for Easter dinner. Tom makes a spectacular meal: fresh local pastured leg of lamb, ratatouille and pommes dauphine.
ClafoutisFor dessert there is clafoutis with raspberries and apples and gently sweetened whipped cream on the side – as delicious as it is beautiful.

 My cup overflows.

Neighborhood magic: community

The city of San Luis Obispo from Monterey Heights

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.  Aldo Leopold

The greatest lack in contemporary society is community,” someone at the SLO Soiree last Sunday said, and it struck me as true.

FileItem-57643-SteynbergGallery_fullThe setting in which the statement was made completely belied it: the guests at that gathering form a deliciously civilized community. At its heart is a group of friends who’ve been coming to soirees facilitated by Dr. David Hafemeister, physics professor and expert in nuclear policy and foreign relations, for many, many years. Now held at the Steynberg Gallery on Sundays from 7 – 9, participants enjoy wine and cheese before sitting down to a presentation of some sort and a lively Q&A session. Last Sunday a couple of retired lawyers debated whether America is in decline. They were wise and erudite and the discussion was both profound and very much fun.

0421test_ban_treaty_hafemeisterThe sense of community one finds in a group like the SLO Soiree is rare; it takes a rare human being like Dave Hafemeister to draw it together.

To like many people spontaneously and without effort is perhaps the greatest of all sources of personal happiness.   Bertrand Russell

Not so long ago, every neighborhood was a community. Small businesses served the neighborhood and kids went to the neighborhood school. A neighborhood was an ecology, a complex set of relationships, that took up the greatest part of our time, energy and attention.

Neighborhoods, small towns, villages, tribes, and families are all ecologies, for better or for worse, and more or less sufficient unto themselves. Cities are made of neighborhoods – fortunately, or they’d be cold places indeed – but all neighborhoods are not communities.

David Spangler says,

Some people think they are in community, but they are only in proximity. True community requires commitment and openness. It is a willingness to extend yourself to encounter and know the other.

Today, though there are impressive exceptions like the cohousing movement, communities built on proximity are increasingly short supply all over the world. The oil industry, all those cars and roads to drive them on, is largely responsible.

RQNIn Monterey Heights, my neighborhood, community is on the increase. Neighbors are coming together the way they do when facing a disaster – or the potential of a disaster, as many of us view the new freshmen dorms being built on our doorstep. A clear indicator of community is how long it takes to walk the dog – everyone I meet wants to talk.

Together, we imagine seven four-to-five story buildings looming over our mostly one-story neighborhood. We agree on how hard it is to cross Grand Avenue already. “Can you believe the Environmental Impact Report didn’t take the intersection of Slack and Grand into consideration?!” We visualize roving gangs of 18-year-olds looking for parties on our already student-rental-ridden blocks. A series of meetings is being held, and neighbors, armed with a common cause, are getting to know one another.

Equality comes in realizing that we are all doing different jobs for a common purpose. That is the aim behind any community. The very name community means let’s come together to recognize the unity. Come … unity. – Swami Satchidananda

As climate change, continuing economic instability, shifting values and lack of a common belief system bring more chaos into our lives, finding commonality with others around us is more and more essential.

As Ganesh Baba says,

We must shed our fear of one another, not for some medieval ideal, but as the only practical course to continue as a species.

Let’s make survival of the human race our common goal and take responsibility – individually and together – for our part in preserving the integrity, stability and beauty of the planetary community by preserving the integrity, stability and beauty of our own small part of it, the neighborhood.

Creating harmony amidst diversity is a fundamental issue of the twenty-first century. While celebrating the unique characteristics of different peoples and cultures, we have to create solidarity on the level of our common humanity, our common life. Without such solidarity, there will be no future for the human race. Diversity should not beget conflict in the world, but richness. Daisaku Ikeda

Thanks go to IdeaArchitects and Moon Magazine for many of the quotes.

 

Sharing

Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious.  – Ruth Reichl

Not long ago, the words “Live to share” came to me on the tag of a teabag.  I saved it on the window sill with a fortune cookie message from the week before. I generally appreciate random bits of wisdom – these two spoke to me so strongly that I wanted to save them.

fortune cookie kindness

From now on your kindness will lead to your success.

If the fortune is true, I’m deeply grateful. What grace to be at a point in life where it’s enough to be kind, to live from the heart without fear, and to leave the world of comparison, competition and mastery behind until its tools are really useful.

I’ve been trying to live by kindness for a long time – who doesn’t love the Dalai Lama? – but the workaday world doesn’t always reward it, and when I was younger and more fiery, it wasn’t always so easy. But now, having received such a propitious cookie fortune, perhaps I can do it.

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The tea tag appeals to me because it so precisely describes what I am doing with my life these days. 

After my mother died and our children grew up, Tom and I were left with a ridiculously oversized empty nest. I’ve always felt that if we have such a big, beautiful space, we should share it, so we’ve filled it with friends and family, exchange students, SERVAS and warmshowers guests, and an array of tenants. I host women’s circles and meditation groups, we have advocacy groups and the French club here sometimes, and once a month we open our home for a community dinner.

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We began having Monday night dinners about 25 years ago. When the kids were younger we did it every Monday: open community dinners. We’ve used the same rules the whole time:  come promptly at 6, leave at 8, bring real food, and help set up and clean up.

The food is consistently excellent though we never plan it. In all those years, not planning only failed twice. Once we had one salad and many desserts. That wasn’t too bad – it was fun to have dessert for dinner. But the time we had all bread was not so much fun. The next dinner is the first Monday in April. Tell me if you’ll be coming so the right number of tables and chairs get set up.

For the past two years, I’ve been fortunate enough to earn a living by sharing the house with new friends from around the world through Airbnb. Some of our guests have already become old friends. What an exquisite joy it is to sit around on the deck after dinner enjoying a glass of wine or a cup of tea with old and new friends, discovering commonalities and sharing stories.

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The exercise I get changing beds and cleaning, especially paired with a couple of dog walks a day, is perfect for me. The pleasure I find in hanging the sheets on the line and then making the beds, especially with my mother’s linens, is enormous. I love keeping the house fresh, clean and beautiful, and the extra cash flow is paying for many long-put-off maintenance projects. When I want the rooms for family or friends, I block the Airbnb calendar and everything is ready.

What more could I ask?

Wisdom

What you would grasp
let go
only those seeds that fall
grow.

a.o.howell

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

z

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.

Neighborhood magic: Elisabeth Abrahams (Part 1)

This is a warning: if you’re a neighbor of mine and you stop by in the afternoon for a cup of tea, you may well end up interviewed here. That’s what happened to Elisabeth Abrahams, dancer and dance therapist, playwright and yoga teacher, who lives just up the hill. Born and raised in England, Elisabeth is in her 80’s now. I’ve chosen to break my conversation with her into two parts; this is the first.

We sip black tea with milk on the deck and I ask her the same questions I asked Tom.

“On a routine day in your life, what makes you happiest?”

“What makes me happiest?” Elisabeth reflects for a moment. “Oh, when it gets to be around 3:30 or 4:00 in the afternoon, I like to sit down with a cup of tea – my latest tea taste is China Oolong tea – I don’t have milk in that – and some kind of a biscuit, a cookie.”  It is exactly 4:00 and I wish I had some cookies, biscuits, in the house, but no.

Elisabeth and Joe

photo credit: Susan Pyburn

She laughs to herself asking, “Should I say this?” before going on. “The other thing I really like to do – this is earlier in the day – the tea thing takes place at about, you know, tea time – the other thing is to draw a warm bath in the morning,”  she sighs contentedly, “and sink into it and plan the day.” She smiles. “But usually what’s happened is the telephone goes, and my husband walks in with the telephone in his hand, and I have to get out of the bath,” she laughs, “and answer the telephone.”

(Take note: avoid Elisabeth too early in the day.)

Joe is 97 and going strong. They met on a blind date in San Diego is 1978 and they’re still dancing. When I met them a few years ago they were both retired from Atascadero State Hospital where he’d been a psychiatrist and she a dance therapist.

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Elisabeth and Joe cutting the cake for his 97th birthday

I ask her, “In general, what activities give you the greatest joy?”

“Dancing,” she says right away. “Dancing of several kinds. I love to go to a ballet class, do the barre and do the moves to the music. I like to go the Madonna Inn and listen to music of the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s – and the 20’s! – and dance with Joe. I like to do a modern dance class if I can find one. That hasn’t happened for a while. And we love to dance around the house!

“I also like to read plays,” she smiles broadly, “and I should say, the best thing I’ve done in my life was to take the play I wrote to Edinburgh. I felt like a star.” Elisabeth is glowing. She takes a long sip of her tea and sets down the cup firmly. “I really enjoyed that.”

Elisabeth's play“Against the Tide  –  a portrait of a marriage” is a one-act play about Melanie Hahnemann, the Marquise Marie Melanie d’Hervilly Gohier Hahnemann, and her husband, Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy.  It ran from August 26 to August 30, 2009, in the  Vault Theatre, a venue of the Edinburgh Festival.

“And I do like politics!” she says.  “If the truth be known, I like arguing.

“There’s a story from when I was working at ASH that illustrates it. They were looking for someone to be on a committee. They wanted somebody from each of the services and I’d recommended a young woman, a friend who’d come to work there recently. When she was turned down, I said I’d do it. I waited and waited to hear whether I was to go to this committee meeting but I was never called, so at last I went to my boss and asked what was happening. He shuffled his feet around and he said, ‘Um, you’d better go and ask Brenda.’

” So I go on to Brenda and she hems and haws and finally she comes out with it: ‘Well, you’re considered to be a little too argumentative.’

“And I grinned from ear to ear! She’d been sitting there, of course, so uncomfortable.

‘I am!’ I said, ‘I was brought up to be! That’s why they sent me off to study law!’ Brenda smiled and heaved a sigh of relief and said the other woman had been there long enough now and would I be satisfied if she sat on the committee. Of course I would, and that was the end of it.”

IMG_4186I ask Elisabeth, “What experiences in your life changed the way you see the world the most dramatically?”

“Well, that’s an easy one. In midlife, I went to UCLA to study Dance Therapy. I’d had a broken marriage, I was in my forties, and I was fortunate enough to meet Allegra Fuller Snyder, who is Buckminster Fuller’s daughter. I was a solid Churchillian Conservative in England, you know, didn’t believe in the National Health Scheme when it came in – I was most vocally against it. But I was ready to hear Allegra.”

The stories about that will have to wait, though. It’s time to walk the dog.

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