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.)

 

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

f

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: an interview with Tom Neuhaus

Every now and then I’m planning to introduce you to some of the people who live in our neighborhood. My husband Tom kindly agreed to be my guinea pig for the project, so here he is!

I asked him a series of questions beginning with “On a routine day in your life, what give you the most pleasure?”

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He takes a sip of his wine and spreads some camembert from Fromagerie Sophie on his cracker.

“The most pleasure? Eating cheese and drinking red wine,” he says.

“And feeling the wind whistle past my ears when I ride my bike. I’m very fond of that. Just feeling the air. And I like the soft light of the evening.”

He eats some more cheese and considers.

“Just simple creature comforts give me the most pleasure.”

After enjoying some of the wine and cheese myself, I ask, “What activities in general give you the greatest joy?”

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“Diverting water,” he says without hesitation. (This is a guy who spent most of the last few weekends repairing a gray water system he built in our backyard. Lots of water to divert).

He continues, “Walking on the beach, eating great food, sex, GREAT music, oh, listening to great music like Rachmaninov’s 2nd and 3rd piano concertos, oh, I love that!

“All the sensory stuff. I’m not real big into thinking grand thoughts. I’m more emotionally driven than cognitively driven, more into senses than internal cognitive states.”

We finish off the cheese and wine. I ask, “What experiences in your life changed the way you see the world most dramatically?

He barely pauses. “Camping, being outdoors and realizing it doesn’t have to be thought of as God’s creation, but whatever it is, it’s damn beautiful. Canoeing across a lake in upper Minnesota or hiking up in the mountains in Colorado. You just can’t beat that.

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“That year in France, speaking foreign languages, meeting other people, eating their food, laughing at their jokes. Humans, I like humans a lot. That’s why I like teaching.

“Going to Africa, being in the villages.

“Reading great books. They open your mind, change how you look at things. It’s very important to read books from many different perspectives. That really opens your mind the most. I’ll read one book about how Europe underdeveloped Africa and then the next book is about the human body. I like that, I really like that.” He pours himself another glass of wine.

“What do you like about the way you make a living?” I ask.

“I love the variety. Running the chocolate business, Mama Ganache, you’re constantly running into all kinds of problems and challenges. Teaching, you’re always trying to be on the edge, trying to do a good job.

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“I remember buying some antiques from an old farmhouse in Texas and there was a sign that said Ich will streben nach dem Leben: I will strive to live. I like that Germanic idea of striving. I like trying to do as well as I possibly can. Without being a type A personality, just for the heck of it, just for the variety and the challenge. I like that, I like that.”

I continue, “What was your favorite job?”

“Huh. My favorite job? I liked them all. I liked playing the pipe organ because I like the challenge of making good sounds and the preachiness of organ music; collecting rat urine, well, I wouldn’t say that was my favorite job, but it was fun hanging around scientists. I liked baking, I liked working the line in a French kitchen, getting into arguments with the chef, running a restaurant, having a fun time with Puerto Ricans – the restaurant industry is full of Puerto Ricans in New York, great people, fun to josh around with, I learned a lot of Spanish. Ah, every job has so many good things about it – as long as you stay open-minded – stay curious about the world.”

We drink the last of the wine, a very nice cab from Vina Robles, as the sun goes down behind Bishop’s Peak. Am I fortunate or what?

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