Over the past few weeks I’ve been doing further research about Italian immigrants in San Francisco, San Francisco in the early 1900’s, reading some of Billy Collins’ poetry, editing a couple of articles to send out for possible publication, barbecuing pizzas with my husband and friends, listening in Spanish to some cultural programs about food in various regions of Spain, along with various other things important for me to keep abreast of things at my work, which this year, again, includes totally new systems and ways of approaching things.
About three times a week I get to the swimming pool, the gym about twice, and I aim to go on walks, though recently these have been fairly short. While I’ve done a number of things I want to do, drawing, as I was doing during the summer months, has now diminished to less than one page of drawings a week in my sketchbook. Books I want to read wait on a table. The clarinet I finally got out of the carry case last year with the intention learning to play currently sits on the shelf. I want to feed the things I’m passionate about. The reality is that each of these things takes time. To sum it up, there are many more things I want to do than I have time to do. Whatever it is we want to do or be takes practice, and this includes reshaping our life to live in a way that enhances our own well-being and sense of wholeness. For decades, I have pondered Thoreau’s quote from Walden, “Simplify. Simplify.” This still isn’t easy to do.
This past week I viewed the program, “Killer Stress–A National Geographic Special with Robert Sapolsky.” Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist, biologist, and researcher at Stanford University, explores the effects of stress–how it ages us more quickly, reduces our health, and cuts into our well-being–and yet how multi-tasking and stress is actually valued and promoted in our culture. Stress is difficult to escape. We all live in a social system. How can we live as free people, rather than slaves to a system that positions competition, power and financial success as centrally important? Sopolsky’s research lead him to observe how a troop of baboons, animals that are known to be aggressive, combative and nonsocial, became peacefully cooperative and nonaggressive after the dominant males suddenly died off as a result of contracting tuberculosis. The encouraging news in this study is that even though aggressive and destructive habits had been the way the baboons had functioned for decades, when they entered a new social construct where the aggressive males died, the whole community was able to become peaceable, even when new baboons entered the community. (See more at “Warrior Baboons Give Peace a Chance.”) Maybe there is hope for us too.
In his essay, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau says, “It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?” In his essay, Thoreau admonishes readers to place their humanity before money, before laws– “policy is not morality,” suggesting that if we want to live humanely, we must place the way we relate to each other at the center. We must consider what it means to live wholly, what we mean when we say we want to live not as slaves to industry, but more fully.
So, how does this hopeful change where baboons learn how to live together peacefully apply to our own lives? Many of us continue to live in aggressive societies where community and connectedness are not held as central values, where diverse ways of seeing, being and unique contributions are not seen or held dear because the system is rolling down the track like a locomotive train, intent on getting on with whatever its own vision is. In her recent article on Brain Pickings, “The Shortness of life: Seneca on Busyness and The Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long,” writer Maria Popova quotes Roman philosopher, Seneca “It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested…Life is long if you know how to use it.” This is a stunning, paradoxical thought. We have time! As Thoreau suggested, it’s not that we’re busy doing something–what is it we are busy about that eats the time that would allows to understand we are living fully? Are we nurturing our passions–the things that makes us feel connected to our heart’s deep need and fully alive? If life is long enough if we use the time we have to fully live, how do we reshape our lives to do that. If, like many of us, we find we need to be on the institution train for a period of time, how can we still make use of the station stops? How do we open the window and feel the breeze and make sure to look up and notice the dragon flies swarming above the nearby trees?
In the hopes of recovering more life and a sense of space inside myself, I’m aiming to practice the act of purposeful noticing–looking for one small thing each day to connect myself more to the heart of the days I’m living–to the physical world, and to the life of those around me. I want to release myself from the world of walls, at least briefly every day, and every day remind myself that I am alive in a physical world full of wonder. I reside in a body that is allowed to wander and walk here on this earth. Walking, Ferris Jabr tells us in his recent article in the , “Why Walking Helps Us Think,” not only improves our memory, attention, and staves off degenerating brain cells, it also, through its rhythmic quality, creates a mental state that nurtures creativity and innovative ideas. Now that’s wonderful news!
I’ve decided to take a small, probably slow walk each day, and will couple it with a practice Naomi Shihab Nye suggests people consider–the practice of writing down just a few lines a day, maybe three, for example, of things I notice and observe. A short walk and three lines are manageable. I plan to try this for 40 days, a length of time long enough to notice change but short enough to feel doable. My desire is to observe how this small act might shift my thinking, perceptions of time, and way of being and living to allow me more of a sense of freedom and connectedness to the physical world around me.
I began my first observation yesterday, with noticing the tree in the school yard that was suddenly cut down. The tree has been a focal point of observation I’ve returned to many a morning over the last seven years as I’ve watched birds gather in that tree–crows and kites mostly. Last year, the tree was struck by lightning and was in distress. Its center branches had dead. Then, yesterday morning, I heard the sudden crack from my apartment as the tree’s center trunk broke apart–the result of the school’s gardeners pulling it down. Only this past Tuesday I had been standing next to it, noticing the sap dripping down its sides at various points on its trunk, as if it were grieving over the recent difficulties it had experienced. All day, the gardeners were cutting up the trunk and branches. Now the tree is half its original size. Everything changes. What was once present, is suddenly gone.
The photo here shows today’s observation, our lime tree, one year old and putting out an abundance of leaves, blossoms and tiny fruit. It is a happy tree, ready for a larger pot. We hauled up several new plant containers four flights to place on our balcony with the hope of enhancing our garden there. The lime tree is thriving. We had orange groves the entire time I was growing up. When I smelled the one blossom that’s currently open, I was reminded of my mother who always sent me orange blossoms in the mail after leaving home. Citrus blossoms are always sweet.
I’ll post later the other things I observe in the coming week, and invite you to try this along with me and let me know what subtle things begin to shift in your own awareness over the course of time–what it is you discover through the practice? Do you feel an increased sense of health, awareness of nature, gratitude, wholeness, connectedness to life, your neighborhood, or the world? What is it that happens when we practice grounding ourselves in place, when we pay attention to the suchness of things? If forty days is too long for you, try 20 or four and see how that goes–whatever feels right for you in your desire to shift things in your life.
As E. E. Cummings writes,
being to timelessness as it’s to time,
love did no more begin than love will end;
where nothing is to breathe to stroll to swim
love is the air the ocean and the land…
Love is the voice under all silences.
I want to listen inside that silence and notice the miracle of love that holds me up day by day.
Everything is miracle Peter Meyer explains in his song, “Everything is Holy Now.”