Beauty, trees, Uncategorized

On Blindness and Learning to See

Como el cometa

Quiero sentarme donde la rima no me alcance
lejos de bordes y límites, métodos y axiomas.
Donde dos más dos sea cualquier cosa menos cuatro.
Donde el ser fluido se mezcle con todo
y nada se acuerde de lo que es.

I´d like to sit where rhyme cannot reach me
far from edges and limits, methods and axioms.
Where two plus two is anything but four.
Where fluid self mixes with everything
and nothing remembers what it is.

–excerpt from Virginia Francisco’s, Like The Comet

The lines from Francisco’s poem above describe a self so completely connected to her surroundings that she merges with it, borders dissolved. How do we live a life that comes from a place of inner wholeness, that is in process of working toward unity with the world around us? We hear many voices in our world, often with opposing viewpoints, stating they are giving us the truth. Though we might have been raised in a particular way, as we age and come in to contact with other traditions, experience other cultures or other people’s ways of thinking and living, our picture of what the world is and how it works can grow less sharply defined. Instead of experiencing a sense of unity, we live in a place of inner dissonance. We might wonder how to see clearly again and ponder if we’re going blind or whether our vision is merely changing, the focus of the lens readjusting as we enter into a larger understanding of the world.

I’ve been sitting on my front porch in the morning, practicing being still. Eyes closed, I listen, and am noticing how the borders of sound are not firmly defined with specifically shaped form and edges. Sound is elastic. It bounces, reverberates, and stretches into diminishment, is more like the fading of light at sunset. As I listen, leaves rub against one another and grass rustles. Panting dogs run up the nearby road. Prayer flags flap overhead. Bees hum intermittently as they move among the borage in the planter bed. Sounds surface I earlier wasn’t aware of, and my thoughts turn to my sister who has been losing her sight to a rare disease that causes the eyes’ cones to stop functioning. How differently she negotiates now through every environment in the loss of sight. I think of her many adjustments to a new way of living and consider my own blindness in understanding what that would feel like, be like. There are many worlds that fall below my awareness. I have so much learning to do. Blindness of the mind. Blindness of the heart. As William Stafford has written in “Ritual to Read to Each Other,” “the darkness around us is deep.”

Blindness isn’t limited to physical blindness. Last week I went to the Calaveras Big Trees State Park here in California. I’d wanted to visit the trees since first reading about them in Simon Schama’s book, Landscape and Memory while living in Singapore quite a few years ago. In his book, Schama tells about the “Discovery Tree,” a sequoia that was felled in 1853. The tree was so enormous it took three weeks to cut it down. After turning the giant sequoia into a stump, people put a gazebo over it, and danced on it. The fallen portion of the trunk also had a structure put over it and it was used as a bowling alley. (Drawings of the tree and photos of the area from the time period can be seen here.)

The motivation for cutting the tree was the desire to make money. As Frances E. Bishop and Judith Cunningham state on the Calaveras History site, “Captain William H. Hanford, president of the Union Water Company, viewed the Big Tree and envisioned a way to make a fortune by stripping the bark and sending it on tour to New York and Europe. The bark was exhibited first in San Francisco and then New York, where it was consumed in a fire.” Felling the tree to prove such amazing beings existed proved futile, however. Not only did people believe the tree’s enormous size was faked, felling the tree caused much of the trunk’s wood to shatter. According to the National Park Service site, because sequoias’ wood is brittle, as much as 75% of the tree’s wood can be wasted when it falls.

The felled “Discovery Tree” measured 25 ft in diameter and the ring count ring count showed the tree to be 1,244 years old. Had it been left alive, some scientists say it would be today the largest living thing on earth other than the mycelia that is found beneath the earth’s surface.

When I saw the “Discovery Tree’s” stump, I was awed at its stupendous size and moved by the beauty in the turns of wood at the ancient trunk’s base. At the same time, I felt appalled and grief-stricken at what had been purposefully carried out. A portion of the fallen trunk that had been used as a bowling alley rested on the ground a short distance away. Sequoias have an average life span of 2,000 years but can live as much as 3,000 years. Looking at its enormous girth lying on the ground inert knowing very well it might  still be living, I felt remorse that something so rare and wonderful was cut down for such frivolous reasons.

“Discovery Tree” stump

A second famous tree in the North Grove area of the park is called the “Mother of the Forest.” D. A. Plecke on the  Cathedral Grove website states the tree was named for its graceful form. This tree also was destroyed upon discovery by people of European decent. In 1854 a scaffold was built to the height of 120 feet, and the tree was stripped of its bark, an act which destroys the tree. The bark was sent first to New York then onward to London in an attempt to make money, as well as to prove that trees as gargantuan as these exist. People who hadn’t seen the trees in person, however, didn’t believe they were real, and their views didn’t change after being presented with the physical evidence. The bark was put on display at the Crystal Palace in the UK but was destroyed by a fire in 1866. The tree was 2,520 years old, 305 feet high, and had a 63 feet circumference.

Mother of the Forest in the far center distance.

Walking among the sequoias, standing at the foot of the gargantuan wall of their trunks, one can’t help but feel both humbled, and speechless. Though nature is a refuge for our spirits and trees are a boon to our lives, little seems to have been understood about the value of trees’ living presence. We know things about trees now that weren’t understood in 1853. Among other things, they reduce asthma and depression, as well as help lengthen our life span. Trees’ benefit to our lives and complex nature are only recently growing to be understood. Even though this is true, it’s still difficult to understand why it would seem like a good idea to destroy these enormous, magnificent and ancient trees.

Cutting these giant sequoias demonstrates a blindness regarding the value of the trees’ lives. As Leo Hickman states in his article, “How a giant tree’s death sparked the conservation movement 160 years ago,”  at the time the trees were cut, Americans believed nature was theirs to exploit. Nevertheless, there were at least those who felt enough outrage at felling these trees that an effort to save other remaining trees was made. Deforestation didn’t cease, however, as these images from 1915 depict. Today, according to the Save the Redwoods League, only 5 % of the original redwood forests survive. Our blindness continues.

Plant blindness, the inability to see plants and to recognize them is real, is a term coined by Elisabeth Schussler and James Wandersee. People tend to live outside of an awareness of trees and plants precious, life-giving presence. As mammals, our brains more readily pay attention to those things similar to us. Because of this, we don’t tend to see the plants in our environment. A botanist and biology educator, Schussler explains “humans can only recognise (visually) what they already know.” Few today are involved in nurturing plants, and plants are also nonthreatening. As a result, plants tend to blend into a background of green and people mostly ignore them.

We need wood for buildings, tools, furniture, fuel, and paper. But trees, and plants in general, are also important beyond their utilitarian function. What appears to be missing in our awareness as we use wood, as well as other resources, is a connection between our use of resources and our responsibility to the greater community of life–a foundation of respect for the natural world that sustains our life. As Richard Powers in his book Overstory states, “What you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.”

In Thailand, the culture has a tradition of erecting spirit houses when humans choose to purposefully change the land or do something that alters its natural state. Spirit houses are physical embodiments of a cultural recognition that when land is built on, the life energy of the land and all it sustained is disturbed. There is an acknowledgement that one’s actions have consequences for others beyond what is seen. Spirit houses are a beautiful expression of an awareness of human interdependence with nature. In America, some people celebrate Earth Day and Arbor Day, giving recognition to the earth’s gifts, but these are one day events rather than a practice or a continuing way of seeing or interacting with the natural environment. What stories or practices might help our eyes be opened to see how the sanctity of human life depends on respect and care for life in other forms?

We are born into and grow in a particular environment or environments. Life is a long process of learning who we are, what the world is, and what our relationship to it is. While life differs from place to place and culture to culture, some form of loving our neighbors is found in beliefs around the world. Plants are most certainly our neighbors. Perhaps now could be a good time to get to know our plant neighbors better and to explore more of how we belong together in the world, and the joy a relationship with them brings. We don’t have to remain plant blind. We can start with learning the names of plants outside our door and in our neighborhood and discover what is native to our area. This website gives links as well as book titles with information to help you identify and learn about plants in various world regions. Here is a website for the US to help you do that, and also a plant database to help you learn about native plants of North America based on their characteristics. As Mary Oliver writes in her poem, “Don’t Hesitate,”

We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world…
…whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

 

 

Beauty, place, Uncategorized

Wildflowers and Forgotten Worlds

A place of abandoned windmills, trailers and tractors, the Carrizo Plains north of San Luis Obispo, California carries a kind of sadness, an emptiness that fills the landscape’s wideness. In her poem, “Elegance,” Linda Gregg writes, about the neglected world,

All that is uncared for.

Left alone in the stillness
in that pure silence married

to the stillness of nature.

And there is, indeed, an undisturbed stillness to the landscape of the Carrizo Plains, a silence that absorbs you when you step out onto the sea of land and peer out into the far distance, a world that goes on being itself with out much notice from anyone. The wind rises a bit and rattles the grass. Clouds drift by in their silent carousel. Crow sits in her nest atop a tower where once the windmill turned. The countryside here is full of light, but you can feel the shadows waiting beneath the surface, a kind of loneliness.

 

Tractor, Carizzo Plains

Nevertheless, because these plains are a place left undisturbed by humanities’ hustle, traffic and expectation, something truly grand has the opportunity to appear: wildflowers. After a winter with abundant rain, a super bloom occurs in backcountry areas like the Carrizo Plains. Flowers that have waited for years, at last have the conditions they need to spring forth, forming lakes of lupin and pools of baby blue eyes. Beauty spills its bounty across the hillsides, dusts them in the pink blush of owl’s clover, clothes them in her bejeweled cape of brocaded yellows–gold poppies, topaz fiddlenecks, mustard, butter cups, and bright-eyed tidy tips. The hills reverberate with sun.

People who typically view nature as a backdrop, and who may not know the names of plants in their front yard or on the street where they live drive hours to stare at flowers. They climb hills to get a good view, spread a picnic blanket at the edge of the road, and lug their crying children along with them all for the opportunity to glimpse at the splashes of color for a few hours before making the journey back home. What is there about these flowers that pulls on our spirits so powerfully?

Carrizo Plain

 

Temporal and rare, we know the burst of color these flowers produce doesn’t last long. If you want to see them, you know you can’t put the journey off for weeks. Flowers do not bend to our schedules and timelines. They live and thrive when they choose, and wither quickly beneath the heat.

There’s something beyond the flowers’ narrow life span that pulls us to them though. Something deep inside us physically responds to what we see and experience, allowing us to feel more at ease, interconnected with the world around us, and with ourselves. We feel more whole. When standing amidst the wildflowers, like others around me, I found myself wordlessly staring out at their colorful bounty, fumbling for how to express the awe I experienced.

Something in us responds to a presence in nature that we recognize as much larger than ourselves and intricately, beautifully complex. Though nature speaks a language we in our consumer oriented society barely comprehend, when we step inside a natural world that has not been severely impaired by human interaction, we can nevertheless sense it imparting something significant into our very being. Neurologist Oliver Sacks in Everything in It’s Place describes the profound effect these experiences in the natural world have on us. “As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process, as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In 40 years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.”

Carrizo

The natural world is interconnected, and our own lives interwoven into its fabric. Nature preserves are also called sanctuaries. The word sanctuary is linked to the idea of what is holy, a word the etymology dictionary indicates connects to that which is whole or uninjured. Nature continues on its vast spiral, working under its own rules to carry on its own story within the constraints of its own rhythms, its own timing. Awe of the natural world reaffirms our connection to it, allows us to feel alive and whole.

As they walked from place to place or rode an an animal, for centuries people lived closer to the land than we do now. Before factory farming, many more of us were farmers interacting daily with plants and the land. According to Sara Burrow’s article in Newsweek’s October 27, 2017 article, ‘”one in nine children “have not set foot in a park, forest, beach or any other natural environment for at least 12 months.'” These patterns of disengagement from Earth alienate us from a life-giving source whose wideness is beyond comprehension, her boundlessness presence ready to carry us into a spaciousness, to use Hopkins’ words, that “flame out, like shining from shook foil.” National parks in the US are threatened by human activity. Perhaps this is because as a whole, people in our culture spends so little time in nature we don’t comprehend its value to our inner lives, and therefore don’t nurture our connection to it. As a result, we’re willing to treat it mostly as a commodity to be used and sold. 

Sadness does, indeed, roam about the world, but there are also wildflowers seeds waiting to be watered beneath the surface of loss, and despair. With blossoms and perfume, Earth call us to come join her, walk with her, listen to her voice. The story she’s telling is far bigger than our fears and worry. It’s a story of renewal, and she’s calling us to be part of it. While watering a plant on our windowsill, walking by a river, waiting beside a tree for the the local bus or looking out our window as rain clouds gather, we can open our roofs to the moment of her presence, let the seasons and scents drift in. The meadow of her refuge awaits. As Hafiz writes in his poem, “All the Hemispheres”

Leave the familiar for a while.
Let your senses and bodies stretch out

Like a welcomed season
Onto the meadows and shores and hills.

Open up to the Roof.

Beauty, gardening, Uncategorized

In the Garden of Time

20190301_152744 (1)Rain has fallen relentlessly the past few months in Santa Cruz County, but today a break occurred allowing the sun to come out, and I emerged into my backyard’s delicious light. Looking up at the billowing clouds, I rested in the afternoon’s quietness, reveled in the creek’s soft rumpling as it moved through the redwoods down the road. Ill with a cold, I had no plans but to take in the day. “The Sabbath is the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man,” writes Abraham Joshua Heschel. “God is not in things of space, but in moments of time.” Time is a temple, an experience to savor and relish. Today I felt enfolded in this truth.

On a recent trip to Hawaii, my husband and I connected with friends–walking, sitting, absorbing life. We arrived without any set plans. We simply wanted to be present with our friends and the world they inhabit. While there, we ventured out into the landscape, absorbing its fabulous diversity. Hawaii is a world different from where I live, and the difference is a delight.

Traditional Hawaiian society had defined roles for men and women. In traditional Hawaiian society, men cooked and farmed while women made art. Women and men ate in different locations, and inheritance was through matriarchal lines. Additionally, Hawaiians held an awareness of the mahu, those who identified themselves with both genders–someone in the middle.

In Hawaiian traditional culture, the idea of family goes back several generations. The physical family was part of the spiritual, timeless family. As depicted in the photo of the stone shrine above, Hawaiians honored family ancestors.

Traditional ways of thinking have eroded since the arrival of Westerners to the island, however. Because Hawaiians have highly adapted to Western culture and its way of thinking, restoring traditional ways is highly problematic. Nevertheless, learning something of Hawaiian’s traditional ways of organizing society helps me to view my own culture newly, to consider anew my relationship with family and friends, and to enter into an awareness of our spiritual connection.

Though I know little about my ancestors or their history, like members of traditional Hawaiian culture, I’m attracted to the idea of timeless connection beyond our physical bodies to the lives of those who came before us. 

To understand a culture not your own takes attentive, receptive study over time. Though people may not be able to restore what was lost in the multitude of cultures that make up the world we now live in, we can listen attentively to voices other than our own and find ways we might move toward greater restitution with those around us. We don’t have to agree with everyone to value them, to give them love. We may not have answers or solutions for the hurt people and cultures have endured. Nevertheless, we can build bridges of beauty that can unite us in larger fields of compassion so we can enter into a place of being together.

One way I’ve begun this effort is by planting in my garden favorite flowers for family members and friends–iris, poppies, sunflowers, dahlias and more. Though there are differences of values and perspectives with family members, looking out at the flowers growing and blossoming in the garden, I can notice life unfolding in its various forms, connecting the flower to the person who chose it–a living reminder of the many and varied lives linked to mine.

“I am convinced that most people do not grow up,” says Maya Angelou, “… our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.” Flowers touch the tender place in all of us where we are “shy as magnolias,” as Angelou describes. In the garden we can be alive together, planted in earth, recognizing our short lives and vulnerability as we take in the sun and rain. Without measuring one flower against the other, we can be together. Sometimes simply inhabiting time with one another, opening ourselves to its color can be enough.

Beauty, creativity, spirtuality, Uncategorized

At The Edge of Emptiness

“Prayer begins at the edge of emptiness.”–Abraham Joshua Heschel

IMG_4144

Heschel’s words strike me because there are a lot of things I don’t have answers for. Aware of my smallness in face of the suffering around me every day, I stand at the edge of emptiness and cry out.

When riding out into traffic, I’ve started a practice of looking into beggars’ faces who come to my window, or when someone speaks to me in the market asking for money, or when I see who is suffering, a family living on the street, for example, also animals who suffer, and in my mind I say, “I wish you well.” It’s a kind of prayer, and though it’s not directly answering the needs they have, it’s a way to keep my heart open–to keep noticing even though I might not be able to help the person in the way they ask of me. I want to see their humanness, and to be reminded of my own weakness and vulnerability.

Certainly, even in the lives of the desperately poor, there also must be times of joy. Even so, the human need in Delhi, is great. All the arms reaching out, the eyes–the world’s needs are immense. This week Nepal has its worst earthquake since 1934. The suffering is enormous. It will take decades, to recover, life times to become new, and we feel the grief hanging in the air as we go about our day.

The poverty in this world is not made up of physical poverty only, however. There is poverty of spirit, poverty of heart, and this is where I think that those of us in the developed world have a great lack. Everywhere around us today, from psychologists like Martin Seligman and his ideas about flourishing, to religious leaders like Matthieu Ricard, people are talking about how to be happy. Even Pope Francis has come up with his list of 10 tips for a happier life such as taking time off to be with your family, and spending time in nature. People who study what makes us happy tell us that focusing on what brings us a sense of well being actually helps us to become happier, and of course that is a good thing. But sadness and melancholy are also a part of life, and experiencing sadness and melancholy can help us become more compassionate, as Courtney Stephens explains on this animated TED Ed lesson. We learn from our sadness how to be more human.

I don’t know how best to respond to the sadness in the world, the grief so many feel, but want to give something of myself to meet that need. One must start somewhere, however small. It’s the start that counts. It makes room for greater opening, and I know I need to open.

FullSizeRenderFor months now I have been working on poems on the subject of food. It has taken some time, longer than I expected because new ideas for poems keep surfacing. I am now nearing the end of the poems I want to write for this series. I hope I’ve written well enough that after putting the poems into a manuscript I’ll find a publisher so I can use the proceeds from its sale to give to an organization that helps prevent hunger here in India. I hope it will be of some good. In the process of writing these poems, I’ve also been rereading about creativity, and returned today to Rilke’s Letters To a Young Poet where I read,

“…Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.

In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”

The need in India has been here for decades. It’s not going to go away in the near future. The sidewalk on the street where I live is in a perpetual state of change. It’s put together one month only to be torn up the next, a metaphor for my own incompleteness–of starting over, trying to make things work, change, to get things “right.” Whatever it is that causes that sidewalk to have to be torn up so often is a mystery. It’s just the way things are here. Likewise, whatever it is we are making or doing with our lives, it isn’t necessarily what we see on the surface. What’s really happening comes from a place far deeper, beyond the reach of our own understanding. I look into the face of my partner who I’ve known for decades now, and find him still a mystery, and stand in wonder. Who am I, I don’t even really know. Definitions, lists and examples aren’t enough to explain. Similarly, how can I in any way touch or meet the vast needs of a world as immense as India? I can’t. As Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 65,

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,IMG_4080
But sad mortality o’er sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O! none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

We are all frail and mortal. Beauty’s action may be no stronger than a flower, but still we need that flower. We all need to be touched, to be met, to be needed. So, I write on, my words, tiny splotches on computer screens of light wavering inside the colossal of India’s immensity, prayers of pale petals– ink floating down the Yamuna hoping to touch other lives.

Beauty, Uncategorized

In the Arms of Beauty

California red buckwheat
California red buckwheat

While visiting southern California recently I got to wander out into the hills outside of Wildomar and experience again a landscape similar to the one I wandered in as a child. At first glance the landscape seems semi-barren. Though there are few, if any trees, low chaparral grows in abundance, especially the beautiful red California buckwheat. The ants especially loved this plant, and numerous flower petals spread in a mandala around the ant holes. The flowers have a sweet smell, and the seeds are edible. At sunset, the light made each thing on the earth’s floor stand out distinctly. So much texture in the bark of broken shrubs, scattered rock. The hillside were alive with their blossom’s red rust blush. Truth, beauty, and goodness abound when we set out to notice them. Standing in the presence of beauty is too much for one person to hold. Overwhelming beauty is humbling and helps us to see our place in the vastness of all that is. It enables us to understand that the world is not ours, it is shared.

photo 2-4
Wildomar sunset

In the Harvard Gazette, Howard Gardner advocates revisiting the values of truth, beauty and goodness “suggests keeping lifelong portfolios of beauty, either in our brains or a physical catalog that chronicles the experiences, music, art, and more that we find beautiful over time.” I’m thinking of hummingbirds, how they feed frequently, coming back to the flower repeatedly in order to maintain substance. As we do this, what is beautiful, good and true expands in us.

With its wide valleys and minimal vegetation, southern California has a wonderful sense of openness, and the sunsets this summer carried me away into the ecstasy of their expansiveness, and the sense of freedom they invoke. The skies filled me with awe in the vastness they evoked. I wondered why everyone in the neighborhood had not thrown open the doors, and walked out into the arms of the world waiting for them to see the boundless beauty above and around them. The world is a wonder if we open our eyes to see it.

photo 3-2
Wildomar countryside

So many people today are wondering how to live well, how to find their center. Returning to Gardner, he states that what we need to do now is to learn how to behave not just for “numero uno, or for your neighbors, but for a wider public.” One start, I think, would be to consciously look for beauty in the world. Notice it, delight in it and share it, and thereby help others to lift their hearts into a deeper understanding of their own connection to life and to each other.

Beauty, pilgrimage, Uncategorized

Quiet Moments With Clouds

photo 2-3Frequently this summer I’ve been looking at clouds, the way they grow and contract before my eyes, sometimes so imperceptibly I wonder if it’s happening, other times so rapidly I wonder how they can do it. Gazing at the sky may seem like a mundane thing to do, but I recall many a time as a child lying back on the chairs outside my house and watching them glide by for hours, morphing forms as they paraded by as if on a slow moving carousel.

There was something soothing about those quiet afternoons. They carried me into a place, that looking back on it now, I can describe as a place of communion. Like staring at a campfire, the experience enabled me to enter a state where the world dropped away and I was absorbed into the moment, fully present in the simplicity of being. I call it a state of communion because even now, years later, while cloud gazing I find myself entering the same place in the mind and body, connecting with the environment where words aren’t needed, nevertheless communication is happening. I see the images, color, shapes–they are all showing themselves to me and something in myself is responding with more than a mere physical reaction. I hold and behold the forms, and in doing so, I am learning about the changing nature of the world and how I participate in beauty.

Though I gazed at clouds more often as a child, still today when I look up at the sky after waking up or as I walk home from work, something in me longs for the the open sky I experienced as a child, the vast, spacious world the mind can wander in. A hazy, flat sky flattens the mind. On days when the haze lifts, my heart feels freer, more content and at home. It’s refreshing to be reminded that shapes can also have forms with soft edges that float.

Our connections to the environment we grow up with influence who we become and leave an indelible mark. The house my father built and that I lived in as a child in San Diego county was perched high on a hill looking over a wide valley. We lived in a rural area with hills rimming the distant horizon, a geographical location that shaped my soul, so to speak: Living there nurtured a value of open space and encouraged in me the qualities of observation, reflection, and of taking the long view of things, values fundamental to my understanding of the world.

photo 3-2Earlier this summer I was recovering from a knee injury. Because moving around was slow and uncomfortable, all walking became a focused effort, each step a meditation. Immediately the world felt smaller and more challenging as a result. There seemed to be so much I couldn’t do, and I was surprised by how vulnerable and limited the injury made me feel. During that time, I was visiting my brother. I rested on his deck one morning, looking up into the enormous billowy clouds. Once again the world grew into itself, the largeness of it stretching out with the length of sky like an enormous blue sheet hung out across the universe, shifting in the solar breeze. Little had actually changed except my perception. I couldn’t move any faster than before, but staring at the passing clouds reminded me of the larger reality I was a part of, and brought me back to that place of wonder I participated in as a child. Just as clouds change forms, so does my life, and any suffering I might experience. Any suffering I might know, however small or big, is just a part of the larger suffering of the world. In the world there is pain, but there is also great beauty. Both coexist, and reality is a state of flow between them in different measures.

Not all of us live continuously in a world with natural beauty. I know I don’t. Countless others are like me–those who live in smog choked cities, those without access to green space and parks or who spend most their time in rooms without windows working under fluorescent light. Though we may not have access to it, the world’s immense beauty continues on. When I am in a place with natural beauty, I want to really notice it, pausing to take it in, to be thankful, and to consider all the processes of nature it took to create what I am experiencing. I want to remember often how open skies and time spent beholding them can restore.

When I am in a place that lacks beauty, when I find myself living there, I can also look up at the sky and know that beauty’s absence I that place will help me to recognize how precious beauty is when and wherever it is found. I can let this awareness fill me with gratitude that I have seen beauty, have beheld it, and hopefully do so again in the future.

I am reminded of Wendell Berry’s Sabbath’s 1999 poem, and how it values the small, quiet moments, emphasizing the importance of noticing and learning to rest in them, moments like looking at clouds.

photo 1-3

 

 

 

VII

by Wendell Berry

Again I resume the long
lesson: how small a thing
can be pleasing, how little
in this hard world it takes
to satisfy the mind
and bring it to its rest.

Within the ongoing havoc
the woods this morning is
almost unnaturally still.
Through stalled air, unshadowed
light, a few leaves fall
of their own weight.

The sky
is gray. It begins in mist
almost at the ground
and rises forever. The trees
rise in silence almost
natural, but not quite,
almost eternal, but
not quite.

What more did I
think I wanted? Here is
what has always been.
Here is what will always
be. Even in me,
the Maker of all this
returns in rest, even
to the slightest of His works,
a yellow leaf slowly
falling, and is pleased.