community, poetry, Uncategorized

Finding the Fragrance of Home

Hills of Soquel, Santa Cruz County, California

…you and I each
carry the other in a gesture here,
a phrase there, a sudden burst of laughter,
and we have changed one another

in ways we may never recognize
and these mountains are our witnesses.

–Michael L. Newell, from “Of Goodbyes, Memories and Eidolons”

Sumac, horned toads, lizards, hawks, jack rabbits, and hills covered in wild grass strewn with granite boulders, these were inhabitants in the desert homeland where I grew up in San Diego County.

I spent many hours wandering grassy hillsides of pungent perfume with wildflowers as a child, looking out across a wide valley to hills in the far distance. Those moments in quiet solitude indelibly shaped my sense of home. The world I knew as a child was a narrow one. We didn’t go anywhere on vacations, and though we lived twenty something miles from the ocean, our family went there but a few times, and only occasionally visited the Cuyamaca mountains, though they, too, were only a little over an hour’s drive away. We were people who stayed at home. As a result, the natural landscape was our companion, a blanket we wrapped ourselves in—a place we repeatedly explored. It was an open space to wander and explore, a place of deep connection.

Hills of eastern San Diego County, California

There is much to be said for the wonder of desert lands—the Earth’s exquisite beauty is revealed there with such openness. Deserts bring us in direct contact with Earth’s elemental form, the magnificence of mineral essence. Nevertheless, listening to stories about other parts of the US and learning about the world beyond the borders of my understanding, my curiosity grew. With the wish to experience something of the way others lived and saw the world, I left Southern California, moved to the Midwest, then to Northern California, and eventually moved abroad, where I lived and worked in six different countries over a period of twenty-six years.

Western Desert, leaving Taif, Saudi Arabia

Each place I’ve lived had recurring scents unique to that particular location. In Delhi, where I lived for nine years, smoke, Hexol, and paint fumes were dominant scents. In a city of 20 million, where approximately 200 thousand are homeless, in winter months people burn whatever they can find to keep warm—including wood from the forest on the ridge near Buddha Park, garbage, dung, and plastic. The smell of smoke in evenings was strong, often overpowering. Because of difficulty breathing, in addition to running three air purifiers in the apartment at all times, each night we’d put masking tape around our doors and pushed towels up under the door to help keep smoke out. When my husband and I returned to California each summer after teaching in Delhi, we’d spend a lot of time weeding in our garden, renewing planter beds, watering, and generally nurturing things back to life again. On the far side of our planter beds a stand of redwoods rise up from a gulch. One afternoon, while hunched over pulling weeds in the blackberry patch, the redwoods’ loam released a perfume—a warm woodsy, clean fragrance that felt nearly magical. I stopped what I was doing, stood up, and inhaled deeply. The scent was light and hung in the air, an offering of only a few fleeting moments. Then it was gone. Awareness of beauty is often raised by experiencing its absence. Inhaling the redwoods’ perfume after living for years in Delhi where I would never find such a scent, my heart opened to this gift from the trees and held it as a kind of sacramental moment.

View from my apartment balcony in New Delhi on a bad day of pollution

One fallen redwood leaf by itself, doesn’t create the perfume that stopped me from my work to acknowledge the trees’ presence. Such perfume arises as the result of thousands upon thousands of leaves that have built up over time in collaboration with the afternoon’s heat. Deep presence is an accumulated practice of letting go, a perfume of spirit, blessing all who are near.

Deciding to return to the US after living abroad for nearly three decades, many people asked, “Why now?” One of the central reasons was to reconnect to the land in a more integral way. There was more life to be lived, different lives to inhabit, and I wanted to step inside a new way of being. Life overseas opened many wonders and offered new insights. Returning to live beside trees and near wild space, however, would allow me to let go of firmly fixed schedules, dig my hands into the earth, and allow myself time to discover a slower, different rhythm where I might encounter a deeper truth about living and inner space could expand.

In his poem, “Estrangement,” from his new book, Wandering, Michael L. Newell writes, “I have lived so long among strangers / that I have become strange to myself.” Returning home after so long a sojourn is to find myself in the words of Newell’s poem. Entering in again to life in the country I was born into, refamiliarizing as well as familiarizing myself newly with its history and land, I’m made aware, again, of the contradictions between America’s actions and its ideals.

The place and earth we call home wants to be known, cared for and nurtured so it can continue to regenerate. Nevertheless, as reported by the National Geographic, among other things, the current US president during his office has given the go ahead to increased logging, reduced restrictions for clean air, and narrowed the definition of what constitutes clean water, as well as sold land belonging to national monuments to private businesses for mining and drilling, There is a long history of this way of thinking, as Lucille H. Brockway describes in her article, “science and colonial expansion: the role of the British Royal Botanic garden,” clarifying how Britain, (and the West in general) sought to manipulate plants and saw them primarily a way to advance their country economically and to control trade. The disunity we’re experiencing now in the US, resulting from centuries of ongoing oppression, fear and the anxiety reaches beyond the US borders to the world at large. Human oppression is not unrelated to Western culture’s treatment of the natural world.

View of the redwoods from our California garden

As Robin Wall Kimmerer says in her talk on Emergence Magazine, when you nurture the land, it expresses back to you its love in the life it gives you. This is true in human relationships as well. One of the poem’s in Newell’s book, “That Hand Which Was Never Withdrawn,” describes a child’s heartbreak and anger after experiencing a painful fight between his parents the previous day. The father, picking the child up from school reaches out to him, still in pain.

“We must talk sooner or later.”  His voice
was barely audible.  “I hate you,” I said.  “I hate you
and will never talk to you again.”  I glanced at him:
his face caved in, his eyes lost down the country road.
His voice floated up from some deep cavern or well
where people go when pain is too great for daylight.

“Michael, you will be my son for years.  No matter
what you say or do, you will always be my son.
And I love you.”

The poem poignantly speaks to our humanness, to our loss and brokenness, how difficult it is to transform ourselves in the midst of painful events, challenges, and histories that have hurt and divided us. We can see this in the child’s harsh words, “I…will never talk to you again,” words whose pain echoes in the father’s heart as his eyes drift down the road, before his voice lifts from the depths of his own wounded heart. The beautiful thing that occurs in this exchange, however, is the father doesn’t react in anger or spite. Neither does he deny the wounding that has occurred. Instead, he extends his love and tells his child, ‘“…No matter / what you say or do, you will always be my son. And I love you.”’ There is such tenderness given here, such wisdom.

New grape leaf budding on the vine in my garden

Both our human relationships and the land we live on shape and change us, helping to create the home we live in in our minds and hearts. Whether speaking of human relationships or the natural world, renewal and healing requires us to look deeply at the conditions that bring destruction, as well as the causes of oppression, fear and brokenness in the world around us, and then to work to rebuild relationships on foundations that allow both humans the natural world to flourish. Affirming relationships, as the father did in Newell’s poem rather than feeding the pain and anger, creates a bridge  to meet each other on and begin anew.

Carrie Newcomer writes in her song, “Leaves Don’t Drop They Just Let Go,”

Leaves don’t drop they just let go,
And make a place for seeds to grow
Every season brings a change,
A seed is what a tree contains,
To die and live is life’s refrain

What needs to be let go of in our actions or way of thinking again and again like the leaves of the redwood? What hinders our fullness and prevents our lives from being like the redwoods whose accumulated fallen leaves release the perfume of our transformed selves so that on days when someone who happens to be near can unbend from the strain of their hunched labor and inhale life’s blessing?

At the base of a virgin growth redwood, Soquel, California


Note: Michael L. Newell’s book, Wandering, can be ordered through Bookshop Santa Cruz, as well as through Amazon.


A Wider Perspective

It has been a summer of work–building a framed structure with bird netting to protect the berries, laying a stone walkway, planting, cleaning, sweeping, hanging doors, moping, waxing, cutting glass for cabinets, hanging lights, organizing workers to lay tile, build a stone wall, make cabinets and more. Through it all, my husband and I have watched the grape vines at the entrance to our gate grow foot by foot, first reaching to the top of the trellis, then growing one by one down the crossbars overhead, the vibrant green leaves a symbol of the beauty and fullness of our lives here under the rich blue skies and the perfumed air of the Santa Cruz mountains. Then, last night my husband got up to get a middle of the night snack when he noticed the leaves were missing on the grape vines. He came to tell me, and I, too, got up and went outside to examine the damage. The vines were, indeed, bare. The deer, perhaps the very same beautiful deer I wrote about a couple of postings ago who mysteriously stared at us at us for so long from the edge of the forest, had indiscriminately eaten what we had watered every morning, and that had brought so much joy to our hearts.

“It’s deermagedon,” my husband explained this morning, as we further perused the damage, discovering the deer had eaten the strawberry plants, and the kale as well. “We work without rest, and then what we work so hard for is gone over night. It makes me wonder what we are doing,” he said. I thought about those who lost their loved ones in the tsunamis in Sri Lanka and in Japan, the Chinese girls who died in the recent plane crash at the San Francisco airport. We’ve all lost things precious to us, but to lose a family member in such a way would be truly tragic. Most of our losses in life aren’t as enormous or as difficult as what happens when a natural disaster strikes or a terrible accident, but still the losses must be confronted, and perhaps the way we deal with smaller losses gives us practice for how we will deal with me difficult losses when the arrive. We’re all bound to face serious losses in our lives when we lose the ones we love to death, and all will die one day. To protect our garden we had built an eight foot deer fence, not exactly the walled garden of Luso, Portugal, filled with exotic trees and hermitages, but peaceful, and precious to us, though we don’t yet have a latch on the gate. Sadly, the deer discovered our vulnerability and boldly ate our plants.

So what did we do after “deermagedon”–how did we deal with the loss? After an hour of sleeplessness, and a bit of rest, we woke and assessed the damage in the daylight, and noted that the vine stems were still present. Also, not all the leaves had been eaten. The ones that were too high for the deer to reach, and the ones the deer had to bend to low to eat still remained. The vine wouldn’t die. The base of the strawberry plants were still there, along with some of the strawberries, and about a third of the leaves. The kale was pretty much done for, but at least we had had the opportunity to eat some of the kale the previous night. We watered the plants and sent them some words of encouragement, told the story to a few friends and family members. Then, we got back to work, though we still took notice of the plants through the day.

Does loss cause us to change direction in what we are doing? That probably depends on the severity of the loss, and though we were upset by what the deer had done and how something we treasure was lost, we knew we could recover. Rick Hanson suggests in his blog post, “Drop the Case” that when someone has wronged you, a good thing to do is get a wider perspective on the situation so that you can “drop your case” rather than letting it get its hooks in to you. The deer was just being a deer. We can make it less inviting for it to come in our yard once we get a latch made.

Loss can also be a matter of perspective. When you think about it, we’re losing something all the time as our lives change and morph. When we leave one city, one state, or one country for another, we lose things–the people we know from that locale are left behind, as are the geographic uniquenesses of that particular location–the plants, animals, landmarks, the food specialties from the area. The history of the place we move to is different. If we are choosing to move from the area, losing these things has a different feeling than if we are forced to leave, however. If our choosing to leave something, someone or some place behind, helps us to deal with loss more constructively, then perhaps a key to dealing with loss is to change our perspective.

Years ago, I read Henri Nouwen’s book, With Open Hands, where he talked about how you can’t receive anything new until you let go of what you are holding on to so tightly. “You hold fast to what is familiar, even if you aren’t proud of it. You find yourself saying: “That’s just how it is with me. I would like it to be different, but it can’t be now. That’s just the way it is and this is the way I’ll have to leave it.” Once you talk like that, you’ve already given up believing that your life might be otherwise. You’ve already let the hope for a new life float by. Since you wouldn’t dare to put a question mark after a bit of your own experience with all its attachments, you have wrapped yourself up in the destiny of facts. You feel it is safer to cling to a sorry past than to trust in a new future. So you fill your hands with small, clammy coins which you don’t want to surrender.” (beliefnet) Nouwen clearly describes the consequence of trying to hold on to what we have lost or are afraid of losing–we end up with something small and clammy, when we could be opening ourselves to a new adventure, an new way of being that is reaching out to us, ready to embrace us.

Carrie Newcomer’s lovely song, “Leaves Don’t Drop” shares a wonderful insight about trees. “Leaves don’t drop, they just let go,” Newcomer sings, illustrating an interesting paradox that in letting go–in dying, we make space for something new to grow. “To die and live is life’s refrain,” describes Newcomer. In death is life. This is an ancient truth that many religions describe. Jewish scriptures in Ecclesiastes tell us that “For everything there is a season, a time to be born and a time to die.” Christians trust the paradox found in Jesus’s death: through it life is found.” In Chinese belief, the yin yang symbol teaches us that in life is the seed of death, and in death the seed of life. They are interrelated and part of each other.

Losing the leaves off the plants in the yard was disheartening, but in the bigger picture, not so bad. I’m made aware, again, that I share my space here with deer, birds, insects, and gophers. Getting along with everyone’s needs is challenging, and yes, I could even say an adventure.


Questions for The Good of The Whole

Our current educational system places emphasis on testing and data. Many states have adopted the Common Core and are moving toward a standards based education. Everyone, it seems, is calling for an improvement of our educational system. Much of the motivation for change in the educational system seems to come from our country’s desire to remain competitive in the global market. We are concerned about being productive economically. I recall sitting in teachers’ conferences and hearing presenters say that the research does not show that class size affects the quality of learning. Class size alone may not improve student learning, but the question raised in my mind is what is learning? What is the mind, and what is the mind we are hoping our education system is creating?

Currently, an abundance of research is coming out about the brain, and through this we are gaining a better understanding of the mind and how the brain functions. A few years back I read John Medina’s Brain Rules, a book giving new insights into the brain with direct implications for teachers and for the educational system. For example, we know that the brain doesn’t function as well when we are multitasking, and that emotional arousal helps the brain learn. We know that stress affects learning. Also, if more of the senses are involved, the brain will improve our ability to learn something. The brain also mixes new knowledge with what we experienced in the past. These, and other insights about the brain will help us better understand how we learn and can help teachers and schools construct activities and learning environments that utilize this information as teachers create and deliver curriculum.

A question that is niggling at my mind in the midst of the current educational emphasis on collecting data and our country’s shift to measuring students learning against a standard, however, is what about the other part of our minds–the part that makes us revel in the wonder of life, that makes us feel alive and whole? Who is looking at this as a way to help us improve learning? What are we doing in our educational systems that recognizes,  gives attention to, and creates a way of teaching and learning that acknowledges the connection of  our relationship of our inner life and way of thinking to learning?

Vygotsky taught us that learning is social. Our relationships to and with others matters to learning. It seems that the better a teacher can get at listening to and understanding his or her student as they interact, the higher the potential for learning in that classroom. That quality of attention would be very difficult to attain in a large classroom where testing drives the curriculum. When Dickens wrote Hard Times, he opened the novel with the voice of a teacher, Gradgrind, telling the reader what mattered most in his schoolroom and in life,

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

Gradgrind continues on, explaining that “In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!” He sees his students as “little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.”

How far beyond this form of education have we actually moved as a nation? Do we reduce our definition of success in life or an educational system to that of how well we do on a test, how well we can arrange facts? Does improvement in education best come through emphasis on constant measurement and test scores? And even if it does, to what end is this improvement? Sometimes the quickest way to an end goal isn’t the most direct route. Maybe we need to be asking questions about the contexts in which qualitative learning occurs and what it is that actually enhances learning. If a child is hungry or his or her family is experiencing some kind of emotional or economic stress, for example, won’t that affect learning? Even a small amount of stress affects the executive functioning of the brain researcher Adele Diamond tell us. Students do not all come to school with the same backgrounds that allows the learning field to be equal for all. Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences showed us that we have different types of intelligence, yet we demand the same end results for all.

Even if students do well on their tests, what is success on a test if they have not found their own connection of that learning to their personal awareness of what it means to be fully alive, fully human? What if we achieve the high test scores but have lost the love of life, lost our ability to notice beauty or to find wonder in the world around us? Perhaps we are so focused on the end result so much that we don’t know how to fully live. Maybe we are so focused on achievement, on raising the bar and attaining high test scores that we have lost sight of the context needed for deep, meaningful learning to occur. How do we actually create contexts where we can both discipline our minds and connect physically and emotionally to the subject so learning is optimal? Deep learning requires acknowledgement of the importance of the relational context of learning– the quality of our social interaction with our teachers and with each other in that learning process, as well as an awareness of own inner thought life and emotions within the context of the learning environment.

I want to be an educator that keeps the spirit of wonder and love of beauty alive in my students. This means I myself need to find the ways to continue to return to the part of myself that is alive and full of wonder. This requires time not spent trying to achieve a goal. It requires Sabbath time. Time of rest and renewal, of play and wandering in the creative realm so I can become whole again. This is why the arts and physical activity are essential to education, not mere fluff and frill.

How could our educational experiences better acknowledge and enhance the social aspect of learning and how might educational institutions and educators help us to activate the mind as a whole? How might our educational system nurture the inner life and qualities of gratitude and compassion so that the well-being of the world improves? These are questions a variety of people and organizations are currently exploring such as Tobin Hart and his organization, Child Spirit Institute, and the Garrison Institute , which I only learned about today. On the Garrison Institute site are many links to other sites for those interested in how contemplative practice helps improve learning. You might want to check out some of these links here.

All of life is holy, every day acts can be full of wonder as Carrie Newcomer sings about in her song “Holy as the Day is Spent.” This is also what long relationships like a marriage, or contemplative practices that we return to on a regular basis can teach us. To come back to the awareness that most of us had as a child when we wandered out into the grassy hillside behind us or stood between the sheets on the line inhaling the clean white of sunlight, or when we played in the mud for hours without an awareness of time, this is a knowledge deeply important to our own well-being and that of our nation’s and the world. How can we better connect and enhance this innate wonderment of life to our teaching practice? That is a question I am living.