art, gratitude, Italian-American, poetry, spirtuality

Lifting Our Heads


“Nature is the art of God,” wrote Dante, whose tomb is in Ravenna, and to enter the Basilica Sant’Apolinarre Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, built by Theodoric (493-526) is to stand inside a garden and behold some of the world’s oldest and most beautiful mosaics. Walls wrapped with tiny stone chips create a paradise surrounding the viewer in nature’s luminous spring green. The walls lift us into a great meadow of starry skies, awe shining from vertical heights–light lifted into an infinitely rich blue. Viewing these, we can’t help but be changed, transformed by the beauty merely standing in its presence. (You learn more about the mosaics’ meaning here and can see more images of them here.)

Today, far from Ravenna, I walk outside to water the garden, thinking of those walls and how nature, including images of nature in art, can lift the spirits. There is so much in this world that can weigh us down–worries about our jobs, our purpose, finances, health, our relationships or lack of them. Surrounded by these woes and worries, we long for transformation–and we can receive that when go outside and gaze into the face of nature. Dante writes, “Heaven wheels above you displaying her eternal glories, and still your eyes are on the ground.” Outside my door I see the sunflowers planted months back lifting or trying to lift their heavy heads on the long, slender stems. Things can be difficult for them, too, yet their faces gleam gold amidst the sky’s lustrous blue, and I can’t help but be grateful for their presence–the way their color, their height, the wide-eyed faces help me see the world differently.

“i thank You God for most this amazing/day:” writes E.E. Cummings, “for the leaping greenly spirits of trees/and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything/ which is natural which is infinite which is yes,” and though I feel the weight of the morning’s news weighting my head, I can see, too, that there is a larger world– the trees patiently lifting their arms to the sky, the sky swirled with cloud–the largeness of creation itself. Cummings’ poem, as it continues, also describes this sense of expansiveness.

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

If it happens that you’re sometimes not sure what your purpose is or what value you might have, it’s good to have a few plants nearby that need watering because when you water plants and can know you make a difference. You see you are nurturing something, enabling it to flourish. Gradually, eventually, your plant grows and takes on new leaves. Maybe a flower blooms or the plant bares fruit. When caring for plants you understand how slowly things grow and change, and yet how given time and thoughtful attention, you can bring a little beauty into the world.

Our hearts long to be lifted in difficult times. We may not be able to visit Ravenna. We may not be able to change much in our external events, but the illimitable earth is a gift of love offered every day and it can give us wings. When we practice noticing and naming the gifts, our hearts, our worlds expand.

art, poetry, spirtuality

Listening For What the Desert Says

“The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world.” –Emerson, “Nature”

Smoke trees, creosote shrubs, puffball bushes, ancient granite balancing rocks, vast seas of sun-soaked sand scattered with spiny cholla cactus and the splash of fire red blossoms on the ocotillo’s spindly spines–this is Joshua Tree National Park outside of Los Angeles in Southern California. Gone are the clogged traffic and freeways, LA’s colossal sprawl. To arrive here is to be made aware of the earth’s vast openness. Enormous basins stretch into far horizons rimmed by rugged mountains–a wide cup of immense beauty to drink in. Mountains here are stippled, variegated, and wear stripes. Everything in this desert is laid bare; not even the spiny thorns lay hidden, and to witness this place is to be filled with wonder.

The world at Joshua Tree is sculptural. Stone and soil. These are the foundations Earth is built from. At Joshua Tree we see the Earth’s purity. The rocks hold supple shape; their natural balance and grace evoke awe, and even the grains of sand hold form.

Nature has only to be itself to be beautiful, and her weathered age only makes her more interesting. This is a mythic world made visible where reality plays with the imagination and what you think you know about what reality is–how things are. In this world, rock seems to fold like butter, jack rabbits grow to the size of a dog, plants white and rounded as cloud pierce the skin more painfully than a needle, skeletons of trees cast calligraphic shadows, flowers can be the size of a grain of sand, and plants grow from rocks.

In its unique and stark form, there is a surreal quality to the desert, as well as a oneness to the landscape that causes me to ponder what it is that forms reality. In his poem, “Metaphor as Identity,” Nicholas Samaras writes,

I am a warm pocket of earth,
shaped like this and living for a while.

I am the memory of my good mentor who said,
“I only borrowed this dust.”

I am the dusty path out of sight.

Though Samaras wasn’t writing about the desert per se, to walk away from civilization for a few days to sleep and wake in a desert, allows me to enter a different rhythm of life and to glimpse an understanding that all our life is only a borrowing of “this dust.”

People have viewed the desert as a wasteland, a place where bombs could be dropped, and sewage dumped. Yet there are those, like Jesus, who emerged from the desert awakened. For me, the desert holds metaphors and messages. For example–we don’t have to be big or loud or young to be beautiful, the landscape seems to say. Strength isn’t necessarily the opposite of openness. We can be spacious, open, and yet survive. We can be empty. You can endure and be vulnerable as well. To gain character takes time, and you don’t have to be flawless. Ancient places can feed our spirits. Ancient places are necessary. Water and renewal are essential for survival. Too much light blinds. Shadows are beautiful.

In the desert, because of the scarcity of resources necessary for life there, I am confronted with the fragility of life, as well as my own emptiness and the real and imminent possibility of death. In that awareness, I’m brought to a place of humility and deep gratitude for the many life-giving things that sustain me. Spending time in a desert such as Joshua Tree, I also see that death and life are part of each other; “I am the dusty path out of sight,” as Samaras writes. In the desert’s sparseness, I experience a sense of solitude and a longing for a connection to all that is–a yearning for that which whispers beneath and inside the rhythms of life’s creative force–leading beyond the forms this creative effort has assumed–rock, sky, and plants–to speak to my state of being.

Though they commonly live from 150 to 200 years, one Joshua Tree lived to be an astonishing thousand years old. According to Soft Schools, however, Joshua Trees were also used for newspaper pulp for the London Daily Telegraph in the 19th century. Many say spiritual awareness and connection to a spiritual practice aren’t necessary to living well in our world. The world and all it holds are objects or resources, there for us to use to fulfill our needs and wishes. This way of thinking, though, can lead to our treating the world as paper pulp, so to speak. The Los Angeles Basin was once a wild desert place. Its loss is irrecoverable, as will be the loss of future spaces such as the Grand Escalante Staircase, under threat by our current U.S. government leader, who wants to reduce it by 900,000 acres, so it can be opened for mining interests or used for other potential commercial development.

Natural environments are far more essential to our being than ornamentation in our front yards, the backdrop to cities or a scenic spaces we see on a holiday visit. Our interactions with nature benefit us immensely, and can help heal us both emotionally and physically, as Adam Alter describes in Atlantic Monthly’s article, “How Nature Resets Our Minds and Bodies.” We still have in our language the usage of the word sanctuary when referring to nature–a remanent of the idea that the natural world is somehow a holy place, set aside and something to be protected, but this value is endangered by the desire for money and the impression that we can use our power over the natural world and disregard its needs or what is necessary for it to function well. To destroy nature is to destroy ourselves and demonstrates a lack of ability to see ourselves as connected to the land and it’s eco systems. Our very survival depends on the protection and health of the environment, and we have the choice not to accept the loss of natural environments as inevitable and necessary.

It’s worth noting that previous to modernity, Earth was seen by most to contain a spiritual presence. In her Orion magazine article, “Speaking of Nature,” Robin Kimmerer writes “indigenous philosophy recognizes other beings as our relatives…We have no choice but to consume, but we can choose to consume a plant or animal in a way that honors the life that is given and the life that flourishes as a consequence. Instead of avoiding ethical jeopardy by creating distance, we can embrace and reconcile that tension. We can acknowledge food, plants and animals as fellow beings and through sophisticated practices of reciprocity demonstrate respect for the sacred exchange of life among relatives.” There is an immeasurable worth in wild spaces beyond their commercial value– their beauty, their ability to connect us to the source of life, to restore and renew, and to teach us.

Kimmerer isn’t alone in her perspective. Since ancient times, the Greek Orthodox, too, affirm God is not separate or detached from creation. As a Greek Orthodox prayer to the Holy Spirit states, there is a spiritual “presence in all places filling all things.” The essayist Wendell Berry explains that “Creation is thus God’s presence in creatures. The Greek Orthodox theologian Philip Sherrard has written that ‘Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God’s hidden Being.’ This means that we and all other creatures live by a sanctity that is inexpressibly intimate, for to every creature, the gift of life is a portion of the breath and spirit of God.” (Christianity and the Survival of Creation, p. 30)

In another of his poems, “Old Calendar,” Samaras writes,

Arrived at home again, you disembark
from your satchel to attend Vespers.

You sleep in darkness, and rise in darkness.

The now-far clock tower resonates satisfaction

Over time,  your body will become used to these hours.

Over time, your body will become these hours.

You hold to silence and chanting filters up to the stars.

You hold to the silence and let the years come.

The speaker in Samaras’s poem rises at Vespers to pray. Why do we need spiritual practices, including things like walking in nature, doing art, contemplative reading, and purposeful acts of generosity. In our culture, we want to run away from time. We revere youth and scorn age. If we look at the aged earth, however, we notice how beautiful it is, and are moved to recognize its majesty, and realize to be present on earth is to be more than an object. We are alive, and that is a sacred. Spiritual practices can help us grow into a place of understanding that our bodies and time are melded together in the creative fire of life’s cycle. We can become aware that we are living prayers moving through the landscape. Like wind, frost, and sun, slowly we shape the stones and grow the flowers of our existence.

Similar to encountering serious illnesses or losses, desert landscapes ferry us into a world where we grow silent. The desert exposes life’s bare bones, lifts its shapely stones into the wilderness of cold, sun, and the boundless sky where time and wind work them into shapes of beauty. Its vast silence holds a wholeness. We practice holding the silence inside the bare and bald desert places of our world, and through the hours there can learn to find the gratitude that will hold us like granite through the years and weather to come.

place, poetry, spirtuality

Going Wild–Walking Out Into Nature

“Odd as I am sure it will appear to some, I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening. A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but he is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.”– Wendell Berry

In a few weeks I will be back home in California and able, once again, to walk out my door onto the earth and stand in the garden. I will pick berries and pull weeds, prune and plant. Growing a garden connects us directly to the earth. To garden is to learn something of what the earth needs and to care for it–to have a relationship with the earth and to love it. I miss that garden, that particular piece of earth. If earth is our mother, then I am its child, and sometimes I just want to go home–home to that particular landscape that looks and smells like home, where I have dug and weeded and planted, have walked many times–where I’ve given the trees names. When I go home, I will look out my window to see trees and mountains. I will be surrounded by nature. What a gift that is to the soul; what a pleasure to walk through greenery in forests and wild places.

But all this is still a few weeks away. For now, I am still in India. Last week was labor day holiday, and I took a short trip with friends to Musoorie, a city in the Himalaya foothills, a hill station resting at 6,500 feet, and place with roots from the time of the British Raj that is today popular with honeymooners. A walk along Camelback Road, brought views of iris growing wild on the forest covered hills, steep valleys, and the snowcapped Himalaya in the distance. We arrived during a rain storm, and the following morning, the sky was as blue as I’ve seen skies get in India. Tree leaves literally glowed in the light. This is the India I love to be in, the mountains, where the urban coat can be cast off, and the world’s natural form emerges. I felt myself alive again, filled with a sense of wholeness, looking out at the world in wonder.

Often after being out in nature, I feel more whole, as if I have returned to myself, as if in some odd way I’m being healed even though I may not have been particularly aware that I was “ill.”  Since returning to Delhi, I’ve come across an Atlantic Monthly article explaining new research showing how, as the article’s title says, “Nature Resets Our Minds and Bodies.” People who can view nature from their windows after operations generally recover more quickly, for example. “The business of everyday life — dodging traffic, making decisions and judgment calls, interacting with strangers — is depleting, and what man-made environments take away from us, nature gives back,” reports Adam Alter. The theory for how nature does this is called Attention Restoration Therapy, Alter explains. Human made environments ramp up our attention. Nature, on the other hand, asks little of us, and therefore calms our attention. The Japanese, the article goes on to say, have long advocated what they term forest bathing– long walks amongst trees, breathing in the wooded air, and the research on the effects of this activity “compared with people who walked through urban areas, shinrin-yoku patients had lower blood pressure, lower pulse rates, and lower cortisol levels, a marker of reduced stress.” That’s pretty nice! You don’t have to go to Japan to experience forest bathing, however. People in California, are promoting this idea as well, and you can head out into any forest. The idea, according to Brian Wu of the LA Times, is to go slowly, not walking more than three miles in four hours, take rests as you like, drink water or green tea, read.

Going to the mountains, or going to the garden. As it turns out, gardening, too, is good for the soul. Sue, Stuart-Smith, in her Telegraph article, “Horticultural therapy: ‘Gardening makes us feel renewed inside,” suggest that when we plant seeds we interact with the earth in a way that binds us to the mystery of how a seed produces life and our minds connect that with the mystery of our own lives. When gardening, one learns the importance of cutting away and pruning, of digging and weeding–all metaphors for what we must do in our own lives if we are to nurture what it is we have as seeds within us that want to grows.

American culture seems filled with the notion of getting somewhere, setting goals, becoming somebody. We get caught in the stimulus, the distraction of competition. After a while, however, this all grows tiring or we can lose track of who are, what we care most about. We lose our zest for life and get caught up in trying to make our mark or make a living, when we’re not actually living very much. Instead, we are walking through one procedure to the next, only partly alive. Feeling this sadness, this loss, however can be a very good thing as it can lead us back to ourselves. Wendell Berry writes,

It may be that when we no longer know what to do,

we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

As Berry implies, obstacles and questions we don’t have answers for can help us find what makes us sing. When we open ourselves to the Mystery, or to mysteries bigger than our own life, we can experience how everything that is worth something in life isn’t necessarily connected to our effort or accomplishment. Our life stream wants to move from behind the dam that blocks it. It wants to flow, and confronting the question of why it isn’t can help us find they way to let our lives sing again.

The Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, in his book The Heart is Noble, writes, “The particular profession or job you do is not the most important factor…Whatever work you do, you have to give yourself opportunities to just be. Even if it is only once a day, you should find a moment to just be  yourself in the course of each day. This could be through a short period of meditation or quiet reflection in the morning or the evening, or in whatever way best suits you. The point is to reconnect with yourself. Otherwise, the whole day you are running around and busy, and it is easy to lose yourself. To guard agains this, you should make efforts to return to yourself and recollect what is essential for you.”

Whether it be forest bathing, gardening, or painting on pottery–as I have done this afternoon–whatever it is, let us find those things that return us to ourselves, that allow our hearts to sing so that when we come to the end of our day or days, we will find that we have lived, we have truly lived.