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.
“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”—Frederick Buechner
In the work I did for three decades, I lived with strict schedules. Nearly every minute counted, and clear goals for each hour, even portions of the hour, seemed necessary. This year I’m choosing to live differently. Thoreau went to the woods to live simply and deliberately. I’m beginning a new life in California as of this summer, and in my experiment in living, I want to focus on living with presence. I have goals–to learn to draw, play the clarinet, learn Spanish, to write poetry, among other goals. More than achieving all my goals, though, I want to open to a place of being. I want to listen to the land I live on, inhabit it physically and mentally–to take in the subtle changes as the seasons shift–the light, the color, the sounds, nurturing the awareness of its presence. I want to every day consciously notice life for the miracle it is.
As I walk across the land where I live, I notice many things that need tending to–the poison oak that’s growing up on the path, the oak trees that need trimming, how last year’s rainstorms have washed away soil on the bank. After being gone for some time, as I have been, there are numerous things I need and want to do. Perhaps these things don’t matter much in the big picture of the universe. Keeping the poison oak at bay, for example, isn’t going to influence what happens in India, though it will make it easier for me to walk around. The bigger lesson in caring for the trees, pulling out weeds, watering, and the various other things people do to their living space when living in a rural area, is understanding how living on the land involves an interconnection and a relationship. As I give to the land and care for it, it cares for me. If I avoid behaviors that cause erosion, for example, it benefits me and benefits the earth I live on as well. Tree roots don’t get undermined causing the tree to fall over. I used to not want to cut the herbs growing in front of my house, better to let them continue on their natural life, I thought. Over time, though, I’ve learned, that most herbs actually like to be cut back. They grow better as a result. The plants have taught me things about themselves.
Learning what the land you live on wants, what it needs, and how to give it that care takes time. Currently, I’m reading about what grows best in specific areas, what gophers and deer don’t like to eat. I’m also learning by getting out and walking around each day to see how things are doing. Doing the walk is a kind of observation ritual so I can better understand the organic processes of the land and my life in connection to it. Though it may be someone’s job to care for the community’s garden or shared landscape, living in an urban landscape requires similar attention. As in human relationships, the land we live on and use needs us to understand the effect our behavior has on it, if we are to live in good relationship with it, if we want a meaningful relationship.
Soquel, California sunset sky
Reeds, Neary’s Lagoon, Santa Cruz, CA
Spider’s web, Neary’s Lagoon, Santa Cruz, CA
Similar to learning how to have a relationship with the land I live on, learning to draw or to write require an attending to an inner awareness of what is trying to come forth. When drawing, as well as when writing, you heighten your attention to details, as the details develop the picture of what you’re focusing on. They enable you to see more fully–not just the object, but its presence and the meaning of its presence. This requires time to not be measured in minutes or in reaching a predetermined goal. Instead, we allow ourselves depth. We explore our connection to time–allow ourselves to move without measurement. Instead of skimming across the surface, we fully inhabit our actions, our thinking, our being. The German poet, Rilke, wrote about the artist’s connection to the creative act in Letters to a Young Poet “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!” It takes time to know who you are as an artist. You have to listen to your life, to what it’s trying to tell you. The message is usually subtle and complex, and takes practice. You don’t have to be a visual artist or writer to be creative. Living is itself a creative act. We have visions of what we want to create in ourselves, and we can be patient with ourselves in the act of making our life something meaningful and with beautiful character.
Observing the world enhances our ability to listen to life and to experience it more fully. This past May, while hiking around in the UK’s Lake District, I looked up from the river’s edge where I was standing to see a leaf backlit by the sun. Its vibrant color and intricate texture stunned me. All the leaf’s veins stood out as if I was looking under a microscope. If color could shout, this leaf would certainly have been deafening. The more I keep my eyes open, the more I notice the infinite variety of colors, textures and shapes. The world comes alive, and I feel more alive as a result.
Leaf, Lake District, UK
River rock, Lake District, UK
Leaf at river’s edge, Lake District, UK
River in Lake District, UK
Lake District roadside moss, UK
Often, I photograph textural details in the world around me. I carry my camera and my journal with me most places. I never know what amazing thing I might see. Holding a camera or a pen are but ways of paying attention, of nurturing a relationship to yourself and to the world. I don’t know what the various images of texture I’m collecting will add up to, the thoughts that will surface as a result. They may be nothing significant in themselves. The photo itself is not the goal. They are but a way of seeing, a pathway. As Shelley Berc, co-director of the Creativity Workshop in her article “How Fear Chokes Creativity and What to Do About It” writes, “We find wonder and beauty, new ideas and images everywhere when we allow our senses to experience each moment fully. When we shut down our perceptiveness and our sensitivity and only look to the finish line, our creativity has no access to the very elements that make it enriching and deep.” When I open the door to my house in the evening to sit on the steps, crickets croon and wind rustles the trees. Leaves fall like rain. There is an energy astir. The earth is full of wonder and alive with a kind of music in the interplay of all that is. We are more than our occupations, lists of accomplishments and goals, more than the muscle and bone of our bodies. Taking the photos or writing in a journal are mainly ways to enter a door into another way of being–one that is more awake, aware.
In his Book of Hours, Love Poems to God, Rilke, writes, “If we surrendered/ to earth’s intelligence/ we could rise up rooted, like trees.” There is a wisdom in the earth that can only be understood as we allow ourselves to absorb its sounds, its rhythms and textures, colors, as we develop an intimacy with it, enter into companionship with it. Trees have roots but they also bend and move, provide a place for birds to roost, food, shade for other plants to grow and for humans to enjoy. They offer beauty. There is more to trees, and the natural world they are a part of than merely the things they provide, however. The earth isn’t just a backdrop to human existence. It is our foundation. Perhaps recording what I see is a way to develop a different kind intelligence–one of deeper roots to all that sustains not just myself, but all of us.
The wind has blown in gusts all day. The light is soft gold. When I stood beside the redwoods this afternoon, I heard them groan. Every world region has different textures that are its own. The natural world is alive with presence. Walking in a forest, desert, beach, grassland, mountain, city park, or simply looking up into the sky and noticing it, listening to it, and then drawing or writing, photographing, or simply talking about what you are aware of draws us into the mystery of existence. Certainly, that’s worth experiencing deeply.
A great man was coming to visit, was going to step inside our walls, walk inside our rooms. We had prepared ourselves as best we could–put on clean clothes and shoes, combed our hair, opened our faces into smiles. Some us stood in a line at the door with palms held open, expectantly waiting. All eyes turned toward the light streaming into the narrow passageway from outside where the man would step into the room we prepared for him decorated with white satin and gold colored cloth draped from the walls. His foot paused in the doorway, and one thousand four hundred of us fell silent. We knew it was a rare moment.
At last he walked in, wearing his red robe and glasses. All rose in unison, except those who could not. When the 98 year old woman sitting in her wheel chair saw him, she threw up her arm and called out “Where have you been?” into the expectant silence.
“Right here in the world, with you,” said the Dalai Lama, as he bent and bowed before her, holding her hand.
When he turned to the receiving line where I stood waiting, a voice inside called out silently (as I’m sure happen to all those near me) that he would look at me in the face, reach out his hand to mine, touch me, and in that touch somehow know me. Bless me. I didn’t want to press myself in front of others to be noticed. If he touched me, I reasoned, it would be his choice, and up to fate. Some people he did look at in the face and greet. Some, he touched their hand or head as he passed by. Others, faces glowing with the light of happiness, ended up in photographs.
Though he glanced at me briefly, he didn’t touch me or look straight into my eyes as I hoped for, however. Neither did I appear later in a photograph, though those on either side of me did. There is no photographic record of this encounter. No one will later know I was there unless someone later tells a story, as perhaps I’m telling you now, that includes my name. Though I was close to him, I was one the Dalai Lama passed by.
Why does that matter? Why did I want him to touch my hand? What did I, or any of us, hope to gain by his touch? What kind of connection or knowing might have occurred through that brief moment? I remember when president Obama visited Delhi several years back, how he and Michelle shook my hand. Though it was an encounter I never dreamed I would experience, I couldn’t exactly say after that that the experience had changed my life. Still, I felt somehow connected to my country in a more concrete way that I wasn’t previously aware of.
We all long to be known, to be visible, to matter. There is a kind of knowing when someone looks directly into our eyes and when we hold in ours the hand of a person we care about. Similarly, rather than merely gazing at photos of the home we love, we like to walk the land, hear the sounds, smell the earth. There is a felt presence and an exchange that occurs with physical reality, with touch. A thousand faces may stream by us in a subway tunnel, and we will not feel seen or known. A different kind of encounter occurs, when we gaze out at the world with an expectant heart, waiting to receive. We long for connection.
People recognize that the Dalai Lama is a man of integrity, someone who seeks to live in honesty and who has given himself over to be a living presence of peace. That is difficult, and we all know it. We want to listen to such a man. He might have something to say that will help us understand how to live. We want to look in his eyes, to touch us, because in some unspoken way, we recognize that our lives connect when we touch. Maybe something of that peace will enter into our own lives and change us.
We know when a loved one is present in a room when we first open a door, though we can’t see the person. When I was injured in college, my mother half way across the country woke in the night and knew something had happened to me. She also knew her brother had died before she was told. The body has a kind of knowing that moves through the heart.
We’re told of how when he was here on earth, people clambered around Jesus, hoping to touch him. Perhaps you recall the story of the woman who amidst the crowd reached to touch the hem of Jesus’s clothes, believing that if she did so, her life would be changed. I picture her threading her way through bodies, stretching her hand to reach the hem of his clothes from a stair below as he passed by. Though the crowd pressed in around him, Jesus noticed her, and turned around to see who it was. He must have looked into her eyes directly, recognized her in the vulnerability and longing revealed in her face. “Take heart,” he told her, her faith had made her whole. There is an interconnection, an exchange of energy, when hearts open. Some door opens that isn’t there otherwise, some liminal curtain is pulled back. An exchange happens. Lives connect. Perhaps this is how miracles are able to occur.
Where have we been all our lives? We are here in the world with each other. We have something to give one another, and the world around us in the open heart of our presence. The evening I first went out with the man who is now my husband, he told me at dinner as we watched rain dripping down the crystals at the now burned down Triton restaurant in San Diego, “The world is held together by strands of light.” We are more than the sum of our bones, body and breath, but through these, we touch life.
What we are living is mostly a mystery. We need containers to allow ways in to experience. But the real knowing spills over and out of these. That is why we need art, poetry, dance, literature. E.O. Wilson speaks of how in the future humans will be more and more integrated with machines, and that is why we will need literature and the humanities more than ever–to help us explore that territory of what it means to be human with all its difficult questions.
Words can be a way of finding how to be present in the world, a pathway into letting the invisible become visible to us. Words are strands of light we make to help us see the world and who we are, what it is we are living. Here is my poem I wrote several years back, “Seen and Heard,” that appeared in my chapbook, Saudadeabout this practice of presence. We don’t have to be the Dalai Lama. Everyone we know and encounter, wants to know that somehow inside the press of the crowd and busyness of the day and its multitude of priorities, that it is still their presence matters most. In our look, we can bless. In a pause, the tone of our voice, we can bring peace. With a simple gesture or touch, we can lets others know they are seen and heard. Perhaps that, too, is the light that holds the world together.
Seen and Heard
As a child, I stared long at the hidden pictures
in children’s magazines, looking for the lamb
inside the cloud, the face inside a pleat or tree,
the button or missing bow that made one figure
different from another. What satisfaction
when I found them. How affirming it was
to know that all those little details, the small
realities of the world that begged to be seen
could be found, recognized, known.
Today when I peer out at the world, the picture
I see is workers, day after day rising with the sun
to start their tasks. They feed the fire or prepare
the mortar for the brick. Some lift bundled
branches to their shoulders. Some hammer nails
or paint the walls. Others sort through files, prepare
documents, answer calls, gather round tables,
or read books deep into the night.
We do our tasks, we make the rounds.
Still, things hide there inside the walls
and trees, pressed inside the body’s quiet
folds of those we meet, waiting
to be found if we know how to see.
Cezanne looked for them, the hidden forms—
the cylinder inside a tree, the sphere inside
the head, the geometry of nature, and though
his eyesight was weak, or perhaps
because of this, he found the hidden shapes
and painted them in plains of color
so the rest of us could find them.
Goya, too, painted the secrets others meant
to cloak, the fear inside the peasant with arms
uplifted, his white shirt glowing against
night’s darkness, the hidden faces of the men
turned away from view, their guns that showed
the world in thickly painted strokes the torment
of a deaf world.
We turn through the pages of time
and off we go each day to make our story,
paint our picture, lift our bricks, do our work.
Our eyesight is weak, our hearing faulty,
but we stare at the pages anyway, trying
to make sense of the world, hoping to find
the forms inside of forms, to hear the unspoken
voices or even our own voice inside
the night sky darkness we might be standing in.
There we are with our boards to nail, bushes
to trim, our books piled beside us—
with whatever it is we discover and make
and love our world with, our arms
thrust up to the heavens, hoping someone
will see us. Hear us. Hoping someone has looked
long enough, hard enough to recognize us
hiding there inside the pleats and paint of life.
Barry Lopez in his children’s book, Crow and Weasel, writes, “Remember on this one thing, said Badger. The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memories. This is how people care for themselves.”
Stories connect us to the people who came before us, the narratives they live out and the tales they tell us about what the world is, and who we are in the world. We live by the stories that have shaped and taught us. They give meaning to our experience and direct us in our journey. Stories condense experience, give us the opportunity to examine our difficulties, and to reflect on how our struggles might enable us to grow.
The oldest form of story is poetry. Before poems were ever written, they were told. People’s histories were given in poetry–words constructed to call up experiences through sound and imagery that evoked emotion and helped people remember who they were, what they had done, and why it was important. In listening to poetry, we can step inside a reflection of life that holds up a mirror, and at the same time speaks to something beyond what is experienced. It is a way to reconnect to what it means to be human and to the mystery of existence. As Dana Gioia writes, “In a moment’s pause another world / reveals itself behind the ordinary.” By extension, because poetry was once connected to other art forms, stories, music, and dance, these are doors we can open to that allows us to walk into a larger reality, to see the world from a wider perspective.
The idea that the physical world intersects with the spiritual world is an ancient one, found in many traditions; the Celtic, Catholic, and Native American being a few examples of these. St. John Damascene, a Syrian monk who lived from c. 675 or 676 –to 749 CE, wrote a defense for the use of icons (see more here) that shaped the direction of the church. Though others at the time argued against the use of icons and representational art. God is bigger than any particular physical form, the thinking went, and therefore representation of God in icons should not be allowed. St. John of Damascene argued, however, that if God became human in the form of Christ, then two are intermingled. The sacred could be seen living and breathing through the human form, and therefore it was completely acceptable, he argued, to create icons, to worship through icons, and to paint the human form. In fact, art was a way for the illiterate to see God, Damascene explained, and to read the story of God’s compassion for and interest in humans through the paintings. Damascene demonstrated an acceptance of paradox, and the idea that one’s thinking doesn’t have to be contained in tight boxes of either or. William Dalrymple, in his book, From the Holy Mountain, quotes Damascene saying, “‘…the flower of painting makes me look, charms my eyes as does a flowering meadow and softly distils the glory of God in my soul.'” Through painting, as through nature, Damascene declares, God communicates his presence in the world, and art is a central way in which humans can experience and connect with the Divine.
Though Dalrymple describes the cave where St. John of Damascene wrote these thoughts in The Fount ofKnowledge,as “crude and primitive,” he goes on to say that, “Without Damascene’s work, Byzantine ars sacra would never again have been permitted, Greek painters might never have been able to pass on their secrets to Giotto and the Siennese, and the course of the Renaissance, if it had happened at all, would have been very different.” I’m very grateful for Damascene’s words and thoughts regarding art. Without them, we’d likely be deprived of much beauty, and the spirit that speaks through that beauty.
In her poem, “Pray for Peace,” Ellen Bass speaks of this interconnection of the everyday world around us with the world of spirit.
Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace,
feed the birds, each shiny seed
that spills onto the earth, another second of peace.
Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.
Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk.
Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child
around your VISA card. Scoop your holy water
from the gutter. Gnaw your crust.
Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling
your prayer through the streets.
Though a way of communicating half forgotten these days, Bass helps the reader to see that prayer can be any act we do with full attention and heart. When we pay attention to our lives, doing what we love presence, that is prayer–a breathing, walking prayer that adds meaning to our lives, and enables us to grow toward wholeness. Making a routine out of things saves energy and time, but even routines can be done with attention and heart. How do we cultivate the kind of noticing awareness in our every day lives, the ways of being that enable the act of living to become prayer?
Involvement in a creative act is a central way to connect the physical world with the inner world. Though there are a variety of art forms that can enable a person to live in fuller awareness of a connection to life’s mystery, writing is an excellent path from which to begin this journey. Whenever I leave the house, I carry my journal, a small book that easily fits inside a pocket. I carry it because at any time something might appear, or someone might say something that needs to be noticed, and I want to be ready. My journal is my fishing line, so to speak. Though I may miss many things swimming in the world around me, because I’m prepared with pen and paper to notice something, I am more likely to find and catch something than if I had no tool at all to help me. Whatever I’m working on as a writer, I look and listen for moments that speak to me while moving through the day—a random phrase, a gesture, a sudden familiar scent that might embody the idea I’m reaching for in a writing piece I’m working on. I remain attentive to sounds, textures, colors, actions—the world’s details that define a place or time. As a result of knowing the questions I’m living with and what I’m looking for, things tend to show up and announce their connection like a kind of internal spark. Suddenly, as if witnessing the embodiment of a metaphor, I see, for example, how something I’m looking at or hear is related to something seemingly completely different. The discovery has a wonderful quality to it, and to then write it out is to be able to embody that insight. Sharing it with others deepens a sense of connection to the world.
Writers aim to name the world, and doing so is to participate in a kind of co-creation of life, at least this is how I experience what happens while writing, and it is one of the motivating reasons to write. To write is to observe closely, and to observe closely moves me to an awareness that I am part of a greater something beyond myself–that I swim in the mystery of existence. Writing is a path that allows me to enter a space where I’m both fully present in my life, and somehow not present at the same time as I step inside the weave of words. This is because I’m living inside of the thing I’m writing about, and what I’m writing about is bigger than me. As poet Nicholas Samaras explained to me once, writers are always writing, even when not writing. I agree with Samaras when he says, on Poetry Net, “God is in the point of my pen.” In losing myself in the work I am doing, I’m made more alive, full, and solid. It’s a paradox.
Writing poetry can be a kind of prayer. My father wrote stories and poetry, but my mother taught me to pay attention to the world around me. She constantly noticed the natural world, flowers on the bank or scent of orange blossoms from the orchard, bees at the birdbath, a fox that came through the front yard, or hawks that circled above the hill behind us. The wind as it blew through the pines where she grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota, was an ancient choir, she said. As she described the experience to me, I could hear the wind as if it were real. She recalled wild gooseberries’ tart flavor, and told me the names and shapes of wildflowers that grew on the land of her childhood home. Her descriptions lived in my mind as if they were real. Even though where I grew up in eastern San Diego county’s dry desert–very different from the Black Hills, I felt preciousness my mother’s memories of her childhood’s natural environment. Her respect for those experiences nurtured in me a love of my own childhood’s natural environment.
I played outside every day as a child, climbed around on granite boulders, or sat inside the branches of an avocado, umbrella or pepper tree. Our front door often stood open to the outside air. I ran through the yard barefoot, watched clouds parade by, and sunsets spill across the horizon. Coyotes’ yips echoed through the valley in the evening. Crickets sang. Stars came out. These were all gifts, and I belonged to that earth. The experience of growing up in such a place with the opportunity to experience the natural world as part of the rhythms of every day life created in me a foundation for wanting to remain connected to the earth. To have our feet on the earth, to literally ground our selves there, is life engendering. If deprived of such experiences, I think our bodies and spirits still long for them without possibly even knowing it.
Poetry relies on imagery and figures of speech. It integrates the physical world with the world of language. It tells abstract ideas by recreating the physical world. It reconnects the writer and the reader back to place, and this is a central reason why I find it so powerful. In our world, the culture of the workplace pushes us to compete, to gain power and control. When writing poetry, however, I interactively participate in reconnecting to the physical world and the presence residing beneath and inside the movement of life. I trace my origin of wanting to write back to these childhood experiences of connection to the earth’s vibrant, sustaining presence. Willa Cather writes in My Antonia, “I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.” To be able to wander in time, to play in a landscape or place is to be transformed and enlarged by it. Writing poetry focuses the writer on presence, and in doing so, helps move the writer toward wholeness. I recommend it.