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.


Something Small and True

Out and About in Rajasthan
Out and About in Rajasthan

I’m starting another year in India. Again, as I travel the streets I see the need everywhere around me. The need has been there even though I wasn’t here to see it. There is so much need in our world today. Often, it has seemed overwhelming, so enormous that it has made it difficult to start when I consider what it is I could do to respond to it. I am learning that the enormity of the problem is not what to focus on. Instead, it’s better to focus on the small thing that I know I can begin with, and to begin there. That small thing, like a seed can grow, and the small thing can be a help to those who receive it. In our world, often what is big is valued. What is abundant is sought after. But in the world of the heart, the small thing can be enough.

Several years back, while teaching a unit on the five major world religions, I noticed how in Judaism the 10 commandments say to rest on the sabbath right alongside the command to not kill and steal. I began to wonder why so much significance was given to resting. I usually felt I didn’t have enough time to complete the work I was given or felt I needed to do. As a result, I rarely took the time to do the things that fed my soul like writing or going out in nature. I felt I was only living half of a life.

Earlier, I had read portions of Wayne Mueller’s Sabbath, Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest and Renewal. The book planted an important seed and was a voice that enabled me to see that the unrest I was feeling about the obligation to work almost without ceasing was actually something others were experiencing as well, and that such an approach to life actually causes a kind of violence–an inner disturbance which can then be transferred outwardly into our lives. In his book, Mueller quotes Thomas Merton who said, “The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist…destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.” Reading that for the first time stopped me short. There was a deep truth there that called out to me, and I know I needed to learn from it.

I had aimed to take time for myself on many occasions in previous years, but always eventually caved in under the pressure of work. This last time, however, I read several other books: Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline, by Lauren F. Winner, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting, by Marva Dawn,  excerpts by Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. I also found the Sabbath Manefesto, a site encouraging people to unplug from their computers. The reading helped me to make the commitment to a day of rest and renewal. This time the commitment to time for rest and renewal has stuck.

Most of us want to do something to help make the world a better place, and as Desmond Tutu, Jim Wallace, and others on this short video describe, it doesn’t have to be something big. Small things matter. We don’t have to feel guilty about what we’re not doing or if we are doing enough. What matters, I think is not how much we do, but what we do with an open heart. Relationship matters. I’m struck by what Wayne Mueller says in this short video about what is enough. We can only hold so many eggs he says, and at a certain point, we try and hold one more egg and something will get damaged. “We can only love well, kindly, thoroughly, a very few number of people in the course of a human life.” Mueller explains, and he goes on to suggest that what we do with our lives, instead, is to hold a crucible of something small and true, to offer not miracles, but ourselves. This a place we can give something that is real and valuable. In that giving, he implies, is something of meaning, something true.

photo 1-5I like the way Wendell Berry’s poem below, explores the idea of how we can be stirred, from time to time, to begin something new, to go elsewhere. How often has it seemed that doing something more or moving on could be an answer to the dilemmas of life we are facing. Sometimes that is the right thing to do. We see as the poem moves on, however, that the place the speaker of the poem ends up actually going to is in his mind–to a quiet place where he can think, or not have to think at all–and instead, he watches light filling the space between leaves. This is the sabbath time, space among leaves where wakefulness can occur.


The Thought of Something Else
Wendell Berry


A spring wind blowing
the smell of the ground
through the intersections of traffic,
the mind turns, seeks a new
nativity—another place,
simpler, less weighted
by what has already been.

Another place!
it’s enough to grieve me—
that old dream of going,
of becoming a better man
just by getting up and going
to a better place.


The mystery. The old
unaccountable unfolding.
The iron trees in the park
suddenly remember forests.
It becomes possible to think of going


—a place where thought
can take its shape
as quietly in the mind
as water in a pitcher,
or a man can be
safely without thought
—see the day begin
and lean back,
a simple wakefulness filling
the spaces among the leaves.

photo 2-5


The Value of Nothing Much

Today is one of those days when nothing much happens. Outside the sky is gray, the fan in the hallway drones, birds land on the roof momentarily and then lift off only to land on a perch a few feet away. It’s not a day to make great plans or accomplish anything. It’s a day to sleep in, draw, read, bake bread, swim, go for a walk–a day to savor sinking down into the humus of being and rest in the arms of living where there are no set schedules, no timelines to meet. It is a day to remember that being human, the gift of being alive is an unmeasurable essence, important beyond the list of what you want to accomplish.

Recently, several friends and acquaintances have had to make emergency trips to the doctor. One person experienced a heart attack and will need to change his profession. Another friend, after her bout in the emergency room told me that she realized that you can do all the right things for your health–eat right, exercise, rest, but in the end you aren’t necessarily in control of  your life. Things can happen. Taking a down day, a sabbath day one day in the week, where you do no work, is a way of purposefully letting go of the world that tells us that we need to have control over all aspects of our lives, and that meaning is found in what we produce and consume, that we must always be “on” and on top of all we do. Purposefully setting time aside where we chose not work is challenging in a world where we are encouraged to be forever task and goal oriented, where we are threatened with the idea that if we don’t keep climbing  we won’t stay up or catch up with the rest of the world. There won’t be enough of whatever it is we want left for us. We won’t be “good enough” any more. To stop working is to begin to live in a different kind of time where time is not money, but a gift. We can begin to see the world around us and become more aware of nature and its gifts, given not through our own efforts or because we deserve it, but freely available to enjoy–a kind of grace to open our eyes to.

We can point to practical reasons to step away from work. For example, recent brain research teaches us that taking time out from a project we are working on allows the creative mind to work at a different level. Aha moments often occur during these times when we’re not intentionally working on a project. Since I’m between creative projects right now, some serious downtime could help me think of how to start my next project. Rest also helps the brain to restore itself.  Scientific American’s article, “New Hypothesis Explains Why We Sleep” suggests that when we sleep, the synapses in our brains weaken, possibly so that they won’t become “oversaturated with daily experience and from consuming too much energy.” This, scientists believe, helps to aid memory.  Rest strengthens us! More important than downtime being useful for the creative mind and memory, however, is the fact that we need rest so we can reconnect with our bodies and remember the importance of being.

As pointed out in this interesting video on materialism from the Center for a New American Dream, our culture has an imbalance in looking to materialism and consumerism as a way of trying to meet what are essentially emotional needs. A more satisfying way of living might be to take time to build community and meet with friends–to build deeper connections through conversation so that we know in our hearts that we truly matter to others. Consumerism and materialism breeds a sense of lack. Time with friends breeds a sense of community and belonging, allowing us to feel more content.  We can also take quiet time for ourselves that enables us to restore our inner selves so we have a self who can continue to give ourselves to others and to our work with an open heart.

If taking time out of the week for rest and restoration calls out to you, know you’re not alone. The Sabbath Manifesto, is a group that encourages others to unplug and get out and enjoy life by getting outside, meeting with others to eat, light a candle, and find ways to give back. The Abbey of the Arts, is an online community directed by Christine Valters Paintner, whose aim is” to nurture contemplative values, compassion and creativity in every day life.” One of those values is to “commit to finding moments each day for silence and solitude, to make space for another voice to be heard, and to resist a culture of noise and constant stimulation.”  When you think about it, it’s a radical thing to do.  Learning to let go and to regularly step inside the place of being can be one of the great life gifts you give yourself.  It is a rare and wonderful gift indeed. Savor it.

Presence, spirtuality

Gifts of the Hands

Hard work is good for us. It teaches us the value of what we have and it builds character. My mother used to say, “Do something hard every day. It builds character.” There are so many things to learn and do in life–the world is full of a myriad of possibilities, and it’s satisfying to rise every day with a purpose set before you. Something I’ve been paying more attention to recently, though, is the need to let go of goals and take time to nurture being. Brian McLaren, in his book, Finding Our Way Again, the Return of the Ancient Practices, talks about seven ancient practices in the Abrahamic faith traditions: fixed-hour prayer, fasting, Sabbath, the sacred meal, pilgrimage, observance of sacred seasons, and giving. These life practices, McLaren calls humane practices, because they “help us practice being alive and humanely so. They develop not just character but also aliveness, alertness, wakefulness, and humanity.” Sometimes I get caught up in the pressures of goals I set for myself or the pressures or obligations I have or perceive I have related to work. Too often I let my mind dwell on this concern or that, then the pressures close in, and I fall into a place of forgetting that what happens in my life is not all up to me. If I can consciously accept limitations, and live with being incomplete, it can help me learn that I will never actually “arrive” in life. All of life is process, stretching, growing. My task is to grow more and more into myself. Inner fulfillment or satisfaction will not come through competition or through other’s vision of who I am or should be.

So, taking some time each day to purposefully go slow seems especially important when living in a fast paced or competitive environment. McLaren explains, “That’s why, through the ages, people have tried to find ways to tend themselves, to do for their souls what exercise does for the body, or study for the minds. Through these character exercises, they give birth to the person they are are proud of becoming, the person they are happy to be, the one who is trying to be born in them every day…Spiritual practices are actions within our power that help us narrow the gap…They are about not letting what happens to us deform us or destroy us…(They are) about realizing that what we earn or accumulate means nothing compared to who we are.”

Married to someone who loves to cook, I’ve learned to understand how preparing food for others is an act of love. Years of practice making a zesty salsa with the perfect balance of tomatoes, onion, lemon and cilantro, or hours in the kitchen making foccacias to get the perfect texture in the bread, sewing up the deboned turkey and filling it with oyster, cornbread, nuts, celery and pomegranate stuffing–none of this is fast food. It’s not meant to be, and taking it slow–the physicality of slicing the tomatoes, cutting the nuts, getting your hands in the dough, moves food out of the realm of a commodity of something that is bought and paid for, and back into realm of relationship. Greens in your hands as you run them through the water, you think of those have grown the food, and you become aware of your interconnection to others, to the web of life itself–the force of life that blesses us over and over with the earth’s gifts.

Today in the middle of a very busy time, we took time to have a gathering at our house, and tonight we are preparing a turkey for a gathering of friends for a belated Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow. It can take years to make a good salsa or bean dip that makes people stand by your table for hours, but it’s a happy thing to notice when it happens. All week, all year we work hard, then we take time out to be with others, believing that somehow the rest of the work that’s pressing in and needs to be done we will somehow get done. We consciously choose to let time move slowly. The work can wait for a few hours or a day. Instead, we spend time pouring love into the food we make food to share with others, we spend time in the presence of friends.

Michael's focaccia
Michael’s focaccia

Feasting is a part of every culture and every religious tradition, but every day we can make our meals as a conscious act of connection to the earth and of gratitude for each other. Cooking a meal with the hands is a gift of love.


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.