poetry, Uncategorized

What We Need is Here

 

20161227_124415
Parco delle Madonie, Sicily

Sicily’s countryside speaks in dramatic beauty–sheer stone faced mountains and sweeping valleys fringed by sea, pastures with grazing sheep and mists drifting below craggy ridges, olive groves speckled with wild yellow sour grass (oxalis stricta) blossoms, and wide fields waiting for wheat. Though the historical centers of Sicily’s cities are filled with stunning architectural beauty, since ancient times, agriculture has been central to Sicilian life. Along with several other products, the Greeks introduced grapes and olives to Sicily. For the Roman Empire, Sicily served as its breadbasket. When the Arabs arrived, they introduced irrigation, which served to further intensify farming in Sicily. Traveling though Sicily, it’s exhilarating to see vast expanses of open space on land that has been inhabited from so far back in time that the stories of the original people seem to seep into the earth itself–roots half hidden in the soil, and not completely understood.

In trying to learn more about Sicily before visiting it, I came across the beautiful film, Sacred Flavors of Sicily, describing Sicilians’ connection to food through the celebration of sacred rituals. Fabrizia Lanza, historian and museum curator, heads the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School in Sicily, previously run by her mother. One of Lanza’s projects is to archive videos demonstrating food techniques, that, as she explains on her web page, are in danger of extinction. In Sacred Flavors of Sicily, Lanza describes her deep interest in food. “To me, food holds significance far beyond consumption. It is a chain of humanity, encounters, and sensuality. More than an object, food is our guiding metaphor.”

As I listened to and watched Lanza’s film, it occurred to me that the people she interviewed weren’t simply describing their work as cooks or bakers. Food wasn’t a commodity. The Sicilians in her film were intimately part of the food they grew, made, and ate. Food was the tangible representation of people’s shared coexistence with the land and their neighboring community. The film shows an elderly woman, Nellina Selvaggio, making lace cookies to place on an altar for the feast of St. Joseph, the patron saint of the family. A tree of life motif decorates every scartuciatte cookie, explains Selvaggio, “with a stem that is never interrupted.” Food in her world demonstrates the interconnectivity of all life, and serves as a bridge from the past to the future as she passes on her skill. The fruits and flowers on the lace cookies “represent the things we create through our lives as offerings to God,” explains Selvaggio. The community prepares an abundance of foods for the Feast of St. Joseph, and people make vows. When people prepare food with their own hands, present it as a sacred offering, and share it with others, an I-Thou relationship is nurtured with the land and neighbors. One of the household members in the film offered up this prayer for St. Joseph’s, beautifully summing up this lived connectivity between the soil, human activity, and the sacred.

Love the bread, heart of the home
perfume of the table, the joy of the heart.
Honor the bread, glory of the fields
fragrance of the land, feast of life.
Respect the bread, sweat on your brow
pride in work, poem of sacrifice.
Don’t ruin the bread, richness of your country
that holy gift for human toil.

Surprisingly, when I looked up who wrote the prayer, I learned Mussolini was the author. Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, in her book, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy, explains that these lines are actually from a speech Mussolini made to imitate the structure of a prayer. Mussolini words were part of a larger intention. He used people’s dependence on bread as a political symbol, connecting it to the nation’s wealth, explains Falasca-Zamponi. Mussolini embodied his idea in what he termed the Battle of Wheat. Speaking to representatives of the agricultural unions of the time, he played on their sense of pride, telling them it was a shame that Italians had to look for work abroad. He appealed to values of hard work rural Italians held in order to gain their support in so they would be willing to become soldiers. Falasca-Zamponi explains Mussolini’s aim was to gain rural people’s backing in order to accomplish his desire of expanding Italy’s access to resources through invading and controlling other areas such as Ethiopia. Quoting Mussolini, Falasca-Zamponi states he wanted to ‘”augment the nation’s [Italy’s] power and virility.”‘ Different, however, is the way his words are used in Lanza’s film, Sacred Flavors of Sicily. When the speaker in the film reads the words about the bread, nothing of Mussolini’s political motives appear to inhabit them. Instead, the words demonstrate honestly valued connections between land, food, human labor and life. Placed in a context that honors the flow of life embodied in their presence of bread, and without ulterior motives, the words function truly as a prayer–affirming life, and the human effort to bring forth its bounty.

Wheat, vegetables, and fruit growing in the fields all look beautiful from a distance, but few of us pause long to consider the link of life connecting from field to farmer to food on the table. Farming has always been a difficult life. In southern Italy there are nuances to farming beyond the struggle with nature to achieve a harvest. The Maffia has controlled the food system there, making farming even more difficult. In February 2016, Reuters reported that “Italy’s mafia has infiltrated huge swathes of the country’s agriculture and food business, earning more than 16 billion euros ($17.7 billion) in 2015 from the industry.” Additionally, as Rebecca Roberts explains in her May 2014 article, “Rise of the anti-mafia land movement,” The Mafia uses food as “a tool of power, with the residents of southern Italy literally relying on the Mafia for their daily bread.” The food costs less when bought through Mafia controlled businesses, but also is often coated with pesticides or E.coli. Cooperatives like Libera Terra, however, are working to free people from this kind of oppression, and to give control back to those working the land and shop owners who sell agricultural products.

Much of the food we buy today at grocery stores is raised on commercial farms, farms, which according to Jeff Vidal’s article, “Corporate stranglehold of farmland a risk to world food security “are growing in size, and squeezing out small farmers, even though their farmland is generally more productive and sustainable. Roberto Romano’s 2010 film, “The Harvest/La Cosecha,” depicts the difficult life of farmworkers this century on commercial farms, and their struggle for necessities, education, as well as their altogether herculean effort to hold on to dreams.

20161220_112705The loss of the sacred, our turning most everything into mere commodities demeans existence. When we our gaze consistently views the world through a lens of self gratification, when we value earth’s fecundity and wild abundance only for utilitarian purposes, we reduce and diminish life to a few hard, dry crumbs. We want more from life, but end up with less. We have it all, but remain empty. In Wendell Berry’s poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” Berry writes about the experience of this kind of life,

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute.

It’s inspiring to see people in Sicily working the land, and to watch women like Nellina Selvaggio in Lanza’s film create art with the food they make. Most people, though, will not likely be taking the time to create such food in this way, or at least not frequently. How, then, do we find a way to step off the treadmill where everything must be accounted for, everything compute? How do we nurture an awareness of our connection to the earth, our food, and our communities so we find again an I-Thou relationship with life? Berry, long an advocate of knowing the land you live on and understanding its needs, suggests that if you eat, you are a part of the food system. In his article, “The Pleasures of Eating,” Berry presents several ideas we can consider in an aim to find a deeper connection with food:

1. Participate in food production to the extent that you can… 2. Prepare your own food… 3. Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home… 4. Whenever possible, deal directly with a local farmer, gardener, or orchardist…5. Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrial food production…6. Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening…7. Learn as much as you can, by direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of the food species.

Though we may live in cities where open land is difficult to come by, we can grow a plant in a container for a window to help ourselves remain mindful of the earth and our ultimate dependence on it. In California, as part of a Curated Feast, and in a collaboration between historians and chefs, you can sit with others at a meal and learn about the origins of the food as you eat. This could be an engaging way to kickstart a venture into learning to be your own curator of the foods you eat, as Berry suggests. Beginning with one thing, one practice, we can change our story into a different narrative, one with a more satisfying plot.

In Berry’s poem, “Wild Geese,” the poem’s speaker goes on a horseback ride one Sunday morning where he eats persimmon and wild grapes, and opens a seed with the promise of a tree to be–

what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

We have what we need to connect to the earth. Simple, daily practices can help us understand how. We have what we need to feel alive again. It is a seed inside us. We can help it grow into a tree.

community

Loving The Earth We Stand On

It was the fourth of July, American Independence Day, and I was out hacking weeds on our property, in particular poison oak, a beautiful plant, but not so pleasant for the skin. This has been my effort for the past several days: chop out the poison oak and wild raspberries growing along the pathway on the side of our property. It’s sweaty work and my arms get tired but it feels great to be doing the work, an act that I know is caring for the land here. I don’t like to cut flowers growing in the garden, as I think they will last longer on the plant itself, and it is a joy to see them in the garden, but in taking care of a garden and nurturing the plants on our land, I’ve come to see the value of trimming plants. Just as people need to cut their hair and fingernails, plants grow better with a bit of trimming. It takes time to learn how to care for the land you live on and the plants that grow there. As I think of it now, gaining that understanding and making the effort to care for that bit of earth where you live could be viewed as a patriotic act. More than singing a song or saying a pledge, getting out to water and weed is literally caring for the country where you live–wherever it is you live.

In the United States, we sing the song “America the Beautiful,” and one of the things that keeps America, or any country’s land beautiful are people who grow to know the land they live on and to nurture that relationship to it. If you want your family to function well, or if you are in a close relationship with someone, you need to act in caring ways on a daily basis if you want the relationship to continue and to be satisfying. You do the things that keep the growth going and the communication close. You pay attention to each other’s needs. Different people in a family have needs unique from each other according to their personality and their history. You might have a babysitter for the children now and then, but connection between people deepens when there is a long term commitment and connection, such as a parent has for a child as he or she grows. A parent is there for the long haul. It is similar in developing a relationship with the land we live on. If we see the place we live as just a place we crash, or if it is merely a place for commercial investment, we will not care for it in the same way as if we see it as our home, the place we belong. When we see it as a relationship, as a place of belonging, we are willing to get out there and weed for hours and weeks over periods of years. We study the best way to trim back the vines, we give the vegetables compost. We learn what activities erode what you want to remain solid, and which not.

Wendell Berry describes what this kind of connection to the earth looks like in his essay, “Conservation and Local Economy.”

I. Land that is used will be ruined unless it is properly cared for.

II. Land cannot be properly cared for by people who do not know it intimately, who do not know how to care for it, who are not strongly motivated to care for it, and who cannot afford to care for it.

III. People cannot be adequately motivated to care for land by general principles or by incentives that are merely economic—that is, they won’t care for it merely because they think they should or merely because somebody pays them.

IV. People are motivated to care for land to the extent that their interest in it is direct, dependable, and permanent.

V. They will be motivated to care for the land if they can reasonably expect to live on it as long as they live. They will be more strongly motivated if they can reasonably expect that their children and grandchildren will live on it as long as they live. In other words, there must be a mutuality of belonging: they must feel that the land belongs to them, that they belong to it, and that this belonging is a settled and unthreatened act.

VI. But such belonging must be appropriately limited. This is the indispensable qualification of the idea of land ownership. It is well understood that ownership is an incentive to care. But there is a limit to how much land can be owned before an owner is unable to take proper care of it. The need for attention increases with the intensity of use. But the quality of attention decreases as acreage increases.

VII. A nation will destroy its land and therefore itself if it does not foster in every possible way the sort of thrifty, prosperous, permanent rural households and communities that have the desire, the skills, and the means to care properly for the land they are using.

Just as a relationship with another person would be unsatisfying and dehumanizing if people entered into it only for what they could get out of it, as if it were a commercial enterprise, so it is with our connection to the place we live. You stay with the land through drought, as we are currently experiencing in California and give what you can to help things along, conserving water while still thinking ahead to the future–not knowing what will come, how long you will need to wait before the skies bring rain. I want to think of loving the country of my birth as literally loving and caring for the earth I stand on, the earth I work to understand and nurture.

On one blog I follow, Mozzarella Momma, Patricia Thomas, journalist for the AP in Italy, quotes Pope Francis’s recent description of humans’ relationship with the earth, “We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor….” The pope goes on to express concern for the “environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all,” reports Thomas. It’s critical that loving the country we belong connects to carrying for the earth itself and doing the things that will help it to flourish into the future. Without nurturing the earth, our country, as well as the earth will eventually not be able to sustain itself. If we keep taking from a relationship without giving back little of the relationship will be left at all. This begins by paying attention to where it is we live, and its physical needs, to the things that make it healthily beautiful, and that will help it continue to be this way into the future.

Soon, a family member of mine will be celebrating a wedding anniversary of several decades. After years of living together as a couple, you know each other, just like you know the house you grew up in, just as you know the land you walked daily down your driveway as a child to the bus stop or the end of your block. You know the tunnels and dark places, as well as the open field or yard, know when and why certain plants flower when they do. You know that place in all its seasons. In Wendell Berry’s poem,”They Sit Together on the Porch,” Berry describes a couple that have been in relationship with each other for a long time.

They sit together on the porch, the dark
Almost fallen, the house behind them dark.
Their supper done with, they have washed and dried
The dishes–only two plates now, two glasses,
Two knives, two forks, two spoons–small work for two.
She sits with her hands folded in her lap,
At rest. He smokes his pipe. They do not speak,
And when they speak at last it is to say
What each one knows the other knows. They have
One mind between them, now…

The poem goes on to describe how the couple awaits the coming darkness, not knowing who will be the first to go and who will be left sitting alone, but the love is there, and felt between the silence. They are at rest with each other and with the place they inhabit. They have taken care of each other for many years. They are at peace with each other and with the earth. This is a vision to work toward, people at one with each other and with the earth.

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.

Uncategorized

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

1.

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.


2.

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

3.

—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
perfectly
the spaces among the leaves.

photo 2-5

Beauty, pilgrimage, Uncategorized

Quiet Moments With Clouds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo 1-3

 

 

 

VII

by Wendell Berry

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

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

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

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

gardening

Coming Down to Earth

This morning, my husband and I lifted 7,000 pounds of rock from their wire containers and hauled them over to the ditch in about an hour and a half, where they will soon be made into a retaining wall. Yesterday we lifted 3,500 pounds of rock for the same purpose. Needless to say, I’m tired today. Nevertheless, it feels very good to be working with my hands, my feet on the earth, and working hard. It’s a contrast to my life during the school year where I meet with students, spend time commenting on student work, and go to various meetings. I love the contrast, the balance of those two ways of being. It’s so satisfying to look out across the yard as I did this evening, and say, I made those stone steps leading down to the house! It gives me joy to be able to see the physical results of my labor, and it was labor, too, as the earth here is close to being sand stone and required my using a hatchet to chop into it so that I could carve a space for the stones to fit. When I am standing on the earth outside my door in the summer, or sitting on it, fingers in the soil planting, when I look up at the sky and smell the redwood tree incense, I feel so full and alive, complete. Connected. Real. As Wendell Berry said, “One of the most important resources that a garden makes available for use, is the gardener’s own body. A garden gives the body the dignity of working in its own support. It is a way of rejoining the human race.”

Mornings, I water the berries and herbs, the lemon tree and grapes. Since arriving in California this summer, the grape vine has grown about a foot, and the lemon put on numerous new leaves. My husband and I have worked to protect the berries by making a walk in wood-framed room hung with bird netting, which we are calling our berry palace. The juice of a boysenberry or a blueberry picked from our own vines and bushes exploding with tart sweetness in our mouths is a wonderful gift. Working on the land for our food, even the preparation of the land for food that we will later grow, helps me to see more clearly my place in the world, and how I am connected to all that is around me. I water the plants, and amazingly enough, they grow and become what they were meant to be. The diversity of life growing all around me seems a miracle.  Again, Wendell Berry says, “And the real name of our connection to this everywhere different and differently named earth is “work.” When you work with the earth, when you learn about it and from it, and take care of it, you love it. Work, it seems, can be a path toward love, can be the way to come to know the meaning of the earth’s gifts from the inside.

Slowly, as I spend more time working outside, I’m becoming more aware of the intricacy and mystery of life all continuing on silently around me. Professor Suzanne Simard in British Columbia studies forest ecosystem and explains how the “mother trees” exchange of nutrients underground through intricate webs of communication through nutrients. Her work is fascinating. By continuing to listen to the land, we can grow to live better with it. Working on the land, even in small ways, is one way to grow toward understanding what it needs.

As a teacher, my life allows me to contribute to other’s in a way that enriches, and that opens exploration and opportunities for students. A teacher’s life is a good life because of this. As I am outdoors working these past few weeks, I feel a growing awareness of building a new life here in America, a life I will come home to someday. I don’t know what that life will be yet, or when it will come to pass, but I hope it is a life that will go on giving back to the world, and that will allow me to grow more connected to the earth, to listen to its mysteries, and to be able to share my discoveries with others.