Monday, March 2, 2015

Winter's Pruning


Among the blessings of winter, one stirs special gratitude within me. This is the season when Mother Nature generously reveals the elegant architecture of trees. Sturdy base roots to delicate, finger-thick branches, the magnificent artistry wrought in wood is laid bare.


I stand in awe, marveling at the sometime symmetrical, sometimes elaborate and complex spreading of branch over branch. Poetry in form, limb giving way seamlessly to limb like so many perfect words strung together in memorable meter. The uppermost branches touch the underbelly of the broad blue winter sky, linking heaven and earth. Near to earth, broad base gives way to a dense network of taproots that burrow deep into the soil, sourcing moisture, minerals, and organic material essential for healthy growth. Married with sunlight, these nutrients will grow green leaves, growth buds, and – in time – blossoms and fruit that delight our senses, nourish our bodies.  

Winter is also the time for pruning apple and pear trees, making careful cuts that encourage vitality and productivity. An alchemy of scientific technique and artful sculpting, skillful pruning promotes the maximum healthy, generative growth of abundant fruit for generations.

One recent bright February afternoon, I watched as Orin Martin, veteran Director of UC Santa Cruz's Alan Chadwick Garden, aggressively trimmed two- and three-year old apple, aprium, and pear trees. Systematically, with the trained hand of one accustomed to the task and the artist’s gift for simultaneous attention to big picture vision and laser-like focus in execution, he deftly severed and tossed aside 2" thick limbs from young, gangly trees standing just 5’ tall. He pruned away false leader limbs, which vied for the essential nutrients that would propel growth of a sturdy central trunk capable of sustaining rings of strong branches. To me, an empathetic tree lover, the castoff wood seemed essential to the tree's viability. He explained that the tree’s capacity to bear abundant and healthy fruit well into the future demanded that all of its energy be shunted toward productive growth - that it not waste nutrients on limbs that would ultimately not prove viable for fruit-bearing or those that would bloom out in directions that jeopardized the much grander endeavor of producing exquisite, delicious fruit for years and years. With bold cuts, he excised unproductive branching that resulted in vulnerability for the larger whole.

This winter, I feel I’m being somewhat brutally pruned. Tested. Cut to the core by larger, life-sized questions:  How do I want to grow? Can I remain rooted in the vision I hold for my work in the world, for my life? Can I allow for the removal - even when it's painful, harsh - of elements that don't serve me to realize my individual goals and my hopes for the wider world? Can I suffer through looking scraggly and awkward to outside observers for a season or two? Can I shiver under the frost or withstand the dry times rooted in the certainty that I know how to dig even deeper, know how to reach far within and source the energy I need for the longer haul because I’m intent on ultimately growing gloriously full and providing an abundant harvest year after year, both for myself and others?

Bare trees exist side by side with those trying on their spring attire in these dawning days of March:  tightly-wrapped bright green buds; hot pink flowers strung along thin branches like pearls; sloppily beautiful cream-colored magnolia flowers lolling open to the morning sun. Here and there, parrot tulips blaze in glory, frilly cherry-red edges rimming yolk-gold petals. An ancient lattice hung with pale yellow climber roses provides a feast for the senses. Regal calla lilies unfurl their linen white surfaces, bright white canvases of possibility. Bud by bud, a strand of lavender wisteria flowers blooms, cascading bountifully over a willing arbor. Songbirds ply the colorful landscape, lending their cheerful chatter to the chorus of new growth.

Transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson counseled, “Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience." So I patiently wait for winter’s pruning to yield new growth. I sink my feet into the soft earth, sip the spring air through my nostrils, bend my neck back and let my face catch the sun. Soon, I know, the blooming will happen – then, the fruit will set, the harvest will come. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Art of Living



The Journey
~ David Whyte (House of Belonging)

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

small, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving
you are arriving.

I’ve read this poem over and over again in recent days. It’s become a sort of antidote to the sound of morning or evening commuter traffic rolling past my window, the bustle of my wife’s preparations for the work day, the unceasing chatter of my mind as it strives to answer unrelenting queries, “What now? What next? What are you doing? What will you do?”

Snippets of memories from my days training as a farmer in Alaska begin to recede. The memories themselves seem like “the bones of the black sticks left when the fire has gone out.” I struggle to discern what’s written in the ashes of my life – a life composed of surprising and complicated leave takings and homecomings, of passionate pursuits and searching, of dignified and undignified labor, and of longing for the grand and revelatory arrival, of “something new” to be revealed.

Instead, I am invited to practice patience. I must be satisfied with a little more uncertainty. I must dwell still longer in possibility.  The late John O’Donohue’s brief piece “The Question Holds the Lantern” captures the current beneath my restlessness, the themes of this journey between life as it was and life as it is being revealed, this pilgrimage that has not yet culminated in arrival - not yet:
"Once you start to awaken, no one can ever claim you again for the old patterns.  Now you realize how precious your time here is.  You are no longer willing to squander your essence on undertakings that do not nourish your true self; your patience grows thin with tired talk and dead language.  You see through the rosters of expectation, which promise you safety and the confirmation of your outer identity.  Now you are impatient for growth, willing to put yourself in the way of change.  You want your work to become an expression of your gift.  You want your relationships to voyage beyond the pallid frontiers to where the danger of transformation dwells.  You want your God to be wild and to call you to where your destiny awaits."

All around me, people are busy. They are consuming and computing, communicating and conniving, proposing and posturing and posting, and doing, doing, doing.  The rare few are making, creating, mending, tending.  Perhaps (who knows?) fewer still are praying, nurturing, truly healing themselves, other people, our planet. Far too many seem self-defined by their doing and owning. They tally their worth as so many meeting minutes, emails, documents, tasks and activities and things. There is a relentlessness to their pace, an insatiable need to fill space and moments. Stillness is shunned. There is no time for rest, inactivity, reflection. Always and only a dull roar of busy-ness.

I listen to the flow of traffic, alternately uncomfortable with and envious of the elegance of being linked to one’s activities or products, of being identified as the role one occupies:  web tech, business analyst, lawyer, nurse, accountant, clerk. Inwardly, in my heart of hearts, though, I long to break free of this identity with activity. I want to find a new way of being and loving and living in the world. I want to move at a pace that accommodates my desire to spend time each day – free from guilt and self-reproach – to linger in wonder and awe, with poetry and precious people. I want to observe, to commune, to dwell in gratitude. I want to honor the “being” in human being, to acknowledge and appreciate the breathe of life that unites all created things by pausing long enough each day to experience fully this in-breath and out-breath, to remember its connection to inspiration.

I also want to work and to earn my livelihood in a way that expresses my intention to honor people and relationships, to care for creatures and the land, to open my heart even wider to love and understanding. I want to heal and tend and mend and grow. I want to build and contribute, to repair and reclaim. I want to make whole and create anew, ideally working side by side with others who share this desire.  

So I am learning to sit with the discomfort of uncertainty. I am learning to listen to the whirr of traffic and din of impatient and frenzied hurrying with gratitude that I can choose to be still. I am slowly learning to idle at a more gentle RPM, one that allows for noticing and appreciating and tending. I am savoring the particular purple of the morning glories outside my window, nestled side-by-side as they are with the hot-orange berries of pyrocantha. I’m learning how to follow the quick, precise movements of the hummingbirds; the patient, graceful arcs of the red-shouldered hawks; the impossibly slow steps of the great egret; the awkwardly determined plodding of the black-necked stilt. I am making my own awkward, determined path to my yoga mat more frequently, and learning there a new form of stillness and patience. I am practicing the hard labor of surrendering to what is and allowing what will be to take shape in its own time, in God’s time.

When I need it, which is often, I reach for poetry to comfort me. And I take comfort from Lynne Ungar, who both asks and answers me:

And you—
what of your rushed and
useful life?
Imagine setting it all down—
papers, plans, appointments, everything,
leaving only a note:
‘Gone to the fields to be lovely.
Be back when I’m through with blooming.’

After all, I believe we are planted here - in these bodies, on this earthly soil – to bloom. We are meant to grow and thrive. And when our small patch of home soil somehow becomes polluted or toxic or absent nourishment, we must enrich it. Sometimes that entails turning it over entirely, amending it with nourishing contributions from near and far, and then allowing time to work its usual magic.

I long for the arrival. And also, I am gradually finding peace in the longing. . .

But perhaps God needs the longing, wherever else shall it dwell,
Which with kisses and tears and sighs fills mysterious spaces of air -
And perhaps is invisible soil from which roots of stars grow and swell -
And the radiant voice across fields of parting which calls to reunion there?
O my beloved, perhaps in the sky of longing worlds have been born of our love -
Just as our breathing, in and out, builds a cradle for life and death?
We are grains of sand, dark with farewell, lost in births' secret treasure trove,
Around us already perhaps future moons, suns, and stars blaze in a fiery wreath.

~ Nelly Sachs  
(Translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead, in A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now, ed. by Aliki and Willis Barnstone)






Turning Towards Darkness

What is required of us is that we love the difficult and learn to deal with it. In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us. Right in the difficult we must have our joys, our happiness, our dreams: there against the depth of this background, they stand out, there for the first time we see how beautiful they are. ~ Selected Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke (1960)

Winter has always been a difficult time for me. It feels as if the darkness creeps inside, insinuating itself in my patterns of thought, shrouding my typically clear-sighted and optimistic perspective. Perhaps this is why I lean so heavily toward the light – rejoicing in the full moon; savoring the slow, glorious ascent of the sun; sparking the candles on my meditation altar into flame. My eyes linger on the dew clinging to the grass at my sit spot beside Richardson Bay, thousands of glittering diamonds of sunlight. I marvel how the Bay itself turns its green face upward, basking in the millions of yellow light particles of yellow both infusing and radiating from it. I sit bayside, watch the sky dance across the spectrum from deep indigo, to light purply blue, to azure, to cotton candy blue lightened by sunlight. My spirit mirrors its lightening. I feel ready to greet another day.

Yet even on these sunlit, blue-sky winter days, there’s still a small lump in my throat,  heaviness in my spirit. Some old grief keeps company with me. Perhaps you can relate? For me, it’s linked to my current state of profound unknowing about my future, with its attendant confusion, uncertainty, and fearfulness. It’s prompted, too, by disheartening evidence of entrenched, devastating societal racism; widening economic inequality; drought and other damaging repercussions of climate change; and a global environment characterized overwhelmingly by divisiveness, violence, cowardice, and greed. Lodged in between these personal and planetary woes are the tribulations faced by loved ones:  my dear friend slowly being consumed by cancer; my neighbor, an overwhelmed nonprofit Director, who’s working herself to a pulp; my little brother, digging out of debt and struggling to provide for his family of four; my parents, navigating the complicated effects and decisions of old age. At times, the darkness paralyzes me in the headlights, all bewilderment and fear. It threatens to overtake me completely. I feel my heart thrumming beneath my skin, my mouth dry and jaw set, the hair on my neck standing on end. I’m inclined to run – but to where?

Years of meditation practice are helping me to see and greet the darkness for what it is: a wise old friend. I’m learning to turn toward, rather than run from, the sorrow, the fear, the confusion, the disappointment and anger. I’m striving to practice in my life what I do each time I sit to meditate:  to acknowledge and be with what is. Thursday evening, I observed the five o’clock sun cast its soft light on a deep green stand of hundred-foot eucalyptus trees, its rays reflecting off their slender trunks, turning them to silver. The spectacle was made more magical for its backdrop of slate gray rainclouds. Ponderous and threatening though they were, I saw them also as the containers of desperately needed rain, essential contributors to the spring planting season, harbingers of the summer and fall harvests. The slightly chaotic pre-storm weather also brought a Black-crowned Night Heron out to roost on the railing of a skipjack in the harbor:  regal, stoic, introspective, unruffled by rising wind and falling temperature.

So, too, the darkness within and around us – including the solitary darkness in which we immerse ourselves in meditation – holds invaluable riches. From this deep dark well of emotion I connect with an unbounded spaciousness, a limitless and all-pervasive reservoir of love. It both enfolds and inhabits me. When I drop fully into this well of love, I grow in empathy with all who hurt, who struggle, who feel abandonment or shame or deep sadness. I rediscover, to quote civil rights activist Vincent Harding, that:

"We are not alone in this struggle for the re-creation of our own lives and the life of our community. It has long been written and known that those who choose to struggle for the life of the earth and its beings are part of an ageless, pulsating membrane of light that is filled with the lives, hopes, and beatific visions of all who have fought on, held on, loved well, and gone on before us. For this task is too magnificent to be carried by us alone, in our house, in our meeting, in our organization, in our generation, in our lifetime... we are all a part of one another, and we are all part of the intention of the great creator spirit to continue being light and life."

In meditation, we are invited to transcend the darkness by connecting with the selfsame strength characterized by the Holy Trinity:  the gift of a human life; the vastness of our capacity to give and receive love; and the intuitive knowledge of “more-ness” – the certain knowing that we are so, so much more than our thinking, fretting, obsessing small minds. The simple act of uniting body, mind, and breath in space and time is all I need to transform suffering into peace, turn darkness into light. For me, companionship on the journey and these nuggets of truth provide powerful motivations to practice.


The poet Mark Strand’s Lines For Winter echo this encouragement to be with what is, to lean into the darkness so far that we burst through to the other side – to self-acceptance, empathy, and an ever-growing tenderness that we might offer our troubled world and its inhabitants.

Tell yourself
as it gets cold
and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself --
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon's gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going.
And you will be able
for once to lie down
under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.

~ Mark Strand  ~


Monday, February 2, 2015

Finding Peace in the Longing



The Journey
~ David Whyte (House of Belonging)

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

small, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving
you are arriving.

I’ve read this poem over and over again in recent days. It’s become a sort of antidote to the sound of morning or evening commuter traffic rolling past my window, the bustle of my wife’s preparations for the work day, the unceasing chatter of my mind as it strives to answer unrelenting queries, “What now? What next? What are you doing? What will you do?”

Snippets of memories from my days training as a farmer in Alaska begin to recede. The memories themselves seem like “the bones of the black sticks left when the fire has gone out.” I struggle to discern what’s written in the ashes of my life – a life composed of surprising and complicated leave takings and homecomings, of passionate pursuits and searching, of dignified and undignified labor, and of longing for the grand and revelatory arrival, of “something new” to be revealed.

Instead, I am invited to practice patience. I must be satisfied with a little more uncertainty. I must dwell still longer in possibility.  The late John O’Donohue’s brief piece “The Question Holds the Lantern” captures the current beneath my restlessness, the themes of this journey between life as it was and life as it is being revealed, this pilgrimage that has not yet culminated in arrival - not yet:
"Once you start to awaken, no one can ever claim you again for the old patterns.  Now you realize how precious your time here is.  You are no longer willing to squander your essence on undertakings that do not nourish your true self; your patience grows thin with tired talk and dead language.  You see through the rosters of expectation, which promise you safety and the confirmation of your outer identity.  Now you are impatient for growth, willing to put yourself in the way of change.  You want your work to become an expression of your gift.  You want your relationships to voyage beyond the pallid frontiers to where the danger of transformation dwells.  You want your God to be wild and to call you to where your destiny awaits."

All around me, people are busy. They are consuming and computing, communicating and conniving, proposing and posturing and posting, and doing, doing, doing.  The rare few are making, creating, mending, tending.  Perhaps (who knows?) fewer still are praying, nurturing, truly healing themselves, other people, our planet. Far too many seem self-defined by their doing and owning. They tally their worth as so many meeting minutes, emails, documents, tasks and activities and things. There is a relentlessness to their pace, an insatiable need to fill space and moments. Stillness is shunned. There is no time for rest, inactivity, reflection. Always and only a dull roar of busy-ness.

I listen to the flow of traffic, alternately uncomfortable with and envious of the elegance of being linked to one’s activities or products, of being identified as the role one occupies:  web tech, business analyst, lawyer, nurse, accountant, clerk. Inwardly, in my heart of hearts, though, I long to break free of this identity with activity. I want to find a new way of being and loving and living in the world. I want to move at a pace that accommodates my desire to spend time each day – free from guilt and self-reproach – to linger in wonder and awe, with poetry and precious people. I want to observe, to commune, to dwell in gratitude. I want to honor the “being” in human being, to acknowledge and appreciate the breathe of life that unites all created things by pausing long enough each day to experience fully this in-breath and out-breath, to remember its connection to inspiration.

I also want to work and to earn my livelihood in a way that expresses my intention to honor people and relationships, to care for creatures and the land, to open my heart even wider to love and understanding. I want to heal and tend and mend and grow. I want to build and contribute, to repair and reclaim. I want to make whole and create anew, ideally working side by side with others who share this desire.  

So I am learning to sit with the discomfort of uncertainty. I am learning to listen to the whirr of traffic and din of impatient and frenzied hurrying with gratitude that I can choose to be still. I am slowly learning to idle at a more gentle RPM, one that allows for noticing and appreciating and tending. I am savoring the particular purple of the morning glories outside my window, nestled side-by-side as they are with the hot-orange berries of pyrocantha. I’m learning how to follow the quick, precise movements of the hummingbirds; the patient, graceful arcs of the red-shouldered hawks; the impossibly slow steps of the great egret; the awkwardly determined plodding of the black-necked stilt. I am making my own awkward, determined path to my yoga mat more frequently, and learning there a new form of stillness and patience. I am practicing the hard labor of surrendering to what is and allowing what will be to take shape in its own time, in God’s time.

When I need it, which is often, I reach for poetry to comfort me. And I take comfort from Lynne Ungar, who both asks and answers me:

And you—
what of your rushed and
useful life?
Imagine setting it all down—
papers, plans, appointments, everything,
leaving only a note:
‘Gone to the fields to be lovely.
Be back when I’m through with blooming.’

After all, I believe we are planted here - in these bodies, on this earthly soil – to bloom. We are meant to grow and thrive. And when our small patch of home soil somehow becomes polluted or toxic or absent nourishment, we must enrich it. Sometimes that entails turning it over entirely, amending it with nourishing contributions from near and far, and then allowing time to work its usual magic.

I long for the arrival. And also, I am gradually finding peace in the longing. . .

But perhaps God needs the longing, wherever else shall it dwell,
Which with kisses and tears and sighs fills mysterious spaces of air -
And perhaps is invisible soil from which roots of stars grow and swell -
And the radiant voice across fields of parting which calls to reunion there?
O my beloved, perhaps in the sky of longing worlds have been born of our love -
Just as our breathing, in and out, builds a cradle for life and death?
We are grains of sand, dark with farewell, lost in births' secret treasure trove,
Around us already perhaps future moons, suns, and stars blaze in a fiery wreath.

~ Nelly Sachs  
(Translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead, in A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now, ed. by Aliki and Willis Barnstone)