Media Fast

Beehive Hermit Cell,  Kilmartin Scotland

I was out of control. My YouTube time had ballooned into a near-addiction. Ever since I got rid of cable I had transferred my downtime to the internet instead of TV. And besides, YouTube is designed to keep you watching long past a couple of videos. I’ve never liked Facebook much but it still took up a bit of time everyday too. One Sunday morning I knew I needed to stop so I had Hamilton lock my iPad in the safe for a week. I need to take an internet break. I still had a laptop (too slow), smart-phone (too little) and Kindle (too basic) but none of them tempt me to do anything but important business.

With nothing to distract me I had to get back to books. I read some fluff on the Kindle and got the news from an actual newspaper and I got back to my early morning reading. I’ve had a routine since I was young of reading something spiritual when I first get up in the morning. I feed the cats, make some coffee and while that is brewing, unload the dishwasher. Then I pour my first cup of the day with just cream, and set to reading. I like to read a chapter or so in a spiritual or metaphysical book and then move on to something else I’m working on. It is amazing how many books you can get through in a year with a chapter a day.

The world is dark and quiet early in the morning and the only thing stirring is my cat Timmy who wants his morning cuddle. It is in this silence that I can open my mind and heart to the spiritual masters and teachers who left beautiful writings to help guide me on my path. During my internet fast I was reading a lovely book called The Way of a Pilgrim and the Pilgrim Continues His Way. An appropriate title for the a perpetual pilgrim to be reading, don’t you think? This spiritual classic was written by an unknown Russian peasant in the 1800’s who’s life was in shambles after losing his home and wife.

The author sets off to travel looking for his spiritual truth with only the clothes on his back and some crusts of bread in a knapsack. He wanted to follow the words of the Bible and learn to ‘pray without ceasing’. With the Bible and another book the Philokalia, a collection of early Christian writings. as his guide and solace, he encounters hardship, hunger, cold and thieves. As his journey continues he finds meaning and comfort in prayer and is able to help many people he encounters on the way. Two books and some bread—that is far from my stack of electronic devises and pantry full of food. Would I have the courage of this man? Could I ever be able to dedicate my life to such an ideal? Times have changed but the need to find our truth is still there.

I will definitely lock up the iPad again if I need a break from the world. I’m not quite ready to be a wandering mendicant but I did learn to put the world in its proper place again. By the way, my second book in the morning currently is about Thoreau and Walden Pond, Expect Great Things, and my third book is about a young man living in a van, Walden on Wheels. I think there is a pattern here. But as appealing as a good wander sounds I think I will stick with my air conditioned house during this hot and humid August and enjoy some vicarious wandering.

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The Secret Garden

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As much as I love a grand adventure to a foreign land, sometimes a gentle adventure close to home is exactly what my soul needs. On a perfect October day with bright blue sky and the brilliant colored trees, I went to a new sacred site in my home town of Knoxville, a secret garden.

The Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum is 47 acres of trees, flowers and old stone walls, originally a land grant from George Washington to David Howell for his service in the Revolutionary War. Before the land was part of the state of Tennessee the Howell family were planting trees and building stone fences. Past magnificent century-old cedars from Lebanon, there is a secret garden tucked in a corner along one of these old stone walls.

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This secret garden maybe new but the inspiration for the garden started many years ago in Knoxville with the celebrated children’s author Frances Hodgson Burnett. Originally from England, Frances came to Knoxville in 1865 and fell in love with Dr. Swan Burnett. She started writing novels for children. Among her most famous works are The Secret Garden, A Little Princess and Little Lord Fauntleroy. I loved all these books as a child and my copy of The Secret Garden was tattered and taped. I related to lonely Mary who just wanted “a bit of earth” and wished I had a friend like Dickon who always had a baby animal with him. I wanted a robin to show me a magical walled garden where I could have my own secret world.

Two years ago my friend Val wrote a book, A Year In the Secret Garden, about bringing the magic of the original story into everyday life with activities, stories and recipes. It is a charming and beautifully illustrated book that just happened to be published right at the 150th anniversary of Frances’ move to Knoxville. A few months ago Val was asked to be on a team to help design a secret garden for the children of Knoxville in memory of Andie Ray who loved the book so much that she had named her clothing store Vagabondia after Frances’ Knoxville home. Andie’s parents wanted a special place to honor their daughter’s memory and reflect her love of life and beauty. In the story the garden is a place of healing for the lonely Mary and her invalid cousin Colin and I know this garden is a great healing for Andie’s loved ones and a place for everyone to renew enchantment with life. The secret world of your heart can blossom and grown in this special, beautiful garden.

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So on this beautiful October afternoon Val and I, her daughter and friend had a picnic and then entered the secret garden. A curved wooden door welcomes you and draws you into this magic space but don’t forget the key that unlocks this world of wonder; it is right next to the door. The path meanders along a scent garden to add to the beauty of the flowers in large pots that change with the season. If you look carefully, you will find a fox hiding in the bushes. Further down the path you see a giant nest and as you come around the corner you see a robin’s egg made of blue granite. There are large rocks in a circle, the perfect place for storytelling or to sit with a good book. There is more to come as the garden matures and becomes a beloved place to visit in every season.

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Photo by V. Budayr

If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden—-

Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden (1993)   If you love Downton Abbey you will love the film version of the book.  Maggie Smith plays the housekeeper Mrs. Medlock.

Secret Garden designed by Sara Hedstrom  and Rachel Beasley

Water

Hilton Head beach

What is it about water? Why are we so fascinated with it? We pay a premium to live by water. We go to places just because we want to be by water. We must drink it daily, use it to clean our bodies, baptize our babies. We listen to it, gaze at it, touch it, smell it, taste it for purity.

The water calls me. If I wasn’t so happy in my rural home in the foothills of the mountains, I would be where every moment of the day was accompanied by water. Fortunately my morning walk is beside a lake and I have moments to breath in the beauty.

The ocean calls me. I need time by the vastness of water, looking out to see nothing but water and sky. Every year I find a way to be renewed by the salt and sand, sky and starkness. It is the starkness of only water, sand, sky that I crave. The stripping of life to only the essential elements that renews my soul building it back from the foundation stones of existence.

For the first time I have come to the ocean alone. No children to play in the sand, no friends to share the experience, no husband to walk hand in hand on the beach. Just me. I have to be with the ocean. I’m using the excuse that I need time to write and I do. But it is the longing of my soul for the primordial water to cleanse myself in the salt water, like cleaning a crystal, an act of life-affirming renewal.

I’ve come to this same little borrowed hideaway for many years so I have my routine. The first morning is a long walk around the pristine neighborhood, seeing my favorite houses, hear the clang of metal against metal of the sailboats. This morning I walked out the pier and saw a solitary dolphin fishing for its morning meal. Every few minutes the fin or snout surfaced and I had a moment of joy.

I headed to the beach to read, walk and bob in the water. It is September so there are families with very young children and retirees, the people that are not bound to school schedules. The weather although still hot is not as intense as a month ago. I feed the parking meter and gather my chair and beach bag with the essentials: sunscreen, drinks and koozie, snacks, books, towel and phone. I alternate between reading, walking, swimming and just looking at the waves.

The water is just cool enough to be refreshing without any need to slowly get wet. Sometimes I face the vast distance and watch the birds skim across the water. The pelicans with their prehistoric silhouettes come in twos looking for fish. The seagulls fly just above the surface in large groups making the sound that is so familiar at the beach. Their squawk is as essential a sound as the crashing waves. Sometimes I face the shore with the colorful umbrellas flapping in the breeze and the colorless sea grasses nodding in agreement.

I’m not the only one who craves the ocean and aloneness. On the mantel of the cottage is a slim book, a book I had been thinking about for the last couple of week. Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, is a small book of wisdom and comfort for the inner life. Anne deeply craved solitude, her life of celebrity, family and personal tragedy left little time for quiet. In a two week trip to the beach alone, Anne wrote this treasure that has comforted women for decades.

Every chapter is telling a very familiar story woven around the beauty of shells on the beach. Anne needed time alone to sort out who she was from the world around her of demands and schedules. She voices the truth that so many of us share. Quiet, alone, solitude are not experiences to be shunned but moments to be savored as gifts to yourself so that the voice of your heart can be heard.

“Woman must come of age by herself…
She must find her true center alone“

“Perhaps this is the most important thing for me to take back from beach-living: simply the memory that each cycle of the tide is valid; each cycle of the wave is valid; each cycle of a relationship is valid.”

“I find there is a quality to being alone that is incredibly precious. Life rushes back into the void, richer, more vivid, fuller than before.”

― Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea

 

Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

A Year by the Sea by Joan Anderson

 

Thomas Merton

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Last week I had the most unexpected delight. Brother Luke from the Abbey of Gethsamani wrote me this note.

Many thanks for the thoughtful and generous reflections about your visit to us. Rest assured, the company of our fellow pilgrims is a blessing and enrichment for us there in the choir. Every warm best wish and encouragement from us all!

I was so pleased that our time together was a blessing even though the Brothers in Gethsemani and I have never met. The quiet interaction of our devotion was equally beneficial to our hearts even though our conscious mind didn’t know the specifics. It is through the quality of our heart the blessings are received. This is one of the great mysteries and graces of the devotion of the pilgrim.

How do we grow the quality of our heart? So glad you asked! Because one of the most important spiritual writers on contemplation and devotion was a Brother at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Thomas Merton. All you have to do is open one of his many beautiful books on the contemplative life and you will find the answers to the way of a Spirit filled life. You may have heard of Thomas Merton before but if you haven’t I want to introduce him to you because he brought contemplation into the 21st century and continues the long line of Christian mystics going back to John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. You will find his influence on many of the lives of current spiritual writers.

Thomas, known as Brother Louis at Gethsamani, was born in 1915 in France to non-religious artist parents and spent his childhood going between France, England and the United States. He ultimately ended up Columbia University where he got a masters in literature, with a thesis on William Blake, the first clue of his future. By the time Thomas was in his mid-twenties, he had no living family and a deep Christian conversion. He felt called to the life of devotion and eventually found the Abbey of Gethsamani. Thomas wrote about his childhood and conversion experience and first days in the Abbey in his classic best-seller, The Seven Storey Mountain. With a great talent for writing about the contemplative life, Thomas continued his work as a writer as his vocation in the Abbey. Eventually he was able to move to a small converted hermitage on the Abbey grounds where he could spend his time in the solitude he craved. The last few years of his life (in the early 1960’s), he became increasingly interested in social justice and the common spirit between Buddhism and Christianity. He made a famous trip to India to meet the Dalai Lama and attend a global conference on world religions. Unfortunately Thomas died on that trip in an accident exactly 27 years to the day of joining the monastery.

I’ve known about Thomas Merton for many years but the visit to Gethsamani gave me the context to read his books I had collected. I could spend a lifetime with this amazing writer and mystic. But let us go back to the original question that we asked, how to grown the quality of your heart. Thomas has some beautiful suggestions. He said that you didn’t have to be a monk or nun to live the contemplative life, that the life of prayer is open to all of us. It doesn’t require hours of meditating or renunciation of the world to make your own life an act of devotion. Our lives are perfect for growing the heart for it is the act of taking time to connect with the Divine everyday and see everyone we meet and our work as service to the world. He wrote, “to be a saint is to be myself.” Doing the dishes and the laundry, our commute, caring for our children and our elderly parents can all be acts of devotion and love.

Yes, every part of our lives can be a chance for awakening. One of Thomas’ most profound experiences wasn’t in the monastery in prayer but in a moment while on a busy street in Louisville, Kentucky.

I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Be who you are, love the life you have, spend moments in silence, start and end your day with moments of prayers, sing a hymn, read a scripture or inspirational book, notice the birds and the wind in the trees and realize we are “all walking around shining like the sun.”

Books by Thomas Merton:

New Seeds of Contemplation

The Seven Storey Mountain

Thoughts on Solitude

 

Books on a modern contemplative life by Marsha Sinetar:

Sometimes Enough is Enough  

Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics

Canterbury

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“Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” These word of King Henry II spoken nearly 900 years ago, began a series of events that we still talk about today. Henry II and Thomas Beckett were good pals until Henry made Thomas the Archbishop of Canterbury. Then, Thomas did the unthinkable and decided to not do everything Henry wanted, that started a power struggle that ended when Henry’s henchmen took him literally and murdered Thomas in the middle of the Cathedral. Within hours of the murder, miracles happened with the blood of Thomas. Henry regretted his words and spent a lifetime doing penance. The world began walking to Canterbury for miracles and salvation.

A hundred and fifty years later, Geoffrey Chaucer immortalized the Canterbury pilgrimage and the stories of medieval life. 600 years later. The Canterbury Tales are still part of almost every high school curriculum, except my high school where the stories were deemed inappropriate and not good for me. Oh my.

Since I love reading about pilgrimages as much as taking them I picked up Jerry Ellis’ book Walking to Canterbury. Last year, I read his book Walking the Trail about his experience walking the Trail of Tears backwards from Oklahoma to Alabama to feel more connected to his Cherokee heritage. Jerry wanted to honor his English roots as well by making a pilgrimage in England. He also walked from London to Canterbury along the traditional pilgrim route. Throughout the story, he perfectly weaves The Canterbury Tales and life in medieval England into his own experiences of the local people and places he encounters, walking in both worlds simultaneously. During the pilgrimage, he carved a walking stick with the faces of Christ and Sequoya, to honor both pilgrimages.

When I made my own pilgrimage to Canterbury in 2005 I had never read The Canterbury Tales or the story of Thomas Beckett. What I knew was that Canterbury is a magnificent cathedral and the Archbishop of Canterbury is the highest authority in the Anglican church, As an Episcopalian the prayers always included the current Archbishop. I didn’t walk to Canterbury but took a train from London with my husband, teen daughters and my dear friend Rachael. It was the first warm day of spring and the town was alive with people wanting to revel in the glories of sunshine, blue sky and flowers against the backdrop of Gothic perfection. The day had a magic and wonder I will never forget.

We met up with Rachael’s daughter Anne and her family and bought a family ticket that included all of us as we were family by choice. Rachael and I wandered silently through the cathedral slowly enjoying every detail we could possibly see. I particularly liked the zodiac roundels in the floor near Trinity chapel that date to the 1400’s. Our tour took us to the crypt where we admired the elaborate vestments and chalices. Just at the door to the garden were prayer candles. I lit one and made a vow that I didn’t expect to make that day, a vow to do what the Universe asks of me whatever that was. It was a sacred moment that changed me, a vow as important to me as my baptism and confirmation and marriage.

Rachael and I stepped into the sunshine and were greeted by her 7 year old granddaughter Louise who was impatiently waiting on a bench. “Hurry up Nanny, I’m 72 years old now.” Louise was right. Time had stood still that morning and at least 65 years had passed in a twinkling of an eye that beautiful day.

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Krishnamurti

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Road to Ojai, California

I had one more stop to make on my library tour of southern California. After leaving the Joseph Campbell library I headed inland along a beautiful twisting road through the mountains and down to the town of Ojai. I had put Ojai on my wish list several months before because I wanted to go to the home and library of its most famous resident Krishnamurti. Over the months before my trip, I read about its charming shops and restaurants and watched some yoga videos that originated in a local studio.

It was lunch time so I had found a little Mexican restaurant with an outdoor patio that had wonderful food. I wished I had time to do a little shopping but I was on a mission. I headed out of town a couple of miles to the Krishnamurti Library and nearby Pepper Tree Retreat Center, only open three afternoons a week for a few hours. The library is in Krishnamurti’s white house surrounded by gardens and a very old pepper tree. The main room of the house is spacious with large windows and a fireplace at one end and two walls of bookshelves with his many books in several languages. There are pictures of Krishnamurti standing in the room 40 years ago and it still looks the same.

Krishnamurti Home

I had known about Krishnamurti for a long time. One of my teachers has taught Theosophy for many years and Krishnamurti is an integral part of the story. Theosophy is a philosophy founded by Helena Blavatsky and Henry Olcott in the 1870s that is still active today. It combines Eastern and Western thought about the nature of God and mysticism. The headquarters of the new movement moved to India where a young Jiddu Krishnamurti was discovered and expected to be the next “World Teacher” by Charles Leadbeater and Annie Besant. Krishnamurti and his brother Nitya were then educated and lectured all over the world to promote Theosophy and the Order of the Star in the East.

In 1929 Krishnamurti rejected his ties with Theosophy and his messianic status. He chose to take a different way which he call the pathless land. He and his brother had moved to Ojai for the climate and made his home there for the rest of his life. Despite his rejection of being a world teacher he continued to teach, travel extensively and write dozens of books. He also founded Brockwood Park School in England. He had great influence on the changing cultures of the 1960s and 1970s and on the great thinkers, musicians, world leaders and scientist during that time. You might not have heard of him before but his influence on modern society is great. He did fulfill his role as a world teacher but in his own way.

I spent some time in the light-filled room surrounded by Krishnamurti’s writings and then went into the small bookstore and visited with a lovely young women who was there for the next year as a student and intern. I actually have not read much of Krishnamurti’s work so I got a book and some DVD’s to watch.

I headed out to an organic herb garden on top of a nearby hill and had a seat to just relax and breath in the fresh air and sunshine. The garden was so peaceful and the surrounding mountains magnificent. What a beautiful day of gardens, libraries and deeply spiritual men, Joseph Campbell and Jiddu Krishnamurti. They both changed the way we see the world and interestingly enough met on a ship crossing the Atlantic when they young men. I felt I too got to meet them that blissful day in a garden in California.

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“We all want to be famous people, and the moment we want to be something we are no longer free.”

“I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect.”           J Krishnamurti

Krishnamurti Foundation of America  www.kfa.org

Brockwood Park School   http://www.brockwood.org.uk

Theosophical Society  www.theosophical.org

 

Joseph Campbell

Pacifica

Joseph Campbell Library, Pacifica

I was 26 and a new mother when I decided I wanted to be an Episcopalian. I liked the local parish so I had a meeting with the priest to talk about joining the church. We talked about my childhood church and it’s very literal interpretation of the Bible. The priest then said something I will never forget that rocked my world. “You know the Bible is a myth.” Holy Cow! What? Everything stopped in that instant as the foundation of my world view cracked wide open. I barely knew what a myth was, in my narrow world novels, fairy tales, myths and Santa were lies and not allowed. The priest told me to read Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. I read the book but didn’t understand it much, I had no context for the stories or concepts but I knew it was important. It took me an entire year to just wrap my mind around the idea that the Bible was not literal. The stories began touching my heart instead of baffling my brain.

I kept going to church and joined a book club and slowly, stone by stone, dismantled the cosmology of my childhood. When my world view lay in pieces all around me I started to rebuild with the good from my old life but now with the new materials. I read more mythology, Jung and archetypes, and novels. Each new book lead to the next and I spent all my spare time building a new and expanded paradigm that was much more open with plenty of room to grow.

I kept reading Joseph Campbell and watched The Power of Myth. I listen to interviews and kept a copy of Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion in the side pocket of my car. When I had a few minutes waiting in the school pick-up line or for ballet to finish, I would read the wise words. The book was tattered and coffee stained, underlined and loved. The myths, gods and goddesses became an important part of my life. When I went to Egypt for the first time, I knew little of the history but a great deal of the cosmology, I went to live the myths and stand before the gods. I was on the heroine’s journey.

Joseph Campbell was a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and wrote about universal themes of mythologies in all cultures. His book The Hero with a Thousand Faces has been very influential in our modern culture and the ideas helped create new myths for our time. Luke Skywalker is a classic mythological hero that bravely journeyed to the unknown to recover his lost self and bring back the wisdom for his society.

In mid-March I was traveling home from Alabama listening to some tapes of Michael Toms’ 1979 interview of Joseph Campbell. I had those tapes for many years and was going to listen to them one more time. I nearly had to pull over, on those tapes where exactly the validation I was needing about some materials I was working on about alchemy. Alchemy is not a subject usually associated with Joseph Campbell but there it was, an interview from nearly 40 years ago, perfect in that moment. The timeless quality of Joseph Campbell’s work is an indication of the deep universal Truths he was able to convey to the world. His work become new again as I grew and could hear it on a new level.

Two weeks later I was in southern California and had a day free to “follow my bliss” as Joseph Campbell so famously taught. I headed up the coast to just below Santa Barbara to Pacifica Graduate Institute and the Joseph Campbell Library. Nestled in a beautiful garden of a campus was a small library that holds all of Joseph Campbell’s personal books. Usually only accessible a few hours a week, the archivist happened to be free so he ushered me into a small dark room with bookshelves from floor to ceiling and a few display cases in the middle. I started to ask questions about alchemy and the librarian got on an old wooden ladder and pulled down a book. It was Carl Jung’s book on alchemy, Mysterium Conjunctionis. In it was Joseph Campbell’s prolific and very tidy underlining and notes. In front of me, under my fingertips was the meeting of two great minds. I turned the pages and read passages and notes and breathed in the magic of those two men who together restored the mythical journey to our modern world. Their work has restored the magic and mystery to my barren, literal life.

I spent a blissful hour and a half in that library, looking at the books that influenced such a great mind. There was an entire shelf of books on the Grail legend, some of them hundreds of years old. I saw his personal copy of his first book and a copy of The Joseph Campbell Companion with its familiar cover. In the display case were some of his favorite artifacts of ancient deity and a small metal ruler he used for underlining. Joseph was once asked if he meditated, he replied “no I underline.”

The Joseph Campbell Foundation   http://www.jcf.org

Pacifica Graduate Institute  www.pacifica.edu

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California Poppys,  Pacifica