I’ve started a new practice of meditating — just five minutes in the morning. Then at various points during the day, when I’m walking home from work, for example, or during a short lull between serving patrons at the library, I might pause and for a few moments return my mind to my in-breath and out-breath.
I look at it as consciously giving my mind a rest. We all know how important it is to give our bodies proper rest. I think it is perhaps at least as important to give our minds a rest, too. I trust that allowing some fallow time will be healthy and maybe even fruitful. Who knows?
All books about meditation talk about how impossible it is to actually empty the mind for even five minutes without thoughts intruding. Zen masters call this “monkey mind.” Of course, I experience this too. When I notice a thought has once again caught my attention, I just acknowledge it and let it go, returning my focus to my breath.
I trust that detaching myself from my thoughts will help me to see how much I am in the thrall of autopilot mind. And over time, perhaps I will become more thoughtful/less habitual in my resulting speech and actions.
One of the insights I’ve already noted is how very few of my thoughts, if any, are original. Mostly, the thoughts that cross my mind are things I’ve already thought before, maybe even hundreds of times. I’m ready to move on to something fresh and new! How can we train or invite our minds to think more original thoughts?
This summer I’ve been enjoying variations of a “Quinoa, Apricot and Almond Salad” from the Hedgebrook Cookbookby Denise Barr and Julie Rosten. I like it as a side dish or as a lunch salad that I pack for work. Sometimes I add bits of thinly sliced chicken sausage and diagonally sliced snap peas for a more hearty main dish. Really, you could add many different vegetables, leftover meats, or even fruit to adapt this basic dish to your liking.
Quinoa, Apricot and Almond Salad from the Hedgebrook Cookbook
1 c quinoa (the cookbook recommends browning the quinoa in 1 Tbsp. olive oil before adding 2 c boiling water, but I skipped the browning step and just cooked the quinoa according to the package directions)
4 green onions, thinly sliced (I did not have green onions on hand, so I added sliced snap peas instead.)
1/2 c each diced dried apricots and toasted and chopped almonds
1 lemon, zest and juice
Asian ginger dressing (I used a prepared Asian dressing from Trader Joe’s)
Allow the cooked quinoa to cool for 30 minutes, then mix with enough dressing to coat the salad. Add onions, apricots, almonds, lemon zest and juice. Salt and pepper to taste.
Refrigerate salad overnight. Before serving taste to see if salad needs more dressing, but be careful not to overdress.
“Was it possible that my focus on making art, on creating tellable stories, was interrupting my ability to see broadly and tenderly and without gain? What would it be like to give my expansive attention to the world, to the present moment, without expectation or promise of an obvious payoff? Was I capable of practicing a ‘God’s love’ kind of attention? An adoring and democratic awe? Could I be more papal?”
— Kyo Maclear, Birds Art Life
“. . . it is your attempt to get special experiences from life that makes you miss the actual experience of life. . . . If you are busy trying to get something, you will miss the slice you’re actually experiencing.”
— Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself
“Most of the things we do in life, we do for the sake of something else. We work to earn money; we exercise to get fit; we study to pass exams; we watch TV to relax; we engage in spiritual exercises to improve ourselves; and so on.
But life’s most sublime moments often occur when we engage in activities entirely for their own sake, without any ulterior motives.”
— Gary Hayden, Walking with Plato: A Philosophical Hike through the British Isles
I am interested in the idea that we so seldom simply immerse ourselves in deeply living each moment, just being rather than doing. I find it an ongoing challenge. For example, it would be difficult and almost inconceivable for me to willingly leave my camera at home while on vacation. I am driven (by what exactly?) to “take” photos of the many beautiful things that capture my attention. I think I would feel withdrawal and regret if I could not document my special experiences with photos.
Having blogged for so many years, it is second nature to me to always be assessing whether my activities are worthy enough for sharing in a blog post. It is as if I need to make something tangible of my life, proof that I have been there and done that.
I am not alone. The explosion of selfies attests to the addictive appeal of taking something of almost everything we see. The quick snapshot makes taking so easy. And once we take that photo, are we not already casting about for the next special thing?
What would it be like to see “broadly and tenderly and without gain” as Maclear writes in the opening quote?
Maybe one of these days I will experiment with leaving my camera at home, enjoying each moment fully without grasping and trying to capture it.
In the meantime, you might be thankful that I had my camera in hand on a recent visit to Jellomold Farm in the Skagit Valley. This is a busy time for my flower grower friends. I was left alone on a short, late afternoon visit to wander the fields and greenhouses. I am happy to share this beautiful place with you.
Henry David Thoreau was born 200 years ago today. Six years ago, I was embarked upon a year-long project in which I wrote short weekly essays inspired by a passage from Thoreau’s Walden. I called this project “Thoreau Thursdays” and I posted my reflections on my blog starting with the one at this link.
In honor of this 200th anniversary, I am re-posting below one of the essays from “Thoreau Thursdays.” If you are interested in reading all 52, you can find them in my archives at http://rosemarywashington.wordpress.com (go to the right-hand column and click on the category called Thoreau Thursdays).
Thoreau Thursdays (43): Tasting the Fruits of Your Labors
February 9, 2012
“It is a vulgar error to suppose that you have tasted huckleberries who never plucked them.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden
In Washington we have an abundance of blackberries rather than huckleberries.
“The fruits do not yield their true flavor to the purchasers of them.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden
How poor Thoreau would find me, a city dweller, who procures virtually all of my food from supermarket shelves. And while our neighborhood farmers’ markets give us access to locally grown food, we simply buy it with our coins. How rarely do we plant, nurture, harvest and preserve our own food. According to Thoreau, we are missing out on the true flavor of food when we do not grow or pick it with our own hands.
Having grown up on a farm, I still hold a deep appreciation for the hard work that goes into bringing food to the table. I’ve butchered chickens, so I understand the life that was once vibrant in my packaged chicken quarters. I’ve milked a cow by hand, so I remember the source of my glass of milk. I’ve made my own blackberry jam from hand-picked berries, so I can appreciate the work behind a jar received as a gift.
Snapshot of me milking our family’s cow in 1972, forty years ago!
Much is lost when we forego laboring with our own hands, for the value of the work is not just the finished product, but also the feelings of artistry, productivity, and self-worth built along the way. And it is true that we savor the end product more when we’ve created it ourselves.
One of my colleagues gives our library staff jars of her homemade blackberry jam each Christmas, and each spoonful bursts with the tastes of summer and Shirley’s shared joy in nature’s abundance. Everything that is in a jar of Shirley’s jam is what Thoreau is alluding to in this week’s quote.
Shirley’s jam on breakfast scones
Homemade jam from hand-picked blackberries
“The advantage of riches remains with him who procured them, not with the heir. When I go into the garden with a spade, and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and health that I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands. But not only health, but education is in the work.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
This past week I spent four days as a student at Shari Blaukopf’s watercolor workshop in Anacortes and the Skagit Valley. Shari is a professional painter and design teacher from Montreal, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to study under her, if even for a few days.
The workshop was wonderful on so many levels. My good friend Bonnie, whom I met several years ago through this blog, invited me stay at her home overlooking Samish Bay, and she was a gracious and welcoming host (besides feeding me the most nutritious and delicious meals!) The other workshop participants were a mix of kindred spirits, old friends and new. The organizers of the workshop selected stunning locations for painting our landscapes, so I discovered even more beautiful nooks and crannies in the Skagit Valley, already one of my most favorite places on earth.
It was evident that Shari had scouted the locations before we met each day, and that was important because we “wasted” no time settling in to paint. Here are the locations where we painted:
As it was, the time flew by. There were morning and afternoon sessions, each three hours long, during which Shari taught, demonstrated her techniques and skills, and then critiqued the paintings we made trying to apply her lessons on the spot. It was a revelation to watch a master painter at work — planning and anticipating the order in which she would be applying pigments, paying attention to the range of light and dark values, actually painting with sure, confident strokes. It was a miracle to see, daily, beautiful images emerge gradually from a blank sheet of paper. Sometimes what looked like a mess early on became a finished masterpiece. (Lesson: don’t give up on your work too early.)
Shari said that when she paints, her objective is to “capture the essence” of what she sees, the “fastest impression” of her experience of a place. Successful paintings, to her, have “something genuine” in the work.
I take with me some precepts and lessons that I hope to use in the days, months, and years ahead to improve my work. Here are some of Shari’s key tips that I will be carrying with me:
The two most common mistakes watercolor painters make are: 1) not enough water and 2) not enough pigment on the brush. Shari said, “My watercolors got better when I started using more water.”
Aim for loose line work and fresh painting (it helps to hold your drawing and painting implements higher on the stem for more expressive lines and strokes).
Before painting, and while deciding upon your composition, analyze values without thinking about the actual colors: darkest and lightest parts, decide what to leave white.
When you get the values right, color doesn’t matter.
Start with what you love (when you have a complex scene or composition with several parts).
Paint foliage in masses, large shapes.
Think about shapes: make interesting shapes within big shapes, pay attention to overlapping shapes, mass together some shapes, simplify shapes.
Pick up paint from the sides of the brush rather than digging in with the point (keeping your pigments moist helps).
Don’t go more than one inch without changing color. Use a variety of colors in dark and shadow areas.
A good amount of neutral makes the color sing.
Burnt sienna and ultramarine blue make a nice neutral gray.
Not all white is white white. (Sometimes a white in shadow is a darker value than the sky.)
Most of the time when you don’t like your work it’s because your darks are diffident. Take the time to add dark accents and final touches. Don’t quit too soon.
I tickled my calendar months ago when I first heard that the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) was going to host an exhibit, “Infinity Mirrors,” by Yayoi Kusama. I was fortunate to get two free museum passes for its opening day on June 30th from the Seattle Public Library’s Museum Pass Program. However, I missed getting advance timed tickets to the mirror rooms, so my friend Carol and I stood in line for an hour before SAM opened so that we could snag one of the limited number of tickets given out each day on a first-come, first-served basis. Our luck was with us, and we got some of the first batch of timed tickets of the day.
I first became aware of Kusama’s art when I stumbled upon another of her shows at a New York art gallery. You can see my write-up about that experience here. Back then, I stood in line for entry to the sole Infinity Mirror room, and my 45-second time allotment with her installation was worth every minute of waiting.
The SAM exhibit featured four Infinity Mirror rooms, and we were allotted just 20 or 30 seconds per room in groups of two or three. I loved how Kusama riffed on the theme of infinity in unique ways in each room. One featured soft fabric “tubers” in white with red polka dots. Very playful.
The second room — “Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity” — was a light show with golden bulbs strung against a deep black background; it gave intimations of a sky full of stars reflected on black water. The lighting was choreographed and ever changing as we stood in awe.
The third room — “All the Eternal Love I Have for Pumpkins” — was filled with soft, rotund fabric pumpkins of various sizes, all covered in black polka dots and reflected endlessly in mirrors.
The fourth “room” was the interior of a giant pink fabric balloon. Again, it was covered in polka dots and mirrors reflected the joyous airy balls to infinity.
There was an interactive art installation, “The Obliteration Room,” where we were invited to stick colored dots onto the white surfaces of the walls and furnishings. As the exhibit runs its course, more and more of the white surfaces will be covered or obliterated.
The rest of the exhibit featured more of Kusama’s sculptures, paintings and peepholes. I loved the play of light and mirrors, the joyful colors, and the variety.
“Not in the frantic shapes of new fashion,
not in the shapes borrowed from others —
perfection is simply being natural,
perfection is the breath of the earth.
Don’t torment yourself that art is secondary,
destined only to reflect,
that is remains so limited and lean,
compared with nature itself.
Without acting a part,
look to yourself for the sources of art,
and quietly and uniquely
reproduce yourself just as you are.
Be reflected, as a creation of nature
bending over a well
draws the reflection of its face
up from the ice-ringed depths.
— Excerpt from “Perfection,” by Yevgeny Yevtushenko
I did a lot of reading in June, but it wasn’t until June 23rd that I finally read something that I felt worthy of a recommendation. Chemistry: A Novel by Weike Wong is about a young woman finding her path in life after a breakdown.
The narrator is a PhD candidate who works in a chemistry lab with her boyfriend, Eric. He seems to live a charmed life — loving and doting parents, and straight trajectory through college in which he completed his PhD, graduated, and was offered a job in Oberlin, which necessitated a move. Eric asks the narrator to marry him and move with I’m, but she wavers and cannot commit.
Her life is not so charmed. She was raised by first-generation Chinese immigrant parents who were stern, demanding, unemotional, and who set high expectations. Her father’s story was a classic immigrant success story — he became an engineer, and the narrator feels the stress of trying to match his achievements: “But such progress he’s made in one generation that to progress beyond him, I feel as if I must leave America and colonize the moon.”
And her work in the lab is not getting results. “The goal of a science PhD is to have an original idea,” she says. And while she has always been a top student, “. . . what every scientist knows — you can’t just be proficient; you have to have insight.” She cannot help but feel like a failure: “Ninety percent of all experiments fail. This is a fact. Every scientist has proven it. But you eventually start to wonder if this high rate of failure is also you. It can’t be the chemicals’ fault, you think.”
She suffers a breakdown of sorts and leaves school and the lab on medical leave. As she struggles with what to do next, she works through the legacy of her parents lives, her harsh upbringing, and her views on marriage. She has to work through disappointing her parents and finding her own purpose. Her parents’ marriage was fraught and tense — not a great example. And now her best friend is dealing with a cheating husband and an imperfect reconciliation. The narrator looks at the marriages of some women chemists from history — Clara Haber had to give up her chemistry career when she married fellow chemist Fritz Haber. When he developed chlorine gas as a weapon of war, she shoots herself. Marie Curie worked in partnership with her husband Pierre, and they shared their discoveries and the acclaim of Nobel prizes.
The narrator speaks in a rather flat, unemotional voice. “[I]t is the Chinese way . . . to keep your deepest feelings inside and then build a wall that can be seen from the moon.” But I was drawn to the character and her flawed family. Who cannot love someone who makes a statement like: “What my mother lacks in vision, she makes up for in hindsight.”
The Oregon coast is a superb destination for some rest and relaxation. I could have easily spent hours just on the long beach over the dunes from our yurt at Nehalem Bay State Park. I think that I sometimes collect bits of driftwood, stones, shells, etc. so that I can hang on to those beautiful beach experiences. But as Emerson says below, you cannot freeze time and beauty by grasping:
“The delicate shells lay on the shore;
The bubbles of the latest wave
Fresh pearls to their enamel gave;
And the bellowing of the savage sea
Greeted their safe escape to me.
I wiped away the weeds and foam,
I fetched my sea-born treasures home;
But the poor, unsightly, noisome things
Had left their beauty on the shore,
With the sun, and the sand, and the wild uproar.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “Each and All”
You cannot keep and package a sunset, for example. A photograph attempts this, but in truth, things like sunsets can only be appreciated in the moment. And isn’t it wonderful to know that the Universe will offer many, many more glorious sunsets so that you really have no need to try to preserve any particular one?
There is a lesson here, I’m sure, about trying to cling to the good things that come our way. But we must be ready to let them go and return to a state of openness and receptivity to the next things — good and bad — that come our way.
Too soon our departure day arrived. We left Nehalem Bay early Sunday morning so that we could have a leisurely drive back to Seattle. We had time to follow our whims when we saw something picturesque or interesting from the road. Our first stop was a picnic breakfast at Hug Point — bread, brie, hard boiled eggs, bacon, tomatoes and coffee. It was our final walk on the ocean beach for a while.
We stopped in Astoria to wander the stalls of the Sunday Market.
We took a short detour off Hwy 30 so that I could photograph these rows of poplar trees. I loved the natural “doorway” created by the tree tunnels.
I thought the wild flowers growing along the roads and in ditches were also quite beautiful. I am lucky that my husband is a willing travel companion who lets me explore unexpected nooks and crannies. Those turnings taken on impulse really help to make a memorable journey.
My husband and I spent last weekend on mini-vacation camping on the Oregon Coast. Two other couples that we know camped in the same Loop A at the Nehalem Bay Beach Campground, an Oregon State Park. We took turns making dinner in the evenings, shared bicycles and camp fires, and watched a couple of sunsets together. This was the perfect start to our summer.
I love the wildness of the Oregon coast. There are some touristy towns, but many, many more miles of undeveloped beaches. From our beach over the dunes from our yurt, we could walk about three miles south to a jetty that marked the entrance to Nehalem Bay. Or we could walk north a mile or more to the small town of Manzanita. Our steps were accompanied by the sound of the surf and waves — eternal, awesome.
The ocean beaches are full of “sea-born treasures.” I have written before about the irresistible appeal of beach combing, filling my pockets with nature’s charms. This trip was no exception.
Our beach sojourn was a lovely respite, but I could have stayed much longer. Sometimes it takes a few unscheduled days to get into the flow of a vacation and benefit from those timeless hours. I would have liked to spend more time drawing and painting.
Monday morning, back in the city, I woke to the distant sound of freeway traffic. For just a moment, I pretended I was hearing the sound of the ocean surf.