In the wild places,
revealing the truth we lost:
we need each other.
In the wild places,
revealing the truth we lost:
we need each other.
Father’s Day in the urban wilderness: Noe and Adam treating me to lunch and a movie in San Francisco. (Adam’s good humor about getting there on crutches made it a fun challenge.)
Favorite line from the movie — The Last Black Man in San Francisco: “You don’t get to hate San Francisco if you haven’t loved San Francisco.”
Undeterred as the
coast is eroding, today
the thistle blossoms.
paths that others cleared, I can
enter and return.
Returning with no
map, I can find a new path
for those who come next.
I rinsed the lunch dishes, put them in the dishwasher, made sure Wendy was okay, checked the time, jumped into the car, drove to a nearby wild area, Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve, pulled into the last spot in the parking lot, checked the time to calculate how long I could stay, and got out of the car.
Not the same as living in a tent.
As I walked on the trail along the creek, I kept shooting pictures of redwoods, looking for that elusive, iconic image that would capture the essence of the day’s message. I couldn’t find it.
The forest was laughing at me. “You’re acting like a tourist!”
“So what am I supposed to do?” I said.
“How about just sitting?”
“Where you are!”
So I sat. And nothing happened. Until I started noticing things. Wind rustling the tips of branches, the bubbly sound of the stream, the conversations of birds. Carpets of clover, ferns, fallen branches spread out across the forest. And in the late afternoon sunbeams slanting through the tops of the redwoods, energetic circling swarms of tiny insects.
And before I knew what had happened, the whole forest was alive with magic. Wow! When did they sneak this one past me?
Essence of the day’s message: a physical road trip requires one set of practices. A road trip of the imagination requires quite another.
Okay, so now it’s a done deal for me: this year it’s a Road Trip of the Imagination. Home base each day: home. Why? Sometimes your family just needs you.
Daily agenda: Silence. Prayer and meditation. Tea. Writing. Wandering through wild places. A little inner travel; a little outer travel. Care giving as needed. Whatever else emerges. Time to laugh at it all. Gratitude.
I’m recalling a trail I walked last year, that guided me through the redwood forest. I’m still there, still here, still walking.
Your roots are deep and your trunk is strong.
But when the storms howled in,
the ones that blow fiercer each year,
to tear out your branches,
the ones you once spread to shelter your friends,
there was no one to shelter you.
I put my arms around what is left of your trunk,
and feel the life still pulsing in you,
in rhythm with the heartbeats pulsing in me, like prayers.
At the tips of your branches
little green shoots are reaching out toward the sun.
The trip was carefully planned.
Reservations, maps, supplies, appointments.
Then life intervened and shook it all up.
The thrill of not knowing.
The thrill of walking into the fog.
Opening to life,
preparing to let it go,
in the same moment.
I’m restarting this blog after having been on hiatus for a while. Why now?
It’s the timing of three apparently unrelated events that’s leading me to do this:
1) I’ve just completed a piece I was asked to write for ServiceSpace (ServiceSpace.org) that would be nice to publish here;
2) this website, which mysteriously disappeared for a while, just now has mysteriously turned back on;
3) it’s time to start my annual road trip.
Synchronicity? Go figure! So here goes!
Six Lessons (Plus One) from My First Awakin Circle
Have you ever found yourself standing in front of a door with the strange feeling that, if you choose to open it and walk inside, life will never be the same? For me, on a balmy summer evening in 2013 in Santa Clara, California, standing at the front door of the home of Dinesh and Harshida Mehta, I felt that this was one of those moments. I took a deep breath, opened the door, and walked inside.
I was greeted in silence by a man about my age with a calm demeanor and a sweet smile, who put his hands together and bowed to me. This must be Dinesh, I thought. I wasn’t used to being greeted in this way. But I immediately understood his message, so I smiled back, placed my hands together, and bowed to him.
My first Awakin Circle lesson: we share silence here; we acknowledge and honor the divine in each other.
Dinesh silently showed me into the living room. There was a large circle of cushions on the floor, and a few seats on couches and benches against the walls. I felt embarrassed. It had been years since I had sat for any length of time on a cushion on the floor, and imagined it would be quite uncomfortable. On the other hand, who was I to assume the privilege of sitting in one of the comfortable chairs? Dinesh, seeing my dilemma, silently guided me to one of the chairs and invited me to sit.
My second lesson: here we care for each other with kindness and generosity.
What an extraordinary experience that hour of silence was! The mind was wandering to all kinds of places. In the weeks that followed, as I continued to come back week after week, I would gradually come to understand that that was really the point: to learn to observe the wandering mind and emotions without being attached. And to open to something larger. But what was most extraordinary to me, sitting for an hour with a room full of strangers, sharing the space, sharing the silence, sharing the collective energy of which we were all part, was the intimacy. In a way that I hadn’t expected, how connected we all seemed!
My third lesson: the power of simply sitting together in silence.
Then it came time for the circle of sharing. Each week there’s a passage that gets read – eclectically sourced from teachers and people of wisdom around the world – followed by the opportunity for all of us to share our reflections.
There were roughly 50 of us in the room. “How much time do we each have?” the circle anchor asked. “53 seconds!” said Hafiz, smiling.
There would be no signal to each of us when our time was up; we each got to self-monitor. As a life-long facilitator of circles and group conversations, I was interested in how this would work. It turns out that some people spoke way longer than their allotted time, and that made me uncomfortable. I thought, is this fair? How will everyone get their turn?
But what happened was remarkable. When someone would speak for a long time, typically the next several people would speak very briefly, or pass. Most people seemed unattached to how much time they had to speak.
“How does this work?” I asked Nipun later. “My experience is that when one person is long winded, others get nervous and want to claim their space to speak as well.”
Nipun smiled. “When we sit for an hour in silence together, we get connected,” he said. “It may not always be conscious, but our behavior changes. There’s a shift from me to we.” Later I’ll learn that there’s more to it. It’s not only about the hour of silence each week. It’s also about the giving spirit of kindness and generosity with which people here consistently treat each other. It starts with the conscious intention and practice of the Mehta family, and ripples through all of us.
Lesson number four: in a community infused with kindness and generosity, where people sit in silence together, there is less ego and more caring.
Finally there was the third hour, the wonderful meal served to us by Harshida and the team of volunteers working with her in the kitchen. As I got to the front of the line Harshida, whom I had never met before, looked me in the eye, smiled most warmly, handed me my plate of food with both hands, and silently gestured to make sure I had as much of each kind of food as I wanted. Wow! Later, as we were all sitting in silence at the various tables, eating, she and others came around with more trays of food to offer us seconds, and thirds.
Later when I walked up to thank her for her generosity, she simply shrugged and said, “Thank you for coming to our home and spending the evening with us!” Harshida has a full-time job at a bank. Yet somehow, every week for the past 21 years, she’s found the time to clean and prepare her house, and prepare a meal for 50 people. I’ve heard Nipun tell the story many times about how his mother, with complete sincerity, will say to anyone who thanks her, “Thank you for coming to be with us!” Why? Because it is we, her guests, who give Harshida the opportunity to serve. Wow!
Lesson number five: for someone totally committed to service to others, giving is it’s own reward.
After the meal there was time for people to interact and speak with each other. I found that, having shared the past three hours with 50 strangers, random conversations happened quite easily that were warm, friendly and comfortable. I was surprised at how quickly these conversations could get deep and intimate, and how those of us from very different backgrounds could discover important things we had in common.
Lesson number six: the Awakin Circle tills the soil for beautiful friendships to grow.
My final lesson didn’t arrive until a few weeks later, as I was starting to learn more about the scope of the ServiceSpace community. Awakin Circles all over the world. Global Awakin Calls each week, Karma Kitchen gift-economy restaurant meals all over the world, DailyGood good-news publication, and so much more.
“This is all too much for me to get my mind around,” I said to Nipun. “I don’t understand how it’s all happening!”
Nipun laughed. “If you told me you understood ServiceSpace, I’d know you didn’t!”
So I’m learning to live with the wisdom of not always needing to understand. And to pay attention instead to stilling the mind and finding small ways to serve others. And that makes all the difference.
When you change your viewing angle, what comes through you and who are you?
It is written that King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the 10th century BCE. It stood for about four centuries before being destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. After the Hebrew exiles returned from Babylon in 539 BCE, they built the Second Temple, which lasted over 500 years before being destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. According to tradition both were destroyed at this time of the year, called the Three Weeks (17 Tammuz – 9 Av on the Hebrew calendar). Every year we observe the Three Weeks as a time of mourning and solemn reflection.
In ancient times the rabbis reflected on the question: what are we to learn from the destruction of the Temples? Their inquiry took them to two themes: what we value, and how we treat each other.
In the U.S. our “holy temple” has been in the values and ideals of American democracy. Although we’ve been painfully slow to live up to these ideals, they’ve always served as the guiding light that unites us, and toward which we, the American people, aspire and progress. But today my heart is breaking as I stand by helplessly, forced to watch the daily destruction of our democracy.
Is this the “Three Weeks” for America? Am I exaggerating? Can we still save our country?
Soon I’ll be joining with thousands of Americans in California and across the country to do what we can to help save our democracy by helping people vote in the coming election. But for now I’m sitting quietly with the question: what can we learn from the Three Weeks about the right course of action for today?
Ibn Ezra commenting on Leviticus 19:17:
“Don’t hate your brother.”
This is the inverse of “love your neighbor as yourself.” Behold how these mitzvot, both of them, are planted in the heart. And those who cultivate them shall remain in the land. Because it was senseless hatred that destroyed the Second Temple.
(Spain, 12th century CE)
Since we destroyed ourselves and the world through senseless hatred, then surely we can restore ourselves and the world through senseless love.
Orot Hakodesh (Holy Lights), Israel, 1938
Rabbi DovBer Pinson:
[The Three Weeks] is a harsh time to be sure, a time of Din / judgment, yet despite this, or perhaps because of this, it is also a time where we can more easily feel close to [God]…. It becomes clear that all of our sufferings are meant to wake us up to our higher self and purpose, if we but heed the call.
(The Months of Tammuz and Av, U.S., 2018)
Senseless love is good for the world!
Sometimes we learn more from what we don’t know than from what we know. And when we learn about what we don’t know, the ground under our feet — and the spirit within us — can change.
Every year I hike up to the lookout at Cape Perpetua on the Oregon coast. On a clear day you can see 70 miles of coastline. Sometimes it’s bright and sunny; sometimes dark and mysterious. Either way, I’m always in awe of the beauty.
But there’s a detour I’ve previously avoided: the Amanda Trail. 3.2 miles steep downhill into the town of Yachats, and then the steep 3.2 mile return climb — too much for me. Better to stay at the lookout and enjoy the world from up here.
But still, every year when I pass by the trail I wonder: who is Amanda? Why is this trail named after her? This year, 2018, I decide it’s time for me to learn. I’ll start low, on the coast, and hike up. That way the return trip will be easier.
As the climb begins from the outskirts of Yachats into the forest, there are signs and information from the people who built and maintain the trail.
And I begin to learn what I don’t know. About the Ya’Xaik people, a band of the Alsea Tribe who lived here peacefully on the coast, in what is now Yachats, for thousands of years. About how they sustained themselves through hunting, fishing, and wild plants in the forest. About their travel and trade with other tribes, their relationship with the earth, their way of life.
Then I learn about the white hunters, trappers and settlers. And how the U.S. Army came in and displaced the native people from their land. How they forcibly moved them to a coastal reservation, made a treaty with them and then broke the treaty. And how, during the 16 years that the notorious Alsea Sub-agency managed the reservation, half of the native population died of starvation, exposure, disease and abuse.
Then I learn about Amanda. Amanda De-Cuys. She was living with a white settler with whom she had a little daughter, Julia, eight years old. Amanda was blind. U.S. soldiers came to remove her and march her to the reservation. The white settler could have saved her by marrying her, but he refused. Corporal Royal Bengal, who was with the expedition, kept a journal. Amanda and Julia held onto each other crying, before Amanda was finally dragged away. She had no shoes. They marched her, together with other Indians that they had rounded up, over the volcanic rocks of Perpetua to the reservation at Yachats. Corporal Bengal wrote how Amanda tore her feet on the rock, leaving pools of blood. After they finally got Amanda to the reservation, there is no further record of her, or of Julia.
Finally I learn about how in the community of Yachats, descendants of white settlers have come together with descendants of the tribal peoples who lived here for thousands of years, to solemnly recognize the dark history of this area, and to honor the people who suffered, by honoring Amanda. It took decades, and the complexity of interfacing with countless local, state, and federal agencies, but eventually the trail commemorating her heart-breaking journey, Amanda’s Trail, got built. And they went further and created a sacred grove, with a statue of Amanda, and a log circle for people to come and sit, contemplate, and solemnly pay their respects.
The relationship between Yachats and the Tribes has grown since. Amanda is a testament to helping First Nations Peoples transcend historical trauma. It has inspired and united the Yachats community. Knowing, understanding and appreciating our local First Nations’ history by our local community and the public at large [has] helped heal the wounds, bringing reconciliation and collaboration to a previously divided people.
Joanne Kittel, Yachats Trails Committee
A Solemn and Spiritual Path: The Amanda Trail Story
When I get to the grove and sit in the circle in the presence of Amanda’s statue, I’m overcome with tears. I stay here a long time. I too am here to witness, to cry, to pray. I think of the current dark time in the U.S. where innocent families are being torn apart. How many Amandas and Julias are being tormented today?
The high lookout is a beautiful place. I hope to continue hiking there for many years. But by itself, it is incomplete, hollow, devoid of meaning. I know that now. As long as my travels bring me here, and as long as my feet can carry me, I hope to also hike on Amanda’s trail.
A final prayer: may the sacred spirit of this place, together with all of its healing, stay with me as I head home. And may I be more awake and more compassionate as a result.
Of all this vast world, what fills you most with awe, wonder, amazement? Is it the great expanses of space and time, or tiny ones? Is it looking up, or looking down?
I’m contemplating all this today as I hike up the steep Saint Perpetua Trail high above the Oregon coast. Last week I was a guest living among the giant, ancient redwoods. Today the vast spaces of the coast are stretched out before me, but my eye is drawn down instead to the magnificence of the tiny wildflowers.
We learn from the mathematics of fractals how patterns in nature repeat themselves no matter how large or small the scale.
My teacher Reb Shlomo taught that there are different ways of learning. Sometimes it takes a lifetime. Sometimes it happens in one infinite moment.
When she was six years old my daughter Noe said to me, “Dad, did you know that kids know as much as adults?”
“Really?” I said.
“Yeah!” she said. “We just know different things!”
The great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote: “The butterfly counts not months but moments. And has time enough.”
It’s not always so easy to align the human calendar with the forest calendar. Sometimes it means being open to surprise.
Last night began the 18th yahrzeit (anniversary of his passing) of my father Sam Coopersmith. I set out to honor him in the traditional way, to light a candle and say the ancient Kaddish prayer. But as the sun was setting and the wind kept shifting, I found myself multitasking: struggling to keep the candle from blowing out, fending off the mosquitoes, adding an extra layer of clothing, keeping things from blowing away. I went through the motions, but didn’t feel much connection with either my father or the forest.
This morning the weather is mild and calm. With the tent and camping gear packed and in the car, I’m preparing to leave and head north. In a way that I can’t explain, the forest feels inviting, so I‘ll give Kaddish another try.
As soon as I start saying the ancient Aramaic words, something shifts in the forest. I don’t really know how to express this (and you might be questioning my sanity) but let me try anyway: the trees are listening. The trees are paying attention. Why? I wonder as I’m saying the prayer.
… May the Great Name be blessed and exalted, praised and sanctified …
Maybe it’s because so far I’ve been just another transient human to these redwoods, no more permanent than a passing mosquito. But here’s something older than they are, from my own legacy: this ancient prayer.
… beyond all blessing, exaltation, praise and song, and comfort — that can be said in this world …
It comes through my father, and my mother, and their parents, and their parents and their parents parents going back some 3,000 years. That’s a time scale they can relate to. So they’re ready to pray with me.
Now my father, Sam, is present too. We embrace each other with joy. We’ve both been wanting this, the connection between where he is and where I am.
So here we are, all of us saying Kaddish together. The stream of legacy, flowing through countless generations, uniting us all.
… may the Source the of Peace in high places bring us peace in this world. And let us say, amen!
After four days with you, my mind is quiet enough to feel your presence. The peace, the serenity, the timeless joyful stillness.
By providing for the life of your offspring for 10,000 generations, you’ve perfected the art of legacy.
Not so with us. We’re a younger species. In this generation we’re blindly destroying the web of life that we and our offspring, and yours, need to live.
But all is not lost. You remember — exactly 100 years ago while aggressive lumber-baron armies were cutting you down, sawing you up, selling your pieces to make a few men rich — that famous picnic right here in this forest. The one with Rockefeller. How a small group of humans who travelled here to observe were horrified by what they saw. How they decided to pool their wealth for something even more precious: to buy you back your forest. How the people of California then created a huge park to protect you. And how today you are bursting with life, the largest old-growth redwood forest in the world.
In spite of it all, we humans are still capable of that.
Imagine: what if we could reunite our communities to live as one community. Our restless newcomer driving ingenious impatient motion, infused with the experience and wisdom of your stillness, of your countless millennia of legacy.
Imagine the next generations.
As I’m helping myself to coffee at the Visitor Center, a short, stocky guy in his 60s wanders over, spreads out his arms, and says, “Isn’t this a glorious morning?” The brass sign on his park uniform says Volunteer / Scott.
“It sure is Scott,” I say.
In past years I’ve avoided the Visitor Center. After all, I’ve come for a quiet retreat, to live alone in a tent, commune with the forest, and restore my soul. Crowds of noisy tourists stopping off for a quick nature fix are not what I had in mind. But this year feels different. I’m feeling more open.
“I love talking with the visitors!” Scott confides. “They come and ask me what to do. I answer, ’What do you like? A quick hike? A moderate hike? Time by the river? Fishing? A picnic?’ I help each one discover the right way for them to be in this beautiful place! What could be better than that?”
Before retiring Scott worked for a small company in Reno that provided towels and bedding to local hotels. When they needed someone to keep an eye on the payroll and bank accounts, he stepped up, learning as he went, and eventually they made him both Comptroller and Director of HR. Given my background, I’m interested in the HR part. It turns out that Scott taught himself the whole HR function: everything from Training to Management Development to Employee Relations to Benefits Administration.
“Then I got a stroke. Most of the vision in my right eye, and the feeling in my right arm, was gone. And my memory was shot. The boss wanted me to stay. I told him I wasn’t so sure that was best for the company. If he needed something done, he needed to be sure it got done.”
Scott had managed to save enough money, and his needs were simple enough, that he didn’t really need the salary. “I wasn’t working for the money,” he says, “I was working because I loved to do it.”
Scott’s been volunteering for five years, and doesn’t plan to stop. “I thank God for the stroke, and for sending me here,” he says.
“Really?” I say.
“You bet! This is the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done in my life. I used to look at people and nature as two different things. Here I get to live at the interface between them.”
I think about that. “Maybe we can go further and say that all of us — the people, the redwood trees, the bears, the mosquitoes, and everyone else — are nature!”
“I’ll buy that!” he says, laughing.
I head over a picnic table to sit with my iPad and write this story. A big tourist bus parks across the highway, and 40 noisy people swarm past my table. One of them, an old woman, slightly bent over, in loud, colorful clothes and costume jewelry, looks over at me.
“So sorry,” she says in a Boston accent. “You came to be in nature and here comes our busload of tourists and descends on you!”
“Not at all,” I say, looking around. “Here we all are! Isn’t that wonderful?”