Being still

“Physically sitting down and being still is the most practical way of becoming present to who and where we are.” (David Runcorn in The Language of Tears, p.63)

In a conversation at the dinner table with friends and family, the topic of silence emerged. Is silence about avoidance or is it about allowing space for deeper questions to emerge and be engaged with?

I can’t remember the exact quote, but in her book The Art of Lent Sister Wendy Beckett, who is well acquainted with the practice of silence and solitude, mentions something about how, in a very busy world, silence can give us back the gift of time. If you decide to be silent for even just ten minutes, and give yourself nothing else to do in that time (it’s only ten minutes after all), the time may appear to pass more slowly. Which, if you’re inclined to rush, can turn out to be a joy. My experience is that, if you practise it enough, this turns out to be a gift; a kind of restfulness that perhaps we could all use from time to time, at least?

In the past I have used the beautiful Spiegel im Spiegel (“Mirror in the mirror”) by the Estonian monk and composer Arvo Pärt to encourage people to engage with this. The music lasts less than ten minutes, but very little really happens in it. The way it works means that you can end up spending the whole time trying to guess when the music will end. But when I’ve used it to aid stillness and meditation, I have encouraged people to rest in the knowledge that this will be only 10 minutes of their time, and just to be present with whatever their current reality is. I’m so used to using this music for meditation that when to my delight it came on in Alexa’s “classical yoga” playlist that my sister in law enjoys, I slipped into stillness straight away.

I particularly like the honesty and vulnerability of Daniel Hope’s recording, which you can hear here:

Once a month, we share quiet days at our home with people wanting to engage with silence for a half or a whole day. This practice helps me to rediscover gentleness, hope, creativity and also to find that often I have more choices before me than I thought.

As I write this, the Christian community that I belong to, “Contemplative Fire”, are finishing up their annual community weekend. I have been praying for love, grace and joy to emerge among them. If you want to find out more visit our website (or search for us on Facebook):

https://contemplativefire.org/

If there’s one thing that I want to do on my travels, it is to be truly present wherever I am, so I don’t miss the gift of each moment. So this morning I am practising being still. Stillness can be like a cup of cold water on a very hot day.

Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is just on the state boundary of California and Nevada, about 4 hours’ drive from San José where my brother and sister in law live. It’s such a beautiful place that both states have fought over the boundary line for a looong time. The lake is the biggest alpine lake in N America, and is 1000 feet deep in most places, famous for the clarity of the water.

In the winter this area is famous for its skiing. As the thought of skiing still strikes fear into my heart after the last time when I hurtled out of control round a bend and nearly mowed down a row of kiddies in the middle of their ski lesson, I must confess I am glad that it’s not ski season yet.

We came here for the walking this time. Specifically to climb Relay Peak from a trailhead on the Tahoe Rim Trail. Relay Peak is 10338 feet from sea level. That’s nearly three times the height of Snowdon 😲 We weren’t climbing it from sea level though! We climbed 1754 feet (about half the height of Snowdon) though, which I thought was pretty impressive.

We could all feel the altitude especially near the top. Although it was a hot day (maybe about 26 degrees Celsius), we passed a few patches of snow on the way up.

Only when we got to the very top could we see back over towards the huge lake…

There were loads of butterflies of various kinds on our route and huge grasshoppers making surprisingly loud sound with their stridulation (thanks Martin for the vocab lesson). There were also some beautifully delicate looking alpine flowers. As we climbed, and I found the climb increasingly physically challenging, it seemed to me that the butterflies, grasshoppers, little alpine plants and big pine trees were cheering me on, somehow. “Keep going, there’s more beauty to see up here yet…”

We decided to follow our dad’s favourite trick of doing a circular route. We were rewarded with some spectacular views on the way down…

10.5 miles (or 12.2 according to my phone!) and a lot of climbing, and we were all pretty stiff and grateful to get into an air conditioned car.

Our awesome day was rounded off by a delicious meal at a French Bistrôt nearby during which I confess I reneged wholesale on the veggie cause. Oh my! 😋 Moderation in all things. Except this meal was anything but moderate!! Here are some mouth watering highlights…

San Francisco: day two

An earlier start on my second day in San Francisco. But even by 8:50am the sun was up and warming me nicely.

I enjoyed the long ride into the city as time to read and gaze out of the window as well as people watch. This route is the commuter route. The trains are double decker and always pretty full. Upstairs the train is like a mobile office, with single seats on either side full of people working on various electronic devices.

I decided to prioritise another trip to Golden Gate Park on this day so I didn’t end up having to rush back to the station at the end of the day again. I particularly wanted to revisit the Japanese Tea Garden and spend longer there. On the way, I heard the dulcet tones of a classical guitar floating across the park. The guy was so good I stopped to listen for quite a while. And then went over to talk to him.

It’s so nice to be on holiday and have the time to stop and have a chat with random people. This is Leo who was effortlessly making his guitar sound like a Baroque lute in Golden Gate Park. Google him at “T. Leo King”.

As soon as he heard me speak, Leo asked if I was from Manchester, which I thought was either a very lucky guess or pretty impressive as I live only about an hour from there. He asked whether I knew the play Pygmalion, or whether I’d seen My Fair Lady. Since watching it, he’d realised that everyone would guess he was a black American from Chicago just by looking at him and listening to him speak. So he decided to try and guess which town everyone he met was from, even if they were from different countries like Russia or Yugoslavia or wherever.

He said his favourite quote from My Fair Lady though is when Eliza Doolittle really finds her own voice and says, “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she is treated”. A good lesson from a black American classical guitarist from Chicago via an American film version of an English play set in London!

I left Leo figuring out (successfully of course) how to play Greensleeves as a kind of English folk music tribute, and wandered on to the Japanese Tea Garden where I spent a very relaxing hour or two.

Haiku for a Tea Garden

Finally! I’m here,

drinking tea unhurriedly

while water burbles.

Gently rippling roof

and pool. Sweet jasmine warms me,

stills and heals my soul.

It took years for me

to get here. Why so long to

prioritise life?

Miso soup and sweet jasmine tea

From the Japanese Tea Garden I found a bus to take me back downtown, where I finally managed to hop on one of San Francisco’s famous cable cars. I’ve never managed this before due to constraints of time. You have to think of the cable car ride as a thing in itself rather than a means of transport, really, as it takes quite a while. But it’s very enjoyable to take one down to Fisherman’s Wharf which is what I did.

At Fisherman’s Wharf, I eschewed the usual touristy food, shopping and sailing options and went instead for this. I spent the princely sum of $4 and a very happy hour here! Fascinating historically, culturally and also just good fun.

Having had my fill of slot machines, I had a quick refreshing look at the bay and then made my way on foot back through the city passing Coit Tower and the City Lights Bookstore of Jack Kerouac fame.

By the time I’d got this far I realised I needed to vamoose again to get back to the Caltrain terminus, but the quickest and most direct way seemed to be to go through Chinatown, which I had quite wanted to see anyway. I pelted through Chinatown on foot so quickly I think a few passers by were a bit concerned for me! I didn’t want to miss my train again…

I managed to miss my train by about 3 minutes!! Again! I was so gutted I could’ve cried. I did express my dismay (“Nooooo! Not again?!!”) so the guard told me I could get on the next train which was faster and about to leave and which would overtake the one I’d hoped to get, so I could skip off the faster one and jump onto the slower one further down the line. The slower one would stop where I needed to go. And they waved me through without needing me to show my travel pass oh the relief! 😌

Generally speaking there seems much kindness around in San Francisco regarding this sort of thing. The previous day I’d noticed a really elderly guy obviously not well, getting on the bus, and no one expected him to have to pay or show a ticket. It was all he could do to get on and find a seat. I like that that is enough here. Although I had a Muni day passport I hardly ever showed it on the buses (it took me most of day one to work out that the ticket readers don’t scan mobile tickets so you just have to show it to the driver) and no one batted an eyelid. Kindness. And knowledge about the railways. I do declare they are Very Good Things.

San Francisco

A few days ago I spent the obligatory couple of days in San Francisco. I’ve visited before, and this time I wanted to explore some new areas, so you won’t see any pics of Golden Gate Bridge here I’m afraid!

The city smacked me between the eyeballs with blue, blue, blue sky, shiny tall buildings, loads of traffic at scary 4 or 5 lane BIG junctions and roadworks with cranes.

Then I explored the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I recognised some real treasures here, alongside plenty of stuff that was new to me…It was also a great place to notice the sheer variety of people who live in or visit this city.

Then I hopped on a bus up to Haight & Ashbury. It’s quite a long bus journey. The closer we got, the stronger the smell of weed became. A mix of old men looking like faded hippy rock stars, young children and their parents and young adults wearing psychedelic clothing and interesting body jewellery got on at various points. When I got off, the smell of weed actually increased.

Police loitered with intent near people with dogs selling stuff from rugs where they sat on the sidewalk of the weird and wonderful shop-lined streets. Emporia selling all kinds of weird stuff and shops selling vintage clothes of every era jostled for space with Jimi Hendricks’ house (now a vape store), pizza places, bars and music and record shops.

Up Ashbury and various other side roads there were some impressive looking houses, including Janis Joplin’s rather ornate pink house.

Actually on the junction of Haight & Ashbury I found the Ben & Jerry’s café, where they sold me a chunky monkey ice cream approximately the size of my head! Delicious 😋 After a bit of aimless wandering up and down I finally found the iconic lady’s legs apparently sticking out of a boutique upstairs.

This is the place where people agreed to let the kids hang out as much as they wanted, where nobody would be disallowed. And where the drugs and good times rolled, back in the day.

From here I walked the relatively brief journey through the “Pan handle” (a thin strip of parkland) to Golden Gate Park, munching a packet of cauliflower crisps I’d purchased from the Haight market (after goggling at the crazy prices for virtually everything).

How anyone can afford to live in San Francisco is a mystery. Actually there’s loads of homelessness in evidence throughout the city, and some areas downtown where poverty is pretty evident, though there are also some big projects trying to provide places for people to sleep off the street, I think it’s difficult for supply to keep up with demand.

Then I had a bit of a mad dash through the park to find a bus to take me all the way back to the Caltrain terminus for my train home which I missed! While I waited the hour for the next one I enjoyed some tacos in a Mexican place near the station. A real taste of San Francisco.

Ta da! I have arrived

Day one, breakfast time, would you believe it, I managed to break a tumbler. Doh! I’m reminded of a folk song by Jake Thackeray about “Leopold Allcocks” his disaster prone distant relation. You could probably google that if you want a laugh. I just hope I don’t end up breaking everything in the houses of all my hosts!

The US customs process took a lot longer than I remember it taking before. A lot of queuing, and an attempt at speeding things up with automation that resulted in all of us “visitors” being given a printed out receipt with our details and photo on it crossed out in bold print. Hmmm welcoming! (Not.) I’m not sure whether this was a sign that we’d all been unsuccessful in working out how to use the machines. We all seemed to get through the rest of the checks fine though.

All of this makes me wonder what it means to welcome people. Is a neon sign saying “Welcome to our country” in the distance at the end of an interminable queue where your fingerprints are taken really welcoming? Or is welcome more about the readiness to forgive your guest when she clumsily breaks a glass on day one? And again when she accidentally traps the cat in a room because she didn’t realise about wedging the door open? (Sorry, Didi!)

For myself, I reckon signs saying “Welcome” mean very little. What matters is more the kindness that people treat you with. I’m happy to report that the cat seems to have forgiven me too.