Mallika Whose Name Means Jasmine

(from 2005)

When Mallika was seven months old she fell out of her mother’s sari-cradle by the side of the wet green fields where paddy was being sown. She fell into the little stream that sang its way through the fields all the way to- no one was quite sure where- for they were simple, content folk in that village. Simple, content- and not particularly adventurous (which mind you is no crime).

Mallika fell into the stream, and no one noticed. Not her mother whose strong brown arms worked so hard in the fields growing rice to feed her seven growing children at home. And not the other ladies bent over the wet earth in their bright saris looking like so many nodding poppies from afar. 

Mallika fell into the stream, and the coolness of the water surprised her not a little, but she did not cry out. At seven months she was very philosophical, much more philosophical than her six older siblings, who it must be admitted, were sweet enough (when they weren’t quarreling,) but rather dull. Surprised by the sudden coolness of the water, Mallika reached out and caught hold of the strong stalk of a white lotus blooming beside her. The lotus took this as a signal and obediently pulled up its roots and set sail.

And so it happened that Mallika followed the singing stream all the way to– no one is still quite sure where- in a white lotus on a sparkling spring morning while the women planted paddy in bright saris looking like so many gay poppies from afar. [For those of you who are inclined to worry about How Things Will Turn Out – rest assured they turn out well. Nobody’s heart breaks in this story. And everyone finds their happy ending. And beginning.]

On the banks of the stream a few hours away there lived an unhappy flute-player. He was unhappy for no particular reason, it was just a habit he had fallen into as a boy and had somehow never managed to find the energy required to break it. But he played the flute like a dream come true and the music he played chased unhappiness out of every listening heart but his own. So beautiful was the sound that even the stream would break journey to listen while he played on her banks. 

It so happened as she passed by his home bearing the white lotus and the child, the flute player raised his flute to his lips and released a magical combination of notes. The stream instantly slowed her soft steps and as the music continued to enchant the air and all around she came to a complete stop. The bewitching notes set free by the flute-maker wandered joyfully into the heart of the child, who had fallen asleep. And now she woke to their sound and a special sort of peace. As she blinked away the dreams crowding in her eyes, the flute-maker came into focus, and the thought came to her then that she had never heard anyone play quite as wonderfully nor had she seen anyone look quite as unhappy as this unknown flute-player playing his flute with such skilled fingers and such sad face on the banks of the still and listening stream.

When he finally lifted his lips from his flute the stream had so lost herself in the music that she had forgotten where it was she was on her way to, and as she sat still trying to recollect her destination, Mallika took the opportunity to speak to the unhappy flute-maker.

“Your music,” she said, “Is as beautiful as the sky is high. Now I am only seven months old and do not have much experience in these things but it seems to me that I have nowhere ever heard music quite as lovely, and it makes me wonder where on earth you learned to play so.”
“I do not know,” said the flute-maker sadly. “That is fair enough,” said Mallika, wrinkling her brow ever so slightly, “There are many things I do not know, and I think maybe that is what makes each day so interesting. But tell me, what are you thinking of when you play your flute?” There was a pause and this time it was the flute-maker’s brow that creased. And then:

“When I play my flute,” said the flute-maker softly, “I am not thinking.” 

And there was another brief interval of silence. “Maybe,” said Mallika, “and remember I am only seven months old so I could be wrong, but maybe, the music you play is inside of you. And that is why you do not know where you learnt it. You do not know because it is not something you learned like a lesson in a schoolbook, it is something inside you that finds its way into your flute and out into the world.” “Maybe,” said the flute-maker looking sad but interested. “And,” continued Mallika, “Because the music you play is so beautiful, enchanted, so joyous and rare, there must be something inside of you which is all of those things.” For a split second the flute-maker forgot to look sad and looked startled instead. “Do you really think so?” he asked before quickly putting on his sad face again. “Yes,” said Mallika, “That is what I think. But what do you think?” “I think- said the flute-player, and hesitated slightly before continuing, “I think that even though you are only seven months old you may be right.”

“Not everyone,” said Mallika seriously, “has found a way of playing what is inside of them as beautifully as you have, you do know that do you not?” “Ye-es,” said the flute-player and the sadness was beginning to slip away from his face the way night makes room for dawn. “You have a wonderful gift,” said Mallika. “I like gifts,” said the flute-maker and he almost smiled, “If I had known I had a gift then I would not have been so unhappy all these years,” and for a moment his face grew sad and shadowed again just thinking of all the unhappy days he had spent on the banks of this stream not knowing he had a wonderful gift. “Yes,” said Mallika, “That is unfortunate but it does not matter. Now you do know, and that is what matters– see?” Upon hearing that last word uttered, the stream who had forgotten where she had been headed remembered in a joyous rush her destination.

As she made ready to start her journey again, the flute-maker asked one last question, “Would you mind telling me,” he asked shyly, “what gifts are for?” “Why that’s easy,” said Mallika laughing, “Gifts are for giving,” “In that case,” said the flute-maker, “I think I shall wander the world and travel far and wide, to give my gift to as many people as I can.” “Yes,” said Mallika, “That sounds like a good plan,” But do not forget to come home again once in awhile. Because the stream will miss you and so will the birds in the trees and the dragonflies in the reeds. So do not forget to come back because it is here you found your gift and coming here will remind you of what it is for if you are ever in danger of forgetting.” “I will not forget,” said the flute-maker, and he smiled for the first time in as far back as he could remember, a smile like sunburst on mountain peak.

He wanted to say something more to the little girl in the white lotus; he wanted to tell her that she too had a wonderful gift, a gift that– but the white lotus was already bobbing away. So he lifted his hand in farewell, and she waved back smiling widely. And he knew then that it didn’t matter whether he told her about her gift or not. He stood there watching the little white lotus until it was a mere speck in the distance and when the mere speck had disappeared, he picked up his flute and began to play as he walked, until he too was a mere speck in the distance that looked like this–


Hole-y Work

A small and metaphorical hole in your sleeve steals your attention. Leaves little for all the threads that are still brilliantly holding the rest of your life together. This would not be an issue if your attention to the hole conducted itself usefully, if it located the nearest needle and thread and set to work repairing the rent. Instead your attention sees fit to play the role of a professional mourner, one of those women called in to village homes when someone has recently passed. The expert keener will beat her breast, and wail loudly, enacting a theater of grief, pitched to bring complex emotions to the surface, designed to sanction the scream stirring within the numb and newly shattered heart– to scream in its place, that pent-up pain might feel a slight release. This can be holy work. But what your attention forgets is that in the villages, after a respectable period of lusty lamenting, the professional mourner dries her tears. She straightens her sari, enjoys a steaming cup of coffee and a hot meal. She returns to the rest of her life with vigor and interest in all its still working parts. The gaping hole of loss is still part of her fabric but no longer its centerpiece. But you my friend permit every small tear to snare you entirely and with no clear end. You lament far too long– and over far too little! You think this is a form of dedication, but really it is just petty and unprofessional. Don’t be so incessantly seduced by every tiny imperfection in your life. Don’t sit and stare at the ripped places, like a person who will not leave the graveyard, even after the spirits have moved on and are dancing elsewhere.

A Broad Margin

To meander is a natural form of movement, uncontrived, unhurried. Rivers and roving butterflies are adept at meandering. And we were too, once upon a time– before we developed a preference for traveling in straight lines, perhaps because of Euclid, who told us a straight line is the shortest distance between two points (for the record he was not entirely right about this.) Regardless of length, a bend in the road will always be revelatory. A straight path seldom holds any surprises. In other words efficiency and epiphany do not typically travel together.  This is largely because efficiency deems as irrelevant, so much that is important. For instance, the most efficient way to travel from point A to point B will take into account toll booths, traffic patterns and the time of day. Whether or not the wayside California buckeye tree is currently in bloom will be deemed irrelevant. This is wildly ironic because stumbling upon a California buckeye tree in full bloom can transport you in an instant, but only if you aren’t trying to get somewhere. Efficiency is always trying to get somewhere. This is why it does not gallivant,  daydream, linger, or lounge. Unlike Walt Whitman, efficiency has never been known to ‘lean and loafe’ at its ease observing a spear of summer grass– or a California buckeye tree in bloom. No. Efficiency is ever-preoccupied in getting you from here to there. For it to work you must be firmly tethered to space-time, not lifting veils, traversing realms and hitchhiking with eternity (things liable to happen when meandering or being Whitmanesque.)

For most of our lives, whether we know it or not, we are shepherded along by unconscious habits of efficiency and selective attention. This is why passing a California buckeye tree in full bloom without noticing it is shockingly easy to do.  Like entirely missing the gorilla-suited personage in the Invisible Gorilla Experiment. While I am eminently okay with not catching sight of people in gorilla suits who wander into my field of vision, I very do not want to miss the sprawling California buckeye tree in late spring, waving its bright five-fingered leaves like so many small hands, covered in fanciful, fragrant wands– each an inflorescence up to eight inches long, studded with scores of tiny white flowers, that burst out of faint pink buds, freckled with delicate gold-tipped anthers, sweetly scented as white grape juice, intriguing from a distance, dazzling up close. Nor do I want to miss it in summer, when it preemptively drops its leaves in anticipation of thirst, a model of voluntary simplicity, or in fall when its large, leathery, pear-shaped pods hang from leafless branches,  splitting open to reveal a lacquered seed that bears a striking resemblance to the eye of a buck. And I certainly would be loath to miss it in winter, when its silvery bark is laid bare, and the impressive mind map of its branches rises into view, like a floating labyrinth, a lovely skeleton, a slumbering legend. 

Now I am finally undoing the unconscious conventions that control my attention, that push me towards chronic productivity. I am reclaiming my peripheral vision, my wandering soul, my capacity for wonder. I am realizing that what I thought were the footnotes of my life are actually where the fruitful stories are being told. The text in the middle of the page almost entirely misses the plot.

I am learning to love, like Thoreau, ‘a broad margin to my life.’ Priming myself for the buckeye, and all the beauty that lies just beside-the-point, just around the bend in the road. 

It Isn’t Time for Poetry Yet

It isn’t time for poetry yet. There will be time when the time comes, but it isn’t yet now. It is approaching but not quite nigh. When it comes you will know it by the look on its face. It will nod to you and you will be dragged along by the force of a glance. You will be ridden on roughshod and this will not be a problem but a privilege. You know this feeling because it has been felt inside before. You have locked the doors and shuttered the windows. But you often forget the backdoor, and one window is somehow always left open. Like a loophole. You know in your heart of hearts that there will never be a way to secure yourself from this demanding goodness. This force that eats you alive and spits out the bones. You are demolished, devoured, destroyed again and again by this arrival. It does not leave much behind – leaves you nothing you can boast of except your own disappearance. And it is not easy to boast when you are no longer here or anywhere any more. This is why you still believe in locks and entry codes, in screens and window curtains. You like being here, being you, being limited in time and space. It can be uncomfortable to inhabit infinite possibilities when you have grown accustomed to the snugness of the straitjacket. This is why you try and keep yourself invisible. But you are ostrich-like in this way– head in the sand and all the rest of you oddly positioned above it. Your absurdity inadvertently draws attention, the way a honeycomb inadvertently attracts bears through its sweetness. Both very quickly yield deliciously sticky situations. 

A Certain Kind of Witchery

I never know when it will happen. It isn’t like voting day or the harvest festival or the full moon. It is unpredictable. Like poetry, or Mary Poppins, or painting with watercolors. All I know is, on certain days a certain kind of witchery is in play. Enchantment settles into the pith of the world, and everything I look at spills cause for wonder.

On such days, the purple of a purple cabbage leaf pulls me into a daze of admiration. Such bold concentration of color in a cruciferous vegetable! The garlic bulb rests on the kitchen counter, poised and shapely as the dome of the Taj. Steamed beets dye the tips of my fingers red. Flames dance on the stovetop, steam rises like a fragrant prophesy over an open pot. Preparing lunch is a festive ritual. 

Outside in the garden, a small mourning dove sits in the sleek glove of her skin, how perfect she is! The passionfruit vine is dappled with the frilly faces of its flowers, the small green plums are reddening on their branches. The brilliant blue cornflowers tumble over each other in heaps of glory, and a conspiracy of ravens takes over our cypress tree. How have I never noticed before — that their blistering voices are raked with beauty?

The hillside paths are riddled with white yarrow, wild blue flax, triplet lilies, orange monkey flowers, delicate pink fairy lanterns — on most days they are easy to miss, but today I am captured. Brought to my knees, again and again by the delicate lasso of their presence. 

On such days I discover that beauty is transgressive. It invades everything. Even telemarketers and traffic jams are purveyors of holiness. So are burnt pots, clogged drains, dark roads and discomfiting moments. On such days disorder cannot daunt me, nor uncertainty. A rigorous gladness takes me by surprise, renders me uncommonly hospitable. On such days my heart refuses nothing.

And anything is possible. 

Late Winter’s Night, Notes to Self

A journal entry written only a matter of months ago, but I don’t remember writing it, written as it was on the doorsill of sleep, in that silver sliver between waking life and slumber, in a winter of heightened uncertainty. I feel myself in a different place now, but recognize in my body, the truthfulness of what this stretch of the road felt like. Am grateful for its imprint.

What do I want to say to myself in this silent time of the night when bird song has stilled and night time cars roll by? I am not sure where I have been, or where I am going. My memories are slipping away and I haven’t the heart to chase after them. I am in a state of suspension, hanging, unsure whether to begin dreaming and doing again. It is an odd state to be in because usually I am impatient, full of hope and fury, but right now I am quiet and ready to stretch like a cat in the sun. I want to spend time outside and on the ground. Nothing feels urgent except living inside my body. Feeling the feeling of being inside this skin and looking out through these eyes, hearing with these ears. Everything I touch is touched by these fingers that I know so well– and yet also, not at all. This is the curiosity of these days. I am filled with very quiet quests. I am satisfied with the small scope of my life. I do not want to think about what-ifs. No grand plans, no reaching for the stars. I am happy to look out the window at the reflection of the full moon in the distant water. 

I feel far away from much of the world. My words falter when I try to voice what’s in my heart — my heart falters too. I am unsure, not so steady in my gaze. Not so certain of what I am feeling. I am more certain of what I do not feel. I do not feel social, I do not feel brimful of goodwill, or very friendly. I am not thrilling the way I used to, at the beauty and sincerity of other lives. I feel like I am on a narrow street and I am curiously satisfied with its width and the limits of what is on offer. I am not interested in broader promenades. Other people can mingle and make merry. Right now I feel content to be in this perfect paradoxical solitude of two, on the night walk of my husband’s long healing. I know this time will pass and that my heart will open to the greater world again. I am not in a hurry for that to happen, I want it to arrive in its own time, in its own readiness. 

I do not want to belong to any big groups no matter how congenial they are. I do not want to match my thoughts or my feelings to others. I want to be as I am and allowed to unfold in my own way, without the spur of guilt or the tug of inspiration. Let me not be buffeted by other people’s energies. I have moved that way for so long and now I’d rather not move at all than move in the old way. It isn’t resentment or regret that makes me feel this way — it’s an inkling of rapture — the rapture that’s eluded me all this while because I’ve been listening to someone else’s song instead of my own. I may not be very musically gifted but that is beside the point. Better my own humble beat, and raggedy tune than someone else’s grand orchestra twirling me endlessly around.

Why has it taken me so long to value my inner sovereignty? I do not say this with total disregard for other people’s influence. I love the ways in which we are capable of mobilizing one another but right now I do not particularly want to be put in motion. It is alright to sit this one out. The dance floor will not miss me. I am sure I will slip back in at some point, but for now I want to take my own turns — follow deep interior impulses and not be beholden to anyone else. There is something luxurious about this renunciation. It makes me feel more myself than I have felt in awhile. 

I do not have an image of myself to maintain and there is a freedom in that. There is no need for me to try and convince either of us that I am service-hearted, compassionate, deeply empathic or any kind of good. I can be who I am. Full of one thing and then another, unapologetic in my contradictions– and joyfully curious– about what comes next. 


A pale moon, full and wraithlike in the early morning sky. Like a beautiful woman who has unwittingly walked into a surprise party where she was expecting stillness and solitude. The day, with its loud colors and steadily building momentum seems suddenly rude, indelicate by comparison. I want to stop and step out of the car, sit on the pavement, lean against a tree and look into that luminous, inscrutable silver face, that seems strangely cloud-like by the light of day. The sky around her is ashes of roses and the faintest lilac. Everything in her aura speaks of serenity, is an invitation to linger. It feels faintly ridiculous to ignore the summons, to stand up the rarity of a morning-time moon for another appointment. But there you have it. I am more than faintly ridiculous many times a day, and only slightly redeemed for being well aware of the fact.


And today I would like to speak to you of a place called Costco, whose full name is Costco Wholesale Corporation. The wikipedia entry on Costco says it operates a chain of membership-only big-box retail stores and that it is the fifth largest retailer in the world. Also according to wikipedia, Costco has 804 warehouses worldwide — including 27 in Japan, 16 in South Korea, and 1 in Iceland. I do not know if wikipedia is telling the truth about any of this, so if you are particular about facts, please do your own investigations. I want to believe that even though Costco is very big, it is also benign. More brontosaurus than T-Rex. But this might be wishful thinking. I do know, that even though Costco requires membership, like a club, unlike a club you do not have to wear fancy clothes to enter. Footwear, however, is mandatory. Also, you must be able to flash a membership card at the disinterested staff person stationed at the entrance. I believe this would be more entertaining for everyone involved if the cards were designed to look like FBI badges. But they are not. If you do not have a membership card, you must walk closely to someone who does (preferably someone you know and who knows you). Before you enter Costco you must take possession of a big red shopping cart. It is so big that you do not think you can fill it even with a year’s worth of shopping. This is because you do not know or do not remember what it means to shop at Costco. Once you enter Costco it is like you have died and gone to warehouse heaven– or hell (depending on your perspective.) The ceilings are very high, everything is packed in ginormous boxes and mostly comes in multiples of fifteen, fifty, or five hundred Every shopping trip to Costco feels a little bit like you are stocking up for Y2K even though Y2K was twenty-two years ago and very anticlimactic for those of us who believed that it would involve computer meltdowns and biblical floods. The first time my husband and I bought toilet paper at Costco we ended up having to leave it in the trunk of our car for the better part of a year because there was no room in our little studio for a package of 64 rolls of individually wrapped TP (it happens to be one of their best-selling items.) At Costco there are many people in plastic shower caps and red aprons standing behind little tables, and handing out exotic food samples — for example, granola bars packed with goji berries, chia seeds and cacao nibs, that have been cut up into little bits and placed in thimble-sized pleated paper cups. For the most part these people do not look very excited about the products they are selling. I think this might be because they are remembering a time when life was simpler and full of more poetic possibility. In any case they do not come at you with an aggressive sales pitch. They do not have to. Costco is full of weary warehouse travelers like me, whose energy has been vastly depleted by wandering up and down endless aisles of things one does not strictly need, but possibly wants (like a box the size of a carry-on suitcase, full of Belgian chocolates). Fatigued explorers that we are, we stumble upon these food-sample-stands with the delirious enthusiasm of souls lost in the desert who have miraculously chanced upon a verdant oasis. Soon we will be stacking our carts with cases of goji berry-chia seed-cacao nib granola bars that come 136 to the box. My fellow countrymen and countrywomen are known to frequent Costco in large numbers. You can see the mesmerizing array of dark mustaches on the men. You can hear the jingle of the mangalsutras on the women — we make every step sound like Christmas. We walk through this barcoded wonderland where you can buy frozen chappatis in a pack of 50, and a burlap sack of aged basmati rice so big you think you’ll need an elephant to lift it. We stroll through the store as if it were but a crowded city park. We point, we murmur, we move on, as our big red carts slowly fill. At no juncture do we give any indication that we are intimately familiar with another time and place. A time when taps were opened slowly and closed tightly, and leftovers distributed by nightfall. A time when shoppers could carry everything they bought in a medium-sized jute bag recycled from a sari shop. A time when drawstring coin purses were tucked into sari blouses, when plastic wrap was rarely removed and packaging never thrown away. A place where abundance isn’t the measure of how much you can heap in a big red shopping cart, but an unspoken awareness of how little it truly takes– to fill one small red heart.

Pick a Pomegranate

Pick a pomegranate. One that cannot conceal its blush or merriment. One that is this close to bursting into ruby throated laughter. Let it sit in the nest of your palm like a flightless crimson bird heavy with gravity and hidden gifts. Call attention to that festive, sharp tipped calyx crown. Feel the shape of its ribs underneath the leathery red, roundness. A globe with subtle angles. Consider for a moment that these wonders grow on trees. On trees! Festooning them improbably as prima donna leaves pirouette into autumn mists. Great pouches filled with garnet gems. Yes — filled! 

Split open a pomegranate. See how its gleaming cargo spills. A jeweled honeycomb, dripping sweetness. Arils like tiny pendants, so many sun catchers clustered in a cavern. It is clear whoever packed these purses was unacquainted with the notion of scarcity. Whoever packed these purses was giving hand over fist from a mythic mother lode. Were we slightly less preoccupied by calendars and petty calculations we would be perpetually dumbstruck by the magnitude of this miracle. We would not rush past our unclaimed inheritance, but would stop instead and fill our pockets with lucky pennies. Dawn to dusk our footsteps would sing a coppery chorus.

But wait. You say I am mixing my metaphors. I have called this fruit a ship, a sack, a bird, a bequest, a cave, a mine, a honeyed hive, a carrier of crystal. To you I say, this fruit is the stuff of legends, and legends defy consistency. They traffic in transubstantiation. Straw will be spun into gold overnight, blood will birth flowers, at the wedding feast water will turn to wine. And so it is with the tumbling scarlet prosperity of the pomegranate. It will render you rich as an emperor if you let it. Quicker than a con-artist’s promise, and ever more lasting.

You will of course need a key. Something to spring the lock, something to cry out at the cave’s mouth that will conjure the boulders, roll them mightily out of your way. A sign that establishes your legitimacy and authenticates your claim. You do know what it is don’t you? Or maybe you don’t. In the stories the protagonist is always slow on the uptake. Always spends two-thirds of the tale wandering in desperation and self-doubt, before the kindness of strangers and tribulation-kindled insight reveal what was there all along. Then the wicked fairy’s one-hundred year spell collapses like a house of cards, the sword slips out of the stone, and the Earth greens with growing things again.

Is it still sitting in your palm? The pomegranate? A thing alive and almost electric with givenness? Look at it again. You can, but you don’t have to speak the words aloud. The feeling might perch in your eyes, gentle as mourning doves inhabited by a wondering, plaintive softness, even that is enough. Or maybe it rides into your chest and lifts the roof off your heart uncovering a canopy of stars and dizzying you for weeks. This works too. But if it must be sounded, then perhaps it vines into your throat and pulses forth a series of small buds amidst green tendrils. Bright flowers shaped like delicate trumpets. Then all you can say or sing amounts to the same thing:

A thousand times a thousand times — Thank You.


The Sixth Tree

A rambling and (very) tardy thank you to Maria Popova, curator of the incandescent corner of the internet we know as BrainPickings.

Dear Maria,

The first Spring after my husband fell seriously ill, I was taken by an intense desire to know the names of the flowers tumbling out of buds, scaling walls, and holding themselves around us like so many raised goblets to the sun. Until then I had been content to let them wave annually and anonymously at me as I paraded down the sunlit streets of my life like a (minor) celebrity. I tossed them a bright smile now and then before moving on to the next exciting thing around the corner. If someone had introduced them to me I feel certain their names would have lifted unnoticed out of my memory soon after, in the untraceable way noon lifts dew from grass.

Perhaps I had no use for their names because I was assured they knew mine. Why else would they crowd the pavements and turn such adoring faces my way? When one is known it seems less essential to acknowledge the unknown. We assume the right to remain unacquainted is the prerogative of fame. If all of you know me, I do not really need to know all of you. This is a dubious assumption. To be known is necessary, but not sufficient. One must also yearn to know. The bird for instance is known intimately by the sky, just as the dreaming water lily is known by the pond. But whether bird knows sky, or lily the rippling pond, or whether either knows the first thing about themselves, are questions that cannot be generalized, dependent as they are on the metaphysics of the specific bird and the specific lily in question.

When my husband was first diagnosed with an ill-understood condition, beauty in the world froze. No longer flowing and accessible, it turned rigid, impenetrable. Existing in a separate dimension. One I could still see but no longer touch– or be touched by. Such rapid relegation is disorienting. A bird banished from the sky must fall back on inner resources, must confront who and what he is without that blue embrace. But what does a bird do when he looks into the mirror and sees an abyss gazing back at him?

I was a newly exiled sovereign –but wait  — one must be true to the facts. My right to the throne had always been at best– ambiguous. I do not know by what means I came to be crowned. Was it by miracle or manipulation, by birthright or blessing? The confusion should have rendered me humble not entitled. No matter. What we do not learn quickly life will teach us slowly. Our obtuseness is no match for her patience. Whether you take the short cut or the scenic route your choices are the same. Be humble or be humbled.

Misfortune is a kind of magic, materializing trap doors under silken rugs, worming the fruit in plentiful orchards, turning the dog dozing by the fireplace into a fire-breathing dragon. It is also a key that turns darkly in a hidden passage, unlocking subterranean energies. The sun steals much of our attention when we think of growing things. But darkness is an imperative too as any seed will tell you. We deem misfortune as bad but what good myth ever came to life without it? The plot must thicken or why would anyone ever do anything vaguely heroic or evolutionary? But I digress.

The gates reopened slowly. As my husband stabilized by degrees I was allowed re-entry into the realm of beauty, able once again to touch and be touched by it. An erstwhile ruler returned as refugee. What is that old adage? Less is more? A one-time princess with a tumbled crown, wandering the sidewalks with nowhere but this moment to get to has time to pay attention. No longer the center of the story, she is at liberty to be curious, free to care in unconditioned ways. Perhaps this is why, the first Spring after my husband fell ill, I filled with an intense desire to know the names of all the flowers flooding the hills around us. I looked them up painstakingly after our rambles. How like spells they sounded to me! Incantatory names, simply to speak them was to enchant the air. Snowdrops, jonquils, camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias, lupins, buttercups, bearded irises…The unidentified ones haunted my dreams. Petalled presences that demanded to be known.

Perhaps when one has been freshly alienated from the familiar, names take on a primal importance. Recognition becomes an act of reclamation. Poppies, pansies, bleeding hearts, flowering acacia, foxtail, delphiniums, double tulips, violets, larkspur, periwinkle, plumbago, chrysanthemums, rock roses, asters, sweet pea, caped jessamine, ranunculus, amaryllis, alstroemeria…To be able to call out confidently to those around you when their faces, floral or otherwise, dance into view is a special kind of belonging. It means you are not a stranger.

Theories abound in the mind’s forest.

Perhaps, having glimpsed the ferocious fact of mortality– that sinuous black and gold striped reality that stalks us so relentlessly and is capable of pouncing when we are least prepared– perhaps having been so starkly reminded that we can only be here now and not forever– I am less able to dismiss the vast triumph of fleeting and exquisite forms of life. Every flower a victory of pure and simple existence. If I do not acknowledge her it is not the flower’s life that will be diminished. And now I realize that I have neglected to tell you about the trees…and the trees are my excuse to be writing you at all.

The first year of my husband’s illness we retreated into semi-solitude, seeing very few people beyond immediate family. How my heart ached with love and fear. It was a relief to focus on simple necessities– food, water, sleep, sunshine– we spent much of that time in our little bird’s nest of a home, perched on a hill with a tangled view of the valley and a peek-a-boo glimpse of the bay. I don’t remember exactly when it was that the trees began to press against the windowpane of my consciousness.

There were five of them — amongst the thousands beyond our door — who silently extended their guardianship — and a sixth who would make herself known a bit later. All five can be seen from our picture window, technically none of them are “our” trees, and all but one are some kind of pine– say I who know very little on the subject of pines– so take that piece of information with a grain– or ten– of salt. Unlike with the flowers, I was not consumed by a need to know the trees’ names– I simply gave them my own. They are rooted on other people’s properties. But between us there stretches a bond of belonging that goes deeper than possession.

First came Eldad Hagar — a stout-topped evergreen with the capable, no-nonsense air of a bodyguard, then Goldengrove a tall, slender maybe-birch who shimmers from green to gold to bare-fingered branches with ethereal grace. Next Piper Longhum, a spindly pine with a missing branch that makes her endearingly lopsided and hard to miss, then Gazeli, the tree who does not like to mingle and who sits high on a hillside above the fray, and finally Grindl the Good Pine who manages to be both slightly stooped and utterly regal in her bearing. She is a shaggy sorceress of a tree with a strong maternal streak. They are each endeared to me — and unaccountably I feel a sense of being endeared to, and also watched over, by each of them.

Of late I have been less attentive of my friends but they do not hold it against me. In that first year of my husband’s illness they were my pillars. I leaned on them every day with only a dim realization that I was doing so. But I have not told you of the sixth tree yet. The tree who it can be argued, inspired this lengthy missive to you.

She stands on the far edge of the horizon scanning it for riches. Stands with an emerald poise that conveys tender intelligence and strength. She is the farthest of “my” trees and in many ways the least familiar to me, but no less significant. Her role in our relationship is to convey the best of what she sees, to pass on glimpses of insight from other worlds and times. My role is to listen, and be willing to be lit by that which I listen to. The sixth tree is the well-placed curator of the blue beyond, and her name (of course) is Maria Popova.

For over three years I have been meaning to write and tell you of the tree I unofficially named after you. I even painted a tiny watercolor portrait of her to send your way with a handwritten letter of gratitude. Then in an absent-minded moment I penned a note on it for another friend, so it is in his keeping now. I am not a gifted painter, so do not mourn the mix up. Any image of the tree in your imagination is assuredly more splendid and representative of the living original than the one I actually created.

Thank you feels too small and flimsy a phrase for all that I want it to contain. So I will double bag it. Thank you, thank you for the work you found your way to –your books, your blog, and more– and for all that you do to delight, inform, spark and enliven the hearts and minds of so many readers. What you have created and continue to create word-by-word feels as alive, prolific, generous and generative as a rainforest.

Thank you for being one of my trees.

In joy and gratitude,