Wednesday, December 18, 2013


         We are those who feared the encroaching darkness. 
Was there a time I have wondered, imagined, that we did not know/were not sure/did not assume that light would return, that days would grow longer? At least not return by itself,  without our intercession. What would it take to bring back the light? Sacrifice? Of an animal, a human? Would prayers and chanting and ceremony bring back the light?  
Did you know that Stonehenge is aligned on a sight-line toward sunrise and sunset on the day of Winter Solstice?

        What did winter mean during the Neolithic? 

During early periods of farming and herding in the Northern Hemisphere? It meant that communities might not survive winter. Starvation might occur. Cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed when snow covered fodder.

          Yet, we humans in the North celebrated Solstice. Though some meat was preserved, fresh meat was available. The fermenting of beer and wine that began in late summer was now complete. The deciduous trees were bare, but the great firs stood green and alive. The Sun God, they realized,  was about to be reborn, and so it was the time of the last great feast of the year.

        And so we still celebrate, though the myth has shifted for some and been forgotten by others, and the event has been monetized. We bring light into the world at the darkest time, and we rediscover giving and charity and some of our best human impulses.  And we hope - keep hoping - that those impulses will remain with us.

So I wish you light and love and a generosity of spirit!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Feeling of Well-Being

All photos by Bill Fulton
        I want to tell you about Groningen, in the Netherlands, but this is not a travelogue. Bill and I didn’t come here as tourists, but to be with our friends. I want to write about how a place can hold you, in both senses of that word. But first I’ll describe this small city.

      The old town is surrounded by a canal, and it is self- contained and self-providing - no need to drive elsewhere for what you need. You can walk everywhere, and though cars are allowed in the city, the only traffic to worry about are streams of bicyclists.There is a central marketplace for Tuesday & Friday Market, shops, cafes, restaurants, a university, movie theater, concert hall and three museums.

     Groningen gifts you with a lovingly cared for aesthetic. It is charming and accessible - we circumnavigated in 45 minutes - and there are beautiful old sailing barges docked along the canal. Nights are softly lit, and light sparkles the dark water of the canal. 

     But I have been in charming places that did not create the sense of well-being that we experienced.  I think that comfort comes from an integration of mind/ heart/ body that I usually only experience in nature, not in cities, and I think there are several reasons for this.

     The first involves the proportions of this small city, and the harmony of the architecture. The buildings are on a human scale - most are no more than 5 stories, and most are in the style of Dutch architecture of the 17th century.The harmony of the buildings comes from their related styles.

         Another source of well-being is the relative quiet. No rush of traffic, trucks honking, jackhammers yammering - an absence of noise pollution. The sound of church bells is as natural to this town as birdsong in a forest, and the Dutch do not walk down the street yelling into their cellphones. 
      And there is what happens to your body, to your psyche when there is no possible threat. Our first night we left our friend’s house at 11. At first I was anxious, as I am here at home, walking on dark streets at night - then I realized we were perfectly safe. We walked slowly back to our apartment through narrow streets and unlighted alleyways, free to enjoy the moon, the shadows dancing on the water, and the holiday lights.
The lighted church towers become landmarks, so you always know where you are.

No gun-waving or knife-brandishing mugger would appear as they have twice in  my own city.

        When you can relax, without having to be vigilant or on guard, you can be open, and of course when you are open you can be more loving and caring and creative, as we  discover again and again.

        Groningen is a soulful city. It's as though the river spirits and the spirits of all the shipbuilders, the captains and sailors who navigated the canals and rivers to the sea watch over it.

       Now I know who you are, dear readers. You do not need a long lecture on the contrasts between what I have described and life in American cities, or the statistics on what stress and a lack of a feeling of well-being do to us - and how much we spend on things and therapies to make it go away. 

       I will simply end by saying that Groningen reminded me of how cities once held us, and it taught me how adaptable we humans try to be and what we are willing to put up with
when we are not being held,

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Beauty Addict

         Imagine this is a recovery program. I stand up and say
“My name is Leah and I’m addicted to beauty.” You say “Hi Leah”, and then I tell you my story and and make my confession.

         Beauty has been a revelation, a source of awe, a compulsion, an escape, a fortification. It is my drug of choice and necessity. So let me tell the worst first, and get it over with: I have loved people for their beauty,  convinced that underneath the sweetfeatures of the poet was a pure soul. 

         And don’t get me started about the art I’ve had to buy because I couldn’t walk away from it.
'Florissima' (Oaxaca)
(Fortunately I’m not a diamonds & fur kind of person, unless the fur is on a living animal.) For years I relied on a waterfall, meadows, weeping willows, cherry blossoms,  big white dogs with big ruffs, etc ad infinitum, to fill voids, gloss the past, and not have to think about the future. 

      So what caused this addiction? The swirl and pattern of colored glass in a kaleidoscope when I was a little girl? The roses and peonies in my mother’s garden? A handsome and charming uncle I adored?
Dr. Sam Singal
Books of stunned and stunning wild animals? Perhaps it was moonlight on first heavy snowfall, the gleam and awe of nightquiet, when I couldn’t leave the sight of it, standing at my bedroom window way past bedtime.  All of this masked, for the duration of each, the pain and struggle in my  family.

  Of course perfect beauty is even better than plain old beauty. And that’s another danger - a dismissal, a turning away, a continuously critical eye that sees imperfections, flaws.  And the search for perfection in form, or transcendence in spirit. After seeing the Taj Mahal I wrote:
    Was it snowfall   unspoiled white fields
            where I first felt the word ‘perfection’
                 finally fulfilled in this building
                      that I  must leave    and never see  again 

          But one thing does lead to another with addictions - eventually it will lead you to the hard stuff.  That sweet infatuation with a kaleidoscope’s colored glass led me to 12th century stained glass. I was hypnotized by Mary’s-robe blue and spent years studying the 12th century in France - which also included the return of Greek idealism, illuminated manuscripts, Arthurian tales & courtly love. Ah heaven! Escape!
   (It took much longer before I could  study the terrible in history, the catastrophic - and write about it.)

    Beauty, like all addictions, is a Road you must follow, but at least it probably won’t kill you. Fortunately, this addiction can also provide an income. A legal one.  I discovered literature, philosophy, music and art in my senior year of high school  and eventually became a Humanities prof - a decent source of money to support the Road.

      My mother’s roses wound up in my garden, though try growing peonies in Northern California! Landscape, wild places, redwood groves, mountain passes, all of it is now near and dear.   Because of my love for nature, and the desire that my grandkids and future generations be able to enjoy it,   I have to fight to try and preserve what we have. The churches have this part right -the call must be followed by a response.

       But still, I am always conscious of my dependency. Then, last week, in Anna Halprin’s movement-ritual class, a shift:
After warm-ups, prep and focus, Anna put on a CD of Sibelius and asked us to conjure an image. I began to move to that sublime music.  And then I realized: Beauty may be an addiction but, 
unlike other drugs, it is also a gift.



Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Okay, I admit it........

           I am an unabashed, unrepentant devotee of Spring, however cliched that may be. Me, Leah-Persephone, returning from the mudsliding, sunless, windlashed  underworld of Winter, to the yellow spread of forsythia, daffodils that nod yes as you walk by, hyacinth, tulips, and the incandescent cherry blossoms that seem lit from within.
      Then summers long light, transparent patterns of leaf-light, days in the garden, hikes to the ocean, barefoot and jacket-free
(on those days that don’t begin and end with fog.
     And then there’s is Fall:
           the crunch
                of dead leaves
                 the earth ceases to speak
                  darkness takes over
                      is your ancient brain  really  certain
                               that light will return?
 the drift of autumn leaves
        but orange
            is not my color
Photo by Bill Fulton

The Great Dying, I call it. The endless browns and beige and
 straw, and the spent stalks.  Autumn in Michigan where I grew up means fields of color.  It took me a long time to see true seasonal change in California. There are fewer maples,  elms are rare, and the oaks that like a wild display also prefer a different climate.
         Finally, I began to really see color: the remarkable gingkoes, living fossils, 250 million years old, in their fall gold. 

The persimmon trees, with elegant, elongated leaves that blush red. And for someone addicted to the beauty of words, there is liquid amber, with an autumn array of golds and flame,  and the bright berry clusters of  -   listen to this - scarlet fire thorn. 

Persimmon leaves  John Barger
I become a forager 
in autumn, cutting bunches of leaves and berries, and gathering apple oak galls in my neighborhood and from 
the ranch we are privileged to stay at.      I let go of my usual minimalism and fill the house with glossy teal pumpkins, baskets of oak apple galls, sprays of colored leaves.

                  Why must we turn white with age
                          while trees bedazzle themselves to death? 

        I mix beauty with ceremony, as the ancients did, and the spirit requires. We have a Mexican-Tarascan Day of the Dead cart, with a skeleton driver, and a winged demon riding shotgun. I fill it with gourds, miniature pumpkins, and multicolored baby corn, and I wander around my home admiring autumn and avoid thinking about the future - the mudsliding, sunless, windlashed underworld of winter.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Alice Walker & The Harvest Reading

Photo by Rudolph Boyd
         This has been Alice Walker week. It began with a trip to Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore with a gift certificate I got  months ago for reading at the Montclair Public Library. I had stowed it away in that Abyss of a File that is supposed to keep things from being forgotten.

        At Mrs. Dalloway's I found Ms. Walker’s Hard Times Require Furious Dancing, and isn’t that the truth!  Today was joyous First Day of the New Series for Anna Halperin’s dance movement class, and I did some at least semi-furious dancing. Afterwards I went to the University Library and found Walker’s The World Will Follow Joy,  and I certainly hope she is right. 

         I also watched videos of Alice I found on her web site and bought tickets to the film about her, which will be shown at the Mill Valley Film Festival. I've loved having her in my life all week.  Below is the poem I wrote about her, and below that you'll see the announcement of an event where I plan to read it. I hope you'll attend!

      Nineteen Seventy Something

                                        for Alice Walker

I remember her at that gathering
though I can’t remember why we gathered  
or when
she in dashiki & dreads     or was that later   
There were luminaries in that room  
though to be a woman was luminous enough   
If you were proud   
If you were standing up or acting out   
If you were Congresswoman Bella Abzug
in her iconic hat
If you were That Blond Activist in aviator shades  
If you were Constance Carroll  new black president
of where I taught  
If you were Peggy Reese  my-colleague-the-geologist
whose expertise   Dakota Sandstone 
was my alias    a nom de plume
to cover my tracks   
Alice Walker
you were laying down hot tracks of poetry
and the short stories called In Love and Trouble
and weren’t we all? 
Not to mention the poems titled

Revolutionary Petunias  
See we were learning how to garden   
seeding the beds of change   
you have to water     fertilize  
weed and watch over   
and then we learned    reluctantly    to prune  

That’s when I stopped using Dakota Sandstone  
which crumbles    slides  and can’t abide a shift 

Have I let this poem go to seed?  
All I started out to do was say
Alice Walker  I just saw that video of you
in your age    your white hair    
and I love the wildness 
that still dances
in your eyes

                                CELEBRATING HARVEST
                                   Poetry, Prose, Libations

Please join us for a harvest of earth-centered writing and book signing at
                                  First Light Farm Stand.

             When: 2:00 pm, Sunday, September 29th, 2013

Where: First Light Farm Stand, 4588 Bodega Avenue, Petaluma

Who will read: Poets Frances Hatfield, Naomi Ruth Lowinsky
     and Leah Shelleda, and novelist Patricia Damery.

         Free. Booksigning and light refreshments to follow



Thursday, September 5, 2013

The New Year, Truth and the Leghorn

Photo by Lainie Fefferman
              Last night was the beginning of the year 5774 among the people I grew up with. As a child the very air felt different on the High Holy days, as though awe had reached us from a far place. I can still experience that specialness, and though I left that community for a different kind of life, I can still appreciate certain traditions. One of them is the practice known as Tikkun Midot - choosing a quality to pursue during the year.  Ever the rebel, I chose two - Truth and Authenticity - because I find it difficult to separate them.

         The lack of both truth and authenticity occur when we take on protective coloration, put on camouflage -when we behave like others in order to fit in. We may express opinions that aren’t really ours, or withhold them. Sometimes when I’m aware of that dishonest impulse I ask myself how far I’ve come from the conformity of high school during the 1950s.  I believe deeply in individuation - in developing one’s own Self, and there's the old To Thine Own Self Be True, which never loses its meaning - yet…..

       This morning I experienced that impulse.  On the front page of the Chronicle there was an article headed Animal Welfare. It's about an anonymous donation that allowed 1200 chickens that were about to be killed to be flown to the safety of sanctuary on the East Coast. What I learned in that article deeply effected me, and I immediately wanted to write about it - but my first thought was:
      “Chickens! Some of your readers are going to think 

       that’s really weird. And those people who run chicken
       sanctuaries are probably considered weird as well - 
       they probably don’t have Important Positions or Iphones, 
       or dress well......"
I was rather disgusted with my first thoughts, and I finally remembered Truth and Authenticity, so....

       The Facts of Factory Farmed Eggs:  Laying chickens are kept in tight wire cages with 8 other birds where they can’t lie down or turn around. Artificial lights are kept on 24 hours a day so they'll produce more 'jumbo' eggs. The feet of the leghorns are frayed from the wire cage bottoms, their wings torn from beating against wire. They are exhausted after 2 or 3 years, and no longer able to lay jumbo eggs, so they are gassed. It is not “economical” to keep them. 
       The truth is that I can’t bear to have any living being treated that way. I feel for them. I don’t care that they aren’t cute, like baby seals,  or capable of  inventing a better smart phone. I imagine someone, a voice from the community of my childhood,  saying "1500 humans were gassed in Syria, and you’re worrying about chickens?"

       I think about my former students who were very concerned with animal welfare. They seemed to have given up on humans - but I have not. It is true that my focus is often on the welfare of the entire planet, but I don’t think the plight of the chickens is separate from our own. I think that when we lack empathy  - when we make a person or an animal Other - we not only do them harm, but we harm ourselves. We are diminished.  We lose the ability to be  open-hearted. We lose the ability to feel how all life is connected, and  the pleasure that comes from that realization.  And that for me - that Open Heart - is the highest truth. Ibn al-Arabi said it best: 

"My heart has become capable of every form: A pasture 
for gazelles, a monastery for monks, a temple for sculptures, 
the Kabah for pilgrims, the scroll of the Torah, the book of the
Koran. I follow the religion of Love: whatever direction             Love's camels take is my religion; my faith. "    

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What Do Scares, Tidepools and Gratitude Have In Common?

         Why does it take a Scare to remember gratitude? Why must we be made afraid in order to feel thankful, to appreciate? Are we designed to take everything for granted? Or is it because we live in a society where almost no one ever says “Enough, I don’t need more.” A culture where temptation and its henchman, the-need-to-belong, are Everywhere. Please don’t read this as the word of some total non-consumer, someone beyond temptation - it isn’t so.  

     My special temptation is beauty, and that too can be a trap - beauty is not always truth, truth is not always beautiful. If Keats had lived longer than 25 short years he might have learned that.
       At my worse I see life as a clamor of strivings and searchings terminated by death, and therefore, why? A remnant of my  existential college years, I think, when Sartre and Camus were my pole stars, and the charmed world of Paul Klee substituted for the one around me, which went by the title Empty.

        I have never found a single spiritual universe and latched on, or a system of meaning that explains All - I have had to create meaning through experience, a pastiche of knowledge, understanding, inner work, and a patchwork quilt of dreams, teachings and tidings, like tide pools when the ocean, with all its clamor, recedes. Meaning like the pattern of  mussel and starfish and anemone in loose sand, buried periodically under a red tide of anger or despair, shifting with ebb or flow. Meaning as elusive as deep as the undersea world.

        It is so rich, this world. This life. And ultimately as simple as the pattern of light on the leaves above my deck. Once, in the Serengeti, we looked up at the myriad stars in an unelectrified dark sky, and realized this fantastic sky was the world of Homo Erectus, as revealed in Leakey’s nearby digs. We awoke to a crimson, silent dawn and knew that too was what early humans experienced. Dawn and stars. The world at its most basic - and complex - and how grateful we were to experience it.

Thank you Scare for bringing me there again - to gratitude. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Heart Broken

Photo Credit: Corin Royal Drummond

        The photo you see is of Strawberry Canyon. I have hiked this canyon in every season, listened to the creek in winter, and the birds in summer . I swear I saw the native Alamed whipsnake once, but, full confession,  I've also sworn that I heard the voices of the tribes who once fished here, so you may not believe me on either count. I have never seen a fox or mountain lion, but I'm told that both live in the higher canyon, and I have had a staring contest with more than one doe. 
      Today I received word that 22, 000 trees are to be cut in Strawberry Canyon by FEMA, in accord with the university - and sixty some thousand more in an Oakland canyon. I am heartbroken. If I tried to describe my sadness, the page would go black, and can't have that happen because 1) I have taken it upon myself since last year to speak for the trees and 2) I really want you to read this article. Please. And act if you are moved to do so. 

FEMA Plans Clear-Cutting 85,000 Berkeley and Oakland Trees

Posted on 16 May 2013
By Randy Shaw
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is moving to chop down 22,000 trees in Berkeley's historic Strawberry and Claremont Canyons and over 60,000 more in Oakland. This destructive plan is rapidly moving forward with little publicity, and FEMA cleverly scheduled its three public meetings for mid and late May while UC Berkeley students were in finals or gone for the summer.
UC Berkeley has applied for the grant to destroy the bucolic Strawberry and Claremont Canyon areas, claiming that the trees pose a fire hazard. The school has no plans to replant, and instead will cover 20% of the area in wood chips two feet deep. And it will pour between 700 and 1400 gallons of herbicide to prevent re-sprouting, including the highly toxic herbicide, Roundup. People are mobilizing against this outrageous proposal, which UC Berkeley has done its best to keep secret.
    When I heard this week that the federal government would be funding the clear-cutting of 85,000 beautiful Berkeley and Oakland trees, including 22,000 in historic Strawberry and Claremont Canyon, my initial reaction was disbelief. I then wondered how the feds have money for this destructive project while Head Start and public housing programs are being cut due to the sequester.
The trees in Strawberry and Claremont Canyon have been there for decades and hardly constitute a "hazard." But pouring 1400 gallons of herbicide on the currently pristine hills will create a real hazard, and UC Berkeley even plans to use the highly toxic herbicide "Roundup" to squelch the return of non-native vegetation.
This is a true horror story that will happen absent public opposition. I know that many will find it hard to believe that this could occur in the pro-environment San Francisco Bay Area, but UC Berkeley may be counting on this attitude to get all the approvals they need before people find out the truth.
Please read "Death of a Million Trees," which provides all of the facts, figures and background about the Strawberry and Claremont Canyon proposed clear cutting as well as the tree destruction plans for the East Bay. The last public hearing will be held Saturday, May 18, 2013, 10 AM - 12 PM, at Claremont Middle School, 5750 College Avenue in Oakland.
The public has until June 17 to submit written comments on the project. You can do so through the East Bay Hills hazardous fire risk reduction project website, or via email.
There are countless destructive attacks on the environment that Bay Area activists cannot impact. But this is occurring in our own backyard, and activists must make sure that this cannot happen here.