Monday, December 14, 2015

IT IS WHAT IT ISN'T – Does a Vacuum Really Suck?

      In Nature, as in life, we can see more if we notice not just things, but 
      the spaces between things; not just sounds, but the silences they frame.
      Far from empty, these inhalations in the song of creation are what 

      make each note so clear, so sweet.
       From Under the Wild Ginger – A Simple Guide to the Wisdom of Wonder, by Jeffrey Willius
When is the absence of something more powerful than its presence? It's not a trick question. In fact, Nature provides many answers: the colossal explosion of a lightning bolt; the swirling core of a vortex; the mind-boggling power of a cosmic black hole.

I’ve written occasionally here about the interplay between positive and negative space. As I’ve tried to capture in that quote from my book, Under the Wild Ginger, it can have a profound effect on how we see the world and life.

It’s knowing the whale’s down there without even seeing it. It’s the void, the potential, in the human experience an entrepreneur or inventor sees and then fills. It’s the hurtful implication of a friend’s hesitation when you ask them what they think of something you’re just nuts about.

Whether it's the inescapable laws of physics or the often-less-clearly defined rules of human dynamics, seeing and appreciating the spaces between is one of the great little secrets of being truly aware and in the moment. And it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. At least in western society, most of us are raised and educated quite literally. We’re taught to see what’s there, and completely miss what’s not.

            To twist the old axiom a bit, 
            you have to believe it to see it.

Allowing existence to something most people would say isn’t there takes a little practice. What’s perhaps most difficult for many folks is the irony that, the harder you try to do this, the less likely you are to succeed.

My best teacher has been Nature, with a dash of faith, instilled by my parents, thrown in. If you can simply BE in Nature—no agenda, no schedule, no expectation, just pure, simple presence—Nature will eventually show you both what is and what exists right next to that, behind it...even in the space it now occupies, but once didn’t.

Sounds a bit metaphysical, a little new-agey, right? That’s where the faith comes in. To twist an old axiom a bit, you have to believe it to see it. And how does one unaccustomed to it come by that faith? It helps if you want to—something I’m not sure many millennials do, addicted as they seem to be, to all the predigested information and virtual experiences available to them at the tap of an icon.

The other key to hearing the inhalations of Nature's song lies in what I like to call seeing generously. It’s the attitude, the belief, that truly seeing—even what may not seem at first to be there—is more like giving than receiving. Far from the competitive, materialistic fervor our culture seems to believe drives our economy and makes us all happy, it is not an act of acquisition. It’s an act of surrender.

              So how do you embrace what's left 
              of life's sweet spaces and silences?

We live in a culture that does not easily abide empty spaces and times. We find even the briefest silences awkward, filling them with "ahs" or "ums" or silly small talk. We allow others to dictate our schedules—not just bosses or clients, but loved ones who, with the best of intentions, pounce on what's left of our "free" time as if we could not say no—and too often we do not.

And don't get me going on all those silly little screens that spoon-feed us information, entertainment and advertising wherever we go, whatever the time, and which we find so hard to turn off.

So how do you embrace what's left of life's sweet spaces and silences? By staying in your seat a few minutes, still listening, after the concert is over? Watching the way the brook flows between two rocks? Finding your deepest inner space and letting it merge with infinity? Can you think of other ways?

Thursday, December 3, 2015

CUBA – Orchids of Soroa

(You can find some of my Cuba posts on my travel blog, El Viajero Contento.)

It’s November 11, and I’m heading a couple of hours southwest of Havana to Artemisa Province and the tiny spa/resort village of Soroa. It will be a relief to claw my way out of the gritty, claustrophobic street-canyons of Old Town Havana for some peace and fresh air.

I hook up with my Spanish school compañeros, Meg, Suzanne and Charles, in the tiny plaza in front of La Floridita—reputedly Hemingway’s bar of choice whenever he craved a daiquiri´. There we meet our driver for the day, Lazaro, along with his pride and joy, his nicely restored 1956 Chevy Bel Air.

(Lazaro finished medical school, but hasn’t yet found a job. What’s more, at a doctor’s salary of 1,060 Cuban national pesos—about $40 usd—a month, he didn’t seem to mind driving tourists around for $75 a day!)

Turning north off the Autopista Este-Oeste (Route 4), we wind our way up a long, narrow valley to El Salto Park, where we pick up the climbing trail up to El Mirador (Overlook) de Soroa. It’s a hot, sweaty climb, but the rewards along the way—flora, fauna and even the rocks’ and trees’ amazing forms, colors and patterns—are well worth the effort.

After the beautiful half-hour trek we’re looking out over a broad sweep of the lush hills and plains of Pinar del Rio—and down on the backs of soaring vultures.

Once we’re back down, Meg and Suzanne decide to pay the three-peso (CUC) admission to cool off under the wispy, 20-meter salto (waterfall) while I play with some of the amazing touch-me-not plants (Mimosa Pudica) that furl up when brushed with a finger.

        Some orchids are so playful and animated 
        as to conjure characters from a fairy tale.

From El Salto we head down the road to the Orquideario Soroa, the largest botanical gardens in Cuba—and, some claim, the second biggest orchid gardens in the world. Built by Spanish lawyer Tomás Felipe Camacho in 1943 in memory of his wife and daughter, the lovely eight-acre grounds feature some 700 orchid species, including many endemic plants. Though Camacho died in 1960, the Orquideario, now supported by the University of Pinar del Río, continues to thrive.

(Admission to the Orquideario costs three pesos (CUC) for a person—plus an additional peso for a camera!)

Our knowledgable guide explains the origins, preferences and significance of each specimen—though I must say I’m distracted by the sheer visual impact of such gorgeous flowers, some so playful and animated in form as to conjure characters from a fairy tale.

Unfortunately, not all orchids bloom at the same time. Alas, Cuba’s splendid national flower, the mariposa (butterfly) orchid, (Hedychium Coronarium), with its intoxicating, gardenia-like fragrance, is among the absentees. But the other amazing orchids of Soroa fill in nicely and will forever decorate the sultry alcoves of my happy place.