Beauty Break: 48 Hours in God’s Country

Road trips rule in our household. The only problem is we don’t take nearly enough of them. Years ago, my husband and I thought nothing of picking a destination, hopping in the car, and setting out on an incredible journey. We didn’t really have much of a plan, we just ambled along, stopped where and when we felt like it, and explored.  We used to say that the curvy road sign was “our” sign. And it still is. But many things have whittled away at our ability to road trip freely — but have done little to quench the “highway companion” spirit we share, and which our son has inherited.

After seeing a small photograph of Devil’s Postpile in Mammoth, California, in AAA’s Westways Magazine a couple of months ago, I mentioned I’d never been there. My husband said, “Let’s go! That can be my Father’s Day gift.” Perhaps it was an offhand comment, but within a few weeks, we had cobbled together a trip and a budget and marked the calendar — we had 48 hours to travel into the Eastern Sierras and back again. Who knew what adventures we’d have along the way?

It turned out to be a spectacular trip in every sense of the word — a true road trip, into the middle of no where, into wilderness, following rabbit trails as we pleased, and cramming a huge amount of activity into an amazingly small compartment of time. We all agreed it felt as though we had been gone much longer than two days and none of us was ready to come back home. Two things made the trip fantastic — the beauty of nature that surrounded us, and the much-needed time together as a family, just the three of us. It was truly a nourishing time, for the body, mind, and spirit. Grab a cup of coffee or tea and enjoy the virtual beauty break!

Our first stop was at the Ranger Station at the Mt. Whitney portal, just south of Lone Pine. (On a personal note, my father-in-law is legendary for doing Whitney in one day!) It’s so interesting to drive through miles of desert, only to enter into the amazing juxtaposition of the jagged glacier covered peaks of the Sierras, the vast desert scrub (so eerily close to Death Valley), lush trees and grass, and flowing streams and rivers that make up the Owens Valley. If the ocean were closer, this place would truly be like heaven on earth.

We’re big classic and Western film buffs, so of course we had to do some exploring in the Alabama Hills, just behind the little town of Lone Pine. Hollywood has used these hills, canyons, and valleys to film hundreds of movies over the last 75+ years. We were lucky enough to find the “California Historical Site” of the filming of Gunga Din, one of my favorite films starring Cary Grant. The hills are amazing because they can “look” like many different world locations, like India for Gunga Din or the Middle East for Ironman I. In the total isolation and silence, its easy to imagine the clatter of horses hooves carrying an unsuspecting gunman towards the dangerous Indian ambush lurking around the next rock.

Our primary destination was Devil’s Postpile National Monument in Mammoth Lakes, California. Yes, that is snow you see behind us — in JULY in CALIFORNIA! The ski runs were open until the end of June. Crazy, and very cool.

And, of course, homeschooling happens all the time, even on vacation. Skippy got lots of practice with geography, map skills, history, nature study, geology, and climate while we were away.

The postpile is really something to see — totally amazing rock configurations and unique formations, perfectly formed by volcanic activity. Apparently, the formation is one of the finest examples of columnar basalt in the world. There was a time when the monument was threatened. A developer wanted to blast the area and use the basalt stone as rocks for a dam project; however, the naturalist John Muir and a prominent U.C. Berkeley geologist intervened and were able to save the site. Being an admirer of bees and a nature lover in general, I was fascinated by the hexagonal “honeycomb”  shapes of the rocks. Probably my favorite part of the formation is the curved extrusions on the left side of the wall — this  reinforces the reality that at one time the molten rock was pushed, almost like Playdoh through a Fuzzy Pumper Barber Shop extruder, into these finely formed shapes.

I loved seeing the wild flowers sprouting out of cliffs and rocks all along the hike. It was an interesting connection to the Gospel reading we heard at Mass that morning: the parable of the sower. His seeds fall in all different kinds of soil, only one of which bears fruit. These tiny flowers grow in the unlikeliest of places — it was a reminder to me of hope and promise, and the sheer tenacity and perseverance required to live a life of real faith in a world so opposed and hostile to such a life. Their delicacy contrasts so sharply with the harsh jags of the rock surrounding them. Beautiful……

After viewing the postpile, we felt like pushing on ahead down the trail to Rainbow Falls……not part of the original plan, but we were just enjoying the day and the beauty of being outdoors in such fresh air. The river that had meandered alongside us the entire hike dropped off the sheer cliff face of a huge granite gorge. No words express the beauty and grandeur of this place. It was the high point of the hike. The pictures speak for themselves.

“The visible world is like a map pointing to heaven. . . We learn to see the Creator by contemplating the beauty of his creatures. In this world the goodness, wisdom, and almighty power of God shine forth. And the human intellect. . . can discover the Artist’s hand in the wonderful works he has made. Reason can know God through the Book of Nature. . . ”  — John Paul II, 1993


Empty Canvas

Well, our raised bed garden is all set to go for this year. Those two tall sunflowers in the background shot up wild out of nowhere, likely vagrant seeds from the sunflower house we planted for Skippy a few summers back (see photos of that adventure below). The basil was an act of desperation, snatched up at Trader Joe’s because I wasn’t patient enough to wait for the seedlings I’ve ordered to arrive. But the rest, each square foot grid, is empty of plants and filled with fresh organic soil, waiting for something to grow in it. Emptiness waiting to be filled with possibility.

British landscape architect William Kent once said that “gardening is like landscape painting.” And I suppose it is similar in some ways —  you begin with a blank canvas, which might be an empty and barren patch of earth, or one overrun with weeds and stickers. You prime the space by clearing it and turning over the earth, and then carefully plan/compose the arrangements of flowers, vegetables, or shrubs and trees that you want. You select to “paint” with the best seeds or seedlings you can find, and set to work placing them on the canvas of earth in an attempt to match your vision. You do the best you can with what you know, learn new techniques to help the piece along, and try to make up for problems along the way.

But this is where any similarity to landscape painting ends. For the painter has virtually complete control over his project and, eventually, will either finish or abandon his piece. For the gardener, however, what comes next is really out of her hands — and the “piece” is never really finished, but instead demands constant care and attention well beyond the initial endeavor.  Things may grow, or they may not; they may succumb to disease or pests, or may thrive and grow with great energy. Who knows? Like any painter who commits the idea in his mind to canvas, the gardener ultimately deals with uncertainty about what the end result will be.  But unlike the painter, that uncertainty is never eased by a truly finished product.

In the end, gardening, like every other art, is an act of faith in that, ultimately, what happens there doesn’t really depend on the gardener, but on something higher than her. It isn’t for the gardener to worry about what will happen — her job is to do everything she can to create conditions in which something can be made out of nothing, to create a place where the impossible can become possible,  and then she must leave the rest to God.  

Being in the garden teaches me humility, patience, gratitude, hopefulness, trust, perseverance, and joy. It reminds me of the important things I need to pay closer attention to. It reminds me to watch for the ways God works in my life and to trust Him in doing this work, as the unseen gardener that He is. Like Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus in the garden after he has risen from the dead, mostly I don’t recognize his presence or his work in my life. My life is like a garden in which He plants lots of seeds — people, events, ideas, struggles, failures, successes, disappointments — all signs pointing to him, all of which have the potential to grow into something wonderful, into more than they at first seem to be. Every event, just like every seed, contains all that is necessary to produce a gift of grace. Even the smallest, seemingly insignificant detail can grow to become a great oak tree of grace in my life. God is continually making something out of nothing, both in my garden and in my life. And He never fails to surprise me. 

Post Script

A few summers ago, we agreed to forgo the “traditional” vegetable garden I normally plant in order to experiment with a sunflower house for Skippy. It was generally a success — the sunflowers grew nearly as tall as the house and provided a private, cool alcove for him to relax and read a book in. But they also provided a recreational living area for all sorts of creatures, some more amusing than others — we failed to realize that wasps adore the caterpillars that adore sunflowers. So the sunflower house also became a wasp house, of sorts, which Skippy eventually grew afraid to enter. Still, it was a memorable experience and one which we remember fondly.    

Beauty Break: A Poem

The Violet

by Jane Taylor

Down in a green and shady bed a modest violet grew, its stalk was bent, it hung its head, as if to hide from view.

And yet it was a lovely flower, its color bright and fair; It might have graced a rosy bower, instead of hiding there.

Yet there it was content to bloom, in modest tints arrayed; And there suffused its sweet perfume within the silent shade.

Then let me to the valley go, this pretty flower to see; That I may also learn to grow in sweet humility.

Beauty Break: Lavender Harvest

One of my favorite things about warm spring-summer days is the scent of my lavender as its oils heat in the sun. The light brightens the purple flowers so they stand out vibrantly against the dusky gray-green leaves and stalks and, when I stand close, the scent of the blossoms just floats up and around me as happy bees buzz back and forth, draining each tiny flower. For just a moment, its easy to imagine I’m no longer on the sunny patio of my suburban home, but wandering a lush lavender field in Provence…….well, I can dream, can’t I?

Lavender can be grown quite well in a large pot on the patio or deck.
Skippy and I are eager to try some recipes using dried lavender (stay tuned for our adventures with those!), so I harvested quite a number of stems and set them to dry. This is easy to do — simply snip them down low, close to the leaves so you have a long stem to tie up. Once you have cut the amount you want, secure the stems together with a rubber band and hang to dry for about two weeks in a cool spot.
 After the flowers have dried, the buds can be easily culled by running your fingers backwards along the stems. It took me about 10 minutes to cull buds from this bunch. The bonus? Your fingers will release the oils from the buds as you pull them off and will smell divine. Use wax paper to harvest buds and then store them in a sealed container as you would any dried herb.

There are many different kinds of lavender — even white! Lavender is a good choice for pots or planters as it is drought tolerant and attracts pollinators — hummingbirds, bees and butterflies are all frequent visitors to ours — and it is relatively low maintenance and easy to grow. But the best thing about it is that it makes a lovely Provencal beauty break with a breath of scented air on a warm summer day…….

Beauty Break — First Rose

Before the day had barely begun, my son asked if we would be taking a “beauty break” today. The “beauty break” is something he and I have started doing lately — its nothing more than a pleasant break from the daily grind to take in the beauty of nature around us. We take a moment to wander outside just to see what the natural world is up to.  Spring is in full swing in our backyard, so there is always something to see — bees in the lavender, new buds and blossoms in the unlikeliest places, intoxicating scent wafting from the orange tree, giant horned caterpillars we’ve never seen before, swallowtails in the bougainvillea. 

But today I was unwell.  And though I am ashamed to say it, his request to take a beauty break, which normally would have filled me with enthusiasm, merely left me cold, uninspired, indifferent. I was too fogged and ill to care about beauty or anything else, much less make the effort to go and seek it out. But as a parent, sometimes you just have to suck it up and go, whether you feel like it or not. Because your kid is bouncing off the walls, smiling with enthusiasm and eagerness and you know that this will be one of those weird things he remembers when he’s your age — he’ll remember how you used to take “beauty breaks” together. And somewhere inside you know those “beauty breaks” will make him a better, kinder, gentler, more grateful man. So I rousted myself and we took a break. And were rewarded by a completely free gift — the first tea rose.

Not three months ago, this thing was stripped buck naked of all its leaves and cut back within a foot of the soil. As if relieved at being shorn, it immediately began sprouting until it was full and lush with shiny leaves and a riot of walnut sized buds. The bloom is gorgeous and deeply fragrant and reminded me that I had done nothing to deserve such a beautiful gift. I felt grateful. Blessed. Happy. Like all of this had been arranged just for me.

Watching the transformation of the barren thorny stubs of my rose bush into sharp, shiny green leaves and tightly wound buds of what were now unfurling into luscious, silky layers of petals is a message of hope. Lots of things in life may look and feel wasted, soulless, and dead. But there is always hope in the promise of new life, rebirth, and transformation.  There is hope in the promise of change, of starting fresh, in a child’s enthusiasm, in the free gift of beauty right in front of us. This is something I forget more often than not. Taking regular “beauty breaks” seems like a good antidote. Bees help , too!

A Blog in Bloom

Hibiscus from my gardenI suppose its no accident that my blog is “premiering” just as Spring arrives and my garden is starting to wake up in buds and leaves. Similarly, this effort is a new “bloom” in my life — a chance for me to focus on the good and the beautiful, to connect and share, to develop my writing and creativity. I have lots of ideas and plans, but really…..well, who knows what you’re going to find here on any given day. This blog is sort of like a commonplace book and so can hold all manner of doodles, dreams, pictures, pressed flowers, travels, and thoughts. Perhaps I may be accused of a lack of focus — the bane of English and writing teachers everywhere! Quelle horreur! So be it……I prefer to be surprised by whatever is beautiful and inspires me, to explore more and look about me, to drop the agenda — at least here — and see where that takes me. To experience what comes from simply awaiting……and so we begin.
Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each
impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion
wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious,
beyond the reach of one’s intelligence, and await with
deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity:
that alone is living the artist’s life: in understanding as in creating.
— Rainer Maria Rilke