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Teachings of My Summer Toad

On a warm early morning this past summer, I opened the front door and stepped onto the porch, where I was surprised to find a toad sitting quietly. Assuming him to be as surprised as I, as well as vulnerable, and not wanting to frighten him, I passed carefully by, heading towards the yard and making it clear that I had no intention towards him. “Hullo, Toad,” I offered in a soft tone, as casually as I could, in the hope of dispelling any awkwardness. Toad remained still, unblinking. His demeanor was hard to assess. Was he watching me? Thinking about me? Was he calm or just unrevealing of his emotional state?

Though unexpected, his appearance wasn’t unprecedented. I had spotted the occasional toad in the yard, always in the summer, and always sitting quietly in whatever inward state toads may experience, simply not moving. I have never understood what they were doing here: there is no water, and I have only ever seen one at a time. Are they loners? The yard contains some mysterious small holes, but do toads squeeze themselves into them? I avoid the holes, hoping that the inhabitants, if any, won’t emerge while I’m near. There had even been a summer toad on the porch before. He appeared during the same season as a plant was passed along to me by a neighbor. The plant, a maranta, or prayer plant, was the one among all the pots which looked the most like Toad. How did he know that? He took up residence in the pot and could often be found there in the shade. If I didn’t see him and began watering, he sat patiently, perhaps even enjoying the soft shower. He stayed all summer and was called Rupert. Maybe this summer’s toad was Rupert, a resident of the neighborhood, showing himself again: perhaps he knows me, while I can’t tell one toad from another.

Recently, I heard someone use the phrase “trust the stillness.” I was delighted, especially at hearing it spoken by that particular friend. What an expression! Does he really think like that? Are those his words? I googled the words and found them used in various forms by many sources. So lots of people are trusting stillness, or at least talking about it, and I didn’t know – a popular idea existing all around me, of which I had been unaware. And I found myself thinking of Toad.

Toad arrived this summer and took up his post as my teacher. His arrival and departure, like everything about him, were unannounced. He gave me no syllabus, no reading to do, no assignment. In fact, he never spoke or acknowledged me in any way. I am not big, but I am huge compared to him; and yet, he appeared unimpressed. I don’t know what may go on in the consciousness of a toad, so I can only make human assumptions and imagine him to be like me. I liked him being here; and in my mind, he trusted me. I gave him as much space as I could and made myself quieter and slower – smaller – around him. Stillness reminds me of him, because it was stillness that we shared. I studied Toad and tried to give him the atmosphere he seemed to want. He gave me his presence.


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Meditating With Agnes Martin

Over on Prufrock’s Dilemma’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/?sk=welcome#!/pages/Prufrocks-Dilemma/292303424216900), Susan Scheid shares this link:

“Junior Fellow Grace Ambrose invited 50 current and ex-Philadelphians to write about an object of their choice from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Taking shape as an edition of 50 postcards, the writings will comprise an alternate history and guide to the museum’s holdings, seen through the eyes of the artists, writers, musicians, and friends who live alongside them.”

As an enthusiastic follower of her blog, I have hopes that Susan will write her own response to the invitation. And, after mulling over the subject for a while, it has occurred to me that I might even try my own. Having considered the museum’s vast collection, and a small selection of personal favorites, I decided to begin from the other end and work my way back. This is a practice begun with a fellow student while in high school. We disagreed about a certain artist whose paintings she admired but I thought worthless. I appreciated her intellect and wit and decided to challenge her to write a short essay criticizing his work; I would oppose her and write his praises. She seemed doubtful at first but accepted the duel, and it turned out to be a lot of fun.

Returning to PMA, I thought I would try the old approach and begin with art that decidedly did not appeal to me. And that took me to minimalist Agnes Martin’s painting “The Rose.” This is supposed to fit on a postcard, so I’ll try to write small.

First, there is an outside. Then there is an inside. From the outside, especially from sitting at a distance, the painting is apparently just a soft pink canvas. Anyone could paint it; it is pointless. You have to walk up to it, view it intimately, let your mind climb inside of it, and then go sit down again. Now you have learned that this is one of Martin’s grid paintings, a graphite grid echoed by a rose-colored grid. Viewing close up, you see the delicate lines; but start pulling back a little, and the grids begin to float. By the time you have seated yourself again to gaze from a distance, you see the pink glow of the whole six-foot square painting, and now you realize that you, yourself, have been drawn into it. When we see a rose, we automatically lean to inhale its fragrance. The scent distracts us from even the most beautiful vision of rose. Martin’s painting is the essential journey into the rose, on the molecular level where the rose, and you, begin losing your edges and become one. You’ll want a chair or a cushion, because this is meditation.

Perfectly enhancing this experience, for me, is Yo Yo Ma’s performance of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1. One is fully absorbed, immediately, into the music, as mesmerizing as a chant, and sustained in the space of it long after the musician has put down his bow:

I invite anyone who reads this to add your own response to Grace Ambrose’s invitation, and post it on my Facebook page(https://www.facebook.com/?sk=welcome#!/elizabeth.newleaf?fref=ts). Can’t visit the Museum on the physical plane? They have a big website!


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Rumi’s Wolf

Last summer, when an unexpected event devastated my life, I woke suddenly into a world, much of which had little or nothing to do with me. Things to handle, sort through, get rid of. I knew I had to reduce chaos and clutter to a quiet level and make the world I would continue in simple, peaceful.

A friend from the other end of the country began a series of calls wanting to come spend time with me, asking how she could help me, offering to help in whatever ways I needed. We have known each other all our lives, and her voice and words bolstered me. I knew just the kind of help I needed from her, a kind she was just the right sort of person, maybe the best person, to give me. I also knew that timing is everything, and that I had to be prepared emotionally and otherwise for that type of help. Finally, she forced the issue, stating that her calendar would be too full if she didn’t come during the time least busy for her – which meant soon. I accepted gratefully, but nervously. But she reassured me that she would come and take over and handle all the overwhelming details. And I felt taken care of.

And so she arrived, with a round-trip ticket that could not be altered: the timing was fixed. And what began as the flight’s effect of jetlag and scratchy throat soon turned into full blown illness. My friend was sick, sleep all night and most of the day sick, medicine sick. I accepted early on that she was not there to take care of me, after all: I was supposed to take care of her. So I did. Nothing on my to-do list could be done. We visited when we could, remembered old days and nearly forgotten people. She could eat, so I cooked. She asked for a hair trimming, and I trimmed. And all the while, I reminded myself continuously of Rumi’s words:

“Quit acting like a wolf, and feel the shepherd’s love filling you.”

I don’t know what fate brought my friend here to get so sick that, despite the best intentions, she could not stay awake long enough to help me the way she wanted to. I just know that this was the gift I was given: I got the chance to stop wishing, expecting, taking; I got the chance to act for a little while like a shepherd. I know that I was blessed.

Thinking about this experience, the image of sunflowers kept coming to me. They survive even untended, faces turned to the sun, absorbing the light and available rain. The art corner of my brain searched for a painting to join my words, and I thought of Van Gogh. But his sunflowers are such a fanfare. And then I remembered Mrs. Delany and her paper mosaic art. She has a single sunflower that stands alone and dutiful as a flag, looking just-plucked, asking nothing, sharing itself, readying seeds that feed the birds and prepare for next year’s crop.