The hum of the twenty-year old refrigerator finally shuts off, the cottage goes blessedly silent, and I feel my body relax.
In the quiet of a rainy morning, I hear only the irregular staccato cadence of water falling from eaves, boughs, and leaves, rain tapping on the kitchen skylight, and a murmur that one might mistake for wind but is really the sea, restless and rumbling. Seated in my usual morning spot at the table alongside the front windows of the cottage, my requisite pot of tea beside me with favorite blue and white English cup and saucer, I gaze out on a misty, watercolor world. Despite the low clouds and fog, the sky is steadily brightening to silver as the day arrives.
At the edge of the wet deck, the little bistro table with sky blue tiles, flanked on either side by dark iron chairs, drips liquid diamonds from its edges. Set against the wood railing and framed by the green camellia bushes just beyond, still crowned with a weathered candle lantern but cushions tucked away for warmer weather, the table and chairs have a certain forlorn, stark grace. The two redwood barrel planters nearby both sit empty. Waiting. Beneath the wide, outstretched arms of the Grandmother Monterey cypress—her thousand lacy green fingers stirring the coastal mists—the entire garden reveals a restrained, winter beauty.
Here amid the cypresses, pines, and evergreen oaks of California’s central coast, one can hardly call winter’s beauty ‘stark’, especially compared to vast regions of the northern world currently frozen and bare, but it is certainly subdued. This morning for some reason, the garden seems especially alluring, even in the grey rain, or perhaps strangely because of it. Glistening. Hushed.
I suppose that living in America I should call the front and rear aspects of this cottage a ‘yard’ like most everyone else does, but those years residing in England shaped me in some curious ways, vocabulary included. Truthfully, I like calling it a garden, and I think of it as such, despite that not a vegetable or flower is currently in sight.
There is a sheltered, enclosed feeling to this property with its tall wooden fence, the neighbor’s leafy green hedge, and the towering Grandmother, whose arms reach down toward the fence to obscure the houses across the street while simultaneously sweeping up and high over the cottage. Only half the front deck catches sun, even on clear days. It’s a cocoon of sorts, this garden. And while I often yearn for a more open environment with a view, my soul preferring to feel expansive rather than contained, I do value the privacy here in town.
Despite the general quietude of this oceanside village, my shady garden doesn’t feel much of a place for inspiration—not like the poet’s cottage where I lived for six months at the sea’s edge, or the whitewashed stone farmhouse on the hillside in Spain amid the olive groves where we resided after departing England. To me it feels more like simply a landing spot, another transition house where the painted gypsy wagon is parked for a while.
For the most part I find this place conducive for editing and tinkering with words, which is mostly what I’m doing these days as I comb through my recently written manuscript. Crossing out lines of text or whole paragraphs even, my trusty old fountain pen from Paris held firmly in hand. Scribbling new words and sentences. Watching the little birds beyond the windows and hoping for bits of inspiration to similarly arrive.
Winter Solstice has passed, leaving a smile and sense of goodness and cheer in my heart as the remaining calendar days of a year slip away. The Christmas full moon wanes. The table where I generally sit and write remains festively decorated with a holiday runner and loose twists of embroidered gold ribbon, a few sparkly Christmas baubles, some Old World snowflake-type ornaments fashioned from hand-shaved birch or spruce. Silver napkin rings. The perpetual beeswax tapers, replaced weekly as I burn them nightly. Seated here on a quiet, rainy morning, the dogs still burrowed into the warmth of their bed, a certain feeling hovers around the house that only comes at the holidays, like a welcome guest.
At the Winter Solstice, my dear mate gave me a beautiful, Arts & Crafts style bird feeder. A perfect gift. Just now, the first little Winged Ones are discovering it, and seated by the window my own heart flutters to watch them outside.
May we all be fed.
Accompanied by tea, old fountain pen, and open pages of a journal, I’ve been musing on the ways that we welcome grace—or fail to, as the case may be. And more and more, I’ve been considering its closely entwined relationship to the ‘ordinary sacred’, those mundane but spiritual moments that stitch us to something much larger. While it seems to me that grace appears anywhere, like a ray of sunshine coming through the clouds, or a little blue bird that alights in the garden—even manifesting through ‘virtual’ events, like meeting people or opportunities discovered online—the everyday sacred only visits when we are paying attention and unplugged. Mindful. The door to our heart left open as to a spring day.
A recently met friend of mine, Marlena de Blasi, author of the bestselling A Thousand Days in Venice and A Thousand Days in Tuscany, writes of “living gracefully, both in abundance and in need.” It is a motto/directive that has inspired me since the day I first read her words while living in England. For years now, I’ve ruminated on what it means to live gracefully; for me, it is related to generosity and living with my senses wide open, slowing down and paying attention, seduced by the everyday beauty and mystery of life. Savoring, too, whether it be the scent of fresh parsley I am chopping in the kitchen, or the diamond raindrops suspended from the bistro table and chairs.
In such moments we open to creativity and inspiration, twin energies that are certainly part of living gracefully, I think, nudging us ever closer to authenticity and soul.
One of my guiding principles is that everything is relationship. Moreover, it seems to me that life—and nature—is essentially a conversation, and yet the majority of us aren’t listening or contributing much of value. What is it we bring to this relationship—with place, fellow humans, earth’s denizens, and planet? And how can we become something more than simply a consumer?
Almost exactly at the time that I discovered and took Marlena’s “living gracefully” motto to heart, a former mentor of mine suggested, “Create simply to give it away.” I love her soulful advice. Similarly to what I wrote in a post a couple weeks ago (“A Heart Open to the World: Finding Beauty“), when we create and share—no matter how simple our offering may seem—we are giving back to the Larger Story. We consciously enter into relationship and dialogue; we practice sacred reciprocity. And that, to me, feels very close to the heart of living gracefully, whether in abundance or in need.
I spend an hour or so each morning perched here beside the windows, silently observing the day arrive, opening my heart and welcoming grace. Along with stepping outdoors to place bare soles upon the earth, it is the ritual with which I begin each day—largely because it sets an intention and creates expansion within me. Room to breathe. Space to move, sway, and dance free from noisy thoughts and hungry ghosts.
I can only trust that grace will continue to find me in life, steering me gently toward home regardless of the course I’m following, whether I am confident of the path’s direction or once again lost in a darkly tangled wood. Yet I find that I can welcome and invite grace best in quiet moments like this one; unplugged from the busy modern hum, sitting silently, appreciating the winter beauty outside my window, watching the birds, walking the sea shore or amid the sheltering, singing trees. Curled up with my beloved, too.
Christmas Day on Facebook, I shared someone’s post that said, “The moment you start acting like life is a blessing, it starts feeling like one.” Really, that is very much in alignment with how I feel about grace: when we welcome and recognize it, and when we offer something in return—attention, gratitude, willingness, dedication, creativity, breath—we open the door even further for it to fully enter our lives.
Repeatedly I write in these posts that grace and beauty abound, despite that we face difficult choices, or when we wrestle with those familiar angels and demons such as expectation and disappointment. Even in the soul-crushing darkness of a crisis of faith, mysterious grace is still present, waiting to be recognized and welcomed… standing quietly in the corner of our winter garden.
Perhaps, if nothing else, we can simply feed the birds with our heart and senses open wide, offering a prayer of gratitude to earth and sky.