The name for the month of April was taken from the Latin aperire which means to open – April being the time of year when trees and flowers begin to open. It was also a time of year that ancient cultures had festivities that were light-hearted, even silly. Initially April Fool’s customs grew out of that seasonal light-heartedness, reflecting the way nature “fools” people with fickle weather. In 1500’s, when the Gregorian calendar took over from the Julian – moving the first day of the new year from April 1st to January 1st – those who forgot the change and continued to celebrate New Year’s in April were teased as “April Fools.”
Whether intentional or not, there is a connection between the quality of openness and the historic figure of The Fool. The Fool of antiquity possessed a child-like openness and connection to natural forces. Because his insight and advice grew out of his ability to speak freely (ever ready to point out foibles of those in power) and his willingness to upset the conventional order, the fool was regarded as having a special kind of wisdom. But as The Enlightenment took hold in the 18th century and as scientific reason replaced a more intuitive nature-based knowing, the figure of the fool was gradually demoted. Acting from a place of crazy wisdom or not-knowing was seen as foolish. There was a right and wrong way to do things, and behaving spontaneously one risked being dismissed. In recent years that trend has begun to reverse and there is a growing recognition of the importance of letting go and opening to what is.
As we enter the month of April, a month which includes Earth Day, let us take time to honor the qualities of openness and spontaneity so obvious in the natural world. Find time one day to go to a place in nature that you resonate with. Choose a spot you feel drawn to and sit down. It might be under a tree, at the edge of a field, by a body of water. It might be a place in your own yard or a nearby park. Wherever it is, take a few moments to become still. Allow your breath to settle – coming and going easily and effortlessly. As you become increasingly aware of your breath, see if you can notice your own natural rhythm. It may be slow, it may be rapid, it may be smooth, it may be rough – there is no right rhythm, each rhythm is unique.
Becoming aware of your own individual rhythm as you breathe in and out, allow the breath to fill you so you can feel yourself becoming more spacious inside. From this state of spaciousness, imagine you are breathing in the trees, the bushes, the grass. As you breathe out, imagine your breath merging with the landscape around you. Breathing in, breathe in the sounds that you hear – birdcalls, wind through the trees, man-made sounds. As you breathe out, let the sound of your breath join with the sounds around you, until you begin to feel part of all you hear.
Now imagine each one of your cells is opening to receive the sounds, sights, and movements outside. Imagine microscopic openings spreading throughout your body and that everything you see, hear, feel, is pouring through them. There is no tightness or resistance, only a million tiny openings which life is flowing through. Inspired by this experience of openness and transparency, you may feel the urge to sway back and forth to the movement of your breath. You may want to move your arms or feet as the air around you flows through each tiny opening. You may even feel like standing so your whole body has the freedom to move as it wants. If you become self-conscious, think of the playful wisdom of the fool. Remember the spontaneous gestures of small children and wild animals, the graceful waving of trees and plants. All the natural world moves in response to forces that flow through it. There is no reason that you should be different.
In this spirit, as you move through your day continue to feel the million tiny openings. Allow your actions to be easeful, feeling the breath, the air, the sights, the sounds, flowing in and out – as if you are a great sieve which the energy of life is flowing through. Take time to try doing things differently – change age-old habits, shake up your daily routine. If dinner isn’t ready on time, if your house a tad untidy, if your clothes are a rumpled or mismatched . . . Oh well! Nothing in nature is perfect. No tree, no flower, no bird or pond ever worries about being wrong – each moves in response to the forces around it. So as you move through your day, feel the cells of your body opening. Take the risk of appearing foolish or wrong. Practice opening to what is and saying, Oh well.
A year ago my son, his wife and their two year old twin sons, moved into my house. For months before I felt anxious. I had lived with a Zen-like simplicity – each rock, each shell, each small treasure carefully in place. My house was my sanctuary and the image of this tranquil environment exploding into a riot of cars, balls, mismatched socks, damp sheets, soiled diapers and bits of dried food left me despondent. Riddled with guilt at my response to what should be a grandmother’s fondest dream, I began to lose sleep. My health, in turn, declined. The refrain, The beginning of the end . . . (I am, after all, almost seventy!) ran through my mind like a dirge. I became obsessed.
But when the day of the move actually came, I found myself surprisingly upbeat. As I watched twins explore their new surroundings, my images of doom disappeared. Shrieking with delight they ran through the house – everything they found was an adventure and we were all enlisted to join in. Packing boxes became tunnels we crawled through, bubble wrap and tape became headdresses and capes we dutifully put on, a string of chairs became a train we patiently sat on, waiting for the “driver” and “conductor” to signal “All aboard! Ready to take off.” As the months passed, I was continually tested – spaghetti sauce dribbled over my favorite straw rug; treasured rocks lost in a morass of tangled toys; ancient miniature ceramics cracked, chipped or shattered – but their wide-eyed and wondering gaze (what’s Noni thinking now . . .) melted any annoyance I might have. Their playful imagination became my tonic: a tube from the roll of paper towels turned into a spyglass, a birthday hat for dolls, a watchtower for froggies. The cheerful green frogs became their alter ego – “Froggy doesn’t want to go to bed,” “Froggy doesn’t like carrots, Froggy is ready for a bath.” Over the months we established a routine of sorts. Each morning they waited at the bottom of the stairs for me to appear so we could begin their favorite games. Each evening as I lay soaking in the tub, they popped bubbles in what used to be a sleep-inducing bath. But despite the changes, I remained unruffled. Is this really me? I wondered, marveling at the peacefulness I felt in the midst of the high-spirited chaos.
Looking back from where I am now, I see that I’ve changed. I’m much less troubled by disruptions to my routine or things out of place. I’ve become more flexible, more able to open to momentary pleasure without worrying about what’s coming next. I’ll admit this doesn’t always come easily, but with such winsome teachers I’m making progress. The healing power of openness and play has had an effect. I’m getting better at saying “Oh well.”
The books I’m recommending for this month have a slightly different emphasis than ones I’ve chosen before. They are meant to challenge assumptions that there is a right way to do things and remind you that fresh new perspectives can grow out of the willingness to be open and play.
CRAZY WISDOM by Wes Nisker. Nisker traces the thread of what he calls “Crazy Wisdom” from Socrates to Mark Twain to Albert Einstein, from Coyote legengs to Taoism to Dada. In so doing, he convincingly illuminates the wisdom which lies on the other side of convention. In the first chapter he says, “Crazy wisdom does not exist in any history book and has never been traced as a distinct tradition. Here, we give name and shape to this unconventional understanding of life, which in some cases implies a manner of living as well. We will fashion “crazy wisdom” from both secular and spiritual sources, from ancient and modern, and from both Eastern and Western cultures, showing it to be the gritty core of many esoteric teachings and an essential part of the human story . . . If you wish to follow along, it is advisable to leave preconceptions and conceits, as well as the all-too-rational mind and the all-too-civilized self, behind. Let it all go . . . and let’s go.”
SILENCE by John Cage. “Silence” is a collection of Cage’s articles and lectures that express his revolutionary thoughts on sound, silence, form and time. In the foreword he writes, “For over twenty years I have been writing articles and giving lectures. Many of them have been unusual in form because I have employed in them means of composing analogous to my composing means in the field of music. My intention has been, often, to say what I had to say in a way that would exemplify it; that would, conceivably, permit the listener to experience what I had to say rather than just hear about it.”
PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST by James Joyce. I include this work by Joyce (though I could also have included Finnegan’s Wake or Ulysses) as an example of writing that broke dramatically with literary traditions but nonetheless became a classic. Concerned more with his own inner promptings than conventional expression, Joyce discovered a style that conveyed his character’s subjective experience in a way that was vivid and real – thus challenging the reader to open to new possibilities of expression.
MAY I FEEL by e.e.cummings and Marc Chagall. Chagall’s floating lovers and violin-playing horses are a wonderful complement to Cummings’ humorous salute to mating rituals between men and women. Influenced by Gertrude Stein and Dada and Surrealist traditions, Cummings’ poetry uses an exuberant style, with words, parts of words, or punctuation symbols scattered across the page. Much of his work makes no sense until read out loud.
PABLO PICASSO: BREAKING ALL THE RULES by True Kelley. This is a book meant for children, but gives a good feel for the man and his art and why the two developed as they did. It’s many illustrations demonstrate Picasso’s delight in “breaking the rules.” It quotes him as saying, “To draw, you must close your eyes and sing.”
THE UNSTRUNG HARP; or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel by Edward Gorey. Gorey looks at the literary life and its “attendant woes; isolation, writer’s block, professional jealousy, and plain boredom,” in his own unique playful way. His whimsical writing and drawings present yet another possibility for the construction of a novel.
I’m in the process of developing a package for people concerned with decision-making that will include an individually crafted day-long retreat and six on-hour follow-ups (over a period of three months). “If you let things come at you all the time, you can’t make a creative leap or wise decision,” a recent article on information overload says. “You need to pull back from the constant influx and take a break.” The retreat is designed to provide such a break. The follow-ups are designed to help individuals discover a process of decision-making that works for them – including ways to create regular openings in their schedules so they feel more inventive and refreshed. If you know of an individual or business interested in knowing more, have them contact me.
FINDING STILLNESS, CULTIVATING CREATIVITY, and CREATING YOUR OWN MAP are individually crafted, day-long retreats that take place in a charming cottage outside the town of Occidental on ten acres of rolling meadows, oak, bay redwood trees, only minutes from the ocean. Any one of them would be a meaningful way to step out of your busy life and experience the healing power of nature. Consider giving one as a gift to someone you love, or consider giving one to yourself.