Give Us This Day

This week, the world comes together to bid farewell to 2014 and welcome 2015. Collectively we face the new year with resolve and optimism. It really is the only way to move forward isn’t it? Perhaps this will be the best year yet.

As I review this outgoing year, I am filled with thanks to everyone who made it a good one for me. Be it small or big, their presence made all the difference. For all the events that brought joy, for all the lessons learned, for all the love received I am grateful beyond measure. I hope I reciprocated in equal amounts the kindness, laughter and help that came my way. I honestly tried.

Moving forward into the new year, I will carry within me that deep sense of gratitude. Like everybody else, I have the desire to be and do better. But that is in essence a quotidian goal. Each day is a fresh chance to improve ourselves and the world we live in.

I have just one intent for 2015 – to spend as much time as possible in the garden, in nature. No doubt this will improve my health physically, mentally and spiritually. As my constant muse, I expect the time with nature to greatly inform my creative efforts. When I’m creative, I’m in a good place. That in turn gives me impetus to be there for the people and causes that give meaning and purpose to my life. It really is that simple. And profound.

At the end of each day, I will ask myself if I did my best. And every sunrise will give me a new opportunity to try again. Ultimately, that is the biggest gift of all – to be forgiven for our past transgressions and proffered a crisp, empty day to fill up with our best.

I wish every one of you that gift – to wake up to each day of 2015 with hope, joy and a commitment to doing your best. Let nature be your guide.
May each day bring miracles.
(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Lore, Love And Lure Of Spices

Holiday baking is underway all over the country and beyond. The air in most homes is redolent with cinnamon, ginger, cloves, anise, nutmeg, cardamom, pepper, saffron, vanilla and other aromatic ingredients. We couldn’t imagine all the goodies of the season without these spices. Yet, does one ever pause to marvel at the ease with which we obtain them? Carrying list in hand, we get to the supermarket, locate the baking aisle and select the spices from the shelves. Familiar slim bottles holding powders in various shades of brown. We never think about spices unless a recipe calls for them.

Like so much else, we have become accustomed to taking the availability of spices for granted. As common as salt right? We no longer marvel at the way spices shaped world history. Yet, from the beginning of civilization, spices have been heavily sought. Be it for their fragrance and flavor or their power to preserve both food and body, spices have been in use forever. Egyptian tombs dating from 3000 BC have been found to contain spices. Wars have been fought , countries taken over, trade deals made, Gods appeased and eternal life assured because of these innocuous looking materials.

Each type of spice was once worth its weight in gold. Or emeralds and diamonds. It is true. Spices commanded an unsurpassed value. And here we are, sauntering into the grocery store to casually pick up a jar of cinnamon or mace. Nothing to it.

Growing up in India, we were taught in school about the lure of spices and tea that led to widespread colonization of South-East Asia. Columbus was looking for a faster route to get to India and her riches when he came upon America. Yet, we were not taught to fully appreciate the plants that yielded the sought after spices. It is possible that everybody assumed the knowledge because Indian cuisine is perhaps the one that uses the most variety and quantity of herbs and spices. Kind of like not being surprised that others coveted what we’d already used and enjoyed for centuries. In retrospect, I wish we had studied the spice plants as part of botany class, learned their cultivation and trade in commerce, mathematics and geography, their impact on humanity in history, and their properties and applications in biology and chemistry. That is a complete education in itself. It would not only have been interesting and relevant but, might have served brilliantly to show how every subject in school is connected.

Why spices were so expensive is not simply a matter of where the plants grow. Growing, harvesting and processing them is no simple achievement. A great deal of effort is required to yield a small amount of the spice. Often, the work can be risky or dangerous.

While we each make and/or partake of foods with spice this holiday season, I thought I’d pick one spice and tell you very quickly how it gets to us. Use this reading moment as a time to breathe deep and appreciate what we rarely give our attention. In a season fraught with traditions and history, lets take a walk to a faraway place, witness age-old practices and, properly meet the hitherto insufficiently appreciated clove.

Lets make the journey to Zanzibar. Mysterious, exotic Zanzibar. Heavily scented Zanzibar of the Spice Islands off the coast of east Africa. Evoking tales of the Arabian Nights and ancient legends told by Persian traders using Zanzibar as a base for voyages between the Middle East, India, and Africa. Zanzibar was once the world’s largest producer of cloves.

Cloves are the dried aromatic flower buds of a tree in the family Myrtacea Syzygium aromaticum. The trees were introduced from Indonesia in the turn of the 19th century. They are harvested September through November which coincides with the short rainy season. Harvesting is hard work as it must be done by hand. The bunches of cloves are found deep in the foliage and are difficult to reach. On lower branches, they can be grabbed and pulled off but higher branches demand that the picker climb the tree which can grow to 50 feet. In the rain, imagine how perilous this can be. Every member of a family must help in the harvest.

The picked bunches are carried in gunny sacks from farm to village where leaves and buds are separated and dried in the sun. Again, by hand. The leaves are dried and pressed for perfume and oil. Clove oil is still used to treat toothaches.

The buds themselves are taken to one of three collection stations and sifted by hand to clean the harvest. Dirt, twigs and other particles are removed. This procedure is painstaking and necessary for yielding a product of high quality.

The sifted and cleaned cloves are weighed and only then the farmer is paid. Heaviness, dryness and aroma are inspected and packaged accordingly. Strong aromas and whole, intact cloves fetch higher prices.

From here, they are transported and go on to be sold locally or exported for use in cooking, medicine or cosmetics.

That is a long, strenuous journey don’t you think? Can you imagine eating foods without any of the spices?! No cinnamon babka, no gingerbread cookies, no chutneys, no steak au poivre, no mulled cider, no anything delicious!

Coming back to our holiday baking, it gives a renewed appreciation for the spices doesn’t it? I for one am resolved to send a silent thanks each time I reach for a spice. Once again, plants have shaped our civilization. They remind us to be grateful and mindful. Spices improve not only our foods but, our hearts and minds as well.

Happy indulging one and all! May the holidays be seasoned perfectly with joy and laughter.

Some years ago, I visited coffee,tea and spice plantations in southern India. While I cannot locate photos of that visit, I unearthed a few watercolors I made. So, thats what I’m including here. I’m sure if you are interested to see more, you will discover a plethora of images on the Internet!

Coffee and tea

Coffee and tea

Pepper and cardamom

Pepper and cardamom

(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Getting To Know You

IMG_1022What are the things you absolutely cannot live without? I’m asking things not people. Yes, air, water and food are obvious but those are not what I’m asking about. Nor do pictures of your loved ones count. Think about it. We love a lot of items but there some essentials that the very core of our being needs to sustain itself and be whole. There are probably many things that come to mind. List them. Now pare the list down to the three most important. Those three things probably define you. Am I right?

I asked myself this same question. The final three came down to flowering plants, classical music (specifically Bach’s compositions), books. Make your own analysis about moi. I’ve been having a blast analyzing myself.

The value of Bach’s music is easy to understand. No other composer moves me as he does. It is as though he knows the human condition intimately and calls upon us to reach for our higher selves. For me personally, Bach’s music is the highest, purest form of prayer. His music moves the planets. From such a reaction, I understand that I’m spiritual and something of a purist. Both true – I don’t like Shakespeare performed to suit modern times, operas dumbed down to attract ‘younger’ audiences, brownies a la mode ( keep the ice-cream and brownie separate!) or emailing in abbreviations. I readily embrace new concepts, I just don’t like the classical forms messed with. No doubt a psychologist will have much more to say from this.

Books – I cannot get enough of learning, imagining, being inspired and yes, escaping. The very sight of a pile of books makes me happy. Without books, I couldn’t nurture my own creativity. And without creativity, I’m lost. Okay, cranky and impossible to live with.

Flowering plants. That made me think. I have waxed eloquent on many occasions about the role nature plays in our lives, our psyche. So my absolute requirement for staying connected to nature is a no-brainer. But, I’ve refined it further to flowering plants. Mind you, I’m enchanted with foliage. The colors, the variety, the textures that abound in foliage are hugely impressive and very satisfying. If they were to be all that a garden was designed around, I’d be quite content in such a place. But, I discovered that I must have flowers as well. Why?

True, they are beautiful. They add shots of color that uplift the spirit. Many provide fragrance to suffuse our souls. But beyond the apparent, what exactly makes them get on my list? It is the anticipation of them that I find invaluable. Awaiting the flowers keeps me going. Like the caliph in Scheherazade’s stories in One Thousand And One Arabian Nights, I keep wanting to ‘see’ how the story unfold. As much as I love the flowers in bloom, waiting for them is a most exquisite pleasure. It is why I like planning and preparing for a party more than the event itself. Or why Fridays are better than the weekend. The last weeks of winter and first weeks of spring are sweeter than the rest of the growing season.

Flowers are how I get through the winters – amaryllis and paperwhites abound in the house all of November and December. Meanwhile, the refrigerator is occupied with bulbs needing a cooling period. They will be ‘forced’ in January/February. March is passed with forced forsythia and cherry blossoms. April takes over with blooms outdoors. Receiving cut flowers is always wonderful but having to watch and wait for the bulbs or plants to bloom is even more exciting.

But there are two other qualities bestowed by the expectancy. Patience and hope. I work on having the former and this promise of all good things come to those who wait is my regular instruction. A kind of gentle guide provided by nature herself. Expecting instant gratification is no way to go through life. Having a deep appreciation for the way things develop suits me better. As a born optimist, I’m good with the latter quality. Having to wait perforce simply reaffirms that I’m on the right path. Without hope, how could one go on? The much anticipated flowers have no idea of the big responsibilities they bear. They, as all of life, are ephemeral. I must therefore use my own time consciously and fully.

In the anticipation, I visualize the outcome over and over. I imagine perfect, happy endings. For , in the course of waiting, the world, in my mind, is unsullied. Still pure and in perfect balance. No violence, madness , inequality or corruption. I imagine the universe in the harmony that Bach invokes. I attempt to do my part in making that a reality.

In the final analysis, all three of my imperatives are also my muses. Without them, I could not create. And then, we’re back to being grumpy and loathsome.

So there you have it. The three things I cannot live without. They teach me who I am and how to live.

What three precious things are on your list?

On the subject of flower power, don’t forget! It is the season to write notes to friends and family – my botanical cards are available for just that purpose. The 8-card packs are also good for hostess and teacher gifts. Just saying. 15% percent of the sales goes to the Rocky Hills preservation efforts of the Garden Conservancy.

(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Cultivating Giving And Gratitude

‘Tis the season for giving. You already knew that. The media informs us of it every second of the day. The businesses have already taken care of all the worries and inconveniences. Short on cash? No problem. There are layaways, store credit with no interest till year 2016 when presumably you will be well off, free shipping, sales and heavy discounts and of course, their everyday low prices. Strapped for time? Personal shoppers, on-line shopping, experts who will tailor your gift list for people you didn’t know you knew or loved, will take care of that problem. Gift wrappers, tree decorators, party planners, caterers, clean up services, even people who will eat and exercise for you are on the ready to serve you. No need to interrupt your uber-busy life.

Personally, the garden reminds me all the time to be grateful, to give freely, to be in the moment. The time, energy and love I lavish on it is directly proportional to the difference I make and how I feel. To begin with, getting my hands dirty, getting on my knees, bending and lifting as I go about tending to the garden, keep me humble. The sore muscles, achy joints, broken nails, scratched skin and seasonal allergies are evidence that nothing worthwhile comes easy. My efforts are rewarded with beauty and bounty. Much to be thankful and awed by. By taking care of the needs of a garden, I am forced to be mindful. My time spent cultivating it is reciprocated in a better understanding of nature, the world at large and my own self. As I better my garden, I find that I have bettered myself. The tutorial here is really about giving more of oneself. Having a lovely garden is the gift I give to family, my world, myself. For nurturing this piece of land, nature returns the favor in the many life lessons and innumerable brushes with grace.

Here is my take on giving. Each act of giving must involve the self in a deep way. When you have money, time, health and general wherewithal, it is easy to give. Write a check, sign up for a couple of hours at the soup kitchen, join a committee to fund raise – heck, head the committee why don’t you, purchase toys for underprivileged kids, train and run a marathon for a cure. You get the idea. All of that is noble, necessary and commendable. But, now, ask more of yourself. Make that check bigger by letting go of your dream for one more pair of designer shoes. After writing that check, ask what else you can do for that cause. Extend your hours at the soup kitchen and forget about the movie you hoped to take in. It’ll be on Netflix soon enough. Even better, you can pick up the DVD for free from the library. It will not hurt to see it a few months late. Take the toys you purchased and personally deliver it to the children. Spend some time with the recipients and get to know them. Skip the blow-out sales at the mall and shop local. Help your community thrive. So you didn’t get all the trendy bargains but, you helped more people than you know. Having fewer but more meaningful presents to give is good. Give by reaching deep within yourself.

The point I’m trying to make is this: give till it hurts a wee bit. Make it matter. Making a personal sacrifice so you can be of the most help is the spirit of true giving. It creates a mindfulness of how and what you give. Accommodating opportunities to volunteer and help despite tight schedules, lack of funds and/or other limitations and obligations is when we are called upon to rise to the occasion and show our true intentions. Please don’t get me wrong. Any gift is worthy. But, in these times of extreme consumerism we are all too caught up in the frenzy of thoughtless giving (and getting). The bigger, the more expensive the better. It is also the easiest. Meanwhile, since most folk do not have deep pockets, this results in feelings of being inadequate and insufficient. Worse, one witnesses the rearing of the ugly heads of discontent and envy. Often, people then don’t give at all. Sadly, it is not about wounded feelings but about bruised egos that gets in the way of giving.

Every little bit helps. So if you can only give $1.00, that is fine but perhaps you can also give the gift of time. The homemade, handmade and heart made are often the most cherished. Creativity and imagination go a long way in increasing the giving possibilities.

As a whole, we need to stop feeling sorry for what we don’t or cannot have or afford. Cease to look outside our lives and instead look within. Compare yourself to no one. Consider your blessings. The body you have is beautiful as is. It permits you to do the things you need to do. Cherish that. It probably could use more exercise, less dessert and better sleep. Well, you can do something about it but right now, give thanks for this perfectly imperfect body. The same goes for everything else in your life.

Between sincere gratitude and pure generosity, we have all the ammunition we need to make a serious difference in bettering our world. Everybody thinks they are too busy and frankly, I’m tired of hearing that refrain. The fact is, if we care enough about anything, we always find time for it. If we want to have or do something badly enough, we always get it done. It’s that simple. But please, I beg you, lets not brag about it, consider ourselves ‘experts’ or expect accolades. You know what you do and that is enough.

Instead, let your garden proclaim your goodness.

Don’t forget! It is the season to write notes to friends and family – my botanical cards are available for just that purpose. The 8-card packs are also good for hostess and teacher gifts. Just saying. 15% percent of the sales goes to the Rocky Hills Preservation efforts of the Garden Conservancy.

(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Sacred Groves, Mighty Cathedrals

Replete with gratitude and Thanksgiving repast, I sought the outdoors for a little reflective time and to come out of the turkey stupor. The rush of cold air instantaneously removed the cobwebs from my mind. I took a walk in the woods appreciating how wonderful it felt to be in this place at this moment. It felt very right.

As much as I enjoy hiking in more open spaces, it is amidst the trees that I’m made aware of my state of grace. Walking slowly along the tall pillars of this hallowed space, my breath is deep and deliberate. My body relaxes as accumulated tensions slip away. The soft light of the late afternoon streams through the high fenestrations in the naked branches bracing the forest’s vault. It creates gentle shadows that will soon merge into a singular darkness.

At first, I’m only conscious of the quiet but, as I let go of the noise in my head, the hushed sounds of life in the woods let me know that I’m not alone. My presence, if noted, does not appear to cause an interruption. Here, there is room for everybody. All are welcome.

Before I know it, I’m feeling more alive and uplifted. Restored in spirit, I head back to the house. It has only been a mere twenty minutes but I know the positive effects will remain much, much longer.

Trees have this power to influence us in ways beyond our understanding. Cultures all over the world have held them precious, sacred. Beyond the fact that trees are the source of fuel and food, shelter and shade, abodes and boats, they have been venerated. Trees have played a central, valued role in human history. Siddhartha became the Buddha under a Bodhi tree. There is the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life. The Wishing Tree and the World Tree. In religion, mythology and literature one finds trees given exalted positions in the human context. All across the globe there are Sacred Groves, Holy Trees, labyrinths amidst trees and, old forests rich in folk lore. We need trees but they can well do without us.

I recall my visit to the Monarch Grove in Pacific Grove, California about ten years ago. Having read that west of the Rockies, Monarch butterflies spend their winters in this stand of eucalyptus trees, I was determined to visit it. It was August so no Monarchs were going to be there but I still felt compelled to go. We found it with some difficulty and as I approached the grove, it looked like nothing much. However, once I stepped into it, an inexplicable calm came over me. I had no doubt whatsoever that this was sanctified space. The Monarchs had blessed it so. Even in their absence, the holiness of the place was palpable. The eucalyptus stood sentinel. Guardians of everything meaningful; maintaining nature’s delicate balance. It was spellbinding. When I left this fragrant, leafy temple, I took with me the sense of having been in the presence of greatness.

I will share here something I’ve never told anyone – when I’m upset or troubled, I choose a tree and pour out all my thoughts and fears to it. Leaning on it or sitting beneath, I vent. The tree silently absorbs my worries and thus unburdens me so I am free to return to the business of living wholly. I call it my Shrieking Tree. Perhaps it ought to be renamed as the Shrink Tree. Has worked wonders for me.

Many years ago, we took our first trip to Provence, France. Topmost on my husband’s must-do list was to hug an ancient olive tree. Who knows why but this cerebral and pragmatic man felt driven to connect with a tree that had stood witness to so much history. It mattered to him. That’s it really, trees are inextricably linked to our human heritage. After all, we used to be arboreal.

Trees are living landmarks. They represent our past and hold our future. They need to be protected, honored and celebrated. Future generations deserve to inherit these treasured monuments of life.

If you haven’t paid much attention to trees lately, been too busy, stressed to the max and feel like you need more hours to the day, I ask you to pause. Trust me, whatever you are doing can wait a bit. Now go outside into the garden or to the nearest park or woods. Pick a good sized tree. Get close and lean into it. Spread your arms around it. Breathe deep.
Notice how you feel. Let the texture of the bark speak to you. Smell the earthiness. Listen to the sounds. Become aware of the dappled light, the temperature of the air and tree, the colors around. Allow the tree to embrace you back. Close your eyes and permit it to comfort you. Remain there for a few minutes or longer. Then, step back and observe how much better you feel. Hug a tree, hug the world.

Ancient olive trees

Ancient olive trees


The woods that border my garden

The woods that border my garden


The tree house

The tree house


Snow forest

Snow forest


Labyrinth in the woods

Labyrinth in the woods

Note: If you are looking to send secular cards this season, or in need of hostess/teacher gifts, you might want to consider my botanical cards.
(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar