Interviewsand Articles


Power of Place: Welcome Aboard Our Fourth Newsletter

by Paul Van Slambrouck, Jan 22, 2008



Welcome aboard our fourth newsletter, and the first of 2008.  I’m guest editing this one, courtesy of founding editor Richard Whittaker.

My year started in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, just outside the small hamlet of North Fork at a Vipassana meditation center.  For 10 days, in total silence, students learn to practice one of the most ancient forms of meditation.  If any of you newsletter subscribers have had this experience, I’d love to hear form you.

Strong storms swept across northern California early in January and blew through our center during the first several days of the course.   The initial days were challenging, both physically and emotionally with a demanding regimen of meditation sitting each day.  One evening after our last meal of the day, which consisted of fruit and tea at 5 PM, I was marching back up the trail to my cabin, navigating a dirt trail that had turned into a small stream under a lightless sky and steady rain.  Suddenly a small yellow orb appeared on the ground, cast by a flashlight somewhere over my left shoulder and behind me.  As I picked my way up the trail the light remained always a helpful few feet in front of me.  As I reached the incline to my cabin, the light paused and waited for me to accomplish the final steps. I looked back to at least nod in appreciation yet the light and person had already disappeared into the night.

This small gesture remained with me throughout the 10 days, a constant reminder to rejoice in life, no matter how wet and slippery the path at times.  And what touched me most was the power of a small act of generosity, particularly when done in anonymity.  No hooks, no payoffs, no rewards, not even a need to be acknowledged for the kindness. At the Vipassana center all are requested to observe “noble silence” and it seemed to me that because this act was done in that spirit it was deepened immeasurably. 

I’m not sure this newsletter, filled as it is with words and images, can truly qualify as an extension of noble silence.  But the thoughts and ides expressed by this issue’s collection of artists certainly run against the noise of our times, the notions that faster is better and anything deep, slow and ambiguous is to be avoided. So in the spirit of generosity without any required return, we offer this edition. 

For me, this  assortment of articles speaks to the power of place.  Each individual, in his or her own way, ponders what it is to be sensitized to one’s surroundings, and conscious of one’s history.  Such awareness seems to me a more daunting proposition as we enfold ourselves in ipods, cell phones and digital dialog. 

Laurie, at times, made the streets of San Francisco his home in the 1960s and struggled with addiction to amphetamines and rough bouts in jail. Yet he seems triumphant in spirit as witnessed by a manuscript he wrote and gave to friend Richard Whittaker. The manuscript is excerpted here and is remarkable for its joy and clarity.  In it Laurie describes a remarkable experiment in living he made over a period of several months. He describes his intent as: “I would break the habit of thinking ‘where’ and where to?’  All places would be equal.  I would try to learn to be comfortable anywhere.” 

Lee Hoinacki, a scholar, priest and former subsistence farmer, seemingly has learned to be comfortable with decisions that point life in dramatically different directions.  His lifelong explorations of right living have the birthmarks of experience and he speaks eloquently of the importance of exemplars.  “You need experiences of place, of thought, of clear thought.  Why?  It’s just that there are a lot of bad teachers around, and a lot of bad books – a lot of bad examples.”

An interview with painter and mixed-media artist Edith Hillinger traces her family’s flight from the Nazis to Turkey and her ultimate migration to California.  Her affinity for botanical themes seems apt.  One source of comfort in her travels, particularly to Turkey as a young girl, was the constancy of certain plants, like poppies.  “They’re migrants, too,”  she says.

Photographs by Doug Burgess show us the symmetry and ever-presence of weeds.  This body of work explores the nature of beauty and how we classify plants.  Despite every gardener’s best efforts, not to mention those of corporate manufacturers of sophisticated poisons, weeds persist, even thrive. Speaking of his relationship with these botanical marvels, Burgess says with pride, “So I have established this relationship with part of the world that is doing very well despite the market economy.”

Black and white images by James Hajicek, a professor of art at Arizona State University, take us on a mystical exploration of irrigation canals at night.  As a result of low natural light and bursts of flash, water rises like mist to wrap more recognizable structures, leaving us both mystified and a bit disoriented.  Even Hajicek admits to some sense of mystery about his images, concluding, “One can only continue to do the work.” 

Indeed. And continue we shall.

About the Author

Paul Van Slambrouck retired as the chief editor of The Christian Science Monitor. He also served as chief editor of the San Jose Mercury News. An avid photographer, he is currently teaching journalism at Principia College in Illinois.


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