The Spell of Now: A Week Alone on a Small California Island

A patch of coreopsis against the backdrop of Anacapa Island. | Photo: Flickred!/Flickr/Creative Commons License

"Being Present."

That's all the sign said.

Perhaps it was short so as not to distract from the moment. I'd like to think so.

I drove past the sign, watching it dwindle and disappear in the rear view mirror, and then I was looking ahead, which is always a good thing when you are driving. Although several days have passed, I have not forgotten the sign. Its message wasn't new to me. I doubt it's new to you. But making it yours is no easy feat. And letting it go is an immeasurable loss.

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People say that never before have we lived in such fast paced times, so fast paced that many of barely have time to notice what's around us. No doubt, some folks must undertake whiz-bang fast paced lives of incessant meetings and chirping pagers, although I am not among them for, truth be told, I am unimportant. Discounting the times my mother called me in to explain some troubling matter for which I was not to blame, in fifty-three years I have attended less than a dozen meetings. I have never received a page. In fact, I'm not even sure if people use pagers anymore.

But I do know that I am still often distracted from this moment that is our life, for we can find the most mundane excuses for ignoring what truly matters. Here again, I don't think I am alone. It is my guess that distraction has been part of humanity's fabric since we first realized we could make an appointment tomorrow. It seems to me we are often looking forward. Or back. And so, not noticing now.

I once spent a week alone on Anacapa Island (part of Channel Islands National Park). I won't explain why (although plenty of people have asked); it's not important here. But I will tell you that Anacapa Island, eleven miles off the Ventura coast, isn't a big island -- just over one square mile in all -- and a week is a very long time. Perhaps this is why most people visit Anacapa for a half day, traipsing the few trails, stopping to admire an ocean panorama or two and then scurrying back to the snack bar on the boat.

But I spent a week there, and as I was riding out on the Island Packers' boat that would deposit me on the island I looked back to the decision that had seen me to this foolishness and forward to the chance to eat cold ice cream the minute I set foot back on the mainland. Anacapa is short on acreage and refrigeration. I did not look at the present.

But as the week unspooled, slowly a strange and wonderful thing happened. I fell under the spell of now. One evening, an hour before sunset, I made my way toward a spot known as Inspiration Point, which offers, well, an inspiring view of craggy island cliffs and prairie seas. On the way I passed through a small coreopsis forest that I had already passed through countless times before. At first glance, the coreopsis forest was less than inspiring. More to the point, after months without rain the coreopsis appeared drooping and dead, precisely why I had passed right through the stand countless times in my hurry to be somewhere else.

For some reason this time I stopped to look.

Coreopsis are waist high plants at best, so serious observation required I crouch low, no easy matter for someone with the flexibility of rebar. But crouch and look I did, swaying slightly like some dozy catcher. The coreopsis was, quite literally, off the end of my nose. With no choice, I observed the plants closely. It was true, they looked like death. Their stalks were mottled as old hands and their ends held, not flowers, but drooping strands, thin and withered as a skeleton's final hairs. The wind spat salt spray; I felt it against my cheeks. Salt is something few life forms relish, but upon the coreopsis stalks, life flourished in the form of dozens of tiny lichens. Reaching out I gently ran my fingers along the plant's drooping strands; surprisingly, they possessed the moist suppleness of hope.

I forgot my appointment with Inspiration Point. Nearly on the horizon, the setting sun now bathed the entire miniaturized mossy antebellum forest in gauzy gold. The coreopsis bobbed agreeably. I realized I had been crouching for nearly an hour.

Coreopsis lie dormant for nine months, erupting with brilliant yellow flowers come winter's rains. I looked again at the mottled patches, and smiled. They didn't remind me of death. In my mind I saw again the hands of my ninety-year-old grandmother clasping -- nay, fairly crushing -- the arm of the frightened five-year-old great grandson she had just met, holding this new life as if it were a treasure not to be believed, a bridge to renewed hope and possibility.

How often do we step ahead when standing still is what matters?

It was the simplest thing, but it was a most important thing. I have never forgotten it. Nor have I forgotten the sound as I crouched in that life-lesson glen, a sound like a continuous whisper. At first I couldn't quite place it. So I closed my eyes and listened until it came to me.

"Being Present." We always need reminders. I smiled as I drove past the sign. That evening I stood in our front yard and watched the sun set. I watched for a long time. The gloaming filled the world with last fairy light, and then gave way discreetly to the falling night, the entire unfolding as beautiful and soft as a lover's sighs, as spell-binding as the continuous whisper among the coreopsis.

The hiss of sand spilling through an hour glass.

We only have so many moments.

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