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Archive for April, 2011

 (Note to readers:  why does a remembrance of a landscape architect, Bill Talley, appear in this blog about spirituality?  Answer:  Because he was a spiritual person, naturally!)

I have been fortunate enough to have had three wonderful mentors in my life – Paul Korshin, Bob Hanna and Bill Talley.  In earlier years I wrote remembrances of the first two and now, sadly, I am called upon to write a remembrance of Bill.  But Bill was the real mentor I always unconsciously but deliberately imagined and sought; it’s just that I expected to encounter him or one like him so much earlier in my career!

Where can I begin?  Shall I begin by saying that although he was eighteen years my senior, he was in many ways my best friend?  Shall I begin by saying that Bill had a great gift of friendship – that he made friends easily and cultivated each one individually?  That when you were in his presence one to one, you felt that you were his very best friend and confidant?  That many, many of his friends felt the same way, yet without any envy or jealousy toward one another?  That when Bill was talking to another friend and you approached the twosome, he always paused to welcome you into the conversation?  There was never, never that awkwardness that so often happens when you approach two huddled people; that waiting to be noticed and brought into their sphere.  Nor did Bill ever forget to introduce me to his comrades, and me to them.  I believe that Bill valued friendship (and doubtless family) above all other values in a world where only a few blessed people place friendship on such a high pedestal.

I never felt awkward or embarrassed around Bill, even when he criticized me, and his criticisms were always right-on.  He had a brilliant way of guiding people, rather than judging them.  He would unobtrusively create a comradely intimate space around an issue he perceived in your personality or behavior or way of dressing, so that you sort of entered a little conspiracy with him to solve the problem or offending behavior.  Only later, on reflection, would you realize that he had been criticizing you in his way.  I know, because being nearly broke in 1994 when I first came to work with Bill, I wore an old pair of ill-fitting polyester pants on more than one occasion.

Of course my friendship with Bill grew over the seventeen years I knew him, from summer 1994, when I first interviewed to work in his landscape architecture firm, until March 22, 2011, when he suddenly died of complications from lung cancer.  Still, I can’t say that there was a moment before we were friends.  We instantly fell “in like,” the first minute I spoke to him over beers at what was then the Leschi Lake Café, next to his office.  This, before I learned that wine was his drink of choice:  he instantly agreed to share beers with me and his then-partner, Scott Pascoe.  Our friendship never wavered or fizzled, from that moment onwards.

Bill was a great mentor.  He taught me nearly everything I know about planting design and quite a lot I know about landscape architecture generally, but more importantly, he taught me nearly everything I know about how best to interact with clients.  How to be always positive and put the best foot forward, even in awkward moments.  Bill was a genius at deferring and resolving conflicts, always with a great reserve of good humor. 

Bill was an iron fist in a velvet glove.  For the first few months that I worked for him, I only saw the velvet glove; the great, plentiful and playful sense of humor.  Again, it was a conspiracy on Bill’s part:  a conspiracy to share with others any opportunity for fun and for joy; and the opportunities were plentiful and unending.  Then, one day in the summer or fall of 1995, I saw the iron fist come out of the glove, when Bill went head-to-head with a stubborn and recalcitrant, low-bid contractor on a landscape renovation project we were doing forUniversityofWashington’s south campus.  Bill got up in the guy’s face and yelled at him, which he deserved.  Bill’s friend and colleague, Jon Hooper, head of the UW’s facility services, was growling and menacing with his fists from the sidelines.  It was a clear case of bad cop, bad cop!  Bill’s iron fist was like a sword sheathed:  it only came out the velvet scabbard when it absolutely had to.

Bill was the best judge of character I have ever met.  His first impressions of people almost never failed him.  He could tell within the first five minutes of meeting someone whether they were good, bad, “trouble” (as in his friendly greeting, “Here’s trouble!”) or a royal pain in the ass.  His predictions about people, whether they would turn out to be helpful, useless, or merely neurotic or grandiose, were unerring.  If someone hammered away about one subject all the time, angrily or merely doggedly, Bill would throw up his hands and refer to them as “relentless.” 

His ability to know when to show up at a social event and when to leave was likewise unerring.  Coupled to his judge of character, it lit the clearest path ahead like a laser beam.  This was made clear to me when once I accompanied him and his wife Judy to a fancy birthday party thrown by and for one of our clients.  After the catered dinner in a downtown ballroom, the client rose to a lecturn and began to speak.  Bill immediately tapped at his watch and stage-whispered, “time to go.”  Judy and I both objected, saying, “let’s hear what she has to say.”  Bill relented against his better judgment, but an ‘I told you so’ moment soon followed, as the party quickly morphed into a fundraiser for a cause we were not 100% committed to supporting.  Pay we did, however, because we stayed.  It was not that Bill was stingy, only that he objected to the sense of being manipulated.  Nor did he actually say, “I told you so.”  That would have been too judgmental.  Instead, he took Judy and me into his conspiratorial intimate space and merely said, “I knew she was going to do that, bless her heart.”

Everyone Bill met was “my new friend John Doe.”  This applied equally to actual new friends, cashiers, annoying bureaucrats and enemies alike.  Always any person was “my new friend” until he metamorphosed into such a rude or thoughtless adversary that the velvet glove would have to come off.  Even then, Bill would say something like, “I will have to have a come-to-Jesus moment with my new friend John Doe.”

What I most loved about Bill was his great ability to talk intelligently and informally about any subject at any time, fluently slipping back and forth between topics, and never lecturing.  We could be talking about one of our projects or a professional point about landscape architecture; slip into discussing our families or personal lives, then move on to chatting about cooking or the books we were reading; our philosophical viewpoints; places we loved visiting or wanted to travel to, and places to avoid (Bill had a dread of third-world countries with dirty open-palmed entreating orphans); and then back again to landscape architecture, all within the space of a few minutes.  I loved this conversational fluency of Bill’s all the more because that was exactly how I had always liked best to converse, yet in my working life at least, most of my bosses wanted to stick safely to one topic only:  landscape architecture and its most closely related feeder subjects. Plus, hold that thought, because another thing I liked so much about Bill was that he was never my boss.  Oh yes, I worked for him in the beginning and he paid me, but he was always a colleague first and a supervisor a distant second.  This was not true of anyone else I had ever worked for, including my second mentor, Bob Hanna.

Bill made it fairly clear from the start that if I didn’t mess up badly (this “if” being more in my own mind than in his verbal presentation of the issue,)  we could become partners, and he generously forgave me several early-on big bloopers that I endlessly attacked myself over. There was the time I designed a series of wood gates too heavy, so that they nearly fell off their hinges; the time I inadvertently caused the incident that resulted in the afore-mentioned bad cop/bad cop contractor face-off, and the time I left a roll of presentation drawings on a Kenmore sea-plane atFridayHarborprior to a meeting.  Bill’s response to all three incidents was “don’t worry;” in fact, he said “don’t worry” about nearly every problem our firm faced, from poor cash-flow to disgruntled clients. He never again even mentioned the embarrassing incidents.

Once you were in with Bill, you were in.  He seemed unusually willing to experiment with professional partnerships, to take risks with people he had observed and approved of, to a degree beyond anyone else I had ever worked with.  The string of Bill Talley partnerships, some more successful than others, stretched from 1960 all the way up until 2004, when he retired from our own firm.  I’m not saying I didn’t deserve the honor of becoming his partner, only that Bill made the path to partnership so easy and direct:  four or five easy steps instead of eight or ten hurdles to jump.

Stay tuned for Part 2

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Diverse and sundry masters all agree that the key to spiritual growth is “being present,” or “being mindful,” as the Buddhists call it. Teachers from Thich Nhat Hanh to Eckhart Tolle agree on this point. But what does “being present” really mean? Clearly, there’s an art to it, and it must be practiced. Being mindful is the opposite of multi-tasking, of driving while texting, and as such it goes against the hectic grain of modern life. The practice is the art of temporarily forgetting one’s future and one’s past, so that we can “remember” the present moment. If we can only put modern life aside for this moment, we will discover the beauty and the truth of the “now,” as Tolle calls it. Many masters have also noted that the future is uncertain and the past is wrapped in the gauzy film of unreliable memory: the present moment is all we are truly, literally given.

So there is an art to it; an art to being mindful or putting yourself front and center in the heart of the present, moment by moment. Meditation is a key aid in this. Another aid is music. Like meditation, a piece of music that speaks to us allows us to concentrate; it makes us concentrate, and when we give something all of our attention, without mental interruption, that is what is meant by “being mindful.” When you listen attentively to a piece of music that you love, or better still when you sing it or play it – when you give all your concentration to its subtle phrasing, its melodic line and under-pinning beat, its transitions from one musical riff to another, then you are being mindful. Is it any wonder that neuro-scientists like Oliver Sacks have discovered music’s power to alter the cellular structure of the human brain for the better?

Obviously, being mindful means being in the present moment, or one could say mindful to the present moment. But how do we define what we mean by “present?” One is both ‘present:’ here in flesh, ‘present and accounted for,’ and anchored in the present moment: not distracted by events of the future or the past, no matter how near in the future or far in the past. The example of attentiveness to music teaches us something profound about what the present moment really means. It is the unadulterated ‘now,’ but it is also the bridge between an immediate past and an immediate future. We could not appreciate the melodic line of a piece of music if our brains could not seamlessly splice together the present note or chord with at least a few of the preceding notes and a few notes to follow. The brain comprehends the arc of the musical phrase only by remembering the pattern of preceding notes and anticipating the future ones. In fact, one of the great pleasures of music lies in memorizing this arc as a song moves from stanza into the chorus. When we hum or whistle a “catchy tune,” it is because our brains have memorized a melodic arc. Keener still are the pleasures to be found in contemplating the subtle variations that great musicians insert into choruses when the listener is expecting no variation at all. This is the very best of improvisation.

The whole arc of a musical phrase is more than the literal present: it is the perceived present, or one might say the higher present, which seamlessly knits together the immediate past and future. Just as each of us has a higher self, each moment records a higher present. Small wonder that musical transitions in songs are called “bridges.”

In similar fashion, we are able to follow the story-telling arc of a motion picture only by mentally knitting together past and future frames into a recognizable pattern of present motion. Precisely how many instants or ‘beats’ of memory and pre-cognition are required of the human brain to appreciate a musical line or follow a story line? There must be material for a hundred PhD’s in that question.

The other night, visiting my elderly parents, I experienced what I think it really means to be present and mindful. As I was helping my mother into bed, a smile of quiet, loving recognition passed between us. In that moment, the scales dropped from my eyes and suddenly I was acutely aware of the absurdity of our roles as mother and son. I recognized that here was a dear friend with whom I had undoubtedly shared many lifetimes. Today we were (are) a mother and son, but I was quite sure that we had been brother and sister in another life and, who knows, maybe lovers in yet another. Most likely I had parented her in still another life, and who is to say whether I was the father or the mother? It really didn’t matter. What mattered was that we were and are soul-mates, two beings supporting and knowing each other across the millennia. Nor was this impression simply oedipal, because I felt the same kind of kinship with my father. The roles we take on, mother and son or father and son, help us toward our spiritual growth in this lifetime, but to really know and honor one another means discarding our roles, casting them aside. That kind of transcendence, recorded and described in the psychic past-life readings of Edgar Cayce, is what it truly means to be mindful.

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