Archive for 2014 March

A spiritual retreat ruled by a cat: St. Barbara Monastery

Hidden in an oak woodland, across a bridge and over a stream, on Highway 150 not far from Thomas Aquinas College in Ventura County, can be found one of the least ordinary of sanctuaries for the traveler in search of spiritual renewal.

[Here's a favorite human interest/travel story I wrote recently for the Ojai Valley Guide (pdf) and the story in a more browser-friendly version]

Hidden in an oak woodland, across a bridge and over a stream, on Highway 150 not far from Thomas Aquinas College in Ventura County, can be found one of the least ordinary of sanctuaries for the traveler in search of spiritual renewal.

         It’s the St. Barbara Monastery, housing four sisters of the Eastern Orthodox Church, who open their modest four-bedroom home and a nearby campground to travelers on a donation-only basis.

         Mother Victoria and her fellow three sisters of faith of wear only black, produce income mostly from the construction of redwood coffins, and pray four times a day. Given the seriousness with which they take their traditional faith, and the many hours they spend praying to expiate their sins, it’s easy to fear frowning faces, heavy accents, and stern looks of condemnation for a visitor from the 21st century. 

         Instead, in conversation around the dinner table, an impish humor quickly emerges from the sisters, Americans all, to surprise a visitor. Especially quick with a quip is Mother Nina, but all of the sisters – even Mother Victoria, who was born into the church, and retains at all times a matriarchal dignity – have their witty moments.

         Who rules the monastery? Punkin, an orange tabby, the sisters agree, and declare him the ruler of all he surveys in the monastery. The cat sits still and his eyes close sleepily as he is complimented, as if to say – of course, of course.



Mother Victoria explains how the monastery came to move from Goleta, where a larger group of sisters and one monk had been living, to an obscure home in the country, eight and a half years earlier. Partly the motivation was economic, because despite the fact that the monastery houses a relic from the 4th century Saint Barbara of Kiev, after whom Santa Barbara was named, affordability was an issue in the area. 

          “We had a realtor, and she told us now don’t bother the people at this property. Just go take a look as best you can. So we parked by the highway and walked out on the bridge, but the gate was closed. So we peered through the gate to see what we could see,” Mother Victoria said. “And the orange cat squeezed himself through the bars of the gate and walked out on to the bridge and welcomed us.”

         Mother Victoria smiles.

         “And we said oh we have to have this cat. So we bought the cat and they threw the house in for just a little bit more.”

         In the early years of the monastery, she explains, they were a much larger group of sisters and a monk. Mother Paraskeva – the youngest of the group – picks up the thread of the story.

         “We had seventeen people living on the property – imagine that! We only have two rooms in this house, but we must have had a dozen or fifteen trailers on the property. You should have seen it! We used to joke that we were living in St. Barbara Trailer Camp.”

         “Or gypsy camp,” says Mother Victoria, in a corrective way, but she smiles.

         On the property now under construction is chapel. When the monastery was applying for the permit for construction, a biologist and an the inspector from Ventura County came to look at the property. The inspector took Mother Victoria aside to tell her she simply couldn’t be housing that many trailers on the property.

         The order took the news philosophically.

         “Our bishop was of the opinion that it was of God because the sisters who left went on to inhabit a defunct property in Northern California that used to be a monastery,” said Mother Victoria. “So God used the county of Ventura to create two monasteries where there had been one.”

         Although the Eastern Orthodox church is not nearly as well known in California as many other Christian faiths, it has five million followers in the United States, and countless millions more overseas, especially in Eastern Europe. Many of the visitors to the monastery are followers, and some come on tours. A van of eleven pilgrims on tour of monasteries in California and the Southwest stopped in for a brief visit on their way north to visit a church and orphanage in San Francisco earlier this year.

         Kurt Luebke, a member of the tour from Tucson, explained how he was converted.

         “When I was seventeen, my mother passed away, and I started going to the old Greek Orthodox Church,” he said. “I can literally say that the first time I went I didn’t know a word that was being said but I could feel the presence of God. I love it. It’s not a religion, it’s a faith.”

         Also on the tour was Elizabeth Brollini, who plans to launch an orphanage for children in the Tucson area. She said she has been working in child services for twelve years, but feels the kids need more than the child welfare system can offer.

         “The kids are really suffering,” she said. “I’ve been inspired by St. John the Wonderworker [in a church in San Francisco] and he will be our saint, to feed our spiritual thirst. We are fully incorporated already, and looking for a home. I think these monasteries are little pieces of heaven on earth.”

         Mother Victoria said that visitors often misunderstand the icons of saints in the Orthodox Church, thinking that they – the paintings, which contain the relics — are being worshipped.

         The relics include a tiny fragment of the “True Cross” of Christ’s crucifixion, reputedly, and a sliver of the forefinger of Saint Barbara, a 4th-century martyr venerated by the Orthodox and respected by Anglicans, but not by Catholics, who doubt the history of her story.

         “The saints intercede for us,” Mother Victoria said. “They bring our petitions to the attention of God. The popular way of explaining icons is as windows to heaven, because they are portraying the saints as they are in heaven.”

         Sometimes the monastery attracts followers who stay longer than expected. Mitch Denny, a young carpenter on a spiritual quest, came to the monastery intended only to camp out for a day or two before exploring the backcountry, but has ended up staying for months.

         He tells the story with wry amusement in his voice. He visited a number of monasteries, he said, and even a famous monk in England, looking for guidance, but could not found the answer he was looking for. Yet he wasn’t ready to settle down into the trade.

         “I bought a backpack and prepared to wander to go from monastery to monastery. I thought I would come here and test my gear, because I’d heard there was good camping up in the hills. So I came and they said we’re starting this casket making business, can you build some shelves?” he said. “So I stayed a few days and built some shelves, staying a little longer than I thought, and they said if you want you can rest in that trailer over there, and then at the end of the week they said, well, you know we have this chapel project…”

         Denny smiles.

         “And here I am.”

         “Watch out!” Mother Nina said with to the visiting reporter. “It could happen to you!”

         Accommodations at the monastery are simple: a couch with a view, and a campground by the stream. Campers have use of a firepit and a portable toilet. A flock of ducks noisily hangs out at a few shallow pools in the early morning. The nuns freely share their meals, tea, and prayers, but do not offer entertainment, televised or otherwise, and the chapel, which is under construction, will not be finished for some time.

         Mostly the monastery is about spiritual renewal – an escape from the demands of the insatiable ego.

         “Our visitors usually come to pray with us and be with us in services,” said Mother Victoria. “They share conversations with us around the table. A meal of some sort. Many of them come with a desire to speak one on one.”

         A simplicity and peace awaits visitors to the St. Barbara Monastery, which is ruled by Punkin, and visited every morning by a peacock named His Majesty. The residents welcome visitors of all sorts.

         “You never know who is going to come across that bridge,” said Mother Victoria. 

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Pain can lead to growth: Geoff Dyer (and the research)

Geoff Dyer writes so well it seems somehow demeaning to call him a critic, but that's how the world slots him, pretty much, and in books like "Out of Sheer Rage" — his admiring account of D.H. Lawrence's battles — he helps redefine the form. 

At only 56, last week Dyer suffered a stroke, while living in Santa Monica. He survived, without losing speech or mobility, but the experience left him appreciative of the life he has left:

Life continues unchanged except that I’ve had to cut out the twice-baked hazelnut croissants and I’m not playing tennis just now: I pulled a calf muscle which is taking ages to heal. A side-effect of Lipitor or a main-effect of middle age? I don’t know, but in keeping with the advice in the brochure I’m still getting plenty of exercise. I’m constantly out on my bike, in the amazing light and weather. How long would you need to live here to start taking that for granted? Longer, if you’re from England, than one lifetime, even one as lengthy as my dad’s. There’s a line in Tarkovsky’s Solaris: we never know when we’re going to die and because of that we are, at any given moment, immortal. So at this moment it feels pretty good, being where I’ve always longed to be, perched on the farthest edge of the western world. There’s a wild sunset brewing up over the Pacific. The water is glowing turquoise, the sky is turning crazy pink, the lights of the Santa Monica Ferris wheel are starting to pulse and spin in the twilight. Life is so interesting I’d like to stick around for ever, just to see what happens, how it all turns out.

Turns out this focus on the moment is also a focus in psychology — on trauma as a means to growth. From Tom Jacobs in the Pacific Standard:

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger—and also, apparently, more appreciative of life’s little pleasures.

In the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, University of British Columbia psychologist Alyssa Croft describes a study of nearly 15,000 French adults. Those who had gone through painful life events, ranging from divorce to serious illness, were more likely to take time to appreciate transitory delights, such as gazing at a waterfall they happened upon while taking a hike.

This heightened ability to enjoy the moment (which is not shared by people still struggling with traumatic experiences) helps explain the phenomenon of “post-traumatic growth,” which we examined in ourJuly/August 2013 issue.

It suggests we’re more likely to stop and smell the roses once we’ve already felt the prick of a thorn.

[paper by Alyssa Croft et al, called "From Tribulations to Appreciation: Experiencing Adversity in the Past Predicts Greater Savoring in the Present," should be available thru sage as a pdf here]

An interesting remark from the paper: 

We suspect that a well-developed ability to savor pleasurable events might be a necessary precursor to attain positive growth after traumatic life experiences. 

Hmmm. An appropriate image, perhaps: 


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Rolling the dice on El Nino: Too soon to predict?

Given that this is the worst drought on record in California, it's natural for people to hope for El Niño and all the rain that a good strong El Niño can bring. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported:

…even as hope dims for a March miracle storm, climatologists say weather conditions could change this year if an El Niño takes shape. The U.S. Climate Prediction Center issued an El Niño watch this month, citing a 52 percent chance of Pacific Ocean waters warming and creating – possibly – a wetter-than-average winter.

The possibilities were discussed more thoroughly by Bob Henson of the National Center for Atmospheric Research earlier this month. Henson hinted at an underlying excitement:

Most of the El Niño events over the last 15 years have been on the weaker side. However, some conditions in the western tropical Pacific are now strikingly similar to those that preceded the two strongest El Niño events of the last century: 1982–83 and 1997–98.

If El Niño doesn’t take shape in the next several months, we may not see it this year at all. “Once you get toward summer, the odds of getting a major El Niño certainly start to go down,” says NCAR scientist Kevin Trenberth.

Should a truly significant El Niño event develop by June or July, it would give us months of advance notice about which parts of the United States are likely to be cooler, milder, wetter, or drier than average come next winter. You still wouldn’t have a specific forecast for New Year’s Day or Groundhog Day in your hometown, but even a slight shift in seasonal odds—as long as it’s a confident shift—could mean millions of dollars for utilities, agricultural firms, insurance companies, and others in a position to hedge big bets.

Yet note the hedge: "most of the El Niño events of the last fifteen years have been on the weaker side." Ask Bill Patzert of JPL/NASA, one of the best forecasters of the phenomenon, why that might be and he will point to a larger ocean phenomena — the Pacific Decadal Oscillation — and argue that there's a reason most of these events have been weak. They've been swamped by the PDO, which turned negative fifteen years ago. It's still strongly negative, as this chart from the U of Washington shows:


It's noteworthy that the most prominent critic of NOAA's predictions has been right in the past, about El Niño, and is saying pretty much what he was saying seven years ago, when an El Niño event was predicted. From a great story by Hector Becerra in the Los Angeles Times in March 2007:

When it comes to El Niño, NOAA tends to emphasize data
from a network of buoys running across the equatorial Pacific from Asia to
the Americas. They make measurements on the upper 500 meters in the
ocean, where the major deviations in temperature take place. The weather
consequences can be dramatic depending on the size of the temperature
increase, the area of ocean involved and the duration of the phenomenon.

For NOAA, an increase of about 1 degree Fahrenheit over three months in
a defined area of the Pacific meets the threshold for El Niño.

Patzert, on the other hand, is an expert in analyzing satellite data.
The satellites measure the elevation of the sea surface as a result of the
expansion of water as temperatures increase in the upper 500 meters. The
satellites are not as hyperfocused on El Niño and look beyond to other
climate patterns.

One of those patterns is the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a slow-moving
variation of temperatures between the western and eastern sections of
the Pacific. In 1998, the western Pacific was becoming warmer than the
eastern Pacific, leading Patzert to conclude that in the long term, an "El
Niño-repellent" pattern was forming that would favor drought in Southern
California for many years.

Patzert still sees an  El Niño-repellant pattern in place, and has scoffed at "the great WET hope" before, and may scoff again. Even the chart the forecasters put up as evidence of  El Niño looks a little thin:


How many chips do you want to put on a 52% probability? 

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The lightly connected blossoms of spring: Kay Ryan

This one from the wondrously succinct Kay Ryan speaks to me of spring:

"So Different," Kay Ryan

A tree is lightly connected

to its blossoms.

For a tree it is

a pleasant sensation

to be stripped

of what’s white and winsome.

If a big wind comes,

any nascent interest in fruit

scatters. This is so different

from humans, for whom

what is un-set matters

so oddly—as though

only what is lost held possibility.


May I say on this spring Sunday that wisteria too is lightly connected to its blossoms — and it's lovely how they fall. 

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American public exceptionally dumb: Ted Rall

The 'toon below from Ted Rall is factually accurate. It's a fact that the much-reviled mainstream media reported on the NSA spying on Americans long before Edward Snowden spoke up. (To give an example, back in 2012 James Bamford in Wired reported that "The NSA…has the ability to eavesdrop on phone calls directly and in real time." I remember because I posted a llnk to the story.) 

This week in the Washington Post Barton Gellman reports that the NSA has the capability to record 100% of telephone calls in "a foreign nation" and keep the recordings for a month of data mining. 

The reaction from the American public?

A shrug. Near as I can tell. Didn't make the national news. Exceptionallydumb

But maybe it's not so much that Americans are dumb, but that they really don't try to get the full picture. They read the news for drama. So "revelations" from an insider — supposedly an espionage-related betrayal — make a lot more news than, well, the news. 

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New kind of dinosaur discovered (by Tom Toles)

Meet the new dinosaur (aka "the 500-lb chicken from hell.") Tom Toles sees an irony:


 The new GOP faces the same climate reality as the old GOP.    

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Follow the Leaders (into climate change)

From artist Issac Cordal:


Berlin, 2011 h/t: Barbara Medaille

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Do newspapers still matter? PSU study says yes

Excellent story in the Journalists Resources blog on the importance of newspapers.

To put it simply: a prof at Portland State University named Lee Shaker set out to quantify the question by coming up with a measure of civic engagement and then looked at two cities with newspapers that went away (the Rocky Mountain News, in Denver) and went on-line only (The Seattle Post-Intelligencer). 

The top three results, drawn from the study, which was entitled "Dead Newspapers and Citizens Civic Engagement":

RMN_Cover_May_2_06"The study’s findings include: At the national and local level there is a positive relationship between newspaper readership and civic engagement as measured by contacting or visiting a public official, buying or boycotting certain products or services because of political or social values, and participating in local groups or civic organizations such as the PTA or neighborhood watch. Measures of civic engagement in Denver and Seattle declined between 2008 and 2009. In Denver, four out of the five civic-engagement indicators declined significantly between 2008 and 2009, and Seattle saw declines in two out of five engagement categories.

In the other metropolitan areas studied almost none showed a statistically significant change in civic engagement. One measure, boycotting goods and services, declined significantly in Cincinnati while four indicators in different areas increased in that city.

At a national level, civic engagement did decline between 2008 and 2009, but less so than observed in Denver and Seattle."

Which makes sense to this reporter, but it's nice to see in black and white. Hope the quantification stands up to scrutiny. Hope it gets some scrutiny! 

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Facing Drought Together: Ojai Valley News

Let me share Kimberly Rivers' thoughtful newspaper story about an event here in town I helped launch —Facing Drought Together – which did draw a good crowd, and got a lot of conversation started I hope.

Here's an excerpt from story in the Ojai Valley News

1-DSC_0391“I took away the realization that a lot of other people in Ojai share my concern,” said event organizer and moderator, Kit Stolz, after the event. “If we really are looking at another decade or more of drought — which is quite possible — we will have to be prepared to make changes, and to see change happen in our town and in our environment. That won’t be easy, but I feel much less alone, and that’s deeply helpful.”

Stolz is a longtime freelance reporter in Ventura County and a resident of Upper Ojai. He was inspired to plan this event when the man he called to look at his water well suggested that he “cut way back and pray for rain.”

“This is the right conversation to be having,” said Ched Myers, Ojai resident, author and theologian,“not as an extraordinary event, but as a regular event in the life of this community.”

“We are a community because we share a watershed,” said Victoria Loorz, associate pastor at Ojai Valley Community Church. Loorz, Myers and other spiritual leaders from the valley closed Sunday’s event, saying prayers for rain. “This is a spiritual issue, as much as it is a practical issue,” said Loorz.

[pic of yours truly]

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Drought expert to Ojai: You have too many damned trees

JPL/NASA scientist Bill Patzert gave Ojai some hell this afternoon, as part of the Facing Drought Together event: From an excellent, may I say, story in the Ventura County Star by Anne Kallas:

“Don’t expect a quick fix. Droughts are slow in coming, and they are slow getting out of. We need to change the way we use water,” said Patzert, who cited a dramatic rise in population in Southern California, a semiarid area that is supported by water imported from the Colorado River and the northern part of the state.

Patzert said state residents must change their water habits.

“We need to change the way we manage water. It starts with how you vote. And you’ve got too many damned trees. Do you know how much water trees use?” he said to gasps from the Ojai audience.

Bill Patzert loves to provoke. It's how he keeps the audience awake as he discusses the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which he convincingly argues modulates the global warming signal, and may keep us in drought for another decade. He scoffs at the NOAA forecast of a "50-50" chance of an El Nino next year, calling it "the great WET hope." 


Will bring you more on this event soon, or you can read the full story at: 

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