Lucila || San Diego, Ca.
A farmer talks about about the priesthood, the throat chakra, and learning to let go.
She opens the screen door and gazes at me with glowing satisfaction.
"Let me look at you."
Her hands reach out and grasp the points of my shoulders. She turns me slowly, then walks in a circle around me, as if I were a Renaissance marble. Under her attention, I feel like so much more than myself--which is saying something, considering I came to show her how much I'd made of myself since last we saw each other. But now, standing on her porch, I feel somehow humbler and greater than when I showed up. I have a sense of mattering, of being importantly connected to something so much bigger than my own life. My dreams feel ten times bigger now.
This is a common side effect of being in Lucila's presence.
She leads me into the kitchen and asks if I prefer my tea in a cup with or without a handle. She wears an embroidered kimono, and a bobbled turban around her head. Her signature black ovoid glasses serve as a protective shield from the arresting intensity of her gaze.
Once the tea is ready, we take it (in cups with no handles) upstairs to the crow's nest deck that looks out over the rooftops of South Park. The powerlines swoop across the street and get lost in the palm trees, where pigeons fight each other for the little orange fruits.
The sun beats down on my shoulders and my bones absorb it like a dry sponge. I've never been so grateful, I tell Lucila, to be back in southern California. I've spent too much time moldering in the humidity of the east, where the sun never seems to quite penetrate.
As we catch up on the past few years, her compliments--on my courage, my adventures, my photography--are easy to take. I can confess that I'm proud of myself too, and that I've learned that the more I let myself be proud of my work, the less tinkering feels necessary to make it "good."
And then, just like that, we drop into the Lucila groove, where everything is sparkly and deep and thick with resonance.
"We think we need a lot more than we really do. What we really need is a lot less. We start to fill our lives with more things, and then you have all these things that you have to manage. And really what you want is, you know, to be with your people."
Her voice reverberates warmly, as if she's speaking into a wooden box; her consonants click, before and after her well-deliberated pauses, like the crunch of dry leaves. She sounds like a NPR presenter telling a bedtime story. I've always loved listening to Lucila talk, and so I notice that her voice is also hoarser than it used to be, cracking when it reaches a higher register. Like a well-worn baseball glove, it bears the marks of constant practice.
When I was living in San Diego, one of the best jobs a 20-something could have was at Suzie’s Farm. The hundred-odd acres of heirloom produce down in the Tijuana River Valley was attracting notice all over the county for changing the way people perceived vegetables. Run by Lucila and her husband, the farm almost single-handedly turned agricultural sustainability into something delicious. And not only that—they made people want to get involved. Not an easy thing to do in southern California.
Part of the draw to work was the exhilarating beauty. Why make coffee or enter data for a living when you could spend it in a flower-flanked wind tunnel between the Pacific Ocean and the Bandera Nacional? (You could see both on a clear day.) Those of us who didn’t work the fields made deliveries to local restaurants and stores, or staffed the farmers’ markets—my personal favorite gig. The Suzie’s Farm stand was a showstopper with its improbably colored bounty displayed like fine jewelry on beds of burlap-covered baskets. Within minutes of opening for business, the stand would be choked with customers waving money at me like I was a bookie.
It had been a long time since I'd felt that important. Moreover, it was a different kind of importance than I’d ever known. I was important because I gave people something they needed to feel good. I made their day just by showing up.
And because the grading curve was so low, I felt amazingly empowered. Like Nietzsche's noble soul, the feeling of greatness brought out a generosity I didn't know I had.
I loved remembering the customers' names, inventing recipes for them, even answering their repetitious questions. (Yes, that purple cauliflower tastes like real cauliflower; no, those dark green tomatoes are actually ripe; yes, these flowers are in fact edible; no, fennel is different from dill, but here's what you do with it...)
But I don't know if I'd ever have accessed this pleasure if it hadn't been for the second reason everyone wanted to work at Suzie’s Farm: to have Lucila as a boss.
Everyone wanted to be close to Lucila. When she showed up at the market or a farm event or even just in the office, laughter and inspiration tilted into overdrive. She had a way of discovering all the best things you had in you to give, encouraging you to join her in unmitigated delight over them, and then presenting them back to you.
For overprivileged, expensively educated 20-somethings, this was an entirely new way to think of ourselves as "special." It was liberating, and addictive. As Lucila often told us,
"Vegetables are the gateway drug."
"How can I say it to you without sounding arrogant?...That I knew from an early age that I had something special to give."
Lucila grew up in Sunnyvale, one of those cloistered California cow-towns that flank the San Francisco Bay. Her out-there personality and her wild corkscrew curls drew the ridicule of kids at her school--they spit on her and called her Mop Head. To avoid them, she found a place at the edge of the playground, where the forest closed in around the school. She'd stay there throughout recess, by herself but not feeling alone.
"I didn't realize I was being healed by the pine trees. Or maybe I did, which is why I went every day. Now I can recognize how many times over my life I have been healed in nature."
Her family was staunchly Catholic, and Lucila loved going to church--singing at the top of her lungs (despite being off-key), receiving the mysterious Eucharist, giving the sign of the peace with utmost sincerity and eagerly accepting it back from others. She even aspired to be a priest, until they told her it wasn't allowed for women.
It might have been just as well.
"One of my cousins is a priest, and I would tell him, 'I don't feel God's presence in church.' I would always tell him, 'I feel it more when I'm in nature.' Even if I'm just looking at a flower and recognize myself in that creation. Especially a flower, man. By the time a flower flowers, that's it, baby. You are at the end of your life. And look how beautifully you're manifesting--at the point of dying! You're going to wither and fade…and yet look at you! Thank you for your reminder."
Her voice drops reverently, and her hand offers up to the unsparing sunlight, as if hoping something will land in it.
"Order out of chaos, and chaos out of order. I am trying to manifest that here, here. Every moment, I'm always trying to receive, because my self wasn't welcomed or approved of or embraced."
I ask her what they teased her for. She spreads her arms open wide.
"You're looking at it. Because I am who I am."
Her father, born in a two-room dirt-floor home in Nogales, Mexico, raised her on the belief that no matter how hard you worked, money is fleeting, and that it was possible to have a rich life in different ways. A truly rich life, he taught her, is much harder to lose than money misspent on the stock market or buying a house at the wrong time.
Her mother was a constant gardener, and Lucila got a taste early in life for feeling her fullest presence in nature. This was where she started realizing the secret of what made that rich life possible.
She shared that secret with me one afternoon during a Slow Food San Diego event in 2011. As usual, Lucila and her husband were the center of this party, surrounded by a growing throng of people wanting to talk to them. I knew I should leave them alone, and let the crowd get its chance with them. But for some reason, I still kept circling, hoping for eye contact, maybe, or a nod of acknowledgment.
Instead, Lucila's hand fell on my wrist, and she pulled me into the middle of the circle. I told her thank you, for getting me a ticket. She answered,
"Thank you for what you do for us."
Surprised, and flustered, I tried to pass it off. But she tightened her grip on my hand. Her eyes bored with ecliptic kindness into mine as she repeated,
"No. Thank you."
Her words went all the way down that place that Lucila is uniquely able to get to, the place where you usually only get with a longtime bosom friend or maybe a relative whom you've trusted since childhood. A place inside that's usually private, and often kind of insecure (which is why you keep it private), but special, because you know it could probably be something really great if you knew how to cultivate it.
I saw that her eyes were filling, when she said it. And I feared that mine would, too, and that I'd ruin it with too great a confession of whatever this inarticulate hope/affinity/gratitude for being recognized was, that welled up inside of me at her affirmation.
The thing was, she told me, that the work I did for them was more than just writing. It was giving them what they needed to give to others.
"Abundance begets abundance."
Since she said this to me, I've remembered it over and over--sometimes appreciatively, sometimes doubtfully, always hopefully, because that way of living scares me sometimes, and yet I don't know any other way.
I ask her about this phrase, and she smiles.
"One of my favorite things to talk about. "You know, the thing about the spirit is…"
She gestures to me.
"You are a deeply religious person, a deeply spiritual person, and that is abundance. Once I started working on the farm is when I really got that knowledge on a cellular level. Especially working in the fields, and making those connections, what I realized…you know, you plant a seed, right? In the dark."
She smiles, draws a shallow breath of excitement.
"It has everything it needs for its life within its capacity. And it just needs the assistance, or the…"
She pauses, not so much thinking as waiting patiently for the right word to make its way out.
"The presence of other things to grow. So we have everything that we need within ourselves, and we just require the presence of these other things to grow."
That's the thing about the earth, she says--it's our own energy, sure, but it's also the power of the presence of everything around us. We are abundance to each other. We expand, we commingle, we share each other's space...what else but abundance can we beget?
"So that we only need to plant one seed in order to receive abundance! And then the more seeds you plant, the more abundant it becomes, until ultimately in your life you are rich--rich--rich! Beyond what you could have imagined."
Her exclamations pile on top of each other like waves at high tide, each one a new pleasure of perpetual discovery that what she already knows is true, until she suddenly stops, her breath bated.
"Most people don't see it that way, right?"
She releases a sigh, like a sprinter slowing to a stop.
"I think most people are deeply afraid to open up themselves that much, that far out there. When you start to be in the presence of a lot of people, you can see where people's walls are. Do you find that?"
Oh, I tell her, do I.
"And you can see how people will start to release, right? And then they're reminded…the ego kicks in…'Hey, hey, hey, we don't talk about that!'"
Ego never comes as itself, she says. It comes in the voice of a teacher, a priest, a parent, or even your own experience of being judged or ridiculed or never spoken to again. Your body learns to obey these voices long after they've gone away--it's that feeling of being "choked up," when you're crying or in conflict with someone.
Ayurveda would call this a blockage of the throat chakra; she adds, laughing,
"Whether or not you believe in that, you have to admit something's going on in there."
Rather than have our own voices shoved back down our throats, we start doing it ourselves. With drugs, with alcohol, with overscheduling, with too much food, with too much social activity. All of these help us not hear our own voices, our selves speaking to us from within.
"Otherwise, you might find that your self is asking you to change."
The farm lies within the corridor of live oaks that line the Tijuana Estuary. The fields are shrouded in fog until about ten in the morning, when a breeze funnels in from the coast and reveals the Bandera Monumental to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west.
Just about everything was done by hand--planting, weed pulling, pest elimination, harvesting. You knew it was hard work because of how your muscles would ache at the end of the day, but until then, it didn't feel hard.
This was partly thanks to the "farm kids," as our half of the workforce were known, though our ages ranged from late teens to early forties. We were college students, waitresses, nannies, artists employed and unemployed. We might dress in cut-offs and old tees, or else in work clothes that covered us from wrist to ankle, but everyone but the newest noobs wore a giant straw hat. We'd sing and chatter while we worked, trade hummus and smoothie recipes during our breaks, find reasons not to go home until sundown.
I'm saying "we," but the truth is that I often felt very out of place. I loved the farm and the people who worked there, but I didn't always feel as if I belonged. I looked out at the jewel-toned rows and felt intense admiration but no sense of specific purpose. And that was hard, because Suzie's Farm pulsed with the feeling of belonging to something bigger than yourself.
So I was shocked to find that Lucila sometimes felt the same way about it.
"I was at parties, I was with groups of people, I was in my marriage with my children, and I felt desperately, desperately lonely."
It's Lucila's way to commit fully to wherever she is, to whatever's going on and especially to whoever is there. She does everything as if she'd been waiting all her life to do it. Running into her was half the reason people wanted to visit the market, take a farm tour or attend an event.
As long as I've known her, Lucila has been the prime example of a person trying to spend her life meaningfully--on her family, on her workplace, on her community. She spent hours managing and developing the farm staff. She created and led innovative events to open the farm's scope beyond the usual "u-pick" variety. (Weed Dating and the Silent Tour were two of the biggest hits.) She wrote heart-rending posts on the farm blog about what she learned from walking the fields each morning.
Nevertheless, she told me, she felt empty inside, because she wasn't making a soul connection with people. She couldn't even visit the farmers' market or have a meal in a restaurant that the farm supplied, without people flocking around her. It was like they needed a shot of her passion...and, she says, it came naturally to answer their need. Seeing people in pain--their bodies bent, their faces shrouded protectively--causes her physical pain, as well, and she wants nothing more than to give them whatever she has.
She did this for me once--I was working in the farm office, writing blog posts about new harvests, and suddenly found myself writing Lucila an email about a breakup I'd recently suffered, that I couldn't understand.
She wrote me back later that day; I can't remember now what it was she said, only how shatteringly comforted I was to know that she cared. I tell her about this now, and she answers in a pleading tone, as if begging me to believe her,
"I was glad…so joyful…to do it."
The hardest thing, she says, was learning to care for others without trying to heal them all. There were a lot of failures, she says, that she couldn't understand at the time, but now realizes that those people either didn't want to get better, or needed help that she didn't have to offer. What's more, trying to help them only sapped her strength.
It was terrifying, Lucila says, how hard it was to stop trying. It felt like an addiction. She could feel the demands of family, friends, customers, colleagues pulling at her--they were, after all, used to her being that savior figure. She uses a Spanish word to describe the feeling--involucrada. It translates as "involved," but it means something more like "consumed."
"My job is to inspire, my job is to motivate, my job is to be my most magnificent self. And then when they ask me what the secret is, and I tell them, then they manifest it for themselves. Not me manifest it for them. And I didn't realize it; I thought that's what being a friend was.
"You can only develop people as far as you are. So I had to pull away, so I could develop myself. I had to look at the things that were bringing me joy."
That magnificence, Lucila tells me, is a tricky thing. First of all, there are the politics around it.
"There are other voices who have told us you should not be your most magnificent self. That's showing off; it makes other people uncomfortable, if I've got myself together, and they don't. And I don't want to make them uncomfortable. I love that person and I don't want to hurt them. And so we hold ourselves back for--we say--for the grace of other people."
But being in your comfort zone doesn't do anyone any favors--not in the long run. Misery may love company, but magnificence offers it a chance to learn happiness.
Of course, change is painful, and scary, and often lonely, because so few people want to undergo it. Sometimes it seems worth anything, even stunting my own growth, just to feel some companionship.
"You know what?"
Lucila breaks in.
"You may be the only holy book that some people will ever read.
"You are the only experience of God, for some people. And when you start to realize that about yourself, it changes you. It changes the way you act toward yourself and towards others."
The other hard part of reaching magnificence, of course, is that it largely consists of opening yourself up. That sounds nice on paper, but it often appears, at least at first, as pain.
Lucila has found this particularly in the process of becoming a wife, and a mother two girls, and confronting the ways in which these things have changed her.
Opening yourself is the first step in allowing your soul to invest in something--a place, a career, a child. But everything you've put your soul into, she says becomes a separate soul by necessity. And separate souls brings joy, but only if you can release them to become their own.
She's had to do that with the farm--step back from it and allow it to grow without her constant presence. She's had to do it with her marriage, allowing herself and her husband to grow individually, even sometimes apart, and trust that they will come back together. She's learning to do that with her children, though that is the hardest of all--to let go of something that came from her body and never stops feeling as if it inhabits her still.
She presses her hand over her sternum.
"I don't know what that feels like. To be able to feel them all the time, and not be with them. But the sooner I can allow that to happen, while I am still involved...seeing them go to their edge, that quavering, that fear, that 'I don't think I can do this' feeling..."
Her voice catches.
"The more I can watch them do that thing, while they're six, and watch myself do that thing, which is the letting go… Man, the second they were cut out of my body, I had to start the letting go. And then I think about my mom, right?"
Her voice breaks, and she begins to cry without reservation, as she continues.
"I think, I don't spend every day with my mom. And my mother loves me just as much as I love my children--maybe more--and then I think about my mother's mother, who's died. Imagine that kind of letting go!"
Her voice is nearly inaudible now; I can barely hear it as she leans forward over her knees, like a dying person gasping out their last words.
"I've got to let go. I have to, so I can do what I have to do. That's very painful, as you can see. And I have to. I have to."
"Every day, you grow, and you die, every day."
The process is like death--a fruit falling and rotting, being ignored, left to die, and in the meantime, the seed going into the earth, watered by the liquid from the decomposing fruit, releasing all its potential into the ground, and--she claps her hands together, one skimming off like a rock skipping on the surface of a lake--reemerging, the same and also different.
This was the lesson they learned from Suzie, the dog for whom the farm is named. She was a purebred Norwegian elkhound that someone abandoned in the Tijuana Estuary, where unwanted dogs are often left and grow feral. She roamed the fields in the farm's early days, following Lucila and her husband around but refusing to be coaxed closer. Eventually, though, she began to accept the food they offered her.
The crowning moment, Lucila told me once, with tears of triumph collecting in her eyes, was the night when she assented to entering their house and staying there for the night. Ever since, she was their devoted companion.
"We didn't name the farm Lucila's Farm. There's a reason why we named it after the dog that got abandoned in that valley. To abandon a dog that would have been shot, that was someone's trash, and it was my treasure. Look at what came from that trash!"
The amazing byproduct of all this opening of self, she says, is that your self expands. Not just in size, but into something beyond yourself.
"You don't want to hang onto something with a fist. You want to be an embrace. You have to be able to let go to do that--to not be afraid of growing bigger, wanting more space, knowing that the more space I take up, the more generous I become, the more I'm able to reach other people, and the more they're able to reach me."
She stretches her chest open wide, fingertips illuminated by the noon-high sun.
"I'm never going to completely let go. I just can't be the thing. Even if they're wheeling me around, I'll still be part of it, in the same way my grandmothers are sitting right here, my mother is right here with me. I am those women."
She tells her daughters that whether they have their own children, adopt them, or simply cultivate relationships with other people throughout their lives, they will always be surrounded with the opportunity to be a profound part of someone's life. Whether it's a momentary connection, or one that's constantly renewed by communication and time and presence, we feed each other by simply being who we are, giving each other life through caring, offering strength, worrying for each other, taking joy in each other, and letting each other go.
"I'll tell you this, too. You are one of my daughters, Chelsea. For ever."
This shakes me.
"I think about you, I think about Kristin, and Misha, and Scott, and Chris…all of you, to me, have always been stars. Look at how powerful you are--that in spite of the cold, you are still a burning ball of passionate heat.
"I can look at that star on a cold night, and I can feel hope. We wish on stars! And when I see what you're doing, I'm like..."
She breaks off, to allow a silent sob.
"'She made my wish come true!'"
Suzie's Farm offers the only single-farm, certified organic CSA in San Diego. Their beautiful hand-grown produce can be found at the area's finest restaurants and grocery stores, as well as farmers' markets throughout the week. They are located just off the Tocayo exit from Interstate 5.