Garden Poetry

Do you grow poetry in your garden? I’m guessing you might. One of my favorite poems to read to my children when they were young was “The Owl and the Pussycat,” by Edward Lear, famous for his nonsensical but lyrical creations. Do you remember these lines from it? They dined on mince, and slices of quince, Which they ate with a runcible spoon; And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, They danced by the light of the moon…. OK, so that poem isn’t precisely growing in my garden, but every time I glance at my flowering quince bush this time of year, I can see the owl and the pussycat dancing around it. And I don’t even have a quince that produces anything you can eat.

A branch from my quince

A branch from my quince

The actual quince TREE is a cousin of the apple and pear. Bright yellow when ripe, the fruit is more like a twin to the pear. I’ve heard people mention quince jam in novels. They figured occasionally in Greek mythology and were also treasured by the Romans.

Quince fruit

Quince fruit

My flower quince BUSH doesn’t produce edible fruit, but it’s one of my favorite plants because it’s almost the first bright splash of color as winter eases. In February or early March, when everything is still drab and gray-green, a few daffodils show their bright yellow, and then this quince bush along the fence bursts into a bright salmon-pink color. The flowers are dense, almost rose-like, and the leaves are dark and shiny. It prefers a spot with full sun. Michael Dirr in his plant encyclopedia described it as “oafish,” and a “tangled mess of stems,” and some people think it looks messy. My plant is young, so I’m going to continue to prune it when it becomes aggressive. I think it’s elegant–and so do the hummingbirds. The flowering quince is native to China, Japan, Bhutan, and Burma. It usually bears red, pink, orange, or white blossoms.

Flowering quince bush

Flowering quince bush

And the owl and the pussycat eating quince with a “runcible” spoon? Edward Lear coined that word in 1871, the year the poem was published. He used it freely, “a runcible hat,” a “runcible cat.” A runcible spoon has come to be identified as a spoon with 3 prongs at the point, used to eat pickles–or slices of quince.   Photo credits for fruit and quince bush photos: <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

Moving Houses

Moving the furniture around was always a piece of cake, but now I need to move the whole house. For years, I planned on laying a carpet, painting some of the walls, maybe even wallpapering a couple of other walls, but it’s too big and too much upkeep and it needs to go. It’s heavy, but I think I can manage it. It’ll be a piece of cake. Dollhouses aren’t all that heavy.

The granddaughters have long since quit playing with it, so I’ll put it up for sale at the big garage sale this summer. I’ll need to come to an agreement with the girls on the asking price. Will they object to this real estate transaction? Will the toddler memories of painting the chairs and tables and refrigerator a robin egg blue and dark rose pink tug at their hearts?

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I let the chicken house go about 20 years ago. The neighborhood weasely thugs had finished off the last chicken. That nesting house sat empty for a year or so, reminding me of fresh eggs and a feisty rooster until a neighbor offered to take the whole structure. This house was solid, engineered for easy access to nested eggs, and big enough to house two or three goats.

They hauled it away on a flatbed trailer the distance of about one half block, the whole operation taking up much of the road. When they later moved from this rental home to their own home some 20 miles away, they hauled the chicken house with them. Piece of cake.

But the house down the road from me is not a piece of cake. I’m sad to see that stately old neighbor go, a house I  assumed would always be there. The last two weeks has been a crescendo of activity. The area around the house has been filled with cars and trucks.

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Almost overnight, the house rose up and floated free of the foundation, only anchored at critical points. Within that same week it moved off its foundation completely, and over onto the driveway, where it will reside until the ground dries out and it can be moved up the hill, several lots away, to a new foundation. Meanwhile, the workmen have started work on a new house on the old foundation, adding insult to injury to the old house.

Change! We all deal with it all our lives, but it’s not always a piece of cake.

Come quickly–as soon as these blossoms open, they fall.
This world exists as a sheen of dew on flowers.
–Izumi Shikibu
Mid-Heian Japanese poet

Dead Zones

His back ached and he could still taste grit between his teeth, but as he rocked in the porch swing at the end of the day and looked out over the land, he could see it going on for years and years. His children and their children would continue to grow the small herd of beef cattle and the vegetable crops for the local market. Perhaps they could pick up that piece just west of them, near the salt water canal, and expand their holdings.

He didn’t know about dead zones.

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The years passed, and he passed, too. His children went to war and wandered to the cities. The land was divided and sold. The years passed and the land was divided again and sold. And then again.

And when my friend Connie and her husband bought one of those much smaller pieces, just a fraction of the farmer’s, they hauled in rich topsoil all around the house. They set about developing beautiful gardens–a small orchard down near the road, raised vegetable beds behind the house, flowers for every season surrounding it, and a lush carpet of lawn in front.

Connie doesn’t have a green thumb–she has ten green fingers. Past president of the garden club, she can grow anything.

Almost anything. Connie didn’t know about the dead zone.

She planted a plum tree by the side of the house with a good southern exposure. It died. She planted another fruit tree nearby. It too died.

In frustration she finally contacted the county extension office. They weren’t surprised at her question. They’d heard this complaint before. Farmers years ago often kept one area, perhaps a corner, away from the house and animals, as a dumping ground for any chemicals, old fertilizers, or poisons. This, a dead zone, passes on and on for generations.

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Dead zones also exist in the oceans, areas where the oxygen concentration is so low that animals can’t live there. These areas can occur naturally, but human activity can also create or enhance them. Excess fertilizer runs off the land (hence the concern about septic tanks or farm animals close to streams, rivers and salt water) and then into the sea. Those nutrients promote algae growth. As that algae decomposes, the process consumes the oxygen in the water that’s necessary for marine life.

 

Connie’s farmer had neglected to visualize that division of his land, the population growth, the loss of the farm. Connie dealt with her dead zone by planting grass whose shallow roots don’t run beneath the rich topsoil.

Today we know about the dead zones, in the water and on the land. We know that whatever we spray or sprinkle on our little patches of ground will stay there. We know the lawn chemicals won’t magically evaporate or sink into nothingness, in spite of what the manufacturers claim. It accumulates over the years, over the generations.

We know all about the dead zones. What will our descendants inherit?

“When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world.”                      –John Muir

Photo 1 –

photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/avcellshots/4345309538/”>Charlie Essers</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Photo 2 –

photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/vintagequeen/3769520480/”>vintage_queen</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

 

What’s Your Significant Tree?

December brings scrawny, spidery trees. Naked trees. Suddenly I’m able to see a neighbor’s house several lots away that was hidden in the thick, green summer.

Trees and their leaves were on my mind when I ran across a leaflet a friend had given me, “Significant Trees” of our town. Our town has “significant” trees? That term so fascinated me that later as I thought about it, I remembered it as “Signature Trees” or “Specimen Trees.”

The brochure listed 15 trees, some from private homes, some around businesses, churches, and parks. The list included almost all different species, so it was an impressive variety, and it also included a map guide to follow in order to see all of them.

I started wondering if I had any “significant” trees in my yard. The brochure for my yard would include my fig tree, of course (for its luscious fruit and profuse growth), my persimmon tree (for its bright little pumpkin-looking fruits that hang like orange bulbs long after the leaves have fallen), and my new birch tree (for its rapid growth and graceful shape).

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I’d also have to include my pear tree and little peach tree (for their dripping sweet fruit year after year) and my pussy willow bush for its audacity–it thinks it’s a tree, and grows as big as one.

My Little Leaf Linden on the bank above my house is truly “significant” for just a day or two every summer. It has a fragrance that drifts through the whole yard and can make you stop in your tracks and forget what you were doing. I wish I could capture that heady loveliness and save it somehow. Next summer on the day that I first notice it, I’m going to take the rest of the day off and find a spot to park a lawn chair downwind of it and just enjoy it.

So do you have a significant tree in your yard or neighborhood? And why would it make it onto your list? If you wanted to plant a significant tree, what kind would it be? Do you think there is such a thing as an insignificant tree?

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Photo credits:

Persimmon photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/carlos/2565399/”>Nuevo Anden</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Bare tree photo credit:  <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/skynoir/13193183825/”>Sky Noir</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

 

 

November: A Guest Poet

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NOVEMBER

I.

Leaves reign down
waiting
mutating
leaving long limbs
Exposed like raw pain.
“THE LORD GIVES AND THE LORD TAKES AWAY.”
Blessed be the name of the Lord?

II.

Blessed be
Blessed be
because pain weathers well.
As leaves to earth
We return to the genes of our souls
bare, not
barren,
becoming at last
Who we always were.

–Rita H. Kowats
c’90

This poem hangs on the wall of my living room all year long. A friend wrote it after deaths in her family. She gave me a copy when I was falling downward after a loss. She did it in beautiful calligraphy–inky, black letters on ivory white paper torn around the edges, and then mounted on a dark red background. The tails of the calligraphy g’s sweep down beyond their assigned spaces in graceful arcs–reign, waiting, mutating, leaving, genes. A small red leaf with saw-tooth edges floats down to the bottom of the page. I had the poem  mounted on black and set into a chrome frame.

I love that poem and have read it often over the years, nearly always with a few tears–not from loss, but from the joy and the assurance of who I have become–who I always was, loved by such special friends and family.

After many years apart, I lunched with Rita this week and we picked right up where we left off. We talked about the poem, old friends, November, and writing. She keeps a blog with more lovely poetry you can check out–Spirituality Without Borders..

 

Permission to use the poem granted by Rita Kowats.

photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/sudachi/2110812718/”>Sudachi</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a

 

Shadows and Other Companions

I’m working alone outside and suddenly a shadow, rather large, is moving beside me in the gravel. It’s only happened to me a few times and only at the height of the summer when the sun is high. It’s unnerving, somewhat like having someone come up close to you at your elbow without warning.

I stop, glance around, and finally look up–an eagle, or perhaps a red-tailed hawk, circles above me, right between me and the sun.

English: clouds and shadows over the Mediterranean

English: clouds and shadows over the Mediterranean (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In recent years I’ve developed an urge to sketch. Even though I enjoy writing, I’ve never done well writing to a journal. Perhaps if I kept a journal with very short entries accompanied occasionally by a sketch, I might be more productive.

My first entry would be that shadow bird on the ground beside my feet. My second entry? The seal that went with me on my walk last week. No, no–it was indeed swimming and I was indeed walking, but we were, without a doubt in my mind, together

I walk on a road beside Liberty Bay. I hadn’t gone far that morning when I noticed that black, shiny, bowling ball head swimming rather close to shore, not far from me. He was headed the same way I was. After a short distance, he dropped down into the water, and disappeared for maybe 30 seconds, but then surfaced–again almost even with me. We apparently were swimming and walking at the same speed. This continued for the distance of what would have been about a block. Occasionally he would dive, but his head was at the surface more often than not.

In my journal, I would draw his head in the water, and I’d color it in with my black felt-tip marker. It’s difficult to miss those shiny black heads when they’re swimming close by. Then I’d draw in the gentle little wake he was leaving in the quiet morning water.

I might do an entry for the stately Canadian geese I met swimming yesterday on my walk. The lead goose held its head high. The 13 geese who followed formed a teardrop shape behind their leader. I told them, “Good morning,” hoping they might turn around and join me, but they had places to be, things to do, and couldn’t be bothered to change directions.

English: Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) swim...

English: Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) swimming in Palatine, Illinois, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just now, as the sun is setting, I went to close the slider to the deck. I heard–and then saw–a noisy flock of Canadian geese flying by, just skimming the water. My friends? I quickly counted–13 geese. Close enough.

In my journal Number 14 would be down in the corner of the page, visiting with the seal.

Do You Give a Fig about Figs?

“I don’t give a fig about….”

Ah, but you would if you grew them! Then you’d give figs your full attention.

Toshiba Digital CameraHowever, yes, if you lived during the time of Shakespeare, you might be quite comfortable using that phrase, “I don’t care a fig….,” as it was a common expression. It came from the Spanish word Fico (fig) which had come to mean a particular gesture. By putting your thumb between your first and second fingers and thrusting it at someone, you could send a message of contempt.

But the gesture precedes Shakespeare’s time. The word sycophant (brown-noser or bootlicker) comes from the Greek word sykophantes, which meant “one who shows the fig,” a vulgar gesture.

The dark side of fig history? Perhaps

Ah, but the bright side!

In late summer, my fig tree becomes the center of my yard and garden. The ripening plum and pear trees, quite beautiful themselves, bow down to the fig. And why not? They’re relatively rare. You’re probably more familiar with dried figs or fig newtons. Few people I know have ever tasted a fig–and when presented with the opportunity, they tend to take a step back and change the subject.

But consider this bit of fig history. Fossil records of figs date back to about 9300 B.C. They were likely one of the first plants cultivated by humans, in the area that is Egypt today. Ancient writings, including the Bible, often refer to fig trees. Buddha achieved enlightenment while sitting under a bodhi tree, a large sacred fig tree. The Greeks passed laws forbidding the export of their highest quality figs. The Romans? They considered figs to be sacred.

I hate to admit how long it took me to develop a taste for them, and now they’re my favorite fruit of all my trees. Figs contain potassium (which helps lower blood pressure), dietary fiber, Vitamin B6, copper, manganese, and pantothenic acid.

I’ve seen figures that indicate there are over 700 varieties of fig, or Ficus, trees. They like dry, sunny sites, so my tree thrives in its southern exposure. Able to tolerate seasonal drought, they’re found growing wild in the Middle East. Today California is one of the largest producers of figs, along with Turkey, Greece, Portugal, and Spain.

Deep-rooted and aggressive, fig trees are not recommended for use in urban areas. I occasionally panic when I notice my tree’s rapid growth. The last few years, the tree had escaped its cement block enclosure and was headed toward the drain field at a good clip. I spent quite a bit of time cutting it back last fall. This summer it produced its heaviest crop ever. Turns out that fruit sets on new growth, so when I cut it back so severely, it spurred fruit production. Family and friends couldn’t keep up with them, so I hung a “Figs for Sale” sign on the mailbox and sold about ten dozen.

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Unlike most other fruit trees, the blossom of this tree is internal–a particular wasp gains entry through a small hole in the fig in order to pollinate it.

I like them best just eaten raw, right off the tree, but my Fig Heaven cookbook (“70 Recipes for the World’s Most Luscious Fruit”) suggests all kinds of mouth-watering recipes, including “Cheese-filled Fresh Figs.”

Cover of "Fig Heaven: 70 Recipes for the ...

Cover via Amazon

Goat cheese pairs especially well with figs.

Besides being connected to an obscene gesture, fig trees have another dubious cultural distinction. The leaves of the trees, so critically shaped, often covered genitals in nude sculptures and paintings. They were often added long after the creation of the original art object to “protect” innocent viewers and their souls. But besides covering privates, those leaves do a good job of covering and protecting their fruit.

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One of William Shakespeare’s characters in Antony and Cleopatra exclaimed, “O excellent! I love long life better than figs.”

Hmmmm….maybe.

 

Summer Snapshots

Another summer slides through August and with it, all those moments of wonder that caught me off guard. These moments keep me getting up in the morning. They make washing yet again another batch of dishes just a routine and not a chore. They help me live with a sense of anticipation of what I’ll see today.

The Potter took this lovely shot when we stayed with family on Chuckanut Drive, one of the most beautiful drives in the country. We awoke to a cloudbank below us that looked like we could reach out and touch it. He actually took this last fall, but it was so beautiful I couldn’t resist sharing it here. This is a western view, looking out toward the San Juan Islands.

Chuckanut1Fall13The kale not only over-wintered, but in the drab and dreary early spring it exploded into wild growth. I eventually pulled it up and planted new, but only after I had eaten and shared bags and bags of it.Toshiba Digital CameraMy Hawaiian Hoya plant, which trails some 15 feet along a ceiling beam in the living room, puts out exquisite, clusters of star-shaped blossoms every summer. Each waxy star is less than the size of a dime. Their fragrance during the night will knock your socks–or your nightcap–off! I occasionally cut it back, but I don’t remember every re-potting this 35-year-old plant.Toshiba Digital CameraBumble bees in the lavender–what great company when I’m in the garden! We work around each other, respecting each others space. When I do get in their way, they get a little ruffled, but never angry.Toshiba Digital CameraA little daphne had died at the back door some years ago. Plants do not like this “dead spot.” Shaded and under the eaves, whatever settle in there has to survive without sun or much water. I fussed for a year or two about what to plant and couldn’t come up with any good ideas. One day I noticed that this fern had sprouted! I planted the smaller fern at the corner to keep it company.Toshiba Digital CameraNorm, a master craftsman, as well as a master friend, built a beautiful swing seat for my old swing frame over the winter, so it was ready for lots of summer sitting. He has saved me many times over the years–replacing, repairing, and sometimes removing, like the fallen tree that blocked the driveway.Norm2014 I have a magical rocking horse for adults in my living room that he built some years ago. His equally creative wife took this photo.

 

 

 

 

 

Scarlet Runner Beans were the hit of my garden this summer. Toshiba Digital CameraA delicious big pole bean, it also displays a bright red blossom, so it’s like having a huge bouquet of flowers in the vegetable garden. I’ll plant those again!

And from a lazy summer drive around Hood Canal, a photo taken from the west side…..

Toshiba Digital CameraMister Rogers, one of my favorite philosophers, knew about summer time and August. In The World According to Mister Rogers, Fred Rogers wrote, “How many times have you noticed that it’s the quiet moments in the midst of life that seem to give the rest extra-special meaning?”

 

Alert: Courtesy Police on Patrol!

It’s happened to all of us. You’re entering a public building, just about to let the door swing closed behind you, when you notice someone else approaching the door. Do you stand awkwardly and wait, holding the door, or let it close?

Old door at the entrance to the library of Kha...

Old door at the entrance to the library of Kharkov Polytechnic Institute (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It happened to my friend Helene as she was entering the library. She chose to let the door close. Big mistake.

She walked slowly into the library, deep in thought. What was the name of that author her friend had recommended?

“Thanks for holding the door for me.” Helene heard the words, but they didn’t register as being directed at her. She was still trying to remember the author’s name, or maybe even the title of the book.

“Thanks for holding the door for me,” a little louder. Again, Helene heard the words, but her mind was still wandering through that mystical Land of Titles and Authors.

“Thanks for holding the door for me,” this time loudly enough for Helene to realize it was addressed to her. Absent-mindedly, she answered, “You’re welcome,” and strolled toward the fiction shelves. Only then did what had just happened connect for her.

I was mad about this for days. I’m not sure why I was so annoyed. Helene is one of the sweetest, most gentle and caring people I know, good through and through–and only occasionally a little absent-minded. I was defensive of her, likely.

But a greater irritation grew. When did this courtesy of holding a door for someone become an obligation, a requirement? If it’s expected, it’s no longer a polite gesture, a gift–it’s obligatory, a rule.

And then I realized my real concern. I use the same library. I walk through those same doors once or twice a week, and I’m often preoccupied with my reason for being there. That woman is still out there and could come after me. I had to be ready!

So how will I answer the Courtesy Patrol Person when it’s only a matter of time before she corners me?

“Oh my gosh, you poor soul! (my hand on her arm) Did I neglect to hold the door for you? What an injustice that was! (hand to my forehead) How could I have been so insensitive? (both arms stretched out above my head) How can you ever forgive me? I will regret this forever!”

Yes, maybe too cynical.

Well, how about, “Guten tag! Ich bin eine Deutschlander. Sprechen sie Deutsch?” (with a quizzical and friendly grin)

Or even, (looking at my watch), “Ah, I think you might be mistaken. It’s not quite the hour when door holding is required. I think that starts at 4:15 p.m. That’s all right (patting her back), don’t feel bad–sometimes I confuse those starting times, too! It’s a lot to remember, isn’t it?”

Or maybe, “Hmmmm….(moving closer to look at her carefully). You look just like–you ARE! You’re Henrietta! Remember me? We served on that committee together! Wasn’t that a hoot? You look like you’ve lost weight–and I love the way yhou’re wearing your hair now! Who does it? (do not give her time to answer, important to talk rapidly, not give her a chance to interrupt) Do you ever see the old gang? Remember the night after the gala when we–no, don’t worry (wink, wink). I won’t tell a soul! So good to see you! Let’s get together some time and catch up!” (leave quickly)

In the end, I might simply go with Helene’s reply, “You’re welcome!” And then I’ll add (with a smile), “It was nothing!”

 

 

Walking on Clam Shells

Some people walk on paths of rose petals. Me? I walk on paths of clam shells. No, they’re not nearly as cushioned, velvety, and fragrant as rose petals, but they keep me moving. The gulls in my neighborhood pick up clams from the beach, fly up and over a hard surface, like the asphalt road, and then drop them, usually cracking the shells so they can eat the innards. These empty, broken shells accumulate alongside the road, right in my pathway. Occasionally a gull meal has been interrupted, and I notice a soft, glistening clam still inside the broken shell.

My mother walked on Seattle sidewalks, up and down those inner city hills, and always wanted to write a book about walking. Now, in an assisted living home, she moves around in her wheelchair on smooth linoleum hallways and flat courtyards.

I am not a long distance walker. I walk for perhaps 20 or 25 minutes a day and that’s it, unless it’s a special walk with a friend. Why do I walk? I walk first of all in order to sleep through the night. Between that and perhaps a little bit of gardening, yardwork, or housework, I have no problems sleeping. I walk because I know it will clear my mind and help me think straight. Fresh air? The stimulation of movement? A different setting? What is it in that walking action that often will help me come up with a creative solution to a problem, or an idea for a writing project?

I walk because I’m an introvert, but I like to see just a few people on an otherwise very quiet day at home. I don’t initiate conversations, so a friendly “Hi!” is as much of an interaction as I need, but occasionally I meet walker friends or neighbors and we visit briefly–and once in awhile, more than briefly. Sometimes I meet Charlie, the 85-year-old man who walks two miles a day. He’s a retired printer and makes stained glass creations as a hobby. Sue, who doesn’t live in my neighborhood, but walks daily in it, always knows more of what’s happening on my street than I do, so I enjoy visiting with her to get the latest local gossip. This morning not many people were out, and I found myself waving to the garbage truck driver.

I walk because I know it will give me energy for facing the rest of the day. On the days I skip walking I almost always notice that old lethargy battling for my body. I also walk because I’m excited about what’s out there today! What plants are blossoming? How’s the work coming on the boathouse my neighbor’s torn apart? Any eagles or ospreys? Is there any fragrance yet from the wild roses that are just opening?

I walk because I know from all the research that I am healthier for it. My heart and lungs are getting exercise, in addition to other muscles. My lower back muscles are being strengthened. I can splurge on that leftover piece of pie.

And, with my mother in mind, I walk because I know it is a very special privilege, and I’m going to take advantage of that privilege while I can–even if it doesn’t take me down a path of roses.

One of my favorite quotes is this one:

We’re all just walking each other home.”
–Ram Dass, spiritual teacher