— Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
I believe God lives in my backyard. No, I don’t mean the backyard of my home in Fremont. I use “backyard” in a larger sense to mean the entire San Francisco Bay Area.
Living in Fremont, I suppose I could get away with saying Mission Boulevard in Fremont is literally my backyard. Go for a drive on Mission Boulevard in late winter towards Union City and what do you see?
Dazzling white apricot blossoms vying for your attention with the flamboyant pink of cherry and plum blossoms! They are the early harbingers of spring and seem to bloom almost overnight.
Their sudden appearance always reminds me of a legend about Saint Francis of Assisi. In deep winter, the good saint commands a barren tree to speak to him of God. The tree at once covers itself head to toe with flowers! Indeed, the flowering trees of my backyard speak to me of God.
Turn left at Decoto Road from Mission Boulevard and keep driving. As you approach Dumbarton Bridge, imagine time has fast forwarded to summer. It is early morning, the sun is just over the hills and the sky above is a clear, pale blue. There are plenty of geese, cormorants, and storks in the water.
Now, what is that translucent net of black and silver that flits and floats just above the water, almost but not touching it? It is a swarm of swallows having breakfast. Swallows are aerial hunters and the hunting swarm banks and turns in pursuit of flies to snatch them up in mid-air. Verily, verily, I say unto you, not even the mightiest of fighter planes manned by the cleverest pilot can match the agility of the swallows of the marsh. God lives in my backyard.
Driving along the hills or the bay in the early mornings or late evenings catapults me back to my childhood in Kerala. Bus trips over the undulating terrain of Manimala and boat trips along the scenic waterways of Kuttanad had taught me that the proximity of hills and rivers is soothing balm for the human soul. The cooling touch of this balm is best sensed when the sun is low on the horizon. The transitioning night, or day, beckons our minds away from our daily turmoil toward a more spiritual rumination. It helps to be out in the open near river, lake, sea or mountain, at dawn or dusk, to clearly hear this spiritual call. So, I did not have to pause and think when I came across a plaque in front of the fountain at Stanford University’s visitor center with this quote from Melville: “Meditation and Water are wedded forever.” Of course, they are!
I suppose I could also get away with saying Mission Peak in Fremont is in my backyard. It is, just like the rest of the hills, a dull brown most of the year. But winter rains cover the hills with a lush green blanket. If you take the time to hike up the hillside, you will be greeted by myriad golden poppies sewn into the green blanket.
At 2,517 feet, Mission Peak is noticeably higher than the rest of the hills. That height is sufficient for the peak to be frequently hidden by fog. On a foggy morning, all you can see from the peak is cotton white clouds below you. You could easily imagine that you have soared above the clouds to the abode of the gods. I believe God lives in my backyard.
I have sensed God’s presence in the poppies and swallows, hills and lakes of my backyard. But I have sensed God’s presence in far off places, too. God was as much present in the resounding OM at the Isha Institute of Inner Sciences of McMinnville, Tenn., as in the great AMEN at Mission San Jose Church of Fremont. While every Sunday I meditate at Mission Church on the mystery of bread and wine transforming into spiritual food and drink, I have also sensed the divine in rice and water while at Isha Institute.
The fall colors of Pennsylvania held the same divine enchantment for me as the spring blossoms of Bay Area. A frozen creek on Mount Whitney bore the same witness to God’s presence as the cloud cover on Mission Peak as also the vision, through an airplane’s window, of Mount McKinley soaring majestically to the heavens. And it’s often while peering out of airplane windows at land or ocean below that I hear my heart gently whisper of God’s presence. And certainly in India, when the temple Suprabhatham mingles at dawn with the muezzin’s call and the church bell’s toll, then too, I hear the same whisper of God’s presence.
I believe God travels in my backpack.
Jojy Michael lives and works in the Bay Area as an engineer. While Michael believes God lives in his backyard, he continues to look for God everywhere.