By Chuck Bell
Given in the Blue Star Memorial Temple, 21 May 2023
Friends and Neighbors,
The theme of my talk is the Joy of Halcyon. I am grateful for this opportunity to share my views. I am grateful to you for being part of that which brings me joy.
Halcyon has become an important way station in my life journey, a community of neighbors and friends. Halcyon also represents the peaceable garden.
Community and garden are the main themes of this Talk. They are the essential components and elements of the joy of which I speak.
First, about the Garden. As Voltaire wrote long ago, my duty is to “cultivate the garden.” I have come to appreciate this gentle mandate: I have a duty to cultivate this garden — an environment in which to appreciate and reflect on the blessings and meaning of life. For me, the garden is a place where, with “windows wide and doors open,” I appreciate the simplicity and the goodness of life. It is a stimulus to my spiritual imagination and reflection.
Gardens, like all created things, are gifts of God. Halcyon, also, is a gift of God. Halcyon is neither the world’s “greatest garden,” nor the Garden of Eden. Nor does it pretend to be. It is beautiful but not breathtaking. As a garden, its bounds are modest and unpretentious.
One qualification about that modesty: Halcyon’s avian life, is totally and gloriously immodest. From dawn to dusk, and then almost unceasingly throughout the night, Halcyon’s birds sing their praises to God. Birds on the wire! Birds in the bushes! Birds high in the trees! They are the sweet and often raucous scandal in this garden. The daily ode to joy itself.
Occasionally, during the spring especially, Halcyon’s blooms are bright and showy. But mostly, Halcyon’s beauty is more subtle and muted, inviting closer attention. The essence of the humility of the peaceable kingdom described in Scripture.
However, the natural garden represents and points to the garden of community. The community also is a gift of God. This is the one I am drawn to cultivate with humility. I will elaborate on that in discussing the community that is my source of joy.
This is my ode to joy. Please forgive me for not warbling!
My story is a preface to my thoughts about the community of Halcyon. Here are some reflections on my own life journey to Halcyon.
I am the grandson of an Irish immigrant farmer and English nurse who came to the Arroyo Grande Valley in 1903, about the same time the Halcyon community was formed here. My Irish grandfather David Bruce was the eldest of a family of 11 children, born in County Donegal, Ireland, in 1856 -before our own civil war and just after the Irish Potato Famine that so devastated and scattered the Irish Diaspora around the world. He emigrated to this country and to this county in the mid-1870s, moving to Central California where he homesteaded 640 acres of land at the north end of the Carrizo Plains and dry farmed wheat.
If you stop at the roadside stop on Hwy. 46 just before reaching Cholame, there are pictures of great wheat threshers pulled by large teams of horses. One of those could have been a picture of my grandfather. He lived alone there, building a farmhouse and barn, and farming for about 15 years.
Then, he was introduced to a young Englishwoman, Emilie Boxall, a nurse. She had travelled from England with a widow whose late husband my grandfather apparently knew. The widow’s intent was to “matchmake” a marriage between the two of them. David and Emilie married in 1903 in San Luis Obispo and, believing a farm in the wilds of the Carrizo Plain was too rough for his Englishwoman, grandfather sold his farm. The newly married couple moved to a farm in Carpenter Canyon just a few miles from here on Route 227, where they built a Victorian style house that still stands today. David Bruce is counted as a pioneer farmer in this Valley. He farmed peas, kept a stable of horses which he loved to ride, and some milk cows and chickens. It was on this farm that they raised their family. Their eldest child died tragically at age two. My mother, who resided with us here in Halcyon for the last of her 100 years of life, was the youngest of three surviving children.
My father was born in Maricopa, Kern County, in 1919, when it was an oil boom town. His father was a University of Michigan-educated lawyer and to tell the truth, at heart a fortune seeker. He was a leading citizen of Taft, and once its mayor. My father went to schools in Taft and to Menlo College just before World War II.
I am here because of a good fate I call the grace of God. My grandmother survived a freak horse and buggy incident on the old train bridge over the Arroyo Grande creek in 1914 (before my mother had been born) — and my father and mother survived World War II in the Pacific. My mother met my father on a troop ship to Australia. They decided to marry if both survived the war. That was a close call for my father. He was twice wounded and survived multiple combat battles in the Pacific He was highly decorated for bravery for actions that might have ended his life. He was nearly killed by a Japanese soldier in the jungles of New Guinea. I have that soldier’s field samurai sword as a memento and sharp reminder of that encounter. Had these outcomes been different, I wouldn’t be here today.
Mom loved this area, and so did my Dad. After the war and a few years in Bakersfield, they moved back here. They purchased their dream house in Shell Beach. But in 1951, my father was called back into the Army and sent to Korea. While he was away, Mom raised me and my sister as well as caring for her dying mother, my grandmother. In 1954, Dad returned from Korea, and our family life together resumed on the coast.
I attended grammar school in Pismo Beach and high school at Arroyo Grande High and spent two summers here during my first two years of college at Stanford. Growing up and coming of age in this area in the 1950s and 1960s was special. Life was idyllic.
What freedom we had! The Central Coast “nurtured my young soul.” Shell Beach’s beautiful ocean view was just out the door, and of course, the beach was my happy playground. Our home on Pismo Heights took in an unforgettable vista with an expanse of over 25 miles of coastline from Pismo to Point Sal. I would delight in watching launches from Vandenberg and comb the night sky for passing satellites from our front porch.
During my life here in the 1950s and 1960s, I scarcely knew anything of Halcyon. My mother, who grew up in the Valley, of course was aware of it. She had some Halcyon classmates in grammar school and high school. While Halcyon seemed unique and somewhat exotic to her, if she knew of its history, she never shared anything she knew with us.
My grandmother had older acquaintances here as well, according to my mother. Our family were Methodists, and quite involved with the local Methodist church and the Methodist camp that met in the Pavilion just above it. We drove by the Halcyon Temple often, but never stopped. I understood that Halcyon was not Methodist, but little else. I don’t recall having a single high school friend who lived here.
However, two remarkable, irrepressible women from Halcyon were well-known to me: Francie Campbell, my high school freshman English teacher, and of course, Maryalice Mankins, our high school’s dean of girls. However, I had no idea they lived in or expressed something of Halcyon’s essence and panache.
My occasional returns to the area for high school reunions and occasional business, brought me no closer to Halcyon.
That changed completely in 1999 when I came back to Arroyo Grande for my high school reunion. In a very momentous few days, my childhood classmate Janice Freeman and I connected, and both of us knew this was serious. She invited me to tea at 1698 Dower, where she was living. (Several classmates, sensing that some stars had aligned, invited themselves along — nosy, we think, to know what their eyes suggested was happening!) That was my first visit into this neighborhood and first window into what Halcyon was about.
In short order, we married, and she moved to Sacramento to live with me there.
We made occasional visits down from Sacramento in the ensuing years — years that were focused on dealing with our blended family of children and my very active national legal career. The most notable visit I recall was for a 50th birthday celebration for a neighbor held in Don and Mary Forth’s backyard — a magical gathering of more than 30 people, filled with happiness, wonderful food, and a taste of Halcyon community. It was my first real introduction to Janice’s friends and neighbors.
I became aware of a very vibrant community.
Often while we were in Sacramento, Janice would exclaim, “It’s a Halcyon morning!” I would come to appreciate what that meant.
In 2006, Maryalice Mankins asked us if we would be interested in buying the “cottage” at the end of Helena Street that her parents had built and lived in for many years. We were very interested. Both of us came to see the real possibility of returning to live here full time, in the future. That dream was realized in 2013, when we expanded the house from its small cabin state to a fully functional home that could accommodate regular daily life, visitors, and relatives. We also brought my mother Maxine to Halcyon. She spent most of the final years of her life here with us. I continued to work at my law firm in Sacramento, splitting half a month in each place, until the end of 2016, when I joined Janice here full time.
On reflection, the long and winding road of life’s journey brought me to a Halcyon that assumed a different character and meaning as that journey progressed. My conception of Halcyon matured from being a pre-retirement “beach house” on my beloved Central Coast to becoming our home.
Now, nearly two decades later, and on the cusp of retirement from my professional career, Halcyon has become the center of our lives. The Halcyon community is one I have embraced.
My changed view and perspective of Halcyon was affected greatly by my own faith journey that would bring me to an appreciation of this community as a gift of God. As not just an abode but a blessing.
Through the common vicissitudes of life, particularly the challenges, losses, griefs, and struggles, I came to understand more fully and to accept the heart of the messages of the Christian faith: trust God; follow Jesus and strive to imitate Christ in all ways. Following Jesus is living a life more and more shaped by the values of love, gratitude, kindness, and humility.
This is the essential meaning of the Golden Rule to me. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Treat others as you would have them treat you. Care for your neighbors as they care for you. Cultivate your neighbors as they cultivate you. Bless your neighbors as they bless you.
This faith journey has brought me to this time and place in my life. I find so much in the Temple’s values and teachings that is resonant with my faith.
I have come to appreciate that Halcyon is a living community. A community that reflects its own history, personality, and life. A community that is also a collection of individuals of many varieties of backgrounds, life stories and personalities. The community of Halcyon encompasses not only Temple members but the wider group of homeowners who share as I do in the vision of Halcyon as their own garden.
It took me some time to adjust to Halcyon’s rhythms, to get better acquainted with the community members, and begin to bloom in my own way here: truly to become a part of the community.
While I have attended social gatherings, Temple services and talks of this sort, my practical method of engaging community has been tramping around town, often with one of my dogs, having those Halcyon conversations right out on the streets and porches.
Janice has been the source of much information about Halcyon, the Temple, the Halcyon folks that she interacted with over more than 50 years of her on-and-off history here, and the social, spiritual, and intellectual life of the community.
Halcyon describes itself as an “intentional” community.
Halcyon, as a unique utopian community, has a remarkable survival history. Halcyon’s founders had the wisdom and vision to gather and build a community that would live together with a shared purpose. To me, their goal was to attract and cultivate “neighbors,” to work, to share their message with the wider community, and to care for the sick through the healing arts.
In the present age, this project seems as audacious as the colorful characters who came to live here and establish a beacon to enlighten the world.
Halcyon’s remarkable continuing existence now is marked by its recognition as a National Historical District. It is a fitting honor and recognition. While this may draw overdue attention to Halcyon, some may think it is undue attention, incongruent with its attractive “no streetlights, no curbs and no gutters” quietude and agrarian, rural character. I disagree. I believe this is a blessing. This recognition may strengthen Halcyon’s ability to survive and carry on in the present times, as a beacon of the kind of hope the Golden Rule offers to all.
The truth is: people long in their hearts for real, authentic community.
Intentional community — one that gathers people to live peaceably, reflecting values they revere, and in an environment that embodies their aspirations to live those values — is especially attractive in the fraught time in which we live.
How many of our friends who visit here exclaim about this. They want to know “how can we come and live here?”
The enduring strength of Halcyon is — and will be — the community of neighbors, living their values in love, harmony and dignity as described in the Golden Rule.
As communities and institutions age, often they lose their vitality and attractiveness. Hope fades. Their creedal values cease to resonate with the times and mores of the greater community that surrounds them, and they pass out of existence. Without sustained Hope, such projects often are preserved only in amber and memory.
The key to sustained survival is the active, dynamic engagement of hearts. Halcyon’s motto itself points to this. That motto is summarized in the words of poet and founder John Varian, that is painted in short-form on the sign over the entrance pathway to the Temple: “Creeds disappear; Hearts remain.”
I believe this community of Halcyon is fully committed to maintaining its “heart.”
I observed that heart in play in last Saturday’s very moving tributes to Eleanor and to her role and effect on so many of their lives.
Creeds may disappear, but here in Halcyon there remains the heart and hope to survive.
I love and am sustained by the life in this humble garden in Halcyon. It is a place of peace and harmony. Just as it is my duty to “cultivate this garden,” Halcyon will survive as neighbors cultivate, care for, and bless one another — with loving hearts and by sharing the joy of life together in this community.
— Chuck Bell