On abundance.

“Here is a summertime truth: abundance is a communal act, the joint creation of an incredibly complex ecology in which each part functions on behalf of the whole and, in return, is sustained by the whole. Community not only creates abundance–community is abundance. If we could learn that equation from the world of nature, the human world might be transformed.”

— Parker Palmer, http://fetzer.org/blog/summers-abundant-community

I am reading this Palmer piece for a small community of professionals at my university, and yet here’s what it brings to mind for me:

On Sunday, my husband and a friend rented a pickup and drove to the city’s woodchip pile. They helped themselves to free woodchips, forked and shoveled them into the tarp-lined truck, and then drove back. First two loads to Jon’s house, to cushion the heads of those who fall from the playset. Second two loads to our house, to lay atop newspapers and cardboard, to smother the weeds that grew up through the last load of woodchips we’d dumped. And through it all: assorted children at our house, neighbors and friends, playing elaborate games with sticks, wheeling a tiny plastic wheelbarrow, climbing Woodchip Mountain, helping carry away the deadwood of the old spirea I saw fit to attack while waiting for the truck.

This, I thought, is abundance in my world: the ready company of children and friends, the shared interest and investment of neighbors, the stewardship of a little piece of land that connects to so many others. Homemade watermelon ice pops. What more could we ask?

On digging in.

I’ve never been good at letting go, but I do tend to excel at digging in, which can have much the same effect. Today is a good case in point.

Monday I was feeling the hurt of missing our home in Maine; today, I’m starting to feel at home here at last. My dear angel-friend Marcia had agreed to share some plants with me, so I went to her house this afternoon. When I left, there was nowhere in my SUV to stuff another plant. And the smell! It was a tiny moving room full of spring. I couldn’t stop grinning the whole way home.

Allium, hellebore, anemone, lungwort, daylilies,turtlehead, iris, solomon’s seal, siberian bugloss, comfrey, lamb’s ears, wild ginger, ostrich ferns, lamium…so much goodness. And all this accompanies the rudbeckia, echinacea, dicentra, alchemilla, and tarragon that my stepmother brought me earlier, and the snow-in-summer, mint, and more lamb’s ears from another dear old friend…my garden is a physical demonstration of love.

It began to rain as I drove home, but lightly enough that the boys wanted to help me offload the plants in the driveway. And I shoveled a barrow of compost to help me transplant, and then I went to work. An hour and a half later, I’m soaked and dripping, muddy to the elbows, and happier than I’ve been in years. There’s something uncomplicatedly joyful about new plants.

I couldn’t get to all of them before bedtime reading, so there are still grocery bags full of comfrey, turtlehead, allium, and lamb’s ears adorning my yard, but they should make it through this damp night just fine and we’ll settle them into new homes come morning.

I am aware, as I write this, of my worries for all transplants, vegetable and animal: will their roots find the anchor they need, the sustenance and support? Even if I was too lazy to get enough compost from the pile? Will they get enough light? Is there enough mulch to keep them moist and stable but not so much as to smother them or encourage rot? Are they in the company of friends they like, who bring out the best in each other? Marcia tossed her head at my concerns — these plants are tough, she said. They will be fine.

And indeed they will.

On letting go.

This feels like the first spring since we left Maine, though it’s not — but it’s the first in our new house and so by contrast, the old one rises in my mind…

To the new owners of our house in Maine:

The dicentra is unfurling by the eastern wall
And the daffodils are in bloom, or nearly so.
I know the crocus came earlier, and I hope the
Bees did too, crawling their fur against the stamens.
I’m sure the aquilegia is up already, in its low lovely
Mounds of deep graypurplegreen.

Soon, whether you know it or not, the asparagus will come,
And the strawberries will put out their blossoms –
Before that happens, you will want to bring them compost,
And to press their flailing, frost-heaved roots back into the soil.
I always forgot to mulch, you see, and I imagine you did too.

Will you plant vegetables this year? Would you like to see
My crop rotation plans? What did we leave there for you,
Sunflower stalks? Occasional herbs? And generations of
Red mustard seeds, already sprouting. I hope you know
What they are.

The trees will blossom soon, the pear and apple, peach, plum, Asian pear,
And you will be overwhelmed by so much beauty and perhaps
also the responsibility. What do these things need?
In the still-wet bottom, you’ll see elderberries clumping, and
Two young brown ash trees, planted to replace the aging willows.
How is the chestnut?

I always meant to write a calendar of smells in that place;
For eight months of the year I could know the time by scent.
The hyacinth, the blossoming pear, then philadelphus,
Syringa vulgaris, then Korean lilac in the neighbor’s hedge.
Then Linden trees along the street, then roses, phlox.
Then the fruits begin, and goldenrod and hot dry grass.
Then grapes and leaf-fall, then sharp wet mud of autumn
And the pale tastelessness of the overlast tomatoes.

You will get new firewood in this year, and look out for
The groundhog who nests beneath the pile. Trap him
If you know what’s good for you.
Be sure to line the car-hatch with a towel before you cart him
Out of town.
There is no redeeming merit to a groundhog.

On winter nights, you can keep that basement woodstove going
To good effect, and if the furnace gives you trouble, call
Bruce, his number’s right there on the side.
I hope to god that French drain sump pump doesn’t die
On you this spring; we had the good luck of no attention
Whatsoever to it and it worked like a charm. Though
The access door falls off its hinges if you try and open it
(one reason we never tended to it much).

I apologize for the noisy nature of the forced air;
We took what may have been poor advice and
Chose the reliable furnace over the quiet one, a
Dilemma I feel sure we did not understand properly
Until later.

And yes, you are welcome for the kitchen; that bank
Of windows and the new insulation are indeed a dream.
Best room I’ve ever had. The paint color, should you need it,
Is Vanilla Ice. The living room is Linen White; the dining room Buxton Blue.

I recommend you put bird feeders on the north windows, preferably on the
Second floor; the windows tip in so you can easily refill them.
And squirrels can’t come.

Prune that front lilac from time to time, and give the azaleas
Under the maple a good watering and deep mulch.
The white rugosa/bayberry composite out there by the driveway
Sort of grew together, and it’s a mess but so fragrant we’d just
Mow around it.

Do you know yet about the side yard shade and the virtues
Of a picnic blanket there on a hot day? My heart hurts now
To think of it; that is where I spent most summer with
My sons, from their smallest chubby days. They learned to
Crawl in that grass and to stroke a kitten very gently
And to build a house of sticks in several designs.
They constructed zoos and wild animal scenes
Among the asarum and the maidenhair fern (I hope both
Have survived), cushioned by the moss we never did try to
Owls occasionally nested in the roots of the cedar tree.

Those straggly trees before the neighbor’s are witch hazel,
And they are lovely, or should be by now, you tell me.
And there’s a mighty auruncus and a lovely little fothergilla,
Mostly obscured by the spruce which has gotten
Entirely out of hand.
The white pine was tipped by tip borers and so bears
A premature crown, but those can in fact be pruned
If you can see any reason to do so.

Oh! The mountain laurel! Is it there? It took so long to establish
But then my goodness.

What else? The allium; the Echinacea; the weigela; the iris and my
Karen Grey peonies, which I miss.
I hope the red maple buds are falling soon all over the driveway,
With flocks of cedar waxwings nipping them up, flying
Flapping, and chatting. You can sit on the pebble patio,
Out from under the grape vines, and look up.


On growing new gardens.

There is clearly a metaphor waiting to happen in this title, and I’ll get there. At some point. But the thing that presses me to write right now is this:


Tiny green growing things. In the basement. (The one we spent tens of thousands of dollars to jack up and patch up and protect with new drainage. We’re still surprised it works.) It’s magic down there.

If you’ve never tried seed-starting, it’s not that complicated, but you do need more gear than you’d think. They need more light than you think, for starters, so you want proper grow lights (we use the $11 shop lights from Lowe’s with full-spectrum bulbs like the cheap ones they sell or the nicer ones from Agri-sun.). And they need more warmth than we have, so they want seed-starting mats (I use these, though I bought mine ages ago and for much cheaper). Then of course you need the trays (without holes, so you can water the seedlings from below and thus not drown them), the cells in which to start them, and a few of the clear domes to keep moisture in until things germinate. I also opted for a timer switch to keep my lights on a reasonable and self-managed schedule.

And you need some kind of rig to hold all this; we got a 5-tier wire shelf from Target (4′ long to match the shop lights we use), and we set two seed-mats end to end under each light on each shelf. This creates pretty huge capacity, which is good from where I sit, because I’m starting big new gardens and, let’s face it, making new friends in the neighborhood by giving away seedlings.

Then all you do is think about what you want to grow (I’m a huge fan of Fedco Seeds for inspiration and especially for purchasing), buy the seeds, check the timing of starting them, and go to it! Right now, we have various onions and leeks, broccoli and cauliflower and tiny Gonzalez cabbages; dahlias, marigolds, delphinium; parsley and fennel. And that uses up less than two of my flats! Thrilling. Up next are tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, echinacea, lavender, and a host of other goodnesses.

(Yes, I’ll do a proper post with pictures of our seed-starting rig; the most exciting thing is that the set-up cost only about $125, whereas the pre-made versions you can buy run up to over $800! And yes, I’ll do a proper post about the details of seed-starting, though surely you can find those elsewhere too…)

But NEW GARDENS. Did I mention? New gardens? Next steps include bulk delivery of compost, lots of cardboard, and a chainsaw…

On integrity.

It’s always a puzzlement to me that there are people who can see great inconsistency and shrug. “Well, that’s the way of the world.” “Ah, humans.”

I know. I get that. But I don’t really GET it. I don’t understand it, and I don’t respect it, at least not most of the time.

Here’s my thing: pick that values that you want to define you, and try to live them out.

If you value participation, then seek participation; seek to participate.

If you value humility, try to practice it. Know the difference between being humble and being a doormat.

If you value expertise, seek it. Try to practice it. Be rigorous in every way you can.

Most of all, recognize when you are in a leadership position (remembering there are many kinds of leadership, and many of the best do not feature high positions out front of a pack). Act like it.

Complex institutions (including families, businesses, communities) almost always contain degrees of hypocrisy, and that’s to be expected. But if we as individuals can’t live out our own theory and practice of integrity, what hope do our institutions have?

On creativity.

I’m doing this amazing creativity group with modest, wonderful people in a church downtown; it’s led by a friend and mentor of mine who is also doing the whole Parker Palmer Courage and Renewal thing. In short, it’s a whole lot of magic. And I try to make sense of it, to capture Lessons and to develop Practices, in the vain hope that I can transform my everyday if I just carry this with me…but I’m learning just to trust that it comes back.

There are always poems, for starters, which sets up the whole sacred space thing right off the bat. Poems read ALOUD. Poems about how we make space for ourselves, how we listen to the quiet, how we weave together the “ill-matched threads” of our lives (Rilke). And there is laughter (people were generous about my anguish: “WHY DON’T THE DAMN THREADS MATCH?”). But most of all, there is focus. For once in my life, I am encouraged to just BE there, to consider one thing at a time, to do one exercise or craft, to listen to the voices of our group, one at a time. And these people are so brave, so talented. This space becomes, for me, what I imagine church is for others…a time to be in company of one’s best self and one’s deepest truths, and to do so with others in curiosity and support. I only wish it were more than once a month, but I suspect its rarity is part of its magic.

Last week, as we drew to a close, we were invited into the sanctuary for a surprise.

It was dark in there, and empty, and the cold air stretched far above our heads. As we stepped carefully, quietly, toward the front pews, one of our group moved toward the grand piano. With calm confidence, she lifted the lid; the hinges did not squeak, but we could hear their conversation with the wood they bind. She propped up the top, the skin of her hands speaking with the glossy surface in all that stillness. And then she sat to play.

It was Schubert, she said, an impromptu, and she lifted her hands and the world poured out of her. Liquid light and dancing dust and all the interweavings of a flock in flight. I sat and breathed the aged air, eyes closed, and everything else wide open.

And the best part? Not even the transformation of those moments, the full-bodied memory I carry. Not even the closeness of that group to make and witness such a thing. The best part is knowing that this exists in the world, despite everything else. This exists and is just as real as all the chaos and brutality; what’s more, I wonder, perhaps the best way to work on that is this?

On falling short.

The holiday season is absolutely brutal. All the expectations; all the money you don’t have; all the guesswork about what to give people you think you should know. There’s the mandatory joy amid the typically atrocious weather; there’s the politics of gift return; there’s the utter chaos of children who can’t manage their enthusiasm. (“No joy at the table!” my mother-in-law is reputed to have shouted once, in a rare fit of grump. Yup. What she said.)

Add into this the subsonic, chronic wail of my need to do more for the world than I do, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for feeling small, inadequate, undeserving.

But here’s the thing: if we’re not aiming long, we’re can’t fall short. I can’t give much to the causes I care about, but I can give something. So this was the year I decided to limit the self-reproach and turn up the joy. We made an Advent calendar of activities for the boys to do, and with the exception of going sledding, we’ve been keeping to it pretty well. It creates some much-needed magic. And so I AM falling short on gifts, on cards, on all the thoughtful details I expected I’d be ready to deliver. But I’m getting home at a reasonable hour; I’m playing with the kids; I’m making bread. I decided three weeks ago I wanted to make a wreath, and I cut and collected greens from the Mugo pine, the unpruned boxwood, the Christmas-tree-sales lot at the shop up the street. They are stacked on the porches, front and back, and slowly getting mauled by our feet, by disillusioned snow shovels, by repeated falls into the dirt below. Will they be usable? Not sure. Will we make a wreath? No idea. But I’m trying to let them remind me not of what I didn’t do, but of what I might yet still be able to create.