On spring

It’s here!  It’s here!  This week we shall see the exact moment that is most exciting in any given year: when the sequence of things blooming or otherwise demanding to be noticed gets so full, so overlapping, so abundant that I lose track.  There are grape hyacinths coming up in the nursery bed (which year by year cedes more biodiversity to campanula glomerata — otherwise a rather well-behaved plant, it seems dangerously happy here); daffodils nearing peak by the driveway; crocuses fully gone by in front of the about-to-burst hyacinth.  The forsythia has announced itself; the red maple casts its glorious, ineffable scent over the landscape.  The columbine stands inches tall, fists of bright deep green unfurling into scallopy bunches.  The lilac is pretending it hasn’t noticed all this warm weather, still grey and bony against the sky, but we know its little ways.

I’m in my annual emotional tug-of-war with the vegetable garden: I’ve waited too long, but it was cold and wet, so perhaps it’s okay…but why didn’t I use that time to add soil amendments?  (There are answers, perfectly good ones, but that would defeat the purpose of this little conversation.)  There are broccoli and cauliflower seedlings in, and brussels sprouts and teeny little Gonzalez cabbages.  The garlic was in from last year, and now leeks, onions, and shallots are in there too.  A little parsley (so much self-sows that I rarely start fresh), a little sorrel (less every year because I tire of its bullying), and too much tarragon (because really, who needs a cubic yard of it?  But there it is, and I can’t give it away fast enough).  But my spring greens!  It’s almost too late!  Thank god I got the peas in last weekend or I’d be out there in the dark now (like some people I know).  Desperate times, desperate measures.

I discovered today the severed head of a broccoli seedling, next to some decent-sized holes with sad little pea seeds around their edges.  I’m seriously contemplating asking neighbors with dogs to walk them around our lawn to discourage whatever hideous beast is eating things out there.  I’ve never really had to contend with pests, and it now seems clear that’s because I always had large brown dogs wandering the property.  And I can’t seem to stoop to repellents, because paying for canine urine after all those years of dog-ownership, well, it just seems odd.  But I should take some steps before I lose my equanimity and become someone we’d all rather avoid.

And you?  How is your garden this spring?



On meeting chaos with joy

I started writing this post seven minutes ago, only to be interrupted by a phone call from a job prospect, wondering if we can talk via skype rather than conventional phone. So now I’m downloading skype for my new computer and trying to remember if I have a login and whatnot (it’s been a while since I used skype, since facetime works better around here and most of my peeps have macs or iPhones). And it will complicate life later, because now I have to consider how I look and how my background looks…sigh. This strikes me as a typical moment in a typical “me” day.

Okay, and as I am downloading skype and creating a new account (because it’s faster than trying to track down my old one), I get an email from a student who will be taking my summer class at the University of Southern Maine. I reply, carefully, and with the consideration her thoughtful questions demand. Twenty-three minutes after I started writing, I continue.

See? See? I want to shout to Life. THIS is what I’m up against. I can’t do a darned thing for myself without the whole WORLD rushing in. But here’s the thing (even after the hyperbole): I love all this multiplicity. Sure, it makes me crazy sometimes, but I love knowing that tomorrow I get to play with my boys again, and it’ll be warmer, so maybe we’ll head back to the playground near our house and I’ll watch Chi learn to climb higher and farther (which stops my heart but is wicked good for my reflexes). Maybe we’ll pick more flowers, or just look at the deepening maroon of the emerging hyacinths. (Ezra told me yesterday: “Sometimes I just like to say the word hyacinths. Hyacinths.” He’s so my boy.) Maybe there will be swinging; maybe there will be falling down; almost certainly there will be some shouting and also lots of hugs. And I won’t get a damn thing done except support two very small people in the process of becoming bigger people. And here’s the best part: the day after THAT I get to spend prepping my summer course, which is a senior thesis seminar on sustainability. How lucky am I? And how nuts, that these are only the two largest and most urgent of my many different tasks and responsibilities? This goes for all of us, I know.

It occurs to me that the absence of pattern, or maybe the prevalence of interruption, is a hard thing for all human creatures, small and big, and also that our efforts to construct regular patterns can keep us focused on the wrong things, or looking through the wrong lenses. It’s one of the prime lessons of parenting, right? That attention to the random, spontaneous declaration is rewarding; that saying yes instead of no can take us all further, together; that getting messy is okay when we have nowhere to go and we live in the company of a great blessing called the washing machine. The hardest days of all are the days we have to get stuff done, when, as my mother-in-law once famously put it, “We don’t have TIME for joy!”

We always have time for joy. It is the root of our humor and lord knows we need that ALL the time. It is the base of our compassion, without which we aren’t even human. It is, at best, the quiet breath that’s always waiting inside us, the one we are physiologically incapable of actually fully exhaling. The trick is remembering it, befriending it, and, quite frankly, expecting it to be around as much as it is. It’s a beautiful surprise, constantly available, and ultimately life-altering.

On tension

Surface tension.  Also known as total serenity.

Surface tension. Also known as total serenity.

I used to be a singer, a habit which has served me well as a parent (and not just for singing pretty songs).  Four nights a week when I was in college, my women’s acapella group would rehearse for two hours, and we’d usually perform at least one other night.  It was a lot of singing and it came from a place of extraordinary joy.  Plus, my abs were things of beauty: firm, sculpted, and in perfect support of my breath, voice, posture.

Shortly after that, I started taking yoga for the first time.  I listened enthusiastically to the suggestions on breathing: “Let the air fill you up!”  I can do that!  “The fullness of your breath grounds you, connecting you to the world around you.”  Yes!  But then: “Let your belly be soft.”  WHAT?  Obviously, I said to myself, these yogi people know nothing about breathing.

Now, nearly twenty years later, I find that I have lived, mostly, in a constant state of suspension between these two ideals: tension (albeit supportive) and softness (albeit chosen, and therefore disciplined).  I suspect this has something to do with the human condition: that we are given certain circumstances and we need both to accept them (softness) and to make something of them (tension).

This is the essence of Saul Alinsky’s principle, that we have to live in the world as it is and work toward the world as it should be.  It is also the essence of productivity: understand where you are that you might move forward (and the kind of non-acceptance that manifests as self-flagellation doesn’t help).  It’s the essence of teaching: start where the students are and go on from there.  And of course it’s the essence of parenting, of love, and creativity: compassion, for ourselves, our kids, our world, must undergird every disciplined effort to build and teach and grow.

All the love is making this dog tense.

All the love is making this dog tense.

We can all agree that breath (and for “breath,” from here on out, read “love,” “openness,” “curiosity,” or “spirit”) fills us up, that it simultaneously grounds us and lets us fly.  The musculature and intentionality that produce such breathing are real and profound: such breathing is our natural state (as in sleep), but in the world of our realities, pretty much everything gets in the way and messes it up.  So between nightmares and day jobs, childcare and health care, commuting and computing, we end up – most days – tangled beyond recognition.  For most of us, it takes a walk in the woods (which we don’t take) or a round of meditation (which we don’t get) to rediscover our core.  When we do, we can begin to parse our lives with a little more clarity.  Without clarity and rest, we tend to experience stress (which might be considered tension with an attitude problem).

But here’s the thing: tension itself is not bad.  Tension is a kind of discipline or structure, and its manifest in both.  There are many ways to good posture, or effective work habits, or appropriate human interaction, and tension is a part of them.  I am reminded of the persistent knee and hip pain I experienced in graduate school that stopped my running habit, and of the excruciating SI joint issues that developed in my first pregnancy and didn’t resolve long after the second.  I had worked out and stretched diligently through the first but learned in the second that rest was the only solution, so by the time I sought expert help I was not the strongest person you know.  I was, however one of the more flexible.  And that turned out to be the problem.  I didn’t have enough tension!

You maybe can't tell, but this is a tension rod holding up our puppet theater.  Tension promotes play.

You maybe can’t tell, but this is a tension rod holding up our puppet theater. Tension promotes play.

Hahahaha, she laughs, only slightly hysterical – two babies under three years old and mounting fiscal pressure that made it important to get more work and find more daycare…but it’s true.  That kind of emotional tension was keeping me from the strength-training that my body needed in order to create the muscular tension that would hold my bones in the right places.  Roughly.  Part of the pain was from too much tension; part of it was from too little.  Sound familiar?

It’s the same logic with our lives: an absence of tension doesn’t mean smooth sailing: it means we aren’t learning or pushing or changing or MAKING change.  Of course it’s delightful when in the midst of complications something goes smoothly (I still remember, as do all women who have delivered a baby vaginally while conscious, that moment of exquisite, whooshing relief when at long last that tiny body fully squeezes out of your own).  The trick to managing tension in the rest of our lives, I’m finding, is that damned balancing act.  We need some tension, but not too much; we need resilience and self-care for when we are overwhelmed by too much tension anyway; we need the right kinds of tension, at the right times and places, to keep us alert and accountable; we need counterbalancing forms of relaxation to remind us of our natural state and to help us recalibrate.  This is to say, we need the sturdy muscles of our singer’s core to give us voice, to help us run.  And we need to know how to release that posture to assume a gentler one for the yoga mat.  We need to relieve that tension through twisting core stretches and maintain it with vigorous exercise.  But what we can’t do, it seems, is sidestep the question entirely.  Which I’ll admit makes me a little grumpy.  Because I like the idea of smooth sailing.  I’ll let you know how that works out for me.