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 small gratitudes.

I’ve officially hit the point where I think about work all the time. Not in a pathological way, but because it is interesting and there is a lot of stuff going on and there are good challenges to mull. But let’s face it: I think about work all the time. This is a problem for me.

However, I don’t believe in un-thinking, or in chastisement, or in turning away from interesting things; I just want to give myself something better to think about. Something more whole, more shared. Like my brilliant, beautiful, beneficent husband; my fabulous but struggling kiddos; my bizarre good fortune at having a rental situation good enough to miss when we move again in another month. But when I stack up mental lists of gratitudes, I just feel cluttered. I get overwhelmed by all the thoughts.

So this morning, when my young sons went running out into the grass at 6 am in their stripey pajamas, I was otherwise occupied. I did not in fact see their small bare feet grow wet and stain green; I did not see their glee in locating the first dandelions, nor their careful planning of a Surprise for Mama. The first I heard of it was when they came back to the open doorway, faces bright with delight, with handfuls of yellow. “LOOK MAMA! THE DANDELIONS ARE HERE! Quick, let’s get a vase.”

Even the vase-hunting process had me in busy-mode, trying to find something small enough to be convenient in our under-equipped kitchen. But at least that hunt slowed me down and made me use my eyes, my hands, to size up the stems and faces of these flowers, to consider the array of vases we have in storage, to understand again what a central role flowers (growing, picking, arranging, admiring) have in my family’s life. I breathed. I became, for a moment, just a human deeply touched by the love and givingness of others.

Then I saw it: the small green vase a dear friend had given me the day before we left. It held all my gifts perfectly. I packed up my gear for the day — my computer and backpack, of course, but also my little canvas lunch bag from another friend, holding a container of the delectable soup my husband had made the night before and a few other treats. And I picked up my little vase of dandelions. And I felt, for the first time in days, ready to face the world, bolstered by these reminders of who I am, small gratitudes in hand.

On the physics of kisses.

Okay, this post is not about what you think it’s about.

These kisses are the kind that our sons blow to us — across rooms, down the driveway, through closed windows.

They used to be content with the blowing of kisses, but about a month ago they got worried that the kisses wouldn’t reach their destination, the kissee, if you will.  Which led to a brief lecture by me explaining that they, the kissers, can only control the love they send out into the world; they cannot control how it is received.

But they can surely trust that kisses are fast and smart: they fly faster than any car and they can find their person no matter where they are. Kisses always reach their kissee when we send them out into the air.

These are some established truths at our house.

Today, however, posed some new challenges, as Len and I backed out of the driveway at the same time (me with the kids in back) and headed off in opposite directions.  The sweet boys had waited until we drove off altogether before starting to smooch their little palms, and as they took their big breaths to blow those kisses toward Papa, they realized HE WAS BEHIND THEM!  What would happen if they blew their kisses in the WRONG DIRECTION?  We revisited the physics of kisses (see above), which reassured them, and then led to this:

Ezra, after a moment of quiet reflection: “My kisses are shaped like hummingbirds.”

Mama (eyes welling up with the awesomeness of this revelation): “Wow.  That is pretty fabulous.”

Malachi: “Mine are shaped like bluebirds.  Blue and RED.”

Ezra: “Yes, because bluebirds are your favorite birds.  But not blue and red, blue and orange.”

We haven’t yet discussed whether these shapes and colors and their breathy essences always embody kisses (what a world!) or whether these particular boys have particular kisses the shape and color of small birds…but I feel sure we will.

On the unfolding of the unfolding.

PROCESS.  It’s enough to wear you right out.

All these things you want to HAVE and to BE, like gardens, and children, and happiness…and they all just stretch themselves out haphazardly through years and conversations and unfoldings, never really giving you a clear static PRESENT.  They’re always emerging and never really realized.  It’s exhausting.

Can you tell I’ve been hard at the early spring phases of gardening?  With my four-year-old?  After, oh, four years of basic garden neglect?  My soil is compacted and clayish; my nutrient levels deficient; the late spring has left two beds soggier than they should be.  My strawberries are enough to make me weep, and not in a good way: some fool (ahem) planted a sweet little feverfew in there early last year, and whadya know!  It self-sows!  Rabidly!  And then the little seedlings root deeply enough that pulling them out leaves the strawberries upside-down, root tendrils waving in desperation.

In short, it’s hard to know where to start.

But start we did, a few days ago, and did a little more today.  Wood ash and peat moss and compost and worm castings and chopped leaves and some elbow grease and the occasional back spasm…and today, thanks to my four-year-old’s intervention, some actual planting.  He has declared one of our six veggie beds “his” for the season, though he is graciously allowing me to plant some brassicas there because of my (winningly brilliant) explanation about crop rotation.  He began with radishes (four kinds spread across one short row) and moved on to carrots (only two, so far, of the rainbow of colors we intend to plant).  He was patient with my need to rescue strawberry plants rather than sow more carrots, which surprised me.  But whenever he’s outdoors with purpose and freedom, he tends to be surprisingly mature and cheerful.  Note to self, right?

So the list of what else to do stretches long, and longer since I bought a few plants at the Fedco Tree Sale last weekend.  (I was only going to pick up the potatoes I had order, and because it’s a spiritual pilgrimage for me.  I was NOT going to buy trees or shrubs.)  So now I have to open up new ground for the new raspberries; transplant an old seeded grape for a new seedless one; make space for a beautiful Arctic Blue willow and an Ellen’s Blue Buddleia; and I think there’s something else in there I’ve forgotten.  Plus, I need to move the roses that are in too much shade come late summer (and where to?  roses near the swing set just spells trouble, no?); rake and weed the asparagus bed; transplant things from the “nursery bed” (see my earlier post on THAT sore topic here).

But isn’t this just how it is?  I mean, there are gardeners I know who stay on top of it, whose soil is rich and beautiful, whose daily chores consist of the necessary work that arises in that moment.  They don’t seem chronically behind (and yes, they are retired, these legends), but nor do they look at their gardens through the lenses of deficiency.  They are asset-oriented.  This is what I strive to be, in gardening as in life.

Years ago, in a bout of depression, I used a really irritating and fabulously effective exercise to drag myself back to healthy living: you sit with a pen and paper and write down, every day, ten things that are positive.  No sweat, right?  I remember the first time I tried it.  I was staring out at the edge of the yard, where a seasonal stream separated our property from our neighbors’.  Tiger lilies were starting to sprout there, tender green shoots pushing skyward.  And yet what I saw was a reminder that the $&%*^# deer were just waiting to eat every beautiful thing around.  I was mad that I wasn’t transplanting some lilies into the fenced garden where they would be safe; I was angry that there was no way to protect them where they were in that peaceful natural setting.  It took me the longest time to circle back on myself and arrive at this: there are beautiful naturalized lilies volunteering in my yard.  I live near that.  I live in beauty.

I’m working on holding this commitment to seeing the positive, to honoring the unfolding.  It’s not that we didn’t get far enough in today’s work; it’s that we chose to rest and play rather than push on.  (And when great clouds passed with quick but soaking rains, we hid under the deck together — and what fun it was to watch the silver sheets and hear their susurrations over our heads!)  It’s not that the radishes and carrots will be uneven and disordered; it’s that my four-year-old chose to be out there with me, participating as fully as he knows how.  The work will never be DONE — at least not my work, not by me.  That’s not how I roll.  But I can make progress and I can choose when to stop.  And most importantly, I can keep working at seeing what’s beautiful and whole, even if  it’s riddled with imperfections and its beauty is fleeting and its wholeness always still unfolding.

On the making of goodness.

It sounds rather grandiose, now that I write it down, but I’ve been trying lately to imagine how it is that we make space for making goodness.

For making good things, for allowing basic goodness to creep into whatever it is we are making anyway.

Specific examples include the lamb-leek-barley soup I made last week and cannot get over; the upcycled wool scarf I made Len for Christmas that both of us quite adore; the hour spent in the kitchen with both boys this morning as we explored  spontaneously the acoustic properties of an old vacuum pipe and a cardboard wrapping-paper tube.  In every case, there was the magic of serendipity (one can never properly estimate the right amount of leek, am I right?); the hard work of preparation (finding the best way to set the tension for the walking foot and cleaning out all the felted wool lint repeatedly); the challenge of setting down expectations and just showing up to what’s present (a two-year-old’s insistence on toting around a long ShopVac tube and helpfully “vacuuming” freshly painted walls while hollering seemed like a good opportunity for redirection).

It strikes me now that this post would do well to include the soup recipe (inspired by this), the scarf tutorial, and the fun description of sound games to play with toddlers…and perhaps it shall.  Another night.  For now, let it be enough for me to share my gratitude for delicious local foods, for friends with a superior grasp of sewing machine workings, for fun and interesting kids who are malleable enough to move with me sometimes.  Let it be enough to remember that making things is often better than not making things; that flailing wildly is really just a natural part of the creative process; that resilience in the face of failure is a whole lot better than being so safe you never get to fail.  And once in a while, you get to feel the good in the product, even, and not just the process.  Those are good days.  And the rest just keep you humble, right?

On reaping what we sow.

I made the best dinner of all time today: smoked salmon chowder (see Epicurious for recipe; then double most of it, use chicken instead of veggie stock, and add fresh dill).  It was freakishly, awesomely delicious.  I’m not sure why, exactly, but the fact that the potatoes and garlic were harvested from our garden a week or two ago and the leeks and dill just tonight might have helped.  And let’s face it: the fact that the smoked salmon was from one of the monsters my nephews and brothers-in-law caught fishing on Lake Michigan in August wasn’t bad either.  I thought the meal would be a festival of the goodness of local eating — hence the name of the post — but it’s way more than that.

While we ate, we had music playing in the background: a mix of songs from my iPhone. One song was from my acapella group in college, and Ezra kept asking: Mama is that you?  So when one song featured a solo of mine, we turned it up and I told them yes, this is me.  The rest of the time you can’t hear me because I’m blending in with all those other beautiful voices, but I’m part of the music.  But they were so thrilled to hear me sing solo that we found the other track of mine: Cats in the Cradle.  I remember the day I earned this solo in group auditions, being near to tears myself and apparently bringing others to the same point.  It was just such a poignant song to me, as one in a long line of kids who didn’t get what they needed from their parents, and as someone who assumed that patterns perpetuate themselves.  But to hear my own nineteen-year-old voice singing those lines, remembering the anguish inside me, while looking at these gorgeous, robust, whole children of mine AND their beautiful, engaged papa…well, it brought me to tears again.

It’s a strange thing, when you spend a lifetime with a sense of unfairness, to discover that sometimes, even if only for a little while, there’s a reprieve.  Sometimes the universe rains down the kinds of goodness we had mostly decided was a myth.  And sometimes it rains down all kinds of goodness at once.  Tonight was one such night: a veritable flood of goodness.  The beneficence of family and the earth and water; the originality and specificity of these small boys; the good flavors and great good fortune of our food and time together.  The voices of dear friends from long ago making music that still moves us all to dance.  A friend of mine once said that the universe has lessons to teach us, and if we aren’t listening, it will keep beating us about the head and neck until we do.  This was more of a massage, really, a kind, persistent, and powerful reminder that it’s safe to relax, to trust in who and what we’ve chosen, to reap what we’ve tried to sow.  I can’t imagine a greater mercy.

On making.

It has long seemed to me that what we need to make is a difference.  If we are making ephemeral things, I’d always thought, we aren’t really making much, or doing justice to the world, because what it needs is change, contribution, brilliance, systems, products that last, that improve our lives in concrete  ways.  Like health care reform.  Like voter registration systems.  Like healthy local food production.

And here I am, listening to my thirteen-year-old niece draw the most extraordinary sounds from her cello, basking in the resonance, this sound that wraps around me like a hug and reaches into my knees like a kiss.  This, I can tell, is sacred; this is true.  This is worth any amount of practice, money, and inconvenience.  This is important in the world.

I remember my own youthful engagement with music, which always filled me up but which was, I felt, not important enough in the world.  Which is to say: it did not stop fights or help my parents like each other.  It did not contribute to household income, at least not for a while.  But I can see, now, that it helped hold things together for me and perhaps for us…maybe even when we should have fallen apart.

I now see that that’s the point: to help us hold it together; to help us fall apart.  It’s the point of music, of painting, of poetry, of knitting and spinning and dying yarn.  It’s the point of collage, of letterpress, of papier-mâché.  It’s the point of song, of singing, of dance.  It’s the point of anything that we make ourselves, with our tiny hearts and striving souls.  It’s the point of all these many ways we hold up the specificity of our lives, ourselves, against the incoherence and fray of the universe.  Making is what we have, the action that demonstrates choice and will and art and resourcefulness.  It makes us human, of course, and no art or craft more than any other.

My niece’s playing reminds me that what is sacred is the yearning, the creativity, the hope embedded in the action.  It’s what we are.

On a lesson of abundance.

We went to a friend’s fifth birthday party today.  And I don’t believe I’ve ever said this about a youthful birthday party before, but I really learned a lot there.

Guests were instructed to bring no gifts.  “No gifts, please.”  Right on the invitation.  So you couldn’t really bring one without being rude.  Which is awesome clarity.

There was a vast array of homemade local food of all kinds and goodnesses, and a huge sheet cake decorated in dinosaur style from a bakery in town.  There was a volcano made entirely of icing.  That alone is a lesson worth learning, no?

There were any number of people from all sorts of walks of life, and everyone was open and friendly and interesting.  Many hands were shaken.  Many babies were nursed.  One man was barefoot the whole time.  A tractor was ridden by way too many kids, and the birthday boy’s grandfather took all the kids for a nature walk in the fields and woods.

But here’s my favorite, of all the things I learned: that they weren’t kidding when they said that coming to the party was the best gift of all.  In fact, the parents worked with their sons in advance of the party to create a list of all their best memories and associations with each of the guests, and the parents read this aloud at the party, before cake.  Which meant that every last one of us was welcomed, celebrated, honored, held up for specific contributions to their family’s life.  I’ve never even HEARD of such a generous tradition, let alone seen it in person.  These people are human-interaction GENIUSES.  I adore them.

Then, after cake was eaten and chickens were chased and trees were climbed and the sun began to set, we headed out to our cars.  The party favors were to be collected en route from a beautiful split-ash basket: baby pumpkins.

I sigh, overwhelmed with abundance.  The givingness and gifts of this world are sometimes just too much.

On recovery.

It’s been a long week for all of us, including flu shots and incipient molars as well as a host of other, more significant challenges.  Friday comes and we’re pretty much beat.  More than beat, we’re beaten down, a little, by circumstances and the persistent tiredness of not being able to see what comes next that might fix the things that need it.

So what else is there to do, really, but head out into the evening garden for potatoes?  The fingerlings have gone untouched so far, since they were planted late and we harvested the yellow potatoes earlier and are still working through them.  But I wanted fingerlings, specifically, to go with the local lamb burgers and sauteed kale I was planning, and the boys surely needed some kind of existential shift.  We all did.  So out we went, with pitchfork and hod, and I dug and sifted while the boys pulled the bright beads from the soil.  Some were serious potatoes, but most were the kind of thumb-sized beauties that gave rise to their name.  Every time one came to light, Ezra would shout with joy, and he had a hard time taking turns with his brother (assisted, no doubt, by said brother’s stubby one-year-old arms).  Two-thirds of the crop is still in the ground, since the bugs found us shortly after we hit our stride, and we had enough for dinner, anyway.

While we were out there, we brought in a massive bunch of kale, a smaller assortment of late zinnias, marigolds, and bachelor’s buttons, as well as a few carrots whose impressive tops made us pull them just out of curiosity.  (Our fridge is full of carrots already.)  And of course, the raspberries have been loving this frost-free October, putting forth nearly as much ripe fruit as they did all summer, and better.  It was an evening to remember.

Every time we bring in flowers, Ezra helps arrange them in a vase, and then he says, in a tight, excited voice: “We have to have a celebration!  To celebrate these flowers!”  And indeed we do.  Three-year-old vision is sometimes so impeccably clear.

Best of all was Ezra’s request, at dinner, that we give thanks (which we do sometimes, but not often enough).  We held hands, and I spoke my gratitude for these sweet men, for this good food and the land on which it grew.  A few bites later, Ezra wanted more: Papa gave thanks for our family, and for all the love, and for the many people who grew the food we eat.  And then, Ezra himself spoke a bit later:

“Thank you for the good Ezra-Mama-Chi day and for whole-family-day tomorrow.

Thank you for the fruit and flowers that grow all around us.

And for the vegetables that grow all around us.”

As I write, my heart spilling over, my eyes rise to the prints on my desk, gifts from my artist friend Kim Crichton: “Grow.”  “Nurture.”  “Sow.”  (You have to see the images to really get them, but when you do, you’ll see why I’m all weepy over all this together.)  From a day when it seemed like nothing could come together, I all of a sudden see that in this moment, everything has.

On being a social creature.

I’ve always been social.  Part of it is clearly personality; much of it is growing up in a context where social connections outside of the home were vital — in the original sense of not just important but necessary to life.  And social anxiety has been part of the scene all along, as well, complicating mightily the basic impulse to connect.  But here’s what I know now that I’m forty:

1. People are awesome. They are interesting and complicated and varied and often not in the ways you’d expect.  There’s always more to learn, about them and therefore about you.  And there’s always poignancy, humor, rage, disapproval, astonishment, respect, and joy in knowing others.

2. I like to have people in my life.  Not just my completely fabulous husband and sons…other people, too.  I want people who do different things, think different ways, hold different values.  And I want people who are like-minded, too, who model for me how I want to be, what I wish I had the courage or the skill to achieve.  I like the beauty of other people: their style, their generosity, their quirky natures.  They take me out of myself and remind me how much bigger and more important the world is.

3. I like my people to like my other people.  This is what we call community…well, either the liking bit or just being-together-despite-not-really-liking, but in this era of isolation, I’ll go ahead and say that community in my life is having a group of people who all like each other and choose to spend time together.  I like us to have reasons to get together at least once a month.

4. For whatever set of reasons, that’s really hard to achieve.  When I lived in Iowa, I was part of a group who all valued good food and good company and who all got a little bored (and maybe antsy?) living in such a small town.  So we started a Thursday night potluck dinner.  Location rotated; themes were often international; food and companionship were always excellent.  I’ve missed that like crazy.  I tried, when we first moved here, to arrange lots of gatherings, but I always felt that no one came, so I gave up.  I slipped into the culture of isolation that, we are told, is typical to the cold Northeast.  But I don’t like it.  So I’m not going to do it anymore.

5.  Announcing that people are awesome and that therefore they will gather with other awesome people seems like a good strategy.  I launched that recently and got some positive responses.  And yet it continues to feel strange to engineer our social lives to this extent…we persist in the illusion that community develops naturally, that we fall together with the people we like to be together with.  And maybe that’s true for those who have careers and lives they’ve managed to fill with evenly balanced activities.  For me, and for many people (especially moms) I know, it’s a much harder thing.  We need the intentionality or else we end up alone, every night, watching Netflix with a glass of wine.  (Which could be a lot worse, which is why we do it.  But you see my point here, I think.)

In a nutshell, then, my strategy is like my friend April’s.  When I saw her by surprise at one point, she held out her arms and said, “Hug me!”.  Exactly.  People rock and I adore them and they need to hang out with me more.  And hug me.  And clearly it’s up to me to tell them so.