On wading in: Day 7. Gettin’ it done.

I am a big list-maker.  But as we’ve discussed before, I may not be proficient in the most USEFUL kinds of list-making: the kind that actually spell out your tasks for the day.  Today, in typical over-achiever fashion, my list said this:

Pressure washer (code for: rent one; use it on all external surfaces of the house; borrow a ladder from somewhere to get up high).

Wash windows (code for: all of them.  Inside and out.  We have three floors with TONS of windows).

Edge  beds (we have nearly three-quarters of an acre, and much of it is landscaped with perennial beds…all of which need edging.  NEW edging.  Not clean-up edging).

Mulch beds (see above).

There was something else on it, but I forget what.  Because this list embodies what should be, oh, three or four days worth of work.

But you know what?  Turns out that when you stop worrying about how ridiculously over-ambitious the list is and just DO things, things get done.  It’s startling.

I suppose this is kin to being in the moment…just embracing the work before us without trying to strategize a better way or bundle chores for greater efficiency.  We just DID it.  And loved it.  And we’re amazed by how beautiful the house looks now.

There’s a subtext here about stewardship…one of my chronic self-disappointments is not taking good enough care of the wonderful things I have.  (And Len’s laid-back attitude doesn’t always help, if you see what I mean.)  But it seems that actually DOING things is far easier and less stressful than worrying about getting it done.  (And of course we didn’t do it ALL, but we did a great deal and it feels delicious.)  Who knew?

(I know.  You did.  Whatever, smarty-smarterson.)

Even better was that our post-cleaning, post-mulching, post-mowing trip to the garden for kale for dinner involved a little spell of flower-picking, too, and Ezra wanted to carry them all into the house.  He knows how to take care of their tender stems, he says.  And then we made three bouquets which are gorgeous, and then Ezra said we had to have a Celebration at dinner.  Because of the flowers.  To celebrate the flowers.  So we did.  My heart is smiling all the way down to my toes.


On wading in: Day 1

Rabbit rabbit, or whatever you say to herald the new month.

It’s September.

Everyone’s going back to school, cleaning up, settling down.

Except for me. I’m jumping off a cliff.

Well, that’s what it feels like anyway. I’m wading into a vast unknown ocean of freedom to choose my projects and commitments, and I’m equal parts thrilled and horrified. So to avoid checking out entirely and spending the next month with my head in the sand, I’ll be starting a little group instead. The September group, I’d like to call it. Join us by following and commenting here, and by checking in on Facebook (The September Group: On Crafting a Life).

What’s funniest is that sticking my head in the sand is only half of my usual response to freedom and opportunity. The other half is manic activity, and what’s kind of worrying is that we never quite know how long these cycles will take. And when it’s, say, six months in the sand, well, that’s not really something we can afford. So like all efforts toward health, we’re not trying to eliminate the pendulum swings, but rather to bring them back to center a little more quickly. And that seems mostly like a process of mindfulness.

So here I am: Day 1 of a 30-day adventure in checking in, writing down, reaching out. I’m looking forward to hearing what all of you have to say about your lives and projects. Here’s mine, today:

My baby boy got his first haircut today — I couldn’t bear to cut it too short, which was fine because he kept wanting to hold the comb. He loved how it sounded when he ran it against the edge of the water glass. (And how fascinating that his big brother could always sit perfectly still and watch a show, but Chi is all in love with how everything works and sounds and feels…)

We spent some excellent time in the garden, earning Chi his new nickname: Tomato Joe. He CANNOT leave them alone. Seeds everywhere. It’s gorgeous. And if any of you have ever considered growing haricot vert (bush green beans that don’t get huge): try Masai. From Fedco Seeds. I’ve never seen a more prolific bean — and so delicious! And patient with a late harvest! Also, I have to note the asclepias (butterfly weed) in its orange profusion of gorgeousness. It’s self-sowing and I’m letting it, because I’ve seen zero butterflies this year. Total. And not one in my garden. I am gravely worried for our world.

I finished Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation last night, and I can’t recommend it enough. Silly, beautiful, profound, painful, awe-inspiring, concerning, and consciousness-raising. It’s a fun trip and one you’re glad you took.

My best work today (usually, in fact, I’m seeing) is happening when I don’t quite mean to Work. I fall into it because it’s fascinating. I’m trying now to let that falling happen. (Years ago, my insightful and loving mother-in-law gave me a card that said “Books fall open and we fall in…” and I’m realizing that books aren’t the only things the universe holds open for us.)

What else? This is clearly a strange and disjointed practice, like mind-dumps, like photo-editing at the end of a trip. But day by day, I imagine this one way we find courage and continuity and compassion and creativity. I hope so, anyway. We’ll try it for a while and see.

On carnage

(And for those of you from war-torn parts of the world, please understand I mean no disrespect when I use the term “carnage” in the context of these very first-world problems…but carnage it is.)

So today I learned that squirrels are nest predators.  They eat (and by eat, I mean kill, disembowel, distribute widely, and eat very little of) baby robins.  Who might be, say, nesting on my pergola under the grapevines.  Right near my deck.  Where I’m finding their dismembered bodies.  The greatest mercy here (to me) is that my sons neither found any of the carnage nor know of it; the greatest mercy I hope for (for the robins) is that they were all killed at once.  I will stop that train of thought right there.  I want you to sleep tonight.

These are the same squirrels, I might add, who in previous years would dig up tulip bulbs in order to take single bite and then leave the damaged, useless remainder right on the bench where I like to sit.  Len was once actually mooned by a squirrel (I confess, he had just been throwing walnuts at it), but that was in Iowa.  These East Coast squirrels just give you the finger and eat everything you care about.  And they all seem to have gone beserk at once: we coexist peacefully for most of the year, and then all of a sudden they kill all the baby birds AND remove a full third of the peaches, still green on the tree.  The pits are now littered across the swing set.

In other news, we have another groundhog.

Son of a #%*(^@#?!.  For real.  Those $&%#&*@$?!!s.

You want to know the really neat thing, though?  I recently turned down two adjunct teaching jobs because it’s increasingly clear that I need room to build my work.  And that’s amazing and freeing and terrifying and beautiful.  More on that later…but I’ll add here that I’ll be starting a support group for the people who are crazy enough to step off the beaten path and believe they can make their own way.  There may be drinking; there will certainly be chocolate.  Join us (online or in person) if you can.

On the trivialities

Lately it seems like everything is a mess.  Cases in point:

  1. Groundhog eating my garden.  Trapped; transported; released five miles from home with great exuberance (let me tell you, two small boys and a pooping groundhog in one car does not for serenity make — and have you SMELLED those things?  The groundhogs, I mean?  Phew!).  Today: I see a new groundhog over at the neighbors.  He must be new, or he’d look more road-weary.
  2. Kitchen.  It’s a disaster, but mostly in small ways.  So we figure, hey, we’ll paint the cabinets.  But then: how do you paint cabinets when you have wee folk living in the house?  You don’t.  So maybe we can hire someone to do it.  But our awesome contractor feels compelled to point out the crappy state of our counters, and that we could replace them with a nicer laminate for cheap.  She’s right.  And then, of course, we have to consider the sink, because it’s dented and buckled and you don’t pass up a chance to replace that when you replace the counters.  But then, we love a farmer’s sink, and that seems hard to do with laminate…so…granite?  No no no no. How does it come to this?  How does it always come to this?  The sense that in trying to make some small improvement, you’re opening the doors to such an impressive range of expenses, missed opportunities, and regrets?
  3. Class I’m teaching.  I was recently called “archaic” for arguing that scholarly research and thesis-writing are best taught face-to-face rather than online.  Well, okay.  Archaic it is.  But as much as I love new technologies, they cannot solve everything and sometimes they make things worse by kidding us into believing they can.  More on that in an upcoming post on teaching and learning.
  4. The strawberry fiasco.  The ONGOING strawberry fiasco.  We love the strawberries and are thrilled that they are now coming on in such volume that they occasionally make it into the house.  However, apparently they should never be allowed in the house anyway.  They are simply too ripe and too luscious for small hands to manage, especially when those small hands are trying to simultaneously push a plastic “lawn mower” around the house AND consume a very large berry.  Looks like a crime scene around here.  The kind with a victim who died slowly and managed to tour much of the house in the process.

It’s not even worth cataloguing the array of lesser offenses (potty-related; 4-am-waking related; isolation-related).  But my feelings were summed up nicely when I tried to check out books at the library and the computer told me, as gently as possible, that I had unresolved issues.  And would I please see the librarian. Honey, I wanted to say, I may need more than a librarian.  A bartender, for instance.


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 gardening and sharing the love

This is a quick little post because I’m prepping to teach a organic-vegetable-gardening workshop this morning, and I’m excited and wanted to share.

What fun!  Gardening!  Friends!  Love it!

I’ve put together an array of resources, most of which are electronic, and I’m presenting them on my Pinterest board “Garden workshop” if you’re a Pinner.  If not, I’ll post them on my “growing” page here soon.  But the best and coolest one is from MOFGA, and is available here.

If you’re new to gardening, or just want a handy reference in one place, this is it!  Love it.  Love the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.  Love the gardening.  Love the love.

On the flurries

It has been snowing lightly off and on for weeks.  Months, I believe. Forever, in fact.  Which is enough to drive anyone a little crazy, especially toward the tail end of a long Maine winter.  But another kind of flurry is complicating things too: a work-flurry.

I’m someone who has always sought and valued routine, even though I’m a little bored by it.  My preferred mode of living is comfortable routine with fun variations and surprises.  So why, you might ask, am I pursuing this life of writing and teaching and consulting?  I guess because the pull and excitement of those fields, coupled with the attraction of time with kids, just seem more magnetic right now than the security that used to be so vital.  Last week I felt comfortable with that.  This week, with all of the following things happening, it seems a little nutty:

  1. two offers to teach courses at area colleges over the summer;
  2. one possible collaborative book project to develop and write;
  3. one academic book chapter awaiting final comments from the editors;
  4. one article to write for the very cool L/A Magazine;
  5. one fabulous blog to develop and maintain;
  6. one other blog I’ve been itching to start;
  7. one gardening workshop to host for local folks;
  8. one GARDEN to plan and plant (seed-starting only at this stage, but still);
  9. one board committee meeting to chair; one larger board meeting to attend;
  10. one book discussion session to facilitate in a monthly meeting at our public library;
  11. one book discussion series to plan for the fall for the library/Maine Humanities Council;
  12. the usual array of doctor’s appointments and work-related travel and family life to manage.

And this Sunday is the changeover to daylight savings time.  Which is nice, because it will mean that the baby gets up at 3:30 instead of 4:30 am.  So we’ve got that going for us.

Seriously, why do we do what we do, especially when it’s volunteer or really low-paid?  For me: I’m itching to make these things work.  I’m in the relationship-building phase of a number of initiatives and it all seems worth it right now.  What are the things that pull you in many directions?  How do you manage their competing priorities?  And how do you stay sane during it?  It’s like the snow at this time of year, isn’t it: you never quite know what those clouds will produce, and you surely don’t know if it’ll stick.  But you know that seasons are changing and you know you can’t stop time, so at some point you just hold out your hands and try to  be grateful for what lands.

On dancing and seeds and grace

grape hyacinth budHere’s my afternoon: starting seeds with Ezra in the basement; coming upstairs to find Len and Chi home from the grocery store and provisioned with a tasty new beer (well, Len, anyway); dancing with both babies to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.  Her song “Bonus 2,” which is essentially First Corinthians brought to extraordinary life, always reaches out to me — but today, as I held my small fevered Ezra in my arms and danced, it was transcendent.  To sing those ancient words of love to my son, through Lauryn’s music, to feel the rhythm move through the bones of this old white Colonial, well, I was shaken.  I was lifted up.

I don’t often write about spirituality, or at least not as such.  It’s partly because I feel those are kind of private issues, and also because I’m uncomfortable with the ways articulations of our own faith can end up looking or feeling like advocacy or pushiness to others.  I confess, I’m also tired of the self-congratulatory tone of lots of the writing out there on religion.  And also, let’s face it: I’m a seeker who was raised Quaker (more in the secular humanist end of that spectrum) in a kind of do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do sort of way.  So I have no sense of authority, only a heart full of questions and gratitude.  I tend, then to use the language of mindfulness or grace, since the former is more of a practice and the latter more of an acceptance of what seems an obvious and widely accepted truth.  For me, there are lots of interchangeable words that describe what I have faith in: love, beauty, the sacred, harmony, nature, the universe, grace, providence, serendipity, the Way, the Light, truth, hope, and of course the many permutations of god.  It is clear to me that music is sacred, as are the gifts of all artists and growers and makers and seekers — all creatures, and especially those who offer up something of beauty, who uncover or create or otherwise act with generosity in this sad and broken world.

I’ve been trying to read Margaret Wheatley’s So Far From Home, though it’s hard, because its premise is that we cannot change the world; we can only accept our powerlessness and do our best to live whole and beautiful lives by doing the right work because it is work that needs to be done.  That living, that standing in contrast to the crazy and the broken, is itself transformative.  I buy this, mostly, because it seems smart and truer than anything else I know, but I’m not wise enough or whole enough to live within it.  I’m trying.   Most days, I’m still seeking, perhaps too anxiously, for that “right work,” unable to accept that where I am is enough.  But on a day like today, that truth rings out: of course it’s enough.  Perhaps not forever, but I don’t live in forever.  I live right here, right now, right in the middle of all this beauty, surrounded on all sides by grace.

On Nemo, of course


It’s not like we can write about anything else today.  At least, not those of us who live in the 3-foot zone.  But it does help to remember a few things:

1. This is one of the few winters where a storm like this wouldn’t make it impossible to see out our driveway.  Some years, it’s been like a cavern, with snow banks eight feet high on either side.  This, all things considered, is not all that severe.

2. We haven’t lost power!  Hurrah!  Celebrations!  Naturally, I kept expecting us to, so we had the woodstove on all night (including a 2:30 am run to reboot).  And then we had to do some emergency baking — Mimi’s German Apple Cake, from Rustic Fruit Desserts (the best such cookbook I’ve found).  These are not awful things.

3. Kind neighbors are glorious: one such just snowblowed (snowblew?) out the worst of our four- and five-foot drifts.  I heap blessings upon him and his family.

4. There were brownies.  From the day before.  All chewy.  And Len was too sick to really compete for them (yes, I will make this up to him, but for Nemo, well, it was what it was).

5. The beauty of all this snow is astonishing, and if you catch me at the right moment, I am even capable of seeing that.  Witness.

6. And we are, after all, heading inexorably toward spring.  See?

Bulbs in pot