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.

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On school choice.

This has been a rough month for a range of reasons, but one of them is that we’ve been struggling to decide what to do with Ezra in terms of Pre-K next year.

The scene: our little guy is smart; academically motivated; significantly beyond age-typical intellectual development; emotionally/socially about normal; very sensitive to others’ interest and approval/disapproval; EAGER to get to school.  We live in the highest-performing elementary district in our city.  I am a HUGE fan of community-based public education.  Our school has one pre-K teacher.  I have visited the class; talked with her; talked with various friends who have had kids in her class.  There’s also, 25 minutes away, a charter school rooted in Reggio-Emilia, with an emphasis on arts and sciences, and Ezra got in through the lottery.

The dilemma: our guy will be (is) a total nightmare if he gets bored.  Our local pre-K seems guaranteed to bore him (and the teacher expresses no curiosity about him nor any interest in the question of how to help kids not get bored).  Transportation to/from the charter school will be a huge hassle.  But in all seriousness, when I think about the predictable outcomes (not fear-based, but logical foreseeable conclusions) of his participation in the local school, I imagine a high likelihood of difficult behavior and (to add the fear-based pieces which are also reasonable in our culture) possible diagnoses and medication.  When you take a smart, active kid and you bore him and teach him that you don’t care about his particular needs, it is reasonable to assume that he will go haywire (and we know he can do this beautifully).

The nutshell: we have, we feel, no real choice in the matter, given the realities of our particular situation.  But that is true of many people we’ve talked to (and not true of many; I’ve been appalled to hear blanket statements like “I hate public school!” from people who don’t even know what district their kid is in).  I feel one of my jobs in life is to try and rescue public education, and I thought I’d be doing that in part as an engaged parent in the local system.  Yes, the charter is public, but I don’t even BELIEVE in charter schools, except in extreme cases.  And I don’t think we’re that extreme.  But maybe we are — maybe the “we” isn’t my family but the system as a whole.  If we have arrived at a place where our teachers are, by inclination or by rule, more interested in managing a whole class for non-disruption than in sustaining a love for learning EVEN AT THE PRE-K LEVEL, then how can we expect to participate long enough to make change?  The risk is too great: it’s not about academic “success” even; it’s about the whole life and worldview and sanity of a child.

Can you tell how uncomfortable I am with this situation?  How deep my grief is for the community I thought we would enter through participation in our local Pre-K?  How sad I am for the system I’ve seen fading for years, as more and more of my brightest, most motivated college students who WANTED MORE THAN ANYTHING TO BE TEACHERS stepped away from those dreams because they couldn’t afford to pay off their loans on a teacher’s salary, they couldn’t imagine sacrificing their ideals to the extent they knew they had to, they couldn’t condone following standards that were about a strange societal commitment to “academic” performance rather than a genuine commitment to the healthy development (and academic learning!) of whole children?  I LOVE public education.  I want to be part of it.  I want my children to revel in it.  But until they are old enough to sort out which are the sucky parts of the game you play because you have to, and which are the nourishing, life-giving aspects that we can find in the middle of the rest — well, until then, I guess they go the charter route.  And we count ourselves lucky.

I welcome thoughtful comments and perspectives, as ever!

On relearning the important parts.

It’s exhausting to keep living this nonlinear life, with its ups and downs, its difficult lessons, its outrageous joys.  You learn something, then forget it, then spend years learning it again.  I much prefer more academic models of learning, where we learn something, check it off as “learned,” and move on.  (It doesn’t really WORK that way, but the shared illusion is so pleasant.)

Alas.  Here we are. And so this holiday season totally ate me alive, and I was not present or thoughtful or connected.  Indeed, I was barely civil.  I spent much of my time holed up waiting for something loving or memorable or fun to happen…and as you might guess, those things don’t typically come looking for you.  You have to generate them, and generative was about the last thing I was.

But it’s a new year now, and another new beginning.  I will write again.  (See?  See?  I AM writing.)  I will read more.  I will ask better questions of my friends and family and I will work harder to remember the answers.  These are not resolutions, because those are part of the whole linear mapping of the world that frankly doesn’t work for me.  But if I can hold to these simple intentions, I will be grateful: to show more often the love I feel; to use more often the gifts I cultivate; to move more often beyond a place of comfort.  To hold myself open to the pleasure and the pain.  To be both the adult and the child I am.  To cherish, savor,  create, let go.  Most of all, to remember that ass-on-couch is a default mode rather than a true rest, and that restoration often looks like work.

Thanks for reading, friends.  I hope to hear from all of you as your new year’s journey unfolds.

On embracing change.

In this season of traditions it can be hard to think about change.  In a focused way, I  mean, a way that’s internal and wholehearted as opposed to, er, decorative.  But it’s as good a time as any to process those deeper questions about change.

Brian Andreas of the Story People has some good advice for successful celebration of the holidays: “1. Get together with the family.  2. Relive old times.  3. Get out before it blows.”  I LOVE this, not least because something usually does blow, and indeed we are wise to escape in advance.  Or, of course, we can work on change.  Prolonged work toward complex, deep, systemic change.  Easier, often, to eat and run.  (And yes, this is where I brag about the fabulous eight days my family just spent with my brother’s family…an unprecedented and unprecedentedly good time together.  I chalk it up to change of the scariest, hardest, and most rewarding kind.  We rock.)

In related news, I was just asked to view Jason Clarke’s TEDxPerth talk “Embracing Change,” and it’s well worth it.  Not only is he nail-on-the-head right about reasons why we don’t change and obstacles we throw up, but his models for approaching change are eminently useful.  He’s got a four-part chart, for instance, that you use in a fictional home renovation to map what you’d keep, what you’d chuck, what you’d change, what you’d add.  Nice, right?  Imagine applying this to ourselves, our souls, our lives.  In fact, this may be the new New Year’s tradition in our household, maybe in crayon on the fridge.  Keep the love!  Chuck the clutter!  Change the post-nap entertainment from tv to reading!  Add more music!

Change is hard.  It FEELS hard.  It makes us lonely and uncomfortable, both of which suggest that we’ve done something wrong.  But sometimes that itchy feeling gives way to something better; sometimes that fear of screwing it all up needs to take a back seat to the hope that even if it’s not perfect, what comes next will be better than what is.  Those of us who overthink things need extra help in remembering that, and extra cups of cocoa, perhaps, to soothe the anxiety that is a totally reasonable part of moving on.

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 the generative power of dialogue. Or, learning by talking.

I’m an idea person.  I have a lot of them, and I like to talk about them.  I like other people’s ideas, too, and not much makes me happier than an exchange of ideas, especially in person.  (With good food and bev, preferably, though not necessarily.)  So when I have a big new idea, I like to talk it out.

My latest big idea is a new blog.  I’ll be announcing it here once I get it formed and fleshed enough that it’s ready for public engagement.  And in the meantime, I’m seeking out smart people to help me think about its scope and ambition.   Here’s a sampling of those conversations and what I’ve learned from them.

In a friend’s living room, with various babies crawling around, I chatted with a woman I’ve known for a long time but never really had a chance to buttonhole before.  And I’ve wanted to.  She’s an organizer who works on smart and interesting issues, always justice-oriented, always thinking about the experiences of EVERYONE, not just the mainstream folks.  She has a huge, flamboyant personality, full of hugs and squeezes and prone to sitting on the floor and touching you while she talks.  She reminds me that my own large, noisy self is usually toned down, and that sometimes I’d like it not to be.  She reminds me that it’s okay to laugh loudly and share big enthusiasms and ask hard questions.  When I mentioned my incipient blog, she said that she had one, too, and that she’d been NOT writing it for three years (hurray! I’m not the only one!) but that now she was going to begin, because you can only wait so long to achieve Full and Perfect Knowledge of your topic, and sometimes you just have to START, to get your ideas OUT there.  She cited Myles Horton, which makes me want to reread We Make the Road By Walking.  She proposed the concept paper as a way of sharing what needs to be shared, and I love it.  I love her.  I am inspired.

I talk to my program-officer husband about my project all the time, and to my amazing friend Kate who blends love and justice seamlessly in her many commitments at home, on her farm, in her paid work teaching new immigrants English, in her support of important causes.  Both of them agree that the divide between what we do at home, what our homes are LIKE, how they are run, what they contain, who they include, and what we do outside in our paid work, our board work, our volunteer work, our social commitments and attitudes…that divide is far too great and far too thoughtless.  Whether or not you work outside the home, I’ve decided, is no longer primarily a feminist question, because it’s determined by too many issues beyond our control.  But HOW we live, how we conceptualize and raise our families, those are fundamentally feminist questions, human questions, and also questions of justice across spiritual, economic, financial, social, and environmental domains.  My friend and husband help me see this.

A third (fourth?) conversation that wants to be mentioned here just happened on the phone.  My dad, who has a complicated life and who has done social and humanitarian work in a bunch of contexts and had a career with the UN, caught up with me on the phone after a bit of tag.  I caught up with him, really, as he had just finished some tractor work at his house — a totally off-grid, locally- and self-built timber-frame on nineteen acres with lots of forest, much garden, and some open field.  He sat down in the tractor bucket to talk, pleased, I think, with this rudimentary and totally available seat.  I could picture the cold wind up there chilling his phone hand; I imagine he switched hands a couple of times to warm up the other one.  We talked about jobs, and work, and writing, and my boys; we chewed on the problems of civil society and an economy that has screwed itself by overprivileging the few at the expense of the many.  He reminded me, when I mentioned my new blog and my hopes that it will serve as an idea-bank for a whole range of issues spanning love and justice, at home and in the world, that every conversation is just a conversation.  And it helps to have an introduction, and it helps to have back-up materials, but mostly it is just a conversation.  And people are kind and sometimes this conversation is their work, so get on in there.

As we hung up, he explained that he would now climb out of the tractor bucket.

Perhaps that what I’m trying to do today: have a conversation, then get out of the tractor bucket and have another.

 

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.