On rising up.

I have been wondering, for a while, what it would take to get me writing again.

Apparently, the collapse of democracy.

The rise of a government that pursues agendas that are unconstitutional in spirit and in letter has caused a parallel rise from the people, and from me.

Today I read about a seven-year-old boy who hasn’t seen his father in three years because his family are refugees and he and his mom were relocated to the US while his father remained in Sweden. This week, his father was finally freed to rejoin his family, and visa in hand, he boarded a plane for the USA. And was detained upon landing and barred from seeing his lawyers. And Customs and Immigration told the lawyers the only person they could call was through President Trump. Is this democracy? Is this humanity? Is this anything other than criminal incompetence, xenophobic hatefulness, and a raw desire to burn down the system that should serve us all?

I understand the extent to which some people may say that a blog like mine, mostly devoted to the experience of living a good life, is not a place for political posts, but I think it is exactly the place. I cannot live a good life if my neighbors are suffering, if my world is being polluted and drowned, if my daily choices have consequences opposite to my own values. If I am silent, I am consenting in my government’s horrific acts against humanity, and I’ve been ducking that truth for far too long.

So now it’s the long slog: marching where we can; making phone calls; sending emails and letters; showing up at representatives’ offices when we can. And organizing. Organizing to beat the band, because this whole hateful rodeo depends primarily on the silence and disunity of the people. So we read and we honor those who have walked this road before us and we find hope wherever we can — and these posts will be about that, also. About how my husband’s photographic-quality printer has been churning out Shep Fairey’s “We the People” posters for whoever wants them. About the cold rally in the snow we will attend downtown this afternoon to speak up for immigrant and refugee rights. About friends and family who have always been private finding that their silence, too, is complicit, and asking on Facebook how they can get involved. About deep, honest conversations among people with deep differences that nonetheless can end in respect and newfound common ground.

Because hope is possible, but only in the rising up.


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 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.




On light, or what’s left of it.

This is a hard time of year. I’m not a pumpkin-spice-latte person, though I do appreciate the return of baking season. But mostly, I struggle with the loss of light.

There’s a kind of subclinical SAD that reaches a lot of us in Northern climes, and that and the fear of shoveling give fall its bitter aftertaste. For some of us, of course, our reluctance to move on is also about the failure of summer: have we had our fill? Can we ever really have our fill?

The cold is not the issue for me, at least not until the threat of frostbite. So on the brightest days, these last golden moments, I make a point of walking. I schedule meetings at far-flung corners of campus and I wear my comfortable boots. I decline, sometimes repeatedly, kind offers of a ride.

One particular path takes me across the footbridge above Beebe Lake and its waterfall and gorge, and I swear to you there are poems floating up in the spray:

“Where the lake, so hard,
Approaches its edge and falls,
It is rinsed in light.”

We think of fall as bringing darkness, but maybe it just gives the light more play. Whatever it is, I’ll take it.

On being nibbled to death by ducks.

This is a phrase a friend of mine used to use, and I love it. I get the full image: someone lying on the ground, as after a fall, perhaps one incurred while tossing bread crumbs from a muddy bank. The ducks, which had been happy recipients of this beneficence, see their chance at The Whole Loaf and come splashing and quacking up from the water. They surround the fallen, a frantic, feathery flock, pecking and snapping at any available morsel, bread or arm or toe.

The flaw in the metaphor is: the image is comical. There’s no real possibility of danger, as these are not creatures that will drag you to the pond and pull you under. The water is still a ways off, and is by no means closing over your head.

In real life, however, the accumulation of all these “little things” is indeed enough to drown you. It wears you down with all the different needs for attention, for action, for soothing, for strategy. It renders your will and your spirit the sole arbiters of how you hang on, and that’s not always a good thing. Some of us are a little shaky in those departments. Or, perhaps, we’re just inclined to see the probability of bad if we can’t see the near-certainty of good.

And so, when the rental lease is almost up; the house-under-contract-to-buy is messing around with closing dates; the house-not-under-contract-to-sell needs all sorts of sprucing up (and is four states away); the job is overwhelming; the kids aren’t sleeping; the hubs isn’t finding the work he loves; etc. etc. etc…well, it can be hard to keep moving forward in a cheerful way.

And this is what I try to remember, then: Crying is okay. Friends are miraculous (and BLESS THEM, my amazing helpers!). Children grow up (and, presumably, less hostile). These are problems of great privilege. This moment is only this moment, even if it seems like lasting all day. Things can turn for the good just as fast as they turn for the bad. And I’ve done harder things than this and survived. (But holy CRAP there are a lot of hard things right now.) So we try to treat each other gently and breathe in and out and read Anne Lamott and Pema Chodron and anyone else who can remind us with grace and humor that survival is possible and maybe even desirable. Whatever. One moment — one duck — at a time.

On transition.

So it’s been, what, six or seven weeks since I went back to work. After five years off. After moving the family back from Maine with all the attendant chaos and confusion. And it’s been quite a ride.

Here’s what we expected: the five-year-old to wig out, because he’s lousy at transitions, and have huge trouble in school and at home; the three-year-old to be chill, because he’s always been chill and happy in pretty much every circumstance. I expected my hubby (now the stay-at-home parent for a while in this Grand Swap Adventure) to develop anxiety about being home and to get itchy and irritated because of missing his valuable and stimulating work. And I expected me to mope, missing the kids, and then to slip all too quickly into a crazy life of over-work, the glorification of busy.

Here’s what has happened, at least so far: the five-year-old took a week to recover and has since been largely philosophic about these changes, steering all of us toward a calm, forward-looking approach. He is, his teachers report, their most dependable helper. The three-year-old, on the other hand, has not only been flung headlong into transition, but he has also lost his transitional object (me, as a therapist friend pointed out). So he’s pretty much a basket-case. He sleeps poorly, is mostly grumpy, needs almost constant attention and support. Yes, of course, he’s three. So maybe this has nothing to do with transition. But surely it’s not helping. My husband is his perennial chillaxed and supportive being, and I am finding that, once past the first two weeks of chronic grief for lifestyle, friendships, and lovely house, I love what I do. I am not overwhelmed; I am balancing effectively; I am inspired and intrigued by the people I work with. Knock on wood.

So basically, don’t listen to a thing I say. I’m not at all right.

But here’s what has been happening, these last two or three weeks: all the transition baggage is starting to melt away with the snow. Don’t get me wrong, we’re still in transition (new house under contract, though we are sorting through the array of structural fixes it requires — ack). But it’s just that real life is starting to resurface. I suppose it’s the spring, the opportunity to dig in the dirt and plant some seeds. But suddenly I’m interested in cooking again, and relaxing, and writing, and flowers. All the leisurely details of life are back in the picture as my focus widens beyond survival mode. The boys, for example, are taking up soccer and watching birds.

When I was anticipating this transition, especially the shift from five years at home with kids and doing part-time consulting, I asked around. What is it like, I wanted to know, to go back to full-time work? How can I prepare us? No one had a meaningful response. Mostly because I don’t know anyone who went BACK to full-time work after five years at home. The one person I do know, a dry and witty friend, said merely: “There is no answer. Embrace the tragic consequences.” But I haven’t found tragedy. I’ve found change. And some of it is thrilling:

The other day, as we drive to campus, on our way to drop me off at work, our three-year-old is talking softly in his carseat behind me. I half-turn in my seat to hear — “what’s that, buddy?” He offers me a shy smile, pauses. Then: “Someday, I want to work at C____. Just like you.”

On changes. Big ones.

You may have noticed the echoing silence from yours truly over the last few months…it’s been quite a ride over here.

I was not looking for a full-time job.  I was not. But a brilliant one emerged, in the place we have most wanted to live, near family and natural beauty and amazing schools and a terrific food and sustainable-agriculture scene. And so I applied, and then it all happened at once, and so very fast. And we are thrilled, and also horrified at the chaos that has become our lives.

I will say this: children are resilient. So are the rest of us.

I will also say this: moving is hard. Very hard. On everyone.

And there’s not enough good stuff out there on how to help your kids through these big transitions.  I’ve found a few great resources I’ll share later — and really, maybe they are enough. Maybe the hard part is that they can’t do it for you. So here’s our approach, given the particular dispositions of our 3- and 5-year olds: involve them. Don’t share too much too soon, but involve them in the joyful fact of moving somewhere new. Help them think about saying goodbye and help them think about saying hello. If possible, have them see the house you’re moving into and the school they’ll be attending before the actual move. Invite them to plan out their room, if they can. Try to make special occasions of various stages — packing projects (pick your VERY FAVORITE animals to fit in this box…they will come with us right away! The others get to travel on the Great Big Moving Truck! What an adventure!); the move itself (we’re thinking walkie-talkies, though I’m sure we’ll regret it); the moving in (where to hang your favorite pictures? Where to put the always-necessary window-mounted bird feeder?). Build new rituals and say goodbye to old ones. You know the drill.  Parenting 101. Otherwise known as Being a Thoughtful Human 101.

We are excited. We really are. We are also very, very tired. Which is why I’m glad I had two babies’ worth of training in asking for help and accepting it when offered. Working that program pretty hard right now. And there are disappointments (not getting to see several new babies who will enter the world right after we leave) and worries (how will the kids adjust? What will it feel like to be back at work full-time? Will I lose all my hard-won compassion and patience and presence?). But I figure, that’s the deal. As the Indigo Girls say, “We’re better off for all that we let in.” And here we are, opening our arms up wide. Again.