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 putting things to bed.

The rain is falling outside for the first time in weeks; it’s a sound I love.  It’s also surprisingly cold, and the leaves are suddenly coming down faster, and it makes me realize that this weekend, or maybe next is peak leaf weekend.  And then we’re heading downhill fast toward the dead of winter.

I try not to think this way, most of the time.  I try to stay more centered in where I am and what is beautiful there.  And so I’m supporting those habits by spending a lot more time appreciating the rituals of fall, especially since this is the first year in a while I’ve had that luxury.  (Babies do not permit a great deal of house-and-garden time, at least not mine.)  So here’s what that looks like:

1. Mums on the steps, orange, white, and maroon.  A daily reminder of what’s lovely and right, even when we’re barreling past them with arms full of squealing, squirming kids en route to or from some hideous ordeal like the grocery store.

2. PUMPKINS on the steps.  This is totally new to me, since I’m one of those freak shows who sees the pumpkin primarily as a foodstuff rather than an item of decor.  But today at the farmers’ market, as I’m asking Ezra if we should buy one pumpkin “to look at and then to eat,” our farmer Trent Emery (of Emery Farms; love them a lot) points out that he has sacks of ten pumpkins for ten bucks.  Sugar pumpkins.  In great shape.  Decorate and then devour.  That’s right.  Who am I to say no to a sack of pumpkins?

3. Leaves actually getting raked.  Since it’s been so dry, they’ve been incredibly easy to manage, and it’s become my little twenty-minute workout to whisk them into the driveway and then on down the slope to our Massive Epic Leaf Pile at the bottom.  The kids are doing a banner job of breaking them down into the leaf-crumbs that I like to put all through my garden beds, so this is a win-win-win.

4. Finally doing some serious weeding of the garden and, eventually, harvesting the last of things.  But if the weather is mild, we can harvest kale without protection through early December.  Putting the garden to bed isn’t quite as finite and rhythmic a process as one might imagine.

5. Mulching the perennial beds.  Poor things, they straggle through the summer without the moisture they need because I’m cheap and water-conscious (okay, and lazy), and then fall comes and they get an inch of mulch and suddenly revive.  Makes me realize what lovely gardens I’d have if I, you know, tended them.

All this settling in, tending to, quieting down has made me think more about the kids’ bedtimes, and ours, too.  After all, we’re organisms in need of rest as well.  I’ve tended to focus on the obvious: the stories, the sips of water, the schedules and routines.  But I find the outside gives me new perspective on the insides, too.  My understanding of the value of blankets shifts after watching the plants respond to the mulch: it’s not just about keeping out the cold, but about snuggling, protection, nests.  My imagination of my children’s needs shifts after thinking through the garden soil and its many forms of symbiosis: no organism stands alone, and sometimes we want company and stories together, and sometimes we just need the nurture of one primary caregiver.  Sometimes we need water, sometimes mama milk, sometimes a snuggle-animal, sometimes light, sometimes dark.  We probably meet the needs anyway, since that’s pretty much our job, but there’s a difference between scattering fertilizer and layering compost.  There’s a difference between rushing through a story and giving the characters their full voices.  I save the singing for the crib-time, after the nursing, just as I save the compost for the spring, just as I rarely water.  But why?  My garden survives on this rhythm, but it could do better.  Listening and watching and smelling and being THERE can help us understand the whole range of organic needs that our people and plants profess, including the need to thrive, to blossom, to yield fruit, to be the whole and stunning miracles they can be.

On wading in: Day 29. The least obvious kinds of blessings.

We’ve been gardening and CSA-ing for long enough that we’re used to having fresh local food, at least much of the time.  And we’re big fans of local arts and crafts, DIY and various forms of microenterprise.  And every day that I get to grow something, buy something locally, or give to support an initiative I believe in, I am grateful that I have enough (time, land, money, energy, knowledge, compassion, community) to be able to do that.

Every once in a while, though, something shifts a little in how I view the world, and that happened today.  We were driving home from the farmer’s market downtown with a little car bursting with local goodness: cabbage, beets, turnips, red onions, raspberries, Sungold tomatoes, soft pretzels, eggs, camembert, and two kinds of pork sausage, all produced in and around our area.  And we’d enjoyed seeing our farmers and growers as well as assorted friends we run into downtown.

As we headed home, I was wishing I’d had a chance to get to my friend’s shop not far away, Downtown Handmade and Vintage.  It’s a funky, beautiful, creative place, and I’m feeling like I need a little more funk in my life.  But every time I go to buy an item of clothing from an ordinary place (like my Old Navy jeans and H&M shirt at the moment), I feel a little gross.  Just a little bit.  And I’m not suggesting YOU should; I’m just saying that it’s increasingly hard for me to reconcile my pretty minimal clothing needs with my pretty substantial concerns about global fiscal, labor, and environmental sustainability.  My clothing is part of me and yet it’s also mostly part of a culture and practices that I don’t want to support.

So here’s what occurred to me: the ability to buy things you cherish from people you want to support in a community you are happy to belong to — this is the perhaps the least obvious and most important kind of blessing.

Herman Daly says in one of his many fabulous articles on sustainable economics that water (as in the “trickle down” theory) is the wrong metaphor for money in an economic system.  Blood makes more sense, he argues.  Because economies don’t get rained on from above; they are circulatory, with all organs needing the flow of funds and important central organs driving its pulse, pressure, and purity.  (Okay, he may not have spelled it out in such detail; I can’t remember.  Check out his work at Orion Magazine and elsewhere to find out.)  But here’s my point: when we have money to spend and the inclination to spend it locally, we are part of the heart of our community.  When we love what we buy and are grateful to its makers and growers, we are part of the soul of our community.  It’s not only a responsibility to buy local, but a privilege and a positive pleasure.

(“Duh,” you’re thinking.  Well, sure.  But still.  Right?)

On wading in: Day 21. Presence/presents.

It’s the oldest pun in the world, but it’s STILL TRUE.  Being present yields amazing presents.  Giving ourselves the gift of focusing on just one thing, being right there with it, is hard but necessary if we want to be part of the magic.  Examples:

At the Common Ground Fair yesterday, a speaker was working with a huge and restless horse, an absolute beauty of a beast who apparently has great nervousness.  The speaker told how he came to get this horse after others gave up on it, and he was only able to work with it when he could focus himself entirely on the horse.  Any lapse, any straying, any half-assed efforts the horse could sense immediately and it would freeze up and refuse to cooperate.  The owner had been able to work well with the horse and he told how it was even useful for him — though hard — to need to undertake this exercise.  “How well he works with me,” the owner said, ” is in direct relationship to how completely focused I can be on him.”

My weekends are often full of lists and planning, but my favorite days are the ones when I am lost enough to not even HAVE a list.  Those days I float from place to place and simply respond to where I am, open to what soothes me or irks me or wants to change.  By being present with the space around me, I can see with new immediacy what I should be doing in the moment.  And the results surprise me: the spice rack (a strange arrangement of small stacked painted crates bolted to the wall) got a much-needed cleaning and new contact paper; the space alongside the oven got cleaned and de-cluttered; mulch got laid; sweet woodruff got transplanted; a Barrington Belle peony got dug in; a few beds got weeded or fall-cleaned; potatoes got dug; carrots got pulled.  Even the strawberry bed, which has been a short forest of self-sown feverfew all summer, got a thorough weeding — just the kind of chore I will work hard to avoid if it’s on a list, but when it just calls to me, well, I can answer.

The most glowing moment in a satisfying day (did I mention we started with zucchini/banana/flaxseed muffins and finished with homemade potato-leek soup?) came as I was rounding the last corner in the strawberry bed, reeking of feverfew and starting to get sore.  Len was corralling the boys to go inside, and they wanted to give me a hug first, so they ran to me, barefoot and glowing in the early fall late afternoon.  One boy in each arm; one sweet neck against each cheek.  So much, so much.  How could there be more?

On wading in: Day 16. The benefits of breaking down.

Don’t worry, it’s not an all-out breakdown.  Just the sloppy, exhausted flailing of Life with sick kids, sick me, upcoming travel, house projects, and a range of professional commitments that are creeping up fast.  But two things converged today that made me want to praise that moment when things go from complicated to plain silly, causing me to just give up on trying to do it all.

One was Chi, who has been sick for days, during which time when he wasn’t nursing, he was crying.  So he was mostly nursing.  (It has made me realize, among other things, that one form of impact assessment for me is whether or not I have the privilege of wearing a comfortable bra, or whether I have to, for convenience, wear one of my aged nursing bras all day, just so I can manage the nonstop nurser.)  For much of the morning, I hoped that he would nap (he wouldn’t) or that we would go somewhere and do something, that we could jolt him out of his misery by stimulating him.  It usually works.  But today he wailed and wailed and was such a disaster that I finally just explained to Ezra that we were done trying to do anything.  As if on cue, Chi relaxed into me and finally fell asleep.  Lesson one.

Lesson two involved another form of letting go: I have two gorgeous and prolific grape vines crawling over my pergola, rich with Concords and perfectly ripe.  Every year I hope to do something with them, this year included.  But it became clear to me that I wouldn’t, and that what I hate most is not letting something go but FAILING to let it go until it’s too late.  I was not going to waste forty pounds of perfect grapes out of a misunderstanding of my own capacities.  So I had put out a note on Facebook and got a few takers.  One friend came and got a few; the other was the director of a fabulous youth gardening program in our area.  She expressed interest but we didn’t settle anything.  So I reached out again this morning and lo!  Two garden fellows and three youth gardeners came with flats and knives to harvest.  They cleaned us out, which was PERFECT, and were lovely and fun in the process.  In fact, Ezra had such a good time with them that he asked them to stay for a garden tour afterward — and when that was over, he wanted to blow bubbles with them.  And they did!  We all sat in the grass in the late afternoon sun and blew bubbles, seeing how far they would go in the wind, whether they would land in the peach tree or the grass or blow up over the house next door.   Lesson two.

Whoever said your kids are your best teachers was right — but for me, there’s even more than that going on here.  I need to be overwhelmed, to throw up my hands before I can turn something over and let it go.  A child’s misery, a vast grape harvest: these things were too much for me today, and they broke me down.  In doing so, they opened me up to greater peace, more fun, and more useful living.  I realize this isn’t news — none of it.  But it’s worth saying again, I figure.

Oh — and may I add that this little revelation was well-timed.  We’re expecting the first real frost of the season tonight, and as I speed-harvested basil this evening, I realized my usual ritual sadness at the loss of summer, of these particular plants, this particular set of joys.  I worried about Chi (aka Tomato Joe) and Ezra coming out in the morning to find blackened vines, and I suddenly realized that such mourning does not have to be private or even silly.  We can honor this turning of the seasons.  I’d even argue we should.  So I went back in and explained to the boys what would happen tonight.  Ezra teared up, though Malachi didn’t care, which prompted Ezra to say: “Looks like it’s just you and me saying goodbye to the garden, Mama.  Let’s go.”  And we did.  We found the last two Sungolds and gave them one to each boy, Ezra carefully carrying Malachi’s indoors to where he sat with Papa.  And both boys helped me strip the basil leaves from the stems for freezing, their small hands working in the bright light of the late sun.  Malachi’s chubby hands, when he reached for my face before bath, smelled of grapes, of tomatoes, of basil.  What could be more beautiful, or more perfect on this end-of-summer night?

On wading in: Day 2

I’m enjoying the fact that Day 2 is September 2nd…and also painfully aware that when I miss a day, we’ll all know it.  But hey.  This little practice is more for my benefit than yours, so perhaps I’ll be the only one to care.  (Assuming you can live through the agony of missing a post from me…I know, I know.)

Today was a mixed bag of a day.  It was our second Sunday and it sure felt like it.  (Explanation: when I was an academic, someone once explained to me that the summer months could be best understood if labelled as weekdays: June is the Friday night of summer; July is Saturday; August is one long Sunday.  Sunday always involves a little relaxation and introspection, but it’s mostly filled with housework, homework and dread.)  We had this beautiful gift of a four-day weekend, and I was all giddy with a sense of possibility before I realized a) it would rain the whole time; b) we had no plans and it was Labor Day weekend; c) we don’t really have disposable income at this time; and d) we have tons of stuff to do around the house.  So we decided to make it a staycation of sorts, with predictable results.  We loved having two Saturdays (I lobbied briefly to call it three Saturdays and one Sunday, but let’s be real) and used them well, with a picnic by the river and lots of fun garden time.  There was picking of homegrown veg (based on Alice Waters’ Simple Food refrigerator pickle recipe), singing, dancing, and a whole lot of important house and yard work.  But today the rain was INTENSE, and we loafed about all morning and then spent the afternoon with friends we haven’t seen in ten years.  Which was satisfying in itself.  And now…and now…

Here I am, trying to imagine what this project of wading in means.  Partly, it seems to mean paying attention to things so that I can develop a habit of living in the moment and recollecting it with some reasonable calibration to reality.  That’s not a strength of mine.  I notice the dramas: the joys and failures.  I tend to discount the mundane.  But in life with kids, the mundane is kind of the point. It’s the source of the joy.

All this is reminding me of this brilliant new series I’m creating (and scholarship I’m writing) for the Maine Humanities Council on the agrarian novel.  It’s not much of a category in the US, you see, though it should be.  It’s farm literature that illustrates a love of the land, a reverence for the ordinary, an appreciation of people and nature and the routine, miraculous systems of nature.  It tends to be skeptical of gimmicks and passers-by, preferring deep roots and time-tested solutions.  It pays attention, sitting quietly for a while to make room for the wise, the funny, or the beautiful.  Just in case they show up.  That’s the kind of approach I’m trying to take to my life these days…and it’s nice to be living it even as I let my ever-scrambling intellect go play with the abstractions.  Gene Logsdon says “firsthand experience” is the difference between the agrarian writer and the writer; I’d argue, today, that firsthand experience is the difference between happy living and muddling through.  Not just HAVING the experience, but showing up for it.  Being present with it, sharing it with others, and remembering it as best you can.  These are my work, today.

What’s yours?

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.