Taking Simple Steps

Sharing the process of transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle


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Salve

My life as a child is manicured.

Everything is trimmed, tucked in, and shaped into correct form. Bushes lining flower beds and driveways are pruned at right angles. Identical split level ranches sit in rows of straight streets.

I long to roam pine-covered forest floors and wildflower-filled fields, but there are none. And nobody seems bothered.

Instead, I tread concrete walks and asphalt streets. Chain link fences forbid rambling. Grasses and shrubs beyond their grasp are gulped by cranes and shoved aside by bulldozers preparing ground for new houses.

I am seven and discover a small untamed spot of soil between my Long Island home and bordering flower bed bushes. There, leaves and pine needles fall and lie undisturbed. I sneak off the side of the front porch, crawl along the corridor of dirt between the living room window and bushes and sit beneath the pink dogwood within. As I trace lines in the cool, moist dirt, inspect decaying leaves and collect unevenly shaped stones, my mind is awakened by a muse, weaving rhymes and rhythms of life.

Mom calls me for dinner. I am rattled from my reverie; my senses are zapped by buzzing wires overhead feeding the hum and whistle of the dishwasher. Talk around the table is worlds from me.

There is something within us beyond what we are exposed to or trained to think, which longs for what we never see but know is possible.

I’m 11 and visiting Garvey’s Point Museum. My spirit stirs as I sit with classmates on cushioned chairs in a darkened room gaping at a lighted screen. There upon glimmer images of Native American Indians molding clay, weaving leaves, and carving wood. In the next room, I pore over glass-enclosed miniature villages displaying native women wrapped in cloths bending by moving water, the men rowing past in wooden canoes.

I ruminate over pictures of bare feet on soil in bent branched wigwams on expansive terrain as I am carried away in a clanking, hissing bus. I stare out dusty windows scanning for green — signs of life. I cringe at barbed wire fences and red and white for-sale signs encaging the few wild spots I see. And too many words, glaring neon Super Mart and flashing Shop ‘n’ Save, imposing thoughts, cold and lifeless.

There is some knowing we bring from the world beyond when we arrive, which longs to be born or resurrected on earth.

Another empty lot of nettles and oak is converted to sidewalk and stores. Beyond the busyness and bustle, I find a green corridor of wooded hills gleaming with light.

At thirty-five, I roam through matted leaves and layered pine needles, taking my daily respite. I leap between bushes and trees, twirl and gaze up at canopy-laced skies, duck and sit beneath caves of leafy undergrowth. Away from the man made world, I encounter emptiness, rife with creation. My soul settles, sorting thoughts of the day, discovering meaning and balance. Gathered, I return to daily life.

All summer, I swim in the Long Island Sound. From a wooded path in a nature preserve, I view the wide blue expanse beyond waves of sand. I remove my sandals, dig in my toes and walk to wade in the luscious cool. Diving beneath the bouncing surface I swim deep invigorated and free. I imagine Native Americans doing the same. I slip off my bathing suit to join them.

There are ways and doings that do not exist now, which we know have been and can be again.

I am fifty-two, driving down U.S. 41 in Sarasota, Florida. Store after store to horizon bombard my senses — products for every need. One could get to thinking this is all life offers and forgo essential nourishment. My soul thirsts for the sustenance of wild places. I turn on the radio to feed my mind. Folks in Los Angeles are trying to create a corridor for cougars to roam; only few can thrive in the space now allotted. I wonder, How many square miles of wilderness do humans need?

I drive to Celery Fields hill in east Sarasota to get my fill. In the twenties, the wetlands were dredged. Farmland was formed and celery was grown. In 1992, the soil depleted, heavy rains sent water from the fields to Phillippi Creek flooding nearby homes. The county bought the land to restore it to marshland for this is where the water wants to go.

The mound I wander is the pile of muck removed, sown with native trees and grasses. I sight fields to the horizon. I gaze down on saw grass and sandpipers dotting pools of water. Birders prop binoculars to spy hundreds of species that have returned. With pulsing-limbs and eager eyes, a full-bodied boy darts up the slope. I smile and wonder about the youngsters I teach who can’t sit still, focus or understand concepts such as before and after. I pray he and they find the wild space they need to learn and grow.

Sometimes society labels us defective because we cannot thrive in its constructs, which are inhospitable and need reform.

I am fifty-four, sitting again with classmates watching the film Urban Roots in Fogartyville Café. We gather at this Transition Sarasota presentation to learn how folks are coping with changing times. I stare at images of modern Detroit. Acres of once bustling manufacturing plants and apartment buildings sit barren, silent. Light beams through holes. Dandelions grow in ruins. Officials grapple with reviving the city. The hopeless languish with no livelihood. Then turn to the soil, drop seeds and grow food. Barriers broken, once isolated folks join to share fruits and vegetables, tools and methods — seeds of hope.

What seems like a tragedy becomes a remedy. Human constructs collapse. Unaware of resources beyond our making, we grasp to hold together the world once known. But it is a tumbling tower dropping us to grounds that we have neglected, lost touch. Leaving us to paths we have rejected, forgotten.

Life that has murmured on despite our makings, greets us still.

 

 

 

 

 

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Seasonal Fare

I have decided to discover and try to live aligned with natural cycles.

I had lost track of nature’s tempo, living mostly in well-lit, air-conditioned rooms, removed from ebbs and flows of light and dark, heat and cold. I had felt compelled to think in myriad directions at once, receiving cell phone calls at any time of day, sending me flitting from one activity to another. I had lost my sense of meter. So, I am looking now to the earth and sky to help me restore my rhythm.

But, it is hard to detect seasons in Florida. There are mostly mild, sunny days here, interrupted by sweltering, stormy summers and a few frigid frosts.  Used to the clear cycles of the Northeast, I find what rhythms there are here reversed, with vegetable gardens flourishing fall through spring and little growing in summer.

So, I have taken to gardening to live with this flow and learn of its passages. No longer buying plastic wrapped broccoli on a cellophane plate, I now touch the earth, place a seed, watch leaves and buds and follow the unfolding of life’s growth in phases. Not a product here and gone, with wrappers left to dispose of, but a relationship with a source of giving that is never ending, of which I am a part.

I have returned, too, to a more grounded route as a teacher, now tutoring for my profession. No longer trying to teach at-risk students, whose minds are distracted by hunger and fear, mandatory curricula of factoring trinomials and using the quadratic formula, I now meet with individual students on our own terms. We tell stories of sharing pieces of pizza, while moving colorful cut-up felt circles, and converse about wholes and parts. Through reason, in beauty, we discover patterns and processes of life with which we engage.

To live in the natural course of things, I refer to the traditional northern farming year as a framework, yet I invert it. Now, summer is the time to gaze over fallow fields, plan crops, repair tools and rest.  Fall is to sow seeds; winter and spring, to tend plants and to harvest.

And so, I plant crops and care for my garden, September through May, watering, weeding, and warding off critters. As the earth bears fruit, I gather what is yielded. From this and what local growers offer at the farmer’s market, I eat and prepare pickled brussel sprouts, Swiss chard pesto and dried zucchini to keep for the mostly barren summer. At times, I struggle with the utility of my actions, aware that I walk within seemingly artificial constraints. While friends freely buy California grapes and Maine apples, I confine myself to what is locally available: baby bananas, one week, star fruit, another. Yet, I feel excitement in discovering what treasures my surrounding area produces in its season and in living within these borders.

During the busy school year, I work with students, many of whom struggle with handwriting and sensory integration issues. Tomara finds it uncomfortable to write letters and numbers. Paul can’t focus on listening and learning, easily distracted by incidental sounds and his own thoughts. I grapple with ways to help them and other students’ overcome obstacles to the very foundations of learning. I look forward to summer to relax and reflect on how better to help them to learn.

Late spring, when temperatures rise too high for comfort as daylight lingers, I put my garden to rest, planting cover crops of lab lab and buckwheat to replenish the soil, as well as yard long beans and cherry tomatoes which can thrive in the scorching sun and incessant rain of Florida’s summer, without my care. I turn, now, for sustenance to my collection of canned vegetable soups, pickled mushrooms and dried bananas, along with the okra and Malabar spinach that still grow.

As the school year winds down and I look to summer, to rest and prepare for the next round, a bounty of opportunities to learn about sensory processing and handwriting spring up, like seedlings born of my inner questionings. Gratefully, I attend several local conferences and travel to Gainesville and New York for coursework. While my garden lies fallow, my teaching career feels as if in the height of the growing season. As when the earth yields more zucchini than one knows what to do with and one scrambles to preserve what’s given for another season, books, materials and teaching tips flourish and I gather what I can to take for use in the next school year. Though too hot for most vegetables to grow, this is clearly a time of expansion.

As September’s heat breaks with the shortening of days and temperatures again grow hospitable to vegetal life, I sow seeds for my fall garden and begin again working with students, rested and eager from a summer of frolic and freedom. Though eager to work with my new insights and tools, I am baffled at how I missed the rest I had hoped summer would afford me, as it did my garden and students. But, as autumn’s activity augments, I move in step, resolved to get rest next time ‘round. While cantaloupes and collards sprout and flourish in the cooling sun, I give more engaging handwriting lessons and introduce movements which develop focus to my students, enriching them with my summer’s yield. I notice, now, that the produce from my garden is more nutritious than last year’s and the fruit from the soil of my teaching has progressed.

Come January, with its darkened days and dull chill, viruses afflict folks around me and I frequently feel on the verge of illness. My boyfriend, Andrew, is weakened by the flu for weeks, staying home from work and sleeping a lot. Realizing he had overdone it over the holidays, he resolves to take off the week after Christmas next year, to regenerate. My neighbor, Jessica, notices she that has gotten sick at this time over the past years and decides to simply do less and retreat at this point. I, too, come to see that this is my resting season and that Florida, as part of the northern hemisphere, is in contraction. Though warm enough for plants to flourish, leaves have left the trees and it is a time of going within.

As mustard, lima beans and arugula are bursting with life in my garden, I feel tired most of the time.  Against an almost addictive pull, I stop myself from unnecessary study and canning, afraid of getting sick and not fulfilling my teaching commitments. When not at work, I lie around, napping and reading, spending a lot of time alone. The silence and absence of activity feels empty and lifeless at times, while sleep was fraught with dreams, enmeshed with jumbled thoughts and feelings. I journal to unearth distorted beliefs and am surprised to see tendencies revealed of my diminishing myself as a female and looking outside for authority, rather than trusting what I know. Day by day, I watch as underlying thoughts surface.  Within the stillness, old beliefs uproot and new ideas emerge. I have heard it said that the void is the source of creation. I now understand how in still spaces we find new life.

As Jacarandas bud and sweet potatoes flower, spring emerges. With the increasing daylight of a warming sun, I wonder what will emerge. What I know for sure, is that my course is more grounded and less chaotic, as it is bound to the rhythms of growth and gathering, rest and renewal.

 


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Man Made

I had suspected so much, years ago, but now I am convinced. Our lifestyle has created many of the health issues we face.  I have experienced this personally.

As a youngster growing up in the 70’s on Long Island, I was starved for nourishment. It wasn’t that I didn’t eat: I consumed typical meals of boxed cereal breakfasts, white bread, cold cut and iceberg lettuce lunches, boxed macaroni & cheese and hot dog dinners. I ate, but didn’t feel fed, and so I ate more. I was preoccupied with my need for nourishment, a disorder of sorts. Fortunately, at 16, I discovered the local health food store and in it, wholegrain cereals and breads, a variety of beans, organic vegetables and naturally sweetened desserts. By eating “health foods”, I felt satisfied for the first time; my cravings diminished, energy levels raised and my sense of well-being developed. Yet, I was eating on the fringe; people looked at my food with suspicion and few social situations offered food I could comfortably eat.

At the same time, I studied nutrition books. I quickly become overwhelmed by the plethora of information on vitamin and mineral requirements, recommended calorie and fat intake and salt and sugar issues. Rather than navigate this web of data, I decided to simply eat naturally. If my grandmother wouldn’t recognize it as food, neither would I. Since then, I have eaten natural foods, developing a sense of what best to eat at times, and continuing to feel well-nourished.

So much is like this. As a society, we tamper with nature, and individually, we suffer the effects.  One by one we seek answers, often accepting diagnoses, drugs and therapies, identifying us as ill. Meanwhile, the cultural norms which create and promote our disorders remain communally embraced and largely unexamined.

In a few generations, we have abandoned lives of farming and canning, lifting and bending with the rhythms of the seasons. We have stopped living in contact with the living, breathing earth. We now push buttons, watch fast moving images, and listen to mechanized sounds, in rooms of artificial light and conditioned air, as we scramble to meet man-made schedules.  How can we know of the subtle shifts between light and dark or observe the patterns of nature which might inform us? We no longer write letters nor wait for mail, chop wood nor cook food we’ve grown over fires we’ve built. Instead, we constantly respond to our phones’ jingles, always on call to meet perceived needs and hastily remove plastic coverings from processed foods to zap them in the microwave. How can we know of the passage of time or of the processes of growth and decay?

Naturally, we experience sensory overload, processing difficulty, burn out and angst. Hyperactivity, attention deficit, hypersensitivity and anxiety have markedly increased amongst youth. Born to a world of abstractions and distractions, babies receive little to grasp onto and piece together as real. Many feed on chemical formulas in place of mothers’ milkwhich promotes health, growth, immunity and development. Some bypass crawling  which buildsneuropath ways critical to balance, spinal alignment, visual-spatial skills, and socio-emotional development.  Intricate, manufactured plastic toys for defined purposes replace simple homemade wooden and cloth objects  through which a child can feel nature’s or a human’s touch and upon which one can project his/her imagination. Hours are spent viewing TV. screens and playing video games, overloading one’s senses with illusory ideas of space and time while few woods remain, or are deemed safe enough, in which to explore the multi-faceted dimensions of the wild. We have created a world in which children are starved of what is essential to the development of healthy bodies, minds and souls and then we find complex solutions to their problems.

Without recognizing and valuing natural processes, we separate from our source and like a flower in a vase, dry up. Running on treadmills we’ve created, looking for solutions to our difficulties, won’t resolve our issues as would our simply stepping off our manmade machinery and walking on more natural paths.