Taking Simple Steps

Sharing the process of transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle


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Call To Action

After hanging damp sheets on the line

Writing a check due the IRS

And baking russet potatoes

 

After calling elder friends to say “hi”

Texting my West Coast niece Ella

Watering broccoli rabe and tomatoes

 

After dodging traffic downtown

To teach Amanda how

To plan and outline an essay

 

Pumping cheap unleaded gas

Buying bulk black beans and jarred molasses

Hearing Chris Hedges on Alternative Radio

 

Through unloading my stuffed car

Unpacking my cloth bags

Washing bowls now grown crusty

 

Skimming high piles of mail

Recycling unwanted ads

Jotting my to dos for tomorrow

 

I stretch by beeswax candlelight

On a warm cotton blanket

By the cool terrazzo floor

 

And sit on the futon’s edge

Reviewing my day passed

I pray for students and family and friends

Then turn on the lamp

To read Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom

 

When words begin to jumble

Meaninglessly

In circles

My mind drifting

Toward night’s sky

 

I close the cover

Switch off the light

Turn down the sheets

And lie to sleep

 

After myriad in and out breaths

Way past midnight

Beyond din of traffic

And glow of lamp light

 

Deep in stillness

Stars shining

Moon beaming

Planets whirling

My body lying

In slumber

 

I soar through night’s sky

Amongst others

Remembering

Regaining

Restoring

 

With heavenly bodies

I review my purpose

Rekindle aspiration

Realign my intent

 

Then with the sun’s first glimmer

My body revived

Through rest

From my spirit-soul’s absence

 

Now returned to bed

I awake

To hear, Call to action!

Sounding through my dormant mind

 

Turn off the radio

Turn down the lights

Close that book

Silence your smart phone

 

Put down your pen

And pad

And date book

 

Let go the million scattered pieces

Of things to do

Oh you, great organizer

 

Sit

 

Look within

And watch the thoughts

That run your day

 

Before digging one more hole

Planting another seed

Pulling out that weed

Tend to your mind’s garden

 

Take stock of its residents

Pests, parasites and predators

Half-truths, malicious lies and empty facts

You picked up off the streets

Absorbed from the paper

Ingested through the internet

 

Stop giving Despair a seat on your sofa

Feeding Anxiety your attention

Entertaining Contention with your mind

Imposters!

 

They devour your dreams’ buds

Suck your life’s forces

Consume your vision’s clarity

Clear them out!

 

Free ground for

Insight’s Stream

Inspiration’s Light

Intuition’s Soil

To settle

 

Let truth take root

Bringing meaning to matter

Order to your occupation

Purpose to your path

 

Then your soul can

Tend to its task

To bring to life

Your Spirit’s dream

 

And guided from within

Return to the outer world

To do

What needs doing


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A Winter’s Reflection

Mountain Climbing

 

I’ve tended to plot straight lines of perpetual ascent

Through sky, toward sun, to pinnacles.

 

But find myself plodding

Through unforeseen terrain,

Of vertical cliffs, sudden turns

Daunting drops,

Hoping I’d find my way.

 

From time to time

I’d reach a height

And stand aglow

Victorious

In bright of day.

 

But my stance would be shaken.

Life’s curves come unexpectedly.

I’d twist and twirl to depths

To dark crevices

To sit in shame.

 

In time

I’d settle my soul

Glance up through floating clouds

And reconsider a climb.

 

But like Sisyphus’s trial

My course had no end

The golden summit is not to be possessed.

 

 

Receiving the Present

 

Each morning, I awake.

 

Ideas flit through the curves of my brain:

“Can I build my body to bike to the beach?

Could folk dancing in my living room cultivate community?

Where would a solar shower sit in my yard?”

 

A train of thought rambles.

Temptation sweetly whistles

Ready to take me on a ride

To a perfect world.

 

But first

I step from the box of my house

And plant my curved feet on arching earth.

 

Oak leaves crackle

Bahia grass bows

Damp soil soothes

As I pace supple, solid ground,

left, right

left, right

to my growing garden.

 

On the edge

Between plant and sky

Conical okras twirl

Spiraling lima bean tendrils dance

In an ever-changing array.

 

I inhale sun’s rays and sky’s waves

Visitor that I am from the framed world

Of rectangular phones

Flat screens and

Linear text.

 

I stretch stiff straits from my back

And bend to touch musky earth.

 

I try to grasp Nature’s ways

On these brief, enlivening sojourns

But her welcoming smile spreads miles past my gaze

In expanses of mysterious, quiet passages

Of majestic pines, parading palms,

Fanciful ferns and nesting needles

From eons of her embroidered dance.

 

I find, though, I follow patterned paths

Fumbling on familiar steps

As when I started sowing seeds years back

Cherishing each broccoli rabe and tomato seedling sprouted

Running circles in search of spots to plant each life.

 

No matter I was running out of space

No thought of how I’d consume the fruit

No care for what I could tend to.

 

I felt the need to grasp each possibility

And bring it to fruition

In my foolish

Frenzied fight

Against loss

And letting go

Though I carried too much.

 

But Nature tarried on

As warm-hearted parent smiling at a child

Trying to mimic cherished ways.

 

Through seasons, I have watched.

Not all lettuce seeds sprout.

A portion of pumpkin seedlings thrive.

Zucchini arrives from nowhere and extends.

Thoughtful neighbors bring sweet potato starts.

 

Something’s always going.

Something’s always growing

Beyond my doing.

 

No need to grasp.

More’s on its way.

 

 

Consenting to Circles

 

Having inhaled natural day

I stroll back to my house.

 

Inside

Through open windows

Sun lightens walls

Breeze billows curtains

And brushes my cheek

Singing

Life is here

Life is here.

 

Reflecting on the present

I collect strands of thought

Still in my mind

And jot them down

To consider later

 

Then settle into the day’s doing.

 

It’s Monday

So I’ll wash cotton bedding

Sweep terrazzo floors

Shake and lay out woven carpets.

 

I’m trying to mimic life’s cycle

Tomorrow I’ll pay the water bill and record receipts

Wednesday, I’ll can split pea soup and make oat crackers

Everything in its time

By my design.

 

I used to do the fun stuff

Scribble down a song in my head

Call Jess to chat

Crochet cotton towels

Or what called in the moment

Read a text that came through

Or the book by my bed

Or walk in the rain.

 

I’d cram in dusting end tables

Pruning a bush overreaching the walkway

And mending torn spaghetti straps

When the need could no longer be ignored

Then rush back to the real stuff.

 

I’m learning

To tend to each task

In its time

As part of a circle –

Creation and dissolution.

 

I’m leaning into the picking up

And putting away

Reflecting on what’s past

Readying for what’s to come

Partaking in the process

Relaxed in the ordering.

 

Though I struggle still not to take on

More than fits

As waves of endeavors arise

I’m becoming aware of

Distinct strands of motion

And separating out what needs attending

What’s mine to do

And leaving the rest.

 

No longer seeking heights

But following as the path weaves

Its magnificent fabric

In mysterious folds.

 

Not focusing on gaining

Status nor goods

But garnering lessons

Of the Way.

 

Understanding

And good will

Are pinnacles

I walk toward

Through every hill and valley

Of my earthly path.

 

As the wheel of life turns

Compressing me as it churns

Breaking walls

Making my soul part

Of its masterpiece

Of which I choose to be a part

The work done

In my being

Unseen by outer world

Shines through all

I say and do.

 

As we enter quiet of winter

I’ll not turn to electric bulbs

Once dusk falls with fading sun

But settle into darkness

Putting aside fright

And the need to act.

 

I’ll fan the flame of inner light

Take stock with inner sight

Look upon barren landscapes

Ponder what’s beneath

 

Reflect on what’s passed

Consider what’s coming

And pause

Before moving on.

 

Sometimes, the way forward is back and around.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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The Right Use of Plastic

I’ve come to accept plastic, sort of reconciling myself to its place in the world. Where ever I ramble, I run into it – vacuum packed tofu at the farm stand, fluorescent-colored bottle lids on the forest floor, broken lawn chairs at the curbside. I have to face it — plastic is here to stay.

I always cringe, though, when a waitress asks if she can bring a ‘to go’ box for my leftovers. This usually means Styrofoam, a form of plastic I don’t consider a friend — nor does the planet. Once Styrofoam is set free to roam the earth, it’s anti-social — doesn’t break down, mix or mingle like wood and paper do, giving themselves to the making of soil, contributing to the life cycle.

In fact, Styrofoam may never decompose.

That it keeps to itself may be a good thing though, because when it circulates, it wreaks havoc, causing cancer. I won’t put Styrofoam out with my garbage. And when I invariably acquire a piece from a generous neighbor bringing Christmas cookies, I gracefully accept my plate then sequester it to the closet to use as a paint palette. But I won’t take home Styrofoam intentionally.

So I ask, Can I have a piece of tin foil to wrap my veggie curry in? My preference, though, is to bring home leftovers in a plastic bowl and lid I keep in a potluck kit in my trunk and am trying to get in the habit of bringing with me into restaurants.

Plastic has become a basic element of our mobile lifestyle. Light and unbreakable, it’s convenient to carry. Cheap to buy, plastic cups, forks and bottles are seen as disposables and discarded after one use.

But throwing out plastic is costly.

While a paper bag takes a month to become soil and a cardboard box around two, a plastic bag can take a good hundred years to break down. And when it does, it doesn’t blend, but stays intact as tiny particles that creep into ground water and litter oceans.

Plastic pills are taken up by plants, fish, animals and us, or just hang around. Pacific Ocean currents have collected some of our throw-aways in a swirling plastic soup the size of Texas. Fish dine on bottle caps; birds don six-pack ring necklaces. Come high tide, the sea may deliver our debris to our shore.

For now, plastic seems content to seep from containers into hot soup, leftovers and lattes. Tricksters, called BPA, sneak into bodies and mimic female hormones, messing with reproductive and nervous systems. Scientists have seen BPA handed down for three generations in fish.

Let’s face it. Plastic lingers — perhaps in protest of our disregard.

So, I limit my holdings, making friends with the few pieces I have, trying to reuse them for their duration. Once I’ve got plastic in my sight, I consider it an orphan, with nowhere to go, at least for a long time. Or, I eye it as a terrorist, holding it captive, protecting the world from its antics. And sometimes, I simply recognize its value and reuse it.

Walking my neighborhood on collection day, I rescue chairs, tables and shelves from languishing at the dump. Or, I postpone their recycling.

When possible, I recycle. But not all plastic can be recycled. And only about 5% of what can, does.

Perhaps plastic has made us lazy. Intended to make lives easier, disposables mean less washing of dishes. But our loathing of labor may have led to our scanty recycling. We’ve given our selves more work, though. Because plastic won’t play nice with nature, we’ve got to babysit and find things for it to do, lest we suffer its shenanigans.

I remember the invasion of plastics. As a child, I recoiled at inert orange, purple and pink impersonators upstaging painted clay bowls, horse hair and wooden brushes, rag dolls and cloth diapers. ‘Real’ items breathed with life forces, holding imprints of human touch. They were books to be read offering insights to life, engaging and peaceful to be around. But plastic was a soulless worker who came, got the job done and left without giving you the time of day. Cold and lifeless, it felt deadening. At home, I clung to dwindling natural objects for comfort and inspiration, rubbing my fingers along irregular surfaces, tracing circles of grain, following stitches in rows.

As a young adult, I combed stores for genuine items, to find few. Used goods shops became my treasure-trove of long forgotten wooden pails, tin watering cans and glass pitchers. I brought them home and sheltered them as a naturalist protects a preserve.

I am a purist. This is hard work. Plastic is ubiquitous.

Nowadays, plastic still stops me in my tracks. Yesterday, I shopped for cane sugar, which I use for its mildly sweet flavor and even handedness with my blood sugar level. I scoped out the bulk section of a local natural food store, hoping to scoop some cane sugar into a bag I brought and transfer it to a jar at home. There was none –only palm sugar, a new item. I placed a few crystals on my tongue. ”Not too sweet,” I thought, “but not as rich a flavor.” I moseyed around the aisle to find cane sugar sitting on a shelf encased in a hard plastic container. “Too bad!” I thought, then returned to the bulk section to take a few cups of palm sugar.

That night, I made ice cream with the new sugar but didn’t care as much for the taste. So, do I buy plastic wrapped cane sugar? Or search further hoping to find it in bulk and if not adjust to an alternative? I believe so.

Taking inventory of my trash a few years back, I gasped at the glut of plastic hummus containers, pasta wrappers, forks, spoons and water bottles. Shamed, I vowed to purchase as little as possible packaged in plastic and started making my own yogurt, crackers and tooth powder. This summer, I hope to start making shampoo and pasta and muslin sacks for bulk items and produce.

I now carry a glass water bottle and keep hard plastic plates, cloth napkins and metal cutlery in my car for use at potlucks and take out. I bring in a metal spoon when I frequent a frozen yogurt shop and have ventured into a take-out pizza parlor with my own plate. Perhaps one day this will be common.

What’s plastic good for and what’s best made with natural materials?

I have never been a disposable razor fan and have bought replaceable cartridges. While they consist of little plastic, their cost has skyrocketed. Flabbergasted, I thought back on my dad’s metal double-edged razor using a simple steel blade. To me, this is the pinnacle of razor technology.

I searched family run pharmacies then chain stores but found no such models. Finally, on line, I bought an ‘old fashioned’ razor with paper wrapped blades and no plastic! All for a fraction of the cost of a plastic one! Eureka! The process took nearly as much time as buying a car, but I’ve redirected myself to one more plastic-free path on which I more happily roam!

If I need to have plastic, I try to glean used items from the curbside or buy them in thrift shops. The fields are aplenty. Eco-architect, Richard Sowa, harvested disposed items to make a floating island– a lasagna of plastic and soil.

Shower curtains, sneakers and toothbrushes of recycled material abound. When a new plastic item is called for, recycled is my choice.

But there are things plastic should not get its fingers on. A clear bag holding thrown out food scraps is a sad sight. This imprisonment of banana peels and peach pits from organisms eager to turn them to dirt is a death sentence. I delight in delivering food remains to the ground where they can join the dance of life.
As for us, as I’ve heard said, Let’s care as much about the containers we use as the food we put in them.


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New Family Community

Last Sunday, a mixed age group of church friends and I are sitting around after service discussing where we and our elderly parents might live as we age.

“Years ago the Cooper family extended across Franklin County,” Mike, a recently retired professor, explains. “Then my mom and dad decide to become missionaries and leave for Kenya. This starts a trend. My wife and I have lived in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida to follow our work. My kids live in Pennsylvania, Los Angeles and Vietnam pursuing dreams. We are spread across the world.”

“I grew up in Ohio and left for Costa Rica in seventy-seven to join the Peace Corps,” Steve, a middle-aged business owner, adds. “I have no relations or close friends left in Ohio. Most of my friends are here in Sarasota. My kids live in New York and Minnesota. I don’t want to live in either place; I can’t take another snowstorm! My son and daughter don’t want to move down here. Besides, they have kids and lives of their own and can’t pick up and go!”

The rest of us share similar stories.

“It is best to have a power of attorney that lives near you,” Mike’s wife, Melissa, a retired accountant, shares. “Our daughter wants us to come live with them in Pennsylvania. I am not sure if that’s where we belong. Honestly, I don’t know where I belong.”

We grow silent.

Melissa continues, “I believe we are in a dilemma. We have no sense of home. “

Most of us nod in agreement.

I wonder about growing up watching my Aunt Stella care for my maternal grandfather in the Brooklyn brownstone her family lives in and inherits from him. I share about my dad’s mom, Katherine, who lives out her life alone in the Long Island home in which she raised the youngest of her nine kids. As she ages, uncles and cousins visit from around the island, checking in, bringing groceries and paying bills.

I would visit each Friday on my way home from work. During my last visits, as she lay in a hospital bed in her room, cared for by a visiting nurse, she bemoans feeling weak. She can’t get up and make me lentil soup but hopes she can next time. I thank her and smile.

One day, however, I tell her the truth, “Grandma, you are not going to get up and cook for me anymore. It is your turn now to rest and let others care for you.”

Two days later, she passes.

I tell how over the years aunts and uncles from both sides of my family move in with or live in duplexes attached to their children’s Staten Island and Long Island homes and are cared for in turn. Recently, however, my Aunt Trudy is the first to enter and die in a health care facility. Her only son, Cal, fears he can’t give her proper care.

“I want to go home!” Aunt Trudy uncharacteristically yells at Cal each time my cousin enters the room to visit.

After a few months, however, Aunt Trudy can no longer speak to me on the phone. Machines help her breathe and feed her liquids. My mom and dad visit, enter her room and think they are in the wrong place. They don’t recognize her; she is a skeleton. She is barely audible, but surviving, unsettled, until her last breath.

We shift in our seats and dispute the value of extended life support. We share fears of being left alone in a facility to wither.

I tell of my friend Carol misplaced in an Alzheimer’s facility by her son, who lives out of town. After a year-and-a-half, she finally convinces her doctor and him to transfer her to a more suitable assisted living facility. I visit her each month to take her out.

Last week, we face each other across a table. Her hand shakes as she lifts a spoonful of Greek lemon soup to her lips. She falters to find the name of the ailment that leads her to do so, smiling sweetly, assuring me many elderly suffer like this. As we stroll to the car after eating, I notice her gait steadier; physical therapy has helped.

“I don’t like living this way,” she murmurs from the passenger seat as we return to the facility. “I told my son I want to live in an apartment and he grew silent. I hung up on him.”

Melissa informs us, “They say you need to save up $350 thousand per person for three years of end of life care.”

The group gasps and groans.

“How have folks done it before?” I ask and then answer my question. “People took care of their own.”

“Most of the expenses are during the last three years of life,” Linda, a middle-aged home care nurse, explains. “Before that it is mostly bathing, dressing, feeding, and so on. This takes a big commitment from somebody. It is hard work that’s tiring!”

“Who’s going to do that these days?” Paula, architect and writer, responds. “Women have jobs outside the home and want to keep them!”

“My grandparents had five kids who took turns taking care of them,” Pete, a retired construction worker adds.

“We didn’t have enough kids,” Melissa and Mike turn to each other and laugh!

“I have a dream,” elder member John states. ”I imagine a community with houses on a shared property with a common gathering space and community gardens. I check the papers daily. Last week, I looked at 20 acres in Arcadia.”

“Yes,” I chime in. “People of all ages, elderly, middle age and youngsters, living together, with elders contributing as they can — their experience and abilities valued. I heard of someone traveling the world to study communities where folks live the longest. In these places, people don’t retire or stop meaningful work. They’re part of a community, contributing in ways they can. This is more life-giving than institutional health care. “

“My mom loved living in an assisted living facility,” Paula adds. “For the first time in her life, she didn’t have to shop, cook or clean. She was in heaven! And thank God. I had three kids to raise and responsibilities at work. I didn’t have energy to make sure she took her pills or time to drive her to doctors. Besides, we tried living in community in the seventies. It didn’t work. There were too many personalities. For example, we shared a car and a lawn mower. The car was supposed to be left in our neighbor’s driveway, the lawnmower in our garage. We got home late one night and left the car in our driveway. Big trouble! Plus I am too old for this. It takes a lot of energy!”

John continues, “I have energy for this!”

“Me too,” I add. “Friends and I have been talking about forming a multi-generational, cooperative household whose property can be passed on in posterity to its members. Years ago, folks handed down homes and land, keeping them in the family. Nowadays, we work hard to build something only to dissemble it before we die. We need something lasting in which put our energy. We need a new possibility.”

“The younger generation is living communally,” Steve adds. “My nephew, Joe, just graduated from college. He and his friends share a house partly because they can’t afford their own places but mainly they don’t want to live alone taking care of their own stuff. They share vehicles and take turns cooking, shopping, and gardening. They have time to hang out and do what matters to them! Joe works part time then makes performance art with his buddies on issues like racial injustice. ”

“Neat!” John responds. “I would love to live around creative souls like this!”

“That’s all well and good,” Paula states, “but young people listen to loud music and stay up all hours. Young kids run around and make noise. I like my fifties and older community. Here they come and go.”

Linda asks, “Can we, as church, simply look out for one another, like family, while our relatives are far away?”

“I like the idea of a duplex,” Pete says, “with someone younger living next door to help out with rides and meals. When I was fresh out of college, not knowing what to do, I moved to Texas to live in a room with my elder aunt and uncle. I mowed the lawn, collected yard waste, and ran errands, whatever they needed. Isn’t there someone who could do this for me?”

We pause and ponder.

“I think we are at a turning point, “I say. “For a few generations now, folks have left family, friends and land loosening bonds to follow an inner call.”

“Jesus said, if someone comes to me but cannot free himself from his father and his mother, from his wife and his children, from brothers and sisters, yes, even from his own soul, he cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26-27

Perhaps we have been on spiritual journeys and now it’s time to come together, in new ways,’ I add, “forming intentional families and communities.”

“Yes,” Linda shares, “Have you heard about Denmark group homes?”

“No,” Steve responds, “but I’ve heard of retired folks downsizing to share a house together, splitting responsibilities and resources.”

“My friend lives in an assisted living coop in Minnesota, near her daughter, and loves it,” Paula says.

“So many options to consider!” Pete concludes.


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Mission

I walk to my car after a presentation by Peace Corps volunteers. Tales told of rehabilitating lives, landscapes and structures in far off, impoverished countries get me thinking, What is my calling?

I recollect a story of Mother Teresa hearing of a Hindu family who had not eaten for a long time. She brings them rice and finds children with eyes shining with hunger. Their mom takes the rice and goes out. When she returns, Mother Teresa asks, “Where did you go? What did you do?”

The woman answers, “They are hungry also.”

And who are they? — A Muslim family.

Mother Teresa beams as the children and mom radiate with joy and peace on account of the mom’s love. Mother Teresa doesn’t bring more rice that evening because she wants them, Hindus and Muslims, to enjoy sharing, knowing this will feed a greater hunger.

I probe my pockets for keys, awestruck by this family’s love, pondering the essence of being poor.

Mother Teresa observed, “The spiritual poverty of the West is much greater than the physical poverty of India. In the West millions suffer terrible loneliness and emptiness, feel unloved and unwanted. People are not hungry in the physical sense, but in another way, knowing they need something more than money, yet not knowing what it is.”

I unlock my door acknowledging there are deeper wells to draw from than physical founts; poor folks are the blessed ones.

I bend into my car pondering the loneliness and emptiness in the West to which Mother Teresa points. I struggle to keep connected with others amidst independent living arrangements and time-consuming schedules. I grapple to keep afloat in a flood of belongings and groundswell of tasks. Mother Teresa speaks my mind, What do I do about my spiritual poverty amidst physical excess?

My work is right here.

I sit behind the wheel, mindful of my solitude. I’ve worked hard to create a natural space, just right for me, full of organic cotton, heirloom tomatoes and farmer writer Wendell Berry tales. Yet, I remain preoccupied with e-mails, paperwork and organizing. Writing unending lists of chores to do, struggling to squeeze in time to talk – much less sit – with friends and family.

I fasten my safety belt thinking, the American dream promises if I buy and own more, I make progress. And I do in a sense, when I don’t have enough. But past a point of sufficiency, I bloat my house with a closet clogged with shoes for any occasion, a pantry packed with enough pasta to feed the neighborhood and a table top buried beneath piles of magazines I never look through. At this point, for me, having less is moving forward.

I start my car’s engine and hear Jackson Browne swoon:

These times are famine for the soul while for the senses it’s a feast…

And there’s a God-sized hunger underneath the laughing and the rage (Looking East)

 

I drive home determined to better feed my soul and cut down on physical preoccupation. As cars race past on the expressway, I wonder what’s essential and what’s unnecessary, best to let pass by. The thought of hungry folks, scantily clad in tin shacks helps me trim the fat. A bowl of rice and beans, a hat and coat, walls and a roof are basically what I require.

I drive past another newly constructed mall thinking, I need to pare down.

As I prepare to change lanes, I glance in my rear view mirror remembering as a teen feeling overwhelmed and saddened in stores. Sprawling selections of milk ­- one percent, no fat, low fat and whole – beside aisles of shampoo, laundry detergent and toilet paper elicit endless decisions about trivial pursuits. Over time, though, I grow concerned about choosing just the right item for me and quiver between buying green leaf lettuce and romaine. Now I see that getting tied up in meaningless decisions eats up my energy and deprives my soul of simply being satisfied and grateful for food.

As I signal and look to the right, I remember living in Asheville, North Carolina. In this mecca of natural and cultural beauty, my greatest joy is visiting nursing homes to sit and sing with the elderly. Amid empty halls and vacant rooms dotted with card tables, pale, languid faces stare into space. My guitar strings shimmer. Heads and voices lift together in song: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…” Eyes connect in bare stillness, souls unite. I am fed beyond the sustenance of Jackson Browne’s lyrics and Mother Teresa’s tales.

Real connections feed me.

I turn off the AC, roll down the window and sense the heat of the day sting my cheek. Sweat strolls down my rib. A flock of ibis glide by in formation. Hip hop pulsates from a Corvette speeding by. Less buffered, I am in touch.

I exit and U-turn, forgoing thrift store shopping to drive to a hospice care facility and be with my 58 year old friend Richard, spending his last days alone. Gaunt and listless, plodding behind his walker, he beckons me to a garden. We shuffle between palms, love grass and hibiscus and sit on a wooden bench. I slow my breath to settle stirring thoughts and be with him. He soaks in his surroundings and utters labored syllables spelling out his surrender and acceptance. Serenity fills the air. We inhale and exhale the lightness of being. And embrace our goodbyes.

Awakened to the pulse of life, I stroll to my car.

I’ve been isolated and absorbed, caught in a web of material comfort and ease. Casting it away and reaching out to others, I come alive and nourished.

I sit behind the wheel and leave the door ajar. Sun illumines my face. I reach for my calendar and pore over tasks of the week weighing their importance. I make a list of names of folks in need.

Budding branches reach to the sun. When laden with fruit, they bow to the ground. I have more than I need. I must bend down and offer my fill. When I am emptied, I will receive more.

Beside my parked car a red jacaranda sways in the wind. I am reminded of Carol, once vibrant, glowing with life. Now 76, she is trapped in an Alzheimer’s care facility. She got lost driving, couldn’t find her way home. Her son flew down from Philadelphia for the weekend, sold her red hybrid Honda, ruby love seat and crimson-doored house — without her consent. He then placed her in a facility for safe keeping because her memory is weakening. I call her to make plans to visit.

I drive home and clear the cooler, umbrella and beach chair from my back seat to make room for Carol’s wheel chair.

Days later I travel across town. As I wheel Carol through the facility, we watch two dazed women gazing at a flittering TV screen and a man wandering, giggling into space. I notice Carol’s bold demeanor is dulled after a few weeks’ immersion in this muted world. I pull open my passenger door. She struggles to lift her troubled body up holding onto the window frame then shuffles onto the seat. Looking forward she pronounces, I want my car back.

I nod in silence, sit in the driver’s seat and maneuver our way out of the parking lot. Slowly, grasping for words, Carol composes the landscape of delusional characters with whom she dwells, from whom she seeks relief. My heart sinks, knowing she does not belong here, yet aware there is little I can do but take her out for brief respites and listen.

Over the ensuing months, I carve space in my schedule to be with Carol and help carry her load. Her forbearance, persistence and composure are gifts to me.

Perhaps life is not an upward climb, but a spiral trajectory, looping between loss and gain, need and plenty, weakness and strength – both essential to growth and well-being.

One year later, through determination and will, Carol persuades her doctors and son to place her in a more suitable assisted living facility. Our world is set aright. My heart resounds, Hallelujah!

I am driving to Salvation Army with a backseat of boxes containing the tofu maker I’ve never used, old Yes magazines and dusty snow boots. I think of my friend Joe, on disability, unable to work. His trust fund ran out and he can no longer pay rent. He’s terrified he’ll be homeless as New York’s frigid winter approaches. Ashamed, I squirm, I’m here in Florida, grappling to shed frivolity, while Joe is scuffling to find a friend’s couch to sleep on to keep him off the icy streets.

What can I do to help him get what he needs? How can I free myself from excess, which leaves others without enough? How can we come from our separateness to share?

 

Excerpt of Mother Theresa’s address at the United Nations’ “International Conference on Population and Development”, held in Cairo on Sept 5 -13, 1994


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Mustard Seed

“Quite a mama!” Vanessa roars as she and her husband John mosey down the street. They joke about the milk quart-sized papayas ripening by my driveway.

I smirk. I am seeding radishes beside the house. I turn around and call back, “A few months ago, 80 mph winds took down the other three trees. The seed of this babe came from a fruit I got from a stranger at a potluck.”

I rise, wipe dirt off my knees and venture toward the couple to say, “A farmer from Oregon was in town helping his family in Myakka. He gave me a papaya he grew and I planted the seeds.”

The surviving tree leans like a ‘J’ rocked back 45 degrees. A green plastic lawn footrest wedges its trunk above the ground. Twenty busty papayas hang from its stalk. Its dinner plate sized leaves sweep out like the arms of a limbo dancer.

I discover Vanessa and John Walker live in the corner house. Would I like to come by? They have extra banana plugs. Sure! We saunter to study the gnarly bulbs — all brown, no green. We are rookies and they look strange. Somebody gave them these barky masses and we’re not sure how they’ll fare.

I take ‘em. They’re free and I want to try bananas. Verdant leaves shoot from the soil after a few weeks of my watering. A miracle!

Months later, a young father strolls his 4 year old son down the street. They stop to stare at five foot banana trees lining my driveway, opposite the papaya. Lanky leaves sway in the breeze.

“You know the banana you ate with your cereal,” the dad instructs his son. “It came from a tree like this.”

The boy gapes in amazement.

The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard which a man takes and plants in his field.

                                                                                                                                                   Matthew 13:31

My first Florida garden is made of pots and window- and earth- boxes on the 2’x 20’ patio of my second floor apartment in Bradenton, Florida. Mostly herbs, as rosemary, basil and oregano, enliven my dwelling, along with a spindly tomato plant offering a pearl sized tomato. At least I am not bound indoors; I can step out the sliding glass door to crisp air, gleaming light and wisps of rain. But over time I realize I am ungrounded and long to live on the earth.

After five years there, I move to Sarasota, Florida. I now know it was essential that I rent a place where I can garden. I find a garage apartment adjoining a house whose tenant, Jessica, has similar leanings. The yard we share sits in a suburban neighborhood of mowed lawns and pruned bushes. I delight in the few houses nestled in native plants instead of grass.

My landlord gives me the green light. Since the backyard is heavily shaded, my boyfriend, Andrew, Jessica and I dig three 13’ x 4’ beds outside my front door which opens to the side of the house, facing south. The lawn maintenance guy informs me it was illegal to grow vegetables in the front yard. Apparently, he has run into trouble. Nevertheless, out front, by Jessica’s window, we dig another similarly sized bed and plant low growing, crawly foods like zucchini, watermelon and acorn squash with no backlash. Jessica chips in paying for water; I leave sweet potatoes, radishes and broccoli on the hood of her car.

[Mustard] is the smallest of all seeds, but when it grows it is soon taller than the herbs and becomes a tree in whose branches the birds of the air build their nests. Matthew 13:32

I start plants from seed. I sow six varieties at a time, eight seeds per type. On average four varieties germinate and two of each survive. Attrition is high, but sometimes more grow than my garden can foster. So I cart tomato and mustard starts to our church in Andrew’s truck bed for folks to take home or email friends a list of surplus seedlings and they pick up cantaloupe and arugula starts from my driveway.

Andrew chuckles at my attachment to each plant. At the local organic farm where he works, it is common to sow extra trays of collard and spinach seeds. What doesn’t make it to the field is composted.

My endeavors are more personal. Tending to each plant becomes a matter of life or death. I lift each lilting lettuce toward the light. I soak every cilantro ‘til it’s satiated. And can’t abandon one thriving celery or squash sprout. After all, who knows what it’ll bring? Twirling okra that incites a child’s imagination? Deep purple tomatoes which stir a gardener’s heart? Sharing seedlings is missionary work.

Alyssa, the oldest daughter in the house bordering my garden, studies agriculture at an alternative high school. I learn this news chatting with her dad as he mows the lawn by my garden. I offer and she accepts green leaf and zucchini seedlings to bring to school to grow. Ever since, I come home to plastic bags of kale, tomatoes and kohlrabi hanging from my door knob. I tell her father they’re delicious! He admits he’s glad I take ’em; his family doesn’t know what to do with them. My heart sinks. He adds, “Alyssa is thrilled that I eat them.”

Mustard grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 78 AD

Carol and Cecily buy a house a few blocks away. My duplex-mate Jessica introduces us. Carol and Cecily are setting up a permaculture yard. They are planting perennial fruits and vegetables upon which they can graze. They invite me over to take a look. I gawk at the twisting twigs and budding leaves bending over glasses on the window sill – sweet potato starts! I have not been able to get any to sprout. Carol gives them to me – they’re extras.

I notice Carol and Cecily’s sweet potatoes grow well in the shade. I plant a few beneath the sprawling tree canopy out front where nothing seems to grow. They soon envelop the area in green.

[Mustard will] inexorably grow into something large and firmly rooted, which some [will] find shelter in and others [will] find obnoxious and try to root out. Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark: A socio-rhetorical commentary, 2001

After two years, my landlord comes to the apartment to look at a clogged drain. He grumbles, “The property looks like a farm.” He doesn’t like the banana trees out front. I offer, reluctantly, to take them out. He declines. Months later, he calls to say a friend needs an apartment and gives me two and a half months to leave. I am in shock.

I click off the phone, crumble into Andrew’s arms and cry, “Now what am I going to do!” I am just starting to learn how to work with the land.

I sob, “He probably doesn’t like the tall shoots waving sprays of yellow flowers, soon to be mustard seeds.”

In my garden plants grow full circle. Emergent seedlings bud green amidst a bed of russet leaves. Vines and flowers soon fill the air with curves and forms of lavender and yellow. Then broccoli florets and rotund melons burst between green. Finally lettuce turns to seed and dwindling tomato branches hang brown, fall and unite with soil. Plants are not pruned for show.

Broken hearted, I dismantle my gardens. I pull out plants before the fullness of their time and shovel off two inches of topsoil that’s built up, leveling the beds with the surrounding lawn. Then scatter Bermuda grass seeds. I get a notion and wander to a house down the block whose lawn has recently been replaced with banana trees and native flowers and ferns gleaned from a nearby canal. I introduce myself to the owner and tell him of my plight. Then I offer gifts. His eyes pop as he helps himself to the rich dirt I’ve nourished to now enhance his sandy soil. He relishes the bags of leaves I’ve collected from neighbors’ curbs to use for mulch.

Church folks snatch tomato and okra seedlings ready to be planted. Jessica’s boyfriend grabs a banana start. As Andrew and I remove the remaining six foot sentries, my neighbor on Jessica’s side of the house piddles around her yard. Since I’ve lived here, Sarah has been away caring for her ailing mom. Her mom has now passed, so she is back, tending to what’s been neglected. I ramble over, say ‘hi’ and tell her my landlord’s told me to leave. Her sunny smile sinks, she sighs and says she has been looking forward to our being gardening buddies! I moan. I would have loved her companionship!

She covets my banana trees so we lug five pillars to her yard. She will plant them on the property line.

Andrew takes those remaining to the compost pile and chops them to pieces. A month later, I spot green sprouts emerging. Amazing! Our new landlord just remarked that he welcomes fruit trees. We grab the babes to plant along with dug up pineapples on our new property.

Wendell Berry says big problems require small solutions, place by place, among people who are faithful to the bonds of relationship and the lands entrusted to them.

Sometimes folks ask why I invest in land that is not mine. I am grateful to live closely with sun, soil and rain and partake in creation. I tell of rhythms and rhymes they bestow and I carry. I agree my gardens cease to exist when I leave, but surrounding trees, grass and bushes that remain are enlivened. A limp orange tree searching for light in a shaded yard bears rounder, juicier fruit. Grass below a thick canopy begins to grow. Bushes nearly barren fully flower. Drabness turns lush. My allegiance to the earth is fulfilled, at least in the land I am leaving.

[Mustard] is extremely beneficial for the health.      Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 78 AD

When I move, I not only pack inside belongings, but dig up, pot and transport strawberry, sweet potato, lavender and sage plants. Containers of blueberries, chives, and Okinawa spinach are carried away. Large pots of lemon balm and rosemary are discharged from duty as buffers to street traffic.

My boyfriend and I move to Venice, Florida, to help with family matters. We rent a relative’s place which they plan to sell in a year. There is no question about impermanence. Yet we are eager to bring to life the languishing property, making it more desirable to prospective buyers. Besides a majestic, overgrown oak out back, there is little vegetation and what is here is limp, moldy or wrangled with dry, brown leaves and branches. To some people this is dismal. To me it is a blank canvas.

I set up garden plots.

Andrew helps by digging a circular bed. It sits on our corner lot viewable by passersby on the busy street. I seed buckwheat to build up the soil in preparation for a fall garden. A small rectangular summer patch is placed nearby full of cherry tomatoes, collards, watermelon and yard long beans which thrive in the heat.

As Andrew and I pat soil around newly placed mango and lemon trees, a neighbor meanders over. She announces she has tons of plants and invites us to stop by to take our pick! Being welcomed by a kindred spirit is heartwarming!

I continue on, replanting sweet potatoes under the bedroom windows where they flourish in sandy soil. Strawberries are settled in by the shed.

The ground by the front door out the living room window is barren. I decide to unpot my rosemary and lemon balm, giving them to the land, freeing them from two year’s confinement. As I tilt pots towards holes in the earth, I witness twisted white veins filling every millimeter of space, squeezing every ounce of life from the soil. I feel pity and shame as I pull apart roots, gently coaxing them to spread and grow.

I am an emancipator on a crusade, realizing pots are for temporary use, not permanent dwelling. I scurry from potted plant to potted plant to set them free, no longer saving them for my someday home. I set spider plants with the natives out back by the fence. Chives, sage and lavender start an herb garden for the next owner. Only the blueberries remain in earth boxes, so I can better manage their acidity. The plants are no longer mine.


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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.