What’s Already Here

This week in yoga class we opened our arms wide and bowed in surrender.

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How I feel in yoga class at Irvington Wellness Center. Photo by Mitchell Joyce, via flickr Commons

Our teacher, Gaynell Collier-Magar, invited us to open in gratitude for the extraordinary privilege of experiencing what’s already here. We stood as trees with arms outstretched and my fingertips brushed the hand of Joyce at my left. Then later, lying back in a spinal twist, my fingers contacted Scott’s on my right. Each student deep in our space but connecting with the other.

The goodwill and warmth created in that space fed me, like it does every week.

And not just because they sang Happy Birthday to me before class. (“It’s not just a yoga class, it’s a community,” Gaynell said, and she’s right.)

She led us in half sun salutations, invoking joy as we raised our arms high, surrender as we opened our arms and bowed, equanimity as we rose halfway with hands on shins, surrender again as we folded to the floor, joy again as we rose to circle-sweep our arms high, and finally connection with the sacred as we rested our hands in prayer position at our hearts.

Yeah, it’s that kind of class. The kind where you know you’re just really lucky to be able to sit and breathe in awareness—even though the same breath walks in with you, and you could easily(?) contact it any old time.

In this studio I often tremble in release while holding postures, and even if I don’t understand it on a conscious level, I know that things are moving through me. Sometimes I cry. I cried this time while crimped into a half pigeon posture, leg folded under my torso, forehead on the floor, listening to Donna De Lory sing of being a sanctuary.

The tears came again in a forward bend while the song Mercy poured over us.

“One by one, could we turn it around,” etc. It slayed me. The longing, the heartfelt wish for healing of the world. For everyone to feel joy, surrender, equanimity, surrender, joy, connection.

What more is there than that?

An Unexpected Gift

Yesterday, Father’s Day, brought me an unexpected gift. A neighbor messaged me late in the evening offering just-picked raspberries. Would we like some? Of course! “Check on your porch by the mailbox,” she messaged a few minutes later.

My dessert: raspberries, kefir, vanilla, toasted sunflower seeds.

How was she to know that red raspberries would bring me a direct connection with my Dad, who grew them up until the year he died? His overabundance was always my gain. Even the container they came in, a repurposed plastic food tub, evoked his (and Mom’s) habit of reusing everything.

They're half gone already, because I had some for breakfast too!

They’re half gone already, because I had some for breakfast too.

A friend tells me this morning, Surely that was a gift straight from your father.

I miss him. On Friday I received a quilt specially made from a few of the T shirts he used to wear. Yesterday morning I put my cheek against that “Seize the Carp” square and imagined his heart beating under the fabric.

Many thanks to Helen Ryan-King for making this for me.

Many thanks to Helen Ryan-King for making this for me.

No one else will ever love me the way he loved me, a friend wrote, on losing her own dad.

A statement true and sad.

So many of us walk around with broken hearts. I think of the Buddhist story of the woman mad with grief after the death of her only child. The Buddha offers to bring the child back, but only if she can find a mustard seed from a house untouched by death.

She searches house to house. Here someone has lost a parent, there a child, there a beloved brother, there a cherished friend. She comes back and tells the Buddha, I couldn’t find anyone untouched by loss.

She lets the child go.

Knowing we all share this human experience, I want to open to the love that is available all around me, in so many forms.

A couple I know slightly from down the street, seeing me standing on my bike in the bike lane, slow their car to check on me: “You OK?” (Just waiting for a break in traffic to make a dicey turn—but it touches me to hear their concern.)

A cat named Morty, leery of everyone but his deceased owner, finds me on my front step. Rubs against my knee, beaks my nose with his. Hello, new friend.

A concert of singing bowls, vibrating with tabla, flute, and didgeridoo, offers me a place to rest in All That Is.

What I want to say is this: May my broken heart be of service. May I remember that this brokenness is something we all share. May our connection help to heal a broken world.

The Urban Forest

Holly Jones grew up considering trees as relatives. A Native American (“though I might not look like it!”) she sees the world populated with winged people, creeping people, branching people. “A lot of different people are considered sacred in my circle.”

As director of the Indiana Urban Forest Council, she brings that sense of interconnection to her advocacy.

Holly spoke to a group of treehuggers in my neighborhood this week at the Irvington Green Hour.

Holly Jones at the Indiana Urban Tree Council

Holly Jones at the Indiana Urban Tree Council. Photo by Jeff Echols.

She asked us to consider the sounds we might take for granted, the chickadee’s call and other songs of the urban forest. “These sounds are a part of you whether you realize it or not,” she said. “And these sounds are quietly going away.”

With landscapes devoted to specimen plants that hail from a completely different part of the world, it’s no wonder that native species are struggling. Jones said a turnaround will require a different mentality than purchasing random flowering plants from the big box store. Choosing native plants is the only way to feed and shelter the insects and birds that evolved alongside them.

Basically, the foundation of life is in our hands, even we urbanites sitting here on our postage-stamp lots.

“If you want to see life happen, and magic happen, that takes time,” she said, telling the story of planting her first rain garden. As the plants matured, her sense of wonder expanded beyond expectation. “I had to go out and get new guide books! There were so many new species I’d never seen before.”

Holly told us that trees offer their biggest bloom when they’re dying. Some might point to the prolific blooms and deny that a tree’s under stress (from climate change, insect infestation, or pollution) but that’s not the case. “That tree’s giving it all she’s got. She’s saying, ‘It’s my last chance to get my seed out there.’”

In a state where 98 percent of our forests are gone, caring for the remaining trees is essential. Street trees give back 600 times what we invest, with the biggest return coming after the first 10 years.

Average lifespan of a street tree? Seven years.

There are ways to cost-calculate a tree’s service to humans. My streetside sycamore, according to the National Tree Benefit Calculator, will do all this in 2015:

  • intercept 2,015 gallons of stormwater runoff
  • raise the property value by $47
  • conserve 55 Kilowatt / hours of electricity for cooling
  • absorb pollutants through its leaves, while releasing oxygen
  • reduce atmospheric carbon by 299 pounds

According to the model, this adds up to $68 in annual benefits provided by my 11-inch diameter sycamore.

By Jakec, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Jakec, via Wikimedia Commons

Considering that the tree is 40-plus years old, according to this site, that’s a significant dollar amount over its lifespan.

This is all great information for people who need numbers to support a pro-tree position. And it’s not even counting some of the benefits Holly spoke of at the Green Hour. Higher percentage tree canopies correlate to greater health, better school grades, improved sense of community, and more.

To my mind, though, the unquantifiable might be the most powerful thing of all. Trees are wise, restful, gracious spirits. They root deep and stretch high, giving them access to information we humans are not privy to. This sycamore’s presence in my life is a gift.

And that’s just one tree among the urban forest that I love so much.

Want to take action? For locals, here are some ideas:

Neighborliness in a Soup

An email came into my inbox a few weeks ago announcing an initiative called City Suppers. The goal of the program—co-sponsored by City Gallery, Harrison Center for the Arts, and Indiana Humanities—was simply to promote neighborliness by way of soup. On a particular night, everyone citywide was encouraged to sign up to host their neighbors for a simple dinner.

Of course, I loved this idea.

As it turned out, my spouse and I had been talking about having a casual neighborhood get-together for a while. City Suppers gave us the impetus to actually do it—not to mention a deadline to get the house clean.

In my neck of the woods, we define “neighbor” rather loosely as “anyone else who lives in Irvington or thereabouts.” So we invited an assortment of folks—some from just around the corner and some from further afield.

Around our table

A few of those who gathered around our table

Some had never met each other, and others had known each other a long time. Ages ranged from 1 year old to “I’ll never tell.”

We gathered around our table for a convivial evening. I made minestrone and bought some locally made focaccia and cheese. (Everyone seemed terrifically happy with the soup, which we call “peasant food” at our house—nothing all that fancy, but hearty, economical, and flavorful.) Guests brought wine, salad, and desserts. Truly mouthwatering desserts.

But the tasty, nourishing meal was really just an excuse for conversation and connection.

Life can be a full plate most of the time. So full that it seems hard to find the time for this kind of thing. In our neighborhood we have often socialized around shared projects. It was a novel change of pace to connect over a meal instead of at a meeting or work party.

We enjoyed it so much that we’re making more peasant food tonight and having different neighbors over. We’ll go to Russia instead of Italy, with borscht, rye bread, and beer. (Incidentally I traded with another neighbor—my chili peppers for her beets—for the starring veggie of the borscht. Our version of the “cup of sugar.”)

And bonus: the house is still pretty clean. Not that that matters—I figure if we waited till the perfect time to have people over, it would never happen. So why not just do it?

How about you—what’s your favorite way to connect with your neighbors? Is there something you’d like to initiate with the people living near you, but have been putting off? Why not get it going? It could be just the thing to warm a chilly winter night.

Public Art Foundation Turns 1

Guess who turned 1 last week? Foundation East, a grassroots organization born right here in my own neighborhood. These action-oriented folks bring “artists, funders, and dreamers” together to turn eastside Indianapolis neighborhoods (such as mine!) into public art havens.

My neighbor and friend, Rita Spalding, working on one of her signal boxes last fall. Photo by  Charmaine Edwards.

My neighbor and friend, Rita Spalding, working on one of her signal boxes last fall. Photo by Charmaine Edwards.

I first blogged about their work last winter in Public Art Unites the Community. Since then more traffic signal boxes have turned into canvases—not just in Irvington but in other parts of town as well. And Foundation East won a “Best of Indy” award for best public art for the Irvington project.

Oil painter Rita Spalding, one of the signal box artists, taught a painting class at Friday night’s birthday celebration.

Oil painters-in-the-making

Oil painters-in-the-making

What a kick to see people so absorbed in their creativity. Not a mobile device in sight (except for the occasional smartphone photo). We need more evenings like this.

Sunflower under the brush

Sunflower under the brush

Rita recently started another still life. She’s painting a signal box located on a busy intersection. Someone suggested she apply a painted wrap to the box instead, for safety’s sake. Though many neighbors have expressed concern about the cars and buses whizzing by, she remains committed to painting the box itself.

That’s because she wants passersby to see an artist at work in the public sphere. In her own words:

“My fondest hope: that rubbing up against original art in one’s daily commute and/or walks will awaken a curiosity about the arts… that it might lead to a trip to the IMA (Indianapolis Museum of Art); that it might cause one to slow down in front of a gallery window; that it might encourage one to dig out those paints in the garage and try something expressive and/or creative… A gentle nudge in the form of original public art might create some lovely ripples in a vast variety of lives…”

Here’s Rita (what a gem!) schooling Friday evening’s youngest participant in painting a peach.

Rita with Nathan, budding painter.

Rita with Nathan, a budding painter.

Another artist friend, Laura Hildreth, will be painting a signal box in homage to Irvington’s history. She’s the perfect person for the job, with family ties to this area going back generations.

Laura with a representation of her design for the signal box at the corner of Washington and Ritter.

Laura with a representation of her design for the signal box at the corner of Washington and Ritter, showing the original buildings along that stretch.

And just to show that we are not alone in this effort to beautify the commons, here’s a photo I snapped in Victoria, B.C. earlier this summer. This particular utility box pays tribute to the “slender woollyhead,” a plant native to Vancouver Island.

On the back was printed information about the plant.

On the back was printed information about the plant.

Watch for an upcoming guest post by Foundation East’s co-founder, Vishant Shah, about the next generation in public art projects.

Good to Grow

Guest post by Luke Taylor, who started a business called Good to Grow with his wife, Emily

Luke and Emily Taylor

Luke and Emily Taylor

Based out of Irvington, on the east side of Indianapolis, Good to Grow aims to harness the power of community to revolutionize the way we interact with overlooked natural resources.

What does it look like to “harness the power of community?” And what are these overlooked natural resources?

The power of community is a shared vision, and many hands. Our vision is one that makes it easy for neighbors to make choices that not only benefit their community, but also themselves. Choices like saving their food waste to create compost—and collecting rainwater to reduce water bills and strain on municipal utilities.

Good to Grow's custom-built water barrel towers enable urban gardeners to save large amounts of rainwater.

Good to Grow’s custom-built water barrel towers enable urban gardeners to save large amounts of rainwater.

Some might call this “being green,” or recycling. I am happy thinking of it as purely selfish.

If you have altruistic notions of saving the world one recycled cardboard box at a time, great! Continue seeking out ways to heal your part of the world through changes large and small. Your community needs more people like you.

Many in your community, however, need a layup. (Editor’s note: a layup, for the basketball-uninitiated, is the easiest of shots, more difficult to miss than make.) These folks will only choose to recycle if they are standing next to a bin or a forest ranger is looking in their direction.

Or if they receive something free as a reward. In short, they need incentive.

Developing an incentive framework to support behavior change is our goal at Irvington’s Good to Grow.

A bucket ready to receive a neighbor's vegetable scraps.

A bucket ready to receive a neighbor’s vegetable scraps.

One such framework is Irvington’s composting program. Already being championed by 16 households, this initiative’s ultimate goal is to collect compostable food waste and distribute finished compost (a valuable organic fertilizer) at the very same time. The idea is to connect beneficial behavior as seamlessly as possible with valuable incentive and convenience.

It is my hope that this idea encourages communities to create incentive frameworks of their own!

Luke Taylor moved to Irvington, Indianapolis with his wife Emily in early 2013. They chose this neighborhood mostly because of its strong sense of community. The Taylors wanted to be a part of it, and to encourage its growth. With Good to Grow as the vessel for delivery, they have a vision for Irvington that will amplify and enrich our local resources, bringing together an already blossoming Indianapolis community. One day, they dream to be able to enrich other Indianapolis communities in the same way by sharing the Good to Grow framework.

Peaceful Grounds

Monday morning a group of gardeners from the neighborhood had a private tour of Peaceful Grounds, Linda Proffitt’s endeavor at Marion County Fairgrounds, where the county fair is going on. (See my earlier post about her work here.) The vision and scope of this Global Peace Initiatives project astounded and inspired us.

The cattle barn at the Marion County fairgrounds is home to this volunteer-driven initiative.

The cattle barn at the Marion County fairgrounds is home to this volunteer-driven initiative.

George Marshall, Linda’s intern, showed us around the farm, where mounds of wood chips are not just regular old wood chips but worm habitat.

George

George next to a hoop house that stayed warm all winter from heat given off by decomposition.

Peaceful Grounds takes beer mash from local brewers like Irvington’s own Black Acre and buries it in mulch to feed the herd of worms.

The spent grain is perfect worm food because barley fits easily into worms' tiny mouths.

The spent grain is perfect worm food because barley fits easily into worms’ tiny mouths.

Hand-painted signs that say “Worms at Work” and “Thank a Worm” testify to the importance of these little red wigglers.

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Digging up some of the underground workers to show us.

Volunteers mix 5 to 15 tons of mash with equal amounts of wood chips each week. Another mound incorporates dehydrated food waste from public hospital Eskenazi Health. Over time, these piles and rows are transformed into a viable medium for garden plants.

George showed us where vegetable and herb starts have been set right into these habitats.

broccoli

Broccoli planted in one of many windrows made by worms doing their work on wood chips and beer mash.

In a nifty closing of the loop, Linda has begun to raise hops to supply local brewers.

A few of Peaceful Grounds volunteer-planted crops.

A few more Peaceful Grounds volunteer-planted crops.

While we were walking down the raised beds (“windrows”) of basil and tomatoes, a fair official came up and asked for Linda. He wanted to introduce her to the people in charge of an elephant exhibit, so she could incorporate elephant dung in the farm operation. (“You never met a lady more excited about poop than Linda,” George joked.)

Inside the cattle barn is where kids and adults can come for hands-on fun with art and agriculture. It’s also where artists like Jamie Locke (another Irvington neighbor) demonstrate mandala making and other crafts—and where young volunteers from Handi-Capable Hands take charge of a gigantic tumbler that sifts the worm compost into two grades of product.

Heidi Unger took this photo of the tumbler, which is named Apollo and was donated by a local farmer who saw Linda on TV.

Heidi Unger took this photo of the tumbler, which is named Apollo and was donated by a local farmer who saw Linda on TV.

We went home with the finer grade, which is basically worm poo, to use as a powerful organic fertilizer. One tablespoon per plant will nourish it through a month, Linda says.

Worm castings make an excellent fertilizer. Now there's a local source!

Worm castings make an excellent fertilizer. Now we have a local source!

Before we left, we learned that Will Allen is going to visit the operation, which is a training outpost for his fabulous Growing Power organization. He will speak at 2pm Saturday and lead a workshop at 4pm, and will also preside over a ribbon cutting ceremony at noon on Sunday, when the Peaceful Grounds Farm and Arts Market kicks off.

IMG_3598I’d love to see more interaction between local urban gardeners and this facility, which is just a stone’s throw from Irvington’s back door. Right now the county fair is in full swing, but the possibilities extend beyond its closing date. Linda is running a Farm Camp for kids starting July 7, and is happy to host volunteers at any time.

By the way, she offered to set me up with an interview with Will Allen. I’m thrilled to meet this man I admire so much. I’m crowdsourcing interview questions. What would you ask the grandfather of urban gardening, if you could?