What I Learned

There was a lag between my dad’s tests and the results. We knew something was wrong, and it could be bad, but we didn’t know for sure. The Saturday between his test and the oncologist appointment, I stopped over as usual for lunch after hitting the farmers’ market. It was a brilliant June day in 2011, and Dad was making the most of it in the back yard. Mom and I agreed: We wished we could just freeze time.

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Dad on a summer day

We couldn’t. The oncology appointment brought the kind of news every family dreads: terminal cancer.

I sometimes feel, now, like I’m in “please freeze time” mode. A pervasive sense of dread stalks some of my days and many of my nights. Watching swifts in their lilting flights as I walk my dog early in the morning, I have a weird sort of anticipatory nostalgia. This spring has been stunningly beautiful. The world is so inviting. And who knows what lies ahead for my family, my community, my country, the world?

But then again, who ever knows? We just think we will keep on our merry way, that nothing will ever change, but that’s an illusion.

But time can slow down a bit, when you pay close attention and know that you are really there, occupying the moment with all your senses.

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Follow the path with senses open…

What I learned from that horribly short period between Dad’s diagnosis and his death (and from what came next) is this: We can handle the worst. We get through it. There are still beautiful moments even in the awfulness. Dad speaking into a circle of family and friends around a fire. Grinning over a fat slice of cake, his 71st birthday. Going to the front door to thank the folks from church who surrounded the house in song one evening. Hugging me close, saying he didn’t want to leave us. Tender times I will never forget.

This is a tender time for us all, no matter how we show up for it, and the intensity packs a punch. I won’t soon forget standing in a parking lot with tons of neighbors spaced more or less 6 feet apart, scanning the skies for a Blue Angel flyover tribute to essential workers (including my nurse spouse, who got to be there too). Hailing from a pacifist tradition, I didn’t expect tears to well up, but they did.

There are many things I will remember as touchstones in the coming months, no matter what happens. And being here with my whole body/mind/spirit is the only way to navigate the uncertainty.

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Rooted

Gratitude: Sharing garden plants with friends and neighbors feels so abundant, and brings Dad back to me. We dug up Virginia bluebells that had spread all through his and Mom’s yard since he’s not there to thin them. We took some to Kate, who gave us two different kinds of tomatoes and 3 different kinds of peppers, plus basil. A neighbor came by with cilantro starts and went home with shovelfuls of various overgrown perennials from our yard. I have my eye on some wild ginger and salad burnet spreading in my beds that I can pass to another gardening neighbor. And on it goes.

Tip of the Day: Try this practice from Martha Beck to bring you into your body and the moment: Notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Now experience them all at once. Guaranteed to take you out of your thinking mind and into your body.

Resource of the Day: Check out this article from time expert Laura Vanderkam about savoring time to stretch out the feel-good moments (and to make memories more vivid).

Season of Renewal

I’m sure I’m not alone in how much I live for signs of spring right now. We’ve had several freeze warnings this past week, prompting me to go out and snap some flower photos for posterity (though the flowers actually did make it through for the most part).

Serviceberry blooms last week (they’re browning now, right on time)

Even through the windiest, shittiest weather (snow? really?), I’m amazed that the blossoms on my little serviceberry still cling on. Well, until it’s their turn to fall.

I had in mind to write something about how the magnolia blooms turned brown and fell, and how the little tree next to it took up the mantle of holding beauty, but I don’t think that’s quite it. Though I do like the idea of taking turns—sometimes I’m shining, sometimes you are, sometimes we take a turn down in the dumps.

That doesn’t seem quite right though. Not the correct metaphorical use of a cycle that renews itself every year, fallen blossoms spreading seed, feeding soil. Just doing what they do.

I’m more thinking in terms of resurrection, redemption, rebirth. I started to noodle on this last Sunday, which was Easter in many traditions. Orthodox religions will mark the day tomorrow. Passover takes the theme of renewal as well. Whatever the faith tradition, this time of year fairly screams resurrection.

Vibrant.

Easter and Passover are not my holy days (though I have fond memories of pancake breakfasts and Easter dresses). But of course people began celebrating the season of renewal long before these traditions.

As a half-assed gardener and a sometime forager of spring greens, I feel more in tune with nature’s awakening than the religious rites that have been overlaid on those ancient rituals.

Quick funny aside: When my young cousin, raised on a green and vibrant Caribbean island, came to Indiana one winter on a visit, she couldn’t help but notice all the bare trees. She finally asked my dad: “Why don’t you cut all those dead trees down?”

Having never experienced that cycle of apparent death and rebirth, she had no concept of waiting for the greening.

The yearly miracle

Maybe it takes a bit of faith, or simple experience, to know that renewal is just beyond the horizon of darkness. To understand that what looks like a death might be, instead, a state of deep rest.

What’s more of a resurrection than the annual opening of a bulb left seemingly lifeless in the ground?

The thing about renewal: It only comes after a deep, dark place of quiet that can feel so deadly to a culture accustomed to going/doing/racing/running/grabbing/shouting.

Even while spring bursts forth all around us, many of us are curling inward to that space of quiet, being asked (or ordered) to stay in one place, curtail our social impulse, limit contact. In a time when our forebears gathered in celebration of surviving another winter, we can’t join hands and sing, or pass the glass between us.

My Virginia bluebells look delicate but they’re hardy.

Recently I’ve had a recurring dream of a street fair, neighbors pouring out onto their sidewalks laughing, talking, feeding each other. There’s music, light streaming from windows, kids on tricycles. A feeling of joyous conviviality.

I do feel that some sort of resurrection is on its way, and it could well be a massive reordering of all that we think we know. We have been so impoverished by a culture built on acquisition, greed, exploitation. Even those of us who live comfortably have a hard time finding peace in a world marked by massive injustice. And for the people and places that get squashed by such a system, there’s no question that the dominant societal narrative isn’t working.

The writing’s been on the wall for a while now: Business as usual is not a viable prospect.

How long will we need to gestate before the (re)birth? And what will emerge out of this inward-coiled time?

Gratitude: I’m grateful for the generosity of nature this time of year. For our salads I’m picking pea shoots from a bed sown last fall, baby lettuce I set in earlier this spring, plus accoutrements from my perennial chives, salad burnet and sorrel plants. Not to mention wild ingredients foraged from my yard and nearby: basswood leaves, trout lily leaves, violets, dandelions, chickweed, and redbud blooms. Everything but the olive oil-lemon dressing coming from within 100 feet or so of where I sit right now.

My “100-foot salads”

Tip of the Day: Uh, go outside, if you can. Spring is poppin’.

Resource of the Day: Local folks, check out this offer from local herbalist/forager Thea Newnum, who will accompany you into your yard for a social-distanced foraging lesson. She’ll help you know what to safely harvest from the undiscovered wild edibles growing there. You will never look at a weed the same way again.

Love Where You Live

I asked for a magnifying glass in my Christmas stocking this year. I’d just read Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s excellent book Crow Planet, in which she advocates becoming a “citizen naturalist.” I aspire to that: to take the time to look closely at nature, right here in the urban habitat. (She takes up a similar theme in The Urban Bestiary, which I enjoyed just as much.)

I wish I’d had the magnifying glass with me the other day when I was walking my dog and spotted the first yellow crocuses popping up. I could have fallen on my knees in front of them. I love the beauty of winter, but after days on end of white/gray/black/brown, that splooch of color just about knocks me out.

Photo by Vincent de Groot, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Vincent de Groot, via Wikimedia Commons

Wendell Berry has written of the importance of “backing out of the future into the present, where we are alive, where we belong.” As we make this shift, he says, we also move our focus from an abstraction called “the environment” into the places where we actually live.

This makes sense. When I co-founded the Irvington Green Initiative some years back, we settled on the tagline “Love Where You Live.”

The notion was echoed by my friend Maggie Goeglein Hanna, executive director of Fall Creek Gardens Urban Growers Resource Center. In a recent conversation, she said:

“I feel like you can’t really expect people to care about the natural world if they have no investment in their own place … In my mind, environmental solutions aren’t going to come if we’re only concerned about the pandas in China or the rainforest in the Amazon. Those are important things, but so is our own place, and it won’t ever get better if we all don’t take care of our own place.”

She went on to say that organic gardening in a community setting, as at Fall Creek Gardens, is a way of “opening up the conversation.” Finding earthworms in ground that used to be compacted dirt, watching a family of mockingbirds, planting seeds—all of these root us in the soil that nurtures us.

So with spring officially just hours away (wahoo!) (at least in the northern hemisphere), I’m doing more than planning this year’s garden. I’m renewing my commitment to enjoying the place where I live, and to observing the creatures and plants that share it with me.

What about you: What does it mean to love where you live?

Unfurling

Happy belated Earth Day. Today I’m in a bit of a spring swoon. I fall in love with the world this time of year. I find myself looking more closely than usual, feeling wonder and deep gratitude.

For lunch I had a salad of farmers market greens, augmented by a few trout lily leaves. Several large colonies appear every April across the street from our house for a short time before fading back into the earth.

We’d dug our Jerusalem artichokes last week, so I cleaned one up and cut it into crispy little rounds for my salad. While I was scrubbing the dirt off, it occurred to me that something about Jerusalem artichokes is just flat amazing. All that sweetness growing deep underground.

Jerusalem artichokes, aka sunchokes, from our garden

Jerusalem artichokes, aka sunchokes, from our garden

The tops of the plants are dead; we left the ‘chokes in the ground all winter. Yet here they are on my plate, ready to complement the sharp tang of mustard and dandelion and arugula.

I feel especially tender toward trees this spring. Probably because winter was longer and harsher than usual. Snow and ice buried us for several months. Many branches cracked under the burden; some trees split in half.

So it seems more miraculous than ever to see trees pushing new leaves and buds and blooms. Every day on my walks, there’s beauty surrounding me.  The tulip trees are especially dear, with these new baby leaves, furry like does’ ears, unfurling.

New tulip tree leaves, via Wikimedia Commons

New tulip tree leaves, via Wikimedia Commons

It just hit me, watching this happen—slowly, slowly, but still the growth is there—how really astounding it is that a tree can make leaves and blooms and seeds. Think of it: the tree, a hard wood thing, somehow pushes out softness and color.

I suppose I could review the science behind it: phloem and xylem, was it? In any case it’s miraculous. There are channels within that rough brown case—it’s alive!

Did I ever tell the story of my cousin who was raised in the Caribbean? When she came to visit Indiana relatives in the winter, she was appalled to see all the “dead trees” standing around. “Why don’t you cut all those dead trees down?” she asked my dad, to his great amusement.

Sometimes what seems to be dead is only in a state of deep rest. Waiting for the right time to stretch up and out, touch the sunlight again.

What is unfurling in your spring?