Holdfasts

Outside my kitchen window.

Outside my kitchen window.

It is September and the Boston Ivy has signaled autumn.

Stems went red in mid-August; now the big green dots of berries that popped out over the summer are deepening to blue. Shiny leaf umbrellas shade this transformation until breezes quiver the ivy and pull it away from the brick, revealing the ripe fruit.

Berries become obvious in the fall.

The part of the ivy that I ponder more deeply belongs to spring.

The building kitty-corner to my kitchen window.

The building kitty-corner to my kitchen window.

For five years—five springs—I have meditated on a brick partition perpendicular to my kitchen window, along with the wall around my window and the next building over.

In March they are all covered with what looks like dried up vines.

First sign of growth.

First sign of growth–see it?

In April, from those ramblers, brown-horned growths issue, then beginnings of leaves, cherry and lime colored. Under the new foliage, tendrils creep that extend the plant’s reach; at the ends of those tendrils are what I can only see as little alien pod-feet.

Leaves and...

Leaves and…what are those?

Squishy wet, secreting calcium carbonate as an adhesive, they venture forward to attach the ivy to the brick, suction cupping step by step to climb the buildings and cover them with more and more leaves.

These sticky pads are called holdfasts.

Onto the mortar--

Onto the mortar–holdfasts.

Eentsy-weentsy gummed cushions, the only support for pounds and pounds and pounds of greenery.

Holdfasts.

The wind whips the moist leaves, pulls at the vines, and the holdfasts? They hold.

Walls of ivy

Walls of ivy

Every year, Nature’s prompt: What are the holdfasts in my life?

What are the things that, once I’ve ventured forth, clasp me firm and fast to my true self, keep me from blowing away?

—That don’t seem that strong but really are.

—That form even as I merely think about moving.

—That prepare in advance for the eventual step, wherever it takes me, whichever surface and direction.

—That understand (whether I am willing to acknowledge it or not) there will always be a next step.

hold on!

Wrapped around the old vine, growing new vine.

Whatever those holdfasts are, I need to identify and guard them, because they keep me stable and safe, and are absolutely necessary for growth and expansion, no matter how insignificant or odd they look to the rest of the world.

**

A visitor to the ivy.

A visitor to the ivy.

As summer marches in, bigger leaves follow the small ones, which expand to cover increasing territory; then those green berries appear while I am out in the mountains and going lake swimming and kayaking; next a smell of fall blows before I think it is due–while the petioles blush and glow from the bottom of each leaf to its base–which is right now, here in September. When I start to need a jacket for bike rides, the leaves turn red and brown and yellow-white, like Neapolitan ice cream, sometimes all on the same leaf.

Fall ivy.

Fall ivy.

Finally groups of birds arrive, luckily often on days I am home to watch. They fly at the walls, flapping crazy wings, picking at the berries. Like a scene out of Hitchcock’s The Birds, they attack over and over again, determinedly seeking purple-blue morsels and knocking the already loosened French vanilla, strawberry and chocolate leaves down to the yard below. As that group moves on, some berries are left, to be picked off by the next day’s migrating flock.

The holdfasts darken but remain. Empty brick walls are looped once again only with vines, where small clumps of snow find a precarious perch in January and February. Then the light changes again and signals the slow reaching out of buds and tendrils—and fresh holdfasts to join the others.

Winter light on old vines.

Winter light on old vines.

 

To Be Human

Pollen frosted close up of roadside chicory flower.

Pollen sparkled stamens of common roadside chicory: delicate and tough together.

I’ve been off the grid for many months, in terms of writing posts, due to some health issues.

It’s been hard to let go of the happy disciplines I crafted over time in favor of other, uninvited ones: from days of writing and hiking and yoga studies and business building, to pain management, miserable medication interactions, diet changes, self-care regimens and (even though it was minor surgery) post surgical rehab.

Unable to sit on the floor and do my yoga in its usual way, I had to figure out what part of my practice “transfers.” Sometimes I couldn’t look ahead into the future, or even the next thirty minutes, so the asana practice simplified into breathing in the moment, then breathing into only-the-very-next moment.

Sometimes I felt like this frog at Partridge Run: barely head out of water, plagued by flies.

Sometimes I felt like this frog at Partridge Run: head barely out of water, plagued by swarms of flies that just wouldn’t leave.

Until I’m consumed by Being-Ill Time, I don’t recognize that my usual experience is Relatively-Healthy (even though I’ve done this being-ill thing before). Since February, I’ve stepped out of ordinary time–like the final months with my friend J. Because it went on for a while, illness became my ordinary time. I had to give up activities I was attached to, like honing essays for this blog.

I stayed with the disappointment, frustration, and unexpected physical weakness. I centered on curiosity, listening to what was actually going on in my body, instead of anticipating procedures with dread or remembering previous ones with trepidation.

I had to bring my self-care tools with me into Being-Ill Time, and develop some new ones. (More on that in later posts.)

Daisy--closed, preparing for bloom.

Daisy–closed, preparing for bloom.

As humans, we often have to respond to what happens that we don’t choose. To glory in the pain-free moments. To become comfortable in “waiting to see” and not making plans. Here I thought I was moving so much more slowly than in my old perfectionistic, A+ Student self. Now I have been taught to go even slower.

Of course initially my mind went crazy with thoughts: How long will this last? How bad will it get? Am I a wimp?—justifying myself to loads of imaginary detractors.

Then one day on the way to replenish my medical supplies, I ran into an acquaintance who asked about what I was up to.

I’ve been ill lately, but I teach writing and movement workshops—and I’ll be doing yoga with hiking at a local nature area this summer.

But what do you DO?

With my sister, I’m working on a book about meditation and the creative process. Progress continues on the memoir. I’ve been enjoying my nature photography as well.

But what do you DO?

Hearing these persistent questions, I could have become discouraged. No, I’m not working a typical nine-to-five job with a fancy title or perks. I’ve been sick, so certainly my business’s forward movement has been disrupted.

However, for the first time, instead of self-judging, I noticed how her thought patterns and expectations of how I measured my life were upsetting HER. The chosen flexibility and unconventional schedule of my life—which made her uncomfortable—were getting me through some tough times. My response? I didn’t take it personally. I merely wished her well and went on my way.

Daisy, full open in morning dew.

Daisy, full open in morning dew.

It reminds me of what I used to ask my adult literacy students: Not Where do you work? but rather How do you spend your days? The question delved into who they were as people, and acknowledged that personal value is not based on how much money we make or our job descriptions. Some of us raise children, make a community, rest in retirement, volunteer, enjoy our professions or, alternatively, do meaningless repetitive things in order to pay the bills.

The better questions: How do you feel about how you spend your days? What’s important to you? What have you learned about being a human?

I’ve spent my days lately paying attention to what’s happening in my very human (concurrently fragile and powerful) body, researching, breathing, undergoing, recovering. I am living in my moments, honing skills of survival that I also tuck away for when I might need them next.

Dragonfly at Partridge Run seen on a recent come-back hike: symbol of (among other things) renewal after hardship, transformation, adaptability, joy and lightness.

Dragonfly at Partridge Run seen on a recent come-back hike: symbol of (among other things) renewal after hardship, transformation, adaptability, joy and lightness.

 

To Be A Student Again: Falling into the Pond, Repeatedly

Monk's Pond, Kripalu Center. Two possible paths in learning, and life: I could worry about stepping perfectly from one broken-down, submerged plank to another, or choose to play, expecting to fall in, enjoying all parts of the exploration of balance.

Monk’s Pond, Kripalu Center. Two possible paths in learning, and life: I could worry about stepping perfectly from one broken-down, submerged plank to another, or choose to play, expecting to fall in, enjoying the exploration of balance. Especially taking in the part I’m most scared of initially: getting wet.

April’s training at Kripalu once more flung me deep into non-ordinary time, like the months of grief around my friend J’s death*; with much to say afterwards, and yet so much unprocessed and unwritten-about.  I’m stymied in the richness of my adventures, and exhausted again, still.

Information, information, poured in for twelve days. From the senses: exotic dishes on the buffet, hiking to jade-green ponds and a blue mountain lake, new faces to learn, voices, expressions, chanting, body movements and stretches and muscles micro-damaged then self-repairing;  loosening of muscles and expectations.

From the emotions: old frustrations hidden in the back and neck, released!, even-older habits of perfectionism popping up and rejected repeatedly.

From the intellect: how to memorize? how to rework language? philosophy to examine and reject or accept, examples to wonder at and incorporate.

We fifty-some students were fed and watered on a regular schedule:  yoga now, eat now, learn now, more yoga now, eat now, learn more, sleep now. Sometimes I opted to sleep instead of eat, as the fifteen hour days wore on.  We studied (or not), absorbed information, wept, breathed in new ways, chattered, practiced asanas, laughed, walked the labyrinth, mused, closed our eyes a lot, danced, practiced teaching, meditated, listened to each other’s life stories.

More to come about the food--but here are the staples of broccoli and kale. I ate kale at every meal some days. Yum.

More to come about the food–but here are the staples of broccoli and kale. I ate kale at every meal some days. Including breakfast. Yum.

I’m groggy coming out of school, as evidenced by my writing:  incomplete phrases dangle, run-on sentences jackrabbit ahead.  Regular life assaults me while I self-challenge not to leap recklessly into the old hurry-hurry. Yet requirements push impatiently through the door as I bring my luggage in:  lists, schedules, topics internal and external: what for dinner? hmm, those piles of unfinished projects, cleaning; oh, and here come other people, can I handle interaction?

Another fact reverberates in this bumpy integration: I return to Kripalu in June for a second round, and preparation is required in the form of teaching practice, absorbing a three inch binder full of materials, memorizing Yamas and Niyamas (Character Building Inquiries of Restraints and Observances), becoming familiar with even more poses (seventeen asanas down, twenty-six more to cover in June).

And most important for me: the internal dialog shift.  Teaching is not giving a performance, it’s having an experience. Breathe and meditate first. Breathe and don’t take yourself so seriously. What do I experience in the moment of teaching? How can I flow with self-awareness along with students’ needs to understand? What about timing the various sections of the class, and whoops! I need to use a new kind of language–not the language of anatomical teaching from my former days in massage therapy but rather directive, guiding phrases to move the participants to internal sensations and lack-of-self-judgment–yes, language cleaner yet more poetic.

Months ago, coming back from Kripalu, I didn’t realize how painful it could be to re-enter regular life.**  So this time I moved back into the world deliberately and slowly.

I let other people take care of me a bit with:

–A zen motorcycle ride to Saratoga Spa State Park; moving meditation different from the yogic variety, world going by but not attached to it:  smells of cut grass, newly manured fields, flowering crabapples and Japanese plum, all cascading inside the helmet, forced up my nostrils; the call to give as little input as possible to the bike’s movement, merely shift with the driver’s body to stay upright or angle to make turns.  Then crunching along gravel, smelling the sulfur-y carbonic acid water when we pulled up to the springs, hearing toddlers in shorts giggle along the paths to the spouters.

Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs, NY. Mineral rich waters bubble out and down the rocks.

Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs, NY. Mineral rich waters bubble out and down the rocks.

–An hour’s amble to Jumpin Jack’s hamburger shack on the first hot day of the season,  for a cheeseburger topped by coleslaw, finding a long but quick-moving line of post-baseball league families and tattooed Harley Davidson riders, everyone patient but happy-bouncy like little kids because of the warmth.  A measured amble afterwards to settle dinner on the way to Stewart’s for dark chocolate ice cream.

–Another day: the sun was golden at John Boyd Thacher Park where a bald eagle rode troughs of air over the escarpment, along with turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, ravens circling–and then three rare Blue Karner butterflies indigo’d the path in front of my hiking companions and I.

Rare scarlet trillium, imperfectly framed AND glowing deliciously.

Rare scarlet trillium at Thacher Park, imperfectly framed and yet glowing deliciously from the sun behind.

–Talks on the phone caught me up with family and colleagues as I put in window screens  to catch the cooler night air, then re-stocked the fridge.

Finally I could bring myself to clean out the email queue, a hundred messages at a time (a task not yet complete), unpack the suitcases and put down the new green yoga mat.

And to the garden: Planting has begun in the actual garden plot, in addition to my life plan.***  An entire row of three varieties of carrots!, stringless pole beans, lacinato kale, peas, radishes, and this year sweet pansy-faces smile on the row ends, with bachelor button and cosmos seeds strewn in. The little girl and boy who live in the house next to my community garden begged for seeds when they saw the activity; we tossed a packet of zinnias over the fence.

Dug and double-dug, compost and mulch added in, planted, marked and covered with sphagnum peat, watered. Growing underground where we can't see it. growth occurring that we can't see yet.

Dug and double-dug, compost and mulch added in, planted, marked, rows covered with peat moss, thoroughly watered.  Growth, that we can’t see yet, already occurring.

These May mornings I rise at 5:30 just like at school, loop mala meditation beads around my wrist to remember my sangha (study community) and chant along with the grainy video I took of my instructors singing the Student-Teacher Mantra. I listen to my own body’s needs on the yoga mat, and study how to teach others, giving myself hours a day to learn.

Of course I overextend in studying, and other parts of my returned-to life. Then I remember the Niyama I am practicing of Ishvar-Pranidhana: softening and opening to the play of the universe. I kindly, gently and compassionately, rein myself back in.

April's full moon, called the Awakening Moon in some traditions, certainly appropriate for this period of learning for me.

April’s full moon, called The Awakening Moon in some traditions, over the lake at Kripalu. Awakening, indeed.

*See posts Sep 14 & 28, Oct 8 & 19, 2012; found in the category “Death and Grief”

**See “Confidence that I Know Nothing: The Labyrinth” posted November 2, 2012

***See “To Plant a Garden–And a Life” posted February 1, 2013

The Value of Small Things

A droplet frozen as it traveled down the branch tip, bubbles of air and all.

Melting snow refrozen to droplet as it traveled down the branch tip–bubbles of air and all.

Exhausted in my illness, I half-dreamed–swirling textures, miniature scenes:  small things.

I woke at strange hours, blinking in the semi-dark, and dragged myself into consciousness. A few times I flipped on the computer and reviewed my personal visual library of the outdoors.

Photographically, it must be admitted, I often fail to capture The Big Scene. Views to the horizon should encompass not just a grand vista but also multiple items of interest–framing trees, layers of color, initially unnoticed figures–which the eye can move between while simultaneously absorbing the grandness. I usually hazard an attempt or two at digital reproduction, while shrugging at the results.

But when it comes to the diminutive, somehow the camera’s lens recreates what I see, and then some.  These photos lull me out of what otherwise would be a fast hike through the Big Scene of tree-tree-tree, sky and green, sky and brown, up the icy path, down the slippery path, tree-tree-tree.

Lichens galore at Dyken Pond; they loved the damp and cool of December there.

Lichens galore at Dyken Pond; they loved the damp and cool of December there.

Concentrating on the little buds or branches trains me to not just look at what is on the trail ahead–the overall effect–but also the detail that goes into the effect, or surprises hidden within the effect.

More shapes reminiscent of Dr. Seuss: a vehicle, a hairstyle, something from down in Who-ville?

More shapes reminiscent of Dr. Seuss: a vehicle, a hairstyle, something from down in Who-ville?

Flashes of my hiking partner’s cadmium red coat pop up on the computer screen–she and I openly acknowledge that pulling out a camera also acts as an excuse to catch our breath. Look at the little fern! Pant, pant. Oh no, I’m fine, just taking some photos. Wink, wink.

Sometimes I don’t realize I’m tired or in need of a snack of apple-and-cheese or Carrot-Nut Bread until I am enthralled by a leaf’s angle or juxtaposition of shapes in the lichens. Visions of the teensy help me to stop and take care of myself.

No wonder while I was sick I dreamed of the small.

Hints of pussywillows to come, Landis Arboretum, Esperance NY.

Hints of pussywillows to come, in the winter sun of Landis Arboretum, Esperance NY.

like a moth emerging under crystals, velvety/downy leaves like bat ears pressing snow between them, and more leaves unfurling, uncurling, not quite identifiable. Out of a hard stem, hardly able to see that it could create a delicate quivering leaflet

Velvety beech leaves like bat ears or a moth emerge under crystalline snow, Dyken Pond.

In yoga, we do adjustments called “micro-movements”, that make a pose our own, responding to the muscles’ and joints’ needs at the very moment we are holding the body in the defined way that creates the asana. We are in the pose and we are adjusting the pose, all at once–simultaneously ancient/universal and modern/mine.

As part of the adjustments, I am learning to giggle once in a while when I become too serious–How silly to think perfection is required or desired!; to note then let go of worry about the loudness of a knee pop, to feel relief at relaxing a jaw that, unbeknownst to me, became clenched. Micro-movements are responses to the small that call from inside the body, in order to properly choreograph the Big Scene, the vista of Warrior Two or Mountain Pose.

Perhaps my larger views will improve, eventually.

Early crocuses, Landis Arboretum.

Early crocuses, Landis Arboretum.

I saw my first crocus cups of gold this week, two days before the Spring Equinox and one day before a huge snowstorm.

Two seconds after the crocuses, snowdrops. Those squiggles of green, puffs of white, baby plants so clearly claiming their place in the world, popped up out of the snow and mud.

It’s the rhythm of the natural world that’s always there–the natural world that we separate ourselves from too easily, and the rhythm of growth and seasons working like breath; we forget they all continue twenty-four hours a day: in, out, in, out, winter, spring, summer, fall.

What did I take from my middle of the night studies? Exquisite tiny worlds can be seen, if I look. Micro-movements, the small responses in my body, teach me to own my yoga.  And I would do well to practice “micro-movements” in other parts of my life.

Back in the yoga room, the intake and exhale wash away distractions. Small expands to huge. Grains of snow outside the window glisten me into the Now.

Snowdrops, Landis Arboretum.

Snowdrops, Landis Arboretum.

Carrot-Nut Bread in the Woods: Yoga and Intention

The Long Path, John Boyd Thacher Park

The Long Path, John Boyd Thacher Park

When I first committed to creating a personal daily yoga practice, I quickly became frustrated.  I want to do the asanas and breathing, but it seems so overwhelming to go into the room and practice for an hour every single day–even though I know it feels good, I am very happy at the end, and I WANT to do it.  

“Life” kept getting in the way. My mind and body fought me.

Luckily a friend who’s been doing yoga many more years than I suggested:
Every day, just stand at the yoga room door and bow. If you are capable of additional effort, go in and do thirty seconds on the mat. Once in the space, if you feel drawn further, then follow that inclination.

It worked. Some days I bowed at the door, physically acknowledging the desire and the simultaneous inability or lack of time to do more than bow. Other days I went in and sat and breathed and moved, not paying attention to the clock, just following my body’s needs and desires. Now once in a while, I take the computer in and stream a class.

I am developing a practice, not a routine.

And I admit–I’ve still had a hard time overcoming that initial inertia; sometimes my disinclination to move wins the argument. Then I remind myself: you don’t need an argument, just set the expectation and do your best to fulfill it. Even if you just bow at the door.

Candles in the yoga room; snowy street outside.

Candles in the yoga room; snowy street outside.

So–I’ve been sick for several weeks with what is usually called “a nasty cold.” It has been especially disheartening since before I was felled by the virus, I’d just experienced a wonderful streak of physical strength building in anticipation of Yoga School–hikes and walks and weight lifting and yoga classes–which dribbled down to nothing as my sinuses did the opposite.

All the ongoing projects–writing of every kind along with the apartment clearing–lumbered to a stop, and are just now rumbling back to life.

Coughing hard while tucked under covers and unable to do anything physical, I comforted myself with memories of Carrot-Nut Bread in the Woods.

Snow storm on the Escarpment; Thacher Park.

Snow storm on the Escarpment; Thacher Park.

My hiking companion and I have been venturing to remote parts of well-known local nature areas; one week she brought sticky home-made baklava, which we ate in a snowstorm while peering over unguarded ledges of the Helderberg Escarpment. The next week I unpacked Carrot-Nut Bread (my absolute-favorite-quick-bread-on-the-planet) to munch along the sunny aqua-blazed Long Path.

To have such fancy food–What an indulgence! we giggled. We keep turning our human requirement for exercise into photo safari adventures and seasonal meditations, and now even our snacks have become more than just nutrition: they are flavorful, exotic even. And delightful!

Baklava in the snow.

Baklava in the snowy wilderness.

The first day I could stir from my sickbed, I turned on the lights in the apartment, in case I felt like washing the loaf pan from the Carrot-Nut Bread or organizing papers.

Pretty soon I switched the lights off, but did stand at the yoga room door for a moment.

Then I heated some chicken soup and, dizzy, sat on the futon for a while before heading back to bed.

I had to trust that this illness-induced inertia would pass, even if it was difficult to imagine; that there would be experiences again that felt like Carrot-Nut Bread in the Woods, Baklava in the Wilderness. That I would eventually speak without hacking uncontrollably, get back to the yoga mat and the kitchen.

All the empty time in bed gave me time to realize: I intend to do these activities, intend to do them thoughtfully and gloriously, and then they will became part of my Life, not just another thing to add, or schedule into a routine.

And so it happened. Vinyasa class and gentle machine workouts in a colleague’s gym became realities. Buttermilk Banana Bread with Currants as well as Home-Fried Hushpuppies ventured to the beaver lodge at Dyken Pond. I did more than just bow at the door, most days.

My yoga practice is blossoming, in spite of everything.

Actually, my practice is blossoming because of the setbacks. And continuing intentions, yes, to bow at the door every day.

Carrot-Nut Bread on the Long Path.

Carrot-Nut Bread on the Long Path.

Carrot Nut Bread from The Joy of Cooking

This recipe is nice because you don’t need butter; the hardest part is grating the carrots and grinding the nuts. I use a hand nut-chopper to grind the nuts. Produces a crunchy surface and moist interior.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and sift together:

1 1/2 cups flour (half white, half whole wheat). Sometimes I substitute 1/4 cup almond flour or mix in other tasty flours.
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon (I often put in a little more).

Add 3/4 cup sugar, 2 beaten eggs, 1/2 cup canola oil (or other vegetable oil), 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Blend in with a few swift strokes:
1 1/2 cups grated carrots and 1 1/2 cups ground walnuts or pecans.

Bake in a greased 5 X 9 loaf pan about 1 hour. Cool in pan 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack for further cooling.

I used mini loaf pans and baked about 30 minutes. Can also be baked as muffins. Exquisite with a little cream cheese spread on top.

Little creatures skip along the bumps on their created path, as we can do also.

Little creatures skip along and over bumps on their created path–as we can, also.

Structure: the Old Year, in Pictures

Bridge over the Mississippi, Minneapolis MN

Reflections that create balance. (Bridge over the Mississippi, Minneapolis MN)

Like monthly bills and seasonal equipment, 2012 will soon be put away.

Annually I take the week between Christmas and New Year’s and look back.  Not that I don’t regularly return to carefully saved artifacts and reflect on my journey at other times, but it’s an interesting practice to hold the twelve months in hand all at once.

Because I am still coming to the words–how can you encapsulate a year, a month, a day?and should you?–this week’s blog is almost purely visual: an admittedly incomplete retrospective of what has fed me, gifts given and received over the year.

The theme that emerged in my almost-random selection from the 6,000 digital photos? Structure.  Structure in general, and the structures I am building. Of what underlies my daily life, how to not split time into dreaded work and distracting play, but to find joy in all of it.

Once again, I wish I’d hatched a fully grown, spectacularly stunning concept that would bring surprising insight, followed by deep understanding–and aw heck, while I’m at it, world peace!–but laughing, I repeat the mantra: I accept being in-process in my thoughts and in my life.

Oh, and thank you, Gentle Readers, for joining me (however briefly or steadily) during the past six months.

The whimsical dancing turnip.

The whimsical turnip.

The whimsical turnip: its graceful arms reminded me of Shiva, whose cosmic Dance of Bliss simultaneously brings destruction and creation. How appropriate in studying days gone by, the wave pattern of the past, present, and future.  On the culinary side, it became part of a potato-turnip-leek au gratin dish for Christmas Day.

Watermelon radish in a salad of green leaf, cucumber, green and orange sweet pepper, carrots.

Watermelon radish in a salad of green leaf, cucumber, green and orange sweet pepper, carrots.

That shocking pink, what a surprise! Yes, I was ready to laugh at surprises, and open to new foods and sensations and thoughts and concepts.

Adirondack Park creek, near Jockeybush and Good Luck Lake

Adirondack Park creek, near Jockeybush and Good Luck Lake

Stillness in the water allows reflections. Same with my life.

Snowy tree early 2012

Snowy tree early 2012

Snow on tree. Just looking outside my window, I found meditation objects, beauty.

Votives, St. Patrick's Cathedral, NYC

Votives, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, NYC

I took them where I found them, those meditation objects and rituals, and adapted them to my own house: candles, incense, writing, yoga, walks, cooking, talking, time with friends and family.

Mohawk River: beauty in browns and blues.

Mohawk River: beauty in browns and blues.

Yeah, just some grasses along the Mohawk River, nothin’ special. But no–eminently special, subtle color and stillness again. Just look, that’s all. So I did.

A study in red, brown, and white

Food is fun! A study in red, brown, and white.

The daily is worth attending to, including the daily food.  Vegetarian chili with Community Garden tomatoes, those familiar basil-garlic cheese curds and black beans, followed by strawberries with chocolate sauce and slivered almonds.  (Yes, technically the tomatoes are more orange than red, but in other light they matched quite closely.)

Ice at Dyken Pond

Ice at Dyken Pond

Like a modern art painting of skyscrapers, just the beginning of the freezing process–I spend a lot of time “at the beginning,” but those moments are striking, too.

Mountain beyond Hildene (Battenkill Valley), Manchester VT

Mountain beyond Robert Todd Lincoln’s home Hildene, in the Battenkill Valley, Manchester VT

A classic wind battered evergreen with snow topped mountain behind. What does it evoke? Back to the idea of stillness. But more: active stillness, strength from within, a yoga thing. Responding to the wind, relaxing into holding the snow, moving with circumstances as they arrive.

Tomatoes and pears: early morning still life.

Tomatoes and pears: early morning still life.

My life is art, my food is art: more meditation objects.

Sunset over the Helderbergs

Sunset over the Helderbergs: note the teeny electric pole on the right,  which helps you realize the distance you are viewing

Beginnings and endings and the in-between.  A huge sky sweeps toward me, over me, I am immense and minuscule all at once. 

Pea sprouting in late spring

Pea sprouting in late spring

Back to the garden.

A pea plant breaks through hard ground, living into its defined structure, but how it grows, the rhythm and size and potential production, are all to come yet. How fragile it looks there, and yet it is so strong.

That’s me, that’s the new year. Delicate, to be nurtured, but hardy and riotously ecstatic and full of surprises. To be attended to every day, carefully but not with anxiety, just responding to changes as they come.

Along the Long Path at John Boyd Thacher Park: fall leaves color streams that are just above freezing.

Along the Long Path at John Boyd Thacher Park: fall leaves color streams that are just above freezing mark.

Detritus of the old is beautiful, and will feed the new life to come, after the quiet time, the enforced rest, of winter. Welcome, winter; Welcome, new year!

A wonder-ful 2013 to all.

Winter Solstice At Home, with Rice Noodles

Curried chicken, one of my childhood comfort foods, over rice noodles.

Curried chicken, one of my childhood comfort foods, over rice noodles.

I’m having a hard time settling in this week, as winter holidays come and go, approach and recede, as personal and national losses do the same.

So I go to the kitchen.

The hills and bare trees and apartment roofs that stretch to the east bear witness through the windows. I write as I do my little jobs–if I think of them as little, building like snowflakes into larger things, they are easier to begin.  I jot down thoughts, recipe ideas, insights that spring on me like the birds who dive past.  Sunrise glows dimly through the clouds.

Since the rest of the world feels sad and chaotic, I create order in my corner of it: there are the clean dishes dried and warmed by the gas stove pilot lights. Now to stack the mixing bowls by size and slip them into the cabinet, organize the post-Cookie Party baking pans, and ponder which ingredients are to be used up next out of the freezer and fridge. Here’s the softness of a purple dish towel, water splashing everywhere while I clean the last of the teacups, and that final step: wiping down the counters and sink, sweeping the floor. Now to the cooking.

**

Frozen chicken thighs started me off, and some of the Community Garden string beans I had managed to harvest and de-string and freeze before my last visit with J–and a rock-solid jar of cooking juices, added to each time I’d roasted or baked chicken since June. When defrosted, the glass was golden-full of olive oil, salt, floating bits of garlic, Pappadew sweet piquante pepper seasoning, and chicken fat.

The broth blended with milk and sautéed dried onion on the way to my mother’s Curried Chicken sauce. The original recipe appeared decades before curry was a household word in the U.S., in Redbook, or Good Housekeeping, or some other 1960s ladies’ magazine; I’m sure they promised an exotic meal, able to be put together in 30 minutes or less, conveniently utilizing leftover cooked poultry.  Originally the sauce was served over rice (red-boxed “Minute Rice” in Mom’s kitchen) mixed with dried parsley, always with a side of canned pineapple chunks.

But horrors!–the bag of brown basmati rice (standard in my interpretation of the dish) was empty, and so I hurriedly dug through the cabinets to find rice noodles, purchased for another, more modern curry dish–Thai coconut and Kaffir lime.  Since the comfort-food sauce was almost finished, I quickly boiled the noodles like a wheat-based spaghetti, and they turned out to be a wonderful substitution.

After eating, I walked into the rest of the apartment where chores awaited patiently: the end of year budget, memorabilia to be sorted, work research and networking to be initiated.  I brought in the sense of order from my clean kitchen and home-cooked meal, lit a candle, later burned some incense, and calmly did small parts of huge projects.

I drank tea, cried about tragedies, and thought about some joys as well.

Candle and tea, for the shadowed afternoon.

Candle and tea, for the shadowed afternoons.

Later in the week I wanted to use up the rest of the dried noodles, so I hot-soaked them and then stir-fried with a jarred Pad Thai sauce I’d bought for “some day when I wanted Thai but didn’t want to order out or cook from scratch.”  I managed to employ this sauce, the rice noodles, about ten frozen raw shrimp left from Thanksgiving appetizers, some eggs and broccoli and aging celery, even had salted peanuts hiding behind the dried pasta; only had to buy fresh cilantro and bean sprouts.

I trust that if I eat up all the food I have, there will be more.

Shrimp pad thai, with crushed peanuts and cilantro leaf.

Shrimp pad thai, with crushed peanuts and cilantro leaf. Oh, and broccoli and celery and bean sprouts. And a little egg.

This week, in the spirit of being empty, I even skipped a writing deadline, deliberately watching the clock tick down and observing my reactions. The piece I wanted to submit just wasn’t ready yet, so I didn’t force it.  I trust that it’s stewing inside me, and I’ll know it’s ready, if I keep close watch on the pot.

So instead of indulging the A+ student, I hiked for hours along the Niskayuna Bike Path, on the last sunny afternoon predicted for a while, then hunkered down for the blowzy day on Friday.

I trust there will be other opportunities in my writing life; that missing this one won’t be the end of me.

Almost-official-winter reflections in the Mohawk River, along Niskayuna Bike Path

Almost-official-winter reflections in the Mohawk River, along Niskayuna Bike Path

I conversed on the day of solstice with author E.P. Beaumont (http://epbeaumont.com).  E.P. describes late fall as “the end of things, the beginning of things, a gateway time, where the gates to the other world are wide open–and remember the other world includes The Past, as well.”  This is a time for processing, meditating, mulling. It reminds us of other darknesses that will inevitably come, and trains us to hold on to the memory of light and lightness, which will also inevitably return.

Though deeper cold chills the landscape and bits of snow flew outside this morning, winter solstice has come and gone and the days increase, even if imperceptibly for now.  I will continue consuming my culinary caches, making order, making messes, identifying my life’s work through my daily work. Lighting candles and cooking noodles.  Drinking tea. Trusting I carry my peace and emptiness with me, into the darkness, as I seek the growing light.

The list of cached freezer food grows shorter.

The list of cached freezer food grows shorter.

Mom’s Curried Chicken Recipe:  Saute 1 1/2 tsp curry powder and 1 TB instant minced onion in 3 TB of margarine. Remove from heat and add 3 TB flour, 3/4 tsp sugar, 3/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp ginger. Stir until thickened. Add 1 cup milk and 1 cup chicken broth. Put back on heat and bring to a boil. Simmer one minute, Remove from heat and stir in 1 cup cooked cut up chicken, 3/4 tsp lemon juice. Serve on top of rice mixed with parsley flakes.

I usually double all the ingredients, thoroughly mix in more flour than recommended so the sauce will be thicker, and whisk the roux incrementally with the liquids, before heating, to avoid lumps. This time I also added 32 oz of cooked Community Garden green beans along with the chicken. And more chicken than recommended. Of course.

Shrimp Pad Thai. I used a whole jar of Thai Kitchen Pad Thai sauce, and followed the instructions on the label for stir-frying 2 eggs first, then the shrimp, then the sliced veggies, mixing in bean sprouts at the end, topping with crushed peanuts and cilantro. I followed the directions on the rice noodles for hot soaking, then stir fried them with the sauce, again per the Thai Kitchen label. Nice and easy….

Mind-Out-Of-Time: Writing, and Teapots

My teapot from J, tucked behind an electric kettle, another teapot, and a locally crafted mug,  on my early morning countertop.

I miss talking to J about my writing life.

This afternoon I will concentrate on writing, I’d say.  I’m deliberately ‘concentrating on,’ not ‘working on’–no more of the furrowed brow that ‘work on’ entails.

She’d laugh.  I used to have that furrowed brow, too; hell, look at my wrinkly forehead.  J would talk about the struggle to get to her drawing, even with new chalks and paints around her, how daily chores and her own busy mind pulled her away from something she’d never had time for, yet couldn’t quite get to, even now.  She’d encourage me to keep going, and I’d tell her more.

When I give myself over to writing, or create space for it, then I can relax and play. It’s what I call Mind-Out-Of-Time, what I sometimes think heaven is or would be: you are so involved in something that clock hands move unnoticed, you look up and the afternoon light is bending across your desk and you gasp–how long have I been here?

Mind-Out-Of-Time comes also when I choose to immerse myself in how life looks and feels, tastes, sounds and smells. It comes when I give myself permission to be right where I am, at that very moment, open to pleasure even in the midst of pain.

So I think of J, steeping tea in her beautiful cobalt blue teapot, when I came to visit six months ago. Napkins in hand, she danced oxygen tubing between pieces of furniture as I carried the prepared cups and cookies to the front room. We laughed about how, on our last big trip, she’d pulled her portable oxygenator, nicknamed ‘Fred’ after her father, all over the up-and-down hills of downtown Vancouver.  Fred sure got a workout, didn’t he? Took care of me just like Dad did.  We discussed once again her wish to die at home.  She asked after my teapot, a twin of hers, which she gave me when I moved away. Every time I make tea in it I think of you, I told her.

Two weeks ago, her caregivers still made English Breakfast in her blue teapot; she rested in the home hospital bed, I held the mug, she sipped sweet lukewarm liquid with a straw.  During the moments she was awake, she rolled her eyes sardonically, joking with only a few words about the little yellow curlers in her hair that looked like baby corn; I teased her back about how she finally got us all to wait on her hand and foot, and more seriously, how much we loved doing it.  As she drifted into medicated rest, she murmured about death, it will be pleasant; it will be pleasant. See you on the other side.

After the memorial service last weekend, I wrapped up the cobalt blue teapot in crinkly paper, to deliver it safely to her chaplain, someone who’d shared tea with her every Wednesday for many years, someone whom I suspect also understood mind-out-of-time with her.  I took one of her mugs and packaged one for yet another friend.

This morning, kitchen lights reflect on the curve of my round teapot as rain drips down the apartment windows.  Cars splash black puddles up into the air outside.  J’s goldenrod colored, cartoon-cat covered mug, full of toffee-chocolate-hazelnut tea, sits beside my keyboard.

Guess what.  I’m still talking to J about my writing life.

Woodchucks (Actual and Otherwise), Part II: Woodchucks Otherwise

There are Woodchucks in my writing.

The phrase popped into my head in January, far from the days of warm dirt between my fingers. There are Woodchucks in my writing.

I had become discouraged by a work-in-progress, unhealthily attached to its “success,” and had returned to that old refrain–I’ll never have a piece that is good enough. Undermined by my own thoughts, tempted to give up, give in, to forces that seemed greater than myself–What the heck, my essays will never amount to much, so it would be best to give up now.

Dig-dig. Burrow-burrow.

I began to see how Woodchucks appear in many forms, and got excited about creating a guide–yes! a field guide! isn’t that clever?–Identification and Management of Woodchucks in the Writing.

And then one of those damnable Woodchucks swaggered up and bit me in the butt, before I even got to the garden gate. So let’s begin with that one.

Scratch-scratch. Tunnel-tunnel.

I scribbled down stories almost as soon as my oldest sister taught me to read, when I was four. She also wrote, lush adventure stories and even whole novels.   I studied her fiction—the form, the characters, the movement of the action. In my admiration, I believed I could never be as accomplished. As I aged, prolific and polished and Pulitzer-prize winning authors entered my consciousness, and my Inner Critic, a nasty Woodchuck, emerged–

–to the point where I believed that somebody else could probably pen this essay better, draw out the metaphor with more sophistication and grace; so at first the vision of this non-existent essay stopped me like the sight of my chomped down, messy garden in the midst of everyone else’s blossoms.

But I committed to the task, anyway. (Even though the moment I publish, I will have changes I want to make.)

Yes, we learn from studying how other authors work, but we also just have to write. Yes, we can analyze when other gardeners plant, how they organize their pieces of ground, but our plot is our plot, for us to grow our choices of vegetables, fruits and flowers. Flourish or fail—but not to compare to others’.

Toddle-toddle, shuffle-shuffle.

The big ol’ Papa-Bear of a Woodchuck, previously identified as  A+ Student Syndrome, shows up regularly.  The creatures will come, and they will eat part of the garden. Like the nasty self-deprecating voices in our heads, they can be addressed.  If you let Woodchucks keep you from planting or weeding, you will never get to where you want to be. Or you will have to adjust your expectations. The garden can never be perfect, and in fact is kind of attractive in its messiness, like being a human is imperfect, and a little messy.

During the summer, I called myself the worst garden coordinator, thinking I had to be the best. Why couldn’t I be just-ok, sometimes great, sometimes not?

Peck-peck, bite-bite.

It happened so fast!

The first time the cauliflowers were damaged I had tried to wish away the Woodchucks, but that’s like anticipating the sun to not rise tomorrow: Highly Unlikely. Instead, look at the evidence of sneaky invaders and name them: Yup, those little critters look like groundhogs to me!

What a difference a fence makes—the fence in your mind that says, Whoa! That’s an undermining message!, from the Supposed Expert or Mumsie & Dadsie, or those composition teachers or that nosy neighbor or The Permanent Record, of all our wrongs, mistakes, mis-steps, mis-understandings, pain we have caused others, pain we have caused ourselves—here’s the slippery slope to doing nothing, being stymied by the prospect of not doing so well.

Steel yourself against incursions, gather your resolve. I had these beautiful little cauliflower plants, carefully planned out. Something went wrong and I just wanted to give up, but I didn’t.  Try again.

Nibble-nibble, crunch-crunch.

Sometimes you avoid the feelings: you avoid what you might find (destroyed or not growing or scary) by shunning the garden, by shunning the writing.

Chew-chew. Snack-snack.

My favorite therapist says we are not “bad” at things; we’re just not always skillful. Helpful mantras: I am learning new skills. I have become more skillful. I have options.

With Woodchucks, we learn to face a difficulty and not “fix” it, but discover how to live with it, with patience, becoming more proficient every year.

Crunch-crunch, gulp-gulp.

Sometimes we need a partner in our work; a garden-mate, an encourager.  The garden-mate is about asking for help, knowing you don’t have to do it by yourself.

Enlist the help of others, to do these things. Trade knowledge. Even if the suggestions don’t work, you can commiserate.  The people who choose to be in the garden reinforce my choice to be there, and so it is a circle, a wheel of support, like my writers groups where we read each other’s work, or have writing bouts together, to get the work done.

Munch-munch. Chomp-chomp.

Scamper-scamper. Scurry-scurry.

Because I planted anyway, in spite of my worries/concerns/downheartedness, because I wrote when I didn’t think I had it in me; because I fought back against the Woodchucks of the Mind, eventually I succeeded.

Gulp-gulp, waddle-waddle.

My garden mate thinks woodchucks are cute, even in their destructiveness. I am not so sure about that. And yet, being able to step back and see them as not so large, not so vicious, yeah they are just those fuzzy things, that takes some of the sting and power away; they are just doing what they do, and I just need to do what I need to do. No need for panic or drama.

Gnaw-gnaw, Taste-taste.

Make no mistake, they will still be there, come next year. They will not somehow miraculously mislay the directions to our gardens.  The fencing will have to go up, we will have to be vigilant. The doubts, I have to be vigilant about those too. I tell myself: don’t be caught up in the hurry-hurry of getting it done; instead, relish the moments, second by second, breath by breath.

I write to slow down and look, to figure things out, to show others what I’ve seen so they might enjoy it as well.  I go to the garden not just to reap the squash and basil, but to step into the muddy soil, feel the weeds dripping onto my sandal-exposed toes while I tromp up to my plot, take in the cicadas’ buzz and smell the cilantro in the heat, hear a friendly voice in a fellow gardener, feel a part of a community and be reminded of what I bring to them that is valued.

Scramble-scramble. Clamber-clamber.

Often life intervenes; we make other choices so we don’t make it to the garden or the writing. But growth is still going on, even if we aren’t tending actively. Even the halfheartedly planted seeds.

Run-run! Dive-dive. Under the fence and out.

You rally. Every spring you rally. Every piece you write, you rally. Sometimes like a good gardening day, it flows, and other days you struggle to get there, wrestle to get the tools up the hill, get smacked by the damage you find, find bugs you weren’t expecting—but then those bugs (Old Yeller!) might be found helpful after all.

There’s a whole range of experiences to be delighted in, and we won’t have them if we let the specter of Woodchucks keep us from wandering up to that sun-filled garden.

Things to remember when you encounter real and other woodchucks:

Don’t compare your creation to others’.

Let go of perfectionism.

Anticipate invaders; identify them as the Woodchucks they are.

Don’t look away.

If you “fix” it once, it is not “fixed” forever. This is an ongoing struggle–but your worst attempts are getting better.

Structure and persistence are your friends.

Don’t let fear or doubts keep you from starting or following through on your work.

Live moment by moment, in beauty.

Community is valuable; you don’t have to go it alone.

Don’t take it so damned seriously!

Woodchucks (Actual and Otherwise), Part I: Woodchucks Actual

Our community garden sits on a hill, while another heavily wooded hill continues the rise behind us eastward, toward Vermont.  This picturesque setting quietly belies the insidious population (if not hundreds, at least dozens) of woodchucks. Also known as groundhogs, these waddling, middleweight rodents burrow masterfully. They joyfully excavate their little homes and then tenaciously tunnel their way right under any and all barriers to early spring vegetation. Which, while waiting for the wild plants to sprout, includes a delicious twenty-item salad bar conveniently located right in their own neighborhood, a snacking opportunity otherwise known as my community garden.

For three summers I have battled woodchucks. “Battle” is not the most accurate word, since I tend toward nonviolence—so I haven’t engaged in hand-to-claw combat, or even met them up close–but fear not, their presence is clear.

My plot adjoins the first groundhog-hole-under-the-fence that the locals dug my beginning year, when the voracious critters rapidly decimated my early-planted oak leaf and bibb lettuces.

Even as I joked with my fellow gardeners when we discovered the damage, I was heartbroken, and dispirited.  Emails flew back and forth about how difficult these invaders are:

“Woodchucks?—might as well give up now.”

“J only plants corn and tomatoes, ‘cuz groundhogs don’t like ‘em.”

“They WILL destroy your plants, and are impossible to get rid of.”

I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Would this Community Garden thing really be worth it?

At some point that initial summer the gardeners rallied and plugged the holes, making the woodchucks reroute their speedy access over and over again; some folks fenced their individual sections, though I didn’t get quite that far.  Finally, the groundhogs found enough tasty morsels outside of our chain link, and we breathed easier.

Last year, my second year, I planted spring greens and then had to go out of town; I returned to nibbled-away spinach and the weeds that replaced it—It’s too late, anything I do will be destroyed; these nuisances are too numerous to deal with… If I weed now, isn’t that just a big “Come munch me” sign to the woodchucks?  Finally, I volunteered to be the Garden Coordinator and now have the worst looking plot in the place!

I became very sporadic in my garden visits.

But one day I discovered that later seeds, half-heartedly tossed into the soil, had sprouted into sturdy, sprawling, bristle-legged plants, some with orange blossoms promising vegetables to come. The arugula I had allowed to overtake my lettuces seemed to have repulsed the woodchucks, as tender pale frisee revealed itself, barely alive under the weight of now-overly-spicy leaves.

That second year I harvested more salad than the first, and went on to reap more than enough cherry tomatoes to pop into salads and put up for the winter. My belief in Community Gardening was strengthened.

With memories of the previous summer’s bounty dancing in my head, this year I started in promptly on planting.

During the first official workday in April, while I coordinated Perimeter Litter Cleanup and Getting To Know Your Weed-Wacker sessions, my newly recruited garden-mate cleared weeds in our plot; then I joined him to add the peat and compost, form mounds, plant seeds in double rows, and even put in a row of little cauliflower seedlings, carefully selected from the store for healthy stalks and lack of yellow leaves and well-developed but not overgrown root systems.

I came back two days later and saw the plants chomped down to the ground, just one half-eaten cauliflower leaf to identify what had been there. Once again I felt discouragement in my gut as I surveyed the other, untouched-as-yet plots, and sighed.

So, you thought perhaps the woodchucks weren’t around yet this spring? Or that they’d become stupid over the winter? Well, wrong on both counts!

After a phone consultation and determined trip to the hardware store, my garden-partner and I returned to erect an orange plastic fence around our plot, digging slit trenches to bury the bottom edge underground. We sweated, we dug, and rather like Bill Murray in Caddyshack, we cursed the little buggers while giggling at our own nefarious devices.

We still worried they’d get in—one vision involved finding woodchucks on their backs crunching carrots like babies sucking bottles; instead on the next few visits, we found the protected plot lavish with young basil and parsley, nasturtiums and acorn squash, and even volunteer tomato plants sprouting up!

As May turned into June and then July, the whole garden community worked to block the outer fence holes, continuously looking for new holes and filling them. Emails chimed in, this time encouraging each other:

“S has extra fencing if anyone needs it.”

“We just have to wait them out, til the hillside plants give them enough to eat.”

“Stick your weeds into containers with some water and let them rot; then pour the decaying smelly stuff all along the fence-line.”(That one was fun.)

The survivor from that initial vegetable holocaust come back from its gnawed state to inch by inch grow some stunted leaves, and then larger ones, and it finally produced a single creamy-bumpy head of cauliflower–which I harvested this third week of August.

the “White Cloud” Cauliflower that pulled through…

Yes, it’s beautiful.

But I have received more out of interactions with woodchucks than just, well, the skills of dealing with insistently burrowing rodents.

More on that, next week.