A Surprising Summer Sabbatical

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Dahlia readying to bloom.

This spring of 2016 has been a little strange—and it’s not just the weather.

In the cold days of February I did not venture to the beautiful new Capital Roots Grow Center to dig through bins of donated seeds.

In March, I did not plan out sections for chard, arugula, carrots, blue borage—or any novel plants, either.

I did not go to the April workday at my little plot; in fact, I did not even pencil the date into my calendar.

This spring, after six years, I am taking a sabbatical from Community Gardening.

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My first community garden plot, in 2010. You can spy arugula, chives, tomato plants, butter crisp lettuce–and a hose–amongst the horrendous weeds. I had a lot to learn.

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I call the time off gardening a sabbatical because, like a traditional academic sabbatical, this seventh season will concentrate on studied time outside of my usual setting. A pause enables me to focus on other things and will include a little required travel. Whenever I might return to community gardening, it will be with a refreshed perspective.

In particular, I am beginning a six-month Forest Therapy* certification in May. During the time I would have spent digging up my plot, fencing, planting and weeding, I’ll be reading about relationships between natural experiences and human health, learning our local ecosystems in more depth, taking a seven day intensive course, sitting under the forest canopy, and leading guided meditation walks.

Beforehand, I’ve started with a series of classes about wild edible plants. They are led by Dave Muska of Ondatra Adventures, and held up at Dyken Pond Environmental Education Center.

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For example, I now know that these trout lilies have edible leaves and bulbs, though proper plant identification and sustainable harvesting techniques are required before ingesting.

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This summer I also want to finish dozens of pieces of writing about the garden, and about my life. In addition, I am wrestling with three book manuscripts stuck at various stages (hence the increasingly intermittent posting here on the blog). Finally, I anticipate moving into the world of the day-job very soon.

The richness of the outdoor life not only grounds me, it can distract as well. There is always more to do, more to experience.

Strange as it sounds to say, in order to focus on the beauty and meaning of the natural world, I have to decrease the amount of input. Or at least choose which forms I can take in right now.

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On the hill, a much more organized and bountiful garden, 2014.                                                                          (Still more weedy than I would prefer.) 

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I have very mixed feelings about the sabbatical, like any choice to step away from a beloved activity.

Community gardening is part of how I have defined my summer life and myself, since I moved to upstate New York. It’s felt intrinsic to the new life I have created. My plan, therefore, is to pay attention and be open to how it feels to NOT work this garden.

I ask questions.

What emotions do I feel? Where do they come from?                                                                   What do I miss?
What do I NOT miss? (Aside from woodchucks.)
How do I get out in the dewy world of early morning sun, that feeds me so well?
How do I meet my body’s craving for hands and knees in soil?
What other repetitive jobs do I find meditative and soothing?

I sit with my thoughts, long and patiently. As I have learned to do with my writing–let them steep like tea, simmer like soup, rise like dough.

Then the meaning behind the meaning has a chance to show its shy self to me.

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One beautiful sweet pepper, ripened to red in its own good time.

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Some questions we can all ponder:

What feeds you?

Which are the “bare minimum” self-care activities that you know you need?
What do you want to leave —and just be done with already?

What do you desire to take a sabbatical from?
What would you concentrate on if you did?

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End of season plum tomatoes, ripening in the kitchen, 2015.

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*Forest Therapy is a research-based framework for supporting healing and wellness through immersion in forests and other natural environments. In Japan it is called “shinrin yoku,” which translates to “forest bathing.”  I will be leading some meditation walks, required for my training, in the summer and fall so if anyone is interested,  information will be available on my business blog. More information about Forest Therapy is at shinrin-yoku.org

The Summer Affair

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Purple bean blossom, with mature bean behind.

I had wanted more beauty in my life. Isn’t that often the way affairs go?

More specifically, I yearned for beautiful flowers in my garden. I craved a break from what sometimes felt like workaday vegetables and their attendant chores. I enjoyed the healthy produce but after four summers of effort, desired a relationship that was independent, required nothing past superficial attention, and gave me more than I gave it.

Later summer bounty.

Summer bounty, hard-earned: beans and carrots.

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Back in April, from the bin of donated seeds at the community gardens office, a hand drawn packet from the company Renee’s Garden shone out at me. I’d heard of something called borage oil, which sounded medicinal and icky—like cod liver oil—but I didn’t know anything about borage flowers. The front read “Kitchen Herbs,” pictured five-petaled blossoms and promised, “pollinators love the flowers of this fast growing plant.”

The back panel assured that in addition to bees and ants, children adored blue borage and further, the blooms could be frozen into ice cubes or sugared as cake decorations. Traditional herbalists gushed that borage was thought to “lift the spirits and inspire courage.” Visions appeared in my head of feathery green shoots and midnight blue petals that skipped up and down on the slightest breeze.

When the sprouts came up, I fell instantly in love, in spite of their appearance not matching my fantasy.

Early buds of blue borage.

Early buds of blue borage.

No leggy stalks and stems–instead furry, silvery, thick-trunked bushes emerged. From somewhat more delicate branches, clusters of stems drooped. The flowers sparkled at the tips. Like Jack’s magical beans, more and more plants germinated and grew tall, taller. They crowded out of their designated plot and into the peas, the tomatoes, the carrots, the peppers.

Beauteous blue borage in full bloom.

Beauteous blue borage in full bloom.

Borage bloomed a lighter and yet more intense blue than I had imagined. Many individuals budded pink-blue, then deepened into a pale ultramarine. Once in a while a flower stayed vivid cotton candy color through maturity.

Blue borage with just the tips still pink.

Blue borage with just the tips still pink.

My eyes could not get enough of them.

Makes my heart ache.

Borage in the morning–

Borage in the morning.

–makes my heart ache and sing.

***

The best time was early, when dew still hung like drops of cool moisture on warm lips; early was when the light came from all angles. Before dawn, I would roll out of bed, slap a baseball cap on my flattened dirty hair and hurry on garbage-strewn sidewalks to unlock the garden gate.

Early sun on borage.

Early sun on borage.

Blue borage accepted me as I was. It patiently waited as I stumbled in, half awake. My own tendency to be thick-stalked and overly prolific was not important. I, in turn, accepted its prickles, which never worked under my skin like the hairs on cucumber vines.

Morning after morning, I slow danced with blue borage, marveled the way a new lover does, at its beauty in the light, its shy loveliness in shade. The color softened through petal edges, like a misty photograph. I melted at the sight of these sweet little flowers, stars happily star-gazing, in the dazzle of dawn.

Bee flirting with borage.

Flirting with borage.

The bees and the ants could visit, but these were my flowers.

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Over time I discovered that to harvest borage, I didn’t have to pinch hard on the open flat flowers. If I waited just a bit longer for full ripeness, the petals would pull slightly away from the fuzzy sepal, like a forward fold in yoga. Then the blossoms could be teased off with gentle pointed fingers into my cupped palm.

Ready for harvest.

Ready for harvest.

On the seed packet, the flavor of borage was advertised as mild, like cucumber. It was a change from the peppery orange nasturtiums from personal gardens past, or the vibrant but grassy-tasting pink and white orchids on restaurant plates.

To me they were strangely reminiscent of the Catholic communion wafers of childhood. Those dry, pale, wheat colored rounds from Sunday Mass had barely a flavor at all. Yet borage was herb-crunchy too, the petals, intensely white center and black stamens, and all that aching blue-pinkness.

Exotic and yet familiar. I smiled at their oddness.

I nibbled borage as I weeded and harvested vegetables, and collected tiny floral gifts for later. They were snuck into salads, with their unapologetic blue, and yes, into ice cubes for sexy summer sangria.

Striking and delicate blue borage flowers.

Striking and delicate blue borage flowers in salad.

***

Half-way through July, my beloved bushes were trounced by a woodchuck. The pushy rodent sneered at my floppy fence and leapt it with ease. He burrowed and jumped and thumped onto my blue borage plants, beating them up, breaking their juicy stalks, crunch! on the way to strip the tricolor beans of their own deep purple beauty.

Willful woodchuck damage.

Willful woodchuck damage.

But borage would not disappoint me.

A week later, I found shoots coming up from the stomped stalks. Bunches of fuzzy leaves, short perhaps but strong, determined—courageous even.

Like a steady love, the plant grew up from the ground once again. Its resilient arms reached out for me and soon bristled with color.

New growth, after disaster.

New growth, after disaster.

By early September, fewer and fewer flowers nodded on the stems, until I went out of town and was surprised not to think about the borage while I was gone—or even when I came home. I’ll need to put the garden to bed this week, and I know that now, since the first frost, what is there will not resemble my summer infatuation. I already feel a tinge of sadness.

Is this the way things always end? I ask, and then answer: Of course. Annual flowers are always destined to live but a few short months.

In addition, I realize it wasn’t just a meaningless or superficial affair; instead, it was one of many gifts given to me, when I have paid attention and let myself fall in love with the natural world.

Winter approaches and along with it, the inside loves of my life. I must return to the hardy, four-season relationships that have patiently awaited me while I tarried outside.

Perhaps blue borage and I will dance again some future June.

Darkness falls, but the sun will return next summer.

Darkness falls, but the sun will return, next summer.

***For anyone in the New York Capital District, please come over to my business website for information about my first nature photography show, at the Bethlehem Public Library in Delmar NY, running for the month of December 2015.

Kale-A-Palooza

End of season bachelor buttons

End of season bachelor buttons

This week, I signed up for my fifth growing season at the Community Gardens, while almost two feet of February snow drifted down to cover the ground.

But back in mid-November, there was that look of fall about the garden. A slight wind tripped brown leaves up the hill behind us; in the other plots, with corn stalks and fencing gone, minimal crops remained: brussels sprouts and fountains of purple, Russian, and curly kale.

In my own stripped plot, where we had gone to put the plants to bed, where we expected only the dead ends of things?

Surprise! Lacinato kale. Lots of it.

Not huge forests of kale, like that which flourished for my more accomplished gardening-neighbors, palm fronds off tall woody stems. But mine was beauteous, dark green and standing proud, though short in stature. A miniature field of somewhat miniature lacinato kale.

Broccoli, presumed spent, had also revived while I wasn’t looking, and grown several small wonderful heads. In addition, the chard had sprung up again. Like those weeds we had anticipated.

Beautiful broccoli.

Bounteous broccoli.

The garden mate was a little grumpy and tired in the November cold, but my joy over un-anticipated produce, in addition to the afternoon sunshine, soon made him grin.

We tugged up the ugly but functional orange fencing, along with the dirt that matted it down. Splattering soil across our faces made the work curse-worthy, and we did: splatter and then curse. Again and again. We yanked out the wilted but sturdy stalks of cosmos and bachelor buttons, noted that some purple alyssum still colored the ground, and used the picnic table to lay out fencing and roll up, roll up, roll up.

The sun went behind clouds just as the last bundle of fencing went into the shed; we gathered the reusable plant markers and piled up the rocks and bricks that had pinned black weed-suppressing fabric between the rows.

I had grand plans for follow-up soil amendment, garlic planting, and weed abatement. They didn’t happen. The sun stayed behind the clouds and within a few days, it dropped well below freezing.

At the end of my fourth year, I’d gotten good at fencing and set up, more-regular weeding and harvesting—but the end of season jobs? Like the rest of my life—still working on it.

Late afternoon sun on lacinato kale.

Late afternoon sun on a floral arrangement of  lacinato kale.

The overflowing harvest basket sat in my dining room for a few days before I bundled the huge haul into the fridge. Bunches and bunches of kale and chard were washed then stir fried lightly or blanched, and packed into freezer bags. The first one came out at Thanksgiving when my daughter and I mixed some chard and kale to make her favorite “spinach” au gratin.

Thanksgiving with kale au gratin in the background.

Thanksgiving’s gravy-splashed corn bread with kale au gratin in the background.

After her too-short visit, a piece of bad news slammed into my life and sank me in a pool of old grief, where I sat like a drowned stone. None of the activities that had appealed just hours before seemed worthwhile. Soft sleepiness from holiday exhaustion along with that day’s prospect of a lovely nap all dribbled away.

What To Do. Or Not Do. Radio? TV? No distractions promised help.

I chose instead to consider the frozen leftovers from Thanksgiving. I pulled out broth, simmered carefully from the carcass of the very expensive, very local, very delicious turkey (roasted with an onion inside and basted every thirty minutes for five hours), a good portion of which had been devoured with that yummy kale au gratin, and also cranberry orange relish, sour cream mashed potatoes and veggie-studded cornbread stuffing.

To the broth I added some trimmed cauliflower previously destined for curry. Then little nubs of carrots from my garden, also trimmed carefully.

Turkey, kale, carrot, cauliflower soup.

Turkey, kale, carrot, celery, cauliflower soup, after it was packed up for the fridge.

As the soup began to bubble gently, so did the thoughts:
You grew this. You harvested and washed it. You made this.

….You can make things again!

Next I added an onion, and diced the package of celery left over when multiple people provided it for the Thanksgiving stuffing.

Finally, lacinato kale, again, that unexpected end of season harvest, when I thought it was all gone and there was a trash bag full, handful after handful harvested just before a hard, hard freeze.

Turkey, kale, onion, garlic soup.

Even later–January’s turkey, kale, onion, garlic soup, whisked with steamed winter squash, and a few white beans thrown in.

You grew this; you cared for it, just like your life.

You can come back again, regardless of setbacks. You have the ingredients.

Your life is rich, with not only your own garden’s production, but other people’s plenty. Look in your cabinets and freezer: basil and apples and sage and parsley, peaches and rhubarb and collard greens, all gifted to you.

There is enough. More than enough.

Along with some surprises.

Remember that.

***

SPINACH AU GRATIN, adapted from Makeover Spinach Gratin at Skinnytaste.com

Preheat the oven to 425°. Sauté until translucent 1 cup finely chopped onion, in 2-3 TB butter, light butter or margarine. Mix in 1/4 cup flour and 1/4 tsp fresh grated nutmeg and cook for 2 minutes, stirring. Add 3 cups milk and cook until thickened, 5 to 7 minutes.

Defrost three pounds of frozen chopped spinach–or a mix of spinach, chard, kale or other chopped mild greens. More is possible, too! Squeeze out as much moisture as possible (you can save for cooking soup later if you want) and mix it into the onion roux.  Then stir in 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, salt, and freshly ground pepper to taste. Put in large baking pan and top with  1/4 cup Parmesan cheese and 1/2 cup shredded Swiss Gruyere cheese.  Bake for 20 minutes until hot and bubbly. Serve hot. Makes a little over 6 1/2 cups–or more if you are generous with your greens!

The Ending of Tulips–and the Beginning

This is where I need to be right now, not perfect and remarked upon- instead of Oh my isn’t SHE marvelous!, but blown open, curled back, the wind on me, the rain on me, feeling it all and not being afraid of it.

This is where I need to be right now, not perfect and remarked upon–not hearing Oh my isn’t SHE marvelously whole!; instead: blown open, curled back, the wind and rain on me, feeling everything full-on, letting the fear go.

I never saw the tulips this year–not in their full form, anyway.

My monthly book club rotates houses, and traditionally in spring one particular member hosts whose home and spectacular gardens overlook the Hudson River. Masses of sunset colored, black, and pink-with-white tulips usually quiver in the water-side breezes along with flowering Japanese plum, bleeding heart, and rhododendrons.

After discussion of racism and The Warmth of Other Suns; after mimosas, white asparagus, quiche, and lemon cake, I wandered outside.

Rain splashed these purple rhododendron flowers to the gravel path. Upside down, they glow pretty on the ground.

Rain splashed these purple rhododendron flowers to the gravel path. Upside down, they glow pretty on the ground.

Though eyeful after eyeful of azaleas still sparkled in this Mother’s Day-morning rain, the tulips were finished.

Something unexpected revealed itself in the decaying blooms.

From shimmering swaths of bright colors, the tulips had individuated, dying back in distinctive ways: petals twisted here, leaves dropped there, a broken stem over yonder.

They were beautiful. They reminded me of–myself.

Exposed and fragile. Roots deeply set months before, underground, unobserved.

Dying in the present, shifting to new forms of being.

As no-longer-useful parts wither and fall, the hidden bulb is beginning to prepare for next season’s growth spurt.

discolored, browning areas showing inevitable desiccation, but even as they slump ground-ward, the petals flow twisted like a woman’s pashmina wrapping around her in a windstorm, sections resting in a different balance from the original.

Discolored, browning areas preview inevitable desiccation, but even as they slump ground-ward, the petals flow, twisted like a woman’s pashmina wrapping around her in a windstorm, petal sections balancing differently from the original cup-shape.

collapsing lopsided like a blimp or balloon, taking up more width, deflating and yet expanding, a large fabric sheet caught by the wind on one side, taking a bow. free to curl and twist now, as moisture escapes. is the color more or less intense?

Collapsing lopsided like a blimp or balloon, taking up more width, deflating and yet expanding. Free to curl and twirl now, as moisture escapes. Is the color more or less intense?

like a child hiding under a floppy hat, peek a boo with three anthers a-tumble

Like a child hiding under a floppy hat, peek a boo with three anthers a-tumble.

 the petals wilted into a swirling skirt, rolled frills made of the edges, the ANTHERS ON THEIR FILAMENTS resting on top of the skirt, if the bottom of the green  stalk-shaped style were a waist. Dance, movement, now rest.

The petals have wilted into a swirling skirt with rolled frilly edges. If the bottom of the green stalk-shaped style were a waist, the yellow anthers on their filaments are multiple arms in repose, between dances. Movement, now rest.

After five weeks recovering from and growing into the immensity of Part One, quietly studying and practice-teaching and building my skills, very soon I return for Yoga Teacher Training Part Two.

Exposed and fragile. Roots deeply set months before now, unobserved by most.

Dying in the present, shifting to new forms of being.

As no-longer-useful parts shrivel and fall away, my inner self begins to prepare for this next period of growth.

Yes.

the fully exposed center style with a yellow stigma topping it, with two perfectly formed black anthers hanging: the anthers resemble two useless paddle-hands, or two clown feet hanging.  Perfectly formed above the anthers, the pistil (the stigma and the style together) that now is bravely unprotected in the garden. /vulnerable/ uncovered/ exposed

The center style is topped by a pale yellow stigma, and two perfectly formed black anthers hang from withered filaments below. Vulnerable, and yet confidently humorous–if I may anthropomorphize a bit more–they resemble two paddle-hands, or clown feet hanging. What sly comment does this former-flower want to share about the next round of colored tulip-cups?

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

To Plan a Garden, And a Life

Finger Lakes vineyard, with Seneca Lake steaming on a 5 degree below zero morning.

Finger Lakes vineyard, with Seneca Lake steaming on a 5 degree below zero morning.

It flew in through my postal slot this week, a stiff green mailer I’ve received twice before: Continuing Gardener Sign-ups. It means that in February, I’ll toddle down to the public library, pay my small fee, re-read the rules, and confirm my plot.  Ok, so I knew the mailer was coming since I am a Garden Coordinator, but it’s satisfying to jot the date on the calendar anyway, marking the beginning of my fourth growing season with the Capital District Community Gardens.

We are in the midst of deep winter here in upstate New York; when it is absolutely necessary to wear gloves the minute you step out of doors or else risk wind-burned and skin-split fingers; when billowing road salt coats our cars and our street and our pants when we lean over those cars, even flies into our mouths if we are thoughtless enough to open them before tossing ourselves shivering back into our homes.

The standard picture of Gardener Dreaming About Spring is someone escaping that salty, snowy weather, cardigan-wrapped and hugged by an overstuffed recliner. The silhouetted figure, plush-slippered, pores over seed catalogs by a roaring fire, sipping hot chocolate or spiked cider as the wind screams outdoors.

I’m not exactly like that. Don’t own a recliner, fireplace, or seed catalogs, and slippers make my feet sweat. I clomp around the apartment in old socks and clogs and mostly I’ve used the seeds that are donated to the Community Gardens office or buy plants when the mood strikes me or they are on sale during the growing season.

However, this year I’ve been thinking hard about my planting choices. For example,  cherry tomatoes dominated my rows in the past–round red, little snips of yellow, some shaped like mini-butternut squash. I kept them because they volunteered from the first summer my garden was planted for me while I was recovering from surgery.

Now I think I want plum tomatoes instead.

The carrots were such a roaring success last summer, those tasty sweet morsels; if started early enough, multiple harvests would be possible.

I desire green beans, but don’t want to mess with the strings. Maybe I’ll grow lacinato kale along with my rainbow chard. And broccoli-one of my fellow gardeners shared broccoli with me, I could do that! I love broccoli. Perhaps I’ll plant the whole damn plot in flowers to cut for my dining table–then again, zucchini are not only traditional but useful.

I am practicing making choices, not just doing what I did before, not doing what is merely expected.

Last summer's zucchini shredded...

Last summer’s zucchini shredded…

...to make chocolate zucchini cake!

…to make chocolate zucchini cake!

Another envelope arrived this week, not through the mail slot but in my email queue (the way of so much these days), announcing my acceptance to a yoga teacher training program. Another spring planting to look forward to, drowse with by the metaphorical fire–though a more active drowsing, as my challenge now is not only to plan but to become physically stronger and more disciplined in my yoga, before I arrive mid-April. I also must battle my demons of self-doubt, in order for the A+ student to go back to school in a new and different way.

Like the garden, what do I plant?  What do I discard because it doesn’t work for me? How can I be publicly not-perfect, in a setting (learning) where I was so driven before? The plan: to be relaxed like I am about my garden plot: not the best and not neglectful, something in-between.

I’m going in as probably the worst student in Sanskrit names for poses, as well as a mediocre memorizer of everything else, with a life-battered body that hasn’t been doing yoga for very long. But my true subject matter will be one of the themes of Kripalu yoga: compassion. I will learn compassion toward myself.

When I am “not successful” at a particular physical or mental task, I will attempt to be successful at compassion for myself, and gentle even in discovering my lack of compassion. This I can do, and it is all I need to bring.

I vow to break out of my old gardener habits and make new ones, different ones, not sure what the harvest will be, but trusting it will be–something–something wonderful. Storms will come, and drought, and interruptions by the personal and political and societal–and the skills I’ve acquired in the garden will get me through what I’m calling “sleep-away camp” at Kripalu.

Here at the end of January I open the seed catalog of my life, once again dreaming the future into being.

Seneca Lake warmed by the sun, readying for the end of winter, and then spring!

Seneca Lake warmed by the sun, readying for the rest of winter, and then spring! Who knows what transformed things will come out of this ground?

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.