Baby (Snapping Turtle) Steps

 

Look at its determined eye. At John Boyd Thacher Park (North), 2016

This newborn snapping turtle, along with its siblings, had come out of the nest in the gravel not a minute before we walked up on it, on the yellow Perimeter path at Thacher North. Coated in wet clay from under ground, it scrambled quickly for the nearby pond. Though only an inch and a half long, this baby was already fully itself, and on its way.

That’s me.

Right now I feel messy, roiling in the gunky mud of fears and expectations about the unknown. Half-baked, incomplete. But I will trust it’s about perspective: I am a baby snapping turtle, destined for size and strength I cannot imagine from my sticky clay birthing place, called to a future of sun-warmed water.

***

For the last eleven months I have been working half time.

In May of last year, a week or two before I leapt in to that job, I finished my initial Forest Therapy Guide training. On duty at the local library, I learned to scan and shelve materials, while at home I concentrated on the six month certification process, and graduated in November.

Back then I was pretty worried about taking those twenty hours a week for paid work away from my well established practices, and then the addition of the Guide training. Was I crazy? For almost seven years, I had had a much freer schedule, during which I became a serious writer of memoir and nature essays and a serious photographer. I also worked as a personal chef, accompanied a friend who was dying, trained as a yoga teacher, and created workshops for writers and artists.

Yes, I was pretty worried eleven months ago, but those who know me well were right. It all turned out fine—and in fact, excellently. Not only in my job, but in figuring out balance, even if it wasn’t the fully realized balance I so desired. Questions popped up, and I answered them as they came.

How to write? Request a work schedule primarily noon to 8 pm and then do the vital observations and editing while most of the world sleeps, between 4:30 and 8 am.

How to continue and increase my nature connection? Walk alone before dawn. Make walks and photo sessions with my hiking partner a happy requirement. Walk with friends sometimes at dinner break (mid-afternoon), and observe the seasonal changes in my city.

How to manage the inevitable exhaustion? Alternate those days of dinner walks with dinner nap days! Cry as I needed to, which turned out to be a lot.

Nesting eagle pair, Peebles Island State Park, glimpsed on a sunset self-care walk with a good friend.

***

The past eleven months, I haven’t posted any blog essays.

But I remind myself I am closing in on completion of the final draft of my first book-length manuscript.* I have written poetry for two small collections and for myself. Two of my photographs were chosen for the Thacher Nature Art Show this March, even though unfortunately I was too sick to attend the opening, see the exhibition, or even publicize it. This summer, I plan to be offering forest therapy walks in at least one place. And finally, I kept my promise to myself and posted this essay today.

I’ve been persevering, with self-compassion. Yes, alternating with panic and frustration and fallow periods, but those freak-outs allow me to come back, repeatedly, to self-compassion.

April’s first Oxalis (shamrock flower) with its fuzzy stems, searching out sun at Thacher North.

***
Now, next week—tomorrow! I begin a full time job with the state of New York.

I am feeling those same anxieties as when I started my half-time job last June: about performance, self care, managing my tendency to perfectionism, creating a new balance with forty hours a week gone, plus a commute by car now.

This challenge has been taking up quite a bit of time and energy, as at first I delved into the test taking within Civil Service, then interviews and decision making—while I maintained that half-time job.

This is not a place I ever intended or planned to be, taking an office day job in my mid-50s. I’ve loved my decades of creating a personalized daily and weekly schedule with its many layers of paid and unpaid work. I loved to be a parent, then a homeschooling parent, to run a massage therapy business and before that a tutoring business, manage a household and house and rehab of said house, cook nutritious local food tailored to multiple dietary requirements. And as part of the fabric of my life, to organize and work for social justice and community.

But in those early years, I also left no space for myself as writer and naturalist—didn’t even know I WAS either one—or for myself as a physical being who needed much more regular exercise and connection with the outdoors, along with moving meditation.

I took care of many people but not enough of myself.

When I started my half-time job I was very afraid of returning to that place of self disregard. Again, I acknowledge than in almost eleven months, I’ve done pretty well.
I also had some unexpected surprises.

I fell in love with my community again, through people I met as they came for books, DVDs, and music. I fell in love with my historic and struggling town again, through those walks before dawn. At the library I got to glory in organization and creation of order, in the quiet and in the chaos of deliveries from other libraries. I experienced kind, patient, and interesting co-workers.

A wide variety of humanity walked through the heavy wooden doors of our building and gasped at the Tiffany window behind the circulation desk. They also fought with their children, suffered daily frustrations without some of the skills I’ve been lucky enough to develop, showed me patience and compassion, and thrilled with their first library cards.

I handled a lot of books but didn’t read many at first. Then I took out piles of them, like raiding the candy store. Now I’ve settled into 20 to 30 books out at a time, and gotten to enjoy popular items along with dusty volumes pulled from the stacks. After a couple years of illness and depletion and a very sad inability to read long-form writing, I can stick with a whole book and read it over time or in an afternoon.

I hope to still work some hours at the library, because of these gifts I have found.

Post-March blizzard, curls of heaped snow compete with the curlicues and angles of the library’s 1897 architecture.

***

Now I’m going into this full time day job. I was fretting, anxious, anticipating the worst, as I pursued the actual getting of the job. I was also able to observe, feel, analyze what spoke to me, what didn’t, and know I had a choice—not something I’d really felt before.

I hate that I’ve been so wrapped up in learning these balances I haven’t been able to do the essay writing, finish all books I’ve been writing, sort and enjoy my photos.

I try to listen to those around me, those who love me, who again say I will be fine. I return to leaving behind perfectionism and fear of Armageddon brought on by my own mistakes. The details of learning how to follow all my goals will be familiar AND unexpected. I will attempt not to anticipate all the problems or things I might dislike, and be open to the surprises.

In the muck to come, I will remember my turtle-ness and my snapping-ness. My completeness and my newness. I will remember that I’m just starting on this part of the journey, and that I am well on my way.

I will hike and take photos and guide walks. I will do yoga and meditation. I will do my personal writing and my creative writing. I will travel, close in and far away. I will cherish my friends and beloveds and attend to my own wisdom.

The pond awaits.

And the sky above….

*I am presently editing the first book of essays, poems, and photos that Carole Fults and I are co-authoring, gathered from years spent together at Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area, in Berne, NY. More news soon!

Doing this book editing, I realize—I have been through all this before. For example, my blog post entitled “January Thaw.” Guess what! I have been stuck in my writing when my attention just had to go elsewhere, my creative energies spread into a job search, a business build, a health crisis. I forget. Then I return to myself, and remember. Thanks to my readers, for waiting and for encouraging me in the remembering.

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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.

***

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.

***

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.) 

***

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.

***

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.

****

*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

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.