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

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.