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offering kindness to our healing bodies

graffiti on a wall, surrounding a door. On one side of the door, a green-blue hummingbird hovers over a pink rose in full blossom. On the other side of the door, another, smaller, hummingbird hovers, head upright, wings outstretched. Good morning good morning. Outside the day is thickening into itself. Outside there is something to make yes of, and maybe. Outside the hummingbirds match the hummingbirds in the living room. We make flowers out of a glory hole. Yesterday you said, what is that bird? and I said, that’s crows doing cartwheels in the fog, and you said, write that down.

This morning, while waiting for the tea to steep, I go to do my sun salutations, and for the first time since I started this morning routine, my fingers went all the way to the floor. The loosening does happen. The tight places can relax, can come to trust relax. The tight places can lengthen you, allow you to lengthen. I thought about how I have valued a flexible body, wanted to be limber and loose, where others have valued strength and endurance.

I stretch, feel what wants to loosen in these muscles, feel what wants to relax. For the first week my back hollered at me each time I folded myself over at the waist, reaching hands toward the floor. At first my hands didn’t go much past my knees without my back complaining into tomorrow, without my back yelling no. So I just let my arms hang there, swinging a bit, feeling the pull in the muscles around my spine, where I have gone tight, where I hold things in.

The next day I do it again, and my fingers reach a little further down toward my feet. What’s the message in this? The patience, the waiting. It’s not a metaphor, it’s a body. But sure, it’s a metaphor, too.

Stretching a tight body is like building a new garden is like healing from violence. Patience, sustained practice, showing up, nurturing the soil the muscles the psyche, breathing deep into the anxiety, the place in you that says it’s never going to happen, we’re never going to see anything change, it’s always going to be this painful and this barren. Stretch again anyway, water again anyway, be easy with yourself again anyway.

The plot of land I’ve been gardening started out empty, a lot of it hard-packed clay and weeds. Yesterday I harvested cucumbers and zucchini and green beans (which in this case are purple) and one strawberry for a little boy who loves them.

There’s something about being limber, about being able to stretch backwards and feel where we were, about being able to stretch enough that we can ease into a different future. Maybe the stretch isn’t what’s the past, maybe it’s the tight that’s the past, holding muscles in, reminding us about fear and ache and pain. I try not to push my body too hard. If you pull too hard during a stretch and you are not warmed up, you can tear something, you can do damage. The body doesn’t need any more of that. She doesn’t need rough and hostile when she’s being asked to ease open, release. She needs tenderness, kindness, generosity. We’re so good at offering those things to other people. How often do we offer the to ourselves, to our own difficult and grieving and joy-laced bodies?

The stretching is about rhythm and routine. The sun salutation that I learned (from a book) is this: hands pressed together in front of chest, then press up, arms reach overhead, then lean into a backbend. Lean forward again, all the way over, hands to feet, to floor. Right foot back, lunge or whatever that’s called, then plank, then cobra, then downward dog, then left foot forward in lunge. Then back foot forward, hands on floor, again, then rise up, spine straightens, hands up and over the head and reach into another backbend, then hands part, arms swing down to the side. Bring hands together once more, pressed in front of chest. Thank you, morning. Good morning, sun.

This has been the fight for so long: How to keep going? How to trust that one more layer of healing will come soon, that the stuck parts will loosen, that you will continue to grow? What is the part of the universe you want to clean up, you want to help make better?

How to center, to take deep breaths, to ease into something you love, to be in the moment instead of in tomorrow or the day before yesterday. to promise to write, to love in the right now, to believe you deserve to be in that love, to trust the sun and the growth of plants. The garden reminds us about the long work of healing, and the fruits of our patience. Watch what grows, what doesn’t. Notice the places where nothing seems to be able to grow. What does that soil need, what nurturance, what promise, what nutrients? Then offer those things to the earth, to yourself. Trust the process, just for this minute.

What nurturance, what promise, what nutrients, what rhythms, what practices, what trust can you offer yourself this day? Write into that limbering, just let the words flow, practice releasing them exactly as they want to arrive onto the page. Thank you for your patience with yourself today, for being as easy with you as you are with others. Thank you, too for your words.

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uprooting and untangling the binds of rape culture

Squash seedlings, damp, spreading out in morning sunlight
Squash seedlings almost ready for transplant!

Good morning, good morning. What’s the sun doing where you are right now? How is it feeding your heart?

Even though it’s possible, here in California, to garden year-round, I still live with the rhythms I learned growing up in zone 5 out in the midwest, where one had to take a break in gardening overwinter because, you know, snow. But every late February, something about the quality of light changes, and I get called back out into the garden. We moved last fall, so I have a new garden to build here. I’ve put in some carrot and radish seeds, have peas and chard and onions and herbs and nasturtium and sweet pea growing, and I can just barely see the tips of gai lan seedlings. It’s hard not to want to do it all right now, to have the garden bursting with color and fruit and flower that we left behind in Oakland. I’m re-learning the slow work of cultivation.

I had to dig out some kind of tenacious weed yesterday — California burclover, I discovered — and, while I dug my fingers around a particularly obstinate stem, I got to thinking about the work of uprooting rape culture.

The burclover, right now, is lovely, tender, with clover-like leaves and small yellow flowers. You can just barely see the buds of the fruit next to those flowers; the green pods are covered with a fine fringe that, when they get brown and dry, will turn into spines that dig into any bare feet or paws that go walking through the lawn. I know from past experience how difficult it is to get rid of these plants once they’re established in a garden, so I started pulling them out of this new yard as soon as I realized they were what was matting the area around my garden bed. But they don’t come up easy — though each plant just has one white taproot (like a dandelion) holding it in place, aboveground it sends out suckers and vines that also put down little roots in the soil as they spread. If you can get the whole rosette in hand and twist up, often you can pull up the taproot, too, but the sucker branches twist into those of other plants, growing over and under, through and around. Untangling those as best as possible, trying to save other small plants caught in between, becomes the slowest part of the weeding process.

I spent more than an hour on this yesterday, and still only managed to clean out a couple of square feet, barely noticeable if you’re not paying close attention. The ground I’m working with is clay-y and hardening — often, instead of getting the taproot out, I just tore off the surface greenery, leaving the slick greenbrown stems. I got out tools, used the hand cultivator and trowel, spent several minutes on each one of these plants, trying to dig out the root.

It was good and patient work, centering, calming.

While I was at this, I thought, This is what the struggle against rape is like — this is what it takes to end or change a cultural mindset that says that some people (mostly men) should get to have sexual access to the bodies of the people (mostly women and children) whenever they want. This mindset has deep roots, is well-established, can look harmless at first, in certain lights or seasons or when young or early in relationships, say, and gets twisted into and through the rest of society, choking the life from other things — both wild and cultivated — that need air and light and room to grow.

A bucketful of burweed

I can’t pull out one plant and be done with it. I have to try and get them all. But I can’t do it all at one time, nor can I do it all alone, as burweed certainly has a presence in every neighbor’s garden and in the wildlands back behind the house. I have to be vigilant, return to the same spots that I worked over yesterday to pull up the plants that I missed or whose roots kept hold. And during the time that I live here, I won’t eradicate all the California burclover. But I’m also choosing not to lean on the easy solution of poison, which will damage the soil I’m trying to reclaim and make it less hospitable for other life, will kill other plants also deemed weeds by a certain type of gardener and the gardening industrial complex, but that I want to nurture and save.

So I keep going in with my bare hands, now, when the fruits are still young — before they dry into hard burrs that are intended to dig into feet and feathers and fur, get carried away to establish new colonies elsewhere — and root out what I can.

The work of change is like this — slow, persistent, requiring patience and tenacity and vigilance. And with as many people as there are tangled up in the binds of rape culture, uprooting it is going to take time, as we try and help untangle the thoughts and beliefs and behaviors and entitlements and shames from the other stuff inside that needs room to breathe but has been choked of light and air — kindness, creativity, vulnerability, humility, grief, tenderness. The work is slow. It may take our combined lifetimes.

But I’ll tell you that yesterday, when I took a break, I noticed how good my body and mind felt, being at this labor, how grateful I was to be outside, my hands embedded with dirt, back sore, the work begun—incomplete, sure, but begun.

milkweed seedlings

My mother taught me the rhythm out of weeding, which, inadvertently taught me the rhythm of change work. She cleared out her huge garden a little bit every day, pulled a few weeds, tended the loosed soil, planted something new – until eventually she had the messy gorgeous beauty that is her sprawling wildflower-herb-vegetable garden. It’s a rhythm, a daily practice, something that can sustain us as we engage in the work of uprooting ideas and mindsets (of say, patriarchy and white supremacy) that have overtaken much more than their fair share of the earth, digging out space for more beauty, more birds and butterflies and bees, more sustenance, more space where it safe to walk on a spring morning in your bare feet.

Is there something in your life that needs some room to grow, to breathe? What would you be cultivating right now, if you gave yourself permission? Take 10 minutes with a notebook, open to a new page, and just write whatever comes when you think about these questions. Try not to edit or think too much about it, and follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go. Be easy with you today, ok? And thank you for your good words.

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NaBloPoMo #2: Writing while sick

… well, not sick. Recovering. Mostly. Better, anyway, than I was last week. Still stuffed up, not breathing right, headachy and sore. The ick makes writing challenging — or, more accurately, makes writing wholly uninteresting. When the brain can’t get enough oxygen, I find it’s difficult to form coherent sentences while speaking, not to mention finding the right words when writing. So, yesterday I conserved my energy for November’s first Dive Deep meeting — the rest of the day I rested.

Just now, I’m listening to a sixth-grade boy talk with his tutor about subjects and predicates, adjectives and prepositions — discovering the parts of the sentences. Do you remember diagramming sentences? It was one of my favorite things. (As I’m writing this, there are different feeling-memories percolating up. I think that’s a lie — I think, actually, that I wasn’t a big fan of diagramming the parts of speech, because I was always so anxious about getting the answer wrong and having my teacher think less of me. Ah, revisionist history; it makes childhood look so rosy.) Still it’s fun to listen to this conversation about what words constitute which parts of speech — I find myself wanting to interject my thoughts about the joys of prepositional phrases, but no one asked for my input on this matter.

Today was a small day, a quiet day, a day with some anxiety and worry in it, a day with some help and new resources, and a day with some sun and some garden. I spent a bit of time moving around the new nasturtium plants that have erupted in the lucky garden out front and in the back yard; I planted some mint, salvia and aeonium from cuttings. Little by little, the garden grows, even in winter. When I was transplanting one of the nasturtium plants, I almost dug up a daffodil bulb, which is already putting out its winter green. California seasons are madness.

I have some ideas about what I want to do with the daily blog posts this month, but I’m noticing this trend toward an evening reflection, which I’ve never tried before (either offline or on).

This has been a day full of birds. This morning, still waking (late: well after 6:30), I leaned against the bathroom window and watched a loft of pigeons flying against the pink-and-blue morning sky; they seemed to swell and fade, like an inhalation and exhalation, as they circled above the neighbor’s house, now and again disappearing behind the purple leaves of the plum tree. I looked around for a hawk, like I always do when smaller city birds are gathered in a flock and circling, but didn’t see any predators, at least above the ground.

Then, this afternoon, the hummingbirds took over the baring branches of the apple tree in the back yard, letting loose with their sharp snap of a cry before lifting off and into the pale blue sky. At one point, working out on the back deck, I looked up from the computer and watched as, about eight feet above my head, a hummingbird caught a tiny bug for lunch before zooming away.

Tonight, as the light fell quickly from the sky, I watched what I thought was a hawk circling the top of a pine tree over on the next block. She screamed, then flew away, in my direction — as she got closer, she looked more like a small falcon. She passed over the house and disappeared, left me watching her companion at the top of the pine tree, who sat still for several moments, looked out over her shoulder, then lifted off, spread her wings wide, and flapped hard, headed to the Oakland hills.

Maybe there’s something to be said for looking to the skies, listening to the birds.

Here’s to your words. Keep going. Keep flying.

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the patient work of the garden

Consider the hands
that write this letter.

Left palm pressed flat against paper,
as we have done before, over my heart…

from “Consider the Hands that Write this Letter,” by Aracelis Girmay

This morning the city sounds are loud and vibrant: the kids alive over in the schoolyard, the traffic rumbling steady as a lobster boat heading back in from checking the traps, the birds a persistent undersong – still here, nature says. Still here. Still here. Still here.

This weekend I planted cucumbers and watermelon. I put in a splash of carrot seeds. This weekend the bush beans put up their first true leaves. The rain was steady and sure on Friday, and everything in the garden appreciated the feeding. When I run through this city neighborhood, I scan every wild garden — how did they get their nasturtium to grow so full and lush? Maybe I should plant some hens and chicks, bring a little succulence into the front garden patch that’s growing so steadily. I steal ideas freely as I trot by — foxglove, daisies, tall (Roman) chamomile, more salvia, more mint. I tuck them into the spaces between my breaths. I run steady, imagining how my garden could be as fresh and bright as these. When I get home, I do my most important stretch — savasana — out on the driveway while the puppy bangs around me, ball in her mouth, thinking that this is some kind of new game. I practice relaxing: practice releasing. I practice letting the earth pull me to her. I practice letting go of the tension that builds in the right side of my body. Breathe into the tightnesses, exhale release. Try to stay here for two minutes at least. So difficult to let the mind go, stop the spinning and anxieties, the drive to hurry up and get to the next thing. Breathe into the tighenesses, exhale release. An inside-out kind of massage.

Then, while I am still sweaty and cooling, the puppy and I go over to the garden. How is everything looking? There’s another flower on the zucchini plant! The cucumber and watermelon and tomato plants don’t seem to have been phased by the cold snap we got the other night, after the rains. I check the little makeshift greenhouses I’ve made for my dahlia and broccoli plants — something’s been munching them right down to the stems at night, so I took a couple of clear plastic containers, poked holes in the bottoms, and covered the plants right up. I think it’s mr. squirrel, who does not seem to be at all phased by the puppy’s presence or scent in the backyard. I check the groundcover plants I set in around the walking path in the — are they taking root, starting to spread? I smooth out the fat puppy footprints in the soil. Someone isn’t using the walking stones. I pull some purple oxalis from around the strawberries, and pick a few ripe berries before the snails take them over, then push a tendril of nasturtium vine up under one of the threads of twine I’ve strung along the post I’m training the bright orange flowers to grow around — later this season, I hope it’s grown enough to mingle with the grapevines at the top of the trellis. I see that the yarrow is coming back– the whatever-it-is that’s eating the dahlia and broccoli also took some of my newly planted yarrow plants down to the nubs. And some of last year’s wildflowers reseeded and are returning — is this calendula? And maybe one of the gerbers, too! The butterfly weed has put up sprouts, as has the echinacea. The puppy mostly seems to know not to walk where the plants are, at least in the (low) raised beds. Keep your fingers crossed that these tender little plants get established steady before she’s driven to chase a ball through all of our hard work.

This is my office work, my daily gossip, my tendings. The puppy drops down into a splotch of sun, stretches long and folds her front paws one over the other, falling asleep with the ball still in her mouth, ever hopeful. Bees rumble in the orange tree while I weed around the poppy and borage (trying in vain not to get covered with hives after touching the borage leaves). Inhale the tensenesses,  exhale release. Bring water and food where it’s needed, and leave most of it all well enough alone — pay attention to how life tends to life, and to how very much I don’t have any control over. Inhale, exhale. Grin at the mourning doves come to rest up at the top of the grape trellis, and let her song open up something new in my body.

 

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the gift of a quiet morning

I am outside on a back deck in Oakland, listening to the morning sounds: the suctiony bark of the crow, the meandering and variegated warble of the mockingbird, the the tidal rush of traffic from the highway a few blocks away, the barking dogs, the gas-powered lawn trimmers and leaf blowers — the kids are on spring break this week, so the schoolyard is quiet: no bells to announce when to pass to the next period, no shouts and screams, no corrugated rise and fall counting through sets of exercises. The sun is warm, the breeze cool, the construction finished on the road out front of the house, and I have a little green tea in a “women unlimited” mug, a slice of sourdough banana bread, and an hour before my first appointment. I stayed up late working on an editing project for WritersCorps, and so slept in, am only just getting to the writing now when the sun is  more than a quarter of the way through her day’s arc — I dreamed through all the good fertile dark time.

The first thing I did this morning was to walk through my little garden in my pajamas and my bare feet. What a deep pleasure this is, to have dirt on the toes while still wiping the remnants of dreams from my eyes. I watered a little bit, checked in on all the flowers, patched up a watermelon mound that the puppy had clomped through, and ensured that none of the bush bean seeds were trying to escape from their little hillocks. The puppy fled to the porch so as to avoid getting sprayed by the hose, and from there surveyed her dew-damp kingdom, ensuring that all was well. As I watered, I was draped with the scents of alyssum, blowsy rose, and nasturtium — the jasmine was quiet this morning. I pulled some snails off my nasturtium and strawberries: the snails and I are going to be enemies. Sometimes it’s good to have an enemy you can see, and lift up in one hand, and toss into the compost bin.

What a gift, to have a quiet morning, to let the body rise when it’s ready, to let the words come as they rise, to sit in the middle of this thing that is life and understand that I am not outside of anything — I am welcome.

There’s work to be done: editing and writing, more planting, phone calls and manuscript response. I listen to the deep inside parts of me that want sunshine and birdsong threaded through them. I check the tomato plants to see if they need watering yet. I read again about how to make liquid fertilizer from grass clippings. I sit with the feeling of exposure that rises after I have written and shared something honest after I have had deep and intimate communion with friends. There are bees in the orange blossoms, and I look for them in the apple tree, bright yellow against the blush of pink on white. Gossamer spider web threads reach from the porch out to branches, clothesline. The birds get quiet and I settle, too. This is my meditation. This is my knowing.

The heart doesn’t abide any answers. Yesterday I spent an hour looking through clover patches, searching for one clover with four leaves. I am ready, I think to the clover gods: you can send one to me. I’ve been thinking this at the clover gods for some months, with no response. While searching, the puppy got to play fetch (just a little, as her foot is still healing from a cut she got last week) and got to roll around in the park grass. No matter how much I want to find that good-luck charm, I am never disappointed for the looking — I never feel the time spent fingering through clover is wasted. That’s the only way to find a four-leaf clover, anyway: to look for one. To keep your eyes open, and to believe that they’re out there to find.

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Our lives are forever greater than that

above all
I’ve cosmically transmuted the atmospheric bone
the dementia enveloped by protest
by turquoise weight
& somnific solar inclusion
singing by eclipse torrent
by waves of flame erupting from mirrors & dreams of post-
extinction
– from “Song in Barbarous Fumarole of the Japanese Crested Ibis,” by Will Alexander

Then, there! We watched the thin edge disappear—
The obvious stole over us like awe,
That it was our own silhouette we saw,
Slow perhaps to us moon-gazing here
(Reaching for each other’s fingertips)
But sweeping like a wing across that stark
Alien surface at the speed of dark.
– from “Sublunary,” by A. E. Stallings

Last night my sweetheart woke up just long enough to see the earth’s shadow slip up onto the surface of the moon and take a bite, but we missed most of the libran lunar eclipse. This morning I sit in front of the low illumination of the computer screen, listening to the candleflame flickering in its glass containment, and imagine what magic was cast over our sleeping bodies when the whole of the earth passed between moon and sun. What new songs did the garden plants learn to sing from that shining halo of refracted light? What leftover glow will catch itself onto my fingers when I reach for those new leaves today?

Yesterday afternoon I weeded the garden just a little, and watered the new plants. I watched the honeybees in the orange tree, watched the black guard bee protect the blossoms — what an extraordinary task for such a small animal: make sure only the right bees get to this pollen. He flies around and around the tree, buzzing close to anyone who approaches, human or dog. He does not sit down for a coffee break. He does not rest. Later in the afternoon, on the phone with my sister — in which I live in the future and can look at a box in my hand and see both her and her new son in their home far away — a stellar’s jay drops into the middle raised bed; he perches on the wooden edging and pulls something up in his beak, shaking it hard. This is just where I’ve planted my little lettuces, and so I holler at him to leave the lettuce alone. He ignores me, because I am all the way up on the deck, and do not speak his language. He keeps shaking the thing in his beak a bit, then gets what he wanted, and flies over the fence into the neighbor’s yard. I suddenly picture him shaking a snail out of its shell, and the jay becomes my ally with his sharp raspy cry and his too-big feet. I want him to come back and get all the snails out of the garden, away from my lettuces. We will work together – me and the jay and the guardian bee and the eclipsed moon and the early morning songbirds.

I wonder how to make it clear that this writing is about survival, how this writing connects to the larger work of this blog: then I wonder if that’s necessary. This morning there is a new and quiet longing that’s lodged itself in my body, behind breastbone and breath. Its voice sounds like something more than the daily work of just making it, of pulling the ends together, of barely yanking the shamed body up into a sitting position before the night falls and we are left to do it all over again tomorrow. The voice of this new longing is for a place that is substantial and rooted, is for growth that doesn’t struggle to rise out of the desecrated ground of trauma. The point is that life is continuous and regenerative. The point is that bodies can recover. The point is that nothing is the same after we are harmed to the point of breaking open, but also that we can still open the blinds to look at the wonder of the simple movement of the sky’s body, that we can be more than the aftermath of one man’s madness. Our lives are forever greater than that.

 

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A life that has new languages in it

the swallowed grain
takes you through the dreams
of another night,
the deer meat becomes hands
strong enough to work.
– from “Inside,” by Linda Hogan

Outside the birds are already waking up, even though the sun isn’t up yet. My body is sore from a weekend working in the garden — we  got ourselves connected and grounded and rooted over these long, warm days.

Write in the notebook, take care of the dog, get the day’s bread ready, work in the garden, be with the child. How is this not the work we’re supposed to be doing? All the rest is about making money to pay rent. All the rest is about living under capitalism.

When I work in the garden, I think about writing. I dig in this Oakland dirt and listen to the neighborhood kids play. I listen to the neighbor’s radios, their laughter and shouts. I listen to the dogs at other houses barking and playing. I listen to the birds playing deep in the middle of the trees. I watch the neighborhood squirrel as she peeks up over the top of the fence, waggling body and tail, waiting to see if the puppy’s going to run after her. I listen for bees, to see if they’re coming back. I listen for hummingbirds and hawks. I churn up the soil with the pitchfork and then I kneel down into the garden beds and dig my hands into ever clod of turned dirt, shaking out the roots of weeds before I toss the weeds into the compost bin. I make a rhythm out of it: push forward, hands under the cover of a blanket of earth, finger into the netting of weeds, pull back, break up the soil, shake loose the root system, clear out the bed. Back and forth.

On the porch, my sweetheart rests her eyes while listening to the Giants game on the radio, and I remember my father ‘watching’ baseball while he stretched out on the couch, taking a nap. Everything comes around again.

I listen to Erykah Badu, Raphael Saadiq, India.Arie while I plant the first part of this year’s garden: red onions, lettuce, zucchini, bush beans, snap peas, tomatoes, basil, eggplant, jalapeno, yarrow, gerber daises, dahlia, delphinium, calendula, butterfly weed — one bed I seeded only with red clover, to help the soil (and for the lovely flowers); we’ll turn that over later in the season if we want to plant more. I put in creeping thyme and a couple of other groundcovers around the stone path in the yard. Still to get in are a couple more flowers, watermelon and blueberries — I need to go collect some pine leaf mould to fold into the planting mixture for that last. I read this weekend about making our own fertilizer teas from grass clippings or seaweed, and thought about how to use what we already have to tend what we are growing.

And then, too, I baked: two more sourdoughs, and I’ve got the starter back out of the fridge now and working on the counter so that I can try and get it going with more local wild yeasts. The sourdough bread I’m making is tasty — round boules with a good crust and tight crumb, perfect for sandwiches and french toast — but not sour, so I’m playing around more with it. I talk with a man at my church who spent eight years baking at Esalen; he tells me about volume, and about practice.

What do I want to say about all of this?  I feel so grateful to get to do different work with my hands. This weekend, that work looked like gardening and breadwork and holding a child and holding my love. My hands remember that they are capable of sacred work. Then, this typing can begin again to feel sacred, too — less like a chore and more like pleasure. There’s something I’m trying to figure out how to explain, how to articulate — what it feels like in me to give over to the rhythm of an intimate togetherness that includes children, even if those children aren’t “mine.” A life that has words in it but isn’t only words. A life that also has room for other rhythms, other ways of being that aren’t just thinking about what it means to survive.

Gardening doesn’t force me into my body — gardening allows my body to be a part of a larger body, allows me to engage with a larger rhythm. Baking with wild yeasts allows me to accommodate another form of life: I learn to read new signs and languages — what do big vs. small bubbles in the starter mean? What will happen if we let the bread rise very slowly in the refrigerator? How will the bread work if we add different grains? In all this, too, my body learns to speak an older language again — the language of play and hard physical labor. The language of curiosity and delight: look at those bugs here; hey, what are those pigeons doing over on the neighbor’s roof; wait, why are there earthworms over in that part of the yard but not on this side? The language of stained fingers and dry skin that comes of digging hands deep into dirt over and over again. The language of recuperation. The language of tenderness.

The garden, the sourdough starter — these are live things, not unlike pets. They require attention, tending, awareness. Like an animal, they speak to me in a language I have to learn to understand — we build a relationship with one another. They teach me about other ways of living. They ask for water or food, and in return, they bubble and swell with bright and quiet beauty. They remind me that I need to get dirty if I really want to be in the full body of this life. And, too, like the puppy does, they pull me out of my head, out of this ever-churning wash of recriminations and worries. Just stop, the garden says. Come down here and pull out some weeds. Think bigger than your small worries. Think longer. Think months away, or years, Think about what will come of this little action, one seed in soil, add water and sun. Think about the cumulative effects of one small step, little bits of effort in the direction of beauty and joy, every day. Think about the aftermath of positive labor. Think about how far you have been allowed to come away from the girl who lived inside a too-white, too-quiet house in the middle of this country, how clean and painted she was, how plastic and silent. Think about the language the dirt speaks. Think about the soil under your fingernails. Think about what it means to be in ongoing communion with all sorts of life.

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“as alive as any animal”

Yesterday, the poem asked: What do I do with my body if it’s not a secret? Today, the poem says:

This soup is alive as any animal,
and the yeast and cream and rye
will sing inside you after eating
for a long time.

– from “Bread Soup: An Old Icelandic Recipe” by Bill Holm

Today, I am anxious to get off the computer. I want to be in the garden. I want to read about sourdough starter, about cool vs. warm rises, I want to bring my second attempt at san francisco sourdough bread back up to temperature (it rose in the fridge overnight) so that I can put it in the oven and get breakfast going. I want to learn about soil textures and compositions, learn how to tell what nutrients the soil’s abundant in based on what weeds are growing there. I want to learn about soil amendments and natural fertilizers. I want to figure out the best way to grow watermelons here in Oakland so that a certain young man isn’t disappointed again this growing season. I want to go to the local organic nursery and pick out native plants and organic varietals that will thrive during this coming thirsty summer. Then I want to go to an urban recycling center to find a big bucket to catch shower water (while the water’s heating up, say) to help water the garden. And a bird feeder. And a top for the bird bath.

There’s a lot I want to do these days that doesn’t involve sitting in front of the computer — or even a notebook. The work I want right now is a different sort of bodily work. It’s whole body work. Kneading, digging, bending, planting, pulling work. It’s listening to longer rhythms than the immediate insistence of twitter of facebook will ever allow. It’s thinking ahead: ok, if I want this bread for dinner, tomorrow, then I have to start it now. Or : Ok, if I want to plant this weekend, then I better spend these weekday afternoons weeding and preparing the beds– and that means spending time outside working in the sun rather than hunched here over this little computer.

That is to say, the thinking these days looks less like, What do I need to do to grow my business?, and more like, What can I do today to grow a life?

This is a fairly significant shift in my thinking, needless to say.

There’s a book I love that I discovered while I was a Hedgebrook a couple of years ago — World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, by Christian McEwen. (Sneak a peek up there at Amazon, and then buy a copy directly from the publisher here.) I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately (I’d flip through it again, but my copy has walked away from the Writing Ourselves Whole library — that happens sometimes) — McEwen describes how necessary it is for creative folks to slow down, feel our rhythms, be all the way in our lives. Through personal anecdotes and examples from hundreds of creative folks, McEwen makes the case for a slower — rather than fast and multitasky — creative life: she describes the artist’s need to wander (literally and figuratively), to have space for silence and dreams, to do one thing at a time, to have space for deep connection with others and room in our lives for alone time Not everyone will resonate with her arguments. I myself bought a copy of her book as soon as I returned from Hedgebrook and dipped into its pages whenever I needed to counter the voices in my head (not to mention all those business-coach types out there on the interwebs) clamoring at me to do more and go faster and do it all now now now now now.

So I am listening to that part of me that wants to do other work: the building a life work. And what I notice–as I give my attention to the people I love and the garden and tend to a puppy’s hurt foot and dig up oxalis out of the raised beds and make lists of plants I absolutely must get into the ground this year (so many more than will fit in this small yard, mind you)–is that I don’t have to force myself to write when I sit down to the notebook or this little computer: the words begin to percolate around the edges. They are fermenting in the deep and bready parts of me. They are finding their own slow rise back to into my fingers. They come again to be as alive as all these other animal parts of me. I feed the words in this slowing down, even as it looks, on the surface, like I am turning away from them. This is a good kind of creative parenting. This is making a life I can live in.

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the garden and the breadbowl as teachers

Good morning, good morning. I’ve got the decaf with soymilk this morning and nothing can stop me — look out. The birds are making their insistent songs under and around the morning serenade of the garbage trucks. Thanks to the folks who collect the garbage, the folks who take away what we have decided can no longer be used. Thanks to those carry the scent of our waste on their clothes, on their skin. Thanks for doing that part of our dirty work.

…If I could not have made this garden beautiful
I wouldn’t understand your suffering,
nor care for each the same, inflamed way.
I would have to stay only like the bees,
beyond consciousness, beyond
self-reproach, fingers dug down hard
into stone, and growing nothing.
There is no end to ego,
with its museum of disappointments.
I want to take my neighbors into the garden
and show them: Here is consolation.
Here is your pity. Look how much seed it drops…
– from “Happiness,” by Paisley Rekdal

What are the things you do to come back into your body? What’s the work you do that brings you joy just in the very doing?

This morning I am sore, my back aches, my hands are rough and stained, and I am breathing more easily in my skin. I spent yesterday doing different work with my hands, and put my body out under the sun. I walked to the neighborhood natural foods store and bought the ingredients for detox teas and sprouts and bread, then came home and got my first batch of California sourdough bread rising. I’d got a starter going last week, and had refrigerated over the weekend — after bringing it back to room temperature, I pulled out a cup and used that for the dough. It took five hours for the first rise, but it rose! Beautiful. My last attempts at homemade sourdough (back in Maine) were so  pitiful that it has taken me ten years living here before I was willing to try again. (After the bread came out lovely, but not at all sour, I looked up some tips on the King Arthur flour website — they told me I ought to pitch that first cup of starter (give it away, use it to make something else), then feed the starter to get it working again, and use a cup of that starter for the bread. I’ll let you know what happens next time.)

When I wasn’t writing or working on an editing project or playing with bread dough, I was out in the garden, weeding. Not planting, not harvesting, but weeding. I cut back the pink ladies’ foliage so that other plants could breathe, and then I did some weeding in the raised beds, in the paths around the raised beds, around the newly-planted salvia and the just-beginning-to-spread mint shoots. (I know, I know, everyone warns me about the mint taking over, but in all the years I have been gardening, I’ve had sad and leggy mint plants that just sort of straggle around and look like they don’t really know what to do with themselves. I’d be beside myself to have a yard filled with mint.)  Weeding is one of my favorite things to do in the garden — so definitive and clear. This: out. The puppy follows me around with a ball in her mouth, monitoring my progress. I get to have the sun bake my shoulders and back, I get to listen to the bee song and the screams of the junior high kids from across the way, I get to smell the rich earth that reminds me what I’m made of.

Today I am supposed to be talking about writing groups as care for caregivers and partners of trauma survivors, and yet I am here in this place, caregiving myself. I am at a table covered with gardening books and making a list that already has 45+ plants on it that we want to get into the yard and garden this year (please note that this includes my sweetheart’s son’s requests for bacon flower and cocoa beans, however). Yesterday I took my hands off the keyboard and pushed them into dough, pushed them into the soil. My hands are stained with dirt that I can’t remove even after repeated scrubbings, my nails are torn and dirty: they look well-used and strong.

There is no use to tending this garden so diligently. We are in a rented place. Whatever money we put into the garden will ultimately go to waste, right? We’re developing someone else’s property. And yet, this weekend, we’ll go to to the neighborhood yard store and farmer’s market and find our new plantings. I’ll pull up the crabgrass and oxalis and bristly mallow and burweed and spotted spurge from around the stone path that someone else laid down in the lower part of the yard, and plant creeping thyme and corsican mint as groundcover there instead. I’ll plant hollyhock (for my mother and her mother) among someone else’s roses. I’ll plant daises and gerbers for my love. I’ll plant yarrow and echinacea and delphinium and calendula and globe amaranth for the butterflies and bees. And we’ll get the edibles in, too: watermelon (second try), onions, basil, tomato, cukes, bush beans, eggplants. Try it all again. When we move, none of this effort will be wasted. Every minute in the garden is a moment of phoenixing, of allowing something new to rise from fermentation and diligent, loving attention.

Yesterday I was writing about letting the new rhythm find me. Gardening and baking helps me to do this — they each have their own layers of rhythms, their own tides, their times of activity and their times of rest. They each will show you what they need if I learn to listen and pay close attention. So I am listening and paying close attention. I nurture the starter, I do a little weeding each day, I remember that what we tend to reveals what we love. What if we love ourselves enough to do what we love to do, even when that work seems (in the short term) to do no service to the greater social justice needs of the world? Tending the garden doesn’t change the world — though it does help my neighborhood, and it does bring beauty and goodness into the lives of those I love; kneading bread doesn’t undo rape culture — but it feeds a young man who is learning to navigate the complications of this world — and all of this work feeds this particular person who is finding a way toward some kind of new balance in this lifetime.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for doing the things you do that bring you joy, and that bring joy and beauty into the world.

 

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her garden is my best hope

Good morning, you gorgeousness out there. It’s all sun and cool breeze and spring open outside the window, almost warm enough to take the notebook out write directly into morning. My mother writes a couple of days ago to tell me that it snowed back home in Nebraska — in May. It’s just not right. I look out at my garden while we’re texting back and forth, I think of the lettuces, the spinach and broccoli and herbs that we’re already harvesting; I think of the tiny green tomato taking shape on the vine. I remember how devastating it used to be, when I was living in Maine, when the crocus were well blooming and the redbuds had taken firm hold on the maples and I’d begun to trust that finally, finally, spring had arrived — my bones could relax. And then, boom, more snow.

I don’t tell my mom that I spent her snow day out in the sun. She has only just begun to set out her garden — has the potatoes in, is turning over the wintered soil to prepare the space for her many tomato plants, the okra and eggplant, all the annual flowers. Her garden is my best hope. It’s from my mother’s gardening that I learned about the longevity of faith, about persistence of effort, about doing it anyway. She kept a garden all the way through until the very end of the time with her abusive second partner; through all his control and rabid mania, through his sobbing manipulations, through the spending that forced her to work more and more hours trying to reconcile the books and accounts that he refused to be responsible for, through the hostility and hatefulness that he forced her to refer to as love, through all the behind-closed-doors horror that she has never described to me,  she found time to hold on to her connection to the earth, to find solace in a thumb so green she could lift life from a toxic wasteland (which, it turned out, she would have to learn to do).

I don’t know how late into that marriage she kept her garden. I don’t know if her tomatoes were putting out fruit when he was arrested for incest and child sexual abuse, and she was arrested alongside him as an accessory after the fact. I don’t remember, just now, what time of year it was, and I’d been away from home for a few years: he may have driven her away from her garden, the way he’d driven her from cooking and baking and writing, the deep loam of her creative life.

I don’t know what it meant to her that he was not arrested or charged or held to any account for what he did to her.

What I know is that my mother gardens now. After many years rebuilding herself — sharing home with others, cocooning in an old Omaha red-brick apartment building, over a Czech restaurant — she offers her words into the world again, she bakes bread for every family gathering, and she has her own home with a garden she can shape any way she wishes. No one can tell her what to plant or not to plant, or where, or how. At any hour, during the spring and summer and fall, her neighbors find her there, in her sunhat and shorts, pulling weeds, tending to the herbs, talking to the skunk under the porch or the squirrels that want into her birdfeeder or the butterflies that find their way to her flowers — she has shaped her whole wide yard into garden.

And for all my disappointment and loss, for all that we struggle still to find a way to each other as honest and open mother and daughter in the aftermath of the betrayal that that man demanded of both of us, still when I go out into the gardens now I am following in her footsteps. I am listening her tell my much younger self how to set out the plants, how to water, how to tend. I am listening to her example: how she fingered the leaves, whispered to each new seedling, welcomed all the life that found its way into the soil she’d taken responsibility for. Later today, I’ll bake bread for a friend — and I will remember watching my young mother at the counter in a new house in the farmlands of Nebraska, how she put her whole body into her kneading and how, now that I am years older than she was then, and in spite of all that came between, I am still learning from her examples.

~~ ~~ ~~

I didn’t imagine I’d write about this when I set my timer for twenty minutes today. Do you have something surprising rising in you to write today? Give yourself fifteen minutes at least, take a coffee break and a notebook, head out to the breakroom or the back of your building, and drop into the words. Follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.

I’m grateful, today, for the way you make room for what’s complicated about what and who you love.  I’m grateful for your spaciousness, and I’m grateful for your words.