Grow, Grow, Grow Your Own

 

How On Earth To Be Prepared

At 5:30 this morning, I snuggled in my warm, comforter-piled bed waiting for the power to come back on. When I got up, thanks to my trusty thermos, filled last night, I had the luxury of a (fairly) hot cup of tea. Thanks to my handy-dandy floating inflatable solar powered lanterns, I was able to look through nursery catalogs while I sipped, cruising for plants I’d love to get to know better. In my modest garden, the only plant I’m concerned about is the (possibly/probably) hardy Frost Proof gardenia. It wasn’t planted until my new bed was built in late July so I’ve been covering it whenever night temperatures dip. Released from its snowy burden and cover cloth, the bouncy little shrub looks fresh and comfortable today despite the below-freezing night. It went into winter covered in buds and I’ve been worried that seasonal confusion could lead it to an early death but so far, those creamy buds are still tightly furled and the foliage looks just lovely. Whew, so far, anyway.

Later, I walked around the neighborhood, shaking snow off bushes and small trees before that dreaded ice layer could glom on too tightly to remove easily. My neighbor’s rhododendron was covered with a giant patchwork of quilts and blankets, now sagging under the snow. We hauled it off and shook it out but left the plant uncovered, since the rather wet snow might turn to drizzle as the temperature hovers around freezing. Wet jackets don’t protect plants well, especially if they freeze. They don’t protect people either, even this well-to-do bubble includes people who have no dry, warm safe place to go. Our Senior Center stayed open as a warming shelter last night, but nobody came. I personally know half a dozen people who are sleeping in their vehicles, and have met more who don’t even have that much of a home base. Where were they sleeping last night?

What’s Enough?

For a while, I was wondering if my daughter and I might be joining the warming center throng-that-wasn’t. This is our first winter in our renovated vintage mobile home and I’ve been very aware that, despite lots of fresh insulation under our new roof and underneath the house, the walls are basically plywood and aluminum cladding. As local weather reports veered and swooped, it was pretty clear that no matter which storm front hit first, it was going to be cold. With high winds predicted, power could go out at any time and stay out for quite a while. Power outages are far less frequent now, but when we first got to the island, power could and would go out randomly all through the year. Back then, everyone had a wood stove and kept a supply of water and canned goods on hand and we soon saw the practical wisdom of that.

Generally speaking, I tend to be over-prepared when possible, but I’m realizing that living in tight quarters makes that harder. There’s no room for a wood stove in our house, and precious little space to store food and other supplies. I’ve got big tubs of emergency stuff on our covered porch, but realistically, they only hold enough for two people for a few weeks at most. On the first Saturday in January, water started gushing out of the private road in the middle of our community. Not surprisingly, getting a plumber isn’t easy on weekends so we had to scramble to get the water turned off for a couple of days. As it turned out, almost nobody had stockpiled water. I used up my stash carrying gallons to each affected household, and you can bet I restocked right quick. But I’ve been thinking about that ever since; what happens if something bigger than a road leak happens? (Take your pick; tsunami, flood, earthquake, bomb dropped on the naval sub base…)

What Happens Happens

When I was a kid, I remember a schoolmate saying on the playground that his dad had a gun and if any of us tried to get into their bomb shelter, his dad would shoot us. I remember huddling under our little desks or being sent to walk home when we had a bomb drill and feeling utterly exposed. I know that our local Prepared team has taken human behavior into account and that our local stockpiles of food, water and supplies will be guarded in the event of an emergency. However, that water incident made me think: Am I truly the only householder out of fifty who has made some provision for disaster? I can’t imaging guarding my own rather random stockpiles, telling needy neighbors that they can’t share our food or water. I also can’t imagine affording or finding space for enough supplies for everyone; a single meal for 75 people could wipe out my entire stash. The hypothetical just got a little more real.

In this community, a handful of us grow some of our own food, and if everyone who could, did, that could make at least a little difference. I’ve been concerned about food security for decades and even in this tiny garden space, we’ve still got some potatoes, garlic, and lots of kale to harvest. An amazing number of local weeds and native plants are edible to some degree. Though some, like elderberries, need cooking and others taste better for it, many wild greens are packed with Vitamin C and other phytonutrients… When I returned to those nursery catalogs over a bowl of bean soup just now, I noticed that between breakfast and lunch, my choices had shifted from pretties to practical. Beans and potatoes are both good bets in terms of nutritional density, and both can be productive in small spaces. Raspberries and blueberries of course, along with my espaliered apple tree. More kale, always. And that gardenia? It stays, for gorgeous flowers that smell like joy. Because we also need beauty, whatever happens.

 

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Making A New Year

Rejoice in our differences

We Need To Talk. And Listen

I don’t know about you but I am ready for a new year and a new way to connect with others. A few weeks ago I watched the Fabulous Fungi film (don’t miss it if it’s showing anywhere near you). It’s crammed with fascinating information and ideas, so crammed that already I can’t remember everything that I found appealing, exciting, or even shocking. A few big themes have been replaying in my awareness, notably the mycological interconnectedness of all life on earth. Fungi are literally everywhere, in and on pretty much everything. What’s more, molecular phylogenetic analysis shows that fungi and animals are more closely related to each other than to plants. A healthy human body can harbor many fungal species as well as an abundance of bacteria, and after many years of considering all fungi as pathogens, it’s just now being recognized that these fungal relationships can be benign and even beneficial. The same is true in soils and in plants, and that’s why fungicides and anti-fungal medications can do harm as well as good.

Our dualistic, right-wrong, good-bad thinking leads us bumbling humans to try to solve problems of all kinds with simplistic solutions that, like fungicides, very often have unforeseen and unfortunate side effects. When we try to take a more wholistic look at a troubling situation, things immediately get more complicated, simultaneously more clear and more cloudy. That’s a big part of why we tend not to look at things wholistically (also because it exposes our ignorance, so uncomfortable!). I recently read an article looking at the ways that pressure to find solutions can adversely affect research. When instead researchers are free to play around, experiment, and just do various things to see what happens, less gets overlooked and serendipitous discoveries can be made.

Diversity is Wealth

I was thinking about that this afternoon as I spent a couple of wonderful hours at my local Senior Center, talking about race and racism. My community is wonderful in many ways, but it is definitely very white. We are thus rich in many things, but impoverished in terms of diversity. In nature, diversity is the key to ecological success and I think that’s true socially as well. A flourishing pollinator meadow will host plants that offer fodder, nectar and pollen to a wide range of critters, from bees, bugs and birds to butterflies and bats and beyond. A monoculture lawn supports nothing; even earthworms can be harmed or killed by lawn chemicals, and the same is true for much soil biota. Bringing such a dead zone to life isn’t hard, it just takes acceptance of plants that aren’t a specific kind of turf. Let a few daisies seed in, make room for creeping veronicas and dandelions and violets and before you know it, you have a tapestry lawn that supports a lot of life.

Overall, my island’s population is almost 90% white, though that’s starting to change; these days, our school students are only about 80% white. In another decade or so, that balance may shift further, but only if our community is truly welcoming. Not surprisingly, we islanders by and large consider ourselves to be welcoming. In daily ways, we often are, at least conceptually. However, most of the time, we aren’t required to be more than conceptually welcoming. When I approached the Board with the idea of exploring how we might better demonstrate welcome to a more diverse range of people, the response was surprise, a little shock, and even a little hurt; of COURSE we are welcoming! We’re nice people! Nobody would be hurtful here! All that is definitely true and yet our membership remains predominantly white. Oh, and straight.

Opening Doors

There is ample and genuine goodwill in our center and that’s a terrific place to start. However, sometimes we need to develop a new perspective in order to see past our assumptions. What we were exploring today is how we might open our doors a little wider by enquiring about what welcome might look like and feel like to people from different cultural backgrounds, people who speak English as a second language, people who are gender-nonconforming. How can we find out? Only by asking, and listening to the answers. Not everyone is comfortable to talk openly about differences, and more than a few people perfectly reasonably don’t consider it their duty to explain their experiences to white people. Hmmm. Recalling that this is a census year, we’re considering making a senior center census form which our 1,500 or so members could fill out all or in part or not at all.

Instead of a simple generic question about race (as if it were a single box to check), we’re thinking about inviting people to tell us their first language, spoken in the home they grew up in, and other languages they may speak with relatives and friends. We may add questions like: What is/are your family’s cultural background(s)? What holidays do you celebrate? Which pronouns do you prefer? What is your living situation? And of course, the big one: Would you be willing to offer an educational program about any of these things? Offering people a chance to tell their story builds community, connections, friendships. When we talk truthfully together and listen thoughtfully to each other, we are all enriched. The cross-pollination of ideas, traditions, and experiences bring new life to routine ways of thinking and outdated behavioral habits. When we make room for differences and genuinely accept diversity with pleasure and interest, our communities can flourish and so can we all. So let’s talk to each other. And let’s listen. Onward!

 

 

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Stretching Into Fullness

Rainbow of Diversity

Maturing As Humans

As the decade closes, a time of retrospection is inevitable; what have we learned about ourselves and our world? Where are we heading as a nation and in our own lives? Despite many backwards trends, one leap forward has my heart: As the mother of a transgender woman, I’m thrilled to follow each example of the growing acceptance of gender nonconformity, at home and abroad. It definitely helps that I live in Washington State, where tolerance and acceptance of diversity is a solid value (at least on the West side of the mountains). It’s also the only state so far to completely cover all the medical needs for transgender people who are on Apple Care (state version of Medicaid); a powerful statement indeed.

In my community, middle- and high school kids recently requested support for their parents, many of whom are struggling to accept their kiddos’ gender exploration. I’m working with a local youth-support nonprofit and Bainbridge Pride to put together programs for parents of all the kids, because everyone needs to learn what gender nonconformity is truly about. Parents of kids’ friends also need more and better information, as do parents who may feel very negative about having to rethink gender assumptions. I’ve been deeply moved to watch positions shift as understanding replaces ignorance. Hearing real people tell their stories opens hearts and minds, whether we’re listening to people on the LGBTQ rainbow or refugees from war zones or homeless people.

Take Heart

National acceptance of gender nonconformity is growing these days, and faster than anyone expected; in October, a Pew report found that 75% of Americans know someone who is gay, and in June, 62% of Americans said they are more in favor of protecting transgender rights than they were five years ago. Not surprisingly, younger adults lead us oldies in acceptance by a big margin, but even among the over-60s, acceptance is growing as more people discover that someone gender diverse in their family, at work, or in their circle of acquaintances. It’s heartening to learn that knowing someone “different”, even indirectly, makes acceptance more likely.

I’m keeping track of heartening experiences these days, writing them down to review when I start to slide into the pit. I’m also working on noticing my own reflexive judgmental thoughts and assumptions; if people who held negative ideas about gender bending can change their minds about people’s right to explore and express their truest self, maybe I have some mind changing to do as well (right?). It’s been hard for me not to feel scornful of “the haters” who push back fiercely against so many progressive ideas and actions. When I not just talk with but listen to people who feel deeply threatened by changes I find exhilarating, I discover the fear that underlies the anger. When I not just talk with but listen to people of color tell of their experiences right here in this lovely, progressive community, I learn about casual, unconscious racism as well as blatant, hateful racism. So much to learn, for all of us.

Expanding Our Emotional Range

One place many of us definitely need to stretch out is in our emotional life. I’m hearing so many people sadly confess to being numbed by the constant barrage of bad news. Empathy burnout is another common confession from well meaning people who just can’t bear the burden of knowledge that mass media smothers us with. The trouble is, numbing out isn’t living fully. Lately, I’ve found myself encouraging people to allow themselves to cry, both from an overflow of gratitude and from the sorrow of loss. Our culture does not accommodate deep feelings, and we are taught to feel especially ashamed of tears.

Just yesterday, an old friend, who was happily telling me about a gift that moved him deeply, turned away to hide his tears of gratitude, saying, “I feel so embarrassed.” The day before, a mom whose kiddo was distressed by the wrong name on her old Christmas stocking started crying when I handed her the stocking with the new name on it and started telling her of the many hands that contributed to the project. She wiped her eyes and turned away to hide the tears, and apologized for being “too emotional”. A few days before Christmas, a mom with five kids whose father died suddenly a month ago apologized for allowing a few tears to fall on the map we were studying. “I feel like I’m a bad person to be sad at Christmas,” she said, looking intently down at the paper. “I feel like I’m harming my children if I’m sad at this happy time.” Another friend commented on a moving post about acceptance, “Why is kindness and tolerance so touching? (tears). It should be commonplace”, then added, “Just figured it out; they are tears of grief.”

Please Do Cry

Each time, I found myself gently encouraging the weeping person to take pride in their tears, to claim their full range of human emotions and human experiences, to revel in our human vulnerability. I can do this with a whole heart because I’ve been in those shoes myself, many times; ashamed of my tears, embarrassed by my feelings, feeling belittled by my inability to control myself. Control! The culture of emotional repression is sadly common, hiding our tender heartedness with a blanket of shame. Perhaps we weep tears of grief when we learn about an act of compassion because such acts don’t seem to be commonplace these days. Perhaps like me my friend longs to live in a kinder world where compassion isn’t rare.

Perhaps like me the bereaved mother is trying desperately to cram her natural feelings down and assume a happy face in the face of true tragedy. Many years ago, my husband moved out just before Christmas, and I remember saying bitterly to him, “Couldn’t you wait and ruin New Years for them instead?” I remember going through the motions on autopilot, putting up stockings, wrapping presents, making seasonal treats, playing holiday music, pretending nothing was wrong. And that worked so well… I’m too old for games now. These days, I’m trading control for honesty. I allow myself the luxury of tears. I cry at happy things and sad ones alike and I don’t trouble to hide my tears either way. I watch for acts of compassion, and I add to them whenever possible. After all, it’s up to us to make the world we want to live in. Let’s get real.

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Sweetness & Light

Thanks-Giving Square Chapel

Solstice Sweetness

Last night, I joined a bunch of friends from church and went caroling around the neighborhood. We started out almost 30 strong, with four generations represented; a toddler in a stroller, younger adults with and without spouses, their parents, some grandparents. We visited some of our dear oldies, people who have aged out of active participation in beloved seasonal traditions. They are quieter people now, yet most of them still maintain their sparkle and kindness. Poignant, sweet memories and stories shared, favorite songs sung, lots of hugs, a few tears shed.

We visited assisted living and skilled nursing facilities, where more hugs were exchanged, and a few more tears were shed, mostly happy, some bittersweet. People who have outlived family and friends sometimes weep for what they’ve lost as well as for the happiness of a sweet moment. There were joyful hugs and pats for the cheerful toddler, armed with jingle bells and excited to learn what happened when bells are plunged into deep puddles. A year ago, he was diagnosed with a rare cancer that starts in the eyes. Today, he is thriving and the cancer is in check, all but gone. We who have been praying for this adorable person kept looking over at him with awe and delight, our own Solstice miracle; light returning to eyes once clouded, now clear.

Sweet Moments

As we meandered from apartment to house, there were careful, tender hugs for frail oldies who seem like fallen leaves waiting for a wind. There were fond friendly hugs, compassionate, teary hugs, hugs shared with laughter. I keep thinking about the way one ancient looking woman wrapped her arms around me and drew my head close to hers, then said, “Who am I? Who are you? Why are you singing to us?” While I explained, she gave me a long, lingering embrace, her body collapsed into softness, her spirit kind and sweet. She didn’t care that we had never met and didn’t know each other’s names. Her smile filled her face and spilled from her eyes. I can still feel the sweetness of that soft old body, that soft embrace, and hope I’ll be as full of light when I’m truly old.

The sweet incident reminded me of my mom, who, toward the end, would wake in the night and say, “Am I dead?” When I’d say no, she’d ask, “Are you dead?” When I’d again say no, she’d add, “Well, then, can I have some coffee?” That still makes me smile and I cherish it as one of the brighter memories I have of my mother. One a few years have worn away the sharp edges of pain and grief and loss, there’s increasing sweetness in recalling our lost ones. For many years, we’ve set an extra place at each holiday table, with a candle on the plate. Sometimes we put pictures or cards on the plate as well, but by my time of life, the plate can get pretty crowded. Now I just let the candle be a symbol of all the losses of the years. As I’m aging, I’m finding more sweetness in the sorrow, more acceptance of the pattern of life and death, of gain and loss, and a clearer understanding that I am drawing closer to my exit with every passing year.

Sharing Sweetness

Our last stop of the evening was at the fire station. By then, our group had dwindled to a mere dozen or so, but we attempted to serenade our much appreciated first responders with joy. It’s an old island tradition for the fire department to circle the island during the long winter holiday nights with a fire truck, blaring out seasonal music for the neighborhoods through squawky old speakers. Back when my kids were little, they mainly played corny old secular Christmas selections, from Rudolf and Frosty to chestnuts by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. These days, the playlist and the speakers have been upgraded and there are so many more street and houses that it takes several long nights to get to everyone.

As it happened, only one fellow was at the station when we arrived, as everyone else was out on calls. We sang to him anyway, and as we were leaving, I was moved to receive yet anther huge hug. He asked me how I was doing and said he was counting on a better year coming for us all. He had come with others to pick my mom off the floor countless times, and he had been among those who tried to resuscitate my late husband. We’d met at various bedsides where help was needed and we rode together in aid cars more than once, taking someone to meet an ambulance. I was touched that he remembered me fondly, as I certainly remember him an the many others who show up for us when we need help.

Open To The Light

Today, I’m finishing up a stocking for a friend’s transgender teenager who found the old name on her stocking disturbing. Not sure how to fix it, I took the stocking to our little local fabric store (the longest running fabric store in Washington State). A very kind employee ironed backing onto a piece of cloth, then used her own cutting machine to cut out letters of the right size. She then helped me iron the name onto another piece of cloth to cover up the old name. I got it home, sewed down the letters, measured the strip and promptly cut it the wrong size. Unusually, I didn’t get upset, but calmly sewed little strips of cloth at each end so the name patch fit the stocking. Sewed over the old name, the new name looks as good as new. Another sweetness to taste.

I’m deliberately calling out sweetness in every possible situation these days. In these dark and bitter times, we all need the refreshment of sweetness and light. When I savor the sweet moments, pleasant connections, kind actions, cheerful exchanges, generous impulses, friendly greetings, beautiful sunsets, happy birds, joyful children, lovely music, pretty lights, delicious food, warm words, embracing hugs, I feel myself filling up with all that natural sweetness and light. When our minds are open, the light can come in. When our hearts are broken, the light gets in even better. Let us be light.

 

 

 

 

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