Morning harvest

Last year we moved the garden beds to the front yard, where the sun is strongest on our property. There were two things working against me: bad soil and exposure to the neighbors. Both of these factors meant I used more fertilizer than I had ever done before—I was desperately afraid of failing, and so publicly.

My plants struggled. Few tomatoes; no summer or winter squash; climbing beans with no flowers. Only the okra, chard, and sweet potatoes forgave my ineptitude.

This year I returned to my horticultural roots, focusing on improving the soil rather than fertilizing the plant.

Earthworm castings (so, worm shit) rather than expensive organic fertilizers have made all the difference. The plants have been quietly but steadily growing all spring, and are now flowering and fruiting as if they were specimens for a textbook.

I am not completely embracing my budding sense of glory—the summer sun has yet to reach its full force, and that will no doubt exhaust the majority of the plants in my garden. But I do think there is a lovely lesson here. Something along the lines of less is more. It would be cliche if it weren’t true.

The right path

There are certain sects of Buddhism that believe that karma binds us more to some of the people in our lives, to the extent that those bonds continue throughout various reincarnations.

I have uncomfortable feelings about reincarnation, but the idea of having a greater karmic connection with some folks sees obvious to me. I believe that all things in our lives play a role in our awakening. They are our teachers, unwittingly offering the challenges we need to develop into our true selves. In my experience, they return us to our path when we’ve meandered. And our meandering most often has to do with the challenges they’ve given us in the first place.

My point is, you start out on what you think is your path with the best of intentions: I will be this kind of mother; I will be that kind of wife. Then the folks you have chosen to walk that path with reveal to you bit by bit—or sometimes in much more significant ways—that you were never on your true path to begin with. They reveal yourself to you, and slowly you discover your footing on the right path.

I find that the most basic lessons take the longest to understand. And by understanding, here, I mean that kind of knowing that feels knitted in your bones—the kind of understanding that makes you realize the truth has always been with you, if only hidden from your view. So, things like how to love unconditionally, the significance of loyalty, the grace of self-sacrifice, the relief that comes with compassion and kindness (both giving and receiving). All the things the sages and prophets have shown us through the millennia, the things we know by heart (but not by bone). These are the fundamentals that take a lifetime to master but that life seems to be all about.

I discovered that for myself one day, trying frantically to unlock the mystery of enlightenment. You see, I had come to believe that the only way I could know how to help my oldest child, the only way I could know how to behave properly to best support my youngest, the only way I could truly be a good partner was to become enlightened, to become a buddha myself. Obviously, I am not enlightened, but these are some of the things I have come to understand from my seeking:

  • There are certain basic concepts that I will struggle to stretch my mind to understand until I realize I don’t need to understand them. I plant the seed, and eventually my understanding will grow in its own time. I think that is the “faith” that most belief systems refer to. It’s a kind of letting go.
  • Enlightenment is not an epiphany; it is the path, the daily practice of being. Like most things of universal value, enlightenment occurs by degrees, almost imperceptibly, through behaving as one who is enlightened.
  • The concept of the not-self is fundamental—there is nothing more distracting from my true path than my ego, my will. This, I think, is also a cornerstone of all belief systems, but one of the most difficult truths to fathom. Because, after all, how do we remove the self-interest from ourselves?

All of this started today with my children arguing—the oldest being mean to the youngest. Half of my cucumber seeds not germinating. Me feeling like an inadequate parent. Waking up to dog shit on the doormat. The potato plants flowering too early. Me uncharacteristically wanting—no, needing—social interaction—like, with people.  Sunny still sitting on her unfertilized eggs.

I more or less violently reject all of these things. I am attached to my idea of how all these things should be. But these things have something else to teach me, I feel, and I can only learn their truth by letting go of my ego, my own thinking about what is right, and recognize that there is something much larger at play here, something that I cannot see all the parts of.

I am fighting with myself about publishing these thoughts, partly because of my irrational fear of exposure, partly because I may be wrong, and partly because I may feel differently tomorrow (and somehow we have come to the strange conclusion that inconsistency is a bad thing). I am having to remind myself that the whole point of this blog was for me to catalog some of my thoughts and experiences before my cognitive functioning disintegrates entirely as part of the fallout from my neuro-eccentricity. I wanted proof, documentation, that I had thoughts, was capable of thinking. I wanted my children to see more than grocery lists for bologna and vodka, like I discovered in my father’s apartment after his death. There is more to us all, and to have only the litter of our choices be our legacy feels incredibly empty to me. But I am fighting with my ego here again. Ultimately, living a good life would leave no trace. Neither Buddha nor Jesus left any writings. So why my preoccupation with leaving evidence that I once had a mind?

Maybe that’s not really my goal. Maybe my goal is to outsource my memory so that in the darkest times to come, I can read this and remember the seasons, my preoccupations, the suffering and the beauty, my humanity. Maybe I am writing in celebration of and to remember living.

Or maybe it’s all more immediate than that. Writing helps me organize my thoughts. It helps me put names to feelings that might otherwise disrupt my mood. Writing for an audience requires me to frame things more positively or, ideally, with humor, and my final thoughts on a subject are then colored by that positivity.

Yes. I like the sound of that one best. I am not having an ego or attachment crisis—just making sense of some of my experiences. And in the process of writing this, it has been revealed to me that all those things that I so violently rejected this morning are simply the stuff of life. Accepting those things and dealing with them with compassion is, in fact, my path.

Being

Years ago, before I was a mother, back when depression offered no possibility of joy within the darkness, an acupuncturist from China suggested that I simply fix my mind on positivity when I woke up in the morning. He was treating me for depression. At the time, I thought he was crazy, or that maybe people in China don’t get depressed.

Fix my mind?

But somewhere along the way, perhaps during the period of awakening following my breakdown, I began to understand his meaning. Because nothing is as it seems, everything can be something else. That is to say, my daughter’s rejection of me yesterday was in fact a natural step along her path. It was not a rejection at all for her, but an acceptance of the magnetic pull of the external world. My job was and is to let go.

Fix my mind.

I chose—yes, chose—not to descend. I did make it back to the school to have lunch with my younger child. I deleted my dragon game (all games, for that matter) from my phone. I made it out this morning to collect my meds. I planted out some sad plants that had been crying to extend their roots. I rubbed sandalwood oil on my third eye point. I meditated. I laughed to myself that my doctor—so square he’s a cube—prescribed daily yoga and meditation for me, out of respect for the things that he knows keep me balanced. I opened my heart.

I am fixing my mind on positivity. I am focusing on one task at a time. I will make my children dinner this evening—a dinner that doesn’t involve the microwave or leaving a tip. I am choosing to smack that black dog on its ass, and laugh as it runs, whimpering, back to the shadows.

At least I hope that’s what I’m doing. But if that Chinese doctor is to be believed, if Buddha was really on to something, perhaps it is a simple matter of fixing my mind and seeing things as they really are. Ending suffering by not suffering.

Snail meditation

I am a gardener—an amateur horticulturist and botanist, if you will. I grow fruits and vegetables and, apparently, snails. This is the first year that I have gardened without a nemesis. Aphids, squash bugs, cabbage moths, ants have all been the target of my wrath at one point or another. This year, I have been preoccupied with snails, treating them with a fury I didn’t particularly feel, and which always made me wonder how one could simultaneously grow food and be a Buddhist.

This morning was one of those magical spring mornings after a night’s rain. My youngest and I were up before the sun, letting the chickens out in the blue light. The air was paradoxically heavy and fresh, as if an accumulation of the sighs of all plantlife. The sense of connection to all things was so great, I was subtly aware that I was swimming in a womb of the universe.

When I made my usual rounds of the gardens, I found an incredible number of snails devouring my succulents, peas, garlic, asparagus, and even relaxing in my garden furniture and sliding up the walls of my house. I got my snail jar to collect them all, something I’d started using since holding them in my hand forced me to feel their life energy and made sending them to their deaths that much harder.

In the process of gathering up a pint-sized salsa jar full of snails, I came face to face with a particularly tenacious one, which had oozed up the side of the jar and peeked out to explore its path to freedom. I held it close to my face and seemed to recognize something in it. I can’t quite describe what exactly that was, only that, at that moment, I was aware that I was no more or less than it was. That we were both essential to the universe. I felt something shift deep inside me, and I wondered why it had taken me so long to feel something so obvious.

The thing is, this is central to everything. To letting go of ego. To understanding the connectedness of all things. To walking the right path. That such a lesson should come from a snail rather than from the words of the many sages and scholars I’ve read somehow seems fitting.

After all that, the chickens enjoyed their morning snail snack and I got no closer to reconciling gardening with Buddhism.

The revolt

My children, the weather, the dog have all turned on me. In my hour of need.

We are in the home stretch of my partner’s absence, and it’s as if the universe is collapsing, just in time for my partner to swoop in and pick up the pieces. Which is completely unfair, since I have been a champion for the last two weeks: making all meals (mostly from scratch); getting my children to and from school and activities with no assistance; sticking to a schedule and getting to bed most nights at a reasonable hour; more or less keeping my house clean, including doing the dishes on an almost daily basis. You know, tasks that are normal for you but Herculean for me. And the thing is, I have enjoyed it. I am finding purpose in pedestrian productivity.

But in the last few days, I suppose the stress has caught up with us all. I have had some visuals and a feeling that my blood is vibrating. The condensation on the inside of the greenhouse has turned my tomato seedlings’ tropical paradise into a refrigerator. The dog leaves me a shitty gift on the doormat every single morning and then expects me to feed her before all others. My eldest refuses to wear a coat because the weight of it prevents her from taking flight at recess, or something.

And the biggest stain on my successful run as a lone parent: On Saturday, my youngest jumped off a trampoline and landed on her forehead. Can’t quite figure out how she managed it because there is a safety net encircling the trampoline. I suppose I should be writing about the pointlessness of safety nets—literal and figurative. Anyway, she couldn’t have helped it, and it really was quite scary for all of us—a concussion, no matter how mild, is never delightful. But the worst part was her insistence that her injury was more severe than it was. It was like she was hoping for the worst-case scenario, claiming symptoms that she expected would land her in the hospital. She reminded me of me. And frankly, that scares me.

But the faultiness of safety nets and the heritability of parental flaws is not under discussion today.

It is the revolt—of human, beast, and nature—the high stakes conspiracy that the universe has orchestrated for my edification—that is the subject of my thoughts. And the fact that I am still standing and even laughing about it, planning to get on with my housework as soon as I rattle this off, is a testament to the fact that I am winning. This long, slow recovery from breakdown—now in its fifth year—may very well be shifting into a new gear, the pace of life becoming more delightfully challenging. I am buzzing with excitement. I have in mind an image of a world-weary woman standing on a hilltop in a thunderstorm, face and arms lifted, laughing hysterically, and challenging the lightning to strike.

That old saying that the universe gives us only what we can handle? It’s true.

diversity

My albino pea plant has been devoured. It was only a third of the size of my genetically “normal” pea plants, so I had already been reconsidering my plan to let it grow to seed and start an albino pea revolution. Now, I have no doubt that albino peas would have been better than green peas: insects generally have good taste.

            I grow plants from open-pollenated seed, for the most part. This means I can collect the seeds from mature plants and plant them again the following growing season. I like my independence from F1 hybrid developers that require new seed to be bought each new season. They claim to develop “improved” varieties. Well, that’s true and it’s not.

A lot can be learned about life from gardening. What I mean is, aside from combatting the vast monoculture farms that constitute the bulk of our agricultural production, I am also witnessing the fact that evolution operates on the principle of diversity. Think about it: diversity increases the potential for the development and distribution of adaptive traits throughout a population. For obvious reasons, I suppose, I have always been a champion of diversity and difference. And to see the benefits of it in action throughout the short life-cycle of a garden plant is very exciting. I am always looking for the odd one out—the one with the curly leaves instead of flat, narrow instead of wide, because certain types of leaves seem to do better than others in our intensely hot summers. And they will only get hotter, you see.

The cost of those massive farms that produce only one or two crops, one sterile F1 variety for each crop, is the loss of diversity. The loss of diversity in agriculture leaves us vulnerable to food shortages—plague of locusts-style—as well as slowing the evolution of more adaptive plants. And with climate change, we will need to grow different plants from the ones that are currently in existence if we expect to eat anything.

So, it seems albino peas will not be the great white hope of the post-climate change era. But I will still seek out difference among the plants in my garden for new adaptations to this crazy world.

For further reading on the importance of biodiversity, see Fowler and Mooney’s Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity. A life-changing read on the agrarian lifestyle can be found in Wendell Berry’s The Art of the Commonplace.