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.

Tribalism

There is an interview with Agnes Martin, in which she claims to have let go of all the theories in an attempt to keep her mind clear. It was more involved than that: she wanted to keep her ego out of the way when she was inspired to paint so that the original message remained unsullied.

The innocence and purity of this is blindingly beautiful to me. But that’s not actually what I wanted to talk about. I could write reams about Martin, her neuro-eccentricity, her work, our connection. But perhaps another day.

Today, I want to talk about that interview, and in particular when she says she let go of all the theories. Even evolution.

Ah, yes. To let go of evolutionary theory to embrace mindfulness feels like an impossible climb up the highest mountain. When I have a difficult problem, my automatic response it to run it through several filters to see what remains. The most important filter I use is one that resembles evolutionary psychology, my best tool for helping me make big decisions.

But one cannot be mindful and still filter experience through various theories.

The evolutionary psychologist, Robert Wright, is holding an online course on overcoming tribalism through the Buddhist site Tricycle. I have read one of Wright’s books and get along well with his way of thinking and writing, and so I paid close attention to his announcement. Mindfulness over tribalism is something I have been struggling with lately, particularly with my extended family challenges. My instinct says one thing, but Buddhist teachings say another. How does one resolve such a conflict?

It’s not lost on me that this is an important topic of discussion for our time. I’m thinking here of political turmoil, and the move towards tribal thinking and away from humanism. But it is also an issue I need to sort out on the personal level, and the personal always seems more immediate and pressing. So, I have been waiting for an epiphany. Some guidance. A message. But I’m beginning to think I may need to go out and find one.

I suppose it really is true that if you let all the theories go, if you push your emotions and interpretations to the side, you can see things how they are. And presumably you will also know how to respond with compassion and kindness. But to let go of evolutionary theory? Ah, the complexities of the human condition!

Speaking of complexities, I feel compelled to mention that my oldest child and I are regular partners in a mood disorder dance. Family dynamics are complicated, and exponentially so with a neuro-eccentric member. But two? Half of all members with a neuro-eccentricity? Suffice it to say, shit gets really crazy in our house, with one triggering the other and spiraling out of control, and back and forth, and hypersensitivities meaning no-one can sneeze without someone thinking there was some hidden meaning behind it. Sometimes I wonder if I will be able to survive her adolescence. But just as my despondency reaches its zenith, we have a magical moment. Yes, our family is often agitated and dysregulated, but we are also colorful, vibrant, creative folks with an incredibly deep connection. I’m not sure how we’d do this without that silver lining.

On failure

I am beginning to wonder if there is such a thing as failure. Failure suggests an absolute system of judging correctness, success, goodness. But, in what has been revealed to me of the universe, there are few true absolutes—and certainly moral absolutism is far too small to be of universal consequence.

What I’m getting at is that on an individual level, failure is an illusion.  Take this morning. Despite all my preparations to help things run smoothly (but oh! Even now I am thinking of more things I could have done! My monkey brain working to accept responsibility for the failure of our morning), my neuro-eccentric daughter lost control and had another one of her fits. It could have been very messy indeed, but there was no shouting (from me at least), no holding of arms and legs, no attempts at “controlling” the situation. I sat and acknowledged that the natural consequences of her actions were sufficient. My children were late to school, but I feel no responsibility for that fact.

From the outside, I failed. According to society, my job today as their mother was to feed them, clothe them appropriately, and get them to school on time with all they needed. While this morning didn’t go how I had hoped, and my own schedule and emotional equilibrium was disrupted, I succeeded at being mindful in my words and actions. This success is significant for me. So much so that I cannot view the morning as a failure. But perhaps that is because I am getting better at not holding myself and my neuro-eccentric daughter to society’s standards of success.

This is the key. People like us cannot function well within the socially defined parameters for how one should behave or even according to the standard definitions of productivity and success. (Many would argue that it is because we exist outside those norms and many others that we are valuable tools for social change, while others would argue that that is precisely the reason we need to be locked up or at least medicated, sedated.) Thus, “failure” is a highly charged concept for a neuro-eccentric.

My point is, I have spent a great deal of my life feeling ashamed of my “failures,” holding myself to standards that were not meant for me. I did an incredible amount of damage to myself. From the age of nine, I have been aware that I am different. What I did not know was that that was something to be celebrated. So, I spent decades hurting myself in one way or another, trying to be more like something that was accepted, raging against all that was accepted, or punishing myself for not being acceptable. And for what? Some nonsense absolutist ideal of success and failure?

I wonder what I could have accomplished by now if my difference had been celebrated from the beginning. And then I hear a little voice that says that my value is in my path, in the way I walk that path, in the discoveries I make along the way. Not in accomplishments, because, quite frankly, no accomplishment would ever have been enough to make me feel truly accepted.

I don’t mean to get all pop-psychology here. I mean to talk about the false structures that inform our perception of who we are and what our purpose is. Society paints a backdrop of a world based on false absolutes. The world we see in that image is not the real world. The real world lies beyond the backdrop, and the way to see it is to dissolve society’s falseness in our minds. This is part of what the Buddha’s teachings mean to me.

So, I am not a failure, despite all evidence to the contrary. I am in fact making progress on my path.