Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Meaning of language

Traveling in parts of the world where I don't speak the language, I feel my internal pendulum swing. Seeking meaning in gestures and eye contact can switch quickly to cutting off and retracting the tendrils of communication. Here as with so much of being human, there is a struggle to feel at peace with what is so. Can we be content with silent company? Can we afford to step beyond comfort to reach another?

I listen for tone of voice,watch the faces as people speak to each other in a cafe, observe the expressions of people on the metro. Who we think we are and how we appear are seemingly separate identities. A grim visage, a lightly held shoulder structure, eyes that don't meet those of strangers, portray the being but not the personality. Some of the attributes are those of systemic cultural training. I am closely watching my own tendencies to create meaning in the newness and obscurity of language here.

How many words I use in my own language and how few in another! How beautiful is the precision of meaning when the idea is clear. Joyful, kind, tired and curious, I must use all the other means as my words fail to find that precision in a language I do not speak.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Weed Control or Right Action?

Every time I weed or water, I take stock of how things are going. I've made decisions to push back the wild field growth and plant specific flowers or edible fruits, roots or leaves. This gives me responsibilities but doesn't really put me in charge. When it doesn't rain for days on end, I feel the urge to provide water, since I'm the one who asked this plant to grow in this place soaked in sun and dried by wind. If it rains too much, I am the one who puts boards, or rings of salty or sharp materials out to attract the slugs from the plants that get besieged the most. I know that deer will prune my cherry tomatoes and lily buds, some woodchuck may eliminate my zinnias or half a cucumber plant, the birds and chipmunks will some of the blueberries. I understand that all my effort to weed in any one place will be repeated again and again and grow over if I neglect that task.

Today, after many sunny days, there is a drift of cloud cover and I know that means today's task will be transplanting. There are just a few plants that are not thriving as they could. In a couple cases, I attribute this to wrong placement: planted where once they had dappled shade and now have too much sun because of the loss of a nearby bush or tree or the opposite case, planted once in sun and now because of the growth of nearby trees, not enough sun to flourish.

For me it is intuition more than garden design that brings the shovel to hand. I know that where I plan to put that astilbe it will have a good mix of what it needs, but I also know that to make even a small hole for it, I will be excavating rocks and filling in with soil from somewhere else. I cannot control what will happen. Sometimes moles will eat the roots of a healthy happy plant and it withers and dies. Sometimes for two years in a row I don't see a plant bloom because the deer have chomped the buds and then there is a spectacular Spring show, unlike any I've ever seen because somehow the deer passed it by that season.

Yet I do feel the weight of my actions, playing with the lives of plants, even if for my own good purposes or their better cultivation. I carefully cut the chard leaves that we will eat, leaving the plant's newest growth to continue. I cut the lettuce, or broccoli rabe in the coolness of morning, water in the coolness of evening, and do that which I know to do in ways that I hope disturb the natural cycles the least. I see the wilting leaves in the hot sun, and think about the evening's watering to sustain them. I know that the buds that open in the morning care nothing for me or my appreciative gaze.

I have taken it on to grow these beautiful and edible plants where there were once different beautiful and edible plants (though perhaps not edible for me), leaving many wild patches of raspberries and blackberries, roses and barbary, gooseberries and elderberries, along with the field full of grasses and thistles, milkweed, joe pye weed, yarrow, vetch and so many others whose names I may never know or cannot remember. As soon as I turn my back, the plants I have planted here will struggle to keep their footing as the wild ones return. Each seeding for its own survival, spreading roots, and seeking out the moist earth.

Today, after I moved an echinacea from deep shade into a sunnier spot, the sun came out. That poor plant drooped, even with the good soil and water I had given it. I put a wire cage around it and draped a white tee shirt over it for protection. Half an hour later, the clouds came in seriously and sporadic rain drops began to fall. The tee shirt came off, the droopy stalks still sagged, but perhaps tomorrow will straighten them up. The coral bells, astilbe, heliobore, and goatsbeard have all settled down as though they were just waiting for this moment. Today the gray sky brings me joy.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Stuck on the Details

Irritation lives in the details. Admiration can also. Mostly it seems humans vacillate between micromanaging and the gross motor equivalent of emotional responses. It is that tiny splinter, or those dirty dishes in the sink, or that little chocolate on your pillow that triggers the focal point, but then the whole system kicks into gear around it.

I love this image because for me it is nothing and everything all at once. It doesn't represent any thing, yet is directly derived from something specific. It evokes many emotional and visual possibilities for me, yet remains undefined in purpose, place or object. It is actually a close up of a painting by Jeff Zilm that I saw at a recent art opening in Brooklyn. I'd never heard of him, having gone to the show to support a young artist I've been following since he was in undergraduate studies with my son. Amid the roar and heat of that boisterous opening crowd, the first thing that caught me like a spider in a web, was this quiet intricate flat work. From there, from this morsel, I was able to open to the other works, the dense noisy crowd, the artists and their brave show of art in the world: Detail as diving platform.

In yoga teaching it falls to me to cover minutiae and grand scale, to introduce the whole body-mind interaction of balance by drawing your awareness to the weight in your heel, for example. Yet I will warn you away from thinking too much about that heel, from getting stuck on the formula of sticking to that detail, and advise you to notice occasionally to feel your weight in your feet, to feel your feet on the earth (okay, really the floor). Broadening that out into how you notice this foundational support and your relationship to it, and when you notice that, developing your awareness of this interplay can shift the way you operate in daily life. Now that's a very big picture.

The idea of single pointed focus is a way of training the mind, not so much to see that specific detail to the exclusion of everything else, but really to enable the honing of attention without blocking everything else out. Noticing that you do or don't feel weight in your heel can help you develop a more complete sense of balance and understand what might be happening with your body's alignment to set you off balance. This can lead fairly quickly to discoveries of all kinds. Taking this into a different context, what would happen if the next time someone irritated or disappointed you, you could see that act clearly in a broad context. If you could hold that focus and be aware of the larger sense of that individual person, the structure of the situation, what you brought to it with your own expectations, the set up of the scene that put the two of you where you are now, the background and history of that relationship, and an idea of the potential for growth and sharing that exists in that moment ... well, you get the idea. It reduces the likelihood of a knee-jerk reaction, and lessens the interest in grasping at that detail, providing a different kind of opening for both of you to respond. Perhaps the insight of what you expected in the first place will give a view of yourself, and a relationship of how that person attempted to express themselves or meet your needs will begin to emerge. Perhaps an insight into the history of your reaction will enable a shift from what you thought to what is actually so.

Does it matter whether you feel your weight in your heel? Stand up and play with that for a minute, focusing on it as the center of an endless concentric field of experience and awareness. Well, that's you being here, using the detail, but not stuck on it.

The Fourth of July brings this idea into a new realm for me. It is awesome that many years ago several groups of settlers decided to hash out enough details to come up with a grand plan for functioning as separate and uniquely equal parts in a common structure for a greater common good. The details can be argued, and we know that many human and other beings were left out of this idea of equality and security. In fact, the majority of human beings living in this land at that time were left out. Women, children, native people and people from other parts of the world who were not directly descended (and even some who were) from the Western European male lineage were not included as sharing equally, but as property or less than human, accorded varying levels of disrespect for health and wellbeing. It has been a long time of working beyond some of those details, and using the framework established in those days has been both a benefit and a detriment.

So I celebrate with a focus on the central core of goodness and possibility in that action, actively working to see the fullest array of what we have here in this country without attaching judgment to it, and hope for growth in our global and individual view of humans on earth. It is not always easy to get beyond sorting out where I feel the weight in my own feet, and surely that awareness of balance must come first, but I do have hope for balance beyond that.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Money & Watering Asparagus

No one talked about money when I was a kid growing up. In truth, our family just made ends meet on the salary of my dad's job as a meteorologist/government scientist while my mom tried to keep painting with 3 small complicated kids. I didn't have much stuff and wasn't involved with spending money or managing it within the family. Oh well I did get my ten cent weekly allowance to help me learn about money, and saved all but a few pennies and opened a savings account in a local bank just as I was expected to do. That bank that actually went bankrupt when I was about 10 or 11, and they didn't have Federal Deposit Insurance so I lost the sum total of my childhood wealth - $25 as I recall. The pennies I spent went to penny candy, the memory of which remains as I can feel it right now, as though standing in front of the array of boxes and jars: this one 2 for a penny, these 5 for a penny, these 2 pennies each. Knowing that whatever I chose would be candy, knowing that I could only have as many as my 5 pennies would buy, these were the parameters within which I considered packaging, shapes, quantities, and flavors. If my older siblings were along, which one or both invariably were because I was not allowed to walk that far from home without them, there was influence according to their tastes and their ideas of "value." More for the money seemed crucial to them, where I, 5 years younger, didn't always feel that way.

Over time, I was progressively more responsible for myself financially until I was through college, paying my way with summer jobs and part time work, sharing apartments with others, and eventually selling my day times and life effort for one salary or another. As it turned out, my husband was much the same, and we joined forces with a small savings account and frugal habits of home cooking and a tendency to the cheap entertainment of walking around town, foraging in second hand record and book stores and cooking and eating with friends. Then children, then elderly parents, then managing financial affairs for my elders, then losing my parents and inheriting some of those same resources that I had so carefully managed for them.

As I stand at the edge of the asparagus bed with the hose pulled out to nearly its longest extension, I watch the drops fall onto the dry earth. I carefully soak each patch of this rectangle and move the cascade of water to the next section to give the earth time to soak up the moisture before returning to that place a second or third time. Asparagus roots grow from at least a foot deep and spread the crowns in a network close to the surface. Watering the surface is not enough to support the plant, and evaporates in the day's heat.

Broadening my view, I see the edges of the asparagus bed, our cultivated blueberries on one side and the wild raspberries on the other. A bird flits through my range of vision and awakens the realization that I am also perceiving the myriad sounds of birds, the hungry nestlings in the bushes beyond the raspberries. The opening of the downward slope glows in the bright sun, though I stand in the shade of what I know to be a birch tree behind me. I hear its leaves overhead in the breeze. Further behind me is the gravel drive (baking in the sun), the lilies, the wild grass, the road, trees, field, rocky ledge, hill, sky, onward towards where the sun rises and the moon too. I shift the hose to the next dry patch, keeping the center of my focus on soaking the new spears emerging from the bed, and encouraging the roots of the fernlike greens of the spears too thin to pick that have gone on to flower and seed. The muted hills across the valley are like dreams in a ring around me.

Staying focused on what I am actually doing, I am learning to allow my awareness to include what else is also present beyond my own action. What a shift this is from self absorption! In this way I am trying to manage my new condition of having family money that in some ways still feels unreal to me. I've invested most of the money in hopes of providing for a time of life when my husband and I will not be required to trade our time for money. I find that my generosity can express itself in new ways beyond what I can do with my own hands, presence or words, helping others with projects that require funds up front in order to keep on with their missions of building joy and possibility for others. Part of me knows that all I will ever have is living with my choices and offering possibilities to others. How much money changes this is yet to be seen. The biggest change is to offer my husband the possibility that he does not have to continue to earn more money to ensure our future financial safety, which is all an illusion anyway, but which definitely feels more secure with more resources. This is a a huge consequence of our frugal saving, and now the addition of generational savings.

When the asparagus grows too tall, it loses its sweet succulence. I cut it anyway, for the health of the bed, and make broth from the inedible (at least for me) stalks. This is also not something I learned as a child, where we never had a vegetable garden, nor did my mother enjoy cooking (though she loved to eat beautiful fresh foods). My parents were basically first generation of immigrant parents who were not farmers but intellectuals and tradespeople. Probably their grandmothers (or their neighbors) had small kitchen gardens, but that was not what came to America with the next generation. There was an emphasis on intellectual pursuit and freedom of expression, not surprising given the oppression, segregation and limitations set on them from whence they came. There was one branch of cousins that experimented with farm life, attempting to take on agriculture and social structures in the Midwest in the early 20th Century. Mostly it resulted in advanced degrees in scientific fields among the offspring of that clan.

So I stand at the edge of the asparagus bed, feeling sure that the money in the retirement account will be subject to the vagaries of our political and cultural unrest. I am just as sure that the heritage of my ancestors in some way showers down upon the asparagus crowns deep in the earth as I shift my hose onto this quadrant for the third time. The weather has been so hot and dry (blazing wild exuberance and despair in fires out West); the sweet crispness of the raw asparagus is startling and deeply moving. Perhaps the idea of independence is turning away from control towards the freedom to broaden awareness and take in a fuller view. It is this vision that I wish for the people living now. This is their only moment to be awake.