Monday, September 28, 2009

Escaping the Gravity Well

I have been paying attention to the wrong things.

Having been raised a Unitarian, a latter-day Transcendentalist and all-around do-gooder, I have been anxious about the state of the world since day one. We had conversations at our house about what we would do when the Big One (the bomb, not the earthquake) hit Portland. If it’s the weekend, start walking west and don’t stop until you smell the cows of the Tillamook Valley. If it’s a school day, run up the hill to Safeway, grab a few bottles of water and a handful of Cliff bars and hide in the underground office mall until the radiation goes down enough to start the hike.

Francis Moore Lappe, Rachel Carson, and Paul Ehrlich all had their way with me. Food shortages. The population explosion. Future shock. Monocultures, riots, mass extinctions, the ozone layer. I’ve been feeling responsible for things beyond my strength since, oh, 1968 when Dr. King was shot, way before it was popular to even notice things like global warming (I’m sorry, climate change) and peak oil.

Of course I protested the latest war, and the war before that, and the war before that (what was the war before that?). I’ve written letters and contributed dollars and helped to people phone banks and felt like a schmoe because I was too shy to argue with family and friends. Public school funding, vote by mail, gay rights, hijacked elections, you name it. My husband and I have been working on relieving the earth of as much of our footprint as possible, for about 20 years…do we really need two cars? (The answer, usually, is no.) We’ve insulated the house and replaced everything that uses energy with the most efficient model possible. We precycle and recycle just about everything. We garden and compost and always ask the question, “What’s the minimum we need to be safe, healthy, fairly comfortable and happy?” We’ve raised two children who live the same way. But still, some days I can feel my heart speeding up and I know what that’s about. Obviously, I haven’t done enough. The world isn’t saved yet!

I’ve been advised by really smart people to take breaks from reading the New York Times and watching the TV. So far, the TV break has lasted since 1975, so that’s all right. The New York Times, no way. (I can’t bear to read the Oregonian very often, it’s embarrassing.) Still, stuff leaks through, mainly through all the political action committee list-serves I’ve subscribed to.

I probably don’t get out enough. But a friend did get me and Ed to go to the symphony last Saturday. A nice filling of Chris Thile and the west coast premiere of his Mandolin Concerto, and Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer with their Triple Concerto for Banjo, Bass and Tabla, between two slices of Dvorak and Von Suppe. The concert was followed, improbably, by a jam session with the soloists. Now, I have never heard any of this music. Falling in love with music, for me, isn’t cheap. It’s like building a relationship with a person. I have to really get to know it before I can fall in love. It takes time.

Somehow, though, these men played melodies and harmonies I’ve heard in my heart since birth. The oldest, most beloved music, nestled so deeply within me that I had never heard it before.

There were times when I sat shaking my head, mouth open, watching these mammals do things with animal skins, wood, opposable thumbs, all neurons firing, and thought, all they are missing is the cape and the ability to fly. This is supernatural, what they do. There were the long moments where I felt enfolded, warm, safe, thinking, if I sit here listening for much longer, I’ll start to believe in a personal God.

I realize that we all do what we can to make the world better, either for ourselves, or for others, or for both. Some bring children into the world, some buy a larger and more comfortable car, some go to Africa to teach refugees, some plant tomatoes and others write books. We are acting on the world in concrete and understandable ways.

This was a different kind of action. Through their music, these men created beauty, wordless and inexplicable – a beauty beyond thought, beyond time, indescribable. They created an experience for their listeners that was beyond hope and beyond striving. They created a still point of rest, a place of strength in joy.

Yes, I came home and wrote another letter and put the carrot tops in the composter and walked to the store with my cart. Those are the daily gestures I give to the future. Those gestures are fueled by habit or concern, and sometimes (I’m not proud of this) a feeling of virtue. But the foundation from which I launch myself must be deeper, or I won’t make it. Keeping our spirits up has to be more than tugging against an anchor. I’m trying to escape the gravity well here. Is it possible to just float upward into the light?

Maybe. Maybe, in my toiling to be the change I want to see in the world, I’ve been paying attention to the wrong things, giving over the well-being of my volition to the heaviness of the impossible. Time to dive into the depths of music and human possibility, to find the gift of weightlessness.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Using My Natural Resources

I always wanted to be a writer. Oh, I’ve done lots of writerly things…edited newsletters for big and small organizations, written grant proposals, filled a bookcase with journals going back to 1982. I’ve even written essays and memoirs, but those have been stored on aging floppy drives and outdated computers where there’s no hope or fear that anyone would ever read them.

So getting laid off this year was a gift, the kind of gift where you think, Now I’ll finally read all the classics! I’ll finally learn conversational Spanish! I’ll be an actress! I’ll be a writer! In other words, the life chores that you always meant to get around to, like the basket full of ironing that’s followed you through three moves over the last ten years.

But I meant it this time. The first day of school, the day when I was supposed to be standing in front of a newly assembled class, I set myself a goal…I will write 2,000 words a day by lunchtime.

I did. That day.

The next day, not so much. I made doctor’s appointments, I checked in with all my friends on Facebook, I wrote long e-mails and chats to my friends trying to get work done in offices until they pleaded with me to understand that they loved me, but stop. I cooked dinner ahead of time so it would be conveniently ready at 6:00. I made ten sandwiches and froze them. I didn’t watch a movie and eat chocolate, that would be wasting time. I walked for two hours. Maybe I’ll train for the marathon.

Who knows what else I did for the next two weeks to avoid the writing thing, but anybody who’s ever tried to settle their wills and brains on a lifelong dream when they’re home all day will recognize the sorts of activities I drifted into. E.B. White used to wander around his salt-water farm in Maine carrying a paper napkin, while avoiding writing his treasures for the New Yorker. Oh, Andy, I’m not laughing at you now!

Avoidance was the last thing on my mind last Thursday. The truth is, the garden really did reach into the house and yank me by the back of my pajama top and get me first into a stranglehold and then a half-Nelson. All I could do was gather half a dozen Hubbard squash to my chest, green beans dripping through my fingers as I stepped around squashed and bee-blown pears. Now there’s water boiling in the big pot, the oven heating, no beans in the pot, no tomatoes in the oven, because I’m still washing and slicing. I hate this. Natural resources going to waste because I’m too slow. And all unwanted, distracting phrases keep floating through my head. Words that describe exactly what I’m doing in ways that would speak to others. Phrases that would fit into a kick-ass essay on gardening. I don’t have time for this.

Finally I get out my netbook and put it on the counter. Fine. If something occurs to me, I’ll type it in so I can forget about it. That way I’m not wasting my cooking time. But there’s water on the counter. Put the netbook in the breakfast nook, just out of the way. I sit down in the nook and write a paragraph, just to get it out of my head. The water is still boiling in the pot. The oven is still burning up electricity. The fruit flies are laying eggs on the tomatoes! Aaugh! I capture the first line of the next paragraph. Write it down!

The phone rings.

It’s my homeowner’s insurance company, telling me that they will pay 15% of the $30,000 bill it took to restore my smoke-damaged house. I argue with them, outwardly calm, inwardly panicked, but with a curiously detached half-wittedness because my eyes are staring at the screen and thinking with the other half of my brain about how the next paragraph should go. I hang up and call the smoke restoration people to tell them about my problem with the insurance company. I’m proud that I can make sense while talking to them, because of the pot, the oven, the half-diced tomatoes and the half-kneaded paragraph. I hang up the phone. Write the next paragraph, and the next, and the next. The pot, the oven, the tomatoes, the beans, they wait. When the essay is finished, I get up and brush away the fruit flies and continue my cooking.

When the cooking-induced fog clears out of my brain, which it does as soon as I’ve carried bags of prepared vegetables downstairs to the freezer, I sit down and read the essay. I laughed all the way through it and end up with a lump in my throat. I realize I have written something good. I didn’t have to schedule it in my Day-Timer, I didn’t have to tell people I was going to be a writer. I wrote it in spite of the garden and the kitchen and the insurance. It’s good. I send it to my writer husband and my appreciative brother and they too, say it’s good. I read it some more and it’s still good.

So what do I do now? A well-written essay is like a zucchini…it sits there on the counter and asks, “What are you going to do with me NOW?” Maybe for today it’s enough that I grew the zucchini, I wrote the essay. Tomorrow is soon enough to put the pot back on the stove.

Vegetable Predator

I’ve never really gardened. Oh, there was my second husband’s garden in the suburbs, over 25 years ago…but that was HIS garden. Then there was the cherry tomato jungle/mesclun mix surprise in a 3x5 box garden in the inner city – just before the bassett hound knocked it all over and wallowed in it – but that was almost 20 years ago and I still don’t know how that happened.

I started gardening because I love to read essays. Thurber, E.B. White, and most recently Barbara Kingsolver. Barbara writes some of the best essays I’ve ever read. High Tide in Tucson hooked me, and then when I saw Animal, Vegetable, Miracle on the shelf at Powell’s I knew that I would break my rule of always taking the book out of the library first before giving up another two inches of precious bookshelf space.

Well, Barbara, you win the sustainable living contest, you are from farming people and have acres of land there in the verdant Southeast, but I didn’t do too badly. I had no idea of what to do. Like any good liberal, I threw money at the problem. We cut down the 20 foot laurel hedge – any fool could see that it shaded everything and took up literally 200 square feet of potential growing space. Even I know that sun is important. We cut down the dying wormy filbert tree and the drooping cedars that were once ornamental and now were turning red and falling down. Suddenly our little backyard looked…bigger. Intimidating. “So what are you going to do with me now?” There was a little silly lawn, the worse for wear after years of being the default bathroom for the dog who lived here before us. I covered it with newspapers last fall – Barbara told me to do it, in her book – so by this spring the grass would be dead and we’d have more space for boxes.

I got a late start this spring, what with losing my job and blowing up the house (not really, but the pot left on the stove made us move out for five weeks), but still managed to talk my husband into building five raised-bed boxes and my 16-year-old son into loading a few cubic yards of good soil into them. I put down black cloth between, supposed to keep the weeds down (hah!) and covered that with pea gravel, which I had loaded a bag at a time into my tiny 1995 Geo Metro and unloaded a bag at a time into the back yard. No wheelbarrow, not yet, and the men in my family had taken to leaving the house when they saw me look at the back yard, so this was my back that got to carry these 80-pound bags.

The Seeds of Change catalog and I had had a flirtation earlier in the spring. I ordered a lot of heirloom stuff that looked interesting and prolific because 1) I believe that heirlooms are less likely to attract pests and disease, 2) they aren’t anything I can buy in the store or they cost dearly at the farmer’s market and 3) if I’m going through all this, I want a LOT of stuff. The tomatoes went into the ground in May, so did the carrots, green beans and zucchini, chard and lettuce and arugula, onions and leeks and winter squash.

All I knew about carrots was to keep them moist for the first two weeks. Okay, I watered them. Then I noticed that they were sprouting in clumps, so I carefully took out every second sprout and planted it somewhere else. I planted six zucchini plants. That was noisy, because my husband kept howling for me to stop. Not having really planted a garden before, I felt like making the sign of the cross and humming “Abide With Me” as I buried each seed in the dirt. Little did I know!

Three months later, having pulled out five of the zucchini plants along the way, I’m out in the garden harvesting. What a word. Harvesting. Growing up in America, where we have all kinds of nostalgia about the lost family farm of two or three generations ago but not much first-hand knowledge of actual vegetable predation, I have put pumpkins on my porch, celebrated Thanksgiving with autumn-colored linens meant to represent fall leaves, and eaten fall produce (alongside hydroponic tomatoes and asparagus from some spring garden in some other hemisphere). But I’ve never actually harvested anything. At least, not like this.

At first, I thought of the garden as just a nice produce section conveniently located in my back yard. A couple carrots here, a few green beans there, enough tomatoes for the evening’s caprese salad. It was working out just fine for me. I made fewer trips to the market. My family was impressed with the nice little additions to our salads and soups.

But these are not nice polite vegetables anymore. They don’t wait their turn. At first, the green beans hid under the leaves, cleverly disguised as vines until it was time to turn woody and revoltingly khaki colored. I had to outwit them. Maybe hunters feel this way hiding behind a duck blind, waiting for the prey to break cover. Ya gotta peek behind their dressing curtains and surprise them. Not anymore. The green beans have shouldered their way out into the open now. Maybe they figure that there are so many of them, a few of them have to die to give the rest of them living space and it doesn’t matter if a few sacrifice themselves for the others, but I can just grab a handful of beans all at once, yank and drop them into the already full paper bag at my feet. The tomatoes are still hiding, but brush aside a vine or two or some leaves and there sits another pint of tomatoes looking embarrassed.

So instead of the nice morning I had planned, getting stew in the crockpot, studying a script, ironing a shirt or two and oh yes, taking a shower, I have been standing in my dirt-smudged pajamas trimming and blanching beans, shredding zucchini, pulling squash, chopping, roasting and pureeing tomatoes…since I never really believed in germination, I didn’t plan on preserving any harvest. Where does it say that you are supposed to do something with pounds and bags of produce in the fall, just when you’re getting busy with other things?

I will say, it’s made me really careful with food. I used to be a food age-er. You know, where you put the food in the refrigerator and let it get to that certain age before you throw it out. Now it hurts to throw out anything, especially when I remember loading the dirt and watering earlier in the morning than I really wanted to and bending over to weed and transplant and what the HELL is this disgusting thing growing on my chard?

And even though I’m grudgingly pleased with myself for having just spent three hours moving produce out of the backyard and into usable form in my freezer (isn’t this what Trader Joe’s used to be for?) I am not completely dim – I know that this is like laundry and I’ll be doing the same thing day after tomorrow.

Just as soon as I finish my list of notes for next year. Where should I put my five raspberry plants? When do potatoes need to get in the ground? What about cilantro? Oh, can you grow garlic? I should be planting it NOW? And when does the next Seeds of Change catalog come out? There are just a few more things I want to grow in the garden.