Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Our Lost Children

Ministry in Meeting for Worship on Sunday brought me to the memory of the Sandy Hook massacre and time I spent in the Zen Community of Oregon, almost 15 years ago. Here is my reconstructed ministry-not-shared with those gathered Friends, and you.
In 2001, I spent time at the Zen Community of Oregon, practicing and living into the vision of community and discipline that was thriving there. I visited for more than a week in March and most of the month of August, 2001. I participated pretty fully in the life of the monks. I practiced three times daily, sitting and walking meditation. I participated in communal 3-bowl meals, with offerings to Buddha, chanting, and silence. I worked in the gardens, the yard, and most importantly, tended to the Jizo garden.

Jizo is a Boddhisatva. My understanding of a Boddhisatva is someone who, through dedicated practice and the intense love and presence that comes from this practice, commits themselves to being present for the betterment of all beings. Jizo travels with all who are suffering, and particularly stands with, walks with women who have lost children, and children and travelers.

While I was visiting and practicing with this community on the side of Larch Mountain outside of Portland, we cleaned and prepared the garden for women to come and honor their lost children. The Jizo statues were covered in leaves. The walking paths needed a raking. My friend who was living there let me know that the women would come and place red cloaks on the statues, leaving notes for their children, if they liked.

I didn't see the women come, but on the day they came, I felt a quiet and sadness settle into the land. I remember watching a spider who was waiting outside of the zendo and had woven a brilliant web in the early morning light. I wanted to wait and watch the women, to understand what they had lost, what they gained from their visit to Jizo. I had no context with which to understand their suffering, their comfort in Jizo.

12 years later, with the loss of a child to miscarriage, I gained some context for this experience. Now a year out from that loss, pregnant with a child who by all accounts is staying, I am reminded of the 2 year anniversary of the death of 27 children, women, and men, at Sandy Hook Elementary. I wrote, at the time, about naming evil and our complicity with evil. I did not connect to Jizo because I had not experienced loss like that yet. I did not connect to this memory because I had not come to name the deaths of children as loss I shared.

I also have come to see other losses in this light. The intense and continued loss of black life to the impunity and rage of the white police state hits me differently today, remembering my loss, Sandy Hook, and Jizo. Trayvon Martin was a child. Tamir Rice was a child. Eric Garner had been a child, was a parent. Michael Brown was a child. There are many others.

What would a garden for these deaths look like? Can we honor our personal losses in a context of honoring these deaths, these wrongdoings?

Maybe they are too different. Losing a child to a disease, miscarriage--too soon, too soon-- is real and painful, but with no recourse, no way to fix it. Losing a child to gun violence, untreated mental illness visited upon the vulnerable, and systems of racism and impunity around black peoples lives-- too soon, too soon-- point in the direction of a need to fix something. A need for justice.

But there is no way to fix the death. It happened. We are left with their absence, and suffering.

I have no doubt that Jizo is walking with all of these children. Where there is suffering, we need to not be alone. I buried the baby I lost on the land, last October. I have not been able to go back and visit that spot, out by one of the big old trees in the woods. But I'm thinking about getting some Jizo statues, creating a space where we can visit with those we've lost, for whatever reason. The land can hold these losses, and there are many-- alive and beyond-- who can help walk with us in this grief.  Let us walk in this grief, together, so we can better act to build justice and end impunity in our world.

7 pm, ET, December 16: I posted this in the morning, and as I was driving to an appointment with the midwifery practice I am working with, I heard about the death of over 100 children in Pakistan at a school. I find this devastating, I don't quite have words. But I want to acknowledge in this post that this happened, and connects with what I am writing.

Right now I am thinking: is there a garden big enough to hold the grief of our lost children? Is the whole world to be our mourning place? I don't know. I don't know. Maybe.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Against Biological Determinism, or, There’s Something Growing In There!

Warning, this is explicit, and about body parts. Don’t read if you prefer to not think about body parts or sex.

A skit of James Franco competing with a 4 year old from SNL-- and being 31 weeks pregnant-- inspired me to write about bodies and what they say about who we are.

The skit itself was silly, and made me laugh to myself as Franco (who is almost constantly channeling the dirty old man he will undoubtedly become) yells into the camera about seeing the scrotum of the father of a four year old years before the boy is born. “We play squash together. He took a hard dive and his balls came spilling out of his shorts. They were huge and red and Tommy [the four year old] was still inside them.”

What this reminded me of is the myth of the homunculus. I am not sure where I ran across this thinking, but I’ve always associated it with the deprivation of non-masturbation and genital identification with sexuality. The homunculus idea is that inside each individual sperm there is a miniature person, waiting to be implanted and grown to baby form. If, as Franco jests and 16th century philosophers posited, each sperm is a potential person, than masturbation for people with penises is really murder.

When I was a child, there were whispers of this old viewpoint in the Catholic school I attended from seventh through ninth grade. I was at an all girls school, however, so it was mostly discussed at the lunch table. Lucky for me, I was not from a devout home, so my suspicion of this thinking was high. Not so for other girls. Wide eyed and unsure of what their bodies were for, these girls were the most scared of what was going on down there. I remember listening to girls talking about sins of the flesh, and the risk of boys committing murder if they made sperm come out of them.

In 8th grade, we got to health class, and all these conjectures fell away, except for the specter of the homunculus, and its attendant question-- What are our bodies for? The sisters couldn’t help us, at least not with ease or self-awareness, as they had rejected the urges of the flesh, or sublimated them in good works and self-deprivation. But for we who knew we weren’t heading that way-- once we could believe we were desirable at all-- these questions loomed large. What happens down there?  What are our bodies for?

When I started having sex, it was with people with penises, and then people with vaginas. I found pleasure down there, and I sidestepped any concern about use and function by departing from heterosexual assumption at 15. Without the phantom mythic homunculus, I was free to see my body as my own, and the bodies of my lovers as something other than strictly speaking useful, as I had been taught in middle school. I also started being able to see erotic pleasure in more things than the body, or particular body parts.

In seminary, this experience I named in a feminist sense as body-god(ess)-talk, where the information and the vicissitudes of the body become a site for naming the divine, as a site for worship, as a place that moves between peoples, that creates something new. It wasn’t about reproduction, at least not in the normative sense. It was generative, and it was both about the body and not determined by it.

And then I started wanting to have a kid. I was 32 when I really started having that feeling, and I see this as part of healing for me. Part of rejecting that determinism of the body meant that I felt I also had to reject the possibility of family and parenting. So the desire to have children, from wherever it sprung, was something I repressed, much like those sisters in middle school (I knew I had more in common with them than I thought!). At 32 I stopped repressing, and started healing work to get ready to have a kid. And at 37, #1 came through my body into the world.

And now, #2. As the last weeks of pregnancy loom large, and my belly looms larger, I wonder about the homunculus, and the fear from which he comes. Am I carrying a fully grown being? Am I merely a vessel for this creature? Some conservative thinking about pregnancy and women’s roles would say, yes. The homunculus still lives in the hearts and imaginations of those who do not see what is really happening with pregnancy.

The symbiosis of pregnancy, the incredible interconnection, and the development of a being from very little to a baby is pretty amazing. But it’s not anything to privilege over any other life changing event. Oftentimes I have heard mothers say-- you have no idea until you become a mother, until you are pregnant, until you are nursing, until you are until you are……. You know, this is true! But it’s no more true than someone having other body experiences that are singular, that are personal, that do not ultimately determine who that person is. We are bodies. We have experiences. They are powerful.

What is happening to me is a fundamental experience of the body, but so are most other things. The desire to compare or privilege this experience over other bodies and their experiences recreates the world where the homunculus can grow big in our psyches. And I am truly not saying that what is happening to me is small-- or unimportant. But it does not determine value, or create more meaning or value than other bodies and their experiences. If I did that, if I wanted to have the pregnancy pedestal made for me and other people with uteruses who choose to grow babies in them, then I would be risking the loss of my sense of self to this experience. And I would be ignoring the rich depth of body experience and sources of the divine in my life before having children, before I chose this path of engaging my biology. 

This is my body, in all its vicissitudes, holiness, and commonness. And I honor the body growing in me, as a part of me, and as not all of me.  And with each birth, with each experience of the body, I wave goodbye to the homunculus ghost in this misogyny machine, and know there is more than what we bring to the project of nurturing life, in ourselves and in each other, in this world soon changed by someone new. We'll see who they are. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

So Many Levels

I’m still pregnant, heading into week 26 this week, spending a lot of time feeling tired and hungry. This pregnancy, during which I am only part-time employed, living much more simply than when pregnant with my first child, makes for a real slowness and awareness of the minute movements of time and life. I started feeling this baby moving inside me at week 16, it’s true, and within the past 2 weeks, she’s been dancing up a storm on all parts of my insides. I am lucky because I can actually stop what I am doing and pay attention to these small movements, which feel so big inside of me, and notice my reactions to them.

Mostly I am happy to be feeling confirmation of life growing inside of me. Mostly I am grateful to be able to build more on this land than just farms, just community. Mostly I am aware that my world focus has gotten so much smaller these past months than ever I was allowed to be before. And mostly that is a good thing.

Except when it’s not. Yesterday I attended a really lovely, well-organized and spirited rally and sit-in as part of Rising Tide’s work to stop a fracking pipeline through Vermont. 60 people went into the governor’soffice to demand attention to this issue, and over 30 stayed in the buildinguntil getting arrested at around 8 pm last night.  I didn’t make it inside to the sit-in, but was able to enjoy music, speakers, chanting, and friendliness among the 200 odd folk who stood outside in solidarity.

The thing that struck me most about my experience of this was that I had an intense sense of dissonance throughout the rally. I felt disoriented. I felt tired. I kept on looking for other pregnant women, or women with small children. There were a few. I felt lonely and confused. I managed to say hello to one or two people I knew, but expressed the sentiment-- Today is a really pregnant day for me, but I had to make it out for the rally.  I had such a sense of the bigness of this rally, the level that was trying to be affected through political action and civil disobedience. And it felt just weird, somehow disconnected with what I am focusing on just now.

I am also reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. This text unpacks the systemic racism of mass incarceration, and the legal buttressing that allows for a reproduction of the injustices and oppression of Jim Crow in our current moment. Arrest, detainment, prosecution, incarceration, and life after release mirror the legal segregation and discrimination of Jim Crow. It’s painfully obvious. It’s sick and wrong.

As I read this book, in between moments of deep fatigue and midwife appointments, I find myself again aware of a dissonance in my body. How can I be so completely focused inward and still make any sense at all of this vast and brutal system? How does it sit with me, to be living so small, when there is so much bigness to work on?

It’s kind of too much. I want to watch television and eat chips. I want to dream of an ease of life that doesn’t exist for anyone. I want to think I am bringing up children in a world where we actually do make a difference to the bigness of injustice. I believe that, and it’s hard to hold it next to the smallness of my life right now. All I end up thinking about is the knitting of life in me, the uncertainty of what is to come in the next weeks and months.

I’m 41 and planning on a VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Cesarean). Because of my age, my weight, and the type of suturing I had done (with no knowledge or consent), I am told I have a 35% chance of success. I am working hard to say no to this quick decision, categorization, and looking to work with others who can act hopefully because there is so little certainty about any of this, and hope informs outcome. I work on this knowing that this is what is best for my child-to-be, and best for me. I also work on this because I know fundamentally that what is happening to me is not a medical experience, and no matter how much I am medicalized, my body, this life, the prospect of being a parent again is so much more than what I am being told.

I have some awareness, some sense memory of working with the multiple levels of self, group, system, of mind, spirit, body, in workshops, movement meetings, therapies and relationships-- but never have I felt this so acutely within myself. It’s like all the levels are jumbled up inside of me, and I feel carried along in a stream that I have no control over. And so I kick, I stroke, I wriggle and pull myself along. I take it in, I gulp life like breath, and seek faith to bring me on and further down the way.

I am just one body in the world, wanting to live well and with health. I feel the intensity of my desire to know myself as whole and well, just as I feel the intensity of the life in me growing and wanting to be in the world. I know there is a connection between this highly personal experience and the work of world changing. I feel it, and yet can’t know it, just now. I can only remember that there must be a connection between all of these levels, and hope I can see them more clearly, when I have come ashore.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Being Brave

I'm pregnant again, climbing up week 16 of my third pregnancy, and feeling confident that this one will make it. We've had ultrasounds, appointments, careful diagnosis of this healthy pregnancy, and that's a great relief, if not resolve for all the anxiety and uncertainty that is just the truth with being pregnant, and the added truth of pregnancy after miscarriage.

My son turned four about a month ago, and we told him about the pregnancy after the 13 week ultrasound that confirmed the health and well being of this baby. He was ecstatic and convinced that the baby growing inside of me is a girl. He alternately pretends he is inside of me or is the newborn baby, and talks frequently about wanting to hug and kiss the baby, and perhaps have the baby sleep in his room. He often hugs my belly. I know this will get more complex as the baby is more visible, and finally born in February.

This news has made it possible for Forrest to ask all kinds of questions. First he asks if daddies can have babies. Then, where is the baby inside of you? And what makes someone a mommy or a daddy?

As a bisexual queer cisgendered (mostly) woman who loves and cares about the liberation of my trans and queer friends and chosen family, I have started to imagine what it looks like to answer these questions in a way that includes all of us, that doesn't problematize the reality of biology that does not determine who we are. And I have begun to answer these questions in that direction.

Can daddies have babies?
Most daddies cannot have babies, but some daddies can. Most mommies can have babies, but some mommies cannot.

Where is the baby inside of you? Where does it come out?
The baby is in my uterus. I will give birth to the baby through my vagina. In order to give birth to a baby, you have to have a uterus and vagina. You and daddy don't have a uterus. Some daddies have uteruses. Some mommies do not have uteruses.

What makes a mommy or a daddy?
Being a mommy or a daddy is about loving a child, and choosing to be a parent. Anyone can be a mommy or a daddy, or a nana, or papi, or parent.

I have started to talk to Forrest about the difference between body parts and gender. I have started to be really explicit about the words for body parts and talk about how this is only one part of who we are.

I see Forrest take this in, and he doesn't look upset or confused. He changes the subject rapidly, as with all conversations we have, and circles around to it throughout our days together. Sometimes he declares-- Most men have penises, but not all men. Or he suddenly shares that he wants to wear a skirt like mommy. Or he gets confused about the gender of his classmate, and I suggest he ask his classmate what they identify as.

Am I making things too complex for Forrest? Will this damage him later? I imagine some folks might think so. But when I am with my son in nature, talking about the complexity of plant growth, or when I am trying to explain to him the complex and vast family we have chosen and been given through life and lineage, he doesn't blink. He just keeps on asking questions, and I keep on trying my best to answer. Mostly I just try to tell him that whoever we are is okay, and that we don't need to worry about other folks, or even ourselves, so much. That it's all good and all right. We get to be who we are.

Recently, I was walking in the woods with a family member. I was sharing my desire to make the categories of gender light for my son, and the process of possibility I want to hold for him. I told her that he says he wants to be a ballerina. I told her about his gentle nature, his heart filled desire for beauty and appreciation for it everywhere. I told her he asks to wear skirts sometimes, that I need to get on that and find him some skirts to wear.

She smiled and let me know that all of that would be gone once he started school and was exposed to other kids. Then he would get the message from his peers, and stop talking about those things. And I let her know that what she was describing made me want to homeschool my son.

I've heard a lot of talk about giving young people the education they need-- the resilience to handle harshness and criticism, the ability to function in highly competitive environments and difficult situations. If I hold this beside the desire to help my son explore who he is in a playful and possible way, I see a recapitulation of conformity and a continuation of the marginalization that I experience, that my loved ones experience. I refuse that in my life. I refuse to collude with my own erasure, and the erasure of those I love, in the name of resilience and mainstreaming.

And this includes my son, whoever he is, and whoever he will become. Maybe he will be a ballerina. Or maybe he will be a corporate lawyer (gasp). He did tell me yesterday he did not want to be an author, and he did want to be a big cat rescuer. I suggested he study zoology.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Chickens, chickens, chickens, part 2: This is the Way the World Ends

Inspired by a piece I just read by Ben Hewitt, I will now try to share some of the story of our last day with our meat birds-- July 12. Warning: this gets a bit graphic. No, there are no graphic photos.


It's been almost a week since our first attempt at slaughtering our own chickens for meat. From waking at 7 to drive out and pick up the rented plucker to putting them in the freezer at 6 pm, we slaughtered and dressed 14 chickens. We didn't actually get started until around 11 am, and finished around 4, and let the chickens chill until 5:30, when I cut them and put them in our aunt's freezer. We also had a pretty solid lunch hour, so all tolled 5 hours for 14 chickens. Not bad timing for a fist go.

We started slow mostly out of reticence and insecurity. The four of us who signed up for this onerous task convened at 9, and we were still setting up, but the truth is we were slow at it. All of us wanted to do it. No one was forced. Our friend Aaron, the person with 1 or 2 slaughters already done, was our guide. He brought along a young friend Trevor, a rising senior at University of Vermont. And Norman, my partner, and myself made four. I felt like I was falling all over myself that morning, trying to be both hospitable and prepared, mindful and driven, alive to what was happening and still able to do it. I wanted to do it. I wanted to know what it was I was participating in.

It's not often that we get the chance to really know what we are participating in in this society. As a person of education and privilege, I know that there are so many people, beings on whose shoulders and back I stand in order to have the life I do have. I have had significant breakthroughs in this awareness over time, through accident and intention. But it's easy to fall into the stupor of the consumer. It's easy to forget the implications of the things we have.

If this is not ringing a bell to you, what I mean is that the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the accessories we use-- all of these are made somewhere, and often the where is far far away. Because of this distance-- of geography, culture, species-- it's easy to never know, or to never seek knowledge, or to actively ignore information that does not directly impact our lives. Mexican farmworkers treated like slaves while harvesting tomatoes on Florida farms? Feed lots in Colorado leeching nitrogen from cow manure into lakes and rivers? Factory workers killing themselves in China while churning out iPads? Not in my back yard. Not my problem.

So I approached chicken slaughter as a way to know what it is I am participating in when I eat chicken. It also was an attempt to unhinge from some of the industrial agricultural practices that are so very dangerous on so many levels. I think I have had some success on both of these fronts. I now know what it looks like to slaughter and prepare a chicken for eating. I now know what it feels and smells like.

We watched a video or two to refresh our memories on how to do this thing. We carried the first chickens to the cones, upside down, and put them in, let them chill out. We hugged each other before we started, and agreed to thank the chickens as we sliced the veins on either side of their necks. As the chickens struggled through their death throes, I watched and repeated thanks and sadness at their leaving. The blood was less than I thought, and painted the pallet the cones were tacked onto throughout the day. Within five minutes of their death, the chickens looked a lot like what we eat when we buy chicken from the store. Almost.

By far the hardest part of this process for me was the evisceration. For whatever reason, I didn't think that the inside of a chicken would want to stay on the inside. But it did. We spent a long time with those insides. And lucky for me, there were 3 other folks there who had a better handle on this than I.

I started to gravitate to the beginning of the process, moving the chickens to the cones, thanking them, saying goodbye, and bleeding them out. I also felt competent using the plucker, and removing the feet and gland on the hind of the chicken. Then I got stalled. So I went back to the cones, and the plucker, and hoped the rest would get done.

And it did. Though we had a few close calls, all 14 were slaughtered and chilling by 4 pm, and we were able to clean up and harvest some gratitude greens and scapes for Aaron and Trevor. I returned the plucker in time, and came home to chop half of the chickens in half, dry them as well as I could, and carry them in 4 paper shopping bags up the hill, where they sit, quiet, white and pink.

I am writing this easily, as if I am telling a story that did not happen to me, that I did not do. The truth of this is that I killed living beings almost a week ago, and though I haven't the stomach to eat them yet, I imagine I will, over time. I took a knife and I bled something with a brain, with an insides that looks a lot like my insides.

This happened, and it was ugly and smelly and hard.

We have a neighbor who shares the house here, staying in a large studio apartment on the land. She had no interest in participating in the slaughter. In fact, we could find her often chatting up the birds when she got home from work. She is a sweet and compassionate woman. She told us, that day, that there was a calm over the land, that the seriousness of the task at hand felt respectful.

I like to think this is true, that this was how the world ended for these chickens. But the truth is a lot more complex than that, a lot messier, a lot more than I can really grasp, yet. Maybe it's a small thing, what we did last week, but it is changing me. This life is changing me, and I hope to be up for the lessons I am learning.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Work Smarter, Not Harder

At my second farm apprenticeship experience, back in 2007, one of my supervisors was a very smart and generally grumpy and loving man who taught me a lot. Chris McNichols, spouse and co-farmer with Amy Johnson, managed the 6 acre Red Hill Farm in Aston, Pennsylvania, where a 120 family CSA had pick ups twice weekly throughout the long and balmy Pennsylvania growing season.

I worked 40-60 hours a week, with no car and no other employment. Walking, biking, bussing to get where I needed to go, I ended up sleeping in a friend's spare room and getting a ride in early morning with Amy. As sunrise spilled across the hollows, we pulled ourselves up and over hills in the surprisingly rickety canvas topped jeep, and worked morning and afternoon in greenhouses and fields growing all manner of vegetable.

Chris would come in for the afternoon shift, as Amy and he would split childcare with their two children to make their farm dream possible. He would get to sleep in with the kids and roll in around lunch. By afternoon, after I'de passed out on the floor of the farm office for 45 minutes before grabbing round 3 of coffee to motivate for weeding in the sun, Chris was the motivator and teacher I needed to get through the hump of fatigue and heat that was the norm for me.

Chris was never one to look at a problem and rush in. He would think, he would fiddle, and he would come up with the solution that made the most sense, often with the least amount of exertion.
Was this laziness? Indeed not. He taught me the saying he lived by-- Work smarter, not harder. And he lived it. And he impressed me no end with his forward thinking and effective planning.

In this incarnation of my farming life, I've taken on this saying with a vengeance. My partner and I talk. A lot. We talk about multiple solutions. We talk about myriad problems. We talk. And this means things slow down. We're sitting on the need to slaughter our first round of chickens because of all the complexity in getting the systems together. We're slowly working on finishing the high tunnel as we talk about the best ways to move forward with labor and resources. We talk.

Does this make us lazy? Sometimes, I think it does. I cannot tell you how many folks, when I share the vision for life on the land here, echo an interest and desire for the same life, saying, I've thought about that, I'de like to do that, too. My initial response, which I keep to myself, is fear. Fear that there is nowhere for the food to go, the market is saturated, my thoughts and desires are pedestrian and useless.

But then I realize that there is a fundamental difference between thinking a thing and doing it. In a society that so values the thought over the action, that values symbolic work over actual physical work, and that denies the basic reality that you cannot eat money, it's easy to get caught up in the thinking about the doing. Sometimes I feel pressure build in me, of the undone task, the project incomplete. I feel physically uncomfortable with the not-doing. Never mind the overwhelm, which I can handle a bit better than the pressure. And so, when the thing gets done-- the plants planted, the weeding started, the purchasing for the project done-- there is a relief, a release of energy into the world.

Are these actions the best solutions? I honestly can say I don't know. Sometimes the thinking about a thing can deaden it, can make any solution seem incomplete. Time will tell, and perfection in farming is both illusive and truly an inductive process. We try a thing. It works or it doesn't. We talk to other farmers. We talk to ourselves. We try another thing. It works or it doesn't. And on and on.

I got to help with haying for the first time the other week, and it was loads of fun, at the very fine Center Farm less than 5 miles from us-- neighbors, as rural standards go. I was one of a handful of grown-ups, and a number of teens. It felt exciting to be able to keep up even in the slightest with teenagers. At one point I mentioned to one of the farm boys-- maybe 17-- the saying Work smarter, not harder, and he had something to say about it. He said, Sometimes that's true, but sometimes the work is just hard. And you do it. And if you don't do it, it doesn't get done. Farming is hard work.

Smart kid.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Chickens, chickens, chickens. Or, the problem with civilization.

I hate our chickens. There, I've written it.

Layers at 2 days
We ordered 40 chickens from the local seed and feed store this spring, and I was excited for this new adventure in farming. I've been growing vegetables for 7 years, and I thought it would be a good challenge to take on this new crop, as it were. 30 we ordered for meat. Yup, meat. And our plan is to slaughter them ourselves. And 10 for laying.

A short in our order, and the loss of 8 chickens due to pasty butt or weasel attack leaves us with 31. 31 chickens we are stuck with, for whatever duration.

Why don't I like these chickens? Could it be their intense creepiness? Or perhaps their highly effective digestive system? I don't hate them equally, it's true. The layers are much more enjoyable, if only because they seem more like actual chickens, and less like the genetic experiment of some farm scientist whose only concern is the rapidity of growth of their output. We bought the one step away from the every popular Cornish Cross chicken, who is touted to be ready for eating in 8 weeks. The Red Rangers we are growing are now 9 weeks, and they are giant reptilian creatures with feet like pterodactyls and as aggressive as all hell. And it is so so clear that we humans have bred them to be twisted parodies of actual chickens, and I only know this because we have other chickens as well. I imagine if we hadn't gotten other chickens, I would not know that chickens could be anything but mean and desperately hungry. All. The. Time.

Laying chicks at 8 weeks
The other chickens, the layers or layers we are raising for meat, are much more chicken-like, in whatever mythic conception I have of Chicken. They peck. They squabble. They leap and almost fly. They grow in a recognizable trajectory. They seem to be having some level of development, getting more or less adventuresome. I see that they flock together. I see that they look for things to interest them. The meat birds mostly eat, shit, and sit. And as the time comes closer to their end, I see that their weight is too much for them, and they aren't strong enough to carry their weight. But they still eat. All. The. Time.

I think what bothers me most about the Red Rangers is how they have been manipulated by us humans. I know farm animals are useful. They are meat. They are eggs. They are manure. But they are beings nonetheless, even with their specific purposes, having been bred. I know acutely that all of these birds have no place at all in the wild eco-system surrounding us. The 7 birds that had their blood sucked and heads taken off by weasels one night was enough to convince me that farming is not, strictly speaking, natural. And the Red Rangers, in their intense appetites, body dysfunction, and aggression, are a clear example of this ending of nature.
Red Rangers at 4 weeks

Michael Pollan, of Food Rules and Omnivores Dilemma fame, has a really good book about what human attempts at wrangling nature are about, called Second Nature. The irony of my listening to it was that I took an heirloom seed workshop with one of the more pretentious gardeners I have interacted with at the same time. I would travel to this gardener's home and see the intensely manicured gardens, with vibrant bursts of diversity and elevation in gardening, and listen to Michael Pollan describe the rapid dissection of his illusions about gardening as being anything about 'getting back to nature.' I'm glad I listened to this book, digested it as I drove and weeded at the student farm I worked at Westtown School. The lesson I took from it is that there is no mythic idyllic natural relationship between humans and nature, and attempting to capture that in a farm is crap. What we need to recognize is the struggle with nature we have. And instead of giving up, we must attempt to harness natural processes appropriately, with reverence, respect, and humility, and know that, in the end, we lose.

I see this all over the place in Vermont. Farmhouse ruins, overgrown hoop house frames, even decaying stone fences in the woods, all point to the winningness of nature. At some of my most cynical times, I've been comforted by the television series Life After People. In it, various scientists speak about what will happen to the infrastructures and eco-systems that are part of civilization, and what would happen to them if humans ceased to exist. It's comforting to know that nature would take things back, and there would continue to be life after our various attentions or inattentions.

Maybe I just think the Red Rangers are human meddling gone too far. Maybe I am having a hard time being confronted with what exactly we humans have done, and what I have benefited from in my consuming habits. I think by raising these birds myself I am responding to this distance from my food. It's important to engage this process, and I'm glad for it. I just wonder if on the other side, I'll be a vegetarian again.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Turning Over, Overturned

It's mid-May, and I am learning that where I live, life is simultaneously waking up and bursting out with newness. Leafing out, spring bulbs, the small kernels of flower bud on lilacs, dandelions and grasses greening up a landscape that has been grey since late October. Wow. Late October.

As I wander around downtown Montpelier, or stop in at the Adamant Coop, I express an ecstasy I think I have earned. And my joy is often met in equal measure by my neighbors. Temperatures are topping out in the 70s. The once frozen streams are running high.  We've made it through, I've made it through a long winter that held on like oh god I don't even know-- like a mama bear holding her cub, encircling us in cold and quiet for many months. I've written elsewhere about this, and am now so glad that I can look back on it. It is maybe 5 months away, winter. That feels like an eternity.

I cleaned out the hearth today. I walked into the cluttered living room, and couldn't take the flakes of moss and bark anymore. I swept, vacuumed, stowed the wood stove tools. I put the vase of daffodils my family picked me for Mother's Day on the stove. It felt good, and I like that room a lot more now.

And today I threw open all the windows, put the screens on the doors, and wandered around outside with friends, imagining what this farm and life will look like. It's not like we haven't been working for it, but it's easy to forget, when surrounded by piles of sod as big as the piles of snow outside your front door 2 months ago, what all the work is for.

We've been beginning to change the landscape around us. I've been weeding in the raspberries. I've been digging out sod in preparation for the high tunnel kit we'll get next week. I've been planting seeds and repotting small plants, their numbers clearly marked, each imagined bed space counted, planned.

And tonight, the miracle of the plow came to visit. I have accepted that this season will be a slow one, and decided to go the complete route of flipping sod and watching it decompose before doing much else. Our neighbor angel came along in his orange tractor, with a good old plow to slice into and turn over sod that has been growing for maybe 100 years in that spot. He backed into the bed space-- only 3000 square feet this year-- and made his way, painting brown into this rapidly greening earth.

I felt, as he did this work, as I ran after to help flip pieces that got stuck, tromping on tubes of earth and feeling the soil settle in my toes, like the world was flipped, the script of my inadequacy, my doubt, overturned in the face of the possibility of this good soil. There is so much left to do-- chicken housing, construction, soil amendments, barn clean out that never ends, bed making, and on and on-- and getting there will seem almost impossible until it's over. But tonight, grunting as I pulled on sod in the gathering night, I felt powerful, and capable, and awake. And I knew, for a few moments, the joy of being close in to things, touching life with bare hands and strong arms.

These are the gifts I seek, and the gifts I want to share, when the time is right. Welcome the gift of this bodied life, and the work of hands and hearts. Happy spring.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Your Own Private (Kitchen) Nightmare

I've been trying to figure out why I am obsessed with watching a television show called Kitchen Nightmares. I think it's quite popular, but just to not assume that anyone reading this is as interested in this media train wreck, let me describe what I think it's about.

Gordon_Ramsays_Kitchen_NightmaresKitchen Nightmares is about the externalization of our worst struggles onto people, places, and food. In this television show from the Fox network, a very dashing British chef, Gordon Ramsay-- who I will say has such a well-developed presence in USA reality cooking shows, it's quite impressive-- visits struggling kitchens around the country and helps them to shape up.

Almost all shows have the same formula. The deluded owners of the small restaurant, with debt in the thousands or more, marriage falling apart, children who are oppressed, and antiquated systems in the kitchen and dining room, try to prove to Chef Ramsay that their restaurant is the best in the world. This, of course, is not the case. The show quickly progresses to various reveals of filthy kitchens and broken families. Chef Ramsay doles out the tough love and accountability, and we witness a transformation. Couple reunites, dining room is redesigned, menu made over, and conflict resolved.

These moments of transformation are the ones I jump to when I'm watching the show. It gets pretty gross seeing rotten food, mice, screaming matches, and poor dining experiences over and over. But I never get sick of the transformative moments. They look pretty scripted to me, or if not that, then distilled into pat conversations with not a lot of process involved.

But even if I absolutely don't believe the transformation, the acceptance of responsibility gets me every time. I see families hugging, or doing something on the other side of these conflicts, and I feel full of emotion. When the owners walk into their redesigned space, I feel a thrill of joy at someone's dreams being realized. When there is the inevitable struggle at the re-launch, I am rooting for them to get over themselves and step up to do hard work and keep things together. And they do, by and large.

Gordon Ramsay is the closest thing to a modern day messianic figure that I have encountered. He is the latest and greatest great white hope. He is sometimes rude, and often swearing, but he has a mission-- to save the poor under dwellers of local cuisine, and he is good at his chosen task. Or at least the show is produced well enough to catch me in the constant cycle of desperation and salvation it offers.

I am certain that it's drama manufactured and canned for viewers. It's reality tv, yes? And I've only gotten roped into reality tv with cooking shows. But it doesn't matter, somehow. I'm right there with the families, and I'm moved.

At some point during watching a show, I had the thought-- I want Gordon Ramsay to come and do a Kitchen Nightmare intervention to my family. I want him to come in and share hard truths, and then I want it to be fixed.

I want a remodeled house for my parents, complete with all the things they need to be happy for the rest of their lives. I want a level of calm and togetherness that I remember from my childhood, from road trips around the country, my father smoking a cigar, the sweet smell wafting over the bright red carseats to my face, as I leaned agains the window, looking out, counting cars. I want the difference between the front of house and kitchen to be clear, and each of us to have our roles, each integral to the running of our flagship restaurant-- family.

I want a messiah to come and make the years of confusion, angst, and conflict away. Just away.

It's no accident that this is so compelling, given the complex and painful history I have with my family of origin. And it's no accident that I skip the conflicts-- because I know them well. I think some folks must watch the show for the spectacle, like the Jerry Springer of restauranting. But I want the resolve, the beauty and order of the finish. And I know it doesn't happen like that.

There is no messianic truth-teller. We don't resolve and move on as if we were following a script. We struggle, we backslide, we hurt and heal and hurt again. And we stick with it.

Things with my father have been going really well. I helped move he and my mom home yesterday. After a couple of weeks of holding our breaths to see how his open heart surgery would fair, he is back where he wants to be. He has bird feeders full of seed, millions of photographs from a life of observation to sort through, and quiet that he needs to rest deeply into his healing. My mother is back in her element, comfortable with her home, and with a long list of numbers to call in her community for support, attention, care.

I have left them in their un-remodeled home, with the same baggage and history that we started with at the beginning of the weekend. But this return feels better, even without Gordon Ramsay knocking down our doors. It's not easy, or clear. But it's real and honest, and it suffices. We don't do it right, but we do it, make family, choose family with each conversation and aid we offer each other. Without it, there would be nothing to heal, and we are all worthy of healing.

We just have to heal ourselves, and each other.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Acts of Faith

Welcome to April in Vermont, where temperatures wildly shift and there's about a foot of snow still on the ground. Welcome to the farmer whose most recent experience is in Pennsylvania, where even with a snowy winter, crops grew through the coldest times in the high tunnel and harvests started in February or March and continued through the summer. Soil turning would happen anywhere from now to within 2-3 weeks.

Now, I am looking at getting into the ground in May. Another month. Even with glorious sun and one day with temps in the 50s, it's hard to believe that this day will come, when the earth is visible, and the seeds I have purchased can be put to good use.

It is the job of every farmer, I think, to plan and envision the future. For me, as a newer farmer on new land, the vision feels more like a dream, more like something that might or might not happen in the face of so much uncertainty. Having land does not mean anything will grow on it. Having time and seeds doesn't mean that there will be harvest. Getting from seed packet to harvest, though I've done it 8 or more years now, is a long and uncertain process. I can plan and envision. I can do my best. I can try to listen closely to the land, and respond appropriately. There are no guarantees. The science of farming is powerful, needed, and all the knowledge in the world cannot control the outcomes of planting and growing food.

My father is having surgery to replace a valve in his heart. He called to tell me last week that it will be a cow valve that will replace the one that currently is so covered in plaque that it has a hard time opening.  As the time for the surgery gets closer, I am having the desire to know more about it, and the subsequent desire to know nothing about it. I want to be with my father during this time in the most authentic way I know how, and I'm not so sure understanding all the science behind it will help me with that.

Because I believe that science can explain itself as much as it can, and there is still a vast uncertainty to this surgery. Because the faith I need to believe in my father's chances for success is not based in science. Because I believe in the requirement that we engage in acts of faith-- wild leaps of possibility into a great uncertainty, with the hopes for the best possible outcome-- in order to live our most full and meaningful lives.

I know my father continues to move, willing or no, into the acts of faith that will define these years for him. I know I am embracing faithful leaps with this risky, and well planned, farm venture. These acts of faith are powerful and humbling, and leave us both leaping into the stream of life that will carry us where it will. Where it wills, and where we will find ourselves, on the other side.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Promises, Promises

Today is the first day of spring, according to the cycles of the sun, the tilt of the planet, the turning of the wheel. Equinox-- when all things are equal, and the dial is switched, wherever you are, marking the turning of the season.

It snowed here in Vermont today, large heavy snow flakes that looked more like mini-snowballs, or maybe instant icicles as the snow landed on already slick packed snow. We have about 2 feet all tolled on the ground, and this snow today felt like a big f-you to the promise of spring.

Promises, promises. I imagine some jilted girlfriend in my reckoning of the unfulfilled promise. Too many disappointed lovers taught me long ago to hold back on the promise. Instead, I opt for a range of possibilities, and a healthy dose of hope.

playing with Forrest, 2011
It's a season of promises foiled. My father got a kidney transplant in November, and had been quickly adapting to a new-found freedom from dialysis and all its effects. For a full 2 months he was looking towards life after quarantine more mobile, more energetic, more. The promise of this incredible risk paying off, this incredible gift being accepted by his body, was palpable in his speech, his glowing face. Health was within reach.

And then came the stenosis, and the specter of lost energy moved in for the duration. He's looking at a valve replacement, and holding onto the daily gift of his life in the face of a lot of uncertainty. Is there a promise on the other side of this risk? Is there some imagined guarantee for this next step on the medical tilt-a-whirl? No, not this time.

Something's changed with my father, with all of us, since the transplant. In another post, I wrote about transformation and resurrection. There is a palpable sense that this level of risk has been entirely worth every single day of the life my father has now. The ability to be present has presented itself. Suddenly, there is now. Before the transplant, I think we were all waiting, and the waiting meant we weren't really aware of what was happening. The discomfort of dialysis, the abbreviated visits, the risks of it, felt entirely wrong. And I am also grateful for the dialysis that kept my father alive for a year before this miracle kidney came along.

And it happened. A kidney did come, and that wasn't a promise, at all. When he was offered this kidney, he jumped, and I mean truly jumped at the opportunity. There wasn't anything that was going to stop him-- not just completing dialysis, not night driving, not anything that was challenging to him. He got there, he took the risk. He saw the risk as a promise, and it paid off. His new kidney is well, so well in fact it's as if he never had kidney function issues at all.

What does this wellness mean in the face of a heart stuck and slowed by plaque accrued through dialysis and age? It's not an easy one to figure out. I've been walking around angry, sad, confused. And then I talk to my father on the phone, and am reminded of the life so earnestly lived, now that the space has opened up for him to live it.

My father talks to me about his music, his art. He talks to me about the moving of the seasons out his window, the frozen lake, the birds, the photographs he is taking. He talks about how he has a quality of life in these months since his transplant that he never thought he would have again.

When I was little, like 8 or 9, my father and I would go running together along the road by Narragansett Bay. The first mile was a glorious down hill skip, while looking at suburban houses and yacht club boat races. We reached Gaspee Rock and had a flat run for the second mile, down through more expensive and tree lined streets, by the entrance to the club, and out to the point. And then we turned around. I would do well until we reached the hill. And though I tried, my father, more often than not, would carry me up that hill on his shoulders.

I'm not going to make some metaphoric leap to my father carrying me, even now, as he lives these different days. It's not like that, we're all adults now, and I don't think I need to be ashamed of my sadness and frustration.  I will say, however, that this journey is a long jog with a lot of hills going up. We reach a plateau, and then the next step is shown to us. No certainty, no promises. Just one step at a time, and often those steps are laborious. I realize now that there are no promises of this time, and to have them, would be as bad a plan as a promise of flowers in Vermont on March 20.

So let go of the promise, the expectation. See what is. We will see, if we are lucky, what is next.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

On Knowing It's a Leading

So I just got home from a long day at Woolman Hill, a Quaker retreat center in Deerfield, Massachusetts. I attended one day of a weekend gathering of Friends who hold a concern for climate change and environmental issues. I made the compromise with my partner to go only for one day, and managed to do it. I drove 2 1/2 hours each way, and spent a full day in worship and discussion sessions with 30+ Quakers from around the New England Yearly Meeting-- the regional association that connects individual meetings to each other.

That's an 18 hour day. But I'm wired now, or maybe filled with the Spirit of the day. Sometimes it's hard to tell.

The gathering was well ordered-- which is Friendspeak for well organized and responsive to the needs of those gathered. For me it was an introduction to New England Quakers. Though I was raised in Rhode Island, and have spent most of my life in New England, I have never been a Quaker in New England until now. There is a whole new layer of this region that is opening up to me. I am intrigued, and interested in learning more over time, at gatherings like this one, at the annual gathering of Quakers in the summer that happens somewhere in New England. This year it is in Vermont. I am feeling lucky about that.

Discussion was lively, and I'm glad I stuck around for the evening session, even with the resulting return to my living room by 12:30 (now 1:30, with the leap forward). A moment struck me so sweetly, so powerfully, from this last session that I would have hated to miss.

One of the participants stood, as we were discussing paying attention to where our hearts lead us in responding to the needs of the world, wondering about if we can get a 'leading'-- again, Friendspeak for  the pull of ministry in our lives-- from another person. She shared that a loved one was struggling with a life threatening illness, and she felt led to be with her and help her. She was asking if this leading was possible, and if it was enough. As she asked this last part, she began to express emotion, and the rawness of her concern for her loved one.

The drop in the room was palpable. In another post I have written about leveling down, where a member of a group surfaces a conflict, issue, struggle, truth that brings the group to a deeper level of understanding about what is happening. This was a level down that I could feel with my body.

The response of other participants, and one of the facilitators, brought us deeper and through. The immediate attention to her, the outpouring of compassion, and the naming of what was going on with her in the context of our work together, was genius, was very well ordered indeed.

I think it is pretty clear that on a rational level, a human level, the care for those we love is so crucial to our wellness, our wholeness in the world. But the guilt and powerlessness of feeling like this care is not enough, is somehow not noble enough in the face of the largeness of something like climate change,  can be paralyzing. This Friend who shared her concern and story was surfacing something for all of us-- a fear that no matter what we do, no matter how natural and right that doing is, it will not be enough. And this fear blocks our knowing-ness of the authentic leadings that are calling to us.

In this gathered group, contradiction to this paralysis, as well as loving understanding, brought us all to a place of compassion for ourselves in our lives, and made the connections we needed to hear in order to feel like we would not have to abandon ourselves to this work. In fact, we are a part of this work, and our loved ones, our home meetings, our families, are a part of this great turning work we are building in our own ways.

Something else that was shared over and over again during the day was that we need to build love, we need to say yes to it, and by loving more completely, we will see a way through. I have a lot of resistance to this, because it sounds pat to me. Demon cynicism raises his head.

But in the context of this leveling down, I am seeing love differently. If I love more completely, see loved ones all around me, both human and non-human loved ones, what then will my leading be? To respond with love to the illness of loved ones is natural, right, and true. And if that loved one is a pasture? And if that loved one is an ancestor wronged, seeking reconciliation? Or a stream, blocked by ill use?

The call of an authentic love, leading us to care and bold response, is powerful, and there for us, when we listen and open to its working in the world. I am grateful for the teachers who showed me this today, and this discipline is one I hope to live into, as this phase of life takes root on this land and in the community.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Spring, despite itself

Today the temperature is hovering in the mid-teens, and with the wind, it feels closer to zero. There have been intermittent snow showers, a hazy sun obscured and finally gone for the day as steel gray clamped on the skyline. The mountains are obscured by slow moving clouds and fog. We have been running the wood stove on sticks Norman has cut from dead trees in our yard, as we ran out of our bought wood almost a month ago.

It's cold. It's winter. In Pennsylvania (though I know this winter has been different) I would have planted onion seeds with seventh graders in the greenhouse by this time, been harvesting from the high tunnel with morning work crews, and had delivery of my season of seeds and potting mix from Vermont Compost (another irony being that I now live within 5 miles of this fine living growing medium selling establishment). This is a very different season.

I had a revelation of this difference on the thaw last week. For three days temperatures soared into the 40s. I went for a mid-morning run in only leggings and fleece. I closed my eyes into the sun, running down the hill on the road. I got to see mud and the erosion of these unpaved back roads. I got a taste of the fifth season in Vermont called mud season. I have the wrong shoes.

And though the light and warmth was a blessing and surprise, it did not, on the whole, make me happy. I felt robbed of time, like I should have been planting onions already. Like I was making a mistake, in fact I still was in Pennsylvania. I also felt scared, scared of being one step closer to getting into soil, starting seed in the basement, making a go of this farm. It was a lot to get from a day in the sun, but I took it.

Lucky for me, it froze up again on Sunday and we haven't looked back. I get to have my Vermont winter. I get to plan and take the time needed to learn what I need to learn. I've written a survey for folks on their farm loving habits. I've begun to clean out the basement, plan for seedlings, chicks, workspace for building a hive. We've opened our business bank account, and I am pricing supplies.

But that's not the whole story. In the past days and weeks, as day length increases, there has been an interesting and much forgotten experience from my youth-- indoor spring. A proliferation of ladybugs have attached to our bathroom window. Spiders we brought in with the wood are getting fat on our fly population. There was a large assassin bug in our pantry. The grapevine given to us by a beloved family member and friend is sprouting new leaves in our downstairs south facing bathroom.

These are all promises of a spring that I know is waiting under all this snow, past the zero temperatures and 20 mile an hour winds. At lunch with the men who came to prune our orchard of plums, pears, apple, apricot, and cherry, the joke was when Norman asked, We do get spring here, right? And the reply--Yes, around the 4th of July. But that's only a story we tell ourselves. What's true is life is waking up, even in this cold, and we have to pay attention to its awakening, and welcome whatever it brings.

Happy spring.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Open Way Farm: The Plan

From the wilds of a north-central Vermont winter, we are dreaming of peas. Dreaming of chickens, high tunnels, functional barns and farm stands. Dreaming of bright air and seasons long growth. We are dreaming, and we are planning.

I just completed round one of a business plan, projecting out three years for the farm, and projecting further in visioning the long terms potential for this land and community. Lucky for me, I have nine folks out there in the world who are looking at it and critiquing it in the next few weeks. I did ask them, but they could have said no, so I am lucky, and grateful.

What's in this plan? The biggest aspect of the plan is to begin the financial engine of our homestead and small market farm, and to ground that engine in this good earth and space. These first years will be full of log jams, confusions, failures, and unexpected turns in the road. And each turn will be towards a long term sustainability, or at least that's the plan.

But I know that plans are meant to be thwarted and thrown in the trash heap, along with all the will and certainty of vision, in the face of the following that is required of me. I have decided very specifically that I am following God(ess) and the impulses and leadings within me, if meeting my joy and the world's need, are part of that plan.

This is a hard won belief and decision. To listen to my self, my self in relief, in reflection, in impulse and push, is not an easy thing, and not something I have always, or mostly trusted. But I'm here, working it out. I refuse to mock my desire, the movement within myself. I refuse to be suspicious of myself any longer.

This does not mean I do not plan, however! In some early board work, I remember being introduced to the article The Tyranny of Structurelessness. This article drove home what I had been experiencing in many small community based groups of which I was a part. The resistance to structure within groups leads to impotence and solipsism. It also leads to a lack of accountability and a sense of disconnection to a greater context or work. It also means you don't get anything done.

So I attempt to put a structure on what can feel like a structureless call to the wilds of the broken world, my heart reaching out to express a desire for connection with the earth, with broken and hard working movement builders, with sustainability and self-sufficiency as teacher and muse. I put numbers on start up costs, though they feel like a lot of conjecture. I made a list of goals and plans. I wrote a 25 year visioning statement.

I was surprised at just how specific I could get. Residencies for burnt out activists. Community gatherings and events around the cycles of farm and season. Connections with urban organizations needing space to send leaders and workers for respite. Niche markets or CSA membership, or value added products, or, or…..

There's a lot of possibility when we vision. It's powerful, and potentially paralyzing. And it needs to be tested, I need to test my vision, against the good minds of folks I respect and care for. I also need to take my vision to the feet of the woodlands, to the feet of God(ess), to the space where I am both powerful and vulnerable, and where I must listen.

I am sometimes good at this, and sometimes too caught up in my own self-importance to stop and do this important work. The good news, I find in this inconsistency, is that no matter what I do lessons and shifting happens. I cannot control what will happen, despite any expertise or best efforts. In fact, trying to do that leads to a lot of pain. And so I act, I plan, I build, and I know it is just as much an inchoate cry as the unformed vision welling up in me. And yet, it suffices, and things progress.

So again I find myself holding possibility and uncertainty, but this time looking at cash-flow numbers and risk analysis. Is it any different from holding these two headed hydra without the numbers? No, in fact, it is not. I am glad for the numbers, as an anchor to what will be happening in the next weeks and months. I am also glad for the years of work to get here, and the listening I make space for, or that is forced upon me, by the closeness I seek with the world, with the land, and with God(ess).

Bring it on, world. I am ready.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Good-bye to the Fun-a-Day House

It's been a month of writing in between the life I am trying to build in Vermont, catching myself thinking about what to share online, trying to respond to life, to get into the writing groove again.

The  end of Fun-a-Day! The end of riding the wave of communal consciousness around shared art discipline! The end of racking my brain to think of what to write! The end of confronting the large pile of poo that is my resistance to writing, almost daily, and just starting. So much of writing for me is just starting. The resistance I have has many sources, but really only one activator-- myself. I can think myself out of writing any day of the week. From my poor writing skill to my lack of time to my fear of reprisal to my sense of doom at being seen-- all of these mind games have stalled this writing life.

And it's not just me. I know many writers and artists who struggle with whatever inner voices tell them that their vision, their work is not good enough. I am testimony to the illusion, the base falseness of those voices. I did it. And those voices, do they linger?

No longer. I will call this Fun-a-Day a success because it has stopped these demon thoughts and left instead a curiosity.

I wonder what will happen next.

Good-bye, Fun-a-Day House. Until next year.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Forrest and the Magical Moving Potty

I couldn't write yesterday because time just ran out, as I was dealing with all that this rural life brings. I spent a lot of time on the phone yesterday, and when I was finished, it was way too late to grease these creative wheels and write. So I let Fun-a-Day down, but I have not given up! Blog #27, Day #30 of Fun-a-Day, commence!
My son is potty trained, toilet trained, whatever you want to call it. He is "late" to it, at 3 1/2 years, although late is as late does, and to Forrest, he was right on time, so maybe that designation of late is meaningless. It has taken, and still takes, incentive of fruit leather or yogurt pretzel-- yes we have successfully limited the sweets in the house, though he does get his fair share of maple syrup and blueberry jam. That incentive, coupled with high fives and poopy/pee dances, often with our son naked and shivering in the morning cold, has sealed the deal. He is even using the potty at his new childcare space, that awesome one I wrote about before. Yes, it continues to be awesome.

Why is this of any interest at all to anyone at all? It might not be, but I want to write about a new phenomenon in our household-- the magical moving potty.

It started with -15 degree mornings. I suggested we move the potty into the living room so the drastically under-heated bathroom wouldn't be a disincentive. He was glad to oblige to this. And then it took on a life of its own.

I'm sitting in my bedroom, and poof the potty and Forrest appear. Stay with me, mama, he insists. I'm in the kitchen cooking, and wham-o, there's the potty, and Forrest, and he's pulling his pants down. I want to go upstairs to the bathroom and Forrest demands I bring the potty up so we can go together. Forrest can carry it around on any floor it might be on, and it seems we move it almost daily up and down.  It's quite a potty-rich environment we are in these days.

At the same time Forrest has discovered the Magic School Bus books. We don't have a television, but he discovered that there was more than one of these fun books, and he was hooked. They are a vehicle for teaching science, through the plot hinge of the magical bus that changes the size or shape of its passengers, and travels in time, and can change children from solid matter to light energy, et cetera et cetera, all under the watchful eye of Ms. Frizzle, a curly haired red-headed seamstress teacher who makes dresses that match the book's theme. It's really pretty exciting and I get reminded of science I used to know, or have integrated incorrectly into my daily knowledge.  Forrest is eating them up. Today we took out four of these books from the library.

So-- the magical moving potty is born. He is developing a comfort and love for his potty, where he does not read, but rather sits and tells himself magic stories. He is learning the subtle awareness of his body, and wants to share it with us.

I also know that Forrest is moving into the time of his life where closeness is marked and clear. At least I think he is. He is affectionate and connected with us. And he is not a little afraid, sometimes, of the dark spots, the funny noises, the open doors leading into places where no one is. It doesn't feel abnormal, but it does feel like the magical thinking of his growing mind is winning the day these days.

That's all right with me. When we live in magic-land, so much more is possible and interesting. But I see a lot more clearly now, thinking of his magical school bus, magical
potty, magical fear and grand imagination that proliferates almost every moment of his life-- I see our responsibility, as adults, to lead him through this magical and confusing land of newness. Because really there are no limits of imagination, and if he's left on his own with it, there are many places he could go that I don't want for him. Not yet. Not until he has the experience to connect with that dreaming.

I see Forrest's consciousness like an opening flower, in a rare season of winter, streaming life and learning and desire to be seen and loved for himself, in all his permutations. His room gets this lovely morning sun, and we've put two plants in his room. I want to nurture him just as we placed these plants, and care for them through the winter. And he'll surpass all my knowing, all my growth and imagining. He will imagine himself into his life, and I will be there, to witness and love him through it all.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

No gods no masters

#26 in Blog-a-Day for the month of January. Another brick in the wall.


I'm scared. I'm scared that all the leaders are dying and all that's left is our cynicism and smallness. I'm scared that the giants of my childhood, my imagined past and chosen values as an adult are leaving this plane, and I don't know who to turn to for inspiration. I'm scared that there won't be anyone left as I age, and that the possibility I feel in me is nothing but a remembered song from some late night campfire or end-of-workshop kumbaya.

Seeger. Baraka. Mandela. And it won't end. We die. We die like flies on a windowsill-- in droves. A generation is dying. It's just true. And it's a generation that has been a center of my fantasy, of my dreams.

When I was a teen, I was often called a hippie. I've written elsewhere that I have never self-identified as a hippie, but I do remember feeling like I was born in the wrong generation. It took my moving to West Philadelphia in my late 20s to feel like I had peers who were interested in the same justice and change that woke me up at night. I have felt out of step with a lot of my generation.

And the songs, the movements, the words and challenge of the cultural change agents of our time have buoyed me when I have felt isolated, and pushed me to keep on looking for places to explore the challenges, deepen my growth and commitment. What does racial justice look like? Sexual justice? Gender justice? Economic justice? Justice-love? The peaceable kingdom?  What is the truth of our dominant system? Where do we collude with these systems? How can we live differently? What is possible where we are-- right now?

And now, they are leaving us. Their truths remain, their inspiration. But I am scared. The giants are going. They've already gone.

I think Pete Seeger today really threw me-- ridiculous, I know, because he was in his 90s. It felt like a blow, a continued blow from learning about Mandela, and then Baraka. I was lamenting the lack of visible leaders like these giants, and then I read something that flipped the switch for me. 

A colleague and fellow GreenFaith Fellow, Beth Ackerman, shared her experience meeting Pete Seeger on the street:
I encountered Pete last October when walking down a street in Hudson, NY. I lit up at seeing him- his concerts and albums informed my childhood very much. Pete, can I take a photo with you? Oh, I'm late for something. So I said, "well thank you for ALL you have done and everything you have stood for". He leaned in and said, with a twinkle, "You don't know the dumb things I've done". And he was gone.
Reading this encounter stopped me. Suddenly he was real. Suddenly he had done dumb things, too. This resistance to being put on a pedestal is maybe one of the best things I could have read today, as he left, as the reality of this dying generation is coming home to me.

Because no one is on a pedestal, unless we put them there. Because no one is a giant unless we imagine them that way. And what kind of radical am I, recapitulating the hierarchy of goodness and power that these folks resisted so relentlessly? Isn't the shared humanity and connectedness of movements of people what holds up and feeds these leaders art, resistance, and change work? They were because we were, writ large. They represented by being a part of a generation, not separate from it.

I think that the next generation of leaders are born, working, and leading already. My inability to see them is simply my own limitation-- limitation of experience, or limitation of imagination. And really this next generation is not for me, but for my children, for my students, for younger generations. Maybe it's time for me to stop being so scared about what is leaving, and start watching what comes rushing in.

Sometimes it's easier to feel fear than mourning. I still feel scared, but I will try to keep my eyes open through my tears, and listen for the beating heart of the new prophets and leaders already living their visions in this world that needs them so much. We stand on the shoulders of these human giants, who brought forth our better selves with their passion, vision, and leadership. And if we're lucky, we reach forward to the new human people who take up the work, from generation to generation.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Winning the Battle, Losing the War

Blog #25 for Fun-a-Day. Time is a-passing.


I wrote in another post that I was so enamored with Vermont, that finding a couple of mouse poops on the countertop didn't trouble me.

Well, I was wrong. The mouse situation has not improved, despite my best efforts to remove the habitat and put up deterrents. In this weather-- temps hovering in the low teens and in the negative overnight, these mice are here to stay. Earlier, maybe a week ago, we heard a mouse scratching and scratching at the wall. We assumed it was trying to get into the living room in our naiveté.

Most striking is how every little thing, even a crumb or an oil spot, is a feast for this thing. I can't keep things clean enough. The countertop where we do most of our cooking is now clear of all cookbooks, laid with cayenne and peppermint oil. Despite this, there are daily leavings from our new, or not so new, residents.

This house is old. I am talking 1860s old, or some decade in the 1800s, anyway. Why should I be surprised? And it's not like I haven't lived with vermin before. Growing up, we contended with ants and moths. In college, I had my first taste of roaches. After college, Boston was roaches and rats. New Jersey was ants. Philadelphia was roaches, fleas, mice, and earwigs. West Chester was mice and centipedes. Why should mice wig me out?

Everyone, or just about, has mice issues in this neighborhood. I've heard many opinions, and a constant refrain of-- you need to borrow a cat. Luckily, our neighbor in the house has two cats, and we are leaving our doors open in case they want to come hunt in our kitchen.  The truth is that if you live rural, you have animals living off the leavings, the warm spots we leave behind. But this is hard for me, harder than other infestations, other issues.

I think what's different is that every mouse poop is a reminder that there is a closeness to life out here that I didn't really experience elsewhere. Nature is getting ready to snatch things back at a moments notice. I don't think that's wrong, or that it is my Manifest Destiny to conquer nature. I know nature will win, in the long run-- and by that I mean the time telling of the planet, not the time telling of human generations. I know this house is a blink in the eye to the planet. That's right, and also that's not my timeline.

On a warmer day this winter I circled the barn out back, pulling vines that had been left to crawl up it. I felt like a savior, just a little. But I'm not fooling myself-- they'll grow back, and stronger. They, and the mice, are the constant battles/relationships I will be contending with in my life here. The natural world has an array of teachers/mentors/combatants waiting for me, and I need to figure out how I am going to relate to them.

I also think that we are not planning to move again, and hoping and working for this to work for the long haul. The long term solutions to all this house's, and this land's challenges rest with us. We have to solve it. We have to work it out. There isn't a landlord, a job, a municipality to figure it out for us-- not in the long term.

So it's humbling, and feels sometimes like a war. My positive attitude and willingness to engage with all God's creatures is not consistent. Frying a sausage in a pan and realizing there are mouse leavings in it does a lot to chip away at that. But I'm learning. I actually took my son to the mall today to get plastic containers at a big box store. Now our blankets and pillows are safe. Score 1 for thinking proactively on habitat removal.

We'll see what the next days and weeks bring, but for now I am committing to not shying away from this new relationship with nature, knocking at my kitchen door. I hope I don't write about mouse poop again, but I get the sense I'll be living into and learning from this for years to come.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

That Vision Thing

Pretty sure the title above is from a Buffy the Vampire episode, but there you go. Day #26, blog #24 of Fun-a-Day, a month of art every day by artists from around the USA. We are family.
Here's an article I wrote awhile back, and submitted for publication, to no avail. So, the joy of self-publishing. It articulates really clearly the process that brought us to this land, and the vision we hold onto as we take our plunge. A lot of what my writing will be about, after this month, is this massive and human undertaking-- seeking community and healing on land the feeds us, holds us, and teaches us.
Way Opening: Building a Vision for Farm and Community in East Montpelier, Vermont

Another turn of the wheel, in spring 2013, had passed at Westtown School, in West Chester, PA, where I was working and living in community as Earth Literacy Teacher and Farmer. Managing and teaching on a 2 acre educational farm and gardens with children in all the grades, I marveled at their opening to the lessons on the land—peppered with hearty resistance to things like worms and dirt—and watched, wistfully, as they flew off on summer’s wings.

Six years building a farm program and curriculum at a largely traditional academic institution had left me with a sense of fatigue and hope. My work and growth while at Westtown gave me a clear knowledge that way had shut for my growth and vision. This was my last spring at Westtown, as I embraced the larger vision of my work to build farm, community, and justice-love in Montpelier, Vermont—a final yes to the calling that has tugged at me since I was small.

Yes, this vision has been with me, conscious or not, since childhood. Springs and summers growing up on suburban land in Cranston, Rhode Island, were times of late night dancing, solitary weeding projects, and conversations with a Jesus who came to me as I watched the rolling tides of Narragansett Bay.  Catholic Mass could not hold a candle to the in-breaking of God(ess) that met me as I stretched my body into the frames of trees on our land, or clanged the bell of the flagpole as the rope flung itself with great clatter in evening ocean winds.

I always knew that God(ess) was with me, when I cared to truly experience the world as it was. When I would sweat and struggle to dance my imaginings in the backyard, while listening to Peter Gabriel’s So album, at 11, I was not simply seeking to be seen. I was seeking communion, at its most sacred and least elevated—the marriage of sacred and profane in the body, with the land, with the weather and water that accompanied me for many years. I came to know this experience, as a feminist theologian, as panentheism.  I came to know this experience, as a Friend, as the inward Teacher (or Light, or Friend) speaking out, in words and in-body.

This awareness dipped out of consciousness, and re-surfaced again and again through garden work and justice work.  I sought community and justice as my body sought communion. Secular friends became religious friends in seminary, and turned to the Society of Friends as I sought theological ground for my experience for the in-breaking of God(ess) in my life and work. Living, learning, and working in community at Pendle Hill periodically from 1997 to 2003 became, for me, a ground of growth and an experience of yes to faith and Friendship. It stays with me still.

And now, the plunge. Doesn’t every faithful act start with the risk to say yes to it? Leaving the relative safety of Westtown School, with community, labor, ministry, work clearly marked success on its label, we land on land that has been in the family for three—now four generations, with the birth of my son.

We are starting small. We are starting with turning 264 square feet and planting ten pounds of garlic. We are cleaning out old storage and finding artifacts from our ancestors. We are stacking wood and building winter compost. We are excavating generations of memory and life, and making space for this new vision and work to blossom, even as the leaves change.

And from small things, big things build. Homestead and farm stand are our first steps, and from there, we hope to expand to grass-fed meats, value-added products, and interfaith meeting and healing space for all who seek shelter from their world-wearying work. As an activist and educator, I know that world-working work is tiring and sometimes injuring. As a minister and farmer, I know the land can be healing and enlivening. And as a person in the world, I know community must anchor us all.

My faith has found a home on this well loved pasture, mature acreage of woods, and few acres of arable land. A much defunct barn, a decrepit gazebo, and a house from the 1860s welcomed us in late August. The beginnings of our life, the seeds of farm and community, have germinated in this strange season. And as my faith grows, here, in my lived experience on this land and with my family, this seed will grow and change, reaching its true maturity and depth, in time.