Six summers ago our babysitter went away to Central America for three weeks. Juan and I were short on cash and so we could neither afford a vacation away nor could he take the time away from his fledgling business. It was just Max and me for three weeks. We spent lots of time in the parks and library and when he would lay his toddler head down for a nap, I discovered the joy of “mindful cleaning”.
My life was in chaos at that time. I was working too long and too hard. Motherhood was overwhelming. My marriage was disintegrating and I was tired, anxious and not sleeping. My house, I have learned, is often a mirror of my heart and so it is no surprise that at the time, my living space looked and felt like a bomb went off in it.
I am not much of a housekeeper, even in the best of times. Just ask my mother, Juan or my college roommate (sorry Cindy for those four years I buried you in squalor!). Somehow, the art of keeping my space in order feels like I mystery I may never crack. I have never quite figured that organization thing out. Over the years, I outsourced a lot of that work–to cleaning services, to my husband, to my mother who would frantically scrub each time she visited. While in some years it has been better than others, I gave up on housekeeping because as the ultimate achiever I felt the calm, tidy peace of my mother’s home was something I would never achieve. A clean, orderly space might momentarily be mine, but as a rule it eluded me. The idea of spending energy on something I would never accomplish just struck me as silly. I was driven by the finished product and this was one I never would obtain, so why bother?
But that summer, when Max would sleep, I would sit. My mind would whirl and spin with worries of how everything was falling apart. Then around day 3, after a good long cry I fell quiet for once. And in that quiet, a wisdom rose: You have to take care of your life.
I didn’t know how to fix my broken marriage. I wasn’t ready to face what was making me struggle at work. I had no idea how to tackle the lack that filled me like a canyon. But I knew how to do laundry. And there was so much of it piled up. I knew how to clean windows and I had many that were dirty and streaky in the summer sun. I knew how to dust and there were inches of hidden grey dust piled up on the tops of cabinets and shelves.
So, I started to clean, not in order to arrive at a picture perfect home, but simply because it needed to be done and I needed to quiet my mind. Around this time, my friend Anne had told me about mindful eating, a practice she had started after a trip to Kripalu. She said its principles could be applied to anything. I wondered if it could apply to cleaning.
I treated myself with a small bag of new cleaning products–Mrs Meyers I think it was in geranium or lavender or some other delicious scent. I used the mid-day hours when Max would sleep to scrub and clean solely because 1) it needed to be done and 2) because it gave me a relief from the constant thinking I was doing–about my marriage, my career, my “failure” as a mother. For three weeks I cleaned, bit by bit.
The house did look better at the end of that month, but to be honest, I never did quite achieve utter sparkle. The mystery of complete cleanliness and order would remain a mystery. But at the end of the three weeks I had found some peace. In my heart there was more quiet. And I also knew that without having to solve any big problems, I was stroke by stroke, taking care of my life.
I have often returned to this exercise when life gets at its most overwhelming. This winter, all crabby I had a moment where I felt unnourished, depleted and wholly uncelebrated. “I take care of everyone!” I whined to myself. “There is no one to take care of me!” But that deep wisdom got bossy with my complaining mind. “Just breathe and take care of your life” it said. So I put down my computer, my guitar, my books and my worries and picked up the laundry basket, the mop and the spray bottle. Not with any goals other that simple deep loving care of myself and my son.
I have thought of this story often as I have seen bits and pieces leak out of Karen Maezen Miller’s new book, Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life. I am a little girl waiting for Christmas, anticipating its arrival, joyously loading the dishwasher while I wait. You can read an excerpt of it here. You can hear Karen’s beautiful soothing voice reading a selection of it here. And you can start your search for peace of mind in here, in your own laundry room or kitchen with nothing more than than your willing hands.
Some people say that one of the hardest part about making a dream come true is finding the space for it to be born. Is it silly to say that about gardening too? It is certainly true about my dream of growing my own food. I think the hardest thing I will do in my garden this year is to create the blank canvass–to build that elevated bed where my veggies will grow.
I have to be honest, it is wasn’t for the encouragement of my friend (and the pile of brightly colored yummy looking seed packets on my dining room table) I might have given up before I got started. The idea of having to build a bed felt like a scary and uncomfortable amount of work for this fully employed single mom.
The process of building an elevated bed when spelled out in whole felt like so much that I wanted to simply go back to bed and wake up for the farmer’s market. Railroad ties, weed barriers, wheelbarrels of compost and topsoil… OH MY! But my peas wanted to be planted and I was already 3 days behind the Saint Patty’s Day “deadline” for getting them in the ground. So Friday morning, fresh off a red-eye flight I found myself in the backalley moving dirt.
To read the rest of this story journey on over to Backyard Bounty where I am blogging about my first year as an urban farmer!
Last week I was in Sao Paulo for work. Now I am back again, amidst the dirty dishes and dirty laundry and dirty floors that constitutes my life. Walking through a Sao Paulo neighborhood looking for lunch last Tuesday, my friend and colleague commented, “Isn’t it amazing. We went to sleep last night above Washington DC and now, look, here we are on the other side of the equator, here in Brazil its autumn.” One minute I was in a sweater sweeping mud in my kitchen. The next I was in sandals humming Bossa Nova under palm trees.
There is that wonderful saying (and book by Jon Kabat Zinn), “Wherever you go, there you are”. And its true. There is no escaping the fact that we can run, fly, sail around the world but we cannot escape our life which we are living one breath, one step at a time. Whether I am at a meeting of activists in South America, or a meeting of children at a karate class or a meeting of the cats desperately meowing for food, there I am.
This seems like such a simple concept when I write it down here like this. And yet, it has taken me 40 years to understand it. No matter how much I wish to be elsewhere I always am exactly where I am and no matter what I WANT to be doing, I must simply do what is before me. Sometimes that something is speaking in front of a crowd, sometimes it is loading a dishwasher, sometimes it is simply stretching out in the sunshine or dancing.
One night in Sao Paulo it was so hot in my hotel room. It was oppressive and I couldn’t figure out how to regulate the temperature in the room. So I opened the window of my 14th floor room and lay down on my bed and listened to the sound of Sao Paulo breathe, the hum and the rhythm of it. We all breathe, I thought. Even cities. It is what connects us.
One day in Sao Paulo, at a mobilization, a Brazilian colleague asked me if I wanted to take the microphone and speak to the hundreds of workers arriving at their job. I thought she was offering me coffee, so I nodded. While I can give a great wonky presentation, I am not one for motivational speaking so delivering a rousing speech to this crowd, cold without diligent preparation, was, something of a stretch. Yet there she was handing me a microphone with hundreds of eyes looking my way. There was nothing to do but push through my fear, take a breath and speak. Just do what is front of me without thinking or worrying about the outcome.
Where am I going with this? Who knows. I don’t. But writing is whats before me. And so these words appear here.
Actually, I suppose it matters simply because of this.
When I first started this blog I was recovering from the loss of a life I desperately thought I wanted. I used this space to grieve and then, to begin to allow myself to see what had sprung up in its place. I challenged myself to imagine the loss as an opportunity to imagine something different, something amazing, something adventurous. I practiced and I dreamed and I thought and I wrote about it. I moved from a space of grief to a space of great excitement. Every cell in my body tingling with the anticipation of dreams I never knew I had maybe coming true. I used this space to entertain, explore and believe in my heart that dreams can come true. To find evidence of it. To find the courage to dream, to find the permission to do so. To birth brilliant little floating orbs of possibility that shone like angels but never were quite real, that slipped in and out of view depending on the light.
I have kept many of those dreams, like sparkly little gems, up on the shelf of my mind–safe and sound and perfect–but also not real. Some miracles, like finding a deep warm loving community, have sprung up unbidden, a gift of the gods to inspire me and hold me but most of what I imagine remain ideas, hopes, wishes.
Now its time to take them down, and one by one, to birth them–make them real, true and physical. To take them from their safe and sparkly place and make them real and physical if not entirely perfect or exactly how I imagined them. Some of the dreams are small–like painting my house the colors I always wanted. Some of the dreams are big, like learning a whole new way of being. Some are quite practical, like living a simple life where I grow my own food, make my own music, and make my own quilts to keep us warm. Some are too tender and precious to speak out loud. But all of them are demanding action, like the cats meowing for their food, like the Brazilian workers demanding justice. It is enough to make me want to run and hide from myself.
But a funny thing happens. Wherever I run, there I am and there too are the dreams I carry with me.
And the only thing to do, is to do what is in front of me, step by step, bit by bit, word by word, bird by bird, breath by great big breath.
Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to be a farmer. I don’t know where it comes from, this yearning to get my food from the land. Certainly it wasn’t my parents. Just a generation away from struggle they did everything they could to convince me that the “hard work” was more than I bargained for. I grew up thinking that my dream of living my adult life in Iowa in a big white farmhouse with sheep and pigs and fields of wheat and corn and fresh green veggies would simply leave me overwhelmed, overworked, poor and miserable.
And from a political and economic standpoint, they may have been right. Growing food however called to me even as I grew. Some 15 years ago when Juan and I first moved in together, our apartment had a front yard which faced south and was bathed in sunlight. Together with our upstairs neighbors we planted herbs, flowers, and a few tomatoes and chilis. We grew lettuce in a bed in the backyard. We only lived there one year. and that was a year of lots of learning through failure. We didn’t haul in a big harvest but we did play in the dirt and the potential was intoxicating.
But then, we moved into the house where Max and I currently live. I love my house for many reasons but we almost didn’t buy it because of the lack of sunlight. it is surrounded by ancient, wide oak trees. The lawn has all but disappeared and in its place grows a thick carpet of green moss. Mushrooms and hostas and ferns thrive here. Veggies do not.
So I joined a CSA, found a farmers’ market, paid more for the organic label at the grocery story and gave up my dream of growing my own food. Well, rather, I tucked it neatly out of site.
Two summers ago I read Barbara Kingsolver’s book, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” and my dream lifted her head and started poking me. It seems so right to grow what we need in our own backyard. Many of my friends, much of my community have followed in the footsteps of Kingsolver and they are growing their own food. I have sat at many a table with the most delicious beets, the sweetest carrots, with salads picked right before dinner. I have shared in their bounty, bringing home extra cucumbers, tomatillos and peppers. I have made sauce from the tomatoes they could never possibly use. I have been a grateful consumer. But their generosity has only fueled my sense that something was out of place with a garden out of sight.
After years of bumping my head up against my dream of becoming a healer, I decided to take a bit of mondo beyondo advice and turn my attention to some others.
That is why, this year, I am finding a way to the garden. Magic has arrived in the form of neighbors offering unused but sun drenched space in the alley behind their homes. I am building beds where beaten down weeds and ivy and trash cans once stood. I am borrowing a corner in my friend Edamarie’s yard and setting up an elevated bed. And I am experimenting with growing my own food, if not in my own backyard, then in the forgotten corners of our community.
It started this winter, when January winds were still blowing, when I gathered with a gang of more experienced gardeners. I was a total beginner, out of my league but somehow in the sisterhood of these wise women I felt as though I could find my way. It was worth a try.
This Friday, my seeds arrived. I spread them out on my table and basked in all the promise that they offer. Promise of healthy food. Promise of heartbreaking loss due to bugs, or birds or drought. Promise that I will learn to accept what is, whether its a bumper crop of tomatoes or lost crop of peas. Promise of hours in the dirt, digging, hoping to coax something from the land. Promise that no matter what I bring home I will learn something, not only about the art of gardening but also about myself. Promise of adventure. Promise that, seed by tiny seed, I will manifest my dreams.
I will be blogging about my first year of being a farmer over here at Backyard Bounty, the web-home of Edamarie’s business by the same name. Edamarie has launched an amazing business to help people like me grow their own food. Her blog, which just launched this week, will be an amazing resource and a source of inspiration. I hope you join us over there as we watch my garden (and dreams) begin to grow.
When I went to college, I made a decision.
I decided, actively decided, that I would live in joy. That I would find the positive in each situation and that I would discover something to celebrate in everyone, and every situation.
I had some simple practices to implement this decision. One, I remember so clearly, was a promise to myself that I would not to vent or complain without first considering the impact my words would have. What would the impact be on the subject of my rant (that annoying kid in class, the teacher who was boring, the rude drunk guy) but also on the people who had to hear me vent. How would this impact them? How would it change their mood to listen to my negativity?
I was tired of the high school scene with the judging and insecurities and well intentioned exhausted ramblings that were twisted into hurts by equally well intentioned, insecure and hurting people. Frankly, the whole thing had left me depleted. I realized that I had, for the first time since kindergarden, an opportunity to start over.
I have to admit, that at the time, my motivations were not 100 % pure. Like so many young women, I was deep down worried that people wouldn’t like me if I wasn’t “nice”. College, like all things, is messy. And I messed up plenty, especially when tired, or hurt, or after drinking too much beer. But I kept this decision before, like a compass that I used to find my way.
There were many unintended consequences of this decision. For instance, the light on Mt Saint James where I spent those four years was the most beautiful light I had ever seen in my entire young life, especially at sunset. Remembering it now I feel a wave of peace. I think now, that the light in this industrial town was no more special than the light everywhere else. It simply was that I was awake enough to notice its majesty–the subtle magic. With my brain more clear of rants, past and future, as well as regret, anxiety and fear about what mess my words might have wrought, I could see the world shimmer so much more easily.
What I learned through my experiment was that happiness may be a situation but joy is a decision.
A couple of years ago I went to a workshop on healing where the teacher challenged us to presence joy. If you walk into a room, that is dull or dark or full of angst, laugh, smile, giggle, tell a story. Dance. Find something beautiful and point it out. Play. See what happens.
It strikes me as funny how this powerful play in my playbook gets lost in the hubub that is my life. And it strikes me as glorious how easy it is to dust it off.
I am renewing my vows to a practice of joy. Not happiness. Not an absence of grief. But reckless, deep, unfettered, silly, magnificent, playful, unrelenting joy. To dance with abandon and to celebrate the simple pleasure of being able to feel.
It has come to my attention
that the only thing you may appreciate about me
Is how I appreciate you.
I suppose that should make me sad.
Or even mad.
But it only makes me curious.
Fear not, my friend.
I love you.
Even from the depths of this knowing now,
Even in the clarity of morning
I do. I do.
You make me laugh.
You make me think.
You make me dance.
I see all the glory that is you and I
For you are as beautiful as you desperately hope you might be.
Some may find me crazy or
Think this perspective foolish
I once arrived in a town where mirrors were obsolete.
In the shadows there,
behind an ancient tree,
love whispered a secret that changed my heart forever.
She is not a wish, desire, hope to be appreciated, known or even seen.
She is not a currency to be exchanged, deserved or meted out by merit.
She abides there
Whenever I find Me
With all my messy woundedness, or my joyous silly brilliance,
humanity and Divinity
in the very same space
Dreams are built baby step by tiny baby step.
Like putting all the songs you wrote into one book.
Or sending an application off with no plan for the next move.
Or deciding to take an hour to just write a few more words.
Dreams come true are built on a thousands tiny yesses.
Yes, why not take that trip.
Yes, why not make that call.
Yes, why not take fill out that form.
Yes, why not go along for the ride.
Dreams are discovered on journeys with lots of wrong turns.
Dead ends like marriages that didn’t quite work out but taught us how to feel.
Dead ends like jobs that didn’t quite work out but taught us how to create, or write or argue.
Dead ends like failures that taught us how to try and try and try again.
A communal farm starts with a sunny plot of unused space in a back alley. And a yes, why not take a chance to try and grow something.
It really does.
Its that simple.
What is the step, however tiny, you can take to lean into your dreams this morning? What is the one thing you can do amidst the hubbub and the noise and the routine and the thousands of voices who call out for your attention?
Even if it is as simple as buying a stamp? Mailing a package?
Baby step by baby step. Simply doing what is is front of you. That, my friends, is how dreams come true.
It is that easy. At least that is what I am telling myself. Over and over and over again.