The Garden.

May 24, 2020 § 2 Comments

In our current isolation we reach out to each other virtually. We lean, with longing, toward the screen as if it were a window (we are such social animals).

We are also domesticated indoor animals, techno-animals—but not to this degree.  We still like to be physically close to others, not locked in our private towers.

But if we can’t congregate, hug a friend, worship together, celebrate graduation, or gather on poker night, we can open the door and walk outside.

And since we are doing-animals, while out there, we can grow something.

Future watermelons.

Growing something, in contrast to clicks and keystrokes which move nothing in the real world, creates physical change.  

A garden is a literal place.

The gritty dirt, the persistent weeds, the sprawl and tang of tomatoes, the ire of disturbed ants, the weight of sun on bare arms; all are solid-real as the gardener works on a project that responds to sweat-labor, but also to the uncontrollable elements of weather, season, time, and biology.

All we control in the garden is our own, human input, and every one of those inputs is administered by hand so there is dirt under our fingernails. The skin is cracked. Weeds are heartier than the gardener’s desired crop, grow twice as fast, reach for the heart of the earth, and stubbornly hang on as the gardener leans back, muscling them out of the dirt. When the sky withholds, water comes out of a hose held for as long as it takes to soak soil deep—gardeners have a lot of time to think.

And as the gardener thinks, the garden offers lessons.  

One of those lessons is humility. Plants don’t care about the gardener’s desires or schedule.

They grow slowly—or they boom.

They thrive—or they don’t.

The gardener can’t dictate which, but is allowed to take credit and swell with pride when harvesting those sun-warmed tomatoes—also allowed is a profound cussing of the bugs, the weather, and the plants themselves.

Gardeners think. And gardeners cuss.

Each growing season is unique. More heat. Less heat. More rain. Less rain. A plague of insects. Insects that only take their share—there are always insects. Organic gardeners understand that tithing to them is part of the deal.

Someday’s squash.

Days pass.  Plants sprawl. The pandemic drags on, but if all goes well, as each plant reaches its zenith it will inundate the gardener with too many tomatoes, squash, peppers. Overwhelmed, the gardener will freeze, pickle–and share, even if that share has to be left in a box on a doorstep.

Hopefully, we will have access to each other in person before too many months have passed, but until then, the natural world offers us its company, its lessons, an opportunity to think and cuss, a bounty to share even if we cannot cook and eat it together, and this reminder: we are still residents of Eden, even if it is buggier and requires us to invest more sweat than the Bible led us to believe.

Note: As I walk my neighborhood I see pots of tomatoes edging driveways, fresh-turned garden patches in the middle of lawns that weren’t there prior to the pandemic.  

Note 2: Take a listen to The Okra Song. I began writing it as I held a hose in the community garden, the sun beating down—there was more cussing than thought involved until I got home to my guitar.

Look Ma, no hands! (It’s all virtual now).

May 17, 2020 § 3 Comments

I am good at reading people. You are too. We humans get the meaning of gestures. We stand close together so we can make eye contact or put a hand on an arm. We choose our words and the tone in which we say them, we listen for signals that are not embodied in words—just the intake of a breath can be enough to cue us.

Human to human communication is nuanced and subtle, but we get it.  Life is a dance we do with others. We lead, we follow. Either way we are attuned to each others’ signals.

But, at least for now, we can’t do that. For now other people are off-limits: people in close proximity; people within range of a hug, a subtle gesture, a facial expression; people close enough to be read human-to-human.

All situations that require cooperation and advice are now mediated through one device or another. Sometimes a human face appears, sometimes a human voice speaks, but often the human is prerecorded, not there in the moment at all.

That face, that voice are no longer connected to a human ear, a human mind, a human heart: “We are currently experiencing longer-than-usual wait times due to the unusually high volume of calls. Hold time is now three hours.”

No human would say that so cheerfully in real time, but the human who said it has no connection to the desperate person on hold.

The voice chirps on: “Continue to hold or press two for a call back.” The caller presses two, but knows, no one is calling back.

In this time of crisis the call that is going unanswered is not frivolous. It is made to procure food, or rent money, or medical advice. It is made after the caller has tried to get an answer through a search of the ether, a search that hit a dead end, the algorithm saying in computer-eze: You have failed to jump through the hoops properly. There is no help forthcoming for you, oh unworthy nitwit.

If only the caller could explain the situation to a human being…

But there is no human being. So the unworthy nitwit gets no answer and feels like a failure into the bargain. In truth, it is The Machine that is the unworthy nitwit. The nuanced, intuitive, thinking, human, who is capable of solving problems in myriad different ways, interfaces with The Machine which thwarts the human for not following its baroque, un-intuitive protocols, for not executing perfectly a series of Mother-May-I steps no human would ever require.

And so, the subtle, thoughtful (and desperate) human being is told. No answer for you. You’re doing it all wrong–but to get by now, we must figure out how to do it right.

As imperfect as the match is, we now interact with The Machine, or if we are interacting with each other, it is often mediated by some form of technology.

We deal with each other, hands-off. No human touch. No human warmth, and every time we are unable to manage the virtual world, we take the blame.

We are stupid, slow, old, frustrated. Stuck.

No we’re not. We’re human.

For the entirety of our evolution we have relied on subtle, person-to-person communication. We have cooperated and collaborated. We have sought each other’s advice, solved problems together. We have lived real, not virtual lives.

There is much to be said for the high-speed, super-fast, data-driven virtual world, especially in a time when we are literally a threat to each other’s health, but if you don’t believe in the greater nuance and power of human-to-human contact step in front of a mirror and make a couple emoji faces. You look insane, right?

The cues we send each other are subtle, multi-layered. Artificial intelligence cannot replace human intelligence and the ingenuity, kindness, and understanding that resides in our gestures, our facial expressions, our voices, our touch—our humanity.

Note: I write this because I miss all of you–and I am mad at a printer that will not do my bidding. I believe if it could, it would be making the face that is at the far right on the bottom row above. It is disquieting to have a printer LOL at me.

Normal.

May 10, 2020 § 4 Comments

Normal is a collective state, one that self-perpetuates largely because we believe in it.

We rarely question normal, even when it includes horrific behaviors because, heck, it is what it is.

It’s normal.

Our normal, pre-Corona Virus.

Normal morphs over time, usually gradually, and we adjust, riding that change the way we did as kids jumping the wave at the beach.

But there are switch-throwing moments when “normal” is upended, and the pattern that settles out is wholly new, like a community after a category five hurricane when all the landmarks: the houses, churches, schools, the shoreline have been blown away, scrubbed clean.

Sometimes the abrupt shift is a response to a technological breakthrough: the wheel, the internal combustion engine, the internet. Technology can jolt us into a new normal.

We are at one of those jolt-points now. This time our collective-normal is being reset by a new, efficient, deadly virus.

Holed up in our houses, we are living a game of keep-away that has no obvious end point. We keep away from each other, from our jobs, our plans, and our dreams.

It may well go on long enough that the systems that sustained our agreed-upon normal will wither, rust, break down, atrophy, or blow away with the wind, and the hardships that result will be enormous.

The normal that comes out the other side will be smaller, poorer, leaner, more local, and more pragmatic.

If, after the plague and its mismanagement, our institutions are as badly shattered as it appears they will be, we will be largely on our own. We will fight like street dogs over the scraps, or we will cooperate and help each other; the new normal will be a ruthless demonstration of survival of the fittest, or it will be the dawn of a powerful and active culture of kindness.

I am an optimist. I am counting on kindness to prevail, and I see it already as our current “normal” hurtles toward the edge of the cliff. All around me I see people doing for one another. Sharing.

Either way though, our old normal will never come back and, like it or not, we will shape ourselves to the new normal we are just beginning to see. The normal of two months ago will be a story we tell the young, like tales of long-ago wars, the Great Depression, party lines, the Beatles, and bell bottom pants.

Our old normal will strike young listeners as strange, fantastic. Perhaps those stories of plenty will shine fairy-tale bright. Perhaps they will be jealous of all we had, all we were able to take for granted.

Perhaps the new normal will make listeners turn away in disbelief—surely no one consumed that much, treated the planet that badly, was ever that selfish–no wonder people were called “consumers” back then.

Perhaps our new normal will look more like this.

I am not looking forward to the next wave of the virus, and the next, the deaths, the job losses, the hunger, but I am hoping that the agony we are living will produce a new normal, one that is better.

One in which our species is right-sized for its spot in the web of life.

One in which kindness has replaced greed, and we all listen more appreciatively to the hum of the other lives all around us.

Note: Our daughter, Josie Faass, runs a foundation that advocates for change and, like me, she sees this as a moment of peril, but also one of opportunity. Click here to learn more.

Local.

April 19, 2020 § 6 Comments

I remember neighbors in our suburban New Jersey development bringing their kids over to see my dad’s garden. “This is where vegetables come from,” they’d say, meaning, vegetables grow out of the dirt, and this is what they look like before they are put in cellophane-wrapped boxes, but the kids would blink up at their parents. “Vegetables come from Mr. Fogelin’s garden?”

As adults we are almost as clueless. Our vegetables still come out of cellophane-wrapped boxes, grocery store freezers, plastic bags, those snap-shut lettuce coffins, and the bounty is endless.

We can have any fruit or vegetable at any time of year. “Seasonal” is a nice little flourish added to items on the supermarket promo that gets tossed in the driveway once a week. “Seasonal” means local, or fairly local, and probably recently picked, but our supply chain centipedes across continents, and we don’t even think about where those vegetables come from.

As long as grocery store shelves are well-stocked, why would we think about it? Our food comes from everywhere! Sure, once in a while we are inconvenienced by the absence of a particular item at the grocery store, but that’s all it is; an inconvenience. Until now, we’ve had no reason to contemplate the magic of supply.

Now, as supply and demand lurch like a pair of mismatched dance partners, maybe it is time to consider the true cost of this way of feeding ourselves.

Is a box of tomatoes trucked across the country to a supermarket the same as a colander-full of tomatoes grown in Mr. Fogelin’s garden?

Getting commercial tomatoes to Publix contributes to global warming as the climate-controlled truck steams along the interstate. Growing those tomatoes likely polluted a local water source as mono-cultures require lots of pest control (Mr. Fogelin’s tomatoes were not always perfect, but in my book, delicious and sun-warmed beat perfect). Since days-to-market equal money, a lot of growth-boosting inputs were poured on those commercial plants.

Having picked up produce at a local market for our neighborhood food bank, I know, firsthand, the amount of waste in the system. The USDA estimates that food waste in America runs between 30 and 40 percent.

What if…what if we moved production closer to consumption? Wouldn’t we be more resilient and less vulnerable in times like these?

What if we reckoned the true cost of getting what we want any time we want it, and what if we were required to pay the true cost?

If we ran on that calculus, there would be more gardens like my dad’s, and less plastic, fewer pesticides, less CO2 in the atmosphere, no mono-cultures, and kids would know vegetables come from sunlight, water, and dirt (some of which is under the gardener’s fingernails). All it takes is a patch of earth, a packet of seeds, and rolled up sleeves.

I recognize that what I am saying has been said many times before, but we have been given one big gift by this catastrophe; the gift of time, and with that gift, the opportunity to rethink the way we do things.

Note: In many parts of the country it is time to turn the soil and plant some seeds. How about it?

Comfort

March 29, 2020 § 9 Comments

As humans, we turn to other humans for comfort. They are us; we are them. Most of the time we take turns needing and giving comfort. Hard times and heart aches are usually targeted, person-specific. The one who is okay eases the pain of the one who is not, and in time, the comfort will flow the other direction.

birds

But what happens when all of humanity needs comfort as it does, for instance, in a time of war—or pandemic, which is where we suddenly, unexpectedly, find ourselves now and the very human expression of comfort, holding or being held by someone, may open the door for the virus to slip in and steal a life?

And how much comfort do we have to spare when we are all at risk, all jangled, all scared?

But Covid-19, while a threat to all humanity around the globe, does nothing to other forms of life. They go on about their business all around us, oblivious. The virus cannot hinder the joyous unfolding of spring just outside every self-isolated home. You don’t have to go further than your own front step to hear the rest of life singing, or to see it strutting as it displays the plumage of courtship, or bursting into bloom or leafing-out with that green that happens only in the Spring. This is the time when life invests in itself without reservation.

On a normal, busy, day we hold ourselves apart—there is us, and there is nature, which we visit on our vacations or foray into briefly as we power-walk. We forget that we are a part of the web of life, part of the exuberant awakening that is spring.

Since we have to step away from the company of other people, perhaps we can step toward the company of other living things, quit seeing nature as something separate from ourselves. We can enlarge what we notice, look up, listen to the songs that celebrate teeming life, life on the rise, life in recovery from the lead grey months of winter, the long sleep that precedes the burst of Spring. Perhaps we can find our place in a picture far larger than the view from a desk, or from behind a restaurant counter, or in a classroom.

flowers

If not now, when?

Suddenly, we have time to watch the bumblebee bump the window screen, and study the jewel-like milkweed beetles beating the monarchs to the milkweeds, time to listen to the back and forth conversations of the birds, watch the first Sulphur butterfly fly a wobbly and ecstatic path through the sunlit air—and by doing so find comfort that takes us out of our small, closed, fear-filled human life.

It is hard not to mourn the absence of arms around you, the at-work chatter you’ve always taken for granted, the casual affirmation of a handshake, but there are other sources of hope and solace and they are all around you. Set down your fear, your isolation, your preoccupation with this dire moment in human history and lean on life.

All you have to do is step outside and be still.

bird

The Pollyanna Report:

March 22, 2020 § 15 Comments

The Corona virus is spreading silently, invisibly. Even if, for now, its presence is only in our minds, and in the news that runs nonstop, it has changed our lives in just a handful of days.

It will make us sick.

Or not.

Either way, it instills fear, pulls the safety of paying jobs out from under us, makes us shun human contact. It mocks our plans and promises that some of us—perhaps a substantial number—won’t make it out the other side.

That’s the bad news, and it is about as bad as bad news gets. But there are peripheral consequences, ones we are just beginning to experience, and some of them are good:

The sky is blue over Bejing, the smog machine of industry temporarily stilled. All over the world, the pouring out of CO2 has been turned down by the hand of the virus.

I called my sister in Manhattan, my brother in North Carolina, an aunt in Connecticut I don’t call nearly often enough. Friends too. Sure, we begin with the virus, but it is just the ice breaker. After that we catch up, have the conversations we were too busy to squeeze in when we were high steppin’ to keep up with our so-called real lives.

That same attentiveness applies to the people we are around physically, even those we don’t know. Although we maintain our distance, we greet each other, even strangers, because, hey, we are joined to everyone else by our common fear. And so, strangers feel less like strangers, more like companions on a long and uncertain, but shared, journey.

We appreciate those we love in an active way. Taking-for-granted is for those who consider themselves too busy to feel or express love right now. It is a human trait to appreciate, eyes-open, what we fear we may lose. We love with greater fervor, and admit it more honestly.

We become suddenly capable of differentiating between what is important and what is just noise—in this new normal every ad on TV makes me indignant. We’re worried about our lawns? Wrinkles? Spots on our dishes? Really? When time is no longer endless or a given we are harder to distract with the trivial.

We notice the small moments of grace provided by the natural world as the beauty of Spring busts out all around us. I write this on my front stoop where a caterpillar is wobbling across the concrete, two tiny jumping spiders are doing just that, a bird is warbling out an alluring invitation to a prospective mate. Unafraid, nonhuman life is going on, exuberantly, all around us.

Finally, sequestered, we have time to do the small, quiet things we have pushed aside, and pushed aside. We read a book, organize a shelf, write in a journal, think.

I can’t deny the darkness of this hour, but there are glimmers of light, always, and I bet in our current state of mind we will not only see them, but appreciate them with a gratitude we rarely take the time to feel.

Note: Please add positive things you have observed in the time of crisis. It doesn’t alter the crisis, but it gives us hope, and hope can go a long way.

Mary went for a walk.

September 9, 2019 § 4 Comments

My husband and I were driving home from Jacksonville after riding Amtrak down the coast from Trenton, New Jersey. We were tired when we pulled into the I-10 rest stop, ready to be home. The poster about the missing woman was small and faded, easy to walk past without a glance, but what hung there was a story, so I stopped.

It was 2015 when Mary went for a walk.

She was born in ’53, so she was younger than I am by a couple of years, but her walk and the walks I take are different. I always know where I am.

Mary didn’t.

According to the poster: “Mary requires medication and suffers from dementia.”

Her face on the poster looked like the face of a third grade teacher. It was an ordinary, sympathetic female face, one that has not been seen by her family or friends for four years.

The poster persists, appealing to random strangers: have you seen this woman in your travels? Do you see her even now, or do you just need a quick stop in the restroom and something from the vending machine before getting back on the road?

What are the odds of a butt-weary traveler stopping, looking, and recognizing Mary, who went for a walk in 2015?

Mary is a needle hidden in the haystack that is the world.

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