While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.

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3:00 am thoughts and long walks

The past few years have brought some extensive and important changes to my life.  None of these changes were easy, smooth, or intended but all have resulted in positive outcomes.  And as is usually the case, most change arrives with disrupted sleep and peculiar thoughts – thoughts that wake me in the early morning hours, rattle around in my head for a while, and amuse, confuse, or irritate me until I return to a deep sleep.  Most recently, two thoughts most troubling are ‘what is God’s responsibility to humankind’ and ‘since humans are a result of millions of years of evolution, when did the Fall occur?’.  Still working on those.  Sometime last month, while on vacation in Hawaii, I woke early thinking that I need to stop pruning all the plants in my garden and let The Wild take over.  That thought was nixed quickly.  Most of last summer I woke early with plans of Japanese gardens on my mind – moss gardens with large stones and aged wood debris.  This spring I began building such a garden in the Demonstration Gardens of Carkeek Park, so that particular thought is resolved.  I hope it remains resolved, although because of the editing this new bed receives from a well-intended visitor who likes to move the moss pieces around in my absence, I’m not sure of the outcome.  If he/she really wants to help, bring us more moss!

But, as I was saying, many of these thoughts remain unresolved.  A few days ago I had a helpful, insightful meeting with a priest at the church I began attending early this year.  I continue to be surprised at this particular change – a unitarian in a trinitarian community – but  there it is.  I’m not Christian, not even certain of a God who interacts in human life, but I find myself compelled to attend service each Sunday morning.  The sermons are intelligent.  The service is ancient and ritualistic.  The building is large and beautiful.  And there I sit, surrounded by believers whose (apparent) depth of faith is unshakable.  So, I asked the priest if he would answer some questions, and he said he would be pleased to meet with me.  We met for over an hour.  In our meeting, he listened closely and sincerely, and responded with insight and compassion.  And he did the wisest thing a person can do when faced with someone who struggles – he did not offer solutions.  In fact, he asked me questions.  Questions upon questions.  And he pointed out the benefits of sincere doubt.  As I said, the meeting was insightful and very helpful.

When I find these and other questions almost overwhelming, I will go out for a long walk.  If I can’t find a resolution to a problem, I tell myself to take a hike.  A few years ago I was struggling with such an unresolvable issue that I had walked almost 7 miles before realizing it was time to turn back and head home.  I slept well that night.  I have always used long walks as a means to work out problems, questions, or confusion.  While walking or hiking, I have discovered solutions to problems, seen creative gardening ideas, or discovered that an issue wasn’t as serious as I had thought.  Movement helps, for many reasons but not the least is exhaustion.

Questions may always arise.  Questions may always wake me in the early, dark hours of morning before sun and reason shine through the quiet.  But I look forward to a time when an answer instead of a question wakes me.  When that happens, and it will happen someday, I plan to go back to sleep and sleep until noon.

And then I will take a long, easy walk to a favorite cafe.

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Unadorned Prose: The Milky Way as seen from the summit of Mauna Kea, 0300 hours

Sometimes an experience can be so encompassing, so thrilling, that sharing it is not possible.  If you are a writer and no words are adequate to describe the experience, what can you do?  Photography will occasionally suffice, but on such a scale it requires expensive equipment, planning, and time – none of which are available when the experience is a surprise.  Artwork will sometimes capture the intensity and drama of an experience, but it is always created from memory – and time will often alter memory.  Music is subjective, even as it is universal.

So, what can you do?  If you have experienced something vast, immeasurably beautiful, not entirely understood, humbling, and awe-inspiring, how do you share it?  Can it be shared?  Rarely, the answer is no.  Rarely, an experience is even beyond the human ability to absorb.  When this occurs, the best you can do is to sense the experience.  Allow it to cover you as does color; touch you like air; fill you with silence.  Receive it.  Appreciate it.   Be thankful for it.

And never forget it.


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A few thoughts on a graduation, Mother’s Day, an electric screw driver, and a glass of wine.

Today was a day gifted with emotion – pride, love, joy, and deep appreciation.

Deep appreciation for a beloved young woman who traveled from San Diego to Seattle, and back in one day, to share a most important day with my family.

Joy to have spent this milestone day with people I love so completely – life-long friends, family members, and new friends with young children who share their life with us.

Love from my spouse of many years who gave me the electric screw driver that I have wanted for a long time – a gift that answers needs, wants, and future projects that I will accomplish by my own hand.  I had forgotten that today was Mother’s Day.

And pride.  Pride in my daughter who graduated from university today – my daughter who doubted her abilities, her tenacity, her strengths and gifts.  A young talented woman who enters a challenging and often hostile world equipped with confidence, purpose, and determination.  A young woman who approaches conflict with thoughtful response, who answers harm with compassionate understanding, and who faces struggles with indefatigable perseverance.  In short, a remarkable young adult – beautiful to her core.

And now, at the end of this very hectic weekend, I sit down with a glass of wine and realize that life has never been better.

I wish the same for you.

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The Bully’s pulpit

Anger is defined as a strong feeling of displeasure, irritation, frustration, or distress prompted by one or multiple causes.  Anger can be free-floating or precisely directed.  Anger can be held within or expressed outwardly onto the surrounding environment.  It can explode in a seemingly unprompted outburst or released as quiet, subtle hostility over time – both harmful and unproductive.  Anger can cause depression so severe that it disables or ends a life; it can fuel action to such a degree that it brings positive and needed change to a life.  It can be self-righteous and self-centered or sincerely altruistic.

Students of history are quick to point out that anger has been a motivating factor in important events that have changed the direction of societies over thousands of years.  Anger at injustice and inequity have fueled wars within and between countries.  Anger has been responsible for changes in religious practices that have historically ostracized, condemned, marginalized, or killed adherents whose expressed beliefs differ from tradition.   Anger has fueled elections that have changed the direction of an oligarchy or despotic government to that of a democracy or republic.  When examined with honesty and blended with compassion, anger can be the primary mechanism by which we create positive change in a negative situation.

In the United States today, we see anger surging to an alarming level.  Anger, and its underlying component fear, are normal and understandable responses to being bullied.  As most anyone who lived through childhood can easily explain, being bullied is all about power – power over someone who is ‘different’, power to be The Most, The Best, The First, etc.   But most telling is that bullies are motivated by their deep needs and fears.  Keeping that in mind has helped many children and adolescents learn to effectively deal with being bullied, and occasionally, to turn the bully into an ally or possibly a friend.

But how do we respond to the adult who bullies, especially when that individual has power over millions of people?  This is the dilemma we are faced with in our country today.  The current president has shown himself to be an admirer of dictators and despots who use strong-arm tactics, abuse, and murder to control their populace.   He appears to be motivated by an insatiable need for power, money, and adoration – in essence, motivated by deep needs and fears.  Is anyone around him helping him see the consequences of his actions?   Is anyone reminding him that this country – his country – was founded by immigrants, political, and/or religious refugees seeking the freedom to live their lives in safety?  From his pulpit, he appeals to deep-seated prejudices and misconceptions about individuals historically seen as The Other.  ‘Keep them out with a wall’, he says.  ‘It will be so easy to build’, he says,  ‘Mexico will pay for it’.  Does anyone close to him ask, “Who are the They that you refer to?”

And what of our elected officials who follow him?  They appear to be so intimidated by his bullying that they will bend to his will even while knowing the severe damage their actions will cause to their communities.   Specifically, the recent successful vote in Congress to ‘repeal and replace’ the ACA – this new healthcare bill will make insurance unaffordable to millions of Americans – myself included.   These elected representatives have chosen to ignore a very basic fact of history: when one group of the populace is hurt, all eventually suffer.  To allow themselves to be so intimidated by the small-minded, mean-spirited tactics of a bully is moral cowardice.

Our national parks and monuments are now under threat of being opened to development by the  very interests that helped install our current president into office.  (An aside – how many of us individual citizens have enough money to buy a politician to do our bidding these days?  None that I know of.)   These treasured spaces were protected for all people to enjoy and value, for generations upon generations.  Now these pristine lands are in such danger of being destroyed by drilling for oil and gas, being mined for the minerals they contain, and for the endangered flora and fauna they protect, that they possibly will change dramatically within one decade.  Lawsuits will hold off the assault for a limited amount of time, or possibly not at all, depending upon the court.

In this, one American’s, opinion, of all the damage done to our country – to our friends and neighbors and children – most harmful is the encouragement to freely express the most base, primitive, inhumane prejudices and attitudes that our species can hold.  Regardless of the language by which these attitudes are expressed – religious, political, national – condemning groups of people and denying them the basic human rights of safety, shelter, healthcare, and autonomy is morally abhorrent.  Basic civil rights that were hard-fought to obtain are in danger of being taken away by a bully and those who follow him.

The individuals running our country today claim to be Christian, they claim to base their actions upon the teachings of Jesus.  But if this is what their god teaches, if their actions represent the true teachings of Jesus, I want no part of this religion.  I want no part of a god who bullies.

We can do better than this.

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How to train a squirrel.

Start with a peanut.  A peanut in the shell is best because it requires the animal to slow down and work, rather than stuffing the nut in his cheek pouch and running away without so much as a ‘Thank you!’.  But even before the peanut, you must get his attention.  This is not as easy as it would seem.  You may have noticed many squirrels running throughout your garden in a seemingly pointless search for something they buried but is now lost.  In fact, this is just one little animal.  They move so quickly and haphazardly that they appear to have a large troop of friends helping with the search – which, incidentally, never proves successful.

Anyway, start with a peanut.  When you see the little squirrel bounding up your garden path, place a peanut directly in his line of sight, and quickly move to the side.  The peanut will get his attention and he will charge ahead.  He will not see you.  With the nut in his tiny, guilty paws (which will be covered with fresh mulch), he will become fixated on cracking the shell.  He will not notice you as you move near him, with a few more peanuts in your hand.  Come as close as possible, then place one more peanut in front of him.  This may startle him enough to result in a frantic, singular movement of jumping up, spinning around, and landing a short distance from where he started.  But, if he sees the second peanut next to the peanut he dropped when startled, he will immediately come closer to you.

Now he will be doubly fascinated with the job at hand, and will pick up both peanuts and attempt to crack two shells at once.  At this point, move a slight distance away from him (preferably towards your neighbor’s garden) and place one more peanut in front of him.  Watch the creature’s unmitigated joy at seeing one more nut.  Now he will try to stuff one peanut (shell intact) into his cheek pouch while picking up the third nut.    As you move, with stealth and purpose, up the path, place more nuts in a direct line out of your garden.  He will follow you; rather, he will follow the peanuts.

With cheek pouches stuffed almost to bursting and little paws frantically trying to run and hold peanuts at the same time, you will toss the last peanut into your neighbor’s garden and watch the squirrel work through the problem of one more nut, some distance away, in his mind: ‘do I run for it or am I good here?’  At this point, you will be disappointed to realize that your squirrel is so satisfied with the stash in his paws and cheeks that he will not wander over into your neighbor’s garden, but decide to stay put in yours.  And now you realize that the squirrel has you right where he wants you.

He trained you well.

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Perched on a gust of wind.

Perched on a gust of wind.

The past two and one-half years have brought more turmoil, betrayal, and change to my life than I have experienced since childhood.  The only part of my life not permanently touched is my health – I seem to be made of iron, with a little bit of rust.  All other facets in this adult life – relationships, work, creativity, religious/spiritual beliefs, social – have been altered in some capacity.  Beliefs I once held as resolute are filled with doubt; some relationships I once considered safe and reciprocal are now dangerous and profoundly dishonest; institutions once seen as cohesive and ethical now seem corrupt and easily bought.  The slim confidence I once placed in my ability to understand and respond appropriately is gone and replaced with an intense desire to avoid interactions as often as possible.  However, my garden has never looked better.

I think most, if not all, adults experience a crisis of whatever at some point in their life.  That’s a comforting thought that I hold onto.  When the struggle becomes intense, I go out for a hike.  If the struggle is overwhelming, I hike up every hill in a 7-mile radius and return home so exhausted I can’t speak.  That helps.   Occasionally wind kicks up and pushes against me with such force that I end up behind the place from where I began.  It’s an odd sensation.  Occasionally I can talk myself into gratitude and deep joy but words, whether spoken or held inside, are just a string of syllables that can be turned into nonsense as easily as into song.

Maybe this is a result of an extended spring.  Maybe a result of finally maturing.  Maybe it will pass now that I have faced it.

If not, it’s a long way down.

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Turtles all the way down.

Who do I thank for this – all this?  And how?

Thank you for a night sky so filled with stars there is no room for words.

Thank you for the beauty of planet earth and its power.

Thank you for rain storms that flood barren landscapes denuded by fire.

Thank you for broken bones, broken hearts, broken lives.

Thank you for the stranger who listens and the friend who speaks.

Thank you for knowledge of eukaryotes and DNA and of the mucky primal soup.

Thank you for myths and religion and for superstitions.

Thank you for beauty and ugliness.

Thank you for peacemakers, and for those who make war.

Thank you for mathematics and for failing tests.

Thank you for retakes.

Thank you for butt-kicking coffee, and a cold beer on a hot summer day.

Thank you for decisions so difficult they break your life, for the strength to make those decisions, and the realization that they are good.

Thank you for children, for spouses, and for time alone.

Thank you for isolation, for loneliness, for walking away.

Thank you for honesty and for lies, and wisdom gained from the chasm between.

Thank you for health, for illness, for death and birth.

Thank you for the privilege of aging.

Thank you for God, for the Buddhas, for Jesus, and for the Satan.

Thank you for atheists and for true-believers.

Thank you for love and for hate, but not for indifference.

Thank you for acceptance.

Thank you for turtles – turtles all the way down.

Thank you.