While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.

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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.


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A Reason for Optimism, Part II – any place will do.

No doubt you have seen plants growing in unusual places – through cracks in streets, sidewalks, and driveways, in the scoop of a trowel left behind in a garden, on an unintentionally green roof, on old fences, on downed logs, on masonry, or through the siding of abandoned buildings.  Many plants will grow where only their very basic, minimal needs are met.  A walk through an old neighborhood will present the observer with a wide array of tenacious hardy plants thriving (or, at least, growing) in such unusual places and in such peculiar conditions that you can’t help but wonder how.  Some years ago, I saw a long healthy string of field bindweed (Convolvulus spp.) thriving on a windowsill – no nearby soil to be found.  I was impressed but not surprised.

On my exercise route, I have watched the progress of a young pine growing in a unique place.  About 10 years ago, a dead tree was removed from the street-side of a large, well-manicured yard.  (The tree had died from years of incorrect and unnecessary pruning.)   A 2-foot tall stump was left behind.  A few annuals would be planted around the base of the stump each spring/summer, but the stump was left intact.  After approximately 3 years, I noticed a tiny pine tree growing from a crack in the middle of the stump – right on top.  I was amused by the tough little tree and wondered if the children who lived there had found the seedling somewhere and moved it to the stump.  The family moved away before I had the opportunity to ask them.

When new owners moved in to the house, I was afraid that they would remove stump and seedling from their yard in their new landscaping plan, but the stump and its occupant remained in place.  Apparently, they appreciated the uniqueness of their little tree enough to allow it to live.  Over time, the young pine developed a sturdy trunk, splitting the old stump right down the middle and creating for itself a protective covering for its young bark.  A good home for a youngster.

Now it is a healthy tree, between 6 – 7 feet tall (on the garden side), and presents a unique and interesting focal point in an otherwise unimaginatively landscaped front garden.  I take a moment to inspect the tree on a monthly basis, and I am always encouraged.  Plantsmen and women with much more knowledge and experience than I tell me that regardless of how we damage our environment, something green will survive.

And, I think they’re right!

pine-2                         pine

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The Intolerance of Religious Belief

Until this week, I was a member of a Unitarian church.  Since 1988 – my entire adult life – this church has been an important source of religious, intellectual, spiritual, and personal growth for me.  During the past 29 years, its ministers have guided me through personal and family tragedies, the challenges of parenthood, and the annoyingly frequent questions of my evolving religious life.  In this church, I have made some very good friends; some remain and with some, grown apart.  I have been among the many proud teachers in its Sunday school to watch our students grow from toddler-hood to thoughtful, active young teens and on into adulthood.  I have been a member of many different groups and have attended countless classes – some very enlightening and some simply fun.  I have volunteered in different capacities, and from those activities, gained a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the wide variety of beliefs and practices within world religions – many of which are represented in the Unitarian denomination.  In short, this church was a primary force in my life and until a few days ago, I could not imagine ever wanting to leave.

But over the years, I noticed one uncomfortable factor which was the basis for my feeling of being slightly on the outside of the congregation.  I believe in God.  I am neither Christian nor Jew.  I am not Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim.  I am not Humanist or Atheist.  Simply stated, I am a person who believes in God.  I don’t proselytize or advertise this belief but I will answer honestly when asked.  And my ‘confession’ has resulted in some very surprising and sometimes judgmental responses.  “I thought you were more intelligent than that!”  “Belief in God is just magical thinking.”  “So why do you come to this church?”  “I outgrew God when I was a teenager.”  “You mean, the man with the white beard?”  “You should go back to school.”  “That’s an immature and simplistic belief system.”


Every congregation has some opinionated people.  In my personal life, I have strong opinions about some religious beliefs.  But a few of those opinionated people feel compelled to set others on the path they believe is ‘the right one’.  And in a large congregation such as in the church I just left, many of those individuals apparently feel very free to judge another’s beliefs if they are long-term members of the church.

With time, I became more withdrawn around many congregants at church.  I curtailed my social time at coffee hour, and eventually decreased my socializing to just a few people.  For the past 2 years, I taught Sunday school during the first hour and attended the service and sermon during the second hour.  During my free 30 minutes or so between services, I would rush into the social hall, gulp down a cup of coffee and have a snack, then rush into the chapel and wait until the service started, thereby avoiding socializing completely.  I wasn’t entirely aware that I had developed this practice until an episode occurred in a group I attended twice a month.  This group was created to be a safe, non-judgmental place where topics discussed are based on specific themes which change from month to month.  As a group, we covenant with each other to listen without judgement; to avoid arguing, analyzing, or correcting; and to be a safe place for the exchange and examination of thoughts and beliefs.  A few years ago, I joined one of these groups and the experience was outstanding.  However, it didn’t turn out that way for me this time.  During our discussion, a member turned to me in anger and said that what I was saying was “immature and simplistic, like a belief in Santa Claus.”  The member continued pointing out the flaws in my thinking until he ran out of steam.  I stayed pretty quiet for the rest of the meeting.

On the drive home, for the second time in two years and in two very different situations, I ‘heard’ the word Leave.  I don’t understand this phenomenon.  I don’t know its origin.  But, after 29 years of membership, leaving this church is difficult and painful.  I can’t imagine my life in any religion other than Unitarianism; it is an open-minded, thoughtful, and fulfilling religion.  But as with any religion, it can become intolerant.  And when that happens, when it pushes away those with differing beliefs and prevents sharing of those beliefs, it fails its adherents and leaves them homeless, and it becomes just one more failed belief system.