Sunday, September 27, 2009

An Eight-Track Mind

A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. ~Annie Dillard

It occurred to me recently that I could view my life using the model of a flower, where each of the petals represents a major aspect of my life.  Some people have a one-track mind - mine is more like an 8-track, and I need to find a way to divvy up my time and energy and still maintain some sort of balance.

I've always been one to wear a lot of different hats.  My entire adult life I've never had a full-time job, but have often had two or three at once, as well as volunteering in various capacities.

For the past few months, I've been working on opening a business, a laundromat called GreenSuds.  And this semester, I started teaching college English classes after a year-and-a-half-long hiatus.  Now, on top of all that, I started this blog.  Adding these new components to my already busy life is what's prompted me to more deliberately prioritize.

So I went online to look for a blank flower diagram that I could fill in, and discovered two things:  1)  sites that used to offer that sort of thing for free when I was homeschooling my daughters are now subscription sites, and, 2)  apparently the concept of a flower diagram as an organizer is not a new concept.

(I always have mixed feelings when I discover that something I thought I made up already exists.  On the one hand, I feel confirmed, validated, and connected to the collective unconscious or whatever, but I can't help but also feel like I've missed a boat.  Did you know that I'm actually the person who invented grips on pens and fast food restaurants inside gas stations?  I'm the Tesla of trivial ideas.

I really should have known about the flower diagram, since I'm an English teacher and "clustering" is one of the concepts I teach my students for organizing their papers.  There's a fine line between a blob surrounded by and connected to other blobs, and a flower with a center and petals.)

Since I couldn't find a blank diagram, I used an actual photo instead, which is much prettier anyway.  I have to say, with this blogging business, I've been learning a lot of new skills, but the one that tops the charts this week is learning to put text into a photo.

After I got the basic categories down, I made a two-column list, one column for how strong my desire is to do each activity, and one for how much time that activity requires.  I didn't spend a lot of time thinking; I just did it off the top of my head, trusted my initial responses.  Looking at it now, I'm not sure how helpful it really is.  First of all, it makes me feel guilty, like certain things "should" be higher on the desire list than others.  The fact is, all of these things are almost equally important to me, which is why they get to be petals on the flower in the first place.  Trying to prioritize them is extremely difficult - at least, doing it this way, by a list.

So I went to Plan B.  I wrote out a blank weekly schedule, and then filled it in, and that's what really worked.  I realized that I have more time than I thought I did, and more importantly, that it's ENOUGH time to do all of these things, and do them well.

The real problem is when one thing interrupts another's allotted time.  For instance, my son keeps interrupting me as I'm writing this.  Getting other people in my life (i.e., my children) to respect the aspects of my life that don't involve them is definitely the biggest challenge.  Which is another reason why having a fairly orderly schedule is helpful - because then I can say, Right now is my writing time.  When I'm done, let's go for a walk.

I'm done.  I'm going for a walk.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bogged Down in the Blogosphere

Blogosphere wasn't even a word in my vocabulary until this week.  Now I'm lost in it.  Not lost in an existential sense, but literally lost, like being in a country where you only know enough of the language to book a hotel room or find a bathroom.

I started a blog because I'm a lifelong writer who wasn't writing, except for sad little journal entries.  Not sad because of the content, but because, to my mind at least, they need to be shared.  I have so many interests it boggles my mind sometimes.  Trying to create an order to my life that includes at least the primary ones is a challenge to say the least.

Writing for me is like an old marriage.  I take writing for granted, and I ignore my need for it.  So I started a blog, and now I find myself part of this wonderful but overwhelming new world, complete with its own social structure and linguistic eccentricities.

Today I spent so long dicking around with Google, trying to figure out how to get my posts to be announced on my Facebook, that I missed my evening walk to the church.  Again.

The irony, of course, is that one of the main things I've been wanting to write about are these walks.

I procrastinated finishing Pumpkins and Pollinators:  Part Two by following up on comments I had made elsewhere on Blogger.

I had big plans today.  I was going to clean the whole house (well, at least mop the kitchen and vacuum the living room) because I'm throwing a dinner party for my eldest's 18th birthday tomorrow night.  And while an 18th birthday is a huge milestone under any circumstances, this one is especially so, because she's the kind of kid who was born older than she is.  She should have been 18 when she was 15.  She went to southeast Asia for three weeks when she was 13 and - thank God I didn't know this at the time - wandered the streets of Sri Lanka by herself, which was against the rules of the school group she went with, needless to say.

But I digress.  The sense of almost bewilderment I'm currently experiencing is because I feel like I've opened Pandora's Box.  I'm writing again and have too many ideas.  I often think about this story in one of the Sandman comic books by Neil Gaiman, where the guy is cursed with ideas.  They just keep coming and coming until they drive him mad.

That's why I've avoided writing, because it acts like alcohol poured on a fire.  If I don't write, I can at least keep the fire from burning down the house.

So now here I am with all these things I want to write about, but today, instead of trying to get ANY of it down, I got sucked into all these non-writing aspects of blogging.

I got some really good advice tonight, though.  From my sort-of partner, baby daddy.  God, I wish there was an adequate word.  My not-husband, not-boyfriend, more than a friend, we'll figure it out as we go life partner with no commitment.

What he said was "Keep it pure."

So here I am, typing away, pouring it all out, because one thing I told myself about this blogging business is that I would be honest.  Fear of honesty is one of the things that's kept me away from writing.  Fear of being turned inside out, raw, with my guts spilling everywhere.

I'm just going to write, and let the widgets and gadgets find their way to me later.  Or not.

Pumpkins and Pollinators: Part Two

So where is the dark side of the pumpkin?

In her delightful and devastatingly educational book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver advocates eating fresh, locally grown food as much as possible.  She comments on the absurdity of the fact that people in droves buy pumpkins for their Halloween jack-o-lanterns but then throw them away after Halloween and buy canned pumpkin for their Thanksgiving pies.

I maintain that the global food market is at least as evil as global warming and indeed contributes greatly to it, but because our food is almost as close as our breath, the big picture can be hard to see.  For a better idea of it, go to  Click on some of its resources links - but be forewarned - it may change forever the way you feel about eating a banana.

The other dark issue I'm thinking about today, because I'm thinking about pumpkins, is the pollination crisis.  Which is, of course, unavoidably intertwined with the global food crisis.

Stephen L. Buchmann and Gary Paul Nabhan, authors of the The Forgotten Pollinators, say that bees of the genera Peponapis possess superior ability to pollinate pumpkins and others in the squash family.  In fact, these "squash" or "gourd bees" show up at the crack of dawn, when blossoms are first opening, beating out honeybees by about half an hour.  They also visit squash blossoms more often than other pollinators, and are, according to the authors,  "strong fliers that frequently move pollen between far-flung plants of the same species, thereby promoting genetic diversity."

But these bees are in decline for a number of reasons, including pesticide use and habitats disturbed by human activity.  Most commercial pumpkins are now pollinated by domesticated honeybees, but there is still often an inadequate number of pollinators, in which case farmers resort to hand pollination.  Artificial insemination, if you will. 

The message of The Forgotten Pollinators is that the relationship between pollinators and plants is so important and delicate that if one declines, the other often will too.  And therefore so will we.  It's not much of a stretch to imagine how the overall ecology of the planet is affected by the myriad of such relationships.  And this is the point, really - that the problem is not just extinction of species but extinction of relationships.

I love honeybees, but their domestication and humanly created ubiquity is a major contributor to the decline of native pollinators.  Kind of like how Wal-Mart puts the Mom-and-Pop grocery out of business.   And when you personally know that sweet couple, Mom and Pop, it pisses you off all the more.  The squash bee and blossom are a sweet couple too:
Pollen-covered gourd bees spend lengthy periods of time perching, grooming, and waiting on the massive gourd stigmas--behavior never observed among honeybees, nor among other native bees for that matter.  These are secretive little lives that feed us.

And when we mistreat these little lives, the repercussions may suddenly cascade in from unknown directions.  (from The Forgotten Pollinators)
It's food for thought, no?

Now don't get me wrong - I still sometimes buy convenience and fast foods, and my household consumes way too much coffee to always go the fair-trade organic route.  And I still regularly buy bananas for my toddler's breakfast, even though the amount of fossil fuel required to get them to the local grocery store is outrageous.

But I've made little changes, here and there, and they add up over time.  It's like the advice you always read about starting an exercise program or diet - don't try to change it all at once; you'll just get overwhelmed and give up altogether.

I just want to keep making these changes, keep growing my awareness of The Way It Is.  Get to know the birds and the bees and all my other enigmatic neighbors, and as much as I'm able, to love them as myself.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pumpkins and Pollinators: Part One

As I write this, my house is full with the scent of baking pumpkin.  I believe there are few more satisfying things in life than scooping out a pumpkin, baking it, then using it to bake pie served with butter pecan ice cream after a good hot dinner.

This would only be topped by having grown the pumpkin myself - maybe next year.  I hope.

Today is the autumnal equinox, and I can't think of a better activity to celebrate by than pumpkin alchemy.  I have to admit that many times I have thrown away the seeds out of sheer laziness, but today I carefully extracted them and toasted them with butter in a cast iron pan.  Yum.

So here's to the changing of the seasons, the harvest, and the better aspects of humanity - like its ability to invent things like butter, cast iron pans, and pie.

But.  Since this day is also an acknowledgment of the balance of dark and light, I am constrained to point out a little darkness.  Like the fact that most people who make pumpkin pies do so with canned pumpkin.

Maybe compared to genocide and global warming this isn't such a travesty.  Or maybe it is.  Tune in next time to find out.

The School of Joy

According to many Native traditions, hummingbird medicine encompasses joy, which my recent experiences confirm.  The best part is that I've realized I can access joy whenever I want.  Actually, I've discovered this then almost immediately lost it several times in my life, but it's finally sinking in.  The first time was at a party when I was in college.  I was utterly miserable, had partaken of at least two mood-altering substances that seemed to sort of cancel each other out, and was frozen to a couch in sensory and emotional overload.  All I could do was watch everyone having a good time and feel incredibly self-conscious, even though no one was looking at me.  Then I suddenly noticed that underneath all that angst and anxiety was a feeling of pure joy that I could listen to instead of the clamoring of critical voices in my head.  The ability to do this only lasted moments, but it was enough to make an impression, one that I've returned to over and over.

The next significant milestone in this lifelong lesson was when I was about ten years into a miserable marriage, and kept praying for relief.  I wanted God to either change my husband, take away my pain, or show me a way out of the marriage.  This one particular day, I was balled up on the floor, wretched, emotionally starved.  I felt like an empty cold bathtub.  I kept praying the same tired prayer to be taken out of the pain.  Something shifted; I stopped desperately straining to look up and out, and found myself embraced from the inside.  The pain was still there; in fact, it was intensified in a way, but I relaxed into it, stopped desperately treading water and floated, and discovered that there was a gentle warm current of comfort just right there, in the center of the suffering.

What's happening lately is not as dramatic as all that, but that's why it's more effective I think.  Joining with that current is just becoming habit.  A few months ago I read this little book by Pema Chodron:

The subject of the book is Tonglen practice, which is a very simple discipline of breathing in the bad and breathing out the good:  embracing all your angst and anxiety and then breathing out peace.  It was nice to discover that my experiences in this realm have a basis in Buddhist teachings.  Reading about this practice there in a book, put so simply, I was surprised and confirmed.  It struck me as such a reversal of pop spirituality, where you're taught to breathe out the negative and take in the good.  In this sense, Tonglen seems very Christian to me.  It's what Jesus would do.   In fact, it's essentially what he was getting at when he told the Pharisees that it's not what you take into the body that makes you sick, it's what you put out.  And then the whole taking-on-the-sins-of-world thing - well, I don't suppose that requires much explanation.

So I've been doing this Tonglen practice.  Badly, irregularly.  But it works anyway.  And ever since I started seeing and contemplating hummingbirds, I've been hearing this little voice in me that tells me daily that I'm happy.  Not the whole livelong day.  Not yet and maybe never.  But it's enough.  There have been numerous occasions when I could have followed my lethal mind down its dark familiar rabbit hole, but instead I listened to the hummingbird voice, the whirring hum of iridescent wings, erasing my scrawling brain like a whiteboard.  And dare I say it - this way of being is becoming second nature.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

How I Became the Pollinatrix

It all started with drowning bees.  When I was a kid, there was a surprising number of times that I would come across a bee trapped in a puddle, say, or a soda bottle, and find a way to save it.  Since then, I've had a strong connection with and interest in bees, and I've learned a lot about myself from studying them.  I've also realized that many noteworthy events in my life have involved flowers in one way or another.

My interest has now broadened to include pollinators in general.  A couple of summers ago, I found this book in the gift shop at Fort Ross State Historic Park in Jenner, California:

The authors, Stephen L. Buchman and Gary Paul Nabhan, discuss the world's ecological crisis from the angle of declining pollinator populations.  I've been reading this book a little at a time for quite awhile now.  Alas, I was saddened to read that honeybees introduced into a region by beekeepers often contribute to the decline of native pollinators.  But it's been stimulating to learn about other kinds of pollinators and how they operate.

I've recently come into a relationship with hummingbirds.  An old Native man that I met one day at Wal Mart, of all places, asked me to give him my open palm, and he held his hand over mine and told me he was giving me hummingbird energy.  I didn't think much of it at the time, except that an immediate feeling of peace and joy came over me.  A couple of weeks later, though, I went on a private camping retreat at Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort in the Carson Forest.  There were more hummingbirds there than I have ever seen in my life.  I was sitting on the second floor of the lodge having lunch in the snack bar, and I looked out the window at the tall pines.  There were many tiny birds in the branches, which I didn't immediately recognize as hummingbirds because they were sitting still.  When I walked out onto the balcony, one flew right up to me at eye level and hovered there for a few moments, long enough for me to say Hi.  Thanks for coming.

That same week, there was a bat nestled above my front door for a couple of days.  (I didn't even know bats were pollinators until I started reading that book.)  And that was also the week I started walking to San Francisco de Asis (see previous post).  There are beds of fragrant purple flowers lining the walkway of the church, and this is where I like to sit when I'm there, in front of the statue of St. Clare.  While I was there that first evening, an abundance of tiny winged creatures started flitting through the flowers.  At first I thought they were hummingbirds, but they were smaller and more insect-like.  They were also less concerned about my presence than hummingbirds would have been.  Several flew around me and sucked nectar from flowers right next to me.  Sometimes one would be so close I could watch the long proboscis straighten out into a blossom like a fishing line into a river, then quickly curl up into the creature's mouth.   I can only describe the feeling they evoked in me as goofy euphoria.  When I went home I looked them up and found out that they're called hummingbird hawk moths.  This is what they look like:

Unfortunately, I had to snag this pic from Photobucket, because by the time I got around to trying to take my own photos of them, they had stopped coming around.  But that's a story for another day.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Good Walk

I've always liked the idea of taking daily walks, but only if it involves arriving somewhere different than where I started. Seeing people walk in endless circles around the neighborhood makes me feel slightly embarrassed for them, and a little sad. Like watching monkeys at the zoo.

I've moved around a lot, but I'm finally in a neighborhood where I can take walks and actually get somewhere. Not in the utilitarian sense - I'm not walking to the grocery store or the bank, but to somewhere I can rest for a bit, somewhere inspiring. Since June, I have lived in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, the home of the famous San Francisco de Asis church, which was painted numerous times by Georgia O'Keefe, and photographed by Ansel Adams (and countless others). I can see the steeples from my front porch, and if I walk a little way down my street, I can cut through an almost hidden break in the bushes, cross a board laid over a skinny acequia, and walk through this little grove that opens out into the gravel driveway that circles the church.

 Shortly after I moved here, I found myself drawn daily to take this walk, as if those steeples were whispering my name. This sudden irresistible urge always hits me just before sunset, which is the all-around best time of day in northern New Mexico. This is when everything lights up with magic and you understand why it's called the Land of Enchantment.

So I get to take a little pilgrimage every day. I sneak away from the cacophony of a house full of kids, and step for a spell into a pocket of peace and delight.


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