Margy and I were chatting in the coolness of our kitchen, when suddenly I thought I saw a squirrel on our back deck, running right under the plastic “owl” that I had bought, supposedly to scare squirrels away from the orchard. That’s what caught my attention. But looking closer, we realized it wasn’t a squirrel, it was a groundhog! I ran outside onto the deck, and it ran too, but I managed to catch this slightly blurry picture to confirm our suspicions. It ran across the patio, through the back yard and over to the trees on the edge.
Margy and I are often torn between totally loving the critters that come into the yard, but also wanting to eat the food we are growing. Munimqehs is the Passamaquoddy word for groundhog, which I learned in the fall of 2018. In Wabanaki stories, Munimqehs is the wise grandmother who has many lessons to teach us about how to be good human beings. How desolate we would be without our animal neighbors!
We haven’t had any groundhogs in the yard for the last few summers. The last one disappeared, we believe due to the intervention of a neighbor. With a groundhog in the yard, however, it is a whole new ballgame for gardening. I immediately went out in the heat, and put together a netting contraption to try to protect our bed of kale, from which I had harvested the first leaves earlier this morning. I happened to have these metal arches and nylon netting, and fastened the netting to the ground with metal stakes. There is already a wire mesh under the raised bed, so no animals should be able to dig up from underneath. We’ll see if this deters our little friend. I might have to also go back to the pee protection scheme that I used to partial success a few years ago.
Meanwhile, today I am grateful for the excitement of a critter on the deck, a young one it seems. Let’s see what lessons she/he will have to teach us. We have lots of clover that we’re happy to put on her table. Let’s see if we can be good neighbors.
I had a helper yesterday for digging the pond. My friend Sylvia came by in the afternoon and the very first thing we did was drag the pond-liner in its box from near the house to back closer to the pond. (You can see it in the picture, behind the wheelbarrow.) That would have been enough help all by itself–so heavy! But then we took turns digging, hauling, and resting nearby. We got a lot done, and also enjoyed a rare COVID-time visit, walking around the yard and in the woods, looking at birds and plants.
So here is what the pond looks like now, in layers. The first layer down, about 8-10 inches, is for the planting layer. The next layer down, maybe 18 inches, is for a step layer–part of that I might take away as we go along, but some will remain to be a step into the pond going forward. In the middle, we dug to about 2 feet down, as measured with this string set-up I created. My aim is to go three feet down in the middle.
But then we came upon a problem that wasn’t mentioned in the Building Natural Ponds book by Robert Pavlis. Water started to seep up from the sandy soil. We are actually at the time of year when vernal pools abound here in Maine. We have a ditch way back behind the edge of our property and the properties next door that fills during spring rains. And we had an inch of rain last week, though generally it has been a dry winter. Does this mean we can’t go any deeper for a lined pond? Or do we need to wait until it is a bit dryer as the days go by? Will it mess up the pond to have water under the liner at the bottom? Or does it not matter at all? I am going to ask my questions in the Facebook group Building Natural Ponds, and see whether I might find some answers.
Maybe the pond just wants to be a pond so badly, that it doesn’t want to wait, lol. Meanwhile, I am going to rest today from digging, and more rain is coming tomorrow. So we will see. If you have any wisdom about this, I’d love to hear from you.
More on my adventures in digging a small pond! Yesterday I finished digging the first layer of the pond, down to the level of the planting shelf, about 1 foot. I checked whether it was fairly level after I was done. And then I did some math to figure out what 1/2 to 1/3 of the total surface area would be, which is the best size for the planting shelves.
For those who might wonder, here is how I worked on that: Using a website that computes circle area, I found that for my 11′ by 11.5′ pond, the total surface area was about 100 square feet. If I made a planting shelf one foot deep, the resulting circle would be 9′ by 9.5′, with a surface area of 67 square feet, meaning the planting shelf included 33 square feet. I was surprised that just 1 foot at the edge already brought it to 1/3 of the area. Doing two feet would leave a circle of 7′ by 7.5′, or 41 square feet, with 59 square feet for planting. So I took half of that, and decided to do 1 foot wide on one half, with 2 feet wide on the other half, approximately. Even though the math is exact, the actual pond will be less so, but it gave me an idea of what I was aiming for. I marked it out with white flour, including a spot for a step, that would be dug to 1 more foot down, to make it easier to get in and out of the pond center.
Meanwhile, I’ve heard back from folks who have bits and pieces of carpet–I had asked for at least 2 feet wide, and the responses have ranged from 2′ by 2′, to a medium size carpet. I picked up some yesterday, and will do more today. It has been fun to have these interactions with folks, limited as they are–so rare for me in a time of COVID. Since I don’t have a truck, the smaller pieces actually work because they fit in the back of my car.
Meanwhile, the pond liner was delivered yesterday too! A very heavy box was dropped in our driveway by UPS. (I think I remember that it was going to be 138 pounds) Unable to lift it myself, or even together with Margy, she had the idea to roll it onto a larger piece of cardboard (which we always have in our garage for various garden projects) and then we could pull that cardboard together along the driveway to a better spot–and it worked. So it is waiting by the side of our house. It made me realize, though, that when I actually install the liner in the pond, I will definitely need help from a few friends.
Four years ago, the pond was part of our original plan for our permablitz–when twenty-some people came by and helped us with all manner of garden projects. (If you are curious about that, you can find more here.) It was such a humbling and gratifying experience to be gifted with the energy of so many to begin to create this permaculture garden where we live. With everything else going on that day, it was decided that the pond would be too much to attempt. But it is wonderful to remember how community enables us to live better with our land, how the gift of each other’s time and energy enriches all who participate. With COVID we’ve been on our own so much, and yet even so, we rely on the help of others–delivery people, for example, and neighbors who have picked up needed items in stores. It has brought us closer together with our neighbors actually. We are so programmed by our society to try to be self-sufficient. It is hard to be reminded of our need for each other–and yet that need is a blessing.
Meanwhile, it was also a blessing to be digging on my own, outside in a beautiful sunny day. Squirrels were playing, birds singing, daffodils shining bright yellow, and the cherry and peach trees are beginning to blossom. I started on the next layer of the pond. Our soil is very sandy and compacted–we had an inch of rain fall on Friday, and none of it stayed in the depression that I had already dug. So the recommendation is to slope the sides as we go down so it doesn’t collapse. Step by step, and with a little help, I think it can be done.
Yesterday, my Mail program on my Macbook crashed, and kept crashing. While I pursue attempts to fix it, I am pondering how I have used email, and what those possibly lost emails hold for me. One thing they hold is memory and relationships. I have some old friends that I keep in touch with through email, maybe once a year or every few months. The emails between us hold the long conversation, the details of events in their lives that I might otherwise forget, the cherished connections we make to each other. My emails also hold networking on issues I care about, future possibilities for workshops or activism, relationship building in the here and now. My emails also hold a record of these writings I post on the blog, to save on my own laptop.
But in the meantime, the Mail program is also clogged with thousands of emails that I never bother to read, never bother to erase. Not all junk, per se, but reports from organizations, updates on political issues, daily inspirations that I once thought would be uplifting, but I’ve stopped caring about. And it was much easier to ignore them, rather than try to go through and unsubscribe or move to the trash. Since I can’t open the Mail, I don’t have exact numbers, but I am pretty sure that there are at least 20,000 unopened emails in there. I wish I could magically extract the important ones and abandon the rest.
Yesterday evening, after giving up for a while on the computer fixing, Margy and I watched the movie Nomadland, with Frances McDormand. She plays Fern, an older woman who has lost her husband and her home, and who sets out in a van equipped with mattress and cupboards and cooking options, to travel to seasonal jobs in the American west. Along the way she meets other similarly displaced people, and in the film these are actual “nomads” playing fictionalized versions of themselves. It was powerfully beautiful in its closeness to the natural world of deserts and mountains and rivers, achingly solitary yet full of community in surprising places, and deeply sad in its indictment of our society’s abandonment of aging people.
It also got me thinking about what we hold in our homes, and what I might carry with me, if I ever lost this home and had to set out with only a van full of what I needed, what I cherished. We see Fern looking through a tin box of old photos, listening to music on her little radio, carefully repairing a broken plate, eventually giving up the stuff in the storage unit back in her old town. What would I hold onto, what would I leave behind?
I like to watch Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Finding Your Roots. There are times when the paper trail runs out for people on the show, there are no more records to be found to show the names of their ancestors, or the places they were born and died. Sometimes the paper trail ends because of slavery or genocide or oppression. Sometimes it ends because most people didn’t document their lives in ages past, like we do today. But I wonder if future generations looking for their ancestors of today would have different problems. They might have the problem of technologies changed or lost, such that they could no longer access the online records we so carefully accumulate. But they might also have the problem of getting lost in the avalanche of “paper” we now compile, the over-accumulation of words. Will they no longer be able to follow the trail of what is most important amid the towering clutter of what is not?
And so I come back to my own life, remembering the times I set out with a backpack, or a little car, starting a new life with only what I could carry. I got pretty good at winnowing things down, valuing the simplicity of it, feeling the freedom of it. But in the last twenty years, I’ve been able to settle down and really root myself in home. So things accumulate, some things cherished and beautiful, others practical, necessary, and then the stuff that serves no purpose any longer, but won’t magically disappear unless I do that work of taking it away, giving it away, sorting and erasing. What do I want to hold on to, what do I want to let go?
And yet, eventually, we all leave this life with nothing we can hold onto, all that is left is what we have given away.
It is snowing right now, so lovely. We have had very little snow this winter in Maine. Today’s snow will be turning to rain in a couple hours they say, so I take some moments to appreciate it. But mostly right now I am thinking about sorrow and grief. A dear friend’s loved one who just died from COVID. Another friend who is sick from some unknown thing. People within my circle of friends and relatives who are struggling with loneliness and depression and worry. I am holding all of them in my heart today, as the snow falls so gently and kindly.
In Maine, they are opening up vaccination appointments to people in our age group next week. For us personally, this is both good news and not quite so good. We would have already been in the next age group, 65-69, but instead they’ve opened it up to everyone 60-69, so there will be 200,000 people looking for appointments in the next weeks, instead of 90,000. Maine has switched to an entirely age-based plan, aside from health care workers and congregate living elders who also have priority. I feel for my younger friends dealing with precarious medical situations in themselves or their families. Lots of folks are feeling upset that they will have to wait longer, though the hope is to vaccinate all adults by midsummer, and sooner if more vaccine becomes available.
Apparently, from a public health perspective, more lives can be saved by using age-based criteria, age being a major indicator of possible death and serious illness from COVID. (At least here in Maine, which has a significantly older population than some other states.) And more vaccines can be given out sooner if providers don’t have to deal with all sorts of paperwork and screening issues, which would be needed if they were to account for medical conditions. I had my moments of frustration about our spots in the long line, but then was able to shift focus to a wider lens. We, like everyone else, look forward to the day when we can more safely navigate our lives, go back to physical therapy, or catch up on delayed medical care. Not to mention gathering with friends, seeing loved ones, or just going out for a meal. But we’re all waiting, and we are in this together, even as we are feeling so much alone.
So I come back to a sense of patience, gentle like the falling snowflakes, letting go of the merely individual view and taking the wider view of all of us as a people, navigating this terrible pandemic in the best way we are able, together. I feel this patience especially now that our national government is also concerned with the health of the people, and is responding with a coordinated and extensive response. I still feel so angry that the previous administration ignored all the wisdom of public health, left local and state governments to fend for themselves, and abandoned half a million people to die. If they had responded immediately and cooperatively, so many lives could have been saved. Unforgivable. Unforgivable.
I weep for those who have died, and for those who are left behind in grief. I weep for our country, in the throes of its struggle between individualistic power grabbing and collective compassion for all. Today, my sadness is my prayer, and the gentle falling of snowflakes.
No matter how many years I have lived, I am still brought to utter delight by the icy beauty of plants in the sunshine, after a freezing rain. There is nothing so bright, so crystalline, so shimmering!
I have lived most of my life in Northern areas of the United States (except for 6 months in Texas when I was seven.) So we here are accustomed to all sorts of wintery weather. But today I am also thinking of my relatives in Texas who are in their own icy cold, so rare in that place that they are dealing with burst water pipes, lack of heat, lack of electricity. I wish for them and all their neighbors warmth, help, and support to face the challenges.
These are the among the dangers we face more and more from climate change, or as some say so accurately, climate catastrophe. I wish we could come together as one earth community to begin to live differently, to live as if our lives are totally dependent on our mother Earth and all of her beings. Because we are. And even working together we will face difficult days ahead. So much has already been lost and altered. And still, we must also be so compassionate during these difficult times, because unless we love, we can never come together as one earth community. And we must keep hold of joy and beauty, or we will lose hope altogether.
So I am sharing these photos from around our yard for beauty. May the beauty of nature help us in all of our troubling times!
I am writing on the New Moon day, while in Congress our representatives are debating the impeachment of President Trump. On the New Moon, I always read my journal from the day of the last New Moon, and I note recurring themes in my days. One recurring theme for me this moon has been feeling empty and lost–I asked in my journal several times, “What is my purpose in this time of my life?” I am an elder now, and because of chronic illness, my energy is limited. What does it mean to be an elder in these times?
One of my images for the Divine Mystery is the River–the flow, the great unfolding of all things, the mysterious energy that holds us in its flowing. So one day, I prayed: I do not know my purpose–I open to your flowing oh River, I open to your flowing, and thank you.
I went outside after that, and there were tiny bits of hail on the dry ground. I started on a walk down the street and around the corner and directly toward the Capisic Brook near my house. Part-way there, I slid on a small patch of ice hidden under the scattered hail and landed on my back and elbow. I was bruised but okay, and even continued on to the brook and back, though I felt shaky about it into the next day, and have been sore since then.
So reading my journal, I couldn’t help but notice that this fall came directly after my prayer to the River about my purpose, my surrender to the flowing. I wondered, “What’s that about, Spirit? What kind of answer to prayer is that?” I remembered a story about St. Teresa of Avila, who after a bad day had a fall of her own into the mud. She challenged God then, “Why?” and God said, “That is how I treat my friends.” She replied, “That is why you have so few!” (These were the Catholic stories I grew up on.)
I do know that the Spirit has a sense of humor, but might this fall mean something more subtle, like “Now is not the time to move forward or worry about having a purpose?” “Or, what?” And so today I sat quietly with Spirit, and with Billie kitty on my arm, seeking help to understand. Here is what came to me.
Don’t worry. The answer is to live into the answer by a hundred small intuitions. Joy. Love. As an elder, to let go of fixing, to be rooted in joy and love. You learn to end a day, or a life, by living into each day, each life. Feel the feelings. I didn’t knock you over, but it is in the nature of life to fall and to get up, to be wounded and to heal, to encounter hidden dangers without warning, to take time for recovery and to build resilience, to be broken and to be one with the whole.
As an eldest child, you felt responsible for everything. As an elder, you can learn that you are not responsible for everything. And yes, that is frightening. But you can feel the fear and rest in my love. You can lead as you have been leading, by sharing the skills and sharing the responsibility with each other, caring and connecting, just as you are.
And so here I am, in this hermitage life, trying to listen to the flow of the Spirit, learning a new way of being, an elder way of being, not responsible for everything. Even in this hermitage, the storms of the outside world rage into our lives through internet and television, and our power to act is so small. I hope and pray that those who can act, will do the right thing, do the brave thing, will hold fast to the good and resist greed and racism and violence and fascism. I hope and pray for a world in which all people care for each other and care for the earth. It is a frightening time. So I feel those feelings, and remember the next part–to rest in the love of Spirit.
Thirty years ago, I wrote a thesis about lesbian identities and lesbian spiritualities: a lesbian theology of liberation. I didn’t have the grounding and context to publish it beyond my academic program, and I have always regretted that it didn’t make it into a book. Recently, I have been asking myself, could I find a way to publish it now?
It seems in one sense a foolish idea, because so much has changed in thirty years. The realities of then are not the realities of now. But while much of the change has been empowering for lesbians and others on the LGBTQ continuum, some things have been lost as well. There was something amazing about the flowering of lesbian community I experienced during that time–joyful, life altering, transformative.
I first encountered lesbian community in Grand Rapids, Michigan, of all places, and at the Michigan Women’s Music Festival in 1979. This was before my own coming out, and certainly an instrumental part of my coming out, though that process took several years. There was a fundamental intersection between lesbian and feminist communities that was happening then, that opened up this world to me. In 1983 I moved to Chicago to go back to school, and found more lesbian community there.
In 1985 and 86, I lived at the Women’s Peace Encampment in upstate New York for several months of each year, and that was like crossing the border into Lesbian Nation. The photo above is from a musical jam session that was one of many I participated in, though I am not in that particular photo. In 1986 I moved to the Boston area. The feminist and lesbian communities there were large and diverse: they supported–and were supported by–two book stores, several lesbian bars, a women’s community center, a woman’s monthly periodical, and so much more. It was in 1990-91 that I wrote my thesis in the context of Episcopal Divinity School’s Feminist Liberation Theology and Ministry program.
When I left Boston in 1999, it was to venture into a career as a Unitarian Universalist minister, which brought me back into the more mainstream world. I was still out as a lesbian, I was still connected to other lesbians, but being a minister shaped my role and altered my relationship to community. That, and the fact of changing my location, first to Cape Cod and then to Portland, Maine, which were very different places from Boston. Somewhere along the way, it seemed like the lesbian community I knew disappeared. I might have thought this was just my personal experience, but then in 2016, Bonnie Morris published The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbians Spaces and Culture. I haven’t yet read her book, but it has been sitting on my bedside table waiting.
It has only been in retirement, in older age, and perhaps in the isolation of this pandemic, that I have looked back at my lesbian thesis and wondered about it. From thirty years on, I can see how difficult it has been for us to pass on a “lesbian heritage” from one generation to the next. I notice how individuals of newer generations may sometimes find themselves lost and lonely as they try to grapple with sexual or gender identity. I also notice how newer generations re-invent themselves on their own, and in their own ways, very differently from those of us in earlier generations. So perhaps all of that is fine.
But perhaps there might be something valuable in resurrecting the voice of the me of thirty years ago, perhaps it might be useful to someone. After I did an oral history for a program at the University of Southern Maine, a student who listened to the recording was inspired to write a poem, “What if God were a lesbian?” And significantly, that was very like the original question that inspired my own book. What if?
Today I felt filled with an enormous dread, watching the attempted coup by a president who won’t acknowledge the results of a valid election, watching the followers who enable him to keep undermining the vote. I had felt relieved after the votes were counted. Perhaps we were back to more ordinary times and struggles–certainly the struggles were not over, but some semblance of a social order were on track to be restored.
But then I read an account by someone who had lived through a coup in their own country, Sri Lanka, who said that America is already having one right now, and I sank into a kind of terror. I won’t repeat their story here–you can read it via the link. Just to say that undermining faith in the results of an election can disrupt the very fabric of a fragile democracy, and is an invitation to ongoing chaos.
In my dread, I went outside–into a cloudy warm day–perhaps the last of these summer-like days–where Margy was working in the yard. She got in the hammock with me and I could just feel all the feelings of terror, but with the comfort of love, the comfort of the earth and sky. I certainly don’t have the answers for what we can do, what anyone can do, about this coup. I hope someone who might have the power and the answers is talking about it somewhere.
The other thing that, ironically, has relieved my anxieties about the election and the coup is a novel I have been reading about climate change. It is the latest work by Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future. Set in the very near future, the title refers to an international agency that is formed to be a voice for future generations in the international arena. It’s a fragmented sort of novel, with each chapter a small piece in a larger fabric, and only a few on-going characters to help keep the thread going. Like in some of his other works, Robinson’s characters are trying out all sorts of ideas to turn around or mitigate the catastrophes of climate warming. Perhaps it will get more hopeful as I keep reading, but for now, it is sobering. So the terrors of a coup are replaced by the terrors of climate catastrophe–but those terrors are more familiar to me.
In the meantime, Margy and I seize the opportunity of our own strange weather to replenish the soil in our little part of the earth–another visit to the beach to get more seaweed, more sifting of compost (to get the roots and stones out) to put near the fruit trees, raspberries, bushes in the back of the yard. As much compost as I can sift, I put it somewhere. As much seaweed as we can collect, we put it somewhere.
For the fruit trees, also, a few weeks ago I painted their trunks white. There is a whole story to this. I had read about painting the trunks of trees white to protect them from sun damage in the winter, to protect from insects burrowing. But when I first read about it, people were talking about using latex paint, and that didn’t feel true to the spirit of organic permaculture.
Then, this fall, searching the web for another project–looking for food safe paints–I came across milk paint. This is the old-fashioned white wash that Tom Sawyer used, that most people used before the modern age. It’s made of natural ingredients: milk proteins, lime, and pigments. It has no VOCs to emit, no scents to be allergic to. It came in a powder that I mixed with water, in the amount I needed for the trees. The powder will last a long time, but the mixed paint only a couple weeks. So I painted the tree trunks. You can use it for lots of things, not just trees. Finding resources that cause no harm to the earth–that help the earth–these are like little miracles that never cease to delight me.
A shift has happened in my spirit, and I feel grounded in a way I haven’t felt for several weeks. I’m not sure why, but a few things have happened this week that might be related.
Three days ago, after windy rain, the power went out about 9:30 in the morning. Happily, I’d already eaten breakfast and installed a new shop light in the garage. (As a friend framed it on Facebook one day, it was a project that took two months and fifteen minutes.) So I took a short walk and discovered a few blocks away that a tree had fallen on some wires. It might be a while. I had an appointment to pick up groceries from the store, but also happily, when I called, they said it would be okay to wait until our power was back on.
Waiting for the next several hours, I noticed that my mind was in a kind of tormented withdrawal from its usual access to constant stimulation. No social media (saving my phone battery for more important things), no book to read (saving my phone, etc.), no television shows. Not enough energy to do a project. A really uncomfortable stillness. Margy and I ate lunch on the patio, and I noticed it was much easier to deal with my mind outside, so after lunch I pruned out some raspberry canes. Finally, the electricity came back–and then it was groceries to pick up and process.
Two days ago, in the morning I facilitated a very productive meeting of our Decolonizing Faith Project. We are moving toward completion of a Zoom version of our workshop for faith communities. That felt good.
Later that day, Margy and I decided to go on a rare outing. We took a drive to search for beautiful autumn color, and found our way out to Range Pond, about forty minutes from where we live. (And by the way, for those who aren’t from around here, I don’t know why but Range Pond is pronounced Rang Pond.) I took my shoes off and waded in the still warm water, delighted to watch the sun ripple off the sand. Sun, water, trees: a healing balm for our souls.
Yesterday morning, after a long night’s sleep, I woke quite early and was writing in my journal, surprised at how peaceful and grounded I felt. I remembered–and this is key I think–I remembered that throughout my adult life there has never been a time I did not hate the atrocities committed by our government. (Wars, empire, ravaging the earth for profit, oppression of people of color, you know the list.) Yes, lately, those atrocities have intensified. But I had protested every administration, and realistically, felt little power to stop those atrocities.
I also remembered that when I was part of the Catholic Worker movement, I learned that resistance can take the form of personalism: we attempt to live out our values personally, and in community–we fed the hungry, housed the homeless, welcomed the “stranger.” We treated all people with respect, and practiced peaceful ways to resolve conflicts. We also protested, not merely to try to change the government, but also to keep clarity in the values we affirmed.
And I remembered that that has always been my own best path of resistance. (That’s why Margy and I chose to green our own living situation, to plant a garden, to learn to more deeply love the land we are living on.) When I was active as the minister of a congregation for many years, I needed to widen my perspective, to hold and affirm many ways of living our values. But now that I am retired, now that I am chronically ill, I am coming back to the core of my own journey. And it is okay to do what I can, and not to be tormented by what I have no power to change.
So all of that was grounding my spirit as the sun was rising yesterday.
And then, later, I did check Facebook, and saw everyone posting about the president getting a positive test for COVID19, and speculating about whether it was true, and what it might mean. And I really do honor the angst that people are feeling about the state of our country, and the election coming up, and the possible undermining of democracy, and so much more. But this time, I didn’t lose my balance. I didn’t get hooked into the chaos. I remembered that I don’t have to loudly condemn every atrocity or agonize over all the pain that I cannot alleviate. It is not a moral necessity to be panicked and despairing over all the evil in the world.
I remembered my own path, my own calling, the small ways that I can live into a vision of mutuality, of respect, of healing. I am writing to help myself remember, for those times that I forget again and again. And perhaps to help you remember your own calling, if you have forgotten in the midst of these strange times. May our many small actions be joined together by the great Mystery into the beauty that is possible.