Yesterday morning, I was sitting next to the pond, writing in my journal. After I’d been there, and quiet for a long time, this chipmunk approached the other side of the pond, climbed down the rocks and took long drinks of water. After a couple minutes, it quickly climbed back up the rocks and ran back into the field behind.
If you’ve been following my posts recently, you know that I’ve been dealing with chronic illness causing me to have much less energy this summer. So my relationship with the garden has changed. It has been less purposeful and project oriented, and more, “Let’s see what the yard wants to do this season.” To listen more, to do less, to observe more, to try less–and I’ve learned so much, actually.
It’s true that we had already done a lot to shape the yard–we planted many fruit trees and bushes, let wildflowers grow, planted perennials, pulled invasives, and created the pond last year. Some of the plants that were in the pond didn’t survive the winter, and I did add a few more this spring. But it wasn’t enough to prevent algae from flourishing. So periodically, I get inspired to pull out as much as I can. But I’ve also noticed that bees love to perch on the algae, to get a drink of water presumably. (There is always enough algae left for them.) It gives me gratitude to know that this pond, imperfect though it is, has been of use to these creatures in a drought-burdened summer.
Lately, my old nemesis the squirrel has come back to start eating peaches. But since I was doing so much less to nurture the peach tree–less holistic sprays, less thinning of peaches, and so on–and since I had somewhat resigned myself to having no peaches after last year, I haven’t been stressed out about that. And the squirrel or squirrels seem more mellow as well. The peaches are actually very crowded together, and every couple days, I twist off a few tightly squeezed ones, even though they are not ripe yet, to make room for the others to grow bigger. I’ve put a few on window sills in the house to see if they will ripen. I tell myself the squirrel is also thinning the peaches. We are collaborators, rather than enemies. Who knows, maybe there will be enough for all of us?
In a world with so many horrors that I can do nothing to stop, or even to protest, I am grateful to be of use to these small companions who share our back yard with us.
[And thanks to Marge Piercy‘s poem, To Be of Use, for its evocative and helpful title.]
We finally made it to the ocean on Wednesday! Between Margy’s knee surgery and physical therapy, and my general fatigue, we just couldn’t do it before, despite it being our favorite summer outing. But Wednesday afternoon, we drove to Kettle Cove. We stopped for ice cream at the nearby stand first, coffee ice cream with hot fudge for me, and a strawberry hot fudge sundae for Margy. Then we negotiated road repairs, and finally parked the car near the beach. Kettle Cove was our choice because the path between the car and the beach was not too long for Margy to negotiate with her cane. Plus we love this little beach and cove. We sat in our beach chairs for a while, and that was when I noticed the sun halo in the sky, and took this photo.
Then I went into the water and swam a little bit. It was just lovely. I can’t even describe how happy it made me feel. Then, afterwards, I sat with the sun’s warmth on my skin, a slight breeze blowing, and that felt like heaven. It has been harder to visit the ocean since being chronically ill. Not only the effort to drive there, but the coldness of the water sometimes triggers me into not being able to get warm again. But this time, I felt deliciously cool in the water, and deliciously warm afterwards in the sun. However, full disclosure, after we got home, I took a shower and then collapsed, exhausted over my whole body. It seems I can’t write much lately without writing about chronic illness, and how it has re-shaped my days.
Sometimes I feel envious of the adventures that friends post on Facebook. I have to shift my heart around and remember to be thankful for the blessings in our life here, even though it might be small in scope. To have food, a home, a garden–I am so grateful for those, and I don’t take them for granted. To have love in my life–that my partner stretches her energy to visit the beach with me, and stays longer than comfortable for her, so I got to experience my little heaven. And my love for her too, to leave sooner than I might have wanted, so she can get home and rest. I am so grateful for our love for each other.
A sun halo is said to be a good omen, that might predict rain (or snow in winter). We did get a much needed, drenching thunderstorm last night. Our garden is so grateful for that. And I am grateful for the ocean, challenging to my body, but still a ceremony of healing for my spirit.
After several chilly windy days, we finally had a sunny warmer day today, and I worked on tending the pond. I rinsed off the soil from the two potted Marsh Marigolds I purchased last weekend, and “planted” them in the stones of the plant shelf in the pond. The blue flag irises nearby are shooting up their spikes with great vigor, and they have multiplied. The ferns on the other side have new shoots, as well as the sweet flag. But several of my other plants aren’t doing anything yet–we’ll see. If they can’t survive Maine winters, I’ll abandon those species and use other plants. But this is our first spring, so I don’t know their patterns yet.
Also arriving yesterday, a pond lily plant! After last year’s attempt to grow one in pebbles didn’t work, I tried another option this year. I put it in a pot with clayish soil, per the directions, with a layer of pebbles on top of the soil. I looked all over to find a native water lily, but didn’t have much success with that. I finally ordered one on Amazon of all places. It is from Chalily.com and is the variety Virginalis, which is a hardy variety with prolific white flowers, they say, and good for small to medium size ponds. It arrived as a tuber with several leaves already growing on it. I have high hopes that it will flourish.
After taking care of these three plants, I positioned myself lying flat on the ground, with a little pad over the stones near the pond, and I went around the pond reaching in to fish out dead leaves. I also reassembled any areas where stones had become dislodged over the winter-thankfully not too many of those, though I did notice that several of the white stones I bought from a big box store have cracked apart. I wonder if they were stones at all? And one extra promising note–when I was using the skimmer to see if I could take out some deeper leaves, I saw the movement of some small critter swimming quickly away–I think there might be a frog under there already. I also saw several dragonfly nymphs. I am so happy that now the pond is ready for the season!
I also feel really thankful that I had the energy to do all these tasks. I even transplanted some violets out from the asparagus bed, over to the area around the pond. It is always a mystery, what my energy will be with chronic illness. It is touch and go, and then, when I run out of energy, I can’t do another thing. My mind goes on with what it wants to do next, but my body demands rest. I seem to do worse on colder days and better on warmer ones.
Despite the chilly days we’ve been having, the yard has been waking up nonetheless. The cherry and peach trees have buds almost ready to open. I’ve harvested my first asparagus. The chives are exuberant. And there are pansies all over the paths in the orchard. So cheerful. I decided to keep them all as a ground cover. I was feeling discouraged about the thuggishness of the oregano growing under the trees, but now I’ve decided that oregano can be a ground cover too. If you can’t beat it, welcome it? Doing a bit of research, I discovered that some people even plant oregano to be a ground cover. So if it really wants to spread, that is what it will be. Finally today, when I ran out of energy, I laid in the hammock and just listened to the cardinal singing. It has been a glorious day.
I recently read Sarah Ramey’s memoir, The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness. Published just last year, it is described this way:
“In her harrowing, darkly funny, and unforgettable memoir, Sarah Ramey recounts the decade-long saga of how a seemingly minor illness in her senior year of college turned into a prolonged and elusive condition that destroyed her health but that doctors couldn’t diagnose or treat. Worse, as they failed to cure her, they hinted that her devastating symptoms were psychological. …Ramey’s pursuit of a diagnosis and cure for her own mysterious illness becomes a page-turning medical mystery that reveals a new understanding of today’s chronic illnesses as ecological in nature, driven by modern changes to the basic foundations of health, from the quality of our sleep, diet, and social connections to the state of our microbiomes.”
Book Jacket Cover
I haven’t experienced the horrifying stories she recounts with medical personnel, but I know others who have. I think it helped that I was usually drawn to alternative practitioners, though Sarah had her own horror stories with alternative practitioners. She finally found help with practitioners of Functional Medicine, and my own primary care nurse practitioner is aligned with that field. For that I am grateful.
I identified with the mysterious nature of auto-immune chronic conditions–when I reflected on it, I realized that they have been a part of my life for many years–most recently, Hashimoto’s thyroid disease, SIBO, adrenal fatigue, and borderline diabetes, but earlier in my life there was endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, and gradually developing multiple chemical sensitivities, and multiple food sensitivities. For most of my life, I managed to work and keep my balance, but it became more and more difficult. Finally, when I turned 65, and could access Social Security and Medicare, I retired from my work as a full-time minister.
I wondered at the time if being released from the stress of full-time work might bring me relief from the illnesses, but that was not to be the case. Instead, I was better able to manage living with the illnesses. But it is a delicate balance. If I eat well (for me that means no refined sugar, no gluten, low carb, lots of vegetables, and meat, while avoiding the list of specific foods that give me problems), if I rest when I am weary (which is spending some variable part of every day lying on the couch), if I take certain natural supplements (for example, I take Berberine, which has been shown to be as effective as Metformin for helping blood sugar balance), and if I don’t overdo it anywhere, well then, I have some energy to do things I love, to write, to garden a bit, to learn new things, even the miracle of building our little pond last year.
Sometimes, I can forget that I have these illnesses. Some days I wake in the morning rested and glad to greet a new day. I might have several hours to work on projects. I tend to get more weary and achy as the day goes by. And during these two years so far of COVID, I have been glad for the many opportunities that the world on Zoom provided. But then, something happens that upsets the balance, and I am sunk into a lower level of functioning, just barely able to cook my meals and take care of the basics. Most recently, I think that my body might have reacted badly to my second Shingrix vaccine. The last four weeks have been mostly couch weeks: reading books and watching British mysteries on Roku. I hope that I am emerging from that now. It is not easy to know what upsets the balance–all I can do is respond to it.
Because I am always asking questions about meaning, I appreciated the connection that Sarah Ramey made between our chronically ill bodies, and the larger ecology of the earth. I think about that too. I wonder if my own body is mirroring the afflictions of the earth I love, is somehow sensitive to the larger web–global warming, the prevalence of forever poisons, the loss of communal connections, the ecological balance which human beings have undermined. If that is the case, can I love my body as I love the earth? Can I grant her that self-care that has been neglected for too long?
One aspect that Sarah Ramey sees as critical is our need for human connection. I was reflecting on how for much of my life I made connection through activism, through shared work. I still feel the impulse to act for justice, in small ways, but there are less opportunities now for the connection that used to be a part of it. I have also felt more isolated since retiring, and, of course, since COVID. Maybe I need to learn something new–to nurture connection that is not at all about work or social justice, but about something more elementary. Can I be cherished, not for what I do, but for my being? Can I cherish others in this way? Can I also cherish myself in just this way? Perhaps it will require a kind of spring melting of some other kind of hidden ice. May it be so.
I had a slow start today. I haven’t talked much lately about living with chronic illness, but for some reason I’ve been feeling much better energy than usual this spring. Still, I have a method for energy use: First of all, I rest when I need to. But what seems to work with garden projects is that I exert myself for a short while–say 10 minutes, or one wheelbarrow load. And then I sit and rest for 10 minutes. I don’t time myself, that is just a guess. I stop when I need to and rest until I can start again. While resting, I drink some iced licorice-root tea–that is a big help. I make a big batch of the tea (boiling licorice root for 15 minutes), and cool it to keep in jars in the fridge. Then I put together a big plastic glass (with a cover to take outside) adding ice and some lemon juice. Licorice root is said to be good for adrenal glands, so maybe this is why it has been so good for my energy.
But for example, this afternoon about 3 p.m., after my slow start, I was able to make my way outside. I started on the next step for the pond–cutting the old carpet (that I collected for free) into strips about 2 feet wide. I started with the biggest carpet piece I had received. Margy bought me a really good pair of carpet cutting scissors. Oh my gosh–they are so sharp and nice and easy to use. So I cut one 8 foot (?) strip, and then I rested. Then I cut another one. It went like that. After I had finished cutting that carpet piece into about 8 strips, I decided to see how it might lay on the pond surface.
But then I had another thought while experimenting. Since the pond is no longer going to be 3 feet deep, but rather about 2 1/2 feet, and since I have a pond liner that is 20 by 20, why not make it a bit wider at the top. (Since the equation for the pond liner size takes into account depth and width and length.) So instead of 11 by 11 1/2, just add a bit more on the half that has a one foot planting shelf, let the pond be closer to 12 by 12, and the planting shelf be a bit wider too. So I started digging again around the top edge. And then I remembered the advice to make a sloping “beach” edge for small critters to be able to get in. So I did some of that. Again, bit by bit.
While doing this further digging, I again saw more bright orange bittersweet roots. This is the biggest reason why we are using carpet strips as an underlayment. Some folks like sand better, but we need something that can stop the roots from puncturing the pond liner.
So the next photo is what it looked like when I called it a day. I was lying in the hammock a bit, resting, and then when I got up I could barely move. That is the other part of this process. I get really exhausted and sore all over. So I came in and took a hot shower, and then took two aspirin, which lately always seems to help. I’ll be down for the evening, but tomorrow, probably ready to start again. Unless I am not. I am sharing all these details to say that I am so grateful I am able to do this outside work, in this rhythm of work and rest. And also, maybe it might be a helpful suggestion for others who don’t have stamina for whatever reason. Work and rest, work and rest, in little segments. It has been a good day.
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.
As most people know by now, on May 25th, George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, was killed by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, despite him begging for help, and saying “I can’t breathe.” It was one more brutal death in a seemingly never-ending series of deaths inflicted on African-American men and women by police brutality enforcing systemic racism and white supremacy in the United States.
Because of the courageous video taken by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, people all over the world actually witnessed the horror of this murder. Thousands of people, in every state, and all around the world have taken to the streets to protest, day after day, night after night, to demand a change. The four officers involved at the scene have been fired from the force and charged with his murder, or the aiding and abetting of his murder. A first step.
It has been difficult for me to write during this. I asked myself–was there anything I could add to the condemnations of white supremacy that have already been said by so many others? And as a white woman–should I be speaking at all? This is a time to center the voices of people of color. But also, how can any of us remain silent? On a very personal level, initially I also felt very discouraged. I have been an activist for my entire adult life. I am not taking credit for anything, this has been my calling in the world. But these days, I have wondered, did anything change? How could we have struggled so long with so little progress?
Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote a song, released in 1988, about activist Ella Baker, using her words to express deep truths about the long journey of activism for racial justice. These excerpts especially move me:
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes…
Until the killing of Black men, Black mother’s sons/ Is as important as the killing of white men, white mother’s sons.
To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail/ and if I can but shed some light as they carry us through the gale.
The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on/ Is when the reins are in the hands of the young who dare to run against the storm.
These days, the irony of Baker’s words–we cannot rest–is not lost on me as I deal with a chronic illness that demands that I rest every day, that robs me of my capacity to show up to protest in the streets, or do very much of any other kind of activism. But her words also helped me to articulate one thing I could do. On Wednesday, I lit a red candle at 4 p.m., as a protest at Portland (Maine) City Hall was beginning, led by young activists of color. I offered my prayers and watched a live video feed for the two hour protest, and bore witness to the young people with such courage who dare to run against the storm. Maybe today, all I can do is bear witness in support of these young people, and in that way, “to be one in the number, as we stand against tyranny.”
As the protests began to multiply, in big cities and small towns, in countries all around the world, I felt a glimmer of hope. Sometimes, something breaks open. Rebecca Solnit, author of Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, reminds us that the future is unknowable – and that’s a good thing. Why? Because it creates space for creative intervention. The lessons of history teach us that change happens in unexpected ways, and often in seemingly sudden, non-linear ways.
May the words of George Floyd’s six-year-old daughter Gigi prove to be prophetic: “My daddy changed the world.” #blacklivesmatter
Two years ago, when I found any stones in the asparagus bed I was creating, I threw them over to a place next to the garage, until there was a pile of stones there. Then, later, as I found more stones, I added them to the pile. This spring, the violets decided they loved the microclimate it created. So now this pile of stones has become a beautiful violet rock garden.
I woke today feeling so much fear that I was immobilized. If fear is heavy like a stone, if we accumulate all the fears and toss them into a pile, might something beautiful yet emerge? It was a particular kind of fear that arose in me, or it seemed particular to this society. It was triggered by my no longer being able to work. For me, this is not about social distancing and a closed economy, though it helps me to understand the people who are worried about that. For me, it is about chronic illness taking away my energy capacity to work.
Working signifies our ability to take care of ourselves. All our lives we have learned the American “gospel” of individualism–everything is on the individual. In some ways, this individualism freed people to become that which our families could not comprehend. Feminist. Lesbian. Activist. When women were free to work, we were free to make our own decisions about our lives.
But in other ways, it has meant we are flying without a net. If we can no longer work, what happens then? Despite its limitations, I am immensely grateful for the safety net that was created in the cauldron of the great depression–Social Security. In the midst of the heavy burden of individualism, it became a bright light of collective care for all of us. We each contribute and we all can benefit. It enables Margy and I to have our basic necessities in retirement. But this net is now in the hands of robbers and thieves, who would like nothing more to do away with it. And so I feel afraid, my heart heavy with stones.
When I read about how some countries are giving their citizens a monthly income during the pandemic–countries which also, by the way, have free universal health care–when I see what might be done, it makes me feel so sad and so afraid for all of the working people in our country. If people had a guaranteed monthly income, they might not need to clamor for businesses to reopen before this can be done safely. But instead, they are caught between a rock and a hard place–stay home and risk starvation, or go to work and risk death. It is that stark. And the fear becomes a trigger for violence, and the threats of violence. More stones.
I’m not at the stage of seeing any violets yet. I don’t know what beauty might come out of this. I am just throwing stones into a pile.
Time to do the next steps for our new hugelkulture bed, but I wasn’t sure what kinds of materials to put on first. After doing more research online, many suggested that soil plus nitrogen rich materials like cut grass were next. But then I realized I needed to back up a bit. In order to stabilize the mound, it was recommended to put soil in between the cracks and crevices formed by the logs on the bottom. So I took off the smaller branches I had already placed on top, to expose more of the logs underneath.
Also, people had mentioned having a problem with the soil falling off the outer part of the mound, and one suggested remedy was to put lots of sticks angled out from the mound to help to stabilize the organic material and soil that will eventually cover it all. So after I took off the smaller branches, I started replacing some of them at a different angle.
Finding soil to put on the bed is no problem for us–in fact, it is a great help for our dream of a future pond, which we had included in our original permaculture design. One of the challenges for a pond is having some place to put all that dirt. So it has been on a way back burner. Today, I dug up about a half-wheelbarrow full of dirt–the dirt was very wet from recent rains, so that was actually the limit of what I could lift in the wheelbarrow.
I brought it to the mound and started putting it into all the crevices, (after making sure to pull out any tiny red bittersweet roots.) The mound needs several more loads of dirt, but my own physical limits intervened. For some reason, lifting heavy things is very challenging for my chronic autoimmune illness, and triggers my fatigue response. So I sat outside in the sun for a while, but reluctantly came in after watering the mound with our garden hose. Tomorrow will be another sunny day.
It is hard to have an idea, a vision of this hugelkultur mound, and not be able to just go out there and get it done. Usually if I push myself one day, I have to rest on the next day. And Margy has her own limits. So after moving all those logs yesterday, it was a stretch to do anything at all today. But I have been slowly learning to honor the boundaries of what my body can do, and take things step by step, in whatever timeline is necessary. It still feels so good to be outside in the garden.