Fear: A Pile of Stones

Stones & violetsTwo 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.

Garden work & rest

The last few weeks I have been outside a lot, but not writing a lot. I have been adding soil and compost to the hugelkultur mound little by little, and stuffing sod into the sides, but in photos it doesn’t change much. I created a new tool–a screen to sift compost that has become inundated with small roots. It is just two dowels, with a metal screen attached with staples and duct tape, but it fits over the top of the wheelbarrow, and makes it so much easier: I shovel compost from the pile onto the screen, then rub it back and forth with gloved hands to sift out the roots, and the usable compost falls through.Compost sifter

I also put spigots and drain hoses back into six of our rain barrels. They are designed to capture rain from the gutters, fill one barrel, and then overflow into the second barrel, and then overflow through a drain away from the house. The joy of these rain barrels is they can stay out through the winter as long as we remove the spigots and any long hoses. I had to go through the plastic drain hoses and cut off sections that had cracked, but luckily we had enough left to make it work. So I thought they were ready for rain again, but then yesterday as I checked them during our rainstorm, I discovered that one fitting had cracked–we’ll see if I can figure out how to fix that.

Rain barrels setup

Our new mulberry tree from Fedco arrived on Wednesday. Our old one didn’t do well where we had first planted it–too much shade, and then after I transplanted it last year, sadly it didn’t survive. But most of the work was done, because I had prepared such a great bed for it last year–so all I had to do was pull back the mulch, dig a small hole, and place the new baby tree inside. Baby trees aren’t that photogenic, a brown stick with a brown mulch background, so here is a photo of her roots all tangled up and gnarly before I placed her in the hole filled with water. May our tree be blessed in her new home, and provide food for birds and us too!

mulberry roots

Two springs ago, as I was preparing for retirement due to chronic illness, Margy bought me an early retirement gift–a hammock. Lately, after working for a while in the garden, I climb into that hammock and rest–so perfect! It feels a bit like laying on the beach in the sun, or floating on the ocean water. I can relax deeply, let go of trying to carry anything or do anything.  It has been so healing in this time of existential stress and grief for our world. I rock as if held in the arms of the air, the birds singing, blue sky and greening trees surrounding me, sun warming me.  It reminds me that we are held in the embrace of a larger Love, even when we feel so helpless in the face of the troubles that plague our country. May you also find ways to rest your spirit in this beautiful earth!

hammock

Hugelkultur, part 3

Continuing to build a hugelkultur garden bed, yesterday, we added some brush to the top and sides of the mound, over the cut grass layer. Margy pounded some branches into the ground on the side as stakes for further stabilization.

hugelkultur Margy stakes

Next, today, I covered it all with dried leaves, one full wheelbarrow plus a big garbage bag full, saved from last fall.

hugelkultur leaves added

Finally, I added about 3 wheelbarrow loads of yard waste compost, and watered all of it. But this stage of adding compost is going to need many more loads before it is finished.  I should be adding several more inches of compost.  The mound is about 15 feet long, and will be 4 1/2 feet wide when complete. I had one of those moments when I thought, “Why did I make it so big?” I think this stage is going to take a while.

hugelkulture Tuesday

Meanwhile, I was pondering the fact that I often feel anxious when I am trying new things in the garden. I was realizing that my parents and grandparents were urban or suburban people. My dad wanted to get back to the land, and was a cowboy for a while, but mostly he worked as a draftsman for the auto industry. His parents tried to homestead in Wyoming, but that fell through and they came back to Detroit. My mom’s parents came from Linz, Austria and Quebec near Ottawa, Ontario, and lived most of their lives in Detroit.  She had flower gardens while I was growing up. So I didn’t learn how to grow food from my family. It has only been as an adult that I’ve tried to learn about food gardens, off and on as circumstances allowed it.

The more I learn, the more aware I am of how much I don’t know. Each plant is like a stranger to me, then perhaps an acquaintance, and I hope in a while it might be a friend. It is hard to believe that we could be relatives to each other.  (Well, except for kale–kale already feels like a relative, since I have grown it for a long time.)  But I try to remember to embrace this beginner’s mind, to be present and attuned to the process. It is good to be outside, to feel the spring, to forget for a while the grief and fear that this pandemic is unleashing.

Hugelkultur

Today we started the process of building a hugelkultur garden bed.  Here is the “before” picture, though I had already created a path, next to the asparagus bed at the side of our garage. I lined the path with logs from the land, leveled it, and covered it with wood chips. Ever since I created the asparagus bed, that slope has been a bit of a mess, from all the dirt that I moved around to do asparagus plantings.

Before hugelkultur

Hugelkultur means hill culture, or hill garden, and is one of the tools in a permaculture tool kit that we had never used before. It is a kind of raised garden bed, with rotting logs at the base, brush, leaves, and other organic materials over that, and soil over the whole mound. The logs hold moisture, so that eventually you don’t need to water your plants as often, and they contain nutrients that are gradually released to the soil. They also extend your growing season because their slow decomposition warms the bed. It also serves as a use for old rotting wood and brush that otherwise might go to the dump, and it sequesters carbon in the soil. Some folks make them 6 feet high, but ours will be smaller than that.

With everything happening because of the COVID 19 pandemic, we felt it would be a good time to increase our capacity to grow more food. So far in our garden, we’ve focused on cultivating fruit trees and bushes, and herbs and other perennials. The only annuals I have grown are snap peas and kale, in amongst the trees. So this bed will be for annual vegetables, like carrots, lettuce, and zucchini.

The first stage was to go around with a wheelbarrow and collect old logs that have accumulated on the edges of our land. Most of them were there when we arrived four years ago. I think this will be the hardest part. These logs were heavy! Margy and I both had to rest in between loads. But it has been a beautiful sunny day, so what could be better than to sit in our yard in the sun.Logs for hugelkultur

The next step is to arranged the logs every which way in the area that will be the bed. Some people might be more orderly than this, but it doesn’t really matter. It does matter what kinds of wood you use. Hardwoods are preferred, but not cedar, which doesn’t rot, or black walnut, black cherry, or black locust because of how they protect themselves in the soil. Pines have tannins, and might make the soil more acidic, plus they don’t last as long. We were also careful not to use any bittersweet cuttings, and to make sure no bittersweet roots had colonized the rotten logs. Margy spends half her time going around cutting back all of that.Logs layer hugelkultur

After the big logs were laid out, we filled in with smaller logs and long branches. And that was as far as we got today. I came in to have a cup of tea, and to write all about it. Tomorrow’s weather is supposed to stay nice so we’ll do the next steps then, and I’ll do an update.hugelkultur branches

Oh, I should also mention that Wednesday Margy and I had a big outing–since we’ve been staying home for three weeks now.  We went out to Winslow Park beach, and gathered seaweed, and got to see the beautiful ocean. All that seaweed will go into the hugelkultur too. One of my favorite things about permaculture is that nothing is wasted–what we might think of as waste is passed along as food for another part of the cycle of life. So rotten logs, brush, dead seaweed, fallen leaves, cut grass, vegetable scraps–all of it goes back to help create fertile soil. That is something beautiful to perceive.

Gathering seaweed

Death and All the Stuff

Prompted by sheltering at home during the COVID 19 plague, the question came up: maybe it’s time for Margy and I to update our wills and other legal documents which we last visited in 2012. The basic purpose for us in these documents is to protect each other and make sure that we have the power to make decisions for each other, and inherit from each other. As a lesbian couple who are not married, this is what protects our “next of kin” status.

But each of these documents also has a secondary feature.  What if one of us is not available or able, or dies first–what then, who is next? That has always been a more challenging part of the process. In this age of plague, it is not outside the realm of possibility that both of us could succumb.  Who could we ask to take on the role of health care agent, or financial agent, if we were both incapacitated?

We don’t have children, and our family members are far away, and not always supportive of our identities. We have several good friends, but not a “best” friend, and many live far away. Can we ask any of our local friends to take on these roles? Are they close enough, or not too busy, or would they be overwhelmed by such a request? Who would bury us if we both died? Who are our people?

Similar dilemmas confront us with our wills, and who would inherit if we both were to die. I find that I have new concerns now that didn’t show up in the last will. What would happen to our land and garden that we’ve been so carefully tending? How could we ensure that the land would find new caretakers who would love it as we have? And who would have to sort through all the stuff that fills our little house? My natural temperament is to live simply, to possess little, and treasure those few possessions.  But somehow over all these years, I’ve accumulated a lifetime’s worth of stuff. (How did that happen?)

In the past few months, my mother has been preparing to leave her own house, and move into the home of my sister.  She officially moved yesterday.  All of her nine children and multiple grandchildren were invited to consider things we might like to take from her lifetime’s worth of stuff. But, aside from a few mementos, most of it has nowhere to go.  So even more likely, my own stuff will have nowhere to go.  It occurs to me that if I want to share mementos with people, maybe I should just send them as gifts now.

When I first did a will, I noticed that I most cared about my writing–I wanted there to be a way for thoughts and words to survive, for journals, sermons, essays, to live on in some way, to be a legacy.  That is still true, though now that I have actually published a book, I feel less anxious about it.  It feels like something of me will endure, this book child. But I also have five archive boxes full of journals that I have saved, countless sermons, another unpublished book, and even these blog posts. Sometimes I imagine them in an archive somewhere, discovered by some future historian who will be intrigued by my story. Might I be a spiritual ancestor to someone?

What fuels my need to save the writings? What compels me to write in the first place?

I wonder, does anyone see the whole story, does anyone see each of our stories, whether written or unwritten? Are our lives inscribed in a Book of Life somewhere?  When I was a child, we learned that God could see everything we did. It was somewhat scary then.  But now I find the idea a comfort–I want my life to have a witness. I hope my life will be inscribed in a Book of Life.

From a distance

Margy at Kettle Cove

We’ve begun the time of social distancing in the age of COVID 19.  Someone else called it physical distancing, since we need to keep reaching out to each other in other social ways. Margy and I are both over sixty and have various health issues. So we are among those with elevated risk. But going outside is very much permitted and helpful during this time.  We went to Kettle Cove on Saturday–beautiful ocean, sunshine, stones on the beach. It was very windy and the brisk cool air felt bracing to our souls.

I often like to look for sea glass when I walk on the beach, but this time I only took photos–photos of water, photos of Margy, photos of stones. So I was surprised, when I was looking at the photos later, to notice what looked like two pieces of sea glass–and they were the rare red and orange ones! (I have never found them on the beach before.) Can you see them in this photo? I just want to reach in and pick them up. It is both exciting and a bit frustrating to see them right there.Sea glass?

But perhaps they are an apt metaphor for times like this–we can see (and hear), but not touch, all those we love and like, all those with whom we are bound together in community.  We still have the virtual connections of phone and internet. In the past few days, I’ve reached out to distant and local friends by phone and text and Facebook and email, and others have reached out to me: checking in on each other, reaffirming our bonds, our love. That is something else we can do in this age of COVID 19.

We are so interconnected, all of us, in such a myriad of interdependency. The last time I was out and about was to grocery shop on Thursday at the Portland Food Coop and Hannaford, trying to use hand sanitizer as much as possible of course. Thursday was the day Maine reported its first tested case of COVID 19.  (And of course, without testing available, there were likely many other cases unknown.)  But then we had an emergency–our hot water tank was suddenly spewing water out into the basement. So thankfully, a plumber came out Thursday night to help shut everything down, then came on Saturday to install a new hot water heater, with a helper. It reminds me that plumbing emergencies don’t take a break during pandemics.

So there will continue to be interactions that are vital for life. As we seek to limit such interactions, we notice them all the more.  I feel such gratitude for plumbers and electricians, for people working in grocery stores, for those delivering packages and mail, those keeping gas stations open so we can drive to the beach, those keeping phone and internet systems functioning.  And my prayers each day go to all the workers who have to keep on working, to put food on the table and pay the rent.  And my prayers go to those caring for elders in nursing homes, those working in hospitals, those bringing food and shelter to people without homes, and all the other front-line soldiers of compassion. My prayers to all the front-line soldiers of compassion.