Garden Lessons

Today is the Celtic celebration of Lammas, the early grain harvest festival. I’ve always connected it to the early corn harvest–the time to start eating local corn on the cob in the places I have lived. Our little group that celebrates earth rituals together hasn’t met since COVID, and I feel sad not to see them today. But this morning I was able to bring some zucchini and kale to the Resilience Hub, where a volunteer was collecting produce from gardeners to share with immigrant families in the Portland area. That truly felt like the best way to celebrate this holiday–sharing the surplus of our own harvest for those who need it, in the spirit of reciprocity.

Myke behind the zucchini

Myke standing behind the hugelkultur zucchini! Photo by Margy Dowzer

Lately, I’ve been feeling rather overwhelmed by the gardening endeavor. Take note of my photo behind the hugelkultur zucchini–you almost can’t see me at all. There is watering to do each morning, and I’m harvesting raspberries, the last of the snap peas, chives, zucchini, and kale. Oh–and one cucumber so far.  I learned how to freeze zoodles (zucchini noodles) so that we can save some for the future. I am also freezing most of the raspberries and chives. So all that is wonderful, but still a lot of work.

Added to that, however, has been discovering that each new plant I add to the garden seems to come with its own ecosystem of insect pests and diseases. I was used to Japanese beetles, and shaking them from the leaves of trees into soapy water. I was used to picking off cabbage worms from the kale and squishing them. But then I learned about the squash bug and the squash vine borer. I don’t see any significant damage yet on the zucchini plants, but I’ve seen the bright red and black flying parent of the grubs that can burrow into the stems. This morning, there were some zucchini leaves with powdery mildew. Another yuck.

Now we also seem to have grasshoppers eating the carrot tops and the kale–except for a new variety of kale that I got from a friend, which is too prickly for my taste. (That is ironically maddening! Why don’t you eat that one, grasshoppers?) I did some research and if I wanted I could try garlic spray, or flour on the leaves. But right now I’m just hoping they don’t eat enough to wipe out all the plants. Also, I put more bird seed in the feeder in hopes that some of those birds might also eat grasshoppers.  But there is so much to know, and so many possible pitfalls, even in the context of our organic permaculture polyculture systems.

So like I said, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by all of it lately. I was thinking back to my original intention with this land–I wanted to restore our mutually beneficial connection to the earth, via this small piece of the earth we are lucky to live upon. And what I am learning is that it is not so easy–I’ve lost so much of the knowledge of plants and ecosystems that my ancestors might have had in the places they called home. I am sure there are long-time gardeners who find a way to learn what they need from the practice of gardening–but I am coming to it late in life, and I can feel that it could take a whole lifetime to become adept at working with ecosystems to nurture wholeness and balance.

It’s not all flowers and romance, this relationship with earth. It’s crabgrass and ticks and mosquitos and so many unknown insects, (beneficial or destructive?), not to mention diseases, viruses, bacteria.  Some aspects of earth are not so easy to love. It’s invasive species and drought and climate change. It’s beyond what I can learn and I’m discovering the limits of my capacity.  So I come to the garden like a prayer: sometimes with awe, sometimes with gratitude, but often with a cry for help, often with a deep painful longing for all that has been lost, often with loneliness. If I can pay close enough attention, finally, I come to the garden with surrender, surrender to this larger dance of life of which I am only a very small movement.

Antiracism: New Learnings

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“Racism Has No Home Here” signs are appearing all around my neighborhood. 

I finally finished reading How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. A friend loaned me her copy, but it took a while for me to warm up to the book because its approach was jarring to what I previously had held to be important about antiracism.  However, by the time I finished it, my understanding was deepened and changed in profound ways.

Before:

I had spent much of my activist life trying to get folks to understand that racism is systemic–it is more than just direct prejudice against people of another race, or hatred toward people of other races. Rather, it was a whole institutionalization of that prejudice by those in power.  Thus, while individual people of any race could hold prejudice, only white people and white systems could be racist.  Even if individual white people did not harbor direct prejudice, we benefited from these structural systems that kept racism in place. Thus, there was no way for us to be “non-racist.” Rather we must commit to being “antiracist,” and to use the privilege that structural racism had conferred on us to work against racism.

During and After:

So right off, Kendi used examples of how he had been racist in various ways throughout his youth and young adulthood. He brought it back to a personal level, and did not agree that only white people could be racist. So that threw me off a bit. Later he explained it more directly. He wrote:

I thought only White people could be racist and that Black people could not be racist, because Black people did not have power…. This powerless defense, as I call it, emerged in the wake of racist Whites dismissing antiracist policies and ideas as racist in the late 1960s.  …Black voices critical of White racism defended themselves from these charges by saying, “Black people can’t be racist, because Black people don’t have power.”

Like every other racist idea, the powerless defense underestimates Black people and overestimates White people. …[It] does not consider people at all levels of power, from policymakers like politicians and executives who have the power to institute and eliminate racist and antiracist policies, to policy managers like officers and middle managers, empowered to execute or withhold racist and antiracist policies. Every single person actually has the power to protest racist and antiracist policies, to advance them, or, in some small ways, to stall them. …”Institutional power” or “systemic power” or “structural power” is the policy-making and managing power of people, in groups or individually.  … The truth is: Black people can be racist because Black people do have power, even if limited.

Note that I say limited Black power rather than no power. White power controls the United States. But not absolutely. [p. 140-142]  [He then shared multiple examples of Black men in various government positions who advanced policies that were detrimental to people of color, and says:] These were men who used the power they’d been given–no matter how limited and conditional–in inarguably racist ways. [p. 149]

He does not negate structural and institutional racism–but he makes it less covert and more identifiable, by shifting our attention to “policy.” He uses the term “racist policies” instead of “institutional racism.”

Policymakers and policies make societies and institutions, not the other way around. The United States is a racist nation because its policymakers and policies have been racist from the beginning. [p. 223]

Another major shift he articulates is that racist ideas are created by racist policies, and not the other way around.

The history of racist ideas is the history of powerful policy makers erecting racist policies out of self-interest, then producing racist ideas to defend and rationalize the inequitable effects of their policies, while everyday people consume those racist ideas, which in turn sparks ignorance and hate. [p. 230]

So if we want to eradicate racism, we cannot merely use education and persuasion to try to get rid of people’s ignorance and hate, but we must work primarily to change racist policies.

I am pulling out these particular ideas in the book because they changed my own way of thinking about antiracism. Kendi speaks about how if we have incorrect understandings of the problem of racism, that inhibits our ability to be successful in our desire to create an antiracist society.

I would encourage everyone who cares about the problems of racism or other oppressions to get this book and explore all of his ideas, to see which ones might challenge and transform you. It is powerful and essential.

Racist: One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.

Antiracist: One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.  [p. 13]

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.

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.

 

East Frisian Ancient Grandmother

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Holle Sand in East Frisia: a nature preserve on the duneland forest, near where my ancestors lived.

Are there any European ancestors who might help us to find a mutually beneficial relationship with the earth in our time? Today I was remembering that this was my original motivation for reaching back to these ancestors. Oh, it has also been helpful to gain a better understanding of how my ancestors fit into the larger story of the colonization of this continent in which I live.

But on a spiritual level, why would I reach for a true connection, if not to ask for help in the struggles we are facing in our time? Much of Australia is burning right now, fascism is running rampant over our country, hurting the plants and animals, and the people of our land, leaders plot for power and violence, and so much is being destroyed.

And I remembered what sparked my heart last spring about my patrilineal East Frisian ancestors. It was a line in a letter, a mocking recounting of a piece of old wives’ advice: “Remain in the land and nourish it.”   I wanted to reach out to those “old wives” to see if they might help me, help us.  During our Ancestor Wounds and Healing workshop in October, I introduced the group to the East Frisian tea ceremony, as part of our ritual of gratitude for the gifts of the ancestors.  We were short on time, and I considered leaving out the tea ceremony, but felt an unmistakable tug from spirit–“No! You must do the tea.”  And so I did.

Two days later I led our group on a trance journey with the intention for each of us to find an ancient ancestor–maybe from centuries ago–for each of us to meet someone who was at one with their land, in harmony with their land and people. So we traveled through time and out of time to make a connection. In that journey, I met my East Frisian ancient many-greats-grandmother, the same one who called for the tea.

When she arrives, I burst into tears and suddenly feel how wounded I am, we are. She is whole, she can traverse deep time and be called upon in any time. I burst into tears and she is loving me, with healing hands, and she knows how all of us have been broken. I felt the holding power of her love to contain the pain of centuries.  She is a healing presence, a witness to it all. She touches my heart, she says, “I can teach you how to laugh, even though the later Germans in your family lost how to feel.” She has a joy deeper than I know. She wants to continue our connection. She says, “Drink the tea ceremony to call me.”  

I was profoundly moved. I didn’t have a name for her that day, but later, a name came to me.  The German/Frisian affectionate name for grandma is Oma or Ooma. But a great-grandmother would be, in German, Ur-grossmutter and I am moved to call this ancient great-grandmother Ur-ma, or Oor-ma. The word also reminds me of the rune Uruz, which represents the aurochs, an ancient wild cattle species, now extinct, that was the symbol of wild strength, persistence, healing, and courage.

At the end of December, Margy and I shared in a rune reading. I used the runes to reach out to Ur-ma, and the first rune I pulled was Uruz.  Sweet.  Then came Nauthiz–which means Need, or difficulty, or struggle. How we are.  Finally I pulled Gebo, which means Gift, and the power of reciprocity which is love.

And so when I reach out to Ur-ma, I drink the tea and I pray: “You have wholeness, we are so broken. Bring your healing energies to our time. We have lost the connection to all beings and the land. We have forgotten our kinship. Help us heal. Help us to love the land, to love the spirit.” And I keep remembering those words, which somehow came down the centuries even so: “Remain in the land and nourish it.”

 

Gifts

During the spring, Margy was talking about wanting to plant sunflowers this year. But as it happened, she was busy with too many other garden projects to actually do it.  So imagine our delight when the garden planted its own sunflowers! They came up under the bird feeder, now sitting empty for the summer, but where sunflower seeds were the food we offered to the birds (and squirrels) all winter.

Gift sunflowers

Lately, the garden plants have felt mostly like children who need our care and attention. With the dry hot weather, they’ve needed a lot of watering. Yesterday, I did another foliar spray for the fruit trees, to help them ward off Japanese beetles, which I also have been picking off every day and dropping in soapy water. And there have also been lovely raspberries to harvest each day, and snap peas (almost gone now) and kale and basil to gather and preserve.

So this gift of flowers emerging without any effort on our part–perhaps the land is reminding us that she loves us as we love her?

It has been one year since my retirement began. One of its themes has been to find connection with this small portion of the Mother Earth, this land we are so lucky to call our home. As non-Indigenous people, we are trying to heal a long wounded history of our people’s disconnection from land.  Our ancestors left their home places generations ago.  If our society had an understanding of earth connection, it could not destroy earth life as it destroys, with such thoughtlessness–pollution, clearcutting of forests, poisoning of soil with pesticides, trash dumping, mining, fracking… the long list of ecological destructions that are endangering us all.

So in our small corner of the world, we are trying to reweave those threads of interconnection, reawaken the truth–long dormant in our bodies–that we are not separate from the earth–we are the earth.  As we tend the land, as we care for the plants, as we pay attention each day, we hope that a shifting occurs–that we move from domination patterns to partnership patterns in our relationship to Earth. We know how small we are–yet hope that if we can shift our own patterns, it might in some way ripple out to the larger patterns. Because we are interconnected. Because that is the magic.

The gift sunflowers remind me that the land herself is eager to be in partnership with her human children. She loves us and wants wholeness for all.

sunflower with bees

Every sunflower has its bees.

 

Going Back to School

USM IDI have a feeling of glee because I am taking a class at the University of Southern Maine.  Well, actually I am auditing it.  I discovered that anyone 65 and over can audit classes almost for free (compared to actual tuition costs).  I had to pay a $55 “transportation” fee, and then learned that with my student ID (I have a student ID!) I can take the metro bus for free.  So many new things, and it reminds me of my excited feelings of going back to school when I was a kid.

But I am especially excited about this class, Wabanaki Languages, taught by Roger Paul, whom I got to know through the Decolonizing Faith project in which I am involved.  Roger is really fun and funny and is a native speaker of the language, and a fountain of history and understanding. We’ll be learning “oral history of Wabanaki languages and stories of Wabanaki elders passed from generation to generation,” along with vocabulary and pronunciation and the like.

For those who are not from this area, the Wabanaki peoples are the Indigenous people of Maine, and there are four distinct modern tribal communities, but as Roger tells us, they are not really so distinct.  It was Europeans who thought of them as different from each other.  The people lived in villages where the food supply would support them (mostly hunting, fishing and gathering) and when the group grew too large for that system, they would start a new village down river or at the next river.  So the languages are variations of the same tongue, and the people were identified by the places they lived, or by characteristics of those places.

Most of the students in the class are Wabanaki tribal members learning to speak their own language, as much was lost during the era of boarding schools.  Now there are efforts among children and adults to revitalize the language while there are still Native speakers.  Roger has been involved in teaching children on the reservation.  But why am I interested, as a white person, to learn this language?  Years ago, when I was first learning about the challenges that face Indigenous people, I got involved in the issue of cultural appropriation–the theft of Native spiritual practices by non-Native peoples, especially in New Age settings. (See more on that at Wanting to Be Indian.)

I remember one Indigenous writer saying, “If you really want to learn about our spirituality, learn our language.” I’ve learned a lot from Native authors such as Robin Wall Kimmerer talking about some of the key differences between Indigenous language and English.  Particularly, Kimmerer speaks about the idea of animacy and inanimacy as embedded in the syntax.  Trees, animals, plants, rivers are never referred to as “objects” or as “it” in her language.  They are alive, animate.  All the verbs and pronouns are organized around whether you are referring to something alive, or inanimate.  The language we speak affects how we think about our world.  The English language has colonized this place, made the land and water and creatures into “its.”

I want to learn Wabanaki Languages to better understand Wabanaki people and culture, and this place in which I live, the language native to this place.  I want to help decolonize my mind, and learn to think in a new way.

Quietude

Evergreen Pond Dead Tree

Yesterday I finally walked to the ponds at Evergreen Cemetery, after not being there for over a year. It is a longer walk for me—half an hour there and half an hour back. But I never come right back. I go to the place where the dead tree fell into the water, becoming the center of pond life for the critters there.

So I sat at the base of the log, and I found myself growing quiet. Just paying attention to the life around me. I saw a brown frog in the water close by, and later, a green and yellow bigger one off to my right. A small turtle was sunning on the log. Once, the green and yellow frog slowly moved forward about a foot and then stopped again, eyes and mouth above the water. The turtle slipped into the water. A mother duck with two youngsters swam past, and then circled around and climbed up onto the log where she and her babies attended to their feathers.

Last week was encumbered with many projects, and lists of more projects. Ever since I cleaned out my office, I’ve been trying to catch up on household maintenance and fixing things. The biggest project that I actually accomplished was fixing the ice dispenser on our refrigerator. This involved two phone calls, moving ten boxes and a table to reach the freezer in the basement and turn it on; hauling food downstairs, two coolers, defrosting and cleaning the whole fridge, and starting it up again.  Three days. But it worked.

Anyway, once I sat next to the pond, the burden of unfinished projects just disappeared.  Not the projects of course, but the burden.  My soul got quiet and peaceful.  Another turtle climbed onto the log.  I saw another brown frog.  I saw a winged insect struggling on the surface of the water, until a dark turtle-shaped shadow swam near and suddenly the insect disappeared. On my walk home, the quietude stayed with me.

This has been a year of a lot of work in our yard, creating a garden of fruit trees and perennials and bushes. Working with growing things is one way to learn to connect to the earth. But being silent next to a pond brings a deeper sense of unity.  I am grateful.

Celebrating Ministry

Diarama of Myke – Version 2

On Sunday, June 17, my congregation celebrated my ministry of thirteen years, upon the occasion of my retirement.  (I will still be working behind the scenes in June and on-call through July, but that was my last Sunday service.)  I was overwhelmed with their expressions of love and appreciation.  I will miss everyone so much.

There were so many amazing touches to the celebration, including this tiny (6 inches across) diorama of my life created by Kathy N. with details including my guitar, a stole I wear when I preach, tiny protest signs, the cover of my actual book, our fire circle, cherry tree, rain barrel and garden tools.  The celebration included a reflection from me and testimonials from a few church members, and a poem and a funny song created for me, and more.  There was a gorgeous rendition of Jeremy Geffen’s song “Mystery,” done by the choir and instrumentalists, along with other beautiful music.  They also honored me with the designation of Minister Emerita, and gave me beautiful gifts.  There was a photo slideshow of moments from my ministry.  We danced around the dawn redwood tree.  And ate delicious food, and I received so many hugs, including from the children.

The ministry relationship is so very deep in a particular way.  Not the same as friendship, but filled with intimacy.  During conversations with people during the meal, I kept remembering the significant moments I had shared with them. I remembered their loved ones who had died during my ministry.  I remembered the joyful weddings, and the painful separations.  I remembered our work together in the community that I helped to hold and cherish.  I felt the blessing of our relationships.

In retirement, I am leaving those relationships behind.  That will be the hardest part.  I am relieved to let go of the work.  My body just can’t do it any longer.  This year has been hard with many auto-immune flare-ups, days of exhaustion, and just barely keeping up with everything.  I am ready to lay that down.  But I will miss the people.  Not that I will never see them again.  I will be in the same city, and our paths will likely cross occasionally.  But in our tradition, the retiring minister disappears for a while, to give people a chance to form a ministry relationship with someone new.  The Interim Minister has already been chosen, and will arrive August 1st.

Meanwhile, I am cleaning out my office, and saying goodbye to staff members, and taking care of transitional details.  But I feel absolutely full of gratitude and amazement for these wonderful people, that I was lucky enough to serve and to love during these past thirteen years.  Just wow!

Hoya Plant

Hoya Plant pre-blossoms

It has been many years since our hoya plant has blossomed.  It is a great and easy plant to care for.  I have had it since I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan around 1979.  My partner at the time, Gary, and I inherited the plant from the collective who had lived in the house before passing the house along to us.  We became a Catholic Worker house, and offered hospitality to homeless families.  In 1983 we moved to Chicago and took the plant with us, and when Gary and I separated in 1985, I eventually ended up with the plant, and have moved it with me ever since.

One of the names I learned for the plant was “Widow’s Tears.”  When it blooms, the flowers have a sweet nectar that falls from their center.  That name had an emotional resonance for me when Gary died in a car accident in 1988.  Just after I learned about his death, the plant began to bloom.  That blooming became one of several signs that touched me with Gary’s presence following his death.  It is hard to explain, but it comforted me, it felt like a gift he had sent to me from beyond.

So this week, the hoya started to flower again, with two little umbrellas of florets beginning to form waxy pre-blooms.  And this week, I learned that my dad, who has been in a nursing home for almost a year and a half, has taken a turn for the worse, and has slept through the last two days.  A priest who is a friend of the family came today to pray and anoint him.  My sister Julie has been the primary support person for my mom and dad since they moved to West Virginia in 2005.  Most of us live at a distance.  A few of my siblings have visited in the last couple weeks, and I will fly out on Monday.

Life is mysterious.  They don’t really know what will happen next.  It is possible he will rally, but it is starting to seem more likely that he is preparing for the transition into death, which for him signifies going home to eternal life.  I asked my mom to hold the phone to his ear so I could speak to him, to tell him I love him, and I was coming on Monday, but I am with him in spirit, so whatever he needs to do will be okay.  Which is true.  And there is something about the hoya plant blooming that comforts me today, alerts me to the mysteries beyond life and death, and the bonds that unite us across many divides.  May all of us be held in love.Hoya Plant bloom