Posts Tagged With: community

hope that perches

Just after the election, while I was vacillating on the despair-o-meter between head-in-the-sand and rage, Riley came home from school with a list of actions for the future. That’s what she called them – “actions,” uttered with the most delicious conviction – and her brainstorm included ways to engage in the community. In class that day, they’d talked about the power of volunteerism (one of the many reasons I love her school) and the possibilities inherent in tapping into the needs of beings outside of oneself as the only way we’re going to move forward together.

On Riley’s list were actions that indicated what she loves best and not what she thought sounded good to someone else (from the beginning, it’s been clear I’ve had very little to do with her rock-solid self-awareness, which is strange terrain for a parent). Volunteering at the World Center Birds of Prey, at the zoo, and The Humane society. She threw down her backpack and got online to find out how an almost thirteen-year-old can work for her chosen causes. In her notebook, she made another list of phone numbers to call, dates she’d be able to participate, and paperwork required to make it all happen.

I hovered on the edge of her intent, preparing dinner, and marveled at this girl of mine.

After months of conversation and reading and listening to pundits, after months of classroom activities and learning about the democratic process, after going with me to the polls to vote and then staying up late to witness what felt like the world burning down, Riley had had enough of the adult version of solving problems. And who can blame her?

Admittedly, I haven’t been a very good role model in the days since. Each new cabinet appointment – which I take as a personal affront and further evidence every safeguard I value and respect is being dismantled and sold for parts – calls up fresh desolation and confusion. Fresh dystopian metaphors. As if the White House is a frat house, and Voldemort’s doling out bids to Death Eaters after rush. As if the Hunger Games contestants are all environmentalists, artists, scientists, educators, thinkers, philanthropists. The last one standing in the arena will be a reminder not to live against fascism. As if our new Big Brother positioned himself for office for no other narcissistic pleasure than because he cannot get enough of watching himself on T.V. Orwell and Huxley and Bradbury are turning over in their graves. I feel confident my future may involve standing in front of a bulldozer, literal or metaphoric.

What seems clear, especially to Riley, is that I’m no peach to be around. Also, I’ve forgotten my job, which, in addition to teaching her to speak up and question everything, is to model and encourage critical thinking, making connections with people we might not understand, working hard for the common good.

My resolution as we leave this odd year behind and face the new one is to take a page out of Riley’s notebook. To focus on chasing down what I love best with more joyful purpose. The byproduct, I’m hoping (I’ll work on my optimism here), will be to heal some of what feels so broken.

Onward then.

To gardening that nourishes the soul and belly, that becomes a reason to share.

To working with students to uncover what sings best for them, that seeds a new generation of mindful citizens, that becomes a reason to listen across generations.

To being outdoors and finding dark nights, that become a reason to preserve and to acknowledge how ecosystems are tethered, reliant upon one another.

To reading and writing stories that ask us to question what it means to be human, that becomes a reason to wonder, to seek  bridges.

And to rediscovering music, which for some reason that escapes me we’d taken a hiatus from in favor of radio and T.V. covering the election. A friend once told me she likes coming over because there is always music at our house. Looking back, I can’t remember at what point we turned this part of ourselves off.

This week Riley and I went to hear the O’Conner Band (with Mark O’Connor, known well in both bluegrass and classical circles) perform An Appalachian Christmas. We’re pretty enthusiastic bluegrass fans, and this seemed like just the right kind of medicine for a pre-holiday evening. You know you’re in the presence of something inspired when strings and voices give you chills, when they sound better live than recorded.

A few minutes into the fifth or sixth song, Riley leaned over and pointed toward Mark’s son Forrest, the mandolin player. “Listen to that mandolin,” she said. “Boy, can that guy play.”

We tapped our feet and sang along to a few Christmas tunes, and then the band played a new duet, the mandolin welling up in the space between voices. Riley leaned over again.

“That mandolin,” she whispered, grabbed my arm. “Mom. I think that’s my spirit instrument.”

All the way home we talked about the mandolin, where to rent it, if she’ll ever be able to make her spirit instrument sound like that. I’m tickled, of course. Our new season of action, it would seem, will involve more music. And even better, music from my capable daughter’s generous, curious hands.

We’ll see what happens; the journey is the thing. But I can’t think of a better sidekick for greeting the actions of the future than a girl who believes in possibility so fiercely, it’s emanating like light from within her. .

2012 India Trip #3 025

Riley at the Taj Mahal (www.lauramgibson.com)

Advertisements
Categories: community, music, parenting, writing | Tags: , , , | 8 Comments

fog

This winter, a relentless inverted fog has shrouded our valley. We are weeks into this trend; I’ve stopped paying much attention to the forecast which, according to our weather folk, is simply: “Gray.”

From the table where I write, the black relief of deciduous trees against a white surround looks like the smoky aftermath of war.

To find sun I could drive up out of the inversion to four or five thousand feet.  Many people do this. Above the white sea of our valley cars line the shoulder, their drivers standing next to the road with faces turned to the light.  Up there I’ve seen picnickers on the hoods of cars, games of hacky sack, lawn chairs with umbrellas. On weekends, a driver bound for the very top of the mountain must aim, not unlike Tour de France riders in the mountain stages, through this carnival gauntlet of parked sun-seekers.

But I don’t much seek the sun. Truthfully, I’m delighted about the inversion. With little temptation to go outside, it’s easier to keep my butt in the chair and work. Soon, it’ll be gardening season, a hard set of months on fiction.

It’s not for wimps, this writing life.  Solitary. Time-consuming. Hard emotional work.  Craziness. Spending so much time with magical people sometimes makes me feel less adept at communicating with the real ones. Recently I left the house (late, always late) wearing two different shoes and only noticed once I stood waiting in line at the post office. There is never enough time. I struggle to reconcile the insistent knocking to create against the inherent selfishness of world-making.

Today, my house is filthy. The refrigerator is beginning to look like an artifact from a college dorm.  Plenty of condiments, some moldy cheese, and something in a Tupperware container no one can identify. There’s a pile of laundry – neglected, growing. My daughter has no pants that fit and can’t drive herself to the store to get ones that do, she reminds me. We discussed her clothing quandary long enough to make her late to school this morning. Also, there was nothing to put in her lunch, she told me as she got out of the car.  Can’t you please go to the market before you work?

She’s on to me.

On the way home from school I scratched out a list of life chores.  If I raced through them first, I’d have time to write and then everyone would win, at least for today.

I started a load of laundry, hauled out the vacuum cleaner, and then got distracted by a text from a friend who’d shared a clip of Bill Moyers interviewing Louise Erdrich in April of 2010. Here ’tis:

Lovely and humble as ever, Erdrich steps around being compared to Faulkner, Hemingway, and Camus (clever woman-what possible answer to this question could there be?). Instead, she speaks about how she’s managed to write so prolifically while also being a mother, how she’s given herself permission to let the small things fall away.  To answer Moyers, Erdrich reads her poem “Advice to Myself”  (from Original Fire, 2003. Thumbs up to Garrison Keillor for making it Monday, November 19th, 2012’s The Writer’s Almanac piece). Here ’tis:

Leave the dishes. Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
Don’t even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll’s tiny shoes in pairs, don’t worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic—decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don’t even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don’t sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in through the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.

One hand on the vacuum handle, I considered the way of the universe’s mysterious gifts. Into my confusion descended the fierce creative mind of Louis Erdrich via my tiny, fierce community of writer friends.

Fierceness, the order of the day.

Outside, rain fell through the white ceiling of fog. After school, after solitude, there’d be time enough to find pants the right size, to visit the market. Vacuuming could wait.

I settled into my writing chair.

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: community, fiction, writing | Tags: , , | 12 Comments

how can i keep from singing?

More like an older sister than an aunt, Susie taught me to swim.  I was nine the summer she came to visit, and though I splashed around easily enough in the shallow end, nothing I did resembled a stroke.  Over the course of a week, Susie worked with me at our little community pool, teaching me to do the freestyle and be brave in water.  On day four I made the discovery that submerging my head wouldn’t mean sudden death.  After that I was golden.

Since that summer I’ve been a swimmer.  Not a competitive one, but a dabbler in the unstructured water play of paddling across lakes and rivers, jumping off rocks, bodysurfing, rafting.

In addition to last year’s big life changes I’ve probably written about too much here, in the fall I added swimming laps, a new skill that still feels humbling.  I was looking for another activity that might deliver the kind of focused non-focus of running, one I’ll be able to do for many years, long after my running knees give out.

That I was very bad at surviving laps in the beginning is an understatement.  But it was thrilling to engage in something at which I was terrible.  I had to learn to sustain swimming and breathing at the same time without panicking and stopping in the middle of the pool to gasp for air.  To put on a swim cap.  To wear goggles so they were tight enough to work but not so tight they nearly sucked my eyes out of my sockets.  To swim in a straight line and share a lane with another swimmer.  To “deal” with the wall every twenty-five yards.

At first, swimming four laps in a row left me completely without breath.  For the first month I could only swim ten slow, tortuous laps before peeling off, exhausted, to simmer in the Jacuzzi.  In the second month I tasked myself with braving the wall via flip turn, and the day I figured out how to plan for and execute a series of turns I was high on life the rest of the day.   The day swimming laps gave me a glimmer of the kind of meditation I feel while trail running was even more affirming.

Given the choice, I’d rather swim in a lake or bay over a pool, but I imagine no matter the space, I’ll be a swimmer as long as I can still walk.  I’m grateful about that.

It’s 2014, time to renew my vow to learn something new.

On a whim a few weeks ago, Riley and I tagged along with some friends to their choir practice.  Though we met at a church because that’s a space large enough for the group, the choir is secular and intergenerational.  I’ve never really sung before, unless I count the shower or those musical performances from grade school.  In high school I was both too shy and too busy playing sports to spend any time in the arts and theatre wing, a fact which I regret a now.  Despite a year or so of piano in middle school, I can’t read music, and I don’t have a great voice.  I’m on friendly terms with the voice I do have.  Singing in public terrifies me.

In a packed sanctuary hall the night of our first practice, we met and were wrangled by three local, professional musicians, our leaders, who believe so strongly in the power of the collective voice they’ve volunteered their time in this way.  A white-haired woman with a walker sporting orange tennis balls staked out a place at the back of the sanctuary.  With our friends, we squeezed four bodies onto two chairs next to her.  Kids of all ages wiggled and danced beneath the stage as we sang ten or so tunes, many we knew and some we didn’t.  Reading lyrics projected on a huge screen at the back of the stage, we practiced singing in harmony.  We sang in round.  Folk, pop, blues, tunes from around the world.

I spent much of the evening sweating, working to manage anxiety about whether and how my voice belonged. But there are three hundred of us, and we sound good together.  I can see that each week my fears will be allayed by my own efforts and being buoyed by the group.  Our sessions together will be about the community building of raising our voices in song, and also about preparing for a culminating performance in the spring.

Pete Seeger had just passed away a few days before our first choir meeting.  Even though he’d had a good run, dying quietly at 94, I’d been melancholy about his presence gone from the world.  At home I’d been playing over and over Springsteen’s The Seeger Sessions and thinking back to 2002, when John, Owen and I went to the Great Hudson River Revival, an annual folk festival Pete and his wife Toshi began in 1966 to raise awareness about keeping the Hudson River and surrounding wetlands healthy.

That June weekend in New York was a rainy, hot muddy mess of a festival.  Food vendors and magicians, hacky-sackers and jugglers, artists and storytellers filled the grounds.  The afternoon Pete took the stage toward the end of the weekend, it was still raining steadily.  John and I sat in our chairs, a blanket over Owen who slept across our laps, finally worn out, and for an hour we sang along with Pete and other musicians who joined him.  Songs we’d known since we could walk and sing.  This Land is Your LandIf I Had a Hammer. Turn, Turn, Turn.  We Shall Overcome.

Then, I was aware as I scanned the soggy crowd that we were in the presence of a kind of greatness.  Everyone sang, most eyes on Pete and his banjo, his enthusiasm and gathering spirit infectious.  There was nothing pretentious about him, none of that rock star stuff he might have deserved after decades of fame.  As I recall he wore faded jeans, a t-shirt, his signature cap.  Through a gap in the trees, the sloop Clearwater sailed by along the Hudson, loaded with passengers availing themselves of learning how to save the river.  I’m so grateful now we made that trip.

Owen navigating the rope bridge at the Clearwater Festival.

Owen navigating the rope bridge at the Clearwater Festival.

At choir practice, toward the end of the night, a photo of Pete filled the screen, and these words -“Participation!  It’s what all my work has been about.” Singing next to Riley whose voice is bold and clear and lovely, I was a little sad she’ll never get to sing along with Pete.  We stood up and grooved to a song Pete sang with Woody Guthrie, a fun kids’ tune about all working together with a “wiggle and a giggle.”  Kids twirled and fell on the ground and helped each other up.  This full-bodied interaction with music was exactly what Pete had in mind, for it’s not too far a jump to go from singing together to working together in all ways that matter most.

That night the spirit of Pete was all around us, it seemed, filling up our lungs and hearts.  We began “How Can I Keep from Singing?”, a song many seem to take credit for though I think it’s a hymn from the 19th century.  This song always makes me a little weepy, and I was struck that night by the gorgeous impermanence of the music we were making and the universal truth in some of those words.  Our individual and collective voices were vanishing into thin air, and yet long after the notes could no longer be heard, the people who’d gathered would remember the singularity of the effort.

I couldn’t really hear my own voice, though I knew it was a piece of the whole.  Still a little sweaty, emboldened by my plucky daughter who wasn’t nervous in the slightest, I tried to sing with bravery and intention, thinking of Pete, and of the way participating with hundreds of other voices could -was already- rendering a similar kind of grace I sought in breathing life into stories, in trail running at dawn, in gliding through water.

Categories: community, parenting, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

how to grow a vigilante garden

The view of my neighbor’s house from my front windows has pissed me off for years.  It’s a 1950s ranch, which is not its real problem.  I’ve lived in a few ranchers over the years and been happy – you can make them cute.  But the offender on my current street is an unloved thing.  Amidst a street of Craftsmen and storybook homes built in the 1920s, it looks a little like it’s crashing a Kentucky Derby party in a tight polyester pants suit.  Beige asbestos siding, peeled country-blue shutter paint, cracked front steps and a tragic aluminum screened door that claps in the breeze.  It’s not good.

I don’t know the owner, but I do know the house is a rental that can’t seem to keep occupants for more than a few months.  Two haphazard front garden beds of invasive plants have died, one by one, over the years.  When someone comes to “care” for the yard, this means the high grass is mowed quickly and left to rot in clumps.  The latest dead plant is tossed into the back of the rusty truck on top of grass clippings.

Finally, about six months ago, there was nothing left in one bed but weeds and dirt.  My next door neighbor (I’ll call her Sally) went over to weed it.  The other bed, just beneath the living room window, was home to some jaundiced boxwoods. There wasn’t much she could do with those.

The whole of this house, from its single-paned windows to its listing chimney and waist-high backyard grass, was asking for help.

The place has been empty this time for months, a For Rent sign advertising its awesomeness – Great Neighborhood!—at the edge of the yard.  My neighbors and I hold our breath, hoping someone will move in soon.

Two weeks ago the sky opened and delivered the gift of spectacular weather.  A real, live bender.  Since then, our street has been stoned out on Vitamin D and things in bloom.

A week into our sun blitz, I’d dug up several hostas and helliobores, intending to pot them up and donate them for our school plant sale.  I pulled out the nandina (The owner before me had a real thing for plants from Asia).  I set them out on the grass.

My plan was spontaneous.  Mostly.

It was broad daylight.  People were out mowing, raking, walking.  I grabbed a shovel and a wheelbarrow and trundled my plants across the street.  I set them out in a pattern I thought would work and planted them.  I filled a watering can, added some fish emulsion, and soaked them.  After that, I sat on my front steps and had a beer, watching over my guerilla garden.

The next day one of my neighbors (I’ll call her Dolores) said to me, “I saw you.”  Dolores wagged her eyebrows.

“Oh really?  When?” (Uh oh. Trespassing is bad.  I knew I should’ve done it at night.)

“I’m so glad you did that, because I was just about to do the same thing!”

Dolores brought over a holly bush from her yard. Another neighbor (I’ll call her Martha) donated a Japanese maple.  I mowed the grass twice when it got too high, and then decided to pay my son to do it.  More plants showed up mysteriously.  I planted them all, and the place was really beginning to look like someone loved it, at least a little.  We were cooking with gas.  A community of garden lovers taking matters into our own hands!  Next stop, a coat of paint!  A new door!  Re-pointing the chimney!

Today I was working away at my desk, one eye on our new garden, thinking about when I’d get over there to water (Hooking our hose up to their spigot was definitely trespassing, John informed me.  Also, the water was turned off).

Up pulled a beat-up pickup.  Out came a weed whacker.  A man with a cigarette drooping from his mouth attacked the yard.  My son had just mowed.  Mr. Cigarette mowed again anyway.  Then he took out the plants (Our plants!  Sally’s, Dolores’s, Martha’s and mine!) and threw them into a heap in the front yard.

I ran across the street, my hands in the air, demanding to know what his plan was.

He turned to look at me through goggles covered in wet grass flakes.  “The guy’s paying me to take all this out.  He says they’re dead.”

I pulled a leaf off one of the helliobores and showed it to him.  “Do they look dead to you?”

“Well.  No.”  He looked over his shoulder at the boxwoods, already gone.

“Did someone buy the place?  Or rent it?”

“I don’t know, Lady.  I’m just getting paid to do the yard.”

“Did he rent it?  He never calls back.”  Even to my own ears I sounded pathetic.

“You want me to call him?  I’ll call him.  Then I can get back to work.”  He dialed the phone, waited for an answer and fiddled with the handle of his weed whacker.

It’s true I’d been calling the number every few days, pretending to be a renter on the message so the owner would call me back.  I’d just called again that morning.

On the other end the owner answered.  “Um.  Yeah.  There’s some lady here who’s mad about the yard.  She says she wants to talk to you.”  He passed me the phone.

“Oh, hiii. I live across the street.”  (Friendly.  Check.  Breezy.  Check.)  “You’ve got some guy here taking out all the plants?  Because not all of them are dead, you know.  (Oh dear.  A little nasty.) I’m just hoping you aren’t planning to leave the beds bare?  Like they’ve been for, you know, a few years?”

Traffic noise on the other end.  A siren flaring and fading.  “I don’t live in town.  It’s hard to take care of.”  A young guy.  I’d heard he inherited the place from his mother.

“I bet.”

Long pause.  Another siren.  “The last time I was there about a month ago everything was dead.”

This was the time to tell him NOT ANYMORE.  Garden vigilantism is your new friend, Mister.  But landscaping seemed a much bigger trespass than mowing.  And I’d made rules about my methods, too, which suddenly seemed completely crazy.  I didn’t MOVE any plants already there.  I just added them.  I didn’t sneak over at night; I gardened in the light of day.  But it was too complicated to explain.

“You’ve really let it go,” I said.  “Some of us in the neighborhood are mowing the front grass.”

He laughed.  “Really?  Cool.”

“Have you rented it out?  Or are you selling it?”

“Oh, yeah.  I’ve got a bunch of people looking at it.”  (This was a lie.  I live right here and no one has).

I asked what the rent was, and he told me.  His inflated figure explained why no one wanted it:  he was smoking crack.  He’d never get that kind of money for the place.

“That seems like a lot.”

Radio silence.  Some honking and a woman shouting.

“Could you just not leave the gardens bare?”

“Absolutely,” he said, then hung up.

I asked Mr. Cigarette to save the plants he’d dug up, and he said he would.  “Could you put the boxwoods back in?  They’re pretty healthy, don’t you think?”

“You gonna pay me?”

“You’re already being paid, aren’t you?”

“Just kidding.  Never hurts to ask,” he said and lit another cigarette.  “I’m supposed to go to Fred Meyer and get new plants.  You got a problem with that?”

He looked at me through the smoke.

I should’ve stepped away.  Let well enough alone. Transferred my energies to another cause.  “Can I write down some plants that would be good?” I said.  “I mean, if it’s all the same to you.  If the owner doesn’t care.  It seems like he doesn’t care.”

“Knock yourself out, Lady.”

I wanted to lurk around, making sure he’d be as good as his word, but I didn’t.

Later in the day, I checked to see what he’d done.  The boxwoods had been replanted unevenly, like the person planting them was drunk. On the far end, the biggest one had its roots exposed and lay on the ground.  Our plants, mine and Sally’s and Dolores’s and Martha’s, were all gone.

I’d lost.  I told myself I’d gotten what I deserved for muscling a situation that wasn’t mine to steer.

Around nine in the evening my doorbell rang.  On the  front  lawn stood Sally and Dolores.  They were giggling, sharing a bottle of Tequila hidden inside a paper bag.

“We don’t know what the hell happened over there today,” Sally said.  She gestured to the house across the street.  “Somebody told us you were in the front yard with that gardener guy trying to save the plants.”

They laughed and offered me a drink.  They said if we didn’t do something a bunch of hoodlums would break in and cook meth over there, or dismantle the place for the metal.  Both scenarios are a pretty big stretch, but I admired their passion.

“He said he’d save them for me,” I said.  “I guess he decided I was too insane.”

“Come with us.  We have a present for you.”

They took me into Sally’s backyard, where all our plants sat in a wheelbarrow by the garage.

“We got these out of the trash can behind that house,” Dolores said.  “Can you believe that asshole?  Throwing away our plants?”

Sally chimed in.  “Yeah.  This is our neighborhood.”  She took a swig of Tequila and offered some to me.  “We figured you’d want to…you know…do something with them.”

Tequila’s not my friend, so I said no to that.  But I’m up for gardening with my new posse.  Anytime.

It Takes a Village

Categories: community, gardening, girls, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com.