Spring Lily: the First Signs of Spring

It’s difficult to see it right now.  Even in North Carolina.  But the Spring spring is winding up for a full-fledged sunshine-on-your-garden-and-head-and-shoulders-and-knees-and-toes.  Whether you like it or not.

This was home only a week earlier:

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Menacing brambles warped under heavy, cold snow.  The brave birds were out init, shamelessly and resiliently exposing their tiny selves to the silent but deadly chill.  It’s impossible to ignore their brilliance.

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But that was then.

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That was when even the cold-weather plants wanted to be sage indoors.  That was when thyme settled its roots in a dark dirt-filled cell.

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And this is now.  The work is just starting for the early-birds, but has never ended for the Garden Gnome– that brave wanderer and protector of all things green.  They’re there.  Everywhere… With a chubby-cheeked grin that holds more than Mona Lisa’s smile.  He watches and embraces time as though it didn’t exist for him– without words– and stands in appreciation with love of the first spring Lillies peeking out– He knows. Thank goodness and goddess their retreat is never complete.

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Soaps at a Laundry Mat

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The news is silent at the laundry mat in the midst of the overpowering flow of captive water hitting metal and wet garments.  It’s closed captioned, so that even the meditative spin cycle isn’t interrupted by the heart-wrenching deaths and slight victories, unless it’s by choice.  But that all seems so artificial, like the soap I use to wash my clothes—fabricated for a single purpose.  If only it were that simple.  If only news were like detergent and let itself be what it was meant to be.  But it’s not.  It is home of persuasion and partisanship.  Just ask FOX what they think about NBC, or vice versa.  You might get a blob of balderdash, a blank stare, or a snide joke.  But we all know the leanings of the news providers.

My seventh grade English teacher made a point of saying that “nothing is written between the lines,” in an attempt to get us to stop using the phrase in our essays.  I imagine he was terribly bored with the same old reports, and that he wanted to see some evidence for all our critical thinking from the text.  So I won’t, in homage to Mr. Spencer, use that phrase.  Instead, I will make a plea for critical thinking.  The alleged unbiased presentation of what has happened while the world turned over the few hours between newscasts has the terrible possibility of being interpreted as unadulterated fact.  It is impossible to make much sense of information without more information.  When the days of our lives are condensed so precisely into droplets of advertisements and short pithy presentations the expectation becomes that the 24 hour day will have the same blanket precision.  So, Mr. Spencer, there is definitely nothing written between the lines.  Those spaces are blank.  But people do not do well with that kind of emptiness.  Nothing turns into the absence of something, which becomes something else altogether.

As I move my clothes to the drier, I think about how I would want all my children, if I had any, to experience life for themselves—to move away from temperate waters of Malibu’s shores and realize what it means to make the choices necessary to live their own lives alongside or even with others, and to find the information that is needed to make those choices good ones.  When I hear a man on public radio comparing a respite house for the mentally ill that is proposed to be built in his neighborhood to a prison, I am reminded that the media is enslaved by the bold and the beautiful, whether they like it or not.  It is a bold statement, that’s for sure, but founded only on a partial truth.  And we make it that way.  That is how the news gets away with being biased—it uses the opinions of citizens to augment its own perverted truths.  As an aside, I wonder if that same man would like a general hospital in his backyard.  Probably not.  It is pretty much the same thing as having a morgue behind your house.

A captive audience while I wait for my clothing to dry, I read a bit of the screen captions.  It’s all about the fiscal cliff.  This is serious.  This is not about congress.  This is about tons of people—a nation—that is dependent on people who can’t decide what to do.  Wait—it’s not the fiscal cliff anymore.  Now it’s about guns and violence and the NRA.  And then it’s about how one family dog was rescued from a tight space it couldn’t get out of.  Do you see the pattern?   The news is showing people what the entire human race is capable of, but only to the extent that it gets watched and understood.  The information is only valuable if people are inspired enough to research more about the topics.  Then, for the news to be worth anything, people need to have their opinions and do something with the information they are given.  Otherwise, the news and everything in it is worth about as much as some soap opera with the morbidly alluring catch that it’s really happened.

So I’ll fold my clothes, pack them away, and go on with another day.  It’s not exciting.  It lasts more than a half an hour, and I spend a lot of time doing mundane things, like putting clothes away in the dresser and scooping cat poop while cleaning the litter box.  I’m not going to pretend that I live a high and mighty life that perpetually sets the pace for others to follow, or brings resolution to impending doom.  But I’ve found my spot in the universe and I clean my laundry enough that there’s not much that’s dirty left to air.

Rutland County’s Road Less Traveled

Killington Avenue, named after the mountain also known as the Beast of the East because of its challenging ski slopes, bisects the eastern subdivisions of Rutland City and Rutland Town. Driving from one end to the other takes about six minutes, and covers 1.8 miles. Sidewalks become sparse further east while the houses become newer and larger. Eventually Killington Avenue T’s with Town Line Road to the left and Notch Road to the right. Should a wanderer venture to the right, they would find an acute contrast to the traffic, pace, and capitalism at the base of the hill. This place, known as “The Notch” to the locals, draws the contemplative to a place where they can focus, and the adventurous to a place where they can seek.

The city and subdivisions of Rutland disappear almost immediately after the intersection. The trees seem taller and the houses are more removed. About a mile up a steep incline, the pavement changes to the dirt that makes so many of Vermont’s long back roads distinct. The road is rough and bumpy and it produces clouds around the tires of any car that drives on it on a dry day.

When a traveler drives as far as they possibly can, past Wheelerville Road, they might find a subtle parking area that looks more like a turn-around. Most weekends at least one car is parked there, and often on nice days three or four will be packed haphazardly parallel and perpendicular into whatever space they can find. Farther down the main dirt road, another parking area is blocked by cement Jersey barriers that spill into a road that is clearly marked, “ROAD CLOSED.” These are the remnants of Tropical Storm Irene. The river washed away the bank and left nothing in its place, making the road a risk to drive or even walk. The path to the right offers the typical mysterious question that most trailheads do. The sun and sky make themselves known through the tops of the trees, and a cool brook washes past, gently testing the rocks that have nestled in its flow. The forest’s smell is dense with autumn.

A small posting of emergency numbers reminds hikers to be safe and responsible, and a warning about the Emerald Ash Borer reminds the observer how fragile the natural balance can be. The open path, well maintained and covered with gravel, follows the stream. A man and a woman in their early forties with their tiny dog poke through the water. “We’re looking for fallen leaves,” they say, on a cool afternoon at the end of September. The man says he’s here because she wanted to come up, and he points to the woman, but as the woman talks, the importance and depth of her and his relationship with the place becomes apparent. “I used to take my son up here and we would look for leaves every fall… it’s just so peaceful and quiet… A lot of people bring their dogs up here.” Their tiny dog’s triangular ears move with the flow of noise through the treetops and along the brook. It is not a lonely place to be. “It’s on the outskirts of the city. It’s peaceful and we love being here. “It’s like a mini Appalachian Trail.”

The guest sign-in is at the beginning of the Bald Mountain trail. Most of the guests are from Rutland, and the comment section is filled with thoughts like “Ahhh,” “Thank you Bald Mountain,” and “Nice easy climb.” Another couple in their late 20’s is using the path. The woman just moved to the area, and she brought her friend up to show him the trail. “It’s peaceful,” says the young woman. “I hiked it last weekend and it’s such a gorgeous loop and it’s long enough to give you time to think and reflect so I wanted to bring him… it’s serene with gorgeous views.” The young man smiled. “We barely saw anyone else so it’s kind of a time to just be out by yourself and to enjoy it. For me, living in a city, it takes a little bit longer to get out to a nice trail like this. It’s nice that it’s close.”

The trail that climbs to the top of Bald Mountain, and at the top offers a western view of Rutland city with historic crosses gleaming at the tops of churches, the hospital off to the left, and historic downtown. From the top, personal and social problems seem non-existent.  The hush of the wind and wild blueberries consume consciousness, and yellow birches disguise the way to and from this isolated spot.  Killington is somewhere, pounding its presence with ski lifts, snow blowers, and the Long Trail, or Appalachian Trail, depending on how far a hiker wants to hike. But for the person who wants to journey a little further off the beaten path, the Notch can become a familiar home.

Leaving

It’s been seven months here at the farm.  Seven months of chores, facilitation, cold weather, extreme heat, beautiful views, great people, and baby animals.  And what of it?  Is there anything I would have done differently?  What would I never change?  What will follow me when I leave?  These questions, asked by a few close friends, are the definition of a job that is complete in so many ways, but yet again, one that will chase me for the rest of my life and evolve and offer new insights and fodder for thoughts. 

There’s something about afterbirth that never leaves the mind.   It’s the gruesome truth about life that people don’t really think about when they’re chasing their dreams.  We watched around 90 births, 90 bonding moment where gentle mothers cleaned up their babies, and 90 babies rising to their wobbling legs and insecure feet.  It makes sense.  The beginning.  My mammalian instinct says so.  In those terms.  Then I think about the c-sections and the swinging.  Babies back and forth with liquids draining from their mouths and noses and hope.  Sometimes it makes even more sense this way.  The community of people working together, hoping together, that the life that has not begun might be a good one.  A good life.  So I’ve learned that a good life is messy.  It’s something that doesn’t make logical sense, but it works on an unconscious, instinctual level.

With each change and evolution in people’s lives they are reborn in all the mess, and eventually they learn to clean off themselves and move on from their busted ectoplasm and everything that is familiar. But the familiarity becomes them.  It augments their thinking and dresses them in an aura of know-how.  And so I drag my proverbial after-birth with me to the next stage of my life, not forgetting, but moving on.Image

Food

With Thanksgiving around the corner, I cannot help but reflect on hunger issues in the context of American culture.  When I sit down to that big dinner, I know I’ll be thinking about more than my waistline.  I have much to be thankful for, and nutritious food is on the list.  According to the USDA, 14.5 percent of the households in the United States have low or very low food security.  In other terms, that is around 17 million households out of 118.5 million.  Juxtaposing that statistic with a statistic I learned in a Sustainable Development class begins the unraveling of the problem: The percentage of food wasted in the United States is around 40 percent.  Now, it’s time for some math.  If the 40 percent, or 34 million tons, of food wasted each year were divided among the 17 million households in the United States that are food insecure, each household would receive around 2 tons of food each year.  Because the definition of food security is broad, it is difficult to say whether this would be enough, but what can be said is that that would average around 4 pounds of food available for use for breakfast, lunch, and dinner each
day of the year, or 11.97 pounds a day. The average turkey weighs 28.2 pounds according to the USDA, and many of us know that that can last for over a week after the big day.

Also in spirit with food and Thanksgiving is the topic of community.  Food is a communal effort, from the seed to the table, and to partake of the culture of food is one of humanity’s most present instincts.  It involves socializing, satiating needs, and even aesthetic pleasure at times,
and who in this world can say that to sit down to a wholesome meal after a long day in the rat-race is not satisfying.  So what about the people who, for whatever reason, do not have enough to eat, and what about that sense of community?  Is there any hope?

Community food pantries and soup kitchens are going strong in New England.  From the distribution of basic ingredients to the preparation and serving of meals, these organizations are contributing to both a lack of food and the loss of community.  On Monday mornings, people gather in the kitchen of the Unitarian church in Montpelier, VT to prepare for the 11am soup kitchen.  Preparations include chopping vegetables, cooking soups and other warm dishes, and quite a bit of laughter accompanying the coordination of services. From 11 am to 1 pm, people come from all over the area to eat at tables with other people who have at least one thing in common:  they know, for one reason or another, that eating
well is not always easy.

It was on Martin Luther King Day of 2009 that people gathered to add some flair to the usual routine at the church.  Chopping carrots was my task for the morning, and since I was near the door, I was also charged informally with greeting people walking through the door.  Many of
them carried trays or boxes of food.  One woman brought a box of Guatemalan food cooked a few days earlier by a group of visiting Guatemalans.  Another woman brought fresh vegetables from the farm she was working with.  I know that even before that food was served,
at least a few people were filled with the contentment of connecting with their neighbors they had never met.  The napkins, silverware, plates, glasses, and dessert were unveiled.  It was a flourish to a morning that was only the preliminary step to a day of celebration—a day that, perhaps, would have been in the spirit of what Martin Luther King has come to represent: community working towards justice for all.

It doesn’t have to be Martin Luther King Day to think about community and it doesn’t have to be Thanksgiving to think about food.  In fact, the two go so innately together that I would hope that everyone, every day of the week, might experience at least one meal with a group of friends that they make a contribution to in some way.   Through reconnecting with the entire process of eating, it is possible to connect with the people who are a part of it along the way, and while doing so, to make a difference in at least one other person’s day, especially during a plentiful tradition within a time of scarcity.

Learning, part 2

How do you begin telling someone you kicked a rat in the middle of a city in Northern Thailand in the middle of the night many years ago? I guess I just did. It’s a much easier introduction than the one where I begin by saying that I wandered around without a home, with lots of money in my bank account that wasn’t mine, in a place that was filled with desperate people. The question rather than the declarative. The uncertainty rather than the definitive choice. The wandering damsel rather than the obnoxious tourist. I kicked a rat in northern Thailand that night I was trying to save money by not staying in a guest house. It was an accident. It was one of the many rats the size of cats, or larger, on the streets of Chiang Mai. It ran right in front of my feet when my right foot was in motion forward.

Really, it’s not as bad as unexpectedly kicking dog crap in Bangkok. That’s more like a condom breaking– that moment of shock and then the hours and days of fearing for your health; the long walk home in the dark with something horrible and foreign happening to your body. The dog crap thing– that happened too. On a tiny bridge next to a classy part of the town near sidewalk restaurants glowing in unnatural light where diplomats probably ate dinner.

Most tourists took tuk-tuks or motorbikes. They were quicker and more certain, usually, when it came to directions. I say usually because, if one were a naive male, one might find themselves in the part of town that one might find a bit intimidating. Sometimes tuk-tuk drivers would be paid by different businesses to take tourists off their desired route and on to theirs. The unsuspecting tourist would find themselves in Patapong, the sex-capital of Bangkok, where they would be met by a slew of unsavory characters and another slew of women who will do anything for an American dollar. Or so I’ve heard.

When I kicked the rat, it went very quickly and indignantly away. When I kicked the dog crap, it stuck. Until I began to think. You see, the meat vendor on the side of the moat where my foot encountered the rat– he seemed like a nice man, but really, I had no clue who he was. The soup vendor across the street from him– I had no clue there either. I would cook and eat a rat if I were desperate. Or if I didn’t care about the people I was feeding it to who might think they were eating chicken. That thought– the one about not caring about people–is the one I found to be the most disturbing. And it was bitter poison, a bit of the old apple.

I started noticing things—the people missing legs, the oddly selfish smiles of the tuk-tuk drivers, the merchants who stared at me as though I were an object like, say, a wallet, especially during the process of bargaining. The process is a painful one, and goes something like this:

“Rakka towrai, naka?” (“How much is this?” aka “I have money I want to spend and I’m ready to bargain.”)

“Ha roi song sip baht.” (“520 bhat.” Or about $13 U.S. aka “I’m quoting high. You’re rich and I’m poor and I may or may not need your money to feed my family tonight, but for sure I know I need your money more than you do.”)

“Paeng! Mai Dai.” (“That’s pricey! I can’t.” aka “What’s your next offer?”)

“See roi khao sip.” (“490.” aka “It cost me much less to make, but really, you’re a schmuck and I know you’ll pay for this sooner or later.”)

“Mai Dai. Kap koon Kah.” (“I can’t. Thank you.” Aka “If I want to keep traveling, I need my money for myself.”)

“Sam roi!” (“300!” aka “Please!”)

“Dai.” (“Yes.” aka “You’re still overcharging me but I’m an asshole. Here’s my money. Now we’re both schmucks.”)

Every time I bargained, I matched the smile of the person in front of me. Thailand has earned the name “Land of Smiles,” possibly because there are so many different meanings attached to the many different smiles that meet tourists throughout the day. There are genuine smiles, mostly from elderly women who are upholding the renouned hospitality of the people of the country. But those are matched by the smiles of tuk-tuk drivers who know you’re dependent on them because you don’t speak the language well, if at all. I was told once that when I spoke Thai, I sounded like a young child just beginning to utter its first words. Not too far off, I thought. I was learning how to dress appropriately, use the bathroom the right way, speak, interact, and otherwise function in a completely different setting.

But I don’t want to be the sympathetic character here. I’m not and I wasn’t. I was the stereotypical privileged white girl that everyone knew from pictures and movies, but never really had a conversation with, just as the tuk-tuk drivers were the despicable men who wanted something from me. We were all caricatures drawn by the desperation in society. Somewhere along the way, the artist lost touch with the soft kindness that humanity is capable of and replaced it with the more accessible materialist culture. I’m sure Maslow was wrong. I think people need companionship and connection with others before anything else, and in the end, the rest will follow, given the companionship is true and complete.

I kicked a rat in Chiang Mai that night I didn’t want to pay money for a room. I only had a couple baht, but I could have found something. And that night, I stayed in a broom closet with a young Thai who offered me his only place to sleep because he was kind. I only learned the whole story after it was given to me.  And I’m kicking myself for assuming before I was able to ask.

Peterborough

 

Consuming something as rich, intimate, and sensually provocative as a play at Peterborough Players in Peterborough, NH requires the audience member to find that blank, white room that many equate with death so that the messages, images, sounds, and smells—even the feel of the air—may fill the walls with something eternal and unspoiled by the residual imprints of self, other, and stress. I’ve found this place before at Quaker meeting. My head tingles with inspiration and motivation in the face of a selfless world—a world of ideals, thoughts, and morals, and a community that waits for a delivery of seeds to sow, gardens to weed, fruit to pick, and earth to turn over—only to do it all again the next night in another show.

I drove here alone, hoping for a change. That seems to be the story of my life. Sometimes the change is good, other times, I could do without it. But tonight, the first night I’ve treated myself to a play this season, I remember why I drive so far to something so seemingly unimportant. And I remember why I do it alone.

“You guys working hard or hardly working?” I ask the man and woman playing backgammon behind the ticket window. They laugh. We banter, I buy a ticket, and head off for a way-to-spend-time at the pizza joint down the road. When I get back, there’s a line at the box office and a woman selling raffle tickets under a wonderfully intricate quilt. I ask her if the raffle is for the quilt and she says no, but sends me over to “the woman in the lime green shirt” behind the ticket window (she wasn’t one of the game players) to get the scoop on who made the quilt and how long it had been there. It was dotted with images—plays, I found out—that had been performed at Peterborough Players. Bright red rectangles offset blue ones, and I was surprised to hear that a doctor had made it, possibly for the rededication of the theater in the ‘80’s.

The doors of the theater open to a dim, surprisingly unobtrusive, room of wood. Its barn qualities were preserved in the remodeling, but the guest is left with the knowledge that this is a place where cows once rested, a manger of sorts with poles and beams from an era of farming that still surrounds this tiny town. Before the audience is the even smaller stage, set in place and curtains non-existent. The room slowly fills, seat by seat, row by row, and then the high school-ers arrive. They’re texting, giggling, squeaking in other inaudible ways, but they don’t drown out the drone of the night. They make it louder and the audience as a whole reaches a crescendo of unrepeatable, chaotic, multi-toned chanting.

Never mind that I have another two and a half hours to drive home. Never mind that I don’t know that I’ll get lost in the roundabouts of Keene. And never mind that the woman in front of me in line to get into the theater cut me off. I turn to the woman sitting next to me. “Where are you from?” I had no clue what she said, but she explained that it was the town next to Peterborough, and that she was there for the summer. “So you’re not here for much longer, then?” “I try to be here as much and as long as I can,” she said. She went on to point out the page in the playbook that listed all the plays the theater had ever performed from its conception in the 1930’s to the current season. There was a gap in the timeline from 1943-1945. “Gone to War,” it said. She’d been to the 1942 season and then every season since the end of World War II. We talk about parking in cities, Boston—where she’s officially from—New York, cat sitting aunts, and then we sit in silence.

The build-up reaches its peak and begins to die in the face of a parking-lot usher who’s assumed the role of host. Static air makes room for his humorous requests. “Anything electronic that has an ‘i’ in it… yea… turn it off. Also, anything that you may have in a wrapper that crinkles, you might want to do that now too…” And the audience bows to his commands. A whirr of dings and doo doo doo’s followed by a loud rustling of candy wrappers is met with silence. The host snuffs out the six candles burning—three on each side of the stage—and knocks clearly and brusquely on the wall of the stage. The lights dim, eerie record music plays, and my ‘I’ that survived the drone of the audience begins to shut down in the face of the life of Ann Landers, columnist extraordinaire. We laugh, some cry, but mostly we laugh in the glow of the stage.