Making Peace with Gophers: How Personal Transformation Can Transform a Garden

 

 

In May 2015 I went to a Mindfulness Meditation retreat in the tradition of Community of Mindful Living, where I was reunited with old friends and made some new ones. The road to Ukiah was a long one, as it led to the journey within, to an interior of long-untouched places. There were many surprises, many unexpected openings, and even more healing and flowering of possibilities. Among my awakenings, I learned to care for my inner child with both historic tenderness and fierce protectiveness, both long overdue for my little girl. In the fertile ground of introspective work born of being thrown into close proximity with many people, the idea of equanimity both challenged and unfurled in me, holding my attention as I grappled with the realities of the concept as it applies to my emotional, physical and mental bodies. The question arose in me, What is it to make room for the other, the beloved?

 

I borrow from Stephen and Ondrea Levine’s book, Embracing the Beloved, for their work of naming the conscious relationships that can unfold and are encompassed when one allows for and embraces the “beloved”. They write that the “Other is the basis of every cruelty, all bigotry and war” for it is a practice that permits us to dis-identify as connected, a state wherein we are “nonfamily, nonfriend, nonrelationship, nonhuman, nonfeeling.” Indeed, these are all the many ways we separate ourselves. We can see this behavior and thinking everywhere. It is the most terrible disease of our modern times. Yet, it is all too easy to fall into this casual Othering and judging. For one, I am the Other, and two, the Beloved is me. The Beloved is all of us, our neighbors and those we don’t wish to hold close or dear: The shooter and the shot. We cannot chose. We must hold all in our center. That is equanimity.

 

As I breathe into this new-found understanding, I touch hesitation and resistance, discomfort and relief. When we hold the Beloved, the precious one, we hold ourselves all the more tenderly: Our adorable screaming infants, as well as our well-behaved and compliant studious children, held with the same love. We don’t get to choose any more than we select our skin color, birth order or origins. When I get angry, I aim for a smaller tilt and less unraveling. I come back to myself with purpose.

 

The mindfulness retreat was a place to practice all the things I’ve been studying in Cognitive and Dialectical Behavioral Therapies for six months. With most of the day spent in silence, the focus turned naturally inward. I found myself utterly depleted after Dharma talks, crying uncontrollably after meditation, enraged by a benign comment. Could I really be carrying all that unclaimed emotion around with me? Yes. In fact, I have been moving in the world, unconsciously acting on a lifetime of unacknowledged feelings, sensations and urges. When feelings are not taken care of properly, they act out on our physical and mental bodies. They will be heard. They will kick, scratch, ache and strain to be seen. By opening the door and committing to my whole self, experienced in the full breadth of my existence on earth, I have felt more than I ever imagined. Part of my work was also attending to my needs: To cry and be held; To laugh and share joy; To risk shame; To open and be rejected; To stand firm in my own convictions. I had no idea of the degree of capaciousness in me, that I could feel so much and not explode, and I found myself alive like a newborn star, delicate, bright, precious.

 

This process is not surprising to me, since as the years pass, I’m more inclined to look for and invent the path of least resistance. That is not to say that I’m afraid of conflict and confrontation, for I’m learning to deal with both, as they arise, with skillfulness and tact though it is not and has not been easy, and they will doubtless continue to instruct and inform me as firm and loving teachers. Still I look within and without for solutions to the habitual patterns, some destructive, some not, that have kept me from growing spiritually and emotionally, and these are surely the treasure troves of my own renewal.

 

Even before leaving home for the retreat, some calcified, implacable obstinacy in me had already begun to give way. Perhaps tired of the hunting, I had asked Hal to construct some cages from chicken wire we had in the garage. I had the idea to bury the cages to protect the dahlia bulbs and the broccoli roots in the garden, favorites of the gophers, who seemed to have voracious appetites and greedy spirits for my own favorites. As I returned home to my full self, the container of violence in me seemed to crack open, if only a hairline. I saw the chicken wire as protecting the gophers from me, from my need to control and contain the order of the universe represented as my garden, according to my plans. The chicken wire, then, has become the symbol for my own countermovement away from fighting toward boundaries that allow and invite. After all, what is an organic garden for if the gophers cannot roam there as well? Why has so much hate and violence been activated in me and directed to a creature whose own natural habitat I have cultivated with rare and delicious delicacies?

 

Through meditation and the observation of the land and my own habitual reactions, my own vigilance and anger have subsided, and I have begun to see fewer signs of the gophers’ presence though they’re clearly still in residence. The furious hiding, tunneling and unearthing seemed to have quelled into a gentle, beneficial tilling of earth and dirt. With less resistance, I have found that our gophers have eased up on their devouring, ravishing hunger and have become the tunneling resident foragers they’re meant to be. Could this all be my imagination? I don’t think so. I hope not. Hal now puts in shallower cages as we consider the needs of vegetable roots. There’s enough here, a whispering says.

 

I’ve stopped worrying that the dahlias will be eaten or that the blueberry bushes will disappear one morning. This is life, the very reason I garden, to witness the cycles of life up close, participating in the dance of seasons with the Beloved.

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What Fear Teaches: Lessons from the Cliffside

I remember a day in a Colorado canyon, on the side of a 750-foot cliff. I had taken a less experienced climber up a route that would take us a few hours. We were near the top, resting at a belay together before the final stretch of climbing, an exposed section that lead out on semi-rotten rock. The only protection against falling in this part of the rock wall were small metal nails, called pitons, hammered into the rock what looked like decades earlier. They appeared very old and rusted.

Old piton with carabiner clipped to it
Old piton with carabiner clipped to it
Old piton
Old piton

There would be a lot of empty air under our heels as we made the moves. We were thirsty and out of water. The view was spectacular, but despite the fact that I had led us to this place, the anticipation of the next part sat very heavy in the pit of my stomach. I asked my friend if he wanted to take the lead on the final section, but he didn’t want it and I didn’t blame him – it was a daunting prospect. I had got us into this and I had to get us out.

I sat there considering the options. Retreating from our location would have been at least as risky, if not more so, than going up. Daylight was waning. I had to go on. I checked to make sure my gear was in order and steeled myself to move. The first part was mostly sideways, angling up a little past those ancient pitons. I didn’t look at or think about anything except placing my hands and feet, testing each hold gingerly before fully committing my weight. Everything held and at the end of the traverse, I looked back at my friend, only 20 feet away, but with hundreds of feet beneath us. He was holding my rope and paying full attention to the situation. We were bound together by that thin cord. Our eyes met, but we said nothing and I smiled a little as I headed up over a vertical section of rock to easier ground and, eventually, to the top of the climb. We made it without mishap.

For me, climbing is a form of meditation and an art form. It is a practice that requires discipline, focus, and strength, both mental and physical. It is about the objective hazards of putting your body in places that your consciousness says are not okay and dealing with the emotional, psychological, and physical consequences of that choice. It is also about solitude and the wilderness and bonding with a friend.

I have been a rock climber for 27 years. At 47 years old, I’ve climbed for more than half my life, putting in thousands of hours and miles of vertical distance. The lessons that I learn are often hard to put into words, but it is part of my life now and I celebrate every opportunity I have to practice.

So much of what we do in life is about trying to keep calm in the face of challenges that literally make us sick. We would do anything to avoid painful circumstances that, if we face the truth, we put ourselves in. When climbing, there is no avoiding the situation. You must deal with it or the consequences will be immediate and severe. You must face your fears head on.

This does not mean you ignore your fears. As I climbed past those old pitons, I connected my rope, and thus my body, to them. And I was afraid at the same time. That fear was justified, because I had little confidence that they were strong enough to hold me if I had fallen. At times the fear of a particular climb has caused me to avoid it and even to head home early. Who knows what would have happened in those cases, but there is little doubt that the fear is rational and should be headed sometimes. As I like to say, a good day of climbing is a day in which you arrive home safely.

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The Real Joy of Backpacking

 

Recently two young women from Chicago, students at our college, approached me surreptitiously about going backpacking. The situation was comical and unexpected. When Lulu pulled me aside at that dinner, I didn’t know what to expect, but was amazed to learn she and her friend want to go on a camping trip with us. While she had my attention, she hastened to add with a firm look into my eyes and a hand on my forearm, a real one. While this made me laugh, I knew exactly what she meant. You want to go backpacking—with us? Yes, she said.

 

Lulu doesn’t want to drive in the car for two hours, park and walk ten feet to a campsite. She wants to feel challenged. She wants to hurt and experience something she never dreamed of in her city life. She wants to answer the call of the wild with aching feet, a sore back and weathered skin. I recognized the look when I stepped back to take her in fully. She nodded.

 

The word is slowly getting around that we are crunchy folks, perhaps because we tell stories about nature and our garden during check ins. It could also be the odd photos and posts on Facebook or Instagram that tell a story we can’t control. What is clear is that the more we do it, the more the people in our community want to join in. Even our eight-year-old friend told us she wants to go camping with us when we got back from our most recent trip. People are beginning to sense what we know: that something magical happens when we hit the outdoors.

 

Among the many benefits of backpacking, conquering oneself while facing down obstacles is the greatest. For the most part backpacking is not a dangerous endeavor, not like a trip to the Himalayas. Of course, nature commands respect and discipline, but we can mostly coexist for a few days. Out there, the wild creatures are in charge. They take over the demands of the day with their songs and rituals. One learns to fall into step and quiet the body and the mind. It’s amazing just how much noise we make: tin clanking or a zipper flapping and the swish-swish sound of synthetic clothes. I sound like a 200-pound elephant out there. The real conquering is letting the rain hit your face for hours; eating only what you can carry; and, leaving as little trace of yourself behind as possible. In a world of large egos, this is a test in humility. If I want the luxury of a wet wipe, well I’m going to pack that around for three days and 32 miles or for however long it may be. There are few toilets and trashcans in the wild. We even accumulate the odd lip balm or lost strap left behind by some other hikers. As you slip the found object into your pocket, you wonder, How much does this weigh? The answer is, it doesn’t matter, because unlike in the city, there’s no way to casually step over it without a pang of shame. It’s all a test.

 

The last few miles of a long trip are powerful portholes into one’s interior workings. You begin to see more people as you get closer to base. Personality becomes the focus. In contrast, there are generally less creatures of the wild. Your mind begins to wander, thinking of to-do lists or something you missed. Your heart may quicken while your pace slackens because you are finally returning home. We have a rich infrastructure in our country, with running fresh water, sewage that also flushes clean water, unfortunately, and heating that does not require chopping and hauling. These comforts, so often taken for granted are the very details that become illuminated in the return. The basics seem more precious than ever: a soft bed, soap and a shower; the telephone, Internet and mail; comfy chairs and lunch dates. For most of us, when we’re home again, life is pretty sweet.

The Serenity of Redwoods: Observations from My First Backpacking Trip

I didn’t even have an inkling that I could walk over 30 miles in just three days. While backpacking in Pescadero Creek County Park, I tested my body, mind and spirit among the Redwood giants and found I was fit for the trail. In addition to experiencing some new levels of self-awareness ranging from the subtle to the sublime, l learned to trust my heart and mind to keep me strong when walking in the wilderness—both literally and figuratively. Although I’ve known for a few years that an altered state of consciousness happens to people who go off into nature (I’ve witnessed my partner return battered yet transformed from his wilderness walks in solitude) until I ventured into this world for myself, I could not fathom the deep and lasting peace it can bring. This new self-knowing, of pushing my flesh with my heart and mind, is enough to hook me for life.

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Rare Flower

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Redwoods at Pescadero Creek

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Cresting Brook Trail

Walking in northern California has its many unique treasures, the greatest of which is easily the Redwood giants. To stand beneath one looking into the sky while never seeing the its highest branches reminds us to respect everything. One feels oneself to be small and sacred beside their enormity. Their canopy creates a perpetual twilight of cool air and many-hued greens that sustains countless life forms. To hug one is to be held in God’s hand. In contrast to their majesty, I saw that people  can be giants as well, clumsy and careless creatures whose every footfall could easily crush millipedes, slugs and wild flowers. One begins to guard every step with the care and sensitivity of reverent steward.

“This is precious. I must guard this life.” I constantly verbalized until my body harmonized with the environment and I felt that there was not an other and myself, but only that the snakes and the coyotes and the flowers were an extension of myself and the woods, each reaching into a purposeful existence by fulfilling our roles, I no longer worried and a silence embraced me from within.Nothing reduces stress like walking in fresh air for long stretches in silence. Petty concerns fell away with each mile as the sounds of my own heart filled my head. My breath became a gauge for my own attentiveness to my body’s rhythm. The usual running dialogue of my life became a monologue of endurance: “I can. I know I can. One more step. Just one more.” My shadow ceased to exist. My song was that of the nearest bird who I tried to reassure with my broken words that we would pass through quickly. In the creek, my red-hot feet smoldered as Hal’s big fish flipped out a performance for his eyes only. I discovered tiny mollusk that mimic rock clusters and spiders that don’t feel the need to hide and scurry. The air was so crisp and fresh that I didn’t want to wear layers and interfere with the physical sensations of being fully alive. Through all of this I found contentment in my body, aching though it was.

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Pomponio Trail

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Fish in Tarwater Creek
Water is the ultimate equalizer. We take so much for granted with our hot showers and bottled water. Purifying water is a humbling process. We take it for granted that water is a public service. We open the faucet a beautiful clear water flows out endlessly. We even have the audacity to buy water in bottles. But pulling non-potable water from a creek teaches humility. Suddenly I was in the company of millions of women around the world who have to haul drinking water.

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Tarwater Creek

In truth, I did not do the work of carrying the water. My gracious host hauled it up the steep embankment while I rested. He showed me how to pump it through a filter. The water was made drinkable in minutes, which is an amazing luxury. The second method is to boil the water, which only kills bacteria but leaves particles. Tarwater Creek is so named because of the deep well of petroleum that spirals into the creek, floating on the water’s surface where it thins out into a film of residue. The taste of this petroleum water is unpleasant. This reminds me of all the people and eco-systems that have been impacted by oil spills and contaminated water. Water is life. Everything works better when it’s fresh and clean. Knowing that I would leave little trace of myself was also a point of pride.

As a partial introvert, I know I need space, solitude and time away from people to feel clear, healthy and at my best. What I understand better after my trip is that the quality of that time, space and solitude matters. Nature can recharge my spirit like no other source. A deep connection to nature can yield a deeper connection to oneself. There’s no posing or pretending or self-consciousness in the woods. You just are. It’s the ultimate meditation. You don’t have to try, and there you are going step by step, surviving each moment, triumphing over yourself, over your doubtful inner critic. My internal climate cooled with every step in the lower canopy of the environment.

Endurance is a battle of the mind and spirit pushing to overcome physical limitations. When one punches through the layers of fear and pain, a clarity takes hold. I’ve heard many athletes speak about this experience. Even though I don’t think this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, nor was it the greatest pain I’ve endured, with every step we climbed along the steep gulch, my confidence grew. The feeling of mastering myself was a powerful motivator. I haven’t felt my shoulders that relaxed in a decade. I’m hungry for more. I’m eager to invite friends to experience the outdoors in this way. In nature, I don’t need to be or do anything special. I only need to walk my walk.

The Reiki Garden

It may be surprising that I love to garden since I have been a city-dweller since birth. Somehow I cultivated this passion on a Canadian farm in Quebec during my teenage years and later as various friends or family members had gardens, I’d throw my heart into the work and get my fingernails caked with dirt. So it shouldn’t be shocking that when we finally found our home in San Francisco, I couldn’t wait to break open the concrete laminating the outdoor space surrounding our house and plant some seeds.

From the start, hours of autumn harvesting the hardy blackberries growing from the cracks in the concrete gave me great pleasure. As blackberries are indigenous to our hillside, they seemed to multiple with every trimming, and we were feeding the neighborhood blackberry cobblers, muffins or baskets of ripe, sweet berries. I soon wanted more vegetation that I could take ownership of and have pride in.  That’s when I learned the limitations of my new micro-climate.

It’s important to mention I live in the fog belt of San Francisco. During the summer months we go weeks without sunshine. In fact, we routinely don’t see the sun between June and September. It tends to be balmy, windy and chilly in the Oceanview. On occasion, the early-morning fog is so thick that we can’t see the houses across the street. It’s no wonder then, that last year my sweet peas didn’t flower, my lavender didn’t root and that my basil rotted on the stem, not to mention my withered broccoli or my stunted peppermint. All of this not withstanding, I remain as of yet, undeterred, especially as I have a new tool in my tote.

Tending to my garden feeds and nurtures my soul. As early spring found me ill and unable to socialize and the long winter began to recede, I was totally ready to get back to my little potted garden. Pulling weeds, planting, beautifying, trimming and cleaning are invigorating. I observed as I repotted that several plants from last year never matured. I spruced, swept and watered. Then, I sat down to give each plant a Reiki treatment. The results have been extraordinary.

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Fog View

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Apple Tree
After my impromptu experiment, I read that one should always give Reiki energy to the roots of the plant first and foremost. My approach lacked balance. Apparently, it is possible to overdo it. I found that the plant that was flowering really couldn’t tolerate that much fruit. It might hurt the tree in the long run.

On the other hand, the tree that was almost dead was able to communicate with me about its needs. I understood that it needed a bigger pot and better soil drainage. The plants are teaching me to be a better gardener.

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Orange Tree

As in all things, we have to let ourselves make mistakes. Even though I felt I had hurt the apple tree with the flood of energy, I could see that with my careful attention and focus on the plant, I could help strengthen the roots and meet her needs by listening carefully. I also sang to the tree, giving her permission to slow down the growth. The leaves have since filled out nicely, growing darker and broader.

The beets that I planted last year are an entirely different challenge. I may need to start over.