Monday, December 28, 2009

Mom and God

After every visit (or 600 mile pilgrimage) to the rural home of my parents, both in their 9th decade, I come away with renewed awareness of my spirituality and what that could possibly be. And I am grateful for it, because otherwise I get far away from thinking about where I came from and where I'm going, in the afterlife/ otherlife. And I think its good to keep tabs on that.

My Parent Pilgrimage frequently entails a a visit to a local church event, since church events are a cultural mainstay in the farming community where I grew up. These events can range from well-organized to casual, from traditional to contemporary, from a few dozen people to maybe a hundred. Of course this importance of religion is carried into daily life. Sundays finds the majority of the population going to church. A lot of stores, except the megastores like WalMart, are closed on Sunday. And always, during any meal (which Mom fixes from scratch), Mom will look at me as my fingers twitch to grab my fork and start eating and say, "Do you want to say prayers?" Dad gets out of this request, for several reasons, 2 of which are that (1) hes pretty much deaf and can pretend not to hear, and (2) Mom and he have the understanding that he has never minded her religious dedication but he does not share the same outward enthusiasm for it she does. I, being one of the more wayward of their brood (I make no pretense at being a churchgoer these days), provide the best target for home spiritual improvment when I'm within reach. And Mom, God or god bless her, has plenty of energy left to improve those who don't fit her world view. Its a small crusade. But a vigorous one.

I always say "No, I don't," unless I've been staying with them for more than 3 days and have also been told which spoon to use to stir the stir-fry, which trash can I can put which garbage into, and that I need to lose weight. Then I am likely to answer "No" in a way that precludes any more requests for the remainder of my visit. I love my Mom, and I appreciate that someone cares about my soul, but as I have tried to console her: we all have our little religious ways, and as we all know the Catholics might show up at the Baptist dinners but probably won't, and the Baptists would not for the forestalling of certain foreclosure of their place of worship offer a Bingo and Beer nite. This does not mean that the Catholics or Baptists either one find more favor on Judgment Day, although that argument still rages in some quarters but since Mom's sister has been Catholic for decades, she has eased up on that particular theological view.

So to comfort her and to get her off my back, I recently explained my compost-pile theology. I cannot throw out any organic waste into the urban garbage system. It seriously goes against my religion, my mental bent, by emotional leanings. It upsets me to mix uncooked vegetable matter with kleenexes or cooked leftovers or used cat litter (note: can I use cat litter in my garden? I do use rabbit poo.). I have a composter in my suburban backyard garden and religiously contribute to it. I keep a sealed, 5 gallon, former cat litter container secured under my kitchen sink to catch everything from carrot shavings to tea bags (minus unholy staples if they are present). I simply cannot in good conscience kill vegetable matter. Rather than bag autumn leaves and leave them to the mercies of the efficient city collection services (and I think they really take them to a compost place, somewhere), I mow over them and let them take their chances to blow around or rot on the grass (note; I have enthusiastically tried to get the leaves to lay on my grass all winter and kill it, but the grass is equally enthusiastic about growing and refuses to lay down and die, despite dire warnings I have heard from multiple sources that if leaves languish on it all winter it WILL die. I encourage at least slow growth, by withholding fertilizer. To avoid the whole mow/ don't mow issue, I am substituting an herb garden, slowly but surely, for the entire yard, but it takes time.)

My feelings for the Life of Vegetable and Fruit Remnants has some Pantheist backing for legitimacy: Everything is in God and God is in Everything. I do not say this lightly, although I am applying it mostly to this one segment of my life (since Mom has recently forced me to see this aspect of my self, perhaps it applies to other areas as well, such as my unacountable love and care of my cats' litter boxes). And I can remind Mom that the Earth Mother religion of PreHistoric Novelist Jean Auel's noted Children of the Earth novels is undergoing a resurgence, that the Gaea Theory of Mother Earth is rising to compete with global warming/industrial crime against the environment, and probably a few other true facts. I could say all this to Mom to comfort her, support my stand, and work it all out for myself, but she would glaze over after the litter-box-under-the-sink spiel. But it might get me out of refusing dinner prayers for a while.

I am not ditzing my mom about this. I am happy she is happy being Protestant and saying prayers over the food she lovingly and ritually serves her loved ones. Including the tons of Christmas candy and cookies we don't need. She does it as an act of love, just like she prays for all five of her kids, just like she wants us all to get along even though it'll be a cold day in hell. I respect her religions, all of them, even the ones she doesn't lay claim to having: the religions of Good Wife and Mother, Traditional Cook, Loyal Daughter ( I try to practice that one), Gardener, Bird Feeder Guardian, Cat and Dog Trainer, and on and on.

I am sincere in telling her that its ok, I do respect the Universe, my life, all life, I just do it in my own way. I respect the Catholics and the Baptists and I believe all religion is part of God and god is all Religions. And to her credit, Mom is sincerely interested in what kind of composter I have.

Dad and DNA

A couple times a year, I drive the 600 miles to my birthplace to confirm that I have parents and I love them. My parents are a source of admiration in their 'hood, not only because at the beginning of their ninth decades they are still driving a car [which is a source of concern among some of us], but because they are still walking, living independently, thinking clearly, and--in Mom's case--making cookies. A big point of honor in their small town is Dad's service in WWII as a Marine. He fought on Iwo Jima, Saipan, and Tinian. He is a local hero at all VFW/ American Legion events. He and Mom both marched in every parade in every local town for 4th of July and Memorial Day. After Dad's legs got shaky, Mom still walked the walk, but gave it up a few years ago.

Dad goes to a local gym every weekday morning around 9am. This is a little scary, since he can hardly walk a dozen feet without reaching for support. He's too vain to use a cane, which many of us have suggested and offered models of; we live in expectation that one day he'll go down hard crossing some curb, and that'll be it. Mom has already told him if he falls and breaks something, he's going into a nursing home. Shes straightforward and no-nonsense. With or without a cane, though, I don't know what he can do at the gym without causing bodily harm. But some things its best not to know. As Mom says, it gets him out of the house.

Instability aside, after the gym his daily schedule includes religiously going to the nearby American Legion. The morning bartender brews a pot of coffee for him and a few other regulars who don't drink beer before noon. Dad sits and has his coffee and the other, younger patrons of the bar gossip. They are all very respectful of Dad, and repeat most of what they say so he can hear it. Every one there is either a military veteran or someone who has respect for the military.

Although Dad is hard-of-hearing and frail, no one there ignores him or hesitates to help him. He is, for a short time everyday, in an invaluable support group of people who care about his past and his present. I have witnessed the inconsideration of some people who ignore an older deaf person, or don't stop to help an elder find his way or remember some unrelated thing. My Dad's American Legion crowd always listens to him. And his daily routine is an example of one of his best skills, or maybe its the luck he has created his whole life: finding the good in people. I love the American Legion morning crowd, where Dad stokes his self-respect and sense of belonging; most of his friends have died, he and Mom have few peers to remember the past with them. the Legion crowd helps him remember. They are good people.

Last time I went to visit my parents, I took along a 4-foot snake gourd I had coaxed out of my Michigan-growing-zone garden. Dad and Mom are great gardeners, having lived on a farm for over 60 years. They had a long standing zinnia competition going, before they moved from the farm to their current senior duplex 3 years ago ( a hard choice but a great one, as it turns out). For years, Mom had trouble getting a particular clematis to grow in her flower garden, but she stubbornly kept coaxing it up its trellis every year. One year, Dad starting putting fertilizer on it, and it took off spectactularly. Mom was thrilled and bragged on it all the time. Dad never told her about the fertilizer. For his part, Dad was one to grow exotic vegetables, some of which thrived and some which didn't. Peanuts never worked for him, for example.

However gourds were a big favorite and usually grew well. For a while, he grew loofa gourds, those wonderful gourds which, when cured, peel off to reveal useful sponge-like fiber which you can use in the shower if you have skin like leather, or for dishes if you aren't as fastidious as Mom. But whether we used them or not, we loved to watch them grow, watch them cure over the winter, and loved to hand them out to neighbors as conversation pieces and as propagation-of-the-species gifts (seeds still intact). So it is natural that all of their 5 children have gardens; we could not live a life without a garden and planting things and watching them grow. Some people grow up by the sea and need the sound of the sea their whole life. Some grow up by mountains, or in forests, and always link those settings to "home." For those of us who lived on farms, a garden is home.
So my 4-foot snake gourds were quite a pleasure for me to grow, especially with Michigan's shorter growing season. After I harvested them and stored them in my basement, they began to cure. Curing a gourd requires letting it set (in a cool dry place, where they won't freeze) for a few months or maybe all winter, depending on its size, thickness, and (I guess) variety. My snake gourds weren't entirely cured when I visited my folks, but were showing signs of successfully going through the process. So when I pulled one out of my car and showed it to Dad, he had all kinds of questions about it; it was a variety he hadn't grown before. All gourds have interesting shapes, but snake gourds--especially big straight ones--are pretty impressive. Finally he looked at the clock, saw it was about 10am, and said "Lets take it down to the Legion." So we did.

He let me drive the block or so to the Legion, for which I was grateful. Aside from his vanity in not using a cane, he is vain about driving. All men in that area from his era do the driving. My mom can drive fine, but never does when she's with Dad. Anyway, we arrived safely, pulled in and parked in the lot. I hauled the unwieldly snake gourd into the building, but Dad tottered hastily ahead to open the door. Its a heavy door, but I remembered to hold back in time, and allow him to open the door for me. Its important to him.

A few guys at the bar had beers, the rest had coffee, and were talking about everybody who wasn't there. The bartender immediately greeted Dad, and everyone (this is a farming community!) said, wow, where'd that come from? (Really, to appreciate a veteran, go to the Legion; to appreciate a good gourd, go to a farming community.) So Dad let on that he grew it, and they all let on like they believed it. We discussed size, curing, and the likely future distribution of seeds to any who wanted them. It wound up that when we left the Legion, the gourd was left on display at the bar, tangent to the pickled eggs and artery-murdering jerky sticks on the back counter.

Dad will get some good conversation out of that for a few days. He has a great sense of wit and humor, which as he becomes deafer is harder to communicate. For a while he wrote out jokes on a piece of paper and handed them out, which was pretty clever. It lacked punch, and required a patient receiver of the joke. But I'm keeping it in mind for when I get deafer.

It was acceptable and expected that I would show up at my folk's with a gourd I was proud of. Its understood when I explain I'm keeping the seeds of a lot of my vegetables this year, so I can plant second-generation seeds which are adapted / adapting to the micro-environment of my yard. I expect better growth and production from the second generation seeds, whose parents came from a far-away seed processing plant, a different climate perhaps, a different kind of soil. My parents understand without question about adapting to conditions. They accept their children living far away from them. They accept the kindness of those who are part of their group, the military history group. And when I bring them plants I grew, and explain my hopes about the second generation seeds, they accept that of course, the next generation will have its own characteristics, and adapt to its own growing conditions. The DNA adapts, and luck and time and patience just might pay off big.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What is old?

Using myself as a laboratory specimen, I will document the changes that age brings to me. I wasn't quite so interested in my upwardly mobile physical development from birth to 55; it was a happy and productive rise, for which I am grateful. After 55, however, many small things have abandoned their posts. Little tendons and bones and muscles give up the good fight unless they are babied and cajoled and treated with respect. These changes to my earthly self, whether slow or fast to develop, grab my attention because they are annoying. I am not rolling along with power boosts, but with power shorts. As I notice this trend, I try to think of compensations somewhere else in my package: maybe I'm getting wiser? kinder? funnier? wealthier? happier? I suspect its not a clear-cut nor guaranteed trade, handing off physical strength and mobility for a sage persona. And I'm positive that I'm not alone in having noticed that things change when you get old. If you feel you are proving the exception to this rule, please don't tell me you're 80 years old and just swam the Pacific; besides making you a braggart, it could attract the attention of the god's and earn you a compensatory humdinger of an old age development. Just keep it to yourself, but stay with me and lets find our way together to that other part of our life. I can certainly use the help.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

What is the use of a Mulberry Tree?

Or: What's the diff between "Good" and "Bad" fruit trees?

A tender young weedling, with the look of a promise, was allowed to grow in my back yard about 6 summers ago. Last week, the vastly matured weedling began dropping a goodly load of succulent-looking berries, similar to blackberries. According to neighbors (the ones who have my weedling's probable momma incumbent in their yard), mulberries are a royal pain. They are a pain because: dogs eat them and get the runs; the ripened berries drop and pile up in the yard at an incredible rate, attracting bugs and beasties; they are labor-intensive to use as actual food (true).

Yeah, well.

They also, in my opinion, are terrific, fast-growing trees. If you're looking to populate your acreage fast with shade and fruits, its a really cool tree, and it gets big--its not one of those wimpy dwarf-type varieties, developed for tiny little conservative spots, easily controlled and maintained. No sirree, baby, this tree has hair on its chest. Its a REAL tree. Warts and all.

The fruit is sweet. I like it! And its really FUN to have a wild, bird-poo-sown, fruit-bearing tree growing in my yard. The birds and I are quite fond of it. I spread a cloth underneath the tree during the harvest period (in SE Michigan, mid to end June). This way, I can shake the tree and the berries fall on it while they are ripe, before they are purely smushy (ever seen the olive-gathering scene in Under the Tuscan Sun? Live the moment...). I read somewhere that the not-quite-ripe mulberries have a mildly euphoric effect. I'm experimenting with this, but have not yet confirmed it. Darn.

Another point in my good ole weedy mulberry tree's favor: I have a passion for real food, and berries from my friendly tree qualify as 'real' in my book. I watch them bloom, mess around with the bees, and fall to their fate. I handle them fondly (Nearly erotic, eh? No, wait, that would be "fondle them handily."), wash them gently, remove their annoying little stems while I devolve into a monotonous coma which could be called meditation, and freeze them for use in numerous things. Like: hopefully, someday, wine like Dad used to make; cobbler, which I haven't tried; mulberry vodka liquor, which recipe I googled from a Brit blogger (those Brits); and maybe toss them in with my resident plain yogurt for a cheap thrill.

I feel protective of my mulberry tree, partly because its an underdog, and partly because it's ilk so happily, randomly, recreates in any port/any storm. Maybe I will adopt it as one of my personal attributes to adorn my family crest, when I create one. Maybe not. We'll see how the wine turns out.

Answer: "Good" fruit trees might suggest "ease of access and processing." "Bad" might suggest "more work than seems recompensed for satisfaction." Ah, but satisfaction in food is also in the preparation, the intimacy, the affinity, of eater with eatee . Real Food Requires Persistence and Dedication. So, when in the mood for a keeper-tree, Why Not Mulberries?

Monday, March 2, 2009

"What Force Drives the Green Fuse Through the Flower?" Dylan Thomas

Check out Dylan Thomas' poem "The Force that Drives the Green Fuse Through the Flower" . No answer, but a great poem to read a few times as I wait FEVERISHLY for planting season. There is some Force stirring right now in all those who plant, whether farmers or backyard lovers of the miracle of gardens. Myself, I'm getting pretty spiritual this time of year. Since I was three years old and taught the ropes of planting radishes on my parents' dirt farm ("dirt farm" translating roughly as a farm that produces dirt, if nothing else), I've been a believer. I know no other way. I cannot be in a yard without gauging it for plantability: how much sun it gets, what kind of soil, the possible transformations if I were to be given my head and a shovel. Maybe some yards are content to be left lulling their lives away under a blanket of grass. Maybe its part of my disastrous Christ complex to save everything that makes me want to convert yards into vegetable-and-flower-and-tree-producing entities. Maybe its my old age desire to leave something behind me of worth; and what is more worthy of leaving than a lust for planting and raising seeds? Perpetual rebirth, oh baby that is a garden. I've been reading Barbara Kingsolvers book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It's one of those books I will be handing out to all my friends. It is written by a woman who loves plants and growing and food with the passion of a farmer. Farmers, who are poets in their own right, for their dreaming of the future, the potential, the realization of every growing cycle, and for their faith through weather and blight and market vagaries that life happens again and again and again. Man, right now all us gardening addicts can see is green. Future green. Baby green sprouts filling up the bare brown that we are preparing to turn over and make all nice, as we break out the shovels and the tillers and the seed catalogues. Even better, check out Kingsolver's website at for her great insights into American food culture, as she calls it. She is on a mission to save our souls from the purgatory of impersonal food. Her book describes a year of eating food that is grown in the county where they live, by themselves and others; but much more than that, it talks about remembering where food comes from (not the grocery store!!) and about respect for what we eat. Planting is, I think I speak for planters here, a personal connection with the other form of life on the planet. It is close encountering of the best kind, with the Earth Mother (yeah, I've read all of Jean Auel's Children of the Earth series celebrating the Goddess religion, way too many times). It is meditation, it is faith, it is an art. Its a great time of year.
An answer, sort of: I think the Force is Love.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Short Paper on Cat Psychology of the Aging

Kiki is tiny, black, the strong silent type, and smart. She moved in with me after being lifted out of a trash-bin beginning, 2 years ago. Since then, she has: gained equilibrium, attained a soaking-wet weight of 8 lbs., and learned not to react defensively every time someone pets her. She has gradually come to terms with her own survival (happens regularly now), and branched out into intense analysis of my habits. Since we are pretty much in each other's face on a regular basis, it's important to us both to work it out. I confess she spends more time on it than I do. She has ascertained that I am attached to moving body parts which: dish up food, rub behind velvety little ears, and operate the laser-light penlight which boils her blood. So she studies my moves, my haunts, my reactions. She has learned a lot.

Cats like to watch what their People do, and imitate it. They might think Cats are People, or that People are Cats. Or simply understand that they're dealing with an inferior species, as Mark Twain might suggest. Kiki knows that my computer, yoga mat, pillow, and bathroom are important to me.

Kiki knows that when I sit down at my laptop in the mornings, I am going to be there a while. She has learned to walk on the "off" button. The ritual goes: she turns off computer, I lift her off and make annoyed noises, then put her on my lap while I start up again. She turns into a limp, black-velvet laprug until we're done, or until she needs to go elsewhere. Sometimes the 'elsewhere' is the window next to the computer table, where she is entirely cat-like and checks out the bird population (bird watching is an activity we do particpate in together, but she holds the upper hand).

Another activity she has singled out as Very Important to The Hand That Feeds Her is morning yoga stretches. When I pull out my old blue yoga mat, she's right on it. Lliterally. She sits approximately where my feet land when I am in the stretched-out position of the Sun Salutation. She used to nip at my feet when they shot back to her spot, but has come to realize that this is not procedure. Now, she takes up the position until she gets action, and then moves to the side of the mat, where she performs a set of daily/ hourly/ random cat ablutions. Her form of meditative stretches, I think.

When I go to the bathroom, she follows, no matter what it might rouse her from (bird-watching, naps, food). If I am showering, she loses interest quickly. If I settle myself Martin-Luther-style into reading mode on the john, she walks to the laundry hamper, stretches, scratches it up, hops on top, and checks out the adjoining shower niche for anything to curl her paw around and scat to the floor. If I fail to notice and encourage her, she wanders back out. Unlike some other cats I have known, she doesn't care to jump in the shower stall or drink from the sink faucet in emulation of brushing my teeth (which must really puzzle cats). But she always shows up to check out the action.

And what purpose would it serve to have a kitty who didn't curl up cat-like next to me for the sheer joy of having warm, breathing, proximity to another being? Kiki's preferred place to warm up after midnight is one of my pillows, next to my face. But since she has a penchant for biting when startled, we have worked out that she is only allowed on the comforter, preferably below my waist and a safe distance from nightmare-induced defensive cat attacks. If she wanders off in the night to do cat things she always returns post-dawn to wake me up. Her morning spoonful of fattening, soft kitty-food is dished out in the mornings, and she never lets me forget or slack in this area.

Kiki has a fellow cat now, Ricky. (I know, the names are close in sound, but they both discern the vowel diffs, the long "e" and the short "i"--this might be a good topic for a dissertation on human language discernment in cats). If Kiki doppelgangs/ appeals to my hostile, cynical, reserved side, Ricky is our devil.representative. He's still learning the ropes, like: don't shoot out the side door when it opens at night or youre on your own in the scary neighborhood full of evil night creatures. Like: don't ambush Kiki just because she defends her royal dispensation to occupy the comforter at night. Because I have graduated to Second Cat level, a friend bestowed me with my own Crazy Cat Lady figurine, which I proudly display on the wall. I know that the option remains open for me to be the eccentric old woman on the block with snake gourd vines dangling about the yard, numerous brick laying projects continually surfacing, and a growing population of cats.

Its good to have options as you age.