Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Iris Spring 1001:17

Once upon a time, several years ago, on a sunny hot afternoon, . . . Aunt Violet, Aunt Imogene, and Mom gathered around a patch of earth and dug up some of Aunt Violet’s pink iris bulbs. Three women in their 80s with shovel, spade, and bucket, working in the dirt on a hot summer day--a picture to remember. It was fun for them, because they are all gardeners. They were committing a gardening crime, because fall is the time of year you are supposed to move iris bulbs.  But I mightily craved pink irises to plant in my yard, and I wasn’t likely to be back at Aunt Violet’s again in the fall. As daughter and niece, I guess I rated enough for them to break the Garden Law. Summer transplant time notwithstanding, the pink irises have steadily, modestly, multiplied in my yard. They are budded out and due to bloom any day now. They are my favorite irises—partly for their color, mostly for their story.

My second favorite irises are planted in a narrow, side garden of the yard. They are short, yellow ones with rusty edges, which came from Mom’s mom’s garden. Grandma’s yellow irises are late bloomers, usually blooming a week or two behind all my other irises. I like their color. Grandma had an eye for pretty things. I think of Grandma every single time I look at them. She was kinda contrary, too.

Also, I have a patch of white irises, planted next to a patch of purple ones. These two colors are the earliest bloomers amongst their peers. I dug up starts of them at Mom’s several years ago, when she and Dad still lived on their farm. They are the descendants of irises which grew like crazy all over the yard, ever since I was a child. Mom swears that you can’t kill these particular irises. When she used to dig them up in the fall, to separate the bulbs and keep them from overcrowding, she’d toss the discards across the road into the ditches, and they would come up there the next year. So maybe those are my favorites, too.
The final member of my Iris scrapbook are some pale blue irises, which are blooming right now, along my fence. I bought those bulbs at Home Depot one year. They are pretty, but their character is still developing. As yet, they have no story. For irises and other garden plants and memories, stories go with the giving and receiving of them. Until that happens, they store up energy and spread out, waiting for their moment.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Poppies are for Remembering 1001:16

Walking around my favorite hometown this morning, I saw a man standing in front of the Post Office.  He was wearing navy slacks, a white shirt, and a navy cap.  He held a cut-away plastic vinegar jug, and a bundle of red crepe-paper poppies.  He stood erect.  He looked to be in his 80's

The man is a military veteran.  You can see him and others like him standing around about this time of year, before Memorial Day, collecting money for veterans.  It is Poppy Day, a day for remembering.

A middle-aged man stopped and talked with him for a few minutes, and donated some bills; maybe he was reminded of his father, or maybe he was also a veteran.  A woman in her 70's stopped and chatted, too.  She was a volunteer at the Plymouth Historical Museum, she told me.  I bought a poppy, because it would be a Major Sin for me to walk by any one in uniform without acknowledging him or her.  Because I've had a poppy almost every year of my life on Poppy Day.  Because my Dad was a WW2 Marine who fought at Iwo Jima, Tinian, and Saipan.  Because WW2 and the Marines were hallmark events in his life, and in my Mom's life, and gave them pride and place in their world.

My Mom collected for poppies last year, when she was only 89.  It was her first Poppy Day without Dad.  She stood with her collection box for a long time inside a local MotoMart, because they asked her to stand inside instead of standing out in the broiling sun which is where she was really supposed to stand, according to the Rules of Collecting.  It was pretty hot that day. Mom acceded the move into air conditioning, but as she pointed out to me later "I didn't sit down though.  I decided if the vets had fought through a war, I could stand up and collect for them."  Pause.  "I did lean against a chair a little, but not much."

There are all kinds of protocols associated with Poppy Day, in my memory.  Certainly, buying a poppy also gave me the urge to head to the local VFW or American Legion and have a cold one.  Those two institutions were and are the gathering place for the males in my family who served in the military--a goodly number.  I remember attending alllll the Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Veterans Day, and general parades where my folks proudly marched in their uniforms.  As they grew older, more and more often they sat in vehicles and rode.

A few years ago, Dad was getting pretty frail.  He refused until the last month of his life to use a cane, but his knees and back and body were shot from a long life of hard use, which included shrapnel, jungle rot and dengue fever, and a bulldozer that rolled on him during his long construction working career.  He and Mom made their way to the downtown of their little city (pop. 2100) for what was to be their last Fourth of July parade.  It was hot and humid, as summers in Southern Illinois are.  But they went, because they needed to.

They weren't really prepared, with chairs or water or umbrellas, they just drove over to Main Street, a short distance from their duplex, and then looked for anyone they knew, to stand with.  Their little city does a bang-up Fourth parade, everybody is in it, there's a carnival in the park, participants throw more candy out then most parades do at Hallowe'en, and you get to see everybody.  For some reason Mom and Dad couldn't find anybody they knew, they got there a little late, and all the good places were taken.  They found themselves standing by a house with a nice shaded porch full of people that Mom thought she knew.  It didn't matter if she knew them or not, really, because she talks to everyone in a way that brooks no dismissal.  She talks to you as if the discussion was the most important thing in life, and you are expected to participate.  Its a gift, or a curse, depending.

So Mom started talking with the people on the porch.  Dad was too deaf to particpate, which was unfortunate because of the two Dad was in many ways the more conversationally gifted, the more decidedly Irish Blarney Stone type.  But Mom mangaged to convince herself and the residents of the porch that they knew each other, because her and Dad wound up in prime shaded seats with someone to talk to for the duration of the parade, with cold drinks to boot.  I love those people, whoever they were.  Mom can't remember their names. 

But thats the beauty of Poppy Day.  I didn't know the man in front of the Post Office today.  But he sure was a stand-in for my Dad.  And for my Mom.  And for all veterans, and my childhood, and our history, and for the U.S.

                                                             Buy a poppy when you can.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Worth is in the Mind of the Beholder 1001:15

Mom is like my lighthouse, alerting me to the shoals of old age. Sometimes I look at her, and see practical advice on ageing, deeply held values, and survivorship. Other times, I mourn the fact that I’m just like her. Who hasn’t heard the line, “You’re just like your Mother” with mixed feelings? On at least one notable point, however, we differ:  she keeps stuff, I don't.
When my parents moved from the farmhouse they had lived in for over 60 years, to a senior duplex in town, many things had to be sorted and disposed of. It was a big down-sizing move. My dad was never a sorter, nor one to run a tight ship. He regularly lost things, lent them out permanently, or let them transform into outdoor sculpture in the odd places around the farm.  Packing was not a problem for him, because most of the tools and equipment he had were left behind or sold for the move. He did pack all of his Marine stuff, which was a sizeable box. To somewhat balance his style, Mom was always the one who liked things tidy. So for their first and last move, from a house full of their life together, Mom took charge of packing household items. This meant that no one could pack anything without her approval.


Obviously, this arrangement of having Mom approve every item that was picked up and put in a box to keep or a box to toss became tedious, not to mention really slow. So when possible, I made my own decisions--erring, I thought, on the side of “maybe she might want to keep this” more often than not. But Mom can not be underestimated. She is, possibly, omnipresent. She has an “in” with God, we have all accepted over the years, and maybe the “in” extends to some of His powers. At any rate, I had to unpack more than one box which she hadn’t directly supervised the packing of. If she wasn’t omnipresent all the time, she made up for it by backtracking her presence.

I think that the obsessive supervision of packing was, partly, her way of controlling a big change. It might also have been a way of controlling her kids. Mom has never been one to be walked over or taken advantage of lightly. It’s not that she can’t easily be taken advantage of, so much as that she will make a lot of noise and stink once she actually does get taken advantage of. No one was out to take advantage of her in this case, however. I was under the illusion I was going to make things easier for her. Wrong. I just made it harder on myself. But we wrestled with the Packing Devil together, at least.

The thing which, to me, most symbolized Mom’s need to control the disposition of her worldly goods was The Envelope. I was seated on the floor of the office room, with boxes and papers everywhere. Mom was being omnipresent right then, and was carefully watching every item I moved from drawer to box. It wasn’t like I was going to throw away the mortgage papers or anything—the house was paid off years ago. I became, I hope understandably, irritable after about a half hour of this, and decided to take a break. Maybe go pack towels, an area where I hoped couldn’t go wrong.

I stood and, on the way up, snagged an empty envelope lying on a pile of papers. The envelope was the brittle yellow that very old, cheap paper turns over decades of non-use. It was a non-standard size. It was all alone in the world, and it was not in great shape. I threw it in a toss box. Before the envelope hit the bottom of the box, Mom was on it. She picked it up, turned it over a few times in her hands thoughtfully, and said “I might need this.” She managed to do this in a way that made me feel as though I’d snatched food from the mouths of starving children in Ethiopia. This is one of her powers. Fortunately, God was present then, because I simply nodded in deep agreement with her decision, and walked away. I didn’t argue the envelope’s worth, nor plead for some freedom of decision in throwing away scrap papers.

I thought about discussing it with her. Trying to point out that she had to let SOMEthings go, be brutal and toss empty envelopes. But it was, after all, her envelope.

The basement provided weightier issues: the old black pot, copper lined, which Mom had made lots of apple butter in; the huge crock she had made lots of sauerkraut in. The interesting old items which are today collector’s items upped the ante in the whole packing decision-making scenario. It upped the life-lesson aspect of packing, too: sometimes tt's hard to sort out how much you love and appreciate someone from how much they can really get on your nerves. At least, this has been my experience.

So when Mom got to packing the basement, there were a lot of items which she wanted to take to a local second-hand store, because “these things are old and they’re worth something.” This was true of some things. Other things, though, had seen a lot of wear and were no longer functional, but Mom still saw value in them. When clearing out houses, I will bet you that the ratio of awful junk is higher than that of valuable stuff. I believe that second-hand shop owners who accept estate items must be good at dealing with human nature, in order to succeed in their business. Everybody thinks that their junk is valuable; other people's junk, however, usually isn't. In the end, a lot of Mom’s stuff got carted off to the second-hand shop, where the dealer gave a fair bid on the items. In my opinion. Not in Mom’s.

Last time I was visiting Mom, I stopped in at the second-hand store. It’s just down the street from Mom’s duplex in the Senior Housing Site. The owner is not getting rich, but she gets by; and she seems to know what she’s doing. I know I would get anxiety attacks dealing with so many items from other people’s lives surrounding me like that. A couple years after her move, some of Mom’s items were still there. Some had sold. None made anybody rich.  The question of value lingers.

Making good use of Mom as a role model, I try to make careful purchase decisions. If it’s choices about buying things like knick-knacks for the house, I’m pretty safe—I live like Walden, frugally. If its clothes, or shoes, or a trip to Whole Foods exotic food wonderland, I have no willpower. When tempted to buy anything at all, though, I can pull up the image of the second-hand store full of people’s once-valued possessions. Old things are worth something, but only if they are found by someone who wants them. Safer to just accumulate worldly goods as slowly and scarcely as possible. Then my kids won’t have to sort through them one of these days.

I’ll start with my shoes.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Of Plastic and People 1001;14

Alas, poor Barbie, I didn’t know thee well.  But the acquaintance was painful.
Barbie the Doll, when I was a kid back in the 50s and 60s, was a symbol of “cool.” Girls who possessed Barbie, thereby imbibed some of her perfect-ness. At the time, perfect-ness was… well, Barbie: big boobs, polyester hair, super-human height, cool clothes, and Owning Barbie. And Ken. And the other dolls in The Group.

I really wanted a Barbie doll, at the age of 8 or 10 or so. Back then, I boosted the (wonderful but limited) entertainment value of living on an isolated farm in many ways. One of those ways was an active Alternate Life in the form of Play People—plastic cowboys, stray humanoid forms of the 50’s, and Things—which were, predictably, discards of older siblings. (Rocks and sticks were good, too.) I remember the loosely-stuffed puppet Howdy Doody had interesting relationships with the smaller, stiffer Rodeo Cowgirl doll, whose boots were particularly appealing to me. The boots didn’t fit Howdy.

My Alternate Play Life included drawing pictures of People Doing Things—a gratifyingly manipulative move which I segued into adulthood and a professional knack for Figure Drawing. (Remind me sometime to tell you about my Fairy Book, which was full of illustrations of ethereal make-believe Little People. Or not.) This was all before Alternate Play Lives were available on the Internet, so while some might feel that the 1950’s APL’s resulted in Creative Expression, it was, even then, absolutely looking for escape from boredom. It did produce immediate and far-reaching, concrete manifestations of that boredom, in the form of pictures and stories (witness la or le text before you). This kind of direct concrete result doesn’t always happen when you play X-Box (Right, Son? JUST being a genius doesn’t mandate physical results, I know.).  Based on youthful experience, I speculate that Necessity might have to arm-wrestle Boredom as The Mother of Invention, I think, if we factor in Limited Facilities of Entertainment. Maybe.
Back to the Plastic People front, though: I was the original owner of a Betsy-Wetsy, the kind of doll you give a small plastic bottle full of water to, between her moulded plastic lips. The liquid immediately and predictably finds its lowest point, which in this case was the doll’s moulded plastic peehole. Even at the age of 4, I exhibited strong portents of my future Earth Mother leanings, and Betsy was surprisingly interesting in her eternal plastic dependency on me to rot out her soft plastic insides (if youre Jungian, I know I had you back at Howdy and CowGirl). Said Insides survived decades, actually. In homage to Betsy-Wetsy (and in tandem homage to our beloved family milk cow Betsy, struck and killed by lightning during a wild storm one black summer night), every inanimate object I have loved over my lifetime is nicknamed “Betsy.” Not Betsy-Wetsy, though, because she can never be replaced. This includes my car, a succession of guitars, and a succession of teakettles, as well as lawnmowers and hammers. Things I can rely on.

My lust for a Barbie had nothing to do with any future maternal success, though. Like all girls my age, which was prepubescent, I wanted Pretty Things. I wanted to be Pretty Things. Another APL plan that I heavily participated in was Reading Everything. I gradually realized that Heroines in books--and Heroes--are generally written up with the same prototype that Barbies and Kens were manufactured to fulfill: Pretty and Plastic. (A nice exception to this broad generalization was the old Tarzan books around the house. Tarzan was written up as a Dumb Brunette, ‘til Edgar Rice Burroughs sent him off to get educated in England. We all know the real fun in Tarzan was his primitive days with the much smarter Jane, whose looks were so-so, but that was moot since she was the only woman in the book. But I digress; my unwritten but upcoming novel, which will imprint on future girls living isolated lives the idea that People Are Not Plastic, is another story.)
In retrospect, though, I can accept Barbie, and even be proud of her. Her little plastic perfect self has escaped the confines of Mattel. They may have marketing rights, and they may physically perpetuate Barbie as the Perfect Woman for Pre-Teen Aspiration, but Barbie has become her Own Self.  Plastic or not, she has been requisitioned by those of us who were there, at her birthing full-blown from the head of a doll manufacturing company (think Venus born of sea-foam, Minerva sprung from Zeus’s head, etcl, with the whole development stage bypassed). The iconic beloved/ maligned female representation has left Alternate Play Life status. Barbie has Left the Building of Make-Believe.

Real Women have adopted Barbie, and given her a whole new icon status. After a half-century (its so fun to use that phrase with perfect ownership—I Am History) women have made Barbie into Us. We no longer try to be like her. Instead, we have Re-Created Her in Our Image (have I just summarized my ideas about God again?). We have created (on our Internet APL Instruments of Creation, no less, so I take back what I said earlier, Son) among other reincarnations a Cougar Barbie, who has aged with a fierce sexuality and a fondness for alcohol and drugs. Barbie gets hit on the Internet version of Folk Tales her fair share of times, spoofed in endless forms.
Recently I received an email manifestation of Barbie sitting on her perfect bedroom set, looking as old and bloated as one could hope for in any former Prom Queen, beer cans tossed on the perfect bedspread and romance novel in hand, with the title “Barbie doesn’t give a shit anymore.” That’s good to hear. Barbie has survived her epically overblown expectations of Forever Young with the same kind of spunk that William Shatner has. Shatner (whose Captain Kirk / Star Trek persona I also wanted to own) successfully and spectacularly evolved from his plastic perfect role as Captain Kirk. Who doesn’t love his contemporary dirty old man parody of his former Space Cadet self? I admire Kirk, and Barbie, for taking the mystique that was thrust on them, and re-incarnating with superiour humor and grace. This is truly a Great Ageing Model, in my book. Have your Day, then have Your Way.

So I was visiting my Mom on Mother’s Day. It’s a long trip to make, and I only do it twice a year. Every time I leave, she gives me things. Some things I love, like clippings from her garden or a bag of frozen homemade brownies. Some things I try to avoid, like my old Barbie Doll.
My old Barbie Doll was finally bequeathed to me when I was 15. This was bad timing. Mom had finally decided to give me a “cool” Christmas present, but it was several years past Barbie Fever, and none of the girls my age played with dolls anymore. Mom must have realized this on some level, which I can’t really bear to explore even now.

Be that as it may, as I was leaving my Mother's Day visit at the age of 58, she insisted I take Barbie with me, because “This is old and its worth something.” (Note to Jungians: upcoming essay on that one.) When I got the doll at 15, I was expected to sew the cool clothes myself, appreciate the doll, etc. I wanted to bury the doll even then for several reasons, but was saddled with Good Daughter issues I still carry.  I dutifully stuck her on my chiffrobe, pedestalled on her Barbie wire stand. So I must have just tortured her; half-a-century later (my new catch-phrase) I look at my Barbie and uncomfortably note she's got ink-pen mutilations and missing polyester hair. (Essay)
Facing my sordid past, I did the Grown-Up Reformed Barbie and Kirk Right Thing To Do: I took it. I took the little plastic problem and put it in my suitcase, said “Thanks Mom” (because Mom’s have the right to escape the Past, too, I hope sincerely), and drove 600 miles away with it. Now, safe in my own world, I debate if I want to ceremoniously burn it, spray-paint it with gold and add it to a panorama of Wise Women, or maybe use it as a sometime model for a new Fairy Journal. The End of the Barbie Journey has not yet been revealed to me. But I Believe.

I still hate Barbie. But I’ve separated that into Then Barbie and Redeemed Barbie. Now, I see a badly-used but interesting personal reminder of Many Things. Which meditation on has prompted a whole text, not to mention some forgiveness and understanding.

Mom, I love you. But don’t make me take all my bad memories home with me.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

My Garden Gods 1001;12

Gardening is a part of my life, bequeathed by my parents. I grew up on a dirt farm. We had the requisite truck garden to supply table food throughout the growing season, and canning produce for Mom. Mom and Dad each had their own zinnia beds in an ongoing rivalry over the years, as well as other flowering gardens, and acres of corn, wheat, and soy. I always knew where food came from.

I remember the first time Mom handed me a handful of seeds and coached me on how to plant them. They were radishes, which are easy to grow. I was about three, and I remember the small radish seeds, the dug-up earth, and Mom telling me to punch a little hole in the dirt, and put them in one at a time. She showed me how to brush the soft dirt over to cover them up, but “not too much dirt” because they had to get some air. Radishes are easy to grow. I don’t remember if they grew, but they must have, because seeds are pretty hardy and grow at any opportunity.
Half a century later, in my urban garden, I’ve been making like Gregor Mendel (1), and like my Dad. For the last couple years, I’ve collected seeds from each year’s harvest with a specific purpose to develop site-responsive plants. It’s a slow-moving experiment, wherein the qualities of each succeeding generation of seeds are noted. I began with a couple of my favorite plants, and Dad’s: gourds, and Kentucky Wonder Pole Beans. Both are climbing plants, and both are dramatic. Drama runs in my family, and the garden was not excluded.

Like all climbing plants, Kentucky Wonder Green Beans make a spectacular visual. For your own KW tourist attraction, just teepee several long wood poles, and plant the seeds around the base of the poles. When the vines trail up the poles, you have a little teepee which the neighbors will certainly take note of. KW’s are easy to harvest, and if the poles are long enough and spaced well, they provide a tent-space where kids can creep inside the teepee. Next year, my granddaughter will be old enough to walk, and I am planning some interesting garden playspaces for her, including a sunflower room.

It’s only my third year for the Kentucky Wonder Pole Beans seed-saving experiment, but I hope to notice some small differences this year. Last year, the seeds actually self-sowed, coming up in the garden from leftover pods I hadn’t cleared out. My tomatoes always do that, and I have rampant old-growth onions scattered throughout. I like to let my garden raise itself as much as possible, and I’m not squeamish about where and when it spontaneously reproduces. Rows or not rows, my garden is allowed to be individual. I think that well-maintained and disciplined gardens are beautiful and undoubtedly more productive. I just have a fondness for the individual random-expression type garden.

But I beefed up last-year’s volunteer bean crop a little with seeds I had saved. The resulting vines were prolific producers, which Kentucky Wonder beans usually are (yep, I’m putting in a plug for my favorite plants ). My casual goal in saving seeds is the simple one of acquiring plants which are adapted to my micro-mini backyard climate. This year, I’ll keep track of how fast the beans grow and produce; I didn’t do that last year. Even Gregor Mendel probably had to work out his method over a few years. Dad kept a journal of his plantings. I imagine a lot of addicted gardeners do. I may add moon-time of planting, spitting on the seeds, or hair addition to future notes, and include any other factors which interest me as my long-term project progresses. My maternal grandfather swore by planting with the moon phases. Dad respected such practices, and consulted the Farmer’s Almanac for plantings. Mom raised us as Baptists, but Dad instilled nature worship. It’s healthy to have variegated spirituality.

Another favorite plant I am growing is the snake gourd. There are many varieties of interesting gourds. They are great for kids to grow, because they are, again, pretty spectacular. (Really, neighborhood kids think that anything that comes up from a seed is pretty spectacular, and I’m plotting ways to make sure prize efforts are in a good viewing spot.) Many gourd varieties make a great climbing vine for patios and privacy fences, besides their interesting crops. There are dipper gourds shaped like long dippers, birdhouse gourds of several varieties, small decorative gourds, swan gourds, basket gourds, I saw a dragon gourd seed package this year; and on and on. Another fun gourd is the loofa, or sponge gourd. This gourd requires a little longer growing season than I get in Michigan, but if I plant it early I can get a few mature gourds before frost. Loofa gourds average a foot or less in length; after harvesting they dry out to become fibrous sponges. The dried sponges make durable dish scrubbers, or bath scrubbers.

I am attached to snake gourds in particular. They make a great, quick-growing privacy vine for my patio. They produce long, spectacular looking fruits, which dry out to make spectacular looking gourds. This year, I have 3rd generation snake gourd seeds (which need to go into the ground this spring stat, I remind myself as I write). I’m hoping they grow faster in my cool climate than the first 2 generations did, and produce better. I did get a larger crop last year from my 2nd generation-saved seeds, but also I planted the seeds earlier and they had a longer growth season, so I can’t really say that they have developed any adaptations to the micro-mini climate here. I planted them from a seed packet in 2009, and then kept seeds from that year’s harvest to plant in 2010. Seeds from the 2010 harvest are ready to plant this spring. The not-so-original theory is that my plants will adjust to the micro-mini-climates they were spawned in, and each succeeding generation of seeds have greater adaptation to local conditions of rain, soil, temperature, etc. You can check out cool information on this kind of seed religion at the website of one of my favorite authors: Barbara Kingsolvers website. Her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, is the documentation of a year in her family’s project of growing their own food, and buying only food grown within 30 miles of their home. The book is a work of love for the earth and our dependence on its sustenance. Kingsolver is an award-winning novelist, whose education was as a biologist. Another of Kingsolver’s books is her novel Prodigal Summer, which is about the inter-relationships of animals, people, and plants. It’s one of my favorite books.

Gardening requires some small commitments. It gives wonderful gifts. Gardening is spiritual. Patience, love, expectation, memory, resurrection, death, ritual, pageantry when its in full growth—all there. Patience is one of my favorite qualities involved in gardening, because I’m not a very patient person by nature. Gourds are a favorite example of this. It takes a summer to grow gourds, and a winter to cure them. Growing anything is an exercise in patience; growing and curing takes patience a little further.

After harvesting the long, heavy, green gourds about the time of frost, I put my gourds in a cool, dry place. My Michigan basement works well for this. In southern Illinois, my Dad used his barn for drying stuff out over the milder winters. The snake gourd mildews from the inside out over the winter, to become a dried pod. When the gourd goes through the process of mildewing from the inside out, it looks as if it is rotting. Circles of white and black mold collect on its green surface as the moisture leeches out. But have patience—after the leeching goes on a few weeks, the mold dries up and the skin becomes a shell. I gently scrub off the mold after it is finished drying. The mold leaves interesting patterns on the gourd. Last year, I left all my gourds natural. This year, I’m painting some of them.

So after curing, you can make stuff out of your gourds. Although I leave a few lying around just to look at, the stuff I decided to make out of mine is rain sticks. If you have ever gone by a Peruvian music stall at a summer fair, you’ve probably heard or seen rain sticks. Rain sticks are musical instruments, of the percussive ilk. Turn them up and down, and you hear tinkling sounds like raindrops. They can be made out of long gourds, or hollowed-out sticks, partly filled with seeds or rice. Horizontal “stops” (thin sticks or dowels) inserted up and down its length cause the rice to sound like a trickling waterfall when the stick is turned up and down (insert webpage directions). They are mesmerizing in the way that kaleidoscopes are.

To make rain sticks, I used a nail to puncture holes in my cured gourds, to insert small horizontal sticks into. When the nail first pushed through the dried skin, there was a small “pouf” of released air. It’s like the dried seeds inside held their breath for the moment of release. I will cut out a larger hole in one of the gourds, to collect seeds for planting. I can glue the cut-out back in place to retain the intact gourd shell. For my rain stick, I inserted the sticks from an unused sushi-roll mat (laying around in my flatware drawer for years) into the nail-holes I punched. Then I have to cut the sticks off flush with the sides of the gourd, and make sure that they don’t slide out. I might break down and use Crazy Glue for this. I leave the seeds inside the gourds that I use for rain sticks, although rice is recommended for making the water-sound. I am a snake-gourd purist on that count.

Two years ago, I harvested 6 gourds. Last summer, I harvested 12. This year, I hope to get double that, or more. Of course, how much I harvest depends on how much I sow, and getting the seeds in at the right time, etc. But I am hooked into my gourd family now. I want to make lots and lots of rain sticks, I want the neighborhood kids to be amazed by my wild garden, and I want to discover over the next few years a difference in the quality and productiveness of my saved seeds.

You never know what research, creative, and spiritual paths a few radish seeds will lead you down.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Many Small Things: the Yin Yang of. 1001;11

Theology, philosophy, and psychology are hobbies of mine. I do not shy away from opinions on religion, gods, or neighbors. People who know me, testify to this. They will add that I am not a trained professional.

However, after recent, multiple, and devastating natural disasters in the world, it is just plain human nature to apply any or all of the above amateur pursuits to the question: What in the hell is going on? Answers, of course, are just wishful thinking, and never guaranteed useful or accurate even if you can find some. Answers are false comfort, and could be avoided entirely if humans were constructed to not think about stuff.
But when faced with persistent Old Testament-quality wrath (think "Job"), we do think about it. And it’s easy to empathize with ancient cultures (sans telephone, newspapers, internet, et al) who meditated, read fresh entrails, and studied the skies for answers. Some (I’m thinking Carl Sagan here, whom I mightily admire) might call these methods “looking for explanations in arcane vistas, where there are none to be read.” Equally true, some might call this “looking for explanations where maybe they exist, but where most of us can't see them.” Yet for all I know—or any of us—the entrails of a goat, when thoughtfully studied, reflect the macrocosm. Actually that is a comforting thought; sort of like Dorothy having the means to “go home” with her all the time, yet clueless about the importance of her shoes.

My friends would say, right about now, as they traded brief resigned looks with you: yeah, she really talks like that. Good friends stick with you, no matter what. I am grateful.

A Japanese friend, once upon a time, inadvertently explained Japan to me in a phrase: “Many small things.” The words applied literally to many small bells, hanging from tall posts on a boulevard by the ocean near Kobe. But ever since I heard the bells and the words, they have applied to many small things which compose Japanese culture: many individuals who function together for the advancement of the Whole, many small dishes of food, many small areas of detail and action and belief. This phrase is like goat entrails, when I think of Japan: a sign to unlock my mind, to see something that is so unlike what my conscious mind seeks that it triggers deeply embedded subconscious answers. (Yep, everybody does that.  Don't you?) 

Pursuing my hobbies of Finding Answers to the Universe and the Wrath of Jehovah, the phrase Many Small Things thus popped into my head, where things often pop in and out. The phrase was called to mind specifically by the Internet Entrails / pictures of the horrific tsunami in Japan, and the tornadic activity throughout the American South. Pictures of pieces of things; pictures of things sharded and shredded; pictures of small homeless items which are utterly worthless, utterly valuable. Pictures of what looked like mounds of toothpicks being picked over by incongruously human humans, moving over the remains of their identities. What civilization do we belong to when our personal, microcosmic civilizations are pulverized? How do we find our Selves in the rubble of our life?

Well, in the pursuit of said hobbies, I have formulated some rules. One BIG rule is: there is always Another Side to every viewpoint (if not a bunch more sides). There is always a New Beginning to every story that ends. There is, certainly, always an Ending to all stories. And there are other rules I make up in my spare time. But today I am fleshing out the newly verbalized rule about The Yin Yang of Many Small Things: Where there is Positive, there must be Negative. That is,  “Many Small Things are beautiful, and Many Small Things are a mess.” Maybe the defining difference between Beauty and Horror is the order we impose on our personal chaos of small worldly Things.

So I look for interpretation in my Internet Entrails: pictures which reveal a de-construction of the human order which was fleetingly imposed on a culture, or a town, a street, a house. In the pictures, many small things were scattered, beyond any possibility of re-uniting into their former state of being. Hearths, altars, herds of personally-contrived realities: all were Poofed. A surviving person, or maybe several surviving persons over the extent of many tragedies, addressed this issue within the hearing of journalists. He, She, or They was/were quoted in a (surely) universal expression among the survivors of uncontrolled Yahweh Old Testament Devastation: You can replace Things; you can’t replace People.

As part of my philosopher/ theologist/ psychologist (and, OK, sociologist/ anthropologist) hobbies, I live a lifestyle which some of my acquaintances refer to as Spartan. If you are fond of Ancient Greek history and/or the movie The 300, or if you were forced to read Walden in your public school tenure, you got the picture. I have two skillets, one pot, one television in the basement which is not hooked up to outside sources, minimalist living space, and the goal to live Waste-Free before I die. In harmony with my perverted and conflicted dedication to Less is More, I reflect on My Goal of leaving this world with nothing left lying in dusty closets or forgotten boxes for my kids to divvy up between charity and the town dump. When my tenure on this mortal coil is fulfilled, I plan on shuffling off via cremation instead of burial. Cast to the wind instead of adding to landfill. Living Without Things is contradictory to everything that is currently American, but it is totally historically American, as reflected by Thoreau and pioneers.
This logical if convoluted personal philosophy applies to my subject: the Negative Aspect of Many Small Things.

Whether or not Yahweh /Jehovah and Shinto spirits and Gaea and Buddha and Muslim prophets and Vishnu and all other Recourses to the Inexplicable are constructs of humans who seek order in entrails or in houses filled with many small things—I will pose an interpretation here, based on my hobbies of considering constructs of order.

Reading fresh Internet Entrails: Many Small Things fill our lives with pleasure and order and a feeling (however temporary) of Control and Belonging. However, people who recently suffered the physical wrath of all-of-the-above deities would say: it’s all Just Stuff. The collections of Disney characters, crystal figurines, power saws, antique cars, photographs, books, furniture, clothes we all horde--they are nice illusions, used to obscure the harsh insights of goat entrails, and support order in chaos. The Stuff we collect works very nicely to do that, too. I love my books and my clothes, and even the extra dishes I don’t need for survival but like to put out just to look at. They organize my chaos into a personal code, and are a positive side of my life.

But according to my new Rule, these little postivies demand equal negatives, for balance. For all the possessions I/we acquire, there is a subsequent letting-go of same. I do not have a theory on “for all letting-go’s, there is a subsequent acquisition.” But I think it must work both ways. I have time to pursue my hobbies further.

So, the fresh Internet Entrails/ pictures I study call up meaning  in the chaos's Search for Answers, which may or may not comfort and inform: The Flip Side of Many Small Things is Don’t Hang Onto Them.