Anticipating amends

A friend from work brought me a copy of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home to borrow, and I read it over the weekend.  Curiously, my partner and I also started watching Six Feet Under, so I spent the weekend in fictional funeral homes with suddenly dead fathers.  Any proximity to reality is entirely coincidental.

Fun Home was a lovely little book without being hagiography.  Bechdel doesn’t idealize her father, but she loves him.  Even as she discovers the dark parts of him and recognizes ways that he was abusive, she also recognizes the ways that he has formed her–both as a conscious queer person and as an intellectual.  When I returned the book to my coworker today, we had a brief exchange about the complexity of the author’s feelings for her father.  My coworker, whose father died when she was a younger woman,  reflected on this as honest and resonant for her.  Although I might have shared more of my thoughts with this coworker over coffee or beer, today I just nodded and thanked her for the loan.

I am thankful for the time I have to spend with my dad, however long that turns out to be.  I love my dad a lot, and (not but) I have a complicated, painful history with him.  I don’t know how much of that we will talk about before he dies.  I don’t know how much I even need to.  In the past year or so, he has really embraced his twelve-step program and begun to identify as an addict.  I don’t know where he is with his steps or if he’s still actively working on them.  I was dreading the amends part, fearful of the conversation that may ensue when he makes a list of people he has harmed and becomes willing to make amends.

I think that I have forgiven him, that I’m ready to be present to that conversation if he needs to do that.  But it is also scary to consider cracking open old hurt, because maybe I have just sealed it up tightly enough that it isn’t so bothersome anymore.  Maybe openness to my father’s amends is openness to re-living trauma even in the midst of the pain of losing him.

Two things that I keep coming back to, though:  1) I trust my own resilience, and 2) I love my father.  I can be ready, if I need to be.


Garden Dreams

My fantasy garden is a community affair. People will show up with shovels and ideas and opinions and agenda and questions and insecurities and ego.  It will be messy—gardens are messy—but it will be a process of struggling and listening, digging in.  Some people will stake out a corner of their own and plant their neat rows of herbs.  That’s okay.  Some others will decide that it sounds more fun to share a swath of dirt, talking over the humus, deciding what to interplant.  That’s okay too.  And some people might not know what they’re doing, and they’ll plant the potatoes next to the garlic, and it won’t work out too well this year, but that’s okay, really it is.  What will happen is abundance-despite.  There will be more tomatoes than any family could possibly eat in a season, and the guy with the neat rows of herbs will have sage and basil to spare.  In the middle of the garden, there will be a basket with a sign on it that says “SHARE.” And we will.

Someday we’ll get it right–it’ll be all organic and permaculture, all seeds saved, no GMO.  We’ll feed ourselves and the hungry. There won’t be locks on the gates, and we’ll all ride our bicycles there.

But first we’ll just give dreaming together a shot.



This was another Grow Write Guild post, though I’m late to the game this time around.  This time the topic is Dream Garden.


My First Plant (or How Everything Comes Back Over to Social Work)

My first plant was a lima bean planted in a paper cup in third grade.  I don’t remember the specifics of the assignment except that I was a disorganized eight-year-old in a disorganized family.  I forgot to tell my mom that I needed to soak the bean before planting it, but it didn’t much matter because my bean went into the dark closet, where I learned seeds were loathe to grow anyway.  So the plants on the sunny sill popped up, first peeking little green arches and then heart leaves.  The seeds in the closet stayed tucked beneath the dirt and dark.

In retrospect, while I see that there is value to control groups and third grade scientific inquiry, I feel defensive of my spacey and disorganized eight year-old self and her failure of a seedling. I sort of wish the teacher had taken on the burden of the control group, so that little girl (and her control cohort!) could have had that experience of her very own wonder and hope.

How could this be anything but a parable about privilege and risk and resilience?  I can’t help but draw the parallel between this little elementary experiment and the reality of institutional discrimination and disparity.  Some seeds are planted in good soil, get enough water, and sit on a sunny sill.  Some go into the closet–maybe soaked a bit the night before, maybe brought out for half the daylight.  The objective of the lesson was, of course, to point out that plants need a combination of circumstances to thrive.

That little girl was not herself a bean in the dark.  She was a bean in the partial shade, and sometimes the ground was a little too cool. But the soil was fertile and a slice of sun hit her just right, and she happened to be a particularly sprouty type, it turned out.

It’s interesting to do social work, with its strengths-based ethos, in the school setting.  I grew enough into the teacher role that I absorbed the language of “at risk,” but it wasn’t until my MSW program that I was able to fully contextualize that label.  A kid isn’t “at risk” because of her personality or bad parents or low ambitions or propensity to misbehavior but because of systemic realities that can amount to being sown in rocky soil or being put inside a closet with no light.  What schools often seem to miss out on is the other side of risk, which is resilience.  And when we label “at risk” kids without also digging around for the ways that they are sprouty and programmed to thrive, when we don’t assess for and emphasize and GROW those things, we often undermine the ability of children to soak up what is fertile or find their patch of sun.

This year, I am tending my first real class of seedlings.  When I chose the cucumber sprout who would continue on into the next round, I laid the rejected snipped stem aside, sadly, to a spot in the basin that had collected a little water.  A few days later, I noticed that she was reaching up toward the light and had rooted in the margins.  I couldn’t help myself–I planted her and put her in the window.

I’m participating in the Grow Write Guild with Gayla Trail and friends.  The subject at hand is “my first plant.


Taking my time–easier said than done!

Ah. Remember that taking my time intention? Yeah, about that. It feels like I own almost none of my own time. Lately, I’ve been living in this electric fog of anxiety and overwhelm. I abandoned my daily mandala meditation. I wake up in the middle of the night with low-grade  anxiety or sweaty moments of panic.  I swear that I am a little cognitively impaired for it all (I’m not even being flippant). I teach coping skills to teenagers but am not all that sure that I am even using them (that is hyperbole, probably. I think?).  I’m just trying not to fall off the edge of everything.

Automatic thought roll call: I can’t do this? (Here!) I should be doing more? (Yo, teach!) This is too much? (Hey!)  I am going to fail? (Present and accounted for!) It’s tough because the minimal requirements of finishing my degree are real and substantial. But there’s a lot of core-belief and low self-esteem action at work there, and when I’m not in full-blown emotion mind (can you tell that I think a lot about cognitive & dialectical behavior therapy?) I’m really trying to figure out how to give myself a break.

green thingsIt hasn’t been a total wash. Over the weekend, I connected with a couple of friends to share seeds and grilled cheese sandwiches with. It was good for the soul to take my time for that. It reminded me that I really miss my community and that, in spite of my introversion, I really love to gather a community.  I love to be together and do stuff. And on top of it all, it was this wonderful chance to attend to and share my garden dreams. With a huge pile of work to do, the two hours had seemed almost impossible to take–but I’m glad I did. I am exhausted, but it was a boost of delightful anticipation and a nice distraction from the grind that demands so much of my focus.

And the seeds I planted are coming up.  Ah, hope.  I look at them every day. It does help.

Oh, hey February.

ImageMy schedule is really a killer.  I don’t want to complain, and I know that it’s worth the temporary inconvenience (I’ll ultimately have two professional licenses instead of one), but since my semester has gotten underway, I have so little time for anything besides school.  Since February began, I’ve sat down to draw one mandala mindfully. I’ve drawn others, but those have been during class rather than as a meditative activity. But I’m trying to remain non-judgmental. It’s not a failure; it’s just not what I’d like.

I sleep well maybe three out of seven week nights. I am wracked with anxiety about the end of my program and my job search. It has been a real challenge to quiet my brain and be in this moment right now. My partner understands this crazy, points out the ways that it is crazy, and offers to be sane and hopeful for me when I struggle.  I am uncomfortable being the one who needs that kind of solid groundedness, but I’ll take it.

January Goals

Ha! It is preposterous: I meant to talk about goals sooner than almost-the-end of the month. But you know, I’m busy and I’m practicing a nonjudgmental stance.  I’m doing the best that I can with the skills that I possess.  These are the intentions I’ve been holding this month:

  1. Use at least one new recipe a week.  So far, so good! I was thinking that I wanted to do more cooking out of my cookbooks, but there have definitely been some pinterest recipes in the mix.  So far we’ve done this spaghetti squash recipe, the two delicious soups I mentioned last time, a “tamale pie” from this cookbook that came out weird but was delicious, and these turkey burgers.  For a potluck, I made this bangin’ flannel hash. My goal was not to photograph my food, so I did not do so, but our meals were awesome.
  2. Only buy groceries once a week as needed for recipes.  This represents a shift in the way I’ve tended to buy groceries, which has been somewhat haphazardly or on-the-spot according to my mood.  I believe that it will save us money in the long-run, but we’ll see how that goes when we add it all up.  In any case, it feels very sane and orderly.
  3. Refrain from eating out.  I’ve got to say, I’ve done pretty well with this. We did get biscuits for breakfast one crazy Saturday morning, but other than that, we’ve eaten at home for the most part.  Next month I might see if I can refrain from buying lattes also. Having delicious leftovers at home has made it a lot easier to stay home and eat.  (Also fun: “leftovers buffet” with a friend.  A thrifty pal was happy to support my desire not to buy dinner at a restaurant meeting we were both attending, so she brought over some of her leftovers and helped us have a leftovers party.  And then we bought beer at that meeting–I felt like that was an okay compromise.)
  4. Walk or bike to campus unless it’s raining.  I have only had two opportunities to do this because classes just started back last week (and I’m only on campus twice a week).  I am one for two on this one and will probably not make it tomorrow either because of my schedule.  However, I think it’s a worthy goal and I will continue to aspire to it.
  5. Articulate my limits–say “no” to some things.  I have done this!  I backed off from a commitment I’d made in December to tutor a new student. I felt able to do that because I knew I wasn’t leaving the kid high and dry because I could recommend another tutor. I would like to get better at saying “no” even in the absence of a rescue plan.  I am genuinely horrible at it could be more effective at practicing self care by limiting my obligations.

I like the idea of having time-limited monthly goals to “try on” and see if I’d like to incorporate for a longer amount of time.  I think that I will definitely keep these and probably add one about my sugar intake for February.  I’ve also been keeping up with my 365 project of mandala-doodling, with an almost-perfect record (not that perfection is the point).  It’s been a good month!  I would like to remember these things when I’m feeling overwhelmed with my last semester of grad school (which, to be fair to myself, is legitimately overwhelming for lots of reasons).

ImageOn the non-grad-school reading list is You Grow Girl by the same fabulous woman (Gayla Trail) who wrote Grow Great Grub, which I talked about last time.  I am really stoked to start my garden.  Last week–four days before we had a wintry mix–it was seventy degrees outside, so I spent some time mulching and generally tidying up my space.  I’ve sent out an email to my fellow community gardeners to see if anyone wants to go in on a seeds order, but I haven’t heard from anyone yet.  It’s not too long before I need to start up some seedlings, so I hope that someone bites soon before I buy way too many seeds just to get a variety.

And today I received Peace is Every Step in the mail, which is honestly not strictly “non-grad-school” reading (since I bought it to share pieces of it with a group I’m running this semester), but I figure a little mindfulness reading, no matter how requisite, is good for the soul.  That is much of what I’m trying to make this blog about, anyway!

I feel good and whole.

What I’ve Been Doing (Right)

Like many people, I struggle with a very critical inner voice, one who never hesitates to point out all of the ways I fail to meet my own goals.  I meant to take some time off of my internship this week in order to relax and give myself a little time to do some pre-job search tasks before jumping back into the fray–but I ended up going each day.  I had my reasons, and I think I made the right decision (and in any case, it was the decision I made), but my inner critic made sure to remind me that I really fall short at work-life balance.

While I appreciate that I have this voice–she is wise in many ways and reminds me of my values–I am also trying to work on cultivating a more moderate, kind, nonjudgmental voice.  That voice will validate some of my impulses–like, it’s okay that I chose to take advantage of learning opportunities that presented  themselves last week. This is the time that I have for that. It is possible to both work hard and take care of myself.  That voice will also point out ways that I actually was successful at self-care as well.

And I did take my time for self care!  Let me tell you about it.

garlandI drew many mandalas (at least once a day!) as a mindfulness practice.  I have some work to do to make this activity more mindful (doing it away from my computer, for example), but I’ve really loved losing myself in the short moments of drawing these little designs.  When I can, I will write a post that walks you through the process that I take, inasmuch as there is a prescribable process.  Since I’ve been able to take the time to make a lot of these, I fashioned them into a garland to send to my sister for her birthday.  She loves mandalas and colors them a lot as part of her own self-care routine, and I have enjoyed thinking about her while doing these.  I’ve learned a lot about gentleness from her.

I saved one of the mandalas to send to a student of mine who I’ve been emailing with recently. She’s a special kid (but not a kid anymore) and I’m glad to be connected to her again. I wrote her a little note and included a star-shaped blossom. Being back in touch with this young person has given me the opportunity to re-articulate to myself some pretty important beliefs.  Chief among them is that we deserve, fundamentally, to be fulfilled, to find joy, to live well.

I’ve also been cooking.  I made this great Thai chicken soup (essentially Tom Kha, but without the lemongrass). I needed to make chicken broth because I finally ran out of the broth I made months ago and froze, so it made sense to make a chicken soup with the meat left over. I was pretty pleased with my version of “Thai seasoning,” which this recipe called for but which I could neither find nor really wanted to purchase.  It included fish sauce, sesame oil, cayenne, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander, red pepper flakes, and lemon pepper, along with the lime juice.  I think it was a good deal spicier than the recipe called for, which meant that it was exactly how I like it.  And now we have a ton of leftovers between this and the black-eyed peas and collards soup I made for New Year’s Day.

okraAnd I’ve been reading.  I haven’t been reading what I’d planned to read (The Gift of Therapy by Irvin Yalom or Swamplandia by Karen Russell), but I’ve really enjoyed two books on gardening.  The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener by Niki Jabbour has a wealth of information about gardening in general and especially interplanting and succession planting.  Grow Great Grub: Organic Food from Small Spaces by Gayla Trail is incredibly accessible and inspiring and has a ton of practical advice for people like me who have limited space for food gardening.  I am really excited to start seedlings and watch life happen.  Between dreaming about my garden and cooking more mindfully, I’ve started to think about what it might mean to eat with an abiding respect and promotion for full and exuberant life.

So while I have continued to work hard, I have been taking my time and committing to the slower, deeper life I want to have.  And in all of that was quiet presence with my partner and snuggling with my pets.  Take that, inner critic.

How have you been taking your time lately? What do you do to take care of yourself?

Taking My Time

I have always loved New Year’s.  I remember my father grumbling once about this “pagan, arbitrary celebration” and interjecting my appreciation for celebration of an end of one thing and a beginning of another, for a sense of accomplishment and promise.  Sometimes the accomplishment is just surviving; sometimes the promise is that the next year won’t be quite as miserable.  Be that as it may, I like the ritual.

I am, however, a New Year’s Resolution agnostic. Oh, I’ve made them. I’ve been that person at your gym.  I lasted ’til April or so, then fell off the wagon, then tried again in August.  I love the idea of setting an intention, of making promises to myself–but I am in the skeptical camp on account of my own failure at the gym.  Change–real change–takes a fair amount of studied analysis of what’s working and what’s not working, what motivations are competing, and so forth.  I wish to lose weight, save money, and simplify my schedule; but those goals, thus articulated, are not that useful. I could make them smarter–and I will–but that’s not what I’d like New Year’s to be about.

I was spending time with a cluster of sweet girl friends today, and one of them brought up this other way of thinking about New Year’s resolutions, wherein one considers the whole of her life and chooses a theme word or phrase.  While the social worker in me wants my goals to be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound, the poet in me–arguably the dominant voice, let’s be honest–loves the notion of the theme that permeates everything, the guiding metaphor.  So that is what I’m going to do.

When I start thinking about my obstacles to change for losing weight, saving money, or simplifying my schedule, I notice that I breathe a little faster, raise my shoulders to my ears, and feel almost claustrophobic. I immediately start thinking about the next thing on my list, how I don’t have enough time to do everything that I want to do. I eat unmindfully because my head is crammed with deadlines; I spend money for convenience for the same reason. I rarely slow down. That’s why I think this year’s theme will be Taking My Time.

One small mandala each day, mindfully.

One small mandala each day, mindfully.

I like the language of Taking My Time for a few reasons.  It obviously invokes slowing down, which could apply to my propensity to jump to conclusions as much as it does to hurrying from Point A to Point B. It also suggests that my time is mine. I often feel guilty for taking time for myself or saying no to something that will overwhelm my schedule; consequently, I don’t do much of either.  I also like how it is reminiscent of taking it a day at a time and living in the moment.

To that end (and not contradictorily!), I have chosen a very small, very doable 365 project of drawing one mandala each day as a mindfulness practice.  And I have other goals (SMART ones, even!) that I think I’ll take a month at a time.  January’s goals focus on food routines in our home–something I’ll talk about another time.

Happy New Year.


Here was the spring of the crayon box, the home for dreams (with a too-small kitchen and not enough closet space but with a garden where I can practice my hope). We painted the walls in absolutely-not-neutral, totally-joyful hues reminiscent of a kindergarten classroom. We mingled the art. We shuffled the books. We climb into bed with a large cat and a small dog, and the tall man with the long arms takes up the least amount of room somehow.

And here was an autumn of my shadows, a place with flickering light and grotesque scrawlings on water-damaged walls. It was a cold place full of discarded objects that I picked up and scrutinized and carefully tucked into my bag of broken things. Only I could venture into this deep darkness; I called out signals of “Still alive!” when I could and tugged at the thread around my waist with the faith that a bell would ring for someone at the other end.  And I emerged with my collection of disasters and a cultivated gentleness.

Here was a year of deepening and widening, of bearing down and birthing; and here was a year of planting seeds centimeters below the earth and watching victorious tendrils poke through.  What a miracle growth is.

Today I seek wonder and peace.

I thought at one point that I was not addicted to busyness, that it was only that my job forced me to work  hours upon hours outside of my salaried schedule. I thought, that if I could, I would be happy to recline on the sofa and enjoy filling my days with books, cats, and gardens. I thought that I would gladly kiss busy goodbye and embrace quiet stillness.

I certainly do not like the pressure of juggling obligations and deadlines, but if I am being honest with myself, I turn into a basket case as soon as I sit down with a blank agenda. This is how I ended up with a job that filled my one precious empty morning each week last semester and how I very nearly ended up teaching every weekend. My partner is a gentle man who never tries to bend me into someone I am not, but every so often he will remind me of a wish I spoke aloud for simplicity and rest. And then I inevitably (if sheepishly) explain why it is that, despite everyone’s encouragement to grad students in my program to take winter break off, it is essential that I go into field on my free days.

Perhaps I am, like my father once suggested to my undoubtedly balking face, a workaholic. But maybe I’m a workaholic moving out of the contemplation stage and into the preparation stage for change.  It is true that I am anxious without activity, but it is also true that I do deeply desire room in my days for mindfulness, wonder, and reflection. And I can’t obsessively chase every obligation and have the space for these things that I value.

This is where it starts: today, I seek wonder and peace.  This is not a New Year’s Resolution.