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.

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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.

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?