Thursday, May 28, 2009

Early May rain

I'm waiting.

Waiting for the rain to stop. Waiting for the soil to dry enough to till. Waiting to collect my soil sample for analysis. Waiting to get seeds into the ground.

Gardening teaches us about right relationship, about respect, about patience. If there is anything over which I have no control, it would be the schedule of rain showers. Where one has no control, one may choose to fight (images of China shooting clouds to make rain come to mind), or one can learn to dance, moving with a rhythm you did not create, synchronizing your movement with another's. In some instances, we can use force to bend nature to our will. Rather than meander over forested hills, we blow holes through the middle, creating map-ready straight lines.

But, really, you can't till mud. It just don't work, no matter how fancy your technology.

I'm in love with my soil. I'm in love with my compost. I'm fascinated by the ecosystem that thrives in one ounce of well-amended soil. In his first book, Second Nature, Michael Pollan offers the garden as a model for how humans can interact with the world in a way that is both beneficial to us, and to "nature." I use the quotes because this distinction between us humans and the "natural world" is wholly contrived, and feeds the negative dichotomy that allows us to continue to justify our dominion over the land and its non-human creatures. The alternative to dominion is stewardship. We and the "natural world" can both thrive if our relationship to this planet and the other creatures on it is one of respect and restraint. Just because we can, doesn't mean we should.

I scoop compost out of my bucket with my hand, and in my palm I hold an ecosystem more amazing than anything we humans have made. This planet has been at this living stuff for a really long time, and has gotten really darn good at it. I can create the causes and conditions that allow that handful of compost to arise, but I cannot create the life within it. Even a life that I could carry inside me for nine months, I cannot truly create.

When I was nine, I went to the beach with my dad, stepmom, and some friends of theirs. The Pacific and Atlantic Oceans are as different as the Appalachian and Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Pacific pounds the rocks of the slowly receding California coastline, like the western mountains jut, ragged and treeless into thinning air. The Atlantic is a more gentle ocean, softer, like the rolling, worn ridges of broadleaf deciduous forest that make up the Appalachian chain.

I was a strong swimmer as a kid, but I was, nonetheless, a nine year old up against the Pacific. Somehow I got myself caught in a hard undertow. I could dive under the waves, letting them pass over me and draw me toward the shore, but I couldn't set my feet or fight the rushing stream of water heading back out to the west. I was stuck. Bobbing up and down, trying to swim in. I could see my father and his friends on the beach, but I was too far away, and no one was looking for me. I was getting tired.

Finally, I got within range of some people standing in the surf, and as the wave started to rush backward, pulling all the sand from under my feet and tugging me away, I thrust out my hand toward this man. I don't remember that I could even manage to ask for help, though I imagine that my child's face conveyed that I was in distress.

I may owe my life to a smiling brown-skinned man who reached for the outstretched arm of a little huera child he did not know. I would not recognize him if I were to see him, but his smile and firm grip on my hand, freeing me from the ocean will remain forever in my memory. As I gasped for air, I found I could finally stand. I thanked him profusely. I doubt he had any idea that he saved my life.

I hope that he accumulated vast merit for his act of kindness, perhaps seemingly small to him, but on which the whole of my life likely hangs. The teachings tell us that karma multiplies--small actions can have huge results. May his be the seed for his enlightenment.

When people say that the world is hard and angry and closed, I feel sorry for them. My world is filled with strangers who would help an unknown child in distress, who get off the bus during the morning commute to assist a stranger collapsed in the street, people who rescue animals, people who rally behind the story of a little, lost squirrel, people who care to treat the ground under their feet with kindness, and who thank the earth for the abundance of blessings it bestows upons us, with neighbors who care for one another with a bowl of soup, a lent tool, or by lending a hand when you've clearly bitten off more than you can chew.

In life, as in the garden, we reap what we sow. The difference is that, in the garden, if I drop a radish seed here, a radish will grow after a set period of time here. If I were to plant a square of radishes and then fret and complain that I DON'T HAVE ANY CORN!! you'd call me a madwoman. In life it is the same--the seeds we plant in it will ripen, but in life our actions are bitty drops in a huge interconnected and interdependent web, so, unlike in our garden, we don't always know when and where our seeds will germinate and grow. The seeds of hatred will come back to us in the form of angry people. The kindness we give will eventually find its way back to us.

Some people pray, down on their knees, hands pressed together, heads bowed before their Lord.

So too, do I kneel down on the earth, hands cupping my precious soil, filled with life that I cannot create--a brilliant miraculous system on which our very lives depend. Stewarding this tiny, yet vast and complicated ecosystem is one long, living prayer--an act of both faith and humility. A supplication for sustenance.


[orginally written May 2009]

Review of "Milk"

This is a slightly edited version of a review I posted elsewhere right after seeing the movie shortly after it came out.


Extremely well-done, and Sean Penn was excellent. I think even people who are tepid on him an actor will find that he's really remarkable in this role. I was blown away by how well he captures the marvelous joy and sensitivity of Harvey Milk.

Milk was murdered when I was just a little kid, and despite living in California for many years, including several in San Francisco, I never really got the whole story. It seems, sometimes, that it is our most recent history that is lost to us.

I owe much to Harvey Milk personally--were it not for him and those who stood up at Stonewall, I could never have stood on a San Francisco Chronicle box 15 years ago to look as far as I could see down Market Street and see 150,000 people in the streets for the Pride March. I could never have held a job as an openly queer woman. I could never have walked down the street with my arm around my girlfriend.

So last night I was reminded how much I owe my freedom to those who came before me. We would not now be fighting for equal recognition of our families under the law if those before us hadn't fought for our right to simply live without the constant threat of violence, police abuse, and loss of our jobs. There is still progress to be made on all of those fronts, to be sure. As I watched the old footage of the Bryant/Briggs campaign across America, stripping gay and lesbian people of their basic right to not be fired from their jobs for being gay or lesbian, it was like watching the news today as putatively 'Christian' crusaders make their rounds of the nation trying to "protect the American family" by repealing anti-discrimination laws that protect families from losing their income; by preventing children in need of loving homes from getting one because it might come with two mommies or two daddies; by making it so children who lose their biological parent are taken away from the only other parent they've known, so that widows and widowers are unable to keep the joint property together they accumulated over the years with their life partner when that person dies unless they pay punitive taxes that married couples do not have to pay....

Harvey Milk was a loving, generous, kind man. We all lost when he and Mayor Moscone were gunned down by Dan White, who clearly suffered from some sort of mental torment. As the credits rolled, I sat in the still dark theater wondering how the hell a man walks into the office of the mayor of a major American city and shoots him dead, walks down the hall, asks to speak to another elected official, walks into another office, and shoots a City Council member multiple times--and gets five years in prison for manslaughter?

Dan White murdered two elected officials, and gets 5 years because the jury bought some bullshit "twinkie defense?" The man clearly had issues, and the field of psychiatry was not what it is today, but however you want to slice and dice it, this was premeditated homicide. He snuck into City Hall with a gun, met with each man separately and killed them. This didn't happen by accident, by acting in a fit of rage or passion in which you do something rash which kills someone.

Murder 1 -- two counts. 25 - life at least, if not a death sentence for the added fact that they were elected officials, and we should take more pains to make murdering those elected to public office a greater crime, just as we do with cop-killers.

5 years, out on parole.

I called my dad (who has lived in California since 1981, less an 8 year stint in Texas) and asked him how the hell that happened, and he didn't know, and didn't think my stepmother (who is a native Californian) would have any better insight into it.

What the hell? Seriously?

But I owe even my right to be outraged at such a paltry penalty for his murderer to Harvey Milk and everyone else who suffered indignities and violence to try to make America more free, to make it so people need not be ashamed to have dark skin, practice a religion other than Christianity, or to love another person of the same gender.

I have been engaged in some dialogue with a friend of my dad and stepmom's regarding the success of Proposition 8 in last year's election, and I commented to my father about an e-mail exchange with said friend in which she asserted that I should not hold California to a higher standard. I was reminded of this conversation in the middle of the movie--when Harvey is talking about bringing Bryant and Briggs to California as they were fighting Prop 6--"All eyes will be on us, looking for hope." People in Minnesota, Kansas, Texas, Pennsylvania...all looking to California for hope. People leave their hometowns to go to the Castro to find safe haven, to escape the ungodly and unbearable pressure of a closeted life, or a life of harassment, shame, and violence, and those left behind look westward for hope.

California remains the standard bearer. When Prop 8 passed, it was a crushing blow for all of us. I know that California isn't a utopia of equal rights and happy shiny people holding hands. But the eyes of the nation are upon it again now, as they were then--if not there, then where? If you can't do it, how can Kansas?

Unfair? Indeed.

Just outside the safe confines of my city limits (I can see the next borough from this chair), I can be fired for loving another woman, though we're working on making a county-wide protection:

* (my friend and schoolteacher, Kris Rust, is quoted in that article. His partner, Hugh McGough, will be running for judge again in the next elections.)

I still owe California an apology for some misplaced anger and frustration when Prop 8 passed, but whether anyone likes it or not, California is still expected to be the leader when it comes to gay rights. Perhaps discovering that California is only human, and subject to the same fractious fear-mongering as the rest of the nation will be the motivation we need to regroup and rededicate ourselves to the fight for dignity and equality for all.

Post Script
Well, if not in California, then Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire (well, they're working on it), Connecticut, Vermont, and Massachusetts. Maybe New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Some people are upset at the California Supreme Court, but I am not among them. I think that Prop 8 should be repealed the way it was passed. The battle will be stronger if the decisions come from the legislatures and not from judges who will be simply labeled "activist" and accused of finding "new rights" in the state constitutions.

Perhaps California's failure to stop bigotry from being written into their constitution was a gift to the rest of us. Perhaps seeing the fragility of what so many see as the 'motherland' has made us stop waiting and start working.


Thank you, Harvey. May your precious gentle soul feel my gratitude and love wherever you are.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Dalai Lama Quote of the Week -- Summary Advice

Sometimes people complain that the advice given by figures like His Holiness is trite because it is so "simple." To all who think this, I invite you to try to live any of his "simple" suggestions.

Summary Advice
1. Realize the value of the human body with which you have been endowed, for it is the result of many past good causes. Appreciate the fact that teachings are available and ready to be implemented.
2. Since this precious human life can be used in powerfully beneficial or destructive ways, and is itself most fragile, make good use of it now.
3. Physical happiness is just an occasional balance of elements in the body, not a deep harmony. Understand the temporary for what it is.
4. A tamed mind makes you peaceful, relaxed, and happy; whereas, if your mind is not peaceful and tamed, no matter how wonderful your external circumstances, you will be beset by frights and worries. Realize that the root of your own happiness and welfare rests with a peaceful and tamed mind. It is also a great benefit to those around you.
--from Mind of Clear Light: Advice on Living Well and Dying Consciously by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, Ph.D.

Monday, May 4, 2009

April showers bring May...rain?

It's raining--perfectly lovely spring rain; the kind that drizzles slowly from the sky, occasionally picking up the pace, but never reaching enough fortitude to pound the earth and turn the streets into concrete walled rivers. (Edit: In the time since I started this, I hear word that the situation has indeed changed...)

Rain like this is good for the garden...unless you are waaay behind schedule and missed your few brief windows of opportunity to get the tiller in and mix up all that nice new soil and compost, so snug in their beds.

M and I went out to the Urban Gardener on Saturday to check out their offerings and pick up some Seeds of Change seeds (and soil test kits!). We also dropped in at KMart because they carry Burpee and Martha Stewart seeds. Neither is a first choice, but I do give them props for expanding their organic and heirloom offerings. I'm not a purist when it comes to organic seeds; really, the weirdness factor is always the winner--I like to grow things I cannot buy in any farmer's market, let alone supermarket. That's the beauty of the home garden--you don't need to grow tomatoes that have been bred to have thick, icky skins so that they don't break as they are mechanically harvested and dumped onto trucks that will let them ripen in a fresh flow of ethylene gas on their thousands of miles long road trip to your supermarket. You can grow all the veggies that don't fit nicely into packaging and that don't store well on long road trips.

In this case, I was hoping to get some seeds that I should have ordered months ago, and stuck in the ground a few weeks ago. For now, I wait for a break between the raindrops so I can turn the soil.

Why is this place called Rough Branch?

Rough Branch is a reference to Wendell Berry's "mad farmer" poems. Berry is an agrarian populist poet, and advocate for sustainable agricultural practices. I don't agree with every position he takes, but his reverence for the beauty and balance of the natural world, for the preciousness of the life that runs through it (including our own), and of the community that sustains both the land and each other, speaks to my heart.

Over the past few years, I have sunk myself into the soil in my back yard, and into the community of neighbors that surrounds it, and it has begun to restore me. My garden is not just a plot of dirt providing vegetables for the salad bowl, it is an act of love, a place of profundity and awe. If you knew about the ecosystem that lives in but one gram of good earth, you would be humbled, literally, to the ground.

Berry's poems are passionate calls to live--deeply, profoundly, fearlessly. To step out of narrow-minded egotism, to secede "[f]rom the union of self-gratification and self-annihilation, [to] secede into care for one another, and for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth."

And so I have made my own nation small enough to walk across. I have named the small corner of the earth I steward Rough Branch. I have declared myself free of ignorant love, and I secede...

From the union of power and money,
from the union of power and secrecy,
from the union of government and art,
from the union of science and money,
from the union of ambition and ignorance,
from the union of genius and war,
from the union of outer space and inner vacuity,
the Mad Farmer walks quietly away.

There is only one of him, but he goes.
He returns to the small country he calls home,
his own nation small enough to walk across.
(From "The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union")
The Mad Farmer challenges us to reconnect, to resurrect our land, our communities, and our souls.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion -- put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
(From "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front")
All quotes from Wendell Berry.