March 30, 2011 § 7 Comments

Oliver pointing out the peas.

Here’s how you know I am not an optimist: I hate spring. True, I am blown away by the colors, by the way the flowers wait for the perfect moment to unfurl, by the gentle breezes and (FINALLY!) the warm sun. But there’s another side of spring too, and it never fails to break my heart. I am always cautious when the forsythia bloom. That pretty much guarantees another snowstorm. But when the magnolia trees are heavy with flowers? When the cherry blossoms ridicule the snow with their white? When the sun pushes on your back like a hand? Come on.

And yet, I fall for it each and every time. I count on the winter to be over. I breathe a sigh of relief. Then bam. The temperature drops, the wind blows cold, it snows, the kids get sick.

I think that’s why I love our garden so much. It’s evidence. It’s proof that we’re actually moving along, that we aren’t stuck or sliding backwards. I’m not really doing it for the food. I am sure much of what we grow will get eaten by squirrels and those damn raccoons. I am more in it for the miracle. For that astonishing transformation of tiny seed into a plant with fruit. That too breaks my heart.

I actually didn’t think anything would even grow in our little uncomposted, unfertilized, unprepared square of dirt. And then, one day, there was a tiny spinach leaf, as green as anything, as tiny as an ant, peeking up through all that dirt. You could have knocked me over with a feather.

The spinach.

It reminds me of another day in March, six years ago, when I had my first ultrasound. For most new moms, this is a glorious day, but for me, it was full of dread. Pretty much the last thing I wanted was to be pregnant. I had a job I loved in investor relations for a successful biotech company. I had an amazing boss I ran with twice a week, I regularly sat down with the CEO to write his quarterly conference calls, and I was working (writing!!) for a company that was trying to cure cancer. I had a boyfriend who lived all the way across the country. I had a cute apartment in Palo Alto while Scott lived in a former HUD house in Philadelphia. We had been dating long enough that we knew it was time to either get married or break up, but I really didn’t want to be a Navy Wife. And I really, really, really wasn’t ready to be a mother. We talked about an abortion because it seemed the sensible thing to do.

I like to think that from the first moment, I knew I would have that baby, but I am not sure. I do know that Oliver’s light was bright, that it was as intense as he – as a five-year old – is now. He felt like a flock of fireflies under my heart, like a lighthouse beam. He felt like a yes.

But still, on that first visit, Scott and I were talking to the doctor about our options. It was too impossible to have a baby.”Stay here,” the doctor said after we talked that rainy day in another March, and then she left the room.

A technician came in after a while and asked us to follow her. The hospital was part of the Stanford hospital and it was always under construction. She led us to a drafty trailer and had me get up on a table. “We don’t usually do an ultrasound so early, but well -” She shrugged. I wasn’t sure if we had to get one because we were considering an abortion or because she wanted us to change our minds. Sometimes I wonder if she saw something in Scott and I that we couldn’t see yet in ourselves, but maybe that’s just me, trying to make what happened seem better than it actually was.”It’s really too early for a heartbeat,” the technician said, putting that cold get all over my stomach. “But we’ll see.”

I almost didn’t look. But when I did, there on the screen, in black and white, was something that looked like an amoeba. It looked like the sun. I always thought that first heartbeat would be the whoosha whoosha like on the TV shows, but Oliver’s first heartbeat was like a silent movie, a steady beat whose absence of noise was shocking, like the quiet of the Grand Canyon.”Wow,” said the technician. “We don’t usually see that at five weeks.” How on earth, I wondered, can that become a person? It seemed too impossible. It was science fiction. And it was in my stomach.

Now that five-year old holds out a grubby palm full of seeds for me to inspect. “What are these Mommy?” he asks. “Are these the tomatoes?”

“They’re peas,” I tell him.

“Those sweet kind?” he asks.


“Don’t like peas,” Gus says. “They’re yucky.”

Oliver with the seeds.

Do you know that bumper sticker that reads, “What if they held a war and no one showed up?” That’s kind of how it was for me. The night before the abortion was scheduled, I rented a few Sex & the City DVDs and bought a bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups for dinner. If I kept that baby, I would have to give up my great apartment. I would have to quit my job and move 3000 miles away from my friends. I would have to live in that goddamned HUD house. But if I didn’t keep the baby, I would lose the light that was pulsing silently within my ribcage.

That night, I left a message on my doctor’s voicemail, canceling the appointment. The next day, instead of going back to Stanford Hospital, I went to work, alternatively elated and flooded with panic. What have I done? What have I done? became a mantra for a while, another kind of heartbeat.

Now I know what we did. It was nothing extraordinary. We just started a garden.


March 14, 2011 § 7 Comments

We started a garden. It’s weird that I am so happy about it because I am not really a gardening type. I have never been particularly interested in plants or horticulture. But I had a few freelance assignments last year about local food and farmers in San Diego. I was so inspired by those men and women, by their fierce tenacity and determination. Their desire to feed people real food and their refusal to submit to fast, easy solutions. Farmers, I am convinced, are a grounding force in our chaotic world.

I didn’t really put all that much effort into this garden. It was just an intention, a hope. There is a patch of mostly bare soil outside a basement window in the back of our house. It doesn’t get much sun in the summer and we didn’t do anything to prep the soil. But two weeks ago, I showed Scott the spot I wanted to dig up. The next day, he was out there with the boys shoveling. Gus was busy pouring dirt into a bucket and Oliver loved using his new wheelbarrow and rake to dump weeds over the steep edge of our yard. “Mommy,” he said, “I think I am going to have my own gardening company someday because I am so good with these tools.” At one point, we were all out there digging. This was new for me, this family time. Isn’t that awful? But for the last year, Scott and I have been tag-team parents on the weekends. He goes mountain biking and when he comes home, I go for a run. I go to yoga and when I come home, I’ll get Gus down for a nap. Occasionally we’ll go out to dinner or go for a walk, but not often enough.

Scott surprised me again last weekend. Last Friday after the rain, I went out with the boys for a few hours to dig up the soft ground. I thought we did a great job and even Scott was impressed. “But look at all those old tree roots,” I told Scott. He shrugged off the roots. “It should be OK,” he said. The next day, when I came home from yoga, my small efforts were totally blown away by Scott and the boys. He dug way deeper than I could have and he and Oliver and Gus got rid of every single root. “I thought that they might take too much water away from your plants,” Scott told me. I looked out into the now gorgeous patch of earth.

The next day, Scott lined the garden with bricks. He made furrows in the ground and we all made tiny holes in the surface. We brought out those awesome packs of seeds as if it were Christmas. We ripped them open after showing each other the cheesy photos on the front: lettuce and spinach, peas and nasturtium. “Can I put the seeds in?” Oliver asked while Gus threw things over the edge of our backyard. “What does that seed look like?” he asked and I handed him tiny grains of lettuce, big round peas that will hopefully become sweet, flowering plants. I read Margaret Roach’s incredible gardening blog everyday now. My mom just bought me a subscription to an organic gardening magazine.

On Saturday, after hearing the full magnitude of the earthquake in Japan, I silently dedicated our little piece of land to that beautiful country. I feel now much as I did after September 11th. I was in San Diego then and felt so horribly helpless. My brother had moved to New York, to his girlfriend’s apartment on John Street on September 10th. For most of the next day, I couldn’t get in touch with him. He was supposed to start his new job at Bank of America and I had no idea whether his office was in midtown or downtown. I didn’t know he was on a ferry to Hoboken, that he was watching the horror as it happened.

A few weeks ago, we met Scott for lunch at the Pentagon. What impressed me most were not the three intense security checks before we even got to the building, but the huge quilt hung by the entrance, each square representing a person killed there on September 11th. Tears welled up as soon as I saw it. My god, that terrible day. We ate lunch with Scott at one of the Pentagon’s many food courts and then walked through the building, over the big green lawn at the center of the Pentagon, passed the restaurant smack dab in the center of that lawn like a bull’s eye. You never know. You just never know when disaster will strike.

That fall, in 2001, I was depressed. I felt hopeless and heartsick. The innocence of our country had been shredded. I cut Billy Collins’ poem “The Names” from the New York Times and almost memorized it. Let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound ….

I feel that way now. Helpless. Powerless. Groundless. Incredulous. The only disaster I remember from my youth is Mount St. Helens. There weren’t events like this, were there? Tsunamis and earthquakes and floods. Haiti and Japan and New Orleans and Thailand. Tonight during savasana in yoga, I felt the weight of all that in my chest. It flattened me until I felt as thin as a sticker. Someone would have to peel me off the floor, from under the weight of this destruction. There is absolutely nothing to do except to click on the red cross on my computer, the one that says “Donate.”

And yet it does no good to be powerless, to be depressed. I think about the parts of my day that are hard. The hours between 3 and 6 pm. The clean-up after dinner. The bickering. The laundry. I think about a natural disaster destroying all the parts of the day I don’t like and my heart hurts thinking about how much I would mourn the loss of them. I would miss the fighting, the boredom that sets in at 4:13 pm. I would crave a kitchen to clean, clean shirts to fold. I have no emotional response to photos of the devastation in Japan because it doesn’t seem real to me. But the faces – those faces! The loss. 10,000. It almost doesn’t register.

Today I am grateful for the hard parts of my day. I am so grateful to the garden, which might be one of the most romantic gifts my husband has ever given me. I didn’t ask for it and he made it beautiful. He dug much further down than I could. He lined it with brick. He told me we can build a fence to keep out the squirrels and chipmunks and the fox that lives in our neighborhood. His face lit up as he dug a 2 inch hole with a stick and dropped in spinach seeds.

We are waiting now to see what is going to come up. We are watering and trying to be patient. We know that it might be a bust this year, that bugs and blight and that fox might steal our small harvest away. But no matter what we pull up, we will have enough. We already have abundance.

The Names – Billy Collins

Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.
A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,
And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,
I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,
Then Baxter and Calabro,
Davis and Eberling, names falling into place
As droplets fell through the dark.
Names printed on the ceiling of the night.
Names slipping around a watery bend.
Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.
In the morning, I walked out barefoot
Among thousands of flowers
Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,
And each had a name —
Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal
Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.
Names written in the air
And stitched into the cloth of the day.
A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.
Monogram on a torn shirt,
I see you spelled out on storefront windows
And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.
I say the syllables as I turn a corner —
Kelly and Lee,
Medina, Nardella, and O’Connor.
When I peer into the woods,
I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden
As in a puzzle concocted for children.
Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,
Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,
Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.
Names written in the pale sky.
Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.
Names silent in stone
Or cried out behind a door.
Names blown over the earth and out to sea.
In the evening — weakening light, the last swallows.
A boy on a lake lifts his oars.
A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,
And the names are outlined on the rose clouds —
Vanacore and Wallace,
(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)
Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.
Names etched on the head of a pin.
One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.
Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.


March 6, 2011 § 2 Comments

Gus helping.

This winter, I made a commitment to embrace darkness. It was my first winter after years in California, and I decided to hibernate inside myself this year. Since I moved to DC, it is clear to me that this is a place for me to do some work. Maybe a bit of cleaning out. There is something purifying about being brand new in an uncomfortable spot of earth. You learn quickly what works and what doesn’t. There is no room for posturing and lying to yourself gets very tiring. My hope for this winter was that I would be able to learn more of my¬† truth. I wanted to learn what it is down there in my own darkness that scares me so and makes me run. Spin. Climb the walls everyday from 3 until 6 pm.

What I found was that it wasn’t quite so scary after all. And that it was scary all the time. What I am proud of is that I was sometimes able to sit with that darkness, that unfathomable abyss. I found my soul in there, humming away. I found rituals that calm and soothe. I found a gentle, yielding compassion down there, that I can snuggle into any time I remember. (But often, it’s the remembering that is hard). I found that I am a novice with intensity, that I feel things so deeply that I need measures of comfort, ways to breathe through the difficult spots.

I could go on and on. That is the way the darkness is. But after a while, if you steep too much, you can become bitter. The darkness itself becomes so interesting that it can be easy to get stuck there in the mire of it all, the brambles catching at you a bit too fiercely.

This month, the ground is thawing and the buds are cracking open. The northern hemisphere is opening up once again to light and it seems like the right time for it. I think that I too am ready for the light. I am getting too pulled in by my own inky night. It is time to breathe out and move again. It’s time to turn my face back to the sun.

I work on my son’s Waldorf school newsletter, and this month, I needed a quick little article for the front page. Usually, I can whip these things out pretty fast. It was easy to write about spring, throw in a Rudolf Steiner quote, bang out a few sentences that talk about the rhythm of childhood. It took me ten minutes, most of it on autopilot. After I was finished, I read it through and was surprised to see that I wrote these sentences:

“Winter is an ideal time to reflect upon our lives, our homes, and our hopes for the year ahead. As we move out of this dark cocoon into spring, we find that our visualizations for the future begin to manifest right along with the flowers and the buds on the trees. Spring is a time for expansion, growth, and renewal.”

Jay-sus, I thought after I read it. Where do I come up with this shite? I went to the delete button but stopped myself. True, it wasn’t the most well-written thing I have ever done. Also true was that it was cheesy as hell. But it was actually my deepest desire. I had written what I wanted most: for my time in the darkness to be a transformation. I wanted my highest self to manifest in my everyday life.

I decided to leave it in. Who really reads these newsletters anyway? And it seemed a bad omen to delete what I really want, not just for myself but for all of us. Spring is here, the flowers are making their hard journey towards the light. I hope my own journey is moving forward, even if only dirt clod by dirt clod, bit by bit. I have been spending time on Margaret Roach’s A Way to Garden site. I read it the way I read Sanskrit. I just like the sounds of the flowers and plants, even if I have no idea what they mean or look like. I love her post about her seed orders. For the most part, I have no idea what she is talking about, but I want to. Someday I want to be someone who can look through a seed catalog and know what “keepers” are, to know what herbs keep the bugs away and what vegetables to plant close together. I read her site the way I used to look at yoga magazines, feeling like a bit of a fraud, that I will never be someone who can do a handstand so why bother?

Then, last week, my husband came home from the hardware store with a handful of seed packets. Tomatoes. Wildflowers. Grass for our scraggly lawn. It seemed like a start for myself. I went to where they have a tool to help you plan your own kitchen garden. There is a bare plot behind our house that Scott is going to help me dig up next week. Just writing this down is a little exciting for me. I can order seeds. I can read Margaret’s beautiful posts and learn about tubers and the best peas for freezing.

While this was my first winter in a long time, it is also my first spring. I am ready for the light, for the seeds of new beginnings. I bought a great new cookbook called Clean Start by Terry Waters. I love it because the recipes are organized by season, they are all gorgeous and easy, and she uses every kind of vegetable imaginable. In the back cover I found this quote:

Nourish beginnings, let us nourish beginnings. Not all things are blest, but the seeds of all things are blest.The blessing is in the seed – Muriel Rukeyser.

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