Permaculture and the Psyche 4: The Problem is the Solution!

imageWhen events grow uncomfortable enough to permeate the boundaries of what I know to be true; when the discomfort of encountering a perspective that doesn’t quite fit my current worldview encroaches upon my awareness, I have a choice: I can view the new information as a problem, or I can view it as a solution.

 

How can a problem be a solution? Because discomfort engages the awareness. For the first time, I can see there is something wrong. And that means I can change it.
Bear with me here: I am going to take a brief field trip away from permaculture and into neurology. Recently my sweetheart let me borrow his book on neurochemicals and it jumpstarted a whole new way of thinking about this permaculture principle.

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Long ago, back in California, I attended UCLA evening classes to obtain psychology prerequisites. I sat in a huge arena-style classroom and listened as the tiny professor, audible only through the speakers behind me, expounded upon the development of the human brain. He explained that the brain “prunes”, hugely, when we are very young; a vast amount of neural circuitry is deemed unnecessary and mercilessly cut from the brain. We do this for efficient and speedy processing of information.

 

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But thereafter, whenever we take in information that doesn’t fit our previous experience, the brain simply disregards it. It is only when this information reaches a critical mass, or induces a certain level of emotional discomfort, that our brain is willing to even “see” it at all.

 

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This is how a person can continue to hold on to a worldview that is utterly disproved by information all around her—her brain just can’t “see” it yet, because it doesn’t match her prior experience. She hasn’t yet developed the critical mass of internal or external discomfort to create a new pathway in her brain, one that would enable her to see the information that has been there all along.

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The language I learned in later counseling classes for this process, when we got into Piaget and development, was that all of us have “schemas”—ideas about how the world works—and any time we receive new information, we try to plug it into an existing schema. We really, really don’t want to have to create new schemas. It’s hard.

 

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So we’ll cram new information into our old schemas any which way, however awkward the results: “oh, lacrosse? That’s kind of like soccer, but with squishy tennis rackets!” “Oh, a moose? That’s basically a big cow, with antlers.” We try to relate any new information to old information we already have, because those circuits are already there, greased with myelin for speedy processing.

 

 

We would rather believe our schemas than integrate information that disproves them. So, imagine I had a loud dog as a child, and had therefore developed the schema that “dogs are loud animals”. If I were to meet a dog that did not bark I would be likely, at first, to assume that this animal is not a dog. Dogs are loud, this animal is not loud, therefore this animal is not a dog. (This sounds silly, but I squirm when I think of how many times a day I make similar, if more subtle, errors!) I would have to be exposed to many different quiet dogs before my brain could be persuaded to adapt my schema to include both loud and quiet animals into the schema “dog”.

 

 

Similarly, if I grew up in America and never met anyone from the Middle East; if my only exposure to Middle Eastern folks was in news of terrorism, I might well develop the schema that “Middle Eastern people are terrorists.” It would take many conversations with Middle Eastern people, perhaps even a journey to experience the Middle East through my own eyes, before my brain would take the risk of altering that schema.

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Our brains aren’t bad—they do this to protect us. It’s important to be able to process information quickly, and we, as animals that develop our brains through experience rather than instinct, can actually equip them to process current information, true information about the world around us AS IT IS TODAY, rather than working with instincts and ideas that were developed in a much different world, as reptiles do.

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But to do that, we have to be able to feel discomfort, the discomfort of being WRONG. We have to be able to notice and face the information that tells us we are incorrect, rather than avoiding it. We have to be willing to revise our opinions of experiences that have felt  true in the past.

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In short: we have to have PROBLEMS!

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There are so many examples of problem-as-solution. Nettle juice heals its own sting. Couch grass, world’s WORST weed, choking and starving out whatever you’ve planted (sorry, not altering that schema, don’t care what godawful weeds you think you’ve discovered) makes the most incredible bio-accessible fertilizer for your garden when brewed into weed tea. Ever heard of the wounded healer? Folks who have been through terrible things and have gone through their own healing process make incredibly compassionate, informed healers. Think of vaccines: disease healing disease.

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My sweetheart’s neurochemistry book says that there are two ways you can make new circuits as an adult. One is through overwhelming emotion. For example, if you have always loved chocolate cake, and then one night  as you are eating a piece of chocolate cake you learn that your best friend has died, your schema for chocolate cake is going to change. You won’t associate it with happiness anymore, you’ll associate it with grief. Overwhelming emotion can rewire our circuits instantaneously.

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The other way to make new circuits as an adult is through repetition. This entails  laboriously repeating a behavior again and again until the brain takes to it. I am getting married in two weeks, and as a form of purification and ritual readiness, my honey and I decided to do thirty days of clean eating.

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notice how there is no toast with jam.😦

We’re two weeks in, eating only whole foods, no sugar, dairy, alcohol, or grains, and boy is the repetition grueling. I want my tea with milk and sugar every morning. But EVERY MORNING, I don’t have it. And slowly, my brain is building a circuit that says “black coffee is an acceptable substitute for milky, sugary tea in the morning.”

 

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Did I say slowly? It’s SLOOOOOOOOOOOW. I WANT MY TEA WITH MILK AND SUGAR! But this morning, I didn’t even reach for the teapot. I automatically took down the coffee beans. It is slow, but it is happening.

imageOn Wednesday night, we had the magical experience of using both deep emotion and intermodal artistic repetition to build new circuits in the brain. It felt AMAZING in that room.

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Maeve had found live musicians, at the last minute, and as we engaged in our kundalini kriyas, they drummed and played for us. We could feel, tangibly, the problems resolving to solutions in our bodies, the ways physical stress can lead to joy.

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We used co-counseling to explore the self-critical and maladaptive voices that repeatedly shut us down. We identified these voices, gave them names, and then embodied them in a role play that led to terrible, stagnant feelings. Hooray! Deep emotion activated!

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Then we spent some time on art, using color and shape and line and symbol to discern what was behind these voices, what unmet needs they represented. The unmet needs told us the desire these voices were hiding. Perfectionism can be a desire for acceptance, for example, and unworthiness can be a desire to feel valid.

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We embodied the desires, this time, and the joy in the room was palpable. Hooray! More deep emotion!

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And then the art we had made about critical voices became seeds for paintings of our desires, and the room filled with extraordinary color and swirling light. Problems transformed into solutions right before our eyes. There was silence and laughter and a deep sense of creation.

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This is what I so love about the Expressive Arts. If you want your life to transform, deep emotion and repetition have to be engaged. When the emotion is evoked by lovely music, by delicious motion, by moving and heartfelt words, by brilliant colors and lines and brushstrokes and shapes; when the repetition is engaged by exploring a theme first through art, then poetry, then movement, then music; the transformation happens seamlessly. And it is passionate and powerful and safe and lasting.

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I love this about permaculture too. Yes, the world is full of terrifying and desperate problems. But as we learn from nature and repetitively, with deep passion and emotion, apply her solutions to the land around us, we gain agency and hope. As we transform problems into solutions, again and again, we find that we are transforming not only ourselves, but also the world around us.

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This workshop series has been a source of great delight for me over the past month. I am so grateful to Maeve for co-facilitating with me, and so grateful to all who attended the workshops, responded to these written reflections, and gave me feedback on the concepts and ideas we explored.

I am by no means finished playing with this ecotone of permaculture and psyche….I will continue to wonder and write and inquire into all of the interesting interfaces between ecology and psychology. Stay tuned for the BOOK! ❤️

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September 3, 2016 · 1:25 am

Permaculture and the Psyche Part 3: Least Effort for Greatest Effect

IMG_7749Bertolt Brecht said “Grub before ethics.”  Maslow said there is a hierarchy of needs: one must first have food, shelter, fire, and water before she can focus on self-development or creativity.

If certain needs are not met, we stop developing.

This is as true of gardens as it is of people. If the soil on your land is depleted, no amount of backbreaking tilling, planting, or weeding is going to ensure a good harvest. But a tiny investment in building the soil will yield spectacular results.

If you are deeply exhausted, investments in education, nutrition, and exercise are not going to pay off. But if you give yourself a bit more sleep— everything transforms.

The principle of least effort for greatest effect has a beautiful assumption at its center: you are already moving toward self-realization. Everything is. You do not have to work and work and work to achieve perfection. Your only job is to discern what obstacles are hindering your natural perfection, and remove them.

By perfection, I do not mean the kind of perfect that is the enemy of the good. I mean a living, breathing balance, such as we see in a climax forest or a well-nourished, well-loved child. In natural perfection there is always room for growth, but there is nothing actively hindering that growth.

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Sometimes the obstacles are blindingly obvious: racism and poverty and other inequalities jump immediately to mind. Other times they are more insidious; we think we need to work harder when really we need to relax and be more receptive. We think we need to explain when really we need to listen. We think we need a brownie when really we need a hug. We think we need a hug when really we need a brownie.

If we can somehow open ourselves to the idea that we are intrinsically fine just as we are, the obstacles start to reveal themselves. What, then, is hindering us? Do we need shelter? Water? Fire? Food?

Do we need someone to listen to us? Do we need an hour more sleep per night? Do we need a room we can be alone in? Do we need a schedule that allows us to sleep late, or rise early?

Do we need to be working in a field that utilizes our natural gifts rather than deadens them?

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Do we just need a freaking cape? 

Five minutes spent removing an obstacle to your natural progress is worth a year’s hard labor fighting your own natural tendencies. That’s an actual statistic I made up.

So: how do we learn what our natural plan is, and what our obstacles are?

On Wednesday night we used two of my favorite tools, the Ikigai Venn diagram and the Merlin Process.

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To find your Ikigai, you look at the areas of overlap between your talents, your training, your passions, and the needs of the world. You find the sweet spot that encompasses all four, and THAT is where you put any extra energy, time, or money.

Tiny efforts in the area of your Ikigai yield exponential effects, because your passion and education and talent line up to push your ideas into the world.

(And if you need a refresher on how Venn diagrams work…

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…that should do it. )

Merlin Process is a joyful, heady way to trick your brain out of the insecurities that thwart you from achieving your Ikigai. Here’s how it works: Merlin is said to have lived backwards through time. Legend tells of his birth as an old man and his death as baby. The glory of this backward trajectory was that Merlin never had to worry about his future; it had already happened! We can play with this magic ourselves, by pretending our future is already in our past.

It works like this.  Take a little time and work out your Ikigai by making lists of the things you love, the things you are good at, the things you can get paid for, the things the world needs. Notice the areas of overlap. Work your Ikigai until you have it down as a sweet, solid sentence.

Now find an open-hearted friend and talk for five minutes IN THE PRESENT TENSE about how your Ikigai is the center of your life now. For example, if my Ikigai is to write and work with women on the overlap between ecology and psychology to solve personal and global injustices (which, by golly, it is!) then my Merlin Process conversation might go a bit like this:

Me: Wow, so, five years ago I remember sending my first book about permaculture and psychology off to the publisher….so much changed after that! I remember how I started traveling to talk about the book, and set up so many workshops and retreats for women who were suffering, and how the proceeds from book sales and the nonprofit I set up funded so many trainings for women all over the world. It feels so good that my job is to have my hands in the earth and to laugh with women, and I never have to get up before 8 am. I love how my needs for sunlight and laughter and connection and the outdoors are all fulfilled by my work, and it is so amazing to me that I can offer counseling and retreats to the women who most need it, women who would never be able to pay for these services if it weren’t for the incredible donors to my nonprofit and the proceeds from my books and gardens. It astounds me to have a life that leaves so much room for free days with my children, and travels with my beloved; I feel so at service and yet life is not drudgery. It means the world to me that I can respect my natural rhythms and take time for rest during my moon cycle. I love that the work I do leaves no footprint on the earth except for lands that are more deeply loved, lives that are more carefully tended.

Friend: Wow Lissa, tell me more about what your life feels like now! How on earth did you do that?

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Continue this conversation for as long as you want—you may surprise yourself with what you already know about how you got where you want to go! (And switch off with your friend so that everybody gets a turn being Merlin!)

Here’s another amazing story of least effort for greatest effect: Trees for Life and the instant forest . It also serves as a segue into next week’s workshop, our final exploration: the problem is the solution.  (my favorite!)

 

If you want to attend the permaculture and the psyche workshop on Wednesday, email maevehendrix@gmail.com to reserve a spot.

And if you do engage in the Ikigai/Merlin process above, I would LOVE to hear from you in a comment what you discovered about your purpose!

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August 28, 2016 · 9:31 pm

Permaculture and the Psyche Part 2: Stacking Functions

IMG_8026I have been wearing this bracelet since Wednesday evening. It is very simple; one bead of Czech glass, one of jasper, and one of turquoise. As I type or write or lift a cup of tea to my lips, I let my eyes rest on these simple beads and a sense of purpose fills my heart.

On Wednesday, we met for our second week of Permaculture and the Psyche workshops. This week we discussed the practice of stacking functions: the ecological imperative of multifunctionality. The bracelet I now wear was the result of the lengthy artistic process: first we discerned our needs through writing, yoga, and co-counseling; then refined them through guided meditation; finally we made them tangible through the selection of beads to represent each core need. Now, every time I gaze at my wrist, I am reminded of who I want to be, what I want to be doing, and how I want to experience my life.

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Stacking functions, in permaculture design, is about getting multiple needs met with a single element. You may be familiar with the Three Sisters garden in which corn, beans, and squash are grown together. This garden stacks functions beautifully: the corn serves the function of both food and a pole for the beans to climb on. The beans serve the function of fixing nitrogen to replenish the nutrients that corn, a notorious heavy feeder, draws from the soil. Squash spreads between them, serving the function of shading the soil to minimize water loss through evaporation and also shading out any weeds that might compete with the corn and beans. By stacking these functions with clever interplanting, the three sisters garden does away with the need for poles, fertilizer, mulch, water, and the labor of weeding!

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We can “stack functions” in our own lives by meeting several core needs with a single action. I gave this example on Wednesday:

after work each day, I have an hour or so to transition from the work environment to my home. I spend my days in a small office, away from the sun and light of the outdoors. I want to get outside and see my friends. I want to move my body and renew myself from any difficult encounters. But with all of these needs to meet, and only an hour in which to meet them, it behooves me to stack functions! I could go for a run and meet my need for sun and exercise. I could take a friend for a drink and fulfil my social need for friendship. Or, I could walk to the yoga center and ask a friend to join me in a yoga class, thus meeting my needs for motion, friendship, renewal, and sunlight in one fell swoop!

Of course, our needs change every day. It is important to remember to cultivate that internal witness (last week, we processed the permaculture principle everything gardens, using yoga, meditation, and artmaking to cultivate the inner witness. We learned how to observe the forces gardening and shaping us just as a permaculture designer observes the light, wind, and water that moves across a landscape. Read this post for more) so that we stay flexible in our responses. Some days I don’t want to be social and active at all; my body tells me to go home and sleep! But maybe I can walk home, and change my route to include the grocery store, so that I stack the functions of preparing for dinner and getting some sunlight and exercise into my journey.

Discerning the core needs of a system is the first step in any good design. We do this through observation and the careful collection of data. Every piece of land is yearning toward something; left alone; it will go through a process of natural succession and arrive at a humming homeostasis, whatever the climax community is for that particular piece of land.

There is a phenomenal amount of potential energy in that groundswell. When we fight that energy, say by plowing a piece of land and inserting rows of tomato plants, we set ourselves up to battle weeds, insects, erosion, and disease.

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But if we observe, and discern what the land wants to be, we can use design as a bridge to meet all the needs of the system with plants that are useful to us. Then, that groundswell of energy will surge forward through the design instead of against it. In temperate forest like we have here in Asheville, we might plant a forest of fruit and nut trees, edible and medicinal shrubs, and edible-tuber, edible-green, or insectary ground layers wound through with wild grape to mimic the composition of the forest this land wants to be. Such a design, if well-implemented, will fare far better than the rows of tomatoes.

The difference between a tomato garden and a food forest is one of complexity and relationship. The way we design relationship and complexity into our gardens (or our psyches!) is by stacking functions: placing each element of our system into elegant relationship with other elements in order to meet our needs as efficiently as possible.

IMG_7836It is important to note that stacking functions is just one part of the equation. There is another permaculture principle that reminds us to design in multiple elements for each function: the reverse of stacking functions. Imagine, in the three sisters garden, if there were to be a terrible drought. Yes, the large squash leaves shade the ground, helping to conserve water in the soil, but if there is no water there to conserve, all three plants will die. We need to have a back up system, perhaps a well-placed rain barrel  to collect roofwater from the garden shed, to meet the function of watering in case our first element fails.

Last year, my stomach muscles split open in a severe case of diastasis rectii and major surgery was required to repair the damage. I discovered very quickly that I had become reliant on physical exercise as my only stress-management tool. Lying flat on my back for the months of surgery recovery, I had to quickly re-learn the importance of designing in multiple elements to meet core needs! Now, I have learned to process stress by meditating, talking with friends over tea, and writing (although exercise is still my go-to!) This way, my entire stress-management system won’t crash the next time I experience injury.

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me, managing stress

 

This process of observing life, discerning core needs, and designing strategies to meet them efficiently (with back ups!) can sound a bit exhausting.  Applying our intelligence—even our awareness!—consciously to our lives is not something that most of us are taught. But I have found that when I take the time to observe myself and my true needs, I can design a life that works with my natural tendencies rather than fighting them. In the long run, this saves immense amounts of mental, physical, and emotional energy and pain.

If you want to play with this process in your life and make your own stacking-functions bracelet, read on!

Below, I’ve included a script for three guided meditations we worked with on Wednesday. Get a pen and paper, a handful of beads, and something to string them on. Find a quiet place, light a candle and some palo santo or sweetgrass, and read these meditations to yourself or have a friend read them to you.

1. Close your eyes and bring your awareness down into the very center of your self, breathing deeply and low in the belly. Find the beat of your heart and smile at the heart, notice if the heart smiles back. Breathing deeply, imagine the face of a person that you admire or even envy, a person whose way of being in the world fills you with a longing, an edge of wanting to become MORE…. Perhaps you’ve never met this person, only read of their physical or mental or spiritual accomplishments. Or maybe this is a friend whose way of being in the world inspires you…. Imagine the face of this person, their eyes, their posture as they carry themselves through the world…. Notice the effect they have on the world around them, what they are doing, the expression on their face…  What is the essence of this person you so admire?…    Really looking at this person, what is the word that describes their way of being in the world?… If you had to condense what it is that you so admire about them into one concept, what would it be? …

Breathing low in the belly, allowing this image of the person you admire to dissipate, keeping the word. Smiling at your heart, noticing if your heart smiles back. Coming back to the room, quietly write your word down and then close your eyes once again.

2. Now, eyes closed, breathing deeply, come back to that place in the center of yourself, finding the breath low in your belly, finding your stomach and smiling at it. Notice if it smiles back.  Breathing into this smile, settling deep into your belly, picture the last time you read about something in the world that made you tear up. What do you see, or read, or hear about that fills you with a burning rage, or overwhelming joy, or a deep sorrow? What is it in the world that deeply moves you or what is it that you cannot stomach? Picture the last time you were talking so passionately about something that your heart was pounding and you couldn’t keep up with your own words. What were you talking about? …Let these memories surface, watch them, and find what is at the heart of them. What is the issue that burns brightest in your heart? What calls to you most strongly in the world? Find its essence in a single word.

Breathing deep into the stomach, letting these memories and images go, keeping the word. Smiling at your stomach and noticing if it smiles back. Bringing your attention briefly back to the room, quietly write this word down and then close your eyes once again.

3. Now, eyes closed, come back to that place in the center of yourself, finding the breath deep and full. Bring your attention into the silver lobes of your lungs. Smile at these temples that connect you through breath with the rest of life. Smile at them, and notice if they smile back.  Breathing into this smile, settling deep into the fullness of the lungs, picture yourself in the place you feel most radiantly comfortable, alive, and happy. What is the place most sacred to you? Is this place outside, inside? What does it smell like? Is it bright or dark, cool or warm? What are the colors of this place, what do the textures feel like against your skin? What is it about this place that feeds you? What makes it sacred, what sets it apart from other places? How do you feel when you enter it? If there were a single word that could contain the feeling of this place, what would it be? Find the essence of this sacred place in a single word.

Breathing deep into your lungs, letting these images go, keeping the word you’ve found. Smiling at your lungs and noticing if they smile back. Slowly bringing your attention back to the room, quietly write this word down and, when you are ready, look up.

The meditations will leave you with a list of three words. Take your three words and really look at them. These three words make up the core of what is most important for you to be, do, and experience. These are the elements you want to stack in to your life design.

What currently meets these needs for you? Where in your life do you get to be the quality of the first word? Where in your life to you get to do work that addresses the second word? Where in your life do you experience the feeling evoked by the third word?

Select three beads whose color, shape, or symbol invokes each of your three words. These three beads will be the centerpiece of your talisman, reminding you always of the core of who you want to be, what you want to do, and how you want to experience life.

Tie them onto a string and wear them around your wrist.

As you make decisions throughout your day, look at these beads and quietly repeat the words to yourself. As you choose how to spend your time, ensure that these three vital needs are met in as many ways as possible. Pay particular attention to people, activities, and places that meet all three.  As you go through the day, notice ways you can build in back-ups for these needs. With every decision you make, give first consideration to meeting these needs.

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Next Wednesday, we are meeting at The Enneagram Center in Asheville to explore the permaculture principle of least effort for greatest effect through yoga and the expressive arts.  If you’re in the area, join us by emailing Maeve Hendrix(maevehendrix@gmail.com); if not, stay tuned and I will write about the experience next week!

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August 20, 2016 · 1:16 pm

Permaculture and the Psyche

Sometimes life gets difficult, out of the blue. I’ve spent this week wrangling shadows I thought had long been laid to rest, struggling with angry and caustic pieces of myself I would love to think had evolved away.

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Last night, I put a  beautiful statue of Kali on my altar and burned sage and cried on the hands (and arms and shoulders) of my beloved and did angry, sweaty, yoga, throwing everything I know how to throw at these heavy and painful feelings. They are still there: rage at situations in which I feel powerless over the wellbeing of my children; deep sorrow at the ugly shadows of my country that keep emerging; self-hatred over old behaviors and habits that hurt the ones I love. I pull them out of myself like an endless ball of dark thread, spilling it all into the laps of trusted friends and family, allowing it come into the light like a bloodletting.

 

It still hurts, knowing that this murderous rage lives in me. But when I speak it, when I acknowledge it and move it through me, it loses the power to secretly poison my internal world. It is tempting to hide this side of myself, but I know it is far braver to witness it for what it is, to face its consequences openly.

 

In a few weeks I am holding a workshop with my friend Maeve on the intersection of permaculture and wellness psychology, and the first week’s theme is Everything Gardens.

 

We teach what we need to learn.

 

Everything gardens. Deer nibble complete circles around the bark of trees, killing them so that they fall and provide habitat for grubs and other insects for winter food. Beaver build homes that function as dams, increasing the habitat of their favored foods and placing it right at their backdoor. Anger, held within, gardens a healthy space for itself to continue to grow and increase. If we are not actively gardening our thoughts and environments, they are gardening us.

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It could be as simple as a grouchy co-worker that you would do anything to avoid. That co-worker gardens your daily path around the office. Or a sudden rainstorm that cancels the hike you’d planned. The weather gardens the shape of your day.

 

The first step in any permaculture design is a careful observation of the land, where the sun rises and sets in each season, how rain moves across the landscape, if there is a neighbor’s dog that always pees in a certain spot, or a wind that blows strongly from the north every winter. These forces, once observed, can be interacted with: either channeled into the design or counterbalanced. For example, carefully dug swales along the contour of the land can capture rainwater that would otherwise have sluiced and eroded across the landscape, allowing it to filter deep into the ground and nourish the roots of plants long after the surface soil has gone dry. Wind can power a well-placed windmill, generating electricity or pumping water for driplines. Dogs can be trained to pee on compost piles, depositing nitrogen where it is needed rather than burning the delicate leaves of a new plant.

 

In the same way, we can  train ourselves to observe the forces that move across our own landscapes.

 

It can be external: I observe for a while that I am grouchy when it rains and I can’t spend my lunch hour outside, so I purchase an umbrella that lives in my office. It can be internal: I notice that there is a certain time each month that I feel angry and raw, so I learn to take that time off to myself and away from any relationships that I might hurt with processing that should have been internal. It all starts with observation and the willingness to be aware of my own habits, the invisible forces that influence me.

 

Everything Gardens means that I am being shaped constantly whether I participate in it or not. As the saying goes, if I keep walking down a road, chances are I am going to get where I’m going!  

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I am learning to bravely look at what gardens me so that I can choose my road. It is neither simple nor easy, but it is incredibly valuable. And I have discovered a strange beauty that emerges when I have allowed the anger and the hurt and the ugliness to safely express themselves, and find I am still standing at the end.

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July 31, 2016 · 2:37 pm

on resilience

IMG_7420There is a terrifying beauty to my life these days. I say terrifying because there is a specter that arrives at the door as you greet each thing of beauty into your life, the specter of its loss.

The love relationship at the center of my life right now runs very deep, into the crevices and shadows of the places I know I still need to grow. Being this deeply loved and cherished by turns inspires and horrifies me. It raises questions of my own worth and also of my ability to continue to grow, to create, to be as volatile and vital as I was when this man I love first loved me. There is an intrinsic fear that if I change too much, this love will fall away; or if I do not change enough, this love will fall away; a deep and shadowy fear that it is all a wonderful mistake and I will wake one day to find I am no longer loved.

Then, too, loving this deeply gives a hostage to fate. The hard rains that came last week slicked the road and sent the man I am going to marry into a hydroplane, skidding in a full circle across the highway. I nearly lost him. Life is so tenuous. How do we live with this constant specter of loss?

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One glimmer of an answer is given to me by my original hostages to fate, the boys who daily lose some of their baby softness and are sharpening into young men, men whose lives are slowly detaching at the roots and widening away from me. I have learned, day by day, slowly and sometimes against great resistance, to love them with flexible curiosity. I have learned to love them in anticipation of change, rather than in expectation that we will be the same parent and child we were yesterday. I have learned, with wrenching pain, that life will hurt them and I will be powerless to stop it. I have learned that I have very little power in their lives, except to give them a homing place between their explorations. I have learned that my life is mine and their lives are theirs, that we find meaning in wildly different places, that they are not necessarily going to enjoy my (freaking amazing, wildly inventive, dammit!) cooking.

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There is another shadow to beauty of this kind, and that is guilt. Who am I to have so beautiful, so privileged a life when there is so much pain around me? Every day between the gray walls of my office cubicle I am vouchsafed new stories, stories of loss and pain and such heartrending unfairness that I sometimes howl into a pillow when I get home. Stories of poverty and oppression that is punished with more poverty and oppression, deep pain that is punished with more pain. All I can do in the face of this monstrous unfairness is look it in the eye and challenge it with the conviction that life can turn around.  All I can do is hear the humanness in these beautiful people, people who have been treated all of their lives as less than human, people that never had–and may never have–the chances that I was lucky enough to have been given. I can’t give them the privileges attendant upon the color of my skin. I can’t give them my loving parents, or the blind luck of my genes or educational background.

There is an impulse that arises to deny it all, to numb away from it. In the evenings there is a compulsion to climb into bed and read escapist fiction, to shut myself away with a glass of wine and deaden myself to what I have seen and heard. Sometimes I succumb to that impulse, and sometimes it helps. But it does not honor this life I have been given. As Wayne Dyer writes, you can never be sad enough to lift another’s depression, or poor enough to make someone else rich.

So. I wake and stretch and try to spend the day reaching toward the light instead of tucking myself away from fear of loss. I am training myself to live in appreciation of this beauty that has been granted me, to explore its furthest reaches with curiosity and tenderness.  The most respectful thing I can do is live it, and appreciate it, utterly. Then I can turn back to my friends and clients in the wilderness and say, try this way. It’s less thorny up ahead, you can do it.

My friend Maeve and I are presenting a series of workshops starting next wednesday that explore the connections between permaculture and psychological resilience. As I prepare the curriculum for these workshops, I am reminded again of the incredible elegance of ecology. I am reminded that the problem is the solution, that everything gardens, that in my guild of neighbors I may find nutrients that I cannot synthesize for myself. I can use my privileges to synthesize nutrients for my neighbors by taking actions they cannot take.  I can learn how to do this most effectively through observation and awareness, for forces that move through my landscape will invisibly alter me if I do not pay attention and act to change them. I am reminded of natural succession, of how our very growth changes us and prepares the ground for the next cycle.

And I am reminded that the heartrending beauty at the center of any garden, of any ecosystem, is change. Dandelions and chicory give way to passionflower and muscadine, which pave the way for locust and tulip poplar, then oak and beech, which shade out the dandelion and grape and locust—but then fall, leaving sunlit gaps, and there are the dandelions again. Our task, then, is to gather the dandelions and then the grapes, fill our arms with locust blossoms, climb up into the beech and soothe ourselves in the shade. My task is to honor what has been given, for as long as it lasts, and prepare the ground so that all of my neighbors can thrive. Diversity is resilience: in gardens, in the psyche, in the neighborhood.

I am resilient in my change. I do not need to fear the change. I need to actively participate in it.

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July 23, 2016 · 4:03 pm

Salt is a Sacrifice

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Listen:

What we forget is that

Salt is a sacrifice

 

Each bite is Earth ground down

Body into taste to

 

Waken you

Here

To this bite, this breath.

 

To shield ourselves from this is

A strange falling

 

Listen: ritual can be simple,

Easy as noticing that this salt is

Earth,

Ground down.

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The changes I have undergone lately, the journeys I have undertaken, have woken me again and again to two things:

I have much to offer and

The world is hungry for me to offer it.

There is a strange falling in shielding myself behind the eternal student, the safety of beginnings, and yes, that infusion of fresh air is always necessary. But the accumulated wisdom needs somewhere to go. And it wants to go into my work.

The odd piece of this for me is that on the one hand I’m a baby counselor, not more than a month into my first counseling job, and it feels really disingenuous to start rocking the boat already. On the other hand, I am a seasoned woman. Life has taught me, and taught me, and taught me, and I have had the wits to listen.

So: I am all of it, baby and wise woman, student and elder. The fires that burn deep in my belly are the same fires: to fight for the personhood of mothers, for available childcare so that women can participate in the culture. The sweetness of self-determination for all, a yearning for each person on this planet to have the food and space and respect and love and art supplies they need to ripen into themselves. The deep, deep-in-my-bones love for this earth, these mountains, the stories the forests and stones and rivers tell and the magic beneath those stories.

To this burning I offer: a mind sharpened by the privilege of an excellent education, a heart warmed by the generosity and sacrifice of untold ancestors and fellow travelers, a life story that has broken my ears wide open to hear the experience of others without losing myself, and wisdom passed down from people, plants, and traditions that held me and held me until I learned.

In the day-to-day, this ritual fire takes the shape of a windowless office in the bowels of the Buncombe County Social Services building. Here, I listen to the stories of humans who have been batted around between walls of not-enough. Not enough options, not enough privilege, not enough respect, not enough attention, not enough love. My job is to assess their need for substance use disorder treatment and sometimes that is what I do.

But the fire burns, invisible beneath my pressboard desk, and what I really do is try to listen with every pore of my skin. I offer tea and water and a closed door and attention and flowers. If there are resources I can offer I will offer them, but more often what I collect is the story.  I place it as a twig on the fire. And the fire of these voices is growing  into a conflagration that wants to burn away all the not-enough and leave childcare, time alone, laughter, and fruit trees in its wake. I don’t know how to do that yet. But I have faith that I will. Or, more truthfully: WE will. 

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The mountaintop I left this morning was shrouded in fog and a sweet soft rain, a rain I realized suddenly was a hydrosol of Earth, every plant and clay and being in this watershed distilled and condensed in the falling mist. I am so blessed to have this time to make art, to learn, to nourish myself.

May I always feel the blessing in the rain. May I always remember that salt is a sacrifice.
May I be of service to the ones who walk into my office. May I be of service to the great fire beneath the surface of what I do.

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May 20, 2016 · 5:51 pm

of cleavers and crows

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I have had the odd sense, ever since I moved to Asheville, of seeds I planted and forgot years hence coming to mysterious bloom.  Over twenty years ago, I moved to Asheville with a frame pack and a guitar. I crashed on the floor of a friend’s dorm room and walked the streets until I found lodging in a sweet, small apartment in a house on Chestnut Street. I took long runs every morning, following Chestnut Street until it dead-ended in a stately old cemetery.

All these years later, I was told that finding lodging in Asheville was a difficult proposition. I should be prepared to live outside of town and to wait months for the right thing to show up.

The first house we looked at was on Chestnut Street, right by the old cemetery where I used to run. It was a sweet little wood-floored home with a fireplace and a yard, in the heart of the historic district, walking distance to town. The rent was astonishingly affordable, considering the location, and perhaps for that reason the open house was bombarded with applicants. Afterward we walked to a nearby restaurant and talked excitedly about how amazing it would be to live here, and how unlikely we were to get the chance. All those applicants!

I sat and watched the phantom of that seventeen-year-old girl run by, and I knew we would get the house.

We got the house. I live on Chestnut Street again, all these years later, this time with my family.

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Two years ago I sat out in the sun eating, in Boone, and talked with a new friend from my Expressive Arts cohort about our dreams and hopes for the field. We were both fascinated by the intersection between art and place, and I told her of my connection to Ireland and my deep desire to return there. She told me of friends in Ireland who had just started a fledgling expressive arts institute, and we began to dream of traveling to Ireland someday to visit them and collaborate on these ideas of art and landscape. We laughed, and made art about it, and moved on with our lives.

This Monday my friend and I flew together to Ireland to attend the Expressive Arts Spring Symposium, and spent a week making art about sacred landscape in a conference hosted by the friends she’d told me of on that day two years ago.

Honestly, it frightens me sometimes, the way life brings its harvest in. I feel unworthy of it, and worried about the price I will have to pay for all of this beauty. I feel very conscious of each move I make, each word I speak, knowing how irrefutably the seeds grow and show their fruit in my life.

On the day we flew to Ireland, two very momentous things happened. I had my first job interview for a counseling position and I learned that Touchstone Farm, the place I landed right after I left Asheville twenty years ago–the place that set me on the path of herbalism and yoga and searching for the sacred–was being put up for sale. It felt like the closing of a circle. I had returned to Asheville, had reached the beginning of my life as an Expressive Arts therapist, and the door to the past had closed.

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Touchstone was very much on my mind and heart as I woke the next morning and walked out into the Irish countryside. Horses stomped and blew steam into the air, and a hooded crow lifted off from the fence in front of me in a heart-stopping line straight upward to the sun. It seemed to hang there for a minute, far above my head, and I wondered how the world felt to the crow, spread beneath it like that.

The hedgerow in front of me was overgrown with nettles and cleavers. Back when I was an apprentice at Touchstone, Shaker gave me a guide to edible plants from the community library and pointed out a few to get me started. Cleavers was one of the first I tried. It clings to you—the leaves are slightly sticky, and the seeds velcro themselves to your socks. This is a good way to remember its properties–it’s a spring-cleaning plant; it adheres to and cleans away the winter ick. I tried it plain and found its taste clean and springlike, full of chlorophyll. I liked the way it felt in my body, how it cleaned me out. But I hated the texture. Another apprentice suggested I put it in a blender and make a smoothie. That was worse. Finally, I read a recipe for cleavers coffee that consisted of dry-roasting the seeds and grinding and preparing them like coffee beans. I had a handy supply of cleaver seeds right there on my socks, so I tried this and found the resulting beverage delightful, slightly cocoa-flavored and smoky. Seeing the cleavers here on the tumbled stones of a farm wall in Ireland was like being surprised by an old friend.

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cleaver bouquet

I wouldn’t have known what cleavers was the first time I came to Ireland, because I had not yet been to Touchstone, had not yet learned to see the world through the eyes of a botanist. I was fifteen the first time I came to Ireland, and sixteen when I returned the summer after that, learning quickly enough what nettles were as I pulled them out to make a garden.

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nettles rampant!

That summer I was living in Miltown Malbay, working as housekeeper/companion for Josephine Phillips. If Shaker taught me about plants and the sacred, Jo taught me about poetry. It was alive to her. She sat in her windowseat watching the storms roll in and softly recited poems to herself. Her eyes were slowly losing their battle to macular degeneration, so she committed as many poems to her formidable memory as she could.

I was full of energy and wanderlust, wanting always to bike off to Ennistymon or wander by the sea, but Jo was very firm that I should take some time each day to sit still and memorize poems. On rainy days we listened to poets read their work aloud on the BBC and Jo would sit there, dreamy, lost in the words. I learned to love words, watching Jo.

The crow flew away, and I picked a little bouquet of the nettles and cleavers, thinking of Jo and Touchstone and the way these long-ago seeds have borne fruit. Here I am, in Ireland, writing poetry, I whispered to Jo. Your lessons took!

Nettle juice heals its own sting, I thought, recalling all the teachers who have guided my steps through the world of plant medicine. I rolled the nettle leaves between my fingers until their stinging hairs were crushed and I could take them like little Ireland-acclimation pills.

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Jo is gone now. I felt her so strongly this week in the wind that blew through the trees by the river Nore and the poetry that came flowing onto the page. Touchstone is gone too, in a way. But they are alive. They are all alive in me. 

I made nettles-and-cleaver tea when I got back to the hotel and sat sipping it in the sun, sending out a prayer for the seeds others have planted in my life and the for the ones I am planting. This world is sacred, and so is this life. I sometimes cannot believe the beauty of the stories I have been honored to carry.

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Carrying On 

(for Jo and Touchstone)

 

I am knee-deep in nettles and peat.

I am one beat of breath to the crow above me.

I am caught in the arms of ancestors long fallen.

Who remains in me? Whose story am I walking?

 

                                                        ~ Kilkenny, 3/30/16

 

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April 5, 2016 · 6:32 pm