Sprouting

It would be great to be able to say that spring is sprouting, but it’s sort of been a tease (she wrote, as freezing rain pelleted the ground outside). Still, its sunny inklings have been relief, anticipating when good things can grow, both green and otherwise.

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Of course I’m clear on the climate change implications woven within such unusually warm spring-teases, but I don’t find it helpful to dwell. The problem is there, in rather bold and loud tones. But instead of ruminating, part of my plan of action is to take advantage – to use the more hospitable days to spring into a different kind of lifestyle.

(Hah. Spring. Pun entirely intended, I think.)

What I mean is: what exacerbated this warming was our all-too-human tendency to hide from (the occasionally admittedly harsh) natural world, right? We followed a habitual self-protection until it led our exploitation of her natural resources. Perhaps there are more layers than that, but let’s keep it simple for now.

What if we decided to use these changes, as they become more and more obvious, to teach ourselves to start embracing Nature? And – here’s a crazy thought – what if she responded to that?

Hope: it springs eternal.

When you are raised on a rhythm that says the supermarket fills every need, how do you even begin to sink your hands into new earth? How do you swap old measures out for new habits?

You don’t go it alone, first of all. I’ve been reading about prepping and homesteading lately. Such systems do have helpful how-tos, and frankly I understand the desire for self-sufficiency that they betray.

But I also believe that holding onto this old evolutionary must-protect-self-at-all-costs mindset can do more harm than good. My gut tells me that the way to make this meaningful is through the guidance of others — through community.

Do you start with permaculture? Or an urban garden? What about CSAs and food co-ops? There is a Richmond Food Cooperative starting this summer, but until then, I’m testing my plant-based interactions on a smaller scale, growing calendula, eggplant, broccoli, and onions out of cartons and containers into which I drilled drainage holes (did not actually drill any cartons).

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Strange’s is my source for sustainable seeds; Ellwood Thompson’sfor wheat in a first-time attempt at sprouting grains.

But it’s the Richmond Herbalism Guild that has drawn me deeply, with its heart for the gentle healing spirits of plants. Their first workshop of 2017 was a surprise find that slowly started my initiation into herbalism. I am so buoyed by the existence of an art and science that speaks to plants’ power to heal, something which seemed so intuitive yet esoteric, and is the former but not the latter.

One of their events was a guided plant walk at Forest Hill Park. The guides in question were Dave and Lena Welker of the Blue Heron Outdoor School.

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What they teach is less an ideology, and more an all-encompassing philosophy. They spoke to the idea that one could get to know plants as easily as if they were people. That so captured my attention, and I needed to learn more; next thing I knew, I was making my way to visit Dave and Lena at their home in Amherst. The hope was a simple one: to tap into their way of seeing and moving through the world.

This lifestyle (for lack of a better word) contains a great many lost practices – tracking, firemaking, and foraging, for a few – and leads to, in my eyes, a deeper realization of the interconnectedness of everything.

Because the truth is, each of us leaves an imprint as we move through this world. We do this on a physical level, yes, but also on an emotional level; in my imagination, these two combine in a colorful, crackling, metaphysical math problem that equals a web of energy. Invisible, and yet so visible, or at least palpable.

This is what we human animals do. We leave things behind. We make our marks. We carve our initials into tree trunks, dive into lakes, and build houses on old farmland. We drop plastic on the pavement, start our own gardens, and plant new trees. We pull dandelion weeds. We mark trails with cairns. And even when we think we’ve left no trace, we have left more than a few.

Each of us is more than meets the eye, and our actions, as do our thoughts and emotions, resonate with one another. We are connected.

So this time of great change – I want to embrace it, almost as if to turn it into a gift instead of a curse. Could that happen? Could we choose to leave a trace that vibrates with love instead of fear? Could we plant the seeds that need to sprout, starting now? Could we use this growth to help one another – and help this earth – be more whole?

A sense of place

We moved a few weeks ago. Moving, to me, is exciting – in spite of the obvious stress I let it breed. Moving, to me, is yet another chance to start over. Even moving a half-mile offered this feeling of newness, this electric sense of change. Even if, as they say, no matter where you go, there you are.

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Walking through my new neighborhood lately has left me with a new perspective on this. What I mean is: there has been a constant thread in my life of wanting to be somewhere other than I am. I’ve dreamt of it, been thrilled to anticipate it. You could call it wanderlust, or a rabid desire to reclaim a wasted youth, or anything else that is probably is.

Problem is, occasionally this has even happened while living somewhere gorgeous, unreal, and enviable. Even there, somehow I allow the sense of new, of now, of appreciation to slip away.

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To an extent, this is simply the way of familiarity. The Pinterest-led desire to find the next shiny new spot, and the Instagram-soaked sense of wanderlust, are deceptive. It is easy to want to see an entire city or town through the eyes a single snapshot tends to lend. But as you know, if you’ve even once been a tourist or encountered one, snapshots are only windows – mere second-long slices of yearlong realities.

But there’s a way of looking at an old city with new eyes. Richmond, with its old age and new, youthful pulse, has its own personality, but is also a kindred spirit to many other blossoming places in this country. (Both Portlands, for sure.) The houses hearken to another time, I think as I walk down Ellwood Avenue, but there is activity that brings us all to this time, and there is promise, and potential.img_0710

There is an open vegetable garden nearby. It’s part of a local community gardening initiative, and people – neighbors, really – maintain its plots year-round. It reminds me that beauty can be found in what is so usual if one only chooses to look.

Richmond is, maybe, teaching me to see all things as they are, and to see the city in its many different colors, in both its beauty and ugliness and history and present and what’s-next. Maybe it is similar to Portland, Oregon and Portland, Maine, and Louisville, Kentucky, and so on.

But maybe it is also uniquely itself, and I can appreciate and bask in that for now.

All this is to say – thanks for being you, Richmond.

Zen in the city

It’s been awhile, but not without good reason. I.e., sometimes – most times – you’ve got to do your growing away from the world of Interweb. Over the past few months, I’ve started full-time work, began exploring the potential for a(/another) new career path, gone to a concert, planned a vacation, and tried, countless times, to sleep in this noisy humidity. Did I mention ruing the day I left California?

Richmond’s not bad. I’m being unfair/mostly kidding. But my favorite places tend to be the quieter ones. The North Shore of O’ahu, for the most out-there example: I absolutely adore the country towns there. Not everything about them, but the beating heart of the entire area. It is a small, but sufficient haven; a home that is quiet, but calming.

Richmond, as I said, is not bad, and it’s not the Big City, but it is also not the country, and by no means is it quiet (she wrote, waiting for the next siren to whistle by).

There’s a beauty to this cacophony, of course. Music pouring from car windows and balconies; dogs barking; the racetrack abuzz – it’s a bizarre symphony of sorts, but it is uniquely ours. And it’s exciting that there is so much possibility living here.

But then there are moments when the noise mellows out, and if one pays attention, there are pockets of serenity to be found. And this individual revels in such spaces.

(That, or one could live with jaw clenched ad infinitum. It’s up to the individual, I suppose.)

I’m spoiled to have to take just a few steps to get to this first destination: the VMFA Sculpture Garden.

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Whoever designed this area deserves a hug. It remains gentle and traps no chatter even when people are about, not unlike a park or bigger green space. That joyful echo of laughter and footsteps… swoon.

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I am writing, in fact, from this very location, cool blissful breeze rustling the grasses, leaves, flowers, edges of water. With the art just in sight, it’s soothing. Wouldn’t miss it.

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You can’t talk about peaceful places without mentioning the trails at Dogwood Dell and the Pumphouse ParkSomehow I always end up drawn back here, to the grassy expanse by the amphitheater and the short yet winding trails. You could lose hours wandering here.

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ah.. cliched, but truly a sight for sore eyes

Then, on a more spiritual level, there’s Richmond Hill: a longtime spiritual haven and monastic spot for those committed to praying over the city.

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I can think of no better place than this. High in Church Hill, its sweeping views of the streets, buildings, and river below keep it utterly engaged with Richmond’s heart. And its garden (notice a trend, eh?) is a relaxing place to sit, read, or pray.

Rest is important. Real rest is hard to find space for. There are so many demands on our time, energy, headspace. And that’s part of why environment matters: it’s an all-natural way of compartmentalizing between busyness and rest. There’s a reason we have happy hour and pau hana; there’s a reason we have a day of rest between workweeks. Because sometimes, just one step is all it takes to move you from stress-laden to chill.

I personally tend to have a hard time taking that first step. But these places are such an encouragement. How about you – where can you find such encouragement in the space around you?

How to get free: step one is to run

I run quite a lot. Not to an ultramarathon extent, or, frankly, even a marathon one, but maybe a little more than what’s considered average. It’s the path I’ve chosen for over 12 years now; while there’s no real physical reason to have kept with it this long, it’s proven to be mentally and emotionally stabilizing, so there it stays, a mainstay of my days. Give me a quiet morning, a riverside trail, and a solid pair of trainers, and I’m at peace for the rest of the day. Or at least a few hours, anyway.

Over and over again, this is about overcoming inertia. Not just of my physical self, but of my mental and emotional selves, too. It takes trying (and/or trials) to get something new out of running, and likewise, out of life. We alone contain our brightest ideals and shadowiest fears, and the work of overcoming inertia is that of choice. Do I choose to believe in the bleakness, or in the brightness? Do I choose balance? What will it be today?

Running through the woods is beneficial, yes, but only when I choose to (a) actually do it and (b) put my heart (and lungs) into it. Or, as some say, “embrace the pain.” What I mean is, even though it’s a habit, sometimes it’s still a hard choice to make. But it’s rare that I regret choosing it.

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Sometimes that pain-resisting instinct – the one that makes decisions difficult – is part of my running and regular life at the same time.

For example: have you ever used physical pain to try and numb the emotional kind? I have, more times than I can count. The worst time was a sunny spring day in Southern California – mid-morning, dusty, and hot. Deciding to go far and fast enough to escape seemed helpful at mile one, but by mile four or five, there was a sinking realization that I wasn’t getting anywhere good. Just angrier, thirstier, and more confused.

It’s too easy to forget that pain can have purpose, and so much of life can be redeemed from its dark corners. Avoidance, resistance – can there truly be resilience when those two lead the way?

No, but a hard look at oneself – embracing that pain – can change everything.

Sometimes when you face the hard things, you come out on top.  There was another run on the North Shore of O’ahu, where I was living at my hanai aunt’s and dogsitting for the summer, on a gut-wrenching trail frequented by those who want to reward their physical efforts with a gorgeous sweeping view.

The day before I took on this steep switchback had been a tough one, workout-wise, and my legs were zapped. Yet somehow it seemed right, on this particular day, to get submerged in the thick greenery, choke down just one more bite of challenge.

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It was a rainy morning – not a rarity here, but still captivating in a gentle way. Permissive, not foreboding. It said, “Go ahead. It’s okay to feel this. This harsh uncertain feeling. It will be useful to you.” The grade was steep and the rocks were slippery, but the end of the climb did not disappoint. Gasping for air, already tired after three miles straight up, I looked across the expanse, to the ocean and the trees and the island rolling out in its majesty.

The challenge was redeemed. As they always are, even though it’s hard to see in the thick of it.

I like to think that’s what is so compelling about the natural world, even in a time when we live in houses and apartments and, generally, places with walls and roofs. Our spirits – they belong to the forests, the oceans, the rivers, and we can see ourselves more clearly there. Through the refracted light of the clerestory and canopy. A long trail jaunt, instead of a means of running away, becomes one of redemption.

Here are some of the places I find that respite in the city:

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  • Pony Pasture (pictured above), a beautiful quiet place by the James.
  • Buttermilk Trail, for when you want to disappear for a few hours and be absorbed in the natural world. The ups and downs and obstacles make for a better adventure than I ever dreamed I’d find here.
  • Monument Avenue, aka the street where we live. Can’t get better cushioning than eight miles of straight grass.

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  • Bryan Park (pictured above), not for mileage but for peace. This is a gem.
  • Byrd Park, a quick jaunt south on Boulevard from us. Makes me feel like I’m in a bigger city, and the fitness loop is pretty fun!

And for you globetrotters, some faraway faves mentioned in this post: