(It's been a few months since my last Certified. So I'll remind you that this is first draft from Certified: Learning to Repair Myself and the World in the Emerald City, about what happens when I decide to go back to school. I purposely try not to talk much about my classmates or teachers so that I'm not violating their privacy. I don't name the school. I talk about my misgivings, my problems, in the hope that these missives will have some universal truths that will help others--and myself. I haven't posted all the chapters. But here's where you can read the others.)
By the way, I am a terrible proofreader, and I'm particularly bad on the computer. I just don't read well online. So if you find mistakes it's not that I don't know better, it's just that I don't see them. My brain doesn't process them. Be kind and enjoy!
I spent much of the month during the second and third residency doing research on agave for my sustainable food systems class. After a while, I figured I knew more about agave than most people and less than some experts.
As far as I could determine, tequila was not a sustainable product as it is grown and processed now. In the wild, the agave plant is quite hardy. After years of monoculture farming, however, blue agave was now more susceptible to disease and pests. Many growers use lots of fertilizers and pesticides. This exacerbates erosion in the area, plus the run-off makes its way into the water systems.
Even if a grower farms organically, the processing for tequila uses a great deal of water, discharges this hot water into nearby streams, and discards large quantities of acidic agave pulp into landfills. Mexican laws against these practices are generally not enforced. Recently, (this month) an American environmental company was awarded a contract to build a plant in Jalisco to help alleviate some of these problems.
I learned so much about agave and tequila that I won't summarize here. Books can and have been written about tequila and mezcals. Ana G. Valenzuela-Zapata and Gary Paul Nabhan talk about the history of tequila and sustainability issues with it Tequila! And Dr. Sarah Bowen has written extensively on the subject in many articles and in her thesis.
The more research I did, the more I wondered if it was possible to have sustainability if there was a huge demand for a product or service or if there wasn't enough demand for a product or service. Something in the middle might be just right: The Goldilocks approach to sustainability.
During this month I also finished the novel I had almost completed in Tucson, Desert Siren. I continued research on my jaguar project, and I did my library work. I had no time for our new publishing venture, Green Snake Publishing, or for any social life.
The weather was monstrous. We had snow and rain and more snow. A friend and former coworker died rather unexpectedly, and we were unable to attend her memorial because of the weather. It was so cold that every time I went outside, I had an asthma attack.
All this time indoors got me to thinking about the last year. In July I went back to school because I felt helpless over the Gulf Oil catastrophe. I felt like everyone needed to step up and do something. Even though I had been doing "something" all of my life, it felt like the wrong something. Otherwise, things would be better.
In the few months before the Gulf oil catastrophe, my personal life was chaotic. My dad was recovering from major heart surgery (which took place on Christmas Eve) even as we all were still trying to process the sudden death of my mother two years earlier. One of my family members was struggling with an addiction. I started a business and then closed it. The family member went to rehab. Then I went back to school. The family member came home from rehab and two weeks later, her partner had a brain bleed and nearly died. For a while, they didn't know if he would have any brain function or whether he would be paralyzed or not.
It had been a stressful and busy year.
Plus I did not feel as though I was getting any better. I had this fantasy that if I went back to school, I would get well. I would be normal again. I would be able to work as hard as everyone else. I could be brilliant again, with something to say.
Illness had knocked me off my feet and then took nearly everything else away from me: self-esteem, a career, financial stability, a place in this world. I kept trying to get up and start again. Get up and start again.
Get up and start again.
And nearly always, I would start to feel better again, I would work too hard, and I would fall to the ground again.
Breathe deep the gathering humus.
Was going back to school just one more event in a long line of events in my life where I tried and failed to be the person I once was, or thought I once was? Capable, healthy, a valuable asset to the planet.
A valuable asset to the planet.
Yuck. That makes me sound like an item on a financial report.
The original meaning of the word "value" was to satisfy a debt.
It meant "enough" to satisfy the debt.
Not like the word "basta!"
It is enough. Why did I want to be considered "valuable" by the culture? By society? So I could survive, thrive, be a part of the pack?
It is enough.
I am enough?
I used to be confident, pretty, capable. An asset.
There we go again.
School was not making me any healthier. I wasn't eating any better. I supposed I ate better than the average bear. But something happened after my mom died. Maybe before.
Maybe it was when my best friend, Linda Ford, was dying. I had a knot in the pit of my stomach for months. During that time, I had two surgeries to cut out the massive polyps in my sinuses. A week before the first surgery, one of my best friends (who had lived with a brain tumor for about fifteen years) dropped dead. A few months later, another friend died in her sleep. And then my friend Linda was in the last stages of her illness, at home, and I had to protect her and her daughter from all comers.
That was her mandate to me. She wanted to die at home without pain medication. And her daughter didn't want any other people around, except Linda's closest friends. I arranged shifts so that Linda's daughter and I weren't the only ones there all the time. During one shift change, one of our mutual friends told me I needed to force Linda to go to a hospital. If I didn't I was being abusive to her; I shouldn't let her suffer so.
That was quite a gut punch.
I told her my job was to carry out Linda's wishes. It didn't matter what would be easier for me or for her daughter or for anyone else. This was Linda's death. I would do what she asked me to do.
Sometimes when it wasn't my shift, I would drive out to Linda's house--but not all the way. She lived out in the country. I would drive down her windy road, stop somewhere, and just sit in the car.
I couldn't be too far from her, even though it felt awful being near and listening to her death rattle.
Once I was at a workshop in Portland. Mario and I stayed the night at a hotel there. I got up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, and I went out to the car and drove back into the gorge, back into the wilds. Didn't even tell Mario I was leaving. I drove along the river, under the stars, drove until I was home. It was better being ten miles away from Linda, rather than sixty. I fell to sleep on the couch for a couple of hours. Then I drove back to the city and slipped back into bed before Mario awoke.
When Linda died, I didn't cry. I organized her memorial.
People brought food, tons of food.
I don't think I ate a thing.
But what does this trip down memory lane have to do with food or healing? Did I start eating more that year? Or a couple years later, when my mom died?
One day in December, one of my sisters called and said my mother was in the hospital, probably with pneumonia. She called a short time later to say they didn't think Mom would make it.
I was alone in the house, 2,000 miles away. I felt a knot in my stomach. I walked around the house. Then I sat on the floor and did a journey to the hospital room. I sat with my mom and held her hand from afar.
It wasn't the same as being there.
But maybe it was something.
In the journey, she let go of my hand and drifted away, out of her body.
My dad called and told me she was dead.
Since then, nothing felt the same or normal or settled.
But that wasn't the beginning of the food stuff.
My mother used to be an amazing cook. When I was a kid, I loved her soups. I loved everything she made.
I remembered sitting at the kitchen table when my parents had company one day. Was I five? Ten? My mother was telling the company that I was such a good girl. I hardly ever put any sugar in my tea. Not like other kids.
I felt proud. Wasn't sure why.
My mother had that nervous breakdown I mentioned earlier. She stopped cooking. When my grandfather killed himself a year or more after my mother's breakdown, we got a good meal when all the neighbors brought over food.
This incessant navel-gazing was getting me nowhere.
I was still the same person with the same seemingly immovable unchangeable faults, crevices, problems.
Would it ever be so if I couldn't eat healthy--in a healthy non-obsessive way? Doesn't food connect us to...everything?
The Earth is our mother. Food comes from her. I had food sensitivities and food cravings.
Did this mean I had a mother-complex?
Oh, man. I did not want to go down that road.
I did go down the road to Seattle for the last residency of this semester. Mario came with me. We left while it was still light. It rained, but the traffic wasn't bad. Since traveling back and forth to Seattle--or maybe because of it--I had developed a new anxiety: I didn't like driving in the rain.
This was not a good development for a Pacific Northwesterner.
My nervous system just didn't seem suited for modern life. Or something. This reality sometimes made me feel weak and neurotic, even though I knew I wasn't weak. I was just wired differently from a lot of other people. I overloaded easily. Think of me like a house. And inside and outside of this house, a lot of stuff is going on. So my breakers are constantly being tripped. Then they have to be reset again.
In any case, Mario and I stayed in the right-hand lane, didn't go much over 65 mph, and made our way toward Seattle. We got caught in one traffic jam near the air force base for an hour and a half.
Eventually we got to Seattle. We stayed in the same hotel I'd stayed in the last three trips. Didn't sleep well, but morning came soon enough. Mario dropped me off at my teacher's house, and our day began.
We had five presentations of various food commodities: gelatin, agave, oysters, seaweed, and hops. Everyone brought food to share. One person brought ice cream AND ice "cream" made from coconut milk so that I could have something to eat. Another person made certain she didn't put gluten products or cheese in her salad. Everyone was so sweet and kind to me.
We spent the day talking, eating, presenting. I learned that gelatin was in just about everything: including sugar and white wine. This made me angry. I didn't eat pigs and cows on purpose. (Freaking mad cow disease, for one.) But I had most likely consumed gelatin inadvertently over the years. I might rarely use sugar and never drink white wine, but I do eat fruit. Gelatin is one of the ingredients on the stickers they put on fruit. Companies should not be able to put ANYTHING on or in a food product without labeling it.
Apparently the reason some male beer drinkers have "man boobs" was because of phytoestrogens in hops.
And oysters in the the Pacific Northwest are sustainably grown and harvested, for the most part.
Some of the many things I learned over the course of the day.
I hadn't been able to master how to make an imovie, so I used prezi as I talked about the use of agave in tequila and mezcal. After my talk, we taste-tested tequila and two Del Maguey mezcals.
Then it was on to the next presentation.
I enjoyed being with these people, talking about food systems, trying to figure out ways that food systems could be more sustainable. When I first started back to school I had felt so alienated from my classmates. Now I felt like I was one of them.
As the day went on, I noticed something peculiar. When someone came up to talk with me, I would answer their question and then walk away. What the heck was that? Had I always done this? I was always craving conversation and community but when I got it, I walked away?
I enjoyed speaking to large groups of people. But one on one, I wasn't always comfortable. I had come into this world shy and still was, although no one who knew me believed this. I wondered if I had always done this: Walked away when someone was trying to have a conversation with me.
Wow. How disengaging was that?
I would have to work on that little quirk.
After the discussion of hops, there was a taste test. Since beer is not gluten-free, I wasn't going to try any. I went into the kitchen and did the dishes while the group taste-tested. I could hear them in the other room laughing and talking. I felt disengaged from it all but not completely separate. It was meditative doing the dishes while listening to all the commotion coming from another part of the room.
The day was over too quickly. We said our goodbyes. I gave out copies of Coyote Cowgirl. Mario came in and helped me take stuff out to the car. Then we left.
After I rested at the hotel, we had dinner, wandered around Whole Foods, and brought some chocolate Coconut Bliss back to the hotel and ate it.
When it was time to sleep, I couldn't.
I didn't feel well. I had twitches. And I couldn't sleep.
I tossed and turned and wondered why the hell I had eaten chocolate before going to bed. I kept doing stuff like this over and over.
I was exhausted. I had hardly slept all week.
I finally got out of bed, fumbled around for my computer, and went into the bathroom and closed the door so I wouldn't wake up Mario. I put towels on the floor and then sat on the towels with my computer. I began to write my final paper for my food systems class. It's called a "learning reflection." I was supposed to look at what I thought I knew about food systems at the beginning of the course and what I thought I knew now.
At the beginning of the semester, I wrote, in part: "The more I learn, the less I know. I used to be certain if people had the facts they would change. I've realized that most of the time that does not work. Our food system feeds a great deal of the population, yet one in four children is food insecure in this country. If we could figure out how to change that reality--so that everyone had good, clean, fair food--then it seems we would have a key to changing our food systems."
As I sat there on the bathroom floor feeling miserable, I started thinking about my grandfather, my father's father, who had killed himself when I was a girl. His suicide has haunted our family. It was one of many on both sides of my family.
I suddenly remembered there was a suicide in the movie The Real Dirt On Farmer John. His uncle, who had worked the farm with Farmer John's father, had also killed himself.
I googled "farmer suicides." I was shocked. Farmer suicides were quite common worldwide. I knew that many farmers were in dire financial straits. Of course it would make sense that they were in trouble emotionally, too, although I had never thought about it.
They were doing a job the world didn't seem to respect or value financially. Small farmers who were connected to the cycles of nature, to their craft, were the ones least respected and least rewarded.
I began writing my paper:
"My favorite first line of any book is in Pat Conroy's Prince of Tides: 'My wound is geography. It is also my anchor, my port of call.' The first time I read this book, I wept at the opening line. He articulated so well what I had felt since I was eleven and my grandfather, who was a farmer, stepped off his land, went across the road, and ended his life with a shotgun. The land that had been my anchor, my port of call, was now my wound, and the wound of my family. This farm down the road from our house which brought so much sustenance to others could not heal my grandfather.
"My grandfather was one of many farmer suicides over the years. Although he killed himself in the sixties, suicide rates for farmers is (and has been for some time) higher than the general population. Suicide rates for male farmers in the Midwest are twice that of the general population. In England, one farmer a week commits suicide. In India, between 1997 and 2005, a farmer committed suicide every 32 minutes.
"When I read these statistics, I was astonished. I hadn't ever thought about my grandfather's suicide in terms of anything beyond a family tragedy. Yet now I wondered if Pat Conroy's line could be rewritten to articulate the plight of all farmers: 'Our wound is geography. It is also our anchor, our port of call.'
"The high suicide rate for farmers seemed to say something about the problems of our planetary food system, too."
And then I wrote several more pages. I finished with this,
"In the beginning of this course, I said the more I learned the less I knew. Now the more I learn, the more I realize I've been on the right track all these years. Place, stories, connection, community: These have all been my life's work. I have so often felt like a stranger in a strange land. I couldn't understand why other people didn't hear the varying dialects of each stream and river. Why didn't others wave to the crows who called out each time someone passed by them? Why couldn't others see the 'value' in a tree just because it was a tree? Nobody else I knew whispered sweet nothings to passing clouds. I started to feel like I was a crazy woman.
"But I'm wasn't.
"I was right.
"We need to be connected to our place and to our food. We need to resacralize our world, but not in a religious sense. The word sacred means 'holy,' and holy means to be 'whole.'
"It needs to be acceptable to talk about place and food and community as something meaningful. As something that makes us holy: i.e., whole.
"It has to be acceptable to discuss the importance of a meaningful life in relationship to our food, work, and food policies.
"Perhaps when we understand that our world is sacred, we will know that the work farmers, growers, and farm workers do is holy: Their work makes us hale, holy, whole.
"Maybe then no farmer will end his or her life in a barn or a cornfield--or across a dirt road in the garage of an old mission house, like my grandfather did.
"Then geography (and food) will no longer be anyone's wound. It will be our anchor and our port of call."
I closed my computer. It was about 4:30 a.m. I crawled back into bed and finally fell to sleep.
I awoke three hours later. Mario made breakfast. I was in a daze. We stopped at the Medicinal Herb Garden on the way out.
Most of the garden was still in winter mode. But I was drawn to a spots of color here and there. Near the fig tree was a nearly black maroon-colored flower dropping toward its dark shiny green leaves. It was called Lenten Rose, Helleborus orientalis. I knew nothing about it. Not far from it, the small green serrated leaves of Monkshood/wolfbane pushed up through winter detritus.
I pressed my face against the huge cedar tree that always made me think of Yggdrasil. And then I walked to the far end of the garden where I hadn't been before. A few wrinkled dark green leaves of the Motherwort had drawn me over. Mario and I stood near each other and looked down at the plant. I knew that Motherwort was considered a "woman's herb." Lionhearted. It was good for the heart. Whenever I saw Motherwort in the woods, I always felt strengthened, as though I could carry on.
Now I stood next to this plant and hoped she would imbue me with some of her strength. I looked around at the dozens of raised beds. I couldn't see all of the two and half acres that made up the garden, but I could feel the liveliness of it all.
Mario and I continued walking. We looked at the identifying cards above each patch of earth. Plants from all over the world grew in these beds. When the garden was in full-bloom, I told Mario, it felt a little bit like being in that bar in the first Star Wars movie, where beings from all over the galaxy came for a drink and a good time.
Oh the information these plants must share with each other through their roots, their pollen, through the air. I loved being in their company, even when all I could see was the bones left after the plants had fallen to the ground when they died or went into dormancy.
Come spring, most would rise again.
Mario and I left Seattle. It felt like a long drive home. I was exhausted. I felt somewhat defeated by my self. By patterns I seemed powerless to change. By an illness I seemed powerless to change.
Yet I carried with me the lovely day spent with my classmates. I carried with me the thesis of the paper I had written on the bathroom floor: I am right. Community, connection, crows, trees, clouds: They're all sacred, they all matter.
I carried with me the lionhearted motherwort.
When I got home, I looked up the plants I had seen at the Medicinal Herb Garden. Motherwort also helped with anxiety. Hellebore was a witch's herb that helped with invisibility, among other things. Only the most adept witch, medicine person, or poisoner could use it in healing. And Wolfsbane--aconite--was also a witch's herb. It was a poison used to kill wolves--and maybe werewolves. Painted on a witch's broom, it helped them fly through the night unobserved. (My guess is that it was used to help the shamans, the medicine women, "fly" shamanically.) One of these plants was supposed to cure madness.
All three of these plants had alkaloids, two at more poisonous concentrations than motherwort. I wondered why I had been drawn to these particular three plants. Two of the plants were used to help with invisibility. I didn't want to be invisible. At least, not generally. I did want to be lionhearted.
My friend Linda knew the names of most every plant. I have never been good at taxonomy or with scientific names. You call something a particular name, then you stop seeing it as the individual being it is: You just see it as a chair, a window, an oak tree, a boy, a girl. But for healing purposes, it is good to know which plant is which. Before Linda died, she said I needed to be the plant person once she was gone.
She gave me her copy of the Secret Life of Plants just before she died. She made me promise to read it. I haven't yet. I heard so many unflattering stories about Peter Tompkins that I wasn't sure anything he wrote could have any truth to it.
(Sometimes I am very black and white in my thinking.)
I have always been a tree person. A plant person. I didn't know the names, necessarily. I just knew the plant. Their personalities. I did name the trees in the woods around my house when I was a girl. It wasn't oak tree, or pine tree. They had names like the Lullaby Tree, the Witch's Tree, the Mother Tree.
Plants have helped, soothed, sheltered, and fed me all my life.
I have dreamed of them.
Plants come from the earth. Are they messengers from the Earth?
It doesn't matter what they are and aren't.
They are amazing. I started out last summer being amazed by plants once again during my permaculture class. I have kept coming back to them again and again during these past nine months.
I keep coming back to them again and again over the course of my life.
I just went to my closet and pulled out the copy of the Secret Life of Plants that Linda gave me. I opened it and saw her handwriting inside. She underlined her favorite quotes. She wrote notes in the margins. She left several pages of handwritten notes about the book inside the back cover. She wrote, quoting Tompkins quoting Gustav Fechner, "It is a dark and cold world we sit in if we will not open the inward eyes of the spirit to the inward flame of nature."
And she wrote down a quote from George washington Carver: "I learn what I know by watching and loving everything."
What a great way of being in the world.
I think it's time I read Linda's copy of The Secret Life of Plants.
Geography might be my wound. Food might be my wound. But plants are my anchor, my port of call, to paraphrase Pat Conroy once again.
Perhaps I can learn from them by watching and loving everything along the way.
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