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The Six Life Lessons of Japanese Knotweed

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No, Japanese Knotweed is not some new Asian meditation technique where you sit on a hard floor with your legs knotted into uncomfortable positions and try to negate your being.

It’s nothing that pleasant.

Knotweed is an invasive plant that is severely disrupting the ecology in 26 European countries and 36 American states. Originally sent to the Kew Botanical Gardens in England by an unsuspecting German botanist in 1850, it appears now to have overrun approximately 75% of the state of New Hampshire, with ground zero being the perimeter of my lovely historic barn.

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I have spent considerable time meditating on this foliated menace as I hack it and burn it and smother it under black plastic. While most of my rumination involve dreams of destruction, I also think we can learn some important life lessons from Fallopia japonica

Here are six, because I’m told that people like numbered lists.

1. Don’t give up searching for light in the darkness: Japanese Knotweed can survive a very long time in total darkness. Always hopeful, it will creep along under impenetrable barriers as far as twenty feet, always reaching, always looking for the tiniest glimmer of light that will bring it new life and energy.

2. Plan on seasons of rest: Knotweed may lie dormant for five years during tough times, waiting out the bad conditions until a bit of rain or ray of sunshine urges it back to life. It knows that rest is important and that sometimes you need to save your energy for a different season.

3. The tough times can make you stronger: If a bit of Knotweed gets broken off, even if it’s battered and bruised, it will replant itself and the new growth will be even stronger for the breakage. It learns from it’s mishaps.

4. Mutual support makes for strong community: Japanese Knotweed grows in clumps as wide as 65 feet, with new shoots springing up from a dense ball of roots. These characters know that if you hang together and support each other, you can form an impressive community over time. The larger stalks crowd around young sprouts and provide a strong framework for the little ones to lean on.

5. It’s OK not to have kids: Knotweed does not produce viable seeds, though it has pretty white flowers. Because it’s roots go deep and it grows in community, this plant doesn’t need to reproduce in the traditional way to have a big impact in the world.

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6. Be near God: The rivers of New Hampshire are lined with Knotweed. The wise weed knows that if you plant yourself near “springs of living water” as the Jewish scriptures refer to God, you can catch a ride downstream and go places you’ve never even dreamed of before.

Related reading: Because people tend to like scary stories as well as numbered lists, check out this Knotweed story in Newsweek.

Shifting Reality – A Poem

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SHIFTING REALITY

They collide, a bear and a dogbone,

To become a giant mouse head.

I surrender to shifting reality.

◊  ◊  ◊

An angel’s cowlick elongates, circles to her chin

And forms an elephant’s trunk,

Lifting water to mouth.

◊  ◊  ◊

Continents morph as maps float by,

Mountains to peninsulas to islands;

Plate tectonics on amphetamines.

◊  ◊  ◊

A laughing alligator with a camel’s hump

Gallops towards the horizon, and . . .

Blue! All is blue!

◊  ◊  ◊

Airy wisps of white cotton candy coalesce

Shaping a tropical storm swirl,

And the shifting begins again.

◊  ◊  ◊

Shifting Reality

Shifting Reality

A Labor Day Tribute to a Flaming Liberal: Robin Williams

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One of the things I love about Labor Day is that liberals are allowed to say they are liberals. We don’t have to call ourselves “progressives” because that’s what the focus groups recommend, or mutter equivocal statements such as “Yes, I’m a liberal but I’m actually a moderate on this-or-that.”

On Labor Day, everyone remembers that weekends and sick leave are good things, and that we have liberal labor unions to thank for them.

Elected officials aren’t allowed to mention such things for fear of being labeled a socialist or a community organizer, but regular folks may still — only on Labor Day — refer to antiquated concepts like “looking out for each other” or even “lending a hand when someone’s in trouble.”

Last year, I blogged about the history of Labor Day in A Shout Out to America’s Labor Unions, which you can read here.

A Union Brother

This year, I want to honor a flaming liberal, Robin Williams. Robin was an active union member and won two Screen Actor’s Guild awards, the only awards that specifically recognize union members. He became a member of the Guild in 1977, just a year after he left Julliard acting school, and the same year that he had his television debut on Laugh-In. He was a strong union supporter for the rest of his life.

Robin Williams, R.I.P. photo credit: Joe's Union Review

Robin Williams, R.I.P.
photo credit: Joe’s Union Review

A Heart of Love and Compassion

According to national union organizer Stewart Acuff, Robin was “one of the entertainment industry’s most progressive performers. He financially and vocally and energetically supported progressive ideas and causes and Democratic political candidates time after time after time . . . Robin Williams was one of us progressives with a heart of love and compassion, a commitment to justice and to the human race, and a commitment to creating a more perfect union.”

That sounds like the definition of a liberal to me, except that unlike the stereotypical sour-faced liberal who takes everything just SOOO seriously, Robin was, of course, very funny. He did annual televised comedy fundraisers for homeless people with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal, and he was masterful at delivering serious social messages with a huge dose of laughter, tackling issues like healthcare (Patch Adams) and the horrors of war (Good Morning, Vietnam).

Sometimes it’s the ones with the softest hearts who can’t survive in this world. We will march on in your memory, Robin.

This Labor Day, do justice, love kindness, and march humbly with your God. Like a good liberal. (Micah 6:8)

And please hug a union member!

An impromptu shrine to Robin in Keene, NH

An impromptu shrine to Robin in Keene, NH where he filmed scenes from the movie Jumanji.

Robin's Theological Reflection

Robin’s Theological Reflection

Amen

Amen

 

Writing Challenge: The Story of John

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John had been here before, a long time ago. I watch as his eyes follow the train tracks into a copse of trees. His chocolate brown pupils have turned milky with age and look almost purple against the bloodshot whites.

“That was almost sixty years ago,” he says dreamily.

Then he straightens his shoulders, hitches up his belted black dress pants shiny with wear, and looks directly at me. “That’s when God put his hand on me and called me back,” he says with a vigorous nod.

John knows the moment he left God. He was fourteen, living in a small town in North Carolina not far from where his family had been enslaved a few generations before. One Sunday after church, John opined to his mama that he didn’t think he believed in the God that Granny’s pastor talked about, “the one who sends people to Hell and tells us we are despicable creatures. No sir, I didn’t know that God.”

“Mama whipped me good that time,” he said. But he was used to it. His mother often disappeared, going on drinking binges and leaving him alone for days at a time, only to beat him when she returned.

A few days later, still sore from the thrashing, John stepped out of a movie theater into the bright afternoon sunlight. His guilt-ridden mama had treated him to the show. “All the white folks were on the ground floor and all us blacks were up above. I decided it should not be like that. Things were wrong. That’s when I decided to go where the train goes.”

Going where the train goes...

Going where the train goes…

That’s also when John told his first lie. He asked a man outside the theater to give him a lift to the depot, and told him he had permission from his mother.

Then John hopped a train.

“Just like that,” he said. “My mama kept disappearing, so I disappeared.”

Enslavement and Liberation

By the time I noticed we were walking, we were some distance down the tracks. John was striding from tie to tie as if his feet had rediscovered an old familiar pathway, like fingers recalling a musical instrument after a lifetime away. I trailed behind.

“I had to lie again when I got to Raleigh,” John said over his shoulder. “I told the man at the depot I was sixteen and that my parents had died.” The man helped John find a job on one condition: that he go back to school. “Yes sir, God had his hand on me all along.” John shakes his head in wonder.

He stayed in school and worked afternoons at a hot dog stand. On Sundays, he would make good money selling wine and whiskey from behind his stand. “Soon enough I couldn’t do without the stuff; I was an alcoholic just like Mama.”

John slows his gait and looks up and down the tracks and over at the copse of trees. “Right about here,” he says, stopping,”right here.”

“One night I was sitting by the tracks — here — with another wino, wondering where we were going to find the money for more booze. All of a sudden, I see he’s crying. I asked him, ‘What’s the matter, Pokey? Don’t worry, we’ll find a way to get more wine before we go to sleep.’

‘It’s not that,’ Pokey answered. ‘It’s you I’m worried about — you’re not going to make it.'”

John is silent for a while, as if reliving that conversation.

“That was my low point, yes it was,” he says finally. He toes the dust with his black lace-up shoe. “I thought about it all night. After that I went to an AA meeting and had a miracle. God took away my desire for alcohol. It’s more than drinking, it’s liberation . . . that’s where I found the true God.”

Pokey went to a few meetings with John, but he’s the one who didn’t make it. “He died of alcoholism in his forties,” John says, “but he saved my life.”

* * * * * *

Based on a true story (John’s name has been changed) and in response to the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge, which this week offered a selection of photographs and introductory lines to kick off a story. I chose the train tracks and a variation of “I had been here before, a long time ago.” Photo credit: Cheri Lucas Rowlands/The Daily Post.

Why Not Get Your Hopes Up?

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“Don’t get your hopes up.” The inner voice pounced immediately, barely a heartbeat after my actual voice had said, “Wow, this could work out.”

Negativity is not my natural inclination, yet this mind-battle of the voices has been waging as long as I can remember. I wasn’t conscious of it for most of my life, but now I recognize it, and I can call it out and say, “Hey, wait a minute, voice — who are you? And WHY shouldn’t I get my hopes up?”

The answer comes easily. It’s Mom’s voice, and the reason I shouldn’t get my hopes up is that I “might be disappointed.” Mom’s cautionary remark and its corollary “Don’t get your heart set on it” were meant to protect me, but really — what an awful mindset to convey to a kid!

Give up, Kiddo.

Give up, Kiddo.

Sins of the Past Visited Upon the Present

How disappointing my mother’s life must have been to cause her to consistently quell passion in herself and her children. She gave up her dream of being a soprano (a singer, not a mobster) and instead married an alcoholic and struggled emotionally and financially for the rest of her life. I’m not saying she was miserable, she wasn’t. Just disappointed.

Once I asked her why she didn’t leave Daddy when the drinking got bad, and she said how much she loved him and then added, “Where would I have gone? I had no skills, I hadn’t worked since World War II, and I had you three children.”

Good answer.

I suspect that her mother — my grandmother — had a similar experience in her marriage, and on top of that, she lost her first child as a toddler. Then her husband died in a horrific fire at sea when her four kids were teenagers. So I imagine that she also frequently advised her children not to get their hopes up. Mom inherited the inner voice, just as I did.

My mother always said I was much braver than she was, going out into the world and going after the education and the career I wanted. But I wasn’t really. I was just as fearful as she was.

I believe in God, though, and Mom didn’t. I believe in some sort of divine plan, and I sense that I’m a part of it. That makes a huge difference to how you feel when you’re stepping out into the fog of the unknown.

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Nothing Good Ever Happens to Me

Having hope seems like a risky thing. It’s easier to expect the worst. Then you’re not disappointed. Also, if you have no hope, you don’t have to take responsibility for your life. You don’t have to try: you are a victim. See? Easy.

But is it really easier?

The belief that underlies “not getting your hopes up” is that nothing good is going to happen. There’s probably an element of “I’m not worthy, not good enough” involved, and perhaps a touch of depression or acedia. That certainly runs in my family.

So is it true that nothing good ever happens in life? Of course not. It usually comes down to our attitudes. I’ve heard it said that difference between an ordeal and an adventure is your attitude. Trite, but often true.

Over time, doesn’t the hopeless approach — the fatalistic attitude, the worry and dread, the boredom of not taking risks — wear you down as much as a whole boatload of disappointments might?

You Have to Dive In to Catch a Good Wave

Why not run into the ocean and try to catch the Big Wave? Sure, you might get knocked down and get a pile of sand in your bathing suit — but you might get an exihilirating ride! Either way, you are fully participating in life.

Jump in!

Jump in!

Jesus said that he came so that we could have life, and have it to the full. I believe that. We’re not meant to shrink from our passions. The Bible says that if we align ourselves with God’s plan, God will give us the desires of our hearts. I try to believe that, too.

Part of me knows that my  dreams and passions come from God — they are unique gifts that She means for me to share with others. When I view challenges and transitions as part of God’s plan for me to use and expand those gifts, my struggles often result in “immeasurably more than all I could ask or imagine,” as the Bible describes it. 

And yet I still have trouble trusting that God wants the best for me. It’s these dang voices.

No Regrets

When I get to the end of my life, I don’t think I’m going to regret the things at which I didn’t excel, or even those things that I totally messed up. I think I will regret the things I didn’t pursue, the times when fear conquered hope.

They say that courage is just fear that has said its prayers. So, God, please help me out here, OK? You deal with the hopeless voices of my mother and my grandmother. You can have them; I don’t need them anymore. I’m ready to get my hopes up and catch a good ride.

Speaking of good rides, happy two-year anniversary to my little blog!! Thanks for coming along for the ride.

The Time I Stole Swisher Sweets and Didn’t Get Shot

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I’ve been thinking about the time I stole a package of Swisher Sweet cigarillos. Despite the encouragement of my friends who liked to stick it to “the system” as often as possible, I did not shoplift much as a kid — just a yo-yo, a lipstick, and the Swisher Sweets. That’s why I remember the event clearly.

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It was a small package, maybe four or five cigarillos, and I stole them from Packett’s Pharmacy in Chevy Chase, Maryland. I was with Frank D., who stole a smoking pipe and a Mars Bar.

It was Autumn, and the leaves rustled under our feet as we walked up the street with our loot to hang out on the benches outside the public library. Every Friday night, a dozen or more long-haired high school kids would congregate there to act cool. Our parents told themselves that we were studying. Sometimes we were, mostly we weren’t. Nobody questioned us or told us to move along. Incidentally, we were all white.

I was fifteen. I did not get caught stealing from Packett’s. There were no security cameras back in those days.

Odds are good that there was marijuana in my blood — there often was back then. The odds were also good that I was not going to be shot for stealing those Swisher Sweets, even if I had gotten caught, walked down the middle of the street, and been aggressive with “the pigs,” as we respectfully called officers of the law in the early seventies.

What Matters

I’m not saying that the cop who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 9th did so because he thought Michael had stolen Swisher Sweets. I’m not wading into that controversy — it doesn’t matter from where I stand, except that I think the police ought to be honest about it.

I’m not saying Michael was smoking pot, either. That doesn’t matter to me. Yes, it matters that “anonymous officials” are flinging around “facts” about the case and the autopsy in an unprofessional manner, which — surprise! — makes some people suspect an intentional smear campaign against Michael Brown.

But in the end what does matter, and matters very much, is that there’s another African American boy dead in our streets, shot by bullets from a police officer’s gun. I suppose that somebody somewhere might think that stealing cigarillos and smoking pot is punishable by gunshots to the head, but I don’t know them.

Maybe Michael did get aggressive, maybe he didn’t. No doubt both he and the officer were scared out of their wits. Who knows what happened on that street?

Nobody’s perfect, not cops, not teenagers. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made a lot worse ones than stealing Swisher Sweets.

But people who make the mistake of pulling a trigger six times and shooting a kid dead should not be police officers.

I’m not judge and jury, but perhaps if at least some of these trigger happy cops went to jail, our streets would be safer for everyone.

The Work of Rest

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My neighbor stood at my back door in his usual state: bare torso sweaty, blue jeans dirty, and straw hat terminally tattered. Despite his appearance, a sweet, fresh aroma entered with him when I opened the screen door, as if he had just been rolling around in his herb garden.

Van held out a carton of eggs and a paper bag spilling over with yellow squash, cucumbers, parsley, and basil. Before I could thank him, he proudly announced what he knew would be an even more welcome gift. “I just bought a brush hog!” he said with a grin.

“Oh my gosh!” I squealed. I knew he was looking for an effusive response, but I was also sincerely  thrilled because my hay fields are going to be forest very soon if I can’t find someone to mow them.

“I’m going to start on my fields tomorrow, and then we can see about yours,” he said. “And you gotta come down and see the solar shower I just rigged up from the rain barrels. Don’t worry, it has a curtain.”

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The Industrious Nature

Like a lot of folks up here in New Hampshire, my neighbor Van rarely sits still. He’s up before his rooster crows, feeding chickens, weeding the garden, or transplanting bee balm and lilies around his Rest Easy Pet Cemetery down the lane from my place. He hammers a lot, building fences and sheds and such. I think this industrious nature may be in the blood — many generations of chopping mountains of wood to fend off the severe winters and farming dawn to dusk during the short growing season.

It’s not that citizens of the Granite State are frenetic like the people in D.C. where I live most of the year. They know how to relax. People in rural New Hampshire work hard five or six days a week, but they don’t work much past five o’clock. On the weekends they go to ice cream socials and sidewalk sales, and they actually stroll in the park (without phones glued to their heads). The bars and businesses in town close early, and then everyone goes to bed at nine or nine-thirty so they can be up at dawn.

So it was with a tone of confession that I answered Van’s query of what I’d been up to: “I’ve really done nothing since I’ve been here.” I smiled apologetically.

“Well, isn’t nothing what you’re supposed to be doing?” I love Van.

“Well, I better get a move on; got to get the chickens in,” he said as he headed for the door.

Re-Imagining Work

What exactly am I supposed to be doing? Is this it? Then why do I feel guilty and ashamed? This was my plan for the summer: a month of cleaning out my family’s house in D.C., then a month resting and writing up here — back and forth each month and catching the fall colors both places.

Yet somehow I feel I should be “working.” I haven’t even been writing much, except for some bad poetry I wrote while sitting by the beaver pond.

Perhaps what I’m doing can be re-imagined as work?

Inspiration for some bad poetry

Inspiration for some bad poetry

The Writer at Work

I feel slovenly when I spend an afternoon reading fiction, but they say that writers should read incessantly — it is part of our work. I’ve finished almost three books in the short time I’ve been here — Keri Hulme’s The Bone People; Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings (awesome); and an Agatha Christie mystery, Cards on the Table.

I say I’ve hardly written, but I’ve actually filled more than twenty-five pages in my journal and covered ten pages of a spiral notebook with random bits of blogs, essays, and poems.

Spiritual Work

Much of my writing has also been spiritual work. I came up here with a specific goal for myself: to examine and pray about some of the character flaws I’d like to have God remove — anxiety, contempt, a need for recognition, and envy. (The latter is an insidious little bugger — I’ve only recently realized I have it!) If you’re interested in my navel gazing about some of these flaws, scroll down to my last post.

I am making an effort to get back to my favorite form of meditation, Centering Prayer, which is seriously hard work because it entails trying to surrender everything in your brain to God, becoming nothing but a vessel for love.

My walks in the woods can be considered spiritual work since most of my wandering is spent in reflection, and they are also a workout for my body. So is my occasional thrashing around on the floor in front of a Rodney Yee yoga video.

A Working Chef

Cooking! Surely that counts as work, although it’s fun and something I usually take significant time for only when I’m on vacation. Summer is abundant here, and I never miss the farmer’s market.

Summer Abundance

Summer Abundance

I’ve made gazpacho, fresh corn salad, potato and lentil stew, cabbage and pasta with garlic, tomatoes stuffed with eggplant curry (dreadful), and nearly daily caprese salads with perfect local tomatoes and basil from my backyard.

Does building up the compost pile count as work?

Shucking corn is hard work!

Shucking corn is hard work!

Working Dreams

While we’re pushing the boundaries here, how about dreaming? I’ve heard of “dream work.” I decided to stop setting the alarm because I’ve been waking up anxious, something that happened after my mother passed away and which returned after my brother’s death. I don’t think I understood the psychic cost of keeping the phone by my bed every night for seven years in case my mother or my brother had a crisis or was dying. No wonder I wake up anxious!

After I nixed the alarm, I slept eleven hours several nights straight and had intense and involved dreams of my mother and my brother. The subconscious at work . . .

What I’m Supposed to Be Doing

The work of rest. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing.

Partners in my work - Mayasika and Eliza Bean

Partners in my work — Mayasika and Eliza Bean

Rest is essential to health and creativity.

After my mother died, I went on a retreat about calling and vocation — I thought I had to get busy since my caregiving role had ended. (Little did I know I would become my brother’s caregiver for the next six years.) On that retreat, I learned that restful healing is a calling in itself. I just forget sometimes.

I will not talk about the work of grieving, that goes without saying. It is what I do these days. Except to say that part of grief work is learning to have fun again. Saturday I went to a party and met a bunch of interesting folks and laughed a lot. On the way home, I stopped at the fairgrounds and watched the town’s end-of-summer fireworks.

I am where I’m supposed to be.

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