Categories
Nature

Taking a mental vacation

I have found that I’m craving sensory input about other places since being mostly confined to our apartment and local parks. (Today marks day 73 of social distancing, and although Kansas City has officially reopened, our life continues to look the same as it has for weeks.)

I dug out my external hard drive last week to look at photos of past vacations, trying to remember what it felt like not just to have a trip to anticipate, but to feel my feet in the ocean or sand in my scalp. Earlier this weekend, after too much doomscrolling, we turned on the jungles episode of Our Planet. It’s comforting to focus on birds and bugs instead of huge, unanswerable questions. (We’re all bird-watchers now.)

In “I’m Going Back to Minnesota Where Sadness Makes Sense,” Danez Smith writes,

Have you ever stood on a frozen lake, California?
The sun above you, the snow & stalled sea—a field of mirror

all demanding to be the sun too, everything around you
is light & it’s gorgeous & if you stay too long it will kill you

The poem, as I read it today, grounds me in the possibilities of nature. I can picture the blinding light, feel the cold seeping through a down jacket and wool socks. I’m soothed by letting my imagination take me somewhere else.

Smith’s lines remind me of the lyrics in Brandi Carlile’s “Have You Ever”:

Have you ever wandered lonely through the woods?
And everything there feels just as it should
You’re part of the life there
You’re part of something good
If you’ve ever wandered lonely through the woods

While we can’t go far, we can imagine our way into the forests and tundras and coastlines. We can watch the bluebirds and cardinals in the neighborhood. I am finding that there are many ways to see the world.

Categories
Miscellany

Stop spending money at businesses you don’t respect

I’m a millennial, so I have a fair amount of anxiety about the financial reality I will be living into in adulthood. (“The systems are failing us!” I often yelp at my fiancé or friends or anyone engaged in current-events conversation with me.)

One of the things that helps me is remembering that art can save us. Matthew Arnold says it best, as engraved on The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: “Art still has truth, take refuge there.”

Another helpful tactic is remembering that we have a public option. You probably think about health insurance when you hear the phrase, but it’s a cornerstone of our public policy. State parks, city pools, libraries, highways and public schools are all examples of the public option.

I’ve been thinking about this lately in light of what’s not working for everyone. Today (and tomorrow!) is a made-up holiday for the biggest American retailer. Its warehouse employees wear adult diapers so we can get our guaranteed two-day delivery. The behemoth didn’t pay a dollar in federal income tax last year. Workers are striking to protest low wages. We love the convenience of shiny new industry disruptions (Lyft, Postmates, Instagram), but we’d be wise to remember who they (mostly) serve: Big Profit.

The public option gives me hope because institutions like libraries and parks and the Postal Service keep me connected to other people and my community without causing harm. I mailed some hand-written notes and bought two sheets of Sesame Street stamps today instead of shopping online. It feels good to acknowledge how our tax dollars contribute to our civic wellbeing.

As Austin Kleon writes, “I think of the public library as one of the last spaces in this country where you can go and feel like a real citizen. You’re not being sold anything. You’re welcome to be who you are, or work on becoming what you want to be. The library is there for you.”

I’m also drawn lately to Jenn Armbrust’s envisioning of the feminine economy. In fact, it’s what inspired me to launch this very blog a few years ago — the title of this post and several others come from her Proposals for the Feminine Economy. Her rainbow wheel of feminine principles highlights traits that I feel when I’m exploring a library branch or sitting in a park with friends: ease, connecting with nature, intimacy.

Like Jenn says, if we want to keep joyful, communal things accessible to everyone, we need to support them with our time and money and voice. Pay the fees (unless your library is like mine and recently removed late fines, which makes them an even better institution). Show up. Share the places you respect with people you love.

Categories
Nature

Spend more time in nature

I love fall, but this year I’m seeing it as never before. I have my city to thank for being where it is on the middle of the map, I suppose. Some delicious combination of early-season rain and cool days has left us with a jaw-dropping show of color on every tree, pops of crimson and orange, gold and lime.

Kansas City has seasons, unlike my western Oregon hometown, where the months can seem to blur into each other during the more damp, gray half of the year.

There’s an audacity to a showy autumn. We’re giving up the ghost, the leaves say, but not before going out in a flash of brilliance. In a political and cultural space where those too long in power can’t let go of anything, can’t say yes our time is over, can’t accept that we may need to make space for what is to come, they ought to watch the leaves: bold, fleeting, now crunching under our feet.

Categories
Nature

Practice radical receptivity

 Kanazawa, 2014
Kanazawa, 2014

 

I am walking along a curving path next to my sister Erika, silent with expectation. We are in Kenroku-en, one of Japan’s “great gardens.” It is morning and the park is quiet, hushed by a blanket of fog. We have traveled to Japan to spend two weeks in this strange country, and here we are now, visiting this garden in Kanazawa for my sister the horticulturalist. I am content to follow her to Japanese parks and gardens. Their order soothes me.

“Ohhhh, wow,” she breathes from just behind me. I turn around to see her gazing at a towering, fat, ancient pine tree. She is already besotted. 

The tree is mesmerizing, its trunk a rich, woodsy red and its roots braided and rising up from the moss. So many others around us are also looking up into the tree’s height,  snapping photos, smiling in the foreground. Why aren’t they approaching it? I wonder. I look over at Erika and she points to a wooden fence encircling the tree. Oh. It’s protected from us. What a radical concept.

– – –

This wasn’t the first time we had seen trees tended to as though they’re royalty. It wouldn’t be the last, either. Back in Tokyo earlier in the week, we stood in a park framed by skyscrapers, staring in wonder at a 300-year-old pine tree that was propped up carefully, its long branches supported with bamboo splints and stakes. The tinny voice speaking through our tour headphones told us that the tree is pruned—by hand—twice a year. This process takes about three weeks. Erika confessed she was “obsessed with” the tree. So are the Japanese, and my only response is reverent silence.

– – –

After I returned home, friends would ask, “Why Japan? What was so interesting about it?”

I would attempt to wrap some words around our experiences, to explain the dichotomy of tradition and innovation that we encountered over and over. I can’t explain the multitudes that Japan contains, but I do know that beyond the cartoon mascots and bullet trains, this country taught me a lesson, clear and simple: the wisdom of nature is not to be ignored. 

There is a holiness in the way the Japanese tend to their natural surroundings with such respect, such deference. They tie ropes from the crown of a tree to its lower branches so the snow will slide to the ground and not break the limbs. These rope cones, these wooden splints say: the planet does not belong to us. We belong to it. It is our mother and our sister and it gives us things we cannot replenish. 

Perhaps this is why we’re fenced out. Why the Japanese lay hands on trees instead of slashing them with chainsaws and snipping them with pruning shears. Why one afternoon in a Tokyo city park, I found my sister standing next to a pine tree, her hand flat on its bark. Listening. Learning. While I had been busy framing a street musician just so in a video clip to post online.

I can be proud and arrogant. I want to shape my experiences for myself and others, not let them shape me. But I was reminded so often in the silent places of a crowded country that trees have wisdom. When I consider this, and other unusual ideas, I learn to listen. When my eyes are open and clear, I can become receptive to the curiosity of children, the love of animals, the beauty of uncertainty.