Guerrilla Gardening in the Capital City

garden bed

“We’ll take the weeds!” exclaimed the girl with the long brown hair, her smaller brother trailing after her. “Our rabbits eat them.” They both breathed heavily from having run over to where I’d been working.

They started gathering the weeds I’d tossed out of the raised beds. I pointed to a pile of dandelion and chick weed.

“That pile’s mine,” I said, “I eat weeds, too.”  The kids looked at me quizzically; clearly I’d marked myself out as a weed-eating oddball – not an inaccurate description, but a little startling when I considered it from their perspective.

Then I pointed to another of the raised beds – still full of grass and dandelion.

“Feel free to weed that bed, you can take it all to your rabbits,” I said. They smiled and started tearing up grass by its roots from the rich, dark hummus that somebody must have paid to have deposited into these lovely vegetable beds. They smiled cheerfully – chattering about their pets.

I didn’t own these garden plots. I’d simply come upon them, cased them out, determined – after weeks of observation – that nobody had bothered to plant in them, and, finally, claimed them for my own. And yet all the passers by who had seen me bending over the weeds, methodically pulling them up and loosening that beautiful black soil, had deferred to my authority as the Gardener. And I took it.

I learned, that day, that if you show up to a place behaving as though you’re supposed to be there and have every right to be doing what you’re doing, people accept it. And so, I blended in, despite my furtive glances left and right.

The girl wore a tee-shirt touting the name of a local home school group. Freckles smattered across her thin face. She and her brother continued gathered up the weeds for their rabbits, diligent and polite. I showed them the two beds I’d already cultivated and planted, with the seed packets denoting what went where. I explained that they could have all the weeds they wanted, but to be aware of the planted areas. They nodded, clearly familiar with gardening etiquette. I continued raking that gorgeous soil, which teemed with millipedes, worms, and egg sac carrying spiders. The abundance of insect life implied that nobody had ever poisoned the place, or resorted to sterile store-bought soils.

About a month ago, I’d been walking the dog in a misty rain, discovering streets down which I’d not yet wandered in my still-new-to-me neighborhood. Princess and I hiked those streets until my favorite time of day – those moments between dusk and evening, when the sky turns royal blue and the stars faintly glimmer and everything here on earth gets bathed in that misty, smoky in-between light. I’d passed those untended raised beds earlier this spring, and tsked to myself. ”What a waste,” I’d thought. It had stuck in my craw – just the teeniest bit; there I was with no place to dig – and there those beds were – unused, fallow – quivering with readiness to host seeds and transplants.

This season, I’ve been gardening in containers for lack of a better alternative, which, for an avid gardener, is something like going to the prom with your cousin rather than that beautiful boy you’ve been pining for all during 10th grade. Sure, you get to go, but it’s not exactly a dream date.

So, during that evening walk with Princess, I couldn’t help myself. We ventured over to the unused beds, inspecting them, just in case there’d been some mistake. Perhaps someone had indeed planted into them, and I’d misunderstood. But there was the dandelion, pig weed and grass, growing where lettuce and carrots and beans ought to have been. I looked around – saw nobody – and realized; I could garden it and nobody would care. I could grow vegetables and not have to be limited by containers.

The idea seemed ridiculous, slightly risky, but perfect. There was no “what if I get caught?” in the rapidly developing plan. In fact, the opposite occurred to me; people who happened to see me gardening there would think I belonged there – they’d think I’d been hired or volunteered to tend those unused beds. All I had to do was let them believe it. My heart swelled as Princess and I loped home. I’d been willing to make do with a container garden – but once the possibility of actually plunging my hands into real dirt arose, I couldn’t contain the joy.

So, tonight, I filled my bag with seeds, a cultivator, and some plastic bags. I dropped the kiddo off at her Tae Kwon Do class, and biked over to the neglected plots. I felt like a grafitti artist, engaging in semi-illegal activity with intent for betterment despite the taboo. I smiled at the neighbor who had just apologized to me for his dog sniffing around. I took on an air of intentional indifference to the people milling about at the house across the street. And, when I had finished planting, I rode away with a big grin.

Sometimes you have to take your happiness where you can find it. Sometimes it lives in the cracks and crevices between what’s recognized as “real.” Sometimes that life-teeming thing has to happen outside the bounds of what everyone else deems acceptable – but that doesn’t diminish it. I may not own this garden, and I may even get caught and have to give it up – but, for now, it brings me joy. And that’s enough.

garden seed packets

Scarcity vs. Abundance – A Word from my Dad

Back in January I wrote about my (waning!) food anxieties and how they led me down the path of a terrible lunch, and some self-analysis about the nature of starvation fears. As part of that post, I mentioned a story about how my father, Dan Hemenway, really did starve during his college years at UMass Amherst. I leapt to some conclusions about how I suspected that event had formed my father’s lifelong work with food, from homesteading, extreme gardening, wild-food foraging and farmer-marketing, to becoming an international Permaculture Design teacher starting in the early 1980s when the Permaculture movement was in its infancy.

Dad finally got around to reading that post a couple of weeks ago, and wrote me a long email explaining how I’d got the story wrong, and the real reason behind his work. It was a fascinating insight into my father, my own family history, and the ongoing story of food on our planet. Dad is an excellent writer – one of my earliest writing and gardening mentors – and also (I’m not biased on this, really), pretty dang witty, irreverent, and smart. So, I’ve decided to post his email in its entirety. I urge you to read the whole thing, because it’s good, relevant stuff. And it’s interesting.

DH head crop

Dear Cass:

I clicked on the link to your blog on your email. Your writing has gotten even better!

 However, I do not think that I have this fear of hunger that you describe in one of your past contributions. It is always risky to interpret other people, and more so to accept the interpretations of third parties.

 My interest in food production comes from several sources.

It is my background. Everyone in my family did it. They had been through the Great Depression, but they also had fed themselves before then, and back to the beginning of time. The anomaly, historically, is people not feeding themselves. In the nation that Thomas Jefferson envisioned, most people were to be farmers. After all, the city people who settled in Jamestown were so inept at caring for themselves that they ended up eating their own dead. The invaders of Massachusetts were only slightly better off, largely because European diseases had emptied the area around Cape Cod of the vast majority of its inhabitants. So the Wampanoags could afford to help them out–there was plenty. But the city people who came here couldn’t figure it out and a large proportion of them died over the winter. (They were so inept that they were aiming for Virginia and hit Massachusetts.)

 Cities are relatively new inventions, enabled by the cultivation of grains such as wheat or other edible seeds, e.g., amaranth and quinoa (a close relative of lambs’ quarters). Brutal men were able to force a relatively small proportion of the population to grow these seed foods, ‘freeing’ a larger proportion to live in cities and be forced to fight in armies (and eventually navies). War is an artifact of urban civilization which is an artifact of the ability to grow a very small variety of food which could, sort of, keep people alive long enough to be useful to despots.

 (Anarchistic societies such as those who lived in the US northeast had gardens, sometimes, but no farms. These societies placed a high value on human freedom and independence, though of course there was also a strong sense of responsibility to the community. There was not a lot of obligation.)

When you were quite young you told me that you felt that you ought to be able to grow your own food, build your own shelter, and make your own clothes. It was not an issue of fear, but of independence. You did not necessarily intend to do all those things as a permanent approach to life, as I understood your statement, but you wanted to be able to if that is what circumstances required at some given time.

 From a bit younger than 6 years old, and onward, I grew up in a garden. I ate what I wanted from it. I liked seeing our food there growing. By age 8 I wanted to be a farmer. My immediate forebears (parents and grandparents) were aghast. They had been through the Depression and seen farmers in bread lines, their families broken up, with no work. Farming equaled poverty to them. They deflected my impulse, but were unable to quench it. (Sorry about the mixed metaphor. It works if you think of the impulse as a flame and the flame’s deflection caused by the breath of their arguments.) Since I was curious about everything, I liked science, which is the activity of learning about everything in a systematic way. I liked math and was good at it. I had a world-class math teacher, and that was 90 percent of liking it.

 However, I was not so deflected from growing things and food issues as these details suggest. I had a herd of 70 meat rabbits by age 12. I went fishing whenever possible and the fish I caught was a significant part of the family diet. Moreover, my mother and grandmother were avid fisherpersons, so I got to go on expeditions where we rented a boat or drove to a special spot near a waterfalls and we hauled out fish by the bucketsfull (which were my job to clean). We had a garden and ate out of it. My contributions were hauling out rocks, digging drainage ditches and such. And contributing rabbit manure, of course. When we went of vacation, the vast majority of animal protein that we ate came from fish that we hooked, crabs that we netted, or quahogs that we raked. Most of the vegetables we ate came from our garden. This was not fearful activity, it was normal and reasonable. We also ate salt-water taffy, ice cream, purchased lobster, etc.

My mother encouraged me to get jobs, and I took whatever work I could find, delivering newspapers, helping an old lady care for her yard, working in a day camp as a counselor, etc. I got work at 17 as a landscape gardener, and took to it like a fish to water. In less than a year I had my own business and had maybe a dozen part time employees, classmates. I liked growing things. I always liked it. Farmers grow things so I wanted to be a farmer. At age six I’d had a moss collection under my mother’s arching forsythia bushes beside the house. I ranged through the forest with my dog collection different specimens and set them out in little patches.

So I went to college, my savings vanished, and I went hungry. If I really feared hunger I would have left and found food. I would have stolen apples from the experimental orchard. I would have gone fishing instead of going to classes. I didn’t like hunger but I endured it voluntarily as the cost to learn things that I wanted to know. I also became very impatient with courses that were not about what I wanted to know.

 I had lots of jobs in college including two writing jobs. One was for the University News Bureau. The other was for the Cooperative Extension Service, where I was their features writer. It was against university policy for one student to hold both of these jobs, so Bill Deminoff, who was the school’s News Director took me aside and said that I had to choose one job or the other. I laughed at him. I do not have to choose, I said. If one of you wants to fire me, go ahead. He got together with Raddie Bunn, the extension boss, and they decided to make an exception. Meanwhile, I was writing about research in food technology, agriculture, etc., all feature articles released to the state’s newspapers, and all picked up very widely. I liked this sort of information, I liked knowing about growing things and processing food and so forth. I didn’t do it because I was fearful of starving. I was starving anyway, voluntarily, until the girls on one of the dorms set up a system for me to use their meal tickets for meals they would skip anyway (so they said). Raddie thought highly of my work, and nominated me for an internship with the US Department of Agriculture, where 10 (more or less) college kids from around the USA were hired for the summer to work as information specialists. (I’d just fallen into writing, by the way, a different, if related, story.) I knew about agriculture, I was good at science and math, and I got a sweet position in the Agricultural Research Service. I was a champion writer, churning out more copy than anyone except Henry Smith, a former newspaper hand, and clearance of my work through the scientific guys was fast. I didn’t screw up the facts like the former news writers did.

 I forgot to mention that my interest in producing food was strongly reinforced by reading Malthus at UMass. He pointed out that a day of reckoning was (is) inevitable, that population would (will) outstrip food production, and there would (will) be starvation. He got the timing wrong for a number of reasons, but the validity of his thinking is incontrovertible. My concern regarding the possibility of food shortages began with Malthus. It had nothing to do with the fact that I was hungry; for at the time I was surrounded by food. Ethics prevented me from appropriating it, but there was no shortage. This turned out to be a useful experience, though it may turn out to have shortened my life (we’ll see), since I have since been involved with helping people who were subject to involuntary hunger, which can indeed be frightening.

So I was a whiz at the USDA/ARS (Agricultural Research Service) job. I had decided not to continue with UMass because they required ROTC, which I did for one year and came to see that being prepared to be a killer was not really consistent as a requirement for a liberal arts degree. (I was majoring in a double degree English/Journalism, it being the only track at the University that did not require me to take a second year of a foreign language.) So I wrote a letter to the dean at UMass stating my views. The faculty, who had gotten a pay raise in large measure due to my activism, formed a committee, and Bob Tucker, one of my poetry teachers, sent me a letter saying that my withdrawal had caused the faculty to lobby the board of directors to remove the ROTC requirement, and they had done so. So they were asking me to come back. It’s nice to be appreciated, but I had already arranged to go to BU, after spending an extra year at ARS. Had I accepted the invitation to return to UMass, you would not exist.

So after spending most of my life in the country, I lived in DC, then Boston, and the in New York City where I had enrolled in graduate school. I soon decided that graduate school had been invented by the Gestapo, and dropped all my courses except the Shakespeare classes. I had a job as a glorified lobbiest for the Seafarers’ International Union, then for a rather technical photo magazine (Photo Methods for Industry). In New York, I managed to live without fear of starvation and without urges to eat any rats or mice or roaches that we killed. (Your mom and Thor were in the picture by then.) While cities have their benefits (mostly really good food, ironically), I longed to move to the country and when you were in the oven, I decided that the time had come to move away from toxicity and into trees and fresh air. Food wasn’t a consideration and I started the first garden in Williamsburg because I could. It was small. Porcupines destroyed all my melons, which were the only melons I had managed to grow there, and rabbits ate everything else. Eventually, I went to war with the rabbits. Your mom refused to eat them and so I gave them to a neighbor (in the School House). I gardened more and more because I liked it, started canning because it made sense, and about then you became old enough to be aware of my actions. I just wanted to be in the garden all the time, except when I was walking in the woods or fishing. Through all that I’d been through, and I’ve skipped vastly more than I’ve mentioned, I always wanted to grow food.

 I just did.

 So it disturbs me to read your back blog saying I grew food because I had starved. Yet here are you with the same urge to grow food and you have not starved. It is just there; in the blood as they would say a few centuries ago.

 I also know that sooner or later there will be a major resource crisis, caused by failures of the energy system in this country, and that will cause economic upheaval, eliminating ‘jobs’, and raising the price of everything, probably with revolts and certainly with international warfare. It is inevitable. We cannot sustain the system we have now and the system is digging in instead of planning for a transition. The situation in the rest of the world will be worse. I worry about my children and grandchildren. But now I garden mostly because Cynthia does better eating the good food that I know how to grow. I don’t enjoy it as much as I used to, but I do like it a lot some days and I like being about to go out and cut our food, pick up our eggs, and see how I have overcome the impossible in creating rich organic soil in a climate that breaks down organic matter in a few months. And I do enjoy learning about a new environment — I’m still figuring out Florida, and the container gardening angle is interesting.

 I have already lived longer than I expected, due to the damage done to my system from starving. Ironically, I think that my two bouts with cancer were due to spraying herbicide (essentially agent orange) after I had moved to the country and was growing Christmas trees.

 I was surprised that you did not eat the raccoon that you killed because 1) they are good meat, cleaner than what you can buy (at least the raccoon in Woodbury would be), and 2) it is disrespectful of living things to kill them without purpose. They were in conflict with your life, so you killed them, and that is understood. But respect, if not reverence, for life would suggest that their deaths be given as much purpose as possible. (BTW, we never ate squirrel in Williamsburg.) For the same reason, I started using tongue, and kidney, and liver, etc., when I killed pigs and beef. These were not foods that I had eaten in the past, except chopped liver (which is chicken liver), and rabbit liver. To kill an animal and then discard parts of it that could be returned to the cycle of life; that seemed wrong to me. What you did eat in Williamsburg, now that I think of it, was woodchuck. It was tasty though it had a sweetness that one does not usually associate with meat. We also tried to eat the mussels from the stream. They were abundant. But they made a gross-looking chowder. Yuck! We fed the chowder to pigs and ate the pigs.

 I’ve come to think that accepting abundance is a form of reverence. We are offered mussels by their abundance, and if we say, no, we want steak, we are being very insulting toward the giver, however you want to define that entity. I’ve also come to believe that we have a responsibility to protect scarce resources for the same reason. I find it strange that many more people endorse the latter than the former.

Abundance can be perception of opportunity, such as placing a container garden in a small space, or such as relentlessly knowing that you can get better medical support for your daughter, as Eliza has done. You (plural) do not give up because the resource is there somewhere. (Of course absolute scarcity does exist in some places.) The eating of raccoon or woodchucks is tied in with the recognition of the abundance of the Universe, not with a fear of scarcity, which you attributed to me in your blog. I am not offended by your misinterpretation; I just want you to know me better.

 Love

 Dad

 PS We did not eat many of the squirrels that I shot here, when I was shooting them. (I’ve given up…they win.) The time required to dress them out is vastly out of proportion with the amount of meat that we get. If I do shoot one nowadays, I might dress it out, but I’d be more likely to give it to the dog. However, I think that she buries them. If it isn’t good enough for the people, she doesn’t want it either, and she has seen me bury them in the garden for fertilizer. Pigs would be an idea solution. So I am not actually a hard-ass about this stuff.

To learn more about my Dad, or his Permaculture Design work, click here. 

Life in a Container

I garden in containers now. I used to have a half acre plot on which I grew much of the food for my family of five – plus endless perennial flower beds that I thought I would tend until the end of my days. But now, I live in an apartment with approximately six square feet of yard and neighbors all around. Uprooted, unsettled — dare I say? … free — I hold a special empathy for these potted plants in their movable states. They may grow roots as plants do, but they are not rooted.

I gave up my 20 acres for a move to the big City of Montpelier, population about 8,000, almost two years ago. Since then, I’ve found myself in the middle of a divorce, and having moved a second time, to this apartment on the appropriately named Liberty Street. It’s been many years since I’ve paid rent, rather than a mortgage, and many more since I had no plot in which to dig. Of all the changes, I feel this one keenly. The planting of fruit trees and berry bushes; of adding and subtracting perennials – of expanding the vegetable garden – those acts grounded me in all meanings of the phrase. Here, for now, there will be no tree planting; no perennials; no berry bushes, not even a vegetable garden. This place is temporary. ”Transitional” is the word some of my wiser friends use.

There’s something about this container gardening that matches the transience. This is an in-between time – I’m separated and not yet divorced – new wounds still raw, old wounds finally healing. This step into the unknown unfurls as a seedling tendriling toward sun. It is new and vulnerable, but carries with it so much potential.

And so, I dig in containers. I keep finding them at thrift stores and yard sales, huge, ugly, plastic, but functional. My father happens to be an international permaculture design teacher and a writer, as well as a container garden aficionado (since he discovered that his sandy Florida soil leaches away all fertility). He’s currently writing a book on container gardening, and so has been experimenting with soil mixes, plant varieties, container sizes and much more. I am getting a lot of good advice about how to do this. The main trick, I’ve gathered from Pop, is to use extraordinarily rich soil, and much larger containers than one might think necessary, since the plants have nowhere else from which to feed. So I’ve been buying (buying!) compost, composted manure, potting soils, rich hummus, and other soil blends to mix into my containers.

I’m no longer on my own turf – permanence has dissolved – or at least the illusion of it has.  The roots I’d intentionally put down in the form of trees and gardens, church and community – family –  seem to be utterly gone. Or inaccessible. Or, maybe, only invisible, but still present.  Perhaps I am growing in a container right now. A plant can survive – even thrive – in a container. But then what?

I have lined them up – those ugly, plastic monsters – and made myself the oddball of the neighborhood. I am surrounded by intact families in refurbished Victorian homes with lovely perennial beds and vegetable plots that belong in Better Homes and Gardens. Most of the houses around here feature gorgeous terra cotta pots overflowing with artfully designed flower mixes. And then there is my place – with the lettuce and kale and sorrel where the flowers might have gone. I didn’t forget flowers, of course – for what is life without flowers? Bethany and I started some four o’clocks and zinnias from seed, which we mixed in among the ground cherries and butternut squash that line the driveway.

Only recently, the sorrel and lettuce have grown large enough to snip. Sorrel brings with it summer memories of chewing on sour grass – and introducing it to my children, who would hop like bunnies through the garden, nibbling it down. I clipped a few of the purple-veined leaves for my youngest – the indomitable Bethany – and she liked it. Now she lingers over the potted plants outside our front stoop, bending over to munch on sorrel, before leaping onto her bike to pedal up and down the street.

~~~

The recipe: I made this up for Bethany last week, and … she actually ate them. They’re pretty, and nutritious.

Sorrel wraps

Ingredients:

  • Baby sweet peppers
  • Fresh sorrel
  • ham and/or cheese sliced into thin strips (optional)

Instructions: Slice off ends of the baby peppers – orange, yellow, red – and scoop out seeds. Stuff in a bit of ham, a bit of cheese, and a couple sorrel leaves. Repeat until you have enough of these to serve a 6-year old. Serve on a bed of fresh lettuce.

The Tao of Pot Roast (Experiencing Life in the Middle)

aaa escher stairs

My mother makes the best pot roast on the planet. The only person who ever made it better was Grandma Goldner, mom’s mom, who no longer lives on this planet. Mom has tried to talk me through the recipe over the phone – in the manner that mother’s do when their adult children attempt long-standing family recipes. But it has never turned out like hers. Fork tender, maybe, but always dry, and missing something.

So it surprised me when mom said she had learned a better way to make pot roast. It was all in the temperature of the searing, she said. We have always seared the meat on high; that’s how Grandma and Great Grandma always did it; but mom has radically veered from tradition, and she now sears on medium. This gentler, more time-consuming method shocked me, even as it also made sense. I didn’t believe it at first. Could it be there’s a better way than ours? There’s something about this new process which speaks to life in general, to me. When one learns that one’s habitual way of getting things done can actually be improved, it can be hard to accept; I’d wrapped my mind around our way as the best way. Now I had to grudgingly admit that not only did a better way exist, but it would take longer.

It makes sense to me, too, that most of life’s really good things need more time than I may have allotted them. And by engaging in the slowing down, there’s beauty to be had in letting go of prior notions, and experiencing every moment as it is, not as I think it should have been.

Many summers ago, I used to swim in one of Woodbury, Vermont’s most lovely lakes: Nichol’s Pond. Isolated, still, surrounded by woods and cliff with an unoccupied island at it’s middle, this place calmed that which unnerved me in those pre-kids days; it seeped its magic into my bones as I sliced through its perfect surface.

The entry point for swimmers on this, one of Woodbury’s 27 lakes and ponds, was the cement wall of a defunct hydro-electric dam, crumbling and long-since unused. No beach, no  gradual, sandy way to walk in slowly. It was dive off the cement wall or don’t go in. So, I would find a spot on the dam, distancing myself from the pot-smokers and whooping wild boys swimming in their dungarees, and swim out to the island and back. This felt like a great act of daring, because I was afraid of deep, black water. I always imagined some pre-historic beastly fish lurking just inches from my toes. But the lure of the island called louder than the fear, and so I would breast-stroke my way there, sunbathe for a few moments, then swim back. But every time I went, no matter how many times I’d gone before, I’d encounter the phenomena of the middle, and find my self newly surprised each time.

At what felt like the halfway point, I would look up to see the dot of the island, and do a little mental calculating about distance and time and keep on swimming. Then I would pause, look up and expect to be closer, but instead, the island would look just as tiny. There’s this feeling at some point in the journey where you can see the destination, but no matter how long you swim, it doesn’t get any closer. You keep swimming toward the island because by then, it’s just as far to go back as it is to go forward, but it feels like swimming on a treadmill. Stroke and stroke and stroke and still nothing changes – the island is still in the distance, the beginning is still a dot behind you, and the water is very deep.

It is the memory of this that comes to me when I think of searing my pot roast on medium. It takes longer, and feels like it will never finish, but it is, like the island destination, a pursuit worth following, even in the middle, when the slowness of it feels endless. It is that very slowness that makes the journey worthwhile.

But, it always happened that after a long while, the island would start getting bigger. And I always did eventually make my way there and pull up to the slimy rocks and hoist ashore for those blessed moments in the sun.

This happens on the highway also. Have you ever been going north on a highway and somehow your brain hasn’t adjusted and it thinks you’re going south? Everything looks the same, and if you just imagine you’re going in the opposite direction, it feels like you are. This is another of those “middle ground” feelings – a feeling of going somwhere, but not actually getting anywhere and everything looks indistinguishable from here to there, such that I sometimes wonder if I keep on imagining myself going south instead of north, would I end up in some Twilight Zone destination reserved only for those occupying the middle ground? I wonder if these middle moments may be opportunities to cross out of our realm into one more Escher-esque; perhaps the world is less linear, less predictable than we thought: and that middle time is not so much an illusion, but time stretching and slowing down; searing us on medium instead of high.

I have been occupying this middle ground for quite a while; making strides toward goals, but feeling as though I’m treading water because the goals still seem as far off as that island in the middle of Nichol’s Pond. This cuts across all lines: relationships, weight loss, professional, and also the deeply personal. The middle ground is a time of great faith; faith that a destination will, in fact, come; faith that the journey may be the point more than the destination; faith that life doesn’t dissappoint, and when the destination manifests, it will be better, juicier, more scrumptious and vital than having arrived at it in any other way; and there is the faith that the next time I raise my head from the deep, dark water, the island will look just a little bit bigger.

potroast

 

 

 

 

Mom’s World’s Best, Newly Improved Pot Roast (in Mom’s own words)

Ingredients:

  • beef (brisket 1st choice, rump roast, bottom round, or another lean cut)
  • olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped & crushed (or more if you’d like)
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 stalks of celery and their greens, cut up (the greens strengthen the flavor)
  • handful of baby carrots or regular sized carrots, cut up
  • potatoes (options–if medium sized, 1 per person plus enough for leftovers. I like yukon gold, but any potato you like will do; cut into quarters or 8ths)
  • Salt & pepper to taste (kosher or sea salt preferred)
  • 1- 1-1/2 bayleaf (optional; it brings out the flavor of the pot roast)
  • If you prefer spicier food, add a dash of cayenne or red pepper  or sweet hot paprika

Instructions: Pat meat dry and salt & pepper. Start boiling a teapot full of water Heat pan to medium hot. When hot, add a tablespoon or 2 of olive oil (or peanut oil) to pan. Sear meat in pan, fat side first, slowly until brown on all sides;  the more time you take, keeping on medium heat, the better braising/browning/flavors.

When browned, remove meat from pan. Add the onions, celery and greens, and garlic to hot pan and stir and saute until onions begin to brown or look clear. Keep flame at medium so the garlic doesn’t burn and so onions are clear. Return meat and any juices to the pan. Slowly pour boiled water over meat. This is a tricky part because you don’t want to add too much water or dish will be too watery; too little and you’ll get a thick gravy but it could dry out. The water level is best when it comes up to about ½ up side of meat. Add bay leaf, broken in half. Add a dash more of salt and pepper to taste. Cover and simmer; you can keep this on top of stove to cook, or into a 325 deg. Oven, covered.

After 1/2 hour, turn the meat over, do this every 1/2 hour or so

Depending on the weight of the meat, it’s best to simmer it for about 2 ½ -3 hours. Add carrots and potatoes during last 30-45 minutes of cooking. When you think it’s done, remove meat and cut off a small piece to see if it’s fork tender and to taste it for flavor and texture. Let meat stand for about 10-15 minutes. Slice against the grain. If serving the next day, the fat in the juices will rise to the top in the ‘fridge, and you can scrape it off. If serving that day, just blot the hot juices with paper towels and they’ll absorb the fat.

Nice to serve with a green vegie or squash. Or, if you’re feeling like it, kasha varnishcas (recipe on box of kasha).

Enjoy!

Love,

Mom

 

Waking Out of the Matrix

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It occurred to me the other day, in my final hypnosis session, that I may be living Matrix-like in a backwards world. As we wend through life, we accept the norms layered down upon us and around us. The way we consume food – at least here in the United States – has become a “norm” that defies true normality – if we define “normal” as the way in which our bodies and our world are designed to co-exist, and all the synchronicities inherent in that cycle. But the ways our bodies are designed to consume and use foods, and the ways in which we eat have diverged to the point where disease is the new normal, and living at optimal health with seasonal, real foods is considered a bit radical, at best, and totally elitist, at worst.

I never gave much thought to the fact that the simple act of buying, say, a box of spaghetti, or a pound of hamburger, requires deep trust. By feeding that spaghetti or hamburger to myself and my beloveds, I have agreed that whoever has supplied it has provided nutritional food that meets the requirements of our bodies. I have engaged in a kind of contract, in which I accept that the food that fills my grocery bags not only won’t kill me (either quickly or slowly), but in fact will sustain me. It has become increasingly more obvious, however, that there is no contract. Even food that seems innocuous can contribute to ill health often just because we consume it daily, or multiple times a day (such as wheat or sugar).

So much alteration and genetic meddling has gone into what might have at one time been a perfect gift from God – a wheat seed, for example – such that now the wheat seed no longer resembles the ideal mix of protein and carbohydrate and vitamins it may have been a mere century or two ago. And all of a sudden millions of bodies cannot process it – because they don’t recognize it. Our bodies are wired for that time a century-ago (or two, or ten) – when the seeds were what they had been created to be – when the foods did not carry poison within and without – when sugar came rarely, as a treat and a luxury, not injected into everything.

And then there’s all the unpronounceable items, the stuff that keeps Twinkies “fresh” for 20 years; the milk that no longer goes sour; the crowded grazing animals eating grains infused with ground-up other animals — Is it all Soylent Green? Had I – ironically by entering the hypnotist’s chamber – instead of going into a daze in which dream-like suggestions catalyze behavior – rather had startled OUT of somnolence into that Matrix-like reality? Could it be that we are ALL hypnotized?

Some years ago, when checking out at a convenience store at the height of the Atkins craze, I noticed a display of Slim Jims by the cash register. Each label boasted the disturbing phrase “No Carbs!” I cracked up, thinking it was a joke. Isn’t this thing supposed to pure meat? That would be like boasting about a glass of water “No calories!” (which happens, come to think of it). But – upon second thought – I realized that sausages and meats do actually get pumped up with everything from water to sugar to a chemical soup more unthinkable than what’s really in that hot dog. Slim Jim, the corporation, thought it a great marketing trick to sell their product as exactly what it is supposed to be in the first place.

If our bodies were created for white flours and refined sugar, and any fruits or vegetables from any part of the world at our whims, fatted calves year-round, and laboratory-developed concoctions that mimic actual food, I doubt we would develop sicknesses as a result of eating these items, every day, for years and decades. I don’t suppose our maker intended for us to sit on our asses all day in cushioned chairs, eyes glazed as we stare into computer screens, munching on potato chips and Hershey’s Kisses. And so, we see the result in heart attacks, diabetes, cancer. And still, most people tread the way of the preservatives and hormones and the antibiotics that have created monster bacteria and flesh-eating diseases. The optimist in me (which is the larger part) believes this trend is changing – in fact may have already swerved in the direction of mindful eating, and rejection of that poisonous bill of goods that comes packaged with cartoon characters and multi-million dollar ad campaigns. But the newly awakened, shocked, part of me feels like there’s something insidious afoot. That part of me feels frightened.

So – there again I sat, in the presence of the hypnotist in my third and final session,  learning about “the cycle of life” – of which I already knew, but had not given much thought. I had signed up to address the final roadblock to my own health: my mind. I certainly thought I understood all the basics – and much more – about good health. But I remained overweight. Clearly, despite my book-knowledge, something deeper had not clicked. And so, I opted to address it head on (so to say), after decades of going up and down and back and forth with this seemingly unconquerable issue.

In “the olden ways” – as my hypnotist put it –  people ate in cycles; there were fat times and lean times, and the myriad ways that our bodies respond to animal protein, vegetables, sweets, grains, beans and so on are all tied into that cycle. Suddenly all the ways my body has responded to everything from nuts to black beans made sense. And, of course, that huge bugaboo – sugar – started to make sense also – for the first time. Ever. But here’s what really floored me: I had walked into this building with a willingness to open my mind, I used my free will to allow this person to implant suggestions. I did this because I had known people who had also done it, and came out the other end happier and healthier, and not just because their bodies shrunk, but because they FELT better. But then, it flipped.

Butt tired from too much chair time, eyes fuzzy from staring at this one person for hours, I saw the real hypnotism. I glimpsed the man behind the curtain: all that I had believed about food before that moment – the fact that bread year-round is “normal,” when grains year round are not; the abundance and availability of it, the plethora of sugar and corn-syrup injected products, even the oranges, avocados and mangos that I – in New England – expect every month of every year; that is the lie; that is the suggestion that has been implanted so long ago, and so thoroughly, that I never questioned it.

And so, not surprisingly, many millions of people have gotten fat and sick. And, also not surprisingly, many more millions have starved, equally as tied in to this lie as the obesity. And … stranger yet … many people have grown fat while starving nutritionally.We just weren’t created for this. And I had to get hypnotized to undo the original hypnotism.

All this time on these pages I have touted home-grown foods and local CSAs and grass-fed beef because it tastes better and fit with my foodie inklings. I found the politics of food a bit tiresome, as are most politics. I have been writing here for four years because it seems like a great hidden secret that the healthiest foods – while politically trendy at the moment – are also the tastiest. The rib roast raised by your neighbor tastes better because it is actual meat. The burger from that same cow comes from only one animal – not a dozen. The vegetables from the farmer’s market are actual vegetables – with the flavors that were meant to be in them – not the cardboard-tasting waxy-looking fakes in the supermarket, redesigned by scientists for long shelf lives at the expense of flavor and nutrition.

Now  I offer  my own over-lay: eat this way because it’s the best thing for your body. It’s the best thing for your children’s bodies, and your grandmother’s body, and your neighbor’s body, and the bodies of all those little munchkins down at the graded school. It’s the best thing for your neighborhood, and for depleted soils across the globe. Don’t believe it that it’s “elitist” – the folks who farm and grow real foods are the most democratic people I’ve ever met. If you want to eat this way and believe you can’t afford it, talk to a farmer; talk to someone who runs a CSA; talk to someone at the food coop. And find out the myriad of ways it can become doable.

And do it, too, because the lie has been exposed. We know what we’re meant for, and we know for which we are not meant. We are meant for what’s real, and good, and pure. Do it because that’s how we are designed. Do it, too, because it tastes good; do it because it supports local farmers; but do it, mainly, because there’s nothing better you can do for yourself.

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The Hypnotist’s Pizza

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Skip to the end if you all you want is the recipe for crustless pizza, but read on if you want to know about the hypnotist.

Was it the dim lights that made her glow? She had warned that some of us would see her glow; others, she said, would get headaches, some would get sleepy, and a few would have vivid dreams later on. I hoped for the dreams. Did she seem to be glowing because she’d suggested it, or was it real? I rubbed my eyes. I had been sitting for over two hours in a group of 30 people — all of us there to get hypnotized out of our bad eating habits – and I swear that woman was glowing. We had two hours to go; no eating or pee breaks, and water only to wet our mouths, lest we drink too much and have to pee.

The nearly four-hour session flew by. I watched all her movements without realizing it; in fact, didn’t take my eyes off her even for a millisecond the entire time. I wanted this. I wasn’t going to chance breaking the spell by losing eye-contact. She explained that hypnotism is a language that we all intuitively understand, but don’t know that we know it. The language, it seems, comes in the form of images and gestures, not words. She debunked the hocus-pocus and let us in – as far as one can – to her world. Then, she hypnotized us. At least, she said she did. I remained alert and aware, and totally fascinated by the whole process – the cold room, her attire, her gestures that included bare feet, hair, hand, nails and even whether or not she remained sitting, standing, or reclining – and all of it clearly intentional, but not feeling rehearsed. On the face of it, the only difference between this and any other lecture was my willingness to be hypnotized, and that glow. And … the fact that the following week I unquestioningly stopped eating sugar or anything sweet at all, and never missed it a bit.

hypnotist cartoon

Ever since my Bugs Bunny days, I have wanted to be hypnotized. My own eyes would swirl when I watched those cartoon versions of the all-powerful doc swinging a pendant before his victim, saying “You are now getting sleeeeeepy ….” – then cut to the close-up of the eyes, spiraling, in trance. The hypnotized would then perform any act commanded; touch nose, hop on one foot, toot a horn. I didn’t want to be that hapless oaf stumbling across a stage; but I did want to explore that part of the mind that the cartoon suggested exists, but about which I knew little. My hypnotist calls it the “animal brain.” I call it the subconscious.

I would watch those cartoon scenes jaw-dropped and curious about the notion that a person could give up control of her brain, and another could enter in. So, over the years, when I heard of hypnotism in a less-cartoonish but still somewhat gimicky way, I remained curious. Hypnotism could cure smoking, reduce stress, make you lose weight. I believed it – or, I should say, I didn’t disbelieve it –  but I never mustered up the nerve (or the cash) to do it.

A year ago, several people I have known for decades lost a lot of weight. I mean a LOT of weight. They had gone to this hypnotist – the one who glowed – and had been willing to take on a new, austere, eating program that seemed to me like punishment, but to them felt OK. I had to get on a waiting list for a year to get in, and over that year I noticed that most of the people who had taken off enormous amounts of weight had kept it off, and learned how to maintain. None of them seemed like they’d given up any intelligence; they didn’t seem like drones. They seemed like themselves, only thinner, and finally having mastered a life-long struggle with food. Finally, I got in.

I’m not going to post the details of how the program goes, because I signed a contract agreeing not to. That’s why I also have not named the person, her practice, or the location. Suffice it to say I am currently eating in a manner that may only have happened successfully for me precisely because I got hypnotized into it. Lots of meat, no sweets, and no breads at all. (Enter, the crustless pizza recipe posted below). I feel like a dope admiting that I’m only able to do this because I’ve been hypnotized, but on the other hand, maybe what the hypnosis did was allow me to know absolutely that not only can I do this, but there’s no chance that I won’t do it. It does not feel like deprivation or punishment – and yes – I, too, had the thought that “well, gee, if you cut out lots of food groups, it’s no surprise you lose weight.” But now that I’m doing it, I can see the mind piece of it playing in. Yeah, people lose weight by dieting, but this is no diet, and there’s no caloric cut-back – and then I keep coming around to that juggernaut of the whole thing: without the mental piece in place – the absolute willingness to do it and the thorough understanding that I can do it – it just wouldn’t work.

~~~

I used to consider it a dirty secret that my thyroid doesn’t pump out enough hormone. Hypothyroid symptoms include irritability, dry skin, cold feet, insomnia and, the punchline: difficulty losing weight and quickness to gain.The hypothyroidism fed right into all my deepest insecurities about the extra weight. I thought that if people found out, they would see me as the butt of every fat joke.

“Of course I have to get the disease that makes me fat and bitchy,” I complained to my sister after getting the news. I longed for a disease that would make me thin, and amicable – not the one that had become a stereotype for overweight women. So, for years and years and years, I kept this shameful secret to myself, only revealing it on a need-to-know basis to a select few. Then one day at my son’s soccar game, a gaggle of mothers surrounded me, all of them discussing their hypothyroid. All of them. As it turned out, hypothyroid is common, easy to treat, and doesn’t consign anyone to a lifetime of morbid obesity. Slowly, I came out of the closet and lost the stigma that nobody had attached to it but me.

This is also how I feel  about seeing a hypnotist, particularly for weight loss. I felt like another butt of a joke, but willing to take the leap for this reason: I know more about nutrition than most people; I know how to eat healthfully and do so for the most part; nobody needs to tell me to exercise, because I do it in spades; I know my portion sizes; I know that sugar and white flour are the major causes of obesity; and yet … still I snacked on hershey’s kisses in front of the keyboard and brought ice cream home for dessert every night. There has been a short-circuit between knowledge and action. I hoped the hypnosis would fix it. The jury’s still out on that.

But I know now, more thoroughly than I’d previously thought, that our minds are huger and deeper and more powerful than I’d ever suspected. I have come to understand our bodies as extentions of our minds. Bodies convey information just as brains do, but differently. In fact, it seems like a liability that in our culture, we “think” mosly in language, and often dismiss all the other information available through our limbs, our guts, our headaches and our hearts. But it’s all there, along with that ocean of a subconscious, doing what we tell it to do, and we steer the poor thing wrong over and over and over again.

This time, I pray, I’m steering it right.

Meanwhile, here’s a recipe featuring crustless pizza, which, for full disclosure, I got second hand from a friend who’s going through the same drill right now; she got it from our mutual hypnotist, and I tried it out today. It’s satisfying and yummy and so nutritionally dense, a small portion does the trick.

 The Hypnotist’s Pizza

Note: I combined lean ground turkey and ground beef; you can use whatever ground meat you like.

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound 90% lean ground turkey
  • 1 pound 85% lean hamburger
  • 1 cup marinara sauce
  • 1/2 vidalia onion, sauteed in olive oil
  • 2 cups spinach cut thin and sauteed till wilting
  • 1/2 cup corn kernals
  • 1/4 cup oil cured black olives, pitted and sliced.
  • 1/2 – 3/4 cup grated mozerella
  • 1 oz blue cheese diced or broken into small pieces

Instructions: Preheat oven to 350 F. With clean, bare hands, mush the meat together, salt to taste, and press into a 9″x13″ baking pan – or what you have on hand. Bake for 15 – 20 minutes; meat does not have to be fully cooked through as it will go back in the oven with toppings on.  Note that the meat will shrink after the first baking; drain fats and juices off and give to your dog.  Then add sauce and toppings, and either bake another 15 minutes, or put under the broiler on ‘high’ and watch carefully until cheese starts to turn golden and bubbly.  Serve as you would regular pizza, but eat it with a fork!

This is a very adaptable recipe: change up the meat, or change up your toppings, or add or subtract the amount and type of cheese to your personal tastes, and – as always – according to what you already have on hand. Enjoy!

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Food Fears, Ginger Tea and Racoon

I had to get to the “Restorative Yoga Retreat” by 1 p.m. You’d think that would be a nice, restful time of day to get somewhere on a Saturday. It allowed for plenty of time to sleep late, eat breakfast, snuggle with the little one, go for a walk … and here’s where things went wrong … and take out the trash and recycling … and mail a package … and … I had to eat on route because of the hour-long commute exactly at lunch-time, so, add to the list … stop at the bagel shop. By the time I got on the road, 45 minutes later than planned, I’d stressed out in order to go de-stress for the day.

I could have driven without eating. I could have grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl at home; I could have done any number of things, but the old fear welled up: what if they don’t have any food? Perhaps it echos the deepest fear of the human race – many populations have indeed starved, since the beginning of time; food shortages have caused uprisings and revolts, even in very recent history. It’s so hard-wired into our bodies, that even in our over-fed nation, many of us live with the primal fear that we’ll run out, particularly those of us who have experienced some degree of poverty.

The flyer promised a healthy dinner, but that wouldn’t come until after 6 p.m. The need felt so great to ensure a noon-time meal, that I fore-went car-pooling with a few other retreat-ees in order to retain autonomy and not be embarrassed about eating a bagel on the way to a yoga event. Surely the real yoginis – those skinny women so thin you almost can’t see them if they stand sideways – sip green tea for lunch and suck on lemongrass for dinner. Although they all can guess by looking over my physique that I enjoy eating, I didn’t want to out myself quite so flagrantly as to actually consume a bagel in front of them.

The teenager behind the counter moved so slowly you’d think her feet had stuck in frozen molasses.  She screwed up everybody’s order, then over-charged at the register. An excruciating scene unfolded leaving the manager at the till, which put the girl back on making orders, clearly not her strong point. So then the freaked out foodie in me feared that not only would I miss lunch and arrive late, but, after all that trouble, my long-awaited bagel would taste awful. Prediction affirmed: the cheap variety of lox served included chunks of the skinny end of the tail – chewy and overly fishy –  and the tomatoes had been so poorly prepped that I received an end with the round part intact rather than, as is the custom, slicing it off. The thing squirted out all over the steering wheel.

But here’s the kicker: after arriving late, wiping tomato debris off my front, removing shoes and spreading out the mat, I walked in to an open reception/kitchen area, and there on the counter were platters of gorgeous vegetables and an abundant array of Vermont cheeses and crackers. I had been so afraid of not getting to eat that I had ended up with a crappy, time-consuming, unhealthy meal, and missed out on the nourishing, delicious food that would have been there, had I not clung to the fear.

It instantly struck me as a matter of faith, and a pattern that I’m currently trying to break. The pattern goes like this: need something, accept the quickest, first thing that arrives, rather than having faith that exactly the thing you most want and desire will arrive at exactly the right time. It comes down to getting what you can, rather than waiting for what you really want –  also known as settling.

But what if you don’t have to settle? What if settling takes up all your time and energy in the thing that’s close to what you want but not really it, and then you yourself have created a huge obstacle to receiving the thing that you truly desire, which has been there for you all along if only you would have faith and wait it out? Or am I just making way too much out of a bad sandwich?

My father starved in college, literally.  He didn’t starve to death – or I wouldn’t be here to tell you about it -  but he did starve. It’s a long story, the details of which are not mine to tell. But it’s relevant, because this history has informed my entire life in many ways. Dad subsequently created a lifestyle fully focused on filling the larder – gardening, raising animals, canning, selling vegetables at the farmer’s market, and even dumpster diving for both animal and human foods – and teaching others how to do all of this. And, as a result, I have inherited this anxiety about not having enough.

He taught me that only a fool doesn’t have at least a year’s supply of food put up at all times. We have been preparing for the coming apocalypse for some time, ensuring that when all the cities go to pot, we’ll be cozy in our rural homes with shelves upon shelves of canned green beans and stewed pears, pickles, and jams of all sorts; plus freezers full of pork and chicken and beef and at least one root cellar containing potatoes, carrots, turnip and beets – not to mention a stock of seeds. Squirrel and raccoon were common fare on our dining room table as I grew up, because if Dad had to shoot the pest anyway, we weren’t going to waste perfectly good meat. I got a chiding just a couple of years ago when my husband shot three raccoon and we didn’t eat them. (The raccoon had decimated our chicken flock).

It felt revolutionary when I decided that just because I knew how to dress a squirrel, didn’t mean I had to eat it. If someday the world goes to hell, well then, I’ll consider whipping up a raccoon stew, but in the mean time, I felt like a raving-radical, choosing to enjoy the standard beef, pork and poultry and let those raccoon carcasses rot in the woods.

~~~

Later, after the breathless arrival and then sinking in to two hours of blissful restorative yoga, our host served up a simple healthful meal consisting of salad and rice and lentils with local chocolate and ginger tea for dessert. I had never considered tea a dessert, but this was tea like no other: it included possibly up to a full measuring cup of chopped ginger that had been slowly heated in a pot of water until it all turned caramel colored and the smell of ginger filled the room. We were instructed to ladle a tiny bit of the brew into our mugs, then top them off with plain hot water. Add honey, and wow. I don’t know if it was the two hours on the mat or that ginger tea, but it all resulted in a revelation: I have spent way too much time worrying about food.

There’s always enough, wherever I go, and that is largely related to my birth into a wealthy nation. There’s a balance that can be hard to keep between knowing that, yes, everything can fall apart and you could – like millions of other people on the planet, actually starve; and also knowing that if you go around fearing that, you’ll stop enjoying the bounty right in front of your nose. Also, to date, it has been the reality in my life that the food fears are over-rated, and other than one summer in California, I have never actually run out of it.

Something about that tea gave me the nerve to mention the food fears (and how silly they now seemed) to another participant as we all relaxed after dinner. (It’s easy to dub such a fear as silly while reflecting on it with a full belly.) Soon, a few others in the room confessed to having the same feelings about food. I listened to the conversation, stunned; I was in good company, and, as it turned out, I probably could have eaten that bagel in the car-pool and nobody would have batted an eye.

Ginger Tea

  • lots of ginger (2 – 3 thumb-sized parts of the root)
  • water
  • honey

Dice ginger very finely and add to a 2 quart pot. Add a quart of water and heat on medium until just simmering. Let simmer for 30 – 40 minutes until the water turns caramel colored. Ladle 1/4 cup of this to 3/4 cup hot water (more or less according to your preference) and add honey to taste.

If you’re at all interested in stewing up some raccoon, click here for tons of tasty recipes … or … check out the Raccoon Stew recipe I found on Cooks.com (below). And for those who consider raccoon cute and cuddly little fur-balls of love; think again. Anyone who’s ever lost a flock of chickens to a raccoon has likely encountered a vicious, scary, possibly possessed beast who can tear you apart faster than you have time to wet your pants. So no guilt: eat up!

RACCOON STEW

1 (4 lb.) raccoon, cut into cubes
2 or 3 onions, sliced
2 to 3 c. canned tomatoes,
chopped Salt & pepper Bay leaf Dash of Worcestershire sauce Carrots Onions Potatoes Turnips
Brown the meat cubes slowly in a Dutch oven. There should be enough fat within the tissues that no additional oil is required. Add onions during the last of the browning process so they won’t become scorched. Reduce the heat, add enough tomatoes and liquid to cover the meat, season and cover. Simmer over low heat until almost completely tender. Add cubed vegetables of your choice and continue to simmer until vegetables are tender. Serve hot with biscuits.

 

The raccoon’s true nature revealed.

Arms Have a Mind of Their Own (21 Day Yoga Challenge, Day 6)

 

Phase one of getting into the Wheel pose.

Day 6 of the 21-Day Yoga Challenge, Thursday, January 10, 2013

Today Bethany witnessed me struggling into “wheel.”  To phrase this honestly, I should say I tried to get into wheel pose — that gorgeous yoga back bend, also called the upward facing bow. The wheel represents something to me and I’m not sure what: achievement, perhaps. Achievement not of riches and fame, but of deeper living and reward for striving. I ache to be able to do the wheel.

My body craves the deep stretch, pushing upward all those muscles that usually hunch, arcing in total power and submission, strength and vulnerability. In that ultimate heart opening exercise, I imagine electric light bursting out along the arch of my bend, as if the posture could bust open a shell that’s been locked in place so long, only this particular position could possibly open it.

But when I attempt the wheel, I resemble a frog on its back .

The first step involves simply arching the upper back enough to position the top of the head on the mat. This seems simple, and looks simple when I watch other people do it. But when I try it, my hair twists against the rubber of the mat. If I wiggle and exert massive effort, I can struggle into the head phase, but it in no way resembles what everyone else is doing. I can tell the thing requires use of the upper arms, but mine cop out. I know they have the strength, but it’s as if my arms have their own brains, and they’ve said “Nope, not us, no way, you’re on your own with this one.”

So, as I said, Bethany witnessed this embarrassment. We stayed home sick together, nursing our sore throats, sewing up torn stuffed animals, chasing a squirrel out a window (another story entirely!), and sipping chicken soup. I learned from yesterday’s mistake, and created a space in which yoga could happen. I cleaned and vacuumed the living room, including clearing space on the mantle for candles, rolling up the rug neatly, and shoving back the chairs and couch. It was another DVD session, this one Rodney Yi’s Power Yoga, a step up from yesterday’s Fat Burning Yoga, but a giant step down from a live class.

And when Rodney Yi had brought me from mountain pose, through downward dog, and warriors I, II, and III, and finally to the wheel, I instinctively reached for the remote – to fast forward past that section. Wheel, in my living room? Without props? Without an instructor? Then – maybe because even though the world abounds New Year’s challenges right now, this particular one feels like an opportunity to truly commit to a healthy, life-deepening practice, and so –  I chose not to fast forward. I decided I would try it. And that’s when Bethany saw me, desperately trying to arch my upper back enough to lift my head, arms bent in the proper position, but not helping out much.

“Go mama, go!” Bethany cheered. I tried again, upside down and backward frog flopping around, huffing, heaving, and got my head up to where it was supposed to be. But no sooner had I done that, when Rodney Yi had already gracefully arched himself into the full wheel. And there I lay, partially in position with my cheering, yet alarmed, child watching. When Lydia demonstrated this in class, she showed the arm position and merely lifted her upper body, saying “do it like this.” So simple. So easy. But my arms would not cooperate.

16 years ago, I experienced a similar, surprising, failure of what should have been normal body functioning. My uterus had made up its mind not to let my 3-week overdue baby out. It had shut up tight, and wasn’t going to open, no way, no how, not ever. During the final weeks of a nearly 10-month pregnancy, I endured countless “stress tests” and various humiliating attempts at inducing labor, including downing two bottles of castor oil and receiving a “cervical massage” (which bore no resemblance to the kind you get at a spa); finally Aurora had been overdue long enough to require the big gun: Pitocin. And even that didn’t do the job. 36 hours of labor ended in a terrifying Cesarean.  It would have made sense for a  strong, healthy, young woman to have an uneventful labor and delivery; there was no medical reason for the uterine protest, but certainly a psychological one. My body remembered things I had buried. And it made decisions without my consent.

Having survived sexual abuse at the age of seven and again at 15, I had a brilliant mechanism for getting on with things: pretend it didn’t happen. I didn’t talk about it, chose not to dwell on it, and during the events themselves, fled my body entirely, or, in the lingo of psychologists, “dissociated.” This worked (for then); it allowed a freaked out kid to cope. Eventually it stopped working, (again, brilliantly), just when I could start to handle it all. But even though I’d been able to leave my body for the bad stuff, my body hadn’t been able to leave itself, and it clung on to that trauma. So, no wonder those same body parts shut down when called upon to be visited by stranger after stranger after stranger during those months of endless “exams.” Miss U had shut the door and put up a “do not enter” sign in big-block letters.

So, I know this pattern. The comparison comes to mind not because I think what’s happening now has the same significance as what happened then. But I do suspect my problem with the wheel is not that I physically cannot do it, but rather that for some reason, my arms have chosen not to do it. They’re pissed off – or scared – about something, but I haven’t figure out what.

Meanwhile, Bethany grew increasingly compassionate as I writhed around trying over and over again to reach that elusive wheel. After cheering “Go Mama go!” a few more times, she tried to assist, by gently pushing on my back with her arms as she lovingly said “that’s it, that’s it.” I think the spectacle worried her a bit, because she wouldn’t leave me for the rest of the practice, much like a dog around its injured human. I never did get into that wheel – this time. But trying was enough.

Throughout the next several poses, Bethany rubbed my shoulders and arms, and every time I tried to lie my head down, she lay under it, so I rested on her legs. Finally, after the short relaxation at the end, head still on her lap as she played with my hair, I asked her if she’d like to say one “Ohm” with me. No, she didn’t. So I sat up cross-legged and did it alone, but the sound of it bothered her, and she leaped onto my back exclaiming “Mama! That’s embarrassing!”

And we collapsed into a pile of giggles and tickles and play.

Downward Dog Don’ts (Yoga Challenge Day 5)

21 Day Challenge Day 5: Wednesday, January 9

I learned today never to do yoga in loose clothes without a bra. It makes for an awkward downward dog. Thankfully, this lesson came in the living room and not surrounded by friends and strangers in a studio.

Today Anjali’s challenge to practice yoga 21 days in a row grew into an actual challenge. I woke up late, and with hair sticking out in all directions and a hint of sore throat, stumbled to the basement to toss clothes in the dryer so I’d have something to wear to work. I kept drinking water thinking it would take away the sore in the throat, and then calculated that if I sat on a pillow at exactly that moment, I could meditate for 10, possibly 20 minutes. Meditating counted as yoga according to Anajali’s chart up on the wall at Yoga Mountain Center. So I sat.

When I started meditating, around 9 months ago, I thought of it like praying. So I would sit, and pray, silently chattering away to God. Then I learned the concept of listening. That’s the trick of it; simple and sometimes impossibly difficult at the same time.  I often get caught up in what position my hands are supposed to be in: palms up on my knees? … folded in my lap?  … in prayer position at the heart? Then there’s the breathing. Breathe in …. breathe out … I actually think those words as I breathe. I thought all of this while I sat on the giant pile of pillows I’ve assembled for just this purpose. It takes five minutes to settle in; to get the knees below the hips, and the back straight and the shoulder blades down and then re-straighten the back, and then decide on the hand position, tuck in the tummy, and then realize that I’m thinking of all this stuff rather than emptying my mind, and then to repeat “breathe in … breathe out” over and over again.

In the middle of all of this fussing, my mind drifted here and there, and to the rotton things going on right now, to the scary things and to the good things, and to the fantasies of what could be, and to the things that felt like obligatory prayers, and to the prayers I actually wanted to pray, and then to remembering that you’re not supposed to think while you meditate, you’re supposed to set your mind on the breath, and then to “breathe in … breathe out …”  I have no idea how people do this for an hour at a time.

Finally, after giving up on meditating and just straight out praying, I got up, and thought that perhaps I could check the yoga off my list for the day. Except I knew that whatever it was I was doing on those pillows wasn’t really meditating, and I couldn’t really check it off.

I would do some sun salutes in the living room after work, I told myself. But, after work turned into errands and making dinner and tending to two of the kids who also had sore throats, then checking over Aurora”s application for a study abroad program, then the nightly struggle with Emery to do his math homework, then the bedtime routine for a now grumpy Bethany, who yelped “ow!” everytime she swallowed. By the time everything settled: Aurora tapping away at an English paper in the basement; Emery resentfully scribbling out answers to math problems too complex for me to know if he was really doing it or just faking; Bethany tucked in and asleep – I had only hot tea on the mind, not yoga.

But I didn’t want to ruin a 21-day challenge at day five, so I shoved over the rug and pushed aside a chair and spread out my 20-year old squished down mat, and got into position. Emery tapped his foot. I stood in mountain pose. Emery tapped his pencil. I swan dived down to a forward fold. The tea kettle whistled; I stepped back to a plank.

“What kind of tea do you want mom!?” Emery shouted.

I did my best at a chaturanga and made a mental note to figure how to do the thing correctly.

I made it through one Vinyasa and that revealing down dog, and stepped off the mat realizing that today’s lesson is this: if you’re going to do yoga every day, you’ve got to make the space for it; the space in the schedule, the space in the living room; the space in the mind. It may in fact take a total rearrangement of a few things.

But another thing happened: After those three minutes on the mat, I felt slightly more grounded, enough so that I gained a tiny bit of perspective on the homework struggle, and allowed myself that cup of tea in a squishy chair with feet propped on coffee table, and stopped demanding tasks of myself, just for now.

The Yogini in Me

Last spring, I started a yoga practice. It sprang from a back injury, which ultimately led to the revelation that I had been hurting myself – physically and otherwise – for many years. Out of that came the decision to be much more gentle on my body, both in food intake and exercise – as well as a decision to turn toward happiness. It turned out to be a turning point in every way, and I recorded the beginning of it here.

Trying out yoga started as a physical act. I sought exercise that wouldn’t further harm the various joints I had beat up over the past couple of decades. At first, I hated it; it was so slow, and quiet, and my heart rate rarely raised much. After only a few classes, I noticed changes not only physically, but throughout my life. I regained the 3/4 inches I’d lost off my height in my 30′s.  I could read the clues of my body much more adeptly, and I learned to meditate, even if for only short periods. The physical practice of getting on the mat and going through the downward dogs and warrior poses gave me courage; enhanced intuition; aligned mind and body, and deepened my spiritual practices, which take place on the pews as well as in the yoga studio (and on a stump in Hubbard Park). By opening up my physical heart center in the classroom, I felt my actual heart center open outside the classroom. I felt myself becoming more of who I am.

So, recently when my friend and Yoga Mountain Center owner and instructor, Anjali Budreski, issued a “21-day yoga challenge,” I accepted. I started immediately. These past 9 months, I have practiced several times a week, but not daily. So even though it’s only been four days since I accepted the challenge, I’m already noticing the difference between taking a class when I can fit it in, and committing to the mat every day.

I know this isn’t a “recipe” – at least not for food. I might argue that yoga has become a sort of “recipe for life” in this past year – and there’s many a yogi who might agree. However you feel about recipes or yoga or whether it makes any sense to call this a “cooking” blog when I’m cooking up ideas more than food, I’ve decided to post the progress of the 21 day challenge right here – to keep myself accountable, and to share the insights that come up with a three-week commitment.

Big Yoga Goal: to be able to do “The Wheel.” It may take another year or two.

Day 1: Saturday, January 5

Meant to go, but skipped the morning yoga class. 9 a.m. feels too early for a Saturday. I just want to loll in bed and have a cup of tea and check email. Instead, I went to Kellogg-Hubbard Library for a “crafternoon” with Bethany (knitting and reading!) then hot-cocoa and fries at Skinny Pancake with the imp; then home, where I promised her we would do yoga together.

Emery hooked up the VCR – very old school compared to our Roku and streamed videos, but I could not find the “kid yoga” video I had for years, so instead did another one; “fat blast yoga” and “Joy of Yoga” – very cheesy with bad music in the background and a chirrupy instructor. Bethany and I moved the furniture out of the way and folded up the rug and laid out two yoga mats.

Bethany did some of it, but couldn’t do many of the adult-oriented poses. Instead, she carefully heeded the instructor’s overly-cautious instructions to “drink lots of water” and brought out giant water bottles for each of us. I did it dutifully because I had started the “challenge.” The best part was when Bethany held my hand while we both did bridge pose.

Day 2: Sunday, January 6

4 p.m. Level I/II class at Yoga Mountain Center. Lydia subbed for Anjali. I came in to a hallway full of dripping snowboots and both ends of the coat hooks covered with jackets and scarves. I showed up exactly on time, which is really like showing up 15 minutes late, because it leaves no time to settle. I had cursed every driver in front of me as I tried to zip through traffic on the way there, all the time thinking “Cassandra, be yoga-ish” then I would silently yell “Idiot!” at the slow poke in front of me. It felt very bi-polar. I did deep breathing.

But, despite what goes on outside the walls of the yoga studio, walking in feels like entering a glittery castle where everything slows down and magic happens. I shed coat and boots and set up a mat. Somebody slid over so I could fit into one of the last remaining spaces and one more person came in even later than I.

It’s Epiphany Sunday, the twelfth day of Christmas, and I had been praying for God to show me my path. I prayed for him to use a big hammer and give me a good thunk with it, to make it clear; no subtle hints – no whispers; I wanted a shout!  – a good kick in the ass … show me the path with huge signs and arrows with no room for doubt: that’s what I had prayed in church that morning.

Then, Lydia started talking about the light that led the Wise Men to the Christ child, and soon that led to talk of our own internal lights – and dusting off the magnetic glow of our own hearts, lighting all around us in all directions and also shining off in the horizon – beckoning us to where we are supposed to go. And so, God spoke through Lydia while I sat cross legged, butt propped up on a bolster; I didn’t need a thunk on the head or a neon sign with a giant blinking arrow pointing out the way. I have known where to go all along because it is the urging of my heart. As we made our way through the asanas, I envisioned my heart like an old light house that has not had a keeper for a very long time. I pictured a hand with a dusting cloth wiping down all the windows of the lighthouse, one at a time, going all around, front, sides, back, shining and shining the glass to perfect clarity, allowing the light of my heart to shine bright – illuminating the path for me – no hiding under bushels for this light!

I left the studio glowing.

Day 3: Monday, January 7

Because of the duties of the day, the only yoga class option that arose was “Athletic Yoga” at First in Fitness. I had no fresh yoga clothes to wear except the same ones worn for the past three classes in a row. The choice came down to: do yoga stinkingly, or don’t do yoga but wash the clothes. I chose to stink, and prayed that it wouldn’t offend my neighbors.

I have taken this class before only a couple of times. It is quite physically challenging and I always feel like the big fat dope in the room while all the tiny little athletes do perfect chatarangas and plank for 10 minutes at a time, I have to rest in child’s pose more frequently than I like to admit. It’s a bit of a blow to the ego – but also a good lesson in remembering that yoga is not a competitive sport.

During a particularly stretchy lunge, a whump and a bang sounded through the room, and the instructor – Laura – yelped. I thought someone had fallen over (Lord knows I’ve fallen over more than once during a yoga class!). You know how sometimes when something crazy happens, your mind doesn’t comprehend it right away? That’s what happened here; it took a couple moments to realize that nobody had fallen down, but the part of the ceiling had.

While Laura stood there in shock trying to figure out what had happened, most of the rest of us remained in the pose – waiting for her to tells us to get out of it. Only one or two people had stopped stretching to help figure out what the heck just happened. Finally, I realized just how silly I’d been, holding the pose while the instructor dealt with a crashed in ceiling. How long did I plan to wait there while my hamstrings screamed?

A women in class kept exclaiming that she had suspected the ceiling would bust. She’d warned people. It had been bulging she said. A lot. A slow leak had saturated the ceiling tile making it wet and mushy (“Like a cookie in coffee” another student said).

“The sky is falling!” some of us exclaimed, giggling.

Someone grabbed a tiny trash can and a few people picked up the strange shattered ceiling pieces and stuffed them in. Every spot in the room had been taken up except that precise place underneath where the ceiling had crashed down. Perhaps everyone had an intuition to stay away from there.

For the rest of the class, Laura kept looking up at the ceiling and wincing.

We continued until 6:45; grunting out yoga-esque push-ups and exercises, but not so much meditation and a too-short shavasana. Still, I felt a bit glowy afterward, and thought maybe the yoga lesson of this day was that even if the ceiling falls in, we can still finish our yoga.

Day 4: Tuesday, January 8

Almost didn’t do any yoga today, then at 3:46 I remembered I’d agreed to a “21 day challenge” and by God I would do it every day. Again with the appointments one after the other, followed up at 5:00 by an extraordinarily difficult conversation. Again, I had no clean yoga clothes with me, but because it’s winter, I had a stretchy layer on under the work pants and sweater, so all I had to do was strip off the outer layer, no need to even change.

Again Lydia subbed for Anjali, again the place overflowed with eager yoginis coming in from the cold. I chose this class because the website advertised it as Level I. After yesterday’s “athletic” yoga, I didn’t feel up for much more than that.

The slow Level I stretches did their magic working out the kinks from Sunday and Monday. But at the beginning of class, when we sat cross-legged hands in prayer position, the space between my eyes crunched rather than relaxed. I kept thinking about the difficult conversation and couldn’t fall into the meditation. It seemed deceptive to sit there pretending to be prayerful when actually I just felt upset. The woman in front of me kept farting, and I felt a little bit better about my stinky clothes from Monday.

I saw tonight how the asanas really are a physical meditation, though, because once we started moving around, I focused only on the postures, and started to let go of all that has had a hold on me otherwise. Shavasana felt too short again. I decided to do another Shavasana when I got home, in bed, for eight hours.

Yoga lesson: Even when tense; even when upset; even when tired; even when sore; even when stinky; get on the mat.