A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Future

The thing about change is that you never know where it will go. A little over three years ago things were bad. My job was bad. My living situation was bad. My relationship was bad. My health was bad. Of course I’d been working hard to change all that. At the beginning of July, 2010 I had an offer for a new job on its way, an offer in on a beautiful house in a quiet ocean-side suburb of San Francisco, a new understanding with my boyfriend after a near breakup, and  improvements in my health due to a strict new diet that banned gluten, soy, nightshades, and all sugar, as well as many other things I had been eating every day. I had even been accepted to a graduate program called Action for a Viable Future, that would help me begin to have a more positive impact on the world.

I was sure I was on my way to a better life, until one day in the middle of the month a layoff in the company I had interviewed made them retract my pending offer, my house bid was declined for a lower offer, and the graduate program was cancelled for lack of enrollment. I felt like someone had pulled the rug out from under me.

A few days later I was talking to a coworker about her recent trip to Santa Fe. She told me how she had met writer Natalie Goldberg in a cafe, how Natalie was teaching writing workshops, and that we should go. A few weeks later my friend had to pull out, but I knew I needed to get away from everything, so I booked the workshop and my flights and went alone.

That retreat was September, 2010. In January I asked for a leave of absence to spend the next year in Santa Fe studying with Natalie. They gave me six months. When that six months was over, I quit, found a more permanent address, and stayed, thinking I would finally finish that novel and become the writer I’d always known I could be.

Things don’t always work out how you expect. I did study with Natalie that year and into the next. I published some poems in local journals and papers. I even finished the first draft of that novel I’d been working on. But what I really discovered was that more than anything, what made me feel most at peace, what brought me the most joy, was returning to something I’d learned to do when I was ten–making quilts. And not just making quilts, the promise of how quilts can help make this world a better place, by comforting those who need comfort, by helping people heal from trauma and feel they are loved, by representing and commenting on injustice or pain in the world, by inviting people to become creative forces for good.

That is why I created this site and blog, this idea that by doing something I love in a way that has meaning I could make a difference not just for others but for myself. Being broken makes it harder to heal others. Heal yourself first and not only do you have more to give, you have a story you can share. A story of hope. A story of change. A story of finding joy.

I am still writing my story. I have found my passion, but having given up my high-tech salary, I now work three jobs (more when I can get freelance work) to make ends meet. I find myself stuck in a kinder, gentler version of the same trap, with little time or energy to create. Living a life that still doesn’t feel like the life I’ve longed for, the dream that moved me 1,200 miles from my family, friends, boyfriend, and home town.

And so, my life continues to evolve. In November I will have my first solo quilt show and teach my first class. It’s a good start, but I want to do more. I want to look more closely at the materials I use and the businesses I support. I want to look more closely at where and how I live. I want to look more closely at the footprint I leave. And, most importantly, I want to look more closely at the good I can do, not just for myself or the people I love, but for the people I have never met and the planet we share. And yes, I do have an idea of where this might go and what forms it may take, but if I’ve learned anything from the last three years, it’s that the path of change is seldom straight, and the glittering light in the distance might lead you away from the deeper joy of a warm hearth and encircling arms right in front of you.

How a Brutal Election and a Natural Disaster Helped Me Find My Calling

Looking back on these last few weeks (months?) it’s not hard to imagine that the Mayan apocalypse theories are true. The ugliest election I’ve ever seen filled the airwaves and internet with poison and vitriol. A gargantuan super-storm flooded huge sections of Manhattan and wiped out power for millions along the eastern seaboard. Terrified victims slammed the doors in strangers faces refusing to help those in desperate need of saving. This country, this planet is coming apart at the seams, and it’s not just the liberal in me that believes that. Hate has no place in family values. Neither does violence. Neither does fear. And we are a family, like it or not. We need to learn how to get along. Our survival as a nation and as a species depends on it.

The election is over, but declaring a winner and a loser is far from the end of the struggle. This election only underscored the fact that we are a people divided. That there are critical issues that need addressing yesterday. Yes, the election is over. Now it’s time to clean up the mess.

You may wonder what all this has to do with my calling. It started with this blog post written by congressional candidate Colin Beavan (aka No Impact Man). In it was a call to action.

We all have to start dedicating some of our lives to these problems. Not just voting for the right people. Not just leaving comments on blogs. Not just having intense conversations over coffee.

So what then?

Here’s a thought. Decide to dedicate five to ten hours a week to helping figure out what to do. Then use those five to ten hours to bring your personal gifts to the search for societal solutions and the means of implementing them.

If you are an artist or musician or writer, use your talents to bring more and more attention to our problems and the quest for the solution. Be a constant reminder of the peril our society and world faces.

Overall, though, my point here is that all of us have a role to play in our cultural healing. There is no leader who can tell us how to contribute. Each of us has to look around us and use our own minds and souls to see what needs doing and how we are best suited to do it. Each of us must contribute in our own way. 

What is the one thing you know how to do? What is the one thing you can dedicate a slice of your life to? 

Those last questions are ones I’ve spent a lot of time struggling with, but for some reason, reading them in this context gave me a whole new perspective.

What do I know how to do? Write and sew.

What is the one thing I can dedicate a slice of my life to? Combining those two things to raise awareness of the suffering I see in the world, and doing my part to heal it.

That suffering may take different forms — recovery after natural (or man-made) disaster, coping with the fallout of war, living with the legacy of hate in all its forms, the planetary crisis of global warming, poverty and hunger to name a few.

I have found and purchased a new URL. I have outlined the new site and the things I hope to do (both online and beyond). I have committed to writing and sewing every weekday. I’m finally on the road. And from my joy at my first few steps I will ask you my version of the questions Colin asked:

What cause matters most to you?

What can you do about it?

For more inspiration, check out: How to Change the World (Hint: It’s Not Voting)

In the Thick of It

I have never really lived in a place with winter. Not since I was a little girl and spent a couple of white, wet seasons in upstate New York. I never even learned to ski, thanks to a paranoid gymnastics coach, so I skipped all those Tahoe trips so many of my friends took, and still take.

I have to admit, I was afraid of it. Afraid of the way it might chill me to the bone, especially given how easily I have always gotten cold. Afraid of the slick sidewalks and icy roads. And yes, I was also afraid of what I might do, stuck here in one tiny room longing for my garden and for spring to come.

I have always been able to garden all year through. San Francisco’s temperate climate means there is always something to do — rake, mulch, plant, trim. The garden is always calling you. But not here. Here the garden is sleeping beneath it’s thick, white winter blanket. You can’t even hear it breathing the world is so quiet thanks to the snow.

I never believed I’d actually say this, but I am in love with winter. In love with the white. In love with the silence. In love with the way the world slows down. It is such an amazing blessing, all this space and time I never knew I longed for.

There is a whole world in this one room, free of the demands of the garden. I have found time to get back to hobbies and projects too long put aside. I have started making quilts again. I have been writing. I have this whole new old life that my lust for greenery had pushed aside, and I am loving it. And I want to share it with you. Because while I am reveling in letting the garden lie fallow, the blog shouldn’t have to. There is enough growth in this one room to keep this space thriving no matter how hard or how long it snows.

Of course that means some things will have to change. This blog will need to stretch out and make room. It will sometimes need to peer into cupboards. It will sometimes need to look out at the world. It will need to find the connection between plant and fabric and word and stone. And there is a connection. It’s called Home.

Gardening as Practice

Gardening is my passion. It brings me joy and peace, a meditative practice, challenges and heartaches, and a tangible way to help make a difference in the world.

Gardening is a sensory experience. It pulls you out of yourself and into the bigger picture. It teaches you about interdependence, about the cycles of life, and about the transitory nature of all things.

Here is how the garden speaks to me, but it doesn’t matter whether you have a 300 square foot vegetable plot or a single African violet on a windowsill. Any one or all of these steps can work for you:

1.  Start with your eyes.
Eat your breakfast or enjoy your afternoon tea looking out into your garden. Eat slowly, giving your mind time to settle into that green space. The longer you sit, the more you will notice – a newly forming flower bud, a suspect spot or curl of leaf, a lizard hiding under a branch, a bumble bee, the beginnings of a patch of weeds. Do nothing. Make no mental lists. Just notice the space and the details, small and large, within it.

2.  Walk outside.
Chances are, after completing step one, you won’t be able to resist. The garden will call you to join it. But don’t succumb to the urge to get to work right away. Spend a moment just being with it. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Take in the lush green scent or sharp dryness. Notice the top notes – a blooming rose, the scent of warm herbs. Run your fingers across them if you like, taking their scent onto your skin. Notice then, the bottom notes – the smell of earth, warm flagstone, your compost pile. Embrace the rot. It is what keeps the cycle alive.

3.  Move in close and touch the leaves.
Turn them over to see if anyone is hiding there. Feel the texture of flower petals, of rough bark, of fuzzy leaves. Reach down into the dirt without your gloves. Notice if it’s warm or cool. Dry or moist. Your fingers will tell you what it needs. Listen and give to each plant what it asks for, one at a time.

4.  When the work is done, sit and listen – to the breeze in the leaves, the buzz of the bees, the birds in the trees. 
Witness all the aliveness that surrounds you, both visible and hidden. Feel it pulsing through you, becoming part of you, to help ground you through your day.

5.  If you have herbs or other edibles in your garden, take a tiny taste of one small leaf. 
Sorrell or romaine, rosemary or mint… Let it fill your mouth with its wild green, making that garden a part of what creates you every day.

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It doesn’t matter if you have 5 minutes or three hours. If your garden is large and your time short, pick one corner, one plant, one flower. It doesn’t even matter if you have no garden at all. 

Pick a houseplant to look at, really look at. Sink your fingers into its pot. Feel its roots grow and grow with them. Or visit a friend’s garden, a park, the woods. Look more closely at the weed-riddled median in the center of your road.

And speaking of weeds, please do not consider them a foe to be vanquished, but rather a teacher to be respected. 

When I lived in San Francisco, I had a huge garden with a view of the ocean. It was beautiful, but completely overrun with Cape oxalis, one of San Francisco’s most invasive and persistent weeds. Everyone told me to put down weed barrier or spray herbicides, whatever it took to get rid of it all.

But for me, that carpet of green was beautiful and getting down on my knees with my hands in the dirt to clear a vegetable patch one small oxalis bulb at a time really helped me feel connected to my garden – the plants and the soil, the water and sky. It got me out there every morning to check on the progress of each squash seedling making sure they hadn’t been overrun. And those weeds kept me there, noticing things I would never have seen had I blanketed the dirt with plastic and set automatic sprinklers.

What’s most important in the garden is whatever gets you outside. Beyond that, it’s just being there that matters, whether pulling weeds, tilling soil, planting seeds, or simply enjoying the flowers. All help to ground you in the earth and the world and connect you to something bigger, putting all that bad news on the television, your child’s ear infection, or the politics at work into clearer perspective.

Outside things grow. They live and die. The sun shines, or it rains. It doesn’t matter. The garden is there, and so are we.
This post first appeared on The Liberated Life Project–an enlightening and empowering blog written by friend Maia Duerr–as part of a series of “how to” posts on spiritual/contemplative practices. You can learn more about the series and how to develop a practice of your own here.