Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Building a Brush Pile

The warm weather (55 degrees here in the North Country) calls me outdoors. Of course, i find something "to do": pick up sticks and build a brush pile. My ulterior motive is a bonfire on winter solstice.

For now, i walk around my gardens and collect downed sticks and limbs. The pole bean poles are obvious candidates. My woodland walk produces a pile of sticks and branches as tall as i am. Later, i will throw rotted compost bin pallets on top of the brush pile to give the solstice bonfire a satisfying crackle and flame.

You could say i am cremating the old garden, burning up the old year.

The perennial garden is mostly dormant, except for a few hardy johnny-jump-ups that lay low. The vegetable garden and the annual flower beds are mostly dead.

I walk through the "ghost town" of my garden knowing that one day my own life will be a ghost town too.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Disappointment in the Garden

Brussels sprouts were disappointing this year. I started them from seed in March and planted them in my community garden plot, which has a high sulfur content. The Brassica family (broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, et al) loves sulfur. Last year, the neighboring plot had a broccoli head that was as big as a medium size pizza.

This year's Brussels sprouts? As big as my fingernail. The sprouts are either tiny or totally unfurled such that they look like a fan dancer's skirts.

Disappointment is just another word for stress or distress. I wanted Brussels sprouts that would look like Brussels sprouts.

One community garden neighbor said, "Oh, but those little ones are tender and sweet." So i've harvested 2 batches of Brussels sprouts from my 2 dozen plants. They don't particularly look like Brussels sprouts, but i close my eyes and practice mindful eating. Melt in your mouth sweet. And they taste like Brussels sprouts :)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Walking in the Woods

I have a woodland walk--a path in the woods that loops around and is about 200 feet long altogether. Although it doesn't go far and is just a few feet from the road, still, it enables me to take a meditative walk in the woods.

Kwan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, sits on a bench and waits for me. I walk by her nearly every morning on my way to meditate at my neighbor's house.

We can bring mindfulness to walking in our daily activities--on the street or in the grocery store. Or maybe now, as we stroll through our gardens, with nothing really "to do," except walk and notice the body walking.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Little White Stars

My jade plant is blooming with little white stars. While this may not be unusual for people (and jade plants) living in zone 9 or 10, my jade plant and i live in zone 5. I didn't even know that a jade plant could bloom indoors until i accidentally discovered the secret: Withhold water in September and October and the jade will bloom in November.

Actually, i don't have the heart to totally withhold water, so i water very, very lightly, just a couple of tablespoons of water once or twice a week.

Renunciation can make us bloom too. It's counter-intuitive. By giving up something, we will have more time, more energy, and quite possibly, more calm. In this season of buying more (buying more than we can really afford?), what would you be willing to give up? One trip to the store? Overeating at one meal? Turning off the computer an hour or two before bedtime?

Let me know what you can renounce with an open heart.

Let's go outdoors and watch the stars shine in the night sky.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

One Last Thing

My neighbor, Connie, planted thornless raspberry bushes on Thanksgiving Day. I tell you, there's nothing like 6 inches of snow to get a gardener going on those very last projects of the season.

The snow has insulated the ground and kept it from freezing. So Connie just dug in with her spading fork. "Well, my fingers did get cold," she said.

And when the first snow falls on our snowy heads, what's the one last project we will want to do?

One of Connie's best friends, Wow, is dying of cancer. Wow's advice is "Be more present."
It's the only day we have.

Friday, November 25, 2011

"Been There. Done That": An Enemy of Gratitude

The barred owl called for several minutes as i was meditating at 4:00 this morning. "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?" it asks.

My Thanksgiving cooking took a different form this year as i prepared some baked goods for the interludes between the 40-minute sits at 7:00, 8:00, 9:00, and 10:00 at Vermont Insight on Thanksgiving morning.

The cranberry-walnut scones were a big hit, but the kale-apple muffins were the big surprise. The recipe came from 365 Days of Kale.

During our final sit, I led a guided gratitude meditation.
Begin by practicing gratitude for all the ordinary, every-day things you take for granted.
Running water, electricity, your car, a warm home, safety as you walk on the street.
All the services: the post office, the bank and the magic of plastic, which so eases our lives.
You can think of many more.

Taking things for granted not only kills surprise in our lives, it numbs our delight in life.
"Been there. Done that" is an enemy of gratitude.

I can see i need to practice feeling surprise at kale. Wow! You can chop it up in your food processor and put it in muffins and the kale taste disappears. Magic!

Photo courtesy of

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Weather Forecast

I unloaded a truck full of manure yesterday afternoon. Good thing, because this morning there's 6 inches of snow on the gardens.

Sometimes we are forewarned by a forecast of bad weather. One friend just had a complete hysterectomy, and the biopsy showed ovarian cancer.

Sometimes bad weather takes us by surprise when our car slips off the road. Or, as happened recently, a friend died of a heart attack.

One thing is for sure: at some point, we will be "under the weather." Sickness and dis-ease are inevitable.

Last week, i signed my Power of Attorney. I already have my will, my trust, my living will, and my durable power of attorney for health care. I'm trying to be prepared for the eventuality of "bad weather," whether through aging or illness, whether or not i'm forewarned.

Meanwhile, i tend the garden of mindfulness and enjoy every day i have. Even if i am snowed in.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Shining Shrubs

Although trees have been bare of leaves for a month now, several shrubs are still decked out in eye-catching splendor. Viburnum leaves burn with red. Fothergilla (witchalder) bewitches me with lovely yellow-orange leaves except for one stem, which is red. I look and look again at the contrasting colors. Like a cat with 9 lives, Physocarpus (nine-bark) plumes yellow to show me one more interesting facet of its personality. Even Forsythia is showy in burgundy. Holly and Oregon grape shine glossy green.

People age differently too. Some bodies give out somewhere in the 70s. Some bodies are still going strong at 80. Some people's minds go, and others are sharp as a tack. Some oldsters take up painting; some continue to volunteer. We can't know which of these futures awaits us. All we can do is live today mindfully and let the future take care of itself.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Civil War of Kale

Kale is a vegetable that causes my cooking to freeze in its tracks. The thought of "more kale" makes me come to a complete cooking halt. But scavenging the refrigerator soon loses its appeal. I am caught on the horns of a dilemma: fresh vegetables are growing in the garden, and i don't want to eat them.

This is one more way the mind has a civil war with itself.
"I should eat vegetables from the garden."
"I don't want to."

The mind bickers with itself every evening before dinner, and so nothing gets cooked.
"Kale is good for you."
"I don't want kale."

How long can this quarrel go on?

A reasonable head of cabbage from my community garden plot steps up to the plate. Inspiration strikes! Cabbage cashew chicken. The cooking fire is lit, and dinner arrives on the table.

Photo courtesy of Underwood Gardens

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Flowers for the Performer

My granddaughter is in a play that we went to see last night. As we often do for her school plays, we take a little bouquet of carnations and daisies.

She is so happy to be in a play. And she's a budding gardener, so she's delighted with the flowers.

Flowers last a bit longer than the performance, but just as the play and the performance arise and cease, so do the flowers.

Impermanence. Everything we cherish will change and vanish. The river of life flows on, around us and through us. We can't hang on to anything--not our roles, which also arise and cease from moment to moment. And the flowers--here today, gone tomorrow.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Mullein Remedies

In the community garden, i watched as someone dug up biennial white mullein and composted them. To her, they were weeds--plants growing in the wrong place.

To me, they were nascent wildflowers, full of next summer's potential. Now they are compost.

Our views, our opinions, our viewpoints often lead straight to distress or stress. Wise View is the first step on the Noble Eightfold Path. We know a view is wise when no stress arises. Hmmm. How is that possible?

When we see and accept the world as it is. Right now. Plants have been composted. That is all.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

First Seed Catalog

I received my first seed catalog in the mail yesterday. It's beautiful. But i put it aside for now.

The Buddha recommends abandoning sensual desire, and that's what i'm doing--for now. Abandoning the seed catalog to a box marked "Spring" where i will pile all the new seed catalogs.

Oh, i will let desire overtake me, maybe one evening in January, when i'll sit down with the catalogs and salivate over the descriptions of vegetables and flowers. Then i will feel in my body what desire feels like.

For now, i'm feeling what "abandoning" feels like in the mind/body. Unfettered. Open to this beautiful November day, with nothing "to do" in this moment.

Besides the noble art of getting things done,
there is the noble art of leaving things undone.

The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of nonessentials.
-Lin Yutang, writer and translator (1895-1976)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Forcing Hyacinths

I'm forcing hyacinths. The naked bulbs sit in their vases, suspended above water. They will sit there in the dark cool basement for 3 months or so before the flowers begin to sprout and unfurl.

In our lives, we sometimes force ourselves to be nice because we think that being nice is the same as being good.

But goodness is a skill that we can develop. The instructions are in the beginning lines of the Metta Sutta.

This is what is to be done
by one who is skilled in goodness,
and who seeks the path of peace.

Let them be able & upright,
straight-forward & gentle in speech,
humble & not conceited,

contented & easily satisfied,
unburdened by duties & frugal in their ways,
peaceful & calm & wise & skillful,

not proud & demanding in nature.

Let them not do the slightest thing
that the wise would later reprove.

Consider pondering one of these pairs of skills at the end of your meditation. A "nice" person might be gentle in speech, but not "straight-forward." How in the world can we do both? How can we say "No" (or even "No!") with an open heart?

Allow these phrases to grow in the dark of your sub-conscious. Some day you will be surprised by their blooming!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fragrances--Sharp or Sweet

I'm "planting" paperwhites in shallow bowls filled with white rocks. I prefer the Tazetta variety (also called Chinese Sacred Lily) to the more common Ziva. Tazetta has a sweet tropical fragrance, but produces fewer blossoms.

So how do you decide which paperwhites to grow?
More flowers or fewer?
A "sharp" smell or a sweet smell?
Doing what everyone else does (Ziva) or something unusual (Tazetta)?

In our daily life, it's so easy to mimic what others are doing without really paying much attention. Think of how new words come into your vocabulary. But also gestures, attitudes, and opinions. Did you ever find yourself expressing an opinion you heard someone else say and then realizing that you don't really know if that IS your opinion?

A behavior that is replicated contagiously is called a meme (rhymes with "gene.")
What is the "fragrance" or "taste" of a contagious behavior? Sharp or sweet?

This is the reason that our spiritual friends are so important to us. We want to "catch" their behaviors of kindness and mindfulness. That's the meme we want to remember.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Cole Crops for the Cold Season

The Brassicas* are the only crops remaining in my vegetable garden--a couple of cabbages, a row of turnips, 2 rows of Brussels sprouts that have failed to "sprout," 3 varieties of kale, and mustard greens. I harvested 1 head of broccoli this year; the rest failed to thrive.

These "cole" crops form the backbone of the fall garden. Kohl is the German word for cabbage; thus we have "cole slaw." The cole crops like cold weather :)

What will we have to harvest at the end of our gardening season? Some kindness, some mindfulness. And perhaps a few other qualities that failed to sprout or take root?

Meditate now while your growing season is still warm and vibrant. The change of seasons comes too soon.

Meanwhile, i'm mindfully cooking up a batch of cabbage soup today to ward off the cold.

* Brassica comes from the Celtic word bresic meaning "cabbage."

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Seduction of Beauty

Driving on the interstate, i see a stretch of brilliantly colored leaves--a rarity in our late fall of tan beech and russet oak leaves. The quarter-mile edging turns out to be burning bush (Euonymous alata), which has become an invasive in the woods. Oh, my. It certainly is beautiful, but i'm sure no one planted it there at the verge of the woods and the mowed edge of the highway.

Then i pass a cliff face made festive by bittersweet scrambling around on it. A friend recently offered me some bittersweet from her yard. "Yes," she said, "I know it's invasive, but it's so pretty."

"And it's illegal to transport it," i said. Because what are you going to do with it next spring? Throw it away. Where? In your compost pile so it can sprout somewhere in your garden a year or two later?

Beauty is the seduction of invasive plants. Perhaps we have some friends who are beautiful people. "Are they honorable?" is the key question. Beauty comes and goes. Beauty, in particular a beautiful woman draped over or around an item of merchandise, will get us to buy any number of products--cars, alcoholic beverages, even those mud flaps behind the back tires of semi-trailer trucks. We read in the news about men who smash their promising careers (usually political) by chasing after a young beauty.

And we, do we smash our honorable intentions of harmlessness and kindness by rationalizing, "Oh, it's so pretty. Just this little bit won't hurt."

Photo courtesy of Blue Heron Landscape Design.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Mulch Your Mind

My neighbor Connie borrowed my truck to pick up some mulch hay. We both put our vegetable gardens to bed by covering them with a heavy quilt of hay.

I know. Hay = weed seeds. It takes a leap of faith to willingly cover the garden with hay after spending the summer pulling weeds. But i converted to the Ruth Stout method several years ago. Watch this video of 92-year-old Ruth showing us how to Have a Green Thumb Without An Aching Back.

Our spiritual practice requires leaps of faith as well. I am not talking blind faith here--the believing of something that cannot be proved. I am talking about the scientific method of faith: You try out this theory of meditation with good intentions. After a while, you evaluate your effort. Did it pan out? Did it pay off? Was your faith verified by your experience?

Mulch hay in both fall and spring keeps the weeds down in the vegetable garden.
Mulch your mind with meditation today!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Communing with the Moon

65 degrees yesterday afternoon--warm enough to carry an afghan out to the hammock and take a nap under a blue sky while the trees stood mutely around me.

Mid-afternoon, the fever broke into a gentle rain that cleared up in time for the full moon to rise.

I have a hot tub, partly to lure me outdoors on just such a night of bluish moonlight. The moon rides high in the sky now, as if to compensate for the sun that sinks farther south every day.

Night is a deliciously quiet time to commune with the moon and with its current companion, Jupiter. Veils of thin lacy clouds drifted across the moon's face as trees reached their bare limbs skyward in silent gratitude.

Watching the daily simples of sun and moon, clouds and stars, calm and contentment arise.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Letting Go of the Garden

By 2 in the afternoon, long shadows cover most of the flowerbeds. The sun rides low in the southern sky, heating my passive solar house to toasty, but the sun only peeks at the gardens for an hour or two before they're shaded by the surrounding woods.

It feels like being near a loved one who doesn't have many days left to live. Life still shines, then they sleep long hours. They waken again and perhaps describe the travels they have dreamed that are so real. They have a foot in both worlds.

All we can do is watch and stroke their hair and hold their hand. Perhaps give them a sip of water. The end is coming. When exactly? We don't know.

I wander around my gardens looking for something to do. I rake a few leaves. I pat a few plants into earth. And wait, as the shade deepens.

Letting Go of the Garden

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Seed of Stress

The stone man came yesterday to build a step in the terraced garden. I say "terraced" because that is how i imagine this hillside, but so far only a partial terrace exists. Two more terraces await their definition by stone.

I hired this stone man in June and imagined a completed project by the end of July. He finished the 10-foot long stone retaining wall in September, and now i await the terracing. Yesterday, he talked about returning next spring to do some more work on this hillside.

Do you hear the stress and frustration of this gardener? Weekly phone calls to the stone man have yielded his big silver Chevy truck driving into our driveway. We see him for an hour or maybe two, and then he's gone. Next week, another phone call.

No matter which way i turn, stress awaits me. Fire him? Call him every day? Find a new stone mason? Forget the project? Do it myself? Let him proceed at his own pace?

I want things to be different than they are. This is the seed of stress.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Gift of November

Now that leaves have fallen off the trees,
now when what little daylight we have shines clear and low,
now is the time to take a wander through the woods.

For our vision is unobstructed:
We can see clean through the crowded city of trees.
Our view unhampered by leaves,
which instead of greening above and around us
crunch brownly and satisfactorily under our feet.

Is this what happens with aging? Our bodies bereft of beauty, and, while no one pays attention to our gray and wrinkly form, we see clearly with new eyes. Finally, we glimpse through our decades of delusion. Life unfolding, ever-changing, ever-stressful. And i--so changed in outward appearance from what i was in the springtime of my life--is this still "me"?

The light of day hurries southward.
The "light" in our eyes dims to indistinctness.
And the world becomes soft.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Tending the Root

I attended a day-long meditation retreat yesterday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The commute to get there was another 2 hours on both ends.

The teacher, Shinzen Young, opened by saying that those of us who made the effort to come were tending to the root. In our busy lives, it's so much easier to be distracted by the leaves and branches. Multi-tasking and multi-stimulation can seem so much more interesting and attention grabbing.

Sitting still, doing nothing (well, that's what it looks like, anyway) can seem like a waste of time, when the press of people to text, sites to see, and places to go feel so much more pleasant. So little time; so much to do, do, do.

When we "retreat" from daily life, we have the opportunity to glimpse the arisings and passings of life with a bit of clarity and equanimity rather than being swept along by the winds of life.

In this season, wind is blowing the leaves off the trees. When the trunk and branches of our life stand bare and exposed, where is the root of basic mindfulness that will keep us grounded in the present moment?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Forecasting Future Faucets

I rolled up the garden hoses and stored them away yesterday. I have 4 outdoor faucets--one on each side of my house. 2 of them are retrofits, because i didn't know when i moved into this house what a gardener i would turn out to be.

I couldn't have known back then that an outdoor faucet under the kitchen window would prove to be very handy for the hillside garden. Or that another faucet--beside the front door--would be very useful for watering the garden beside the front door. I had no idea there would even BE a garden at the entrance to my home.

As busy as our minds can be, planning the future, we never really know what the future holds. And if we look back--at my outdoor faucets, for instance--we see that our batting average for forecasting the future is rather low.

We think if we know the future, we can calm our fears. But this is a deceiving assumption.

Calm lies in the present moment, which is really the only place we ever are.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Apple Stress

The nearby orchards are offering pick-your-own apples for half-price. Quick now! Before more hard freezes turn the fruit to mush.

In 15 minutes, i picked half a bushel of Macouns and Jonagolds. The apple-picking was really an excuse to be outdoors on a beautiful fall afternoon.

Now there's the cooking and storing of the apples, which creates a bit of stress the moment i return home with my bounty.

Fried apples--fried in butter with a drizzle of maple syrup (or brown sugar), and a good salting--reminds me of fall breakfasts when i was growing up. Applesauce is easy and my sweetie adores it.

That still leaves a nearly-full bag of apples sitting in the cold, dark garage awaiting more inventiveness.

Stress in disguise.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Meditative Gardener Wins 2 More Book Awards

The Meditative Gardener is a finalist in 2 categories of the USA Best Books Awards:

Best Interior Design


Under Control. Or Not.

For the first time in 6 months, i feel like my gardens are under control. Not since mid-May have i felt the gardens were going in the direction i intended. The plants knew where they were growing--kale outside the garden fence (how did it get there?), onions overrun by tomatillos, artemesia popping up again after i had weeded it out of one flower bed. I wanted my plants to grow where i wanted, not where they wanted.

How often do we try to wrestle our world into the way we think it should be? The flower bed would be prettier if.... Our children would be happier if.... We would be happier if.... And this country would be better off if....

Wanting things to be different than they are gives rise to stress. Sometimes, we can muscle our world into congruence with our wishes. Sometimes, all that effort leaves us panting. Sometimes, the world--and the garden--goes on its merry way, no matter how much pressure we apply to change its direction.

Occasionally, i end my meditation with the "prayer":
May i see things as they really are.
May i see and accept things as they really are happening.

This is not a fatalistic view of, "Oh, what the heck?" Seeing things as they really are relaxes our stress and gives rise to the equanimity of how the world is unfolding around us.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Small Protected Space

My neighbor Connie uses four bales of hay as a make-shift cold frame. Placing them so that they form four sides of a rectangle, she sows her lettuce and spinach in that small protected space.

In meditation, all we need is just such a small protected space—a single chair.

When i visit friends who meditate at their homes, I'm sometimes amazed at their meditation space. A few people have an actual room (usually quite small). Others, a chair, maybe a slightly out-of-the-way chair, a chair that you walk by all day long, but early in the morning, or in the evening, that's the small, protected space where a meditator finds respite from the worldly winds that blow.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Season of Darkness Begins

Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is celebrated on November 1 (All Souls Day) and today (All Saints Day) in many Latin American countries. It's a day when families go to the cemetery and bring a picnic to party with their deceased relatives. It is believed that the souls of the dead pay a last visit to their loved ones at this time of year, before going underground.

As gardeners, we pay our respects to this season of decreasing daylight by planting bulbs in the darkness of earth. There they will grow roots invisibly all during the next several months. In 6 weeks, the Queen of the Underworld, Persephone, will reign at winter solstice. Then 6 weeks after that, on February 2, a little underground spirit in the form of a groundhog will peek out of the earth to check for signs of spring.

We, ourselves, may have mixed feelings as we enter this season of darkness.

Plant spring bulbs now. Not so much for hope, because hope engenders anticipatory waiting that is impatient with the "now." Rather we plant bulbs to help us notice that gestation takes place in the dark.

Is some aspect of our own lives entering gestation?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Compost of our Thoughts

A local company (that uses a LOT of paper products) always has a pile of pallets to give away. So, once a year, i drive my truck over there and load up, because pallets are easy-to-assemble compost bins in disguise.

Stand 4 pallets up on their sides in a square and tie them together with rope at the corners. Voila! Compost bin.

I line 3 bins up beside each other--1 for adding to; 1 is resting; and 1 i am "subtracting from," using the compost to plant plants or as fill. Now that growing season is over, November is a good time to cover flower or vegetable beds with compost (and get a head start on spring).

When the "subtract from" bin is totally empty, the pallets that surrounded it look quite decrepit. After 2 or 3 years of containing compost, the pallets have also rotted. I haul them off to a brush pile and erect the new pallets. The now empty bin becomes the new "add to" pile, the old "resting" heap becomes the "subtract from" pile, and the former "add to" agglomeration can now "rest."

Today's thoughts, words, and deeds become the compost for the rest of our lives. That's why we aim to add wholesome thoughts to our inner "compost."

The thought manifests as the word;
The word manifests as the deed;
The deed develops into habit;
And habit hardens into character.

So watch the thoughts and its ways with care,
and let them spring from love
born out of concern for all beings.

The Buddha