Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sweeping Teak Leaves

When i was on retreat in Thailand last month, the afternoon chore, at 4:00, was "sweeping" leaves. As you can see in the photo, my rake looks more like a broom--a rather thin and ratty old broom, with just a few stalks of hard straw to do the "sweeping."

Our cottages were situated in a grove of young teak trees, which grow straight up quite fast. Teak leaves are larger than rhubarb leaves, and they are the consistency of a brown paper bag. February is the end of the dry season, so the slightest breeze brings more teak leaves drifting (crashing?) down to earth. Every morning, i awoke to find yesterday's clean sweep littered with more brown papery teak leaves.

Needless to say, i didn't look forward to this raking/sweeping chore. I tried picking up the gigunda leaves, but i quickly discovered red fire ants trooping along them, over my toes, and up my leg. I resumed sweeping.

After a few days, i realized that sweeping teak leaves is really what i do all day long in my every day life. I straighten up the living room; next day, same thing. I clean up the kitchen; next day, same thing. I make the bed; next day.....

Teak leaves keep falling in our life. Leaves fall. We sweep them up. They decompose.
Just like our lives.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Sweet Calmness

One sweet orange blossom on the 3-foot tall orange tree spreads its delightful fragrance throughout the living room and kitchen.

One calm person can spread their calmness, without even trying, in a frantic workplace or an emergency on the side of the road.

Can you be that calm being?

Friday, March 29, 2013

Earliest Harbinger

I drove by a wetland yesterday and stopped to pick some pussy willows. The furry gray catkins are the earliest harbinger of spring.

What was your own harbinger of your spiritual path?

When i was 5, i knew life was a dream, but i couldn't figure out how to wake up.

When my sister was in the sandbox room at Sunday School (i.e., the nursery for pre-schoolers), she rebelled when the teacher said that people who didn't take Jesus as their savior were doomed to hell. What about all the people who never heard of Jesus? she thought. At age 4, she was already a progressive Christian.

What was your own earliest harbinger of your spiritual life?

Photo from

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Not Letting the Grass Grow Under My Snowy Feet

The snow has melted off my neighbor Connie's lawn and garden, but not off of mine. She tells me she's planting seeds today, directly sowing lettuce into the garden and covered the area with clear plastic until the seeds germinate.

Not waiting for the grass to grow under my snowy feet, i decide to sow seeds also in my warmest, sunniest place--a little flowerbed that is 8 feet long and 2 feet wide. It faces due south and has a stone wall (i.e., heat collector) behind it. We could call it my heat sink garden.

Today i sowed a little bit of kale, a few chard, a pinch of broccoli seeds, some tat soi, and a "stir fry mix."

Our good friends challenge us to do our best. My gardening friend Connie challenges me to get going in the spring garden.

Our Dharma friends challenge us to live a wholesome life and to act and speak kindly and helpfully.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Lemon? or Orange?

When our friend David retired and moved, he gave us his 3-foot tall lemon tree because he didn't have space for it in his new home. Now his lemon tree has an orange on it. It's small; it's round;, and it's definitely orange.

Sometimes we follow a spiritual path that doesn't quite deliver on its promises. It says it will give us an orange, but we find ourselves with a lemon instead.

The Buddha's teachings can seem, at first taste, as sour as a lemon. The 5 Precepts, for instance. Speaking truthfully and helpfully can be hard work, and it's so much more fun to gossip. And refraining from intoxicants? A little glass of wine never hurt anyone, and I don't get drunk, after all.

There's the 4 Ennobling Truths, which begin with #1: Stress exists. Unsatisfactoriness exists. That just seems downright negative when, really, life is wonderful.

And that concept of not-self. How can that be true? I feel like i have a self, so i must have one.

The Dharma may make our mind pucker when we first encounter it, yet over time, we see the truth of the Truths. That's when we realize the fruit of the spiritual path is very sweet indeed.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Stressed Plants and Stressful Thoughts

I have tomato plants growing in 3 different houseplants. I must have added compost to my potting soil last fall.

The tomato plants themselves are winter-poor--pale green and leggy. Nevertheless, one of them has 2 ripe cherry tomatoes.

We know, theoretically, that stressed plants will bloom and fruit in order to reproduce before they die.

Our stressful mind states will also do just about anything to reproduce themselves.

Recently, my sweetie offered his concert ticket to a friend in a moment of open-hearted generosity. The next day he had second thoughts--and all of them were stressful. For instance, She is such a free-loader (Aversion) and Hey, wait a minute! I want to go too. (Desire.)

In order to reap the fruits (or cherry tomatoes :) of the spiritual life, we have to keep our eye on our wholesome, non-stressful thoughts and actions. My sweetie felt generous. Generosity is a noble, an admirable emotion. Let's grow more of that!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Wake Up to Surprise

Those forsythia branches that i cut just a week ago are blooming! Yes, i know that's what they're supposed to do, but somehow i'm still surprised to have spring springing in my dining room.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, on his website, tells us to wake up to surprise. Amazement is the first step to gratefulness, and gratitude opens the heart and mind.

It's much easier to just go along in the adult world on autopilot. "Been there. Done that" kills surprise, amazement, and the liveliness of life.

What one thing can you be surprised by, right now?

Photo from

Friday, March 22, 2013

Comparing Snow

All sorts of grumbling is rumbling around here about the snow. Harrumph.
It's supposed to be spring.
Our Facebook friends from California are posting pictures of magnolia blossoms, and all we have to look at are the pregnant buds of the red maple.
And it's cold here. Bah, humbug.

Can you hear the comparing mind at work?
"It's supposed to be" spring, but it looks like winter.
Flowers are blooming elsewhere, but not here.
It's cold here (18 degrees this morning). It was warm last week when i was in Cancun/Costa Rica/the Caribbean/Tel Aviv.

The mind compares our present experience with some other (past or imaginary) experience, and we feel dissatisfied with the present moment.

We could simply experience the raw data of the present moment: chilly, sunny, snowy, beautiful, hungry birds, red maple buds. This is the truth of the moment. Before our opinions reclaim our attention and twist our heart into grumpiness.

Thanks to Dawn Downey for her blog,
 Stumbling Toward the Buddha.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Poppy Seeds Season

It's time to sow poppy seeds. My packets say, "Sow outdoors in earliest spring." Since today is the first day of spring, i'd say it is indeed "earliest spring."

I love the re-seeding annual Papaver somniflorum. I have pink aplenty, so i'm trying to get some purples going, like Lauren's Grape or Hungarian Breadseed.

California poppies don't do as well for me, but i keep trying anyway. This year i'm scattering Alba. It seems like Icelandic poppies should do well here in the North Country, but i haven't had luck with them either.

Figuring out which path to follow can be as challenging as deducing which plants will work in our particular microclimate and soils. Sometimes it's just the luck of the draw.

I began with Insight (vipassana) meditation when i was 30, and that was a good fit for me, so haven't felt drawn to further seeking. Some personalities prefer the spareness of Zen, some the exotic rituals of Tibetan Vajrayana, and some the poetic kindness of Thich Nhat Hanh.

Simply walk through the door that opens for you. And sow the seeds of mindfulness and kindness as early as you can.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Revolution of the Mind

As i look out on 12 inches of diamond-sparkling snow, it's hard to imagine that in 6 weeks, i'll be hosting a garden party. Flowers will be blooming, and bees will be buzzing. A revolution is about to happen--in weather and in the flowerbeds--but at the moment, all is quiet.

We sit quietly in meditation (whether or not our mind is quiet :). Today's meditation seems pretty much the same as yesterday's. We can't imagine anything different, really. And then, when we least expect it, a revolution happens--an insight. We see something differently. Sometimes an insight can change our lives.

So we sit. Watching the fluffy snow. Hardly noticing how it melts into rivulets nor giving more than a glance to the spring-rushing brook that is about to wash us clean.

Photo from

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


I'm snowed in today, so i could sit down with my languishing seed catalogs and yearn for spring planting. Or i could focus on my houseplants and give them a thorough house-cleaning. Snip, snip. Trim them back. Root more cuttings. (So far i have 25 jars of cuttings.) Or pot up the 10 jars of cuttings that have already rooted.

The urge to sow seeds and plant seedlings is so strong. In the spring, we focus on creation and shout Hooray.

When i write about the ends of the life cycle in the fall, a friend puts her hand on my arm and says, "Cheryl, are you okay? You write so much about death on your blog. Are you depressed?"

Beginnings. Endings. Life comes and life goes.

For now, life is coming soon. Let's en-joy it.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Fertilizing Your Practice

On these longer sunny days, my passive solar house heats up to broiling by mid-day. Outdoors is breezy and brisk and still below freezing.

I'm ready to go outdoors and garden, but the gardens are either covered in snow or bare and frozen.

I resign myself to gardening in my solarium in my underwear--taking cuttings of begonias, spider plants, and last year's flower pots from the front step. The houseplants are all looking a bit scraggly and in need of pruning and fertilizing.

How do we fertilize our own meditation practice?

Download some Dharma talks onto your iPhone. Meditate with a friend. Go on retreat. Do a retreat at home (by phone) for a few hours. Read a Dharma book. Take a meditation class. Or just meet a Dharma friend for tea.

Inspire yourself.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

First Impressions

A landscape designer tells me to attend to the entry of your property. You'd like it to tell your visitors, even if only very subtly, You are entering a special place.

Since i live in the woods, my "message" is quite subtle indeed. My first step was to rebuild the stone wall that marks the corner of my property on the road, thereby making it look "official" instead of tumble-down.

The next 200 feet of woods has been thinned considerably for a hide-and-reveal look at my house. Now-you-see-it, now-you-don't.

While we lavish attention on our bodies to make a good first impression, we allow our minds to run wild like unruly children. Let's lavish some attention on our minds as well.

Over time, meditation calms the mind, which then becomes joyful. Yes, the mind can be joyful even when life takes a left-hand turn.

A mind left to its own devices runs on anxiety, worry, desire, irritation, or judgment. Even though people can't see your mind, they can "feel" it.

What kind of first impression would you like to make?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Forcing Forsythia

I waded into the overgrown forsythia bush and sawed off one of the 5 main stems, over an inch thick, at ground level.

Before i tossed it on the brush pile, i clipped off several branches and put them in water, hoping to force the forsythia twigs to bloom indoors.

Sometimes our life may seem overgrown with things straggling here and there. Take heart. Be strong. Wade in and prune something off. Say, "No" to something that's taking over your life (or, in the case of my forsythia, taking over my driveway.)

Less is more. More time to breathe. More time to smell the roses--or the hyacinths.

The trimmer forsythia looks so much better. Our trimmer lives feel so much better.

Friday, March 15, 2013

No Snow on the Septic Tank!

A sure sign that spring is coming: The snow has melted off the septic tank! I haven't seen that piece of lawn since December, so even though it looks like frosty dead brown grass today, it's a welcome sight.

Those of you in the city rely on city sewer services, while those of us in the country rely on a big, 1,000-gallon cement tank, buried about eight feet under the lawn. The slight amount of heat generated by decomposing toilet waste and cooled shower water and dish water is sufficient to warm the surrounding ground and thus melt the snow above.

I plant crocuses in the lawn above my septic tank to take advantage of this tiny March microclimate.

The elements are in motion: snow (water element) is melting due to the heat (fire element) of the septic tank. The earth (earth element) plus water and warmth give rise to tiny crocuses wavering in the spring breeze (air element).

We, too, rely on earth, air, water, and heat for our own survival.
Welcome, Spring!

Photo from

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Buying Things and Giving Them Away

While i was in Laos, i bought several silk scarves and Hmong coin purses, toiletry bags, and glasses cases. Shopping in the "night markets" of Vientiane and Luang Prabang was one big long display of eye-candy.

Now that i'm home, i put all the little silk tchotchkes in a basket and take them with me wherever i go. "Would you like a gift from Laos?" i ask my masseuse, my women's group, my writing group, my neighbors.

I enjoyed supporting the local Lao economy (by shopping), and now i'm enjoying passing those items along to women who will never travel to Laos.

Walking up at 3 a.m. this morning, i realize: Oh, i buy things in order to give them away.

This insight moves me down to my garden book bookshelf, where i load up a box with beautiful garden design books to give to my local library.

Oh! I see: I've decided to retire from designing gardens without an "I" being involved in the decision at all.

It's just time to give away that beautiful clutter that i haven't really looked at for years.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Dead Leaf Litter

The messiest aspect of having a solarium full of tropical plants is the amount of dead leaves that litter the floor and the adjacent flowerpots. Thank goodness the cleaning woman sweeps the floor once a week.

I'm on a Yoga in the Yucatan vacation, staying in a sweet little inn on the beach. Every day the courtyard is littered with dead leaves and wilted red hibiscus flowers. Every day the gardener rakes the sand and the dirt and sweeps the walks. I can see that wishing for a clean solarium at home is total delusion. The nature of plants is to drop dead leaves and dead flowers.

We too are dropping dead skin cells as well as dead hairs. We litter our bathrooms and our bedrooms with our detritus, but mostly we don't notice.

Plants are changing. We are changing. Have you noticed?

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Harvesting Greens in the Snow

My book designer, Carolyn, is growing beet greens inside her house this winter.

Using a Rubbermaid tote, she made an "earth box" filled with growing media and a wicking moisture media to keep the soil slightly damp. Last summer, this garden-in-a-box lived on her deck. She brought it indoors in October and has been harvesting beet greens ever since.

What would we like to harvest when our inner climate becomes cold, when our lives begin to feel snowed-in?

Right now, while the sun shines on our life, now is the time to plant and water the seeds of meditation.