in the midst of life

The hymns we have been singing have grown more and more somber as Lent has worn on.  There is something about these ancient tunes that is haunting, and I find myself getting hooked on a phrase, turning it over and over again in my mind, hearing it in the background of my day to day.  "In the midst of life, we are in death . . . " is the bit that's been mesmerizing me of late, and it seems to fit this moment particularly well.

We've been busy planting and transplanting for most of Lent, and as we nurture these new little lives we are singing and meditating each day upon Jesus's death, as it comes, inevitably.  As does our own.  The immediacy of this juxtaposition is deepening the season for me, making everything bristle with meaning and energy.

As we've been bringing the baby plants down to "the barn" to get used to cooler temperatures, and more variable light and moisture conditions ("hardening off"), I've been struck by small things--the evidence of change, of life and death, even in this room itself.  

You can see in the picture that there's china stacked in cupboards, and chandeliers on the ceiling.  This was a formal dining room, a place where guests and the sisters shared meals, looking out over a great lawn, at sunset.  About ten years ago, the sisters, who had founded two primary schools and served as educators since the creation of the Community, started to perceive that they were being called to to live in greater harmony with Earth, to work directly with the soil, to learn how to live sustainably as responsible members of creation.

This room shows evidence of that transition; what was once a grand dining room is now a makeshift barn.  Moving away from formal, primary education, the sisters plunged into a different kind of education--teaching and learning about our very stuff of life, food, soil, water, sun, Earth's place in the universe...  There has been that kind of sadness that comes, when one embarks on a new direction, leaving a beloved past behind.  But there is also the joy of new discovery, the wonder of witnessing these little lives as they emerge, flourish, and, finally, nourish us.  

I have to admit that Easter is my favorite season, partly for selfish reasons I suppose.  For all those years that I avoided anything religious, I still usually ended up coming to Easter mass.  And each time, I felt deeply moved--moved enough to wonder, moved enough to dare to think: "maybe I should go back to church."  Even though I managed to push away those thoughts, in the end, year after year, I still experienced a strong resonance with the themes of rebirth and transformation of the season.  I have loved the notion of starting anew, starting afresh, remaking myself.  Easter has long been my own kind of New Year's, encouraging me to make a new start, create a new resolution.  There's something deeply compelling about the idea of getting a chance to begin again.  I've ended up doing this throughout my life--finding new groups of friends over and over again, remaking myself as an activist, an artist, an intellectual, a director, a farmer.

Strangely enough, this year, the year that I've been immersed in all things spiritual, I find that I'm no longer hoping for that clean slate, but instead trying to weave together all my previous incarnations, to take all those many lives and deaths and weave them into one coherent, battered and beautiful cloth.  I've been reaching out to old friends from high school and college, asking for understanding, and receiving so much more.  I've been "writing down the bones" of my adolescent traumas, of my spiritual stumblings, and dusting off old memories that have been shoved into the deepest recesses of my soul.  

This Eastertide, I am living the phrase "in the midst of life, we are in death".  The plants sprout up, and the dining room becomes a barn.  An identity fades away, a sense of self is mourned.  A new path is explored, new life emerges.  But none of these are truly separate from one another.  The new path only makes sense in relation to all that's come before.  The experience and memories of earlier times shape the ways we live our lives today.  

reflections on a year with farming nuns

It was just a year ago that I began visiting the farm.  Anne and I had taken a trip to Honduras in February, 2009, and on a boat ride there, I had a kind of awakening.  We were on a marine science tour, on a small open boat, scanning for dolphins and whale sharks.  As the chop splashed in over the sides of the boat, the skies opened up, and a brief drizzle turned into a serious rain.  On that little boat, in the midst of all that water, I had a full-bodied realization of how tiny our lives are in relation to this planet, this universe.  We are like a drop of water in an ocean, blanketed by a liquid sky.

And the overwhelming relief and awe that came with that realization were astounding.  I felt like I understood that what mattered was life, that what mattered was living.  I began searching for a new path, one that would allow me to connect deeply with the natural world, to gain some perspective on the great scheme of things, to escape the cycle of anxiety and future-worry that I was embedded in.  And so we came to this farm, run by "eco-nuns" as I jokingly put it--partly to reassure my friends that I wasn't actually really really religious, and to convince them that these nuns were actually really really cool--and, after just a few hours, I was hooked.

So hooked that I started insisting to Anne that we come up every weekend, and so hooked that I even came here without her.  She had long been the religious one, while I polished up a posture of studied disinterest.  Yet, there I was, the one who couldn't bear the thought of getting up early and taking the subway to go to church on Sunday, the one who couldn't get motivated to go on daytrips anywhere.  There I was, getting on Metronorth every weekend I could.  I was surprised, to say the least.

And now it's been a year since that first visit.  And so much has changed.  A year ago, I was despairing about my career--I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, and couldn't envision a place for myself within academia over the long term.  I couldn't sleep at night, and was taking prescription drugs to help me sleep.  I was very aware that I'd be turning 40 pretty soon, and I promised myself that my life would be different by then.  But that promise just stressed me out, because I didn't see the path.

Since that first visit, I've been learning to meditate and sing, and I've been learning to pray the Divine Offices.  I'm learning to plant, transplant, harvest, and prepare many different crops, and to plan out a garden for a full season.  I'm learning about soil, permaculture, mycelia, forest gardening, and nutrient-dense farming. I've read so many books--by Eckhart Tolle on being in the present moment, by Richard Heinberg on peak oil, by Rob Hopkins on Transition Towns, by devotees of Sri Ramana Maharshi, by Stephen Mitchell on the Gospel of Jesus, by Barbara Kingsolver on self-sufficiency, by Lynne McTaggart on "the field." I've gotten certified in Reiki I and II.  And I've taken thousands of pictures, designed a website and e-newsletter for the Sisters, created a cookbook, and blogged most every week for a year.  

It's been an amazing year, filled with change and new life.  I am so grateful for this opportunity to live alongside the Community, to share in their life, to receive their support and encouragement. I'm grateful for their generosity of time and spirit.  The world and the universe are vast, and our little lives are just a drop in the ocean of time and space. Somehow that knowledge has freed me up to make the most out of this little life, to pay attention to the beauty, to listen to the silence, to laugh in the rain.

I can't convey this adequately enough, but I am retelling this story, and writing about the meaning of this anniversary for me, because I want everyone to know how much life can change.  If you are feeling stuck, or burned out, or fearful, I want you to know that your life can change.  You may have to let go of some of your expectations about how things should be, are supposed to be, and you might have to depend on others rather than being totally independent. Perhaps, like me, you have invested significant time in a career you find you no longer want.  It's hard to let go of that investment.  Economists have studied this human reluctance to abandon "sunk costs."  If you start something new, you might have to answer the quizzical gazes of friends and family with a smile, and with the admission that you don't know exactly how things are going to turn out in the end.  

But the truth is, we never know exactly how things are going to turn out in the end.  The truth is, we're not really in control of what comes next. So why not find a way to do things that feed your soul?  Pay attention to that thing that pulls at your heart, tugging you toward something you never expected.  You can step outside the path you had planned, and take a look around at the lush, wild and tangled greenery along the way. You can take your inner child on a playdate.  You can learn something totally new.  You can try to do something that you've always doubted you had the fortitude or time or skills to do.  And facing those challenges, being in the position of the novice, the new learner, the playful explorer--these are such life-giving positions, providing such a different perspective on the world.

In the end, all I can do is be grateful for the transformation this year has wrought.  It hasn't been easy, but it's been wonder-full.  A year and a day ago, I couldn't have imagined that I'd come to live at a convent, or that I'd be so engrossed in learning how to grow and preserve food.  But I think many people want to have a deeper connection in their lives--to be involved in a larger, community-based project, and to learn basic skills that connect us to the cycles of life and death.  If you can, get your hands in some dirt this spring.  Take a walk in the park, or in the woods if you can find them.  Breathe deep.  Sing aloud.  And seek out a meaningful conversation.  We're learning so many interesting things about the brain--that there are actually positive physiological responses to the bacteria in soil, like a natural mood elevator, that singing makes us happier, and that people who have less small talk and more meaningful conversations tend to be happier.  

We are creatures, biological, social, creative creatures.  We are alive.  We have breath and the gift of consciousness, and we can dance and sing, or we can grumble and groan.  The path ahead may be unclear, but I feel like I'm blooming.  "Grateful" doesn't begin to describe it. 

what shapes you

As part of our Lenten observances, we've been watching a series of videos called "The Powers of the Universe."  Each segment is an hour-long talk by Brian Swimme, a mathematical cosmologist and one of the leading figures in "the new cosmology."  Cosmology is the study of the universe--a huge topic, undertaken from a wide variety of disciplines, including science, philosophy, mathematics, and religion.  

For me, what's important about cosmology is that what we believe about the universe has great implications for what we imagine to be our human role, and therefore for our behavior.  Our beliefs might be shaped strictly by physics, or by our spirituality, or both.  We tell ourselves and our children "origin stories," which are bound up in our culturally shaped cosmological beliefs.  Are humans simply the result of chance mutations, over billions of years?  Are Adam and Eve the progenitors of all humanity?  Is Earth the center of the universe, or just one tiny speck among billions of specks?  Most likely, we hold more than one perspective on the universe and the role of humanity at a time. 

From the Hubble Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) Acknowledgment: P. Knezek (WIYN)

I recently visited the Rubin Museum in NYC, which is holding a great exhibit about different attempts at understanding the universe, in the Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Christian, and current scientific traditions.  (Learn more about the exhibit here; it is open until May 10, 2010.)  There I watched a short video produced by the American Museum of Natural History that was simply amazing: called "The Known Universe," it takes the viewer from gazing upon the Himalayan Mountains to zooming all the way out to the beginnings of the universe, 13.7 billion years ago.  You can watch it online: Take a look.  It's well worth it a few minutes of your time!  

Getting your mind blown like that is a good thing to do, and regularly.  I think too often, and too easily, we get caught up in the minutiae of life--what to eat for dinner, whether to go here or there, what color to paint the walls . . . all the multitude of choices in our lives.  Stepping out of that whirlwind to remember how tiny we are in the great cosmic lightsky helps me focus on what really matters.  For me, that means remembering that this world, this universe is alive.  The whole thing is alive.  And I can tune into that life, that energy, or I can stomp around in my little world, getting pissed about trivial things.  If you see yourself as part of the universe, connected to this unfathomably long history and unimaginable expanse, it's easier to let go of the small stuff.

This awareness is related to something Brian Swimme says in his talk on "Allurement."  His talks are fascinating and complex, and too much to summarize here.  But to give you a sense: having spent years studying gravitational dynamics, and coming to understand gravity mathematically inside and out, Swimme suggests that we think of gravity as a larger universal power of allurement.  That just as we are drawn to our lovers, to artists or musicians, to passions of all sorts, there is a power that pervades the universe that draws things--objects, planets, stars in galaxies--to one another.  That we are always orbiting, and in relationship with, other beings.  I'm sadly inarticulate here, and I urge you to check out the DVDs yourself.

Anyway, Swimme says that what we focus on shapes us.  We are drawn to a person, or a practice, or a context, and focusing on that "other" will shape our life, our sense of self.  This seems to me to be undeniably true.  When I've focused on an emotional wound, and nursed anger and resentment about that wound, my world has been characterized by that attention, growing smaller and darker.  When I've focused on loving relationships, and on becoming a worthy partner, my world has become energized, and full of possibility.  One might argue that in these two simple examples, the physical world around me hasn't actually changed, only my attitude.  I think that's true, at one level--but my embodied experience tells me that more is at work than simply one's individual mental outlook. 

We are in orbit with one another, and when I focus on light and life, that not only shapes my world, but the effects bleed over into the lives of those in my orbit.  Recent research shows that all sorts of behaviors and conditions (obesity, smoking, loneliness) are impacted, even "transmitted" through social connections. Examining some of these studies, Jonah Lehrer writes

We imagine ourselves as individuals, responsible for our own choices and emotions, but that sense of independence is a romantic myth. There is no wall between people. . . . What we all too easily forget . . . is that we're also part of a social network, which means that if we lose weight then it's easier for our neighbors to lose weight, and that if we quit smoking than everyone we know is also more likely to quit smoking. Being socially connected, in other words, makes us more responsible for our actions, not less. 

We are in orbit with one another, and we a part of the cosmos.  It matters what we focus on.  It matters what stories we tell ourselves about our place in the universe.  In these last months, I have found that learning to see myself as part of, emerging from the flow of energy and life and ancient particles, all of which have arisen into being and been reconstituted in new forms over and over again ever since the Big Bang . . . this focus imbues my life with a love for the world.  We are stardust, literally.  Formed, for the merest of moments, as a human being, on a tiny blue-green speck, in a sea of stars.  If we can just hold on to the magic and majesty of that awareness, we can live in true relationship with Earth, rather than being consumers and disposers, drillers and miners, polluters and poisoners.  A new cosmology means being part of creation, rather than standing outside or on top of it.  In these rainy, stormy days of March, my wish is for us all to marvel at the powers of the universe, and to wonder about our own roles in it.

springing: giddy with seedlings and maple syrup

The seed room is nearly vibrating with life.  We've got hundred of little baby plants shooting into the light, and I think we're all a little giddy from it.  After a lovely, quiet, snowy winter, the seedlings are the embodiment of new life, and they are feast for our eyes and our imaginations. 

In the span of less than a week, the tiny seedlings have grown enough to be transplanted into larger containers filled with potting soil, which will sustain them for the next month or so until they get into the ground.

Above are tiny seedlings of a Swiss Chard variety called "Bright Lights," after its colorful appearance.  Red, pink, and yellow, this chard's stems are so attractive when they're fully grown.  



You can see how delicate the stems are at this stage, just wisps of green, shooting toward the light.  After the plants first emerge, they send out little neo-leaves called "cotyledon."  This is actually an embryonic leaf, already present in the seed itself.  After the seed germinates, or sprouts, true leaves are formed.  And after the first set of true leaves emerge, it's time to transplant.


These plants, once transplanted, have a lot more room to grow.  Rather than 36 tiny plants squeezed together in joined "cells" on a single tray, each plant gets delicately delivered to its very own container, at least twice the size of that where it germinated.  Here, these Chinese Cabbages are 18 to a tray.  They go back to the grow room after transplanting, until they get a bit stronger.

When the weather gets a little bit warmer, we'll start the "hardening off" process, which means bringing these plants out into the fresh air during the day, and then back into the barn in the evening to protect them from the cool night temperatures.  

But before then, we've got peas to plant and maple sugaring to do.  Peas are planted traditionally on March 17, if possible.  Maple sugaring is going full steam right now, with this weekend's temps in the 40s and today projected to be 55.  Yesterday, we gathered more than 100 gallons of sap, and we'll hopefully get another good amount today.  With the weather turning to such extremes this past year, we don't know how long the sap will run, so we're making the most of it while we can.  

And with great result.  The first couple of batches of maple syrup have been incredibly light and delicate. Syrup is classified into various "grades," according to color.  Our most recent batch, in the left-most bottle, is just a tad bit lighter than the "Vermont Fancy" grade exemplar, just to its right.  As the weather gets warmer, the sap changes, and will become a darker syrup.  If you want to learn more about the maple sugaring process, from tapping to bottling the syrup, check out the videos made by Sister Catherine Grace and Bill Consiglio, another resident companion here at the farm.

It's just warm enough to go without a jacket, and it seems that everything wants to stretch and move, including little seedlings and the sap within trees.  We're so lucky that we can play a role in cultivating that movement in such healthy and tasty directions.  

spirituality and self-sufficiency

Some folks have asked me, "How do you manage all winter without fresh produce?"  For most people, it probably seems unimaginable.  We're so used to being able to buy fresh veggies and fruit all year long, whenever we want.  But I can assure you, here at the farm, we've hardly been left wanting this winter.  The Sisters have food storage and preservation down pretty well.  This week, for example, we had a wonderful salad made up of raw carrots and sweet red onions, little sprouted greens that grow from the stored roots (even in the dark and chill of the root cellar!), and defrosted spring peas, which had been blanched and then frozen last summer.  Take a look, and tell me that doesn't look delicious!

We also ate a grain and veggie dish, made up of whole oats (which, when not processed into oatmeal, look a lot like rice), frozen broccoli and peas, and small pieces of steamed root vegetables.  The dish also included raisins, which were the only ingredient we didn't produce ourselves.

The Sisters have been working toward becoming increasingly self-sufficient over time.  We still buy a few staple items, like milk, butter and some cheese (though we're beginning to make cheese from the milk we buy!), flour, sugar, salt, yeast, and some treats, such as popcorn and raisins.  As much as we can, though, we're trying to grow what we need to eat.  We've learned to make pizza with a polenta crust, to use oats as rice, to use maple syrup instead of sugar . . . all sorts of tasty substitutions. 

It's hard to imagine giving up all store-bought items altogether, but we think it's a good goal to be working towards, as best we can.  I'm enthusiastic about this idea for many reasons: I'm livid about the amount of packaging that is used to ship and store food, and the plastic in our landfills and oceans that's never going to decompose. I also think our culture has undergone a long and unfortunate period of forgetting--forgetting how to cook food, how to store food, how to grow food.  I was saddened, but not surprised to hear that first-graders can't identify common vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, and mushrooms.  Jamie Oliver (a British chef and advocate for healthy meals in schools, who recently won the TED prize--see his great 20-min speech here) is heavily involved in food education, and has videoed children's attempts to identify common produce (watch the video here).  He also has a new show, about his efforts to change the food culture in one city in the US, called "Food Revolution" that premieres on March 26 on ABC. (By "food culture," I mean how we actually grow, select, buy, prepare, and eat food, and all our commonly held ideas about how we should do those things.)

In my experience so far, I've found that growing and storing food encourages a certain amount of creativity in the kitchen.  I was looking, for example, for a simple dessert to make that would be appropriate for a lunch during Lent, and came up with this:  frozen berries, topped with yogurt.  At the freezer, I thought I was choosing blueberries, but accidentally grabbed a bag of garden huckleberries.  Garden huckleberries grow easily around here, and look like a large, purplish blueberry; they aren't particularly sweet or tart--so I drizzled a teaspoon of honey on the berries, then covered them with yogurt.  Fresh, tasty, healthy--fruit in winter!  

I enjoy the challenge of cooking with what we grow, and I treasure this time of healthy eating.  I'm so thankful that I'm not purchasing plastic.   And I'm hopeful that more and more Americans are learning to grow and cook food, that school gardens are making a resurgence, and that people are starting to acquire those basic life skills that have gone by the wayside.  It's going to take conscious effort and time to rebuild a healthy food culture in the US, to make sure that young people are better equipped to weather recessions through simple cooking, to turn toward a healthier future.  

One of the concepts I've learned through my exposure to the Transition Town movement, which is focused on getting communities to organize themselves to face the challenges of energy insecurity, economic instability, and climate change, is the notion of "resilience."  The idea is that resilient communities can withstand economic, political, environmental "shocks" to their system, and be able to survive stressful changes.  A community becomes resilient by reducing its dependence on oil (developing local renewable power grids, greening buildings, and conserving), by shifting consumption and production patterns to increase the production of staple goods locally, and by building social networks and strengthening neighbor- and community-level interaction.  Part of this whole equation is increasing the amount of food grown locally.  It's said that there's about three day's worth of food in your local grocery store.  A resilient community, with a good level of local food production, would be able to handle a gas shortage or other kind of economic crisis that might affect the food supply chain.  The Transition Town folks suggest that for a community to be truly resilient, all the teenagers in that community should be able to know how to grow and harvest at least 10 crops.  How far are we from that, today?

The longer I'm here at the farm, the more I'm coming to understand how much our culture has lost in terms of commonly held, basic life skills.  I scoffed at "Home Economics" classes in seventh- and eighth-grade, but now wish I had paid more attention, and that the classes had continued on into high school.  

I'm also realizing that there's something spiritual--maybe not inherent to, but certainly present in--the practices of self-sufficiency and sustainability.  When you grow your own food, or buy it from your neighbor, it takes on a different quality than your typical mass-produced consumer item.  You realize your dependence on the Earth, and you treasure what you can learn from and what you can share with your community.  Somehow, trying to become more self-sufficient has made my relationship to the Earth and to my community more deeply felt; becoming more resilient has meant becoming less of an isolated entity.  It's meant realizing the truth: that we are all part of the same whole.