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How Can I Keep From Singing

We had a musical meditation Sunday morning by a sister-brother acoustic threesome.  The music was quite nice and was a bit of a landmark experience for me because I could hear decently, though not all the lyrics, and I heard the high notes as not in tune or not audible.  The surgery I had two years ago to remove an acoustic neuroma and that resulted in significant loss of hearing left me with quite a lot of phantom noise in the operated ear that causes audio distortion, a roaring that was at first quite unpleasant and exhausting.  The first time I heard congregational singing and our very excellent pianist play, I was appalled.  Hearing the trio this Sunday was a marker of sorts of how far I had come.  My hearing has not changed; rather, my brain has been busily working to make sense of what I hear and to filter what is not useful, and getting better and better at it with no intentional help from me other than to keep exposing it to sounds that I can’t understand.  And it has learned how to help me hear precisely through exposure to what is unpleasant and confusing. My tendency at first was to back away from external sounds, away from communication; but through the din and uncertainty a thread of meaning has slowly emerged.

My life flows on in endless song above earths lamentation. I catch that sweet though far off hymn.

The response song Sunday to the musical meditation overwhelmed me.  It is such a familiar song, and yet I apparently had not sung nor listened to the words in two years: 

Through all the tumult and the strife I hear that music ringing. It finds an echo in my soul.  

The underlying noise could not obscure the music I heard that Sunday.  The good work of my brain met my memory of song, and of music generally, and restored a semblance of what I used to hear.

No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I’m clinging.

There was another side to this significant loss: at my lowest point, immediately after surgery (and I suppose mediated by the drugs involved), I was graced with a palpable and profound awareness of a loving presence with me in my drugged misery.  It was not a presence that lifted me out and away from that misery, but which occupied the same space; the set of misery (to use a math metaphor) completely enclosed by the set of Love.

What though my joys and comforts die? What though the darkness gather ‘round?

In the following two years, as an almost mystical experience of love has given way to the realities of life which must also be lived on a mundane level, I am learning what I can do to inhabit that other consciousness, even as I recall it was/is a gift: the veil of normalcy is parted briefly at times, but it also necessarily closes.  Our part is to be alert, to watch for it.

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing.

Take joy where you find it, as Mary Oliver advises in one of her prose poems.  Yield fully to beauty and to love when they come to turn your carefully guarded soul inside out for a time. And in between times, when you come down from the heights of experience and feeling to live your love in more mundane or difficult  ways, remember well what has been, and hope to welcome it again at the appointed time in new guise.

Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing? 

Hierarchies, Mimetics, Puppies

We bred Sheila at the request of my sister and her husband with little anticipation of what we were getting into. As with having children, it was a good thing we didn’t know. Knowing about the trouble and disruption we would experience might have prevented us from plunging into a project that has been delightful.

Watching Sheila expertly mother, and later, loosen the bond to her puppies has been instructive. It’s too bad so few parents have experience with proximity to rearing animal young. What a great teacher with potential to reduce anxiety and error! Sheila was vigilant in attendance to their need for nourishment and security, giving of her own life substance for the time necessary; she watched over them from her nightly perch on a storage container on the front porch, forsaking her preferred position near the door we normally use. Gradually, as their capacity increased, let them operate from their own resources and puppy food, the nursing times getting briefer and briefer before she shook them off. Finally it was little more than a quick latching on before she skipped back out of their enclosure. By the time they were ready for moving on to other households they were fully weaned. We still have two of them, and her interactions with them are interesting to watch. Where she once deferred to their needs, allowing them precedence in scraps, treats and bones, they are now just competitor dogs for the goodies. She disciplines them and plays with them from time to time but mostly is back to seeing to her own needs, and attentive to the needs of her humans.

The two puppies that we kept of the eight, are incredibly cute, tumbling and tussling or heaped up together sleeping. Their occasional encounters with hot fence lines are necessary but heart wrenching. Fortunately they learn quickly. Unfortunately, we have to persuade them then that the world, for the most part, is safe. They illustrate daily the power of mimetic mammal interaction and learning. I wish I had a photo of the time they ran up to the front yard proudly, literally shoulder to shoulder, each with one side of an old leather glove they had found firmly between teeth, discovering by necessity a kind of cooperation. There is a large shoulder bone in the North pasture too big for them to lift, that they occasionally encounter and settle in to gnaw, each at an end, growling ominously at one another the while.

Frequent treats help them learn their names and simple commands. They have learned to respect the boundaries of the property for the most part now, so we can often let them be on their own while we are inside. But a prerequisite for that obedience is plenty of exercise first! These are necessary lessons that make all of our lives tolerable. Eventually we hope they can learn signals and words to help with herding animals. It’s interesting too, to see the definite hierarchy among the big dogs which the puppies must become part of. Abby is old and not so agile and I am occasionally surprised when she takes exception to Sheila and Blue’s rough play, always disciplining Sheila (not Blue, who is second in farm dog seniority) by towering over her growling. Evidently Sheila steps out of line in their play and needs to be put in her place.

Abby tolerates quite a bit from the puppies, and the one I call Akino’ tests Abby’s patience by yipping in her face. If Abby gets tired of it, at first she often moves to avoid the irritation or just barks once in exasperation and Akino doesn’t feel too threatened by her. But sometimes she snarls, scaring him, and sometimes she has had him on his back on the ground in submission.
I am reminded of my own misplaced attempts to manage toddlers and preschoolers with reasoning, and my misgivings about fairness with them. Now I see how much overthinking I was doing! Much better for everyone to learn as quickly as possible the hierarchy. There is plenty of time and a lot more incentive to learn reason later.

Losing Mind

A few weeks lacking of the longest night, the landscape is preparing us for the darkness. Beneath our inclination to slow down when the light is shortened, here in the Northern hemisphere, and our consequent lowered spirits, is the reminder that all things die and make space for something else. The several funerals at the end of this year were in harmony with the spirit of this season. I go willingly to remember these lives and mourn the losses, and to hear Pastor Janice speak words that acknowledge the uniqueness of the one remembered, and also to remind us of our hope in life and in death.
Recently she spoke about the increasing fragility we watch in others as they age, knowing that it will be our fate as well; and about the hope of the gospels that God’s love is with us even as we decline physically and mentally. We read from II Corinthians about the treasure, God’s saving love, enclosed in earthen vessels, and from Romans 8 about all the difficult things that cannot separate us from that love.
I wanted to go further in, to talk about how it is precisely those difficult things that complete the work begun in us, that reveal to us and to others that treasure of love within.
The encounter two years ago with my own limits of capacity and control, and the love of the Christ that met me at those limits showed me clearly by experience that the ego self, what we think of as the mind, that we set such store by and completely and erroneously identify with, is not the treasure Paul speaks of. That treasure is an entirely different Self, the Self that intersects the Divine, in whose image we were created.

I recently read three books, each witnessing in its own way to this mistaken identity and its alternative. Robert Wright’s book, Why Buddhism is True (note there is no ’only’ in that title) describes the basic nature of the ego, which is in service to natural selection, and its firm and controlling grip on our lives. He describes opportunities and practices we can build into our lives to regularly escape that iron grasp and live from the more generous and loving Self, the part of us that derives from the Whole and participates in the Divine.

In How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan writes about the history and use of psychoactive drugs, their success in treating addictions and depression, as well as their value in ego transcendence. Then he records his own and others’ experiences with these substances that have the power, with a single encounter in most people, to become a means to experience the world beyond the ego prison: a world of belonging and meaning.

Braiding Sweetgrass, a gem of a book by Robin Wall Kimmerer, describes a path of ego transcendence by means of our participation in the membership of this mysterious and gorgeous world. Kimmerer places humans within the family of creatures who mutually reveal the terrible beauty and grace which holds us. Gratitude, the doorway, is what holds this natural community together, and is our appropriate response and our debt.

Each of these writers testify to strategies at hand to free us from slavery to ego and return it to its appropriate role in service to the Self. The egoic illusion of separateness and autonomy is responsible for so many of the errors that lead to violence and suffering. We stumble blindly along, unaware of the reality in which we are embedded, mistaking our personal package of desire, fear and pride for our real Self. Psychoactive chemicals have been an effective way for many to begin the journey of ego transcendence but, as one of the uninitiated to this particular doorway of perception, I believe that there are other more life-embedded and equally useful openings. Love and suffering, the ordinary offerings of life, if attended to, can loosen the grip of ego. Great love and suffering can be powerfully transforming. The experience of daily saturation in the natural world to nudge the ego out of control can be an invaluable practice. And Death is a sure portal, and perhaps is the most useful one for most of us in its totality and unavoidability.

I experienced the afterglow of a great loosening of Ego for months after the disorientation and reorientation of anesthetic and surgery two years ago. Its fading is my sorrow now, though enough remains that I am confident that there is nothing to fear as my body and mind grow fragile. I know now that waiting is preparation, and that life offers many portals of transcendence.
Where our life meets our inevitable decline and loss, an overwhelming Love will also be present.

Puppies!

Sheila, our Border Collie, was mated to Patch, my sister’s Border Collie, two months ago.  On Monday she had her first litter.  Before she started laboring she was agitated, not sure where she wanted to be or what to do next and running to me for reassurance.  When she began heavy panting, I confined her to her kennel.  I was distracted for a while when a neighbor came by for a visit and when she left we saw Sheila was licking the last of three pups dry.  She soon started panting again and so it went the afternoon, labor alternating with delivery of a wet pup or two.  Though I checked on her every several minutes i only saw the front paws of one pup emerging.  Eventually she pushed out the last one, the eighth.  She did everything well, allowing sucking at will, pushing them into position, feeling carefully before she put her weight down when she came or went for a little water or food, to pee, or for a little interaction with her approving people.  I put water quite close at first but decided she needed to be moving from time to time and left it outside the kennel.  I would see her dash out on a necessary errand and then hurry back, sometimes in obvious indecision about immediate return but always doing the right, the necessary thing.

The pups loll about, eyes still shut, sucking and squirming more like little larva than like puppies. Sheila submits to them as a good mother does, prioritizing new life over all other desire.  

A Living Mulch

June 2019

I am having fun experimenting with gardening this year.  So far the pay offs look good though this has been a very a-typical year for temperate zone gardening.

I started seriously planting cover crops beginning in April, sowing some ground with an early mix of field peas, hairy vetch and hull-less oats.  The chickens and pigs will eat the harvest and we will plant something again for fall and let the residue winter-kill.  Next year I will plant directly in the stubble with improved soil fertility.

I also sowed vetch and clover in early spring prior to planting several other broad strips of garden.   It got going quite nicely by the time I could safely plant tender annual seedlings: brassicas, and then tomatoes, eggplant and green pepper, in oases I cleared for each seedling,  The cover crops around these plants, seem to be providing fertility to the warm season plants though brassicas aren’t known to benefit from the mycorrhizal associations from which other plants thrive.  However, the purpose of my garden is twofold:  to grow produce for us to eat, and also to sequester carbon and increase the microbial population for next season.  So even if the green manure/cover crop doesn’t make bigger cabbages, it will keep the ground covered and the carbon-hungry micro-organisms alive.  It seems my main work will be to keep the cover crop from shading the food crop. The cover crop doesn’t compete for nutrients; rather, it makes them more available to my vegetables by increasing the numbers of nutrient-yielding microbes.  It also keeps the soil cool and retains ground moisture or, alternatively, acts as a reservoir when there is too much rain.  So far weeding is easy: I only pull what is threatening to smother the vegetable plants in these areas (as well as nasties like ragweed and thistle) weeding the plant instead of the plot.

These are all practices that regenerative farmers around the world are scaling up to increase yields while sequestering carbon, detoxing from their ag-chem addictions,  minimally disturbing the soil, keeping it covered with as diversified a garment as possible, and, in some cases, adding animals that will manure and prune (graze) the crop, animals from bees to cattle.  Of course, the “animals” of choice for every situation are the microbes/mycorrhizal fungi in their trillions, who long ago learned to collaborate with plants for mutual nourishment.

The world will need to sequester carbon through regenerative practices on all available land if we hope to reduce the atmospheric greenhouse gases in time to avoid the worst catastrophe from climate change.

We were recently in the outlandish (to us) city of Chicago, helping our daughter move to a new place.    I was on full alert to the way people were tending their small garden spaces.  Some were trying to have conventional midwestern American mini-lawns bordered with flowers, but many houses had what I would guess were effective carbon sequestering garden strips with various perennial plants placed closely together and foliage that is active for 7 or 8 months of the year. 

Late July 2019

The garden is doing well  for the most part, and I am doing much less weeding overall and having very little guilt about what weeds are present. The annuals planted amongst the clover and vetch are thriving and look lovely nestled in their soft beds.  I scattered buckwheat through the brassicas after they were a good size and now they are surrounded by clusters of buckwheat leaves and  tiny white flower clusters.  

We had a LOT of cool weather and rain through most of June followed by sudden heat.  The onions planted in mulch didn’t do well despite the side dressing of ash and aged manure they always get.  Nor did the pasture get its spring bounce, and we are thinking it has to do with all the moisture, perhaps too much for aerobic micro-organisms to thrive.  Our ground has a layer of clay less than a foot deep and excessive rain doesn’t percolate far.  The strips with cover crop did well with the rain: the clover and vetch absorbed the rain and kept the ground moist when the heat came in force.  I got the earliest cauliflower ever and the cabbages keep coming. ( We eat 3 or 4 a week in season).

The cover crop interplanting trials have been more successful than our normal practice of heavy mulching.  I think it will work well with melons and squash  next year which I planted in mulch this year.  They as well as the onions may have suffered from too much moisture.  i’m going to cover crop the whole garden in the fall and do the same early next spring as well.

Fasting

Fasting has largely been thrown in the dustbin of out-dated religious practices by many.  This is unfortunate, because its effects are valuable physically and spiritually.  As is too often the case, we discard traditions without adequately evaluating them.

Fasting has a huge role to play in good health.  Though there is ongoing discussion about how much fasting is effective to what degree, its function as a tool of good health is indisputable.  There are several positive effects.  One is resetting circadian rhythms.  Modern life with its nearly complete disregard for the rhythms of light and darkness, its preponderance of artificial, and especially digital blue lighting takes a toll on our bodies, which have evolved over eons in sync with the rising and setting of the sun.  Light activates cortisol, the ‘wake up and get busy’ hormone.  Darkness, in turn, activates the hormone melatonin which signals physical processes to slow and shut down.

When we are awake we tend to eat.  Our constant eating  takes a significant toll on our biological systems.  Our bodies, brain, digestion, muscles, and skeletons need full rest on a regular basis in quantity and quality.  When we eat constantly, our digestive systems have to continue meeting urgent needs and have no time for regular maintenance activities.  So autophagy, the cleaning up and dispatching of damaged cells of all kinds, is postponed.  Cancer cells, and diseased or alien cells that the body normally would clean up are unattended to.  Other digestive systems like insulin production, are over stimulated, and proper function is compromised. This  often leads to glucose intolerance, inflammation and type two diabetes.

Fasting also can reset circadian rhythms that are out of whack from jet lag, inadequate sleep or night shifts, or too much blue light.

Fasting can put us temporarily in ketosis (different from ketoacidosis), the state when our bodies switch from burning carbohydrates as fuel for cellular activity, to burning fats.  It is beneficial for our cells to intermittently burn fats instead of carbs.  It gives our insulin producers a necessary break and starves random cancerous cells that may be seeking opportunity.   Cancer cells burn sugar and are compromised when it is not available to them.

My spouse, John, is studying and experimenting with diet, exercise, and fasting to deal with a tendency to glucose intolerance as he ages.  He finds that regular fasting seems to modulate blood sugar spikes.  He fasts for 24 to 36 hrs every 10-14 days.

My practice is easier.  I aim for a 13 hour window of fasting every day, stopping eating at about 7 PM and resuming at 8 AM. I fast 16-18 hours once a week to ensure a regular period of ketosis, when my cells are burning stored fat instead of carbs.

There are other effective programs.  A restricted intake fast (eating 25 to 50% of normal calorie intake several days in the week) or limiting all eating to a 6 hour window in the daytime. Some people choose to fast for longer periods, up to 36 hours, at longer intervals.  The point is to give the metabolic processes a rest from the constant influx of ingestion, to allow for autophagy, and to move in and out of ketosis (fat burning).

Though some fasting research is done with an eye to extending life, we can  impact our healthspan, the length of our healthy life, with less vulnerability to the package of diseases we have come to accept as inevitable in American culture.

In addition to health benefits, the pace of life is slowed and our capacity for attention is increased, with fasting.  Our bodies want to slow down and we feel like cooperating.  And certainly gratitude and appreciation of the moment of eating is enhanced.

Eggplant

Summertime and the eggplants are slow to fruit. Eggplant, brinjal, baingan, is useful in many dishes we like: Moussaka, baba Ghanoush, ratatouille, curries of many varieties, and the following stir-fry.
Since discovering the tastes of SE Asia in this dish we have looked forward to making it each year.
That means cultivating eggplant with varying success, though there is always some fruit. Eggplant is beautiful when not bothered with flea beetles. The purple flowers give way to glossy dark purple fruits; the ones I planted this year are a long tear drop shape. Eggplant takes on flavors, all the while maintaining a firm mouth-pleasing texture if not over cooked. Eggplant is a relative of tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and nightshade, and must be rotated away from these plants each year to thrive. The east asian long types are good for stir fries and can be used for other cooked dishes.

Thai Eggplant and Basil Stir-fry    (if you have ingredients on hand this takes about 25 minutes and serves 2 or 3

2 oriental eggplants, the longer thinner kind
2 thai peppers, whole, stemmed ( this depends upon your tolerance of the spice; this will not be very hot)
1-2 c of thai basil leaves
2 small onions, halved and sliced thin across the grain
1 Red bell pepper; cut in quarters and then sliced thinly
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 scant tbsp of unrefined sugar
2 Tbsp fish sauce
1/4 c broth mixed with scant tsp cornstarch
1 tsp sriracha sauce or other chili-garlic sauce: more if you like it hot

Cut eggplant into irregular pieces (easier to turn while frying); peel if desired
prepare other vegetables; mix sugar, fish sauce, broth and chili-garlic sauce in a small bowl
fry eggplant, pepper, and onions separately, in small batches of no more than 3/4 cup, in a hot wok in a little lard or oil, turning them quickly initially then allowing them to sear on the sides of the wok. remove each batch to serving bowl
Fry garlic briefly then add fish sauce mixture and cook until it bubbles and thickens through
return vegetables to wok, mix in and add thai basil and cook for minute or two to blend flavors

And I must say a word here about stir frying. Many a stir fried dish is second rate because a few simple techniques are not properly understood. One must have a very hot wok or a good cast iron skillet, and a good gas burner. Flat top stoves are ubiquitous for their one positive feature: an easy cleaning surface, but they don’t make good stir fries. The contact between wok and burner is too tenuous. A standard electric burner is better but it is not immediately responsive. A wok with a nonstick surface is not appropriate because it cannot safely tolerate the heat necessary for stir frying: the nonstick surface will begin to degrade, releasing toxic chemicals. If you are lucky enough to have a special wok burner on a gas stove, you can make beautiful stir fries. We are not so fortunate as to have this ring of small gas jets, but we have a good gas burner that heats well. My spouse has modified our various stove burners over the years to get a more intense heat and we have an adequate burner now. A good wok of carbon-steel that has one long wooden handle and is not too big to maneuver works best for me.

In addition to appropriate equipment, it is important to fry ingredients in small batches quickly, so they fry and do not steam. Searing them
adds a nice browned flavor. In fact I like to sear the vegetables of any dish requiring a fry of several vegetables. After the protein and vegetable pieces have been quickly and separately fried and removed, heat  garlic and/or ginger briefly, add sauce ingredients and reduce it a lot or a little(if sauce is required) until it boils in the center, then return all the ingredients to turn briefly to reheat. Too many ingredients frying at length together will always be mushy. It is usually best to restrain oneself in terms of varieties of ingredients. Two or three vegetables, besides garlic and/or ginger, and one protein source, works dependably.

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While asian eggplants are better for stir frying, the Italian globe eggplants are better in the preserves I learned to make in a year with an abundance of the fruit. Eggplant are easily preserved by salting 1” pieces overnight (you can also peel them) to remove some of their liquid. In the morning mix them with a little red wine vinegar and pack them in layers in canning jars, alternating the layers with a garlic clove and a sprig of thyme or oregano and a little olive oil. After the jar is packed it is necessary to cover all with a thin layer of olive oil before covering the jar with a little waxed paper and screwing on the lid. They will last several months in the fridge. Even a small bit of mold on top that will appear after 4 months or so is not a problem: just throw the bit with the mold out, but if there is much mold it will taste of mold even underneath. Preserved eggplant is especially good eaten with Italian food: The preserves are not really sour; umami would be their strong feature, and they are surprisingly delightful to chew. I imagine one could preserve them w/ South or Southeast asian herbs and oils as well.

Brinjal has many manifestations in South Asian cooking because it takes on flavors and maintains its texture. it is used in mashes, wet and dry curries, or is breaded and fried.
We have used them fried or grilled in sandwiches and of course in Baba Ganoush, that excellent mediterranean spread/ dip made of roasted eggplants blended with sesame/tahini, olive oil and fresh garlic, Baba Ghanoush can be made in volume from the summers harvest, and then frozen for winter eating.

There are many vegetables, like eggplant, which in themselves seem to have nothing to recommend and which are even distasteful to the uninitiated But many have superior qualities, which are exhibited in the right circumstances by a careful and knowledgeable connoisseur, one who is skilled and patient enough to elucidate their virtues.