The Zen of Weeding

Joe and I took down part of our garden tonight -- we dug up the potatoes, pulled the rest of the carrots, yanked out two zucchini plants destined for the towering compost pile. We plucked baskets of heirloom tomatoes and okra and tomatillos popping at the seams of their paper-thin cases. I'm not sure how or when the end of August arrived, but here it is, and here we are on autumn's threshold, days shorter and nights cooler and smelling of fireplaces.

I spent a good 30 minutes tonight weeding the spinach patch. We've been gone the past few days, and the weeds had reached that do-or-die stage where they threatened to choke the baby plants. The best thing about gardens at the start of fall is squeezing out that last round of food, so I crawled between the rows and pulled the weeds by hand, feeling each root system resist, then the release as it finally popped free.

Joe tries telling me the hoe would be faster and more efficient, but I prefer weeding the tool-free way: In the doing so, I acquainted myself with each plant, thrusting itself up through cracked earth in a way that must, from the plant's perspective, feel shockingly brave and remarkable. The last time I paid this spinach any mind, they were seeds, with the look and feel of Grape-Nuts, or all-natural cat litter. And now here they were, very obviously spinach, spreading their waxy leaves in welcome to the wide, blue sky.

I know my vegetables. I know each of them. I know which okra plants need trimming; which tomato plants likes extra water; which leek stems, for some reason, attract more weeds than others. You spend hours of every week alone in a garden with nothing but plants for company, on your hands and knees so you can inspect each leaf and flower, aware of their existence from the moment they were seeds falling through your fingers, and you will know what it's like to commune with vegetables.

Our garden isn't huge, but it isn't tiny, either -- 800 square feet, a double plot at a community garden some 6 miles north of our neighborhood. We drive (or, for Joe, bike) up a few nights each week, and at least once every weekend. It's not as often as I'd like; this summer, even busier than last year, I've felt the urge to buy a house simply for the yard, for the ability to step out of my back door in bare feet and be there, in the thick of green things growing.

This is what I love about the garden -- the chance to feel what it means to be. To exist in a way that doesn't happen in shopping malls, at the grocery store, in your cubicle, in your car while you are driving 45 miles an hour in a 30 mph zone just to get where you are going a few minutes faster. Being in the garden makes me forget about cell phones. Being there helps me appreciate the world around me in a way that is active and immediate and steeped in an almost cellular attachment to other living things. Being there awakens my own awareness of that necessary connection wrapping itself from person to person like invisible Christmas tree lights, shining bright with hope that better things can happen if we all just dig in a little--and I mean all of us, even people we don't think we like very much or understand, even people who think urban farming is a waste of time, even Republicans.

I think of gardening the way some friends describe running. You reach a place where the world falls away, and all that's left are you and the tangy smell of ripening and the hard sting of dirt packed tight under your fingernails. The highs and lows of your day melt into an evened being, and your breathing does, too, as if your emotional self has been pounded down in a mortar and pestle and all that's left is the essence of you--the essence of what you care about and how you wish to live in the world and all that you find beautiful. All of that exists in every tug of weed, every leaf examined. All of that exists, and multiplies and grows, every time we tend to the well-being of something greater than ourselves.

Joe came with me to the garden tonight. As I tended the spinach, he aimed the watering hose at the opposite end of our long tract. This is our routine: I weed, he waters. We each bury ourselves in our own brains, our own motions, and we rarely talk in the garden, except to say things like, "Look! We have lettuce!" or, "Can you bring me the trowel, please?"

I thought tonight about all the things I think about here, in this small slice of silence where time stills until the sky darkens, and how grateful I am for this regular pause. I happened to look up at that moment, and there was Joe, watering the nearby okra. I recognized the look on his face, the one that says, I am here, but I am elsewhere, too.

And so I broke the silence.

"What do you think about while you're watering?" I asked him.

He looked down at me, still on my knees in the dirt. And he smiled.

"Music," he said. "I think about music."

photo credit: Carrie Kilman



I am kind of in awe right now.

I just got home from watching a domestic violence survivor share her very personal story with a television news crew. I can't begin to describe her bravery, her grit, her indefatigable poise. She was a rock star.

She did this, exposing her life and her pain and her hopes for the future, as a result of a humble request from me. She had nothing to gain but the knowledge that maybe, possibly, there would be another victim watching. And maybe, possibly, what she had to say might help that person feel not quite so alone and powerless.

But she had some things to lose. Like her sense of control over her own story and who knows about it. And now, if she chooses, late at night on a weekday after her kids are asleep, she might watch the news story that blurs her face and only shows her hands and the back of her head, in which she discloses very personal and painful and private details about her past. And as she watches this, she may feel alone and also sad, possibly reliving some of the memories of what happened to her children.

Yet she did this because she hoped it would help. She did this because she hoped it would catch people's attention and get them to listen. And she did this because I asked.

I hope nothing goes wrong. I hope she is happy with the final result, that she feels it represents her truth, and that she feels it can help change lives. I hope she feels proud of what she accomplished. I hope she doesn't regret it.

I believe each of us is a survivor of something. Something traumatic, on some large or small scale. There comes a time for many of us when we realize we have begun to think of that trauma not only in terms of its impact on our lives, but also as a tool, something we can use to help others. Reaching that point is a powerful moment. When we realize, "I am more than the very bad thing that happened to me."

I write, in part, for a living. The importance of collecting and honoring other people's stories is central to the lens through which I see the world. I have been a part of other people's moments like the one described above. But I don't remember ever being as humbled in witnessing someone's story as I was tonight. Her courage filled the room. It spilled into the parking lot. And I left there feeling lucky.



I have been thinking about her this week.

It was the first headline I read Monday morning, over the day's first cup of coffee. A local man shot and killed his ex-wife. She was found in her apartment, in a suburb south of Madison, with two fatal gunshots to her head.

They were married 23 years. They had two teenage children. Their divorce was newly final.

She did everything she was supposed to do. In the face of physical assaults and death threats, she managed to keep her job. She managed to save money and move out and settle herself in a new apartment. She managed to get a restraining order. She managed to file for divorce.

This is all hard, brave work, when the force you are managing against is a man who wants to kill you.

She did everything she was supposed to do.

On Saturday, May 16, he showed up at her door carrying a gun. This is the moment that catches me, the moment that happened next. Did he push his way in? Did she try to talk him down from his rage, thinking it was like all the other times and he would stop right before he crossed that line? When did she realize that he wouldn't? When did she think, "I will not see my daughters again"? Was it fear or terror she felt at the end, in the final seconds before he pulled the trigger? Or was it something closer to a desperate relief, that finally it was over, and he wouldn't be able to hurt her anymore?

This story is more than the headlines, more than the manhunt, more than the ex-husband's body found two later in a nearby park, death by self-inflicted gunshot. The story is more than the newspaper accounts of their turbulent, violence-ridden marriage. It's more than the measly $500 bail the ex-husband received after he tried to strangle his wife and attacked his daughter with a fireplace poker the day after Christmas.

The heart of the story is the moment that matters -- the moment Francie Weber realized she was going to die, at the hands of someone who claimed to love her and then exerted every effort to inflict harm. The look in her eyes. The thoughts in her head. The panic. This is the moment her terror becomes real.

I read the newspaper account to Joe that night. "That makes me so mad," he said. He stood up from the couch where he had been sitting. He paced the room. "How could any human being do that to someone else?" he asked. "Doesn't it make you angry?"

I paused and sighed and looked away.

Because anger isn't the word for it. To be perfectly honest, I told him, it makes me feel a little defeated. It's a reminder that sometimes it will never be enough. Restraining orders and divorces and new apartments and fresh starts sometimes don't help if an abuser is hell-bent on killing you. Prison helps. But most domestic violence cases are never reported to the police. And often, prison only happens once something horrible has occurred, something like murder.

What does make me angry is that despite this crime, and despite the fact that the most recent murder in that same suburb was yet another domestic violence homicide, and despite the fact that the news these days from all parts of the country (like here and here and here ) seems to be fraught with headlines of husbands killing their families, we as a society still don't seem to think of domestic violence as a real problem.

Yes, we pay it lip service. But we still appease ourselves with the false reassurance that domestic violence doesn't happen to "people like us."

What makes me angry is that more people don't consider this a public health emergency. How can we fight for economic justice -- of any kind, for anyone -- or lobby for health care reform, or demand an end to torture, yet ignore the fact that one out of every three women in this country is terrified of the person in their own home?

These issues are related. Economic justice for women fleeing abusers is critical -- not having financial resources of her own can be one of the main obstacles preventing victims from leaving their abusers. Health care is critical -- consider how many costly emergency room visits are the result of intimate partner violence.

And if the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib captures our attention and inspires nationwide calls for investigations and policy reversal, then the torture of women and children (and to call systematic physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse "torture" is not an exaggeration) in every community in our country should rally a similar and related cacophony of outrage.

And yet it doesn't.

It isn't seen as political. It isn't seen as important. It isn't something that happens "to people like me."

Until it does. And now another woman is dead, and two kids are parentless, and the community is left to ask, once again, "why would someone do such a thing", and then we forget until it happens again.

Because it will keep happening until we demand that it stops.


One More Note

There is a woman who wanders our neighborhood. I don't know her name. But we see her often. She stops to give us gardening tips when we're potting our tomato plants on the front porch. She pauses to say "hello there!" and "cold night, isn't it?"

She is sort of like a fairy godmother. She pulls the heavy trash bins up from the curb after garbage pick-up, tucking them in their out-of-sight spaces between our house and the one next door. She carries a broom wherever she goes, sweeping leaves and fallen flower petals from the sidewalks. She does this up and down the streets. Everybody knows her.

She never wears shoes. Never. Not in the summer, when the asphalt burns. Not in the winter, in four feet of snow. She wears her long, gray hair tucked inside two bandannas tied around her head. She is missing her front teeth.

I don't know where she lives. I don't know how she gets by. I do know she gets her meals from a nearby soup kitchen. I've seen her walking back from there in the evening, with a Tupperware container in her hands. She looks up at me, on my porch, sipping my Shiraz. "Peas tonight!" she smiles and says.

The soup kitchen is around the corner, on a side street. I see the people lined up there in the late afternoons, waiting for the doors to open. The line, lately, has been growing longer.

I thought of the woman who sweeps our sidewalks when I read a news report the other day about the startling increase in homelessness in our community. Across Dane County, the number of people experiencing homelessness jumped 17% last year. Homeless shelters were forced to turn away 3,600 people in 2008 -- a 22% increase in the number of people denied shelter for lack of space and resources.

This is not a unique story. It's happening everywhere, from Baton Rouge to New York City.

But it is one example. One more important example. One more note in a sour chorus of "What am I going to do?" that can be heard in every corner of every community in every state in our country.

Sometimes economic hardship can strengthen a community. Sometimes it can inspire us to look beyond our own immediate needs and act in impressively selfless ways -- or realize the extent to which our needs are wrapped up with the needs of others. Suddenly the walls that separate "us" from "them" seem paper-thin, rubbed down to nothing in places. There is little difference between a college-educated CEO and a truck driver, when both are unemployed with bills piling in the basket by the door.

But hardship doesn't always do that. It can make us act in irrationally protective ways, cause us to fence off our property and stock up on guns. It can make us look upon our neighbors with suspicion. It can harden us, so we can more comfortably hold our purses to our chest and say, "This is mine. Fend for yourself. You are not my problem."

I don't want to be that kind of person. But I look around, or read the newspaper, or eavesdrop on conversations at the bus stop, or look into the faces of other shoppers at the grocery store, and I wonder, What will be enough? There isn't enough.

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle announced budget cuts and employee furloughs to address a rising budget deficit (similar to the deficits plaguing 46 other states). Our County budget is stretched beyond thin. Nonprofits that provide emergency services for domestic violence survivors, abused children, and families on the brink of homelessness are worried their budgets will continue to shrink. Charitable giving across almost every sector has plummeted.

There isn't enough.

I keep reading the papers and watching the bulletin boards at the college campus near my office, looking for signs of revolution. Isn't it in times like these that revolutions get their start? I keep waiting for a sign that we, our community and our nation, are tired of allowing our neighbors to suffer. How long is too long, when we're talking about a soup kitchen line? At what point does the comfortably employed person say, "A homeless family is my problem"?


New Year

The other day, I told someone who knows me well that my New Year's resolution was to learn to be more serene.

She looked at me and laughed. She practically guffawed. "Good luck with that," she said, after she composed herself.

I am not a still person. I am a chronic list-maker, advance-planner, seasoned worrier, and hapless time-manager who tries, regularly, to pack more into an hour or day than can reasonably fit.

My grandparents are consummate planners. They don't simply make a plan and hope it works. They make a Plan B. And C. And D. And so on. Road construction? No problem. Cell phone batteries died? Got it covered. Chance of bear attack while driving to the McDonald's? Don't worry--there's a back-up plan for everything.

But here's the deal. Consummate planners tend to be consummate worriers.

And so it's in my genes.

"You never relax, do you?" JK asked the other day.

Not easily, but I'm determined to learn. And I have a new project to help me. Proximity, a collaboration with two other writers, Towles Kintz and Maggie Messitt, launched yesterday.

Each week, we choose a different location--like an emergency room, a tavern or a bus stop--that exists in our three corners of the globe (Madison, WI; Atlanta, GA; rural South Africa), then we write around that theme. It's an opportunity to slow down, practice being settled in our surroundings. Over time, we hope it will illustrate not only how varied the world can be, but also how small and connected.

Our first installment explores the notion of home. I hope you'll have time to visit us there, and lend your voice to the conversation.