Back to the Garden

photo by Elizabeth Breston

When I’m angry, I clean.  When I’m weary, I water.  I have been standing in my garden with a hose a lot this week, watching for the neon spring green of a leaf or the flash of a bloom to emerge.  A reminder that life goes on.

My friend Terri believes that a good gardening effort, regardless of the outcome, reflects a certain level of mental stability.

She says a garden requires enormous patience and more sacrifice than expected at the onset.  It starts out all seedlings, sunshine and anticipation and then come the bugs, blight and the Texas heat.  A garden teaches the lesson of giving without guarantees.

Unconditional love of the plant kind.  A good place to practice.

I’m not sure what my gardens say about my mental health but I know I go into the garden to find equilibrium through working with my hands.  In a world that makes it too easy to retreat into my head, a garden invites me into my body.  I can feel my energy enliven my senses and limbs, bringing my awareness back to the earth and into the moment.

A recent episode of Nature, “What Plants Talk About,” proposes that plants demonstrate a level of consciousness similar to behaviors attributed to the animal kingdom including altruism and family recognition.

I hear the same from Nate, the arborist working with us to save our 250-year-old Post Oak.  He loves trees and sees them as sentient beings.  Perhaps plants are not so different from us – just quieter.  To commune with their rhythm and recognize our similarities we have to slow down.  We have to participate.

This is how I come to find myself in the garden with my hose in hand.  It is not to retreat from life but to renew my belief in living.  To remind myself of the seasons and cycles.  To remember how to nurture and tend to the things that bring meaning and hope.

“..when man was put into the Garden of Eden, he was put there with the idea that he should work the land; and this proves that man was not born to be idle.”  Voltaire, Candide

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/what-plants-talk-about/video-full-episode/8243/

The Magical Being Business

I am no longer the Easter Bunny. In December of 2011, I quit the Magical Being business after 18 years.

My husband is a secular Jew. He never understood the parallel Pagan/Christian holiday track nor did he harbor a desire to learn the Magical Being trade. It was a solo venture that started out with tremendous enthusiasm and ended with lame excuses why the tooth fairy missed another pick-up.

Over the years, there have been many all-nighters of stocking stuffing, basket making and midnight tooth harvesting. When my first child, Leo, was born I didn’t give it a thought and suited up. About age 5, my young scientist began asking questions about the magical beings who entered our home and left presents, candy and money.

“Are they real?” he would ask.

At first I squirmed and said yes. Then came the Socratic dialogue circle of  me answering with “What do you think?” to his “I don’t know, what do you think?”

This went on for about a year until I came clean and revealed the woman behind the Santa suit. Leo did not take it well. He didn’t care that the Magical Beings were not real, he had that already figured that out.  He cared that I lied.

He really cared.

It was at that moment I put down my glass of Kool-Aid and thought about what I was doing. His brother Eli was a toddler at the time so I was at the fork in the road. Do I continue along with my Magical Being identity or bag the whole thing?

I went about restoring Leo’s trust and re-packaging the Magical Beings as symbols of wonderment and generosity. My secret desire was to make all holidays extensions of Thanksgiving. I wanted the Magical Beings to become magical turkeys. I wasn’t going to lie, instead I would be even more vague and confusing in all my responses to the inevitable questions.

I don’t know why I didn’t just stop then.

I’m not a club joiner. It’s not characteristic of me to hold on to the status quo but there was darn little for me to replace it with. Lacking a Martha Stewart gene, a religious affiliation or grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in town, it was hard to fashion my own traditions. So I stuck with Magical-Beings-Lite.

The enthusiasm for all things holiday, except for Thanksgiving, was draining from me. Eli, a contrary skeptic from the beginning, never bought the stories. As long as there were filled stockings, chocolate eggs and a couple of bucks under his pillow he was good to go.

It wasn’t until two years later when my twin girls, Georgia and Lila, were born that I put down the Kool-Aid for good.

Their first Christmas came around and my inner feminist could not serve up my daughters the notion that an old fat white guy came down the chimney and gave them presents because they were GOOD. No way!

Here’s the rub. The girls really wanted to believe in Magical Beings. They wanted the whole package and were not very interested in magical turkeys.

I reluctantly returned to my less than half-hearted status quo path and my feminist anti-consumerism soap box. Not easy rails to straddle. I was going to have to take it slow for the girls.

Every year I dismantled a little more of what I didn’t like and kept the traditions that matched my world view. I added more gatherings with friends, travel instead of stuff and service work. I bought less, way less.

Finally, to my delight, I began hearing the Magical Being push back from the girls. For years there had been rumors at school that the the whole thing was parent run. I jumped on it and spilled the beans. They didn’t care. They had been listening to my holiday rants since they were little so they were not surprised.

I think they always knew it was me and that the magic is, and was, that I love them.

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Raising Otis Two

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I have a long history with English bulldogs.

My father had the breed as a child and then planted the tradition for my brother and me with a long line of bulldogs. There were Margaret, Muffin One, Muffin Two, Otis, Seamus, and Toby. The only dog on that list with a scandalous history is Otis.

Otis was my dog. I bought him after I graduated from college and moved to Austin. A bit lonely and directionless, I did what many of us do:  I fell back on my imprinting. Like a lemming jumping off a cliff, I bought myself an English bulldog puppy from a trailer park in Manor, Texas.

I loved Otis. Unlike most bulldogs he was muscular and active. He hiked, camped, fetched, and swam. He also saw me through the breakup with his co-owner.

It was during that breakup that I went home for Christmas to see my parents. I brought Otis to New England with me. My parents had Muffin Two at that time. Otis was quite taken with her and my parents’ soft furniture and stable life.

I should have seen the writing on the wall.

Because I was in the midst of reorganizing my life, it was decided that I would leave Otis with my parents while I straightened things out in Texas. The plan was for my parents to send me Otis after I moved to my new place and settled into graduate school.

Otis never set another paw on Texas soil again.

I will spare the details of my parents’ dognapping and its resolution. Otis lived out a most happy life with Muffin Two and my parents. My father still refers to Otis as the best present I ever gave him.

Revisionist history. It worked for my parents. For me the story was was lost in too much emotion and too many loose ends.

This past Christmas my family adopted an English bulldog puppy, Otis Two. There are very few redos in life. For me raising Otis Two is one of those rare events.

Our son Eli has wanted a micro-mini pig for years and as Christmas loomed he sensed my husband’s weakness for begging and pleading. We all joke that Eli is my husband’s inner child. If Eli wants something he knows where to go. I knew I was in trouble when I heard my husband talking to the pig expert at Texas A&M.

A pig sounded like a lot to take on. By this time I had watched one too many YouTube videos of pigs eating their owners’ homes, literally. Despite my threats, it looked like we were getting a pig. Pig breeders were sending us pictures and Eli had almost daily correspondence with one pig person in Dallas. I thought the lecture about pet responsibly and caring for a pig would scare Eli off, but no.

As a mother to four kids, I knew who was going to take care of that pig and started thinking of a Plan B.

It came to me that a pig looks a lot like an English bulldog. If I had to end up taking care of one or the other  –  the bulldog wins hands down. But then I hesitated. I’ve been to enough therapy to catch imprinting when I’m in it. After the first Otis, I have been the proud caretaker of two Rottweilers, a German Shepherd, and a Tibetan Spaniel.

I broke the English bulldog cycle, right?

Eli was not keen on the bulldog idea at first, but then I found a kind-hearted, reputable breeder in Arkansas who had a four month old male, Chi Chi, that needed a home. Eli warmed to the idea and the breeder and I exchanged references. Her mom was sick and she needed to get the dog to us quickly. She would meet us halfway in Plano.

On the drive, Eli and I were deciding on a new name for Chi Chi. Still circling around his pig issues, Eli was thinking of Wilbur. I suggested Otis once and then let it alone. To me it’s the best name for a male bulldog – but it was not my dog – at least not yet.

We were both nervous about the transaction. What if the dog had a bad temperament? We decided on a code word that either of us could use and I would immediately go into back-out-of-the deal-mode.

Nervously waiting in the hotel parking lot off IH-35 we saw a Suburban drive toward us. It had big bulldog magnets adhered to the doors, bulldog vanity plates, and a stuffed bulldog hanging from the rear view mirror. The breeder opened the back door and there in the crate was Chi Chi.

Eli looked at me and said, “I want to name him Otis, after your dog.  He looks just like him.”

Otis Two is now everyone’s favorite family member. He is slow-witted, farty, snorty, and ridiculous looking, but he is pure love.  I call him furry prozac because he calms the frenetic buzz that runs through our family.  Eli remains devoted to Otis Two beyond my expectations and I have resisted the urge to win him over as his favorite.  However, I do absolutely love him.

The circle is closed – gotta love the redo!

End Note

If it had not been for the dognapping, I would never have met my husband.  After Otis One, I adopted a Rottweiler named Toby from another trailer park in Texas.  At the time, my then future husband had a German Shepherd named Maude.  Our dogs met at the 9th street dog park early one morning and were inseparable.  Matthew and I married 2 weeks later and have been married for 22 years.

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How Skydiving Prepared Me for my First College Drop-off

Wrap legs under the plane. Lean back. Roll out. Bend knees. Spread arms. I repeat these instructions over and over again in my head. It’s the sequence given to me by the ex-Navy SEAL strapped to my back as I ready myself to take my first tandem skydiving jump. I feel like I’m in a movie that begins with an intense action scene and then flashes to the past to explain the backstory.

This is my backstory. At the beginning of his senior year of high school, my oldest child, Leo, asks my husband and me to skydive with him to celebrate his graduation before he leaves for college. We agree. It’s a long time away and it seems like an abstraction. There are several hurdles to get over as well. For Leo and my husband, Matthew, it’s the 230 lb. weight limit, and for me it’s my pathological fear of heights. Weight can be lost but there is no diet for fear. In January Leo is half way to his goal, Matthew is hovering at the 230 lb. mark and my fear is in full bloom. Before I know it, August is here. Leo is at 220 lb., Matthew is still hovering and I’m opting out. We have three younger children. I rationalize that only one parent should jump in case “something” happens.

So how did I end up in my very own action scene? Jump day comes and our family and Leo’s two friends caravan to The SkyDiving Temple. I’m along to applaud their bravery and take pictures.

There is a glitch.

When it comes time to weigh in, Matthew is hovering on the wrong side of 230 and is grounded. All spring and summer I’ve said that I will be the jumping parent if Matthew doesn’t make the cut. When I get the news, I hesitate, but then do the unimaginable and agree. I suit up as Matthew changes into lighter clothes and begs for mercy for the few pounds he is over. The manager grants his request but it’s too late for me to turn back now. I’m going through with this. It’s decided that Leo will jump twice, first with Matthew and then with me. Different planes, one surviving parent.

Back again to the scene on the plane. I’m sitting on the edge of the open door, legs wrapped as told. Leo jumps first. I’m too stunned by what I’m about to do, to assimilate the fact that I just watched my son tumble out of an airplane. A strange determination comes over me. It’s as if there is no other choice but to roll out.  Before I can think again, I’m free falling from 12,000 feet at 125 miles per hour.

The astonishing part is that I’m not scared.

There is none of the crippling fear that comes to me at the edge of a high balcony or a cliff. Apparently the brain cannot calibrate for the distance when skydiving. In 60 seconds the chute goes up and the deafening rush of the free fall is replaced by the purest quiet I’ve ever experienced. It’s at that point when the ex-Navy SEAL points out where Leo is coming down. It’s the first time I think about him since we were on the plane. He looks so far away. He lands and greets me as I touched down. He beams as he hugs me. He never thought I could do it.

Forward to my movie’s epilogue. The weekend after our jump, Leo and I fly out of state to drop him off for his freshman year of college. There are no parachutes or ex-Navy SEALS this time but it’s as big of a jump for both of us. For him it’s easy. He is ready to free fall into his future and the thrill of young adulthood. Leo does not need the weight of my hugs, tears and gargantuan parental love to ground him. He needs me to watch him float through this transition from afar.

For me, rolling out of an airplane is easier than driving out of the university campus without him. This is not a tandem event. I have earned this solo emotional jump with nine months of pregnancy and 18 years of parenting. We spend my last night on campus walking, laughing and talking. Leo gives me my instructions and let’s me know it’s time to jump. He is going first and I will follow. Unfortunately the heart can calibrate for the distance. I trust that we will both land softly on the same earth at different places. We will be very proud of each other. I never thought I could do it.

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Previously published as Taking Wing, How skydiving prepared me for my first college drop-off  in Barnard Magazine, Winter 2013.

Almost Fifty

Fifty is NOT the new Forty.

Trust me, I’ve been forty and I do not feel forty, not even forty-three or forty-five. Maybe on a good day I can pull off a perky forty-seven.

Let’s face it, fifty is fifty.

While talking to other tail-end boomers and reading what the media and blogs tell us about being middle aged I find that there are four major approaches to turning fifty out there.

The first and loudest camp is the pro-fifty crowd. By listening to this group you’d think that middle age was just one big find-the-best-part-of-yourself fest. This group plans to never age or die. They eat kale, do triathlons, change careers and have great postmenopausal sex.

Then there’s the survivalist group. They definitely know they are aging and want to stop it at all costs.  They also eat kale but on a restrictive life-extending 1,000 calorie diet. Many in this group get an extra colonoscopy each year AND will tell you their triglyceride levels at a cocktail party.

On the flip side, there are those who have given up. They have lost their jobs, their health insurance and well being. This group of fifty year olds do not have a lot of hope. It’s a young world out there and it’s hard to find your way. This isn’t just an outlook but a social/economic/political issue.

Of course there are those who don’t give a damn and are just living their lives.

If we boomers are honest, we can recognized a little of each of these perspectives in ourselves. Much of the noise out there sounds a lot like whistling in the dark to me. I for one am not whistling. The tune I was trying to carry is being drowned out by the ticking of the clock. It’s not the biological clock of my thirties, this is the sound of mortality.

I have been genetically fortunate and have made it to 49 with few physical bumps. I eat kale, even grow the stuff in my backyard.  I exercise, practice yoga, keep socially active and try to keep my brain thinking about something other than grocery lists and the kids. I guess I lean more towards that first camp except for one thing.

I know I am going to die.

This line of thinking can leave me feeling like the third group in a nano-second. I am old and it is over.  As a counter balance, I am fortunate to have many thriving friends and mentors who are Old. Capital O Old. Our culture hates the word, particularly middle-aged people. I use this word with the greatest of respect. If we are lucky the ultimate destination is OLD.

Ask any person in their seventies if they are living the new fifty and they will chuckle.

Standing here at the brink of fifty, I am fully aware, but not-so-accepting, of the fact that in a hop, skip and blink of two decades I will be seventy. One of my Old friends once picked up a comb and ran her thumb down the teeth, smiled and said, “This is how fast the time goes.” For me the sense of urgency is palpable.

I realize that I need to get off my lower-than-it-used-to-be butt and move a bit faster toward living. To do more, love more, make more mistakes, keep promises, show more kindness, make amends, take more risks, follow through. Let go of the hesitation and leap; to hear the clock as a heartbeat, a breath. A metronome for staying in the present.

When I tell people that I’m almost fifty, it is more often than not greeted with, “You’re at the halfway mark.”

More whistling in the dark.

If you look at statistics, I passed the top of the mountain about a decade ago. I’m more like at the timber line on the other side, going down.

Time is an illusion and the mountain analogy is too. In actuality we are all dancing from the most fragile, beautifully shimmering thread of the present moment. There is no solid mountain beneath us. There is no thinking, eating or exercising our way out of this predicament. It is universal. It doesn’t change if you are almost fifty, twenty or eighty.

When my friend Marcia knew she was losing her battle to cancer she organized a glamorous birthday party for herself. People came from all over the country. It was her pre-funeral. She didn’t hide it. She wanted to celebrate her life with the people she loved while she was alive and feeling well enough to have fun.

Marcia always said, “Nobody gets off this planet alive, so what are you going to do?” LIVE.

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‘‘One day you will wake up and there won’t be any more time to do the things you’ve always wanted. Do it now.” – Paulo Coelho