Sunday, January 24, 2016

Bird by bird

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” 

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

We wind up saying “bird by bird” a lot at our house. When the task at hand seems too big to possibly tackle, we say it. Sometimes we don’t even believe it when we say it, but just the saying of it makes us feel better, as if, in the noisy, messy chaos of our everyday lives, there really is a way forward.
Three new rows added to the front garden last summer.

Nearly every July since I started the farm, I’ve wondered seriously if I just shouldn’t go ahead and plow the whole thing under. This is usually once the humidity has risen to its soggy southern heights and so have the weeds. Just walking outside is like entering a blast furnace and you can see the steam rising off the paved roads. This is when I wonder just what the heck I was thinking in starting this farm, and that’s when I start my mantra, “bird by bird and row by row….”

Starting is always the hardest. It’s that first shovel full of dirt. That first unopened seed packet. But if I can just stick that shovel in the dirt and tear that seed packet open, after an hour, I look back and can’t believe how much I’ve accomplished. So hour by hour, row by row, bird by bird, my crazy idea of what to do with the rest of my life slowly takes shape.

So I just keep plodding along, doing the best I can do, and sometimes things work out.  The snow melts, the birds come back, the humidity rises, and the flowers bloom again. Row by row.


Friday, January 1, 2016

New Year's Day, 2016

Inch by inch, and row by row,
Gonna make this garden grow.
All it takes is a rake and a hoe
And a piece of fertile ground.
Inch by inch, and row by row,
Someone bless these seeds I sow.
Someone warm them from below
'Til the rains come tumbling down.

New Year’s Day is my favorite day of the year.

This is me and my siblings at Christmas, sometime in the 70s.

When I was a kid, Christmas was my favorite holiday. I think it is for a lot of kids. Santa and presents and candy and no school — it’s a perfect storm of a holiday when you’re a kid! As I got older, though, I began to think that maybe Thanksgiving was my favorite. I have always loved the way it’s nearly impossible to cash in on a holiday that simply asks its participants to slow down and consider all the wonder and beauty in their lives. You gotta admit: That’s pretty great. And as all the major holidays go, Thanksgiving is a bit of an underdog, coming as it does between Halloween and Christmas, two very over-hyped and commercial holidays whose original meanings tend to get lost in the retail frenzy that precedes them.

I still love Thanksgiving, but over the last few years, I’ve come to really look forward to New Year’s Day. I’ve learned from my Jewish friends and relations that in the Hebrew calendar, the New Year comes in September with Rosh Hashanah. It follows the agricultural cycle, so the Jewish year ends with the harvest. The new year begins with a clean slate after Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. Here’s the best, most beautiful aspect of the Jewish New Year: The Day of Atonement is when you look back at your year and both seek and grant forgiveness. You promise to do better in the coming year. Now THAT’S the essence of New Year’s Day for me.

In my family, we have a tradition of taking a New Year’s Day hike. And because we’re Southerners, we nearly always have a big pot of black-eyed peas with the leftover Christmas ham bone. It’s interesting to take a hike at this time of year, especially on a familiar and well-loved trail. It looks bleak and quiet, but if you scratch the surface, you are reminded of the riotous life lurking literally right below the surface.

I love looking out at the expanse of the year ahead of me. Maybe it’s because I’m from Oklahoma, but I imagine the year spreading out before me like an unbroken horizon of prairie, seemingly endless in all directions. There are so many possibilities hidden within that beautiful vista! The mistakes and shortcomings of the previous year begin to drain away as I am filled with the wonder of so many chances to make amends, to atone, to forgive. And to plant seeds, both literally and metaphorically, that have the glorious potential to bear fruit in the coming year.

The road away from the family farm in Oklahoma. (photo by Jim Lightfoot)
Happy New Year,