Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Dances With Weeds

One Mom's enemy is another Mom's friend. I massage homemade dandelion oil into my infant's belly when he is distressed.

Dandelion seedhead and oak catkin.

Mayapples and dandelions at the foot of the side porch.

I could have sworn I already wrote about this...but maybe not. So, here we go:

Jared and I have moved around many times. We met in 2000.
1. New Brunswick, NJ
2. Attempted to move to Philadelphia but credit not good enough to rent a crappy, tiny apartment.
3. Went to Europe for 3 months instead, settling in Hungary for 1 1/2 months.
4. Philadelphia, PA. 3 months of hoboing always improves the credit.
5. Queens, NY
6. Parental interlude in NJ
7. Clarkston, Michigan
8. Parental interlude in NJ
9. Sourland Mountain, NJ

Today I'll write about...

In Clarkston we rented a modest split level house. A scraggly treeline, a ditch, a short chainlink fence, and heaps of grass clippings separated us from Route 75, a major interstate that coursed with large American made trucks and SUVs (when we returned to visit family several months later, we passed a auto dealer on Route 22 in Phillipsburg. As I surveyed the lot, my mind felt muddied. "Something is different here. Why does this lot look so odd?" Pause. "Foreign cars. All the vehicles are foreign cars." Small and insectlike foreign cars vs. the immense robot-lionhead American trucks. We had not seen small, foreign cars in several months.

The summer was hot and droughty. We tooled around in our Ford Ranger with the cheapest and smallest tires the previous owner could purchase. The Ranger has a 5 speed transmission and engine similar to my Ford Escort. Compared to the locals' vehicles, we were driving a clown car.

Also like my Escort, the truck had no air conditioning, so the hour commute to Detroit meant windows down (crazy hair and aggravation of Jared's chronic ear infection of that summer, which manifested after visiting a public swimming hole. In polite company, we refer to what I came down with post-swimmin' hole as 'Montezuma's Revenge Big Time'.) or windows up (sweaty armpits and an aroma that still lingers in the truck 5 years later).

We did our best to abandon the lawn, but it continued to grow, as did our neighbors' lawns. We cut the lawn sporadically, and our neighbors noticed "Want me to stop by with the mower?" asked the middle aged devout Christian. "Tried to mow part of your lawn, but kept clogging the machine," said the single mom. "Oh, that's ok, thank you," we answered.

"We better mow the lawn," I said. Jared pulled the mower out of the garage and mowed long enough to mow an anarchy symbol in the backyard. He then ran out of gas. The landlord's son was dispatched weeks later to mow weekly, but in the meantime we made a grim discovery.

The yard was outfitted with an automatic sprinkler system.

The odd sound that awakened us each morning from poor sleep (our bed was a porous air mattress) was the sound of the sprinkler water hitting the front door. It was so hot that the water evaporated long before we went outside. We finally were able to shut off the sprinkler, and the lawn died as it should have weeks prior.

One morning, my New York City-born husband peered through the blinds and whispered, "Oh my god, what is she doing?" I went to the window. "Don't let her see you. I'm afraid." he continued witha mixture of concern and humor.

"What is she doing?"

She, a respectable single mom of a teenaged son in a well to do suburban neighborhood, was dressed in shorts and shirt set, Keds sneakers, and a backpack canister herbicide sprayer. We watched her dance around her lawn in small circles.

Spritz, spritz. A gentle tap dance upon the now damp spot. Spritz, spritz. Tap, tap.

We named her Dances With Weeds.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The 2010 Cabinet of Remedies

I now have more confidence in our homemade remedies than in what I can purchase. Best yet if I can harvest the plant myself. We have made

Tincture of:
Aralia nudicaulis
Black cohosh
Solomon's seal
Yellow dock

Oil or salve of:
Plantain, calendula, & yarrow
White pine & red cedar

Flower essence of:

We were busy during the shopping season, so we made holiday gifts this year - infused oils, vinegars, salves, and cordials.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Smile Mope

The first two words in yesterday's game of Scrabble. The game was abandoned due to diaper rash and gooey eye.

Yesterday I woke up early and enjoyed about an hour of an absolutely silent house. I fed the birds. I made decaf coffee. I started making two loaves of bread.

The rest of the day...

Breadmaking project abandoned due to hunger.

Breadmaking project abandoned a second time for a diaper change.

A diaper-free baby's laundry.

Friday, December 24, 2010


During our son's first days we were adventurous with volume and light. We now creep around the house with lights dimmed when he sleeps. Sun Ra and a Smithsonian collection of children's songs have been replaced by the "Sleep Sheep" generating soothing ocean sounds. Acceptable light levels for reading have been dimmed to accelerate vision loss.

However, yesterday morning the little boy slept through the rousing chorus of the Eureka Pet Lover that we purchased just before his birth (we have to vacuum sometime, we agreed, and neither one of us wanted to repair our trash-picked vacuum that smelled like the NJ Transit train as it passes Ikea in Elizabeth). He slept through several vacuum related episodes that sent me looking for the troubleshooting page in the manual:

PROBLEM: Spewing dust. SOLUTION: empty the canister regularly, especially if you vacuum semi-annually, live partly outside, have incredibly long hair and a woodstove.

PROBLEM: No Suction. SOLUTION: Remove piece of braided wire from roller.

PROBLEM: Still No Suction. SOLUTION: remove clump of debris from hose that looks like a pellet heaved from the guts of an owl that ate the contents (dust, hair, fuzz, splinters, sticks) of the vacuum canister.

PROBLEM: Burning Smell and No Power. SOLUTION: the vacuum thermostat overheated and caused automatic shutdown to prevent user from further damaging the unit. Wait half hour before resuming use of the unit. Take shower. Resume vacuuming if baby is still sleeping.


It's 2:14 PM. My son is asleep during what I assume is a growth spurt. What will I do first:

1. Eat.
2. Nap.
3. Remove the thorn from my foot.
4. Search U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Forensic Laboratory Feather Atlas for the feathers I found at a kills site this afternoon. (Our first kill site discovered as a family. Does this go into the baby book?)
5. Floss.
6. Tend to the woodstove.
7. Go to the bathroom.
8. Dishes.

The results:
1. I ate a piece of chocolate and had a sip of water.
2. I'll sleep sometime. Collapse is inevitable.
3. The thorn couldn't wait because I couldn't walk.
4. Feather Atlas postponed to write this, though the point was to figure out what the feathers were and write about them, but I hear my son beginning to awaken.
5. Had to floss to remove that piece of clementine from lunch.
6. I tossed junk mail into the woodstove and caused smoke.
7. Reaching the level of discomfort that the thorn and the clementine attained.
8. Didn't I already do them?

Follow-up: The feathers look like a red morph screech owl. The feather size seems right, too. Bye, Screechy.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Down the Road Goes Daddy-o

You were napping when I leaned out the front door and waved to your Dad as I might on any other warmish December day. I raced around the house doing chores as I might. Dishes to the sink, start the washer, fill the bird feeder, put things in their place as I might on any other morning. I work more quickly, lose track of my intentions more quickly, and mind the woodstove more closely than on past winter days.

There's a baby in the other room. I hear him. I could hear him over a low flying jumbo jet. I take my husband's advice of yesterday and shove a few heaping tablespoons of tepid instant oatmeal into my mouth - "You have to make sure you eat."

We made it through our first solo parenting day, thanks to a visit from my Mom who brought lunch, conversation, and an extra set of hands.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Down the Road

Together, we walk down the road. Me, swaying and stomping in the tawny fallen leaves of oaks and beeches.

Beren, quieted by his first breath of cold winter air, breathing in the cool notes of leaf and mist, birdsong and wind.

We rock back and forth as much as go forward. He's lulled by the motion and soon sleeping, his senses tuned to the wild world's air.

Something about transportation seems to quiet a baby down. I imagine myself as a horse in a nomadic caravan, or a family on foot moving through the ancient savannah, even as a refugee fleeing in the night. In all cases, babies that became quiet when parents were on the move probably fared best.

But on this walk, I imagine the rocking as a kind of circulation, moving Beren through the sensations of his world -- feeling the sun as it streams through intertwined branches, smelling the odor of wet stones and clay when we cross the stream.


I make introductions as we walk - Black Birch, clad in silver-purple: makes tea that will soothe you when you ache. Shagbark: we'll plant some of your children when Beren is a little older. White Oak: thanks for being here, I hope you watch over my child as you've watched over us.

Familiar friends, but fresh, too; new in the crisp winter air, winter which hadn't yet arrived when we went to the hospital to give birth, but was here when we returned several days later.

I look into the forest on both sides of the lane. I think how all these plants, birds, stones, streams and soils have changed and shaped each other across deep time. How once Birch was sent along the path of being Birch by some unknowable event in prehistory, it became committed in some ways - wind pollination, catkins of small seeds, healer of disturbed ground. Birch will never again have a chance to become Oak, though Birch may change as radically as that through the deep time ahead.

We pass the small stream with the cardinal flowers, grown freely from tiny seeds peppered into the silt of the banks, germinating when waters are low. I consider Cardinal Flower, and Hummingbird, its ally -- now flown to the south for the flowerless season. There are no hummingbirds outside the New World. Would our Cardinal Flower exist without them? Would its deep-tubed flowers, strewn scarlet, reflect in the stream's summer waters if not for its pollinator? What is a word for this bond between flower and bird, for the relationship that makes those that comprise it take their shape in the world?

What is the word for the thousand relationships that make a White Oak bear gently lobed leaves and small, glossy acorns?

I believe that the word for these relationships is the sacred.


This world of change, of evolution across unfathomable time, can challenge our sense of meaning.

Why is White Oak? Because of Blue Jay and Squirrel and Caterpillars and Acid Soils and Rainfall.

Why is Blue Jay? Because of White Oak and Squirrel and Caterpillar and Acid Soils and Rainfall.

Where is God in this picture? To me, this relationship, always altering, communicating, observing, sensing -- this is the sacred. To have a God who fixed it all in the beginning -- that is a cop-out, fear of chaos, an attempt to render unfathomable changes across unknowable time somehow fixed and static.

I'd rather call White Oak my god, but -- even better to say that the sacred moves in White Oak. Moves even in the dried crackling oak leaves beneath my feet as my newborn son and I walk, sleep, breathe in the flavors of the particular which are the permeable walls of our temple.


I remember a class in High School where we were asked to describe our vision of our own future. I remember a quiet, unremarkable boy who said he hoped to be "perfect". I was shocked, not by the presumptuousness -- it was a moment where we all bared our hearts in some way -- but by his idea of "perfect". How could someone be perfect? Aren't all of our lives and decisions relational? Wouldn't a good action in one situation be a bad or imperfect one in a slightly different situation? Could you really distill through all of the causes and outcomes of one's actions and decide that they were perfect?

I figured you'd have to deny the relational aspect of reality altogether and replace it with a fixed code. Cut off the senses, cut off feelings, disengage from future and past. Deny failure, abstain from urges, abdicate life.


We walk further down the road. I step off the gravel, rustle some brown hornbeam leaves hanging on a twig. Beren is awake now and watches the leaves, hanging like forgotten laundry from the dormant winter branches.

Besides the hornbeams and sapling beeches, all the other trees have shed their leaves. I can see deep into the forest on either side of me. I see tall, ancient trunks, lichen-clad boulders, deep leaf litter.

I also see a wrack and ruin of fallen branches, split trees, upheaved rootballs, all of the evidence of storms and fungus and death laying bare and undisguised before me. I see shit and failure and old tattered nests that had been hidden in the dense thorny stems of wild roses.

Nature doesn't hide the dark and rotting sides of the cycle from us. Change can be a horror, it can seem like the disappearance of the old. But the old is always woven into the new, and it is the new that brings us wonder and sustenance.

If we abjure the negative, we deny new life as well.

Any idea of "God" that is based in moral perfection or immalleable, immaculate creation is a power conceit. It's authoritarianism of the spirit.


I can't help but think ahead in Beren's life. I have many hopes, many illusions. Will he befriend the birds, defend the plant people, find love and peace?

I don't know Beren's future nor would I desire to face such an enormous thing, all at once, ahead of time. My hopes and illusions can hover gently, sometimes shielding reality, sometimes revealing some small secret.

I look again into the forest. I see the deep impression of tracks molded in last year's leaves. I see the proud trunks of my friends - black birch, shagbark hickory, white oak. I watch dark-eyed juncos scatter from the road ahead of me. And I see once again the bracket fungus, the broken limb, the kill site, the narrow escape, the scat and the urine. I see the old and the new and the in-between, in constant circulation.

My main hope for my son is that he partake in this circulation, drinking deeply from the stream when coolness is needed, burning brightly when heat is wanting, and feeling the sacred in the world.

Together we walk down the road, rocking, swishing, swaying, and listening to the crackle of the tawny fallen leaves of oaks and beeches.