Monday, March 21, 2016

Practical adventure

My parents were practitioners of the DIY ethic long before there were whole television networks devoted to making that concept glamorous.  My mother sewed our clothes. My father built our furniture. Granted, a lot of what he made was bulky and awkward and could not be mistaken for even the lowest-end Ikea product much less anything more sophisticated, but it did what it was supposed to—a flat surface for meals, a few lower flat surfaces for butts around the flat surface for meals, a bigger flat surface for sleeping; what more could you want? Me, I can’t get past threading a needle without ending up in tears, and I sometimes struggle to make folding chairs do what I want. I wish it were otherwise, but the fact remains that other than cooking (I love to eat too dearly not to have learned at least a modicum of passable culinary skills), any project that involves manual labor will almost certainly provoke an anxiety attack in me.

It is odd therefore that this spring I have voluntarily taken on gardening as my new hobby. Throughout my childhood we had lots of home-grown veggies and fruits, everything from corn and beans to mangoes and papayas, but in my adult life until very recently I’ve lived in apartment buildings, which makes growing anything beyond shower-curtain mold a bit challenging. Not impossible, of course, but then there has always been a decent farmers’ market in every town I’ve lived in, and that has always been sufficient to satisfy any desire I’ve had for produce that didn’t come from a thousand miles away. The thing is, I’ve never lived so close to farmland before as I do now—surrounded by it, in fact. Granted, that does not automatically engender a “when in Rome” mentality in everyone who lives here; hell, it took me nine years to get to this point (the first third or so spent making snooty-transplanted-urbanite fun of my new home “in the middle of nowhere” and telling everyone that I had lived for many years in New York City, since that was sure to awe and amaze them). But right now, I’ve finally come to accept that one key aspect of the place where I live is its connection to the land—and, that being the case, I figure I ought to be a little more willing to explore that connection on a personal level.

“Land” as an abstract idea synonymous with “home” is not something I’ve thought much about in my life. This is despite having been born and raised in Hawaii, whose state motto is all about the land: Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono. In English this means something like “The life of the land is perpetuated through righteousness,” and I think you’ll agree it sounds a lot prettier and less pompous in Hawaiian. The thing is, I’m not native Hawaiian, and while I was born there, my parents weren’t—they had, in fact, lived most of their lives elsewhere, many elsewheres. We were not people who grew roots. As soon as I finished high school, I left the islands and never looked back. I’m deeply grateful I grew up in place of such natural beauty, though at the time of course I took the whole tropical paradise thing completely for granted to the point where, like anyone who has lived the first 17 years of their life in one place, I couldn’t wait to get out. Then it was dorm rooms, apartments with roommates, apartments without roommates, better apartments, more expensive apartments, and finally an apartment I owned. Now I’m selling that apartment. Onward.

I’m not going to wax earnestly poetic about how gardening is my way of “getting back to the land.” The truth is I’m simply very practical in my choice of hobbies. Running is good for the body. Reading stimulates the mind. Cooking is necessary because eating is necessary, and, so the current corollary goes, food is necessary, hence gardening. As with any hobby, there are going to be those who nod eagerly when a fellow enthusiast goes on and on about their passion, and those who shrug and say, eh, that’s nice, not interested. (This is unless the hobby is running, in which case the “eh” becomes the ever so amusing line about not running unless chased.) Until this year, I’ve “eh’d” gardening many times myself. But for whatever reason, this year I started to wonder just what it was about gardening that made some people study seed catalogues the way the pious study the Bible. Why do they get such a charge out of it? It had to be more than the colorful racehorse-like hybrid names (Purple Dragon! Bloody Butcher! Dancing Spirits!). If they can love it so, couldn’t I? Shouldn’t I be curious enough to at least give it a try?

An adventure does not need to be a wild thing bursting with drama for which one must travel to the far corners of the planet. Some adventures are small and easily within reach. Or, rather, they appear small from the outsider’s point of view because they seem so commonplace, but to the person trying them for the first time, it’s all exciting and new. The tomato seeds I placed in little cups of dirt have just started sprouting, and while I’m not going to tell you they’re as adorable as puppies or kitties or wee baby hedgehogs, they’re still pretty darned cute. I’ve told myself to resist the temptation to take and post photos of my gardening exploits this summer (unless I get a bell pepper that looks like a Presidential candidate—I kind of feel it’s my civic duty to post that), but you can’t blame me for a few uncontrolled surges of pride and joy.

A lot of people have written on the subject of home gardening, much of it ultimately urging the reader to join the Church of the Locavore. It’s healthy! It’s ethical! It will save the planet, and, since we’re on the planet, it will save all of us in the bargain! I have nothing to add to what’s being said that will be any more persuasive, and in fact I’m not interested in preaching Green at you. At this early point in my gardening life, who knows what if anything I’ll get to show for my efforts, and even if I should be successful, who knows if after a few years I’ll become bored with it, less thrilled each spring, more inclined to see it as a chore. Right now, though, I see it mostly as an adventure, one that in this case I can experience staying put, rooted to one particular patch of land called home.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Seeking the calm

I haven’t been writing about running all that much lately, and there’s a good reason for this: it’s going really, really well. How well? I’m enjoying it. That’s how well. Oh, I’m not going particularly fast—half the time I’m not even entirely sure what pace I’m doing because my new Garmin is a bit wonky, plus sometimes I don’t bother to look at it until well after I’m finished. I’m running exactly the way I like to right now: on trails, at a relaxed pace, for a long time, by myself.

This is not always the way I’ve liked to run. There was a time when I hated trails, when I craved speed, and in particular when running was as much about being social as being fit. I think a lot of people start running because it’s an activity you can do by yourself on your own time—no need for a team or even a partner, so no need to worry that you won’t be the same level as the people you’re with. Then a surprising thing happens to some of those people: they discover the joys of running with others. Well, first they become lunatics who obsess about running, and then they find a bunch of like-minded lunatics with whom to share their obsession. No matter how much a person prizes their uniqueness and individuality—and even no matter how much of an introvert a person may be—most people have the need for some kind of social interaction. And when you find a group of people who love doing the same thing you do, it can’t help but add to the enjoyment.

Years ago when I first started training in a group, Saturday long runs quickly became the highlight of my week. Nothing else came even remotely close to the exhilaration I felt going crazy long distances with other people in pursuit of the same goal. We’d struggle together, push through together, celebrate together, and after we were done I couldn’t stop grinning until I got home, at which point I would usually burst into tears. It was over until next week, and nothing else would make me feel anything close to that high. Now, granted, I was going through some stuff back then, stuff that made every high stratospheric and every low an abyss which no light, joy, warmth, or pleasure could enter. That isn’t the case anymore, and as a result what I need—and get—from running has changed.

I run by myself for long stretches of time in part out of a need to remind myself that I’m still here. There was a time I didn’t want to be. I also run this way to remind myself that even though a lot of life is out of my control, I can still get some enjoyment from it regardless. It doesn’t have to be a stratospheric high. It can be the simple pleasure of being outside, unenclosed, your feet hitting the ground, moving you forward. Maybe this is the thing that happens to people after a certain age or after a certain amount of turmoil, whether from the outside world or from within. You seek calmness. The dramatic and the exciting are glittery baubles, but you’ve played with those baubles before, and you know in the end they’re just toys, diversions—and sometimes not nearly so benign as that.

We tend to make abstract ideas into simplistic dichotomies: you can retreat into safety, or you can go boldly forth and seek your passion. But calmness is not the same thing as safety. When you come to the point where you seek the calm, you already know the world is not a safe place. No one is fully protected from its slings and arrows. Your own mind and body can be fraught with peril. No, you aren’t trying to insulate yourself from harm, building some metaphoric wall between you and the world. You are instead perhaps building something solid and steady inside yourself. The slings and arrows may still find you but they won’t be able to go very deep.

Maybe this sounds like a dull life’s philosophy, and maybe it’s really just another “first world solution” the likes of which compels middle-aged people to take up meditation and downsize to tiny houses in the interest of supposedly pursuing a simpler life. Maybe, I don’t know; I’ll think about it while I’m doing my long run tomorrow—or not. I might just think about nothing more than continuing to move forward.