What joy comes from life’s simple lessons, neatly packaged! Aesop, you’re a real gem. Alas, we are presented more often with complex, winding teachings that unfold over months, years, lifetimes, and drive us deeper into unknowing with their sharp turns, pointy elbows, and nuance.
A February afternoon I visited the city farm of a friend I’d not seen in ten years’ time, a block or so from a subway stop in Brooklyn where the music was loud and the odor of marijuana strong, despite the freezing temperatures (may subzero conditions never bridle a joyous spirit!). It was a true winter’s garden, showing no signs of life save for the gaggle of fluffy chickens happily pecking away at feed. My friend described the vibrant community that gathered in growing seasons to contribute sweat equity, build relationships, and reap the edible treasures.
According to him, the lot stood vacant before his cohort took up rake and shovel to make it useful. More recently, well-heeled types have crept towards the neighborhood in search of new homes and playgrounds, so developers and property owners are fixing up, knocking down, and rebuilding in the hopes of attracting sales. As a result, tension has been growing over this prime real estate between the rightful, if negligent, owner and the neighbors that have tenderly attended to it, including schoolchildren, organizers, and families that can’t afford all the vegetables they require, and benefit in body and spirit from what they grow.
That tension has led to passive threats, aggressive enough to push my friend to action. During my tour, I noticed a very tall wooden pole standing at attention in the center of the farm, perhaps four or five times my height. Tied to the top were a number of ropes, each extending in a different direction, the other ends tied to points along the farm’s perimeter fence. It looked like a stressed-out maypole; less festive, more utilitarian. My friend explained that this silent soldier stands ready for drastic measures in drastic times: if the lot owner orders the plot razed and sends in bulldozers to end all this human-vegetable communing, someone will quickly climb to the top of the pole and hang on tightly. Disassembling any piece of fence will cause slack in its respective rope, which will unbalance the tension that keeps the pole erect, causing the person at the top to fall and, at least in theory, dissuade the attack. Clever! Macabre. Clever!
And this, actually, is the whole point of the story: this on-the-nose metaphor for my general state of being over the last few months. Tension has kept my life’s center pole upright for years, trussed firmly at varied lengths from its edges, each face reflecting a different locality, a collection of loved ones, and obligations to self and to others.
I traveled home to Cleveland this winter, taking the long route there and back through Addis Ababa, Bonn, New York, Washington, and Dubai. I took planes and trains and hitched rides with friends, and walked plenty. I spent a fair amount of time alone, for better and worse, and a lot of time with family and friends as well. By the middle of the trip, pondering Next Steps in light of new familial developments, I found myself at the center of a spider’s web of decisions, directions, possibilities, each requiring the sacrifice of another, and each a priority. Family, career, geography, finances, health, friendships, satisfaction of place…where they once were comfortably constructed, now they’ve become at odds. Plans well-laid begin to disintegrate, and the tension that held the centerpiece no longer holds; life starts to unravel and sway, she begins to bow in unbalance.
I search for “the answer” or perhaps more generously, “a reasonable solution,” some way to thread everything together with a single needle. I come up short. Loved ones make gestures large and small yet, to the bigger questions, they offer no panacea. I wait for the universe to force a decision, for some event that brings clarity of direction; none comes.
It occurs to me in my first moment of inner stillness in months, over a hot cup of drip coffee in Mogadishu, that perhaps I don’t need answers. Perhaps I need to find a better way to bear the questions, until the next steps emerge from the murky depths, like so many droplets of milk, poured, sunken, and rebounding from the black to the surface, lending depth and comfort to an otherwise bitter swallow.
I’m reminded of spiritual perspectives that bring solace. Frantically trying to stop the unraveling, pulling at all corners in an effort to control, tightening and bracing mind and body, I’m reminded of the fundamental principle of Islam,
A surrender without ego to the inconceivable Greater Than, a letting go, a submission unto a merciful peace, an exercise in humility. In short, a quick and practical reminder to chill out and let go.
And from the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, a reminder that so much of our suffering comes from dissatisfaction with what is, and a yearning for things to be different. Twisting desperately away from the reality just in front of you, wishing things otherwise, only causes discomfort and anxiety. In short, a quick and practical reminder to chill out and accept.
I am reminded also of the perennially-applicable one-liner from my father that climbed through the telephone so many years ago, slid into my ear and took up a cocoon somewhere in my mind, emerging during moments of utter distress: Do not be afraid. Brilliantly, this is relevant for a variety of scenarios from tax audits to UFO abductions to job interviews, and I mull it over often.
And per the creed of Cambridge: when a piece of knitted or woven cloth, a knot, or a mass of thread unravels, it separates into a single thread. Perhaps that’s an easier way to look at this process of questions, answers, emerging priorities: not as a falling apart, but as a paring down, a reduction to a single, unbound thread, from which to weave again.
I don’t need the old cloth anymore, nor its patterns of tension and give that made it wearable for so long; I need only the one thread to weave again something new.
Photos from Bonn, Cologne, Brooklyn, Cleveland, Dubai.
If you’d like to support Bushwick City Farm, check out this link, with options to adopt a chicken, name a planter, or host an event.