Labors of Love

Recently I visited my sister Jill in coastal Alabama. I had not seen her well-ordered home in several years, and on that first morning, while everyone else was still sleeping, I padded through the kitchen, living area, office and screen room, studying the furniture and artwork, smiling over my sister’s choices. I was struck by the quiet beauty of her home, how perfectly it reflects her personality.

The same can be said about my other sisters. Joan lives in rural Georgia. Her yard is filled with flowers, fruit trees and vines, and an endless procession of herbs and vegetables, the bounty of which she brings into her house. Her counters, lavish with gifts from the garden, demonstrate her reverence for Mother Earth and the respect she gives all living things regardless of their performance. Jane wound up in a small Texas town. She also grows food in abundance, which she cans or freezes or gives away, but even larger than her garden is her wide-open heart. Her home is a refuge for strays cats, abandoned dogs and people who drop by for her wit and warmth. If it’s acceptance you want, you will find it at Jane’s.

I suppose my own property furnishes clues about me. I live in a tri-level home in the suburbs, a relatively stable environment with a tidy yard. I too have a vegetable garden—well, two raised beds—and shrubs and flowers that please me. Less forgiving than Joan, I cannot abide ruin and will readily replace the underachievers. As for my furnishings, they are on the spare side, a preference echoed in the sort of writing I favor: lean, direct, distilled.

While our habitats may differ, they all require one common element: care. We put effort into the spaces we live in.

Many animals take pains in this regard, and on a far grander scale, though what their homes say about them is anyone’s guess. Why, for instance, would a ten-inch wood rat build a stick nest more than three meters high? Even more perplexing is the décor. Again and again this creature will venture into attics or sheds or car engines, seizing whatever shiny treasures catch its eye. Also called a pack rat or trade rat, it will frequently drop the first item in favor of another. These objects offer no discernible benefit, and who can say why the rat insists on them, or why it needs such a massive home.

Male bowerbirds spend up to ten months a year constructing their elaborate nests. The type of bower depends on the species, but all are impressive, involving hundreds of carefully placed sticks. Following the construction phase, some of the males will use their beaks to paint the inside walls with plant juices. After this, the birds begin to decorate, gathering whatever strikes their fancy: moss, berries, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones. Manmade items are also employed: batteries, coins, nails, rifle shells, pieces of glass, strips of cellophane. Color is important. Some bowerbirds favor blue tones, while others prefer white or orange. Work is never quite finished; the birds spend weeks rearranging their riches and adding more. These sylvan palaces are designed to attract mates, but many never do, and you have to marvel at the undaunted losers whose labor and artistry go unappreciated, year after year.

And then there’s the octopus, one of earth’s most elusive and mysterious creatures. The octopus is a nocturnal animal and spends much of its life tucked inside a den. The den itself is small and not occupied for long, but for reasons no one can fathom the octopus is compelled to adorn its temporary front yard with a bewildering assortment of items, everything from lustrous shells to old boots—basically whatever has fallen to the sea floor. When a diver spots these odd collections, he knows there’s an octopus nearby. Considering how secretive these creatures are, their penchant for embellishment makes no sense.

Depending on your circumstances, you can live your whole life without much effort. Effort, like knowledge, is an option. If you have special skills or talents, no one will force you to use them. You can consider your home little more than a shelter and forgo any enhancements. We all die empty-handed anyway.

Despite evidence to the contrary, I think labor is always rewarded. Effort is a gift we offer ourselves. Every picture we hang, every seed we plant, every shelf we dust, is an expression of love, and the more we attend to, the richer our lives become. You can live without love of course, many people do. That’s the biggest mystery of all.
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Photo credit: 0ystercatcher / Source / CC BY-NC-SA

Helping Honey Bees

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President Obama has just created a task force to research the alarming problem of honey bee deaths, commonly referred to as colony collapse disorder. The Pollinator Health Task Force is charged with addressing issues surrounding the plight of honey bees and other important pollinators such as monarch butterflies.

Better late than never. Maybe. Meanwhile various environmental groups are filing suit against CA’s Department of Pesticide Regulation for continuing to approve neonicotinoids, a group of seven chemicals which are highly toxic to honey bees.

As we cannot count on corrupt politicians to stop the manufacture of these products, we must do it ourselves by not buying them. Here is a list of pesticides to avoid. For more information, please visit the Xerces Society.

Examples of Neonicotinoid Garden Products Used in the United States

Bayer Advanced 3-in-1 Insect, Disease, & Mite Control

Bayer Advanced 12 Month Tree & Shrub Insect Control

Bayer Advanced 12 Month Tree & Shrub Protect & Feed

Bayer Advanced Fruit, Citrus & Vegetable Insect Control

Bayer Advanced All-in-One Rose & Flower Care concentrate

DIY Tree Care Products Multi-Insect Killer

Ferti-lome 2-N-1 Systemic

Hi-Yield Systemic Insect Spray

Knockout Ready-To-Use Grub Killer

Monterey Once a Year Insect Control II

Ortho Bug B Gon Year-Long Tree & Shrub Insect Control

Ortho MAX Tree & Shrub Insect Control

Surrender Brand GrubZ Out

Clothianidin Granules for turf, and ornamental flowers, shrubs, or trees. Bayer Advanced All-in-One Rose & Flower Care granules
Green Light Grub Control with Arena

Thiamethoxam Foliar spray for turf and ornamental flowers, trees, and shrubs; granules for turf and ornmanetal flowers, trees, and shrubs. Amdro Quick Kill Lawn & Landscape Insect Killer
Amdro Rose & Flower Care

Maxide Dual Action Insect Killer

Acetamiprid Foliar spray for garden fruits and vegetables, and ornamental flowers, trees, and shrubs. Ortho Bug B Gon Garden Insect Killer
Ortho Bug B Gon for Lawns

Ortho Flower, Fruit and Vegetable Insect Killer

Ortho Rose and Flower Insect Killer

Ortho Rose Pride Insect Killer

Dinotefuran Granules for turf and ornamental flowers, shrubs or trees; soil drench for ornamental flowers, trees, and shrubs. Green Light Tree & Shrub Insect Control with Safari 2 G
Safari

Ortho Tree & Shrub Insect Control Plus Miracle Gro Plant Food

First, Do No Harm

Memory. It’s a tricky thing. I’m not talking so much about our short-term memories: where are my keys? what did I come in this room for? I’m referring to long-term recollections, those shape-shifting phantoms that cannot be validated. When I get together with my sisters, we will inevitably discuss an event from our past, each of us spackling in what we remember until a revised sketch emerges. Our memories of these episodes are often incompatible, which should no longer surprise us, but does. At last, reluctantly, we allow these collaborative versions, figuring the truth is in there somewhere.

In the beginning of her book CAT’S EYE, Margaret Atwood compares time to “…a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of the other. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that…”  What a perfect description of memory: a still, fecund pond with murky green water. In near constant succession, images float into view, displacing those around them before sinking back down. Because none of us sees the world the same way, my pictures do not look like your pictures, and what is real for me is not real for you. Each one of us is walking around with a cache of fluid memories from which we derive our identity. Who we are is what we remember.

It’s a flimsy arrangement for sure, and little wonder so many of us flock to therapy, desperate for clues to ourselves. The blurred, random images that represent our lives are not sufficient; we want verification, confirmation, something more solid to stand on than the squishy bottom of a pond. Surely a trained professional knows more about us than we know, can tell us what is wrong with our pictures and lead us out of the mire.

I recently watched a video about the fragility of our minds and how easily our memories can be corrupted, either by natural causes, like stress and aging, or by the intervention of others, specifically therapists. In some cases, I can see the value of dislodging troubling memories; indeed we probably all have painful memories we wish we could break free of. Good therapists are born healers, and I have talked to several people who are endlessly grateful for the treatment they received. Other folks have told me that therapy did not help them at all, and some even regret their sessions, claiming that therapy only made them feel worse. One woman told me she felt lost afterward, unrecognizable to others and a stranger to herself.

Our ability to remember is what enables us to learn: we need our memories to keep us alive and comforted, and to remind us where we are in this world. There are many therapists out there. The best ones, aware of their extraordinary responsibility, proceed with caution and compassion.

The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of

Fascinating though they may be, dreams are not very interesting, particularly someone else’s. Dreams begin to break apart as soon as we wake; within seconds we cannot trust our own minds. In trying to resurrect these fleeting visions, we impose a logic on them they didn’t have. We know this; we acknowledge the futility. If we cannot properly reconstruct our own dreams, how can we hope to fathom the accumulation of images that form in the sleeping mind of someone else?

And what’s the point anyway? Even if we do manage to hang onto an especially vivid dream, or momentarily apprehend another’s, how are we benefited? There are folks who firmly believe that dreams are symbolic events that inform and instruct their waking lives. There are those who claim to have lucid dreams in which they posit themselves as tillermen. An acquaintance of mine professes to experience only sweet dreams. Lucky her. While a few of my dreams are pleasant, most are not. Most of my dreams are bizarre forays into a carnival world, sometimes frightening, often frustrating.

From what I can gather, this latter category—maddening dreams—are the most common. For some reason, most of us, most of the time, have dreams in which we are thwarted. The thing we want, the place we need to get to, keeps receding. Obstacles, silly pointless obstacles, repeatedly get in our way. Often we can’t move, or we can’t move fast enough. Our car stalls; we need our clothes and can’t find them. Strategies fail us. Friends and lovers betray us. We are left on our own.

Joy Williams provides what I consider a perfect description of dreams in her story, “Craving.” The point of view is from Denise, one of the two main characters: “She didn’t like dreams. Dreams made you live alone in the future and she didn’t want to…” That bullying aspect is what I most resent about dreams. The dream gets to choose, not the dreamer. And the place you find yourself in, that future world, offers no reassurances, no clear path—stumble this way or that, it makes no difference. Try as I may to relax before nodding off, to place myself on white sand beaches or stunning mountaintops, I wind up in some grainy labyrinth impossibly far from Eden, and as I wander through this land of smoke and mirrors I somehow believe everything I see.

Awake or asleep, our minds create the reality we experience. When we are dreaming, electrical impulses in the neocortex produce a stream of impressions without any input from the senses. Deep in sleep, we can behold a python, touch a starfish, hear a banjo, smell gasoline and taste a strip of bacon. While this realm exists without our permission and beyond our control, it is as genuine as the world we wake to. Children know their dreams are real, which is why they are terrified of them. Soothed by a parent, a child will drift reluctantly, warily, back to sleep, will surrender himself each night to this limitless unknown. Children are brave beings.

Spiritual leaders tell us that we have no limits, that understanding this basic truth is what will finally free us. I do agree that fear is our biggest problem—our lives are cramped by fear. While sleep is a domain without borders, a place where we can do or be anything, it is also an abyss, a world through which we must free fall. Sleep lets us off our leashes; waking, we gladly put them back on. Maybe the reason we dream is to build the courage we need to face each day. Ready or not, I’m always up before the sun.