Inside Autumn’s Spell

Photo: Erica Bloom

I am inside autumn’s spell today.

The season has crept over me this year, and now in mid-October I am immersed in its full body aroma. The way the rustic yellow leaves smell of a burnt sweetness reminds me of my10 year-old self slideslipping into a giant pile of crunching crimson leaves. Today, I shuffled my feet along the sidewalk and listened for the familiar swish and swirl of fallen leaves. The Norway Maple is showing off again. Her low hanging branches sweep gold against the backdrop of a sliced blue sky. The tree canopy across the street is ablaze with fire stained leaves. When the wind blows, the leaves lift from the ground like a flock of startled birds.

If you take careful notice when a leaf begins its color change, you will see patterns emerge. Each leaf is distinct in its design and color. The veins are suddenly exposed like sutures, stitching up the leaf face. One particular leaf has raised red veins like tributaries running into rivers. Another is curling at the tips like an old watercolor painting, the color of honey bleeding into green. Wet from last night’s rain, the leaves imprint the pavement. In winter, trees stop producing chlorophyll because there is not enough light energy from the sun. When this process slows, pigments that have been in the leaf cell all along, the yellows and oranges of carotenoids and the red in anthocyanins are unmasked, and the leaf shows its hidden colors. Warm sunny days and freezing nights make for the best exhibition of color.

Winter is coming and deciduous trees protect their leaves by releasing them to the wind. These leaves, like paper cutouts, are too tender, too fragile, to live through a winter of snow and ice. Their fluid is a thin, watery sap that would freeze in such harsh conditions. The mother tree knows the rules of release, and when the time is right she sets free hundreds of her children. What an exhilarating moment for a leaf, to be exposed to the wild world in a flurry of unknown events–to literally be carried into the wind with no determination or want. This is the course of life. But this is neither the beginning nor the end of life for a wandering leaf. It will fall to the ground and decompose, nourishing the soil with nutrients that in turn feed the tree it fell from. There is purpose here in leaf litter; to decay is to give life. Today, the leaves have quilted together in my yard, like a blanket on fire, warming the near frozen soil beneath. Here we see nature’s cyclic beauty feeding and protecting itself–teaching us the rules to this life.

How do we know this season autumn? If we view falling and decaying leaves as precursors to wintery gloom and death, then we are truly out of step with nature’s cycles. That fresh wet smell of decay is the beginning of life, not the end. Fall is fierce with change, and its dramatic dance with color is testament that it and we are alive.

 

 

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Does Love Really know No Boundaries? The Movie “Her” Takes the Question One Step Further

Theodore whispers to Samantha, “I think I’m falling in love with you.” He points her in the direction he’s looking, an ocean sunset and asks what she thinks. She answers with a drawing. He stares into her screen. They giggle. The room darkens; sex ensues, of what kind exactly one can’t be sure. I watch the scene and a thought unlike any other I’ve had floats across my mind—exactly how does one have sex with one’s mobile operating system?

With that question pulsating throughout the film, Spike Jonze’s Her proves to be one of the best romance films in our modern era. The film follows melancholic, not-over-his-ex-wife, Theodore, gorgeously played by Joaquin Pheonix, as he stumbles through the modern mysterious of dating his new operating system. In a sort of science fiction meets romantic comedy, Her explores traditional dilemmas of first dates jitters, supportive friendships, and heartbreak against the backdrop of a rather atypical relationship, at least to us old fashioned human to human romancers of the past. But what makes the film so special is that Jonze doesn’t seem as interested in commenting on an imagined future where dating your OS is possible as he does questioning what it means to romance “the other,” the one who isn’t like the rest of us. In Jonze’s future we’ll all cross the border of human and computer, that the lines will blur and eventually robot dating will be a social norm. Yet, it’s hardly a stretch to think of these parallels in present society–the othering of race, gender, and religion to name a few.

Scarlett  Johansson, as Samantha, the sultry, playful voice behind the screen evolves into something more humanlike the more she gets to know Theodore. Unable to understand her own metamorphosis of emotions and thoughts, Samantha questions her relationship with Theodore and even her role as a simple OS. Throughout this period of self analysis she finds other operating systems facing similar challenges and they begin to organize what appears to be self-help groups. It’s a brave new world for Theodore and Samantha who, despite an increasingly accepting culture, can’t help but navigate the new murky terrain of falling in love with “the other.” Exemplifying this is a scene featuring Theodore’s ex-wife who is downright disgusted with his inadequacy to love another human that he would stoop to falling in love with his computer.

For me, the real questions this film raises goes deeper than just what is our technology obsessed culture going to evolve into. The idea that some of us might already be getting dirty to the sound of Siri’s voice seems less shocking than inevitable. Truly, at the film’s core is a love story within a sort of civil rights movement, a conflicted relationship challenging the norm. So what if the love of your life has no body to speak of, if you’re happy despite that then by all means find the best sexual position that works for you. Within Samantha’s organizing, Theodore’s guilt trips, and his ex-wife’s belittle, I can’t help but think of relationships today struggling for equal rights–bi-racial, gay, intercultural–and swimming upstream against the proverbial societal current.

My only critique of the film is that Jonze’s imagined future, the one where everyone is dressed in monochromatic colors and speaks to a headset in their ear, is certainty an idealized version of the next 50 years. The world of tomorrow is severely clean, consistently partly sunny, and looks expensive. It’s clearly a very narrow view of a wealthy white male’s future while making no effort to scan what the rest of the world might be operating within or against. Sure, that’s not the film’s intent, but one notices these things anyway. Still, the film was provocative and dreamy enough to win me over; as for my own technology obsessed habits, let’s just say my i-phone and I won’t be sharing nuptials any time soon.

What we Saved

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Before the hail hit and the storm set us running,
we arched over the tomato vines,
squinting hard against the mid-day sun. But we knew

that green and grey sky, still miles away, was sailing in like a long whistle out from sea.
The farmer and I, we dug fast into the soil—soft as chocolate cake—
and we pretended to believe

that the storm might pass us over. Because we smelled of wet Earth and sweat, and the sun still kissed at our hands, our necks, our backs,

we thought our hopes out loud; that maybe the calm of the afternoon would keep on calm, and that we could keep on planting forever.

It wasn’t long before the first drop fell. Plopped down
on someone’s head like a warped water balloon.
Most of the tomatoes still alert in their black trays, heads to the sky,
wanting to prove resistance.

Toward the shed we buried our face against the wind and rain,
and from across the field someone hollered, Grab the tomatoes.
And the sky cracked open, and the slanted rain turned to ice.

So we turned around and grabbed the trays,
Stacking them against the shed.
Saving whatever we could.

By the time we got inside the hail came down the size of walnuts
thuds against tin roof, heavy and hard.

And we huddled in clumps; crossed arms over chests, chins into necks, and someone, must have been the farmer,
passed around a half-frozen slab of sausage
and told stories about the weather:

The heat waves and the rains; the frosts and the fires.

We waited it out. Sat on cold folding chairs, not sure what to do,
wondering if we should just go on home.

Looked like the grey of the sky would keep on grey, and that we would wait forever.

Half hour later, and still a mood. We looked around
and tried a few jokes, some of us watched the sky,
others of us paced the shed.

Then, just when the last of the sausage had been passed around, and the conversation began to thin, someone yelled look and pointed up.
Beyond the solid shelfline of clouds we saw something familiar.
A tired yellowing, sweeping slow toward our field.

So we loaded up the wheelbarrow with those saved tomatoes.
We went back without fear that the wind would appear,
or we would have another green grey run toward the shed.

It was as if the storm never came, sun beat down sweat against arms,
smelling as sweet as the rind of any watermelon.

We knew for now, all we were suppose to do
was keep on planting in that warm row of soil;
in that soil we could keep on planting forever.

Eggplant

Avocado because I can slide my knife through its leathery skin and into its green belly, like how my friend had an emergency C-section, and they sliced open her uterus to lift up her baby into the world, his head the shape of a perfectly round grapefruit. Grapefruit because its flesh reminds me of my inner thighs after a hot shower. I happened to have a hot shower yesterday while I meditated on the things I have control over and the things I must thrust into the sky and let go indefinitely. Mushrooms because they can be hunted in the woods, and because they are spongy and sorta bob on the surface of things. The one and only time I shot a gun was on the beach of Lake Huron where I took aim at a Coors Light can. The gun was much heavier than I had expected, and I imagined the weight of the barrel seemed like a lot to hold for the young men and women (none of which I admit I personally know) of our country sent off to fight that war, or that war, or this war.  Dried beans because they are still naive and individual and have rights and stuff, like some Americans who tell the government not to infringe on their property, and then insist what I can and cannot do with my own property that, by the way, can grow life. But my absolute favorite food is an eggplant because its deep blackpurple skin is like a fresh bruise after a punch, and when I cut into a raw eggplant I feel the toughness of this skin peel open and unfurl into pieces of uncertainty and pain and lives so messy with heartbreak and fear that when I open up it’s innards and see the seeds nestled in and the wise yellowing of it’s meaty flesh primed for the grill, I pause, and remember the deliciousness of it all anyway.

Last winter I went through a difficult time where I couldn’t sleep. Being an insomniac meant getting familiar with the subtle night sounds and blinking lights around my house: the humming of the fridge; the glow of the oven clock, the occasional yell from a drunk kid walking home. As the sleeplessness progressed, the knot in my chest tightened. The fatigue turned my mind into a dim fog of itself and the knot was diagnosed as situational anxiety. I started to question whether I was capable of meeting any of the goals on my long “Life To-Do” list. My only goal was to sleep.

Every weekday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm (and let’s be honest, more than that) I am a “professional environmentalist” fighting to curb climate change and promote cleaner energy; I sit on conference calls, respond to e-mail threads, speak up in meetings, and create PowerPoints. This is honest work. Hard work. Mostly thankless and bad-for-my-posture work, but work that I believe in nonetheless. The work itself wasn’t so much the source of my anxiety, but rather the thought that nothing I did was ever going to be enough. I felt utterly overwhelmed with how much I wanted to accomplish, and blocked with the fear that I wouldn’t–didn’t– have the time or energy to become the activist, writer, gardner, mother,partner, dog owner person I hoped to be one day.

*

Stamina is not something I’ve encountered as a lively discussion point amongst my peers and colleagues; more often we’re contemplating the next crisis to address in the midst of writing grant applications and reports. As much as the principles of sustainability anchors our work, the term “burn-out” is commonly referenced as the inevitable path for young professionals of my generation doing work within NGOs on behalf of social and environmental causes. How ironic to find myself in a field that requires so much passion, sacrifice and knowledge of ecological balances and limits yet hardly creates space to pause and consider our own human limits and methods of self-preservation. If I am not able to sustain myself for a lifetime of this work, who on Earth will? Certainly not a bunch of burned out environmentalists who wish they were sleeping instead of staring up at the ceiling with the light still off (to save energy of course).

In Psychology Tomorrow Magazine, journalist and mediation teacher Jeff Warren writes about climate suffering. This particular suffering doesn’t seek to describe how more frequent drastic weather and warming temperatures physically impact humans. Instead, he insists the repetitive facts and horror images of climate change often overwhelms people into exhaustion and cynicism. This is felt by everyone who lives and breathes the facts of climate change, but particularly affects driven and ambitious people–not surprisingly the type of people who would identify as climate activists. A burned out brain has high levels of the stress hormone cortisol and lower frontal lobe activity resulting in less executive functioning and decision making. Fortunately, the brain is a malleable, adoptable piece of machinery and just as the brain can become stressed when confronted with insurmountable stress, it can regain balance if given the opportunity.

*

Lately, in the mornings, before showering and breakfast, I hold sacred time for myself. I look out the Easterly facing window to gauge the sun and weather, light a candle, turn on the tea kettle, and sit cross-legged on the floor to mediate. Often the light is a simple grey blue and my breathe is all I hear in the slim hours of morning. I do this ritual as a check-in with myself in order to sense any physical or emotional tension brewing. Thoughts always come and some mornings I follow the trail for minutes, but on days when I can let the storytelling go, and simply follow the trail of air that lifts into my nose, dives into my lungs, and releases out my mouth I can find a few heartbeats of calm.

Buddhists talk about the art of letting go. True meditation isn’t about trying to become something better, or stopping all thoughts, but rather a practice of befriending who we already are, and the letting go is simply releasing the resistance of who we think we should be and the thoughts that affirm those beliefs. Pema Chodron describes “on the spot tonglen” a breathing method for dropping the storyline and cultivating compassion for ourselves and even others we dislike. Chodron, an American Buddhist nun and author of several books, including Comfortable with Uncertainty, encourages students and readers to relax with the notion that all things are fleeting and changing.

She insists there is time–even amidst my generation’s greatest ecological disasters–to simply pause inside a single breathe. Perhaps the most non-selfish thing an activist can do for the climate change movement (and arguably any social justice movement) is to live gracefully for our own self-preservation with the compassion that we deserve. Judging where our lives should be going, or feeling guilt or shame because we haven’t reached our ideal selves is the root of suffering. Through my own mediative practice I’ve started to untangle the knot, the clamp of self-talk, and refocus my energy on the person I am in this very moment. I don’t pretend that this is easy, but the alternative is starting to seem less and less like an option.

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A body, with all it’s blood, heart, nerves, muscle and bone, is its own ecosystem, and as such goes through periods of ebb and flow in sickness and health. Sustainability as a concept understands this ebb and flow, these periods of disruption, in fact thrives on changes in environmental conditions if–and that is a big if–an ecosystem can find equilibrium again. Without regular ground fires, for example, many forests cannot keep brush and young trees in check and are more susceptible to destructive wildfires. I argue that climate activists (and all humans for that matter) are comparable to forests in that we need to spend time clearing out the underbrush of our minds, the worries and fears, the self judgement and the loathing. This practice is to build stamina for ourselves and the environmental movement.

Grace Lee Boggs, American revolutionist and one of Detroit’s most prominent change makers puts it like this: “To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/spiritual leap and become more ‘human’ human beings. In order to change/transform the world, they must change/transform themselves.” Grace Lee Boggs herself went through tremendous philosophical perspective shifts in her life. From a radical Marxist to a vegetable growing community organizer, Boggs never got stuck in believing she was just one type of person or activist; she allowed herself to transform. At 98 years old she continues to write, speak publicly, hold interviews and organize. If that’s not stamina, I don’t know what is.

When it comes down to it, saving the planet, so to speak, starts with our own emotional and bodily ecosystems. A simple breath, a pause. And a release.