Creative Spaces

This week I spent most of the week driving around Illinois for the solar eclipse, celebrating my wedding anniversary, and also putting my work space together.

Over the last three days I’ve spent about 20 hours setting up my work space, my classroom. Every year in the late summer the room starts as a fairly blank canvas, all the furniture needs to be moved around, books and materials need to unearthed and a place found for them. Lots of thinking and rehearsing and trial and error goes into all of this; it’s not just about how I’d like the space to look and feel, but how 30 kids will like it, how they’ll feel in the space. I think about whether the placement of something is intuitive, too high, too far away, if a walking path is clear and uncluttered, if a rug’s location looks inviting, if I will be able to reach for something easily or I’ll have to hang over the side of a desk or bookshelf to get there, if the afternoon light will be too bright on a desk, if the room will be too gloomy on a cloudy day, if there’s a comfortable place for me to sit when I’m alone working, if there’s an obvious place for me to gather with groups.


The room in its before state. There’s no after picture just yet.

Is all this necessary? No, not really, and I don’t mind. But I used to mind. Every August I’d start to dread going back to school. It’s not fair, I used to think. I’m not getting paid for all this work, all these free hours. But something this summer shifted. I’ve realized — embraced, really — the fact that even this kind of work — moving books and hauling furniture — is creative. I’m creating a space that will stage all kinds of further manifestations of creativity:  ideas, discussions, projects, posters, friendships, experiments, and more cycles of trial and error. This time of year is my chance to create and curate another part of myself — the physical space that hosts my professional life. So I go back to work knowing that creativity has many faces, that I can let go a little more, and get lost inside my creative process in an old space that, this time around, is feeling brand new.

The Home Garden as Revolution

So last week I essentially glossed over my ideas about how and why I’ve been distanced from my food source. There’s a lot in those few sentences that can be unraveled.

First of all, I believe that through our specialization — particularly the kind of ultra-specialization that we have in our society in present time — each of us as individuals can easily lose sight of the whole and our place in it. I live in an urban setting, Chicago, and I do not have to see where any of my essentials come from, be it food, clothing, shelter, even toiletries or entertainment goods — unless I go out of my way to research, which let’s face it, would probably be online. As a result, I can get further and further into my own rabbit hole, focusing on manufactured problems and topics, like sports, celebrities, fashion, online personalities. You’re online right now reading a blog, so I’m sure you know exactly what I mean. However, when I stop to think about the underlying, root cause of all this, the main thing that I come back to over and over is money, and particularly creating false desires.

Think about it:  from the day you were born, you’ve been getting messages on who to be, what to have, and how to get there. Some of those messages are from your usual trusted sources, like family members who are invested in your health and well-being. But a huge amount of those messages are coming from marketers whose job is to sell you something — even if you’re not old enough to have a job and use your own money — you’re being sold a thing, an idea, a solution to your problems. But I don’t have problems, you say. Sure, but the way that so many products are sold is through implying that you can be more than what you are right now, and don’t you want more? Isn’t it a problem that you aren’t now what you could be, if you just had a little more? Be happier, healthier, stronger, fitter, cooler, richer, more than whoever you are and whatever you have right now. Our brains are inclined to problem solve, and marketing messages tap into that.

Once that level of desire is set in motion, and it’s not examined from time to time, it’s a cycle that carries on and on, maybe with no end. And to satisfy these desires, to solve these problems, to become better, we need money. To get money, we need to work. As workers, most of us are in industrialized, specialized work. And I know the word industrialized usually brings up images of factory lines, heavy machinery, all that. But it doesn’t have to. Most of us have jobs that do not see a task through from start to finish. Doctors are specialized to an organ of the body or a type of cancer. Mechanics are specialized to the type of car or car part. Engineers are specialized to the type of materials or scale of project. I’m not saying that your family doctor should perform your root canal or a civil engineer should design a NASA rocket, but there’s something to be said for seeing a task through from start to finish — how it all works, from small to big and from big to small.


What does all this have to do with having a garden? Well, the way I see it, when I’m pulled away from what I believe to be my more essential state — a living thing who inhabits a living body on a living planet — it’s easy to become lost in wanting stupid shit that I’d never want or care about in the first place. When I’m in what I believe is a more essential state for me — a humbled human who tries to live in communion with her planet, who tries to respect other living things, who strives only to take what is needed and leave the rest, who works to harmonize information about her past with her present experiences and future wishes, who wants to live joyfully and timelessly — there’s nothing that can be sold to me. All the shit in the sale bin seems unnecessary, a useless and distracting trifle that keeps me from living and being.

So the garden reminds me of that. It keeps me accountable and grounded to my experience on this planet. The plants remind me that everything takes time, patience will be rewarded. The plants’ signals teach me to be reliable and to be present everyday, to be observant of changes, no matter how small. The little critters that surround the plants, crawling, flying, hopping, burrowing, teach me tolerance up to a certain point, and then how to take decisive action. The air and light touching the plants remind me to appreciate fleeting moments and to meet all types of days, sunny, rainy, cloudy, with openness to possibility and surprise. And the garden shows me, very directly, where my food comes from, how long it takes to grow to maturity, and the distances it may need to travel before reaching my plate — that wanting more is not necessary. I have more than enough.

And the revolution comes with knowing these lessons. Because being alert and cognizant of where things come from may change our outlooks on life, on consuming, on having more and being more, on buying and working for the money to get more. The revolution is personal — and can seem small — but it can grow big. The revolution is in having the awareness of the whole, having the awareness of the external demands for us to feel less than whole and to buy something to fix it. The revolution starts when those feelings and tendencies are recognized and instead of falling prey to blind buying or unconscious consuming we pull back, see the game, gently put it to the side, and step out into our gardens to marvel at the powerful earth and our place in it.

Basil & Being on Earth

IMG_3126Years ago a friend and I planned to make caprese sandwiches. You probably know the one:  crusty bread and soft, white mozzarella, slices of tomato, a splash of balsamic vinegar, and a few basil leaves. I’d been growing a basil plant all summer, so I happily offered to bring some over to his place. Once I arrived and put the fragrant, green leaves on display he asked where the rest of it was. The rest? It took a lot out of me to cut off the six or so leaves that I brought. How much basil did he want? He laughed and it all worked out in the end, but that basil — and particularly how I treated it — has been something I’ve turned over in my mind ever since.

Since birth, we humans — at least the ones brought up in a Western culture — are taught to think that we are better than everything else, better than the rest of nature. When we are asked to describe or picture nature, there’s nature out there — animals and plants and maybe even whole habitats or ecosystems — and then over here we have humans. They are separate. And even in their separation, humans are on top of the pyramid, at the center of the circle, in control, stewards, captains of the ship. And throughout history we have selected certain species to accompany us outside nature, our domesticated species like livestock, but also our pets, our cats and dogs, and apparently even our plants. And I realize now that much like a specially loved cat our dog, I had been treating my basil plant like a pet. I wasn’t really treating it like a plant that had a natural or biological function. Because when the time came for me to use it as food — rather than as a green companion — I struggled. I didn’t want to hurt the plant, to affect its future growth, to mar its beauty. And again, that makes me question. Why?

As a person born and raised in an urban setting, I have never been close to my food source. The closest I’ve come is farmers markets on the weekend or apple picking in the fall. Other than that I can live in a world where I don’t come into contact with any of humanity’s working and domesticated species:  wheat, corn, orchard trees, dairy cows, the list goes on. And this distant relationship further supports my identity as superior to the nature that is out there as well as my patronizing attitude towards our domesticated species. However, humans are not separate from nature. We are a part of nature. Every human settlement is part of an environment, an ecosystem, and every human body is a singular instance of biology working its way through a day and life by interacting with other biological species. Time and again I’ve seen examples in books like The Wild Life of our Bodies and in videos like the one about the Yellowstone wolves, we’re never alone, a singular and independent entity. We’re all in this together.

So if humans collectively realized that we are not separate from nature — there is no reason to pretend that we are not a part of this planet — and that the hierarchy of species is a man-made invention, then what? Where would that put us?

We’d be down in the web with every other living thing, lowered to their status — or conversely, all living things would be raised to our status. And that leveling off of the hierarchy, that ending of the master over nature narrative, would ask more of us because we wouldn’t be thinking of only ourselves, our comfort and preferences, the continuance of our habits to the detriment of all else. But we’d be thinking of the earth’s plants and animals as our supporters and workmates, living alongside us striving as much as we are to thrive and grow. And we might start to think how do my actions affect the whole? rather than how can I feel best or get what I want now? And I imagine for myself and for many others we’d start to realign our attitudes, our thoughts, our behaviors, even our purchases and how we spend our time, to a different set of values — values that would question the conditioning we’ve experienced to buy and consume almost nonstop, values that would question assumptions about what is enough, values that would question the ethics behind what goes into the production of much of what we buy. Because if I hold a plant or an animal in equal esteem with myself, if I see it as an equal contributor to my health and happiness, and the continuation of a healthy planet overall, then that changes everything, doesn’t it? And the I hope that the next time I clip a few leaves of basil off my plant, savor a chunk of creamy mozzarella, or rip off a chunk of bread from the loaf that I’m not just eating to eat, but I’m aware that my actions place in the web of life as a thankful and shrewd coconspirator in Earth’s continuing abundance.

The first blog post: seeds & Ai Weiwei

How exciting, everyone! This is it — the first post. It’s taken me a while to get here. But you know, after I sat through an open mic on a Friday night and witnessed a woman unabashedly singing along off-key to a YouTube video — and everyone applauding her efforts afterwards — I realized writing a few thoughts on the internet shouldn’t be that big of a deal. I had been setting the bar much too high. At least when it came to singing at open mics, I guess.

Either way, I’m here to think some thoughts and write them down and share them with you, mostly regarding Chicago, my hometown, nature, culture, and food — both eating and making. So let’s get started with some thoughts, some cultural thoughts and a quote about seeds.

The seed is a household object but at the same time it is a revolutionary symbol. 

Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist who risked his life to criticize the Communist Chinese government, said these words. How simple, and how true. A seed, a sometimes tiny, sometimes large, but often seemingly lifeless thing much like a pebble or a speck of dust, can be easily overlooked, ignored, underestimated. But with a little sun and a sprinkling of water and a small foothold these creatures — dormant and patient  — come to life. Seeds turn into plants that can flourish almost anywhere. Seeds hitch rides on animal fur, the wind, inside birds that poop them out miles away. Think about that — seeds can live through digestion, being encased in shit, and falling from the sky. And I know you’ve seen some sort of unnamed, spiky-leafed plant growing practically upside down and sideways from a crack in a wall. Even coconuts, those fat-headed bowling ball looking things, fall off the tree, roll into the water, float for days or even months, and wash up on foreign lands to grow and begin a new colony.

Once seeds sprout their power is more obvious. Vines climb over buildings. Flowers become fruit that feed nations. Leaves and roots heal ills. Trees can crush cement with their roots. How beautiful and marvelous and terrifying.

But what does that mean for you? For us? If a seed, a tiny, defenseless, dormant and patient seed, can leap tall buildings and crush rocks and survive free falls to earth with just the tiniest encouragement, then what do we need to flourish? When is it time to end our dormancy, to take in the sun and water and to stand on the small foothold waiting nearby, to start the revolution, first within and then who knows?