The Achiever on Vacation

As an Achiever (see previous blog post for details) vacations can be hard on me. Sometimes space opens up and the clouds lift and I’m able to just be, to just relax. More often that doesn’t happen, or happen for very long, and I’m back to thinking, “What have I even done on this break?” Because, you  know, how can you lord over someone how relaxed you are — there’s no winning in that, you’re too relaxed!

That said, one good way for an Achiever to find a little balance is by reframing their achievements and focusing on the achievements in a non-work task or activity. So for this winter break I wanted to accomplish the following:  1. Read everyday, 2. Exercise six times (yes that’s very specific — but trust me — complex calculations took place before deciding on six), and 3. Be in the moment at least once a day.

I’m happy to say that I’m well on my way to achieving the crap out of this vacation. And to celebrate, I’m going to list a few of my smaller accomplishments.

  • Watched the entire Twilight series over the course of two days — eventually my eyes started to hurt but it felt good to just sit and revel in a guilty pleasure
  • Sat in a cafe and read The Sun cover to cover — so good!
  • Played Let’s Go Fishin’ with family members on Christmas Eve — things got intense with the grown ups
  • Tried a new recipe for Christmas Day — delish!
  • Yoga with one of my favorite teachers and spent 99% of the class just enjoying it — normally my mind is in 110 places at once
  • Glow in the dark mini-golf with some hilarious kids, oh, and some PacMan and Skee-Ball and that silly drop the claw and try to get the prize game
  • Snuggling with the cat on the couch

None of that seems very impressive — a fancy vacation to the Bahamas it is not — but as someone who wants to win everything, everyday, all day long seeing these small acts as a achievements is hard for me — so I count these activities and my perspective on them both as wins.

And honestly, even if I weren’t an Achiever driven to accomplish Big Things everyday, who cares if this simple list was my dream vacation, best of all worlds? Why let myself get sucked into trying to compete with other people’s lives — ones that are very likely highly curated and filtered? Most of life is the everyday, and cherishing these everyday moments — and recognizing them as moments to cherish — is an achievement in itself.

Christmas Shopping & Gender

This past Friday I was about 1% prepared for Christmas in all of the possible ways:  no gifts purchased, no decorations hung, no cards written, no cookies baked. But it was on the list of things to do for Saturday and my wife and I really got it done. At some point I just decided that this year all the adults were getting socks and all the kids were getting books, so I think that helped. Sorry, family members, if you’re reading this. Maybe I should’ve put a spoiler alert at the top for you. Either way, let’s move on.

Besides the socks and books, my wife and I did some other in-person shopping and as we zigzagged between the boys’ and girls’ clothing sections the contrasts were pretty stark. Thankfully a boy I was shopping for only needed clothes in navy and hunter green — but if he had wanted anything in an even slightly peppier hue, it would have been a challenge. At one point I stood in the tiled aisle facing in towards the clothing racks, boys’ side on my right and girls’ side on my left. The girls’ side looked like a a balloon had just popped and as many sparkles and frills as you could imagine rained down in colors like pink, soft purple, white and yellow. Since it’s Christmastime, there was also a good mix of red, green, and black, but when my eyes moved over to the boys’ side, it was like all the color had been leached out. Gray, navy, hunter green, black, more gray, a few spots of white and royal blue. That’s it.

And what does this tell our boys and men? Because it’s the same thing when I walked the women’s and men’s sections, if not even more pronounced. Women’s racks were strewn with dresses that looked like silver and gold disco balls and the men’s racks had black, gray, blue, dark green, more gray. Just looking at color, and not even more detailed things like fit or design, to me it looks like boys and men aren’t supposed to have any fun. They’re not supposed to see their bodies and their clothes as a way to express themselves, to be viewed in a decorative or showy way, to play with color, pattern, or texture.

To me this small detail, a wardrobe drained of color, portends that men cannot have — are not culturally allowed to have or are not “supposed” to have — a relationship with their own sensuality. Think about it — when you picture a “bachelor pad” in your mind, what do you see? Over the years in person and in media I’ve mostly seen hyper-minimal looks, lots of black, white, gray, and stainless steel, maybe some raw or dark wood, maybe some sports memorabilia. Colors are often bland and dark. It’s often feels hard and in many ways lifeless. Sometimes even a bit cold and empty.

And what does male clothing or home styling have to do with anything? Well, we’re having this national “moment” about men and their bad behavior towards women — not all men, but enough men towards enough women that it’s made its way into many of our daily conversations. It makes me wonder:  if these men, who were once boys, had been allowed to get in touch with the full range of their sensuality by playing with color in something as mundane as their clothing, what would have happened — what could have happened?

If men had had the chance, the permission, to wear yellow, orange, purple — gasp! pink! — what would that have felt like? Would it have sparked a change, a tiny shift, into asking the simple question:  What else? What else can I feel? What else can I experience? And what if the what else didn’t end with color and clothing, but with putting aside other hyper-masculine attributes to explore something else, another side of who they are and another way of being in the world? What if they asked what else when it came to expressing affection? What if they asked what else when they wanted to express sexual desire? What if they asked what else — how else can I deal with this — when they felt sad, lonely, rejected, isolated, unattractive, unwanted?

Because beyond being male, each individual person, regardless of sex or gender, is so much more — and there is always something else, something more to explore, something more to see, another shade or angle to experience.

And if you’re a man or identify as male, it’s very likely that if you’re like most of the men I know:  you haven’t had a chance to explore your sensuality, your creativity, your way of being in the world that isn’t highly dictated by very strict masculine norms. And what a thing — to miss out on all the shades of life. How dull. How boring. How gray.

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.

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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.