Immersion in Asparagus

I have just learned how to plant asparagus from a nice man on YouTube. I found him shortly after I cut open one of our cardboard boxes from Stark Brothers Nursery. The asparagus crowns lurked in plastic bags—strange, white, squid-like plants, unlike anything I’ve ever planted. The asparagus video reveals a much more intensive process than I anticipated, but luckily I tend to be energetic and naïve at the front end of a big project. So I dig in.

I hack a long trench that will become our asparagus bed. Soil piles up along the trench’s sides, and the chickens arrive to poach juicy worms. Muscles awaken in my arms and back; they wake up a little grumpy. I am having fun, though, and trundle past the garden to the compost pile. After I fill the wheelbarrow with dark organic material, I can barely push it upslope, but the chickens help me churn it into the trench bottom. I add a wheelbarrow of crushed stone, mix, then hoe two mounds lengthwise in the trench. It is finally ready for asparagus crowns.

I have heard bringing book into the world compared with having a child, but this analogy is not my experience. For me, writing a book resembles planting asparagus, or trees—not flowers, but plants who demand serious digging and delay our gratification.

Yesterday, I knelt in the heavy drizzle, mud soaking my jeans while I planted pawpaw trees. At this early stage, the trees were glorified pencils, with a few tiny branches. Most of each tree was underground. I tenderly fanned out a sapling’s roots and palmed soft soil around them. Here it will anchor and grow into a life of its own. Six years ago, I held something equally spindly, mostly underground—the beginning of my book—and decided to let it take root.

Now I kneel again in light rain, in the asparagus trench. Not being one to hamper my creative momentum with excess planning, I find myself revising extensively. I space the asparagus crowns one foot apart, until I am halfway down the trench and realize they need to be farther apart.

After several rounds of scootching asparagus forward and hopping them to the end, I discover that at 18 inches apart, the 32 plants exactly fit my trench. With the book, I also found myself leapfrogging sections, cutting an entire chapter, splitting one chapter into two, and writing most of a new one. I could have measured things better from the start, but perhaps the process was necessary for me.

Tossing soil in the trench, I race against the chickens. They dart their beaks at the white worms of asparagus lying across the mounds. My reluctant muscles are angry, but I finish tucking all the soil back into the bed as the rain relieves me of watering responsibilities.

Now it is springtime for my book and our farm—full of newness and promise. I’ve brought home four small Romney lambs in the back of our Honda Fit. Two boxes of Red Ranger meat chicks—125 of them—have arrived from the post office. We are planting in the rain and after dark to keep up with deliveries of trees and berry plants. And two weeks ago, my book released into the world, as if finally bursting into bloom.

The fruit from my book is sweet, and I have already begun to taste its ability to connect me with longtime friends and new people. As my book finds readers, I am savoring the space created between us by these words, which bear more fruit in the mind and life of a reader. As with the asparagus and pawpaws, it seems that the book will grow into a life of its own.

But there is an important difference. At the end of the asparagus video, the nice man stands with shovel in hand. He says, “Then be happy that you’ll never have to this in your lifetime again, and you should have asparagus for 10, 20, 30 years.” While I do feel that relief about asparagus planting, I am already scheming about my next book.

Going to Seed



October. We have not turned on the heat, and the picnic table sits steadfast in the yard as if it is still September. In this lingering warmth, we are stealing time from winter. We fool ourselves by delaying things at the beginning of a long haul, the way we wouldn’t eat the good snacks or trade drivers in the first few miles of a ten-hour road trip. The next season could be a long haul.

Or maybe I am borrowing back time from summer—time lost in my concussion fog—now that I have energy. I grab the long-handled lops and flail into the pasture to clear around our young poplar trees, leveling goldenrod, burdock, and some thorny black locust sprouts mostly taller than my head. Sometimes I just swing the lops like a sword-wielding samurai to whack down the thinner weeds. Mostly I scissor through, taking ridiculously precise bites with the tool’s small, curved mouth.

It’s really too late for this work, since these weeds have gone to seed. Everything seems to be doing that these days.

Thorny problems have grown up among us while we looked away. We find ourselves not-so-suddenly in a thicket of hateful stuff, which has already formed seeds and begun to scatter them. Painful barbed sticks have resprouted from deeply rooted stumps like the black locust trees. Even as we try to address this current tangle of racism, misogyny, fear, and hatred of others, the seeds of next year’s struggles have been sown.

November. And now it is November 4. We tick off the days until election, wanting relief from uncertainty. Wanting the world to go back to before the election insanity began. It seemed quieter then, and now everybody is raw. We are hurting the way an infected blister hurts, just after it bursts open

And I realize that nothing is over in four days; November 9 is simply a beginning. No matter who arrives in the White House, the people we need to live with are all around us. We have cracked open many new and old conversations in the past year. We are talking about truth, safety, love, hatred, the basics that define our country, and if democracy will survive. Right now these conversations are wounds, but maybe we can begin to heal if we take care of each other.

Everyone I talk with thinks everyone else is going to seed—getting out of hand, taking over, choking out the good, threatening this place itself. Once again, our differences scare us.

I am weeding again, and I notice that when all kinds of plants have gone to seed, some hope can grow out of it. The milkweed carries pods loaded with seeds, each one equipped with a tuft of down to lift it on the breeze. Next year’s milkweed will feed Monarch butterflies on their improbably long travels. Clover grows where we never planted it, fixing nitrogen from the air and into the soil, making it more fertile.

Let’s live in these conversations—this weedy, seedy place. Let’s talk and listen about all our despair and hope. Let’s breathe this same, fine November air together. For now, to help me keep breathing, please tell me your stories of kindness and love—seeds that can grow good things in the long haul. We all need each other and our stories in the days ahead.




I Pledge Allegiance




I pledge allegiance to the space between the half-staff flag and the top of the flagpole, one measure of the distance between where we are and where we still need to be, one national gesture of respect for individual lives,

and to the kids—my kids—in the elementary school by which it flies, who can elevate us beyond half staff,

and to the adults who stand with hands over hearts in this gymnasium, having taken two hours off necessary jobs to see our kids sing together,

and to the churning differences in our bodies, religions, assumptions, and what fills our plates,

and to the hills behind the school, rolling through neighborhoods and towards our farm where I will crawl on my hands and knees using my fingers to separate weeds from the delicate parsnips, following my urge to stay close to this soil.

I pledge my allegiance to the seeds slow to germinate this year, nasturtiums and kale still surprising us by poking upwards just when we thought they had rotted in the dark.

I pledge my allegiance to the space between this soil and other soils, many distances between me and people I know and love more than the back of my hand, between me and strangers I know have similar maps on the backs of their hands; and to the water and air, particles connecting us, flowing through us in one global gesture of living.

I pledge allegiance to the flag

of my partner’s shirt in the wind on the roof; to my dog’s thick exuberant tail; to the two great blue flags of the heron’s wings flapping over our house towards the wetland; to the grasses raising their thin green flags across the field into a fine second hay cutting that will feed our neighbor’s beef; to the hands of our neighbors, flagging greetings as they drive past in trucks or tractors; to the yearning, many-storied people

of the United States of America—an improbable set of agreements and disagreements still somehow holding as a definable country—

and to the republic in which we stand,

one nation of many nations,

under god only knows how many names, illusions, auspices, impressions, guises, expectations, seeming

indivisible only because it is already divided into kaleidoscoping images that tumble around but stay together and create a whole picture,

with liberty and justice being more complicated than we hoped, but drawing us towards some past and future vision of a place where all of us—a phrase still demanding emphasis on all—will finally benefit from those slowly germinating seeds, and just when the promises of long-planted seeds seem rotten, tiny stems will unfurl with a bounty of beauty and food and

liberty and justice

for all.



Our Bleeding Hearts


Old devil hate, I knew you long ago
Then I found out the poison in your breath
Now when we hear your lies, my lovers gather ’round
And help me rise to fight you one more time

No storm nor fire can ever beat us down
No wind that blows but carries us further on
And you who fear, oh lovers gather ’round
And we can rise and sing it one more time

~Pete Seeger

A hard wind thrashes my bleeding hearts. They are a gift from my mom, as are most of my perennials and many of my personality traits. Eloquent, pink flowers dangle at the end of their down-curling stems, reminding me of bowed heads and tears.

The wind was already blowing when my parents arrived last week with a carload of my mom’s green thumb—various hostas, black-eyed Susans, Echinacea, lavender, pink coral, daisies, Solomon’s seal, spiderwort. My mom and I each pulled on one of my sweatshirts against the sudden coolness of June. We planted them together in two large beds, alongside plants from a friend, re-rooting the legacy of womens’ attention to beauty and life.

Then we traveled to my sister’s home for a party. On June 12, our family celebrates two women—my sister and my mom—and their initiators into motherhood—my niece and me. This year, we are all together on this birthday. I awaken inexplicably weepy, emotion trickling over my internal spillway, feeling the world, without even seeing the news. I walk into the kitchen, straight into a hug from my mom, who has not yet seen the news either.

One of my mom’s best gifts is throwing her arms wide open. When I was a kid, my mom’s good friend, Joe, died of AIDS. I sat beside her and dipped a needle into dark cloth, helping to stitch Joe’s panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. We wept at his funeral, held at our Mennonite church; any objections to this location for a gay man’s funeral were smoothed over by our wise and loving pastor. As Joe had requested, a recording of Carly Simon swelled against the rafters that day, singing, “Let the river run / Let all the dreamers / Wake the nation.”

Gay and lesbian friends and relatives have always shared our lives and our home, with or without partners. So I am lucky. My parents strive to live generously, with intentional acts of acceptance—working to know how to love, why to struggle, and when to grieve. This way of living is both instinctual and learned. We do this together, on purpose.

I want to let my mom’s gifts flow through me, so I practice astonishment at flowers and the sky after a storm. I open up big laughs and cry easily. Children and dogs receive my most patient compassion, and adults receive my open arms. Echoing my mom, I give people food and flowers as they have come to me. I become an ally.

I spend my birthday this year moving in and out of hugs—my parents, my sister and her husband, Andrew, Sam and Stella, and even the guests for my niece’s first birthday party, strangers who quickly feel like friends. We have all seen the news from Orlando by now, and it scrabbles at our insides with sharp claws. I carry a full well of emotion, overflowing here and there. In this warm afternoon, though, we cheer for my niece as she raises her cake-smeared index finger triumphantly into the air—One!

There are so many fierce and joyous ways to galvanize our communities against hate. There are so many ways to love each other. There are never enough words to describe devastation and the aftershocks of tragedy.

Back at home, the gusting wind—even at its worst—does not destroy our bleeding hearts. Instead, they dance. Among the rocks in my garden, these tender, vivid flowers will return every spring to remind me, reassure me. The music will play again in my mind: “Oh lovers gather ‘round, and we can rise to sing it one more time.”




A Creative Mind At Work


This time, I’ll mow better. I’ll try to maximize the long, straight runs and minimize turns. Even though we made a triangular set of beds in our yard and interspersed fruit trees and a chicken enclosure, I can start at the top of the yard and mow diagonally to the bottom. Whoever wanted curving, asymmetrical yard designs (me) had never used a riding mower. The geometry of this mowing seems incompatible with efficiency, but by the time I’m done, all of this grass will be shorter.

Riding mowing must have some tricks; I just don’t know them. I think I’ll actually start at the other top of the yard and mow horizontally, then vertically for a bit, just to trim around the rectangular chicken fence, and, while I’m heading this direction, I’ll shave down those burdock on the path to the compost. As long as I can make this U-turn, I won’t have to reverse, which disengages the blades and interrupts my Zen I’M SO CLOSE IF I JUST TURN HARDER. Nope. So, I’m still getting the feel of this turning radius—no harm done, just reversing.

Back to the long diagonal, I’m humming along now. In fact, I’ll just bump up the speed here to get done faster. There does seem to be a bigger change in speed between gears five and six than there was between four and five. Now every jiggly part of my body is flapping around erratically and making me giggle. Also, the ruts and bumps are tossing my bottom around in the seat—hilarious.

I’ve just realized I forgot my ear covers, but I guess they wouldn’t fit with my big floppy sunhat anyway, so basically I’ve chosen hearing impairment over skin damage. Ear plugs, though, would work, if I could find WHOA THAT WAS A NEAR MISS. I’ll slow down here.

BuffyandbushesofhateAt the end of this long diagonal strip, I’ll mow the perimeter slowly so I’ll have a buffer and not run anything over, like the only time I drove a riding mower as a kid and sent it straight up my Grandma Landis’s lamppost, much to her amusement. I wonder when our kids will start mowing. Oh, I missed a parallelogram-shaped patch over there. I’ll get it later.

On the other side of our new fence, the cows are grazing shoulder-high in grass—so lovely to watch cows and hear their teeth tearing the grass, if I could hear anything over this mower. They even eat poison parsnip, those amazing cows. If only they could eat our thorny hedge, which I call the Bushes of Hate, since weeding around them earlier gave me a thorn splinter that kept hurting in the same way that festering hatred pains the person who carries it embedded inside them, which makes me think that Donald Trump must be suffering horribly from all of his hate, unless he is so soulless that even the hate is simply a giant, asinine act for WHERE AM I GOING?

Mowing over here behind the barns was not the plan today. I’ll head back towards those long, efficient rectangles. And how did I leave all of those unmowed triangles over there?