Thursday, August 19, 2010

Autumn Approaches

In the last week here in Minneapolis, we've strung together the first small group of fall days. The wind directions have shifted, the wind speeds have increased, the humidity has dropped, and the piercing days of harsh blue sky punctuated by thunderstorms have given way to days of puffy white clouds skidding across the sky from dawn to dusk.

There will be days where summer returns, but this week is a harbinger of things to come. A welcome harbinger, as there is no time of year more glorious in the upper midwest than autumn.

The gardens are feeling the effects of August heat at the moment, with hostas and other foliage plants scorched around the edges and looking pretty puny. but soon, as I begin to clear out the dead daylily foliage, the colors of brown-eyed Susans will become more intense, asters will begin to bloom, mums will emerge, and the overall color intensity of the garden will become exceedingly bright and vibrant. All of this will happen well in advance of the fall foliage change in the maples and sumac, which will push the garden into otherworldly status. The quality of the light in Minnesota also changes in Autumn. As the sun shifts back toward the equator, the light become more oblique and dramatic. Biting insects begin to go dormant, and there is nothing more pleasant in the world than sitting for a few hours in the cool sunlight of a Minnesota autumn.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Citizens of 4F, Aug. 17, 2009

Vincent sits on the right row of inward facing seats at the front of the 7:12 4F bus into downtown. He is in many ways a very typical young man in the 28-32 year-old range, and the fact that he is typical is mildly disturbing to me.

Looking over his face, I count 13 pieces of metal piercing various aspects of his face, if indeed that was a tongue stud I saw peeking out a moment ago. In addition to this, there are pieces of hardware in his upper and lower ears, his eyebrows, his lips, his chin, his nostrils. In his earlobes are round disks of the type you used to associate with aboriginal natives of Africa or the Amazon. It is for the moment just a small insert disk in his ear lobe; the habit is to start small and gradually increase the size of the disks.

Once upon a time, this look would have marked Vincent as a rebel of some degree, but it is not at all unusual today. Not only do you see young adults like this at the hip downtown ad agencies, but it's also quite common to see them dressed in suits working as loan officers at banks. In my office, there are several young adults with vivid body art tattoos that run from toes to scalp. Nose studs are now so common that they no longer warrant noticing.

It is certainly a sign of my fuddy-duddiness that I'm quietly appalled at the proliferation of body mutilation among young citizens. As I study Vincent, and others like him, I wonder what inner processes lead them to compulsively deface the physical body that nature has given them. I simply can't imagine the appeal of going to a body art studio to have my flesh drilled and bored for the insertion of nails, studs, chains and other hardware. I try to imagine a situation in which I'd want to do such a thing, and I can't. And I have a pretty good imagination.

Even as I'm thinking this, though, I recognize my indignation isn't entirely legitimate. Vincent and others of his kind are only extending an established human trait to an extreme degree. The human animal is the only one I can think of that routinely chooses to to mutilate itself in the name of ornament. At the mild end of the spectrum is coloring our hair, shaving whiskers from our cheeks and legs, wearing earrings. Carry the habit several degrees to the right, and you're goring your genitalia to hang heavy chains. All of it, even ordinary grooming, is a form of self-mutilation, when you look at it nakedly. All manifestations of this impulse seem to serve the paradoxical purpose of shifting your identity away from the norm, and thereby establishing your membership in a different group. I hope, anyway, that this is the motivation, and that it's not a manifestation of self-loathing.

And so if I was going to be true to my disapproval of the shocking idea of piercing the glans of one's penis, would I not stop shaving, stop trimming my hair, stop wearing cologne? What makes my form of ordinary self-mutilation better than your more creative effort? After all, is piercing your nipples any more barbaric than having our sons routinely circumcised at birth?

Disconcerting thoughts at 7:15 in the morning. Must try a different antihistamine.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Garden in August

I've now officially become one of those gardeners who has specific dates for routine seasonal activities.

I realized last night that when the tree frogs begin to chirp at night—an event that usually begins around the first of August—is the time when instinct tells me to spread the previous year's compost over the flower beds.

August is a very dry, hot time in the upper midwest, and mulching the beds with compost now will help keep the soil cool and moist into the autumn. The plant material added to the compost heaps last fall have now broken down fully, and emptying the heaps now also creates space for the shredded leaves and other plant materials that will become available as I begin to take care of fall cleanup beginning in a few weeks.

In addition to the compost itself, I'll also start adding the grass clippings to the garden, over the layer compost. Up to now, those grass clippings have gone into the compost bins themselves. Some gardeners believe that raw grass clippings are a problem if they are used to mulch beds directly before they have been allowed to break down, but I've never found this to be a problem, largely because I d0 feed the gardens anyway, and the breakdown of green grass clippings never causes the nitrogen deficiency that is sometimes bemoaned. As the grass clippings turn to the color of straw, the visual effect is pleasing, as well, looking like a lighter shade of shredded bark.

If you mulch with grass clippings, though, you should do so only if you are not treating the lawn with herbicides. Adding chemical-laden grass clippings to flower beds may have bad effects on your flowers.

I"m not one of those gardeners who insists that all plants must be surrounded by clean, pristine soil. In the routine, day to day acts of deadheading old flowers and removing stalks, I snip up these bits and spread them over the garden as I go, so that the beds themselves do their own composting all summer long. Small twigs picked up from the lawn also get broken up and spread between the plants, so my gardens tend to resemble a forest floor in many ways. This isn't at all evident from a distance, though, so my gardens look quite manicured from a casual distance.

Next spring, the gardens will have quite a bit of organic debris that has wintered over the top of the soil, and rather than raking all this off, as some compulsive gardeners do, I will simply dig this material into the soil before planting time. The overall benefit of this approach is that it reduces the amount of fertilizing you need to do, as well as keeping the soil friable and easy to work with.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Now for Something Completely Different

This moment, the one you are experiencing right now, is a perfect one.

To say this does not mean that this moment is a pleasurable or enjoyable one for you, necessarily. That's what we usually mean when we say things are "perfect"——that we really, really like the way things are right now. But to equate perfection with desirability is an egocentric viewpoint, not one that has big picture validity. In fact, this very moment, in its perfection, might offering me pain, or unhappiness, or some other form of discomfort. The perfection of the moment has nothing whatsoever to do with me liking the quality of that moment.

This moment is a perfect one because it is the only possible outcome resulting from the events leading up to it. The "effect" of this moment has been governed with the unavoidable logic of the "causes" preceding. If I happen to be unhappy with the moment, that doesn't spoil it's perfection, because the nature of this moment, including my feelings about it, is the logical result of things like memory, my previous life experiences, my attitude, my outlook, the current mixture of hormones and enzymes and neurotransmitters in my brain, my current physical condition, etc, etc.

In other words, dropping dead of a heart attack is a perfect result, if viewed as the logical consequence of heredity factors, poor eating habits, a dissolute living style, or a sudden contact with high voltage power lines. A truly horrific world would be the one where you don't die when a giant grand piano crashes onto your head from an overhead pulley. We need for the world to follow logical physical principles, and so it does. So how else could any moment be anything but perfect?

Viewing the world in this way——seeing each moment is a perfect one-- isn't to then suggest that we're supposed to "accept" whatever happens to us and not take action to change it. After all, perfection is also present in our resistance to the circumstances of the moment, in our choice to move in another direction.

At the same time, there's still a profound peace to be had from recognizing the perfection of the moment, even when it's unpleasant, because it then frees you from disagreeing and wrangling with the reality of it. A lot of grief we bring on ourselves isn't so much the actual pain, as our disagreement and refusal to acknowledge its truth and reality.

An interesting change begins to happen at the very instant you acknowledge the perfection of any moment. Things become exactly as they are, and immediately there is a burden that lifts from your shoulders——the burden of constantly trying to improve and perfect things. You find yourself entering into experience very directly, since there is really nothing to accomplish in a perfect moment. You just live it with a full embrace. The past is irrelevant ( it doesn 't even exist, really), and the future is interesting only because the current moment feeds it. Each moment is what it is, and the very next moment becomes an utterly logical and perfect result of the previous one. The power of our actions becomes blindingly evident, and you begin to feel a precision and economy and powerfulness in how you make choices. What you do in response to this situation is, in itself perfect, and it will lead to the inevitable (perfect) experience of the next moment. There is nothing to change, really, and nothing to regret. Only experience.

Normally, this method of seeing things comes to us in tiny little flashes, with considerably more time spent lamenting the past or worrying about the future. It is possible, though, to find yourself recognizing and embracing the inherent perfection of this moment, then the next moment, then the next moment, so that there's really nothing else but this moment, perpetually. Strangely, it's a form of immortality. String a thousand of these moments together, and it becomes a 15-second experience that can change everything and rewire your circuits in a major way.


This kind of approach to phenomenology may seem pretty esoteric and exotic, but in reality you can find it in the mystical traditions of almost every major world religion. In Christianity, for example, you will find such a practice inherent in "The Cloud of Unknowing," a seminal work of Western Christian theology.

I began to learn about it through the study of Dzogchen, a branch of Tibetan Buddhist practice, that is also known as "The Great Perfection." Depending on your leanings, you could look to either source for more information on this way of viewing the world.