During a major transition in my life, as I was working towards my Masters Degree, raising my kids, working, and about to collapse, I was sitting in my car waiting for my son to get out of school and listening to a radio program in which a composer by the name of Julia Wolfe was being interviewed. Ms. Wolfe was talking about her new choral work titled, “Anthracite Fields”; that was based on the lives of mining communities, and she explained that anthracite is the hardest type of coal. Upon further investigation of my own, I found out that anthracite contains relatively pure carbon and burns with very little flame or smoke; and I found it fascinating that someone could compose an entire choral work based on such a subject. At the time I came across this interview, I had been creating a movement work for my Masters thesis that was growing out of my research on language and fixity of meanings, both verbally and physically; and how does one circumvent fixity so that the ever-becoming body and mind evolve continuously. As my research developed, both in the studio and on paper, the most important question came to the surface: How do we exist in such a state of continual flow in spaces not made by us?
And it was there, within the Jello of questions and ideas that I had been floating in for over a year that I sat in my car listening to this interview and an excerpt from “Anthracite Fields”, titled Flowers. As she explained how this song was conceived, Ms. Wolfe began by describing the small mining villages; their dust and soot, and the old tiny wooden shacks lined up in rows on either side of a dirt road. That last part I think I made up as her words created clear images for me. The composer went on to talk about a kind of ritual in which the women in these mining villages would “spruce up their impoverished existences” by planting flowers. While listening, I continued to visualize the village and how those flowers must have seemed more vibrant than ever within the black and white backdrop of this world she spoke of. This detail connected immediately with my ideas and questions regarding how we exist within spaces not made by us. It was an incredible accounting of how this simple act of planting flowers inserted into this world a way to alter the very carbon-laced dust that had everything to do with fuel growth, light, darkness, life and death. In taking control over all that that was not organized by them, the women demonstrated a power like no other over this harsh environment that sat above a dark and dangerous underworld created to fuel a nation.
The composition in itself is a layering of vocal mantras that capture a sense of past, present, and future within a dizzying cycle of vocal exchanges and overlapping sound frequencies. Yes, I used this composition in my work, and now three years later I have returned to this music as I consider my next transition while sitting amongst my own flowers in a garden that has been in constant growth and transition since I moved into this home over eight years ago.
The rain season came early this year and my yard fills with water and looks like a small pond. It never did that before so I know something greater than my small garden has changed, bringing with it an awareness of something greater than me that shifts and organizes my journey. It is an awareness that brings both excitement and impatience as I try not to imagine or contrive what is not destined for me. Paying attention to changes in direction is the hard part. Waiting in quiet surrender is harder.
The choosing of time and place was not theirs to have.
Yet they possessed the power to set them deep in the dark Earth.
And once released, they grew within their own time and rules.
The “when” is usually clear to me as it presents itself as a shift in energies within my space, my mind and things that clearly become off kilter and show signs of falling apart. Erosion signals that it is time to move or at least to turn the soil over.
Sometimes the soil seems dry on the surface, yet when you turn it over and dig deep, the dark moist soil quickly devours that dry top layer while plump worms push down to get away from the light and the trowel. If you know about dirt and worms, you know that this is a good place to replant, start something new, drop some seeds or transplant something that is not thriving elsewhere. When there are no signs of moisture or life, the trowel moves quickly through dry pale dirt and stirs up a dust that makes you turn your head away or just drop the trowel and walk away all together. The worms left long ago.
What makes us stuck? When I use a physical language to answer this question I find that the mind perceives dead ends due to a tendency to believe that the (once) predefined must never be altered or that we are just not allowed to. I also find that our limitations are mostly ruled by an invisible, and sometimes visible, set of rules that set us into a state of judgment and worry that does not allow us to see farther than where we have gotten. So we often stop and stare at a wall and then go back the way we came.
My garden is messy because I sometimes fling seeds to the wind. I do not manicure the garden, but rather just yank and dig and cut. I hate the weeds but then I thank them because they force me to sit and focus on them and in turn they create a blank space in time for my thoughts. I inherited my ability to squat for hours just thinking and weeding from my Abuelo Ismael. When we were young, we would see him outside for hours just pulling out weeds till the land was clear, then he would cut any twigs he had collected into six inch pieces which he would then patiently tie into bundles with twine. I understand this now as his peaceful practice; a practice that was necessary not only for the land but also for the mind. When he was young, Abuelo was the Director of the church Christmas pageants. This wonderful information came to me through my Abuela who told me that he once had some kid suspended by ropes so they could swing him above the congregation as the Angel Gabriel. Abuelo was a choreographer!
People ask, what I do so my flowers grow. My answers often disappoint, as they contain no real secret or knowledge. I do nothing but yank, cut and dig.
Mary, Mary quite contrary
how does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle-shells and pretty Maids all in a row.
As much as I wanted to believe that Mary’s garden was full of bell and seashell-shaped colorful flowers, it turns out this rhyme refer to Queen Mary (also known as Bloody Mary!) and her torture devices such as the reference to cockle-shells that were used on men’s testicles. Ouch. So much for my favorite childhood book, The Real Mother Goose.
I’ve tried to read gardening books but they are loaded with perfect photographs and all the rules that ensure that you don’t kill your plants. After a few attempts at following such silly rules, I have learned that my garden doesn’t give a crap about my pretty books. It has taught me that the flowers and plants have been here long before we “garden experts” have been, and will be here long after we are gone. The flowers and plants know where they want to be and how long they want to stay. They know when a storm is coming, how to attract their preferred bugs and birds and which way they want to face. My job is to pay attention because I know nothing.
Funny how observing and listening to my plants taught me to do that for myself.
What do we actually kill by simply not paying attention? Hopes, dreams, ideas…
How is it that the harsh dessert does not kill the cactus that live there, yet I have heard many recount their inability to keep a small cactus alive in their livingroom? I believe it is not a question of the green thumb myth, but rather a question of engaging willingly in the act of keeping something alive. It has to be important to you; and the term “killed my plants” should not be taken so lightly. After all, they, too, breathe.
Plants get stuck in bad places simply because they do not have the capacity to uproot and walk themselves to a new location unless they have sprouted from rhizomes. Rhizomes probably evolved because the plant got tired of waiting on some clueless human to move it so it looked deep within, followed the earthworms, and broke through the Earth into a new location. The stupid human just figures they killed their plant.
My mom likes to send me boxes. Sometimes its clothes, other times its some nick knack from a yard sale or the church thrift store, or gifts for the kids. On this one occasion a white box arrived with its usual mom signature of way too much packing tape so I got the scissors and began to open it. Suddenly I realized that there was dirt coming out of the box so I took it outside. When I opened it, I looked in the paper bag that was inside the box and thought to myself “Did mom send me poop?” The dirt was everywhere and the odd lumps of brown poop things baffled me so I called her to find out what she had smuggled to me via the US Postal System.“Rhizomes!” she said. “Winter is coming so I’m digging them out so I can replant them in the spring. I have too many so I thought I would send you a few.”
Wow, I thought, these lumps are alive!
Me: “What plant are they?”
Mom: “I don’t actually know, but they have big leaves and a beautiful red flower. Maybe a Canna.”
Me: “Do you have them in the sun or in the shade?”
Mom: “They get a bit of both. “
So I dug some holes and dropped in the poop lumps. I live in zone 11 so I will never have to dig them out for the winter. It’s not often that my mom and I can share seeds because she lives up north in zone 5 or 6 so this would be a worthy experiment to see if the ugly lumps would emerge from the sandy tropical dirt in my garden. And they did.
Giant red Canna’s with giant leaves that get eaten at night by these alien slug things that live down here in tropical zone 11; then they roll themselves up in the leaf as if making a sleeping bag. The Canna doesn’t mind because if it did it would not keep blooming that beautiful red torch of a flower that works like a beacon to lure the moths that lay those eggs that then hatch into the giant slugs. And from it’s very tall stem the spiders anchor their webs and feed through the night, and when the petals of the red flower wilt, they make way for these very curious small bunches of red balls that look like berries which must serve as food for some kind of winged creature. The cycle of the giant Canna goes on still after five years; I chop their stems and clear the old dried out leaves and wait for the rhizomes to sprout again and again and again. They are just in front of my fence, which I share with my neighbor so I’m a bit nervous that the Cannas will pop up on her perfectly mowed side of the fence. On her side there are no weeds, no bushes, no flowers and certainly no giant alien slugs. It’s like a bright green fenced in carpet and when my neighbor sees what is on my side of the fence, I am sure it gives her a little anxiety just as her perfectly controlled outdoor environment gives me the same anxiety.
I read a description once of a shadowbox fence as a type of fence designed to let air flow through. “Well that’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. The fence is outside!“ I thought to myself. I came to the conclusion that it was designed so that each neighbor could fulfill their inner need to be nosy while pretending to be out there getting some air. Either way, it doesn’t matter because that’s what we do in these small fenced in worlds. We create what gives us comfort just as the women in the dusty mining communities where reality becomes the fence to circumvent. Where flowers create a resistance like no other.
In my case, I do not live in a black and white world of coal and dust, however the reality of such a place gives gravity to the question pertaining to what we make of that which is outside of ourselves. How do we find happiness through designing and choreographing our side of the fence, our corner of the world, our side of the street? Are these places permanent? Usually not, but that is no reason to deny yourself from getting a really great set of string lights to wrap around the tree out back or your 14th floor rusty old fire escape.
I finish weeding and carry the wilted pile of invaders to the trash and then I start cutting back bushes and plants which leave me with much larger piles to pick up. I do not measure the twigs, nor cut them, nor tie them in twine, but rather just shove everything into the trash bin. It’s getting late, but I am never finished. In fact, if it weren’t getting dark, I would just go on and on. My time in this space is always to be continued as are the thoughts that circulate such as those that bring me back to the question of movement and fixity and not remaining stuck in a place where I begin to wilt. My mom thinks I stay too long in places and perhaps she is right, but I can’t help it, I’m a slow shifter. I love to root into my home and my garden, to let experiences settle in and to watch the world and ponder for a while. Shifting winds come often but I am not eager to step into them until that thing happens.