Planting Things

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IMG_1146I spent a recent afternoon strolling with some of my sisters through the University of Minnesota’s arboretum. It was a mild summer day: slightly overcast and on the cool side for the end of June in this northern Midwest locale. The Minneapolis-St. Paul area has been home for two of my sisters for many years, and a third recently moved to the area. That makes a visit to the Twin Cities even more of a draw for another Chicago-based sis and me. (I have eight sisters. Cue the oohs and ahs.)

Along with the majestic trees from which the arboretum derives its name, the park is home to numerous gardens growing everything from succulents to kitchen herbs to seemingly as many types of roses and lilies as you can name. As we wandered through the meticulously maintained grounds, stopping to admire fountains and sculptures and to take photos, I marveled at the time and care it takes to grow and maintain all these plants. I pictured gardeners lovingly tilling the soil, placing tender seedlings in it, watering and weeding.

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I myself am not much of a gardener, but when I was a child, I loved to spend time with my dad in his garden. If I helped weed, I would be allowed to place the tiny seeds for annuals gently in the soil and then water the plants as they miraculously went from seed to sprout to full grown flower. During our walk through the arboretum, my sisters and I reminisced about our father and his love for trees and flowers. We laughed and acted silly and forced passersby to take group photos of us in front of ponds or waterfalls.

Relationships are like plants. They must be lovingly tended. It takes time and attention to grow a close bond, time spent laughing, sharing confidences, building each other up and helping each other through difficult times. The inevitable weeds of conflict must be uprooted sometimes so that the lovely fruits of friendship and sisterhood can ripen.

Time spent in nature with my sisters was a beautiful gift this week. It reminds me that the roots developed in our families form the basis for who we will become. It encourages me to tend to those roots with my own children so that they too will carry on a meaningful and loving sibling relationship throughout their lives.

Long after the sun sets on the garden and the day lilies close their petals for the night, God’s gifts of nature abide in quiet magnificence until the dawning of the new day. May our lives mirror the beauty, tenacity, and strength of trees and flowers, granting joy and peace to those we encounter each and every day.

Defending Science

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Scores of independent scientific advisors to the EPA were recently told that their membership on the Board of Scientific Counselors would not be renewed in August. The move seems like part of the Trump Administration’s efforts to quash the dialogue on climate change, an unsurprising move given the nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA along with Trump’s own rhetoric during the presidential campaign. Unsurprising, but alarming.

From the moment Donald Trump took office, the White House website removed information on climate change. Even though a consensus of scientists agrees that the Earth’s atmosphere is warming and that the warming is largely due to human activity, Republicans have stubbornly refused to address the issue. Recently, Energy Secretary Rick Perry (not exactly a rocket scientist) denied the correlation between global warming and human actions. It’s as if a group of Republicans were standing in the rain and insisting there was a drought.

The politicization of science is not new.  The season finale of Genius, the story of Albert Einstein, depicts Jewish scientists being dismissed from the prestigious Prussian Academy and books by Jewish scientists such as Einstein being burned in a massive fire by Nazi soldiers. The series also demonstrates Einstein’s outspoken objections to his discoveries being used to create weapons of mass destruction.

Throughout history, political powers have interfered with scientific discovery that did not advance their agenda, or that conflicted with their beliefs. Galileo is a perfect example of how politics (and, to a degree, religion) can affect the reception of new scientific ideas.

The ability of scientists to work independently of political agendas is vital to discovery and progress. Nowadays, the issue of the safety and efficacy of vaccines has become a political football. So has research on climate change. Meanwhile, an ice melt the size of Texas has been discovered in Antarctica. Sea levels are rising, and global weather patterns are being disrupted, with potential for devastating complications.

It’s time to allow scientific inquiry to inform our political decisions and not the reverse.

 

It’s All Relative

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I’m currently watching a fascinating show on the National Geographic channel entitled Genius, a biography of the great physicist Albert Einstein. Never having had a particularly scientific type of mind, I’ve been surprised at how much I enjoy learning about Einstein’s revolutionary discoveries. For instance, I enjoyed seeing how Einstein’s brain starts forming ideas about relativity while watching his time piece in a tedious math class.

Einstein proved that time is not absolute and that our perception of time moving forward is an illusion. I’m not sure I completely understand his ideas, but I do enjoy thinking about relativity in the simple terms in which he famously explained it. An hour spent with a pretty girl, he said, seems but a minute while a minute spent sitting on a hot stove would seem like an hour.

I was reminded of that idea on a recent walk in my neighborhood. Up ahead of me was a young woman pushing a stroller with a baby inside. The scene looked idyllic: a young mother with all the time in the world to care for and enjoy her child. But I know better. I was that young mother once. When my first child was born, I was beside myself with stress and worry. Every single task seemed difficult and new and challenging, and I was not sure I was doing any of it right. Had she had enough poops that day? Did she have a slight fever? Was she too warm, too cold, hungry, tired? And why would she not stop crying?

From my vantage point as the mother of four grown children, it seems so easy just to have one child, a child who can’t go anywhere or do much of anything without my say so, a child who can’t stay out past curfew or sass back or ask to do things I’m not ready to let her do. When my children were young, the days would crawl by at a snail’s pace. Even though they were perfectly clean, I would still give my kids a daily bath just to pass the time. Nowadays, I blink, and months have gone by while my teens and twenty somethings move ahead at the speed of light.

The one constant for me as a parent is how much I worry about my kids. I think that’s what makes grandparents so much more relaxed around their grandchildren. They have a slight distance that allows them to be calmer, more playful, and less stressed.

This idea was borne out for me recently when I listened to a fascinating NPR podcast called Invisibilia. The episode “The Problem With the Solution” describes the way mental illness is managed in a small Belgian town called Geel (pronounced “hail”). In Geel, people with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia live with ordinary families and are considered “boarders.” While there is a hospital nearby and doctors help people manage their medications, no one in Geel tries to fix the mentally ill. They are simply allowed to be the way they are.

The reporters from Invisibilia discovered an important fact through learning about the town of Geel. These same victims of mental illness faired much worse when living with their own families. Indeed, one of Geel’s residents had a mentally ill son herself, and she described how hard it was to live with his behavior. What psychologists have discovered is that when people care too much, they are determined to fix the problems their loved ones have. On the other hand, non-related hosts or neighbors of the mentally ill have a detachment that allows them to accept these people the way the are. In this way, “it’s all relative” takes on a different meaning.

The great Albert Einstein certainly had his fair share of family drama, including a wife who suffered from depression and a son who attempted suicide. As a Jew, he was endangered by the rise of Nazism in Germany. He also objected to the use of scientific discovery to create weapons of mass destruction. But he looked at the world in such an endlessly fascinated way. He was convinced that observing nature was the way to solve all the mysteries of the universe. And he had a great determination to be the one to do so.

As the summer days go by, I will remind myself about the deceptive nature of time and do my best to slow it down and enjoy its passing.

 

 

 

Tree Time

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Majestic Maples

Summer has mostly faded away, but here in the Midwest, October usually brings a few unseasonably warm days. On a recent such day, I decided to head out to a grand oasis in the midst of suburbia: the Morton Arboretum. I have fond memories of taking trips out to the arboretum as a child. My father’s “field trips” almost always took us into the Great Outdoors, and the arboretum was one of his favorite spots. It’s a huge showcase for one of God’s most awesome creations: trees.

The east side of Morton Arboretum was teeming with people: school groups, elderly couples, mothers with young children. This is the part of the park, after all, that features a children’s garden, a maze, the gift shop, and the cafe. I decided to head to the west side and savor some solitude.

The ground was still soft and damp from recent rains, but most of my trail was covered with mulch, which made it easier to walk. I hiked in silence under the canopy of trees. The only sounds were an occasional bird call or a squirrel rustling in the leaves. I felt very small.

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Mighty Oaks

After about a mile, I found a bench in a shady spot and sat down to read. It was such luxury to sit, cold drink in hand, and enjoy my mystery novel. I felt as if I were playing hooky from real life. Eventually, though, I knew I had to make my way back. Not the greatest reader of maps, I relied on the signs and trail markers and stayed on the path.

I love trees. I love how massive they can be. I love the different designs of the leaves on different types of trees. I love how the light peeks through them. I love how I can shut myself off from the rest of the world in the midst of them.

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Being away from all my mundane tasks, my worries, and my fears was good for my spirit. I remember my son saying that being in nature made him feel closer to God. I understood what he meant. These trees that surrounded me had been there for many years and would likely endure for many more.

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The Evergreen – symbol of eternal life

As I neared the entrance to the arboretum once again, I came upon a river – more of a creek really. The water sparkled in the afternoon sunshine. It looked inviting to me, as the warmth and the hiking had made me perspire. I felt renewed.

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Peace like a River

My idyll under the trees came to an end, but it gave me faith: faith in nature to sustain us and bring us joy, faith in others with the vision to create and maintain such a natural treasure, and faith in God that the world He has created is enough.

A Thoreau Understanding

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Live each season as it passes;
breathe the air, drink the drink,
taste the fruit, and resign yourself
to the influences of each.

-Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I found this quote on a little card in my hotel room where I was staying while visiting my college age son. Like many quotes from the Twentieth Century American philosopher Thoreau, it has so many layers of meaning for me.

My first thought was of the “eat local” concept, which encourages us to partake of food grown nearby when it is in season instead of insisting upon year round access to everything, such as watermelon or berries in winter, for example. I also thought of how seamlessly my tastes move from the cool, crisp salads of summer to the hearty soups of fall, from sipping a cold glass of lemonade to a warm cup of tea.

I love the current season of fall and usually find myself wishing it would last longer. The riot of color on the trees fills me joy, and the dwindling daylight makes me more serious. Summer beach reads give way to literary fiction with more depth. School is in session, and my days have more order.

Yet seeing my son, who will be graduating from college this winter and who is no longer a boy, made me realize that the seasons of which Thoreau speaks are not merely nature’s persistent cycle but the changes in our lives that lead from childhood to youth to old age.

Many people look back with particular fondness at a certain stage of life: high school, their college years, the early days of their marriage, the time when their children were little. I enjoy indulging in nostalgia about the past as much as most people. But I always think that the best time in my life is now. Here in the present is exactly where I belong.

Thoreau encourages us to allow each season to change us, to affect how we see the world. I was a pretty cynical and sarcastic young woman in my twenties. I thought I had it all figured out. Marriage and children humbled me, teaching me how much I needed to learn and how much I needed to let go. Nowadays, as I get older and a little slower, I am more mellow and forgiving, not only of others, but of myself.

When I was young, I wanted to change the world. Now I try to allow the world to change me for the better, to make me more tolerant and loving, more peaceful (notwithstanding the angst caused by the current presidential election). I hope I have many more seasons to “breathe the air” and enjoy each one as it comes.

Plethora of Pumpkin

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One of my daughter’s favorite childhood books was Too Many Pumpkins. It’s the story of an old woman who absolutely detests pumpkin. Upon finding some old pumpkin seeds in her kitchen, she ruthlessly pitches them out the window. Lo and behold, that fall her garden is overrun with pumpkins. The story then chronicles her attempts to get rid of the pumpkins by making every pumpkin recipe known to man, giving the goodies away to strangers, and making new friends in the process.

My daughter and I were reminiscing about that book yesterday after I described to her my trip to Trader Joe’s. Trader Joe’s latest “Fearless Flyer” promotes pumpkin in the biggest way. I had to see it to believe it. There was everything pumpkin you could imagine: pumpkin bread mix, pumpkin waffles, pumpkin soup, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin yogurt, pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin cereal, pumpkin sandwich cookies – and canned pumpkin, of course.

Unlike the old woman in Too Many Pumpkins, I love pumpkin everything. (Ironically, I am lukewarm about the most ubiquitous American pumpkin dish, pumpkin pie!) From early September, when Starbuck’s famous (or infamous) pumpkin spice latte hits the coffee chain, I start to crave all things pumpkin. Needless to say, my Trader Joe’s grocery cart was filled with pumpkin stuff, somewhat to my embarrassment.

Why has pumpkin become such a harbinger of fall? It’s true that many of the things made with pumpkin are sweet and contain warm, cozy spices such as ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. And that muted orange color is reminiscent of changing autumn leaves.

Pumpkin is actually a very healthy fruit. Many of the so-called pumpkin products we consume, however, don’t really have much, if any, real pumpkin in them. In fact, I recently learned that a lot of canned pumpkin actually contains not pumpkin, but squash. It doesn’t seem to make much difference in recipes, but it does smack of a product pretending to be something it’s not. Say! Maybe canned pumpkin should run for president.

In any event, I welcome pumpkin days the way I welcome fall. Here in the Midwest, the changes of season are marked with something approaching reverence. Autumn is certainly one of our most delightful ones, conjuring images of colorful trees, the smell of wood smoke, and gleeful trick-or-treaters traipsing through the fallen leaves.

So I’ll sit here and enjoy my pumpkin scone accompanied by a pumpkin spice latte and wish you all a happy fall.

 

Take a Hike

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One of my favorite activities during my spa getaway last weekend was ironically one of the more arduous ones. My daughter and I arose at 6 am and joined a group hike in the mountains nearby. The light outside was dim and the air wonderfully cool when we reached Ventana Canyon. We immediately began a rocky climb as the sun slowly rose over the mountains.

The hike was hard enough that I found myself having to devote my full attention to it, and at times I regretted our swift pace because I wanted more time to savor and enjoy my desert surroundings. Cacti dotted the hills and rose like giant cucumbers from the tops of the mountains. The huge saguaro cacti, which our guide estimated to be about 150 years old, were impressive. Most of them were starting to flower, their buds slowly opening as the sun warmed the canyon. It’s so dry in Arizona that I was amazed anything at all could grow with the dearth of water. Yet there were graceful swaying trees and healthy shrubs everywhere I looked.

There was also some interesting wildlife. Mostly we saw birds, including a cardinal, but at the very start of our hike, a woman’s shriek alerted us to the presence of a colorful snake along our path. The guides examined it and determined it was not poisonous, but one of them admitted that he had seen mountain lions while hiking in these mountains. That did not surprise me. I had seen a bobcat puttering through a garden outside the meditation sanctuary at the ranch. The canyon is also home to Bighorn sheep, but we didn’t see any of those.

We made a few water and snack stops, and it was then that I could more fully enjoy the grandeur of the desert mountains. The breaks also gave us time to snap a few photos.

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Taking a hike was great for both body and soul. The next morning I awoke with sore thigh muscles but also a sense of the beauty and peace of nature in an environment so completely different from the one I’m used to at home.

So my advice the next time stress or cabin fever are making you crazy?

Take a hike!