Tuesday, September 11, 2007

About Food, Again

I recently heard a talk by a wonderful meditation teacher named James Barez. He said:

“In the Buddha’s teaching called Transcendental Dependent Arising, he lays out how suffering can lead to a joyful heart. The list (what’s a Buddhist teaching without a list?) starts by showing how suffering, when held in the light of wisdom and compassion, can be a causative factor for faith. Our hearts crack open as we see we have no control over life. Surrendering our imagined control, we learn to trust that we can meet what is here with wise attention. This is the birth of faith. Faith then leads to gladness, and gladness flowers into joy. So suffering, in the light of dharmic understanding, is actually a precursor to joy. We can choose whether or not to let our suffering lead us into a downward spiral or open our hearts to life, allowing the goodness to shine through.”

Of course this makes me think about food.

Backstage at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, there was a sign reading, “Thank you to the farmers who provided much of this food.” Logos appeared under the words, identifying which of the many Manitoba farms had donated produce and livestock so that we musicians could eat. Later, at the Fairmont hotel in downtown Winnipeg, I asked the waitress if the chicken in my salad was organic and free range. “Oh, yes,” she said. “Our chef won’t work with any meat that isn’t. And all of the vegetables are local too.”

As we drove into Northampton, on our way back from the airport, I noticed in several of the town restaurants those big yellow and green signs saying, “We support local farms.” “Local heroes,” others read. Am I just opening my eyes to these signs, or is a subtle but crucial cultural revolution occurring right now?

I choose to believe the latter, though it’s also true that I have had my consciousness raised recently by two wonderful books: Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, in which the well-known novelist chronicles her family’s year long experiment with eating locally, growing much of their own food, eschewing bananas and hewing closely to their farmer’s market. And The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s wonderful account of four meals he serves to his family and how each one of them came to be.

My love for organic farms has its origin in my first summer as a professional musician. Katryna and I had moved to Williamstown in 1991 to take that little town of 8000 by storm (our motto: first Spring Street, then THE WORLD!) Coincidentally, my great aunt Sally, an eighty year old Taoist and gardener, chose that same summer to move back to Williamstown, her girlhood home. She invited us over to tea and said, “I’ve just joined a local organic CSA (Community Supported Agricultural Farm) but I won’t be able to eat even a third of the vegetables. Why don’t you girls come with my on Tuesday and help me pick? I promise I’ll let you have all the sugar snap peas.”

That was the deal of the century. For the next few years, every Tuesday we drove Aunt Sally to Caretaker Farm, nestled in a valley of the Berkshires, and she sat in a rocking chair in the shade of the old barn and knit while Katryna and I picked green beans, peas, raspberries, strawberries, tomatoes and took home more fresh, delicious vegetables per week than we were used to eating in a year. Thus began my love affair with summer squash.

I’ve joined other CSAs over the years, and slowly learned the value of real, homegrown food. I began to get it that commercially grown food costs a lot more than the price tag would indicate: there are environmental and social costs the consumer pays in the form of taxes (subsidies for corn, wheat and soybean farmers) and in the form of environmental degradation (commercial fertilizers are literally killing the soil in the Midwest; age old methods such as crop rotation and the manures of local animals which used to protect the soil have been replaced by synthetic fertilizers which reduce the complex balance of elements in the soil to three: phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium.) In other countries, food costs more, and people generally budget for that, choosing nutrients over a new cell phone every year, and an entirely new wardrobe every season. Is this a bad thing? Certainly, no other country has the obesity epidemic we have, and perhaps a part of that is due to the cheap availability of calories here, many of them derived from soy and corn, turned into junk foods and soda.

When I buy a commercially raised chicken at Stop & Shop, it costs me $2.50 a pound. This chicken has probably spent its entire short sad life living in a room the size of my bathroom in a crate with 1200 other chickens, each in their own crate, stacked up one on top of another. Its beak has probably been removed so it won’t peck its neighbor in the tail feathers, a common occurrence among birds caged in this manner. As this isn’t the most supportive environment for the chicken, it needs supplements of antibiotics to keep it healthy. On the other hand, if I buy my chicken from a local farmer, or even at Whole Foods, and it’s been certified organic, or at least free range, that chicken will set me back more like $4 a lb, but I will know that my chicken pecked grubs and nibbled on grass and maybe even sat on eggs and knew its mother for few weeks of its chicken life.

As I am writing this, I have the same strange mixture of anger, shame and hope that I always have when I write about the places where my desire to be a good citizen of the planet collides with my desire to be accepted as one among many fallen humans, normal people who just want to live a good life, who want to enjoy the occasional chicken McNugget and not have that moment ruined for them by a Climate Change Cassandra campaigning against junk food. In other words I feel the need to apologize. There is no issue that divides people as quickly as food, and this makes sense, of course. Do you know anyone on the planet who likes and hates all the same foods you like and hate? Every mother I know tells me serving dinner to her family of three, four or five is almost impossible: someone’s not going to like something. Why should it be any different with our food politics? These issues are complex. My current belief that it’s more virtuous to eat locally means I no longer buy my weekly box of mangos from Tran, the owner of a wonderful local Asian market because that box was shipped from Haiti and cost who knows how much fossil fuel not to mention the mango pickers might not have been paid a fair wage. But where does that leave Tran? Michael Pollan writes about how monocultures-the growing of just one crop on a given plot—is one of the root problems in our agricultural system, and the solution is to support small, local farms who provide many types of plants and livestock, rotating fields, using the manure of the animals to nourish the crops, and using the grass of the fields to nourish the animals. But in our global economy, we now have farmers in third world countries committed to growing monocultures to feed our curious and growing appetites for exotic fruits and vegetables, which we’d like to have available all year long, and not merely when they’re in season. Do we pull the rug out from under them?

At Winnipeg, we ran into an old friend, and got to talking about the OTHER big concert happening that day.

“Can you believe Madonna?” he scoffed as we watched the Manitoba sunset at 10:15pm. “Doing this Live Earth benefit, pretending to be all holier than thou, and here she is flying her own jet to get to her stage. Some carbon footprint!”

“Yeah,” said my sister Katryna. “But don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

This has been our mantra recently. Also, “It’s not easy being green.” My mother just called to tell me she was eating nothing but local food, and the seventeen-year-old in me wanted to point out that her rice had come from China, her peach from California, her chicken from God knows where and her coffee from Indonesia. But good for you, Mom, for your zucchini and tomato!

Where does that get me? Into a cranky, aversive judgmental place. Glass houses. We all have plenty of environmental sins; no one’s hands are clean. The problem is there are too many of us using the slim resources the earth has to give us, and by that logic, we are guilty for just being alive. But where’s the hope in that? Thinking along these lines—judging my mother, looking at anyone’s plate besides my own, for that matter--just brings me to a place of despair.

Here’s what I like better: I like to think of the changes I feel called to make as challenges, sort of like the challenges I faced when I was starting my music career. Or the challenges I like to think I would take on if I were ever crazy enough to train for a triathlon. Eat locally? Sure! That’ll be fun! I’ll find some farmers and get to know them; ask why they make the choices they make, put a face behind the food on my dinner plate. Feel good knowing that my dollars are going into the pockets of those neighbors with the red barn and the big fields so that their kids can go to college or take over the business when the time comes. Use less fuel? Hey! What a good way to get more exercise, burn some calories, see my town from the vantage point of a bike or on foot. And when I’m on foot, I run into more people I know. Spend less money on the various plastic things I buy, the cheap clothes and ingenious gadgets (like the new iPhone I covet)? Great! I’ll save money and find other ways to spend my time (which is not exactly one of my problems.) If I can take the Buddha’s precept about suffering turning to joy, it’s easy to make these small sacrifices, and I do always find the surrender a gift, that when I give something up, my pack becomes lighter and my journey therefore more easy and pleasant. But that’s my journey—not anyone else’s. So above all, I get to be gentle with all the other six billion humans stalking the planet, and be gentle with myself, treading as lightly as I can and knowing that even with the best of intentions, I’m still going to make an impact.

Monday, September 10, 2007

In Defense of Reading Harry Potter

One day in early August, our babysitter arrived at the usual time, and as I was handing Lila to her, along with Lila’s tofu, wild rice and cheese, she said, “I hope Tom told you I have to leave at 3:30 today. Doctor’s appointment. I told him last week.”

Suffice it to say Tom had not told me, nor did he remember being told even when I pressed him on it. As I had two clients after 3:30, I had to scramble to switch them. Though it all worked out, I felt like a victim of my own mess of systems—the unsynchronized palm pilot, the colorful calendar on my computer, the scrawled To Do list which my sister inadvertently took with her to the Adirondacks, and the non-existent family calendar we keep meaning to create. And the results of my disorganization are manifold—the kitchen floor covered with bits of tofu, wild rice and cheese; the dirty diapers in mid-cycle in the washing machine; my not yet unpacked suitcase from last weekend’s gigs; the manuscripts to all three of my current book projects in my office (not to mention penultimate printouts which may or may not be in boxes in the attic); the DVD of the HBO Drama Big Love half-played in my computer; the leggy runners keeping my roses from blooming. But at least I finished Harry Potter.

I’m only kind of kidding. That day, I did something I almost never do: I lay in bed after lunch and read 200 pages of a novel. The day was sunny and too hot even in the shade, but my bedroom was cool and I had a mason jar full of water and a gripping story to dwell within. I laughed and cried and cheered and felt when I had finished that there was no better way I could have spent my time.

For me, this is progress. Some of my dear friends have pointed out that I am something of a workaholic. “It’s your Capricorn rising,” say my astrology pals. “You can’t bear to let people down.”

While this is true, it’s not the whole story. Fear of disappointing people is not the motor that drives me to work. I like to work because my work is mesmerizing, compelling and rewarding. Right now I am making little movies of my band to put on YouTube. I am touring our new CD Sister Holler. I am editing The Big Idea to release as a serial, and I am writing songs to go with it. I get to coach fascinating people, people whose calls I look forward to taking. And I get to participate in writing groups in my own living room. What’s not to love?

But as I’ve said before, the problem with loving your work (be careful what you wish for) is that if you wade too deeply into it, you risk being pulled out by one of the strongest undertows known to man—the undertow of success. As my astrology pal recognized, one of the pitfalls of success is that it says, “See how important you are? All these people are waiting for you to do the next successful thing. They need you! They are counting on you!” And while this sometimes might appear true—people might even write you letters and tell you just this—it’s really not. You are somewhat replaceable. I say “somewhat” because I also believe that each of us is a unique channel and all that Martha Graham blah blah blah that I’m constantly quoting.* __The other pitfall is the way in which the best, most delicious, fun “work” takes you away from your feelings, from any kind of pain you might be in and might need to address. When I am feeling restless, irritable and discontented in any way, my favorite diversion is to start planning how I am going to fill up my time with useful and productive Things To Do.

But ultimately, when it comes down to a choice between your work and what for lack of a better word I will call your equanimity, I would hope to chose equanimity every time. By equanimity, I mean that sense of rightness within yourself. That sense of balance. I know I have it when I pass my reflection in the mirror and have the thought, “She looks like a nice person. I trust her.” I know I have it when I don’t feel like I’m on speed. I might be full of energy and able to handle the diapers, the manuscripts and my daily jog, but the energy seems to be coming from deep within; not the fleeting caffeinated high I often settle for.

And if you live with people you love, equanimity is about sharing the best parts of yourself with them, and not hoping they will settle for the half-asleep remnants of what is left of you when you spend your day racing from one flaming bush to the next. It’s about getting down on the carpet or the lawn and playing with your child. It’s about asking your partner how his or her day was and really listening for the follow up. It’s about looking those people in the eye and holding contact.

And most importantly, it’s about giving yourself—your dear, worn, imperfect, trying-her-best self-- a break; a break that won’t break you, like going on a shopping spree you can’t afford, or eating a tray full of spice cake. Rather, it’s about pretending for a second that you are the absolutely, uniquely, perfect mother for you; and given that, what would be the kindest, most helpful thing you could do with your time? Perhaps paying attention to your food as you eat a nutritious lunch. Perhaps going for a slow walk by the river. Perhaps riding your bike to an art museum. Perhaps browsing in a book store. Maybe it’s actually tackling that closet full of clothes that don’t fit and packing them off to Good Will. For me, yesterday, it was letting the tofu and cheese remain on the floor for a few hours while I finished a fun novel with my feet up while Lila was downstairs playing with a babysitter.

Even writing those words, I feel a twinge of guilt. The army of “I shoulds!” comes marching out of my ears and I expect thousands of “good” mothers and fiscally responsible householders to condemn me for my sloth and extravagance. Also, I expect that all of you reading this are wondering how I, self-proclaimed time management guru, could possibly schedule such an activity during the peak productivity hours of the day. (I have a lot to say about so called peak productivity hours, but I’ll save that for later.) What I’ll say now is that in the simple act of writing what I have just written, I no longer feel like the victim of my mess of time management systems, but rather the conqueror. For I see that I’ve achieved exactly what all those systems hope to promote, and that is a happy balanced life. Who ever said dirty diapers have no place in a happy balanced life? Who ever said a happy balanced life never left a residue of cheese on a kitchen’s wood floor? These artifacts are ample evidence of the life we are all craving, because they are proof that we are living fully, richly, messily, creatively. My daughter has a big bucket of blocks which are, most of the time, not encased in their bucket but dumped out all over the floor. What purpose do the blocks serve? They are not the kind of blocks that make building meant to last for more than five minutes. From a certain perspective, one could imagine their purpose is to cover the carpet. But I see Lila playing with the blocks. She loves to dump them on the floor, yes, but she also loves to put them back one by one, singing her “Put It Back” song which goes, “Ba---Ba,” to the tune of “Sol-Do.” She also loves to pick one block out and cradle it to her chest and carry it with her all over the house, leaving it finally in some incongruous place like my desk or the toilet. This is part of what she needs to do to learn how the world works. Life is inherently messy.

Because I took a long delicious break in the middle of the day yesterday to enjoy Harry Potter, I was cheerful and present today. I felt spoiled, as though I’d gotten a massage. I felt like someone whose job it was to take care of me exquisitely succeeded. Who knows? Tonight I might even unpack my suitcase.

*FYI, the Martha Graham quote: _"There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open."-Martha Graham