Peace Begins With Me

Sunburst through a bus window
Illumination

Peace begins with me.
I live in one of “those” neighborhoods where the cops don’t come when called.
I live in a community of all colors, some serene, some desperate, some dangerous.
Love and hate coexist on these streets.

Peace begins with me.
I walk without fear, but with great awareness.
I am small, older, female.
My strength does not lie in physical prowess, but in knowing my surroundings.
I make no apology for avoiding what makes me uneasy.
I am part of the night, and the night protects me.

Peace begins with me.
I don’t have a gun.
I will never get one.
Words are my protection.
I won’t tell you how to live.
I understand that your experience is not mine, and belongs to you alone.
The world is an exciting, strange, and possibly dangerous place.

Peace begins with me.
I believe that the world might kill me, but is always trying to shower me with blessings.
Someday, death might well be one of these.
I try, always, to be part of the solution.

Peace begins with me.
I can’t look away.
I can’t stop it either.

Only *we* can.

 

Where Are Your Edges?

Red-tailed hawk sitting on the roof of a car
Encounter With A Hawk

I had an encounter with a red-tailed hawk recently. I was on my way to work, walking up the hill to the bus stop. It’s a nice way to start the day. I’m almost always completely alone among the quiet houses and have space to think and gather the peace of the neighborhood around me. The hawk and I surprised each other. It seemed to fall out of nowhere, landing with a soft thump on the roof of a car just ahead of me. In this quiet space, our meeting was the last thing either of us expected. I stopped, then quietly pulled my phone out of my pocket before creeping forward. Zooming a phone camera always results in a grainy picture, but it was the only way to be sure of getting a shot, so I did it. The hawk looked at me, then flew off to a nearby fence. I followed slowly and quietly and got another shot.

We shared a moment of connection in that short space of time. The hawk didn’t really want to be anywhere near a human, but wasn’t afraid, knowing its wings held safety and reading in my movements that I wasn’t an immediate threat. I, however, wanted the moment to last as long as possible. I looked past the bird rather than directly meeting its eyes, hoping to appear less of a threat, and as it fluffed its feathers I took another shot. It hopped into the air and was gone.

I felt lucky, connected, blessed. I felt a part of my neighborhood in a way I hadn’t a moment before. The wildness is still here to be found in the city, available to all of us. All we have to do is look, listen, and be quiet enough to let it venture close to us. We just need to blend in. We just have to know where our edges are, how far they extend, how and where they meet those of others.

We all have edges. That’s where mystery and power lie. We don’t always pay a lot of attention to them, though. For a moment, the hawk and I shared that awareness. Our unexpected encounter was in balance for a short time, the hawk willing to stay and be observed as long as the distance between us and the quality of energy remained within its comfort zone. The moment may have been longer had I not chosen to pull out a camera, and maybe if there’s a next time I’ll make a different choice. Like a pair of fencers we shared a moment shaped by proximity and intent on a cool gray morning in the heart of the city.

Quiet and awareness are available to all of us at any time. Sitting on a bus, driving a car, even shopping for groceries can be done fully in the moment. I enjoy walking and bicycling so much because both modes of transport give me space to think and be aware of my surroundings. They are enhanced by such awareness. I may not particularly like the neighborhood I live in, but I know it well because I see it at walking speeds and know its beauties as well as its shortcomings. I belong to it and it to me in ways I didn’t when I only drove through it. The moments of our lives are all we really have and we don’t experience them when we’re waiting for this commute to be over, or thinking about what happened the day before. The hawk doesn’t have that problem. For it, it is always now.

I’m deliciously alone when I walk through my neighborhood. This is wealth indeed. On the side streets I essentially have a beautiful estate, full of trees and animals, all to myself. Since almost everyone drives and the few people I encounter are on their way from their cars to their destinations, or reversing that journey, there is rarely any interaction at all. I’m also deliciously alone, however, when I walk the streets of San Francisco. Columbus Avenue is the fastest, flattest way between my workplace and the transit station. It’s two miles through North Beach, in the heart of the city, and though it is well traveled, unless you go out of your way to strike up a conversation, you will usually be left to your own devices. This is actually not as alienating and barren as some who do not live in cities describe it to be. It’s actually a way of giving each other space in the cauldron of activity and stimulation that is a large city. There’s a scene in the first Crocodile Dundee movie that plays with this concept. The main character tries to greet everyone he meets on a crowded New York street. In his small town, this is possible and desirable. In a large city, it’s impossible and exhausting. It is, however, possible to make friends and be a part of the community, and fairly quickly this is what he does. By working with the environment you’re in, instead of lamenting how it isn’t the way things are where you come from, you become part of what is instead of alienated and unhappy. We humans have so many different ways of relating to each other, and we can choose to cocreate our shared space. We can even do it with other species, as the hawk and I did, and as I do with squirrels and other urban wildlife. And if someone in the city needs directions or other interaction, surely it isn’t that difficult to switch gears?

We can choose to be aware of our edges and of those of others around us. Like the first few minutes driving an unfamiliar vehicle, we can and should spend a minute or two finding out where we are on the sidewalk, as we climb onto a crowded city bus, or when we step onto a forest trail. Who and what do we share the space with? Where are our blind spots? Can we see the sky? Sometimes it’s wonderful to block out the sound of other peoples’ phone calls or conversations with headphones, but if we do it all the time we’ll miss the birdsongs in the morning and the interactions we could be having. We’ll miss the chance to be part of where and when we are. We won’t see that hawk.

Stinson Beach and a Seagull Caught In Flight
Seagull Caught In Flight

The Goddess of Life and Death Screwed Up…

I may have killed an entire ecosystem. It was my creation, and under my care, and I let creative neglect go a little too far…

I have a worm bin, underneath a tiny oak tree next to my house. It’s a nice little space, shady and cool, and I was pretty diligent for years, dumping our coffee grounds, teabags, and other carefully selected compost into it on a regular basis. I would say, jokingly, as I took off the lid to their world, making the worms wriggle for the darkness and disturbing the other creatures that made up that tiny world, that I was the Goddess of Life And Death. I tried hard to return all the worms to the bin as I harvested finished compost and I watered them with the plants and drew off the wonderful dark liquid that is the only fertilizer we have ever needed for our garden.

This year I didn’t plant a garden. The onion and tomato pests have gotten out of hand because those are our favorite vegetables and we do not use any form of pest control other than soapy water and diatomaceous earth. The ladybugs have returned, among other beneficial insects, and we have decided to see what happens if we work with the land. Snails and other large pests can be thrown to the chickens, after all. I’d decided not to plant tomatoes or alliums of any type this year because we’ve been doing it too many years in a row. The place at the Farmers Market that used to sell a wonderful variety of plant starts in the spring has gone upscale and nothing in the tiny selection they had this year appealed. By the time May rolled around I realized that this was going to be a fallow year and I was fine with that. We still have the herbs and the strawberries, and there’s no shame in taking a rest from gardening and letting the land do the same.

We also have a rabbit. Every day we’re home, she gets to spend most of the day in a small fenced area where the grass is allowed to grow long and she can play among rocks and put her four feet on the quiet earth. Unfortunately, that corner is also where the door to get to the worm bin is. When we switched from a hose to a watering can, there was no longer a reason to use the gate. Slowly, the bin got forgotten. In winter, this was fine. The weather kept it moist, and there was still quite a bit to eat in there. But summer came and with it the dry months of the year. Last night I remembered the bin. We collected the artichoke leaves from dinner, teabags from the iced tea container and the breakfast coffee grounds and this morning I went out to see what was left.

A silent world lay under the lid. I dug around with my hands in the dry top layer and my heart sank. I found a few tiny worms struggling to survive and put them on top of the bowl of food. I pulled the top box and surprisingly, there were more worms alive down there where there was less food, but more moisture. I pulled a large empty planting pot over and carefully dumped the top bin into it, transferring every live worm I could find into the bottom box, where I dumped the food. It became the new top, and I lined the empty box with a chicken feed bag to become the new bottom. I drained off all the dark brown water and dumped the sludge into the pot of finished compost along with soil from empty lettuce bins. Stirred with a shovel and mulched, I left it to become rich soil. In a few days I will take the selected compost we will accumulate and feed it to the bin. If the worms that are left manage to survive and their world begins to come back, in a few months it will be as if nothing has happened for them. I intend to be more careful in the future.

I don’t see the point in guilt in this situation, but I do feel responsible for what happened, and for the future. If I no longer want to care for something that is alive, whether it’s a plant, a worm, or a chicken, I do have to either pass on the responsibility, let the creature go, or end the life. Just letting a closed ecosystem, which is essentially what a worm bin is, die slowly is no different than letting an animal in a cage die of thirst and starvation. It is no different than the way the human species is treating this planet that we live on. For example, downtown there’s a planted area in front of an office building. It used to be full of birches. Beautiful and green, it used to be a place to feast my eyes on as I waited for the bus home. It is really nothing more than an enormous planter box, though. When the trees got too big, they were ripped out. New saplings of a different species are now planted there. The restaurants I walk past in the morning have small planter boxes to define their outdoor seating area. Every six months, the plants are replaced when the old ones die or grow too large for the box. This brings me back to the rabbit. Shanti, as we have named her, was probably a kid’s pet. She was left on the lawn at work a couple of years ago, a couple of months after Easter. Skinny and small, all she wanted was to be loved. We didn’t want a rabbit, but she had nowhere else to go. So she joined the menagerie. Our cats were abandoned on our porch as kittens. They’re bottle babies. Two survived out of a litter of five. The chickens and the worms are the only animals we intentionally brought into this house.

This is how we treat plants and animals. As accessories and furniture. If an animal becomes inconvenient, we get rid of it. If a plant doesn’t fit our vision, or if it was poorly chosen for the space it inhabits and the size it will eventually be, we do the same. I had to do this myself when the ivy that used to fill my front yard popped the retaining wall that holds our house above the street. We chose rosemary and lavender to replace it and hope they will not become a problem in a century as the ivy did. The oak beside the house will also probably have to go in the end as it is inches from the foundation.

I’m planting nothing perennial in this yard except for the lavender and rosemary. I long for a lemon tree, but the yard is too small to handle it. We spend far too much time beating back the runner bamboo from the property on one side of us, and the ivy from the yard on the other side to create another future problem. The owners of the apartment buildings on either side refuse to see that there is any problem and as they are absentee owners, it is much easier to just trim and uproot diligently than make this into a court case. It is better to live within these limitations than to create a larger mess, legal or ecological. We have long outgrown this yard and this house. Like this planet, it seemed limitless when we moved in, but now we have found the edges of the space and what we can do with it. Four chickens, one rabbit, two cats and two people. And a bin full of worms. That is plenty for now.

We’ve found pretty sustainable solutions for this small space we live in. We’ve even made a dent in cleaning up some of the messes of others. All the tools we need are here to hand, and all we needed to do was think the problems through. It was even fun, in places. The cats are cuddly and well trained, and while I never want to have to do it again, getting up multiple times at night to feed them was fun, as was watching them grow. The rabbit is pretty sweet, and between her, the chickens, and the worms, we have all the compost we will ever need, plus pretty high quality eggs. It’s the same with our planet. We have everything we need to fix our problems. All we have to do is be willing to think creatively–and this seems to be the hard part–change our routines.

So many things are becoming fashionable. It’s easy to laugh at people drinking out of canning jars and growing beards, but beneath the affectations there’s a new sensibility growing. We need to rethink the way we treat each other, and the world around us. We need to think before we buy something and look for quality, durability, suitability–even if it means we have to wait a little before we get what we really want. Think of where something came from, whether it’s a cup of coffee or your next iPhone. And think of where it will go. We humans have an awareness of past, present, and future that few, if any other species, have. Our power has far outstripped our responsibility. Our choices will define the future. What kind of a world do we want to leave behind? I think it’s really that simple.