Monday, January 28, 2013

A Holding Pattern...

Unripe fruit – neither ripening nor rotting – on a papaya tree

Simply Living
January 28, 2013

Even though it’s winter, the papaya tree on the south side of our house still has fruit.  The fruit aren’t ripe nor have they noticeably matured over the last few months.  On the other hand, they haven’t frozen or fallen off.  They haven’t rotted either.  They’re in a holding pattern, a tropical plant trying to exist in a semi-tropical locale.

I can identify with the papaya.  I’m hanging on too, waiting to see what will happen.

We all go through situations with resolutions beyond our control.  We wait.  We wonder.  We anticipate results.  What kind of winds will blow?  Will they be cold and biting or warm with relief?

With plants, the answer is relatively simple and unimportant.  Sure, I want the papaya tree to survive.  I’d love to know it made it through the winter so we can reap our reward and enjoy the sweet fruit.  But if it doesn’t make it – if the fruits fall to the ground and rot - it will be a small disappointment.  

We tried.  We failed.  We’ll try harder next time.

With people, it’s different.  The result is everything, the waiting interminable.  We do our best to improve situations.  We ask questions, do research, discuss and debate.  Ultimately, it’s no different than it is with the papaya.  We hang on and wait to see what will transpire.

To be a successful gardener, you must choose the right plants to put in the proper location at the appropriate time of year.  If you provide adequate water, the right soil mixture and fertilizers and monitor pests, there’s a good chance the plants will thrive. 

But not always. 

Unanticipated variables can arise.  Unexpected weather shifts can wreak havoc on a garden or grove.  So can insect infestations or damage done by animals.  Sometimes plants don’t thrive even when it seems you’ve done everything right.  

That’s how it can be with people too.

You nurture your internal garden.  You plant judiciously, feed and exercise with care.  You provide balance and an ideal locale.  Still unexpected variables emerge, dispelling intentions, redirecting plans. 

Sometimes I wish it were simpler.  I wish for a formula – a prescription of truth.  In my personal sci-fi fantasy, we start each day by stepping into a fail-proof machine to calculate body chemistry.  If the machine finds an excess or lack of a specific nutrient, it spells out in unequivocal detail a remedy for the problem.  No conflicting data.  No Google search needed. 

Although I try not to squander valuable time contemplating imaginary scenarios, lately I can’t help but wish for something better than our current medical system.  When plants are in a holding pattern, we can afford to let them be but people are too precious for a similar passivity.

Unfortunately, conversations about health care reform often fail to answer the most basic of questions.  For instance, why should it be so difficult to find out how much specific medical services cost?  In no other industry are prices so infuriatingly inaccessible.  Treatment options are another subject of inscrutability.  There is no consensus among medical experts.  How is a patient supposed to know what information to believe, what path to follow, what direction to take?  Finally, why do health care professionals continue to rely on outdated modes of communication like faxes and written records when every other industry has switched to online or email transmissions? 

When I look out the window and see the unripe papayas still hanging on the tree, I see a simple plant with an unknown future to be determined by climate, weather and timing.  Like the papaya fruit, I’m in a holding pattern but without answers so simple or clear-cut.  

Hopefully, both there will be a sweet ending, a fruitful conclusion to an uncertain fate.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Learning happens one wobbly step at a time

At the beach, 11-month-old Trillian practices her newly learned walking skills

Simply Living
January 21, 2013

My 11-month old granddaughter recently learned to walk.  Over the past two months, her balance has rapidly improved but she still falls often, landing with a plop on her padded bottom before picking herself up and waddling off again.

During a recent outing to the beach, her mother confided in me with a certain amount of anxiety, “She still falls a lot.”

I watched my granddaughter’s happy face as her stubby legs forged an unsteady course across the sandy shore.  I then turned to my daughter and said, “She does fall often but she gets back up and tries again.  That’s what babies do.”

Although the day continued without further discussion about toddlers learning to walk, my mind kept revisiting the subject.  Little children take falls in stride but somewhere along the line that changes.  Falls feel like failure.  Why does that happen?

My granddaughter Trillian is too little to be aware of the concept of failure.  For her, every plop to the ground is another chance to practice her pick-myself-up skills.  She gets up and we adults applaud her efforts.  We even lavish encouragement.  “Good job!” we say as she waddles over for a congratulatory hug.

What would happen if grownups received similar support? 

I’m currently trying to learn a myriad of financial operations.  My husband is teaching me how to navigate computer bookkeeping and banking programs.  Like my granddaughter, I find myself often failing, making mistakes and having to start over again.  However, unlike Trillian, I don’t do it with a smile on my face nor is my rebound from those errors a rousing gush of encouragement.  I often feel frustrated, slow and dimwitted. 

In reality, failure is the key to success. 

If little kids got frustrated as quickly as grownups do they’d never learn anything.  Every skill we have is accomplished through practice, patience and persistence.  We try then we try again.  Over and over the task is repeated until it’s perfected.  In childhood, that’s a given.  In adulthood, not so much.  For some reason we assume adults should instinctively know how to do things.  Maybe not on the first try but surely by the second. 

News flash: That’s not how it works.

Regardless of age or skill set, learning only happens after repeated failures.  I look at my granddaughter’s attempts to stand upright and navigate on two feet and I see how much she has accomplished in such a short time.  If I gave my own attempts to learn new skills a similar appraisal, I’d feel equally impressed.  I make mistakes but I also make headway.  My knowledge of how to navigate complicated computer programs has increased and my understanding of financial matters has improved.  Like Trillian, I’m still a bit wobbly, but I am making progress.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”  

Little children know that instinctively but adults need reminding.  Watching Trillian on the beach reminded me that learning happens one-step at a time with many a fall in between.  The important thing is to not give up and maybe even try to move forward with a smile.     

Monday, January 14, 2013

Our January tomatoes

Tomatoes lined up waiting to be eaten

Simply Living
January 14, 2013

We were sitting at the kitchen table eating a lunch that included thick slices of a plump, red tomato freshly picked from one of the plants in the sunroom.

“I think I finally understand why my mother liked tomatoes so much,” Ralph said as he took another bite of the sandwich he made by wrapping tender young broccoli and kale leaves around slices of tomato, avocado and chives.    

A few weeks before, when winter chills seemed imminent, we moved a couple dozen cold-sensitive container plants including several tomatoes vines heavy with unripe, green fruit into the sun-warmed space.  The heat-loving tomatoes wasted no time responding to their new location.  Within days, hints of red appeared on the green orbs and shortly after, they grew flush with color.

Ralph was amazed by their rapid transformation.  “Did you see how many tomatoes are ripening?” he asked.  “They look incredible.”

He’s right.  They did.  At one point, we picked five ripe tomatoes off a single plant. 

This is the first year we’ve tried raising vegetables, herbs and a few flowers inside a solar-heated room attached to our house.  In addition to tomatoes, we are growing (and eating) sweet peppers, basil and Orlando eggplant.  The bush beans are just beginning and tiny young cukes have begun to form on the cucumber vines.

My garden-loving husband is delighted with this newly discovered means of extending the growing season.  He has been pleasantly surprised by how well all the vegetables are doing but nothing has astonished him more than the tomatoes.

Ralph didn’t think he liked tomatoes.  At least that’s what he had come to believe.

Like many deep-rooted convictions, Ralph’s resistance to tomatoes stemmed from his childhood.  His mother, Mary Boas, was an avid gardener who refused to limit her growing season.  She saved and started her own seeds, had prolific indoor displays of forced flower bulbs in winter and tended to extensive outdoor flower and vegetable gardens during the spring, summer and autumn. 

If you asked me what type of flower my mother-in-law liked best, I’d have to say roses even though she was passionate about many different blooms.  As a teen and into his adulthood Ralph helped his mother with garden chores including pruning rosebushes.  All those hours snipping thorny stems must have made an impression because to this day, he does his best to avoid any contact with those prickly beauties. 

Choosing my mother-in-law’s favorite flower is difficult because she liked so many, but there’s no doubt which vegetable she favored.  Tomatoes were her number one, hands-down choice and she grew some beauties.  As a boy and young man, Ralph helped his mother by pruning, supporting and tying tomato vines.  He sprayed the plants for pests, applied fertilizer and, of course, picked the fruit when they ripened.  However, instead of making him love tomatoes, all the work he did pampering his mother’s precious plants had the opposite effect.  Once he grew up and had his own gardens, he didn’t want to grow tomatoes at all.  

Fortunately, that changed this year after we rescued a few scrawny seedlings from a tenant’s abandoned garden.  Ralph repotted the runts and lavished them with attention.  The plants responded by growing fuller and developing fruit.  After we moved them into the sunroom, they really took off.  Before long, he tasted the results of his labor.  

“I guess I never realized how delicious tomatoes can be,” he admitted after taking yet another bite of his creative sandwich.

Understanding doesn’t always come quickly.  But when it does - like a good tomato - it’s meant to be savored. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

A quest for silliness!

Acting silly is too much fun to be only for the young.  

Simply Living
January 7, 2013

I was walking through the parking lot on my way to the grocery store.  A few paces in front of me were a preschool-aged girl accompanied by a woman who might have been her mother.  The woman was doing what we grownups do, walking steadfastly toward the double entry doors with practiced, measured steps.  I imagine that she, like me, had a long list of chores, and the grocery run was just one more stop to check off of an endless to-do list.

The little girl, however, was oblivious to such mundane motives or tasks.  For her, the trip to the store was probably an exciting outing with a person she adored.  Although she stayed close to her adult companion, the ponytailed lass pranced about with unbridled bliss.  It looked more as if she was crossing a dance floor than a sidewalk.  Her small body was a wiggly swirl of motion as she skipped, twirled and hopped her way into the store.

I followed behind, transfixed by the sight of such unleashed ebullience.
Little kids play.  That’s what they do.  Instead of moving in a straight line, they twist, whirl and weave their way through life.  It’s what we expect of them and it’s good.  But somewhere along the way, usually around the age of six or seven, children learn to behave.  Social awareness kicks in and spontaneous expressions of unsuppressed joy diminish, if not entirely disappear.  A proper sense of decorum seeps into their unconscious until they are consciously aware of what other people think.

The little girl I watched had not yet learned to restrict her motions.  She was unaware of other people’s opinions.  Her body retained the uncivilized exuberance of youth, free from commands to ‘stand up straight,’ ‘keep in line’ and ‘be quiet.’ 

I watched her and thought, “Why does it have to end?  Why must we grow up to muffle our emotions and become so stiffly civilized?” 

It’s an odd juxtaposition.  Adults find kids at play adorable but consider such playfulness in adult behavior inappropriate.  We watch children’s antics with nostalgic bemusement, wistfully recalling how we used to do that sort of thing when we were young but don’t do so anymore because now we’re grown up.  Time has passed.  We know better. 

I wonder if we do.

When I encounter a child like the happy little girl enjoying her grocery store outing, I see what I’ve lost and realize it’s much more than youth.  It’s the ability to be in the moment, to appreciate where I am and what I am doing.  I’ve lost my joie de vivre, my playful enthusiasm. 

That doesn’t mean I can’t find it again.  I often do.

Observing children reminds me to be playful myself.  I may not follow the little girl’s example and skip into the store, but when I’m leaving the market, I like to hop onto the shopping cart and ride my way back to the car.  Sometimes I access my inner silly by stopping to pick up pennies (yes, I actually bend down when I see one and pick it up) or by pretending a curb is a balance beam and trying to walk its length without falling off (not as easy as you’d think).  And if it’s raining when I come out of a store, I often slip off my shoes and splash in some puddles as I run back to my car. 

These are just a few small ways I’ve found to reclaim the bliss of youth, to revisit the little girl inside me, my once playful self.  As this New Year begins, instead of looking ahead, I’m going to look back.  I’m going to continue trying to be a kid again if only for a few minutes at a time.  In 2012, I hereby resolve to act silly.  I resolve to have fun!