Yesterday, on what would have been my mother’s 90th birthday, I mailed several forms to the Nurses’ Health Study at Harvard. She’s been gone almost three years and I’m convinced this was the last of the paperwork I’ll manage in the wake of her passing. I said that to my friend Rick and he laughed. He’s a lawyer.
My mother had a great big laugh that you could hear and recognize across a crowded room. Her ready laughter and sharp wit were there until her very last days along with her capacity for wonder and delight in the world around her. I can easily picture her face–mouth open, eyes wide as we stand at the rim of the Grand Canyon or under the canopy of the Redwood Forest. She was breathless at the sight of the Pacific Ocean, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, and the rolling prairies of Minnesota.
She was a smart woman who should have gone to college but my grandmother restricted her options to teachers’ college, secretarial school, or nurses’ training. My mother chose nursing because the program required students to live on campus. My grandmother was a tyrant but when my father struggled to keep a job my mother’s work as a nurse kept our family afloat.
She worked off and on throughout the 50’s and 60’s when most women of her background stayed at home. She was divorced in the late 60’s when divorce was treated like a social disease. A testament to her sense of humor, she often she said she hadn’t demanded liberation so much as had it thrust upon her.
When she finished nurses’ training she’d longed to travel to the southwest and work as a nurse on a reservation. My grandmother wouldn’t hear of it and my mother wasn’t bold enough at 20 to defy her. Instead, she did what was expected of her—obeyed her parents, married the person whose race, religion, and education met social expectations, had children. She felt utterly betrayed by life when it turned out that complying with the conventions of one’s social class offered no guarantee of security let alone happiness.
Over the course of her life, my mother often resisted and resented her circumstances but eventually the discordance between how she thought things were supposed to be and how they were became the foundation for a new self. She re-educated herself about race and class and religion and she sought connections across social barriers. She understood that cultural conventions are socially constructed and resisted the imposition of them on herself and on those around her. She freed her mind and urged everyone she knew, especially her children, to do the same. Thanks Mom!
I’ve recently worked up to thirty minutes on a pillow on the floor for meditation. And even more recently, I’ve stopped spending the first ten minutes thinking about my physical discomfort. So one morning last week, I was eager to start and didn’t notice that the lamp behind me was still on.
Well on my way to a quiet mind I heard a small click and noticed a barely perceptible change in the light beyond my closed eyelids. Happily my initial impulse was to ignore both the sound and the changing light but my curious mind got the best of me. I opened my eyes, looked around, and saw the lamp was off. Had I left it on? I flipped the switch. Nothing. I was on my feet flipping light switches. Nothing. Questions filled my mind. Is it the whole neighborhood or just our house? Was it caused by the construction project down the street or is there something wrong with our electricity?
Thinking I would return to the pillow once I had answers, I tried to access the electric company’s website. The site asks for account information. Ours is in my partner’s name but her phone number wasn’t in their system and I couldn’t remember her previous number. Their public site shows an outage map but the information was too general to satisfy me.
By now all thoughts of meditation were gone as I became immersed in busy-ness and counting grievances. I manage the household bills but I didn’t have a job when we moved here so that’s why the utilities are in Laura’s name. That still pisses me off. We’ve got to get that changed but we only think of it when something goes wrong. Like the time I sent the electric bill in almost 10 days late and they turned off the power and I had to wire money to pay it. Had that happened this time? I didn’t think so but the shame of that incident washed over me nevertheless. I went back into the online system and tried to change the password by generating an email to Laura. I sent her a text asking her to check her account. A few minutes later she called to say no email. What address had she used to set up the account? Neither of us remembered. My mind was churning through questions and causes as my frustrations grew.
Fortunately, Laura was done at work and said she was headed home. That information brought me, mercifully, back to the present. I knew I would ruin the rest of my day and hers in my current state of distress. I took a deep breath and continued to focus on my breathing, I reminded myself that we were in no danger, that there was nothing I could do to get the electricity turned on, and that I’m always looking for an excuse to go out to lunch.
This incident returned to me as I was reading Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth. He writes, “You cannot fight against the ego and win just as you cannot fight against darkness. The light of consciousness is all that is necessary. You are that light.”
Life didn’t give me bushels of tomatoes. My partner did. She’s compelled to fill our garden and will never cull a healthy plant. Our neighbor Jim plants by the same rules.
In past years, my amusement at so many tomatoes eventually gave way to frustration at the amount of energy I spent trying to find things to do with them. I didn’t expect this year to be any different.
We started out with cherry tomato and mozzarella salads. We added chard as it came in. When the big plants began to produce we gorged on BLT’s. We made sauce for pasta—ate it for dinner and froze the rest. We made and ate or froze ratatouille adding our homegrown eggplants and peppers. Our neighbor gave us a loaf of tomato basil bread (homegrown basil, of course). By that time we’d made several jars of tomato jam and gave him a one in exchange. The cherry tomatoes just kept coming so we cut them in half, tossed them with salt and pepper, cooked them for several hours, and voilà “sun-ripened” cherry tomatoes. Jim went out of town at the height of the season and begged us to pick his fruit. Now we had bags of them to give the folks attending the local community dinner and our friends down the street. I took several when visiting family in Ohio (they have tomatoes in Ohio but my brothers don’t grow their own). Late in the season, we found a recipe for tomato paste. Simple but time consuming, its virtues include the large number of tomatoes it requires, the ability to freeze it in an ice cube tray, and its fantastic flavor.
The tomato rush has ended and our freezer is full and so is my heart. In other years I’ve asked myself, “Why isn’t it Laura’s problem to figure out what to do with all those tomatoes and why agree to pick Jim’s when we already have too many?” This year I saw myself differently; not a passive observer but a key player in a system of entanglements formed by myself and my partner, our neighbor, our gardens, and our community. I didn’t use my energy to resist and resent reality, so I had as much as I needed for a creative and joyful tomato season.