Health and Other Worthwhile Things: On The Ecology of Care by Didi Pershouse

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Photo of Green String Farm byLyle Poulin

A few years after finishing my undergraduate degree in creative writing, I apprenticed and worked on small farms, inspired in part by the writing of Wendell Berry. In an interview in one of my favorite magazines at the time, The Sun, Berry had spoken persuasively about the importance of being rooted in community, caring deeply for the land, and cultivating local economies, in an effort to rebuild sustainability for ourselves and our troubled environment. He also gently suggested that the interviewer not get too hung up on the identity of writer, because “there are lots of other worthwhile things you can do.”

This sentence was jarring. It allowed me to admit my frustration in viewing my creative work as my single purpose, and translating that into my sole means of financial support. I felt I wasn’t meant to do just one thing, and yet much of my training and the gist of the popular idea of a “serious” writer pushed me to do just that.

Beyond restlessness and money fears, I also felt hungry for work that would feed me and my neighbors, while addressing some of the dysfunction of modern life that nagged at my consciousness. As I apprenticed at Green String Farm, then worked for non-profit Petaluma Bounty Farm, I got firsthand lessons in growing food using natural process farming.

One of the main tenets of this approach is that to grow truly nutritious food, you need to feed the soil first— and to understand it as a community of microbes, fungi, organic material, and more. Soil health depends on diversity and balance. What a perfect metaphor for my own health! I, too, needed to do a range of “worthwhile things” in order to find balance. In tending the soil, I was tending not just the plants that grew in it, but also my body and spirit. In experiencing the satisfaction of nourishing myself and others, I got a taste of the fulfillment I was looking for.

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Book cover image courtesy of Didi Pershouse

This deeper understanding of the foundations of health is at the heart of a surprising new book: The Ecology of Care: Medicine, Agriculture, Money, and the Quiet Power of Human and Microbial Communities, by Didi Pershouse (Mycelium Books, 2016). Part memoir and part fact-driven analysis of modern farming and medicine, The Ecology of Care describes Pershouse’s gradual shift from her work in private acupuncture, to community acupuncture and advocacy for soil restoration. It’s a beautifully-written, hope-filled prescription for an embrace of community at every level— perhaps our best shot of surviving our climate crisis.

Pershouse draws connections between the soil degradation wrought by the industrial food system, and the harm done to our bodies by industrial medicine. Since “we are what we eat,” there’s a lot of overlap. Over the past century, we’ve shifted from small, diverse farms to profit-driven mono-cropping, and our guts reflect that change. Stripping the topsoil of micronutrients and microbes, and lacing food crops with pesticides and herbicides, we’ve experienced a corresponding loss of microbial diversity in our bodies, and an increase in disease processes related to the ingestion of chemicals. Likewise, as our systems of care shifted from village doctors, midwives, and herbalists to for-profit hospitals and privatized insurance, the cost of care has skyrocketed while quality has plummeted.

But there’s hope.

A re-invigoration of community-based healthcare can decrease costs and increase quality of care, while reducing the vast carbon footprint of an over-reliance on hospitals for basic care. An embrace of farming practices dedicated to creating a “soil carbon sponge” can help harness the excess carbon driving climate change, while restoring soil health.

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Photo by Lyle Poulin

A born scientist and gifted artist, Pershouse is both methodical in her research and emotionally persuasive in her writing. She brings humor and nuance to her discussion of the complicated history described above. In an era of alarmism, Pershouse’s work is refreshing in its commitment to both honesty and optimism. She moderates her appraisal of each system’s failures by offering tangible alternative frameworks, and allowing for emotional responsiveness. These challenges are significant, and Pershouse’s work is sustained by listening partnerships with friends involved in many different aspects of healing. In adopting such a practice for ourselves, healers of all kinds can avoid burnout. We can listen to one another when each of us inevitably reaches a moment of despair, acknowledging that pain before identifying what is working and what to focus on next.

For me, Pershouse’s work picks up where Berry leaves off. As I enter another surprising twist in my career path, The Ecology of Care helps me see how my seemingly-disparate interests—writing, agriculture, and community health— are in fact needfully interconnected.

“Hope is a discipline,” Pershouse writes toward the end of her book. This worthwhile work of restoring our health must be undertaken together, and everyone is invited.

Carey Taylor’s The Lure of Impermanence

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I always admire poets who paint a vivid, compelling picture of a setting or situation that seems, on its surface, to be “about” one thing– but through the smallest inflections and details, suggests something deeper.  Carey Taylor is one of these poets, and her new collection The Lure of Impermanence is full of poems like this.

In “Pomology,” we have only one line to anchor us in the unmentioned story– “morphine drips”– while the rest of the poem gives us a tender portrait of the speaker’s father’s passionate knowledge of a certain kind of apple. He is telling the nurse, in detail, about the apples’ “low disease susceptibility,/ how they are foolproof really,/ reliable, well balanced,/ and sweet,” while his wife lies in a hospital bed. He has just asked the nurse “how long before his wife can go home,” and the unanswered question hangs in the space between the lines of the poem, telling us all we need to know.

Impermanence– what is brief, mortal, transient, uncertain– is like that. Tricky in its hidden obviousness. There at the end of a life, a sentence, a moment, anything really. Expected– and yet always wholly unexpected.

“Arrivals and Departures” is a lament of the world continuing, cruelly, after the death of a loved one. The poem accuses “the cottonwoods in the ravine” of continuing to blossom right in the face of a friend’s quiet grief. Outrageously, “the ferry in the harbor moaned/arrivals and departures,” a loud reminder of what is both ever-changing and constant. Yet there are also markers of mortality that don’t hurt– “hope on a stem/ in the name of trillium and iris.”

This double-possibility, this tension, is the thread weaving this collection together. The poem of lament stands beside the poem of celebration and gratitude. The natural and the man-made world are full of reminders of impermanence, and they are both luminous and terrible. These are strong poems, rich in color and imagery, peopled with both the familiar– the faces of neighbors, tea kettles, socks– as well as the mysterious: gemstones, airborne observatories, earthquakes.

I loved this book for the way it offers language for holding the confusion of life’s experiences together in cupped hands, not trying to explain or deny, but not giving in to despair either.

I met Carey last summer when we both read at the Lents Farmer’s Market here in Portland, and we read together again this past January. She’s a talented reader, full of warmth and humor, and it’s wonderful to hear these poems aloud. You can hear her read from The Lure of Impermanence this Saturday at the Inland Poetry Festival in Washington, and follow her here for more of her writing and events.

 

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First Book, First Reading

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Oh, hi. It’s me again. Surfacing after months of quiet here on the blog to say, I made a book, and now it’s a real and beautiful object in the world, and I’m thrilled.

Rupture, Light is a chapbook just published by Finishing Line Press. It’s a collection touching on themes of loss, faith, and identity, often through the lens of my experience as a mother. These are poems I wrote and revised beginning in 2011, and so they reflect life experiences from graduate school all the way up through the births of my two children. For about four years, I revised and submitted the manuscript again and again as time allowed, against the backdrop of bearing and raising my kids, healing from injury and chronic illness, returning to work and redefining my purpose and identity in the wake of the upheaval of motherhood.

When I was pregnant with Robin, I felt a powerful wave of energy coaxing me to just get this book out there, one way or another, before he was born. I knew that becoming a family with two kids would be a major transition, and I wanted to sort of clear the decks– creatively and logistically. On a practical level, having already come through the babyhood of one child, I knew the level of focus and energy needed to pursue publication wouldn’t be available to me for at least a year after Robin was born. And on a creative level, which was the more powerful motivating force, I felt that I would not be able to write new poems until these poems had arrived safely in the world, honored and amplified in the way only a “real” book can.

Following Sky’s birth in 2015, I had abruptly stopped writing poems, and had begun instinctively to write long-form essays, something I’d never done with much confidence or inspiration prior to that. I’m still puzzling over the shift, which has remained. Firstly, at least for me, it that even though they are technically “shorter,” crafting poems requires a greater level of attention, presence, and quite frankly time than does crafting prose– and needless to say those things can be in short supply when you have young children. The same goes for reading poetry. Sure, you can whip through a collection of poems in a couple of hours, but it takes months, sometimes years, to really absorb a collection’s message and integrate it into what you currently think you know about the world. For me, the same is not usually true for reading and writing narrative nonfiction, and so I think I’ve naturally gravitated to a form that allows a little more flexibility during this busy season of motherhood.

All that to say, I needed to get these poems out into the world so that I could stay “current” with where the creative spirit seems to be leading me. Perhaps now that this book has arrived, and is offering me opportunities to read my poems aloud and be among Portland’s poetry community, poems will begin to come to me again.

I have dreamed of writing and publishing since I was about ten years old. This little book is a chapbook, not a full-length collection, which can be seen as a first step into publishing for an “emerging” writer, and can also be a beautiful way for an “established” writer to showcase a small group of thematic poems, or poems that don’t seem to “fit” anywhere else. This is all publishing-world stuff, and so at certain points in the process I’ve wrestled with feelings of being somehow less than a “real” writer, with this first book not being a real book. It’s a good wrestling that mirrors a theme in my personal growth these last few years, as I’ve learned to let go of old ways of thinking in order to become more fully alive.

I want to share how this experience of fruition has and hasn’t lined up with how I thought I’d feel, and what I thought was significant about publication.

Finishing Line Press accepted my manuscript Rupture, Light in April of last year, right around Easter. A few weeks later, I had a major flare-up from a previous car accident that sent me spiraling into the worst pain of my life– constant, chronic neck and arm pain that didn’t relent until around mid-July and didn’t fully clear until late August. As I went to multiple appointments, managed medications, and struggled to keep up with my children, I was simultaneously putting together materials for producing the book, including trying to finalize cover art. I couldn’t read, write, or spend more than ten minutes at the computer without excruciating pain, so this was challenging and confusing. It was strange to be pulling the book toward reality at the same time that my body was pulling me toward a future I didn’t yet recognize– one I wasn’t sure would even include writing, which was terrifying. I lost my grant-writing clients and began to seriously consider other career options, as desk work was suddenly cast in a different light by the diagnosis of a bulging cervical disc and severe foramenal stenosis.

Minute by minute, day by day, I inched closer to healing and the book moved closer to completion and my old narratives about who I am continued to disintegrate. It was a surreal, disorienting time.

Fast-forward to last week, January 17th, when a nondescript cardboard box arrived on my front porch. I had told my 3-year-old daughter that my books would be arriving soon. My daughter is just getting old enough to understand that I am a writer, and she is as curious and passionate as I am about books and learning. So she was as excited about the books’ arrival as she might have been about Christmas.

That day, I had just learned about the death of Mary Oliver when Sky raced into my room yelling, “Mama!!! Your books are here!!” Together we sat on the living room floor and opened the box, and there was my real book, my first book of poems, right there in my hands, and meanwhile Mary Oliver was dead. The poet of my childhood and adolescence– the poet who had inspired me at a young age to pursue poetry as a vocation– had slipped from the world. It was again a strange and surreal mix of emotion.

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Last Saturday, January 12, I had the great pleasure of reading from Rupture, Light, at Mother Foucault’s Bookshop here in Portland, alongside two talented and funny and warm women and poets: Kristin Berger (Echolocation, Cirque Press) and Carey Taylor (The Lure of Impermanence, Cirque Press.) I had read with Carey in the summer as part of the poetry series Kristin organizes at our local farmer’s market. It was fun to read with both of them on the opposite side of the year, to go from wide blue summer skies to the insular world of a bookshop on a dark winter’s night.

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Kristin’s work is stunning– it’s direct, urgent, unapologetic while also speaking the language of the body, weaving in strands of the everydayness of human experience, with the necessary dry humor that requires nowadays. Echolocation floored me. It’s one of the best collections I’ve read in a while. Granted, I’ve definitely not been reading nearly as much poetry lately as I used to, but I think that further emphasizes the success of this book: it was human enough to overcome my strange resistance to reading poetry (“I’m so tired. Can I focus enough to read poems right now?”) and passionate enough to sustain my interest from page one. It was a pleasure to hear Kristin read from her book.

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The Lure of Impermanence, Carey Taylor’s first book, is on my bedside table right now. I’m enjoying its irreverence and momentum. Carey does some really amazing things with imagery in her work, especially color, and I loved listening to her read. She’s a former teacher, and so she has an easy yet authoritative presence, a way of inviting listeners right into her poems that makes you feel like you’re there with the poem’s speaker. She is just as warm and welcoming in person, and meeting her has been one of the great gifts of this new experience of publication for me.

I really loved getting to share my own poems with the people who showed up that night. The room was packed, and there was an energy of deep listening that really touched me. I met a fellow poet named Phil, who wore a broad-brimmed hat and sat listening in the front row with his eyes closed and a gentle smile on his face. My parents and my sister were in town for my son’s birthday, also the 12th, and my husband and four of my close writer friends were there. I’m not sure you could ask for a more affirming space to read. I felt relaxed and happy and like I could speak from my heart as I talked about the origins of each poem.

I’m deeply grateful for the chance to do this in my lifetime– to make poems, to make books, and to read with and for others. I hope I get to write many more poems (and essays and maybe even fiction) and bring many more books into the world.

Creative Lives: In Conversation with Julie L. Moore at Ruminate Magazine

clem-onojeghuo-205193-unsplashLast fall, I received the enormous gift of an extended conversation with poet Julie L. Moore, facilitated by Ruminate Magazine.

Here is Part 1 of the series “Creative Lives,” a slightly edited version of our email exchange in which we discuss the highs and lows of pursuing a life in poetry.

In Part 2, we discuss writing community and the poets and writers who have shaped us. And in Parts 3 and 4, we talk about the process of building a collection of poems, and how we respond as poets to the aching, changing world around us.

I hope you enjoy this conversation on poetry and the creative process.

Photo via Unsplash

My Poem “An Incomplete Alphabet” at Ekphrastic Review

3909-babynursingmodotti-1219117192_2_origHere’s a poem I wrote in response to Tina Modotti’s “Baby Nursing, Mexico City,” a 1926 photograph posted as part of Ekphrastic Review‘s 20 day poetry challenge in September.

An ekphrastic poem (from the Greek ekphrasis: ek “out” and phrasis “speak”is a poem inspired by a work of art.

It was definitely a challenge, stretching my writing muscles to respond in verse to a different work of visual art each weekday. I am grateful to editor Lorette Luzajic for hosting this annual challenge, for publishing my poem, and for so joyfully bringing together the worlds of visual and literary art in a way that feels accessible and welcoming to both reader and writer. It’s really a stunning journal! You should check it out.

This image in particular spoke to me because I began weaning my toddler in early August.

The morning Modotti’s photograph was posted, I was feeling a little sadness about this transition in our lives as mother and daughter. Simultaneously, the photo filled me with gratitude for the 16 months of nursing we’ve had, and grief for the gradual shift toward independence that weaning marks and initiates.

Read my poem “An Incomplete Alphabet” at Ekphrastic Review.

Photo via Ekphrastic Review, under public domain.

Take a Creative Leap & Receive a Gift

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Take a risk or leap with your creativity and tell me about it in the comments below. If your story grabs me, I’ll give you a one-year subscription to my favorite magazine.

Yesterday I received Issue 40 of Ruminate Magazine, in which my poem “Yellow” appears, winner of the Janet B. McCabe poetry contest. Entering the contest felt like a leap, after a hiatus from writing and submissions following my daughter’s birth.

It felt like recommitting to my dreams, and receiving the prize has been affirming and supportive. It’s helping me pay for childcare to work on my book. I’m grateful for a magazine that pays its contributors and runs contests like this one, because they’re committed to fostering and supporting a dynamic community of writers, artists, and readers.

To celebrate, I’d like to give the gift of a one-year subscription to a new reader.

Interested?

Comment below with a few words about your creative leap by October 4th, 2016. I’ll pick my favorite story and give a one-year gift subscription to this beautiful journal of art and faith.

Be bold. Submit your writing to a journal on your reach list. Apply for a grant or a fellowship. Undertake a new project. Reach out to a fellow artist and ask them to collaborate with you. Paint a big canvas when you usually work small, or a small canvas when you usually go big. Whatever feels like a risk or a long shot, try it.

I can’t wait to hear about it.

Photo via Unsplash.

***10/5/2016 UPDATE: Congratulations to Janaya Martin and D. Allen, who will both receive one-year subscriptions to Ruminate Magazine. I loved both of your stories and am excited to share this journal with you. Thanks to everyone who responded via email and social media, as well. Congratulations on all of your creative leaping. Keep it up.***

 

 

Writing About Climate Change

Here’s a letter I wrote for Dear Earth With Love, a collaborative community chronicle of personal stories about climate change.

My dear friend Jo created this project. I encourage you to write your own letter to the earth, responding to your personal experience with climate change. It could be a letter, poem, story, song, or spoken word piece. It could be a video of a dance or performance; a painting, collage, or sculpture. Whatever medium suits you best, use it and make something– then submit your work.

Dear Earth With Love holds rolling submissions, with a deadline posted every few months.  The next deadline is August 31, 2016.

Read the beginning of my essay here:

Continue reading “Writing About Climate Change”

we are portland

Among the many things I love about my adopted hometown of Portland (including great public transit and bike routes, community acupuncture, gardens, and beautiful summers), I love the constant overlap of art with shared public space.

The city is full of commissioned sculpture and art installations. Seems like even the tiny corner coffee shop has a rotating exhibit from local visual artists– and a packed waiting list. There’s poetry on the bus and dangling from the trees. There’s practice Shakespeare in the park.

Lately, I’ve been appreciating a series of beautiful photographs at the parks & rec community center down the street. I’m especially interested in it because it’s a project funded by RACC, the same grants organization that has helped make Winged possible:

Check it out!

http://mystoryworkshops.org/View-Programs/71/

We are Portland is a youth-run mobile portrait studio that captures the faces and stories of a changing Portland. These portraits were taken at free Family Portrait Days hosted by My Story’s youth photographers. At these festive neighborhood events, new conceptions of community are formed, and as the portraits are broadly shared, Portland youth focus the lens of public discourse on the places they call home.