No Lights but our Own

The storm brought everyone outside: neighbors checking on each other, comparing notes, tsk-ing, and wondering at the downed trees, the debris-strewn street. I managed to sneak a post yesterday before ComEd shut everything down so they could address live wires and blown transformers. (Photos in yesterday’s post.)

ABC News reported that there were 215,000 Chicagoans without power this morning. I’ll tell you how we spent our evening. We’re one of the suburbs just west of Chicago. It was a very quiet night. With no electricity, there wasn’t the hum of the fridge or the roar of central air. I came inside and my husband had lit all the candles and wall sconces he could find in our teeny brick bungalow. It struck me…I’m so used to the noises inside my house — the whir of the laptops — it’s sort of a relief to hear the quiet in our home.

I pulled our boy outside with his harp thinking that our neighborhood might enjoy a little home-made music. So he sat in his jammies jammin on his harp. *lol* Our awesome next-door-neighbors came over and B. played his silver trumpet. A duet of trumpet and harp, two boys adding peace to the ragged edges of the storm. They played a little “Paruparong Bukid” (Filipino folk song), “Star Wars”, “A Whole New World”, and did a sweet duet of “Twinkle-twinkle Little Star”.

It was nice to hang out with our neighbors on our front stoop, enjoying our boys, and their music. Don’t get me wrong. I did worry about whether the lack of our sump-pump would flood our basement or if the food in the fridge would all go bad and whether the the temperatures would soar the next day leaving us trapped in an pressure-cooker of a house.

But the aftermath of the storm brought its pleasures, too. The quiet of the night. The boys’ music. Conversation with neighbors. A certain relaxed pace. I fell asleep to the voices of the men next door trying to figure out if they could get the garage door up and working.

Best line I heard yesterday, hands down, came from two boys cruising our hood on foot to take in the devastation:

Boy #1: “Whoooaaa! Look at that!” (He points to our neighbor’s house engulfed in tree limbs.)

Boy #2: “Told you. It’s better’n’cable!”

See what can happen when we’re unplugged?


Chicago Storm – Aftermath

At around 4:20 p.m., we ran to our van. A storm was breaking and the crowns of the 50 – 100′ trees in our town began to dance. Branches broke off, leaves flew through the air, and rain drummed the van roof. Streetlights at major intersections had lost power. It takes us 10 minutes to get home during which time our 9-year-old kept asking us, “Is it a tornado?” Thankfully, it was not.

But it was one mean storm. When we arrived home, ten minutes later, here is what we saw:

Two major trees fell on our street

Transformer knocked out by a fallen branch

A branch shatters our neighbor's window

This used to be a streetlamp - top knocked off

Our neighbor's house engulfed by a fallen tree

On our street, everyone is okay. It’s amazing what 10 minutes of nature’s power can unleash. One neighbor had heard that the winds downtown were going at 75 m.p.h. Some saw the transformer spark and explode in our alley. The power is out for several blocks around us — but not in our house or the one next door. (So I have to post this fast before ComEd closes the lines completely to get them back up.) Another friend down the street saw branches flying through the air and heard the sound of trees ripping in half. (Poor trees!)

The beautiful thing is that everyone came outside to check on each other. I love the Midwest for its neighborliness and kindness. It’s good to see that everyone is okay. There’s a bulldozer outside, and police lines & officers guarding to keep people away from the live wires. That’s it for now…hoping everyone is home and cozy…


My boy was worried about “our babies”, the seedlings in the veg garden. Gotta love it. Yes, the “babies” are okay. I checked.

9 for Nature

I want to encourage anyone who reads this post to go outside for at least 9 minutes. Take a break. Touch some tree bark. Take your shoes off and wiggle your toes in the grass or the sand or even into some loamy soil.

It’s been a full & sometimes hectic 2 weeks since my boy has been out of school. I haven’t had as much time to just melt into nature as usual…so the last couple of weeks have felt off-balance. This morning, I went for a bike ride and stopped off at this small park in the northwest corner of town. There’s a beautiful, quiet strand of oak, maple, and elm trees that tower some 60 feet in the air. It isn’t huge, but when you need oxygen, it’s enough. Sunshine streamed through the trees. The balmy summer air kissed my skin.

My head has been full of travel plans, essays, articles, political rants about Sarah Palin, questions about feminism and motherhood, grief over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the transitions of dear friends moving, the excitement of weddings and births…the fullness and busyness of life. But, at some point, the thinking has to stop and the connecting with the deeper cosmos has to begin. Our bodies are lightning rods for experience.

So, 9 minutes for nature. (And if the experience goes longer than 9 minutes…? Awesome.) Try this:

1. Open the window, a door. Feel the sunshine on your face.

2. Listen for a bird. Who is it? How do they sound? Can you whistle that? Will they whistle back?

3. Touch a summer leaf. Feel the veins, the edges.

4. Rub the leaves of a tomato plant. Smell the sharp scent on your fingers.

5. Lie down on the grass, rest your weight upon the earth.

6. Go surfing. (This one’s for you, Sis.)

7. Sit on a park bench. Be still. Feel the world swirl past you. Be still. Hear the silence beneath the noise. *Breathe*

8. Take a walk around the block. Notice flower boxes. Notice gardens in your neighborhood.

9. Look up. At the sky. At clouds. At the moon that lingers in the morning. At the sparrows or sea gulls or hawks or June bugs. Feel the air thrumming with life.

Nature calls…even in small doses…


Great Blue Heron, a riverside glimpse

Have you ever noticed

the way the Great Blue Heron

stands tall when she hunts, head snaking,

spindle-legs plunk silently?

But when she spots

the silver darting fish,

she crouches low,

a ball of feathers,

an arrow focused on one intent —-> B R E A K F A S T !



Debt of Gratitude, Utang na Loob

What if the land did not belong to us? And we could not own it? What if we belonged to the land? In my family, we have this idea, a Filipino tradition, a value and a feeling: utang na loob. It’s been translated as a “debt of gratitude”. It is profound, inescapable, and there is no way to pay it back. It is also beautiful…because it binds people together. What if we felt this way about the land we live upon? The soil that provides nutrients, the seedlings which sprout from it, the vegetables and fruits who blossom and nourish us?

Even though I have a great love of nature, I don’t think I fully live this sense of utang na loob, this debt of gratitude, towards the Earth. Of course, this way of thinking, of being is not new. Sixteenth-century Filipinos did not “own” land, the land that the diwata, the nature gods and goddesses dwelled in, was sacred. It could not be owned by human beings. Nature was the temple of the Divine. We did, however, ask for permission to use it. To cut down trees, to plant fields…it was cultural ecology. It was ancient conservation before there was a need for the term.

I ponder my gratitude as many of the seeds we planted at the end of May have sprouted! Joy and delight! I wish I knew planting songs so that I could sing them with friends. It’s gorgeous to see fertility emerging.

New babies, cucumber seedlings!

My boy and I come out in the mornings to check on the lupa, the soil. We look at the patch and ask, “How are our babies doing?” And there’s always something new. To the left are cucumber seedlings. I love the smooth leaves and the fresh green, so tender.

To the right are tomato blossoms. TOMATO BLOSSOMS! In the market, at best I’ll see ripened tomatoes strung together on their vine. But to see the blossoms is a beautiful thing for a novice like me. The organic vegetable patch has become a sanctuary of sorts — yes, weeds and all (for another post).

See the pale, cheery yellow? Delicious summer color. 🙂


Planting Day

Tanim, tanim, tanim. Plant, plant, plant.

When I woke up this morning, I was so excited to start the new day and finally plant the seedlings and seeds I’ve been gathering. Because my historical fiction is grounded in the sixteenth century Philippines, I’ve learned all this cool stuff about our traditional relationship to nature. Our precolonial Visayan ancestors used the word “taon” for year, meaning harvest. They marked time by the flowering of rattan, the time when everything was blooming, and the time when the kahaw birds called which signaling the start of planting. (A nod, again, to W. H Scott and his brilliant reference book Barangay.)

I’m sure many other cultures used seasons, flowers, animal behavior, and the rhythms of nature to mark time. My Jewish family and friends celebrate sukkot, the fall harvest festival. Let me know about others you love and celebrate. The more we share our zest for the land, the better!

Ancient Filipinos used to have whole seasonal calendars devoted to clearing, planting, and harvesting. What would that be like (urbanized me asks) to live in rhythm with the land? To live by our own observations of the sky, to tell time by birdsong, to live in a world where the stars and constellations were our nightlights? To live by Cosmos instead of Cosmo?

Today, I had tikim-tikim, a teeny taste, of what that may be like…right in my own backyard. The sky was overcast, which at first I thought would be bad for planting. But my organic books mentioned that overcast days can actually ease seedlings into the transition from pot to ground.

Everyone planted what they wanted to eat. My son was in charge of planting the cucumbers in a mound and the watering can. My husband transplanted the Goliath and heirloom tomato seedlings, the marigolds (to keep away bugs), and the bell peppers. We dropped climbing beans in holes next to the fence to trellis (sadly, I did not wiggle my toes to cover them with soil – maybe next year!). We closed up the chicken-wire fence I’d built to keep out the bunnies and our chocolate Labrador pack-mate who has already been sniffing out the tomato plants.

With tomato cages and chicken wire to keep out the mammals, I hate to admit it, but the organic vegetable patch looks like lock-down at San Quentin. Hopefully, the plants will lush out and push at the boundaries of their confinement.

Today, chard,  tomatoes,  cucumbers, mint from Papa’s Detroit garden, marigolds & climbing beans & peppers from our friend Garden Diva, and basil, green garlic tips went into our newly enriched soil. Our boy planted 2 rows of corn and gourds in his play section. We packed as much as we could into this 20 x 2 foot organic plot. Who knows what will take root and flourish?

The deal with our son’s play section is that he gets to decide what to plant there, no matter how improbable. We were getting on each others’ nerves, to be honest, since I’d been reading about how to plant and space seeds and he…well…he just wanted to have fun and play! Solution? He gets 3 x 2 feet of soil and loads of freedom. In exchange, his mama gets a boy who’ll feel connected and spiritually invested in the land. I get the better deal.

When my son and husband tired of planting — which is to say when the storm clouds darkened — they went inside. But I stayed out…on the pretense that weeding is easier in wet soil. I stayed out…and felt the pleasure of warm rain pelting my skin, heard the thunder rumble in the sky’s belly, witnessed the awesome power of lightning fork and flash. Right after planting, the rains coming felt like a blessing…I think the Ancestors would approve.

~ M.G.B.

From 5/31/10

Text $10 to Help the Gulf

I remember the Exxon Valdez spill. I remember volunteers going out to Prince William Sound in Alaska armed with toothbrushes and buckets, scrubbing gunky oil off of sea birds and rocks and the shoreline. According to the National Wildlife Federation news, the oil spill in our Gulf of Mexico is like having an Exxon Valdez spill every day…and it’s still flowing. This is heart-breaking.

If you feel moved to do so, text 20222 to donate $10 to the National Wildlife Federation. And while you’re at it, send out a prayer, some positive energy, some mindful attention to help with the healing…

Salamat, thanks!


National Wildlife Federation – Gulf Spill footage

Beginner’s Mind – Organic Vegetable Gardening

They say that the beginning of wisdom is to know that you know nothing. Yes, friends & kababayan, given this definition — it’s official — I am wise. Starting this new adventure of putting together a small organic vegetable patch in my backyard has made me realize how much I don’t know. Like:

  • When do you harvest tomatoes? Sitaw (long beans)? Edamame (soy beans)?
  • Are there better times for planting than others? Morning? Moonlit nights?
  • How do you know when to harvest? When are the veggies ready?
  • Which veggies are better eaten young?

A bewildering array of questions bombarded me when I first decided to undertake creating this little 20 x 2 foot organic vegetable patch. It’s actually delicious to see how much I don’t know. I’m realizing how convenient everything is made for me at the market – all the tomatoes are the same size, same with the oranges and saging (bananas). Everything is uniform, a certain homogeneity because fruits and vegetables are sorted by size and then bagged, packaged, presented. Not so on an apple tree!

Also, someone else planted the veggies I usually eat. (Did they have health care? Can they afford to send their kids to school? I tutored a young woman at UCLA whose father, a migrant farm worker from Mexico, told her that she should return to working with the family because they needed the money more than she needed an education.) What I eat is not from the sweat of my own labor.

I’m realizing how disconnected from nature I am despite my love of the wilderness. I have no clue how the food I eat grows. If the whole transportation system of Chicago broke down for a month this summer, I would have no idea how to create my own healthy food. Of course, there’s a beauty to our society’s interdependence. I am thankful to the work that others have done, still do, growing, cultivating, and harvesting the fruits and vegetables and that keep my family fed — especially the small, local organic farmers and the farm workers who came to America hoping, like my own parents, to give their family better opportunities.

On the Filipino American history tip, check out Carlos Bulosan’s novel America is in the Heart. Bulosan was a writer who immigrated to America and did back-breaking work harvesting asparagus, lettuces, and grapes in the California fields. He was active in labor politics and union organizing, and wrote about the racism faced by Filipino migrant workers. A bad-ass  and a literary pioneer in the Asian American community. (And he’s from my lola’s home province, Pangasinan!)

One of the Chicago conservationists I interviewed said to me, “To save a river, first you need to know what a river is.” He went on to describe, quite poetically, the flow of the current, the peace of paddling, the fallen logs submerged. That’s how I’m starting to feel about the process of growing my own food…it’s as if I don’t what a tomato is, the bud of its flower, the timing of its growth, the season of its beauty, the hands who harvest it, the feel of the rain and sun which feed it. Maybe by the end of this summer, I’ll be a little less wise.

Making Amends

In planning this organic garden, I’ve had to call on the guidance and infinite patience of my friend, Garden Diva. (Me: “What does germinate mean?” GD: Tries not to roll her eyes. The sound of someone summoning tremendous restraint. “Sprout, it means sprout.” Long, long pause. “M.G., even my kids know what the word germinate means!” *lol*) GD showed me how to look at the thin rectangle patch of soil that once was lawn, how the sun moves across the sky, where the sunlight will linger and where shadows will fall in my yard. Apparently all this affects how much sunlight the hungry plantlings will get. Who knew?

She clued me in on the mysteries of which vegetable plants needed the most sunlight (tomato), and which ones would grow huge & wrangly (tomato), and which ones are greedy for nutrients (tomato). Garden Diva stuck her hands in the “soil”, felt the texture. I dream of loam, the rich, dark, fertile earth that my teacher & inspiration N.V.M. Gonzalez wrote about in his short stories. But, alas, no. The verdict by GD’s expert hands was that our “soil” was largely clay. I defer to her expertise — her years growing up on an Illinois farm, her intense passion for organic gardening books, and the health and beauty of her own garden.

So *sigh* before any planting could happen, I needed to make amends. Amend the soil. For my itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow-polka-dot vegetable plot (20 x 2 feet) this entailed:

  • 11 bags of organic topsoil
  • 4 bags of Moo-nure (organic manure + compost)
  • 1 tall glass of ice-water

It also entailed:

  • Scraping away weeds & rocks
  • Turning soil over (yeah, exactly. What does “turning over” mean?!)
  • Breaking up dried clay “rocks”, soil poseurs/wanna-be’s (thank the Divine for the enthusiasm of 9-year-olds armed with kid-sized gardening rakes)

Garden Diva helped me to add the organic soil, and turn it with our gardening rakes. My son and I broke up the clay and my husband and I turned the soil 2 more times — and the soil still looked rocky. *lol* Well, gardening writer Barbara Pleasant says it can take years for soil to heal, for it to enrich. She speaks of it as a living thing, a living process, an ecosystem unto itself. As our Native Ancestors in the Philippines would have known, the very soil of the earth is the dwelling place of spirits…the earthworm, the centipede, the ant, the microscopic beings we can’t see who contribute to our well-being.

On the left is our clay-like “soil” and on the right is organic soil I bought:

And this is the younger generation helping to heal our ailing soil. Better to inherit something rich & living, di ba?

The crazy thing about this whole soil amendment is that about 5 years ago, our entire backyard’s soil was removed (down to 3 feet, trees, shrubs and all) because we lived next to a site that had to be remediated for coal tar & gas processing equipment that had been left behind. We’d left our house for a month while the responsible party remediated our backyard. The rest of our neighborhood took 2 years of shaking, bull-dozing, and community cooperation. So, from the time our boy was born, up until now, I’d been dreaming of having a healthy garden. 9 years.

So when Garden Diva told me how much I’d have to amend our soil, I was like (please excuse the  symbolic, multi-lingual cursing), “What the !@#$$%! ???” Turns out that the clean soil that had replaced our toxic dirt was also poor and nutrient deficient. Environmental justice indeed.

I will say that after the last week of shoveling, raking, turning soil over with a pitchfork, mixing in compost and manure — I feel a deep sense of satisfaction. *ahhhh* The soil, while still pebbly with clay rocks, drains better and it’s a deeper brown. Looking forward to the healing and to N.V.M.’s loam…

~ M.G.B.

From 5/23/10