All spring and summer I have been tending my garden. I wasn’t initially planning to have a garden, even when Covid shut everything else down and gardening became a wildly popular pastime. I was full enough with regular (and then extended) tax season. That is, until two dear friends independently offered vegetable plants they had grown from seeds and I became convinced.
The prior owners of my house had created a garden patch along the fence, but in the scant couple months since winter, nature had fully (re)claimed the entire territory. So I got to work pulling industrial strength weeds and extracting waist-high grasses by the roots. I did battle with blackberries and ivy. I discovered I am allergic to hops. It was hours and days of sweaty and dirt-clad labor.
I found some surprise gems in the process, namely the two blueberry bushes, the patch of strawberries, and the sage bush. They were buried under all the weeds, being choked-out from all sides, and stunted. The blueberries didn’t fruit this year, I think because I discovered them too late into their growing season. But I watered them and spoke sweetly to them, so I’m sure they’ll come back next year with a delicious vengeance.
Even though I was already busy, I’m glad I took up gardening in the spring. Especially this year. It turned out to be a meditative, stress-relieving activity. It also helped lend some structure to my Covid life which consisted of 100% working, an erratic sleep schedule, and no community activities. Each morning I had to water the garden before the sun got too high, so it helped get me out of bed at a reasonable hour.
I watched my zucchini grow from three tiny leaves into a behemoth with umbrella-sized leaves, popping out a zucchini or three a day. My tomatoes reached skyward and lovely plump and delicious fruits emerged all over their vines. The lettuces, chard, collards and other greens leafed-out into amazing bunches. And the strawberries gave and gave and gave. It was a magical transformation.
And just as magical has been the shift this week as the first hints of fall begin to set in. Some plants are starting to wilt and fade, preparing for a dormant period before next year’s bounty. Others have stopped producing. And it was also time to prune the roses.
This year has been about pruning many things, like all the activities no longer possible during Covid. The first to go was contra dancing, an activity entirely about community connection and involving physical touch with everyone in the dance line. There have been online contra dances, but it’s not the same. Dancing alone or in pair with my partner in our house while the rest of our dance community exists only on a screen just doesn’t hit the same fun button.
I felt a similar shift after George Floyd’s death. I no longer wanted to spend what precious little free time I had on fun and games for the sake of fun and games. I wanted my fun and social time to also cultivate something greater. I wanted to invest that time in making the world a better place, for me and for all the other humans who don’t have the luxury of time away from the woes of the world.
So I began to prune the garden of my social life, cultivating stronger relationships with the people in my circle who are also working to make a difference. Drifting away from people who did not share a similar desire for investment in the personal and societal work. Some folks were happy to support my efforts from a slightly increased distance, cheering me on from where they could move at their own pace. Others felt abandoned and some lashed out.
I miss the people I’m leaving behind. Community and relationships are the most important thing to me. That’s been true for my whole life. Each time I have out-grown some version of me, there were people who no longer fit in the next iteration of my community garden. It’s important to acknowledge the significance of those shifts and grieve the loss of what was.
It’s equally important to continue growing. And like my vegetable garden, I also need to weed it regularly. Uncovering the unhealthy narratives I embody and working to reshape my default thoughts and actions. Cultivating the life I want is a process that is never finished. Just like cultivating the garden I want. Just like cultivating the society I want and cultivating a world for everyone.
We have filled our collective societal garden with layers of unhealthy ways to relate to each other and we have crafted institutions that reinforce those toxic patterns. It’s time to weed our garden. It’s time to prune the parts of our societal systems and traditions that are not serving the vast majority of people.
We prune plants to promote next season’s growth. Tending the garden of our lives is also a long-term strategy. And it is work that will never be finished. We need to begin today cultivating the world we want tomorrow. Watering and weeding along the way.
Information and Inspiration
“I’m so high up because she stands so tall.”
That is how one amazing martial artist described her teacher to an audience of fellow martial artists gathered to hear about the intersection of anti-racist work and martial arts. Her teacher, and the people who came before her, paved the way for the great work she is doing today. They made incredible progress for women, non-binary folks, and humans of color in martial arts. Their school, Hand to Hand Kajukenbo, is a shining example of doing the work to create a more just, peaceful, and inclusive world.
It is common in martial arts traditions to honor our ancestry. And it is equally important to acknowledge the great shoulders on which we stand in all the other parts of our lives. Without the people who came before us, we could not be who we are today. We could not do what we are doing, and we could not do it in the way we are doing it.
Just imagine if electricity had not yet been invented. Absolutely everything about life would be different. We would spend our time differently without all the labor-saving devices that run on electricity. We would connect with people differently without all the communications equipment that require electricity. We are only able to work remotely during a pandemic and see a friend who are thousands of miles away on a video chat because of the work of all those people who came before us.
It’s easy to forget about the contributions of our ancestors. It is easy to take for granted all the things that came to be before we entered this world. Electricity was invented long before I was born, so I have never known a world without it. I appreciate electricity, and I also take it for granted most of the time. I have always lived in an electricity-requiring manner because that was the world I was born into.
In a similar way, I was born into a world where women are valued more than they have been at any prior point in this country's history. Society has a long way to go before reaching equality for all genders, but I can continue that effort today because of the efforts and achievements of great feminists that came before me.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of those amazing feminists. She paved the way for women in this country to begin to matter in more ways. She was one of the women who blazed the trails I walk today as I work to provide even more opportunities for women and girls and non-binary humans. RBG is one of my heroes.
I didn’t know her personally, but I feel a personal connection to her because what RBG did with her life had a direct impact on my life. When she died this week, it shook my entire world. RBG was more than just my hero, she was also my protector. She was one of the people who stood in between me and the people in power who try to take away my rights.
Now that she is no longer here, the rest of us have to fill those shoes. And it’s going to take all of our feet to do it. I am standing up for my rights and the rights of others with the other activists around me, and we are speaking truth to power. It’s hard to see now what impact we will ultimately have, but I hope RBG’s passing spurs even more people into action.
There has been so much uncertainty so far this year with Covid, murder hornets, an unstable economy, the brutal government response to the public outcry against unchecked police violence. Last week Oregon was on fire. This week one of the major champions for equal rights died.
Big heroes like RBG are important. They are inspirational. I strive to make an impact with my life like my heroes. Just as important are all my mentors. Mentors are the heroes we get to know personally, and who also know us. They have been to places I’m trying to get to, they have seen the things I’m trying to get my eyes on. They care about me and they help me stretch and reach for new heights.
No one handed me my current life. No one handed me my business to run. No one handed me my black belt. I have worked diligently and put forth a lot of effort to shape my life into what it is today, but I did not do it in a vacuum. All my life people have handed me opportunities, inspiration, and guidance. My great achievements are only possible in the context of my supportive community.
The self-made success story is a myth. No one pulls themselves up by their bootstraps. We are born into a world of possibilities made available by those who came before us. We do the best we can with the options available, and we are helped along the way by mentors and people who take interest in us.
We are so high up today because the ones who came before us stood so tall. We need to stand tall for everyone who is coming right behind us. Rise up.
Information and Inspiration
I have always identified as a creative person. As a child, I made up worlds for my stuffed animals to live in and explore. I wrote stories about imaginary people and creatures in distant lands. I made costumes and props and put on silly plays and puppet shows. As a teenager, I put together collages and sewed interesting garments. In my 20’s, I found martial arts and dance.
I also embrace creativity in my work life. This may seem like a challenge, since accounting is an industry better known for utter dullness and steadfast adherence to rigid, long-established guidelines. Much of accounting work is, in fact, dull. And I have known a lot of accountants who are truly uninteresting people. Nevertheless, I have found ways to explore creativity, even in this unlikeliest of places.
I'm sure my natural affinity for office supplies coupled with my love of organizing things brought me to accounting in the first place. I stuck around because I found the least boring parts of accounting and settled in to a career investigating financial crime. This is a part of accounting most people recognize as the only sexy part of accounting.
Tax planning is not as sexy, although I still enjoy it. Most people think taxes are face-meltingly boring or nightmarishly complex. And they're not wrong. Some tax accountants embrace the boring, plugging in numbers provided by their clients like robots. But because the tax laws are so complex and ever-changing, there is vast opportunity for creativity. It’s fascinating to me to consider the myriad of options my clients can explore in their lives and businesses and to consider how those options affect their tax situation.
Tax and accounting rules dictate how to categorize financial transactions. These rules (and the institutions who publish them) have been around a long time, so the established guidance covers most situations. However, life and business does not always unfold in a clearly defined way. It does not always occur as it has before, so it does not always fit neatly into previously defined boxes.
The pandemic is a perfect example. Suddenly, businesses had to completely shut down and people had to stay at home for an indeterminate amount of time. There were no prior example for how to handle that specific reality, so governments, businesses, and other institutions made decisions based on whatever constantly evolving information was available.
Just as with taxes, the pandemic has come with many restrictions. But restrictions do not have to stifle creativity. In fact, parameters and limits can allow creativity to flourish. Covid meant I could no longer have martial arts students within 6 feet of each other, so I had to imagine new ways to teach the curriculum.
I had students throw ever-lasting “snow balls” at each other to provide moving targets for kicks and punches. We used broom handles to press on each other’s body from a distance to simulate lines of attack. And we stood 10 feet apart reacting to kicks and punches our partner threw into the air without moving our feet. All these restrictions afforded us an opportunity to explore ways of moving we might not have tried if we could train in our usual way.
The same can be said for talking to people who have a drastically different world-view than I do. If I cannot take certain base assumptions for granted in a conversation, then I have to define my terms and ask more clarifying questions. If I am talking to someone with a different life experience than I have, I may need to use different analogies to explain my point. I will probably have to listen more fully and with an open mind so I can make new connections between facts or explore concepts I have not previously considered.
One of my favorite stories about me as a child is the first time I saw someone floating on an innertube at the lake. I turned to my parents and said “Look! It’s a Cheerio boat!” I took two unconnected things from my tiny person experience and put them together to explain what was presently in front of me. To this day, finding connections between seemingly dispirit ideas or concepts is something I really enjoy.
Although my own creativity has been a source of joy in my life, creativity can also show up in the world in some dark ways. There are many examples of employers creatively skirting the rules designed to keep employees safe from workplace hazards. Many examples of managers creatively arranging the schedule so an employee works too many days in a row without receiving overtime pay. And many creative narratives employers craft to convince employees they should accept these injustices and be grateful for a job.
There are also countless examples of people with wealth and power creatively protecting their own economic interests by criminalizing poor people and humans of color. And countless examples of politicians creatively depriving constituents of their opportunity to vote. These things have happened throughout history and continue to happen today.
This week, as forest fires swept across most of my state, I learned inmates fighting fires earn between $6 and $9.80 a day. Half of their earnings are sequestered into an account for when they are released and the other half go into their spending account. It is touted as a program that helps inmates build savings and valuable job skills they can use after release. Which is creative marketing, since fire-fighting is only a seasonal job and it's a challenge for formerly incarcerated people to get good-paying jobs in our society.
It is also a creative way for the state to avoid paying as much for the service of fire-fighting, and to ensure that none of the value of their labor is translated to economic benefit for the people providing the labor. Half of that very low daily wage is highly unlikely to provide a formerly incarcerated person with any semblance of financial opportunity to start a new life outside the criminal justice system.
Humans are so creative. Our capacity for storytelling and for connecting complex concepts is immense. I would like to see more people channel that creativity into understanding their fellow humans. I would like to see more people direct their creativity into reimagining our societal systems. Creativity is powerful. I would like us all to be using that power for good.
Information and Inspiration
There are many ways human beings connect with each other. Physically, emotionally, through shared interests and experiences. It can happen accidentally or on purpose. I enjoy connecting with people in many ways, and I really enjoy getting to know them. When I meet someone new I am interested in what they are passionate about and why, what they cultivate in their life, their favorite ways to play, how they feel about the world and their experience in it.
I am fascinated by the parts of ourselves that lurk under the surface. I am intrigued by how my internal world aligns with and differs from that of someone else. I think it’s amazing that two people who are present for the same event can leave with two completely different experiences. And I think that is the great value of doing personal work in concert with others.
I have spent a lot of time doing personal work in various forms. I have been to counseling, alone and with a partner. I journal regularly. I meditate. I sit with myself in my Taiji practice, reflecting on deep internal questions and allowing space for honest answers to surface. It’s rewarding and it’s profound.
It can be even more amazing in connection with another human. Processing emotions and experiences with trusted friends and family is helpful because it provides an outside perspective to consider. No matter how well I get to know myself, or how much time I spend exploring my internal world, there are still things I cannot see or recognize. There are still things I'm hiding from myself.
Recently I took a course for white folks about how to effectively talk to a racism skeptic and convince them that racism is real and that it is a problem in this country. I learned the most powerful tool I have as a white person are the stories of my own racially problematic thoughts, feelings, and actions. One homework assignment asked for a story about a time when I did something because I held a racist belief.
I thought a lot about it and came up with plenty of surface level examples. Like using racial slurs before I knew they were rooted in racism, or laughing at racist jokes. While those things make current me cringe, they didn’t feel significant enough to convince a skeptic that racism is real. So I kept digging.
I wanted a more recent example. Something I still do, even after all the years of work I have put in. I thought about all the mostly white spaces I spend time in, like contra dances (when there isn’t a pandemic). I thought about all the times I made sure to say hello and welcome a new person. I thought about the times when that new person was not white, and my actions didn’t seem any different to me. So where was my racism hiding? I felt stuck.
I asked my partner if I could talk it through with him. He agreed, and as I told my story he asked me questions. I welcomed new white dancers most of the time, but I made sure to welcome new non-white dancers every time. Why? Because contra is such a white space that they might feel like they don’t belong. Why? Because the other white dancers might think of them as an anomaly, or treat them differently than any other new dancer… Just like I was doing!
Suddenly I realized I wasn’t protecting the new person from other white people who thought they didn’t belong; I thought they didn’t belong. In my mind, the default for that space is white and non-white people don’t belong in default white spaces. That is a racist belief. My racist belief. And I had hidden it from myself behind a mask of being extra helpful and welcoming. Processing that in connection with my partner helped me identify that mask for what it was and peel it back to look at the truth underneath. I might have arrived at that realization on my own, but it probably would have taken a lot longer.
Partner work has helped me in a similar way in martial arts. I can practice almost anything by myself, but I won’t really know what works until I get to try what I’ve been training with another person. Then all the holes in my game can be revealed. A training partner might react in an unexpected way, or see a solution to a problem I didn’t consider.
My first Mo Duk Pai teacher used to say “contact changes everything,” and he’s still right. There is no substitute for the feedback from trying something that worked in the vacuum of solo practice while someone is throwing strikes my way, or actively trying to stop me. There is no replacement for the feedback from connecting my strike to a tangible target. And there is no way to manufacture the creativity of building on each other’s ideas during sparring or other fighting games.
The opportunity to expand on another person’s idea and for someone else to further expand from there is the power of human connection. I can think about a terrific fix for the world and imagine a better potential future for humankind all by myself. But I have only my own lived experience, so I cannot imagine all the wants and needs and brilliant ideas of the rest of humanity.
We built this world through our connections to each other. It's going to take all of us to build a better future through healthier connections. I heard a speaker at a protest this week talk about their experience in toxic relationships. They shared one thing they learned about toxic relationships is that eventually you have to let them go. They described America as currently having a toxic relationship with our police, our economy, our education and healthcare systems. And they're right.
We don't need to keep propping up systems that don't support everyone, and we shouldn’t keep systems that dehumanize anyone. We don't need to maintain connections that are unhealthy. Human connection is beautiful and powerful. It built cities and systems and civilizations. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way we forgot that the systems and societies themselves are not what actually matters: the people who make up those systems matter.
As people, we need to connect in different ways than we are connecting now. We need to leave our toxic relationships with our institutions and relate to each other in healthier ways. We can do it. We are all capable. And once we do, then we can have healthy relationships with equitable systems, institutions, and societies built of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Information and Inspiration
I love trying new activities and I love learning new things. I enjoy moving my body and exploring the limits of my own physical abilities. I especially enjoy trying a new thing I think I should be able to do well and then failing spectacularly. Like the first time I tried trampoline dodgeball. No matter what my intention was, when I started to move I ended up in a completely different body arrangement and location than I planned.
I spend a decent amount of time participating in physical activities. I workout at a gym, I train martial arts, I frequently go partner dancing (when there’s not a pandemic), and I hike and bike and play outdoors. I have good body awareness, which means I generally know where my various body parts are in time and space. It also means I generally have control over where my parts are in relation to each other and in relation to other people and things.
When I experience an activity that negates all my physical practice and renders all my refined movement moot, it brings me so much joy. It’s like I get to be a child again, meeting some part of my body for the first time. It’s a gift. And it’s why I endeavor to embody the concept of beginner’s mind.
I first heard the phrase beginner’s mind at a martial arts camp. There were expert instructors from many different styles offering classes. I took a class in a style I had never tried before, and while some things were familiar to my body, many movements were completely new. It was really fun. I stayed in the same room for the next class, which was also a style I had never tried.
The instructor from the first class also stayed to take the second class and we partnered for a drill. The technique was well outside either of our styles, so we muddled through together and had a great time. After the class, I thanked her for the great opportunity to train with such a high-level martial artist. Her response was that she was only at a high-level in the style she had trained for many years. For the rest she was brand new, with a beginner’s mind.
I appreciated learning a name for the practice of seeing the world as though for the first time. No matter how much training or experience I have, I can always choose to come to an experience without my preconceived ideas of how it should or could be. Although it takes practice, it is worth leaving my expectations and judgements behind in order to be present for what is.
It is immensely rewarding to apply the beginner’s mind concept to other parts of my life as well. I see it apply in all the many ways I have tried to “think outside the box.” When I put down the lens through which I have been seeing the world and try on a different lens, I experience the same feeling of wonder and marvel at the world around me.
I took an art class in college that was required for all students. We touched a little on art history, a little on artistic mediums, a little on the elements of art. The goal of the course was not to make us experts in art. It was to give us a framework for considering and appreciating art. It offered me a new lens though which to view the world, and I began to see things as though I had never seen them before. I set my well-established understanding of the world down and I began to see the artistic potential in everything. I grew a deeper appreciation for art.
A similar thing also happened with one of the required math classes. We covered several of what I would consider obscure math tidbits. We talked about fractals and Euler circuits and other conceptual things I can’t even remember all these years later. The goal of that class was not to teach us all the finer points of advanced math. It was a class designed to introduce new ways to think about the world. And it worked!
Suddenly, I found myself at the grocery store examining produce for the mathematical relationships between their leaves and stems. I noticed the beautiful pattern in the overlapping public transit routes around town. Once again I was looking at the world as though I had never seen it before, and I could see math all over the place. I began to appreciate math in the same way I appreciate art.
More recently, I have come to embrace the beginner’s mind in my consideration of the challenges facing our modern world. Many of these challenges have been around a long time, like racism, economic inequity, and climate change. When I examine these issues as though I have never seen them before, I can see more options for creative resolutions than I previously considered.
This is not a magic fix for all the problems of the world, but it is a useful exercise. All the societal ills still around today means the things we have been doing as a society have not resolved them. We need to do something (a lot of things) differently, and looking at the world through fresh eyes could help us figure out what to try next.
Information and Inspiration
Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.