Saturday, June 1, 2013

Surprising Backyards

The last day of the month of simplicity further reinforced my belief that your thoughts create or attract your experiences. All month, I had sought out examples of what a simple life really looks like. My travels took me from a silent worship at a Quaker meeting to a not so simple Amish village. I had deep conversations with a guy who checked out of his life to live on a sailboat and had deep thoughts in the woods where Henry David Thoreau wrote his masterpiece about the beauty of a simple life.  I buried my favorite aunt, who some would say lived a quiet, modest and yes, simple life too. On the last day, I came across two people in my own neighborhood that reminded me that I didn’t need to go that far to see what simplicity looks like. One pointed out that the best example was playing  in my backyard.

I had been trying to coordinate a visit to Gregory’s garden for months. The visit could fall under the category of childlike curiosity or childlike simplicity depending on the spin. Gregory hand made some kitchen cabinets for us years ago. I knew him as a true craftsmen, not a gardener. Shortly after he finished our kitchen, Gregory scratched off something that had been at the top of his bucket list for a long time. He moved to Hawaii. As a carpenter trying to survive Florida’s worst real estate collapse since the Great Depression, it seemed like a good time to go, may be he had nothing to lose. Shortly after his arrival, he discovered he would have to learn to grow his own food to live.

A little roasted chicken costs $18 in the grocery store on the Big Island.” Gregory mentioned as he pointed out eggplants that were almost ripe.

In what sounds like a commune type of arrangement, Gregory lived on a farm that supported everyone on it. Eventually, his son called him home. He returned with all the habits of Huh-vy-ee (Gregory pronounces it like a native). Now on a ¾ acre residential lot not far from Busch Gardens in Tampa, Gregory grows thousands of pounds of produce.  You would never guess what lies behind his

fence. The small ranch style house, that Gregory built himself, is tucked into a row of non-descript houses on a busy street. The neighborhood is far from the country and doesn’t even qualify as suburbs.

“Carrots, kale, broccoli, brussel sprouts, you should have seen how many tomatoes we had last month.” Gregory proudly continued his tour. “I spend $60 a month at the grocery store on meat. I make about $1,000 a month just selling to my friends and neighbors  what we can’t eat. There is still more than enough.”

I expected every square inch of his backyard to be filled with plants based on the amount of produce he said he was growing, but in fact, there was room to spare for a fire pit, a swing set and trampoline and even a cage for bunnies. Hadley was in heaven. She fed the rabbit and jumped on the trampoline while I tried to glean some understanding of what motivated Gregory to live like this. His garden requires two to four hours a day of maintenance.  There is never a day off.

The more time I spend out here, the more at peace I feel. I like living sustainably. In the old days, if you didn’t do this, your family would starve. Plus, I know the source. Everything here is totally organic.”

Back at our house, I surveyed our backyard to see what changes we could make. Meanwhile, our new neighbor’s daughter is home for the summer before starting grad school. She came over to babysit Hadley for a couple of hours. They never once turned on the TV and I never saw her take her phone out of her purse. In fact, they appeared to be engaged in conversation every time I looked out the window. I joined them outside, curious to learn more about this babysitter, who seemed totally present and content in the company of my four-year old.

When Emily offered to give Hadley French lessons, I wondered if she was too good to be true. She explained that she sharpened her French while serving in the Peace Corps in a village outside Mali. It was also in West Africa that she learned to live without running water, electricity, phones or a car for two years before a civil war forced her evacuation. When Emily first arrived, she said the older villagers fled in fear. They had never seen a white person before and assumed she was an evil spirit.

I mentioned my blog experiment and the month’s focus on simplicity. I wanted to know all about the Peace Corps. She talked about having to bike three miles to the nearest market to buy a tomato and pumping water from a community well that needed to be bleached to take a bucket bath. There was a whole other process to make the scarce drops safe to drink. She talked about a mortality rate of 30% for children under five and how teaching the villagers a few simple practices like washing their hands with soap or using a mosquito net around their beds can save lives.

But how did your life change? How were you different from the experience? I wanted to know more.

“I appreciate hot showers more now. I take shorter showers because I know how precious water is. Life is easier here. But it is not simpler.”

The wise beyond her years Emily explained how when she lived in the village, she had a plan. She knew where she was supposed to be and what she was supposed to do. She had a sense of purpose and friends that needed her. Now, she is struggling with life decisions like where to live, where to attend grad school, what to major in, where will she live afterward. Apparently, she is stressed about being almost 25 and not having all the answers.

“If you want to write about simplicity, you should talk to Hadley.” Emily pointed to my daughter who was playing with a stick in her playhouse.

Emily went on to explain that she told Hadley that she didn’t like the idea of turning 25, so Hadley came up with a solution. She counseled Emily to pick another number. Hadley went on to tell her babysitter that when she turns five in August, she is going to celebrate being three again because she liked three more. When Emily told Hadley that she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life, Hadley comforted her and said ‘your young, you can do anything you want to do.’ Than she invited Emily into her playhouse to play grandma’s house, where Hadley pretended to be the doting grandmother and Emily was her sweetpea.

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