“Disappointment” in the Garden

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In February I left my AmeriCorps assignment at the Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT) in Providence, Rhode Island. Healthwise, too much was deflecting my attention from professional pursuits. So I am now officially unemployed and living again with my family in Connecticut. 

Considering how much expectation I exuded about my new work in the essay “In Search of Querencia,” my return to Connecticut could be seen as disappointing. Indeed, I was disappointed whenever I was drawn away from the SCLT office for medical reasons, or when I noticed how my body was protesting in ways it never had against agricultural labor. By the close of 2020, I could see my break with Providence coming, and that was frustrating.

But when the break did come and I had time to reflect, I wasn’t let down, full stop. I began to see the tyranny of my expectations and how they were keeping me from imagining any sort of narrative beyond that of linear ascent. It turns out a likelier scenario to ascent is failure. Though not as glamorous as instant success, falling short of one’s goals can inform and enrich the larger journey.

In her book Active Hope, Joanna Macy addresses the phenomenon of failure:

Why might failure and frustration be necessary parts of the journey? Because if we stick only with what we know how to do, what we’re comfortable with and confident about, we limit ourselves to the old, familiar ways rather than developing new capacities…The good news about frustration and failure is they show that we have dared to step outside our comfort zones and to rise to a challenge that stretches us. What we’re doing here is reframing frustration and failure in a way that encourages us to persist rather than to give up.”[1]

According to conventional wisdom, I shouldn’t have signed up for an AmeriCorps position titled “sustainable agriculture coordinator”—my health history should have induced me to stay on the sidelines. But I did try my hand at novel, challenging work for several months deep within a pandemic. I must thank the staff at SCLT for extending that opportunity to step outside my comfort zone and experiment with new capacities. Furthermore, I achieved the goals I set forth in “In Search of Querencia:” I did meet key figures who pointed me further, just in a roundabout way I was too vain to consider a year ago.

Now I have time to experiment with the meditation methods, shamanic techniques, and somatic modalities I have absorbed over the past several years. But these practices don’t always yield noticeable progress. When they do, the forward momentum often feels too slow. So the path I am on can be interminable when what I really want is a quantum leap to a new state. Yet Joanna Macy goes on to address interminability, which, like failure, may yield delayed but even greater gratification:

Consider what happens to a bottle of water when it is left in the freezer. As it cools down, there is a steady, continuous change in its temperature. The water won’t change much in appearance until it begins to get near the critical threshold of its freezing point. Then, as it passes this, an extraordinary process happens. Tiny crystals form, and when they do, other crystals form around those crystals, until there is a mass movement of crystallization in the water that rapidly changes state from liquid to solid. This is discontinuous change. 

With discontinuous change, a threshold is crossed where rather than just more of the same happening, something different occurs. There’s a jump to a new level, an opening to a new set of possibilities. We might think it impossible that a small amount of water could crack something as hard as glass, but as the ice expands, it breaks the bottle.[2]

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, my attention has been repeatedly drawn to exponential—discontinuous—processes in nature that bring about phase shifts. So I know my guides are urging forbearance as I repeat my qigong and fourfold breath routines each day, indoors. I may have been expelled from the garden for now, but I’m being asked to trust the process. Like the tree that grows heavy with buds for a month before leafing out, or the bottle of cooling water Joanna Macy writes of, I have to trust that I too can undergo a phase shift.

Discontinuous change and phase shifts are the things of cocoons—metamorphosis. Most of us are familiar with the general concept of how a caterpillar will form a chrysalis then emerge weeks later transfigured into a butterfly. Less well known is how the caterpillar resists change. As it dissolves in its own digestive acids, the immune system of the cocooned pupa will attack the imaginal cells that are trying to transform it. In turn, a nascent imago will fall again and again into the soup of its former self. But this seemingly counterproductive immune response serves to strengthen the imaginal cells so that they can finally give rise to a winged, visually stunning creature.[3}

Photo courtesy of Walter del Aguila on Unplash

The way in which repeated failure is necessary for a butterfly pupa to undergo the discontinuous change of metamorphosis is instructive not just for myself, but for society at large. Cell biologist Bruce Lipton and political philosopher Steve Bhaerman, co-authors of a book titled Spontaneous Evolution, propose that the metamorphosis process can be a model for cultural evolution. They write that the immature stages of complex adaptive systems in biology are marked by excessive competition and auto-cannibalism. But existential crisis—such as a pupa running out of food—can engender evolutionary leaps towards maturity and cooperation[4]. In this manner, we can regard the countercultural and protest movements of the past 60 years not as aberrations or duds, but as pulses of a burgeoning energy that had yet to encounter an existential crisis that could catalyze enduring evolutionary change.

A pandemic, economic stagnation, ecological collapse, and shambolic politics, all shadowed by exponential global warming. These entropic seeds of cataclysm most definitely constitute a polycrisis that demands a rapid shift in human conduct. Proclamations from politicians to the contrary, normal as we knew it is not being restored (nor should it—the old normal was killing us). The pandemic hasn’t ended, climate disruption is now a fact of life, the buried rage of centuries is animating ever-more vitriolic public debate. I am still being urged deeper into the cocoon, and most of us are also being impelled to continue going inwards. When we are embraced by darkness, we may feel not just disappointment, but downright grief. The old normal may have been suicidal, but it is natural to grieve a way of life one was comfortable with.

So I must circle back to the conclusion I drew more than a year ago—that we are encased, waiting for the active ingredient that will bring about our own phase shifts. For many of us, that catalyst will be grief, which is an emotion the old normal never let us explore deeply. But when we allow ourselves to feel the wound, we can expand our wings and discover that, in the words of Wendell Berry, “the dark, too, blooms and sings.”[5]


Notes

[1] Macy, Joanna, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012), 189.

[2] Ibid., 189-90.

[3] Pinchbeck, Daniel, How Soon is Now: From Personal Initiation to Global Transformation. (London: Watkins Publishing, 2017), 179-80.

[4] Ibid., 180.

[5] Berry, Wendell, “To Know the Dark” in Terrapin: Poems by Wendell Berry. (United States: Counterpoint).

In Search of Querencia

In August I moved from Plymouth, Massachusetts, to Providence, Rhode Island, where I am working for a year as an AmeriCorps service member with a community agriculture organization. The move feels propitious. I’ve been longing for awhile to be involved long-term in agriculture, and living in a place called Providence seems like an unsubtle message from the universe about where I’m heading. At a time when so many people are home- and job-insecure, I can hardly complain about this new turn in my life.

But as I’ve settled into a new city, I’ve reflected on the progress I’ve made in the past few years, and something is still missing. In September of last year, when I moved to Massachusetts for my first AmeriCorps assignment, I was living on my own for the first time in my life (college doesn’t count). The first month of being solitary was tough; I was badly yearning for the familiarity of Darien, where I had grown up in the same house and where my parents still live. This time around, I’m not yearning for that home, though. I spent enough time in Darien this spring during the COVID lockdowns to know that it’s not in my spiritual or energetic interests to stay in the nest. Now, I’m yearning for a new home, a place where my personal life, professional work, and the physical landscape will feed into each other and where I will be anchored by enduring social relationships and, eventually, new familial bonds.

What I really desire is querencia. In Spain, where the term originates, a querencia is a spot in a bullring where a wounded bull retreats to renew his strength. Querencia is now used in the Spanish speaking world to connote a home-place where one feels safe and protected. In The Rediscovery of North America, Barry Lopez draws attention to this latter meaning of the word to discuss the modern problem of cultural placelessness:

“It is unfortunate that the word is compromised in this way [by the violence of bullfighting], for the idea itself is quite beautiful – a place in which we know exactly who we are. The place from which we speak our deepest beliefs. Querencia conveys more than “hearth.” And it carries this sense of being challenged – in the case of a bullfight, by something lethal, which one may want no part of.

“I would like to take this word querencia beyond its ordinary meaning and suggest that it applies to our challenge in the modern world, that our search for a querencia is both a response to threat and a desire to find out who we are. And the discovery of a querencia, I believe, hinges on the perfection of a sense of place.

“Bullfight, Suerte de Varas” by Francisco de Goya (1824)

Lopez goes on to venture that discovering a querencia involves being cognizant of the inviolate relationship between a culture and the physical land it occupies. But for the majority of us in North America, this sort of acknowledgement leads back to the undeniable truth of European conquest and imposition. I for one grew up on traditional Lenape and Wappinger territory. Now I am a settler on Narragansett land. And because of the practices of the industrial culture I was born into, much of the land I’m familiar with will be submerged by the Atlantic possibly within my lifetime, while Southern New England’s sugar maples and hemlocks will recede to the Laurentian Shield or die out completely.

What then? If anthropogenic climate change will wipe away much of the familiar characteristics we associate with home, what hope have we of rediscovering any sense of querencia? The way I see it, querencia is always waiting for rediscovery, regardless of exterior changes. The plant and animal species around us may shift along with climate regimes. But what won’t shift is our human capacity to open our hearts to the nonhuman even in the midst of heartbreak and find a new sense of belonging, one that’s based on proposition instead of imposition. Generations of settlers have started over in the same way as they’ve relocated due to war, economics, religion, or climate stress, and they’ve always carried the vital stories with them. We’ll all have to make this leap of faith too if we want to create a future world worth living in, one where we’re not consumed with regret and self-recrimination.

I don’t feel like Rhode Island will be my new querencia. I may meet key people who will point the direction in my ongoing journey. But ultimately, I feel like my final destination – my longed-for home-place where I can firmly face the challenges of my life – is elsewhere. I intend to document in this online space my search for querencia and where the journey takes me. For now, though, I am making myself as comfortable as possible in the Ocean State.