Planting peas in a pandemic

The rich dirt still gives the way it usually does–a slight resistance before the earth yields to my finger, poking a hole into the garden ground again. I’ve done it thousands and thousands of times, and each time brings me joy.

Pea plant rising from the earth.

We eat from the garden–last night it was frozen tomatoes and fresh basil. (The basil is under lights in the basement, sitting in pots filled with dirt from the garden, which will be returned to the garden.)

Decent dirt has a heady aroma, difficult to describe if you do not pay attention to dirt, but a smell any gardener will tell you is enough to get us on our knees. Soil is complex, it is alive, and it is grace.

Winter radishes

We are in trouble, partly because of a virus too new for us to handle, mostly because we’ve forgotten we come from the garden. The story of Adam and Eve (and it is, of course, an old story, told by humans about humans) is a cautionary tale for our times.

We fool ourselves into thinking we can control the garden–our “economy” is based on consumption, on lifeless dirt fertilized with synthetic chemicals produced in a furnace in a process invented by the same man who developed chlorine gas for warfare.

Heaven is found not in the empty sky but in the teeming loam under our feet. If we remembered where we come from, we would not be dumping milk down the drain and crushing tons of beans for mulch as suddenly destitute families face hunger and empty shelves.

November tomato from the garden

A couple of days ago the peas I dropped into the holes my fingers poked into the ground (I did nothing more than that) broke through the earth. The leaves are headed heavenward, but so are the roots. The earth, the air, the rain, and the light will coalesce to form more peas.

I can eat the peas, I can sell them, I can let them fall to waste, but what I cannot do is make them. I pray a lot in the garden, sometimes out of desperation on a bad day, but in recognition of grace on the good days.

And bad days are rare in the garden.

Perihelion

North Cape May sunset, December, 2019

We’re a few hours away from our closest brush with the sun for the year. We are also a few hours away from the darkest 4 weeks of the year. Coincidental, true, but both are good news.

Because the perihelion happens in winter, we’re blessed with a longer summer in these parts, and we’re blessed with a larger sun when we need it most. (This is mostly illusory, but so is pretty much everything else we pretend matters.)

As the days lengthen, again, I am reminded, again, of our ties to the light, to the ground, to the air and water. To say as much these days gets you labeled as some kind of Luddite or wiccan or pagan.

Roly poly on the driveway, North Cape May

The crime is not separation from G_d or religion–the offense is daring to separate oneself from modern, abstract human “life”–a belief that somehow humans can separate from the world. (This falls under many guises–neoliberalism, ed-tech, “the global economy” and so many other abstract flags, none of which make us happier or healthier.)

Maybe this my gift to my students– an old soul standing in front of them, still connected (if tenuously) to the world that sustains us than the one that merely entertains us.

A solstice dawn prayer

Ice tree, December 19

The sun creaks through the gray dusk, etching the branches of a tree I did not plant. The branches are orderly but not symmetric, each fork with its own story of past light and winds, crafted from air and rain.

Every tree is different. Every branch is different.

Every tree is the same thing, whatever that same thing is, being a tree.

I am, for a moment, wordless, as I watch a world etched by purpose but not understanding. Wildness everywhere.

There is nothing to understand, but there is something to remember. We did not arise from wilderness.

We are wilderness.

We have as much purpose as a leaf on a tree.
No more, but at least as important, no less.

Biology only worth knowing if life is

Last of the summer basil (November, 2019)

I suppose it’s a bit much to ask students to ponder their closeness to plants in a culture where humans barely recognize other humans. Things have broken down.

Yet this much is true:

  • Humans and plants share the same genetic code–we can make their stuff, they can make ours.
  • We both reproduce sexually in a spectacular dance of the chromosomes, mixing us up every generation, so that even the perfect among us are perfect for only a generation.
  • We both rely on ribosomes to build our proteins, microtubules and mitochondria to get us through the day, and an innate will to do whatever we need to see the next sunrise.

Humans and basil share a common ancestor. We share a quarter of the same genes. Many of our proteins do exactly the same thing, others not so much.

But we’re pretty damn close at the most basic levels of life. Which is pretty cool.

Swallowtail on the backyard dill

We’re even closer to insects–we share about 60% of our core genes with fruit flies. 

If something effectively kills plants or insects, and you see no connections between plants and insects and humans, then you likely do not contemplate the tons and tons and tons of herbicides and pesticides poured on our food in our “war” against weeds and weevils.

Basil after a week or two of wild sex

If you don’t contemplate about food or water or folks in your neighborhood, it’s unlikely you contemplate much about anything that matters.

Hey, who won the game last night?

Honfleur

Apple whiskey

I found Honfleur by accident, though apparently lots of people a whole lot smarter than me have known about it for centuries.

I followed the Seine on a map, saw where it slid into the sea, and for no better reason than that, decided I wanted, maybe even needed, to go there.

I was not disappointed.

Artwork seen on a street in Honfleur

Despite the Germans, despite the English, and probably along the way despite what few Oirish staggered through these streets proclaiming their love “pour les francaises” in awful French, Honfleur remains Honfleur.

It’s not that Honfleur is particularly special (although it is to me). And it’s not that the French (even les Parisiens) are particularly special (even though they are to me).

It’s that there are other ways to live (really live) besides what this great land of ours here has to offer.

(I’m not being fair–we got quahogs free for the raking, trees for the cutting, bees for the hiving, and squirrels for the…OK, not for hunting, tasty as they are, too fookin’ cute.)

It poured one day while we were in Honfleur. We say a class of school children walking from the park, in their yellow vests, soaking wet, as though this was normal, and in France maybe it is.

I miss it.

Marina in Honfleur

(Should you go, the folks in Honfleur do not laugh when you attempt French, and will go out of the way to make you feel comfortable, and it goes beyond being part of the tourist invasion taking over their streets in the summer.)

I think they know what they have in Honfleur. Maybe the rest of us trampling through their town remind them of this.

Traveling is a self-indulgent activity; writing about it may be more so.

Still, if you ever get the chance, make the trip.

The wisdom of the ancients

Of all the Commandments, the wisest may be the first:

You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Beerworld, Lower Township, NJ

Humans are fooled by images, and we are especially fooled by images created by humans.

We serve many masters, and we serve without thought.

I walk home in the dark December afternoons, walking by the homes of my neighbors, and the windows flicker with the light from boxes mounted on walls, telling stories of those who can afford to share their stories on the networks, stories with consequences.

I am different when I am outside, even when surrounded by asphalt and buildings. I feel feral. I lose words as I gain sight.

North Cape May near the winter solstice

Each step in the dark reminds me of what I cannot remember once I am inside again.; I am left with the feeling of knowing I have lost something I knew a moment ago, but surrounded and embraced by the world of the human, I lose the world.


Why I left medicine

I used to be a doc, the real kind with tongue blades. I am now entering my 12th year of teaching.
Students often ask me why I left medicine.

Artwork seen on a street in Honfleur

I used to be a doctor, the kind with a stethoscope, the kind licensed to hurt you for your own good. It puzzles children to learn that a physician would walk away from medicine in order to teach, and there are days I am baffled myself.

Students often ask me why I left medicine. Here’s what I thought 5 years ago, and it still holds.

I liked medicine. I love teaching. I did not know that this would be true when I left medicine, so while it is true, it is not enough to explain why I left. Why leave something you like, especially when it pays ridiculously well?

Every year children ask me this, and so far I have not quite gotten it right. I thought I had it right, but high school sophomores would kind of shake just a little bit sideways. I wasn’t fooling them.

I think I got it right now.

I saw a lot of bad stuff in hospitals. I saw a lot of good stuff, too, but good stuff can be found in a lot of places. The truly bad stuff has a home in the hospital.

  • The unlucky (an elderly woman who slowly died from an infection caused by an errant piece of metal ripping through her car’s floor, riveting in her thigh).
  • The doomed (a woman burned over most of her body, still conscious, still talking, immediately before we intubated her, rendering her speechless–we knew she was doomed when we did this. We did it anyway.)
  • The curious (two babies sharing the same torso, the same heart, the same fate).
  • The geographically screwed (an Asian toddler who needed a new heart, but who could not afford one, twisting away towards death as she lived in an American hospital as an alien).
  • The innocent (children wasting away from a virus we barely understood, acquired from a mother’s heroin habit or her lover’s proclivities).
Walking on a dredge fill n Cape May

I was very good at diagnosis, and not bad at making things better once a diagnosis was made. A few were better than me, but not many.

 When you are surrounded by hurt, there are two ways to respond if you want to remain functional–fix it, or pretend it does not exist. I did a lot of fixing.

If you do medicine long enough, and if you are paying attention, you give death its due. It’s real, it’s usually ugly, and it’s inevitable.

I can’t beat death–took me awhile to get to that realization, but I got there. And it’s liberating.

FIshermen’s Memorial, Cape May

Turns out living isn’t the goal–living well is what matters.

I was pretty good at helping people live longer. Now I’m getting good at helping people live well.

I thought my job mattered before, but had my doubts in the pitiful wail of a dying toddler, bruised and bleeding as we laid our hands, our technology, and finally our fists in futile CPR on her tiny body as it cooled its way back to entropy.

A life worth living is our only compensation against the greedy hand of death.

So I help children carve out a life worth living.

I’m a teacher.

If you teach, teach as though lives depend on it. If you think this is excessive, get out.
Photos by me or Leslie–feel free to use under CC.

November dusk

It’s mid-November and the shadows are long–the sun slips over the horizon less than 10 hours a day now here in these parts.

It’s near dark when I walk home, crossing our town green, as I do several hundred times a year.

Clamshells in November light


There’s mystery in the shadows. Our ancestors saw spirits, and so will you if you lurk outside during dusk. The animals are aware of you, and so, I suspect, are the trees.

As winter looms, I watch the light change under my feet. (I look down a bit more now that I am getting older–the roots of the sycamore are determined to get me.)

But here is where words fail–when you walk at dusk over the fallen leaves, when it’s not quite light enough to see colors yet not so dark you cannot sense the colors, the edges of each leaf appear to glow as long as you keep moving.

No doubt there is some neuro-evolutionary advantage to this, some physiological explanation, some modern means of dispelling any reference to magic.

But there it is.

Clamming in late autumn

They’re alive, just an hour or two after leaving the bay, and will be until they are cooked an hour or two later.

I am alive when I take this picture, and will be even after these particular clams are eaten.

Quahogs raked from the back bay in late November

The air is chilly in the shadows, but the water is still warm enough for sandals.

In a generation or two, different clams will fill the same basket, different hands will hold the same rake.

The shells of the clams above now sit under a maple tree outside, resting among the shards of so many other shells, all raked up alive, all eaten, all dead.

If you’re a high school teacher, here’s a macabre exercise that I think is worth doing once or twice a year. Wander out into the hallways in between the periods, when the kids are being kids, in varied kid positions, using kid slang.–walking/strutting/slouching/skipping/dancing/sliding with in your face vivaciousness .

Now imagine those same bodies a years after they are dead, their skeletal remains as lifeless as the ghostly white clam shells sitting under my maple tree.

Clam shells under the maple tree.

And then ask yourself, what are you doing today with these children whose lives are as mortal as the clams.

(Mortality should influence your curriculum at least as much as capitalism does….)

Natural selection and the battle for your child’s soul

I get why folks want to ban the teaching of natural selection as the driving force behind the evolution of all living things on Earth. A child who grasps natural selection faces a fundamental challenge to her place in the universe.


While some folks might encourage a child’s quest to seek awareness of her place in the universe, most parents (in this part of the world, anyway) already have a pretty good idea what they want their children to believe, and usually because they believe that they are looking out for the child’s best interests.

No one wants their baby to go to Hell, so kneel before the Tabernacle.
No one wants their child batting last in Little League, so keep the back elbow up.

Much of what passes for understanding evolution in this country is, well, just another form of religion. You pick a side, you wave a banner, you demonize the others. We cannot help ourselves–our tendency to religiosity may be built into our genes.

Natural selection is a simple model to grasp (though the vastness of geologic time it takes extends beyond my imagination). Its ramifications blow the mind. 

Humans were not, it turns out, inevitable. The earthworm is as evolved as you. The countless other living beings among us do not exist for us, they exist with us, likely for the same unfathomable (though explainable) reasons we exist.

I still find comfort making the Sign of the Cross, and if you push, yes, a big part of who I am believes that it matters beyond whatever psychological relief it brings. I doubt I would believe that if I were raised Hindu, but I wasn’t, and my beliefs are strong and deeply ingrained, if (perhaps) irrational.


Natural selection rubs up against my less than rational beliefs. Natural selection will do the same to a thinking child, no matter what her religion.

Teachers want a child to use her mind. Her parents fear for her soul. I do not know what either “mind” or “soul” means, but I do know that if you believe that the mind and soul are competing entities, evolution by natural selection is going to be perceived as a fundamental threat to your child’s well-being.

I am a science teacher; I teach biology; I will share the fundamental “tenet” central to understanding the diversity of life on Earth.

I am not going to ask a child to “believe in” evolution–there is nothing to “believe in” in science beyond  the acceptance of the observable natural world as the premise for the models and explanations used in science, trust in rational thought, and a willingness to alter or abandon prior understandings when new contradictory evidence emerges.


I sympathize with the parents who believe that they are fighting for their child’s soul, but I am an American living in a republic dependent on a thinking citizenry bound by our Constitution. If you want a public education system that favors religion over rational thought, there are plenty of theocracies around the globe doing just that.





Glad I teach in New Jersey…..

Be God, Bee God

If God is only in a few of us, God is in none of us.
If God is in some of us, God is in all of us.

Honey bee on our rosemary plant in late January 2020.

I saw a couple of honey bees in the rosemary yesterday. I heard them before I saw them.

It had rained hard just an hour earlier, and the rosemary flowers were soaked, making it difficult for the bees to gather much nectar. One looked particularly frustrated.

Their bee bodies were sleek, not covered with the pollen found on them in the summer. Not much blooming in January–rosemary, a few dandelions, not much else.

Still, the bees were out, and I was out, and I was curious about them, and one was (mildly) curious about me until she realized I was not a threat. Then she went back to work.

If God is in some of us, God is in all of us.
And if God is in all of us, God is in the bees as well.

This is only sacrilegious if you anthropomorphize God. (It may be sacrilegious to anthropomorphize bees, too, but I do not know enough about religion, or God, or bees to say with much authority.)

If you go outside, even in January, you will be surprised.

The shells of clams I have raked, cooked, and eaten. December 2019

On the way home from school on Friday, I saw a woman about my age look a little hesitant as I passed her. I said hello and walked on, but got stopped by a couple of my former students, and we chatted about robots (an upcoming robot competition), music (one had a gig that night at a local fund raiser), and whatever else was going on in their lives at the moment. Kids lead a lot more interesting lives than many adults I know.

The woman watched me chat, then, figuring I was safe, asked me if I knew where the Church on the Green was. I pointed it out–it was right across he street–then we got to chatting. Strangers on the street lead a lot more interesting lives than we know unless we ask.

She was looking for a food pantry that had Alimentum, a special formula for babies that are allergic to milk. It’s hard to find Alimentum in food pantries, and even harder at stores if you lack cash. She had just gotten custody of her great grand-daughter, had an appointment for WIC in three weeks, but in the meantime she needed to find Alimentum.

I embarrassed her by offering what little cash I was carrying, but after some back and forth I convinced her take it. She made it clear to me that she was not homeless and was not looking for anything from me.

I knew as much. I know a little bit about Alimentum from my years as a pediatrician, and a lot more about how we care for children in this land, a lesson I learned well practicing medicine.

A rosemary in January will share nectar with another species, but if you lack cash or credit, your human baby may well go hungry until she is “in the system.”

Granny’s crucifix made of Irish bogwood, now mine. She saw Saints, I once did, too.

The whitewashing of Dr. King

When I die, I hope nobody mistakes my kindness for niceness. I am not a nice man.
Dr. King’s life profoundly affected mine.

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice….Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

Martin Luther King, Jr., from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was loving, and kind, and powerful. His words still resonate, should you choose to hear them.

Do not confuse non-violence with passivity.

Do not confuse kindness with niceness.

During school announcements yesterday, our students were told that Dr. King pushed “cooperation.” Rania Jones, a 3rd grade winner of the Milwaukee Public Schools’ “People Must Work Together” King contest wrote “That’s what we must do today – demonstrate cooperation.” This is the Dr. King lite version of a complex story. This is the version that gives so many of us the day off on Monday.

“Love” is a complex word, and one not easily used in public settings. “Cooperation” is much safer, more sanitary.

And it’s the wrong message.

***

My Dad joined  the 1963 March on Washington, dressed in full uniform, a proud US Marine officer. He flew A4 Phantom Skyhawks off carriers, in love with a country that let poor first generation children fly.

My dad was pulled to the front of the parade, or so the story goes. If you see a full-dressed USMC officer in photos from the parade, it may well be Bill Doyle. Dr. King later went on to oppose the Viet Nam War as unjust, and my father, a die-hard leatherneck, resigned his commission for the same reason.

I grew up in an Irish Catholic home, but Dr. King held as much influence as the Pope, maybe more, years before he was assassinated. My Dad loved the man, not the cartoon he has become.

Read “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”

Take a walk outside and watch the grace and agony of life around us.

Yes, it’s complicated. Life is complex,

You want to learn about Dr. King? Go read his words, listen to his speeches, learn everything you can about him. But don’t “cooperate” with those who would steal his image without his words, the Mike Pences, the innumerable talking heads that will piously bow today.

Take a walk, a walk outside, away from noise. Carry a copy of King’s letter and read it under the January sunlight.

Share it. Live it.

Don’t let the dream die.

The photo of Dr. King (D.C., August, 1963)  is from the National Archives and is the public domain.