I ran for City Council earlier this month. On the Sunday before the election, I decided to walk the outdoor labyrinth and then I went home to write, rather than continuing to seek, knock, and ask my way into office. This is an edited version of what I wrote while in that moment:
Beautiful fall day in early November. After 3 months of knocking on over 1,000 doors, I find myself sitting on my front porch, compelled to capture this moment of tension, 48 hours before the final votes are cast.
I’ve never run for a political office. This year, I finally succumbed to the drumbeat of people telling me that I have the right personality and patience to do the job.
This is what I have come to understand – people care deeply for their neighbor, but aren’t sure what is best for others. In that quandary, some think that people should trust in self organization and caring for each other, free from the restrictions or requirements of a governmental authority. Others see the mounting needs of others in society and see great value in a public institution that cares for those who struggle.
I believe that humans have the capability and responsibility to organize effective governance so that the plight of poverty is diminished in civilization. But we must be actively engaged in our democracy to make this aspiration possible.
I am at peace with my participation in this democratic process. I entered this campaign focused on meeting my neighbors, sharing my story of developing my leadership sensibilities during the city’s flood recovery, and focusing on affordable housing, the mental health matters initiative, supporting Nexus Park and the associated economic development around the area, and meaningful participation in the local climate alliance. I’m committed to the work of Landmark Columbus for preserving our cultural heritage and advancing design principles in our civic life.
Getting votes can have a corrupting influence on the imagination. It’s easy to weigh every decision as an opportunity to gain as many votes as possible. And if not careful, it’s easy to start objectifying and stereotyping people in the process. Asking yourself, who should I and who should I not care about in this time-constrained endeavor to win?
At some point about a month ago, I let go of the pressure to win and focused on the process. It is more about paying attention to democracy and less about politics. To care about people voting and wanting to be educated about the issues. This does not need to be a popularity contest.
When people talk about democracy dying, I think it’s because we have turned our minds towards the abstractions of national politics and not towards the relationships that can be formed between voters and their elected officials. It is easier to have that relationship building value in a city election. I’ve been able to meet a large percentage of the people who live in this neighborhood. I have the experience of listening to and caring for all of the perspectives that have been expressed to me along the way. People have respectfully disagreed with me. Some have not been able to engage in conversation at all due to my party affiliation. Others have been willing to listen to change their mind. I’ve had big smiles and high fives and invites into homes.
I grew up in this district on Woodfield Place, went to school, bought my first home, attended church, and settled into this home with Jen for the past 11 years in this district. I raised my children here. It’s been an honor to meet so many people who create the fabric of my existence. Who help keep me safe, who provide joy with their house decorations, who work to make this community better.
I’m unconventional – more of an artist than an economist. I would like to think that I have the best designed signs among all the candidates. I’m not the best public speaker and I still get butterflies every time I think about knocking on doors.
Today is the first day that I did not feel those butterflies. It’s the first day that I felt like I can rest and reflect without agonizing about what I could have done. And maybe I will lose this election by a handful of votes that perhaps I would have gained had I walked around this neighborhood today. It’s impossible to know.
I’ve approached each day as an underdog. Wondering if I could push past the 50% mark by Election Day. I kind of imagined this Sunday as a mad dash to win – skipping church, maybe skipping lunch and galvanizing an army of people to knock on doors with me. But I did not do that. I have watched the shadows on this day. I’ve reacquainted myself with the flowers that have browned and grayed since their full blooms were on display when I first started this campaign. They have lost their energy and are giving back to their roots, preparing for the inevitable winter and dormancy. They will emerge in the spring. I will too.
I’m not sure what will happen and I’m at peace with the public making that choice for me. I would like to think that my life won’t be dramatically different whether I win or lose. With a win, I have a council vote. If I lose, I will continue to be an advocate. Either way, at the top of my mind is serving the public in a way that is genuine, full of care, and curious about how to shape a community to be better connected. We all sit somewhere in this vast web of Columbus and we are inextricably linked. I have learned that more than ever over the course of this year. There is no way to separate each other from the reality of a shared destiny.
I chose a campaign slogan of “Listen. Learn. Lead.” to calm my nerves and to be a reflection of who I am. It’s easy to get caught in the desire to be an aspiring omni-everything leader. Great in front of the audience, great in front of the computer, great in the subject matter of public opinion, and connected to the important people – able to get things done. But the reality is that most of us only have the capacity to excel in a few of those skills. I am at peace with listening to the themes of this community and being humble enough to not have immediate answers. I hope that I encourage new people to come to public meetings to help serve the greater good.
I will be walking away from this season having learned that I’m a listener – or at least aspire to be. To accept a leadership style that is perhaps a little less driven by ego and more by a desire to empower others – not for me to be at the center, but for the connections that emerge to be the motivation for positive change.
I’ve not talked directly about the environment perhaps as much as I would have liked. I will close by saying that I want to think about all of life as my constituency. Everything that pulses and contributes to the ecosystem has a voice and purpose that is worthy to be listened to and upheld. To be a part of the conversation of creation. We are stewards of something that we did not create. How do you create a sense of stewardship over all that we are connected to, human and non-human? It’s about seeking relationships with those who struggle, who have a voice, but are not heard, and are asking for our help.
Between knocks on porch
Calm before conversation
The person cares here
I lost the election by a 48% to 52% margin. I was glad to see the newspaper print an editorial a few days later with that begin with this sentence:
“Eric Riddle was not victorious in his bid for a seat on the Columbus City Council, but on election night Nov. 7, his prevailing opponent, Kent Anderson, said Riddle was a winner.”
This quote captured my intentions in campaigning – to build a positive relationship with my neighbors and with Kent Anderson – who despite being my opponent, I referred to as my running mate.
I look forward to supporting Kent and the community in whatever capacity best suits my abilities. I’m proud to have accepted an invitation to be a Mental Health Matters Ambassador in Columbus. Perhaps that will be more impactful for me to be doing over the next 4 years!
I dedicate this Haikast to my wife, Jennifer Anne Riddle, for our 11 year wedding anniversary!
I asked Jen to marry me in the center of a labyrinth on a cold February afternoon. The previous week was Valentine’s Day and she was clearly upset that I did not pop the question during dinner in downtown Indianapolis. She didn’t know that I was waiting for Ash Wednesday the following week.
I first met Jen in Boston in 2009. She was one of my sister’s roommates. When I went to cheer on my sister in the Boston Marathon, the all women’s Christian household where Suzanne lived allowed an exception to have a guy stay overnight since I was a family member.
I was dating at the time, so I didn’t think beyond the budding of a platonic relationship. Besides, I have never had much of a radar for flirtation. We did share great conversations about Jack Kerouac, the band U2, the NFL, and my endeavor to write a book about the Columbus flood recovery. We even shared an ice cream cone. Platonically.
It was about a year later when she called me randomly after the Indianapolis Colts lost the Super Bowl to the New Orleans Saints. She called again a month later when the Duke Blue Devils beat the Butler Bulldogs in the NCAA basketball championship. At that point, I was single and surprised by what became clear, after the second call, that these were not random conversations.
We quickly jumped to topics with a little more spiritual depth.
Independently, in that spring of 2010, we both decided to give up all liquids except water for Lent. She was doing it for a ministry called Blood:Water mission. I was doing it because I realized that I had become entirely too dependent on daily coffee. This opened up our conversations of shared journeys.
You may say that we entered the labyrinth together that spring.
Two years later, when we were walking a real labyrinth together – on the threshold of the marriage proposal – we had been through a lot. She moved to Columbus and transferred to Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis to complete her Masters of Divinity degree. We broke up twice as I navigated the nagging suffering of post-divorce life and introducing my children to her. We lived through me having a major depressive episode. It wasn’t a straight shot to the altar. I don’t think life ever is as linear as we want it to be.
Labyrinths have been around a long time. If you dive into the history, you’ll discover that many ancient cultures spread across the globe have iconography related to labyrinths. Coins from Greece in the 5th century BC included labyrinth images. It is thought that the labyrinth has been part of human civilization for over 4,000 years.
If you are not familiar with labyrinths – or perhaps only associate the term with David Bowie’s film from the 1980s – there is a very strong distinction from a maze. People get lost in mazes in a series of dead ends with only one way through. If doing a maze on paper, you may need to erase your path a few times before successfully finding your way out.
You will not get lost in a labyrinth or need to retrace your steps. While the traditional labyrinth, codified in the 13th century floor of a French cathedral, may seem intimidating with 11 concentric rings leading to a circle in the middle – it is not a place of dead ends. You will find your way to the center – to what some labyrinth aficionados describe as the womb. A safe place to reflect before reentering the world.
Labyrinths are the home of spiritual ritual. On that Ash Wednesday with Jen, I chose the labyrinth walk as a sign that we would never face a dead end. We might not be able to anticipate the twists and turns, but we would do it together, we will find the center.
As we walked out, we headed inside the church on the property. We walked out with ash on our foreheads, a sign that sacrifice and mourning is part of this life. While probably not the first choice of most people who are minutes into engagement, it was fitting for us. Even in the moment of showing shared aspirations of a lifetime of love, we acknowledged that our time together would come to an end – that one of us would have to step out of the labyrinth first.
We have walked many labyrinths over the last 12 years. For years, I had been trying to build a labyrinth in Columbus. Finally, starting just before the pandemic, First United Methodist Church – where Jen was working – agreed to pursue putting a labyrinth in the lawn just north of the church. The labyrinth was installed in 2022, 10 years after our wedding. Benches and native plants adorned the corners. New trees were added to make the space feel more intimate.
In early summer of 2023, Jen made the decision to leave her job to take on a new ministry position at First Presbyterian Church, just a couple blocks away. It was an emotionally difficult time for both of us as she decided to leave her first job in full time ministry.
Before making her announcement, I joined Jen in late May as she led others from the church in a labyrinth walk, one of the first facilitated educational walks she had led with members of the congregation.
As is my practice, when I reached the center of the labyrinth, I paused in prayer. When I opened my eyes, I saw her – with both churches, like bookends, in my field of vision. We would be walking on soon, together, in her ministry journey, taking an unexpected twist on a path whose only promise is to never lead to a dead end.
Centered, still, movement
From labyrinth, two steeples
She is walking out
It’s hard to accurately describe how big my parents’ garden was when I was a child. I remember many summer days working with them to dig rows, plant seeds, weed and harvest. It was home to many vegetables, most notably the corn that my dad loved to grow and the green beans that I wasn’t as fond of. But just as the corn towered over my single digit self, the garden also spread wide to be as big as any that I knew. To my eye, perhaps only my dad’s parents’ garden in rural Green County, Indiana was larger.
Whatever the dimensions, it was large enough to plant in me a seed of understanding and a desire to want to have my own garden.
I am excited that this year I only spent $10 on my entire vegetable garden thanks to a combination of saving seed packets from last year, harvesting my own seeds, trading plants with friends, getting seeds from the public library seed share program, and allowing volunteer plants to find their way. A package of brussel sprout plant plugs and a seed pack of green beans was my only expense for a massive harvest this year. It may seem counterintuitive, but the more involved with plants I have become, the less I have had to spend on their cultivation.
For people who did not grow up around the cycle of planting and harvesting, I can imagine that gardening may seem like a risky gamble into struggling with unkempt weeds and frustrating neighbors. Depending on your property, a garden can be a public hobby and, if you aren’t sure of your motivations or confident in what you are doing, may invite embarrassment at the site of perceived failure when the harvest doesn’t seem worth the effort.
What I can tell you is this – the more that I have gardened, the more I realize that I don’t do the gardening for my diet, property value, public relations with my neighbors, or to fill my time.
I garden for the plants and for the non-human life that benefits from the presence of diversity on my property.
Yes, all of the former that I mentioned are definitely benefits for me as well.. I will be the first to raise my hand to say that a late spring harvest of salad greens or a long awaited late summer watermelon are among the most savory and sweet moments of my year.
In the garden, beyond the abundance of harvest, there is also death. The use of herbicides, forgetting to water during dry spells, the mildew that may get hold of my squash before maturity, and all kinds of other unforeseen events may create less than ideal conditions of growth. The natural lifecycle of plants and insects, and, of course, rabbits’ appetites, will inevitably dash one’s ideal harvest dreams. I have more than once accidentally pulled a maturing desirable plant in my hasteful weeding endeavor on a hot summer evening. It doesn’t take too long to cope with death in the garden – both intentional and unintentional.
This seasonal lifecycle welcomes my presence in this entire drama, especially with native plants. The ultimate goal of a balanced, thriving environment around my home is my care and attention. That is why I do my best to restrain myself from pulling plants that migrate to parts of my yard where they were not originally planted. Rather than dumping fertilizer at a fixed location, I let them show me where they want to grow. I figure that they know better than I do what conditions work best for them – small changes in sunlight, moisture, soil type and neighboring plants play a big role in what will thrive and what will falter. Knowing this, I do my best to work with the plants to let them exert their preferences, rather than me enforcing mine.
I have a perhaps too cautious concern for the use of fertilizers and anything that ends with the suffix “-ide”, so I rely on my time to be the best determiner of what grows and what dies. So I watch, learn, and plan for the introduction of new plants and successional plantings to keep the bees busy. I want to attract other flying friends – whether it be birds or other insects, butterflies – by the diversity of plants in my yard, so they remain curious to come back year after year to see what I am up to on my little corner of the planet.
My relationship with those creatures is what inspires me much more than trying to impress my neighbors. I do keep a reasonable order about my designs, but the primary rationale of my gardening and the outcomes that I care most deeply about are focused on if the birds and bees feel invited. My pro tip to those who want to get a little more adventurous with gardening is to keep the mowed areas edged very well so people can tell that you take great care of the lawn portions of the yard.
People often ask me how I spend so much time outside and not worry about getting stung. The funny thing is, the only sting I have received over the past decade was from a wasp that wasn’t happy with me entering my back door.
Shadow of the gardener
Care of dirty hands
My basement stairs now have the “Rips Room” letters that I, Eric Rippy Riddle, inherited from my grandfather, Amos Harlen Rippy. The letters hung in the same formation from his home in Tell City, IN throughout my young life. It is an honor to walk down my stairs and remember the familiar walk down my grandparents basement steps.
My grandfather was a quiet man. Growing up, the things that I most identified with my grandfather were:
His stable presence in all of my big life’s moments
He worked most of his life at the Tell City Chair Company
He owned a golf cart at his local course and played all the time
He absolutely loved St. Louis Cardinals baseball
He was responsible for hanging the witty sayings and announcements with the black plastic letters on the church sign
He stopped smoking in the early 1980s when I asked him why he smoked (I have little recollection of this, but it was often stated at family gatherings)
He was in the Air Force in World War 2
The family called him “Pop”. His friend’s called him “Rip.”
In 2013, Pop was my last grandparent to die. I was close to all 4 of my grandparents, but Pop’s quiet nature was overshadowed by my grandmother who showered love, attention, and lots of cookies on me. His quiet presence was one of solidarity, but not as much what I would call intimacy. It felt like there was something that I didn’t know about him and wasn’ sure how to find out.
The funny thing is that I did not cry at the funerals of my other grandparents. I also did not speak at those funerals. I did both the day Pop was buried.
His funeral is easily the most memorable for me. I remember standing on the cemetery hillside, listening to the playing of Taps and getting an overwhelming feeling of what I can only describe as being opened. I was compelled to begin writing poetry that I described as “openings”. I wrote this after Pop’s funeral:
Today, Pop was buried
Next to my mother’s mother
Sunny, windy on top of Tell City
My son watched the old man fold the flag
Red, White, Blue described
I stood in the tent, feeling an opening
A generation is gone
My mom, dad, aunt, and uncle said their goodbye
At the church, I took the Kleenex
And mumbled through 8 tissues
I said death is a myth
and my grandfather is alive
Pop lived 68 years after he flew over Tokyo in 1945. It took me until 2022 to realize that my grandfather was part of Operation Meetinghouse. The air raids over Tokyo on March 9th and 10th in 1945 are considered the deadliest air raid in human history. With a firestorm that killed nearly 100,000 people, the napalm burned a quarter of Tokyo to the ground. While the atomic bombs get the attention, it was the Operation Meetinghouse air raid that my grandfather participated in that took the most human life.
His generation fought the most lethal war in human history. Pop embodied the conflict that horrifies and amazes all who study that time in human history. I can not imagine the psychological anguish – whether felt or stuffed into his unconscious that he must have experienced. I wish I could have known more and spoken to him about that time in his life.
I wept the day I pieced together the dates of Operation Meetinghouse with what my brother had discovered in Pop’s journals. While it did not feel like a family secret, this realization was an unearthing of family history that has been life altering to me. It feels like a lost treasure with a key that could only truly be opened by talking to Pop. I think part of my emotional reaction is not being able to talk to him about the experience. I am not sure how this has shaped me or how this knowledge will play a role in my life. It is real and painful and unforgettable. When he died, and I felt opened, maybe it was a way of passing on a desire for my generation to be reconcilers in a world prone to war.
This deeper understanding of Pop’s Air Force service has drawn me closer to him since his passing. When I think of Tom Brokaw’s book, “The Greatest Generation,” I remember my grandfather. I’m thankful that I have lived in relative peace, compared to the world he inherited when he was in his early 20’s and Pearl Harbor put his generation instantly on the path to the deadliest war in human history. Whether soldiers died, like some of his friends, or soldiers survived by dropping bombs on the enemy, I count both as sacrifices. I understand his quiet demeanor more.
Following the war, he thankfully was able to serve the rest of his life in the peaceful town of Tell City, IN. The stability he provided to our family after his service in World War 2 laid a foundation of success for my mother that has since passed down to my generation and my children.
Before Pop passed, his first grandson was born – Isaac Rippy Riddle. I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to honor my grandfather by passing on his family name. May Isaac, like his great grandfather, grow to humbly serve, seeking reconciliation in a complicated world.
Grieving great fire of World War
Nineteen forty five
Fifteen years ago, on the day my divorce was finalized, I sat around a corner table with some friends at the Columbus Bar. This was not a celebration, but a solemn gathering of men who supported me through one of the most difficult times of my life.
A few months before, my best friend, Ben Stilson, and I had changed allegiances from Buffalo Wild Wings to Columbus Bar for a number of reasons – gigantic onion rings, best fish sandwich in town, first microbrewery in Columbus, and the kindness of the owner, Jon Myers. The Diesel Oil Stout was a revelation in local brewing beauty.
That night of the divorce, Jon was serving us. For old times sake, in remembrance of fun evenings I had experienced in England back in college, I ordered an absinthe. Jon brought it to the table, with the special glassware, spoon, and sugar cube. It was a bittersweet night, but one of remarkable fraternal bonding and creation of new memories as I started a new chapter of life.
Weeks later, Ben and I, along with our friend Patrick Fosdick, were forming a Columbus Young Professionals team to compete in a summer long “Amazing Race” competition. The goal was to solve clues that led us to special spots in town. We needed to take a picture at each location and write a blog post about it. We were looking for a fourth team member, so on a whim, we asked Jon if he would like to join us. He did and the 4 of us gathered at the front plaza of City Hall to begin the competition. We had forgotten to create a team name. In a moment of creative clarity, Ben offered up the name “The Local Drafts.” The double entendre of being recruited to this team and promoting Jon’s Powerhouse microbrewery immediately resonated.
So the Local Drafts ran around for 3 months, bonding while taking silly pictures holding empty beer mugs all over Columbus. We finished fourth in that summer of 2008. As we realized our formal time as a team was coming to a close, we reflected on the deepening bonds we had established and brainstormed how we could keep the fun going. So we organized a party called a Blind Beer Taste Test. We picked 8 beers in a particular style and randomly placed them into an elite 8 bracket. One person poured 1.5 oz samples into 2 separate glasses and after trying both, a vote was taken. There was then a Final Four round and a final head to head match to decide the champion of the beer style. In October of 2008, Keystone Light won the inaugural Blind Beer Taste Test competition in the Light Beer style. We loved it. And kept doing it.
I was not in a fraternity in college. I didn’t like the idea of hazing and the drunkenness associated with it. As the years went on and Ben, Jon, Patrick, and I invited more people to the taste tests, we realized that the fraternal bonds that developed through this ritual and all of the friendships that emerged outside of the taste test experiences were very special. No hazing required.
In 2012, we inducted a new “class” of 4 Local Draft gentlemen and 6 more by the end of 2018. The “organization,” and I do put that in quotes, waxed and waned in attempts to formalize, but in the end we decided we all just wanted to be together. Not to have meetings, but to have gatherings. Random happenings. Maybe it was golfing or hiking or helping someone move or supporting a Draft through a job transition, or planting trees, or volunteering, or organizing spur of the moment happy hours.
In 2017, we had our first overnight trip on a trip to Cave Run Lake in Kentucky – starting an annual tradition of a 3-night, out of state trip. It will take too long to tell the stories of Three Rivers, Michigan – other than to say the Drafts have all left a piece of their hearts with our gracious AirBnB host, Mary Doezema, and her idyllic acreage with its winding boardwalk through beautiful wetlands. The relationships with these men have all become such an incredible blessing for me.
I did not know any of these guys in high school or college. I hear about men struggling to have meaningful relationships as adults and I’m thankful that I’ve been able to cultivate enduring friendships. It’s not about the beer or working at the same company or going to the same church or following the same sports teams. The root is in sharing the same community and being committed to caring. In a way, it was born out of my suffering after the divorce and being full of gratitude for the men who walked beside me in my time of greatest need.
After my last hospitalization for major depression in 2013, my wife decided to share my bipolar II diagnosis with our church and friend group. When I returned home, the Drafts organized a game night at our house and a group of 8 men gathered around our dining room table to play for hours. The acceptance that I felt that night was an incredible experience of brotherly love. In the weeks that followed, I finally found peace with my diagnosis, knowing that I would be loved and supported through the recovery process. With that confidence, I have been able to cast aside the isolating effects of stigma to become a more steadfast advocate for mental health.
So to the original Drafts already mentioned and Robb Kelly, Joey “Yolo” Leo, Johnny Unitas Koefoed, Jeff Bradley, Josh “Draft Lite” Brown, Brian Hardy, Tyler Reynolds, Philip “the OG Quadfather” Roggow, Kevin Hurst, and Cruz Baisa – thank you. And since our motivation to formally initiate beyond 14 has waned over the years – shout outs to Mr. Brandon Andress, Derek Young, Chris “Toast” Myers, Darrin Clyde Myers, and Professor Slayer!
What a joyous occasion when we meet! Thank you for the last 15 years!
Circle table seat
Grief shared with friends, turns to joy
Mugs merge, cry of cheers!
I really enjoy the idea of volunteer work in public spaces. For me, it feels like the basics of civilization. Essentially, I am talking about convincing people that no one needs to get paid to benefit the common good. This is a difficult task on a number of levels.
First, people like to get paid.
Second, there are city and county workers who get paid to maintain public spaces who may not like volunteers working in these same areas.
Third, doing large scale projects to benefit the public good requires money, talent, time, and coordination.
Fourth, if the project is going to endure, maintaining public space designed and created by volunteers requires long term support from people who are paid.
This is even more difficult to achieve when doing landscape projects.
About three years ago, my friend, Ben, and I had just completed a volunteer landscape project and had ambitions for a bigger endeavor. We needed someone who had control over substantial amounts of grass (aka green canvas) and an appreciation for native plants.
We found our key supporter in Brian Payne, Director of the AirPark property on the north side of Columbus. In addition to the acre of land that he had already given us to create a meadow, he also has about a 2 mile People Trail going through his property.
We developed a fundraising campaign for $15,000 to purchase plants, signage, raised beds, and a bench for a project that we dubbed, the “AirPark Pollinator Path.” In year one, we completed the meadow and transformed an 800 square foot AirPark entrance area into a native plant bed.
We had only used about half of our money, so for spring 2023, we decided to take on over 7,000 square feet of space. It was much more than I had dreamed was possible when we started the fundraising campaign.
By the end of April, 15 new beds were completed. Over the course of one of the most incredible weeks of volunteer coordination, led by multiple Sierra Club members, the sod was removed, mulch was added, plants were layed out, holes were dug, flowers and grasses found their new homes, and water topped off the effort. And then a glorious rain fell that Saturday evening after we were done.
One of the new volunteers that came out mentioned that she is getting a Masters in Public Health. She shared with me that she is convinced that taking care of plants improves health. She wants to be able to explore that more in her education.
I told her that I am very confident that horticulture therapy is an effective way of improving physical and mental health. In my opinion, on any list of options that a doctor, therapist, public health official, pastor, or concerned friend may give to someone in need of support for their mental health, working with plants should be top 5.
I do have a broad definition for working with plants! There are lots of actions that I associate with horticulture therapy in my life. Planting, harvesting, cooking, floral arranging, smelling, weeding, watching the insect interactions, pruning, eating raw veggies straight from the ground, picking fruits from the tree, plucking berries from the bush, drying, saving seeds, composting, rubbing fingers on a mint leaf, waving my hand over the top of native grasses….
Imagine all of the things that you can do just on the other side of what you do not control – after germination, that beautiful creative act when the green shoot emerges from seed. That first glimpse of green has a name – radicle. It is in nurturing that life just one small step after the radicle moment that horticulture therapy emerges for me.
So in these beds of columbine, butterfly weed, western sunflower, joe pye weed, penstemon, aster, coreopsis, iron weed, spiderwort, rattlesnake master, wild quinine, prairie drop seed, little blue stem, and coralberry, our friends the bees, butterflies, bugs, bats, and birds will thrive. The fauna will bask in this culinary floral delight. This becomes their ecological home. The honor of shaping this home is deeply therapeutic for me.
My prayer is that you, dear listener, will thrive as your five senses are opened by interacting with plants – as you taste the pear, smell the elderberry, touch the baptisia, hear the wind through blue stem, and see the blazing star. And remember, in flashes of vibrant memory, the connections you have had with creation since your youth. It has always been there. Be there with it.
As we were wrapping up our final day of planting, the volunteers converged on a corner of the People Trail near a 3-way stop. People drove by slowly. Lingered. Walkers and bikers stopped to thank us. Some asked us what we were doing. People wanted to know who we were with… while the reasonable response was to say Sierra Club, I wanted to say, “we are with the plants.”
Slowing down, to smile
Stranger meets unexpected
In the common good
I love spring and love moseying around my yard, marvelling at the flowers popping through the mulch and the abundance of – are they pink, magenta, maybe even purple – or simply, redbud tree blossoms. There’s so much to be thankful for.
That being said, please take a few minutes with me to consider the suppression of this beauty. The culprit is grass.
It’s mid-April and I just mowed for the first time this year. Thankfully, over the last 5 years, I have slowly transitioned the lawn into mulched flower beds and raised vegetable beds – drastically cutting the square footage of space for my human powered, reel lawn mower. It may not be the cleanest cut, but it’s pollution free and a good workout.
There are empty lawn lots across this country. Much of it is public space, maintained by the city or state. There are some immaculate lawns full of fertilizer, herbicide, and perfectly mown lines – my favorite are the diagonal strips that make X’s. Like a baseball field ready for the World Series. But I’m not talking about the outfield of the St. Louis Cardinals.
You may not realize where these lots are in your city because they are so incredibly unremarkable. The purpose of these spaces is to keep the grass from getting too tall to not get a complaint. They are the kind of places that no one cares much about, so they are rarely used.
The funny thing is that they don’t serve much of a human purpose, but we, as humans, can’t help ourselves from mowing the spaces every week to literally kill any chance of other living things from finding a reliable food source and safe shelter. If non-human life do risk taking up residence, they’ll probably get killed by a mower blade or someone who decided that the dandelions simply cast too yellow a glow on the turf.
CNN reported in April 2022 that in Palm Springs, California, it takes 63,000 gallons of water per year to maintain the green in a 1,500 square foot yard. That’s not even a big yard.
I could go on with stats from various sources about the immense cost of maintaining a yard – Business Insider magazine reported in 2016 that Americans spend more than $30 billion/year on maintaining their yards. Some reporters describe lawn as the largest “cash crop” in the United States because of that expense. Not cash for the homeowners who spend hours and dollars to – it is very odd to say – “raise grass”, but cash for the companies that perpetuate the need for these great green monoculture carpets.
What is the benefit of this cash crop?
I think it has a lot to do with control, senseless social norms, and the fear of wilderness.
A couple years ago, my friend and I approached the Columbus, IN city airport about the possibility of adding native plant space to the AirPark. We identified an acre of space between the Columbus Community Garden and a nearby subdivision. Thankfully, the AirPark Director saw the vision of creating habitat using native plants in the space that was the type of mow over zone I’ve been describing. The Director understands that maintaining the grass is expensive and takes up the labor time of his staff.
I had no experience in converting grass to a native plant meadow, so I followed the suggestion of our local Sycamore Land Trust. We began with spraying the field with Roundup 2 times over the course of 4 months. In February, we broadcast 40 different native plant seed varieties across the area and let it grow until July. In July, it was moved to about an 8 inch height to knock down the weeds and give more light to the germinating seed.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, I went out into the field and did a 360 video of the space to send to my friend at the Land Trust. He was happy with the growth in the first year.
I brought to the field a large bin of harvested seed heads from my home. I added this seed to the edge near the bench we dedicated to my friend, Chelsea. It is exciting to have an acre that is growing wild in our city. I’ll do my best to protect the space from the temptations of turning it back into lawn. I know nature will throw flowers in the air where I had thrown down my seed. A colorful magic trick.
On Easter weekend, I walked the perimeter. It’s early in the season and there is hope already beginning to buzz across the acre. The city’s garden plots, just steps away, will be planted soon. The enhanced pollinator life in the field holds great promise in producing more bountiful yields for the gardeners.
It’s good to go a little wild. Caring for the environment is not about outcompeting your neighbor for the greenest lawn. It’s more about making a little more room for life and creating ecological landscapes that thrive with diversity.
Walking acre edge
Fall’s brown lingers, spring’s green shows
What grows next, who knows?
What are your thoughts on the cliche – “The universe is trying to talk to you?”
Humans run a wide range in the coincidence through divine intervention spectrum. The Universe talking to you falls somewhere closer to the divine intervention side. Living the majority of my life as a Christian who relies on research to guide my decision making, I have been trained to respectfully listen to this entire spectrum of perspectives without rolling my eyes. So I appreciate the Biblical call to pray without ceasing, but I also appreciate the cause and effect nature of reality.
I find that isolation is one of the many effects and causes of mental health struggles. I think part of that isolation is a desire to pause life, figure out how to stop having symptoms, and then play again once the struggle is over.
During physical sickness, that pause for me is often grabbing a 2 liter of sprite, a few cans of chicken noodle soup, crackers, and some Tylenol, and hanging on the couch for a couple days to recover. After the temperature is normal and the fatigue lifts, I press play and am ready to get back to work.
Society allows the time out and generally accepts that getting back to normal is a routine part of getting sick. We are expected to isolate and get well. There’s even a growing use of the term “presenteeism” – which relates to the issues caused by working while sick and the negative impacts it can have on getting others sick. Since the pandemic, presenteeism is being addressed by encouraging more self care before getting back to work.
Mental health struggles don’t often work the same way. Symptoms don’t reliably go away in 48 hours – sometimes they may hang round for 48 days or 48 months.
During a recent struggle with feelings of isolation, I went to a mental health support group called Faithful Friends. We ate together and decided to play a game called Mad Gab. The game focuses on trying to unscramble three lines of words that sound like nonsense, but can be phonetically aligned into a common saying. For example, try to figure this one out:
I will say again, a little faster:
The answer is:
Keep your eyes on it.
At the Faithful Friends meeting, this was one of the Mad Gabs:
Hawk Howl Own
Did you figure it out? Here it is again:
Hawk Howl Own
The answer to this one is:
You’ll never walk alone.
The 8 of us in the room played the game for a joyous 2 hours. One of my friends in attendance said he couldn’t remember the last time he smiled that much.
He is a music aficionado. He related the “You’ll Never Walk Alone” gab to a song by the same name from the 1940s. As he talked, it occurred to me that lyrics from the song are passionately chanted at Liverpool’s Premier League Soccer matches. We listened to the Liverpool crowd singalong that is included in the Pink Floyd song called “Fearless.” We then read the lyrics from the original Rodgers and Hammerstein 1945 musical Carousel. The chorus is:
Walk on, Walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
The conversations that percolated around this song were very fortifying..
The next evening, I began reading The Antropocene Reviewed, a book by John Green. The first chapter is titled “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Ha! I instantly sent a message to my music aficionado friend. He and I may share mental health diagnoses that bring feelings of isolation at times, but we also know the joy of rediscovering how connected we really are.
Physical recovery and mental health recovery are very different. In one, we are expected to isolate. In the other, we need to be encouraged to join a community of acceptance. We may not think that the universe ever talks to us, but we need to know that there are plenty of others who will.
“You’ll Never Walk Alone” song
Appears twice this week
Do you ever feel like you are in the need of some elusive, magical words to resolve a situation?
I know I do.
That feeling often comes when I am convinced that there are no words designed to communicate my heartfelt intention.
I don’t mean to make that sound like a bad thing.
Biblically speaking, this feeling is summed up by the classic Romans 8:26 verse: “…. the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”
Words are tools of communication. There are times when words, like a prayer of great conviction, have broken through doubt, depression, or confusion to steady me. But there are times when words are not enough… When words are not the right tools for the job.
I’ve spent most of my life thinking that words should be able to solve any problem. That there are magical words that strike the anvil of reconciliation and wield a power to make everything better. I’ve found this to not be true.
In a similar vein, in my personal thought life, I get caught in cycles of wondering what words I can tell myself that will alleviate mental anguish.
When I have persistent negative feelings, my thoughts are a nebulous mass of words. It is a duel of irrationally created words wrapped in strong emotions being countered by my forced, internal, rational responses.
I have learned that words spoken or thought can not make feelings go away.
For loved ones with years of familiarity with me and genuine care for my mental well being, the same hopes for word solutions may be equally dashed. That is ok.
My wife and I have talked about the magical words. Beyond dealing with mental health alleviation, we also want magical words to gain relief from grieving death, finding forgiveness with friends, resolving cultural conflicts that never seem to cease. The desire for such magic goes on and on.
We all have situations in our lives that we want to go away AND we want them to go away by our commitment to finding the solution. It’s not that we want to evade, forget, or defer responsibility, we want to do the work and use the words and make the plan and have it all fixed.
I want magical words that conquer bipolar illness. To read the top 10 tips and execute them expertly. To hear the prayer, believe the hope, and feel the healing. To remember my therapist’s words the last time I turned the corner and do it once again, to stand firm in the encouragement of my friends. That has all helped in the past. But maybe the magic is not working today.
There are days when words are not what I need. Acknowledging that can actually be the beginning of the relief.
It is a funny sort of liberation to give up on words. The groaning of the Spirit may simply be a matter of breathing through the anxiety, feeling the crisp winter air at the edge of my nostrils. Deep breathing. Completely emptying my lungs. Groaning.
Or watching my cats nestled together on the couch, giving me the slow blink before nodding back off. They have no words for me, but they are communicating something worth considering. It is ok to rest. It is ok to just find the warmth of another for some time. Cats don’t need magic.
Deferring to that spiritual state of groaning doesn’t need to be a last resort. I would do well to think of it as a solid first option anytime I begin wrestling with words.
My wife is much better than me at knowing when to give up on attempting the magic tricks. I thank her for those times when we are beyond wordcraft.
Toe touch, shoulder nook
Her body language pep talk
Warmth without the words