Archive for March, 2010

Rocks, Dirt, and Stardust

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Credit where credit is due: Davidson Loehr first got me thinking about stardust.

“Mud is the most poetical thing in the world.” -Reginald Horace Blyth

In the early ’90’s  I went to Durango, Colorado, for my cousin’s wedding.

I was living in Virginia at the time. Virginia has rich, dark soil. Things grow there. It’s farm country.

Durango’s dirt was red, dry, and dusty. The air was filled with an aroma of pine, ash, elder, fir, and juniper trees. The sky was a brilliant blue. My mouth was dry because there was so little moisture in the atmosphere. The heat enveloped me. Enchanted, I took some of that red dirt home with me in a little brown paper bag.

Later, when I moved from Virginia to Paris, I cleaned out my belongings. I came upon the little brown bag of dirt, and poured it out on a sidewalk in Williamsburg, Virginia. I had forgotten the rich red of the dirt.

I watched the wind push against the stream of dirt falling to the ground, and I caught the aroma of pine, ash, fir, and juniper. I realized that little brown paper bag had been filled with poetry.

I’d like to discuss how dirt is formed: how dirt comes from rocks, how rocks come from the earth, and how the earth comes from stardust.

Did you know you are connected to the rocks and dirt you walk on every day, as well as to the stars in the sky? Did you know we come from stars?

When you hold a rock in your hand,
when you stand on the earth,
when you look at the stars,

know that you are part of each of these,
and that each of these is part of you.

We eat food, and our food is comprised of plants and animals. The animals eat plants, so when we eat animals, we’re eating plants that are once removed.

Which leads to the question, where do plants come from?

Plants come from dirt, rain, and sun. A plant is part dirt, part rain, and part sun, all converted into plant.

The dirt feeds the plant. The plant comes from dirt. We eat plants, and we eat things that eat plants. The plants are part of us.

This means, if plants come from dirt, that we are part dirt. Dirt is a part of us.

Where does dirt come from?

Dirt comes from minerals and organic matter. Organic matter is all the green growing things, all the living breathing things, decomposing, breaking down into little pieces. Organic matter feeds the dirt. We feed the dirt. Rocks feed the dirt, too.

I’ve even heard some people say that rocks are “young dirt”.

Rocks come from the earth.

There are three types of rock:

  • sedimentary
  • metamorphic
  • igneous

Igneous rocks, like basalt, come from fire, from volcanoes and the hot fires in the earth’s core.

Sedimentary rocks, like sandstone, come from settling. Layers of dust, particles, minerals, and other rocks come together to form a rock.

Metamorphic rocks, like quartzite, are rocks that have been changed, by pressure, by temperature.

Rocks break down. The wind sweeps them away, micron by micron. Water washes them away. Friction crumbles them. Even plants do their part, like the humble lichen crumbling rocks into smaller pieces. As Tennessee Williams says, “the violets in the mountains have broken the rocks.”

The earth makes and remakes rocks, building them, crushing them, spitting into the atmosphere from fire.

Rocks also make and remake themselves. They make dirt. Dirt makes plants. Plants make animals. Plants and animals make us.

We, quite literally, come from the earth.

Which brings us to the question, what makes up the earth?

The earth is made up of stardust.

According to one theory of how the universe came to be, there was a big bang, and all those different parts were flung, flung out, flung into a nothingness that became something as they traveled there. The fabric of the universe creating itself as it received itself.

According to this theory, there were stars, and stars were born and stars died. Stars were formed by remaking basic star parts, primarily hydrogen (73%) and helium (25%), into new stars. Star parts from metallic stars come together to form planets. Billions of stars. Billions of billions of star parts. Billions of billions of planets.

One of those planets is this one, the earth. The earth is composed of star parts. Of stardust.

Which means…

We come from stars.

We think of stars as something far away, and they are far away. They are so far away that we may see a star’s light tonight, but it may have died many millions of years ago.

Stars are very far away, but they are also right here, right now. When you pick up a rock, you are holding a bit of stardust in your hand. The dirt we walk on is stardust. And you are also stardust. Just think, next time you look up at a star-filled sky, you’re looking at your cosmological cousins…

Backbones and Wishbones

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Clementine Paddleford was a food writer in the United States from the 1920’s through the 1960’s. Besides being passionate about food, she also had a way with words. To wit, her description of a radish: “A tiny radish of passionate scarlet, tipped modestly in white.” Or, her commentary on the Danes and beer: “Beer is the Danish national drink, and the Danish national weakness is another beer.”

My favorite Clementine Paddleford quotation is this one, though: “Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone ought to be”.

“Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone ought to be.”

When I first read this quote by Paddleford, I heard it as a reminder for me to take responsibility for my life, rather than waiting for someone else to come around and fix it for me. Instead of looking to the horizon for a knight in shining armor, a winning lottery ticket, or some other far-off salvation, I needed to roll up my shirtsleeves and get to work figuring out what needed to be done.

I still value Paddleford’s advice to rely on my backbone, but now I also make sure that I don’t neglect my wishbone, either. I want to talk about wishbones and backbones, and why both are important.
I understand the word backbone to indicate resolve, and courage. When we have backbone, we’ve decided to do something. We gird our loins and do it. Goal-setting techniques, for example, tap into the “backbone” ethos. With backbone, with resolve, we can set goals and achieve amazing things. I know this is true because I’ve experienced it myself as well as witnessed it in others.

But I’ve always had a question–how do you choose your goals? Your backbone will help you reach your goals once you’ve set them, but how do you know what you want?

I have long been a follower of the aphorism to “Know thyself”, and have done innumerable journaling, brainstorming, and thought-provoking exercises in order to identify the core values and principles I live by. I’ve written goals, I’ve cataloged dreams, and I’ve made countless to-do lists.
But I have a confession to make. All of this has seemed a bit… dry. Even as I used goal-setting techniques, even as I had people coaching me toward my goals, even as I made sure my goals were aligned with my core values, and even as I achieved my goals, the process never felt… fun. It wasn’t juicy, creative, or playful. It was work. Efficient work. Effective work. But work all the same.

Which brings me to wishbones. Have you ever made a wish with a wishbone? I’m vegetarian now, but back when I ate meat, my favorite part about eating chicken as a kid was pulling on the wishbone with my brother, making a wish. I’ve wished on birthday candles, dandelions, buttercups, eyelashes, shooting stars, and beautiful days, to name just a few things.

But I’ve never taken wishing seriously. I’ve subscribed to the same attitude that many people do, that wishes are fine for a fanciful moment, but they aren’t anything to hang your hat on.

Our esteemed Benjamin Franklin said, “Industry need not wish.” Aesop warned, “We would often be sorry if our wishes were granted.” Theologian Charles Haddon Spurgeon declared, “The wishing gate opens into nothing.”

Then, there is the pro-wish camp, which includes Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said, “There is no beautifier of complexion or form of behavior like the wish to scatter joy … around us.” Career counselor Barbara Sher advises, “You must go after your wish. As soon as you start to pursue a dream, your life wakes up and everything has meaning.” And my current favorite quotation, by the late actor Jose Ferrer, “A man, when he wishes, is master of his fate.”

I’m now a fan of wishing, and this is why. I think wishing can be a way to tap into your creative self, precisely because wishing isn’t “serious”. When we play, when we make believe, when we pretend, we unhook our discerning, analytical selves and allow ourselves to dream, to fancy, to wish.

Poet Shel Silverstein says: “If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a hoper, a prayer, a magic-bean buyer. If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire, for we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!”

It is in the space of dreams, of flax-golden tales, and of magic beans that we allow ourselves to dream the probable, the possible, and the impossible. It is through wishing and pretending that we unfetter our minds and allow them to soar.

We need wishbones and backbones, both. Think of your wishbone as the creative or right-brained part of your mind, and your backbone as the focused or left-brained side of your mind. You need both.
We need to tap into our dreams in a way that is not programmed, that isn’t part of a three-step exercise. That is what wishing does for us. We also benefit from a systematic approach to making our dreams come true. Resolve and planning help us with that.

Henry David Thoreau said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost. There is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.” Use your wishbone to build your castles in the air, then use your backbone to put the foundations under them.

At the end of the day, we need both backbones and wishbones. Wishbones help us know who we really are and what our dreams and aspirations are. Backbones give us the courage and resolve to make those dreams a reality. Let’s celebrate how we can use them together to fully enjoy a creative and productive life.
Clementine Paddleford advises us not to grow wishbones where our backbones ought to be. That’s good advice. And I’d like to add one more bit of advice: Do remember to grow BOTH your wishbone and your backbone.

Thoughts on Gruntling

Monday, March 1st, 2010

I love the word disgruntled, largely because of how it sounds and also because of its tricky prefix.

While I tend to think of dis- as only meaning “the opposite of”, according to Merriam-Webster’s fourth entry, dis- also means “completely”.

Gruntle, according to Merriam, means “grumble”, derived from “grunt”.

Disgruntled then, means to grumble completely, as opposed to stopping grumbling as one might think according to the far more common meaning of dis-.

How marvelous that we have a word describing a state of complete grumbling!