Summertime is the season when the sensations around me most vividly evoke memories of other years. There is something so intense about the sharp smell of tomato plants in the garden, the shimmer of hot air rising from the pavement, a chorus of birds in the morning, the graceful curve of the branches of an apple tree. The sensation of walking slowly and peacefully on the hottest days of summer awakens a feeling of being calm, connected with the past, time standing still.
It is very typical to go through life impatiently: impatient to fill in missing pieces in your life; impatient for problems to be solved; impatient for life to become easier. I am trying to cultivate a sense of patience – I think of it as "slowness" – a willingness to move slowly and to accept the pace that life takes.
One of my summer jobs during high school and college was on a small farm in my town, one of the few remaining farms left from the days before the town was filled with suburban housing. The pace of life was slow on the farm. It was an organic farm long before that was popular, and, unlike most farms in the region, grew vegetables only, never tobacco. There were two older men who were farmhands who lived in on the farm in an old shack, reminiscent of something from a 1930s Depression-era novel. One summer they found a record player and some old 78 rpm records in the barn, plugged the record player into the outlet outside their shack and played Paper Moon and other old songs in the morning as we waited to start work. Sometimes, when I wasn’t picking vegetables, I spent the afternoon sitting under a tree, reading a Steinbeck novel, taking care of the farm stand. In those summers, I experienced the romance of being transported into a world totally different from my own.
When I started college, I started to get involved in urban community work and city government. I had very much wanted to get involved in a less-sheltered, more real world, and was immersing myself in the life and politics of the small city near my college. A typical small industrial city, it had been losing jobs and residents steadily since the 1920s. An influx of Hispanics filled the void, and the downtown sections of the city were predominantly Hispanic by the 1980s when I worked there. And like many small cities, the city experienced tensions because of these changes, including a feeling that the city government was consciously using neglect, building demolitions, and even arson to empty out the neighborhoods and drive the Hispanic residents away.
Through the church I attended, I got involved with a start-up nonprofit organization that was renovating an old vacant building to create a family shelter and a daycare center. We donated many long, hard hours to the renovations, doing hard, dirty, dusty work. After nearly a year of volunteering, I also worked for the organization as summer intern, with a stipend being paid by my church.
But the organization that was renovating the building was highly disorganized. I eventually learned that the director and his family were stealing money from the organization. They took money that was intended for daycare teacher salaries, and staffed the daycare only with teenagers from the city’s summer jobs program. They even took the federal breakfast and lunch money from the daycare center, leaving the children with little to eat. When the church I attended started to be aware of the problems, and when the church board said no to a request from the organization for money, the director started screaming at me, making threats and shaking his fists at me. That day I had been working on building renovations and had gotten sheet rock dust in my eyes. The dust was very caustic and I had to go the hospital emergency room that evening. A woman from my church took me to the emergency room. "Tell me," she asked when she picked me up to go to the hospital, "Has this been the worst summer of your entire life?"
Meanwhile, I was also learning that many of the community advocates in the city were very competitive, more focused on their own careers than on the people they served or the issues they promoted. I learned that one of the community advocates who spoke most loudly about the city’s failure to provide decent housing was also one of the worst landlords in the city, owning and managing a tenement that was infested with mice and cockroaches, with leaking windows and cold, drafty rooms. My experiences that summer left me disillusioned. I was sick at the end of the summer, having caught dysentery from swimming in a neighborhood pool in the city. After I started to get better, I worked for two weeks at the organic farm before going back to college. That fall, I continued to do community work in the city, but had a general feeling of depression throughout those next few months.
That winter, my parents built a chicken coop in the back yard and got a small flock of chickens that I could come home and tend. They realized that it had been a stressful year for me, and the chickens were a great comfort. I’ve always assumed that this was normal, and is the sort of thing that most parents do when their children are having a stressful time. There were five chickens, and they were healthy and productive and easy to care for. They laid eggs daily, and inspired lots of baking, eggnogs and omelets. Though I was still busy with school and the projects I was involved with, I often came home on weekends and enjoyed spending time in the yard, gathering eggs, cleaning the bedding, and fixing up the chicken coop.
The nonprofit organization that we worked with was eventually shut down. I continued to work on community projects in the city. I moved to an apartment in the downtown area of the city, shopped for groceries in the Spanish-owned neighborhood stores and got to know people in the neighborhood. I eventually worked in city hall on a fair housing project for the mayor. I was happy to be immersed in the world that I wanted to be in, but continued to be disillusioned by the politics of the city, the way people behaved with each other, and many of the different things that I saw and learned.
Recently, I suddenly found myself thinking about the retired college professor who first got me and others from the church involved with the nonprofit organization. He and his wife were long-time members of the church that I attended. Many students from my college attended that church, and the professor and his wife always invited new freshmen to their house for dinner each fall. We were charmed by their home and by our conversations that evening. They lived in a small house just off campus, with a fenced yard that was completely planted in vegetables, herbs and flowers, in a traditional cottage garden style. They served us a delicious meal with food from their garden, had us try herbal teas, and we stayed and talked for hours.
I am drawn to the idea of "moving more slowly" to cultivate a sense of patience. There are many outward ways of cultivating patience: cooking home-made food, enjoying the simple pleasures of walking the dog in the evening and gazing at stars, growing a garden, spending weekends biking around the neighborhood. The community gardens in my current neighborhood remind me of the farms and gardens I grew up with, and the sounds of music and children outside in the park remind me of my first summer in the city where I worked then. The peacefulness of a summer day is linked to the strength and patience needed to deal with challenges that come our way.
So I am trying to figure out a way to internalize a sense of patience. These visible reminders of patience - walking slowly through the city on a hot day, taking care of a garden, even watching a flock of chickens - are support for cultivating the habit of patience.