Monday, April 5, 2010

On breaking unwritten rules

Happy Moonday.  Its a waning gibbous-- three weeks give or take before May's full flower moon and an excellent time for spring cleaning and the release of worn-out habits before the new moon.

I've never been one to obey a rule or code if it strikes me as nonsensical or unfair.  One that I simply can't abide is the unwritten rule that a woman should not be alone in city parks after dark.  If 'bad things' happen, well, what was she thinking?  As an intrepid city herbalist I find myself alone at night in city parks with some frequency.  I do usually bring my dogs.

Sunset.  I'm on my hands and knees on the ground in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, gathering a wild, abundant medicinal plant called cleavers, Galium aparine.   I'm determined to gather enough to make a quart of tincture (a lot) because this is the lushest, largest patch of cleavers I've ever seen, and its a plant that I need for my own healing.  I've been searching the park for  hours, and have finally found it.  But its getting late. The sun goes down.

When I make herbal medicine I thank every plant as I harvest, and I chant or sing as I go.  On this, the first almost warm spring night, I'm chanting Ya-Hadi, a Sufi chant, ya (invocation) Hadi (the Guide or Guidance).

Even though its a dark moon and I'm harvesting by thin orange lamp light, I can make out the cleavers easily by their distinctive shape like successive Doctor Seuss umbrellas on a chain and the way they cleave to my fingers, as their name implies. Their stalks are rough like cat tongues.

I've long known about cleavers' reputation for soothing swollen lymph, and have taken it for this myself, but beyond that our relationship has been somewhat superficial until now.

As I'm harvesting, I'm intently 'listening' for what the plant has to say about itself.  It gives itself up so easily.  I feel that this is an excellent herb both for physical and emotional flexibility.  (Its used to treat arthritis, as it turns out.)

I've almost gathered enough when the tall dead mugwort stalks I'm sitting under start to snap and I turn  to see a large man looming over me.  I let out the deep growling warrior's bellow my father taught me.  The man jumps back.

He is not a threat, at least not to me in this moment.

I say, 'I'm sorry I shouted, but you know, you startled me.'

He replies, 'That scream... I know you are a macho girl.  You have machisimo.

'Yes,' I reply.

'You are very lonely?' he asks.

Its important that the plants have good energy around them at all times when I'm gathering and making medicine, so after letting him know that no, I'm not lonely, not at all, I tell him what I'm doing, show him the cleavers, and explain some of their medicine.

'It give me energy?' I say it will.  'Delicious?' I tell him no.  Its bitter.  Good for the liver, like all bitter herbs.  He tries it anyway, and says nothing.

I turn away from him and continue to chant and gather.  He stands and watches me.

After about ten minutes I've gathered enough.  Earlier I had collected a small bag of silvery green spring mugwort tops for tea and wild dandelion greens for salad.  I can't find the brown paper bag in the dark.  I ask if the man will help me to look for it.   We find the bag. I thank him and say goodbye.

'Be safe!' he says.

'You too!' I reply. 

Cleavers definitely helps increase emotional flexibility.   (And next time I'll bring my dogs.  I'm happy to talk to curious onlookers, but don't want them sneaking up on me when I'm deep in a plant conversation.)

What is an 'unwritten rule' you sometimes (or often) break?

As its Moonday, I'd also love it if you would post poems or art of any kind in the comments.


Sandi Longhurst said...

Great story, Kate - adventures in plant land! I would love to learn your warrior's call the next time I see you.

Unwritten rules I love to break include chocolate for breakfast and observing the feelings of inanimate objects. Last night I played with a chess set I got in Spain many years ago. It is beautifully carved wood with inlaid gold and magnetized pieces a la Don Quixote. As I explored the movement of pieces on the board the white knight and black bishop stood face-to-face. Although they were unable to attack each other because of the nature of their moves there were intense sparks flying in their eyes across the thin line of space separating them. I half expected the whole board to come to life with a clashing of swords! It would have been such fun to witness and my heart opened and a big smile broke out on my face in anticipation of the event.

Kate T.W. said...

Your chocolate rule breaking reminds me of how different cultures have wildly differing rules, which to me points out their arbitrariness... you must have an inner French person in you ;-)

Observing the feelings of inanimate objects... fantastic. I used to do that all the time as a kid. Thanks for opening up that possibility to me today again. Your chess set story fills me with Alice in Wonderland delight!

slonghurst said...

Kate, there was certainly and Alice in Wonderlandy feel. I wouldn't be surprised if I had an inner European gypsy living in me eating chocolate and drinking wine as primary food groups and taking lengthy afternoon naps in the sunshine.

Nathalie Molina said...

wow, you and I must have been collaborating in our sleep last night! The rules I wrote about are pretty well written though, here you go:


we alchemists
sometimes say
getting caught on the wrong side
of the grammar/spelling
is like walking around
with your zipper down

that border crossing
requires no passport
these immigration officers
are not the bigots & xenophobes
we love to hate
like latitude and longitude
they are lines that we create
like Africa, these are unnatural,
nonsensical lines
much like heartbreak,
they are constructs we create,
limits we

because when your liver
with all the unmentionables it carries
inches its way up your
squeezes its way through your throat
and out your fingers
landing there
on the blank white page
panting and spitting
as it tells its war stories
will you dare correct its

Step aside critic
oh, and keep your pants on.
I'm writing.

wholly jeanne said...

i love your moondays and am so glad that you've decided to write about plants and herbs because i am hugely interested and woefully ignorant. as for rules . . . well, you know what i always say: i learn the rules so i can break them intelligently.

Kate T.W. said...

Sandi... your inner gypsy and mine need to get together sometime.

Nathalie... adore the poem. Thanks so much for sharing it here. Makes me think about how I love being naked, but would hate to be caught with my zipper down. No pants. That's the answer! Also reminds me of what Ursula LeGuin wrote about grammar-- break the rules, as long as you know them. They are meant to be broken. I will remind my critic too.

Wholly Jeanne-- thank you. And I love your motto. I suppose that's my stance in a nutshell.

ann galkowski said...


eyes closed
sun warmed face

ripples shimmers
thunder water




rutherv said...

You inspire me to braver - walking alone at night is the one rule I still haven't felt safe enough to break (maybe I need a dog :)
But here are some unwritten rules I do break:
-going out to dinner alone (particularly at nice, sit-down places.) I didn't do it for years because I was deterred by that condescending "just one?" question and the accompanying 'sad single woman' glance. But why should it stop me? I'm a foodie, and though I love dining with people, I'm glad it no longer stops me from enjoying all the great restaurants of nyc
-always raising my hand to volunteer whenever a magician, or musician, or professor, or dancer, or Hari Krishna person, etc... etc... asks for volunteers from the audience. I've begun to care less and less if I look like a fool. Something fun and memorable always happens when you raise your hand and say "pick me."
-Having pet rats (it's almost a spiritual exercise in learning how to accept the fact that people will think you are weird. Nevermind that "fancy rat" pets are really no different from dogs or cats. The cultural judgment is strong, and I have to stand comfortably in that.
-painting every wall of my apartment a different color (surprisingly it looks gorgeous and gives the illusion of different spaces within a small space)
-Taking a naked yoga class

Your blog always inspires me. I've been wanting to start a blog - need to just take the plunge and do it

Kate T.W. said...

Ann... that gives me goosebumps. Thank you for sharing it.

Ruth... Your apartment sounds gorgeous and homey with the fancy rats! My guess is that things are changing after that Ratatouille movie came out- like when everyone got dalmatians after 101 dalmatians- but that's just a guess.

Take the plunge and start a blog Ruth, and anyone out there thinking of doing it. So much fun.

kharmin said...

So glad to find this (and you) from a comment at Havi's Fluent Self... linked back 5 years!
I just got in from a delightful "walk alone after dark" in Chicago - under a gorgeous nearly-full April moon.
I gleefully break all kinds of "other people's unwritten rules", but have all-get-out trouble breaking *my own* rules - as Natalie Molina shared: damn those African borders!