Punk Rock Gardner

Johnny Jump Ups

Johnny Jump Ups remind me of gardening with my mother as a kid.

Working in the garden is meditative. There’s the endless pulling of weeds, checking vegetables and flowers for signs of insect infestation or fungal infection, repairing damage done by small animals or the weather, pulling more weeds.

I like the physicality of these tasks: the strain in my back and shoulders, the flexing of muscles, the slight soreness the next day when I try to do too much in one go. I would be happy to do this work in silence, with only the local birds as accompaniment, but this is often not possible.

Shelling peas

Shelling peas climbing a trellis.

My neighbor likes to blast country music from the backyard of his boarded-up house (why he decided to board up the windows I can only imagine). It’s not that I hate country music–indeed, I grew up listening to it–but it feels like the wrong sort of background for what I’m doing.

So I listen to punk rock, lots of Bad Religion, some obscure Japanese stuff, The Interrupters, Flogging Molly, multiple girl bands with “Betty” in the name. This too may seem incongruous, but growing my own food sometimes feels like an act of rebellion against agribusiness and companies like Monsanto who’d rather I spend my garden money on pesticides and grass fertilizers. Punk is nothing if not one long, loud, scream of rebellion.

A white peony.

The first peony of the spring. They smell wonderful.

Bad Religion has one song in particular that I listen to over and over again. “Kyoto Now,” off their album The Process of Belief, pleads with the listener to stop denying climate change and environmental destruction and take action now to save this ball of earth and water and gas that we call home.

I didn’t start off with the intention of listening to only punk while I garden, but that’s the music I find myself turning to more and more these days, and now it’s become A Thing–even when my neighbor isn’t blasting country music, I still put in my earbuds and crank the volume just high enough that I can lose myself in the noise and the work.

This act of listening to punk while I garden is my meditation on cultivation, destruction, and the intersection of the two. It is my meditation on the mundane and why the mundane is magical and worth saving. It is my meditation on power and abuse and resistance. It is my meditation on how to save the world, one tomato at a time.

Jazz! Poetry! Jazz Poetry 2015!

Instead of my normal #FridayReads post, I thought I’d do a run-down of one of my favorite annual Pittsburgh events: City of Asylum Pittsburgh’s Jazz Poetry Concert.

This is a concert that gathers some of the top jazz musicians and top poets and writers from around the world and brings them together for a unique collaboration.

I always, always, always come away from this event with a new favorite band or musician and writers that I can no longer live without.

The Vijay Iyer Trio played this year, and let me tell you, I am smitten. Head over heels falling in love.

Here’s why:

I know, right?

And then we had the poetry. This year COA went above and beyond and combined not only music and words, but graphics and sign language as well. Amanda Fadigan performed a Heather McHugh poem in ASL, and it was beautiful.

Like this:

For the first time, I believe, the event featured a graphic novelist. Seeing the actual panels of the graphic novel while the author read in her native language and someone else read the translation was a multi-layered experience. I’d love to watch that reading again so I can parse more meaning from it.

That’s another thing about Jazz Poetry. You get to hear literature in many languages (and this year, see one in sign language!). Hearing the original, what it sounds like, is a different kind of music, and one I enjoy greatly.

And then, of course, there’s the finale:

The beauty of writing in silence

My writing soundtrack looks like this:

That white empty space after the colon is the sound of silence.

Like most humans, I do enjoy music—but never while I’m writing.

I can write through ambient noise like cafe chatter, traffic, or lawn mowers. If my neighbors turn up their stereo, though, my brain sticks on the lyrics or the melody or the drum beat, and my thoughts can’t move forward.

Silence allows me to reflect, to be still, and to listen for the story. It allows my mind to settle in and focus. In that quiet still place, characters, complications, and connections emerge.

If someone has their music on loud enough that I can hear, even faintly, I will turn on a fan or, sometimes, play classical music or an orchestral soundtrack to cover it.

But I always prefer to write in the closest thing to silence I can get.

(For someone who is writing a short story collection based on Warren Zevon songs, this may seem strange. It’s true that listening to Warren Zevon has inspired many ideas, but if I try to listen to his music while I’m writing for extra inspiration, I wind up just listening to the music instead of writing.)