Getting Ourselves Back to the Garden
I’d love to tell you I was at Yasgur’s Farm in August 1969, but I was 10, surrounded by soybeans and corn in downstate Illinois. Ten years later, my future husband would introduce me to Woodstock’s creative tillers: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Hendrix, Joplin, Mountain, Cocker, Country Joe & The Fish.
Among the famous festival’s absentees were The Beatles, Zeppelin, The Doors, and Dylan. But the most notable of all was Joni Mitchell. Precisely because she wasn’t there, Mitchell composed Woodstock.
Mitchell’s manager thought it more prudent she keep her booking on The Dick Cavett Show. So Mitchell wrote Woodstock in a hotel room, based on what she’d heard from her boyfriend Graham Nash and what she could glean from televised reports. Decades later David Crosby said that Mitchell captured the feeling and importance of the festival better than anyone who had actually been there.
We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion year old carbon
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden
Realities of No Return
Ever have the feeling you were born too early or too late to fully soak in the zeitgeist of an era? I was born a little too late for the Sixties. A shoot popping up in a field of wildflowers just before the frost. A would-be Woodstock kid transplanted in the middle of the country.
Just as I began to grasp the music and message of Woodstock, the Seventies were winding down. Reaganomics would usher in a new dawn most unlike Grace Slick’s meaning. While I acquiesced to the cultural changes of the Eighties, I felt I had missed a golden age, one that celebrated peace, less conformity and consumerism, and a currency of kindness that made sense.
But every golden age is fraught with plating, at best. As a white girl, I acknowledged the tragedy of race and anti-war riots that left hundreds dead and tens of thousands injured and homeless. From 1964 to 1971 alone, more than 750 race-related riots were documented. As one historian put it, “there was so much racial tension in the air in the 1960’s that a riot could happen almost anywhere, anytime.” And, of course, the tarnish that was Vietnam.
I’d like to think that my idyllic garden wasn’t sullied by privilege. But of course it was. I could choose to keep Woodstock and peace and love somehow untainted by reality. But in 1979, inflation and interest rates had climbed well into double-digits. The white co-ed would soon have to make a living, pay back all those loans. A protracted recession and a zealous young Republican (played by Michael J. Fox) on Family Ties were on the way to remind us that every speck of stardust has its price.
It wasn’t until the early Nineties, when I first moved to Athens, Georgia, that I felt close to “the garden,” one that included more humility. Sure, the Classic City’s enchantment had something to do with the music scene (REM, B-52s, Widespread Panic), but I also got the sense that this place had decided to stop the clock somewhere between Nixon’s first and Carter’s only term.
I’d arrived to get a PhD, and the University of Georgia just happened to be geographically situated in this countercultural mecca. I joined a female empowerment group called Spiral Dynamics and became friends with poets, crafters, lesbians and vegans. We discussed Sister Outsider. It was my garden.
A woman who reminded me of Joan Baez cut my hair at the Dream Catcher on Jackson Street. Ellen is now my therapist, but I suppose she was then, as well. I think it was she (or another stylist) who’d read something on ley lines: “Sort of like invisible chakras of the earth’s energy.” Athens was, ostensibly, where many of those energy lines intersected.
Leaving the Garden
Toward the end of 1995, I remarried and moved to a remote country called Nebraska. The idea was to write a stunning dissertation proposal and collect data that first ABD year. Instead I paid the price of leaving academia before my committee gave me their blessing. I’d underestimated politics and my naivete: my first proposal failed. I was also advised that doing “diversity research” was like shooting myself in the foot. I hobbled back to Nebraska.
I missed my garden. Over a landline, I exchanged laments with Sally, a close friend I’d made in Athens. Her salt-of-earth response, “Of course I miss it. But we can never go back.” Sally had remarried her ex-husband (after several years of divorce), so she knew something about the folly of nostalgia.
Sally was right. After a 20-year separation from the garden, I returned to love Athens. But, like me, it had changed. As Frost put it: Nothing gold can stay.
Thinking Green, Instead
Just because we can’t go back to what was shouldn’t stop us from pursuing what could be. Maybe gold can’t stay. Maybe that’s a groovy thing and we’re just too fixated on what we believe we must have to be happy. But we don’t know what we haven’t experienced. So, here’s how I’m trying to look beyond the old gold:
The garden’s a big place; choose a place to tend
Four years ago, I moved back with a plan to equally cultivate my teaching and community outreach roles until I retired from the same college that awarded my PhD. After three years, I realized I’d been searching for a plot that didn’t exist.
Instead of looking at my return as a failed experiment — a search for gold gone bust — I realized the part I loved most about my faculty job was working with nonprofits to develop service-learning opportunities for my leadership students. I also took some time to birth 14 Words for Love, a social justice-focused writing initiative to reclaim a hate motto shared by white supremacists.
For a city as small as Athens, we citizens are lucky on many counts. Music now includes a growing hip-hop scene that’s getting deserved buzz. We still have great local bars, restaurants, and coffee houses. Donation-based yoga. A regional startup hub. An eclectic business collective called Athensmade. Festivals like AthFest, Human Rights Festival, and Wild Rumpus bring people together from around the country and beyond.
But it’s tough to sustain yourself here. Over one-third of Athenians live in poverty (some figures are as high as 40 percent). That’s over 2.5 times the national poverty rate.
To put a finer point on it, plots aren’t equally allocated among us celestials. They never have been, from Eden to Woodstock.
I look for the intersection between what I love, where I have some skills, and what breaks my heart. And there’s so much to tend within that single intersection. Millions of acres in need of 21st century aerials, more equitable plats, seed monies and sustainable irrigation systems. Hundreds of nonprofits and incredibly talented and passionate people are here, many home-grown, to tend these needs.
Start planting seeds to restore your best self
One of my plots this year includes non-violent communication and restorative practices within a big field called restorative justice (RJ). RJ is about restoring people to their best selves. A place many of us have never experienced. We’re used to retribution. Rules simply rule. A kid curses out a teacher: suspended. U.S. schools generally show zero tolerance for disruptive behavior. The results impact black students especially hard.
RJ focuses on relationships. How does someone who’s harmed another person repair what’s been done? How can we listen for underlying unmet needs and support each other for more accountability? Restorative practices are the ways we can help students, their parents, our teachers, and school staff to listen, learn and support one another’s humanity. (For a good read on restorative justice in schools, Jennifer Gonzalez rocks it as part of her Cult of Pedagogy.)
Find Master Gardeners to Keep Learning and Loving
Last week, I got the opportunity to take a workshop with Charles Curtis, psychologist and RJ coordinator at Ron Brown College Preparatory High in D.C. I remembered hearing about Ron Brown and its focus on restorative practices on NPR. Dr. Curtis introduced himself, unabashedly, as “a lover.”
Love grows in the Ron Brown College Preparatory garden. Love, in deed, is the garden. Simply, Curtis and the CARE team at Ron Brown actively love each student every single day, without giving up. Like this:
“We’re at your house, we’re in your face, we’re in your business, we’re caring about you, we’re at your mama’s funeral, in class when you’re struggling.” — Charles Curtis, PhD
and this from his colleague:
“I tell the guys all the time, ‘You’re going to get love, and there’s really nothing you can do about it.’ … They’re like, ‘Is this real? Why don’t y’all suspend me?’ And I think that blows their minds. ‘Why y’all won’t send me home?!’ ’Cause we can just talk about it, and y’all be fine.” — Dawaine Cosey, CARE Team member
Billion Year Old Carbon
One of my dearest friends owns a bunch of gardens and acres of living art at the Rensing Center, about 90 miles north of Athens. Orchestric waterfalls play behind brilliant yellow-orange chanterelles on lush 3-D canvases. Her artist residency program requires several houses for modern human habitation. And shit breaks at the least convenient or affordable times. She keeps going off something like remembering her identity. Family ties with the cosmos. A bone-deep belief that we are all stewards of the garden. We can restore both Eden lost and found. We can build new Edens.
All of this fits in my garden. Every once in awhile, I begin to research ley lines. And then I realize, I don’t need to know why I’m here.