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Room to Grow

By Clark Zimmerman, LAc. 

I have a lot of dirt under my fingernails these days. This happens every spring, once the winter darkness gives way to the longer days, and the garden begins to awaken. My wife and I spend lot of time in the spring getting the garden beds ready. We weed, trim, spread compost, mulch, and make sure the irrigation is ready for the coming heat.  Once things begin to be a little more orderly, it is time to sow the seeds. Anytime someone tells me that they don’t believe in magic, I tell them to go and plant a garden. There is something about the alchemy of watching the sun, soil and water turn seeds into food, flowers and medicine. 

This weekend I thinned the radishes and lettuces that we seeded a few weeks ago. It feels a bit strange to pull perfectly healthy plants before they have grown, but it is an essential part of gardening. In the Taoist theory of the five elements, springtime is the season of the wood element.  Wood exemplifies the energy of visions and planning.  Like the information contained in a seed, the wood element has a blueprint inside: A vision of how an idea can grow and develop.  While the fall and winter are the seasons to prune the dead wood, the clutter in the closets, springtime reminds us of the importance of thinning the things that are still full of life and possibility. It is hard to thin things that feel relevant and alive.  We tend to have an easier time expanding than we do downsizing.  Culturally we seem value a wealth of experiences, more than space.  This is why so many of us tend to be overcommitted.  However, when we commit to too many things, no matter how wonderful the things may seem, we restrict the space for things to grow and thrive.  My lettuces seedlings all looked so eager to grow; so full of life, yet if they are all left to grow, they begin to crowd each other out. They compete for the water, the sun and nutrients.  This overcrowding guarantees that none of them will truly thrive.

Spring is the time to consider what ideas we want to nourish and what visions we want to tend to; what commitments we can entertain.  It is also the time to decide which plans we should thin out.  When we get overextended, even with wonderful and interesting things, we typically can’t give things the attention and resources that they need to really grow.  Like the seedlings in my garden, the longer we hold onto things, the tougher they become to thin.  The same is true of spring for humans.  It is important to consider what things we want to “plant” for our busy season, and then to thin the things that make our days feel overcrowded.  Thinning our lives involves some honest reflection.   We need to consider how much care we can truly give a thing.  

“Too much of a good thing is not a good thing.”

This is the challenge with opportunity and abundance.  It is tempting to say yes to every good thing that crosses our path, but doing this typically leads to overwhelm and exhaustion.  Before spring turns to summer, it is a great time to honestly consider what visions and plans you truly have time for, and to thin the rest.  When we consider the lesson of the garden, that things do best when we allow for some room to grow.

Built to Last

by Clark Zimmerman, LAc.

One of my best friends from college used to have a Volkswagen bus.  He would spend hours tinkering with his engine in the driveway of the house we rented with some friends.  He wasn’t an expert mechanic, but he found great joy in figuring things out.  It was a sort of puzzle that led to a lot of satisfaction when he got his van working just right.  There were a lot of amateur mechanics in the neighborhood who liked to tinker on weekends.  Most of the cars were older, simpler rides.  They were quite different from the complex, computer centered vehicles of today.  They were made to be worked on by regular folks, who had a little training and a willingness to fumble through the process. As technology has advanced, it has become more difficult to work on cars.  Gone are the days when most vehicles were serviceable without a lot of expensive diagnostic machines and specialized parts. While the vehicles of today can offer more comfort and bells and whistles, I feel that we have lost something as we have made the move away from the automotive simplicity of the past.  

In a way, it is similar to the idea of planned obsolescence.  This is the idea that things are purposely built to break or age quickly out of their usefulness.  Companies use planned obsolescence as a way to ensure that customers are required to purchase new items sooner.  If a product wears out more quickly, customers need to replace items more often, generating more business and profits.  The corporations and their shareholders benefit, while the consumers and the environment pay the cost.  It can feel so frustrating when you want to fix something that has broken, only to find that no one makes replacement parts.  I experienced this last month when I tried to replace a lightbulb in an outdoor light at my office.  I was looking for a way to open the fixture, but was confused to find that there was no way in.  It turns out, the fixture itself is disposable.  When the LED light inside burns out, you must replace the entire plastic fixture. 

This approach seems to be spilling into our collective beliefs about many things.  While we used to value consistency and serviceability, we now increasingly have become a society that builds things to be disposable.  We use things for a while and then replace them with the newest model.  This is true with cars and appliances, as well as with relationships and work.  It used to be more common to stay in the same community for much of life, to maintain lasting friendships, to stay with a job for many years, and to nurture lasting marriages or partnerships.  All of these have become less common over time.  Just as it is increasingly common for people to throw away things when they no longer work the way that they would like, we have grown more accustomed to casting off relationships when things become challenging.  When we place less value on the longevity of things, we tend to also see less value in working the process to maintain and improve our connections with other people.  The truth is, many parts of this human experience take a lot of work.  We want things to feel easy and remarkable; to be in a perpetual honeymoon stage.  One thing that is certain in life is that things need tending to.  They go awry and need mending.  The more we believe otherwise, the more likely we are to toss things out, or turn away when we are met with resistance or challenge.  

My friend eventually got rid of his old VW. He grew tired of spending his days off searching for parts that were increasingly harder to find.  He replaced it with a used truck that he kept for a few hundred thousand more miles.  To this day, he continues to value things that are built to last.  I suppose that is why we are still friends after all of these years.

Cracks in the Earth

by Clark Zimmerman, LAc.

Years ago while traveling in Tibet, I was amazed by the dryness of the climate.  Though the mountains were covered with snow, and the rivers were raging torrents, the ground was largely a dusty wasteland.  There were sporadic fields, where the people grew barley, but much of the land reminded me of stories I had heard about the great dustbowl from the 1930’s. Growing up in the Midwest, I was a stranger to dry air.  The humidity  was so dense that it seems to saturate the skin and soak the spaces inside your bones.  There was a general heaviness in the summer air that felt oppressive at times.  

When life dries out, things begin to harden.  Leaves and stems become brittle; the ground mimics concrete.  In my 17 years in southern Oregon, I have begun to grow accustomed to the cyclical drying out of the land in summer.  What winter and spring have given, summer takes away.  Things grow in the summer, but there is a sense that everything is living on borrowed time.  As the season progresses, the ground loses its give and hardens into a protective shell.  This has a way of locking in the moisture that the ground still holds, but it comes at a cost.  Not only does the hardness in the soil keep some of the water in, it also prevents water from soaking into the ground when a big rain comes.  If you look at the ground when the first big storm comes in the late summer or early fall, you are likely to see a lot of the water running off into the creeks and rivers, instead of down into the earth.  It usually takes a bit of consistent precipitation to loosen up the ground so it can receive the water. 

With the ongoing drought in the west, I have noticed that the ground doesn’t just harden in the summer anymore, it has increasingly begun to crack.  It more closely resembles a desert than the forest floor that I am used to in western Oregon.  There is a sadness that I notice when I think of how much things are drying out, but I am also reminded of one of life’s truths:  When things are pushed to a breaking point, new opportunities arise.  The cracks in the soil allow the healing waters to more easily enter the soil, so not as much runs to the streams.  I witnessed this during the rain we had last week.  The soil had become so dry that it had broken open….it was ready to receive.  

It reminds me of how the past couple of years have broken most of us open.  We keep bending, withstanding, until we tend to harden up to minimize any further pain.  Yet, life has continued to push us even farther.  Most of us feel that we have been pushed beyond our limits.  The hardness of our shells has begun to crack, just as the dry ground beneath our feet has opened.  This splitting apart has created more space to receive life’s grace.

“The wound is where the light enters you.”


The poet Rumi knew this truth.  That often we must completely crack open to heal.  We must truly fall apart to know authentic wholeness.  As I continue to do my healing work in the community, I am struck by the immensity of the suffering that have all endured the past couple of years.  I am also in awe of how that suffering can lead to profound change and acceptance.  People are still struggling, but new shoots of growth and understanding are sprouting.  We are coming back to find what is really important, what truly matters.  All we have to do is be willing to let life continue to crack us open and to have the faith that it is leading us somewhere better than we can imagine.  Then the light will enter our lives and illuminate our souls; the rain will nourish and soften our weary bodies.

Be well.