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April 12, 2011

When I went to the parent workshops last December to visit my 14-year-old son, I was struck by the language, the setting and the lifestyle of the Pacific Quest community.  PQ staff repeatedly emphasized the word growth.  I would naturally comment on “change” only to be gently reminded that the PQ philosophy stresses “growth.”   A second word and concept, Ohana, made an especially huge impact on me.  PQ has adopted many Hawaiian terms to capture the essence of what they are doing, and the concept of Ohana—family– is integral to their philosophy.  During the third stage of the program, the teens live in a new setting, or camp, and join an Ohana, learning the value and importance of being a contributing member of a healthy, functioning family.

The organic gardening culture at PQ encourages the concepts of growth and Ohana to co-exist and thrive in practical terms.  Everyday the PQ field staff teaches the teens the skills necessary to plant, grow, sustain, and harvest an organic garden.  Weeding a garden plot, planting seeds, transplanting seedlings, watering plants, harvesting vegetables, cooking raw foods, and then composting waste are all significant parts of the lifestyle and culture of PQ.  In our son’s first letter to us, he excitedly talked about all the vegetables, fruits and herbs he was planting and tasting, and ended by asking us to plant him an organic garden at home.  He had never really eaten vegetables or gardened, but was immediately inspired by the PQ setting.  It wasn’t clear yet to our son, or to us, that the gardening was actually a metaphor for how you can choose to lead you life, and that eventually the Ohana would be a model for how you can cultivate meaningful and supportive relationships with your family and others.

Because our son asked us to plant an organic garden and because his counselor emphasized the importance of the parents doing parallel work, I decided to start a garden in our backyard.  Though I understood that parallel work meant emotional and psychological work, like keeping a journal or writing out my old story (these were things my son was doing at PQ), it felt more manageable to do something practical.  Plus, I was hoping to have a new subject and hobby to share with my son through our letters, and ideally an activity that we could sustain when he returned.  What I didn’t realize five months ago was that planting a garden would mark the beginning of evolving into a different kind of parent, family and lifestyle.

As my son’s letters became more emotionally deep, our garden became more physically rooted.  The PQ philosophy stresses the physical body and its healthy maintenance—proper sleep, food, exercise.  The gardening is an analogy to your own physical body and emotional well-being.  I learned to slow down and be present when I was gardening….no talking fast on the cell phone while checking my email.   I learned to be aware of my environment when I was gardening…is the soil dry and do the plants need water?  I learned to integrate my family into a process and experience of gardening… my son waters, my daughter picks lettuce, I pluck weeds.  I learned to cook healthier meals and to experience mealtime as a cohesive family…no more Panda Express eaten in front of the television, but rather a homegrown, homemade meal with everyone participating around a bustling kitchen. The process of planting and cultivating an organic garden has caused me to re-think my own habits, parenting, and family life.

My son continued to write letters full of both gardening updates and Ohana updates.  The Ohana gardened together, cooked together, ate together.  The Ohana shared old stories, new stories, and intents with one another.  The garden and the Ohana members were all growing simultaneously.  Meanwhile, our home garden was inspiring something quite similar in our family life.  I became very hopeful about my son’s growth, my growth, and our family’s growth.

However, when it was time to meet with our educational consultant again, visit therapeutic boarding schools, fill out applications, and take our son to Montana, I was so consumed with these tasks that I neglected the garden.  I slipped into old patterns, my old story, of doing too many things at once and doing them too quickly.  I reverted back to delivery pizzas for dinner and eating in front of my computer.  The cilantro started to wilt, romaine lettuce started to die.  Family dinners at the
table were abandoned in the name of fatigue and stress.  Once again, I was in an old, familiar state of focusing on the future while neglecting the present.  My kids liked the harmonious feel of the new garden culture in and around our home and begged for its return.  I didn’t regain my own motivation until my son wrote me from his new therapeutic boarding school and said he was quickly losing his own connection to his body and its needs.  He was also reverting back to old patterns—eating fewer vegetables, forgetting to do his yoga breathing, over-exerting his body.  He said he missed his PQ mind-body-emotion connection and was feeling increased emotional distress.  His solution:  be more present and respect his body’s needs.  We visited him last week and he had salad and vegetables on his plate and was happier.

Of course it’s not all this simple, but I have learned through PQ’s philosophy of sustainable growth and Ohana that if you establish strong roots and a meaningful intent, you have the potential to thrive.  After some temporary neglect, my garden is once again thriving and we harvested scallions and arugula last night for both our family and my brother’s family.   For our family, the concept of sustainable growth started with PQ and our son, but has materialized in our vibrant backyard garden.  I am hopeful.