Tomatoes! Tomatoes! More tomatoes! Just as Hurricane Irma was traumatizing Texas, Leslie’s tomatoes across the road from the farm were doing their happy dance, soaking in the sun and gearing up to flood her garden, half of Far Field Farm, the Milwaukee River and the Mississippi, and head clear down to the Gulf of Mexico as a Category 5 Tomato Tornado. How I wish Houston were awash in luscious heirlooms rather than floodwater. It was, after all, the month of September, when total strangers ring doorbells and hand out foot long cucumbers and zucchinis thicker than their thighs.
Two weeks into my visit to the farm, I was happily drowning in garden produce from Leslie and Joe’s astoundingly fertile land, a sandy loam. Generous soil, generous souls. Those two were walking, carting and driving this bounty straight into Mom Hypki’s kitchen, producing great joy and inspiring good cooking. Across the tracks, my sister Robin’s neighbors, Mic and Mark, were equally generous with squash and cucumbers, saving aside the misshapen ones for niece Angela to feed to her free ranging chickens for appetizers or dessert. Family friend Cindy also came bearing gifts from her garden each week until the counters were groaning and I was grinning stupidly, blissfully even. Kohlrabi, broccoli, sweet corn, butternut squash, cantaloupe… Veggie heaven!
The photo at the top is entitled Tomato Mandala, Summer at the Farm 2017. This mandala was made with a slice of the largest tomato I’ve ever seen — and eaten!– thanks to Leslie. The mandala happened by accident, as I cut the largest slice from the fattest part of the biggest tomato and put it on an old plate we had since I was a child. I looked down, saw the circle within a circle, and…Viola!… a mandala! There was Mother Nature transformed into high art. Far Field Farm abounds with the beauty of nature – the highest art I’ve known. Both of my parents marvel at that beauty almost every day, and being devout Christians, they thank God for their blessings and for the many ways that nature leaves them awestruck over time: the pines they planted as six inch, pencil-thin twigs now some forty feet tall. That slice of tomato was a true wonder of the universe, and before I devoured it with two eggs over easy and toast, I admired my happy “mandala” accident and had to snap a photo for posterity.
As a community artist, I’ve been working with mandalas for years – with those circular and often symmetrical drawings of creative self-expression. Drawing inside of a circle is calming, satisfying, almost comforting. I make mandalas myself as a way to focus and concentrate, to think through a sticky problem or to simply still my mind. I’ve also used mandala drawing with groups to explore healing: with cancer survivors and ALS caregivers, with chaplains, physicians interested in integrative health, with my community art students, and in studio workshops.
The circle is an ancient shape; the sun and moon are among the earliest forms we see after birth. No surprise that people who are reluctant to “make art” feel at ease working within the circle shape, using colors that please them in lines, forms, patterns, shapes or symbols that help them get into the flow of their own thoughts, quiet their heartbeat, ease their anxiety, simply exhale deeply. Spending time making a mandala is also a way to hold a question in one’s heart – to wrestle a personal alligator without having to grab its jaws head on. If you take your alligator into the circle of that calm and precious time spent drawing, it will often follow you out at the end, tail between its legs—or at least feel more manageable when you do have to address it.
Mandala making goes back millennia in cultures around the globe as spiritual mirrors of the soul and the universe, the inner and outer, a map of sorts of our place in the world and beyond. Here in Baltimore, Buddhist monks have come to make large, very intricate symmetrical mandalas out of colored sand. They spend hundreds of hours painstakingly “painting” a mandala as a prayer of healing for our beautiful but beleaguered city. When they are finished, the sands of the mandala are erased again, in keeping with the Buddhist philosophy of life’s impermanence. Now you see it, now you don’t. Yet, the prayer abides, the peace and mindfulness abide. Tomato mandalas, too, are short-lived, but the memories of nature’s abundance and of neighborly generosity — those live on.