Caryn Simon

Caryn Simon
doula, herbalist, weaver, farmer
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tottered on: 24 June 2009
Temperature: 75F
Ceiling: sunny
Ground: mowed section amongst tall grass
Wind: SW at 5 mph

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TT with HD: Caryn Simon

Brenda Bentley
Totter 2.0 on location:
Caryn Simon's Farm
That's a chicken coop in the background.

[Ed. note: The first session of the salve making class described below is July 11, 2009. Contact information is on Caryn Simon's website.]

CS: Do you need your water closer?

HD: Oh, so the tea, is it ready to go?

CS: It could be. It going to be real hot. But they say you are supposed to drink hot things in the summer.

HD: Yeah, right, to activate your body's sweat reflexes, right? I don't know if there is anything to that, but I know that this is a thing that people say.

CS: You get to choose which cup you want. [laugh] There is no right decision. All right, which one do you want? That's the one?

HD: That's the one.

CS: I put a tiny tiny bit of agave in it.

HD: And agave is what?

CS: It's from the agave plant, it's a sweetener.

HD: So we'll have tea on the teeter totter.

CS: Yeah, sweet.

HD: Okay, let's actually climb aboard, for real this time. [Ed. note: A test ride for some self-timed photos had already taken place.]

CS: This used to happen and I was little, too. I was too light.

HD: Here, I will scoot forward.

CS: [laugh]

HD: Is this going to work?

CS: Yeah.

HD: Let's pause for just a second. I'll put the tea there, and I'll take the standard portrait. [Photography ensues]. Okay, good enough. Let me grab my tea. And now let's totter up and down. Okay, so you say that it used to happen to you when you were little? On the playground you were ...

CS: ... I was always a little too light. [laugh]

HD: A little too light, huh? So who was it that you were typically riding a teeter totter with?

CS: I have no memory of that, I just remember always having to scoot back real far.

HD: So the tea that we are drinking--or that I am drinking, that you made for me--you went out and you gathered this? What is it called?

CS: Lemon balm.

HD: Lemon balm, okay. Is that something you have planted and that you have cultivated, or is it just out in the woods over there?

CS: No, it's a cultivar. So it's not native. Melissa officinalis. What else is it called--it's called Sweet Melissa, some people call it by that name. I might have transplanted it from my mom's garden, I can't remember. I was waiting and waiting and waiting forever in my life to have my own garden. So I started a bunch of stuff in her garden. My parents live in Saline.

And yeah, I think I transplanted it. So there's two medicinal gardens. One is the "dry sunny," meaning that it doesn't need water and it gets a lot more sun and less protection. And the one in front here in front of the [chicken] coop is the "wet sunny." And there's also some area of shade. And that one is closer to the hose so that I can water it.

HD: So the lemon balm came from the one that is back there?

CS: Yep.

HD: So this is something that you do not just because it's fun to have? It's very much a--"lifestyle" is not really the right word I'm looking for, "way of life" maybe, a "way of living"?

CS: Yeah, I mean, when did this start? I have always worked in my mom's garden when I was little. Actually, she always wanted me to. And I didn't want to, which she reminds me, and she thinks it's very funny that now we have a farm. [laugh] But when you're little and it's really hot out and your mom wants you to weed the garden, it's not the most fun thing to think of. But I was at school in Madison, Wisconsin and I dropped out of school, and before that happened I had a particular boyfriend who had a lot of influence in my life, that was just really--he was just kind of anti-what-everyone-else-was-doing and he introduced me to--do you know Richard Brautigan?

HD: The name rings a bell but I can't place it.

CS: He wrote this book called "In Watermelon Sugar" ...

HD: ... that's the title?

CS: All of his books have pictures of sexy women from the 70s on the cover. And they might have nothing to do with that woman in the book, he's really funny ...

HD: ... "Sexy Women from the 70s" sounds like a category on Jeopardy. So like Farah Fawcett?

CS: On the front and a nice dress. But when I left school, I went to summer camp when I was little. Jewish summer camp. And one of the last things that we did was to live for a summer--I guess we basically tented out for a summer, and it was like our own little commune. They had us make our own food and we created our own society and our own rules and everything, we were kind of separate from the rest of the camp. We participated in some meals and things like that, but we were basically separate.

That was kind of my first taste of community to that extent--beyond just going to summer camp every summer. So that was in my mind. And when I dropped out of school I wanted to go somewhere--I had this vision of somewhere where I could paint, or draw or do whatever I wanted all day, and if I didn't want to talk to anyone I wouldn't have to talk to anyone, and it would be in this beautiful place. And so I started looking into intentional communities, like the IC website, and I ended up going to East Wind in Missouri. Do you know East Wind?

HD: Mmmm, no. Now when you say the IC website?

CS: is intentional It's communities all over the world, just so much information and resources.

HD: So East Wind is in Missouri, you say?

CS: East Wind is in Missouri, they are the ones who make the nut butter that they sell at the co-op.

HD: The People's Food Co-op in Ann Arbor?

CS: Right. Most of the stores that carry bulk nut butter carry their nut butter. You'll recognize it if you look now, it's called East Wind nut butter. They live in the Ozarks. And so I went.

That was one of the first places that I went, because I had a dog at that point and I wanted to go somewhere that I could bring my dog, and it wasn't as easy to find a place where you could bring your dog as I thought it would be. But I lived there for a while.

And I lived in--you know the Lama Foundation? It's a community north of Taos in New Mexico. And it's known for--the way people have heard of it is Ram Dass wrote his book "Be Here Now" he was living there when he wrote it. So I lived there for a while, too. And living like this, being more simple and growing your own food, and working in the garden, just became the way I wanted to be.

HD: So how much of your own food do you grow here?

CS: Oh, not very much. We are babies. We bought this land in 2007. We concentrated on our perennials. And we planted some fruit trees and some perennial herbs and stuff. The first year we had just this teeny little garden that was like some kale and parsley and maybe a couple of tomato plants. And we just threw a fence around it to keep the deer out. It was very, very small. Now we have the best garden we've had--it's our third--would it be our third?

HD: Well, 2007 you would have had ...

CS: ... yeah, because we moved in in the spring, in the winter of 2007. Yes, so this is the third summer.

HD: So this is the third one then, okay.

CS: We grow most of our vegetables. We are not doing grains or anything like that.

HD: So you're not measuring your calories, as in we are growing this percentage of our calories ...

CS: ... no, no. I mean we would like to get bigger scale at some point, and maybe have a small CSA, and maybe just feed like two or three families, that would be the most that we could do. But yeah, just most of our vegetables. We still go to the farmers market most weekends, we will supplement whatever we don't grow.

HD: And when you say "the farmers market," you mean the one down in Ann Arbor?

CS: Yeah.

HD: So do you identify with Ann Arbor as the place where this is? Or is it more Whitmore Lake?

CS: No, we say "right outside Ann Arbor." The cutoff for Ann Arbor school district is like literally right down the road ...

HD: ... so this is Ann Arbor schools??

CS: No, this is Whitmore Lake. My mom is very upset about that [laugh]. Even though we don't have children, she's like, You are moving to Whitmore Lake, really?? Whitmore Lake schools?? So the cut off, where you came up ...

HD: ... Sutton Road.

CS: The switch is right before Sutton or I'm not sure where, but it's very, very close. But yeah, technically this is a Whitmore Lake address. But we don't go into Whitmore Lake. We'll go into the tavern once in a while to get greasy food and then feel sick. But basically Ann Arbor is our hub.

HD: So you say you don't have children, but you're in the business of helping other people have children.

CS: Well, we don't have any, yet. We would like to. But yeah, I feel like a mommy already. I feel like I have a handful of babies just because of all the babies I'm with. But also because, a lot of the families I have worked with, I have stayed close with. Like there is this family, they have a little boy "Jackson Thor" who I adore ...

HD: ... that's his name, "Jackson Thor"?

CS: Jackson Thor. He was born in a thunderstorm. His first name was going to be Thor. But it's his middle name, so Jackson Thor.

HD: So it's not hyphenated?

CS: No.

HD: So they call him Jackson Thor?

CS: They call him Gooba. They also call him Jackson Thor. Or they call him Jackson.

HD: So is that the first baby that you helped come into this world?

CS: No, he wasn't. You know, he might have been one of my first paying--no. No he wasn't the first. But he is one of the older clients that I have stayed close with. And I will watch him, maybe once a month, once every six weeks. And we are good friends, you know? He's like my little friend, who is a lot younger than me.

HD: How old is he now?

CS: How old is he? Is he three? I think he's three.

HD: So you said "a handful." How many are we talking about?

CS: That I stay close with?

HD: Well, I mean that you ...

CS: ... kids that I hang out with?

HD: [laugh] Well, no that you have actually--I am searching for the right verb that you have helped "birth" ...?

CS: Yeah, "support," is there a good word for that? Being a doula, what would you call it? Yeah, I was there when they were born, I don't know what you would call it.

HD: I'm struggling to find a way to express it that doesn't make it seem like it's just keeping score.

CS: Right.

HD: I mean, "How many have you done?" would be a crass way to put it that I'm trying to avoid.

CS: "How many families have you supported?"

HD: Huh. Okay.

CS: It would be nice if it were just one word. Or two words. Maybe we could think of one or two words.

HD: So "doula" doesn't work as a verb? How many families have you doula-ed?

CS: Yeah, that doesn't sound good. Let's think of a different one. [laugh]

HD: Yeah, well we're probably not to come up with one here on the teeter totter.

HD: So anyway how many is it? [laugh]

CS: How many am I at right now? I have been working since 2001 and right now I'm up to doing about seven a year. When I was first starting I was doing about four.

HD: So what would you say is your capacity?

CS: I am learning that right now. I'm not sure. Because I am taking on more than I used to. I used to take on no more than one every other month. Just two weeks ago, a baby was born, and I've got one in early August and one in late August. So I'm kind of feeling out what feels good right now.

HD: So right now there's two families you are working with?

CS: One family I'm working with postpartum. And two families I am working with prenatally, and two families that I am going to be interviewing with.

HD: So how do you go from having a willingness and an ability to do this kind of work to actually convincing people to pay you money to do it?

CS: To hire you?

HD: Yeah, so how does this work as a business proposition?

CS: Right. Good question.

HD: So what is step one? You hire an accountant?

CS: [laugh] No. Basically, Ann Arbor is really nice in the sense that there is a center here called the Center for the Childbearing Year, which is run by Patty Brennan. And she started this program called Doulas Care--which she has now handed over to someone else--but there's a training center there where you can get trained to be doula.

And the Doulas Care program provides doulas for low-income families. So you get trained and then you get hooked up to work with these families as your practice. So it works out both people are getting what they need--you need your practice in order to get certified. The organization that I am certified with is called DONA--Doulas of North America. And it's recognized nationwide--not that I am planning on moving. But if I did, I could still practice. And some people don't care if you are certified. No one has asked me if I'm certified.

HD: They don't say, Let's see your credentials, lay them out there on the table, please?

CS: No.

HD: Do you have your certificate framed and hanging on the wall?

CS: No, I probably should! [laugh]

HD: That would seemed kind of antithetical to the whole ...

CS: ... yeah, I have it. I have thought about that. But it's not framed, it's in a pile somewhere.

HD: So what is the class that you are going to be teaching? Is that about medicinal herbs, or what? Or did I misread that?

CS: There is a scheduled class that is going to happen once in July and once in August, where I am going to be teaching people how to make a fresh salve. Do you know what a salve is?

HD: Well, you have a sore spot and you put a salve on it to make it feel better.

CS: There you go! Exactly. So it's basically an oil-based salve, healing product, an oil-based salve that you infuse herbs in the oil, and then you strain them out and then you add beeswax, and you get this nice salve in a jar.

HD: So it's something that you can store?

CS: Yeah, it keeps. You can just keep a tight lid on it, you don't have to put it in the fridge.

HD: I guess my notion of salve has always been--trying to think where I first encountered this word--in elementary school there was this child's life biography series and all the famous Americans were in the series, so there would be a little stupid book about each one, and it was from all the frontier days, you know. And there was always somebody making a salve. Somebody was getting hurt, and somebody would say, "Oh, Aunt Sally will make a salve!"

CS: I think back in those days they would do it with lard, or something like that.

HD: Maybe so. But I always had the sense that you had an injury happen, and then somebody went off and made the salve especially for that particular wound. It was an occasional thing as opposed to something that somebody made and stored.

CS: That makes sense. You can make it like that--you can do first-aid. For first-aid I would tend to just use the plant straight up--like chew it up so it gets all mucilaginous and then just slap it on the wound.

HD: Mucilaginous. Now there's a word.

CS: Mucilaginous as is like mucilage. If it's dry, if you take a leaf that is dry and slap it on, you're not getting its constituents into your skin.

HD: I understand that.

CS: So you just chew it up.

HD: Yeah, I do understand that it's just that it's not an ordinary word. I'm going to have to look it up--do you know how to spell it?

CS: No, I'm a really bad speller. I'm not even going to try.

HD: So anyway, you're going to be teaching people how to make sort of a general-purpose sound? That cures what ails you?

CS: We're growing Calendula in the garden.

HD: With a "K" or with a "C"?

CS: With a "C". Calendula is known for healing tissue. It's good for bruises. It's good for soothing skin disorders. And a lot of people use it for babies, for like diaper rash.

HD: How about for acne?

CS: It's good for skin interruptions. Acne is tricky because a lot of skin disorders originate inside, they are internal, some of them start with the liver and things like that. So it's more complicated. If I had like really bad acne I would do something else.

HD: Something else as opposed to a salve of any kind?

CS: I would do a paste. I would do a clay paste or something like that.

HD: Okay, so there is a difference between a salve and a paste?

CS: [laugh] Yeah.

HD: But for the class, though, you're going to focus on making just one kind of salve.

CS: Yeah, everyone is going to make the same salve. And it's a two-part class so people will come and we will pick the flowers from the garden. We'll put it in olive oil, and I'll talk about the different ways to infuse the plant constituents into the oil. And we'll look at the gardens, there will be time for questions, and then they will leave, and they will infuse the oil in the two-week period in between the classes, and they will come back ...

HD: ... with their salve?

CS: With their salve, and I have a source for local beeswax, so we will add beeswax and essential oil if they want ...

HD: ... so who is your source for local beeswax?

CS: Her name is hmmm--hang on a minute, it's coming ...

HD: ... it doesn't have to be a name, location is okay.

CS: They're in Dexter.

HD: Okay so it's not the guy who lives down the street from me who sells honey off of his front porch.

CS: No.

HD: You know about that guy?

CS: Oh, the one that's on, what street is it?

HD: It's like Fourth or Fifth Street.

CS: Yeah, I have gotten honey from him before.

HD: It's great to be able to just go grab honey.

CS: Yeah, that's really cool. And the way it's the honor system. It's really sweet. Does he sell beeswax, too?

HD: I don't know if he does. I just sort of assume that if you do honey you do beeswax, to. But maybe that's not the case.

CS: Yeah, I'm not sure. I don't know very much about bees.

HD: So you have the beeswax then, and you get it in like what, a big block?

CS: Yeah, you get it in a big chunk. The people I get it from put it in these giant CoolWhip containers. It's like this big circular thing, and then you just chop off what you need and add it to the oil.

HD: And so that's the final step? The beeswax is the medium?

CS: Yeah. And then you put it in little jars. And then you decorate them. There's like a finishing touch that's really nice.

HD: Then you can give them away as gifts? As holiday presents?

CS: You can give them away for the solstice--I've done that before. Or just having this for your family, being able to make this really nice salve for your family.

HD: So I noticed the giant fire pit over there, where the dogs hang out--is that for the solstice? Do you have a great big bonfire or something?

CS: Actually, the solstice, we just lit a candle, because we were real tired.

HD: You lit a candle? [laugh]

CS: Yeah, we lit a candle.

HD: I thought you were like supposed to burn whole trees.

CS: Some people do. You're supposed to put all the things you want to get rid of, write them down and tie them in a bundle and burn it. So we wrote some things on paper that we wanted to get rid of and we burned them in the candle. It was our symbolic fire.

Yeah, this fire pit, I'd actually like to make it a little smaller, but we'll have gatherings there. I think we're going to make it smaller, and there is a big pile of brush right there, we're going to make a bigger fire pit back there.

HD: So how far does your land go back? To that row of trees?

CS: To the tree line, yeah. It's to the tree line, it's just under two acres. And another class I'm doing is getting off to a slower start. And I think at some point it will be really cool, but it hasn't quite caught on yet ....

HD: ... so the salve class you have done before?

CS: I haven't. It's my first time teaching it at the farm. The other class is just every other Tuesday--a pregnancy tea gathering, where women who are pregnant can come and make fresh pregnancy tea.

HD: Oh, okay. You know, I mentioned to some folks that I was going to be teeter tottering with was somebody who was going to talk about pregnancy tea. And you know people have imaginations, so one suggestion was that it's a tea that will make you pregnant ...

CS: ... wouldn't that be cool? Or that would not make you pregnant?

HD: Yeah, well, that was the other idea.

CS: This is basically a pregnancy tea that is good to nourish the uterus.

HD: So the assumption is that you are pregnant and that it's good for you.

CS: Right. You are pregnant or you are thinking of getting pregnant and so you drink this tea and it gives you vitamins and minerals and cleanses your blood and makes your uterus happy.

HD: I would imagine that there is some sort of a social benefit as well? To gathering to make the pregnancy tea?

CS: Yeah, and that's the part about it that I really love is the ritual of it with my clients. For me what really makes sense and is so beautiful about it is the ritual of making pregnancy tea. Of taking the time to take the leaves and steep them in the water. It slows you down and it really connects you to the earth, and it's grounding. That's one of the aspects of pregnancy that almost necessary, is to ground in your body and feel connected, because we are so up in the air, you know, with everything that we are doing, I feel. With everything moving fast.

HD: You know, you are literally up in the air right now! And I am not going to let you down now. [laugh]

CS: [laugh] It's true! I really worked a lot with my clients on the emotional parts of pregnancy and getting grounded in what their thoughts are and what their fears are and what they can do that can help them connect. And tea is something that I think is really helpful with that.

HD: So do you have a tea service? I mean like matching cups and saucers and whatnot?

CS: No, we're going to use jars. [laugh]

HD: Ball jars? Well, it fits the whole context, I have to say. It would be a little weird for you to come out with a formal tea service. So when you say ritual you're talking about just the fact that you have to do it one step at a time? There's not like an incantation you utter?

CS: No, I mean you could, if you wanted. If that makes you feel good. One of my teachers who has taught me a lot about herbs and is also a weaver--I call her my weaving teacher--she lives up in Traverse City. And when she is making tea she will sing, she'll thank the trees and thank the flowers. Whatever you need to do that feels good. You don't have to do anything.

I'm not like a dogmatic ritual person. Whatever feels good to you. Just sitting together with women who are pregnant, taking the time to meet the plants as opposed to buying the dry herbs at the store and just sitting down and drinking them together is, I think, really a beautiful idea. And I think someday it is going to take over Ann Arbor and everyone will want to do it maybe.

HD: Except for the people who are not pregnant.

CS: But people who are not pregnant, I can help them make tea, too.

HD: Really?

CS: Yeah, it doesn't have to be pregnancy tea. It can be other toning teas, like lemon balm tea.

Somebody said something. [Ed. note: The totter was set up next to a chicken coop. One of the chickens clucked.]

HD: Was that somebody proud to have just laid an egg?

CS: No, they just like to lay down in the dirt like that. They take dust baths, that's how they clean themselves.

HD: I mean, pregnancy tea, in terms of expanding it ...

CS: ... can you scoot forward a little bit more I'm falling back. [laugh] Oh, wait not that far!

HD: Okay, I'm trying to think of something that would sound a bit more manly, so that you could recruit men, and expand your market. Like "work-out tea."

CS: Workout tea?

HD: Muscle-building tea.

CS: But that's not what we've got here--most of it, let's see, I don't know, I'm not sure.

HD: But that's just a matter of what you choose to plant in the garden, though, right?

CS: Right. It's what I choose to plant. And a lot of the things that I plant are things that I am drawn to as a woman that I will use. But I mean nervines, which are--lemon balm is a nervine--one of the most basic. Like oats are a nervine, it's a group of herbs that soothes the nervous system and helps it fire better and is really good for anxiety, stress, depression. Vervain, oats, lemon balm ...

HD: ... and when you say "oats" you're talking about like Quaker Oats that you can eat in the morning?

CS: Yeah, even oatmeal is soothing to the nervous system. And so a lot of what I have is like that, and anyone can benefit. So if you have an issue, and you want to use herbal teas, or herbal medicine, one of the first things to do, is to strengthen your nervous system.

It's like the foundation of health is to have a healthy nervous system. So a lot of the herbs are oriented towards that. Or we are really into native plants, too. So whatever medicinal's are needed, we will grow those, just to be able to educate people.

HD: Well listen, is there anything else that you want to make sure--oh, you're grabbing the tea. You haven't been drinking the tea. [Ed. note: On a totter downcycle, CS snagged the cup that had been sitting on the ground.]

CS: I know. I was drinking water, now I'm ready.

HD: Now it's nice and cool.

CS: Yes, no, as far as my classes go, that's what's up.

HD: So no quizzes at the end of class? No final exam?

CS: For the students? No, not at all. I'm sure people will have questions. You know I never know how much knowledge people have become to classes like this, so I'll have some handouts have some basic information.

HD: And they register how?

CS: I have flyers all over town, so they would either need to e-mail me, or call me, and they hold their place by sending the check for $35. There's two sessions so they would pick which one they want.

HD: Listen, thanks for riding. Sorry I showed up way early.

CS: [laugh] Thanks for bringing over your teeter totter, it was fun.