For Cynthia P
Heartsick snow tumbles
Caressing tulip petals
Together they swoon
Heartsick snow tumbles
Caressing tulip petals
Together they swoon
The instant recognition of an old flame startles you awake.
Before you even hear that the crickets have stopped singing, you put a name to the face, and the memories erupt. The summer between high school and college. Intense conversations under cicada-droning trees. Riding the Greyhound through endless cornfields to meet his parents. The last time you saw him. Minneapolis. December, 1974. He agreed to watch your dog while you went back to Iowa. One night, he let her out, and she didn’t come back.
Of course, you look him up on the internet. The first eight links are to or about his work, now a photographer with a studio in a Vermont barn and a business that takes him around the world. Words fly at you from the screen. Led the pack, numerous awards, accolades, MoMA, teaching in the graduate school, and Chinese Government. Personal hints, too. Wife, kids, coach, soccer, beekeeper.
It was a silly thing to do, especially on a Monday morning with no billable hours posted on your calendar.
All through coffee and dressing and breakfast, a cascade of useless thoughts sends a wash of agitation through your system. How long you think you can keep up this house? How soon you going to lose that 30 pounds, dagnabbit? You can’t even get someone to flirt with you on a dating site! They flip like an antique TV screen gone haywire. They repeat like two bars of a stupid song. They swarm you like mosquitoes. You go running from the house.
You try cleaning the car, wiping all the non-porous surfaces with the foamy stuff you got from the guy wearing a pink cancer awareness ribbon under the canopy of the filling station. It works great, the foam that is. It cleans like nothing you’ve used before. It works until you get to thinking, “I’ll bet he never has to detail his own car, unless it’s an antique Porsche living in his Vermont barn, and he doesn’t let anyone else touch it.”
Enough. You abandon the 10-year-old Scion (forgetting it’s paid for, by the way).
To the shed.
You grab the digging fork (Vermont castings, circa 1985, mint condition) and work over the bed where the garlic flourished and the rose Finn potatoes made an attempt. You dolly heavy bags of compost and spread the contents — evenly, mind you — across the bed’s surface. Again, the fork. Worms, all sizes, wave at you from the soil. There were none when you first converted this sodded wasteland. With gloved hands, you break up the larger clumps. You, in your sixties, have built this habitat for earthworms, all by yourself.
When did the morning air become such a caress?
You spring up the back stoop to retrieve the shoebox full of seeds stored in the studio closet. From it you pull envelopes of potential. Wild arugula, red Russian kale, heirloom dwarf gray peas with bi-colored blossoms, and mâche. You line them up for a portrait.
Peas. One inch deep, four inches apart on either side of magenta-glazed wire supports, which look beautiful against the weathered cedar fence built for you by a dear someone who calls you his best friend. Kale. Two feet away, one-quarter-inch deep, eighteen inches apart. There are just enough weeks left to taste the earthy sweetness of these purple leaves. Arugula and mâche. Two shallow bands. Scatter. Pungent emerald sprouts should be ready about the time the blue spuds tumble out of the next bed over. Corn salad, the most cold tolerant of them all. You think it may get a sheath of frost-cloth later. Her nutty flavor finds its way forward to a November plate.
All in, you find enough pine needles to cover the lot.
Stepping back to admire, you can’t stop smiling. You know you’re a gardener when…
His helmet bears a row of short spikes menacing from front to back, right down the middle.
Released from his domicile every evening after supper, he rides. Always on the sidewalk. Someone must tell him to stay there, place parameters of safety on his pedal-pushed freedom. Nevertheless, eyes straight ahead, he goes.
I wonder where he imagines himself. Off into the Jurassic jungle. Rushing to a clash of Vikings. Destined to an encounter with Dragons. Is he always flying solo? Or does his wheeled escape speed him into the company of other valiant protectors of decency?
I hope he has no idea that this old woman, nor any other, watches. Known gazes tether, pull such a child off course into response. I want for him to answer only to himself, to make impeccable use of the discharge granted him each evening after supper on his brisk steed, in his clean clothes, his ferocious helmet.
Last night, my dear friend, Judy, saw a streak of white in the lower periphery of her left eye. She glanced down, thinking it was Eddy.
“I know,” I said. “He’s still here.”
Most times I come through the front door, I hear him land on the floor from bed or sofa and wait for him to stroll into the entry and stretch, toes spread, before me. A bow of acknowledgement, one would think, except, of course, he was a cat. More likely, he was continually attempting to teach me how I should greet him.
He was once, you may remember, my dad’s cat. But I often wondered, after he came to live with me, if he hadn’t just tolerated the long haul from his beginnings in the Carolinas and his nearly 14-year tenancy in Dad’s household, in order to come to me. He was a very patient feline.
The first time we met, he was sitting under a shrub near the stoop to Dad’s front door. I gasped. At his beauty, his presence. His green eyes met mine and seemed to say, “Where have you been?” Then he disappeared.
The night Dad breathed his last, Ed lay curled by Dad’s left hip, purring. I knelt on the floor, placed my hands on Dad’s and remembered all the words to “Over the Rainbow.” Together, we sang him home.
In the little house in the Gardenhood, Ed was courteous (never scratched the furniture, always used his box) and a very good trainer. Despite my staunch opinion that he would be safer indoors, he made it abundantly clear that he should be allowed access to and from the flat corner lot via the huge dog door. Even so, to assuage my fears and prove how wise he was about traffic and the ways of the human world, he often elected to stay behind the fence and watch as I tended the garden in the danger zone of the parking median. Well, not always, of course. Once he discovered catmint, he might follow me out there if the gate was open, just for a nibble. Oh, and fresh catmint aside, he wasn’t going to eat “health food,” thank you very much. Give me Friskies from a can, from a variety of different cans, in no particular order, and don’t for a minute assume you know which one is my favorite.
He showed his great intelligence in other ways, too. After all, how many cats do you know who watched Downton Abbey?
At first wary of visitors, he soon began granting us audience, allowing perfect strangers to run their hands down the wedding gown satin of his fur. He gained the admiration and following he knew all along he deserved.
If I was outside, then he followed. I might dash out to the compost between breakfast and leaving for work, and when I’d return, there he was, waiting on the back walk. I’d croon at him, and he’d stretch is full length and roll from side to side. Times like that, I’d stroke him wildly and set free clouds of kitty down. He’d wet the sidewalk with drool, then suddenly take a powerfully playful bat at my hands and prance off to be coy.
When he didn’t think I was watching, I’d see him on patrol, pussy-footing through unmowed grass out to the yard’s shrubby perimeter. There, without provocation, he’d dash pall-mall back through the dog door and go skidding over all the floors before leaping up to his station in the front window, the same place where, before him, Willie watched the world.
In winter, he preferred the warmth provided by interiors. Still, he needed thrills. So, he taught me to play. He must have been sure no one else was watching, otherwise, how else would he have lowered his dignity and chase or be chased by a dot of red light? Or heavens, to spend 20 minutes stalking and pouncing on the end of a string. How ridiculous.
Eightteen, I’d say to friends, and he still loves to play. His blood work results would be great for a cat half his age.
Then, suddenly, he was off his Friskies. Only three months had passed since his wellness visit to the vet, but his new blood work now pointed to cancer. Unknown variety, probably blood.
It was a swift decline, and he bore it with majesty.
I gave him what my friend, Nancy, calls an Egyptian burial. His grave was lined with sacred herbs and a swath of scarlet cloth. By his head, I placed photos of me and Dad. Under his nose, a can of tuna fish (dolphin-safe, of course), a bag of kibble, and a handful of fresh catmint. Around his paws, his toys. There’s a big slab of flagstone over the top. I’d have built a pyramid, if I’d known how.
The first nights, I couldn’t sleep. So, I dropped a pillow on top of the bed. Something to curve myself around, to avoid kicking, to warm the small of my back. A weight, heavier than gravity, anchoring the bed and me to it, just off geographic center. Eddy’s spot.
Two new moons have come and gone since he made his dignified departure. Now, looking at all the photos I took of him, only makes me smile. I’ve started singing in the shower, again, too. When I push aside the curtain, it’s easy to see him, sitting on the rug, like he used to, listening. “Where have you been, Handsome?” I want to ask him. “Where have you been?”
We’ve had snow, which suits me. The flat corner lot gets real, from-the-sky-gods moisture. And I get to rest.
Rest in this case means: do something other than dig, pull, deadhead, tidy, prune, mow, irrigate. I don’t look at catalogues. I don’t seem to need a fix.
Although I can guess the neighbors wouldn’t mind if I got around to it earlier, I figure March is soon enough to spruce up winter-worn debris. In another month, I’ll attend a day-long presentation about going native in the urban landscape. I’m pretty sure I’ll be ready by then.
I do wander about. When an early January thaw took the snow down, I couldn’t help but look for crocus. That got me chuckling, and seemed evidence enough I’m still and will likely always be a gardener. Primroses planted last fall have pushed up new life. Heuchera peeking through an avalanche of crabapple leaves remain as lively as they were in October. I look for the hardy cyclamen planted some years back and hope they were only waiting for a moist year to reappear. So, you see, I’m not indifferent. I notice. I delight. I simply don’t feel compelled.
I have to say, it’s a relief to embrace this about myself. I once thought I’d become less of a gardener, losing all ambition in the winter, allowing my attention and energy to wander elsewhere. Such a loss and change of focus caused an identity crisis. Glad I’m over that.
So, what am I doing instead?
I’m reading (Terry Tempest Williams, David Whyte, Lester Brown, Kristin Linklater). I’m writing (just finished a chapter to submit to a book project on connecting with nature). I’m going to the movies and watching Downton Abbey. I’m journaling as an exercise in reinventing myself, envisioning the future when I fully take up my original calling: empowering others to live true to themselves in communion and community. I’m dusting off my knowledge and passion for voice work and teaching workshops with my friend, Elena. And I’m gazing through the windows at the quiet flat corner lot, walking her paths and sidewalks, and wondering just when it occurred to me that she had gained the status of gardenhood and why.
When I started this blog three years ago, I had to first get clear what it was and wasn’t about. The first question I asked: When does a patch of ground become a garden?
I haven’t come close to accomplishing what I wanted to on the flat corner lot. She’s still pretty humble. The soil has barely nudged. The list of pruning and arborist work is overwhelming. The heat, fires, drought, hail, and late freezes of 2012 and 2013 nearly took the gardening life right out of me. And yet…
There is a sense of welcome here.
There is a sense that we’ve come to know and accept each other, this patch of ground and me. I tolerate her tendency to invite weeds. She tolerates my distractions. I celebrate her abundance of dandelions. She celebrates my infrequent mowing. I adore her effortless tenacity. She adores my hanging out the laundry. We admire each other. We protect each other.
Elsewhere, gardens are taken to the height of artistry and craft, and they aren’t more garden than the flat corner lot. I know. I’ve tended some mighty ones, visited others, read about still more.
Here, however, I’m welcomed home.
I’m about to commit a sacrilege.
Read on out of sheer, audacious curiosity, or safely avert your eyes. It’s all the same to me. Friends in Alaska, Puget Sound, the Midwest, and the East Coast brace yourselves.
The winter sun in Colorado stares everyone in the eyes. It’s a cheer monger. A brilliant bully. Relentless. Annoying. Its best moments happen just below the horizon, when it fires up the sky and paints with crimson the bellies of overflying geese. Otherwise, it’s an arrogant stalker. It should be arrested for indecent exposure. Hey! Try wearing a cloud or two, Mister! Would ya?
There. I’ve said it.
Really? You think I’m nuts?
I suppose I am. I need some rest. Too much sunshine makes me edgy. Just like too much dreary weather used to make me sad. Very sad.
During my sophomore year at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, the sun went missing for 16 days. Headlines told us the suicide rate shot up. I believed them.
Ten years later and still farther North, in Grand Marais, I woke one August morning from a nightmare. The green and flowering meadow where I lived was suddenly, irreversibly covered in snow. All color and contour eradicated. I wrote: It was the face of someone loved, first waxen and dead, then, fallen off to white bone.
You bet. This nightmare signaled big trouble. I was already depressed. Soon, I spent whole days unable to leave the house and had earnest thoughts of suicide. Fortunately, I found a therapist who saw me through until April.
It’s not unusual in northern climes to dread the onset of winter. There are real hardships. But our antidote was to pitch ourselves into Christmas. To prove myself among the Swedes and Norwegians, I pushed hard. I made all my Christmas gifts, and got them done on time. I baked for an army. I threw parties. After Christmas (still 4 months of winter to go), I read and wrote fiendishly. None of it helped. Each year, the onset of dread came sooner, until I felt the weight of winter nearly all year long.
In the summer following my months in therapy, my therapist handed me a copy of Psychology Today. The article he wanted me to read was about Seasonal Affective Disorder. There were my symptoms described in orderly fashion. There was an explanation of the pineal gland’s response to lower sunlight countered by our cultural training to thrust on, be outgoing, spread cheer. There were also shocking modes of dealing with S.A.D.. Back off. Avoid sweets. Exercise outside. Do less. Light candles. Take hot baths.
I decided to live.
I wrote my parents announcing my intention to not “do” Christmas. I baked just enough to warm the house with good smells. I bought strings of little white lights. I didn’t entertain. I sweated once a week in a dimly lighted, wood-fired sauna. I walked or skied or snow-shoed nearly every day. (Even 15 minutes would do). And I rested. And it worked.
Over the next couple of years, I learned to thrive in winter. Winter became my favorite season, and the winter solstice my highest holy day. I also taught myself to create ceremony. That first time, I was alone. It was the longest night. I turned out every light. The fire hummed in the stove as the darkness settled all around. As I called out to all that I knew as Holy, I felt the darkness open up to me, hold me. The darkness in me also opened up. It was as big as the night sky.
When, at last, I lit a candle, I knew the primal relief that the longest night was over. I also knew a light within me. It illumined the darkness, like starlight, without obliterating. It would carry me into my days and into the world.
Our kind evolved with a planet that has a night as well as a day. No matter how well we’re adapting to our advanced technologies, our DNA is still prehistoric. I believe we turn our backs on this truth and on darkness at great peril.
In a culture of flashy screens, glaring security lighting, and 24/7 demands, we’ve turned darkness over to the demonic, the violent, the terrifying. We feed an addiction to adrenaline. Next thing you know we’re preying on our own sanity, our own kin, our own selves. How many examples do you need? Look anywhere on the streets, in the headlines.
We’re frayed, sleepless, agitated, enraged, frightened, caustic, ineffective. We could use a deep soak, weeks of rest, a dormancy to ensure the production of fruit.
So, I will celebrate the season as I have for 30 years: In the dark, in gratitude for the dark, honoring the dark and my need for it. And in the dark, in ceremony, a place will open within me to welcome the light.
Maybe, just maybe, it will snow.
Come on, could ya? Cover up for a couple of days and give me a break? Just this once?
That would be nice. (Scroll on past the photo for an update)
Well, you might have guessed it. Next morning, old mister sun had pulled on a nice dark pair of clouds and sprinkled a little snow around. Tee-hee!
If you’re interested in how some other garden-blogging friends celebrate the winter season, please look in on Garden’s Eye View. Donna’s blog is rich in both heart and content.
On June 26, 2012, a firestorm roared down the foothills into the Mountain Shadows neighborhood of Colorado Springs. 346 homes, two human lives, pets, treasures, thousands and thousands of trees, and who knows how many wild ones, gone. Images of that day still fill my heart with sorrow, helplessness, and dread.
On July 6, 2012, I stepped into an odyssey of healing.
All around the house, every tree and shrub, every perennial, every annual, brown. It was like walking into a sepia toned photo.
As I drove week after week through the devastated area to this garden: I felt happy. It was the sight of plant life. First a chartreuse shrub shining way up on the hillside. Then, the scrub oak shrugging up dark green mats. And it was the anticipation of beauty, reckless and daring to re-inhabit the garden.
Honoring the lives of all the plants — from towering ponderosa to tiny mounds of pinks — the homeowners waited nearly a full year to give them a chance to come back. I love these folks dearly for this. They could have, you know, sawed and yanked, thrown in new. But they didn’t. They gazed with tenderness. They cheered every new whorl of needles. They praised each opening bud. They gave thanks for the steadfastness of old friends. They said, out loud, of the white firs that had gone up like torches: “They sacrificed themselves to save our house.”
So passed the remainder of the summer of 2012.
Spring of 2013: Together, we hand-picked the trees who would replace those who had perished. I selected shrubs. All this gorgeous vigor made me giddy.
The fire melted the astroturf on a little putting green. And it got converted to a garden. How fun is that?
Then, at summer’s end, another disaster, another miracle. Rain. Too much rain. The burn scar, unable to absorb and buffer streams from big rain events, sent debris-filled flood waters crashing through nearby Manitou Springs. But this garden was spared. And the land around it drank as deeply as it could.
In the spring of 2014 a meadow appeared. And by full summer, it was breathtaking.
Not all the trees who perished were replaced. One fine old friend became a different work of art.
Short weeks after the fire.
Summer’s height, 2014.
Following the fire, garden-related businesses donated pots of annuals to bring cheer to the neighborhood. This generosity is honored by refilling the pots.
Of course, we do a few elsewhere in the garden, too.
Most of all, however, it is the miracle of this garden rising with the phoenix of the wider landscape, both new and enduring.
What a blessing.