My Daily Hero

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.

Remembering the Handsome

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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?

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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?”

The First Question

South wing of the atomic-rancher.

South wing of the atomic-rancher.

Winter remains.

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.

She celebrates my infrequent mowing.

She celebrates my infrequent mowing.

 

Celebrating in the Dark

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.

Here goes:

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)

The center of the Milky Way by W. Keel, University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Taken in Cerro Tablo, Chile. http://www.public.asu.edu/~rjansen/localgroup/localgroup.html

The center of the Milky Way by W. Keel, University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Taken in Cerro Tablo, Chile. http://www.public.asu.edu/~rjansen/localgroup/localgroup.html

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.

 

The Phoenix Turns Two

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.

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Eventually, all the heat-scorched pine needles would fall.

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.

returning to life

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.

native cork-bark fir

Cork-bark fir, a Colorado native.

the old putting green

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.

meadow following fire

Not all the trees who perished were replaced. One fine old friend became a different work of art.

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flames above trout

bear face

mountain lion

Short weeks after the fire.

water feature after fire

Summer’s height, 2014.

patio bed to water feature

water feature after recovery

Following the fire, garden-related businesses donated pots of annuals to bring cheer to the neighborhood. This generosity is honored by refilling the pots.

germs

Of course, we do a few elsewhere in the garden, too.

two tunias and a germ

Most of all,  however, it is the miracle of this garden rising with the phoenix of the wider landscape, both new and enduring.

sit here for hours

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What a blessing.

Timelessness

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There is something timeless about a stormy afternoon.

Even though the wind has everything in motion. Leaves let go and scuttle across pavement. Newly uncloaked locust branches, dipped in wet ink, sign repeating messages against the screen of gray sky. Chimes in the snowball bush outside your studio diminuendo then clang again on the same four notes.

Here, at the desk which was still in your father’s office three years ago, the light from the window doesn’t change.

There is something delicious about the timelessness of a stormy afternoon. You eat a bit too much of it and grow dreamy. The chords of ambition you had yesterday, when the peak was covered in snow, when the sun came and went and the air remained mild, when the washer filled and emptied onto the line, when the last of the black beans were harvested, when the garlic harvested in July was tucked in neat rows following the beans and covered with old pine needles, when the fresh sheets went back on the bed, when the onions simmered into the first robust soup, when the house was tidied, when candles were lit and the table set for company, those chords have become a hypnotic drone in which countless melodies reside.

Choose one of those melodies and let it lead you into remembering how much you love looking up words in a heavy, printed dictionary. Drop into the relaxed rhythm of your breathing, the sense that you are napping while fully awake, the sense of fullness in your belly where awareness dwells and phrases form and echo out like slow strikes on a steeple-full of well-cast bells.

You feel warm and steamy as if fresh from your bath and the Lawrence Welk show is floating bubbles up the screen. You feel dark and purposeful like the garlic.

On the aqua vinyl cushions on the furniture on the front porch, hundreds (oh, yes, hundreds) of spring bulbs are sorted according to type and destination. Harvested from the soil near where the bones of your great grandparents rest and destined to naturalize on the last rise of prairie below the Rockies, they are stalwart and ready. When the storm passes, work resumes.

For now, the industry of timelessness is warranted.

Cutting Down

(Adapted from an essay written in 2004)

“Widespread frost expected,” warns the forecaster. It’s past sunset. We’ve already had a morning of shimmering windshields. Hauling containers full of fragile plants into shelter for the night takes a lot of effort, and for what few days until the next crystalline visit. So, I decide to take my chances by draping everything in old bed clothes.

“I’ll miss you if you’re gone in the morning,” I whisper as I tuck plants in. “Thank you for all the beauty.” Sheets and worn blankets spook me, looking like mounded snow in the post twilight. I leave the porch light on, as if its yellow glow will ward off freezing.

With an extra cover on my own bed, the open window narrowed to a crack, I snuggle down to sleep.

In the dream, I walk through a wood to an audience with a holy man. Along the way I pass an old friend reclining on a soft earthy mound. He seems lovely and quiet, full of knowing.

To the holy man I query, “How can we be both mortal and immortal at the same time?” He laughs, delighted. When I leave, I find my friend again. He greets me weakly, yet with good cheer. Near his shoulder, a gentle woman, clothed entirely in white, tends him. He is dyeing of aids. A bruise-red blotches his extremities. He turns an arm, admiring its autumnal color.

Then, I am awake. Morning spills into the sky. Even viewed from my pillow, something in the light informs me the frost didn’t come. The warning, the shroud-like sheets, the saying goodbye have only conspired to awaken a question. Like a spring bulb, whose roots break dormancy when the soil cools, my subterranean mind conjured a dream to help me ask it.

Out in the daylit garden, the colors ripen. The season of cutting down is here.

It’s a controversial subject, this cutting down. Some folks want everything cleared away. That way they can skip the reminders of the end of summer and have only the clear space of potential to look at through the winter. Some prefer to leave everything in place and let winter blanch and break and blow the plants into new forms. Seeds scatter this way. There is more to catch and hold the snow, more to soften the wind. Insects might take shelter. Birds find a seed or two.

My criteria are showing.

Even so, as each rooted resident succumbs to the process of perishing, I assess its contribution to the scene. When none can be found, it is cut down. Among the first to go were the sunflowers. All of mine were planted by squirrels. Weeks ago, they started shinnying the stalks, harvesting their bounty. For a while the leaning and headless trunks still had some charm, but when the leaves tarnished, the plants simply had to go. No meaningful second flowering, no functional value, not even a beak-full of treat for a visiting woodpecker warranted their staying.

While I have a fondness for certain forms, colors, seed-throwers, and wind-dancers, I also have my critic. The scraggly, the uninteresting, the very tired-looking come off at the base.

There is work to do. Striding into the garden with nippers and a tarp to catch debris, today, there is also a tenderness around my heart. I can’t simply judge and execute. I crunch leaves into mulch and pat it into place with my hands. I snip pithy stems for the compost. Remembering earlier glories and committing them to future soil, I give thanks.

I tend the garden, giving it effort and whimsey. And then I let it go, giving it respect and gratitude. And, yet, it’s the garden which grows me. What endurance is transplanted into my character? What compost is made for the seed-bed of my wisdom? What support provided for the delicate twining of my hopes?

I return to the house, spent and nourished. The lilac by the back stoop extends a twig of turning leaves. I admire the bruise-red color.

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