Hearts and Ashes

Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, love’s arduous and jubilant walk to the cross, to the center of all things, where the horizontal line of what we experience as time and narrative is pierced by the vertical line of Truth. The horizontal line stretching backward and forward farther than the eye can see. The vertical line generated like lightning. The crossing of these lines we call Now. 

The vocabulary of sacrifice can’t help but show up on such a day. We have to look at what slaughter has to do with offering. How can taking the life of another be an offering of my own? It can’t. That precious lamb or bull or child or virgin represents those things we worship more than anything: Security, a future, innocence, power. “Here,” we say, “I’ll give you my prize as proof of how much I fear you. To prove I love you. What’s that you say? You only want me? No. No. No. I’ll have to think about that.” And we walk it all back. How did we get so mixed up?  

I think of my sister’s final Now.  

Cindy woke up, peed, showered, had coffee. She walked the dogs, ate breakfast, dressed, did her hair, put together her lunch, stepped into shoes. The December day was bright and warm. The key went into the ignition. Music played. She put her elbow on the slight ledge where car door meets window, and tipped her head into her hand while waiting for a light to change. She arrived at work, said good morning. At her desk, she thought about what she needed to do to get ready for a trip to Sally’s cabin. And then, with an internal blow near her right temple, her light went out. In the shock, her heart arrested, but was too strong – from walks and gardening and time in the mountains – to stop. 

The EMTs couldn’t let her go. That decision came down to us, her family. 

So here we are. Here I am, braiding and unbraiding the threads of story and loss – a far cry from and resonant echo of letting go – and all tangled up with the language of sacrifice. 

Cindy’s life ended. The wave fell back into the ocean. This did not happen for a reason. She was not taken, stolen, smote, executed, or sacrificed. This is not to say her life had no meaning. And who knows if she offered anything up or what she offered, if she did. So much that isn’t ours to know. 

Here, only, today’s Now. No life is ever completed, and yet everyone is complete in the Mystery.

 

Advertisements

11 November

That wind came barreling down from the Northwest, over the hill into Grand Marais, and out to Lake Superior. At the uphill edge of town, a gust takes your breath. You walk three steps in place against it and turn away, staggering, to blink at the place where steel gray water meets paler sky. Beyond the horizon that wind piles water into mountains and overwhelms the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Grand Marais is a town with its face to a vast drinkable sea, cold enough to kill you almost any day of the year. The ghosts of colossal sturgeon claim its depths and wait, wait for the next of us to fall into torpor on the metallic surface and join them.

It’s a town with its back to a dark forest, too quiet to hide in.

In the worst of winter, cold steals into a cabin, snapping minds like twigs. A rifle repeats 5 times, and the wife, the kids, the head of household, lose their heat in dark pools, while outside, dogs whimper on heavy chains, waiting to be fed.

Should you survive, you’ll come out from under winter’s weight just in time for the descent of biting flies.

Why would anyone want to live here?

Perhaps because in the violent indifference of the place you also find beauty, and you sense the holy necessity of everything, down to the wriggling white grub, the bacteria digesting the fir needle, the chickadee’s insistent cheerfulness, the half-blind hulk of moose, even the mosquito’s whine.

And you want to know it, every part. You want to disappear into the heart of it.

This wanting can go several ways. It can die into hardness, the lack of gratitude for your own existence, and the need to battle against the suchness of the place. It can turn you into an expert on mushrooms. It can sing in your DNA, so that when you’re striding down an unpaved road, you’re blasted with an inkling of who you are. It can call you out, over and over, to the edge in the middle of hypothermia, where you let go, let everything go.

Like the inconsolable dawn, leaking into the coldest hour of night, a knowing seeps into your dark horizon. You are seen, embraced, loved. Every cell. Every clumsy thought. The place knows you.

It’s then that you realize: every day of your life will be spent in prayer. Every crunching footstep. Every stone tossed into the breathing water. Every sigh turning to frost in your hair.

For Barb L.

Lingering

The warmth and colors of summer linger.

Summer's professional wardrobe.

Summer’s professional wardrobe. Fresh from the line. The clothes line, that is.

Kale salad. Inspired by Nancy W, who was inspired by Martha (THE Martha).

Kale salad with caramelized grapes and onions, walnuts, yams, and feta. Inspired by Nancy W, who was inspired by Martha (THE Martha).

The first tomato.

The first tomato. Indian Stripe. Perfection.

The last daylily.

The last daylily.

Labor Day weekend balloon festival.

Labor Day weekend balloon festival. Right over the gardenhood.

A mandala. Drawn by Nancy H. (One can never have too many Nancies in her life).

A mandala. Drawn by Nancy H. (One can never have too many Nancies in her life).

This drawing represents my spirit’s calling into a whole new realm of gardening. Assisting in the creation of sacred space. In lives. In landscapes. For Earth’s sake.

The lingering warmth and colors of summer calling me all the way home.

Commitment

Sometimes the gardener is herself the garden.

I’m two-thirds of the way through year 59, and I’ve been decisively editing my attitudes.

Here and there were habitual thoughts that had grown so thick and spread so wide, they were choking out other thoughts, more useful ones, happier ones, even prettier ones.

I’ve tried tackling these habits in the traditional way, by getting to the root of them. I mean, don’t we think that if we get to the bottom of some issue, understand how it became an issue in the first place, we can correct it?

What works with dandelions or rampant campanula doesn’t always work with the psyche.

So, with some forthright guidance from my long-time nutrition counselor, Marsha, I changed tactics. I’ve done two things: Deeply accepted the state of my mental weed patches, and loved myself anyway. I stopped denying that I was terrified about my future and gave thanks for my present. I said out loud that I was tired of being fat and gave thanks for my strength and flexibility.

Next thing I knew, I was getting an inkling of what might bring me joy. I accepted being anxious about not knowing how to get from here to there, and let myself imagine all the joy anyway.

One morning, I looked in the mirror and saw a dear and remarkable friend. I said to her, “I weigh 147 pounds.” And we giggled at each other. I actually weighed considerably more than that, even though I’d reached my “summer low”. It was the same summer low I’d reached over the last several years, the low that let’s me zip the skinny jeans, and still the low I was never able to crack.

It felt so good to say I weigh 147, that I kept right on saying it. I’d say it as I got in the car, and my posture changed. I’d say it walking down the street, and my step lightened. I’d say it standing in front of my open closet and choose different clothes.

A few weeks ago, I stepped on the scale. It must have been wrong. I stepped off and stepped on again. Four times. It read 5 pounds below the summer low. A week later, 7 pounds below. The skinny jeans not only zip, the muffin top is gone.

Today, I took all my winter and early spring jeans, capris, and skirts to Goodwill.

As to the joyful future I’ve let myself imagine: To be continued…

An August Spring

This marks the sixth week since wildfire poured like lava into the northwest edge of the city.

It may be years before many lives are resettled, homes rebuilt, and traumatized souls find gentle peace.

Even as I witness and feel the ongoing disturbance, now, as I drive up through the devastated neighborhood, a strange thing happens: I feel a welling of joy. I have the great good fortune to be present at a rebirth and to lend a hand.

From the garden I am helping to restore, I see a wild meadow greening. Some of the Ponderosa, given only a few inches of rain, have pushed green needles from their branch tips. Up on the hillside, too far away to photograph, a shrub shines in the Chartreuse glory of new leaves. Birds sing. A hawk cries.

Several helpers and I have been carefully removing what branches and twigs the heat destroyed, revealing new life. The work is irresistable. The young growth makes me giddy.

Around two weeks after the fire, a rose, spirea, Euonymous alata “Compactus” aka dwarf burning bush, and Rose of Sharon had only tiny leaf buds hidden in brown stems. The meadow beyond the garden looked like a moonscape.

Five weeks later…

In the patio bed, lungwort, lupine, hyssop, daphne and more offer all the freshness of May.

Rosa “Nearly Wild” prooves just how tough and cheerful she is.

Petunias in rowdy bloom, were only basal leaves after the firestorm. We keep looking for the wild turkeys to come hunting and pecking through the emergent meadow.

Initially, I’d thought this honeysuckle was gone. It’s not only leafed out, but just beginning to bloom.

Though much here and more elsewhere is lost, the regeneration commands my joyful attention.

The Phoenix

A part of me thinks: the Pheonix isn’t a bird. A part of me thinks: the Phoenix must surely be a plant. Maybe all plants. Maybe a tree.

On July 5th I got a call. “Could you come and assess the fire damage to our garden? We’ll be here all day tomorrow.” Of course. Yes. Look for me in the afternoon.

I needed to go to the burn. I needed to have a reason to go, but I needed to go.  I needed to be present to the charred, the changed, the aftermath, and to the spared.

As I wound up Flying W Ranch Road, sights I’d seen over and again in the media stood there for real. In the neighborhood where I had once worked and my friend, Susan, had once lived, 149 homes lay heaped into their foundations. My heart rose to my throat in a cry.

Swinging left up Chuckwagon, I faced the massive stand of blackened Ponderosa.

Along Linger Way, a cul-de-sac overlooking the city, no house obscured the view.

At the top of Wilson Road, on the west side and flanking the Flying W, three houses gone. One unscathed. I stopped and walked up to the one still standing. Towering Ponderosa, softly whistling in a breeze, but brown.

All around the house, every tree and shrub, every perennial, every annual, brown. It was like walking into a sepia toned photo.

Ten days earlier, on June 26, a firestorm swept down the rugged hills above this home. A blast of heat traveling 65 miles per hour flash-dried leaves, needles, stem tips, flowers. A rain of embers pelted the garden. I can imagine them sizzling in the damp lawn. When they fell into a Mahonia here, an errant juniper there, even the shredded tree mulch, they flared. A patch of Himalayan Border Jewel, next to the front walk blackened. The home, however, had been well-mitigated against wildfire. Firefighters were able to douse the flares.

Gathering my wits, I examined each plant, closely. As I opened smokey stems and peered under sooty leaves, I saw green. After only three douses from the hose, new leaves pushed out along stems. Rosettes flourished on the soil.

I was reminded of entering a garden some days after the first frost had paid a nipping visit. Of course, that’s why we sometimes refer to a frost or freezer burn. The desiccating effect is so similar.

What is the appropriate response to such plant trauma?

For the shrubs and trees, it’s quite simple. Wait and water. Go around every day and applaud each new leaf. Stand in awe. Once they are truly into recovery, maybe a month after the heat blast, prune away what didn’t survive. I’ll probably give them all a gentle foliar tonic of seaweed extract, too.

For perennials and annuals: I cut away the dead. The annuals got a weak fertilization. And I filled the gaps and replaced the perished with gorgeous new stuff. Out of pure gratitude, the homeowners agreed to let everything which had survived stay, even if it will be weeks before they produce another blossom.

Astonishingly, none of the hummingbird feeders, glazed ceramic containers, nor faux terracotta tubs were damaged by the heat.

Behind the upright fuchsia, a red star cordyline and magenta geranium, though somewhat skeletal, are growing like Ethyl Merman sings, full tilt: Everything’s coming up roses.

From the destruction and the ash.

The Phoenix must truly be a plant.

Becoming

When I started Gardenhood, a little over fifteen months ago, I asked the question, “When does a patch of earth become a garden?”

Well, it’s May, the month of garden riots, the month of dawn to dusk labor for those of us nuts enough to have chosen gardening as a profession, the month when all the thinking space in my brain is taken up with what plants to get for which gardens and how to get all the annuals planted before June. So, I don’t feel capable of answering the question.

Even so, as the weeks of spring fold into those of summer, each time I go out and arrive back at the flat corner lot, I have a good feeling and recurring thought, “It’s starting to look like a gardener lives here.”

It was spring of 2010 that I began reclaiming the 900 square foot parking median from years of total neglect, and I smothered another 900 square feet of front lawn.

The median has come alive.

And inside the chain-link fence, much has changed.

Tree and herbaceous peonies have just gone to their first prom.

The smoke bush will soon be smokin’.

Nearly every day, there is something new to see.

And Edward the Handsome approves most of it. (To approve everything would be to deny his cathood).

I think, just maybe, this patch of earth is becoming a garden.