At the Beginning

Easing my body back into the shape of a gardener, I spent three two-hour shifts cleaning up. It was just the right amount of time to feel my muscles adjusting without hearing them complain.

Winter takes the garden down slowly, and never quite all the way. The gardener’s job is to finish what Winter set to, and yet, it doesn’t feel like finishing. It feels like beginning, the start of the gardening season, la Prima Vera, the first green, Spring.

As I crouch and snap the twiggy stalks or slice them down with pruning shears, I’m thinking of Elizabeth Erickson who was a teacher of mine when I was a much younger woman. Elizabeth is still on the faculty of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I’d wager she still teaches far more than art. I turned to her as a spiritual teacher, someone who might help me unravel my tangles of passion and mystery. Bless her, Elizabeth simply invited me to go further into them.

On this first week back on my knees, I’m remembering particularly something Elizabeth said, not just to me, but to all her students, “You must always be willing to be at the beginning.”

I am bent for the umpteenth time to laborious tasks that could just as well put me in a state if Sysiphean futility.  Yet, here I am feeling a newly born wonder. Though the work is repeated and the setting familiar, the garden is never the same, nor am I the same in the garden.

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “Though I am an old man, I am but a young gardener.” For him there was always more to learn, more to try, more to invent, especially in the garden. I’m with you, Citizen. Loving a garden renders us teachable.

I break up handfuls of descicated stems and stuff them in a sack to haul off for recycling. Only months ago these stalks were alive with leaves and flowers. They grew because that was their nature. They died because that’s what everything does. Now, I’m helping them become compost. If I sit on a meditation pillow, and pay attention to my breathing, I notice, at the end of each breath, there is a pause. It’s a very slight pause followed by an impulse to inhale. Crushing up stems for compost, my whole self feels the same impulse. It is to life.

Disturbing overwintered tufts, lady bugs meander up for some sun. Do they know they were asleep? Have they moved to the head of some insect line? Is it their turn?

When I was little kid, I could never push to the head of a line and always felt nervous and excited once I got there. I was too shy. I didn’t deserve to go first. I’m more comfortable going first, now, though I still won’t push. And as my elders (there are still a few) move on to the next world, I inevitably move forward in line. I find I’m willing to be at the head of this line, though not eager. I’m still so interested in the paradisical unions found by waking up in this world.

Moving on with my shears to the next clump, I glance up. Sunlight fires through the crocus. I laugh.


“If it would give you peace of mind,” said the nice, young sales rep of the security system company, “Then consider it. But if it would severely change your lifestyle, like making it impossible to eat, then don’t.”

I stood at the chainlink fence, throwing water on the parking median when he happened up.

It sounded like a great deal. The company would install a security system for the mere price of putting a sign on the corner. My homeowner’s insurance would go down. I would only have to pay about 80 bucks a month to stay connected. Just like a phone bill.

“That’s a lot of groceries,” I pondered.

“For you, it might be half that. Especially once your house insurance goes down. It might only cost you a dollar a day.” He was good.

That’s when the fellow on the bicycle rounded the corner and braked.

Without dismounting, he leaned over and broke off a stem of common white yarrow. Then a stem of Penstemon strictus, nice and purple. When he caught sight of us, he pedaled sternly on.

I smiled his way. He didn’t return it. I’m sure he could have used a larger bouquet. I quite wished he’d had the privacy to gather one.

“Nice flowers,” smiled the salesman on the sidewalk as the fellow on the bike stole grimly by.

“Yeah, I made a promise to myself a while back,” I countered the turning wheels in his salesman’s mind. “The street garden is for the neighborhood. Folks can, and they do, pick flowers.”

“Wow, that’s nice,” the young man with the notebook and the dollar signs said with genuine admiration. But I could see his hope fading. She who lets passers by pick flowers she plants, weeds, and waters, is an unlikely candidate for a security system.

“A dollar a day. Not bad,” I gave him. “Even so. Three sixty-five a year: I can think of a lot of things to do with that, and they would all have a lot higher priority.”

No lingering departure. He was off to speak to “other neighbors”.

To say it’s been dry would be a supreme understatement. It’s impossible to predict when, or if, the drought will end this year. Fire feasts on dry grass and pitchy timber across Arizona, New Mexico, and places I know well in Colorado.

Had the tan salesman offered me the security of a monsoon season, I might have bitten. He could have played me like a trout until my senses caught up to me. No such security can be offered by a mere human on a sidewalk, no matter how perfectly chiseled and empathic.

I strummed the spray head at the end of the hose through every cultivated part of the yard. The fellow with the small boxers strode punctually down the walk. I saw him coming and let go the handle. Pleasantries were exchanged, and the fur person named “Maddie” wanted to stop for more, but was urged on.

The rail thin fellow who frames for a living swung up to the curb in his long, white pick up. We nudged incrementally closer to a date to come by for wine in the back yard, accompanied by an opportunity (gladly) to pick my brain about what and how to plant.

One of the first to introduce himself, what seems like aeons ago, slipped out of his gray house for a smoke on his front stoop. I’ve always been grateful for his “cackling hen” that the yellow apartment buildings across the street can get wild on 4th of July, and for his pledge to keep on eye on me. Blue tooth in ear, he awaited the online support gods to grant him fruitful audience. Though his own yard is completely unattended, I was still touched when he complimented the progress in my landscaping efforts, and was thoroughly impressed when he told me there used to be Ribes in the corner where our lots meet. Ribes! How many folks know the Latin for currants? Or would understand that they would be strangled by an overgrown volunteer elm?

He stepped over to see the serviceberry I planted along our boundary. Dogs inside, content with his presence on the stoop, bark their complaints. I understand. Willie, though quiet, would have purchased himself on the back of the sofa to track my whereabouts. Neighbor man’s voice goes all soft as he calls in to quiet his companions. I understand. There is a special voice for the ones who wag when we come home. I want to tell him about Willie. I’m sure he’s already understood.

His phone calls him in. Wait! Wait! I want to talk fruit! More importantly, I want to cast off my shroud of mourning and find out who you are.

Moment passed, I simply must consider planting Ribes aureum “Gwen’s buffalo”, a 5-6′ shrub with black fruit. In my neighbor’s honor, of course.

Not much later, the wind parades up the street. I am not so self-absorbed to think it does so for my personal benefit. Yet, as the freshness of it sweeps through each room, I resolve: Tomorrow, I will take a morning walk for the first time since that old soul led me from the end of his leash. It’s time. Time to revive the endorphins in my system. Time to honor the joy that little four-legged guy brought into my life.

The Edge of Calm

Willie the terrier is happy I’ve finally perched in front of the computer. Temperatures pushed 80 today, and I pushed through every urge to relax. He, of course, had many urges to relax as well, but must keep track of me.

This is the end of a week in which I almost lost track of “firsts”: First tulips, aptly Tulipa kaufmanniana “The First”; first daffodil, a long-term resident in the median; first blues and purples from Chionodoxia and giant crocus; first Pasque flower, although Easter is weeks away; first day with Rose back to work, despite a cold so terrible she reported she’d have to feel better to die; first leaflets on so many shrubs – especially the bower-like Cotoneaster in the back yard; the brilliant yellow forsythia, first shrub to bloom; apricots in the alley, first of the fruit trees in flower; first appearances of rhubarb, delphinium, allium, buds in the front porch tulips; and the first supper eaten outside.

Despite what seems like an enormous amount of activity, spring is still a wrestling match. Spikes of cold followed by warming trends, insufferable winds. All of it creating peril for the life which must emerge. I race to clear gardens of debris and clock crucial billable hours only to get jerked indoors by the chain of inclemency. Rough handling all around.

It occurred to me that if the Inuit can have names for every type and condition of snow, Coloradans might extend our vocabulary for Spring. Perhaps if the season was longer, or our lives depended on such an intimate diversity of knowledge, our perceptions would be keener, and the language arise. Yet another bubble of thought formed in an excess of labor and released in the ethereal exhaustion at the end of a day.

At the end of this day, I lifted Willie to a spot on the vintage bent bamboo and aqua vinyl couch on the front porch. Then, I turned on the sprinkler and sat beside him with a deep bowl of soup. Strains of John Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels” hummed to the rhythm of pattering water, “I’m just sittin’ here watching the sprinkler go round and round…” And watching the sky, knowing just the moment when, behind the house, Pikes Peak began consuming the sun. The overhead blue faded. The breeze faltered and cooled.

Perception dogs me in this week of leapfrogging firsts and mind-altering fatigue. The muffintop puffs over the skinny jeans, yet the skinny jeans zip. I cartwheel over an apparent abundance of new, exciting, and colorful life, yet the objective lens of my camera finds a patchy array. The apricot in full bloom sends thrills to my marrow, yet it abides in an alley with dumpsters, power lines, and cars, and there is a freeze coming.

When the fever of Spring no longer sends one into a mating frenzy, the soul burns with another yearning. There is no time to lose. See things as they are yet find beauty.

For more than a year, I have admired the tenacity of some unattended iris, clinging to the corner of a garage on the alley. It stands near a rental unit in a four-plex, and I imagined an undaunted gardener compelled to plant them and equally compelled to change homes and leave them. I wondered how long they’d bloomed there. Why choose such a bleak spot? Were they planted in the last decade to see reliable afternoon rains? I also fantasized about liberating them. Last fall someone weed whacked them while still green. Last week, someone laid a cement block on them, which I moved aside. This morning I found them uprooted and tossed, the newly emerged leaves still turgid. Clearly, someone despised them, either hating iris on principle or thinking they were weeds.

I gathered each chucked rhizome, and as Willie walked me on, I rocked between outrage at the abuse of beautiful plants and acerbic glee that someone spared me the work of digging them. My plant crime forensic skills aside, I also remember that violence against iris isn’t the only kind perpetrated near by. How can I ignore voices raised in drunken argument, a little girl gruffly led away by her dad from a spill off her bike, patrol cars arriving down the street with sirens blaring. That all of this awareness fills my thoughts within footsteps of the misprized iris illuminates the shifting ground of perception, the unsettled beliefs and experiences of a middle-aged woman walking a neighborhood into fresh identity.

There is no time to lose. See life as it is. Intend beauty.

In the hours since I began feeling my way through this writing, Willie has shifted positions without waking, keeping himself supple, not allowing the sediments of daily process or old age to settle in hip, shoulder, or spine. He dreams, feet paddling, eyebrows twitching. Twice I heard then saw his tail wag, swatting the canvas covered pillow.

Rest well, Willie. Tomorrow, I’ll plant evicted iris, and I need you to watch and remind me that I owe us both some rest.