Who?

autumn joy

Herbstfreud. Sedum “Autumn Joy”

Cloudy equals cool, and I had energy.

Out I went. Took up the hose and showered the containers and drier spots on the flat corner lot. While I drenched the grapevine, a woman with shoulder-length grey hair strolled by. She stopped and chatted over the chain-link fence about the weather. How strangely cool it is, how quickly it can change in Colorado. Although, in her tidy black pants and pastel striped shirt, she wasn’t exactly familiar, it’s the sort of exchange I’m used to in a neighborhood of wide sidewalks and pedestrians. With a look of purpose and a contented smile, she strolled on.

By the time I made it down to the Sambucus, she was striding up the other side of the street. “Must be visiting one of the neighbors,” I thought as she stopped some 15 feet before the intersection and crossed toward me, again. She stepped up the curb with a little difficulty and seemed to get tangled as she walked through the tansy, coneflowers, and asters. Fearing she might stumble, I asked her if she needed a hand. “No,” she said, “if I can just make it through these weeds.”

Again, not so unusual. Natural equates wild equates weeds for lots of folks. Trying to sound firm and gentle, I said, “Those aren’t weeds. I actually work pretty hard to take care of that garden.” She stepped out onto the safety of the sidewalk. “Oh,” she said looking a little guilty. She regained her stride in her original direction.

As I finished up, she walked up the other side of the street, this time crossing the intersection. I thought, “Good for her, getting in such a nice walk.”

In I went, poked down something from the fridge for supper, and turned on the computer. Just as I opened an email, there was a knock at the door.

There she stood. Lost. Really lost.

“I was on my way home from work,” she said, “and my car stopped working. Then, I think it was my nephew who came and got it. Now, I don’t know where my car is.”

“Oh!” I said. “Would you like to come in?”

“I don’t want to bother you,” she said.

“Not at all,” I said. “Please, come in.”

“Thank you!”

“Here, sit wherever you’d like.” She perched on the love seat, her feet in tiny white walking shoes, snuggled next to each other. “Are you thirsty? May I get you a glass of water?”

She insisted she was fine.

I recapped her dilemma. “So, your car stopped working on your way home from work and your nephew came for it…”

“Or maybe it was my Dad…”

I notice she is empty-handed. “Someone you knew took your car with your purse and keys, and now you don’t know where it is.”

Though she looks not a day younger than 65, she nods like a school girl.

“Do you know where you are?”

“I think I’m somewhere between work and home.”

“Oh! Where do you live?”

She lights up. “Somewhere near downtown.”

“Do you know your address?”

“I think it’s 515.” Her air is at once satisfied and evasive. Five years ago, I had conversations like this with my dad. His dodging and deceits infuriated and frightened me. Suddenly, in the middle of my gut, I understood them more generously.

“Oh! Nice! Your house number is 515. And what street do you live on?”

“I. I don’t know.”

“Oh, I see!” I’m feeling tender and charmed. “Is there someone who might know where you live?”

She said her sister would know. But, if we called her, it would take a long time for her sister to get here. She tells me the name of the town where her sister lives. Had I heard of it? No, but if you tell me your sister’s name, maybe we can find her.

Over the next little while, I learn her name, her sister’s and brother-in-law’s names, her dad’s name. I try to locate them all via the internet on my phone. I find a number for her sister. It rings and rings. Every other line of inquiry leads us in circles. Her dad should be home from work by now, she’s certain. He always comes and gets her. He works at the hardware store. Did I know which one?

She worries, over and over, that she’s interrupting my supper. Are you hungry, I ask? Oh, no. My mom always has bowls of snacks set out for us when I get home from school.

I try her sister’s number again.

“What do we do now?” she asks.

“I know. How about if I call the police and see if anyone is looking for you?”

“OK! Maybe they’ll know where my dad is.”

“Or your car!”

“Right!”

So, I dial 911. All the while I describe her to the operator, she looks at those tiny white shoes, her hands folded in her lap. “Is she cooperative?” they ask. “Call, again, immediately, if she leaves.”

My new friend is going nowhere, if I have anything to say about it.

“What do we do now?” she asks.

“We’re going to wait for someone to come and take you home.”

“I don’t want to interrupt your supper.”

“Oh!” I laugh. “I’ve already eaten. Are you sure you’re not hungry?”

“No, no. I’m fine. My mom always has bowls of things out for me when I get home from school. I like your house. This is a nice house.”

“Thank you! How do you feel?”

“Oh, you know, it’s a little hard when you can’t remember things.”

“Ah. You’re a little anxious?”

“No, no, no. I’m comfortable here. This is a nice house.”

“I’m so glad.”

“But I’m taking up all your time. I should go.”

“Not at all! I’m enjoying your company.”

We talk in loops and tendrils until a young officer comes to the door. “And your name is?”

“Chris.”

“Chris, this is my friend, Karen. Karen, this is Chris. He’s come to give you a ride home.”

“Do you know where I live?” Her soft voice is full of wonder and relief. She stands as he tells her the address.

The evening is just fading as they walk out the gate.

“Thank you for coming!”

Absorbed in her conversation with Chris, she doesn’t turn.

I wave, anyway.

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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?

downton cat

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?”

Fast Away…

Fast away the old year passes,
Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!

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We’ve been waiting for this. For snow. For cold. For a productive gray sky and clean north wind. For a sense of something normal, however fleeting.

It’s been somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 and a half months since there was any appreciable moisture from above. October and November netted us a whopping .16″. That’s less than a quarter inch of precipitation in 61 days. Today’s snow might leave behind as much as the last two months’ total, and we’re glad for it.

Long term forecasts show the dry weather continuing. But for one dreamy Sunday, we have a little Winter.

As this old year passes, it’s time to consider what may be passing with it. Drought combined with rising water costs signal the passing of my original vision for the flat corner lot. So, before it has become a fully expressed garden, I will begin taking it in a new direction. With so many questions yet to ask,  Gardenhood goes on.

Hail the new, ye lads and lasses,
Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!

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.

Comfort and Joy

Snow, at last, illumines the gardenhood. I went out before the sun rose to clear the walks. The sky, a deep Virgin’s blue, was crowned by the waning crescent moon. It was cold enough to give the air weight. Still a northerner at heart, I revel in mornings like this and seem to require one to fully awaken the sense of wonder, gratitude, and awe that dance in the holiday spirit. Carols and lights and the scent of fir trees help, yet there’s nothing like snow.

Jacket over hoody, thick wool socks and mittens, my heaviest jeans. By the time the mountain and spired conifers were gilded, work had warmed me through. Scrape, toss, scrape, toss – there is a lot of sidewalk around this flat corner lot. I stilled my shoveling often, changing postures, admiring the light and the sugar-fine comforter settled over everything.

How is it that crystalized air, frigid white powder from deep space, and back-aching labor give rise to a sense of well-being and delight?

“Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.”

Indoors, Ed the arctic white cat, remains. He’s having nothing of this wintry weather and its shiny deposit. We slept like stones, me under and he atop three inches of down rolled out for the occasion. Instead of prowling the fence-line for thrills, he’s attacking the stuffed mouse, tossing, batting, pouncing, biting, rolling on his back and scratching it with all four paws. I admire his adaptability. He prefers expeditions beyond the backdoor. He also prefers certain temperatures and dry toes. He makes his own fun, finds the windows, kneads my lap. All, it seems, on his own terms.

Another lifetime ago, suffering from extreme seasonal affective disorder, the approach of Christmas sent me spiraling, and not upward. The pressures to be cheerful, to make gifts, to out-bake my mother-in-law all rode me hard. What I craved was quiet, intimacy, reflection, and beauty. What I engaged in was manic activity and too many well-fed conversations in overheated, brightly lit rooms.

In the year following my deepest depression, with all my body chemistry telling me to hunker down and my psyche wanting a cure, I chucked the baking and the gifts. Imagine the strangeness of such an abdication in a Christmas-crazed society. Well, desperate times call for something untried.

My hands empty and calendar clear, my bloodstream untroubled by sugar, I listened. The eternal theme of the season kept calling to me: the coming of light to a darkened world, hope to the darkened soul. I put on my snowshoes, and took myself into the mystery, the slumbering woods, the quiet. I trekked out of the comfort zone of making traditional merry and into the comfort that evidenced eternity, that yielded joy. My entire relationship to Winter and to its timeless holidays was transformed. I grew to love Winter and take comfort in the rest it afforded.

Now that I live in an urban forest, is it any wonder that I revel in a dark, snowy morning?

I confess, I still pressure myself to have a merry Christmas and contribute to the merriness of friends and family. I worry that I’ll spend the day alone, won’t get asked to parties and concerts, will spend too much money, forget or disappoint someone. Crazy, I know. Even worthless old habits die hard.

At least now I can do more than fret and compete in the “merry-thon”. I can wake up in the thinning darkness and, with a quiet playfulness, answer an invitation made by fresh snow out into the bleak midwinter garden to find shimmers of glory and glimmers of peace.

Merry Christmas, everyone. Blessed Solstice. Happy Hanukkah.

May you find comfort and joy.

Falling Away

Small, golden leaves drift and spiral into the front garden from the honey locust trees, sentries in the median round the flat corner lot. Wearing long pants and short sleeves, I brunch on the aqua vinyl cushions, seduced and recalling snow. It is well into the seventies, and most of the neighborhood’s canopy is only hinting at their coming display. By the grace of some long-ago planter and the last-come, first-go nature of locusts, I have a private autumn.

A stab of trepidation surprises me as I discover the look of contorted, soot-black branches against the moody sky. Is this how a prophet feels when a vision of the yet unknown asserts itself? I could post a warning on the fence: Look up! Emptiness is coming! Practice letting go before it’s too late!

Round back, the largest Siberian elm has lost a limb. A turbulence of cloven hooves and leather wings leaped and swooped through the neighborhood at pre-dawn last Thursday, and carelessly tumbled it. The descent must have included an acrobatic bounce, because it landed across the fence even though it once extended across the sidewalk in the opposite direction.

The limb was one of three which formed its broad crown, rolling shade across the back yard in perfect counterpoint to the sun’s arced passage. I always knew the tree would have to come down some day. It’s warily branched and weak from disease. Now, missing the streetside limb, it seems to list toward the power line to the house. I will have to consult someone. I love the tree too much to make the decision too hastily and on my own.

I couldn’t deal with the limb the day it came down, nor the next day for that matter. I had too much scheduled, some things I couldn’t change. Work. Appointments. Taking my dad to see a behavioral therapist and his doctor. A much anticipated evening of laughter with friends.

When I got home the second evening, the sidewalk was passable, and there was a note on the front porch: “I will be over in the morning to help finish cleaning up. Jim”. I darn near wept. And sure enough at 8:20 AM, I grabbed loppers and gloves, drove the pick-up round to the mess, and he was already whittling things down to size. In a couple of minutes, Jim’s wife, Jo, joined us, and we had the limb stripped, bucked, and stuffed in the pick up in just an hour.

“How’s your dad?” They wanted to know.

“Not so great.” The honest answer.

All the report said was “significant cognitive impairment”. A full neuropsychological evaluation was recommended. For an 87-year-old guy, he’s quite physically well. His spirit still sparks, too. But his mind is falling away.

Today, though we drove just blocks from the gardenhood, to another appointment, I avoided the temptation to detour and show him the place. The drive had been confusing enough, and a diversion might have stressed him to the point of losing the clarity we’d been granted to share. As we got nearer his place, descending a hill, Dad sang. “Down in the valley, the valley so low.” I joined him. “Hang your head over, hear the wind blow.” We sang two verses, and those blue eyes, now the color of autumn sky where it pales to meet the horizon, caught mine in recognition. We still have time to practice.

We might try this old hymn:

For the beauty of the earth, for the beauty of the skies, for the love which from our birth, over and around us lies…

For the beauty of each hour of the day and of the night, hill and vale, and tree and flower, sun and moon, and stars of light…

For the joy of ear and eye, for the heart and mind’s delight, for the mystic harmony linking sense to sound and sight…

For the joy of human love, brother, sister, parent, child, friends on earth, and friends above, open hearts both sweet and wild…

Holy All That Is we raise this our song of grateful praise.