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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No High Ground

There is no high ground on the flat corner lot.

That is, unless you count the moral high ground to which I sometimes flee.

For a long while, now, there have been all kinds of people, all along the political spectrum and in every walk of life, feeling threatened, dismissed, put-out. Me included. It’s easy to tell: our fear turns to outrage, and our outrage into  epithets and diatribes.

This election cycle, as the rants  reach a fevered pitch, I’m so tempted to sharpen my tongue. Oh, to cleverly spout off and take refuge in my superior outrage! Ah-ha! To brandish my rapier wit and slash the buttons off some neatly jacketed stupidity. The problem is, it’s rarely as satisfying as I think it will be. After silently composing my repartee, I’m wound up and exhausted. Ultimately, I only prove to myself, that I’m a wanna-be intellectual bully. Yuck.

I needed to calm my nerves. So, for a week, I took a retreat of a different nature. I stayed away from news feeds.

As the mental replays of all the arguments, opinions, and speculations quieted, I gained a tiny bit of perspective.

When the presidential election is finally behind us, guess what? The vast majority of us will still need to live together, do business, share the highways, walk the grocery aisles, go to school, worship.

We live in a democratic republic. We are not governed from on high. We govern ourselves. After we’ve cast our ballots, after we’ve sent people off to legislate and administrate, how will we govern ourselves?

We all have to decide how to behave. Since I want to live peacefully and be treated with civility, I came up with a list of tenets by which I hope to go forward.

  • Whatever has my attention gets bigger. So, I’ll focus my thoughts and actions in ways that lift my spirits and give me a positive direction.
  • There’s a huge difference between staying informed and feeding an addiction to fury. Staying informed is a satiable appetite. Consume enough and digest.
  • Reason will not budge hysteria. Don’t try.
  • Violence in thought, word, or deed only begets more violence. If I’m feeling angry, that’s a signal I need to take care of myself.
  • A case of differing opinions, does not require me to win. Let go of having the last word.
  • Closely related: A well turned, emotionally and intellectually engaging argument may make me feel great, but it doesn’t make me right. There are plenty of other ways to exercise my wit.
  • When we hear each other, we can have a conversation. When we have a conversation, we can grow, plan, heal. I’ll put the tongue sharpener away, and listen.

Well, alright, then. Maybe there’s no high ground on the flat corner lot, but there are a few raised beds. They’re far more productive.

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.

 

Acceptance

To be in the process or act of accepting is a widely varied thing. It can mean gladly or formally receiving something or someone. Acceptance might demonstrate an embracing of what is. It can also signify being resigned and enduring patiently. Gardening teaches me about every aspect of acceptance.

Resigning myself and enduring stem from the limits, catastrophies, and disappointments every gardener experiences.

Climate, soil, changing seasons, budget, and energy all establish limits for me. Customarily, I try to ignore, push, or overcome any limit I bump into. After awhile (sometimes hours, sometimes years), there are just some limits I have to accept. Time is one of them. I can’t seem to spend all the time I want to tending the garden or the Gardenhood. There are, after all, only twenty-four hours in a day, and I have to attempt to sleep for more of them than I care to. Then, of course, there is all that time spent on necessary and pleasurable self-care: cooking, eating, bathing, reading, and making real human contact. Oh, yeah, and the other necessaries: laundry, house cleaning, paying bills, and that little thing called work. I can make the most of each hour, but I simply can’t make more hours. I grudgingly accept that.

Hail leveling a garden surely qualifies as a castrophe. Earwigs destroying the zinnias is a great disappointment. But what can you do? If you’re going to garden, you have to feel the losses and carry on.

Carrying on has the potential of alchemy. The dross of drudgery is transformed by an unexpected beauty. You drag yourself out to water or weed before the heat sprawls into the day, and you discover that the lemon-maroon lilies, yellow species hollyhocks, blue butterfly delphinium, purple verbena bonariensis, pink Meideland roses, and scarlet bee balm, are exactly the hues of dawn, hope, and welcoming you wanted in the garden. Even if you don’t know how to photograph it, your peripheral vision puts it all together, and you delight in it all the same.

A neighbor walks by and tells you how beautiful the garden is, and you happily receive the compliment.

A month ago, when the kind, generous, amazingly creative, and energetic Kevin — author of the versatile, very inspiring, lovely, sunny, and spirited, Nitty Gritty Dirt Man — nominated Gardenhood for the One Lovely Blog Award, I had another occasion to learn about acceptance.

To formally accept his nomination, I had to thank Kevin — which I did immediately and somewhat breathlessly. I also had to provide a link to his site from my own, which had already been done in Gardenhood’s blogroll.

Next I had to find 10 blogs to nominate for the same award, notify them, and post links to their blogs. I’ll do that before I close.

Finally, the stipulations of my acceptance include posting 7 random facts about myself. I’ll see what I can do.

In order to know if accepting the nomination was right for me, I had to understand what the award really means. There are quite a few of these awards. Plain and simply, they are utilized to increase bloggers’ awareness of each other and boost readership. That being said, I so admire Kevin and so adore the blogs I’m nominating, that I decided to accept the rules and  the award.

So here are the blogs I’d like to nominate. (You can read this as: These are blogs I really enjoy and am glad to recommend). Please give them a look-see. Then, while you’re at it, have a look at any of the blogs listed in the blogroll.

Hmm. Now for those 7 random facts:

  1. I was born at 2:51 PM.
  2. Dwight D. Eisenhower was President.
  3. I’ve lived in 6 states or provinces within 3 countries.
  4. I lost a toenail diving from a boulder into a swimming hole. The water was so cold, I didn’t notice the loss until I got out.
  5. The third time I read Anna Karenina, I was twenty years old and on a concert tour in still-communist Romania.
  6. My first book, Into the Fullness of Being, was published by my dear, dear friend, Robb Heckel. Of the 200 copies, all but a few found their way to people’s book shelves (even some people I’d never met).
  7. When I was a Freshman at Macalester College, I smoked a pipe — tobacco, of course.

Once, again, thank you, Kevin. It’s been both an honor and an adventure.

Post Script: While dragging the hose through a long Saturday morning, my thoughts rooted in the notion of acceptance, a song slowly unpacked itself from memory. “Come gather round people, wherever you roam, and admit that the waters around you have grown. Accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone. If your time to you is worth savin…” I include it here (especially for you, Jim, who way back in May, requested more music).

Leap Day

It’s a whole extra day, an odd and lovely gift of time, Leap Day. So, I decide to make it a holiday, a private midweek Sunday.

Because it’s warm and sunny and only just breezy, it would have been a good day to start the 2012 professional gardening season. Only when I woke up, I thought, “What’s the rush? It’s still February.” So I suspended the plan.

It took almost the whole morning for all my systems to get on board with the decision. You know how it is: Your conscience follows you around, looking at the door every time you pass it, as if to ask you when we’re leaving.

I put on jeans and a hoody and went outside to clear some tools from the back of my truck. Took care of some junk that had accumulated behind the seat, too. Contact with truck and tools spelled w-o-r-k to my conscience, and her tension eased.

I picked up the side yard, scene of a wind tunnel during the last blow. I rinsed out an old day pack, resurrecting it for summer use. I found a billed cap behind the seat of the truck inscribed “Plays in the Dirt”. It got a quick scrub, and both cap and knapsack went out to the clothes line to dry. “Oh,” said my conscience, “we’re getting ready to start the season. What a good idea.”

After lunch (a virtuous salad), still in my jeans and hoody, I hopped in the driver’s side of the truck, tapped the accelerator twice, turned the key, and she started right up. My conscience loves to go for rides and took the shotgun position, her nose pressed to the window.

We went to Tony’s Saw Shop over on Prospect Street. When I came out carrying my newly sharpened loppers, pruners, and shears, you’d think I was carrying a bag of bones, the way my conscience acted. On the drive back home, she circled three times, curled up on the seat, and I didn’t hear from her the rest of the afternoon.

I spent two hours shearing down the stalks out on the parking median. I’m glad I left them up. Glad I let winter have it’s way. But they are becoming featureless, now, and it’s time they were recycled.

I slice through a stand of hyssop, and the summery smell of rootbeer is still there. Kids on after school bike rides, roll around the corner saying hi. A boy in his early teens, walking up the sidewalk, smiles and asks “How’s it going?” Dale, from a few houses up the street, walks over to ask me about which trash service I use. He has nice white hair and a mustache, always waves, always says, “Hello, Cheryl.”

Just moments after I take myself inside, happy conscience in tow, three brightly clad girls walk through the open gate and up to the porch. Triangular headscarves, printed with fuchsia, lime, aqua, orange and purple bubbles, hold back their hair. “Want to buy some Girl Scout Cookies?” they chime.

I laugh, “Could you say that in any more unison?” They look puzzled. “Sure!” I add.

It feels as though I’ve been away from the gardenhood for a very long time. What a homecoming. I think I won’t wait four years to declare another holiday.

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.

For Cynthia

Look up anywhere in this neighborhood, and you’ll see a varied canopy. Green waves in every shade from chalky jade to emerald city to key lime. Forms stitch a crazy quilt –spiked  spires, rounded domes, and broadleafed pyramids — all bordered, with a changing sky.

Fruits appear in all sizes, too: brown papery cones dangle from the top-most branches of blue spruce (for who would plant a regular old spruce in Colorado), lapis berries snuggle in juniper fronds, crimson and gold orbs ready to shower from the crabs.

Here, volunteering on the fenceline between my house and Cynthia’s, an  American plum. Its flowers took no notice of May freezes, and now it’s hung all about with olive-shaped fruits, the only uniform feature of its wild form. The fruits, more pit than flesh, have turned a tempting orange-yellow, their next to last stage of ripening. When they show a bit of ruby, we’ll find out who sees first, the squirrels or me.

These are the burnishing weeks, leaves achieving their most mature verdancy before shutting down chlorophyl production and letting their autumn colors show. A few twigs on the honey locust guarding the medians of the flat corner lot, already flash a brilliant amber to signal the coming riot of hues.

Chatting next to the plum, Cynthia and I ignited an anticipation for the glory to come — especially on the corner where Bea used to live. There, an autumn purple ash arches in all directions. An unassuming green on a typical deciduous tree form, by month’s end it will be a car-stopping wonder, spangled in vermillion, rust, and burgundy.

Then, Cynthia extended an invitation I couldn’t refuse: Would I take a group of friends on a walk through the neighborhood, naming trees, and join them afterwards for a celebration of our woody neighbors? Heck, yeah.

This past Sunday, me walking backwards down the alley to the north of our houses and up the walk to the south, we took our tour. From her backyard we could see already seven different species. Down the alley, peach, apricot, and plum growing without human attention, astonishing everyone. It’s almost always enchanting to take an intentional look at what is all around.

I composed a list of things I so deeply appreciate about trees, and offered it during our celebration as a call and response. Following each appreciation, there was a collective intake of breath, and we exhaled thanks. You can, too, if you like.

For pausing us in our labors, lifting our eyes to the sky…

For agreeing to grow where humans, birds, bears, squirrels, and wind plant you…

For playing with light and making shade…

For bearing fruits and seeds, feeding all the mobile creatures above and below…

For letting the fox dare to climb and giving the squirrel a chance to climb higher…

For your steadfast presence through night, storm, and winter…

For your innocent part in the darker lessons humanity must learn…

For your suffering that humanity might awaken…

For dropping your leaves, limbs, and trunks that the seen and unseen might feast them into humus…

For partnering with the stone people, brother wind, and sister rain to make soil…

For sending your roots far, mingling with each other, that we might feel community under our feet…

For all who perch, prowl, reproduce, forage, sleep, sing, and travel in your bark and branches…

For breathing out what we breathe in and breathing in what we breathe out…

For dancing, subtly and in wild abandon, while staying in place…

For giving every part of yourself that we might have fire, furniture, houses, boats, tools, toothpicks, spoons, sponges, paper, and clothes…

For throwing apples at the little girl and her friends, somewhere over the rainbow…

For turning sunlight into every shade of green, whispering to the calm in our souls…

For your many forms, all beautiful…

We give thanks.