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.

 

My New Best Friends

Did you hear something creak as you opened this post?

It was me.

Even though it feels as though this winter was very short, it will still take a while for muscles to regain their gardening habits.

And even though Spring is very young, I already feel like I’m catching up. How does that happen?

In the meantime, I’d like you to meet my new best friends.

best friends

Only Because

“I’ve got nothing to lose and only myself to please,” she said, as if it were fact.

We stood in midday heat, puzzling out changes to make in her garden. She, a widow with grown children and young grandchildren; a snowbird wintering elsewhere, summering here; a small woman with copper and gold highlights in her hair. These are the facts. Yet, which paragraph is more evocative?

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Man has once again nominated gardenhood for a blog award. It’s a fact. Yet what does it reveal? Think about that for a couple of seconds, while I thank Kevin profusely for the nomination, his kind support of my writing, and the many ways his own writing cheers and teaches me.

liebster-blog-award

Now for a disclaimer, an aside, a disruption in the flow of the narrative, which breaks a cardinal rule of good writing (except when Shakespeare did it). I decided to accept the award only because it came from Kevin. Near as I can tell, these awards (and there are quite a few), are designed to up a blog’s visibility and readership. There’s no competition, no voting, no academy of blogospheric accomplishments. There are only rules to follow, and then you claim the award. The rules involve thanking the nominator and providing a link to their site, revealing information about yourself, and nominating and linking to other sites. It’s actually a lot of work. Well, it is for me. So, I decided to bend the rules, only because thinking about how to follow them, I turned them into writing exercises, a way to kick out the winter holiday induced block in my writing life.

Which seemed like more fun and more fair to you.

So, on with it.

The first exercise: What can you tell about a person with eleven unembellished facts? It probably depends on the person (in this case yours truly) and the facts. What’s your guess?

The Facts

  • 1) In the John F. Kennedy high school class of 1971 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 2) my name appears in alphabetical order right after Jim’s, 3) and he reads gardenhood.
  • 4) I went to northern Minnesota and acquired an accent.
  • 5) I still have it, sort of.
  • 6) My brand new Hausschuhe are felted Haflinberger clogs.
  • 7) On the same day I bought them I also bought chains for my hiking shoes.
  • 8) I start each day by saying out loud, “Yes, thank You!”
  • 9) The vision for the flat corner lot is under reconstruction.
  • 10) My hair is its own color.
  • 11) I complete my 60th solar return on February 3 at 1:41 Mountain time.

Exercise two: Kevin asked me 11 questions. I’ll provide the answers. It’s like writing only one side of a dialog. Can you discern the questions in the answers?

Mid morning. Because it still feels like anything can happen and I usually have even more energy than when I awoke.

I was in first grade, and I stayed in from recess because I was having so much fun writing a story. That summer I planted carrots in the sandbox, my first garden.

When Breakfast Club came out in 1985, I lived 80 miles and an international border from the nearest movie theatre. So, I have no idea in which high school group I best fit. I’m not sure I would know now, even if I had a movie to guide me.

I write at the solid oak desk I inherited from my father in a room I call the studio. I always feel like I’m steeping when I’m here.

I laugh in pure joy whenever I hear the choral movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony.

On a television talent show, my talent would be making a graceful exit.

The dandelion. Tough, resilient, bright, entirely useful, prolific.

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. Because it engages all my senses, including my sense of wonder and magic.

Eggplant.

I live where rain is an event, and rarely falls a whole day. I rejoice whenever it happens.

Carl Sagan. Then what happens?

Exercise three: If you wanted to get a group of people with diverse backgrounds interested in a complete stranger, what questions would you ask the stranger? What questions would you like someone to ask of you? Next are a few of mine.

What are your growing edges, in gardening or in life?

Describe the place on earth where you are most at home.

What do you listen for in the voices of others?

What have you always wanted to tell your mother and never dared?

How do you deal with imperfection?

What is your definition of beauty?

How have your perspectives changed in the last decade?

What is your best memory from middle school?

What does the smell of roses evoke for you?

How do you relax?

What are people most likely to say about you?

One more confession: I’m exhausted by research. I have the sort of personality that wants to jump headlong into synthesis with only a handful of information. I constantly rewrite sentences to fill in the blanks I jump over, eager to get to the next idea. When it comes to finding blogs to read or recommend, I prefer to let others do the vetting for me. Over the last two years, that strategy hasn’t netted me a very long list. In the interest of meeting my final requirement — that of nominating 11 blogs and putting their writers through this gauntlet — I trudged out into the blogosphere digging for some new ones. My criteria surfaced as I searched. I looked for whimsy, beauty, smiles, a sense of connection, and writing that pulled the mud-heavy boots from my heart. After far too many hours, and feeling like I’d just read 15 seed catalogs cover to cover, I pooped out. At nine.

I know most of you stop by to read gardenhood and aren’t looking for other reads. Maybe, like me, you feel as though you’re spending way too much time staring at blue-lighted screens and not enough time looking at soft white paper, kind faces, beautiful landscapes, and living earth. Nonetheless, if you’d like to visit a few other sites, here you go.

Griffins and Gingersnaps

Jordan Ketttley

Naure’s Place

Gypsy Sunshine

Enjoy Succulents

A 3 Acre Farm (Kevin already nominated this blog for the award, but I wanted to recommend it to you).

Lelo in Nopo

Danger Garden

Richard Huston Art

Fast Away…

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

IMG_4702

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!

Letting Things Be

It’s getting close to cut-back time in the gardenhood. Close, but not quite. I need to rest in winter’s processes a while longer.

Most of the neighbors swept their leaves into plastic sacks months ago. Their yards are as tidy as winter allows. The only rake I touched pulled the leaves from a patch of lawn under the front yard crab on to the shade bed. Otherwise, I’ve left every stalk to blanch and let winds gather last summer’s canopy around dry stems and slumbering rosettes.

Frankly, it’s a mess.

The garden hasn’t developed winter interest. It’s sparsely planted and immature, lacking the textural carpets, architectural elements, and focal points that carry garden aesthetics through a brown Colorado winter. Even so, I couldn’t bare the thought of taking anything down.

There’s a very practical benefit: Everywhere the leaves have stayed, the soil remains moist and frozen. This, despite no snow for a month. I checked just yesterday, when the temperature flirted with 60 degrees, and the sun came and went behind April-dressed clouds. It comforts me to know that below the unkempt surface all is as it should be. Life continues.

I’ve needed to be with the garden as it is, to hang fussy habits in a crowded closet and rest. I find it quieting to watch the red cabbage, which never flourished in depleted soil, as it discolors and droops. The once proud iris leaves prostrate themselves and pale. Seed heads topple and spill. Stems crack and bend at strange angles.

Observing all this without interrupting it for pretty’s sake has been a tonic for grief-frayed nerves. Following last year’s departure and falling away, I’ve had some healing to do. Many friends have experienced great loss, rough transitions, and trauma as well. I seem to feel each one with them, more acutely than before. The garden, in its dormancy, soothes me by its example: Nothing is defeated, only submitting, changing, returning to earth.

Twenty years ago, on a Pacific beach in Nicaragua, I found shell after shell worn to pink and cream translucence. Held up to the sun, warmth and light shown through them, making them feel alive in a way, surely transformed from the husks of protection they had once been. I was inspired. I wanted to become translucent, too. Then, I was struck with terror, understanding the enormous forces involved.

Some while ago, a previous gardener tossed handfuls of small shells into the long parking median turned street garden on this flat corner lot. Now and then one surfaces, dirty, in tact. Taken away from pounding surf and constant tides, hidden in the soft darkness of the soil, they won’t ever polish thin enough for sunlight to shine through. I like to imagine how they got there, but I don’t envy their fate.

So, this winter, I’m witnessing the forces of nature in the garden and the forces of life in myself. Despite the tumble-down appearance of both, all is well. Below the surface, we are waiting for spring and very much alive.

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.