GUEST POST

Have you ever been in the situation where someone in a group of people with whom you are chatting makes a racist statement and you ask yourself, “What should I do now?”

Guest blogger, Neal Lemery, author of Homegrown Tomatoes: Essays and Musings From My Garden, shares a chapter from his book which deals with this very dilemma.

Chapter Twenty —An Awkward Conversation

 

Sometimes in the garden, there is a new condition that arises, one that threatens the welfare of the garden. It can be a disease, sometimes an infestation. Sometimes it is a toxic, dominating plant, known as a noxious weed.

In that situation, we go into crisis mode, availing ourselves of all our tools and wisdom. We take on the intruder, working hard to save the entire community, even if some of our plants perish in the struggle.

Such noxious weed situations occur elsewhere in our communities, and we need to take them on, to call the intruder what it is, and rid it from our lives.

Often, the elephant in our community living room is racism. It is an ugly disease, and I think we need to take it on, call it out for what it is, and rid it from our lives.

It was an uneasy moment. I was at a social event at someone’s home, talking to the homeowner and several others. We politely chatted, about the event, its popularity, the good weather of the day, and how we admired our host’s attractive home and its setting in the country.

My gardener’s soul was being nurtured by the beauty of the land, and my admiration for my host’s skills as a gardener, his devotion to creating a place of beauty and peace. I was at ease, I was with people with like minds, and with the same appreciation of nature and the good things that life has to offer. Or, so I thought, in my naivety.

Someone asked if there were other people who lived farther up the country road that ran by my host’s house.

His response, out of the blue, was a racial diatribe about “them”, “those lazy #*!s, and “damned illegals”.

I was stunned, not knowing how to react. Someone else artfully tried to deflect the comments, yet the host persisted, supplementing his comments with some additional racial slurs, and then launched into an attack on the truthfulness of another neighbor, whose alleged sins were not racial ethnicity but a difference of opinion on good farming practices.

I fell silent, not wanting to respond to either the racial comments or the ability of the other neighbor to be truthful a good farmer. My gut churned, and I wanted to run.

I certainly didn’t agree with him, yet I was at his home, and part of me wanted to still be the polite guest. And, part of me seethed with rage at this thunderbolt of bigotry and hatred.

I also wanted to be true to myself, to my values, and to my friends who were of a different race, a different ethnicity.

I wanted to be true to my grandfather, an immigrant who struggled to learn English and to be accepted here. He, too, was a farmer, just like my host, just like “those people” down the road. My other ancestors were “those people” in their day, just like the ancestors of my less than gracious host and everyone who heard him.

The comments pushed a knife deep into my gut. I’m not a believer in racism or prejudice. A good friend of mine happens to be of the ethnic group he was badmouthing, and I view racist comments and politics as a poison of our national soul.

How should I respond? How should any of us respond?

 

The website —

http://creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people

has these suggestions:

Things to do:

  • Convey disapproval or discomfort, without becoming defensive;
  • Convey your feelings;
  • Question their fear and ignorance;
  • Don’t get triggered;
  • Compliment them on something;
  • Speaking up is good for the bystander (actually doing something), for the victim (gaining a sense of belonging and being less damaged); and even for the offender (learning that their comment and belief is not the norm and they may become less willing to express their belief).
  • React towards the issue, not the person
    • (Buddha: when someone fires an arrow into you, concentrate on removing the arrow, rather than on who fired the arrow into you and why)
    • avoid calling someone racist;
    • beware of professional racists, who spend their lives being undercover racists;
    • point out what breaks social norms, letting them know their comment is not the social norm;
  • Distance yourself from the comment and the emotion;
  • Tell them God loves every color, which is why God made so many of them.
  • Don’t follow your initial emotional response:
    • Control your anger;
    • Consider them “learners”;
    • Remain calm. Anger is a weapon only to one’s opponents;
  • Don’t react at all:
    • Don’t waste your energy;
    • Focus on other things;
  • Don’t educate:
    • Avoid teaching, preaching;
  • Expose the racist act, if you are comfortable doing that.

It is quite the list, a good place to start. And, I’ve found that I’ve applied every one of those ideas at times to different, and difficult, situations. After a fitful night, it is a list to come back to after I’ve anguished over how I should act, how I should respond. The answer is never clear to me; I’m often left hanging on the horns of my dilemma.

There is some small comfort in knowing that our nation, our culture also doesn’t quite know how to handle racism, how to have the “difficult conversation”. I do think we are better at it today than when I was a kid, a young man growing up in the era of Vietnam, civil rights marches, and the riots in Watts and Detroit, and most other segregated American cities.

Back then, I got involved in the discussions and debates. The deep conversations I had in college and law school about bigotry, our society, helped me flesh out what my individual role could be in this conundrum.   Reasoned debate doesn’t put out this fire, and today, these questions again burn through communities and our national conscience.

We talk about race and prejudice more now, though I’m not always sure that we listen any better than we used to.

I’m troubled, conflicted, and unsure of not only how I should respond. A greater concern is wondering if inside of me there is that man and his comments, his ideas, his view of the world. Are he and I more alike than I dare to admit? It’s a disconcerting, disquieting look in the mirror.

After all, I am a white man, a person of privilege. Unlike President Obama or former Attorney General Eric Holder, or other parents who happen to have a skin color different than mine, I didn’t need to have “the talk” with my kids, about how to act “appropriately” when stopped by the police. I haven’t had to worry about the color of my skin instantly labeling me. Having someone’s preconceived idea of where my ancestors might have lived causing me to be judged instantly as a lesser person is not my experience.

I’ve never been one of “those people” down the road, who are often judged merely by where they came from or the color of their skin, or by the language they learned as a child.

Yet, the racism, and the fear of “the others” that is a poisonous undercurrent in our culture, affects me, and is, if I am honest, something that I need to think about, and to recognize. It affects who I am, how I think, and how I regard my neighbors, be they the man who speaks out with his racist comments or those “others” who live on that farm next door.

We are uncomfortable in this conversation. I am uncomfortable. Perhaps in all of this unease, this “dis-ease”, we can strive to be honest, and have some real conversation.

 

STUNNING GARDEN FASHION

STUNNING GARDEN FASHION

 

October is a bridging month, stuck between the actions of growing, harvesting, weeding, picking, and the action of nesting indoors, organizing everything in sight. Closets, mainly. Because there is no inoculation for the organizational frenzy, the virus has me in its grip and I’m getting sicker by the minute, straightening this, tossing that.

Here’s what I noticed when I looked in my closet, deciding where to begin: gardening has overtaken my closet. I was shocked (well, maybe not) to learn I have five storage drawers full of gardening clothes!

What comprises gardening clothes, you may well ask? Those lovely denim jumpers and pristinely white tee shirts you see in ads for nurseries? Pastel pink capris, and pink clogs, with matching pink plaid camp shirt? Maybe in catalogs, but not in my closet.

Let me describe my gardening clothes for you. There is one whole drawer full of roomy but ruined tee shirts. I have one favorite purple tee shirt encaptioned “We Be Jammin’” emblazoned on the front that I purchased in Jamaica way back in 2002 when my friend Cecilia and I took a cruise. For a tourist tee shirt, it has had an extended shelf life, especially since I have worn it at least once every week after I got back home. It’s getting thin in places and I’ve mended holes where fabric and binding thread disappeared, but it’s still going strong and it feels so right.

Others of my tee shirts have stains all down the front that no amount of washing can remove. I’m sloppy, all the time, everywhere. I forget to wear my aprons. Or I choose not to because I don’t want to get them all stained. Go figure! I have more tee shirts unwearable in polite society than good ones. When I get tired out in the flower bed, I can look down and see several kinds of memories to make me happy—where I’ve been, what I’ve done, and what I’ve eaten.

I have a drawer of shorts, ugly things of piled fabric and soil stains, or behemoths I have to secure with a belt from when I was a bigger gardener. In really hot weather they are perfect! In addition, I have two drawers of pants for varying degrees of gardening weather and comfort while bending. A couple pair I wear because they give roomy a good name. They have pockets for extras and I can bend and crouch without cutting off blood flow or oxygen. That’s important to a living, breathing organism. Others are light and stretchy, also good for hot weather when I don’t feel like using sunscreen on my legs. While they are also bendable, unfortunately, they don’t have pockets, so I have to make other arrangements for hankies and phone and other detritus I usually carry in my pockets, like seed packets, pretty rocks, or weird, dead insects to show the insect expert, Evelynn.

One larger drawer is an amalgam of all the others, plus more. Here I can find my dirt-stained-no-matter-how-many-times-I’ve-washed-them-socks, my dirt-stained-no-matter-how-many-times-I’ve-washed-them-headbands (How does dirt get clear up there anyway?), and two sleeveless, also-stained tee-shirts for the two or four truly hot days around here when I decide to offset the great farmer’s tan my arms have going. There is a pair of paint-stained, dirt-stained jeans for early spring when I need anti-cold weather and misty droppings support. Finally, rolled up in the corner is a pair of warm, wool socks for when I still have to wear my Wellies outside in the muck that amazingly turns into garden come summer.

Does my selection of garden clothing sound anything like yours? Or are you one of those lucky few I admire who never attract an ounce of soil (wet or dry), insects, or sprayed substance while gardening? If so, I don’t know how you do it. I feel sorry for my neighbors who, because they rarely see me in nice clothing with my hair combed, don’t recognize me when we meet at the store.

So now that I’m nesting and organizing, I’m faced with a conundrum–I have to toss some of this perfect clothing in order to make room for a new garden fashion arrival. For the first time since 1981, I have bought myself a pair of overalls, a gardening clothing option that actually makes sense—there are plenty of pockets, room for bending, and the ability to match with either short or long-sleeved shirts. I have followed Neal’s recommendation for the overalls even though the neighbors will have a tough time telling us apart next spring. Except for one thing. I’m the one wearing a muddy-finger-smudged floppy hat with an inoperable chin strap.

The Mended Pocket

This afternoon I finally sat down in my living room chair, took up the black thread and needle I’d dug out of the plastic storage boxes where I store them deep in my closet, and I sewed up the hole in the pocket of my six-month old rain coat. (Don’t you hate it when you buy something new and then right away it grows a hole or a button falls off or a zipper breaks?)

 

The coat had been hanging in my closet since I’d discovered the hole because I hadn’t found the time or taken the time to round up the necessary equipment, sit down, and sew. It’s the same with so many small things that need doing, but you have to assemble the equipment you need, or you have to go to a specified place to do them, or any number of minor conveniences out of the normal routine of an ordinary day. Finally, a space opens up and voila, you can no longer procrastinate because all conditions are perfect for the accomplishment of the task.

 

I felt great after I sewed up the hole because now I can wear my coat again, and just in time for the fall rains. And of course, I wonder why I didn’t do this a couple of months ago right after the hole appeared.

 

Certain aspects of our relationships are like this, too, especially keeping up connections. When we have time to write or call, we are too tired, or too busy, or it’s too late, or our daily schedule is full. Or we don’t have the time, our schedule so full there’s no squeezing one more thing in to be had.

 

When all conditions arrive at the same point and we make our connections, we feel just like I did mending my pocket. Like all things with us are set straight. Like we can go on and play the banjo tune all the way through without a bump.

 

Today I had time to write a small e-mail to my brother-in-law who is recovering from a stroke. I hadn’t heard from him for a few weeks because he probably hasn’t had the perfect conditions for writing to me. I wrote to my friend Liz who was having health problems the last time I heard from her, along with tons of company. I’ve had tons of company and out-of-town commitments myself.

 

Just as with the mended pocket, I felt great sending out a tendril of connection to family and friends today. But more fell into the slots as soon as I emptied them. I haven’t heard from another friend for a few months. I know she is busy with her grandchildren in the summer while their parents work. I just received my own copy of another friend’s poetry book which I want to respond to, so every day there are needs for connection but I can’t always get to them despite my intentions. It’s as if I were the last person in one of those long lines in ice shows. The last person has to go the fastest and cover the most ground and if she lets go, she’s flung out into the void of the ice rink. I’m skating as fast as I can but I have a hard time keeping up with the rest of the line. I just do my best and feel good when I’ve made another circle in the rink.

 

Making these connections in a timely manner is important to me because at my stage of life, people can disappear before you have time to fulfill all your intentions. Actually, that can happen at any stage of life, now that I think about it. Because of that, I’ve been opening up my schedule and being careful about what I put in the slots that are now open again. I need time for me so I can get things done, like sewing up a pocket hole. I need time to be free so that I can get in touch with a friend, or go have coffee or lunch or dinner. Living a fulfilled life is crucial to the story of myself.

 

 

RIGHT NOW! In The Garden

IMG_7727

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m just getting started in the garden. I walk around inspecting progress, and if I don’t focus, I miss the beauty and see what needs doing—weeding, deadheading, or picking. So much is ready RIGHT NOW to be dealt with. I have garden angst.

Some things really are RIGHT NOW, like the bald hornet nest we discovered while discussing where to plant new purchases. Neal turned around to check the sunlight and said, “Whoa! Karen, turn around and look at this!” When I did, it took awhile to register what I was seeing—a gigantic paper nest with a multitude of huge, fuzzy black bodies crawling and flying in and out of a fist-sized hole in the bottom. Whoa indeed! They have since been dispatched, organically. That was the most exciting thing to occur in our garden this season–to date, because we all know that gardens, and those who inhabit them, can surprise us at any time.

Which reminds me of the way our neighborhood cats shoot out from underneath the bean teepees, the words “Get away!” implanted on their faces, when we turn on the sprinklers. If you are missing a cat, check under your bean trellis. In fact, if I had time, I’d sit under a trellis myself. It’s a nice, quiet place to meditate. Or read. Or nap.

Speaking of beans, I love how when the scarlet runner beans run out of trellis on top, the vine undulates and sways in the breeze, like it’s sniffing for something else to climb, looking for the hand up it’s not going to get. I love the scarlet flowers, too, which remind me to stay in the now and enjoy the gifts of the present. All too soon they’ll be beans boiling in the pot. I’ll enjoy those, too.

Same with the grape vines, where daily the grapes in their clusters enlarge and the leaves provide shade atop the pergola. Likewise with the potato vines that hang yellow-leaved, brown-spotted and limp, the X on a treasure map, potatoes shouting, “Dig us, already!”

Squash vines become fervent, intrepid trekkers, travelling pell-mell over all the other vegetables, clinging when they can. Their fruits and golden blooms are like little mileposts, sometimes under the broccoli or between corn stalks, sometimes attacking the strawberries in their raised bed. Zucchini anyone?

The cabbage is halfway to making heads and I hope they hurry up because I’m hoping for sauerkraut this year. I can’t spend too much time encouraging them, however, because Neal picked seven buckets of apples from his orchard and another fruit-laden tree remains to be picked. Some of the apples are good for pie-baking, so I’ll prepare freezer bags of pie filling. Some make applesauce, smoother and sweeter than ice cream. Some I will dehydrate. Some will become cider. Some have been gifted to friends.

RIGHT NOW take time to admire your plants in their own “right now,” as they, in Bodil Malmsten’s words, “…absorb everything and make it into nourishment and energy to last out the winter.”

RIGHT NOW becomes very important, because in September we lose three minutes of daylight every day. Aarrgh! Dig, clip, can, pickle and shred to fill your larder and remember to appreciate your garden, and those who tend it, while the sun shines.

BERRY PICKIN’

Yesterday, I picked our blueberry bushes using my usual method—one for the mouth, one for the bowl, one for the mouth, one for …well, you understand. Also, as usual when out in nature, I fell into a contemplative mood.

I thought about how the birds had eaten their fair share of this summer’s blueberry production, even though Neal had erected blueberry cages. I knew the greedy birds had had their fill because I got one of the bandits, a teensy goldfinch, who upon seeing me, tried his darndest to escape the net. It was clear he’d forgotten the way and he was having a panic attack. He had gotten inside the cage because there was a fraction of an opening at the bottom but surprised by my arrival, he couldn’t find it directly. Since he was so absolutely cute, I did the only thing I could do. I unzipped the cage and he located open sky and flew.

I imagined the birds, already devouring what they wished, telling each other, “Now, leave something for the humans. Don’t eat ALL the berries!”

Or maybe they’d left some because they, like small planes, had to consider weight distribution before taking off.

As I picked, I thought about the Eastern Oregon equivalent of blueberries, the mighty and supreme huckleberry. Huckleberries are so coveted that families have their own maps of patches known only to them and them pass them down from parents to children. While cleaning out my files recently, I came across the one my father had drawn for me in order to reach a Mt. Adams patch.

Legends have been written about the huckleberry and its scarcity makes it even more special to those of us who tracked patches of it every summer, stripping the bushes for our jams, syrups, ice creams, and eating it right from the hand. I can taste that sweet tartness even now.

When we lived in Rockaway, we were blessed with Western Oregon huckleberry bushes which I protected from deer, bear, and humans. One patch grew near the mailboxes we shared with our neighbor, right along our property lines. I waited and waited for the berries to turn from red to plum-colored, checking every day as I picked up our bills, catalogs, and correspondence. One day I saw they would be ready the next day, and got my bowl prepared to pick right after the mail came. When the little white van had turned around and gone back down the hill, I went to the mailbox, only to find our neighbor, transplanted from urban life to coastal dwelling, had sheared the bushes he found lumpy and misshapen into a long, square hedge. I cried.

Then I thought about the greatest huckleberry picker of all, the grand poobah wizard, my grandma. Dad would hear via the huckleberry vine the patches were ready and tell us to be ready bright and early. Grandma would arrive in her Fiat, jump into our Chevy stationwagon, and off we’d go, armed with the picnic lunch Mom had prepared, and our buckets fashioned from old MJB coffee cans or gallon shortening cans. I liked the shortening cans best because the handles were crafted and there were no sharp edges, unlike the MJB cans with their rusty wire handles and sharp tops. We’d start at the top of a hill and bush by bush, slide down. We’d get sticky and sweaty and were plagued by crawling and flying bugs. Still we picked and when we grew tired of picking our grandmother first shamed us by showing us how full her bucket was, reminding us she was an old lady we surely could beat, and then she told us stories of her youth, or sang songs she’d grown up with. The latter always encouraged us to pick faster as she did not carry a tune as well as her bucket. By the time we got to the bottom of the hill, our mouths were purple and our buckets full.

Picking my own blueberries now, I thought of those huckleberry picking days, quietly sang a few lines from her songs, and before I knew it, I had my bowl full of berries ready to be processed.

Lots of us grew up in gardens or the outdoors and that’s why we are there now as adults; that’s why we encourage our kids and grandchildren, and heck, everyone we know, to get out in the garden, out in Nature herself, with others. That’s where the best learning, bonding, and wonderful fond memories occur.

 

YOU BLOODY WELL CAN DO IT!

I just finished reading my grandmother asked me to tell you she’s sorry, by Fredrik Backman. Although I loved it all, this was my favorite part:

 

“The others at school say girls can’t be Spider-Man…”

Alf takes two dragging steps down the stairs. Stops. Looks at her.

“Don’t you think a lot of bastards said that to your grandmother?”

Elsa peers at him.

“Did she dress up as Spider-Man?”

“No.”

“What are you talking about then?”

“She dressed up as a doctor.”

Did they tell her she couldn’t be a doctor? Because she was a girl?”

Alf shifts something in the toolbox and then stuffs in the Santa suit.

“Most likely they told her a whole lot of damned things she wasn’t allowed to do, for a range of different reasons. But she damned well did them all the same. A few years after she was born they were still telling girls they couldn’t vote in the bleeding elections, but now the girls do it all the same. That’s damned well how you stand up to bastards who tell you what you can and can’t do. You bloody do those things all the bloody same.”

It’s a lovely mantra, isn’t it? “You bloody do those things all the bloody same.”

My sisters and I grew up on a farm, where if things needed doing my father couldn’t do alone, we were recruited to help, because there were no boys sitting at our dinner table. We did all the things around the farm that boys would normally have done, some of the jobs better than others, granted, but we did them, nonetheless. There were plenty of things we didn’t want to do, but whatever we wanted to do, we did. Some of them my father tried to discourage, saying girls can’t do that, but, hey, he started it, so that flag didn’t fly anymore, and there was no stopping it once it got started.

“You bloody do those things all the bloody same.” *

Our lives as adults weren’t easy because we believed this at a time other adults didn’t. Like husbands, bosses, and colleagues, both male and female. “Women can’t be (insert whatever position it was—electricians, ministers, soccer players, principals, etc.).”

When we were appointed by others in charge to a position our male colleagues thought was their due, because of tradition, longevity, or simply being male, things got ugly. “I’ve been here longer, I should be department head.” (Never mind the commitment, ability level or training.) Harassment and bullying of all kinds ensued.

On the home front that resentment exploded into bad behavior and violence on more than one occasion.

My single-parent-due-to-divorce sister, who built cabinets to finance her college education, was later told by the manager of a cabinet shop that instead of working she needed to be home with her children. She asked him how he expected she would be able to take care of them if she didn’t have a job. He had no answer but he still didn’t hire her. He missed out on skilled labor.

My other sister manages a cemetery and has had to deal with “women can’t do that” mentality from employees—now former employees, because, yes, she could do that.

In the public domain—well, you only need to look at comments about any female politician to know what happens publically.

My sisters and I weren’t the only women who suffered from being and doing what we wanted, who ignored naysayers and just did it anyway. The poet Sister Helena Brand used to say, “Do what you need to do. You can always repent later.” She was a member of the biggest partriarchy of them all.

My friend Judy wrote a book about her early experiences about doing what she wanted to do, being who she wanted to be. How on a staff of fellow PhD’s, she was often left out of bonding experiences, until she found out about them, and then inserted her presence. The first time was ugly, and then after that, not so much. If there was a mess, she was assigned to be in charge of cleaning it up, and when she actually did that, they were angry she’d succeeded. She kept on, though, and garnered the respect she should have had at the beginning.

I hope her daughters decide to print that book, because our young daughters and granddaughters need to know that anything is possible, no matter how anyone tries to limit you or block your path. Because they will.

The same holds true for young men. There is no one thing you have to do or be. One younger man I admire is a graphic artist, picture book author, and a stay-at-home dad, and he is teaching the community at large—nationally and now internationally–that men can parent creatively and successfully if that is what they want to do.

Here’s the thing: If you don’t do the things you want to do, then you aren’t really living your life.

Ageism is another problem that keeps us from being who we want to be. I remember feeling invisible as I approached 50. The comedienne Amy Schumer produced a hilarious and all-too-true sketch about women’s last f***able moment. If a person of a certain age applies for a job, they often don’t get it. How stupid on the part of the employer is that? Older people have tons of experience, both jobwise and human connection-wise. No worries that you’ll be gone because of your kids being sick.

Men I know who were counting on retirement, some as close as a year away, were suddenly let go. This happened to my female friends as well. You either are now costing your employer too much, or you are going to, so off you go.

I love that my daughter, who is now over the half-century mark, decided four years ago to pursue the career she always wanted, and now is a BSN-RN. In nursing, her age is a plus, not only because of her clinical experience, but because of her life experience. As my classmate Susie says, “I say when you have lived one life, “bloody well” live another and another—try them all out until you’ve lived them all! Do as many as you please!” She started out as a train engineer, and now she has a position at Crown Media. My friend Carol still works in real estate but she’s had many lives before that one.

There will always be naysayers, and the loudest one is often in your own head. None of them have your best interests at heart or even understand what’s in your heart, so ignore them.

My point is this: If someone tells you, “Girls can’t do that! Boys can’t do that!” you let them know you can. Then stay the course and then bloody well do it!

*(You don’t have to say “bloody” because you might not want to swear. But if do, then have at it!)

 

 

REFLECTIONS

 

Old Orange

When my husband placed the orange plant in the low ceramic bowl on the deck bench at the start of spring, I assumed it was a stop-gap measure, a rescue plant, something to sit there until he’d planted something beautiful to take its place. This succulent had no flowers, and had been the last surviving remnant of a prior summer’s succulent display. The lifeless leaves drooping off the bottom section of the center stems led me to believe it wasn’t long for this world. I resigned myself to looking at its dried-out, long and stringy appearance until either it died or its replacement arrived. Morning coffee in hand, I stared at it daily through the living room French doors. Ho-hum, if I have to.

 

Then something amazing happened. With every spring rain, every sunny day and every bit of fertilizer, this plant, whose fronds swooped and swayed like Donald Trump’s hair, grew, filling the pot that had at first been 2/3 empty. As other pots full of geraniums, marigolds, and four-o’clocks arrived, Old Orange transformed into a lush beauty right before my eyes, his stems greening, then turning to amber, as they rose from the pot. I began to look forward to seeing him every morning, his golden assertion a vivid contrast to the blue-potted beauties surrounding him.

 

Nothing is a coincidence. We’re meant to see what we do, so I always look for the gift in my observations. The lesson I gleaned is this: In your gardens and in life, pay attention to the oddballs, and keep them close to you. If you do, they’ll grow on you.

 

Shucking and Sloughing

 

Our front walkway flowerbed was a mess, a mass of dessicated, droopy dead daffodil blades, numerous weeds of the huge and habitual variety, and spider webs full of insect parts. Clean-up day arrived, and I was armed and ready. I pulled and yanked, trimmed and tossed. I dug, finding a plethora of sowbugs and their basketball-shaped mommies. (We’ve overdosed on sowbugs this season. Enough already!)

 

Halfway through my tidying, I found the cutest thing. At first I thought it was a sloughed-off snakeskin and I was loathe to touch it. I noticed, though, it was short, so because of myopia and cataracts, I picked it up and held it close to my eyes to get a better look. Aha!

 

In my hand lay the shed skin of a newt, the outer wrapping of his little platypus bill-shaped head, his wee arms waving in the wind, and his stump of a tail. I wondered how it happened—did he brush up against a tough stem and wriggle? Did it take hours to happen or did he just keep walking right on out of his skin? How did he know it was time for a change?

 

I consulted the internet then and there, right handy on the phone in my pocket, (which I keep there when I’m outside because I see cool things and it has a camera). On YouTube, I watched a newt shedding his skin and saw he used the items in his aquarium to rub up against. More Googled information told me that shedding is a process controlled by hormones from the pituitary and thyroid glands. Newts rub the skin down from their head, where shedding starts at the mouth, to their waist, then reach around, grab the roll in their mouth and pull it off their hind legs and tail. Or they use a series of wriggles and once the hind limbs are extracted they push the skin farther back until the tail, which is pressed down, removes the rest of it by friction. I was lucky to find the skin from our resident newt because apparently it’s common practice for a newt to eat his shed skin. A shed skin is a true, thin shadow of its former self.

 

At the end of the bed, I removed the bottom portion of the downspout and the flat catcher that diverts the water down the sidewalk so I could pull the weeds and dead stuff away. I lifted a large flat stone, and there was Mr. Newt, resplendent in his new skin. He might have been miffed at my disturbing the peace of his dark and damp domicile. He froze for a moment, staring me down. I said hello, and then he gave up the stink eye and wiggled away (as fast as a newt can) to await my departure. I don’t know if there’s a Mrs. Newt because I only ever see one. I suspect, however, there must be, because we’ve enjoyed a resident newt since the first moment we moved here. I hope he’s been eating sowbugs.

 

I read that newts grow each time they shuck their old skin. Humans do that, too, don’t they? Sloughing off what doesn’t work for us anymore helps us to grow as well.

 

Tenacity

 

My snowball bush teaches me the other side of the coin. It’s a tough call to know when to hang on. Every spring the bush blooms, and the wind persists until the blooms are blown away…all but one snowball. Maybe it arrives late so it goes late, but for some reason, one snowball remains a month later than all the others. Maybe it likes hanging out with the blooms of other later-blooming species. Each morning it’s still there, way at the top of the bush, I smile and give it a silent “Atta girl!”

 

Gardening teaches us important life lessons if we remain aware. This month, I was reminded of three things. Sometimes you wait, sometimes you slough off, and sometimes you hang on.

UPON OPENING THE FRONT DOOR

UPON OPENING THE FRONT DOOR

 

“The flowers appear on the earth

The time for singing has come!”—Song of Songs 2:12

 

May has been the month of departures and new arrivals up our front sidewalk. This flurry of activity similar to the hustle-bustle of an airport gateway has given us a reason to open the front door every morning. Instead of ringing our doorbell, the flowers wait to surprise us. They don’t say good-bye, either, but leave quietly, fading into the soil, homeward bound.

Desiccated leaves and stalks are all that’s left aboveground of the red and yellow tulips opening wide as they die, displaying stamens. The daffodils have turned into elongated heads at the end of their stalks. Their leaves, losing chlorophyll, yellow and droop over the short fence as they feed the bulbs.

One Friday night the irises were still pointy buds the shape of miniature mummies, tightly wrapped in parchment sarcophoguses. The next Saturday morning when we opened the front door, there they were, royal purple, pale lavender, and yellow blossoms fluttering in the breeze, triangular centers blazing their arrival. Their delicate fragrance scented the morning breeze.

Just as the iris flowers withered, the pink and maroon peonies transformed from shy, corseted buds into puffy petticoats of scent, buffeted by the breeze.

Day before yesterday, at the opening of the door, I spied two lily flowers, with sisters on down each stem ready to join us soon, splashing their scarlet finery. The rest of the lilies in the flowerbed will arrive at any moment.

Behind them are the lavender, now setting on their flowers, and the penstemon, gearing up for five-stamen production.

Today the jasmine climbing the trellis by the front door broke into tiny trumpet-shaped blooms, releasing its signature perfume.

These flowers feel like family members who hug when they say hello, or the old-time Welcome Wagon, bearing a cheeriness that ushers us from where we’ve been to where we’re going, from the short days of rain-filled spring into the charms of sunny (and sometimes still rain-filled) summer, harbingers of Nature’s beauty yet to come. All we have to do is open the front door.

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THE FIRST IRISES

 

Friday night the irises were still pointy buds the shape of miniature mummies, tightly wrapped in parchment sarcophoguses. Saturday morning when we opened the front door, there they were, deep purple and yellow blossoms fluttering in the breeze, triangular centers blazing their arrival.

The first irises always remind me of my friend L., who loves the sight and scent of them. Yesterday, I sent her a close-up photo of what she loves.

Like all of us of a certain age, L. has lived through adversities and emerged a beauty, inside and out. When I see the iris, I think of how L. and her sister S. built a literary journal from scratch, one that is now nationally respected, one that literary contests pull their prize selections from year after year.

L. and S. researched for more than a year how to put a literary journal together. At first, they had their detractors. One of them was a columnist who wrote that they were doomed to failure because they didn’t work from the bottom up, i.e. sucking up to every literary persona in town who might one day be a player in their venture, and because of all things, at their opening party, they giggled a lot.

I hope they are giggling still, two decades later, being nationally renowned and all. These sisters continue to meet their goal while remaining kind and generous. They’ve featured years of good writers, some of them beginners, and brought many to national prominence. Quarterly, they also produce a bulletin of solid writing advice. Having done what they intended to do from the beginning, one step at a time, working hard, ignoring harsh words from large egos, they’ve persevered.

Persevered, like the first irises every spring that weather winters’ storms with the intention of bringing joy just by being. As I gaze at their purple, lavender and yellow blossoms, I imagine them giggling a lot.

THE LOVE TOUR

THE LOVE TOUR

January is a most depressing month, and February follows right on its heels. Here on the coast everything is dripping wet, soggy and marshlike. The prominent color of the sky is some variation of Payne’s gray, from “dark ominous” to “continual dusk” to “shiny steel.” Lest you think growing things are all dead, though, when you see brown, slime, and mold, I’m here to tell you plenty is going on underneath the leaves, twigs, branches and mulch. Even if it’s spitting rain, I suggest you take a hopeful walk around your garden. Make what I call the Love Tour.

Today, I asked myself, “What can I see that I love?” I started out from the front door, where our porch is decorated with primroses my husband bought at the store, with the joy of their color in mind. We love seeing them every time we go in or out of our home. We didn’t grow them, but I think they count anyway.

Next, I noticed all the nubbins—bulbs arising in either sidewalk bed. Some early daffodils are ready to bloom, but the later bulbs are slowly undressing. Besides daffodils, I saw the arms of narcissus, crocus, snowbells, hyacinth, muscari, tulips and Scilla siberica, all reaching for the light.

Around the corner, two clumps of heather are in bloom. I love the happy pinks. If I clip some stems, they fit perfectly in a teeny blue glass vase and will dry and retain their color for a couple of months on a counter or table.

Some yarrow is greening, promising its work as a bouquet filler and a medicinal in herbal concoctions. The rose campion and foxglove rosettes haven’t frozen and neither has the hollyhock, which means we may have their colorful blooms earlier than usual. I love that!

The rosemary is green and blooming. I squeeze and rub the leaves and smell my hand. Heavenly!

Green ferns are out of the ground. So is the German chamomile. More green.

The red-twigged dogwood pops color where there are no blooms. I saw buds on the lilacs, forsythia, flowering quince, and pussy willow. I love seeing their promise!

Without leaves blocking the view, I noticed the structural elements I put in place last summer, such as the graveled patio space I dug and laid for the red table and chairs, and the paving stone foundation for the red bench. I love that it’s all ready when the time comes. I also made a list of the places that need work and the pruning that needs done as soon as the weather is more forgiving, because right now they are more noticeable.

After my circuit of our house through the flower beds, looking for things I love, I reached my front porch in a much happier frame of mind, grateful for nature and my connection to it. We can’t always get away to sunnier climes, but we can always take ten minutes out of our day to make the Love Tour. I recommend it.

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