On my recent walks down the street with Tetley, these leaching-chlorophyl leaves have been catching my eye. There’s something poignant about the luminous, x-ray quality to them, certainly an image of fading life. The ribs of the leaf are evocative of skeletons and veins, don’t you think?
And then there’s this one, ravaged by chomping insects, weather, time. I find them beautiful – for me, they capture the way Summer’s has slipped away this year, slowly blurring like a watercolor into Fall. Recent weeks of high temperatures, crystalline skies, exquisitely drawing out the sweetness of last days.
Summer remains my preferred season and I am sad to see it go. I like the heat, the extra hours of light, the generally slower pace. Of course Autumn brings wonderful gifts. It’s time to start transitioning into warmer garb, closing windows, stiff from being in the open position for months. The crazy chorus of night insects has diminished to only a few, forlornly calling from the dark hedges. Darker earlier these days – and that’s even before our biannual messing around with clocks.
While I’m loathe to put on socks again, or find gloves that match, I’ll welcome fires in the fireplace, the deliciousness of being inside after the exhilaration of a walk in the bracing cold. I’ll appreciate the new views of the sky as the leaves hit the ground, easier to spot my favorite falcons that hunt in the neighborhood.
On the street where I walk Tetley, at least for now, colors seem to just be leaking, fading away. But in my yard there is a Maple going out in expected glory. In the Camellia plant still perched outside, I find Maple leaves snagged in the branches, flashes of red. There are different exits to the end.
Birds and bugs weave across the sky, skirting the patchwork of green and golden field grass. Yellow butterflies – Monarchs? – float by, a Hummingbird buzzes past my ear. A Crow caws from somewhere in the forest and a pair of Wrens creep upside down along the branches of the willow tree beside me. A frantic Robin flies back and forth, filling the gaping beaks of her babies parked right outside the door we go in and out – as annoying as that may be for Robin-mama, she must feel safe from predators. With every breeze, the leaves of a stand of Aspens across the field shimmers like confetti.
It rained for much of yesterday and today, but this afternoon the sun finally shines – the clouds are benign – puffs and strokes across the vivid blue sky. The air is sweet with summer smells. In the field where I dare not venture for fear of ticks, is Queen Anne’s lace, Milkweed, Black Eyed Susan all lend splashes of color to the range of greens.
Just now, a shadow crossed the table where I sit. A Great Blue Heron swept by so close – it’s legs and neck weirdly postured as it positioned to land at the pond tucked into the wood below. So magnificent and commanding! I watch the shadows watching for more movement, wanting to see it lift off, to witness that wide flap of wings again.
It’s later and my friends have all gone out to a play. I opted to stay home for some rare solitude. After cleaning up the remnants of another delicious dinner, I’ve come back to face the field. The sound of a plane fades and then there is silence – but it is only momentary – an illusion really – there is plenty of noise. I hear the cracking of sticks, the evening complaint of a Robin, another bird song, I cannot identify, perhaps a Red Wing Blackbird. A rustle of leaves, the flutter of bird wings, the vibration of insects. The sounds are subtle but certainly there. From the pond just down the hill where I still look hopefully for the Great Blue Heron, I hear the odd belch of a bullfrog.
Out by a towering Pine tree about the distance of a block away (a city reference still works best for me), a deer is feeding, gently moving through the field. I know these creatures are common – even a nuisance – but to me, they still are marvelous. She passes gracefully back and forth across the mowed pathway, mostly she keeps her head down in the brush, busy munching, only occasionally popping up to twitch her ears, a beard of foliage hanging from her cud like a beard. Her nose looks like a chunk of sweet licorice.
Later still, I faced the field – now singing with nighttime insects – and watch the night draw in. I stared ahead at the now blurring shapes of trees, bushes, grasses, stones tumbling into the wood where darkness had already settled in. As the sky turned a blue to purple, the stars emerged, even as I watched, my neck cricked back, my face to the stars.
I miss this – nature at night – not so easily available in my busy neighborhood – not on this scale. I cannot even begin to capture my excitement – as if I have discovered a secret: what really goes on when we are closed into our homes, driven in by the mosquitoes, the draw of the light, and alas, our televisions. Standing at the edge of the meadow having been with it for hours now, I recalled this feeling, watching – no: being in nature, alone, until I feel one with the pulse of a wood or a meadow.
I remember, long ago as a young girl, a nature lover stuck in the city, memorizing animal tracks, matching the leaves of the trees to those in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, gathering dandelion roots and buds. Summers our family would go to a country spot and I remember exploring dirt roads on my bicycle. Often, I would stop where no one was in sight and stand leaning over my handlebars, mesmerized by a meadow a wood, the light, the dark. I still am.
Mangos were on sale and how could I resist a whole case for less than $10?
My mango slicing technique stinks, but by the third fruit I was doing an adequate job of slicing the mango off the pit with skin still attached, criss-cross slicing the flesh attached to the skin, popping the skin inside out and deftly lobbing off nice chunks of fruit. I confess, I am still not very ‘deft’ but the resulting dish was delicious.
A simple recipe courtesy of Mark Bittman: a can of rinsed black beans, a deftly sliced mango or two, scallions, mint, salt, pepper and a squeeze of lime juice. (Thank you, Kitchen Express.) I also made a lassi/smoothie with mango and mint with a batch of yoghurt that never quite turned solid enough (though it worked well for salad dressing) blended together with ice. Lovely.
I also snipped at the herb pots with my scissors and made this beverage with my clippings – a concoction of lemon verbena and lemon balm and mint, a good squeeze from the rest of that lime and a dollop of honey blended up with some ice.
A lazy and spectacular summer day, savored here with the Sunday paper …
Eighteen years ago, my beautiful daughter was born in a white-washed little village located just above the heel of the boot of Italy. She emerged on a blazing hot and sunny Tuesday around 4:30 PM. Everyone in Ostuni was still siesta-groggy.
In retrospect, I understand that I’d probably been in labor at least since the night before, but until my doctor peered at the state of my cervix, smacked the side of his head and said ‘ba fungul’ like a cliche, Italian cartoon character, I was in utter denial that my baby might be born 7 weeks ahead of schedule.
We’d already decided that she would not be born in Italy. The plan was, I’d travel in a few weeks to the flat we’d rented in Oxford, England, not far from where my husband was from. I’d spend my long summer days taking a Lamaze class where I’d learn correct breathing technique, indulge in fish-and-chips, wander in bookstores and libraries in search of a perfect girl’s name. And I’d read – spoiled by the abundance of books in English. And I’d wait. In England.
While welcome (no: celebrated!) my pregnancy was not easy. For most of it, I was in Croatia fighting bouts of nausea brought on by the insidious smell of vinegar and cabbage. The war that brought me to the Balkans 4 years earlier with UN Peacekeeping, saw some definitive battles that year, (1995) eventually ending the conflict with a bang. In late spring of 1995, shells were lobbed at Zagreb city, and each time, I lumbered down the 17 flights of stairs from my office to take cover in the building’s garage. A month earlier, I’d been catapulted through the sky on a particularly rocky helicopter ride that rode the crest of the famous “Bora” wind. So I welcomed the early maternity leave offered to me by UNICEF and the chance to join my husband at his new, plum job in Brindisi, Italy.
The villa he’d found in Ostuni was lovely, surrounded by fruit trees and roses and I was tempted to revamp plans and just have my baby there – but Chloe, the Oxford based midwife I hoped would deliver my baby, suggested that I might as well return to Sarajevo if I was going to consider giving birth in Southern Italy – that it wasn’t much better. A visit to the teeny, run-down looking Ostuni hospital cemented our decision to stick with our plan for me to go to England. Flat was rented and plane tickets purchased. My due date was August 1. I’d leave Italy at the end of June to leave enough time to settle in.
At first I ignored the bouts of cramping on Monday evening. When they continued through the night, I called Chloe in the morning. She suggested the baby’s head might be settling into position but I should certainly call my doctor. I would – later. I hated feeling like a moron when making phone calls in baby Italian. It was awkward trying to make myself understood and painful to follow someone blathering on at the end of the phone. My husband went to work in the morning – but called me every hour and finally, hurried home around lunchtime. By this time, I could barely get out of bed. I remember I was reading a very bleak novel set in the Eritrean war and had to constantly flatten the splayed paperback on the bed as yet another pounding cramp ripped through me.
My husband, much more confident about faking his way through languages he didn’t really speak, called the doctor who instructed us to come to his office in a few hours – after siesta. Traveling the 5 minutes to his office by car was excruciating. I couldn’t sit, but rather crawled into the back seat, dizzy watching the clouds spin by through the back window as we sped through the narrow streets of the town. In the waiting room, I stretched across the pleather seats, not caring about the other patients stares as I moaned. Quickly, we jumped the queue and quicker, were told by the doctor to drive to the nearby hospital.
In a salmon pink room that reeked of antiseptic, the pretty Italian nurses undressed me while giving me a crash course in breathing (in Italian) then, wheeling me into the small surgery room. After a two few intense pushes, my daughter was born. That’s it. That was the birth. Within minutes, she was being tapped and prodded on a table to my right.
I craned my neck to see her. The doctors and nurses had unsuccessfully tried to shoo my husband into another room, but he would not budge beyond the doorway and now gave me a blow by blow – telling me she was gorgeous, her legs were so long, she has my eyes. Beyond the doctor’s back – I could only catch a glimpse of her weirdly-moving limbs and tiny rib cage. Wrapping her up, the doctors told me they’d need to take her to the larger hospital in Brindisi. My husband told me he’d follow the ambulance. I was left with the nurses who pattered on in Italian while they stitched me up. All of this happened within 30 minutes.
It was night when I woke in a room with big iron beds that seemed plucked from an old movie set. The other beds were festooned with either pink or blue balloons celebrating the births of healthy babies. My bed in the corner by the window, had none. Most of the women appeared to be asleep but the young mother in the bed next to mine spoke some English. Pulling myself upright, I told her I needed to find out about my baby and she insisted I borrow her slippers – feather adorned, heeled slippers that were at least 2 sizes too small for me. Clutching the back of my hospital gown closed behind me, bleeding and achy, I waddled down the hall to find a telephone.
In my sorry Italian, I tried to explain to the nurse on duty that I needed to call Brindisi Hospital or my husband to find out about my bambina. The nurse put her hands in prayer position and cocked her head to one side to mime sleep. “Domani,” she repeated, ushering me gently back towards my room. I spotted a pay phone but remembered I had no change nor did I know what numbers to call – not even my own. My head low, I clip-clopped back down the hall, past the life size statue of the Virgin Mary, her light-bulb halo casting a strange glow against the ceiling.
Mumbling thanks to my neighbor, I stepped out of her silly slippers and she cooed sleepy reassurances. I stepped barefoot across the tiles to my bed by the window and crawled between the sheets, weeping silently, praying to the sky. A full moon emerging just over the tree tops sent a silver light shimmering through the warped glass windowpanes, bathing my face, my arms limp over the starched linens. As this mystical glow washed over me, so did peace. I knew my daughter would be fine.
This morning’s walk with Tetley after yesterday’s monsoon-like storm, everything felt charged. Green stuff erupted everywhere – certainly the bittersweet that threatens to topple the trees along this wooded stretch of ignored land seems to have grown by feet overnight. The blue sky through the green canopy promises a lovely day.
A few years ago, I threw a few strawberry plants in the sloping patch beside the driveway just to get them out of my vegetable patch. Here they thrive and continue to multiply and after this storm, so did ripe strawberries. I had to bring Tet inside so I could use both hands to pick the good ones.
In harvest-mode, I wandered around to the back of the house to see what else might have erupted into ripeness. Before yesterday’s soaker storm there had been days of sunshine and heat – just what a garden loves. Looks like a little salad might be possible. Certainly there’s arugala-a-plenty as you’ll see in the next image.
Plenty of horseradish and a tomato plant holding it’s own between them. And mint hovers in the background ready to strangle everything.
Unfortunately, my beloved Peonies took a beating yesterday and I’m not sure I’ll even be able to salvage another bouquet. Is it ridiculous to say that the incredible bank of Peonies is one of my favorite things about this little patch of property? They’ve been here forever and were also beloved by the old woman who I bought the house from in 1997. Their heady perfume evokes all that is sweet about summer as well as the melancholy of passing too quickly. Ah well. Seize the day … and the flowers, while they blossom.
The weekend weather report looks good for planting – if I could only decide where to set these Zinnia and Cleomes so they don’t get eaten by the ravenous groundhogs. I guess the not-yet-eaten lettuce patch bodes well, I may tuck them in there.
The Roses blossomed over night and after the storm, have taken a dramatically desperate pose, don’t you think? I really like Roses although they are a bit prissy. Give me a giant, scratchy Sunflower any day over these posies. But then again, I appreciate their hidden toughness – they are deceptive with those treacherous thorns! And I love their scent. I do make it a point to always stop and smell the roses – much to my daughter’s embarrassment. In any case, these need to be tied up. (!)
Around the side of the house I check on the Blueberries. This is the first year I’ve seen so many berries. These bushes are smack under a Mulberry tree that grows like a weed. The birds will be swarming in a few more weeks, to get the fruit of the tree and maybe they’ll miss these little guys waiting to ripen. Bird netting is on the to-do list.
As is mowing the lawn, weeding, weeding, weeding. And the hedge is crazy-high again.
And, looking at this photo, plenty of cleaning up to do. Time to clean up the furniture and get ready for outdoor feasting. In the pots, I confess, I thought I was planting Dahlia bulbs I’d carefully saved from last autumn — but I think they’re Gladiolus. Again, not my favorite flower — rather funereal, don’t you think? I’m thinking I’d rather not be wasting those pots on them – better to pick up a few herbs or plant some of the Zinnias in there … work, work, work!
Why aren’t we terrified to get out of bed in the morning? How is it that we can send our beloved children to venture out into the world on their own? Where do we find the courage when, like this past week in Boston, our world erupts in violence and a fog of fear descends? How is it that even when it is our own disaster, when we are at the epicenter of the storm, we carry on, eventually, finding at least a modicum of joy again?
That light can eventually penetrate the darkest night of the spirit, fascinates and inspires me. Religion is the key for many, but I find no comfort nor convincing explanation there. I’ve seen up close, soldiers wearing the icons of their religions, pumping their AK47s in the air as they sped towards the front line, off to kill and maim under the guise of the superiority of their own belief. The righteousness that religion inspires feels divisive and dangerous to me and personally, I find no comfort in it.
No, what fascinates and moves me is the grace to be found in uncertainty. The ability we have to move on in our not-knowing. To just keep moving. It seems that this is what survivors do – (and we are all eventually survivors) as dark as our individual night might be, instinctually, as long as we might cling to sleep, wish for our own oblivion, eventually, a crack of light breaks through.
It is this transcendence of the human spirit that touches me. Passing through the darkest siege, even with awful losses, violent memories, we continue. Time — terrible, wonderful, time keeps us shifting forward through the bleakest winters, through the insanities of war. And one day, we meet the spring – more beautiful than we remember – we go on, stepping forward, into and beyond the fear. A force of nature, of spirit, of love. A beautiful mystery.
The chunk of time and solitude I find necessary to write a blog post never appeared last week. Some mornings I managed to grab a half-hour or so before work to hack away at my memoir (still!) but I need a little more time than that to write something completely new.
Finding the time to write between the demands of my job and home is always challenging, but becomes more so as the weather warms and the garden also needs attention. But lately, it’s the space part I’ve been fantasizing about: having a room to write in at any time of the day or night.
Soon, I will have one: the room off of Molly’s bedroom that used to be closet space. It feels like a treehouse in there – with the big oak right outside the window.
Although you have to walk through Molly’s bedroom room to get to it, for some reason we always called this little alcove ‘the private room’. During particularly bad times in my marriage, I retreated there to sleep. It felt safer than my own bed and I felt soothed by the whisper of Molly’s gentle, slumber-breath only a few feet away. Mornings in summer, the sunlight fills the room and the leaves of the oak tree create mesmerizing waves of shadows and light against the walls.
Ready to go to college in September, my daughter seems to already have one foot out the door and not much interest in her home space, so the room is a mess. (I won’t post a picture of it now.) Mentally, I’ve begun to claim it as mine. I will paint the walls a more serene color and barely furnish it – only the sweet desk I found on the street. That can go by the window and maybe in one corner, a comfy little couch to curl up on. At least while my daughter is off at school, it will be a space for me to work in. A private room.
Don’t get me wrong — I am glad to still have Molly here with me and don’t mind waking early to claim my solitude, but I really can’t wait to have a room of my own.
Yesterday morning I shuffled out of the house to walk Tetley, simultaneously grouchy about and awestruck by the beauty of the snow that had fallen overnight. My neighborhood looked like a black-and-white movie
Twenty-four little hours later, I pulled into the driveway after work and caught a glimpse of color in the corner of the garden. I stepped across the now soggy brown lawn and found these. A promise of spring.
That’s March, isn’t it? A crazy month of winds, rains, dramatic light changes, time changes. The calendar tells us it’s Spring even as we still shiver and our breath lingers like a cloud in the frosty air. Still, we made it through winter – the proof is in the brave croci. We are in for wonderful changes – right? Notice, I hesitate. That’s the way I’ve been recently.
Lately, my old enemy – anxiety – has been lurking around ready to pounce on me at anytime, grabbing my throat and giving me a gut punch. My daughter is a senior in high school and we are waiting for college decisions, financial aid offers. Where will she be accepted? What will I be able to afford? You get the picture.
The uncertainty of major changes, so much being up in the air like this, makes me hold my breath, my chest gets tight. Like any parent, I want my daughter’s life to be perfect – for her to get what she wants – or at the very least, what she needs. And in this case, there is very little I can do to control that. So I have become a worrying, anxious mess. I hate myself like this and my daughter, the picture of calm and acceptance, thinks I’m crazy.
These 24 hours in nature (as always, my favorite teacher) reminds me how fast things can change and how most of the time, there’s not a damn thing you can do about any of it. Depending on how you look at it, this fact can be a comfort or, if you are me, a terror. That’s the key: it’s how you look at it. Any of us who have lived on the planet for any time certainly have experienced both the joys and sorrows of change and how fast things can happen.
Within 24 hours you may meet – or lose – the love of your life, win the lottery – (I’m waiting…) or lose your fortune, be diagnosed with cancer or given the all-clear. Shit happens and much of it is beyond our control. Better to not get in a tizzy, right? Better to wait and see what life will bring and meanwhile, try to live in the present. Seize the joy of a blossom or just relax and delight in the peace of a snowy morning as sick as I may be, of winter. Breathing is so much easier without the vice-grip of anxiety around my throat. And besides, this morning, it smells like spring.
The snow brought a lovely quiet and a rare state of ‘not-doing’ to my home. Life always seems a constant of ‘must-do’s’. You know, the endless lists: laundry, cook, clean, groceries, pay-bills, exercise squeezed in around a 40 hour job. Even things I enjoy and some I love — have an element of ‘must’ to them – or at least a feeling of ‘should’ – socialize, write, walk, even read. Do, do, do!
But this weekend, blanketed by record snows, we were told by the authorities (!) to stay home. Stay home. You must stay home! How sweet. Obediently, I didn’t budge. I did a few things from my enjoyable ‘must’ list like reading and cooking and a little writing – but for a few hours of being home-bound, I did nothing. Except, look.
In winter, I get up to go to work in the dark. Dressing by the light of the closet so as not to disturb still sleeping R, I often choose colors or socks that are just a tad mismatched. By the time I lumber upstairs again at the end of the day to change out of work clothes, it’s dark again. I rarely see the light in my sweet bedroom. So on one of these frozen days, stuck at home by snow drifts and howling winds, I sat on my bed and watched the light and the views from my bedroom window.
I reveled in the sweet angles of golden warmth and shadows I rarely glimpse. Like a cat, I curled up in the slowly shifting patches of warmth and did not leave until the light was gone and the sky had faded to a chilly pink.
Yesterday, although bitterly cold, was so bright and fresh, I wanted to be outside. I gathered twigs and branches as kindling for the fireplace. We’ve had a fire every night recently – a beautiful, antidote to the cold night – even if it’s mostly aesthetic. Then I decided to prune back the butterfly bushes. I’d intentionally left them an explosion of woody branches until now, to provide a perch for the birds and perhaps, seed still hidden in the dried-out flower heads. Yesterday, I lobbed them off. While I was at it, I tackled the roses. I know: you real gardeners out there are probably flinching. What was I thinking? Somewhere in my memory banks I recalled that roses should be cut before spring. Only today I read it’s best to do so when at least the forsythia is in bloom. Uh-oh. But look, I took this photo yesterday — proof that spring is on its way.
In any case, that wasn’t what I was going to tell you about. While out cutting back the Budelia bush, Nuthatches started to swoop around on their way to the feeder beside me. Iphone in my shaky hand, I tried to get a photo or two. Standing there in the cold, very still, the birds tweeting about me, I flashed back to being a young girl. I was up in the woods behind the house my parents owned in Canaan, NY, our weekend get-away from NYC. I loved it there. A city kid by birth, I longed to be a nature-girl, living in the woods, eating off the land and while there, I pretended I was. AStalking the Wild Asparagusdevotee – I even dug up dandelions from Van Cortlandt park and cooked up the little flower buds for my 5th grade classmates at PS 95. (hint: butter makes anything yummy)
Wandering alone ‘up the hill’ into the woods behind the house was heaven for me. Stepping gingerly, trying to be quiet enough I might catch sight of a deer. In early summer, I searched for wild strawberries and blueberries in the hidden field on the other side of the wood. I dozed in that abandoned meadow, absorbing bird and insect sounds but mostly silence. Sometimes, in the winter, I stood for what seemed forever in the snow, my arm still as a lamp post, bird seed in my cupped hand, hoping a fearless Nuthatch might land on me to steal a snack. They came so close, chirping in my ear, inching upside down along the branches very near to me, yet never touched my icy hand.
Yesterday, standing by the feeder, that girl again, I recalled the joy I found in my walks, in those frozen moments of watching and hoping for contact. And this time, trying at least for a good photo. As you can see, not much success – but still, it was precious, being still, watching, waiting. A kind of meditation and a sweet reminder to me of what decades later, remains a way to peace.