Preferential Treatment – the Garden

Just shy of a quarter of an acre, our yard bustles with wildlife. Yesterday morning, turning the corner of the driveway with Tetley, I spotted a Bluebird.  No, not a Bluejay – a real Bluebird perched on a recently pruned oak branch. It was perfectly and entirely, an extraordinary royal blue. I hoped this fantastic bird might be considering taking over one of the birdhouses, although I think the sparrows might have claimed them all.

Later, I brought my cup of tea outside and settled into a wicker chair on the un-mowed lawn when a rabbit emerged from the hedge.  With slinky-body moves, he moved out of the shadows into a patch of sun where he proceeded to preen and clean himself not ten feet from where I sat. I made no effort to stay still, shifting in my chair, crossing my legs, yet instead of diving back into the bushes, he came closer. Soon he was six feet away, close enough for me to observe his eating technique.  His mouth moving like a non-stop motor, he leant over and plucked stems of dandelions (ours is an organic, thus interesting patchy lawn) from the bottom, then munched the stem down to the blossom end, he paused before swallowing this last (favorite?) bit.  He seemed to prefer spent blossoms, no longer an explosion of yellow, but not yet turned to seed. Sucking in half-a-dozen dandelions stems like so much spaghetti, I couldn’t help but think of the devastation he and his family (you know there are more) will cause in the vegetable garden. I’ll dust off my camera on the chance I’ll see him today and you can see how cute he is.

Even as I imagine rabbit just as quickly devouring tender lettuce, peas and other produce planted by me, I am charmed by him. Yet I do not delight in watching the big-old groundhog that has sniffed at our traps, (of course humane) circumvented our fences, and ignored our dog for many years. I feel mean and yell at him when I see him loping across the yard. Nor do I watch the surplus of squirrels with much pleasure although their gymnastic technique to reach the dangling bird feeders is nothing short of remarkable. So what kind of double standard is this?


Seasonal Reminders

The spectacularly short lives of spring flowers makes me melancholy. Hyacinths, as if overwhelmed by their own perfume, topple over into the dirt. The frill of petals around the face of the Daffodil crinkle like old skin.  The Tulips are next on the scene but it’s a race with the squirrels to score some for a vase or two. The Lilac bush I whittled away at last season has come back with the promise of many blooms in each tightly packed cob, but a tree at the end of the driveway that was a blizzard of delicate blossoms last spring, this year sprouts only leaves.

Maybe it is this fleeting-ness of the season causing my anxiety. I blamed work, but after a week off I still wake with a clenched jaw and thundering heart. I force myself to take deep breaths, stretch out into a yoga move or two, but psychically, I am still wound up. I flail around for another reason, any at all – but I know why I cannot shake this feeling. The scents, light and essence of this season are visceral reminders of the anniversary of N’s suicide. Even though these days are endlessly rainy and that week was incongruously sunny, memories of terrible days are still conjured up by spring.  I can’t shake, ignore or forget — 7 years later at this time of year, a state of strung-out, high-alert is still my lot – as is an eternal unanswerable question of whether there was anything else I could have done.

The Power of Herbs

Yesterday we finally enjoyed a Spring Saturday of sunny warmth. I gardened all day, transplanting, mulching, raking. My body now buzzes with the delicious, all-over, day-after ache of a good workout. I think that’s from wrestling with Mint. For years now, every spring I must rip out the thickly woven roots of this magnificently fragrant, insidious plant that threatens to take over my vegetable garden. And every year I think I have completed the job yet, between tomatoes, basil and beans, stalks of Mint emerge.

Standing, I loosen the roots with a pitchfork, a ripping sound my cue that I can pull them out without injury to my back. Then, sitting down in the dirt, I grab the roots with gloved hands and yank. As I do this, strings of tentacles pop out beneath the soil, leading me to another tangle of growth.  I planted this mint as a fledgling gardener, not knowing I would forever battle this harmless looking plant – so delicious for tea and in salads. Now I cautiously plant perennial herbs only in pots or where I want wild, fragrant coverage. Never in the vegetable garden.

Yesterday, I also pulled out a Purple Sage that for over a decade, has grown beside the vegetable garden’s gate. In spite of ruthlessly cutting it back every spring, by July I must squeeze between the fence and furry leaves on woody limbs, to get to the rest of the garden. With my pitchfork, I easily lifted out the Purple Sage and moved it to a flower garden where I am attempting to orchestrate a constant show of color of perennials and shrubs. Hopefully, it will thrive between the Irises and Azaleas.

Every time I bruised by the Purple Sage, or plucked some leaves for roasting a chicken or to be sauteed in butter for a simple pasta sauce, I think of the friend who brought it to me during my first spring in this house. She was visiting from NYC and arrived with a flat of herbs.  This plant survived those 15 years although our friendship did not. I have never known why she no longer wanted me in her life. She disappeared into silence during the height of addiction drama in my marriage, when she had just launched into her own, happier marriage. I imagine, we were too much for her — and don’t blame her: I would have felt the same aversion to us, her messed up friends. But she had been there at our beginning: she and I were off for a weekend break and were passengers on the same military transport plane out of Sarajevo when N and I connected for the first time. She predicted our future then – with a happier ending. Over those years in the madness that was former Yugoslavia at war, she was my dearest friend – family to N and I. Then, we all ended up here — her in the city, us in Connecticut. We saw each other less, especially as N descended into his hell of addiction and I scrambled to keep the pieces of our lives together. I left her a message or two and sent an email wondering what I had done, but I never heard from her. I still wonder what happened and miss her brilliance and hilarity. I moved this shrubby herb to gain more space to plant vegetables, but also, unconsciously, perhaps to end these flashes of mourning evoked by the scent of Sage.

Believing in Spring

A deceptively bright, Sunday morning — officially spring, but still winter cold. Tetley and I do our morning wander down the street serenaded by birds. Different songs than the desperate beeps and chirps of winter. It’s mating season and the Mourning doves and Cardinals are in full swing of seduction. Sparrows have already moved into one of the bird houses and Robins are everywhere. But at least at this early hour, it’s still cold.

Last week it snowed – burying the mini Daffodils and other blossoms that so bravely appeared a  week ago. The croci wound themselves up like little torpedos and by the afternoon, the white stuff gone, heroically opened up again. Little hand shaped leaves of lupine emerge hopefully along the sunny bank beside the driveway, and on the slope just beneath them, the strawberry plants seem to be spreading by the day. I have meant to read up on what I should do with them — although last year’s harvest was brilliant, in spite – or maybe because of, my neglect.

I began some early season garden tasks last week with very serious pruning.  After a quick computer reference (my poor garden books gather dust) I grabbed my lobbers and shears and ruthlessly cut back the Roses, Autumn Clematis, and Butterfly bushes and grapes, to mere sticks. I love how these plants climb up the side of the house and across our backyard arbor. Tangled in the trellises and half-way up the chimney, they already had such a great head start. So I paused before cutting, but cut them I did, leaving scrawny sticks against the house and piles of thorny branches across the lawn. A gardening leap of faith for the future.

News of the World

Disturbing world events cloud the bright spring light. Beyond sending money to the Red Cross and thoughts to affected friends, I feel powerless. Worried about Japan and now Libya and anxious for word on the 4 missing New York Times journalists, I check the news almost obsessively. In recent years, my dose has been kept to a minimum fix of BBC, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert – but these days I find myself switching wildly between the network news stations. Tricky how commercials are timed to run simultaneously – the mute button the only way to avoid the advertising bombardment.

When I lived in Croatia and Bosnia, CNN and the British, Sky News were the only available international new sources.   I appreciate the 24 hour-ness of CNN – but what’s with the scary, music constantly playing as the news people talk? And the bizarre touch-boards of maps and charts? Colbert and Stewart have spoofed this high-tech nonsense, so now, when John King enlarges, shrink, circles and stars, images of the Japanese nuclear plants, it seems comical – although the subject is anything but funny. It’s too much – the constant sound effects and nerve wracking music amping us up to “Be afraid! Be very, very afraid!”, not so subliminally. Flipping over to BBC, a perfectly nice and normal woman with a too-shiny purple shirt (obviously, and refreshingly they seem to have no wardrobe people) sits at her desk and delivers the news, shifting, without fanfare, to field correspondents. No charts, no holograms. Same thing with the PBS stations – while sometimes soporific, they just present straightforward news. Everything is scary enough these day, we don’t need these guys yelling at us.

I feel a little guilty looking away from it all and feeling pleasure at the shift of the seasons out of winter. But there is so much to be done in the garden and family and friends need attention – and it is okay to feel the joy in this. Didn’t I learn that already? In any case, I need to catch up on things. Like clearing last year’s leaves, planning this year’s garden. And yesterday, I was reminded about — forgive me for being so mundane — clothing.

Although only March 18, yesterday turned into a weird, way-too-warm, too-early day. Dressing for work in the dark morning hours, I pulled on wooly socks, corduroys and a sweater. By the time I left the bookstore in the afternoon, everyone was in shorts and flip-flops. How did they make the switch from winter fleeces to summer frocks so quickly? My plastic bins of summer clothes are buried in the basement and the shifting-of-the-clothes is a major weekend undertaking.  Anyway, although I can see from my window, a patch of  daffodils in bloom, I am cautious and will not bury my sweaters just yet.


I’m a sucker for email seed and plant offers.  Dahlias — that’s what I bought this morning. What a deal! Apparently critters don’t like them. The problem I foresee is that you are supposed to dig them up at the end of the season and store them.  That’s a stretch for me — especially because by the time autumn comes around, my gardening energy is on the wane and I’m more likely to catch the last days of kayaking than to remember to dig up bulbs. But maybe this year will be different — and in any case, they were on sale.

Dahlia’s are a big deal in Japan. I remember pedaling my bicycle through the narrowest of old streets in Kyoto – and squeaking my brakes (all bicycle brakes seem to squeak in Japan — better than a bell?) stopping to marvel at blossoms the size of plates growing in pots lined up outside a rickety house. Oftentimes, the usually-ancient gardener would be out tending their prize worthy plants.  This year, I will try these myself – filling my own boxes to tend on one of the decks Rob attached to the house over recent years.

It’s almost March — enough snow has melted so I can see the snowdrops popping up down the street and warm enough this morning that I could smell the earth and I’m thinking garden again.

Another Winter Day

I hesitate to write about the grueling winter, but it may be the only way forward for me, out of the paralysis I feel waking to leaden skies and polar temperatures. Every day of relentless cold, ice, snow – is depressing to the point of being debilitating, and I am curling farther into myself, physically, mentally and spiritually.  I feel pinched – as if I am collapsing into my chest.  I force myself to breathe deeply, shoulders back, stretch. Nothing to be done but carry on, feed the birds, cook, read and mark the days inching towards spring. February, at least, is a short month and the seed catalogues arrive almost daily.

The plows have piled more than 5 feet of snow on top of my strawberry plants – it’s hard to imagine they will survive – but they will and so will the purple sage and all the spring bulbs that bravely push through the last of the frosts. I try and always have a hyacinth or bunch of daffodils on the table as a fragrant reminder for what’s just around the corner. Really. And just for fun, I will inevitably over-order seeds to sow directly in only a few more months and maybe pre-order some heirloom tomato plant collections. The best seed deals and choices I’ve found are Pinetree Seeds of Vermont and Select Seeds from Connecticut.  While sometimes I am enticed by catalogues from Wisconsin or Oregon, it just seems to make sense to get seeds for my Connecticut garden from New England.

I cook.  A recent favorite is a recipe on one of my favorite food blogs, The Wednesday Chef: Zuni Cafe’s Chard and Onion Panade. It’s comfort food extraordinaire. I erred on the side of lots of stock but would use less next time in the hopes that the consistency wouldn’t be quite so soupy. And maybe add a little wine?  Definitely more greens rather than less.  Yum.

Also whipping through books.  David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, while exquisite reading was at first a little slow for me but is now a page turner and I’ll certainly finish this weekend. After reading last Sunday’s sobering review of memoirs in the New York Times Book Review, (“The Center of Attention: Taking stock of four new memoirs – and of the motives for adding to an already crowded genre.”) I read the title reviewer Neil Genzlinger did not pan: An Exclusive Love by Johanna Adorjan and agree with him. It’s beautiful. The author’s poignant exploration of her grandparents joint suicide is like watching a riveting Bergman film — vividly drawn scenes and characters. No surprise the author has written for theater. I was drawn to this, of course, because of the suicide – but while the suicide is certainly a theme driving the story and the damage-done apparent in the author being haunted enough to pursue her questions (it is the questions we survivors are left with), ultimately it is a beautiful love story. And we know the author/survivor, has found her peace.

Genzlinger writes at the end of his memoir reviews: “…what makes a good memoir – it’s not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, not a dart thrown desperately at a trendy topic, but a shared discovery. Maybe that’s a good rule of thumb: If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it. Instead hit the delete key, and then go congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life. There’s no shame in that.”  I’ve re-read this a few times over the past week – a challenge to myself.  I did not hit delete. It’s just a long, cold, winter – but spring is on the way.


The front yard flutters with birds.  A dozen sparrows rise from the hedge, swarming the suet cages.  A solitary chickadee is driven away. A male cardinal swoops in, lending a pizzaz of color to an otherwise sepia scene of snow, branches, sparrows. As if on cue, they all take off and the chickadee returns, followed by a tiny woodpecker and then, more chickadees – they must have sent the bravest one out first to recce the situation for them.  Yesterday a larger woodpecker showed up – magnificent pattern of black and white  on his body and a perfect stroke of red from the crown of his head down to his shoulders – as if an artist had brushed it on. Then, a dozen grackles surrounded the pecker and one of them faced off with the formidable beak of the woodpecker, bobbing his head threateningly. Out-numbered, the beautiful one took off.

We know, (we think) some birds from past seasons. Two summers ago, a cardinal nested in the rose bush growing against a window in our sunroom, hatching 4 eggs – undisturbed by the constant human and canine activity a pane of glass away. She seemed to be a single mother – nurturing, feeding  – alone.  When she left the nest, we peered through the window for a close-up of the bizarre looking hatchlings. One day, we were alarmed to see one, now feathered but still tiny, standing out on a thorny rose branch, unable to get back to the nest. Rob went out and gently put it back with its siblings. Later that afternoon, it was teetering again, now on an even farther branch and this time, he fell into the flowerbed below. Again, being sure to keep Tetley in, Rob retrieved the downy creature and returned it to its nest. Soon, with the mother rarely in sight, they all were taking the leap to what we were sure would be their death to predators or starvation. Really, the mother was never far away – we heard her chirps and caught glimpses of her in a distant tree – and soon, tiny cardinals flitted about the garden. A poignant speed lesson in child rearing.

We imagine them out there now, this little family, plucking seed from the feeders along with Woody, the downy woodpecker that on another summer day, (it helps to think of them during this brutally cold and snowy winter) took a wrong turn and became trapped in the sunroom. Again, Rob gently cupped his hand around the petrified creature and released ‘Woody’ (as he christened him) back to the sky. And yesterday Wren – who we always welcome back to one of the houses attached to trees and posts in the back, landed on the sill. She seemed to be sussing out whether or not to build a winter home behind some wood we’d left against the window.

Sometimes, a shadow falls across the snow (oh, so much snow!) and the birds clear-out as the neighborhood raptor swoops dramatically across the yard. We love seeing this majestic bird, although I hope he finds his meals elsewhere.

This quiet Saturday morning, I make another cup of tea and put my feet up on the steamy radiator. I have been here for more than an hour and will linger longer — look!  A nuthatch and two junkos arrive — and with a weird flash of green, one of the neighborhood parrots also joins the fray. At this moment, winter seems lovely.

When We Win the Lottery

Sometimes Rob and I indulge ourselves in the fantasy of what we would do with our millions if we won the lottery.  Sometimes, we even buy tickets – a quick pick and one with a mix of birthdays.  Lump sum – we want our winnings in one full swoop.  We think we’d keep this sweet little house but make it a little less, little.  From the pointiest part of our roof, I think we’d be able to see the Long Island Sound and that’s where I’d like my writing room to be.  Something closer to the water would be nice too, so maybe we’d get one of those mysterious, abandoned looking places out on the islands we kayak around in the summer.

Both of us say, we wouldn’t quit our jobs right away, but certainly would take time off. Mind you, I like my job – how can I not? It’s books I am selling. Still, I’d like more of those 40 hours a week for my own.  And that’s where our lottery fantasy really takes off for me – when I think about being able to structure my day-to-day life without the demands of a job.  Weekends (especially long ones) and my summer get-away-with-the-Studio 70 Sisters, offer a glimpse of what I would do.

Read. First I’d make my way through the piles of New Yorker Magazines.  Somehow, I actually thought I’d get around to reading this weekly and subscribed. I try to bring it in the car and read while waiting for M or for the morning manager to come and open the store, when I get there early.  If I get hooked on a story, I’ll read it over lunch – but back issues folded open to some half-read page have been abandoned in the back seat, and another stack is on the living room table.  For the first day or so in the Catskills last summer, I lay in the porch hammock and read through months of issues. In between napping, I got through them all.  If I won the lottery, I’d renew my subscription and read it weekly, as intended.

I’d tackle the piles of books around here.  Rob built me another bookcase and yesterday, I began almost-organizing my shelves, filling them with books I mostly haven’t read yet. And besides those crowded shelves, I have a NOOK – and my cyber library continues to grow.  Right now I am reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell and just the other day I bought Eden by Yael Hedaya – an Israeli author who was a guide at the United Nations at the same time as me.  Also on my virtual shelf are Franzen’s Freedom, The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobsonand I have yet to read a page of them. I borrowed The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson thinking I’d indulge myself this weekend, and it sits like a big box of chocolates I’m afraid to open because I won’t be able to stop.  Time.

I bought the NOOK because I felt like I better embrace the party-line and now, sincerely do.  Yesterday, reading the New York Times (only weekend delivery and still hours added for reading that!) there was a piece about an author, David Vann who’s first book, Legend of a Suicide piqued my interest, and I was able to immediately find it on my NOOK.  I used some self-control and so far, only downloaded a sample although I think I am hooked on Vann’s writing and will have to go all the way on this one.  All of this, from the comfort of my couch.  Of course, to some extent, this is an oft discussed issue – is this cannibalization for the bookstore? But that’s a question for another blog entry — I’m planning my lottery-won time here, after all.

Travel. Lots of trips — although we’d still be constrained by M’s school schedule — we’d travel to warmth in the winter.  Sharing places I have been to and loved with my love, and bringing M to the town in Italy where she was born. Bali, Japan, China. New places -Argentina, Brazil, Vietnam, Thailand, Egypt, Israel, anywhere – everywhere. We’d visit friends around the world: Helene and Paul in South Africa, Jenny in Tasmania.

Garden. I’d build a much better fence to deter the creatures from eating everything. Plant more flowers and some fruit trees.  And get bees – although for this, we won’t wait for the lottery.  We decided against chickens although our neighbor’s fresh eggs were addicting. Birds just never really appealed to me as pets — I don’t want to touch them and I don’t think we could get away with that if we had chickens. Maybe a goat or two…

I recently finished an advance reader copy of And I Shall Have Some Peace There, a memoir by Margaret Roach, who, without winning the lottery, managed to choose the life she wanted. Roach clocked in many years in a high-powered job working for Martha Stewart and walked away to live the life she really loved, gardening, writing, and just being in the Hudson Valley.  Roach does not sugar-coat her new life, honestly sharing the pitfalls and struggles as well as the joys, in this compelling and inspiring read about what to do with one’s time.  Roach reminds us that our time here is limited so: carpe diem.

Write. With my new room (my own!) at the top of the house and a view of the Long Island Sound, I could disappear at any time to write.  I’d probably still stick to my morning regime when it feels like my subconscious is still boss.

Volunteer. I’d up my donations and time to the organizations I already love working with like Fairfield County First Book and The Bridgeport School Volunteers Association.  And I’d send lots of money to MSF (Doctors Without Borders).

What I would do if (when?) we win the lottery, is what I do anyway – but I’d do it more. And that’s the best part of periodically indulging in this fantasy – discovering we are already living the life we want.  It’s not more things we want — just more time.

A Time for Birds

Branches almost completely bare of leaves are now busy with bird life.  Mourning doves sit silently shifting their proportionately huge (their heads are so weirdly small!) bodies around the maple tree.  Cardinals line-up at the bird feeders and chickadees creep upside-down around the crab-apple tree at the end of our driveway, now heavy with fruit.

My neck cricks, watching all of the fluttering action on this bright Sunday morning walk with Tetley.  We turned the clocks back an hour, another milepost for the season and technically, it’s still early and quiet (no leaf blowers) enough so I heard a distant line of geese, flying as only half a vector.  Why did they fly in a straight line although there were enough of them to form a V?

Yesterday, half-a-dozen parrots decorated our oak tree. I rarely see them still – usually they flash by as noisy-green squawking mobs. But there they were – sitting, tropical green and magnificent throughout the oak’s dull branches, unusually quiet, they let out only the odd screech.  I love to see these accidental-immigrants (the story goes that years ago there was a crate-escape from a shipment landing at La Guardia airport.) but don’t want them moving onto our property — which makes me sound like some kind of bird-bigot. It’s just that they make way too much noise and their nests can overwhelm and kill a tree. So Molly and I stood beneath them, doing our best screeching imitations of parrot-speak, to say: ‘move-on!’ before collapsing in hysterics.

I hope to see our neighborhood raptor soon.  The branch in the neighboring wood where he sits in-watch or to digest some unfortunate, small creature, is visible again. In the summer we sometimes heard his distinctive high-pitch, plaintive scream, but rarely saw him for more than a few minutes, majestically floating by.  While I am sad to be edging closer to winter, I love our new view of the birds.


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