Changing Direction

My friend texted me as I waited at the light to turn left towards the highway – the quickest route to the community garden. She’d just watered my plot. We do that for each other sometimes. Now what? The light changed and I turned right. I’d take care of different errands instead. But what? I had enough to eat at home, plenty of toothpaste, whatever. There was nothing I really needed and nothing, now that the garden was taken care of, that needed me. A simple text exchange launched me into an existential crisis.

This summer most of my weekends have been busy and more social than the norm for me, with lots of meeting friends and an otherwise full to-do list. This Saturday morning the only pressing thing was watering the garden and now that was done. There’s been a crazy drought this summer and I hadn’t been up there since early in the week. I could have gone there anyway to pick a tomato or two, pull a weed, maybe catch my pal while she was still there. And I actually have two plots and only one is right by my friend’s – the other one is in the lower garden area. I could have and maybe I should have, gone and watered that one. But I didn’t – I abandoned my plan and turned in the opposite direction. And promptly felt lost.

The ‘lower’ garden

I continued driving right past the farmer’s market where I had been thinking of going although I didn’t really need to because I have enough food. What was the point? What was the point — of anything and of any of us? Of life? What are we all doing here on this planet? For at least a minute, I felt this question profoundly in my body. Here I am busily moving about the world taking care of tasks, my job, different roles to different people. What for? Then I remembered that my gas tank was very low. Phew! A distraction that made sense – a need. I turned right at the next intersection and drove to the cheapest but best gas I could get. It was almost $50 to fill my tank and yes that’s painful but I used to live in countries where fuel has been pricey for a long time so I’ve been trying to get over it and drive less. Shame on us for not being more adaptable and innovative and making the changes necessary for our poor thirsty or drowning earth. (depending where you live)

Back to my crisis. Saturday-morning-temporary-insanity aside, I really am at a crossroads in my life. For years my purpose felt clear – based on being needed. Now I live alone, my daughter and Rufus are happily living life on the West coast and while we talk daily, she doesn’t need me. I know my dearest and beloved daughter – I hear you in my head scolding – ‘yes I do need you’! But you don’t and that makes me happy. You are creating your own life, taking care of yourself and our sweet pup and I’m proud and know that is how it should be.

A morning harvest

I now have a new freedom and can start figuring out what this new, old-me wants to do with the rest of my life. I confess to feeling slightly unmoored anticipating the next thing but I don’t hate it. Life now is fascinating and exciting and terrifying, all at once. I feel on the brink of changes. But of what? How? Where? Why? These are the questions I have ideas about but no answers. For now, I continue to plod on with the daily routine of the dutiful worker, doing some iteration of what sustained my little family and this little house for the last 25 years. Am I passionate about it? Never. It’s a job. I love books. I don’t love sales but I am conscientious and interested in other people so that’s translated easily enough. And I am loathe to give up the regular paycheck not to mention health insurance. But it’s never been who I am and now that it’s only me that needs supporting, I have been trying to figure out how much do I need? When can I stop? Not knowing how long I have on this planet makes calculations challenging. But if I knew, I’d claim my time back and have every day be like a Saturday when no one but me owns my hours.

On this past Saturday, I think I had a taste of what’s to come – when I have figured enough out and am brave enough to take the leap. I will have those existential questions for longer than a drive in the car: who am I? That’s kind of the point, though, right? I want to think about that question. I have always likened anticipated life changes to changing the gears on a bicycle. You have to work up to the right gear and there’s a certain amount of grinding until you get to the place where it’s comfortable to pedal. (at least on my old bike!) That’s where I am. I don’t know what’s at the top nor the bottom of the hill so I’m staying alert and ready for anything.

Any advice from my retired readers?

Languishing To-Do Lists

Weekends are never long enough. (Is that a chorus of ‘amens’ I hear out there?) Not just for fun and relaxation but for getting life things done. If you’re a homeowner with yard maintenance to add to the to-do list, the issue of not enough time is even larger. Especially in summer. My monster hedge grows like crazy and currently, there is a corner of my property choked with weeds including thistle plants as tall as my pear trees. Plus there’s the lawn in addition to the needs inside my shabby house. Some tasks have languished on my ‘list’ for years.

This summer’s drought has at least meant a reprieve from mowing my lawn much. I haven’t yanked on that starter cord in about a month. Yesterday I did tackle the hedge for about an hour but finished only a quarter of it. And inside, also for the first time in a month, I vacuumed up some robust clusters of dust bunnies. No drought to blame for that neglect. I even cleared a few things out of the garage. AND managed to go kayaking and swimming. Today is Sunday and I’m taking rare guidance from the bible and mostly resting and writing this. The hedge will wait.

Before – from the archives. It’s taller now.

To be clear, I don’t have the neat-and-clean standards of many of my friends and neighbors who have immaculate lawns, clear kitchen counters, neatly filed (plus likely paid) bills and nary a dust-bunny in sight. That’s never been my style or my forte. Of course, in my corner of Connecticut many have housecleaners and lawn people or no longer (if they ever did) have jobs. That’s not my life this go-round; I have neither time nor enough money to spend on keeping things looking that good. I like to think that when the day comes and I can reclaim my time every day of the year (retirement — where are you?) then my house will be more orderly, my bookshelves, cupboards, basement and garage purged and neat, flaking ceilings repaired and painted. There’s so much to do around here, always. And it’s just me to do it. So if you come for a visit, please don’t judge me.

After – from the archives. I haven’t gotten this far yet!

Particularly if someone hasn’t been to my house before, I judge myself in anticipation of their judgement. I’ll usually do some kind of tidy-up, wash the kitchen floor and definitely clean the bathroom. I imagine my visitors seeing the wasted potential here in this darling cape on a generous corner plot. How great the hardwood floors would be if only they were refinished, how a fresh coat of paint in the kitchen would really brighten things up. The windows need refurbishing or maybe replacing (I’m attached to my old wooden sash windows, some need propping up and all are drafty as hell) and it would be so easy to put a second bathroom in. I imagine my visitors thinking about what flower beds they’d plant, what trees they’d trim or maybe even cut down. (gulp! not the trees!) I know this is nutty thinking and not fair to my dear friends who love me and my home.

All of those improvements would be great and I’d like to do them – except for cutting down the trees. But I will leave most of this to the next owner. Even if that’s Molly, when she hits the big time. (She adores this house and I can feel her heart sink every time I mention leaving.) But other than taking care of the basics, it’s unlikely to be me. Has anyone filled their oil tank lately??? Or ordered firewood for that matter? (can you say ‘gouging’?) $$$

Did I mention that even after living here for more than 20 years I still have a mortgage now pretty close to what it was originally? Yes, I have lived here for a long time so that’s a little crazy. But I still have a house and if you have followed this blog or know some of my story, you will understand why I am proud of that. So come visit, sit on my porch where the breeze is lovely. I’ll make you a drink or a cup of tea – just don’t judge or I’ll put you to work! ūüôā

The Weekend Blizzard Report

Without a dog to take out I was able to spend all day yesterday inside. After writing that I thought I really should go out at least for a minute, so went on the porch to fill my lungs and looked around. I am glad I did. A glorious sunset was cracking through the grey of the day and the cold air felt exhilarating. I looked off across the yard, smelling, feeling, and hearing what was going on out here. For two days I had only been looking out my window missing the full experience of nature that I used to have regular doses of, even if just for a quick step-out with the dog. And listen to the wind!

Blizzard Sunset

The sound of wind through trees is one of my favorite things. Nature communicating loudly here – trees, wind – whose voice is whose? Together, they’re magnificent, if a little terrifying. I’m pretty sure the pine trees up in that patch (although not visible in the video) are the main noisemakers.

I’ve been checking out evergreens a lot recently. Maybe one day I’ll get to hear the wind whipping through the 3 foot White Pine I bought as our crooked Christmas tree this year. I felt quite virtuous buying a live tree but did not think through where I might plant it on my .24 acre already crowded with 8 very large trees and many more smaller ones including the 2 pear and 2 peach trees out back. I took this shot of the not yet planted, snow-logged darling from my bedroom window. If I’m still here in 12 years or so I will have a front seat to wind-through-pine tree concerts.

White Pine Tree Buried in Snow

I grew up in a 7th floor apartment in the Bronx but when I was still in elementary school, my parents bought a country house in the Berkshires that we’d drive up to on weekends and summers (my parents were NYC school teachers and had off). There was a White Pine tree on the property, perfect for climbing and I did so, sitting and daydreaming or sulking, depending on the day. I’d have to pick the stubborn sap off my hands, arms and legs for days. It was there in Canaan (yes, really) that I became a nature lover, learned to identify trees and birds and became a devotee of Euell Gibbons, fascinated by the idea of foraging my own food and living off the land. I regularly wandered into the woods behind the house saying I was ‘going up the hill!’ rather than my apartment call of ‘going downstairs!’ as I left the house. In these woods I learned to walk quietly, to listen and watch. I read nature books like crazy, including one on animal tracks. I was reminded of those days when I ventured out into the snow today.

Bird Tracks

Yesterday’s ‘red sky at night’ (sailor’s delight!) definitely delivered and while it’s cold, it’s bright and not a cloud in the sky. Coming down the stairs to make my tea this morning, I peeked out at the back deck. I often see creatures there, usually the big old groundhog, that I’ve resigned myself to being my tenant, will be sunning itself. Across the deck were tracks. After donning my boots and coat I went out and found proof of many little creatures who have been wandering around my estate. My friend who lives in the woods upstate recently set up a camera and captures some great footage of coyotes and a gorgeous bob cat passing through. Even in this city of more than 88,000 there have been coyote and bobcat sightings. But these prints are mostly wee ones of chipmunks and there’s obvious bird activity although there’s not much action at the feeder today. I suspect my feathered friends are still hunkered in their nests. I couldn’t identify whatever crossed and went under the deck but I doubt it’s groundhog who must still be asleep.

Rufus at the Airport

So yes, I miss having little Rufus around to force me into the world but I am adjusting. And somehow, because I have to be intentional in my outings and he’s not here to distract me with his cuteness, I think I pay better attention. And in case you’re wondering, while he hates flying, he is embracing his new life of peeing on palm trees and being utterly adored by Molly and her dear roommates in sunny California. And as any parent knows, when they’re happy, we’re happy. Although, I do consider fostering some sweet old dog…

Ruminations on Autumn Clean-up (or not) and Time

I share my little plot with 8 trees large enough that I hope none fall on my house. They make a lot of leaves. If the spirit moves me I will rake them into mounds alongside the hedge or into my raised garden bed where they do their beautiful business of rotting.

My neighbors across the street have no trees and I wonder if they hate me when the wind blows in their direction? We are friends so I doubt it – but I’m sure they feel a tad exasperated by the mess my arbor-love makes on their tree-less property. And I wonder a little if their intention is to torture me every Saturday when the landscaper comes with a blower to blow mostly my tree’s leaves off their perfect lawn. There are not many sounds I hate more than the sound of a gas blower as it goes on and on and on.

My gardening… philosophy? technique? I search for the word that best describes my intentional laissez-faire attitude around autumn clean-up. I believe and there is much proof, that left to itself, nature takes better care of itself than when we meddle. The decomposed leaves enrich my property so it doesn’t make sense to stuff them into bags to be picked up by the noisy trucks emitting additional carbon gases into our atmosphere while they do it.

There is some clean-up I eventually get around to. I twist the thorny vines and weeds into cans to be picked up by those same trucks or smash them into the back of my car to drive them to the brush dump myself. Every year invasive weeds like Japanese knotweed and bittersweet win the battle in at least one corner of my yard. Every spring I have high hopes that this will be the year I’ll keep said corner clear of growth. But as we move into summer and the heat and bugs amp up, I give up, conceding until autumn when I can more easily pull and snip at the recently frost-killed invasive plants.

I think about time and how it makes some things easier. Of course body aches and wrinkles alert me to the challenges time can bring = aging. But mostly I see time as my ally. With time (and effort) things that once were entrenched in my actual and metaphorical ‘patch’ become easier to deal with. A few short months ago, I was daunted by an overwhelming green mass full of thorns and worse — ticks. After a few frosty nights, the thicket shrank to skeletal twists I could tackle.

In the garden on an unseasonably warm day, I brace myself with bent knees, heels dug into the earth, inhaling a deep breath of mint (my advice: grow only in pots!) while yanking on a resistant tangle, I think of old resentments, anger, grief – pulling harder, feeling the strain into my legs until with a snap, release down to my core, my soul. Looking closely at the branches of the fruit trees saved now from being swallowed up by this wild growth, I see the teeniest, tightest little buds. Hope.

 

Tuesday Morning Chill

A grey morning but for the glow of the newly green trees visible from my window. I peek out through half opened eyes but the desire to keep sleeping overpowers me and I slip down against the pillows. It’s tempting to go under for another dream but I allow myself only a few minutes before getting up to walk Rufus. I pull on a hooded jacket over a sweatshirt. Rufus pulls on his lead. The birds are singing Spring songs but my breath lingers as a visible cloud. It’s cold and it rained last night. I think of my garden plot across town and am glad I got the cardboard and newspaper down in time to capture this stretch of wet weather. I hold the memory of that work in the ache of muscles in my back from pulling the wheelbarrow through mud. I hear a woodpecker in the trees two blocks over. I love that sound as long as it’s not my house they’re drilling holes into. Rufus does not like a wet day. We turn and go back home. A short walk and glimpse of Tuesday morning.

Building Fences, Causing No Harm

Molly called me at work on Friday, freaked out. An animal she couldn’t identify was trapped in the rusty old milk can by the back deck.

Just kick it over so the thing can get out, I told her, and film it running away so I can see what it is. She demurred insisting she’d wait for me to come home. Lucky for the critter, I’d be there soon.

I peeked over the side of the jug, wondering if I’d see bared teeth. Instead, there was this.

A wee groundhog. I hate groundhogs as I’ve written about here every summer. (Put in groundhog in the search – you’ll see!) They devour everything I plant and they multiply like crazy. Yes, they’re a little cute when they play beneath the pear and peach trees I planted in the sunniest, best garden spot. The garden spot I gave up on because they eat everything, undeterred by fences and other foils. I thought I was clever to plant these trees, determined to still be able to get some harvest off my little patch. Groundhogs can climb trees. I’ve seen them. And they love peaches.

So here, here was a baby – my prisoner. One less pest. I didn’t immediately free the poor thing. I considered trying to move him elsewhere, out of the neighborhood so he couldn’t come back. I certainly couldn’t kill it – that’s not in my makeup unless there’s a threat to me or my loved ones. I’m a catch and release kind of gal. I wasn’t about to kill this baby. Finally, Molly kicked the the jug and the thing scampered away and then back towards us, right under the deck I thought I’d varmint proofed.

The next day, I strategized my planting. Where could I place flowers where our resident beasts couldn’t get at them? And at least a few tomato and basil plants. I had luck last year with a table with a jerry-rigged fence around it. First I had to somehow get the table outside. Molly was working so it was just me to tackle this project. You know how, once you have an idea in your head, you just want to get it done? That was me. I dragged the table through the kitchen, hoisted it over on to its side and began shimmying it across the threshold where it promptly got jammed. Banging my shin on it triggered a flash of self pity and a choke of tears as I thought of the ghosts of ¬†the men who should have been here. But I felt them cheering me on. There was a knock at the door – certainly an extra set of hands miraculously showing up!

Jehovah Witnesses. I invited the two women out of the hot sun, offered them a cool drink (declined), watched the short video on their Ipad, told them I was fascinated by their faith but felt unmoved by the video. But don’t you want to know more about how to learn about courage from the Bible, one of them (Rose) asked? I told her I was pretty good on the courage front and that right about now, hearing anything about the Bible makes me mad because of the way passages are being bandied about by the current administration to justify so many despicable policies and practices.

They nodded. Both African American and certainly more vulnerable to injustices than I, they did not disagree. Turns out, Rose is a neighbor from my city so I told her about the storytelling I help to organize in the community and suggested she come – although only to tell a story, not to proselytize. I took her literature and she took mine and she said she’d like to come back and talk with me more and I’d welcome her onto my front porch for a chat although I highly doubt she’ll be converting me. I think she just wants to talk again and I would too and maybe we can take to the streets together, sharing our outrage side-by-side.

Meanwhile, there was a table to move. Refreshed by my chat with the ladies, I managed to move said table out onto the deck. I hammered wood posts to hold up the fencing. I like the feel of swinging a hammer, the connection with the nail, the tightening of wood to wood as the weight of the hammer drives it together. I’ll have to get a ladder to harvest from my little table plot but I did it. I made a new friend, built my little fence and no groundhogs were killed or separated from their parents.

How was your weekend?

 

Peach Problems

I’m always sad to see summer go. I like the long light and to wake with sun streaming through my window. My mornings are dark again.

Yet by the time late August rolls around, I’ve lost interest in much of what excited me at the start of the season. At the top of the list is gardening. My garden is currently a mess. It hardly seems worth it to yank the weeds from between the herbs and zinnias – the only thing surviving in the raised bed vegetable patch too much in the shade to produce much. I’ve neglected the petunias – now sad, pink blooms on the end of shriveled stems. The grass needs cutting but I can’t be bothered.

I think it started with the peaches.

Did I tell you about my peaches? My enthusiasm for gardening used to last longer into autumn when I was actually still harvesting vegetables. That was before I was bullied out of business by the local groundhogs. I finally relinquished my sunniest patch to them but planted two peach trees and this year, two pear trees determined to grow at least some of our food. And peaches off the tree? Wow, right?

Last year the tree had about 20 peaches or so that all disappeared virtually overnight. I couldn’t figure out where they’d all disappeared to until I watched 4 ground hogs playing like puppies in my little orchard. I watched the gnaw on the trunks and then one just scurried up one of the pear trees. They can climb trees. It was a cinch. These were my peach eaters, I felt sure.

This year the blossoms were spectacular and resulted in what must have been hundreds of beautiful little peaches. I wrapped the trunks in slippery bark protectors and Molly and I did our best to surround the branches with netting. I’d returned a product called ‘sticky feet’ when I read how toxic it was and thought how horrified I’d be to find my beloved song birds stuck to branches. Nope.

We managed to enjoy four of our peaches. FOUR. 4. Quattro. They were delicious. Many peaches fell off while quite small and I thinned them a bit, as I read I should, generously tossing the fruit on the ground for the varmints to enjoy. So where did all the peaches go again? And so fast? Why were no groundhogs snared in our nets?

On afternoon, Molly and I were sitting on our porch – our favorite summer spot – and she pointed to a squirrel sitting on a branch eating one of our peaches. The squirrels! The squirrels ate all our peaches!

As for the pear trees – we just planted them this Spring so I expected none. But there is one lone beauty – so far untouched. I wait carefully – playing a game of chicken with my little thieves – hoping to pick it when it’s just right and before they do.

And meanwhile, I’m a great customer at the farmers’ market. Any advice on my peaches? (besides get a gun!)

 

Most of all the Light

The light of Spring thrills me as does the scent of hyacinth, the jolly daffodils and softening fractals of ¬†tree branches in bud. But this morning, propped up against my pillows not yet ready to get out of bed, I basked in the abundance of morning sun and decided that most of all – it’s the light I love. The sky is clear of clouds so my bedroom will be bright all day right up until 12 hours from now when it will shift to the other windows in golden angles before slipping into night.

My garden is slowly waking up. From beneath the brown of leaves and winter detritus are leeks I planted last year – through the winter they stood skinny green spears enveloped by snow- now thickening enough that I might get a soup or two out of them. There are two perfect, bright little bouquets of parsley. Grape hyacinth area scattered across the lawn. My peach trees are positively pregnant with buds and for the first time in years it looks like I’ll have an abundance of lilacs – judging from what look like teeny bunches of grapes at the tips of the branches.

Spring brings such possibility, doesn’t it? I’ll plant a garden again this year – although last year I barely harvested a tomato, the chard never appeared, nor sunflowers. But I’ll still try again because I like that there’s a chance. With nature, there’s always a chance. She is my guide and comfort. Hang in there through darkness and we’ll get to the light. ¬†Enjoy the warmth.

Bird Quarrels and Peace

Summer photo - but still windy!
Summer photo – but still windy!

Last weekend, ferocious winds blew in a taste of winter. Bright and sunny with cold gusts that turned the leaves inside out and off their branches. I took my cue to get my winter nest ready and washed and aired flannel sheets and heavy blankets, letting them flap dry in the crazy wind.

A week later it’s summer again and I sit on my porch in shirtsleeves watching two red- headed woodpeckers follow each other back and forth between the trees. I am reminded there is a bright side to bare branches: the birds! Winter is prime bird watching time.

See the little profile there in the left?
See the little pecker-profile?

A drama unfolds between these two birds – one is noisily berating the other who ignoring the complaints without a peep, focuses on worrying the bark. And now a jay has announced himself with a shriek. He lands in the bird bath, eyes the empty feeders and leaves wanting no part of the fracas.

They’re still at it. If they were weaving a web as they flew between the trees, it would be impassable by now – they have passed back and forth between the trees so often.

The aggressive one just attacked the other, falling with a thud onto the lawn beside me. “Whoa! Easy guys!” I called out as if breaking up a schoolyard fight. Another bird – a catbird briefly lands and after noisy commentary, flees the scene. What’s wrong with them? It’s not mating season – maybe it’s time to claim their winter home. I have prime bird real estate in a good size stump snug up against another tree.

Battle for the stump?
Battle for the stump?

My bird show just took a dramatic turn with the sound of heavy flapping wings – I look up just in time to catch a large hawk or falcon chased by a smaller bird. I did not see if the bird of prey had scored a meal but I’d wager the scrappy bird chasing him will not be lunch.

This is what I miss when I leave here every day to go to work. If I won the lottery, I’d be content to report to you on nature’s news from out my window or from my porch and at the end of the day, I’d feel satisfied. Well, I’d punctuate this with walks and beach romps with the dog I would get.

I love observing the buzz of nature. The busy efforts of creatures and plants to survive and thrive on this magnificent earth. I am content to watch the birds and fattening squirrels on my tiny patch of land within earshot of the highway to New York City less than an hour away. An hour or two with this world on my doorstep is enough to bring me back to some essence of life well beyond the hamster-wheel that can be my life: my job, paying bills and worrying about this depressing election. I find peace in paying attention to the feel of the air, the smell of the seasons and the quarrels of birds.

Hedge

before hedge 1There are a million things to do around my house and corner lot. This summer Molly and I focused on cathartically clearing out decades of  debris from our basement and garage and ignored the ragged hedge. It went wild.

Last weekend the weather cooled and I propped the hedge trimmer beside me while I put on my gloves. A man walking by nodded at me in greeting and asked, “You’re going to do all that?” Five hours, lots of scratches and many sore muscles later, I’d finished the whole damn thing. Okay, it’s not perfect – but it’s better.

after hedge

After 20 years living on this corner, memories are woven through every inch of privet. As I wield the vibrating, noisy weight of the clipper along the length of it, I remember.

There – Tetley dashing under the woody branches to check out a passing dog, me running around to the street to catch him, scooping him up in my arms with apologies.

Here – heaving the scraggly growth aside, clutching my barefoot, half-asleep 8 year old’s hand, pulling her through behind me – taking this weird detour rather than go near the garage where I’d just discovered her father.

That’s awful, isn’t it? I pause, doubting whether I should include this here out of concern for you. I am sorry for the possible shock of it or for the moments you’ll maybe now spend feeling sorrow. But this memory crosses my psyche like a passing cloud, moments of recognition in a tangle of shrubbery. Time does magnificent healing.

I continue trimming.

A bit further down, I find the nest that caused me to abort my attempt at maintenance earlier this summer. A frantic robin flew squawking out at me and I dropped the clippers and retreated in horror, sure I’d just beheaded one of her babies. Stupid thing! Why didn’t it ¬†chirp or flap at me before I nicked it? I did find a feather in the trimmer but I don’t think any birds died — although I didn’t peek into the nest to check for skeletons.

Almost to the end is the gap Molly regularly slipped through when she was little – a short-cut to her friends’ house or down to the track across the street. While now overgrown from lack of use, I managed to crawl through dragging the electric cord behind me rather than walk all the way around to get to the outside.

Even with the little step stool and throwing myself across the springy-bulk, I couldn’t quite reach the final stretch of it. But I did what I could. And I thought about the different meanings of ¬†‘hedge’. What I did was enough.