And like that, we are into another season. When I attempted this post a few weeks ago, spring was in full bloom with summer just licking at its heels. This weekend we made the leap into July-like heat. Garden season.
I can barely keep the English Ivy from swallowing up my property at home yet signed up for not one but two community garden plots. The new one is in the upper field where animals seem to be less of a problem. Almost no one has a fence up top and the bounty seems better than what us poor neighbors below harvest. Or maybe it’s just me. I’ve been at this for years but am not a particularly skilled gardener.
I thought I was clever when I planted a cover crop of rye last autumn. I did no research beyond reading the package I’d picked up from the cool, organic local herb farm. As you can see from the photo above, it made a lovely thick lawn in my limited square footage. After earning nice blisters trimming the grass with hand clippers before it seeded, I left the clippings to dry and a few weeks later turned them into the soil. As you can see below, now it looks like a great mess. I’m hoping all the great rye grass nutrients in the soil (along with seaweed Molly and I gathered from the beach) will make for some tasty vegetables. I’ll keep you posted.
I can’t help noticing that everyone else’s plots look more organized than mine. This won’t surprise anyone who has ever seen my work desk. My neighbor’s gardens have rows marked with string and little markers identifying what is planted where. I imagine their kitchen shelves are similarly organized. I admire, maybe even envy a little, that way of being but I have never been that person. With anything. I made a conscious effort to try and wrap the hose in a nice loop when I was done with it and this is how it ended:
Seedlings are starting to sprout in the new patch – and I’d tell you what they are but I made no sweet tags to remember what’s what. In the past I stuck a stick through the seed packet that usually fades or blows away in the first storm. I didn’t do that this year. I vaguely remember planting carrots in here and beets there. Or the other way around. I was strategic in how I planted the lettuce – sprinkled where they might benefit from the shade of tomato plants. They don’t appreciate the hot sun for too long. Spinach and peas I think are in the middle. It will be a mystery until the first true leaves are visible. This is the way I garden. A little chaos to keep things exciting. No need for perfection in my life.
I’ve always considered March, my month. My birthday is only one day but I claim the entire wild month, famous for gusty winds, changing clocks, unpredictable weather and betrayal. Even in the darkest days, there is a promise of light and warmth. Frigid temperatures and the threat of snow may still be in the forecast where I live here in New England, even into April — but the end of winter is well in sight and any fluke-flakes soon melt in the warmer rays of the sun.
Yesterday, strange hot winds gusted through in the afternoon, as if to shift the seasons, pushing the last of winter’s stale air out. This morning on my sunrise walk down the street with Rufus, I gathered branches blown into the middle of the street as a neighborly deed and as kindling for cold nights yet ahead. I’ll hold off pulling the plastic off the windows as March is a fickle month and there are still cold days and nights ahead.
But signs of spring appear rapidly around the garden. Like victors in the battle of the seasons, crocuses, daffodils and hyacinths push through decaying leaves. Branches are softening, new buds pushing through in reds and greens, softening the look of shrubs and trees. Of course I’ll love the return of leaves to the trees, the sounds like voices as they move in the breeze, the dappled light through their canopy – but I have come to love what bare branches have to offer. Better to admire fractals and easily spot a bird and see off into the distance.
March is the month that cracks winter, starting slowly, some days fooling us that spring is here on schedule before drawing back again as cold and gloom settles in for another stretch. We worry about the survival of crocuses and daffodils in night frosts. And then, like a bicycle spinning faster and faster down a hill, the weather shifts and before we know it the lawn needs mowing, tulips are spent and it’s too hot for a sweater. April and May are gone in a blink. But in March, things are still going slowly, the shift over is gradual – even teasing us, reminding us with taunts of winter-cold that now is our chance to savor renewal, re-birth and the warmth of the sun.
I have decades worth of journals I never read. Today, curious about what I used to write about and if I would recognize myself, I randomly pulled a ragged blue spiral-bound notebook off a shelf.
Neatly written on the second yellowing page is December 2, 1975. The final entry is April 8, 1976. This was the winter and early spring of the last year of high school and also of any semblance of ‘family life’ with my nuclear family. I’d spent most of my childhood growing up in apartments mostly in the Bronx with my 3 siblings and parents and a dog that bit. The truncated version of our family – my parents, one of my brothers, the vicious dog and I – moved when I was 15 from our apartment on Broadway to a white, wealthy suburb in Connecticut. A few months after my last entry in this journal, my father unexpectedly left my mother and moved out of our lives. At the end of that summer, my mother sold the house and moved to a wall-to-wall carpeted apartment in Stamford. I went to college and on to my life from there.
All entries in this journal are in only lower case letters. No doubt an E. E. Cummings inspired affectation. I wrote (of course) bad poetry with apparent ease, often about the stars. I was observant, scrawling pages of overheard conversations heard on the train to NYC or in the noisy school cafeteria. I noted a school trip to see Sam Waterston play Hamlet and went to a Joni Mitchell concert in New Haven. I went on a few college visits to snowy New England towns that I wrote about half-heartedly because I had grander fantasies of traveling the world. I wrote that all I wanted was, “… a hunk of time for me — for romance, to read, paint and draw bad picture and write bad poetry.” Yes, I’d still like that.
While mostly these pages are excruciating, I appreciate how often my entries became poetry-efforts. Of course they’re sappy and bad but there was a fluidity to how I wrote down my thoughts and images that that feels true to the creative process of diving in. When did I decide I was no good and should stop? Now I rarely read and never attempt to write poetry telling myself it’s hard and I don’t understand it. That it was a phase. And yes, I think it is a phase that young creatives go through – bravely trying out different mediums, digging our way to the soul. I gave up on that one – probably because I thought I wasn’t good enough. Squashing life experiences pile up as do demands on our time and energy and we lose the sweet momentum of youth, don’t we?
I was busy. Besides school and literary magazines and school play productions, I waitressed in a tiny Indian restaurant. It was just the cook and me and while I worked there, we were friends. Singh told me that he was from a small village in the Himalayan mountains. He’d been living in the US for a few years when I met him, his wife remained in India and no longer wished to join him. He had a daughter. He sat on a step-stool in the kitchen exhaling smoke from one of his endless cigarettes, (the 1970s – people smoked everywhere) he told me he couldn’t remember what she looked like any more and in 3 years, a child changes. Singh was always sad and drank and smoked his sorrow. At night he blasted the Average White Band as we cleaned up.
Between delivering plates of curry, I filled my blue notebook. I wrote about the customers. One of them courted me — successfully, writing love notes on corners he tore off the yellow placemats. These days, he could have been arrested: he was 24 and I’d just turned 17 and I was willing and smitten.
However I was not interested in the teacher, the advisor for the literary magazine I worked on, who showed up on my doorstep. “I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by and say hello and offer you a creative writing deal.” He wanted me to go to a bar with him “for a coke” to discuss some writing and would I edit it? Next, he is in the living room. I perch on the edge of the couch – he sits next to me and reaches over to move my hair out of my eyes and asks if I’d ever heard of Veronica Lake? No, I say, grabbling my hair away, hands shaking, biting the skin on my fingernails wondering when either of my parents would get home. I remember his breath smelled of liquor and he took off his glasses to show me a scar on his face.”What’s your weekend schedule? I was hoping we could get together and you would read this piece I’d written.” In my memory, he is old – in my journal I wrote that at least 45 years old. Old – when you’re 17. I answer him again with a NO, I have to work and have loads of stuff to do for school. “Where do you work – should I come and eat there?” No – it’s awful. He notices the piano that no one plays. He gets up, squeezing my leg before sitting on the bench, running his fingers across the keys before banging out what somehow I knew was “Stardust”. I see my mother’s car pull into the driveway. I’m shaking and my eyes blur with tears. My mother comes up the stairs of the split level and I give her a horrified look. No surprise registers on her face, instead, as if she’s heard her cue, she begins to sing. “Though I dream in vain In my heart it will remain, my stardust melody!” I don’t remember any discussion with my mother about how strange and wrong this was and the teacher never approached me again. Things like this simply happened back then. Apparently my mother thought so too.
Throughout the pages, scribbled notes of homework assignments, history readings and math assignments and this: “Psych. – brown bag. one side showing you as you’re expected to be, 2nd side – you as you think others see you and on the inside – as you want to be or think you are.” I wish I could look at that bag now. Who did 16-17 year old me think she was?
What compelled me to write things down over the years? I used to fear that until I wrote it, whatever happened did not exist. Floating at the top of one page, perhaps from my mind or read somewhere – this: “Writing is my need to rework life – or at least say something right.”
Winter has ended. Four years of bitter night. I have been hunkered down, building fires to keep the darkness at bay. As the possibility of another term of continued insanity loomed, I made contingency plans to flee to other shores. While horrified by the hate played out everyday through all outlets, I felt overwhelmed and sickened by my own abomination for that terrible, criminal man and his cronies. But now: he is gone!
It is day 2 and I still wake and pinch myself that it’s true and breathe deeply, thirstily gulping the cold air. I feel like I’ve been holding my breath for years. I have. We are still in a dangerous time as lies and ignorance are traded like dirty currency. While I was happy on election day and exhilarated on Inauguration Day (whooping and banging a pot on the porch when Kamala was sworn in!) the numbers weren’t high enough. Not really. We are not out of the woods. Will we ever be? Why wasn’t it a landslide, why so close – even in Georgia? Who are all these people? Never mind that last question — I can look at my own neighborhood and probably tell you. Did you see that creep proudly marching through the Capitol with a Confederate flag? That image is my retort to any ‘but…’ response.
For four years I have struggled to find the internal quiet I need to be creative but have been unable to find a regular space of inspiration. Anger doesn’t leave much room in my head or heart. I know there are many talents that have beautifully channeled these feelings but I am not eloquent enough to engage with his supporters — I feel too much outrage and in the end, the only result is ugly. Social justice is not something I have an opinion on — that I can agree-to-disagree on. It is intrinsic to who I am yet I have felt neither talented or smart enough to write about it. My frustration and fury paralyzed my creativity as if a massive wall (haha!) was preventing me from writing, as if blocking the light. Besides, as an aging white woman of privilege, beyond shouting my support from the rooftops (and marching and sending money) it is not my voice that needs to be heard on this. And yet speaking about anything else felt wrong and frivolous.
No, it is time for voices like that glorious poet on Wednesday – the genius, gorgeous, Inaugural Poet – Amanda Gorman. I will try and take my cue and inspiration from the closing words of the poem she so gracefully shared with us – The Hill We Climb :
“…When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it”
There is another week of January left and plenty of dark, bitter days ahead of us. But have you noticed the days are getting longer? And if you look closely at the trees, buds of new life are beginning to swell, visible even from a distance. Out my window I see there is a softening in the complicated tangle of fractals in the wood across the way. And in my yard, pushing through the frozen dirt, there are glimpses of the bravest green.
Barely awake, I pull a coat on over my pajamas, leash Rufus and step out into the frosty morning. A red sky announces the sun is on its way and today’s weather should be fine. Rufus does his usual pause a few steps from the house, lifting a leg for a long pee on the hedge. The bushes are dripping from last night’s rain and I walk gingerly over a slippery mat of leaves. We are only half-way down the driveway before the stubborn dog turns back to go inside. He’s persnickety about getting his feet wet.
I see the orange of my bagged newspaper at the end of the driveway and drop the leash so he can wait by the door rather than me drag him the five extra steps. Paper in hand, I turn back towards the house when something catches my eye just above the hedge next to the oak tree. I have a sense that something is missing but where I stare is only empty space. Yes, the leaves are newly gone everywhere but that’s not it. Something should be there next to the slowly rotting tree trunk. In decay, it has slowly been separating from the oak. I can’t place what caught my eye, what I think is gone. Did something disappear during the night?
There used to be three trees where now there is a only an oak tree and the rotting trunk of the elm that died when Dutch Elm disease hit the Northeast hard a few years ago. Ever frugal, I chose the bargain tree removal, leaving the branchless body of the tree in place. The trunk is a great playground for the squirrels and a smorgasbord for the birds and recently, a rabbit has found haven in the hollows of the roots. For a few more years, the oak and Norway maple stood together with this dead but lively sentinel.
Then two years ago, the Norway maple fell under the weight of an early snow, crashing through the hedge and landing in the street. Within 24 hours, the city cut it up and dragged it away – a gift – costing me only my tax dollars. This was the dramatic end to decades of togetherness. Three different trees – elm, Norway maple and the oak fused together, trunks and roots entangled.
Now, only the oak continues on – surviving longer because oaks do.
This morning, I think I ‘saw’ the other trees there- some essence – like a phantom limb. Or a flashback of the past. A flicker of movement that made me look again. A shift in light maybe? Or simply a reminder that I am not alone, that what is there cannot always be seen. These moments remind me that I live with benevolent ghosts.
Recently I read this piece in the New York Times Magazine – how forests, trees, communicate and support each other, even in death – and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a birch tree or an elm, a maple, an oak. My scrappy oak is probably being supported by the fungus of the long gone trees. Perhaps beneath the earth, their roots embrace. And maybe what caught my eye was a glimpse of love.
I like to think that it’s always love that lurks beneath, love that remains.
Well, hello there! Did you miss me? I was locked out of my blog for more than a month. Yes, I was hacked but it was also my own fault: I’d ignored the pesky reminders to install updates. The format or something that I was using became so out-dated that I was no longer able to upload posts. What a perfect metaphor for my life. I need to keep up with the program. Lesson learned? I hope so but this feels harder as I get older. Does it for you?
I used to be adept at change, regularly going somewhere or doing something different. In my youth, I moved every few years – often to another state or country. The grand finale before settling here in Connecticut, was in Molly’s first year of life when we moved four times, three different countries. Same with jobs. A year in one place was my average until I landed at the United Nations where after a few years at the NYC headquarters, I left to work out in the field. Boyfriends? Rarely did I hit the six month mark with any of them. Friends are different – I’ve treasured and nurtured those loves and they’ve sustained and supported me for decades.
Physically COVID makes the advisability of change questionable. Time to hunker down and hang onto whatever is working and hibernate through the seasons. Luckily I adore being in my sweet house with porch and garden and the Long Island Sound only minutes away. I miss sharing meals and drinks with friends but not being able to meet up in big groups is not a hardship for me as I am more on the introvert than extrovert scale. My daughter is with me – a joy of daily laughs and hugs. Molly’s cheerfully helpful, running all errands including braving the grocery stores. She cooks gourmet meals and makes a mean cocktail. We have become YouTube fix-it experts with the latest accomplishment: replacing our toilet! And she’s my IT specialist — the reason why I am here with you today.
But: this is not what’s supposed to happen. She should be launching into her own adventures and discoveries – not stuck at home with mom.
We are in a kind of forced meditation, aren’t we?
I don’t hate it. I appreciate being forced to look inward. The search of self and being feels rich and interesting to me and if anything, I wish I had more time for that. But of course, I am distracted by practical questions too. How do I hope to spend whatever years are left to me? What can I sustain? I used to feel stressed going down this path — regularly doing math as if the answer lay in a budget I don’t have. But these days, I worry much less. So little and yet so much is possible. Does that make sense? What can we control, anyway? Breathe – because we know how precious that is, don’t we?
These days, as I imagine my daughter’s eventual adventures, I remember my once intrepid self and realize that gal, that ME is still here. A little rusty but that’s what happens when you fail to move. What’s next? I’m not sure but as my blog reminded me, it’s impossible to move forward if you don’t refresh and update. And dream!
What’s happening in your COVID world? Are you taking good care of yourself?
Yesterday Molly and I went for a sunset kayak — a stunning finale to a beautiful breezy day with a bittersweet hint of autumn. We are nearing the end of this season of light.
Low tide meant a short paddle would land us on a grassy sandbar that only surfaces for a few hours a day. We spotted the little empty beach and made straight for it. After ten minutes of paddling we pulled our boats onto the rocky shore, spread a towel and settled in for the sunset show. No sooner had we clinked glasses when a rowdy trio of adult boys pulled up in small motorboat. Without so much as a ‘are we disturbing you?’ they unloaded their cooler and a gigantic speaker blasting bad music feet from where we sat. Rolling our eyes at each other then giving them side-eyes they ignored, Molly and I rolled up our towel and left them to the shrinking patch.
Back on my boat, I imagined what might have happened with different company – thinking who might have angrily engaged the inconsiderate nincompoops escalating the experience and our blood pressure. And surprised that I did not. Instead I felt lucky to be with good-natured Molly, peacefully exiting while exchanging jokes and laughter about the rude interlopers. Then, we felt glad to be sitting on the water instead of beside it. As the sun fell beneath the horizon, a full moon cast another kind of glow on the Sound. Intoxicated by the cocktails we sipped from mason jars and from the stunning scene unfolding all around us, we let ourselves be jostled about by the incoming tide. The sky took over.
The sun left a skirt of pink fading in the West. I looked East and in what seemed only a blink, I felt a shift, a change to night and something more — another season, another state of being. So simple and quick I might have missed it — whatever that moment was — no more, no less than a sense of something. Slipping my paddle into the water, I positioned my kayak head-on into the trail of moonlight as if I might follow it to somewhere beyond the horizon. Jupiter and Saturn appeared twinkling like the stars they might be mistaken for.
Closer overhead, flocks of birds passed across a stretch of sky as if on a feather highway. First came half a dozen egrets, long legs dangling behind them. Following the egrets came a larger flock of frantically flapping terns. The birds silently followed each other into the deepening blue night and I felt a reverence in their flight as if they might feel as grateful for the day as I. Were they off to sleep on one of the islands? Turning my gaze back to the water, shimmering like giant fish scales or sequins of dark blues and blacks, heaving beneath us in giant breaths. And at the center of it all, a hypnotizing path of moonlight.
Molly’s boat was too far away for us to talk to each other but we were both content in our own meditations. But as the flash of blue and red police lights from shore signaled the beach was closing, we called to each other — agreeing it was time to paddle back even as the pathway to the moon enticed me away.
I’d been on the fence about going kayaking – laziness and a little chill in the air as my excuse. What I would have missed! Out on the water I marvel, dream, think and wonder — about life — the present, the future. Last night I considered where to be and how to live this (last!) leg of life. But do we get to curate our own lives, really? So much is a crapshoot, the luck of the draw or whatever version of God or not, one believes in. Having moments like last night are enough for me. In spite of – or maybe because of the goofs who drove us out into the water, their Lord of the Flies like howls always audible as we communed with the poetry of the night.
Nature is boss. In case we’d forgotten, she recently blasted the Northeast with gale winds and a few tornado touch-downs. Uprooting trees and knocking out electricity and even taking off the roof of a local (unoccupied) house, she reminded us that we are kidding ourselves if we think we are in control. Heeding this kick in the ass, I am both practically and spiritually rethinking how I live.
When the whistling wind turned to a roar and our cell phones blasted a tornado warning, Molly and I descended into the dark, old-house basement with dog, water bottles and flashlights. We felt sure the house would blow down on top of us. It did not and except for a few downed branches we made it through intact. Power was out for 3 days — a minor inconvenience compared to many who are without almost 2 weeks later. We were without internet for 11 days and since I work at home these COVID days, that was tough in a first world problem way.
I have lived without electricity and water for long stretches, including in winter during the war in the Balkans. Nothing like being in the cold and dark with the rattle of machine guns and an occasional thud of mortar fire shaking the walls. But not having water is the worst. These recent days in the dark, even as I stumbled to the sink, I felt grateful as I turned on the faucet or hopped, gasping into a cold shower. Temporarily losing these conveniences I take for granted is a great exercise in gratitude. So many around the world, because of war, poverty and injustice, (thinking here about poisoned water in Flint, Michigan and Navajo Nations with no running water!) lack this basic necessity and it’s criminal.
It seems a little crazy that we are so electricity dependent and all of that can be undone in a flash. Even in my life with wood stove and clothesline, I found those few days challenging. I am, like many, addicted to the internet. My phone is never far away from me and for no particular reason. I am rarely expecting a call. But there are so many pictures to look at! News and gossip to follow! I still had phone service and while it was charged squinted at the little screen for updates on my corner-of and the rest of the currently sorry-world.
Evening entertainment during electric-free days, we enjoyed light-pollution free star-gazing and reading on the front porch. Only days earlier, I’d presciently installed solar motion-sensor lights so we settled in the evening breeze with our books and took turns waving our arms every few minutes to reactivate the light. (photo above)
Have you ever read The Road by Cormac McCarthy? I wasn’t reading that on the porch– in fact, it’s a book I tried and abandoned years ago because it was so bloody bleak. I mean, I appreciate dark but I can’t do apocalypse. But I’m still haunted by what I did read. Too real? Too possible? These days, I’d say yes. But I’m a practical gal and a survivor and I’ve started to plan.
What I missed the most during the 3 day blackout was my own food and cups of tea and the electric bidet toilet seat. (you mean you don’t have one?) I’m working on preparing solutions for next time. In my Kyoto kitchen there was a hatch door in the middle of the floor that opened into a little ground storage space perfect for keeping food cool. Isn’t that brilliant? I won’t be digging any holes outside but I might get another cooler and lots of ice. As for cooking, I don’t have a grill but am researching little hibachis and for morning caffeine fixes, a butane burner with shelf-life milk. And there are simple bidet options that don’t require electricity. Note: all bidets online are currently sold out – no surprise after COVID scramble for toilet paper.
Now that I have internet back, I’ve been able to do a lot more research on how to weather storms and in considering other possible catastrophes, what countries in the world I could escape to. Frankly, I’d rather stay here in my country in my sweet house, but I know it’s better to be prepared.
Any suggestions on preparing for storms, elections and other possible disasters?
We get to the beach early, landing a parking spot right next to the kayak launch spot. Molly hauls our boats to the shore and I ferry the life jackets, paddles and water bottles. Within 20 minutes of leaving our house we are floating on the Long Island Sound.
As we push into the heaving tide my mind-muddle of to-do tasks is left on shore. At high tide our usual spits of land and sandbars that inspire lazy paddling, were nowhere to be found so we head to a more distant island with an inviting empty beach. This stretch can feel like Grand Central Station at rush hour on a sunny weekend day but in the morning, there are only a few oyster boats probably out before the sun. We have a few hours before motorboats with loaded beer coolers begin tearing through the water and we savor the quiet, only the lapping waves and sea-bird shrieks.
Terns and gulls swoop across the sky. The rhythm of paddling returns even after a year. Pushing through the water feels good. Molly is usually ahead of me because she’s younger and stronger but also because I periodically pause to just float, my plastic boat bobbing, the morning sun warming my bare legs and arms. When I open them again, Molly is near the island. I straighten up and paddle hard to catch up with her.
We pull onto the sandy beach. This island is city owned – it’s possible to camp here and the thought of sleeping on this patch of wild in the water has appeal – an easy getaway with only nature’s luxuries. For now we are happy to unpack the fruit and coffee we carried with us. We sit on our towel and marvel at the beauty until we are discovered by horseflies. To escape their nasty bites, we strip to our bathing suits and make our first plunge of the season. I am not much of a swimmer, but there is something about that deep breath and dunking into the muffled, other-world of underwater that shifts my brain immediately into vacation mode. My summer baptism.
I sell books. Selling houses, cars, clothing, even towels would earn me more money than books, but that stuff doesn’t stir my soul. Being a salesperson doesn’t come naturally to me but my love of reading allows me to convince myself it’s a good cause. Of course it helps that I sell mostly to teachers who have the mission of teaching kids to read. I know so many remarkable ones determined to mobilize the power of books to open minds and hearts. I’m lucky to tag along on their great work.
The perks of being a bookseller include a great discount and free advanced readers copies, ARCS – a sneak peek at soon to be published books. I’m just finishing The Buddha on Death Row: How One Man Found Light in the Darkest Place by David Sheff (also author of one of the finest books on addiction, Beautiful Boy). Sheff’s newest title is a blend of social justice and Buddhism – a good read in my quest to live life from a place of peace and love rather than fury. Jarvis Masters has managed to do this through meditation and Buddhism, while living on death row in San Quentin. For 30 years and still today, this Black man has been denied a fair hearing and remains on death row for a crime he did not commit. Yes, more fuel to take to the streets.
I look to books to help me be a better person, to explain the world. And it makes my heart sing to report that I am not alone: last week, bookstores across the country sold out of books on racism. Take a look at the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list transformed into a veritable what-to-read to know How to Be an Antiracist – my next read. What are you reading?