Friends, Garden, Home, Meditation, Nature, Writing

Spring and tulips and hope

Just as we lose hope
she ambles in,
a late guest
dragging her hem
of wildflowers,
her torn
veil of mist,
of light rain,
blowing
her dandelion
breath
in our ears;
,,,

From “Spring” by Linda Pastan

I’ve been reveling in spring days, especially sunny days when the gardens glow. I wander through lush grass dotted with dandelions and violets and grape hyacinth that have escaped from the garden beds. A couple of weeks ago I scattered seeds for blackberry lilies in one of the front beds. A friend harvested the seeds from her plants last year—they’ve lived in a pill bottle in my kitchen cabinet for a couple of months. Maybe they’ll germinate—on a tour of the gardens today I spotted a few green shoots poking up—but no matter what happens, there’s hopefulness in the act of loosening dirt, scattering seeds, covering and tamping knowing that rain is coming then more sun to warm the earth.

Tulips dot the middle and rear of various beds. I haven’t planted bulbs in a few years and don’t remember planting any in these particular places. Maybe some burrowing critters have done some garden redesign. I’m loving the surprise of tulips in all their fluttery white and orange striped and frilled purple glory.

Hope lived in the initial autumn planting of these bulbs some years ago. And as I key that in I remember my friend Fran planting bulbs in her last autumn hoping she’d be alive to see them emerge but knowing she most likely would not.

I recently found a piece of Fran’s writing when I was looking through writing files. Writing was one of the things that sustained her through three painful years living with cancer. She joined a writing group sponsored by Cancer Connection and faithfully attended meetings up until a few weeks before her death, scrawling her fear and hope and rage and wonderings onto page after notebook page. I had the privilege of reading through a few of the notebooks to help choose some pieces to include in an anthology of writing from the group.

In the short piece I stumbled on recently, she wrote about lying in bed, exhausted and ill, listening to the spring rain outside her window: “It said ‘Listen to me, listen to my softness, listen to my steady rhythm, listen to me fall onto the earth, soak the earth, cool it and refresh it and let it live.’”

Listening. One of my favorite places to sit and listen is at the top of a field in my neighborhood. The field, which slopes down behind a university building, is maintained as a bird sanctuary with mowed walking paths. I walk to the end of my street, across the top of another field and then up the long slope to a bench at the top where I sit and look out across the valley to distant hills. As I sit, and listen, some kind of stillness settles in me.

For a recent meditation session I chose a Tara Brach guided meditation that focuses on deep listening—to sounds in our environment near and far, to our minds, our bodies, letting ourselves be part of the world around us, just as it is in this moment. My mind skittered around—it always does—but I kept returning to that home base of listening, as I now listen to the words in my head, the images, the vague ideas that lead these words.

COVID-19, Friends, Garden, Poetry, Writing

Snow in April

Big fat snowflakes fell all day, a mid-April snow that coated the forsythia and the early flowering rhododendron—their bright yellow and hot pink flowers drooped under the snow but still shone through. A chilly day is in the forecast for tomorrow but increasing warmth throughout the week will bring those beauties back to vibrant life. This is spring in New England. Looking back through my archive of photos I see yearly shots of snow on April buds. 

I and most of my friends are now fully vaccinated, our immune systems firmly boosted by either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. I expected to feel some dramatic sense of relief, a desire to leap back into the world, but the shift has been subtle, a lessening of anxiety when I go grocery shopping or meet a friend for lunch on a coffee shop’s patio. I’m fantasizing about some regional travel but am not yet ready to hop on an airplane. Friends and I are planning summer theater excursions, outside, under a tent but I’m not quite ready for a movie theater. Outdoor restaurant seating is fine; indoors, too confined. Wearing masks in public spaces, especially indoors, is still the norm around here; I find this reassuring.

The New York Times recently posted an interactive piece titled Who We Are Now, featuring the voices of a range of Americans reflecting on the pandemic year. These reflections speak to the upheaval, disruption, fear, grief, renewal, recalibrating, and rethinking that the past year has brought especially for those younger than I, who have contended with job changes and losses, kids learning from home, parents at heightened risk, as well as for those whose age or health concerns have kept them isolated at home or in nursing homes. 

For me, life in viral times has meant an intensifying of changes I would have made anyhow as I left a full time job behind and moved into unstructured days that give me time for reflecting and writing. In a March 2020 blog post I noted that pandemic life isn’t all that different than my writer’s life except it’s harder to find alternatives to solitude when time alone weighs heavily—no stores to browse in or coffee shops to sit in with my computer open and eyes surveying the life around me. 

I guess I’m circling back to a question the poet David Whyte posed in a webinar: What is the seasonality of my life? What is coming into being? As I write that I think about my mother in her later years. Dad pulled her out into the world and after his death her own health problems and a strongly introverted nature kept her increasingly at home, in her recliner, touching the world through the Sunday New York Times, her television, phone calls with me and my sister, and visits from kind friends and neighbors. 

I picture her in those final years, sunk in her recliner in the living room. I think she found peace in the sitting and remembering, her mind drifting through time. In her last year or two I sometimes wondered if she was waiting to die, but maybe it was more that she was letting go, acknowledging the end. I’m not there yet; I’m tenaciously rooted in this life. But am I tiptoeing in that direction? Is that a piece of what’s slowly coming into being for me? 

I recently reread Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Waking.” I remember when I first read this poem many, many years ago, at a time of great upheaval and transition, I was drawn to the words “This shaking keeps me steady.” 

But now, as I sidle into a new phase of life, different words beckon me. “I hear my being dance from ear to ear.” “What falls away is always and is near./I wake to sleep and take my waking slow./I learn by going where I have to go.”

COVID-19, Garden, Home, Writing

Inviting Revery

As spring approaches I feel a quickening of spirit, a pull outwards to light and sound and life. The neighborhood sprang alive last week, little kids playing on one side, college students skateboarding and shooting hoops on the other side, people walking dogs, riding bikes. I chatted with Herbie from across the street, a widower in his 80s. I’ve seen him from afar this winter when he takes out the trash or occasionally pulls out of the driveway but we haven’t chatted in a couple of months. He says he’s OK but it sure has been a long winter. I agree.

First signs of spring

I started raking off garden beds last week, cutting back dried stalks of foliage, sweeping all the debris onto the old blue tarp and hauling it back to the brush and compost pile. It felt good to use my body in this way although I’m slower, more cautious, than I was when I first began gardening this small lot over twenty-five years ago. In those days I would have spent most of the day crouching down to cut stalks back to the ground, weeding, raking, edging, letting the shape of the garden emerge, plotting out what I was going to transplant, what needed feeding. I’d circle the garden with a cart loaded with organic fertilizers, one bag for acid loving plants, the rhododendrons and azaleas, the andromeda, and one for plants that appreciate a more neutral soil. 

But these days, with an older body to tend and nurture, I take my gardening in small sips and savor each moment. I choose a portion to clear, rake off the leaves and other loose debris, use the long handled trimmer to snip back the dried stalks, rake some more, then take a quick break to stretch before returning for a final round of clipping and raking. 

I uncover a few green shoots starting to poke through; the cat mint shows new growth hiding under last year’s smoky gray foliage, the pulmonaria sports a few blooms. I clip the dead foliage from the epimedium to make way for the delicate spring blossoms that will soon appear, tiny bells dangling from fragile stems followed by foliage that claims the space, holds its own. Eventually garden helpers will come in to edge, weed, and transplant. They’ll move through all the beds in a day, leaving them tidied and ready for summer, but I relish my slow start to clean up, my chance to say hello again to the flowers and shrubs, my old friends. 

I move more slowly through the rest of my life as well. This is partly pandemic lethargy. No need to hurry because there’s no place to go. Do I need to shower today? Not really. I pass a quick sniff test and the only living creature I’ll see in person is the cat. 

I lie in bed first thing, easing into the day. It’s hard to imagine being upright and functional but I’m soon out of bed and headed for the kitchen and coffee. The morning drifts along. I review my mental to-do list but have a hard time settling on a starting point—nothing feels urgent.

Friends and I talk about what we’ll do when we’re fully vaccinated, which for most of us will be mid-April. My dreams are modest: hug my friends, share a meal around my dining table, browse a bookstore. But even with increased freedom of movement and contact, I’ll need to navigate unstructured time, negotiate with myself about productivity, wonder what that means at this stage of life. 

At some point most days I catch myself staring into space, my mind wandering like those clouds that float in a summer sky, and I shake myself. Do something! Get busy! my inner critic chides. Then I remember the Emily Dickinson quote I used to have posted above my desk: 

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

I breathe and stretch, throw a load in the washer, do a few dishes, amble around the garden before settling at my desk and inviting revery to wander onto the page. 

COVID-19, Garden, Meditation

Breathe

I made applesauce recently, using apples from a big bag of a local orchard’s pie mix, small brown skinned heirloom apples, big red apples, crisp apples, soft apples, sweet and tart apples. I quartered them, cut out the seeds and stem, placed the quarters flesh side down on a cookie sheet and roasted them until the flesh was almost liquid and an apple laden scent filled the kitchen. I lifted the skins off the soft fragrant pulp, slid the pulp into a bowl and mashed it into chunky goodness. Later I scattered all the cores and seeds and discarded apple bits into the woody areas around the yard for squirrels and other critters to nibble. On my way back to the house I spotted one squirrel with apple in its mouth hopping away to a nearby shrub. 

I want to live in moments like this, in the feeling of knife slicing through apple, the heft of an apple laden cookie sheet, the scent and sizzle of roasting apples, the feel of warm apple peel under my fingers as I separate peel from flesh, the slight resistance of apple innards against the potato masher, the first sweet taste of sauce. 

But it’s February and winter feels endless, especially this winter almost a year into pandemic restricted life. Gray days are the norm, snow, chilly wind. I’m spending more time than I like indoors, pacing around my small house. This morning I looked out at the snow covered back yard; dried stalks of perennials hinted at the robust, colorful gardens of spring and summer. And I remembered sitting in the midst of those gardens on summer afternoons sipping tea, watching the cat cavort, listening to the birds, watching them thread through the tree tops, and the joy I felt in those warm languid moments. I long to be in that warmth, that light.

Instead, I’m sitting at my desk looking out at watery sun and gathering clouds. Snow is in the forecast. The cat stares out the front window or hunkers down on the screened-in back porch, the closest he’ll get to outdoors until the snow melts. 

In front of me on the desk is a white rock with the word “breathe” imprinted on top. I pause and take a deep breath, then another. I remind myself that fretting and pacing won’t make the snow melt or bring the spring flowers any sooner, that I don’t want to wish the days away. I know that there are pleasures to be found in this interior time—our meditation group, various writing groups, a walk with a friend and phone call with another friend, hot chocolate, a good book, the smell of soup simmering on the stove. Right here, right now, let this be enough. Right here, right now this is ample. 

Family, Garden, Grief, Home, Nature, Poetry

Yes, and…

In our writing group recently one of the prompts was Jane Kenyon’s poem “Heavy Summer Rain” in which she writes about missing someone “…steadily, painfully.” This poem felt particularly poignant as we move into late summer/early fall days when the quality of the light, the feel of the air remind me of my yearly visits with my sister either here in New England or at her home in England. I miss her deeply, especially when I sit in the garden in the late afternoon. The following is what emerged in that writing session, with just a bit of editing to make it readable.

*****

A pervasive ache of missing weaves through my days. Missing far flung friends, missing places, missing you. Missing Maine and the view of Damariscotta as we drop down the hill from Route 1, then the road out to the coast, the tang of sea air, the porch overlooking the cove, sitting there with you in late afternoon light as birds skim the water. Or missing your little piece of England, the view of the village up on its hill, the church where you and Peter are buried, the village hall and cricket field, the winding lane that curves in front of your house, your garden that slopes up to a fence and field, your house with its multileveled roofline, its stepped and staggered rooms, its worn upholstery and pooled lamplight.

The shape of loss changes with time, the space it occupies waxes and wanes. I go for days without much thought of you and then…I’ve written about this before, how turning from Route 116 onto the road toward home jolts me back to the turnoff to your house or how a particular bird call tugs me back to your garden in the late afternoon. Small seams of grief. 

I recently re-read Unless by Carol Shields. I took the book off your shelf the last time I was in your house, before all the books were packed up to be sold or given away. I remember your admiration for her writing and your small pleasure in having known her. She was a year ahead of you at Hanover College and preceded you on a junior year abroad to study at Exeter University. You told the story of how her safe return from this trip convinced our father that it was OK for you to head off to England, where you met Peter and fell in love with him and his home, how she set you on a course that took you around the world. 

A friend emailed me a recent New York Times article about Carol Shields. As I read I felt your absence tip-toe in. I wanted to call you and tell you about the article, send it on to you. 

A pervasive ache of missing threads through my days but I’m not, on the whole, unhappy. Tired of this viral existence? Of course. Worried about the future, the election, the course of the pandemic? Oh, yes. But day to day small pleasures abound, details I wish I could share with you in a Sunday phone call—a meal with friends at the end of the day, a pot of hot orange zinnias in the garden, an egret wading in the river, a small boy in yellow shorts and orange sneakers running down the path, a rooster that crows at me as I walk by his driveway domain, the white flowers on the chives glowing at dusk, like small stars hovering close to ground. Grief and delight. The “yes, and…” of life.