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. 

Garden, Grief, Meditation, Writing

Remembering

I haven’t posted recently—haven’t spent much time doing any kind of writing. That happens sometimes. I’ve cleaned closets, organized shelves, clipped back dead foliage in the garden, raked up leaves that I left down for winter mulch, read some good books (I enjoyed Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo), spent more time than I should scrolling through social media, walked in the woods—but the only writing has occurred in my Monday writing group (which is where I am right now). 

I’m not worried—I’ve had these lulls before. To give myself a nudge—a gentle invitation—I enrolled in an online group led by Jena Schwartz titled Dive Into Poetry. Three days a week for the month of March we receive a poem in our inbox. We can simply read and appreciate or we can respond with a poem of our own. 

I wrote a poem this morning about a garden cart that a friend gave me as a housewarming present twenty-five years ago. The cart has trundled across my yard thousands of times since that long ago August day, hauling leaves and grass clippings and potted plants, empty pots that need storing at the end of the season, bags of mulch and topsoil, rakes and hoes, and seedlings in green plastic pots ready to put in the ground. 

The poem was a distilled, focused memory of the gift of the cart, my friend helping me put it together, his death months later, my memories of him when I use the cart. My last lines said:

“I think of him now as I push the cart over a winter rutted lawn.
Not a heavy grief, but a remembrance
a nod to his thumbprint on my day to day.”

I was aware as I wrote about my friend and the cart and the gentle nostalgic memory that the cart evokes that I was not writing about the more poignant, stabbing memories that surface sometimes when I look at the print hanging on my living room wall—red tulips spilling out of their vase—or feel the nubbly texture of the yellow blanket folded on my office daybed, these relicts from my sister’s house, evocations of her and her home, many-roomed memories that swim in front of me of a place I can never return to, a person I can never touch again. 

None of this is surprising—griefs exist in diverse dimensions, deaths leave holes of differing sizes—the death of a friend lands differently than the death of a sister. 

Although I haven’t put words to paper much in recent weeks, I’ve been writing a lot in my head. I wrote an entire poem in my mind yesterday morning as I sat in my meditation group listening to Tara Brach and trying with great difficulty to keep my attention focused on my breath. I’ll remember this poem, I told myself, write it down when I get home. But it’s mostly gone. I got home, stroked the cat, ate lunch, and ventured out to the garden to rake and clip and tidy, the poem forgotten until this morning when I tried to recapture it with no success. Something about being the silence that is listening, being the stillness. 

Being the stillness. Things feel chaotic these days, all the hoopla and angst about the virus that creeps ever nearer, dominates the media, seeps into our thoughts, our conversations. I try to resist the anxiety, stay centered, fight the feeling that I’m swimming through germs every time I go out in the world. I spent a long time at the grocery store on Saturday stocking up on canned goods just in case I need to self isolate at some point and then got home and realized I’d been so focused on that hypothetical crisis that I hadn’t bought items that I’d actually need for the coming week. 

Breathe. Be the stillness. Relish moments like this, sitting in a bright room, surrounded by windows, looking out at sun and blue sky, feeling the sun on my neck, the back of my head, hearing the creak of chairs from the other room, an occasional sigh, knowing that we’re all engaged in creating, putting words out into the world, a community of writers. And being here, now, fingers on keyboard I enter a sort of stillness, a place of calm. 

Garden, Home, Poetry

Flowers, glorious flowers

In this New England valley, spring first arrives in the form of bulb shows at two local colleges. For two weeks in early March, when the ground outside is often still buried in piles of old, icy snow and the wind still pierces through winter coats, students at Mt. Holyoke and Smith fill greenhouse spaces with displays of spring bulbs and flowers of every type, hue, and scent.

A friend and I usually gravitate to the Mt. Holyoke show at Talcott Greenhouse—smaller and less crowded than the Smith show and every bit as lush. This year a collaborative sculpture spanned the length of the room, representing the three seasons that students are at school, fall leaves becoming winter snow and then spring blooms.

As always, the first thing I notice as I enter the space is the scent of hyacinth, narcissus, and damp earth. I pause and absorb the color and light and scent before making my way slowly down one aisle and up the next then around again, this time taking pictures—oh so many pictures. For twenty minutes, my body lets go of its wintertime hunch and shrug.

I come home from the bulb show to my snow covered garden and devour the pictures I’ve taken, hungry for the light and color.

But gradually in the following days, as temperatures moderate and the snow recedes, I begin my daily  search of garden beds, cheering when the first green shoots of crocuses appear and then the first small purple blossom, the nubs of Hellebore blooms, and more and more green shoots poke through.

This poem from Jean Connor speaks to the season of yearning and waiting and remembering.

And finally, a link to a song I’ve been listening to, I Arise Facing East, from Cindy Kallet, Ellen Epstein, and Michael Cicone.