On warm fall days, with their golden light, I make my way outside as often as I can. I wander around the yard, looking at the garden beds that are mostly past flowering, tall stalks gone to seed, bladed foliage flopped over, hosta leaves nibbled, edges turned brown. The garden looks tired, except for the butterfly bush, which still shows spikes of deep purple, a late-blooming cleome, and the nasturtiums and zinnias that continue their colorful bloom.
I look for the beauty in this dried up, past-its-glory garden. I pause to study the seed pods on the Siberian iris, the small delicate cups filled with tiny black seeds. I pick one and scatter the seeds over a bare patch.
I used to cut much of this foliage back in the fall and pile the beds high with chopped up leaves for winter protection in case we have a low snow year. But in recent years I’ve left most of the stalks and foliage in place so the seed heads can feed birds and the flopped over foliage can provide protection for beneficial insects and other little critters. That means more to do in the spring but I’m ready for garden work then, eager to chop and rake, see what surprises lurk in the newly revealed beds.
But back to that golden light. I wander the gardens, sometimes several times in a day, just wanting to soak up the light and warmth. In the late afternoon, I sit on the sun-warmed front porch with a cup of tea; sometimes I move to the blue chair in the back, where I sit facing those bright flowers. I could live in this light forever but it’s so fleeting. Days grow shorter, colder, soon I’ll seek warmth and light from furnace and lamps, wrap blankets around me, and wear many layers to step outside where I look from afar at the foliage that pokes through the snow cover and I breathe toward spring.
I’m sliding in just under the wire with my August blog post—but that’s August for you, a lazy, meandering month, a doldrum month punctuated by storms. I’m sitting on the back porch; Mr. Bell lolls on the chair next to me. The overhead fan spirals the air down on us. Sun, high puffy clouds, just hot enough to still feel like summer.
We’re emerging from another heat wave—I think this was number four for the summer—last week’s temperatures were in the 90s with high humidity. I spent most afternoons indoors where it was stuffy but cooler. I felt resentful, caged, knowing that long indoor winter days are not that far off; brief ventures out to the garden quickly sent me back inside. A cloudy cool weekend brought relief and the local weather guru promises a more fall like pattern once we navigate the tail end of Ida when she sweeps through later in the week.
August is a bittersweet time, a month of paradoxes, contradictions. Slow indolent summer lingers but days grow shorter, nights cooler, a few leaves show fall colors. I feel sluggish and irritable in the hot days but I also grasp at that summer heat; I long for autumn briskness and regret not savoring the long light of July evenings; I want time to speed forward and I want to grab hold of now, not let go.
The garden is weedy, phlox and clethra and cone flowers fade but still provide food for pollinators, asters and goldenrod are not quite ready to bloom. The overgrown cutting garden is the one spot of bright color—orange and scarlet nasturtiums overflow the raised bed, zinnias bloom hot pink and orange, Lemon Gem marigolds are a haze of bright yellow. I could harvest the nasturtiums and marigolds for salad garnish but I leave them be.
I make the rounds of farm stands gathering peaches, blueberries, corn, greens, tomatoes, vegetables. A month of BLT indulgence, buttery corn delights, peach crisp, pasta with fresh tomato sauce, tender new potatoes. But peach season also opens a seam of sadness. I imagine my sister exclaiming over the juicy wonder of a sweet ripe peach or my friend Jean savoring the peach salsa I made for her August birthdays. To honor these peach scented ghosts, I slice up a peach, add some blueberries, warm in the microwave, top with sweet lemony ice cream.
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.
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.”
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.
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.