Sunday, October 31, 2010

Gradual Instants

The author of a book I am re-reading refers to a term used by another author [Ann Michaels]: gradual instants. Things seem to happen in an instant, or because of a single decision; but when you look back you realize it was all gradual; many forks, many decisions, all leading to where we are at any given moment. Sometimes the journey looks like we expected it to; but often it seems to bear no resemblance at all. And we say, "This is not how it should be." Counselors call it "shoulding on yourself." I have been thinking this week about the shoulds and the gradual instants in my life.

In the garden, on the last day of October, there is more color than it seems like there should be. Or less color. Most of the leaves have not begun to turn. And maybe they won't. There has been more heat than there is supposed to be. But because of the late warmth of the sun, the Gerbera daisy that didn't bloom all summer, has two bright blooms. And the Persian shield, a spectacular foliage plant, has new growth. I have never had a coleus before and I didn't know it was waiting for the end of the season to shine, but it takes my breath away. I didn't much of the best of life are things we didn't know would happen.

At my high school graduation ceremony, the vocal ensemble, for which I was the pianist, sang my favorite poem. You know the one, by Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood and I--I took the one less traveled by…” It sounded very fine, but I had no thought--and no courage, even if I had had the thought--of taking a less traveled road. In retrospect, I probably didn’t even know what it meant. In 1970 there were still a lot of shoulds for women, and I thought I was buying into them. I certainly meant to. In my family, college was an assumption; and the stated expectation was that one finished in four years. But then what? Nothing was stated for what was to come next for me and my two sisters. I had no role model for anything other than the traditional life of a woman. I figured to get married, have children, and one day celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary. That is what should have been. Fact is, there is nothing certain about this life. I made it right up to the 50th anniversary part. But before I got even halfway there, my life took another road, “...and that has made all the difference.”

I should have celebrated my 35th wedding anniversary this month. Instead I have been not married almost as long as I was married. I am going to a wedding next weekend. My niece is getting married. Except I guess she is my ex-niece. She is my former brother-in-law's daughter. But the only thing former about the family is that her uncle is no longer my husband. Should I consider all the relatives former, or ex- (an ugly term that I refuse to use), just because that relationship took a fork in the road? He is still the father of my forever children. Some would say that I shouldn’t be going to the wedding; that I have no place there. Two years ago my niece asked me to come; because, she said, I am her aunt. I am going.

I should be 18 years into a counseling career. I felt so old when I got the degree at age 40, but if I had stuck with it I would be approaching 20 years with a state retirement in reach. I guess I wasn't all that old. But the work didn’t make me happy. And even if it had, I can’t imagine doing the same thing for that many years. And so I took another branch on the trail. And one thing led to another to another. I have suddenly realized that I am a traveler. Or perhaps I just suddenly named it; it has happened gradually over a lifetime.

I am so different from the person my parents raised me to be. Or am I? If I had had different parents or been raised differently, I would not be me. I believe what they wanted for me, and raised me to be, is an independent thinker. They taught me to love the outdoors--which is, by definition, a place of freedom and solitude. Much of the time during my last years at home, my father was away on business. I watched my mother care for her children, except for financially, pretty much alone. I didn't see that he was her absent support, I just saw the alone part. I just saw her independent strength. (And truly, it was only much later that I named that for what it was.) I married someone just like my father, and I was alone with our children much of the time, while he was working out-of-town. Why should I be surprised that I turned out strong, independent, and in love with solitude? Gradual instants. It all led to this point. Maybe it is all as it should be; just not what was expected. The uncertainty in my life, the not knowing what is coming next, is what has been the most exciting part of my journey. It is a journey without a known destination. It feels so hard some of the time, but it is the love of my life.

I fell in love with the Burning Bush in my son and daughter-in-law's yard. Yesterday I planted one of my own. It required creating a new garden bed that was new to my vision of what I planned to add to my garden. I thought I knew what the new bed should look like, but just before I made the last few hoe-hacks to remove the grass, its truth suddenly revealed itself. Except it wasn't sudden. It got to that point because of where I started digging, and the direction in which the digging proceeded. One hack following another. Random? Accidental? I don't know. But, it doesn't look the way I thought it would, and it is perfect. And that will make all the difference to what comes next. Perhaps that is faith. That the order of events will happen just the way they should. In the case of the garden bed, I am glad I was looking, and that I recognized what was right in front of me.

The garden is full of gradual instants. In the spring it is all happening underground. When the perennials stick their sprouts through the ground, it did not happen in an instant, though it appears to. The leaves, which seem to turn colors all of a sudden, really are working up to it. The color has, in fact, been there all along. But photosynthesis produced the dominant green that covered the color. Or something like that. When the sun gets weak there is not enough light for photosynthesis and the color dominates again. The leaves need the sun's light, though, so they drop off their branches without it and the trees go to sleep for the winter, living off the food stored during the summer. There is nothing about the process that happens in an instant. We have had a lot of late-season warmth, and the trees have done exactly what they should do, just on this year's unique time table.

Yesterday I went to the cemetery in search of fall color. I think it is no coincidence that the prettiest tree there spreads its red foliage over the graves of Harold and Mary Minges. They had no idea of the part they would play in my journey. That their resting place is under a beautiful tree is exactly as it should be.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


There is always something nostalgically magic to me about leaving the house in the dark for a road trip. Anticipation. Adventure. Mystery. The full moon Saturday morning leap-frogs back and forth across the interstate as it sinks lower and lower into the pale pink sky; the sun rising big and bright in the rear-view mirror. I do love being out in the dawning day. And road trips. And heading for the mountains.

Not long after the star power of the sun banishes the moon to nothingness, I come upon another unexpected treat on my journey: a hot air balloon "event." Dozens of bright shapes dot the Carolina blue backdrop of sky. In my hurry to get to grandson Max’s soccer game, however, I do not join the cars pulled off on the shoulder of the interstate. I almost immediately regret it. I get to the soccer field fifteen minutes before my favorite player does, but of course it is too late to go back and spend the fifteen minutes watching the balloons. How often we forget that we can choose to seize the moment; moments that we cannot get back in our haste to keep moving to the next thing and the next.

Autumn color in the highlands is ahead of the seasonal change in the Piedmont; the golds and reds brilliant among the greens. Every now and then a burst of wind harvests the leaves on the trees and they swirl through the air in a magical tumult of color. May Sarton, one of my favorite writers, wrote in one of her journals, “I think of the trees and how they let go, let fall the riches of the season, how without grief (it seems) they can let go and go deep into their roots for renewal and sleep...Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let go.”

As I watch Max playing outdoors at his family’s mountainside home, I recall my own childhood on the side of a hill. I am sad again that my children grew up on city streets and in subdivisions. And that I live in the flatlands. I try to conjure up my garden and my cozy home to reassure me that I live where I need to be right now, but the image pales––like the moon when the sun comes up. I remind myself that this always happens when I am in the North Carolina mountains or the Pacific Northwest, and that I will be fine when I am back home; I allow myself to just be glad that I am where I am right now. Sit it out. Let the grief pass. Let go. The leaves will return in the spring; and one day I will return to my heart home, if only for another visit.

Autumn is a time of fruition and celebrating the harvest. I picked two large baskets of green tomatoes last weekend. In spite of warm days, the cool nights––while greatly appreciated by me––are not good for tomatoes. Apparently. They are falling off the vines. And so I picked them. Lots of them. I searched the internet for recipes and spent a relaxing Sunday afternoon halving, chopping, or roasting small green tomatoes. Mixing flour and sugar; mincing garlic and shredding cheese. I made soup, a savory pie and a sweet pie, sweet bread, savory muffins. Who knew there was so much to be gained from unripened tomatoes––the harvest from volunteer plants.

Friends have asked to come to see my garden this week. It feels like an odd time to share it. The bright green explosion of spring is a distant memory. The wealth of summer color is past. The summer drought has stressed the plants that might still be thriving. Although the late-season daylight warmth that is part of living in the South has brought a last-gasp resurgence of bloom, at the same time I watch the ferns and hostas, the Solomon seal and peonies make their descent back to the earth. There was a time when I might have encouraged garden visitors only when the garden was at it “best.” But as I continue to live into the cycles of the garden, I realize that I do not control it. I do not have to be embarrassed by its decline or that my friends are not seeing it at its most beautiful. The garden is what it is in all the seasons. Observing the garden in the fall brings me and my visitors in touch with the rhythms of our lives, and with our own wild and ever-connected souls. All of life is cyclical: the moon, the garden, our lives. The garden is meant to be shared. In every season. Something is always happening there; whether or not it is visible. And it is always beautiful.

Autumn has not quite arrived here. The days are still too warm, the leaves are barely turning color. My soul is ready to turn inward, and I am annoyed that there is an 85 degree day coming up in the week’s forecast. But the seasons cannot be rushed. I want to be finished with the garden and come inside, wrap up in a blanket, and be quiet; but the still unfrozen ground encourages me to start a project that I have been resisting. It is the very last thing, that has been revealed to me, I want to create here. I want to plant roses in front of my house. And I am afraid. It feels bigger and riskier than planting pansies and sunflower seeds. It is somehow something that has to succeed or I will have wasted money and made something irreversibly ugly. But the weather pushes me to make a start. And so I dig out two of the four boring shrubs at the front of my house. I know that having some of the hard work done now, will get me started on completing the project when the ground thaws in the spring.

Opening up, once again. Creating space for what might come next. I don't know what it will look like, or exactly what the next step will be. It might be risky and irreversible. But the ground will be ready. I will be ready.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Remembering Mary

Late last spring, as I worked in my garden, my neighbor––like Mary and Harold, Joe and Gwen are original owners of their home––called me over to the fence. He said, “Mary would be so proud of you. She loved her garden.” Sudden tears filled my eyes. To be told my work would have pleased Mary, is the greatest gift.

Mary and Harold Minges, the only other owners of my 60-year-old house, clearly loved their gardens. Plants from the governor’s mansion—a perk of Harold’s state patrolman job driving some long ago North Carolina governor—sets the yard apart from the neighborhood. Azaleas, a spectacular dogwood, huge camellias, a six-by-six-by-six foot gardenia (until I cut it back to set a volunteer Japanese maple free—sprung up, no doubt, from a whirly-gig seed blown from the neighbor’s large tree), bulbs of many varieties, and a lot of things I could not initially identify, surround the perimeter. Harold’s death thirty-four years before I came on the scene, and Mary’s declining health but stubborn determination to stay in the house until her death at 94, showed in the abandoned, overgrown garden when I moved in.

A wild rose grown amuck and an old clothesline twined through azaleas and berry-laden leather leaf, and completely engulfed another small Japanese maple and three hydrangeas. Shrubs and bushes tangoed with each other, like dirty-dancers blending their bodies into one. English ivy was completely out of control. And the strip of earth around the house—save for a few do-it-on-the-cheap plantings stuck in the ground by an out-of-money or completely unimaginative renovator—was a blank slate.

I had no idea when I bought the house that I was going to transform the gardens, and in the process, myself. I had not, after all, ever been much of a gardener, of either land or soul. But there was nothing much to do inside the house––and it was Easter––so I set out to resurrect the yard. I did not know where to start, but my first inclination in almost any task is to just dive in and see where it takes me. Taking time was the first lesson the garden––and Mary––was to teach me.

I spent time walking and sitting. Looking. Trying to imagine what it looked like when Mary was in charge, and what I would like. It was a new energy for me to be in complete control of the vision. And solely responsible for any success or failure of both the vision and the execution. It was clear that nothing good could happen until it was cleaned out––and I like creation much more than the prepping step of any project. It was easier to jump into that part of the process though, and to trust that I would be better able to see what the garden wanted when the clutter was gone. It was not clear to me then that I needed the same thing in my own life. That was the garden's second lesson.

English ivy covered a horizontal six-foot swath along the east and west sides of the back yard and a vertical climb that roped through the bushes and extended dozens of feet into the trees, choking and smothering everything in its path like the front line of an advancing enemy army. The lawnmower kept it from encroaching into the grass, but the  very thought of extrapolation from the borders was overwhelming. I kept at it, though, section by section for the next few seasons. Eventually the work became pleasing to me, both in its own right and as a way to work through the pain in my life. The task was different at different seasons. Hot and itchy in the summer, as I kept a lookout for copperheads. In early spring, when it was more or less dormant, it pulled free more easily. But it became an obsession. No matter the season––summer rash or frozen winter ground––I could not walk by, with or without my gloves on, and resist freeing an area of its ivy vines. As I healed the garden, it healed me. The ivy can never be ignored. It is cleaned back to the fences now, but has to continually be monitored to keep it there. Another life lesson for me: no pain or struggle is ever completely eliminated. They keep revisiting, must be entertained, and then sent back to the fence.

At the same time I pulled the ivy, I disentangled shrubs, cleaned out the wild rose, and set to work on creating a new garden on the west side of the house. As I worked I uncovered more of Mary's garden: dozens of buried flagstones and large decorative rocks; bulbs and other perennials that had been smothered in the ivy, unable to breathe. I have a dozen "artifacts" displayed on my fence, dug up in places that must have been gardens at one time, but that had long since returned to lawn, until I restored them to garden. I found Mary's watering can in the tangle and used it until a hole opened in the thin galvanized metal bottom. It now rests from its labors in my garden of broken things, where it has an honored place and is planted with seasonal annuals.

Later this summer, my neighbor related another story of Mary. In her eighties, she was seen hauling wheelbarrow loads of soil from the front of the house to the back. Joe sent his son to help her, and he returned in short order and said, "Dad, I don't know how she is doing that. Her wheelbarrow has a flat tire!" Perhaps it has been in her honor that I have struggled with a flat-tired barrow all summer.

On a recent walk through the nearby cemetery, my favorite place to walk, I turned around from looking at a particularly interesting headstone, and there it was: Harold and Mary Minges. I sank to the ground and sat for long moments taking it in. I added ten years to the time that Mary had been alone, having not known exact death dates––though I had searched the internet.  I noted that Harold was born the same year as my own father, and that Mary––seven years older than her husband, unusual for that generation, though not unheard of in my own family––died at 94, the age my mother is today. (I also know that they had just one child, a son; and that Mary used the upstairs drawers for craft supplies, as do I, evidenced from the sequins and straight pins I found when I moved in. Another connection with the strong woman who was my predecessor.)

I am grateful for the spirit of Mary Minges in my garden, and for the love she had for the place she called home. I am lucky to know something about her, from my neighbors, the cemetery, and the evidence she left of herself both inside and out. One day I will leave. I will not live in this house for fifty-four years, for I am a traveler. I will finish my work on the garden. I will learn its lessons. And then I will move on, leaving the garden as a gift to the one or ones who come after. I hope they will love it as I do. Is it too much to hope that they will appreciate me as I do Mary? Most likely I will never know. Perhaps Joe and Gwen will someday tell them, as they have told me. But for now I trust that I will know when it is time to go.

My Mary was contrary, I think. She grew her garden, and refused to leave her home until her time on earth was finished. I hope she knows how much I appreciate her gift. I hope her spirit does inhabit the garden as I imagine it does. I lift my glass––from beneath the dogwood tree––to you, Mary Minges.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Creative is a State of Mind

[The following definitions are created in my own imagination and are not influenced by Merriam-Webster, Rand McNally, or even Wikipedia, and are therefore not subject to argument. You, the reader, are free to create your own interpretations.]

This I believe: One is born with gift. One develops talent by taking a healthy dose of aptitude and working hard and long. Everyone is creative who believes she or he is and engages mind, soul, and senses in the belief. I was neither born to what I love to do, nor do I work hard and long at anything. I am a flitter, from one vision to the next; as the wind blows, so I go, never stopping long enough to develop a talent. And it suits me.

Seeing and listening to beauty is one of the forms of art that captured me during this week at home. The way the sun casts shadows as it passes through the spirals in the iron screen in my garden. The birds as they chatter at each other, sing in the trees, and swoop across the yard. The unexpected quote on a cemetery marker that makes me smile for hours after. The leaves floating in the birdbath. The glow of the sun through the banana tree leaves and the amber glass in the sanctuary windows and on the red and gold reversible leaves of the coleus. The colors of autumn at the Farmers' Market. The honking geese flying over my house as I lie in bed.

This week I create art with a shovel and hoe and my hands, widening beds for planting, and making the grass strip a winding path in the last frontier of my yard--the east side. I create art with found objects and ideas I have seen elsewhere because I am always looking for them. I rip words and pictures that touch something in me out of magazines and glue them on a purchased bird house. I nurture art made by others as I wield caulking gun, paint, and sealant to protect the windows in the garden and a chair on my porch. I also nurture the art of friendship by spending time with some of those I love. Together we appreciate the art of sushi, create a beautiful pizza, converse, and enjoy the music-making of an old friend who has worked hard and persevered and joyfully shares his talent with others. I write words, putting them together in ways that I know to because I read the words of others and pay attention to what I like and what I do not.

Nothing I do is unique to me. Creative is a state of mind, of soul, of being. And a desire to engage. It is available to all. I try things that please me, and sometimes they don't work. I take note and try again, or move on to the next thing that strikes my fancy. If something I do, with neither gift nor talent, inspires another to go and do likewise, then I can believe that I have given a gift.

Sometimes creativity is frustrating, when I don't have the knowledge or skill that I need to do what I see in my mind. I am a doer, not a researcher, so this happens often. I am easily discouraged and overwhelmed by too much information, so I just dive in. And sometimes it hurts. Pulling summer annuals to make space for over-winter annuals is an act of creativity in the garden that is difficult for me. The marigolds and vinca will brighten the garden for, perhaps, several more weeks. And yet room must be made for the pansies and jump-ups while the ground is still warm, or there will be no winter color. Like wearing headphones to distract from the pain or boredom of exercise, as I do physically or emotionally painful labor in the garden, I let my mind engage in the ways that gardening is metaphor for living. As I sit on the ground and wait for the courage to pull the first marigold, I realize (not for the first time, but each year it grows) that in this particular act there is no end of metaphor for relationships. Relationships rarely lose their beauty overnight. One can look ahead to the inevitable (if that is what it is) and pull away while there is still bittersweetness in the loss, or wait until there is just bitter. I have done both, and neither is easy; but in the long run, I believe the former is the healthier sadness.

When I pull the first marigold, and the second and third, I notice that it isn't as hard as I thought it would be. The decision and anticipation of the thing is the harder part. I decide to leave the vinca. That way I can create space for the pansies, while hanging on for a time to some of what is still good in this garden relationship. I have tried to do the same in the endings of my relationships, but it takes two to choose that... . I observe something new as I respectfully pull the marigolds out of the ground. It is together that these two plants are most beautiful; they are supporting one another. The tall-standing vinca fold a bit when the marigolds come out. Their purple-blues lose some luster without the contrast and complement of the yellow. I wonder about my insistence, to myself and to others, that I am happy as a solitary, and shed a few tears for the part of me that longs to be--and fears to be--in intimate relationship again. Can we truly reach the full potential of beauty without that kind of love? (I only know the question right now, not the answer. And I know that without questions, there can be no answers. Another way of living into creativity.)

I also notice that neither the marigolds nor the vinca are as healthy and beautiful underneath as they appear on the outside. Without the other, their flaws are exposed. They were dying and no one noticed. Is it possible that solitaries are more exposed, and consequently have more capacity for strength? (Just the question.) I plant the pansies and jump-ups immediately. And, of course, I think of those who shed one partner and too soon plant another in its place; leaving no space to examine the areas where growth is needed. No time to let the outside world see their mold and mildew. No openings to let the sun in to strengthen the places that have seen no light for too long. No gap to learn to stand tall alone.

The pansies will hold their own until it is time to pull the vinca. If I do that well before first frost, the pansies may expand before the winter cold sets in and the heat from the far away sun becomes weak. If I wait until the vinca is leggy and yellow and the last bloom has fallen off, the pansies will remain small until the spring thaw. But they are tough and tolerant little plants. They can hold on until the conditions are right for growth. And so can all of us--ALL of us--who live creatively where we are, while watching and creating openness for what is coming.

This week without the work that I must do to support my life has been a time to create new life and beauty in my garden and in myself. It has been time of rejuvenation so that I might return to my job with a mind to see the creativity in it as well.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Taking Stock

Spring is my favorite time of year, when it is spring. When it's autumn, autumn is my favorite time of year. George Santayana said, "To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring." And it is true, there is gift in being awake to the cycles of nature through all its seasons. I have never been so aware of all that is happening as I have been since I fell in love with the garden. Every season brings me in touch with the rhythms of life, both in the yard and in my own nature, but especially so in spring and fall.

I find the change of seasons around the vernal and autumnal equinoxes a more spiritual time to take stock--to examine accomplishments and disappointments,  to consider what I want to plant and what I want to pull up--than the change in the calendar from one year to the next. I feel particularly attuned to the natural world in these months.

Autumn is the time to gather in, and to celebrate the harvest. As I walked through my garden this week, after the rains finally came, I looked for what worked and what did not; and what this particular summer brought in its uniqueness. The lack of rain kept the moles away, until now. There were no mowings that resulted in a strip-mine appearance from rolling over their tunnels. And, of course, I did not have to mow as often. That about covers the upside of drought. Planting grape tomatoes was pure genius. I loved my ritual morning time of going out with my bowl and picking a handful of the bright red globes, pulling vines away to get at those hidden in the chaos. They sat on my windowsill to finish ripening and I put them in salad, pasta, grilled vegetables, and my mouth. Both the planted vines and the volunteers from the compost with which I enriched the soil are loaded again after the rain with little green fruits. I wonder if they will ripen before first frost. I think not.

My carefully harvested sunflower heads molded in the shed while they were drying. Perhaps I left them too long. It is a lesson I have trouble learning: I can't hide out in the darkness of my shed and expect good things to happen and that all is well in my soul. I must keep checking in with myself.

The passion flower vine that I had such high hopes for continues to grow at the speed of light on the chain link fence, but has not bloomed. And the banana tree is still putting out new leaves, but did not reach it expected height. Both plants, though, do not die completely back in the winter. They will continue their growth in the spring from a place of establishment rather from the ground up. I expected to enjoy the spectacular passion flower bloom, and I anticipated that the banana tree would grow to roof height, but obviously I was not in charge. I also had high hopes for passion in my own life this summer, but the bloom and the height did not live up to my hopes; at least it hasn't yet. Perhaps, like the vine on my fence, I was not ready to bloom. However, I am not going back into the ground, either, I will continue my growth from a new, more established point.

I spent time in my garden this summer as never before, after the creating time was completed. I sat in the shade of the dogwood tree through the heat, and observed the life around me. I convinced myself to let my new-found heat tolerance keep me from my annual camping trip in the mountains. It was a mistake. It merely confirmed that mountain-time is essential for me, no matter how good things are at home. Sleeping on the ground, hiking in the woods, looking down to what is below me and up to all that is bigger is not a time I should take lightly. Letting the earth hold me up, becoming one with the earth spirit, is vital to my well-being.

Not everything makes an immediate dive into the ground when the weather turns cool. The lantana blooms more prolifically when the nights are cool. The blooms on the Mexican petunia are clinging to their stems all day rather than having fallen off by the time I return home in the evening. The zinnias are full of buds. The dogwood tree is covered with berries. Winter, not autumn, is hibernation time. There is still beauty to behold and happiness to harvest.

The most difficult part of fall for me is pulling up the vinca and marigolds that, though beginning to get leggy, are still beautiful. But they must be pulled to plant the pansies while the ground is still warm. The summer annuals are dying, and room must be made for what comes next. Need I say that much in life is the same way? We will not find life in clinging to what, though beautiful in its season, is over. Seasons change, we are always dealing with loss, even as we welcome gain. We could never design a life that would boost our powers of resilience as well as the natural world does. And if we were in charge, we would never be surprised.

Yesterday began my fall week of stay-cation; time in the garden and with myself without the distraction of work. It is made all the more sweet by the fact that I have worked long and hard for the past month. I am ready to get my hands off the computer keys and into the dirt. To move from creation on the screen and paper, to creating art in and for the garden. And time to look inward at what needs to and wants to be harvested or planted within myself. Yesterday I leveled a crater in my yard made by the extraction of a tree some time ago. Today I will scatter grass seed. Leveling out of highs and lows is what this time means to me. And autumn is the gateway; the time between the extreme extroversion of summer and the extreme introversion of winter. I will keep you posted.