Sunday, December 25, 2011


Every day
I see or hear
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for -
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world -
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant -
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these -
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean's shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

-Mary Oliver

I rise early this morning of mornings, in the dark, and hurry to the cemetery; following, not the star in the east, but the rising sun. Which, now that I think about it, is a star in the east. I want to be there, under the big sky, before it begins its ascent. As I walk, then wait and watch, I find myself wondering about those for whom the Christian story of Christmas is not part of their story and whose family--if they have one--is scattered on this morning. No loved ones to share the morning. No wide-eyed children to watch. No dinner to collaborate over, or people with whom to eat, drink, and be merry. I wonder what this day is about for them. Mostly memories reaching back to their own children's childhood; or perhaps farther, to their own.

That describes my day this year. But I am not sad. The Christmas story is a part of my present every year. Granted, the story is a fantastical one, and many scoff at it, or just don't think about it. But I am glad that I love it. The baby comes every year, an annual big reminder of the presence in my life of the One Who is More. I am sad for, and a little mystified by those who don't believe in a power larger than themselves, whatever they might call it. Call it The Big Fat Far-Fetched Mystery, whatever. It doesn't matter. But believe in something. “It’s not hard to find your way to God. God is pretty easy to get to from just about any hike up a mountain or walk along some creek. There is nothing more to say, only that to do” (Pie Town, Lynne Hinton).

I  found this poem by Mary Oliver recently and have been watching for the things that nearly kill me with delight and leave me in the light, not just at Christmas, but every single day. I leave work early one day and enjoy a Peppermint Mocha Latte and watch children playing on the too-warm-for-December afternoon. The little girl in the Christmas tights nearly kills me with delight. A chance meeting with a fox in the cemetery thrills me. And the flower deliveries tug my heartstrings early one morning before work. Friends gather in my hearth room to celebrate the darkness of the winter solstice and I feel the warmth. I walk to Food Lion on Christmas Eve for evaporated milk for pumpkin pudding for Christmas feasting and encounter a cacophony of crows on the shortcut through the pine grove. Their own family gathering, perhaps. I return from the less familiar east of my house to the cheeriness of my Global Purple front door and notice it again for the first time. I am delighted with it. The Lenten rose is opening. In December. After candlelight at church last night, I drive by the bedecked Governor's Mansion, admiring the beauty of opulent light. I walk through Historic Oakwood and two young girls, perhaps home from college, call from the porch swing across the street to come in "It's a party! And," they say, "you are dressed so cute!" I am filled with the light! I pull into the drive of my very own mansion with its simple light; I am Home. I go inside and build a fire. Peace. Goodwill to all. I rise early to follow the star. I am overcome with the magnificence of the return of the light.

May Sarton said, “Solitude is the richness of self; loneliness is the poverty of self.” I am feeling rich this morning. To my dear friends who are alone, I hope you are feeling rich, too.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Advent Roses

I never thought I would be looking for signs of spring during Advent, but there I was wandering around the garden this week bent over in uttanasana position peering at the ground. The winter jasmine buds are bursting out all over the bush--a tad early, but not much; they bring me such good cheer. The camellia blooms on, harboring rain drops from a late night rain that I listen to rat-a-tat-tatting on the roof through my open window. What I am surprised to discover, though, is that all
three of the Lenten rose plants have multiple deep purple, not yet opened, blooms. Now that is just ridiculous. I think the early spring must be a sign of... something. I will know what later, perhaps. A lot of waiting happens this time of year. It is Advent, afterall. I also find a still-curled, tiny black-eyed Susan and a bright yellow dandelion. It is in the low 70s most of the week. The mornings are frosty, and the weekend cooler, but forecasts call for mid-60s again on the winter solstice. There will be no white for Christmas. But I will build a fire anyway.

Winter solstice. It is a date that has come to mean more to me than Christmas, or any other holiday. The longest night of the year is a silent date on the calendar. The vast majority of people pay little attention to that which is quiet; I feel like that sometimes in low moments--not paid attention to. And I love that the solstice is tied to the natural world, unlike any other holiday. There are no gifts, no special foods, no traditions associated with it, at least in the Christian world. Well, that last is not quite true. I look forward each year to a small gathering of favorite people who sit by my fire in candlelight with me and absorb, more than observe, the reason for the seasons: the tilt of the earth and its relative position to the sun. In the northern hemisphere the earth is farthest from the sun on this long night.

...There's nothing as dark as night
But nothing so strong as light
Here is the choice: to let it burn out or bright
In a world where fear and force
Have buried the silent source
Can you deny the need for a light like yours...

No dark place no debt and no abuse
Can erase all of the good you do

-Christine Kane The Good You Do

It's so easy for quiet people to not know the good we do. We even tend to overlook or dismiss it in ourselves. Those who are not quiet souls forget to tell us; or maybe they just don't notice, or see no need. I am so grateful this year to all of the dear people who silently do good in their world. And I am so lucky, in part because of this blog, to have received your supportive words. There is no greater gift to me than to know that my thoughts have touched you; and therefore to be able to trust that they spark something in people from whom I do not hear.

I stay home from work on Friday, in need of a good rest. I am on my sofa, under my afghan with tea, when I get a Facebook chat message from dear Katherine in Illinois. (Have I mentioned that I love FB chat?) She asks about my unwellness: "Tired? Fuzzy? Stuffy? Achy heart?" Except she mistypes achy and her computer changes it to "afghan heart." Or maybe she wrote it on purpose, she can't remember. In any case, I love the image. It is exactly what ails me. My soul is in great need of a day under an afghan. I am coining the word. Watch for it on Wikipedia.

Emma and Wynne are visiting my mom this weekend. They cut down, drag in, and help her decorate her Christmas tree. And they send me this picture of the scene that greets them when they get up Saturday morning. The silence of the fog filling the valley, the sun rising behind Mt. St. Helens, is one of the essences of childhood that I feel inside of me whenever I think of it; even way over here on the other side of the world. It is my spirit-definition of silence. As a child, it also defined privilege for me. I dwelt, in those early morning moments, in the sunlight above the fog, while those in town were imprisoned in the darkness. Now, I know, too, the beauty of being one with and in the fog.

I enjoy the birds yesterday, as I sit on the sofa under my afghan (again), knitting baby hats. A new art form for me; I have wearied of scarves. I don't generally keep on doing something I have grown tired of. The titmouse and the chickadee and other feathered friends tap tap tap at the suet feeder on the window, and more birds of more varieties than I have ever seen all at once dine at the feeder. They look annoyed by the paucity of seed available. They should talk to the squirrels and mourning doves about that.

I have mentioned before that one of the great rewards of writing this blog is that I made a new friend. Amelia ran across it when she Googled a reference to an author I had quoted. Amelia lives in Bellingham, Washington (how is that for coincidental karma?). Bellingham is in the far north of Washington, and Amelia is a Head Start teacher extraordinaire. I got to meet her in person last summer. Mostly, though, I know her from her two blogs. One is about her teaching--and learning--as a teacher of at-risk preschoolers (; and the other, a newer one, about what she sees all about her ( She posted this original poem on Wake Up and Write this week. I think it so beautiful that I want to share it with you.

"Tawny feathered tops of poplars edge the rim of the china blue bowl that is the winter sky.

Frosty air shimmers,

the sun hovers just above the horizon,

gold slipping across fields stripped of harvest,

striped with vines tangled and torn.

A honk sounds,

and rippling lines of white wings like frothy waves,

flow east.

It’s December,

swans herald the coming of winter solstice."

-Amelia Bacon

Observe the solstice this year, on Wednesday night. Light candles, turn out the lights, listen to the silence of the dark.

“...with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the lives of things.” -William Wordsworth

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Keep Your Gaze Within Your Mat

I arrive at Julie’s Gentle Yoga on Monday very much in need of the hour after a bad weekend and, to put it mildly, a difficult Monday morning (made slightly, easier, I suppose, by the fact that I saw it coming, having been here before). This particular yoga class was just what I needed, and I am not talking about the poses, though we do begin with a favorite pose--Supta Baddha Konasana. I get there early enough to get my favorite place by the mirror, and the space next to me remains empty right up to the beginning of the class. Then...a latecomer. I groan as I realize it is the heavy breather who is usually in the corner across the room (but who can be heard throughout). I move quickly through the irritation that comes from concentrating on his breathing rather than my own, to chuckling at the little voice in my head chanting, "Blog Fodder, Blog Fodder." In Julie’s opening “set your intention,” she suggests that this time of year our intention might be simply to spend the hour focused on the yoga and not the other stresses in our lives. "Yes," I think, "that is exactly what I need to do."

A line I read in a book a few months ago about the author's living through the mirror of her yoga practice, floats into my consciousness: "Keep your gaze within your mat." I lie on my mat with my feet drawn up close to me, soles of my feet together. Eyes closed, I block out Heavy Breather. I am the only one in the room, just me and my small lime green mat with the peace button focal point attached at the top. This is Advent peace week, and though I am most definitely not feeling at peace, for this hour I can let it all go and, perhaps, let peace find me. I concentrate on my breath, slowly in through my nose...hold...slowly out through my nose. If blowing all the tension out through his mouth is what Heavy Breather needs when he arrives at yoga from I know not what, that is his practice on his small mat. Later I am vaguely aware that his breathing has settled down.

"When you start on a long journey, trees are trees, water is water, and mountains are mountains. After you have gone some distance, trees are no longer trees, water no longer water, mountains no longer mountains. But after you have traveled a great distance, trees are once again trees, water is once again water, mountains are once again mountains" (Zen teaching).

I just read this. I don't know what it means. But it speaks to my hard week. Do we begin with rules and expectations that we understand, and gradually expand and adapt and grow, only to have to return to the previous rules and expectations? Or did I misinterpret somewhere along the line. I believe the technical term is "got too big for my britches." At any rate, it is time to adapt, to see the trees as trees again. To keep my gaze within my own mat.

Maybe its the hard week that keeps tears caught just behind my eyes, but they let loose deliciously when I receive my annual December box from my mother in Washington. I get home from work and bring it in from the front porch to the kitchen counter. I feed Smudge, change my clothes, and wash my face--carefully following my daily routine, while anticipating the annual one. Then I sit with my box. Carefully slitting open the tape and folding back the box flaps, I lift out the plastic bag. I hold it a moment then untwist the twist tie. Still holding the bag closed, I close my eyes and bring my treasure to my nose. Letting lose just a bit of the opening, I bring my nose close and let the aroma slide in; then plunge my whole face into the bag and breathe deeply of home. Douglas fir and noble fir, lovingly collected by my dear mother who knows me and sees me, packaged in wet paper towels and mailed across the country. Year after year for the past 35 of them, it sparks that deep, deep longing we all have for home, wherever that may be and whatever that may mean to each one of us.

Mid-week a cold front comes through, breaking the ridiculous December heat wave, during which Smudge and I are outside acting like it is garden season (I reluctantly, she not-so-much). The cold front is introduced by a vigorous downpour. I need to make a confession here. Along with judging Heavy Breather, I have often tended to turn up my nose at southern colloquialisms. Provincial, my children's father used to call me, in my teasing intolerance. I am not proud of it. My learning, perhaps, has been to "have" to live in the south for a good bit more than half my life 
now. You will learn to let people be who they are, damn it. And I am getting quite fond of the odd phrases. One I particularly have come to love I first heard from my dear daughter-in-law: "Pouring the rain." (Makes so much more sense than "raining cats and dogs," which I grew up with, don't you think?) And that is what it does on Wednesday evening. "Pours the rain." And behind it comes cold, blessed crisp air.

For a while now, I have been writing a single morning sentence several times a week, and sharing it with my friends, and perhaps some of their friends, on Facebook. It has become a spiritual practice for me. Encapsulate one experience from my morning walk into a single sentence--a photograph captured in words, rather than on the virtual film of my digital camera. Friday morning, though, I take my camera. (Well, truth be known, I almost always take my camera. I can't help it. I usually don't use it, however.) I decide I am not going to get to work early so that I have the much-needed few minutes alone in the building to center myself; instead I am going to hang around in the cemetery waiting for the sun to come up. "Lollygagged in the frosty cemetery, fingers frozen and breath visible, to see the drowsy sun crack open the sky and set it on fire." I notice that this time of year it comes up 15 degrees to the south, through the empty windows of the beautiful broken down historically-protected building just beyond the cemetery, rather than back to the left behind Bartholomew Figures Moore. It is reluctant to rise; it being the kind of morning meant to stay under the duvet. But it does eventually slide up from behind the covers and light up the sky. I lean against a tombstone and savor the spectacle. I am late to work. Whatever.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Liking Christmas

I walk out of The Fresh Market on a lunch break this week, with my wee cup of coffee and my two weekend blueberry scones that they now save for me on Thursdays because they don't put enough for me and anyone else in the Very Small Scone Basket. Sleigh Bells is playing on the  shopping center outside musak, and I am actually wearing a light jacket and a scarf. And it hits me: "I'm going to like Christmas this year!" It's not that I generally choose not to like the holidays, just that for a long time--more years than not, in the last couple decades--I haven't. For one reason or another, which I don't need to go into detail about, it's been a dreaded time of year--the rejoicing coming when it's over. 

You become what you think about. (Earl Nightingale)

I was set to continue that saggy default tradition this year. I will not see a single family member this December for what might be the first time in my life. That seems like a sad thing. In truth, I suppose, it is seeing them and it not matching my Very Big Fantasy About How Things Should Be that has been hard. So this year I will be grateful for my chosen family and look for opportunities to spend time with them. But if that doesn’t happen (they do, after all, have families of the other flavor), it will be okay. I will enjoy a few days off and find peaceful things to do. 

You become what you think about.

I know what I'm gifting half of my family--and they are purchased or created. As for the other half, I am in convenient denial that it needs to get done and shipped across the country and I have no ideas. Elizabeth posted on FaceBook this week, after Cyber Monday and Black Friday (apparently those days are supposed to catapult one into the Christmas Spirit), that she is getting extremely annoyed by television ads and talk show guests suggesting "last minute" gift ideas. "Has the 'first minute' even happened?" she rants. It is convenient, I suppose, to have the first and last minute wrapped up in one weekend. Maybe if I did that I could concentrate on other meaningful Christmas activities: making my home festive, baking, giving attention to my life and those who inhabit it with me, attending to Advent and the coming of the Bearer of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.

After another difficult week, the weekend finds me looking for color in the garden. The leaves are gone from the trees and the predominant shades of the earth are brown and dull green. There are a few red leaves clinging to a low branch of the dogwood and one lonely bunch of red berries on the pyracantha that I recently reshaped. The Mexican heather and the roses that keep blooming. The cheerful winter jasmine at the end of the driveway is covered with buds of hope and the first bright yellow blossoms are open. There is a single yellow leaf on the gardenia bush, along with the red splash of a single old bloom. A new Christmas display is birthing down the street with a choir of angels, wise people that apparently arrived at the stable in a train, and shepherds with their sheep keeping watch. The titmouses and chickadees have nibbled the suet in the holder stuck on the window into a perfect heart shape.  


Gift giving is great fun, if you are a child or have a child that you get to watch beam with delight on Christmas morning. But I find it hard to gift adults. I can't bestow upon them anything they really need, like a Large Infusion of Cash. Yet, if we don’t give and receive something at Christmas we feel cheated at both ends. I don't need any stuff. It's Clementines that make me happy. Like Honey Crisp apples in the fall, I am glad that Clementines are seasonal. I mourn them when they stop being available at the market, but when the Honey Crisp apple season ends, there are the Clementines. When I unwrap the the first little treasure and the bite-sized section explodes its sweet tang in my mouth, I remember that I have missed it. Same thing with the Honey Crisp that I watch and wait for during the long months after the price of Clementines goes up and the quality goes down. Like an out-of-area lover, their return is all the more poignant for their unavailability most of the time. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and all that.


The return of both the Honey Crisps and the Clementines in their own season, like the predictability of the garden, gives me something to look forward to. And the unexpectedness of finding out-of-season buds already on the hydrangeas, and jonquils that are a foot tall already, are both promise and surprise. Both bring me optimism for what is around the corner: that which is known, and that which is not.


I am leaning heavily today on the sentence I ran across yesterday, "You become what you think about." Think negative thoughts, like not liking Christmas, and you become Scrooge. I do not find it easy, though, to give heartache and disappointment and anger and fear the boot when they really, really want to control my head. But I am going to try to make room in there for hope, peace, joy, and love. And just maybe they will win the battle.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Traveling with a Camera on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day dawns crisp and cold with a hint of snow in the air. I rise early, build a fire and settle in with a cup of coffee for a few moments of quiet before the happy chaos begins. The turkey is waiting to be trussed and put in the oven for its slow morning roast; the smell of baking pies filled the house yesterday. Later the family will arrive, the grandkids racing up the sidewalk and jumping into their Gigi’s waiting arms.

Okay. That didn’t happen. It was crisp in the early morning--I think, Smudge and I were slug-a-beds--on its way to 68 degrees without a cloud in the sky. It has been nearly a decade since I hosted Thanksgiving dinner; I don’t even have a dining room table. And any thought of that particular Thanksgiving vision ever happening vanished almost two decades ago. It’s okay; don’t cry for me, Argentina.

I’m not sure how eating too much got wrapped up in this holiday. Well, yes, I guess I do--that whole pilgrim and Native American thing we reenacted in grade school every year: the white paper aprons, black paper top hats, and colorful paper feather headdresses that were our art project in the preceding weeks. The long table filled with food around which everyone gathered--the Norman Rockwell one with the gray-haired grandmother holding the turkey and multi-generations of white faces leaning in laughing, happy to be one with aunts and uncles and cousins. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who has had to re-vision the day.

Last year in this space in Gratitudes Large and Small, I recorded what I was grateful for each day during Thanksgiving week. I read back through it on Thursday, and with one notable exception, pretty much nothing has changed in my life--right down to clean sheets on the bed! Next year there will be a new grandchild and officially a new daughter-in-law. That is exciting, and I give thanks for the anticipation.

But back to this year. As I eat my pecan waffles for breakfast, I am entertained by the cat watching the mourning dove glaring down at the squirrel eating the bird seed I didn’t put out for either one of them. A titmouse is pecking at the last bit of suet in the feeder at the window. Need to put in a new one today. I finish my second cup of coffee, putz around a bit, then head out of the house in the late morning with my camera to see what gratitudes I can capture. I dress too warmly, hoping it isn’t really October heading for September outside. I call my mother from the cemetery, and hear that she is not enjoying the windy rainy weather that I am wishing for; and is envious of what I am disappointed with. That makes me laugh. I place a rose from my garden on Mary Minges' resting place and say a prayer of gratitude for our garden that brings me such joy.

What follows is a collection of what my camera and I gather: the whimsy, beauty, and activity in my neighborhood. What my camera doesn't record are the laughing voices of children hidden within the walls of a house; the two dressed-for-visiting men and their little dog being welcomed at the door and the sounds of “Happy Thanksgiving, come in!” to a woman arriving alone at another house; the smell of a turkey on the grill and the sweet aroma of pumpkin pie on down the street; the white-white tree that standing under transports me to another universe, so breathtaking is its beauty and grandeur. I thought it would make me sad to be out walking and observing, and it is a bit of an out-of-body experience, like Scrooge observing his life from a distance. But I am not sad. I enjoy the voyeuristic richness of it so much that later in the day I go out again. After the feast, the activity has changed--people are out walking and painting fences (and singing) and putting up decorations for the next holiday and...

(If you can figure out how to make this slide show full screen on your computer, it will be better! I can't.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Death of the Garden

The week brings the first frost, and with it the (almost) final end of the summer garden. I am not sorry to see it go. I do not grieve the seasons' endings (well, maybe spring because I tire of the endless southern summer); I look forward to seeing what is next. I spend time yesterday pulling out the rest of the annuals. I love cleaning out the garden, creating space. I revel in the abundance of the summer garden, the beds chock full of riotous color. And I am calmed by the scarcity of the winter garden; the fallow spaces under mulch blankets punctuated by the soft yellows and blues of the pansies and snap dragons and the bright red nandina berries. I look forward to cleansing winter snows (I am going for positive thinking here). Enjoying what is here, what is coming; rather than mourning what is over, what is not to be. It seems like a good way to live.

These past two weeks, since I last wrote, as death approaches the garden, I pay particular attention to abundance in the midst of scarcity. There is a new bud on the geranium on the deck; and the roses continue to put forth, even after the frost. Though one of the Elephant Ear caladiums succumbs to the cold, the other in its protected spot hangs in with its companion Purple Shield. The last pepper plant is caught, leaving seven undeveloped peppers. The banana tree survives this attack. And there is beauty in the curled leaf of a receding hosta. A glorious morning walk in the cemetery, where a rare dense fog shrouds the brilliant trees but cannot contain their aching beauty. The stark beauty of the bare tulip magnolia in Nicholas and Kristy's mountain yard.

And the sky has been incredible. On one of my early morning walks, I am rewarded for leaving the house at 6:42 rather than 6:43 with a minute of an eyeful of a skyful of pink fluff. I stand at the end of the driveway and look up through the narrow tunnel of sky between the trees. I wish I were already at the cemetery where the sky is bigger; but somehow I know it won't last long, so I enjoy what I can see. A minute later it is gone, the clouds ordinary again. I am cognizant of the times that I fail to seize serendipitous moments. A year ago, on my way to Asheville, I did not pull the car over for a few minutes to watch the unexpected hot air balloons rising into the sky in Statesville. I still regret it, my lesson learned--and so easily forgotten over and over.

The trees are incredible in their gold and ruby dresses. Santi says fall is so fleeting here, she always wonders if she appreciated it enough. If the number of pictures on my camera are any indication, I did. There is always that wondering, though. Could I have loved it better? Could I have spent more time in it? Should I have gone for a drive into the country? I am completely smitten with the little weeping Japanese maple I planted in my side garden. And in the course of seven days it moves from gold to red to barren. I know because my camera captured each transition; if not for the dated photos side-by-side on my computer, I may not have noticed. The still-small burning bush has completed its slow transition from green to brilliant red. Pulling the zinnias around it gives it its moment in the spotlight before the leaves fall.

Two weeks ago I sit on my deck and watch robins drinking from my birdbath; I haven't seen many birds there, so I am pleased with their pleasure in it. An enormous sadness rolls over me when I discover one morning the beautiful stained glass birdfeeder, crafted by and gifted to me by Heather when shecompleted the renovation of the house next door and moved to California, is lying broken and twisted on the deck floor. Knocked from the table one too many times by squirrels, it is beyond usable and finds a new home in the shard garden. It brought me great pleasure to sit in my Adirondack chair in the summer and on my sofa over the winter to watch the towhees, chickadees, cardinals, titmouses, mourning doves, blue jays--and yes, squirrels--at the feeder. I must find another quickly. They all look so mundanely manufactured; I can't bear to replace beauty with ugly.

On my homeward drive down Hillsborough Street, I savor the reflective glow of the setting sun in the glass sides of Raleigh’s tallest buildings. There is so much beauty in the world. Miracles, really. Beauty is a miracle; and it's free to all, requiring no special talent or money, only intention. “People usually consider walking on water a miracle. But I think the real miracle is to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child--our own two eyes. All is a miracle.” (Thich Nhat Hanh)

My first published book arrives in the mail Monday. I spot it leaning against my Global Purple Door when I pull into the driveway after work. My heart leaps into my throat! It is the story in pictures and a bit of text of creating my gardens; and of Mary Minges, the original creator. I made it on my fabulous Mac computer, and Apple published it--just for me. I force myself to feed the cat and change into comfy clothes before I sit down and open it; savoring the anticipation. (Unlike the sunrise, it isn't going anywhere.) It is beautiful!

“Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.” (Franz Kafka) I read this line yesterday, and it comforts me as I have been cognizant lately of the race toward old age. Perhaps it is the true fountain of youth; to see beauty and to know you are seeing it. Maybe that is what cameras are truly for. They capture moments in time and in snapping (I guess cameras don't really snap any more) the beauty, I know that I am noticing it. Looking at it later, like looking at my book, reminds me that I did really see it.

Last summer, while visiting my mother, she pulled out some old negatives her sister had given her. We take them to the camera store to see if they can be developed, and return to pick them up a few days later. One of them is particularly fascinating to me. It is a study in personality. In the grainy black and white photograph, my mother's mother, my great-aunt Fannie (on my grandfather's side), and two other women--all young adults--are spending a summer day near a Tennessee creek. Fannie and the other two women are playing in the water--their long dresses hitched up. They looked like they are having the summer time of their lives, laughing and playful. My grandmother is sitting on the bank in the background, a look of clinical depression on her sallow face. She had an incredible hard life, even to that point, and she is a picture of sadness in the midst of beauty that I suspect she did not notice. Though she lived to the age of 99, she lived as her shadow. My mother, on the other hand, is her color. Why, I wonder? How did my mother learn to live in Kodachrome in a black and white family? Somehow she learned to see beauty. At 95, and with failing eyesight, she still sees it. Somehow she discovered the secret.

"The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” (Henry Miller) Thank you, Mama.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Pruning the Pyracantha

I met Roberta last winter over knitting. She walked right up to me at Cafe Carolina and asked about the poncho I was wearing. It was to be only the first of many things we discovered in common; and talking to strangers only the beginning of my admiration of her. One morning I shared my blogging and we further bonded around creative gardening. On a sunny Saturday last spring we exchanged garden tours. She toured mine, then I followed her to hers, where we had wine on the beautiful porch of her lime green outbuilding. Roberta loved my garden door and got her husband to put up a wooden screen door in a frame sitting right in the middle of her back gardens. She planted vines on the trellis on either side of it. It is crazy fabulous. I got excited by the flowers she painted on the glass in window frames hanging on her fence and tried my hand at it for my fence--with results that surprised and pleased me. Roberta is a decade and change beyond me in years and my new idol. She took up painting when she was no longer young, and gardening, and house-renovating with Allen. She had been a crocheter, but had just delved into knitting when we met. She loves my writing, I love her painting. We love each other.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I return to see her receding summer garden and we sit on her front patio before the warmth of a chiminea, drinking wine and watching blue birds and jays as the evening approaches. I admire the pyracantha trained to follow the contours of a low wrought iron fence around the stone patio. The prickly pyracantha tree in my side garden is the bane of my existence. I have to trim the top through the dining room window, and it sprouts suckers pretty much daily.  But I love the winter berries, and the texture it gives the garden, so I endure it. I comment on the artful way hers looks, and lament the raggedness of mine. Roberta says, "Cut it back! Cut it back as far as you need to so you can reach it and control it." Huh. What a concept.

A few days later I pull into the driveway and sit looking down the garden at the wicked thing. I notice that it has only a few bunches of berries up near the top, amongst the overgrowth I am trying to pretend isn't there--it is begging for an overhaul. Then I see it--the line along which it needs to be cut into a new shape. I am not a sculptor or a wood carver, but I have often heard keepers of those gifts say that they sit with the stone or the wood until it speaks to them. It is the medium that tells them where to cut to make it what it is meant to be, they do not force it into their own vision. That prickly pyracantha was speaking to me. It was showing me what it needed to be better looking, healthier, and more manageable.

Last weekend I gather my long sleeves, my leather gloves, and my loppers and set to pruning. I work slowly, one clip at a time. I step back several times to re-engage with what it is telling me. I fine tune the lopper cuts with my clippers. I am so pleased with the result. I can see over it from the window now, instead of into it. And I can see the top of my lime green door when I pull into the driveway. Hopefully some day it will again be full of berries for the birds to eat, that will encourage blooms followed by more berries.

The pyracantha had become shapeless as it grew helter skelter and as I lopped it off in the same haphazard way. It was out of control and I was overwhelmed by it. This is not the first time I have pruned the heck out of it. When I created the side garden, I observed that the long-ignored suckers had woven themselves into the branches and choked it all up. It was as dense as the rose bushes around Sleeping Beauty's castle tower. And it was entangled with a nandina growing right along with it through its core. I did not study it first, I just took off with my little saw and loppers. I cut the sides, I cut the lower branches so I could plant under it; it never occurred to me that it was acceptable gardening practice to cut the top off. In my haste I cut one of three main trunks and left a hole in the back side. It never recovered. In fact, this week as I am pruning, I pull the rotted remains of that bone out of the ground.

Dreams can be like the pyracantha, at least for me. I can’t deal with really big ideas; they quickly become too big to tackle, and I end up in wholesale abandonment. I can't tell you how often that has happened to me.  When I can't deal with the branches, I cut it off at the trunk. I need to learn the lesson of the bush and move slowly into my visions. Friends can help with that; and therapists and clearness committees. When we are looking at really big transitions in our lives, they help us step back and look at what to prune or put on hold to make it manageable, and to identify the main bone that needs to be protected. At yoga on Monday, Julie leaves us with the YMCA thought-of-the-week: "A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart, and sings it back to you when you have forgotten the words." (Unknown)

This week my co-worker and I attend a training for the a software product we are considering for the church. We are taken aback by the number of participants who say their church has had (and paid a monthly fee for) the product for years, but never used it. The trainer says he hears that all the time. What is the matter with it, we wonder. Is is something that sounds good, but is really useless? Is is hard to use? But Fred says over and over throughout the day, and again in a conversation at the end of the training another attendee and I have with him: "Roll it out slowly. Pick one part of it and do it well. Then, and only then, move on to the next thing." He say users try to do it all at once, get overwhelmed, and abandon it all.

Late yesterday afternoon, I go for a walk. As usual, I end up in the cemetery walking among the multi-colored trees.

My favorite over-the-top tribute in the Oakwood garden is to a woman, active in the community, who died young a century ago. It has been newly decorated. I wonder if the flowers were left by a descendant, or by a stranger with a sense of artistic whimsy. I love the idea of the latter; but in either case, it was probably not anyone who knew her personally. I sometimes set things straight at markers, but it never occurred to me to pay homage in this way. It gives me ideas.

As the sun begins its descent toward the horizon, I sit down on a gravestone, deciding that staying to watch it set is an appropriate way to spend the last late afternoon of Daylight Saving Time. It takes longer than I anticipate, but I stick it out. Who knows what might happen. It is not a spectacle, but sitting in the crisp air watching the landscape of the sky change and the color shift as the sun slowly sinks until suddenly it is gone and the sky turns dark, is pure joy.

Find your song. Stand back and observe it. Take your time. Find your clearness committee. Move slowly. One foot in front of the other. One step at a time. Enjoy the journey, because it is everything.