Sunday, March 27, 2011

Own Your Typhoon

Last year the dogwood didn’t bloom well. That’s just what it was...last year. Digging around its roots to “plant” the three church windows upset it. This year it has recovered to its full magnificence. That’s what it is...this year. I have dug around my roots several times in my lifetime--and others have dug around my roots, not necessarily with my permission. The digging causes stress that it takes a while to come back from. But, like the dogwood, after a settling in period, fullness comes again.

In the news this week: A small town in the American midwest recovers, smaller but stronger, from the tornado that flattened it two years ago. A small town in Japan with a will to live looks toward rebirth from the tsunami that leveled it two weeks ago. Not the expected life. But their life. Wishing it otherwise is pointless.

Some of my favorite wisdom comes from the flight attendant's spiel before take-off. One of those wise bits is "Take care when opening the overhead bin as some items may have shifted during the [journey]." Shifts occur in life. We don't always pay attention and one day we open the bin and look around and realize we are not in the four-color brochure we thought we signed up for. Divorce, illness, lost jobs, tsunami. Bad things keep happening to us. We are in the middle of a typhoon and we can't get out. We growl and cry and ask why yet another obstacle is being put in our path. We scream "FALSE ADVERTISING" and we want our money back. Love in unexpected places, rescuing a garden, new careers. What if they aren't obstacles? What if life is a perfect storm and we are the eye at the center? What if it isn't happening to us, but with us? This is MY life. I will cease to be buffeted about by it when I learn to own it. All of it. The wind that flattens me and the gentle breeze that picks me up and dances alongside me.

As I wander my garden this week, I take special note of the parts of the garden that I have restored and the plants that I have rescued from the overgrowth of ivy and wild roses, over-zealous azaleas, and the enormous gardenia. Two hydrangeas--one transplanted, one left in its home; two Japanese maples that had no room to grow; daffodils, snowdrops, and Japanese iris languishing in the dark under the ivy. All thriving now. But it didn’t happen immediately. They had to recover from their years of smother and re-establish their occupation of the garden. They had become unfamiliar with space and sunlight. They had to adjust to the freedom to be. In one of my gardens, one that holds a special sadness for me, the weeping Japanese maple that I planted in the spot where the rhododendron died, flourishes; layering joy on top of sorrow. Do we experience grief and recovery as interruption, something to just push through; or are they an important part of our life--our perfect typhoon?

I observe the garden residents I have introduced to the garden. The banana tree is especially interesting to me. It rises not unlike the phoenix from the ashes. The new green sprout comes up right through the center of last year's old brown cane. Last year's experience is the foundation for this year's growth. It is a very curious plant; and it gives me pause. I can't wish now dead life experiences had never happened. They are who I am. I am all of them. I observe the Lenten rose and the Carolina jasmine that didn't bloom the first two years after I planted them, but this year they are. And the trillium bulbs that I planted upside down and didn't come up the first year. The second year they came up but didn't bloom. This year they have buds. Life turned upside down has a way of righting itself. But it is not in a hurry.

Many moons ago, after the birth of my first child, I taught childbirth classes. I loved giving the parents-to-be the knowledge they needed to make the bringing of new life into the world the amazing experience I knew it could be. Of course, no two people have the same experience; but I believed that with knowledge they could own whatever path the birthing took. I also had the good fortune to accompany some of them to the birthing room. I was in love. I was pretty sure mid-wifery was not in my future, but for a time I dreamed of being a doula--a helpmate. But that was not to be my path. So last week, when a friend I have never met except through our blogs--hers and mine--wrote a tribute to me in which she called me an "earth doula," that gentle breeze blew across my memory and reminded me of a long-forgotten dream. Out of the dead cane, new life.

Own your typhoon. It is blowing you on exactly the right course. It is quiddity; your essence; your "what it is."


I am mother, daughter, sister
I am all the colors in my garden
I am the peony that doesn't bloom
I am the lorpetalum that does
I am imagination and creativity
I am resourcefulness
I am strength
I am tears
I am trillium patience
I am can't-wait daffodils
I am birds singing in the garden
I am wind--sometimes breeze, sometimes storm
I am the one lonely Lenten rose bloom
I am the full magenta azalea
I am the hawks building a nest together
I am the cooing mourning dove looking for a mate
I am alpine mountain air
I am 35 degrees and 85 degrees, in the same week
I am garden doula
I am friend and sometimes lover
I am all the seasons, round and round
I am the owner of my typhoon
I am life
        this life
              my life

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Hope Springs a Turtle*

When my family lived on Plum Road in Starkville, Mississippi, a box turtle inhabited the petunia beds that bordered the raised patio. I loved that. I haven't seen any turtles in my gardens here, but there is plenty else sproinging up on this first day of spring. Spring is such a hopeful time. And spring in North Carolina is incomparable. For all my provincialism about the Pacific Northwest and all my whining about summer heat in the south; for all my longing to live higher above sea level, spring in North Carolina almost makes up for all that is geographically and atmospherically--and for almost every other way--lacking in my living (at least when it is spring). This morning I put my spring birdhouse on the front porch in celebration.

Warmth returns mid- week, continuing the typical schizophrenic pattern, and along with it the extra hour of daylight after work to explore hope among the dead leaves; to sit on the deck with a glass of wine and watch the leaves grow and the dogwood blossoms open. Five of the six rose bushes I planted have leaf sprouts; the bleeding heart has its first string of little heart bells with their translucent clappers; the understated euphorbia bloom tops the tall velvety soft stalks; the weeping Japanese maple leaves are unfurling from last week's red buds like winged creatures; the wild violets are purpling the lawn and rock crevices and everywhere else I let them grow--which is anywhere they want.

The banana tree has ten three-inch shoots and yesterday I find one of the Purple Hearts up beside the front step. I don't know how I missed one of the hostas that must have sprung fully formed overnight, while its sisters are just poking through the soil. The Japanese Painted fern fronds are several inches tall (and I hadn't even seen them come up) and the fiddlehead shape of other ferns are emerging everyday, looking rather like those things children blow through at parties, to make the paper cylinder shoot into people's faces. The azaleas are budding and my feet don flip flops for the first time in the 70-something degree warmth.

My patio project under the canopy of the dogwood is coming along. The hole is dug--and redug after I decide to move it twelve inches toward the Pacific Northwest in order to avoid dealing with one of the tree roots. Yesterday I pick up 130 more bricks--thank you to Susan and Boyd for the donation and for helping me load and unload them; and to Vickie for working side-by-side with me to exchange the donated bricks with holes for the solid ones in my yard border. I only need 250 more. I decide to go with the costlier, but more manageable, bags of pea gravel and sand from Lowes as opposed to the hassle and subsequent shoveling of delivery en masse, and get ten fifty pound bags of gravel onto the construction site. Only thirty more to go. Advil is my new best friend. I put down the weed barrier landscaping cloth before I call it a day. My hopefulness is growing that I will be able to accomplish this herculean project; and leave a more or less permanent mark on this little space in the vast universe.

At five o'clock I sit on the deck with a cold one and raise a glass to my dad's best friend who is at that moment being memorialized in my home town on the left coast. It is also my Daddy's 94th birthday--or would have been had he not left us way too soon sixteen years ago. I have always been aware, of course, that my own birthday is on the eve of summer; but only this week do I realize that my father's is on the eve of spring. Connection. I recall the year he "let" me build a brick walkway from the edge of the yard to the compost pile. I'm pretty sure my work was not up to his standard, but if he said so I don't remember. I weep in hopefulness that he might be proud of me for tackling this patio; in spite of the fact that he was monumentally disappointed in who I was at the time of his death. And, in spite of his displeasure in me--and consequently mine in him--being my last memory of him, I miss him so much. That's kind of how I am, I have discovered as my years march on: however disillusioned people are with me or me with them, I remain hopeful that someday, some year, they will come back around and re-engage in relationship. Hope springs a turtle.

There is a perigee moon this weekend--a once every twenty years Supermoon. A perigee moon, I learn, is when it comes closest to the earth. It is big, it is bright, it is spectacular. Because of the trees that block my view of the moon as it rises from the horizon, I drag my tired muscles into the car and go in search of a better view--because the moon is worth it. A thin cloud veil floats across the celestial orb; it looks like a pentimento--the original art hiding behind an overwash, as if the artist is thinking she could do better and intending to try. But when I go out on the lawn for one last look before bed, the veil is gone. Hard to improve upon perfection.

It is the same moon that my almost longest ever friend sees as she returns to her winter home in Indiana after an impulse visit to North Carolina this week. (We have known each other since our daughters were in pre-school; they are still friends, too. Cheers, Charly.) It is the same moon an across-the-ocean reader of my blog sees. She (?) left a comment last week, saying, "I don't know how I arrive to your blog, but I like it just by reading the first phrase!!!" That pleases me so much. I click on her link and read her blog. I think she might be from India. Hope springs a turtle that connections of ordinary life to ordinary life will someday bring peace to this messed up world. It is the same moon my family on the other coast sees (but I expect it was hidden by clouds last night). It is the same moon Emma's friends from her Peace Corps days in Tanzania see. It is the same moon my church friends in Cuba this week see, with our brothers and sisters in Matanzas. It is the same moon that floats over northern Japan and Afghanistan and all the other troubled parts of the world. Look up! Look up! In the sky, in the garden, in relationship--hope springs a turtle.

* In gratitude for the title of this post to Brennan, a young student in my friend's classroom. Through the eyes of babes, in whom our hope lies.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


"Pentimento (n). An underlying image in a painting, as an earlier painting, part of a painting, or original draft that is revealed usually when the top layer of paint becomes transparent with age. From the Italian pentimento, correction; from pentire, to repent." It is my new favorite word. It rolls around in my mouth and trips off the end of my tongue. Not as many syllables as my decades-old favorite, onomatopoeia; but easier to spell.

The garden is full of pentimenti. The garden is a pentimento; the old in juxtaposition with the new. When I began renovating gardens at this house, I uncovered dozens of long-buried stepping stones and made new pathways with them. I recreated a garden made of bricks surrounding a decaying stump. I plant annuals in the rich loam of stump and make a work of art with beautiful broken things. Each spring the leaves of a bulb plant grow through the arms of my broken garden goddess. Yesterday I discover this year's contribution to annual artwork. I pause at my new garden gate to look at my collection of artifacts dug up from ground as I have created my gardens over the past four years. They are reminders of the family who lived here before me. Mel, visiting my early spring garden, and I discover shoots of the  emerging giant hosta, pushing up through the layers of decay of last year's plant. (It was Mel who found them last year, too!) The hydrangea canes support dried blossoms from last season and new bright green leaves. The strong leaves of the daffodil push up through the winter-hard ground and  pierce dead leaves at the surface, carrying them up with them as they grow.

I consider the human species as I walk through the garden pentimento in the early dawn this week: all of the what and who we have been are still with us. We cover them up, layer upon layer like the strata in a New Mexico cliff. Sometimes the original is just a draft, as we practice who we are in our forming beings. As we discover the new, and mature in the old, we lay down the layers. Sometimes we repent of who we have been and revise and re-form. Once in a while we overlay something that is sweet and true as we allow bad experiences or relationships to drag us away from our selves. Sometimes we put on layers of protection in an attempt to avoid past pain; and sometimes we allow the pain to become part of us and of our honest relationships with one another. But always, what might have been is covered over by what was or is, as our journey becomes the path, and we lose sight of what we thought would be. Mostly that is inevitable; you know: life is what happens while we are making other plans. We forget our dreams and the person we have been. But sometimes, if we let ourselves empty and live into stillness, we can rediscover our selves and our dreams. I am finding, as I age, I become more transparent--like my mother's translucent skin that allows the life-giving veins to shine through. I recall the alphabetical volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia that occupied the bottom shelf of the basement bookcase of my childhood home. The plastic pages in the "B for body" volume where I turned back the skin page to reveal the skeleton, and it in turn to reveal the muscles, then the internal organs and veins. And then back to the first page to look at all the layers showing through the one on top. I wonder if the internet version of the encyclopedia is quite as fascinating?

I was once in relationship with someone who considered her layers to be like those of an onion. In order to know her, other people, she believed, had to be willing to peel away the layers to get to her true self. I think, now, that it is our true self that pushes from our core outward through the layers; not the other way around. We see it only when we stop moving and create space. And it is up to me to make myself known to others, not others to find me. I don't remove the layers, as I seek rediscovery, because they are part of me. I just seek to make them transparent as I open myself to be known. Pentimento.

So often, along with the pride I feel in having made a life of my own and accomplished great joy in the doing, I can’t quite let go of what is dead. Days later, the daffodil has still not shed the dead leaf, and the green shoot is bowing over; letting the dead leaf form its shape. We carry the old with us. And that is good. Trying to change the past, or bring back the dead, is not. Carrying it in a place that keeps us from healthy movement toward the new, is not. From my window at the cafe this morning I can see a bare tree and a tree full of new leaves and an oak tree covered with dead leaves. We are all so different. Some of us shed the old and wait, empty, for what may come. Others, like the oak tree, cling to the old until something new comes along and pushes away the dead. I often chastise myself for not being able to let go of what is over. But I think I am an oak tree. Maybe that is okay. It all happens in its time.

Yesterday I start my patio project. I have spent weeks poking the ground where I want to build it--under the spreading, cooling branches of the dogwood tree. But that location presents an obstacle: roots; roots close to the surface. I won't be able to dig to the six inch depth recommended to "do it right." And there is the ground cover to be cleared. The dwarf mondo grass I transplanted into holes I filled late last summer is doing really well. It has a flourishing root system that will need to be removed. And then there is the tamping down of the ground; the hauling of gravel and sand; finding and transporting brick; laying bricks. And, of course, I want a circle--the hardest design to get right. But I decide to just do it; to say YES to my patio dream. Nothing good will ever happen if we don't just begin it. As serendipity would have it, yesterday--on the morning I am to begin--I read in Patti Digh's book, Creative is a Verb (I wonder how the world would be different if every person were to read this book) that life is yearning meeting obstacle. "What if," she writes,"the obstacles are the point, the measure against which we can find the depth of the yearning itself?" It seems the perfect time: A beautiful weekend; the ground is softened from the rain earlier in the week; the beginning of daylight saving time will allow for an hour of daylight after work to dig and create. And so I begin. I begin to clear away the sod and the soil, but not the roots. I begin to make an empty space for new things to happen in. I don't have to know the end, I just have to commit to the process. It will be my Lenten practice of creation; of letting go of outcome to see what emerges.

The key, I quickly discover, will be to avoid forcing my body to exhaustion. I am not good at doing things gradually once I begin them; I get in a hurry to bring projects to fruition. I have been watching the dogwood tree for the past three weeks, though. It is my lesson today. Unlike the bluebells and the translucent layers of the Japanese iris that were not there one night and blooming the next morning, the dogwood takes its sweet time opening. I stressed it two years ago when I dug post holes among its roots for my church windows.  It did not bloom well last summer. This year it is loaded with those slow to open blooms. I get the ground cover cleared with a hoe (not a blade of actual grass in the 6-foot circle). I practice ambidextrous hoeing and chopping in an attempt at left/right equal opportunity flab reduction and oblique muscle strengthening. As I begin digging up the dirt at the end of the circle farthest from the roots, I take a "break" to finally throw together a more defined compost area behind the shed (I have been thinking about doing that for four years now). If the patio had been my first project rather than the last, I would have saved a heap of money on dirt; now I don't know where I am going to put it all. I am reaching the point of exhaustion, but except for brief water breaks in the lawn rocker watching flocks of birds flit crazily in the tree tops singing as they work and play, I keep at it. I get to a few of the roots before I finally quit for the day in anticipation of another friend coming to see the garden. I don't have clarity about how the roots will work into the design; I only know I can't risk the dogwood tree by removing them. They are the original painting; they will become part of the patio pentimento.

Saturday is a day of pentimento discovery: along with the giant hosta pushing through the leaf mulch I find the Carolina jasmine that had one bloom last year has dozens of tiny yellow buds peeking from under the leaves on the evergreen vine. A new pot sits on the root of Mary's old holly bush dug up from the new rose beds, waiting in emptiness for a summer trailing geranium. The antique rose bush is covered with healthy new leaves. Lent is now. Spring is coming; slowing rising from the darkness. The old with the new. Pentimento.

People have asked me why I blog. There are many reasons, but one of them is to uncover my self--to push through the layers to find out who I am. To discover my truth; to speak my truth; to live my truth. Peek through your layers, get back to your center, search for what's there. Look for what is not there anymore. Look. See. And see again for the first time. Become a pentimento.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Embracing Mystery

One of my most clear memories of the house at the end of the south bay of Puget Sound, where I spent the first eight years of my life, is of my mother's roses. There were climbing roses that grew up the front porch trellises; and trailing roses wandered over the lattice fence in the back yard. Their beauty fills my head even now, as their presence occupies my memory of childhood. I also have childhood memories of the roses my favorite Aunt Helen, with whom I share a name, and my Uncle Carl coddled, surrounding the back yard at their California home. I have never again lived in a house with a rose bush, much less planted them. The garden I now love, however, has an antique rose bush; planted, the neighbor tells me, by Mary's mother. I calculate it to be in the vicinity of 50 years old. It is one of my rescue projects.

As I have formed, renovated, and rebuilt the gardens around my not-so-big house, I remained without vision for the beds on either side of the front porch until a couple of years ago. Roses. Perfect. Perfectly scary. It seemed like a big investment, for which one should perhaps have an advanced degree and hefty bank account before diving in. Plus I had to first remove the four cone-shaped spruce trees, the four box elder knockoffs, and the two floundering azaleas. I take it one step at a time, not willing to fully commit all at once. First I transplant the azaleas. Then the two smaller spruces by the steps come out and are replaced with Purple Heart and sundrops. I plant a banana tree and elephant ear caladium behind the larger cones at the corners of the house, so when I remove them there will already be a replacement. Those plants help the unloved trees look out-of-place and redundant. The next season I remove them without remorse. Last fall I ripped out one box elder on each side, bringing the banana and caladium into their fullness. This month, with the perennials still underground, and only the pansies and the remaining shrubs to give substance to the beds, I am facing my fear of emptiness head-on. It is commitment time. If I take out the shrubs, I will also have to deal with the holly stumps they are hiding that need much more than me and my shovel to remove. Can I grow roses? It's time to get them in the ground. Now. I sit in the yard and look. I visualize the void. I can't see the roses. I can only see the emptiness. Something is feeling familiar about all of this.

The unknown is mystery. How many times have I wondered at the courage (or stupidity--really there is a fine line) of people who can quit a job without first securing another; or leave friends to go where they are strangers. Who move to a new location just because they want to live there, but with no means of support. Last night my dear friend reveals that she has applied for a job in a state that is her favorite in all the world. I am so proud of her. When we are young(er) we have time to live in places that don't match our heart home. Or at least we have the illusion of time. I no longer have that illusion. It is time. The people I know, Dori and Charly and Marc and Rebecca and me, who know where our heart home is, are lucky. People who can make anyplace their heart home are fortunate, too. Sad are those who know and can't get there. Those who can't embrace the mystery. Those who can't visualize the roses filling the space that must first be emptied.

I walk around my garden this week and look for what is entering the above ground part of their cycles. It finally rains a tiny bit early in the week. The next morning the bluebells are blooming. I didn't plant the bluebells, but I did uncover them from the overgrown ground-engulfing ivy. When the leaves come up with the daffodils, I can never remember just what they are. Another plant that I rescued from the ivy army is a not-quite-domestic peony. It bloomed last year for the first time. One bloom. But even then I didn't see it emerge from the ground. So this week when I see the red shoots, I'm mystified for a few moments. And then I remember, the peony! The buds of the dogwood that were closed tight last week, are beginning to open; their tiny yellow flowers peeping through the loosening bracts. They tell my tale, as I begin to gently loosen the fear that is clenched around my longing to return to heart home; and as I loosen my hold on my fear of roses and the need to first face the empty beds. As I let go of the terror of committing to mystery.

My friend Santi reminds me of a quote attributed to Goethe. "Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” But she knew more of the context, so I look it up on the internet. What I learn is that Goethe probably didn't really write it just as it is quoted. It was more likely the result of a very creative translator. That doesn't bother me. We take what we are given and rework it until is our own. "Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back-- Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no [person] could have dreamed would have come [their] way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

When I let it be known that I had pushed through the paralysis of fear and committed to a week-long writing workshop (apparently I won't know if I got in until the end of April), I received gifts of encouragement, both material and spiritual. This month I knit a wrap that, because of the way it is constructed--in a twisted loop--I have no idea other than the picture what it will look like when it is finished. But I keep going, trusting that the mystery will unfold as it will. I love watching for things to push through the ground, form buds, open into flower, make their way through the above ground cycle. I love the mystery of not remembering where I have planted things, what has spread while it has been in the dark, what will come up and what won't. The mystery of life, and change, and moving toward the unknown. Why is it that spring is my favorite time in the garden because of the mystery, but I am so afraid of mystery in life?

I dig out the last two shrubs, and last weekend good and strong friends, and owners of a chainsaw, come and remove most of the holly stumps. And there it is, an empty garden. Emptiness can evoke a pessimistic sadness; or it can be a blank canvas, waiting for the artist to see it in its fullness. I sit again and look. Slowly, slowly, I see through the dark to the color and scent of the roses yet to be planted; of the red leaves and pink flowers of the purple heart, still underground; of the broad leaves of the banana tree that will shout from the corner; of the tiny purple violets that will bloom soon. I take Friday off from work and dig up the dirt, amending it with bagged soil and compost. Then I head for the nursery and choose six bareroot roses of different sizes and colors. I do my best to follow the instructions for planting roses. I blanket the bed with mulch. It still doesn't look like much to the naked eye, but it looks like YES! to me. And so I will wait and see what comes.

“Not much can be seen in the dark, but sensed yes.” (Joseph Tany) If we knew exactly how it will all turn out, there would be no mystery. And the joy of discovery would be diminished.