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.