Sunday, May 27, 2012

What Remains

“Last Summer in the Garden”
by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

I am remembering how I used to wake in the mornings
   and step out
Into my backyard, coffee cup in hand.
I am remembering how
I would wander around in a sleepy stupor,
   the cool of the morning grass

On my bare feet, the awe of the new day
   making me forget about

The word exile. I keep dreaming the desert willow,
   the sweet acacia,

The honey mesquite, the purple sage,
   the cow’s tongue cactus that had

Become as tall as a tree.

                                         God, I loved that garden, but

It’s no longer mine. It’s not true to say it’s gone.
It’s just that
I can’t set foot on it any longer. It’s cruel,
   this business of exile...

                                I can never go back to that house

Where I lived for so many years... I was

The god of the garden. I was the planter,
   the giver and taker of life.

This year, in early June, the front yard was
   a blanket of orange blossoms

And the paloverdes were exploding
   in yellow blooms that were

As fragile and tender as my boyhood.
I was not there to see the garden
In its fullness, though I saw the entire scene
   as a photograph
I stole from my memory...

                     I have spent my last summer in the garden...
But when we leave the garden,
   always we carry something with us,

A fragment of our innocent selves.
There is a freedom in living

Somewhere east of Eden. We all want to taste
   the fruit from the tree
Of knowledge. I’m thinking that, in the end, Adam and Eve

Made their peace with exile.

                       And I can make my peace with mine.

 ❧ ❧ ❧

This poem has haunted me for the past year and a half, as I anticipated leaving my garden. Then it seemed a long way off; but I knew deep down that it wasn't. Today I have less than four days left until the garden is no longer mine. And then I will begin making my peace with exile. Today, though, I am thinking about what remains. I am thinking about what I will carry with me.

When I began the resurrection of Mary Minges' garden, I knew nothing of gardening. I knew plenty about heartache, though, and I was to discover that gardening, restoration, and writing can heal heartache. From the first step of restoring the garden﹣pulling bag upon bag of English ivy﹣I began my education, with the garden as teacher. Here are some of the lessons I have learned about gardening and life over the last five years.

Lessons from the Garden

Ivy smothers. Ripping it out is empowering, and bulbs you didn’t know were there are set free to bloom again.

Things die. Plants, love, friendship. We aren’t always ready. We can’t stop it.

The soil can be replanted. It’s usually best to amend it first. And that takes work; stinky work sometimes. Manure smells.

Before replanting in a spot where something died, let the ground lie fallow. Give it time to soak up the nutrients you amended it with.

It’s fun, maybe even essential, when replanting an area, to try something new. If a plant didn’t work in the spot, don’t plant the same old thing.

Don’t look too far ahead, it’s overwhelming. Just begin it. Pick one little corner of the overgrown, neglected garden; grab one vine and pull. Then one more. One step at time usually gets the job done. If you want to build a patio, but can’t imagine that you will be able to, just start it. Envision the completed project and pick up your shovel. You don’t have to be able to imagine every step along the journey.

If something beautiful strikes your fancy, but you don’t really know what you will do with it, get it! Church windows can always be planted in the garden. Even croquet stakes can be repurposed. You won’t be disappointed.

You have to pull the dying annuals, even if they still look pretty good, so you can plant the new season ones. Ripping up what is okay, but not great, is emotionally hard; do it anyway.

You don’t always know right off what to plant in an area. You can either stick something in and hope it’s the right thing, or you can wait and watch for a vision to come. It will.

If you pick the wrong thing for a spot, it’s never too late to remove it and try again. If the roots have taken hold, though, it doesn’t come out easily.

If you cut off the top of an unwanted holly bush, but don’t dig out the roots (which may require a chain saw), the bush will keep sprouting back. You will spend a lot of time, year after year, clipping unwanted sprouts. Best to just dig deep and get it out.

Pulling weeds, pulling expiring annuals and perennials, removing dead leaves is freeing.  Making space for what’s to come.

If you want a banana tree, plant a banana tree. Don’t listen to the naysayers. Listen to your own heart. You can hear it best.

One woman’s weeds are another woman’s love. Violets. Passion flower. Those purple things that bloom when everything else is done. Don’t reject them just because they refuse to stay in the box.

You can’t just sit back and watch, and expect the garden to flourish. You have take care of it.

If you feed the birds, they will come. All you need is a feeder. Or a large square coffee table with cushions around it.

Don’t just do something, sit there. Don’t just plant or weed and walk away. Stay there. Sit a spell. Listen. Examine. Keep your camera in your pocket.

When it’s time to leave the garden, know that you have done a wonderful thing. You planted a little corner of beauty in the world. You have nourished the child and loved it well, and now it’s time to let it go.

                              ❧ ❧ ❧

Gardens are therapists, they heal your soul.
Gardens are doctors, they mend your heart.
Gardens are good friends, they are a mirror of your being.
Gardens are teachers, they expand your knowledge.
Gardens are ministers, they show you the One Who is More.
Gardens are children, they reflect your nurturing.
Gardens love you back.

What remains is thousands of photographs; one hundred blog posts; a hundred thousand words; a restored garden; and me.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

That's All She Grilled

I’m racking up the “last times” on a daily basis now. For a year they have been seasonal: last unbearably hot summer (hooray), last time to clean out the summer garden, last year-end exhaustion at work, last snowfall in the cemetery (that one turned out to be two winters ago, when I didn’t know it was the last one), last fire in the fireplace, last thrill of the early spring garden emergence followed by the opening of the summer flowers (yes, there will be other gardens, but not just like this one). The last
dinner with friends around my coffee table in the hearth room (that one hurts), last bluebells and spring star flower. Last grape tomatoes (that may turn out not to be true, there are some green ones with a week and a half to go, along with several tiny yellow squash that may or may not mature in time for me). Last summer annual planting (for the new owners). Was Saturday the last time I will rise early to lean on a gravestone as the full moon makes way for sunrise that splits the sky as the new day dawns? Was the thunderstorm a few days ago, the last one from my bedroom under the eaves?

On and on it goes, like a reverse bucket list; not a pail full of things I hope to empty as I accomplish them for the first time, but one that I am filling with things to which I have grown accustomed and am experiencing for the last time.

I have probably mentioned the blueberry scone I have purchased at The Fresh Market every week for the past 12 years, to enjoy with my weekly cafe coffee and journaling
time. Every week, that is, except for the several months they stopped carrying them because "they weren't rising right." During that year, I learned to make them myself and got a pretty close clone; but I was glad when they suddenly returned. Two weeks ago TFM brought in an imposter, a small puff thing. The FM scone was on my list of things I knew I was going to have to say goodbye to. But I expected to know it was the last one.

Last weekend I traveled to Asheville to visit my family. I stopped at Montreat campground and walked back into #29, my favorite campsite, for the last time. I went on to Max, Kristy, and Nicholas' lovely site on the side of a mountain outside of Weaverville. I hope I will visit their home again, but I will arrive by plane and it will be a major vacation.

Nearly 6-year-old Max, who was a newborn when I first met him there, read to me the book I made him for Christmas. He is a much- improved baseball and soccer player than he was just a year ago. He is waiting for his baby brother to be born. As am I, before I head west. Maybe I will return to #29 someday; maybe Max will join me there, perhaps Ethan, too--which was always my plan in the years I camped at Montreat. Some plans don't bear fruit.

Friday evening I fire up the grill I got five years ago when I moved into the house at 609 Edmund Street. One person doesn’t use much propane (or at least I don't), and it still has the original tank. Twelve days from moving out, I’m cleaning out the freezer and put the last burger on the grill. Just as it finishes cooking, the tank runs out of gas. (I didn’t make that up.) A few weeks ago the spring on my eight-year-old clippers broke when it got caught in my well-used leather glove, tearing a small hole; and last week, as I trimmed a tree through my upstairs window, the pruners got stuck in full extension. I neither asked for nor needed affirmation for my journey, but apparently the Universe wants to make darn sure I know it's the right thing. Maybe the One Who is More knows as the time draws ever nearer that I have to say goodbye to my friends as I extend my self, I might doubt my decision.

I attended the memorial service of a dear man yesterday, whose 58-year-old body caved to a mean-spirited cancer in just a few short months. Nothing can claim John's spirit, however, as evidenced by the large gathering of those he touched. Going to the ends of earth to show their love--though their 33 years of commitment outlasted 58% of heterosexual marriages with or without the formality of societal-sanctioned marriage--John and Steve proclaimed their commitment first in a private ceremony, then within the love of their faith community when Pullen Baptist Church voted to perform same-gender unions. Later they traveled to Vermont for a civil union, and more recently to California finally to be married. I’m almost sorry John lived to see what must have been a huge sadness as the majority of North Carolina voters told them their love was not worthy or real. This quote has been in my blog notes for a long time, I don't know who said it, but it makes me aware of Steve's life going forward--of all our lives really, as we say goodbye to that which we have loved-- “dying doesn’t end the story; it transforms it.”

Sometimes we don't know we are experiencing something for the last time. Simple things like a favorite pastry to which we have grown accustomed, or snow in the cemetery. Like an ordinary dinner with the great love of your life just before you learn the body of one is harboring a killer. Maybe it's easier when we don't know. And maybe it's a lesson in the importance of really savoring in the moment all the experiences that bring us joy. I am not taking for granted this beautiful May morning outdoors at the cafe, a cool breeze bringing whispering movement to the trees; a jet cutting through the sky before disappearing into the wild blue yonder carrying passengers on some adventure, its stream mimicking the wisps of clouds. I am not ignoring the curly-haired toddler being introduced to another patron's Great Dane, Stella. I let the Little Brown Bird take a rather large chunk of my Harris Teeter scone (which is the right shape and texture, but tastes a little like a pop-tart), just so I can smile at its delight in the unexpected good fortune.

This one day, this one experience, this one life. It's what we have for sure.

"Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
-Mary Oliver

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Venturing Boldly: A Love Story

I have not fully understood the impact, if any, of the Occupy movement, but I admire the passion of those who believe it is a way for their voice to be heard. I pass the Occupy Raleigh island encampment on Hillsborough Street this week, as I have twice every weekday through the fall and the winter and the spring, and observe that they have folded their tents that provided shelter, piled up the remaining wood crates that fueled their fires against the cold over the winter, abandoned the cut logs they sat around the fire on, locked up the port-a-potties, and gone home. I am amazed by the passion that kept them there for so many months. They ventured out of whatever places they had been holed up in, and lived out loud.

On Tuesday, North Carolina passed a constitutional amendment that states for the record that all people are not created equal; that all people do not have the right to pursue happiness−at least not in a legal sense. In short, there is only one way to be. The love and marriages some North Carolinians might have if it were allowed, would make, apparently, a mockery of those of other North Carolinians; and the majority of voters are afraid of what that might mean for their own marriages. I guess. I don’t understand that; but the passions on both sides of the issue have flowed liberally for the past many months. People who had been minding their own lives, ventured out to speak passionately for the lives of others, and what should or should not be legal under the constitution. And that speaking out, that dialogue−even when it sounds more like the rant of crazy people−is what changes the world; eventually for the better, but not today. Today we are a little bit worse off, but love and justice will prevail. It just takes such a long time.

For the past five years, my passion has been my garden. I have dug into the depths of the earth. I have pulled weeds and pruned the overgrowth. I have rescued plants buried under ivy and returned them to the light. I have hauled bricks and flagstone and stones, many of which I also found buried, relicts of a previous life. I have planted new life. I have watched things grow; and I have watched some die, either because their time had come or because they didn’t receive the nutrients they needed to thrive. I have taken pictures and seen in the photos on my computer what was not evident to the naked eye. I have discovered the joy of watching and waiting. I have hurt, and I have healed with the garden’s help. I have written about my garden and the lessons learned from it, and in that I have uncovered new passion in myself. In writing, I begin to find out what I know, and give it a voice. I have shared my garden and my home with friends. I have loved passionately.

When I bought my house, and its overgrown gardens, I had no idea of the venture I was about to embark on. I wasn’t looking to become a gardener. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. In fact, I believe had I gone looking for some particular place, I never would have found this place. It found me. And now I find myself ready for a new venture. But this time I am going to a particular place. Home. Though it has been 35 years since I left the Pacific Northwest, it has never ceased to be the place I love with unequaled passion. The Northwest is the love story of my life and it is calling me home.

I have known for many months this time was coming, and I was not ready until now to write here about it. And it still feels like a bold venture to say it out loud. It makes it real. Remember my One Little Word from the beginning of the year? “Venture.” My word is venture. So, in 2-½ weeks I will leave my home and garden. After some time with dear friend Laura, Smudge the Cat and I will leave Raleigh on June 24 and head into a bold new venture.

Leaving friends, who have made a valued place for me in their lives, is the hardest part. There will be another home; there will be another garden. Yes, there will be other friends. But friends are not replaced; only added to. When one leaves a place, they leave also that which has been their heart. I can’t even talk about that yet. There is much that I will miss about North Carolina, and there is much that I won’t. I will save both for another post.

Pico Iyer said, “I left one kind of home to find another, to discover what resided in me and where I resided most fully.” My friend, Charly, who returned to her native Colorado a few years ago, said, “I returned to who I am and more.” I think I was most fully alive in Washington, with its “verdant forests green, caressed by silvery stream,” (the Washington State song); and of course, its snow-capped mountains. Washington is what the color green smells like. Blue comes into its fullness in the sky and water there. But I was barely an adult when I left. I am different now. The venture, what I look forward to, is rediscovering−or perhaps discovering for the first time−who I am and can be in my heart home.

Venturing boldly. Finding what you are passionate about and living it. Isn’t that what it means to fully be alive? Isn’t that what it means to love?

don’t ask yourself what the
world needs; ask yourself
what makes you come alive.
and then go and do that.
because what the world
needs is people who have
come alive.
    -howard thurman

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Winding Down, Gearing Up

On my way to the Cafe Saturday, I take a self-directed detour around the line-up of cars down Peace Street waiting to get into the Broughton High School parking lot for some year-end event. On the way back home, I wend my way through Mordecai to avoid the Peace Street traffic arriving for graduation at Peace College.

All across the country this month, and perhaps around the world, young people are winding down their high school years or their college years, and gearing up for whatever might be coming in the next phase of their journey. And loved ones are coming to witness the rituals that will usher them from one place to the next. Witnesses are important to our transitions. I am grateful for mine, and for the honor of being witness to their movements.

Transitions happen in the garden, too. Right now the spring garden is winding down and the summer garden is gearing up. The pansies and snapdragons are faded and dried up, early this year thanks to no April rain. Their passing makes space for the vinca, impatiens, zinnias, and (my newly discovered summer annual) gomphrena. The iris is nearing its end and the Mexican petunia and black-eyed Susans are greening and growing toward putting out their bloom. The azaleas are done, the hydrangeas are full of buds--the first one opening in my garden this week. The rain this weekend will speed it all on their way.

I read about winding down and gearing up over my Saturday coffee and scone. Julia Cameron (Walking in This World) says the reason we have such a hard time starting new projects is not because we don't have energy, or a clear vision of the project, or too many ideas; it's because we have things we haven't finished. Finishing almost anything--finally mending the snagged thread in my top and sewing the loose hook on my skirt, cleaning the shower scum that has been nagging me, getting the pictures in my i-photo file organized (not yet), mowing the lawn, finishing the April One Little Word before I try to start May--creates both order in our environment and inner order. Finishing something says, "Now start something." I think I have always thought of that as stalling: suddenly, when I am trying to begin a project, nothing seems more important than cleaning the toilet. But how can I write a book if I can't finish my mending? Maybe the toilet really is sapping my creative energy. There is an sequence to everything, perhaps you have to wind down before you can gear up. So if you are having trouble starting something, try starting with finishing something. "A body in motion remains in motion."

The super moon is not visible in Raleigh last night--cloud cover. But Friday night, when I am up late enjoying First Friday with friends and then can't get to sleep, I sit on my window seat in my bedroom under the eaves and look out the open window at the moon over my neighborhood. It is completely silent,
the birds are sleeping, no cars are swishing down the street, no sirens split the humid air, and the nearly full moon hangs above the trees with its entourage of stars. This morning there is a photo from dear Wynne of the super moon that she and Emma observed from my childhood bedroom window last night. My mom said it was too blinding to look at. (Sometimes we have to look at things, even though it hurts our eyes, or our heart.)

Yesterday Wynne also sent a picture of my mother's garden after the rain; and I took one of mine. Spring is gearing up in the Pacific Northwest, and it's winding down in the southeast. Students are graduating--leaving behind a significant part of their journey, and moving into the next one. I am winding down and gearing up, too. More on that next week. Stay tuned.