Blooming Where Planted

These asters are pinker than the typical bluer blooms.

After weeks of drought, September’s rains finally arrived long enough to give the sugar maples their first blush. The temperatures dropped in time to provide plenty of dew for bejeweling the spiders’ webs that decorated undisturbed corners of my forgotten gardens. New England asters that made themselves at home in my garden last year bloomed right on time. And gradually, very gradually I have begun to feel better.

What this long haul has taught me is to appreciate the positive and to count on a completely different set of symptoms tomorrow. When a system like mine is driven by a crazily capricious autoimmune pilot, life becomes a lesson in impermanence. Just when I think I’ve sent one unpleasant condition packing, here it comes again like the rejected suitor who refuses to take “no” for an answer. Fortunately, each time they return, they are less enthusiastic than the last time. And each time, I am fortified with better armament.

Even though my time outside is limited, I try to walk every day and take a moment to visit the flowers on my porches and vegetables in the gardens. The fact that they’ve carried on without me with only minimal effort from my husband is both humbling and comforting. We gardeners sometimes think we are indispensable with our planting guides and to-do lists, but Nature always has the final say in that regard. There have been many happy accidents and appearances that would not have occurred if I’d been diligent with weeding and pruning.

The volunteer asters mentioned above have flourished this year in particular, with multitudes of black-eyed Susans and ironweed popping up in unexpected places. An entire army of Autumn Beauty sunflowers came up from one little tortured survivor last year, and lined our driveway to the delight of the goldfinches. A month ago I found an Ageratina altissima, the notorious white snakeroot that led to Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s premature death, perkily blooming amidst my butterfly weed. I welcomed the sight since it is a beneficial native for pollinators despite its bad reputation.

There is still a long road to health, but through a slow summer and beginning autumn I have learned to let go of expectations, worry and control (mostly). There is peace (this year’s Word) to be found in a good night’s sleep, negative lab results, a beautiful chrysanthemum from a neighbor or visit from the occasional fluttering monarch. Finding a new flower friend in the mess and chaos of the world is a sign that confirms my efforts to be happy where I am in the moment.

Healing Harvest

Healthy greens from my garden are helping my recovery.

I won’t sugarcoat these past two months. While my husband has finally recovered, I have been overwhelmed by a virus that is unlike anything I’ve ever felt in my body before. Whether it remains like an unwelcome guest when the pantry has been raided bare or the specter of some mutation that has found my bodily hospitality irresistible, I have been made aware of its presence every day for weeks, often incapacitating me for days at a time.

I had falsely presumed that I was pretty healthy and protected going into the infection, but apparently my longstanding autoimmune issues and poor digestion that I’d been skirting around for years provided the perfect playground for viral monsters to enjoy. Women over sixty seem to be the likely age group that the virus likes to target for the long haul. Nearly all my symptoms are reported by others in the same boat, and there doesn’t seem to be anything that western medicine can do for us except treat the symptoms. Inflammation that moves around constantly, multiple infections, anxiety attacks, environmental sensitivities, neurological issues, insomnia and depression are all part of the welcome package, unfortunately.

There have been days when I want to give up as OTC meds and prescriptions fail or cause bad side effects. I have always been very sensitive to chemicals so this health journey has been an exercise in frustration. But not treating symptoms wasn’t an option, either. On the other hand, I am lucky because all my tests have come back normal with the exception of high blood sugar, which I was probably on the way to developing anyway but the virus kicked the pre-diabetes up a notch.

In fact, all the symptoms are issues I’ve dealt with at some time in my life, from very young (ear infection) to recent (food intolerances). My immune system has gone haywire from overreacting to innocent foods and environmental conditions, only making the symptoms worse. In eliminating the histamine triggers to buy some time for recovery, I’ve had to drastically remove many products from my life, eat a very restricted clean diet, and restrict activities including work in my beloved garden. In essence, I’m basically starting over and this is an opportunity for rebirth. I really have no choice in the matter because I can’t return to the old habits and diet. My body won’t let me.

But even on my darkest days, I’ve finally recognized the need to address the trauma from my past so that it does not dictate my future. Part of what is holding my healing back is the extreme flight-or-fight response of an inner child who never felt safe and can override any of my adult reasoning. Until I acknowledge the emotional and psychological steps in my recovery, the progress will be very slow. I’ve learned the hard way that relying on medicine alone to address my illness is just a bandaid to the underlying conditions that led me to this dramatic shift in my life. Wholistic treatments and counseling need to be a part of my recovery plan as well because building back my whole health is more important than almost anything else, and well worth my time and resources.

Seeing this situation as a lesson rather than punishment is a good first step as we enter September and the cooler breezes of autumn. May I be able to reap a healthy harvest in my efforts to heal.

Being Idle

After a fortunate two years, the dreaded illness finally entered our house in June after my husband’s business trip. And while we both managed to stay out of the hospital and recover from our initial symptoms, other lingering problems require us to rest and recuperate, a state of being neither of us has the patience for. With flower and vegetable gardens in full swing during a drought, the timing couldn’t be worse.

The fatigue they always talk about is real, requiring us to take turns with the yard duties depending on who has the energy or not. Either way, by high noon, we are relegated to sitting on the patio and watching plants and wildlife do their thing, whether we approve or not. This inactivity has become an exercise in Zen meditation, where nothing is good or bad, it just is. We are too tired to intervene.

Among our observations I’m sad to say that there are fewer pollinators at our house this year, although the lightening bugs are back in force rising up like little satellites of hope at dusk. On a positive note, wrens have finally built a nest in the wren house I put up that sat empty last year. And the bluebirds are back, always a symbol of happiness when they flash their beautiful blues. The rabbits have been quite brazen this year, particularly a buck we call Bad Bunny who was with us last summer. We know it’s still him because he’ll come right up to you, arrogantly munching our clover with a look that says “Yeah, so what are you going to do about it?”

Friends and neighbors have been very kind to us during quarantine, offering to bring us food and run errands. For the most part, we enjoy staying home and sitting out in our garden, comforted by the sense of community offered and counting ourselves lucky even though June hasn’t been the happiest of months.

The bluebirds are here to remind us that joy can still be found if you are waiting for it.

Reminding Memory

Fuchsias must be back in style again because after years of drought they’ve suddenly started popping up in garden centers. Being the stingy gardener from a long line of thrifty immigrants, I even managed to buy a small specimen that didn’t cost the fortune required for elaborate hanging baskets doomed to fry in someone’s overly sunny yard. My precious prize is sharing space in a recycled hanging pot with a small bit of vining variegated vinca for contrast.

As a child fuchsias always meant summer to me, when my father brought my mother’s parents the annual basket from his nursery to hang on their shady screened-in porch with the aluminum frame lounge chairs and puffy cushions I helped scrub and hose down every June when school was over and the long hot Maryland afternoons stretched into endless days of hay baling and competitive croquet. During years of childhood chaos, I could always count on my grandparents’ timeless routines where nothing ever changed and nothing in the house ever moved. You knew right where the Old Maid deck was stored and how long the Concord grapes needed to ripen on the groaning arbor.

These days I remind my mother of these memories. She lives in an unknown land with an uncertain fate. Each phone call focuses on a different topic, a test if you will, of what she and I remember. Whether they’re accurate doesn’t really matter because every five minutes her question will be repeated. I feel like I’m taking an interminable test that never ends and has no good grade. There is only loss and failure as the past slips softly behind doors that will probably never be opened again.

So I turn to the memory of plants and smell the spicy boxwood in my grandparents’ yard, taste the crazy squash my grandfather grew from foraged seeds that always ended up being slightly spaghetti in the center no matter what. I feel the downy pink puffs of the mimosa tree he planted that became our trickiest croquet wicket. To this day whenever I see a downy quilt of fescue lawn I want to fall down prostate on it to the childhood church of innocence.

As I walk my own yard, I spy the peonies adored by my step-grandmother, the sharp chicory of my mother’s salads, the zonal geraniums my father grew from seed by the thousands, the strawberries my maternal grandmother mixed with sugar and served over vanilla ice cream and the fuchsia that hung on the porch overhead during long evenings sitting with my mother’s father as he asked the same questions over and over, every five minutes.

Fence Me In

March has been a mixture of frenzied outdoor activity on warm days and cowering in the house on cold ones. We seem to be ending on a bitter note as the wind chill hovers around freezing today. The old adage “If you don’t like the weather in (insert state’s name), wait a minute and the weather will change” could be applied to this entire month regardless of where you live.

There have been periods when we rushed out bundled up in hats and coats to tackle some backyard project, shedding outerwear like strippers every hour before the next cold front blew in with much bluster and fanfare. Even so, we managed to build two screens for our patio from bamboo macheted from our neighbor’s jungle up the street, pound in twelve metal fence posts around the garden for our deer fence and trellis our rambunctious black raspberries in the back of the yard.

Currently I’m learning how to master a jigsaw so I can construct a garden gate and wooden frames fortified with chicken wire for my raised beds. Since our supply of bamboo is endless, we’re also considering more privacy screens and barriers for our little backyard world. As much as I appreciate our open southern exposure on the side of a hill, I crave a little privacy from prying eyes and hungry critters. Establishing boundaries can lead to peace in many ways, from peaceful relaxation in my sequestered outdoor living space to peace of mind when my vegetables aren’t decimated.

I’m also finding that fences provide borders which frame and enhance the views. For example, the bamboo grid on my patio creates interesting patterns with the lines from our maple tree canopy, singling out a particular curve of a branch that would get lost in an overwhelming sky. Likewise, the garden fence will help me focus on a finite space for planting. Rather like furnishing a room, the fence walls control the arrangement while providing some vertical space for growing.

In my research of beautiful gardens, the best designs unfold like a series of secret rooms that reveal their treasures only when you turn a corner or follow a winding path. While it may take years for my backyard to achieve such a sense of private mystery, I can learn, grow and observe on the journey to peaceful refuge.

Path to Peace

The significance of my 2022 word for the year, “Peace,” turns out to be more universal than I thought, unfortunately. My humble notion to spend a quiet year focusing on inner and outer manifestations at a personal level have been usurped by horrific images coming out of Ukraine, a country I associated with sunflower fields and ornate architecture resting in Russia’s shadow. Turns out this bravely independent country is much more than that. As am I.

The Year of the Water Tiger has already presented itself as the opposite of peaceful — brash, ambitious, unpredictable and aggressive. The specter of war has latched itself to the Tiger’s tail and opened up the world’s wounds on a larger scale. Apparently Covid’s death and destruction didn’t deliver enough suffering. Or rather, pandemic was the beginning of a series of evils released by Pandora’s box that humankind must address.

In the face of constant turmoil and uncertainty, I keep coming back to the original inspiration for my choice of theme this year. During a family vacation to St. Louis in 2013, I stopped by a downtown New Age shop run by a soft-spoken young woman in long skirts and even longer dreadlocks whose presence was palpably peaceful. The mindful way she moved, the soothing tones of her voice and the gentle attention she paid her customers created a moving meditation that affected me more than all the years in a local meditation group. She was peace in action, something I had never witnessed in practice except among ancient nuns in a dying convent.

I have held that encounter like a mental mantra close to my heart all these years. As an adult, I’ve experienced fleeting moments of profound peace that embraced me with infinite love only a few times in my life, mostly at unexpected moments. I would like this feeling to happen more and often. How to find and hold peace despite the ego’s determination to disrupt and divert is probably one of life’s greatest challenges. Perhaps it is the greatest challenge of all.

The inner and outer journey required to peace is what I will be exploring in this year of turbulence. I can already tell that the path’s lessons will be difficult and costly. In order to gain, much will have to be let go. I know the ego part of me will fight like a tiger to keep the drama and chaos going, while my soul spirit which has always known the way, will patiently wait.

Peaceful Kingdom

The first month of 2022 has already tested my new word for 2022. Last year’s “Growth” certainly proved profitable and prolific in my little household. I always stand in awe of the power held by a word in focus and intention, and the unpredictable ways that my word will play out in the year. The literal outcome for Growth was that I started and bought more garden plants than I knew what to do with, while the spiritual journey led me to appreciate all that I don’t know and can learn from.

Each day as I stepped outside into my gardens, there were many surprises, some wondrous, and quite a few . . . not so pleasant. As I’ve revealed in previous posts, our urban bungalow lot is home or close neighbor to squirrels, rabbits, skunks, groundhogs and local felines, all of whom can make their presence known in interestingly destructive ways. Last year various deterrents were employed, with physical barriers working best even though chicken wire and row covers aren’t the most attractive solutions. Stinky sprays smelling of garlic and rotten egg were also effective until the rains came, or the critters got used to the smells.

However, the biggest (physically and destructively) perpetrator of them all, remains undeterred for the most part. Even in these last few bleak wintery weeks they have polished off whatever isn’t inert or tied down. As much as I love their quiet demeanors and soft doe eyes, the deer and I have a love-hate relationship in regards to gardens. So much so that I’ve decided that a good wire deer fence is a necessity for these urban herbivores who think that everything I plant is especially for them. And I do mean everything — even strong-smelling herbs and bristly shrubs aren’t off limits. I guess the herd hasn’t read the deer-resistant plant lists yet.

I also plan to continue offering sacrificial plants that they can eat like last summer’s extra tomato plants I stuck in the very back of the yard, an offering to the antlered gods and occasional ground rodent. Various raised bed frames and screens are in the works, too, since we can’t fence in our entire yard at this time. Barricades can make good neighbors and keep the peace in edible turf wars. Therefore, my word for 2022 is “Peace,” both internally and externally. My hope is that we all can experience peaceful communion this year, not only in our backyards, but also in communities, towns, states, countries and the world.

So may it be.

Fleet of Foot

The young bucks showed up during local hunting season at our house, leisurely strolling among the rows of bungalows acting like our little urban neighborhood close to downtown was some enchanted clapboard forest. But don’t be fooled — they are alert, wily fellows who are always on the lookout for the flash of a florescent orange hat or glint of gun metal, ready at a moment’s notice for a quick change of plans into the brambly unknown. And I’ve been right there with them this year, veering and leaping away from looming fear and uncertainty that still hunt for the vulnerable in dark shadows.

After the vaccinations, we thought we could venture out into the bright open meadows, that plague season was almost over. The news was optimistic, and we held on to those rescheduled concert tickets instead of asking for refunds. Herd immunity was within our grasp, and the seeds of future plans were planted. By midsummer, there was a faint scent of danger on the breeze but close-to-normal outdoor gatherings and events led us to believe that we were still cautiously protected as we brazenly shopped in stores barefaced.

By fall, we were masked again, waiting for boosters, forfeiting the tickets to shows that blindly continued to go on, and debated whether to gather in large numbers for our annual rituals. Last-minute decisions and changes in venue were woven into the run of our days as we tried to anticipate the hunt’s next move. At Thanksgiving we were back to zooming our greetings from afar.

Now at the turn of the year, I find that my trail has circled back to the same trap. My escapes have all been discovered and cover exposed. The herd has dispersed into separate ways, and we may not meet again. I walk into the darkest months with tools I have honed, senses sharpened, prepared to spin into new directions. As I watch the buck boys bedded down in our backyard with their antlers blended into branches, they return my gaze telling me that they know I’m there and the worst mistake in life is to become complacent.

Here’s to safer sojourns and greener pastures in 2022.

November Skies

Maybe the sun has been shining more, or maybe my outlook has been lighter, but I’ve noticed a number of beautiful sunsets this month. We live farther down a rather long hill, so the best views are always near the top of the street. This is also the best vantage point to watch thousands of crows stream in at dusk to circle the county courthouse a few blocks away in a local remake of Hitchcock’s famous movie.

I’m not sure why they congregate in this spot every year. Perhaps the glow from festive lights strung from surrounding streets to the building’s dome attract them. Maybe this ground is their ancient gathering place where thoughtless settlers happened to build a courthouse long ago. Whatever the reason, you know it’s the holidays when the crows arrive. Before we moved here, our own family holiday tradition brought us to this quirky city with its unique art galleries, funky boutiques and ethnic restaurants between Christmas and New Years.

If we stayed in the town square until dark, we would see clouds of crows swirl around the courthouse and settle in the trees. They are big and loud, and . . . make unwelcome contributions to the lawn and sidewalks. For years, the city’s maintenance department has tried various ways to deter the birds with fake owls and sound recordings, only to be outwitted by the crafty creatures.

Humans are once again reminded that nature usually has the final say, one way or another. Crows are smart–I can only hope the group of them isn’t contemplating murder.

The Ten-Year Socks

In my defense, let me start off by saying that the first sock was finished about five years ago. Alas, the conundrum about socks is that there should be a second sock in order to possess a pair, and that is the downfall of sock knitters everywhere, particularly the first-timer. After you finish the initial sock with all its tricky sections and stitch holders, you want to shout from the rooftops about your accomplishment. But you can’t because, well, one bare foot will be left out in the cold. You are not done.

My never-ending sock saga has become a running joke with the family and an embarrassing metaphor in my life. Initially begun in the summer of 2011 for a bit of light knitting when the weather was too hot to engage with a sweater or scarf or (heaven forbid) a blanket, the socks could be hauled around discreetly in an old drawstring bag from the Apple store, and pulled out for a few rounds of cuff on a long car trip or an interminable wait in the doctor’s office. In this age of pandemic, however, the car rides and wait times have all but disappeared. As the months ticked by, the sock still lay hidden in the far corner of my closet, mocking me.

While I continue to remain at home finding excuses not to go out, avoiding large gatherings and social engagements, reluctant to drive anywhere because of my ever-evolving eyesight, the unfinished business of my former life gathers dust in the basement and garage, or finds itself quickly stuffed into bags for the goodwill store before I can have second thoughts. With questionable supply chains and drastic price increases, I’m reluctant to relinquish materials I used to take for granted that I could procure again should the need arise. Grateful for my circumstances, I’m all too aware that even though I may be able to afford a replacement, just finding one may prove impossible.

Like my relatives who survived the Great Depression by saving everything, I’ve begun to hang on to stuff that I never thought twice about recycling or giving away two years ago. While not at the hoarder stage yet, I am finally finishing the valued projects that I started, sometimes long ago. Take as an example the afghan for my husband that I began in 2015 and still needed to complete two days ago–my future plans require me to weave in the loose ends (however many there are) and finish off the raw edges so that my husband can be provided with protection from winter drafts after the investment in buying all those skeins of yarn years ago.

Now that I have picked up the sock baton once again, determined to reward my feet with some wooly warmth in the cold months to come, the ghosts of many lost potential wearings have been sent to purgatory amongst the best-laid plans and procrastination. Like the rest of my life, I have shoved so much under the bed to be dealt with another day. I admit to being surrounded by unread books and magazines, empty scrapbooks, recipe binders yet to be filled, unwatched websites and YouTube subscriptions, unplanted seeds and as-yet-to-be gathered herbs. The list goes on forever, but the socks are a first step to knitting freedom and purling wisdom, I hope.