Better Home and Garden

Instead of a lion, March came in with lamblike timidity. Approaching the one-year anniversary of COVID lockdown, my husband and I were unsure of our access to vaccinations. We doubted that we could undertake our big project for this summer–a backyard patio–anytime soon. I was skeptical that I would receive all the garden seeds and plants ordered amid constant shutdowns on my favorite seed company websites. And I remained wary of letting my guard down as the country begins to reopen.

After an early tipoff by a neighbor, I managed to schedule appointments for both of us in the first week of the month so that we could complete our second shots by the end of March. Even better, we could walk the three blocks to receive our vaccines (although uphill) without any complications other than sore arms and fatigue. Fortunately, we live in a county that will continue the mask mandate and social distancing with an eye to what has befallen other countries and the rise of variants in our own region post spring break.

Fearing an endless gauntlet of pandemic-created obstacles when we began the bidding process on a patio and other landscape issues, we found a neighborhood contractor who was able to begin at once on our challenging location by creatively working around a gas meter, buried electric line and a downhill slope. Our patio would be made from leftover slabs and offcuts from a nearby limestone quarry and built on three different levels. Almost daily for three weeks our new outdoor room took shape as the site was dug by hand and paved with stone sawed to fit. A white film of limestone covered my garden and seeped under our backdoor, but when the dust cleared the inconveniences were all worth it. We can enjoy our new living space just in time for warm April breezes.

We were determined to hire a small local company that employed several families, allowing them artistic and creative freedom to add and revise as the project evolved. We were surprised by a special touch when the contractor’s teenage daughter decorated four center stones with beautiful flowers, insects and calligraphy. She chose the words “faith,” “love” and “believe” as well as our family name for this unique space unlike any other.

As a bonus, tons of topsoil removed while building the patio have been redistributed for flower and vegetable beds while my vision for the garden slowly emerges. We also have many leftover limestone pieces to play with as we turn our blank-slate of a lawn into a welcoming sanctuary for nature and humans alike. We found that loosening our control over the process and outcome provided plenty of opportunities we would never have considered before. The letting go can be scary but worth it.

While I write, hesitant and uncertain March is going out like a purring kitten with sunny skies, piles of seed packets, emerging spring bulbs and a handsome red cardinal splashing in the birdbath. When I look out my kitchen window, my brand-new patio tile reminds me that anything can be manifested when you believe in possibilities.

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Aftermath

This February we experienced the deepest snows and coldest temps since moving into our little yellow bungalow. I was beginning to think we lived in a southern climate until the negative windchills rattled our windows and deep drifts muffled my garden dreams. But as is the course of all extreme weather events, the pendulum has swung back to a lovely week of balmy breezes and the recent polar vortex fades into memory but for a few scraps of white clinging to the edges of driveways. 

Once again we count ourselves fortunate as we watch the aftermath of grid failure in warmer lands completely unprepared for such arctic extremes. No doubt lives have been totally disrupted and altered by conditions that they couldn’t control. In a heartbeat all that you’ve counted on can disappear along with power, food and water, violently shoving your life in a very different direction. I was reminded of the polar vortex in January 2014, when our house in the suburbs suddenly lost electricity after a heavy snow along with one other house right before the temperatures dropped forty degrees overnight to -11 Fahrenheit. By the next day, 100,000 households were out all over the city with restricted travel, but we were the only ones in our neighborhood.

Luckily, my family could stay with our generous neighbors across the street while waiting three days for the electric company to get around to restoring power for only two houses (which consisted of flipping a switch at an electrical box by the street). In the meantime our house temperature dropped to below freezing and every liquid froze (even the shampoo) as my husband kept a fire going in the fireplace during the day. We made the wise decision to drain the water pipes which saved our plumbing. Our neighbors in the same boat were not so fortunate, sustaining $20,000 in water damage. 

Afterward, many suggested we get a generator or a wood stove to prevent a repeat of a supposedly rare occurrence (which seems to be occurring more often now). The street-side power station that malfunctioned was later replaced. But I couldn’t seem to get warm again even after the house eventually thawed out and the frozen bottles returned to liquid. Our illusion of safety was gone, and we were tired of maintaining a home that was too big for us as we’d outgrown the suburban lifestyle. Over the years we’d dismissed the nudges of change as merely annoying little snowballs that finally grew in size until reaching avalanche proportions on the heels of an arctic clipper. I feared an iceberg was next.

And so four months later we put our house on the market and sold it in a day. We gave away most of our furnishings and settled into a two-bedroom apartment with the assurance that the complex had backup generators. Snow removal was included in the rent, and we could walk to stores for food and supplies. But the appliances were all electric and there was no fireplace. In extreme cold the fire sprinklers in our ceilings would have burst and we couldn’t turn off our water and drain the pipes if we wanted to. In three years, we would move on as part of the five-year odyssey to find community and sustainability in an increasingly isolated world where you barely know your neighbor.

I will never forget the family who lived right next door to us in the suburbs who knew of our plight but never even offered to run an extension cord over to power our portable heater for an hour or so. To add insult to injury, our house sat dark and frozen while their house was luridly aglow from the extravagant Christmas decorations that were still up and running. As I watch the same selfish and negligent acts unfold on the news while Texans struggle to survive, I wonder if we will ever find a way to get along and work together in community with such a sense of distrust and entitlement rampant in our culture while the lack of foresight and preparedness continues to undermine our very existence as a species.

These days we still don’t have a fireplace or generator but our wishlist for power backup includes solar and a wood-burning stove. For now our gas stovetop will have to do. 

Growing Up

Time once again for the annual unveiling of my word for the year, a theme that always becomes eerily accurate as the months flow by. Last year’s “Rebirth” certainly lived up to its potential by anticipating my eye surgeries as well as our recent relocation. Little did I know how life-changing 2020 would be in my little corner of the world and all over the planet as social, political and scientific transformation was brought to disruptive, often violent, life.

Since I began to stay home and avoid public spaces last January in preparation for my medical procedures, I have essentially been homebound for a year now. My new life became very limited in scope, forcing an internal perspective and examination which I had been avoiding for decades. For me, it was much easier to mold my motivations and actions around someone else’s agenda than to determine my own. For one, it’s easier to blame the other party when plans don’t work out, which is usually the case when you aren’t on the right path.

In retrospect, my forced isolation in childhood and subsequent expulsion when I no longer fit the family dynamic catapulted me into a series of careers and relationships that never seemed to work out. Like the prince in Cinderella, I searched tirelessly for someone or something that would fit my life’s slipper without really examining the shoe itself. What color and style was it, what was it made of, and where did it come from? I acted out the traditional roles of artist, writer, academic, teacher, librarian, proofreader, shopkeeper, caregiver, house cleaner, and office assistant to fulfill others’ wishes and unfulfilled dreams, and conform to the expectations of my generation. In many cases I didn’t feel I had much choice as a female raised by a woman who thought my role was to marry a farmer and stay at home while also insisting I go to college and become a famous writer or artist.

Needless to say I was confused. What I really wanted was to work in the family nursery and tend to the colorful seas of annuals, geraniums, poinsettias and tropical houseplants in magical kingdoms under glass. I come from a long line of growers and farmers who passed their green thumbs along to me. But due to misogynistic views and family dysfunction, that dream was not to be. So I created gardens for myself: an entire bedroom full of houseplants in high school, an assortment of zonal geraniums my father grew wholesale that I dragged around for all four years at college, an obsessive collection of herb plants at a duplex as a newlywed, a square-foot garden hand-dug while recuperating from a difficult pregnancy, backyard raised beds as first-time homeowner, an ambitious but doomed try at homesteading 5,000 square feet of mule pen out in the country, feeble attempts at container gardens in the suburbs and finally a stint at running a community garden at a retreat center with no help from the community.

Which brings me to today’s little California bungalow on a very narrow urban lot in a neighborhood that encourages gardens rather than lawns. In fact “Gardens” is in the name of this century-old historic suburb built for limestone, railroad and factory workers in a town known for its creative quirkiness. Last year, despite some medical setbacks and supply difficulties, I managed to start some seeds, buy plants, build a cold frame and create garden beds with my husband’s help. This year I’ve ordered seeds early and made big plans to replace our barren lawn with vegetables, flowers and native plants while continuing my quest for year-round harvests. The photo shown above of my cold frame was taken two days ago, in January. I can’t wait to winter-over more vegetables and greens next year.

Which finally brings me to my word for 2021. After last year’s traumatic and frightening process of birth, there has to be “Growth.” Now that I’ve found my place in the world, I have the opportunity to grow, literally and spiritually on my own terms. Will I create art? Well, yes, gardening is an art form, and I plan on producing some garden-inspired art, too. Will I write? I certainly hope so. There’s much to be noted in tending a garden, particularly nature’s lessons in humility. Will I engage with others? That remains to be seen, but I fervently wish to contribute to my little neighborhood and provide a better habitat for wildlife, especially the insect world that is rapidly vanishing while we wait for vaccines and herd immunity.

I guess the glass slipper may have turned into a gardening clog, but it’s still beautiful to me.

Traditions Take Two


What goes around, comes around. Isn’t that the saying? While my country is receiving a healthy dose of past bad decisions come back to haunt it, I’ve concluded that the ghosts of Christmas past also employ this karmic trickery during the holiday season. For many years, they didn’t find me at home, but this year was a different story, of course.

In my childhood family, Christmas traditions were enforced with a rigid (very Germanic) iron fist. There was always a real tree no matter how prickly, crooked and infested, draped with tangled strings of burnt-out lights carelessly thrown into a box the previous January, the ponderous Christmas stollen made with pounds of butter festooned by labor-intensive slivered almonds boiled from their skins, the unlightable plum pudding that everyone hated unless you buried it in hard sauce, my mother’s exhausted bad mood Christmas morning from staying up all night wrapping gifts, and the tense, awkwardly polite visits to estranged relatives on Christmas day.

After we were married, my husband and I had to agonize over whose family to visit for Christmas, keeping New Year’s celebrations to ourselves, thankfully. When our daughter came along, however, the pressure to travel increased considerably. Following a disastrous holiday trip where all three of us spent most of Christmas holed up in a guest bedroom with the flu, I made the decision to stay put and start new traditions, for all of our sakes and sanity. Out went the obligatory stollen and rock-hard pudding, the dragging of the child (and adults) away from their new toys to uncomfortable visits with relatives, the long road trips under threat of bad weather. In came the fake white tree with non-traditional ornaments, alcohol-infused morning coffees, a Christmas Day outing to the movie theater, and our own list of alternative holiday music.

As empty-nesters we even abandoned our rented apartment for inns at state parks, where we adorned the hotel rooms with our own decorations, watched Christmas DVDs and indulged in homemade snacks while leaving the real cooking to the professionals. Our holiday activities consisted of walks along park trails and daytrips to little towns and local shops. Recently, we’ve spent Christmases with my daughter, since she loves the Christmas traditions that are special to her, including a Christmas Eve brunch at her favorite cafe and watching the grand-cat rip through his presents on Christmas morning.

This year, it was time, yet again, to start new traditions. I suspect that a lot of families came to the same conclusion. We are lucky to be together as a family, while many are grieving the absence of loved ones and homes right now.  Since the future is more uncertain than ever, we were determined to make the most of it without needing Scrooge’s nocturnal wake-up call. We’re back to being homeowners, with a tabletop artificial tree in a traditional green color, hung with ornaments from our childhoods as well as purchases over the years. There’s a Christmas puzzle continuously in the works, a diverse holiday music list playing on bluetooth, the streaming of old holiday shows or cheesy Christmas romances, and an occasional neighborhood stroll to see the lights and decorations. We’ve even expanded our holiday season with a special dinner at home now for Winter Solstice with lots of candlelight. My husband purchased an advent calendar that is a chest of drawers which he fills with tiny treats and gifts, plus a slip of paper with a holiday activity that the receiver can do. We look forward to continuing this new tradition with new and old gifts for the drawers.

With so many gluten-free flours and dairy-free options available, I even brought back the almond sugar cookies I loved to decorate and eat as a kid. On Christmas Eve my daughter and I cut out new shapes while listening to holiday tunes. Once again I can sip on a delicious (spiked) dairy-free eggnog, indulge in dairy-free caramels and take a big bite into turkey sandwiches plump with gluten-free stuffing. Maybe the taste and appearance aren’t quite the same as what I remember, but I’ll gladly trade the old unhealthy holiday ghosts dripping with guilt and obligation for newer spirits full of wholesome pleasures more in line with who I am and want to be.

My hope for you, dear reader, at the end of such a cataclysmic year, is that you find new traditions in the rubble of our old lives that bring you joy in the dark days to come.

Harvest Reflections

Yesterday I put my small vegetable garden to bed after an unusually long harvest season, but isn’t the unusual the norm in 2020? As I fluffed straw over the garlic, spread fresh compost on new beds for next year, and harvested the last of the herbs and chard before the snowfall and windchill forecast for the next day arrived, I allowed a sense of accomplishment to settle over me for having come this far in a very difficult year.

November marks one year since my spouse and I moved to a new house and city after a turbulent 2019. Perhaps the events of last year helped me cope with what was to come. The sense of personal loss that haunted me for months was slowly healed by a little patch of victory garden that grew and produced against all odds. Without much to work with and a host of predators always hovering in the wings, the greens kept growing and the tomatoes producing (we are eating windowsill-ripened tomatoes right now!)

Finally the vision I had when we first saw this property of a winter cold frame on the south-facing side of the garage has been realized. In fact, the setup is so protected that it’s been too hot for the cold-weather greens I started in September but now they are taking off as the temperatures fall. Next year I know to plant a fall crop in the ground and wait on the cold frame garden until at least another month, the luxury of a warmer growing zone. One day I may achieve the ultimate goal of growing food in my own tiny greenhouse, but until then nothing gives me greater pleasure than to peek under the lid at hopeful green beginnings during nature’s time of endings and dormancy, much like we humans have been experiencing in our quarantined worlds this month and year.

As winter closes in, I turn to unfinished projects and home-grown remedies for the world-weary homebody. Abandoned knitting and new recipes for health and healing will replace the daily watering, weeding and barrier maintenance. Stacks of how-to books and seed catalogs await my attention. When I can tear myself away from the grim daily Covid counts and political travesties to focus on simple rituals of self-care, my soul is the better for it. Like my little bed of green beginnings, it is a luxury that many don’t have and I will never take this for granted again.

Spellbound


The reckless spells conjured by careless and cruel humans over the last two months cast long shadows that have reached even my little haven. Still, I do what I can, harvesting sage, rosemary, lavender, and marigold petals while stocking up on hope and optimism for the long-predicted winter isolation. Moon water collected to cleanse, and palo santo lit to protect. Ballot mailed in early, chest freezer filled, local trips limited, and projects lined up to take my over-active mind off whatever sensationalized news darkens my doorway.

Will all of this be enough to keep my loved ones and me sane and healthy? The specters of unexpected illness and poverty from a broken healthcare system and looming economic crash haunt my dreams at night and my social media by day. I wish I possessed a crystal ball, but they are all backordered from China. Still strangers in a new town, my only scrying comes from out the window where I gaze upon our neighbors like socially distanced guests at a masked ball. I can only guess at their lives and affiliations by symbolic porch decorations or political signs. Rental houses sit empty with mailboxes overflowing or grow neglected, covered in vines.

Deer wander through our yards in broad daylight, perusing me like I am the one trespassing, and rightfully so. Squirrels have formed their own militias, armed with nuts and determined to show us who’s boss. The trees are slow to turn, as if reluctant to move into autumn, and exceptionally warm temperatures have led into an uneasy Indian summer where the enchanted garden still hangs on despite the frosts.

Safe for now in our little cottage on the hill, a bubbling pot of soup on the stove and a line of salt on the threshold, we light a candle and sit waiting for what is to come, spellbound in a captive world.

Strange Lands


As a kid in the Seventies I was obsessed, like most of my age group, with J. R. R. Tolkein’s world of hobbits, elves, goblins and other evil forces as thinly veiled references to the real-life world conflicts experienced by the author and his generation. While I gobbled up all three books that compose The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the very dense Silmarillion, my favorite has always been The Hobbit, with its homey descriptions of hobbit dwellings and lifestyle as well as the humble but hospitable sanctuaries offered during the travelers’ perilous journeys through strange, magical lands.

I took great comfort in the hobbit habits of generosity and good will when odd strangers showed up at the door, even while they ate and drank you out of house and home. Bilbo may have had his misgivings, but he was determined to uphold his role as a good steward to his guests. In the age of technology, I’ve continued to indulge my childhood longings by binging on Instagram images of the amazing Hobbiton movie set in New Zealand and by appreciating the popularity of tiny homes, tree houses and the whole Hygge movement on the Internet.

I’ve always been drawn to creating artful, comforting and inviting sanctuaries in the many rooms, apartments and homes I’ve lived in. I feel at home in funky neighborhoods with more charm than affluence. Recently I’ve become obsessed with a local neighborhood of colorfully painted old bungalows sporting messy porches with fat felines and yards full of crazy art and wildly overgrown flowerbeds, a well-loved community garden and a little park with a children’s storytime theme sponsored by the city’s public library.

On Sundays my small family walks through these peaceful streets and I find myself back in the Shire, wishing that I wouldn’t have to go back to the dire news stories and inescapable violence broadcast over the media. I want my own modest house to be magically transformed into one of these funky oases that have taken decades to create in that older part of town. I wonder if, like Bilbo Baggins, my purpose is to leave for parts unknown or to remain in my hobbit world, tending a garden and keeping the hearth fire lit for afternoon tea and the other daily rituals that become so sacred in a world at war.

I used to scour Tolkein’s maps of Middle Earth on his inside book covers and follow the heroes’ journey, having the luxury of knowing what lies ahead. Nowadays, I stand at the highest point in my county, hoping to see the path clearly marked in these troubled times but the horizon and my fate are hidden from me. Am I to stay put and keep the home fires burning? Or will I be called back on the road to fight a formidable foe? Only time (and the next chapter) will tell.

In the meantime, I stock my pantry for weary travelers, and plan my next garden.

Life Cut Short


Numbers rising, mandatory masks, hospitals full and bars closed. All this and the college students haven’t really arrived yet. My world consists of wandering up the street to my daughter’s house, forays into our vegetable garden and pickups at the grocery store. Occasionally we don protective armor to hit the hardware superstore at the earliest hours and never on weekends.

My husband began to watch baseball again until the games were cancelled one by one because of Covid cases. The local schools push back their starting dates later and later. Restaurants reinvent themselves monthly. My writing is limited to supply lists for online orders, and my art relegated to decorating window shades with markers. My attention span is too limited and distracted for even the easy summer paperback reading.

Today I discovered that almost all of my houseplants are infested with tiny thrips that I can barely see now with my lack of close vision. My husband called it a pandemic, and I thought how appropriate, of course I need my own private pandemic on top of the national one. And then I got to thinking about other little pandemics going on around me; aphids engulfing the nasturtiums, spider mites sucking all the life out of pole beans, the usual Japanese beetle invasion and a plague of flea beetles on the arugula.

Then there’s the animal kind like the hopping hordes of rabbits (seven frolicking under our back porch one morning!), a rotating rodeo of groundhogs, voraciously domesticated deer herds and the raucous starling tenements in my neighbor’s eave.

All summer I waited patiently for a volunteer sunflower to bloom that I had moved to my front garden. It was just starting to flower when I walked by one morning to find the doomed bloom hanging by a thread, already wilting in hot summer sun, some sort of brown beetle making another fresh cut as straight as a surgeon’s incision in its stem.

My good mood deflated instantly. Was there nothing in this world allowed to achieve its full glory without threats from predators, disease and bad weather? Unwilling to accept another life derailed, I grabbed the flower after flicking off the offending bug, and brought my poor victim into the house to revive it in a vase.

From the photo above, you can see that it has continued to unfurl into a beam of light enjoyed in my dark interior, a fitting tribute to its resilience in spite of a life cut short and best laid plans gone awry. May we all find inspiration in the little accomplishments around us even as arrogant civilizations fail and topple in the storm.

Mellow Yellow


June was better. The house and garage are painted, our gardens flourish and we finally enjoyed a visit from our adult offspring after months of separation. Slowly, we’re getting to know the new neighbors, and they are becoming more familiar with us. Apparently painting a house yellow inspires reactions and conversations. Perhaps yellow is friendly and welcoming, I don’t know.

Flower beds are filling up and so far the vegetable garden has managed to escape the attentions from two fairly large bucks, several groundhogs and innumerable rabbits, not to mention a family of skunks and a digging outdoor cat or two. We have not received much rain, which worries me although the nearby reservoir is still full. My spouse and I continue to order grocery and farmer’s market pickups, and wear masks to stores first thing in the morning to avoid germs and crowds. There is no end in sight.

The bright spot is that our daughter is moving to our city in July and renting a house up the street. We will be a family again and for that I am rejoicing. Sure, there will be adjustments and boundaries, but we have all missed each other terribly this spring. Her new freelance business enables her to work from home, which is a luxury these days. Not all are so lucky but for her and her parents, this is the best solution in the short term.

While I still get overwhelmed at times, the tasks are not as frustrating and futile as they were the last two years. I answer to no one as I tend my small garden that will still feed two and maybe three people nicely in the coming months. We are on a waiting list for a small chest freezer, but hopefully we can stock up on frozen vegetables and local meats before winter. There are a few perks that I miss from the country, but not enough to give up my independence.

Even in the city, nature makes its home with us. Every night, my husband and I sit and watch the fireflies flicker in the backyard, while mama skunk ushers her youngsters under the neighbor’s shed in single file. She makes sure all are accounted for. Soon, I hope to feel the same about my little family.

Small World


As I write these words at the end of May 2020, the world is on fire. From my vantage point within the confines of a small bungalow on a narrow lot in a college town fallen strangely silent since the middle of March, my state and country’s rush to reopen just as civil unrest spills into the streets resemble the torrents of broiling rapids breaking free from a dam of oppression. And at my age, I finally know better than to test those waters.

It’s no coincidence that our 1925 house was built on a hill in an area with a high water table and plenty of swampy low spots. As the climate changes, this formerly northern state harbors the southern symbols of my youth including towering rhododendrons, enormous azaleas and fragrant English boxwood. While I relive the sights and scents of childhood on restricted neighborhood walks, we continue to meet neighbors who are strangely connected to previous people and places as the past repeats itself with yet another cool, wet spring that is sure to switch to a sweltering, stormy summer in a matter of minutes as we watch our street turn into a river running down to an unknown fate that only the young will be brave enough to follow.

Waiting on the hill for the next presumed Covid wave has kept my husband and me close to home with only occasional forays to a local nursery or hardware store. The convenience of online ordering helps us with no-contact pick up at the grocery store and farmer’s market along with delivery of various goods to our doorstep. We finally invited some friends over for cocktails on our open back porch this weekend at the acceptable social distance and felt vaguely rebellious. We watch daily reports of protest from the safety of our computers and television while searching for truth in social media, an oxymoron if ever there was one.

Meanwhile, we refurbish our old house, search for scarce supplies, appliances and commodities we took for granted only months ago, live frugally, plant our garden with last year’s precious seeds and watch the lone survivors from previous gardeners emerge in our yard. So far, the remaining residents are mainly peonies with their attendant armies of ants. I’m not a huge fan of this particular perennial because of its floppy nature, but beggars can’t be choosers in this time of Corona and I am grateful for any sign of life, however myopic. As my new post-surgery vision adapts to far-sighted ugly realities, I become more appreciative of what is under my nose on a dependable high ground, no matter how humble.