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.

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.

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.

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.

Bountiful Beltane

On this last day of April I look up to receive the emerging leaves on our backyard red maple, an ancient sentry that has overlooked our little bungalow for decades. As the lone tree on this skinny lot, she reaches her arms out to welcome and shelter us as we go about our outdoor chores. Last year on the final day of May I had just been given permission to begin gardening again after some scary eye issues post surgery. I’ve never been more grateful to get back to the earth and ground my grief for the world in fertile soil again.

This year I may have gotten a little carried away with the seed buying and propagation, but I’m determined to see no plant left behind. This vow of mine may become quite a challenge since my neighbors are equally intent on sharing their abundance of riches after a year of scarcity. I’m thrilled to share my bounty with my daughter living up the street, and together we will spread gardening cheer in spite of the deer, rabbits and groundhogs that cruise through our yards like they own the place (which they do).

With the help of my editor husband who needs a break from the hours of remote business meetings he covers, we have dug up a good bit of our front yard lawn to make room for new flower beds that will host native plants and pollinator flowers for the insects that are rapidly disappearing from our world. There are four new raised beds for the vegetables in back as well as a no-dig vegetable plot. The radishes and greens are already thriving and the snow peas are popping up. To my mind there is no better sign of hope than flats of seedlings ready for launch.

As I clear away the non-natives and invasive plants, I am learning to recognize the natives that I will leave and encourage. That includes loads of wild violets in every shade of purple, lavender and even white. I cheer on the white clover and enjoy watching rabbits nibble up the spent dandelion stalks like spaghetti noodles. Our bluebird pair has returned but unfortunately the neighborhood mockingbird who serenaded us with an amazing repertoire of calls was taken by a hawk last week and the yard falls silent in the evenings now. Its absence serves as a reminder that there is still loss in the midst of fresh new life that kisses the boughs and peeps from nests lined in rabbit hair.

I count myself lucky to prepare for a second Beltane in my little yellow house. May you all enjoy a beautiful May Day tomorrow!

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.

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. 

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.