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.

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.

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.

Taming The Fear


The time I’ve been preparing for all my life is here. For years now I could smell it coming in the wind, felt the rumblings under my feet, heard whispers from the trees overhead. I’ve spent a year painfully eliminating all that I knew and believed that was no longer sustainable or trustworthy, pushed along by an inner urging. With the past crumbled into a pile of lies and the future so murky that my sense of direction was lost, I groped along in the dark with only basic instincts to guide me. Where I landed is all that I had when time as we knew it stopped.

I thought I was prepared for this: stock up on necessities, stay home and till the garden, be creatively mindful, and support those who sought my help in any way I could as I recovered from surgery. I limited the daily horrors of the news, played soothing music and started garden seeds while listening to audio books and chatting with friends as I kept a watchful eye on my level of anxiety and proclivity for mental depression.

But doing my part in staying home to stop the spread of disease was not enough, it seems. Complications from my eye surgery began promptly on the day my state’s stay-at-home order was issued. I was forced to travel three hours roundtrip to seek medical attention, where I found out I had a retinal detachment underway with orders to lie flat on my back for five days after laser treatment to keep from having surgery in some already overburdened hospital.

I thought I was prepared but fear had other ideas. The villain finally got to me, and took what was left of any security and stability I had managed to salvage since starting over in a new home and town where we had barely begun to know our neighbors. My days and nights blended together as I memorized every crack in the ceiling above me, hoping for the best and dreading the worst, letting my overactive imagination play out in creatively dreadful ways. My dreams at night which had already taken a sinister turn turned ugly with anxiety.

Seeing no other way out, I began to give myself permission to grieve the beautiful eyesight that I had briefly experienced along with the world’s sorrow as precious loved ones everywhere suffer from this insidious virus or pass away alone in hospitals while others isolated at home are tormented by abusive partners set off because of their dire circumstances. It was overwhelming at times, but I kept hanging on to what was given to me–a loving partner who takes great care of me, health insurance to cover my treatments and a roof over my head with plenty of food and toilet paper.

Five weeks have passed in a blur of uncertainty, fear’s faithful companion. Lying still for so long was an exercise in release, of expectations, of routine, of control. With all the time in the world, I found that I could truly listen to conversations and savor the moments when I sat up to eat. Since I spent several weeks not bending over or lifting anything, I left the gardening to my spouse and watched him gain confidence when the plants responded to him. I let go of planning anything besides the next doctor’s appointment as I watched trees bud, bloom and leaf out from the inside as an exceptionally colorful springtime unfolded.

Despite fear of what was happening out in the world, I realized that this was an opportunity to be still and heal, to become intimately aware of my own physical needs and what I’ve always taken for granted. I was forced to finally learn moderation if I wanted to recover and proceed with any quality of life. Nothing was spared from scrutiny, from alcohol consumption to diet to screen time to worry. And I had to allow myself to be vulnerable but not a victim.

Yesterday, I was given the green light to live life normally again. I was told to do what I want, with the exception of engaging in any boxing tournaments. The country and the state where I live are starting to entertain lifting their restrictions. But I know better. The normal we knew is over. As time goes on, the more experts realize how little they understand about this virus, the more frightened the powers that be become of the unrest already taking place, and the more we as a people acknowledge how undervalued and under-compensated those who provide our basic needs and services have been.

Whatever my purpose will be moving forward remains a mystery without expectations. For the time being, my job is to live mindfully and provide for my own basic needs and those around me in a sustainable way, making sure to leave enough for others and never taking for granted good health, plenty of food, a safe place to live and the connection to loved ones again. Fear can only destroy us if we let it in to stay.

Letting Go Revisited


There’s snow in the forecast as I write on this dark final day of October when the thinnest of veils has already curtained our surrounding hazy fields before the hidden sun goes down. If I look out to the horizon I swear I can see souls from the past and future flying by in the wind today atop frantic leaves searching for ground. After a very hot and dry autumn, the weather has already played a trick on all who had hoped for a fun night of treats this Halloween with its howling high winds and stabbing hard freeze.

Like the leaves that will be gone by morning, I’ve spent the day letting go of things in this time of endings. The outgrown and expired have been sorted into charity bags or given to compost. I complete my necessary end-of-the-month tasks and check them off a list. I finish chores that have been languishing for months and gather the perishable before nightfall. And I continue to pack my hopes and dreams in moving boxes.

Maybe transitioning in the spring or summer is overrated. Perhaps the best time to silently slip away is when the fields lie empty and the villagers huddle inside by their fires loudly boasting about summer conquests while feasting on their triumphs. I don’t have much to say after two years at a retreat center in the country, and what was gained will be left behind. I take only experience, a little wisdom and some bittersweet memories. They are heavy enough.

Hopefully by the holidays, my spouse and I will be sitting at a new hearth heated with love and quiet resolve to be true to ourselves. There will be lots of beginnings in 2020 but I am not afraid. There is nothing left to regret on this day between the worlds and wonder, when I am more than ready to shed the old and welcome the new.

Time On My Hands

I see by the date of my last post in July that many moons have passed since I posted. Indeed, the act of writing itself has become foreign to me while my hands were used to weed, water and plant seeds. The cultivated earth mistress that demanded most of my attention this year has finally been put to bed, all 5,000 square feet of her. I look at my hands beat up by countless days of cuts from the soil knife or spines off the squash vines, and can actually see clean fingernails as familiar calluses fade into the paleness of my skin.

For the first time in months, I have time on my hands and I find myself a bit lost. The house cries out for attention–closets full of items tossed in randomly for lack of space or safety from sharp kitten teeth, floors that need a good scrubbing to rid them of ground-in garden soil, receipts piled in a drawer with budgets long neglected, paintings and craft projects waiting to be finished before spring. (I could go on, but it’s too early in the day to start drinking.)

I look around in amazement and wonder what happened to that obsessive-compulsive overachieving minimalist who used to inhabit this body sitting here on another dreary mideast morning, the sun that I used to curse for heatstroke by midmorning in the summer, now nowhere to be seen. Wild birds huddle at the feeders outside my insulated windows and the nearly full-grown cat I rescued is squeezed into her favorite cardboard box that’s now three sizes too small for her.

Like a growing child who puts on last year’s winter clothes, I find that my old ways and concerns no longer fit me in this new life of organic gardening, rural living and community consciousness. I’ve learned so much beyond what not to plant next year, or how to manage when the power goes out. I’ve tested my physical limits and personal boundaries this year, and found out when to say no. I’ve become more of a realist and less of a dreamer, although my imagination is still sparked by the light glinting off of dewy spiderwebs and ice-encased red berries.

I’m back to long walks on the wild trails down by the river with my spouse, a patient man who has put up with my obsessions and depressions for over 30 years. Finally, we have the luxury of staying home on snow days without the guilt or grueling commute on dangerous roads. And because of the little community we live in, we can avoid the isolation that rural life often demands in the winter. Gathering together on cold, dark nights before solstice for food, music and laughter, or organizing a trip to the college town close by, are perfect anecdotes to the winter blues.

Meanwhile, there’s still some kale sleeping under its winter blanket, pale parsnips waiting to be harvested from frozen ground, and plenty of sweet potatoes to last us through the holidays. It’s been a good year and time to celebrate.

Maybe I’ll even paint my fingernails.

Finding the Magic


This blog’s long silence can be blamed on our move to the country, and lots of trips with the back of the car loaded Beverly Hillbillies-style holding what we thought were our “minimalist” belongings, which turned out to be quite a few.

Granted, the capacity of our hatchback isn’t cavernous, and we managed to relocate without a moving truck, but still, our “living with less” egos became a bit bruised over the weeks and months that dragged on as we filled box after box. We also were cured of the whole weekend-house-in-the-country mystique after we did our best not to buy and own two of everything, a feat that inevitably led to at least one item residing in the wrong place just when we needed it every week.

However, as I wander around still searching for hastily packed items that ended up in the oddest of places (paring knives with the bath supplies, anyone?), I’m constantly amazed by how everything seems to gravitate toward its perfect placement, and the stuff of my dreams (rustic bohemian cottage with flower gardens) is coming to life after thirty years.

Around every corner, and out the window especially, I’m struck full of wonder each day by a brilliant light beam, or the jewels of frost on an unruly tussle of native seed pods. A walk to the river nearby can lead to a sweet encounter with a baby river otter or the sleepy gaze of a garter snake. The sacred soul of this land that drew ancient prehistoric people to leave their calling cards in the form of earthworks and stone tools, is palpable here.

Which leads me to my Word of the Year, completely entwined with the prolific vegetation that could easily compete with Jack’s beanstalk, and heralded by the fairies that live in a world garden created in love. What could be more appropriate than “Magic” for 2018?

I’m sure that magic won’t be hard to find every day.