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.

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Deja Vu All Over Again

Just as John Fogerty so famously sang, this summer’s movie reel is a continuous replay of events from nearly twenty years ago. Again and again I’ve been struck by the similarities. Indeed, there are even close parallels to childhood and teenage summers gone by. But almost two decades ago, I was adapting to a new life in a strange place, juggling a giant garden and a gaggle of pets, with no idea where this was all headed.

Three years later I was headed back to the suburbs, with a newly diagnosed autoimmune disease and a sense of defeat. Nice try, I thought, too bad my attempts always end in failure. All for nothing. Flash forward to 2018 and like so many of my random life experiences that held no rhyme or reason, suddenly that brief foray into organic gardening and sustainable living provided the foundation for me to start a new garden with support from fellow gardeners in the community I now call home.

Based on the wisdom and guidance of those who have lived and loved this farm and retreat center for many years, the 5,000 square foot vegetable garden that is part of the property’s centerpiece full of flowers, fruit, shrubs and trees, has produced over a hundred heads of lettuce, bushels of heirloom tomatoes, countless cucumbers and ridiculous amounts of squash.

And the community members have responded by creating beautiful and delicious dishes out of all the bounty in addition to produce for the retreat center. Whereas before I was alone in my endeavors trying to find ways to give away excess food, now I have a network and a sense of connection with my fellow villagers. Just the typical random morning chat in the gardens with coffee makes all the years of preparation for this cooperative garden effort worthwhile.

While in the garden at the beginning of June discussing lettuce with one of the chefs, the other deja vu element showed up in the form of a tiny kitten with blue eyes followed closely by a local vet who happened to be attending a retreat that day. “She’s a tortie, seven or eight weeks old,” the vet called out, “barely weaned. A baby.” The whole retreat group tried to catch her, to no avail. I was left waiting for my ride at the end of the evening, dead tired but unable to ignore the gut-wrenching mewing coming from the shrubbery.

Flashback to 2002, when my last cat landed on our doorstep in the country, full of fleas and desperate to live with us. And beyond that experience were the ancient memories of kittens abandoned in my parents’ farm fields, tiny cries for help from corn and bean rows that I would answer because I couldn’t ignore those sounds without my heart breaking into pieces.

Now I was closing in on two years since my last cat’s passing and vowed not to get too attached. Certainly no kittens, I said, too much work. But once again I couldn’t ignore those desperate little cries, and I started meowing back. She came straight to me out of the bushes, dripping wet, and climbed right into my arms. Turns out she was a neighbor’s cat that crawled up under a car, took a little ride and tumbled out about a mile down the road. She suffered a scraped nose and lost one of her nine lives, but she managed to find me just when I needed her. I just didn’t know it yet.

So here I am at the end of July, with a lifetime of living accomplished in just a few short months, with a cat and a garden and too many vegetables. But also with a sense that all that’s come before has prepared me for what I need now, to start all over again.

Invasion of the Vegetables


After a hiatus of many years, garden mania has once again taken over my soul and my house. Seeds are germinating in my art room while sweet potatoes hide in our coat closet and tomato seedlings await their peat pots on the kitchen counter. These days you’ll find me wandering around with a plant mister and planning charts while checking projected night-time temps on my phone and muttering about frost-free dates in my sleep.

On gusty nights I wake up in a cold sweat wondering how my lettuce starts are faring now that they’re finally hardening off in the unheated greenhouse that tends to lose its panels in a strong wind. I’ve been known to rescue them after dark for an overnight stay in the protection of my house, much like a parent sheltering her young from the blows of life.

Nearly twenty years since my last foray into seed starts and county extension handouts, I’ve found that much has changed with the proliferation of new technology in growing lights and heating mats, but very little in terms of my anxiety and protectiveness toward my “plant” progeny.

And while garden centers and box stores will be full of perfectly potted specimens lined up in pristine rows to pop into soil when the weather finally warms up enough to shed our winter coats, the little farm where I live grows organic with an eye to the unusual and the flavorful, and strongly supports the seed companies that provide ethically obtained, preferably heirloom seeds that are untreated and unsullied by the corruption of corporate tampering.

Besides, that first taste of juicy home-grown heirloom tomato will be well worth the vegetable invasion overtaking my home.

Short and Sweet

Winter Aconite in the garden.

Since February is short and sweet, so is this post. I’ve been wandering around the gardens on this warm final day of the month, searching for signs of life after death in the aftermath of a very bitter cold December and January. And sure enough, I see encouraging signs poking up out of the old leafy remains of last year, signifying that hope truly springs eternal!

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blessed:

The soul, uneasy and confined from home,

Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
Alexander Pope from An Essay on Man

Going Up the Country


With the earthy tones of Canned Heat’s signature song humming in our ears, my husband and I are headed back to rural living after nearly 15 years in the suburbs and city.

As quickly as our last move transpired three years ago, this particular transition is paced as leisurely as the river that meanders through lands that we’ll soon call home. In fact, each hour-long trip with a car load of possessions is a kind of moving therapy, a decompression if you will from the stresses carried along city sidewalks that we can exhale into the long shadows cast on an evening walk next to fields stripped of their summer splendor.

The ground’s stalky quilts are bedded down, ready for winter winds, snow and solitude, and so are we, anticipating the longest night of deep rest and introspection away from the world’s flashing beacons and whirling distractions, all its fussin’ and fightin’.

Now more than ever, we’ve got to get away.

Thinning of the Veil


Last year, I was preoccupied with all the fearmongering and polarization going on in my neck of the woods, and my nation. This year, after some of those fears have been realized (or threatened), I feel the presence of the ancestors, and take solace in their company.

As mankind’s old wounds are reopened and exhumed, they are waiting with us while the sins of past human horrors fly screeching from tombs of our denial to join with present atrocities. Just when you think all are accounted for, yet another evil pops out of the Pandora’s box to be addressed in brazen light of day.

Last year, I talked about being afraid of the dark, but this year I welcome it. Limiting my vision within velvety shadow shields me from the glaring justifications and blinding boasts by a narcissistic chorus of cons and culprits, criminal in their actions while they preen themselves with angelic posturing and shameless self-promotion.

Meanwhile, since last Halloween and the apocalyptic national election that followed my ancestors have been nudging me back to life, whispering those long-forgotten lullabies, breathing deserted dreams and destiny back into my heart, resuscitating the inner child pulled from a deep pool of adult despair.

Instead of the anticipated fear, I’ve been surprised by a spooky joy, one that jumps out from the country hayloft or city parking lot. Hope and possibility reveal themselves in the swallow’s swoop and stranger’s smile, the clasp of a trusting child’s hand and the brush of a cat’s whiskers.

I’ve witnessed in wonder the gathering of all ages to make art, and had my breath taken away by the incredible beauty that is birthed every living moment by reawakened creators surprised with what takes flight from their hands.

There is no doubt that this has been a hard year of endings, of death, of an inconsolable loss for what we used to believe and know with absolute certainty. And we have a right to lament what has been lost while grieving the absence of many who have recently left this path for other worlds.

But still, in starlit moments on inky-black nights, I’ve seen that they haven’t deserted us. They are still there, at the end and along the way.

Washing Away

Another form of water that reflects my mood on this last day of August.

This month I’ve been obsessed with water. Starting with my art grant for next year, which focuses on how water always seems to show up in my paintings, to the horrific events still unfolding in Texas. I’ve gone from lazy afternoons spent watching barges glide down the Ohio River on painting trips to recoiling from the unforgettable photos and videos of the broiling brown brew currently washing away lives and lands.

Like Katrina before it, I felt the same sinking feeling with Harvey as I tracked the swirling cloud mass on weather maps and phone apps. Growing up on the east coast I remember well the endless deluge of Agnes in 1972, when constant rain soaked through everything in my family’s spanking new saltbox colonial home, the wooden shingles, the old-fashioned plaster walls that only a very few craftsmen still knew how to apply, and the extensive fireplaces built with unglazed brick. My mother set out so many pots and pans to catch the drips, that the sparsely furnished rooms echoed like a tin symphony.

But that was nothing compared to the flooding of my beloved meadow, where the innocent creek that meandered through my youthful playdates became a wrathful river that destroyed the little driveway bridge carrying us to the outside world of groceries and grandma’s house. We waited days before my father was able to reconstruct a passage to freedom. By that time, the angry torrents had reduced to a slimy whimper, and when I managed to slip and slide my way to the meadow’s edge, I couldn’t recognize my former friend amid the scattered rocks and stinking muck from a thousand fields upstream.

The gentle bends and soft shoulders of the grassy banks I knew by heart were never the same, making it easier to say goodbye. The next year we moved away to another land with a completely different kind of water, where my brother and I played in a man-made ditch that ran straight as an arrow through soil the color of coal, reflecting a greenish hue that I would later realize was filled with something more ominous than the little leeches clinging painlessly to my legs in the old meadow.

And while Agnes’ unrelenting rain and stifling air fell heavy on my bony shoulders that June of 1972, this was nothing compared to what the population of Texas is enduring. My family didn’t watch our beautiful new house fill up with sewage, or have to leave our pets behind, we didn’t inhale the choking fumes of chemical plants and refineries relieving themselves of toxic byproducts as they shut down, and we didn’t know anyone who perished beneath a dark current.

This water, no matter how swift, will never wash away the fear and countless tragedies. As I grieve for those living beings who have been affected by this national disaster and donate what I can, I find myself wondering whether the suffering evacuees will return and the bridges be rebuilt, or if it is easier to say goodbye and start over somewhere else? Only time will tell and there is one thing I do know:

It will never be the same.