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where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Month: June, 2021

a little bit Miss Rumphius, a little bit madwoman with spade…

someone i love is dying, and someone else i love is stationed at her bedside, has been so for weeks now, navigating the shoals and sharp rocks of slowly, surely dying. 

someone wise once said that dying is hard, hard work. so too is being the one who keeps the bedside vigil, who is there when the breathing comes hard, who is there in the rare in-between moments when the stories from long, long ago come tiptoeing into the light, seeping out of tucked-away places in the black-box mystery that is the human mind. 

because we live in a world with ethernet connection, and because rhythm and routine etches something of a lifeline in even the most uncharted landscapes, i know each day how the hospice day is more or less unfolding, 720 miles away on the fabled jersey shore. i am living some shadow of those faraway days right here in this old house. holding my breath, holding down the fort on this end, so the ones i love can do what needs to be done in these anointed hours, with no mind to what’s unfolding here. 

somehow, in a summer that’s breathing hot and hard, i’ve drifted toward the tool rack in my cobwebby garage. i’ve taken on tasks long overdue — and back-achy. weeded like a madwoman. envisioned something beautiful where before there’d been bald and desiccated earth. set out to make it so.

as endless chore has morphed into life-breathing vision, as prairie weeds came out, and carpet roses, false indigo, and myrtle were laid into newly-dug holes, i found myself fueled by Miss Rumphius, she of Barbara Cooney’s eponymous classic picture book, she who set out to scatter lupine seeds wherever she traipsed and turned. for Miss Rumphius held faithful to her creed: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful,” her grandfather had once told her, as she perched upon his knee. “all right,” she promised, not knowing just what that promise might be.

when she grew up, the little girl with the promise, Miss Alice Rumphius worked in a library, where she read books about faraway places, which made her want to travel the world just like her seafaring grandfather. and so she did, trekking from tropical island to tall mountains where the snow never melted, through jungles and across deserts. when at last she came home to a place by the sea, she remembered her instruction and her promise to her grandfather: to make the world more beautiful.

in the arithmetic of my little brain, i too took on that creed; subtraction counterpointed by addition. as the someone i love lay gasping, lay whispering her goodbyes, i set out to sow pre-emptive beauty into this thirsty, blessed earth. it seemed a necessary exertion. it seemed to breathe a little oxygen into this airless stretch of days.

of course i know i’m not really balancing anything. no forever blooming white rose could supplant the weekly phone calls, or the undying knowledge that once upon a time the one who’s dying was the one who emphatically and open-heartedly endorsed the marriage between the lifelong observant jew and the lifelong devoted catholic. and besides, long before that, she was the one who taught the one i love how to engage deeply in conversation, never letting pass a cursory question or response. long before i met him, deep conversation had become my lifeline. and, in the long list of things the reading teacher taught, she’s the one who made me love the color red. because a world in red just might stop you in your tracks, or charm you trying. and it’s a color now that will forever make me see her standing in her red kitchen with her red plaid apron, the one i once sewed for her, the one she wore for decades ever after, and she’ll be waving a big red spoon as if conducting some orchestra, though really she’d be making some essential point because that’s the most certain thing she ever did with a spoon. cooking, you see, was not her thing. and she was more than proud to say so.

there is no tally, in the end or all along, for the countless ways someone weaves her way — indelibly — into the fibers of your heart. all i know is that she melted me — and half the jersey shore — endlessly, unforgettably. 

every once in a while in these mad garden-reshaping days, salty tears have fallen on the clods of dirt i’m heaving with my shovel. but at day’s end, when i rinse my muddy toes under the faucet, when i finally pause to eat, i look out at the white roses, and the false indigo shifting in the summer breeze, and i think hard about the hard work of living and dying and making the world more beautiful. 

in whatever holy blessed form the beautiful comes. 

and it’s a promise i will never break. 

fully admitting that a good bit of my binge gardening was merely putting my worries to work, and keeping me from idly staring at the clock, awaiting word from the jersey shore, praying fiercely all along the hours, here’s the question: where do you find balm for the deepest aches in your heart? and how do you follow Miss Rumphius’ instruction to make this world more beautiful? (latter question is one for your own heart, no need to divulge your secrets here….)

and while we’re at it, may this first-ever national holiday of a juneteenth be a blessed one….

when suddenly you find yourself on summer retreat

tumbling out of my bedsheet, planting my stiff toes on the hardwood planks, it dawned on me that i’ll be home alone most of today. and tomorrow. and the day after. it dawned on me that through happenstance and the spontaneity that is defining this summer, i’ll soon be immersed in a summer’s retreat. the sort of stretch of time that clouds my vision in gauzy doris-day blurred edges, that nearly dizzies me, and surely makes me giddy.

it’s a rarity these days to be home alone under this old roof. and i’m a girl who needs a bit of solitude to think things through, to soak up simple joys and silence, to see a stretch of unoccupied time unspooled before me, far as i can picture.

here’s how i happened into it, this elixir of time and possibility: the college kid, the one whose dorm i run all summer, he’s off to get a taste of a big ten school up wisconsin’s way, and my sweet mate, he’s off on the jersey shore being an angel to his mother. so that leaves me. and a tall stack of poets to while away a weekend. to take in summer in my own sweet tempo. to saunter through a farmer’s market. to pluck fistfuls of herbs from my very own patch of farm. to sleep with windows wide open and shades not pulled (the better to catch dawn’s first light). to listen to the ticking of the clocks. and watch the blue jays chase away the noisy sparrows.

any day now there’s an editor who’s going to ping me on my little clamshell, and suddenly i’ll be on deadline, in rewrite-and-edit phase of a manuscript now idling on the book-assembly line. but in the meantime, since her calendar got backlogged, i’m on guilt-free time. i can manage not to accomplish much in the writing department and not feel too, too guilty. after all, she’s the one who called time-out.

so here i am with lots of thoughts and a rare dollop of time to let them soak me through and through. thinking while puttering is a very fine endeavor, one especially fit for summer, when the puttering is plenty. there are weeds to mindlessly pull. and hoses that beg to be pointed in the right direction while thumbs are put to work, adjusting the spray with simple pivot and bend in the thumb joint. there are salads to heap on plates. and proseccos to be poured. there are pages to turn, and windows to stare out, though never mindlessly for a million curiosities pass by each and every day.

a summer’s retreat is an especially fine thing. because, like upstairs windows left wide open all through the night, the breeze comes easy, the air is soft, and i’ve little to do but lie there, soaking in its wonders.

the only certainty of this week’s-end ahead is the stack of poets idling beside me, calling me in whispers to please, please, please crack open each and every spine. here’s who’s on tap:

Wislawa Szymborską, the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet, whose 27 poems in Here, a 2009 collection, consider life on earth, from the microbe to the apocalypse. It’s said to be “a virtuoso of form, line, and thought.” And, by my taste, it’s one of the great book covers of recent time. (see right).

The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky, by Ellen Meloy. (2002) Call me quirky (in case you don’t yet) but I have an insatiable love of essays on otherwise little considered flecks of life: punctuation marks, colors, et cetera et cetera, and so the anthropology of turquoise is right up my alley.

A trilogy of American poets: Philip Larkin: The Complete Poems; Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, by Jane Kenyon, in whose New Hampshire farmhouse (the one she shared with poet Donald Hall) and barn I once spent a morning; The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, by Kay Ryan, U.S. Poet Laureate 2008-2010. This trio of poets promises to bring a wealth of deep sighs as their way with words is, for me, far better than the most sumptuous deep-tissue massage.

And, finally, I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain, by Anita Sethi, a just-released book from Bloomsbury I’m reviewing…..on the cover, Lucy Jones promises, “This book will make the world a better place.” I’m all in.

and that’s how i’ll be unfurling this lazy stretch of most necessary time.

how would you spend a lazy stretch of necessary time, a summer’s sudden and unanticipated retreat?

where summer begins

it’s inevitable. ever since we ripped out the rug that wanted to be a putting green, tore down the faux attic, and hauled in the wicker chairs someone abandoned in the alley, the room where summer begins, middles, and ends is here where the concrete floor is cracked, the wicker threatens to unravel, and the old paneled-door-cum-dining-table wobbles. and makes a balancing act of every breakfast, lunch, or dinner plate. 

apparently, i like things off-kilter, a bit rough around the edges. at least when it comes to my definition of summer, where the living is unstructured, unbound, and on its own sweet time. 

we’re back home from faraway land, hipsterville USA where the summer is launched with the naked midnight bike ride, held under the full moon of may — and every month, and every season thereafter. we don’t launch the summer thusly here; far as we get is kicking off our shoes, but it’s official summer nonetheless here in WickerLand, where we don’t wait for the solstice to get things underway. 

we call this “the summer house,” and only because that’s what the long-ago realtor called it, and we’re not ones to shake things up. of late, i’m trying to take to calling it the summer porch, because that’s a wee bit less confusing. but, either way, what it is is a screened room attached to the garage, and surrounded by my storybook garden. it’s storybook because i imagine it to be a whole lot prettier than it really is, but what’s the point of imagination if you can’t put it to good use and your own personal advantage every once in a while. i’ve got vines climbing up both corners and a white pine that’s trying to reach the sky. birdhouses dangle and perch from just about every angle. and a brick path meanders from the back door to here. and meandering is everything, don’t you think? 

it’s more or less an inside-out bird cage, only i’m the one inside the screened-in cage and the birds flit wildly on the outside, not minding me at all. they flit and flirt, squawk and warble and feed each other worms right before my eyes. 

ever since we unfolded ourselves from all the hours on the airplane and in the speeding taxi cab the other evening, i’ve been sinking deep into the velvet folds of summer here in the corner of the world i call home. there’s something about this summer — the ease of it, the at-last of it — that feels hard-won and worthy of the wait. 

it promises to be summer unedited. the college kid has a job hauling sail boats at the beach, which by any measure is quintessential summer. the resident architecture critic is gearing up for his first triathlon, and i am up to my elbows in the verb that for me is synonymous with summer: garden, as in “to garden.” really, that means i am yanking weeds from their misplaced scatterings, but regardless of the specifics, it has me out with spade and rake and once again employing imagination. and occasional consternations: while we were away some furry someone feasted on every luscious leaf of my fledgling black raspberry, but my faith-testing with its fellow blackberry paid off and what for weeks was nothing but a bare-naked stick in the ground is now sprouting its own itty-bitty leaves. 

once again, my farm — aka raised bed of herbs, tomatoes, cukes, and now two berry bushes in waiting — is where the summer gospels are likeliest to be preached. lessons in resilience, in patience. in careful and doting attentions. all enfold all the holy wisdoms i might need to carry me through june, july, and august. 

it promises to be a redolent summer. a summer unlike any we have known in our sweet lifetimes. it’s one for relishing all the simple joys, the ones we refrained from all last year: picnics with friends. shared potato salad even. easy comings and goings. dashing to the store for one more pint of raspberries, and a sack of peaches too. 

summer without a mask (only around the duly vaccinated, that is). summer slow and easy. summer with a pinch of relish.

it all seems sweeter now. sweeter than i ever remember. 

sweet as the slump soon dripping down my chin. 

speaking of slump, here’s the recipe: (with thanks to marsha of low country carolina for reminding me how delicious it is…..) (i think i leave this recipe here every summer; oh, well!)

Blueberry Slump

(As instructed by a friend bumped into by the berry bins; though long forgotten just whom that was, the recipe charms on, vivid as ever…)

Yield: 1 slump

2 pints blueberries dumped in a soufflé dish (fear not, that’s as close as we come to any sort of highfalutin’ cuisine Française around here….)

Splash with 2 to 3 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice 

Cinnamon, a dash 

In another bowl, mix:

1 cup flour

1 cup sugar

1 stick butter, cut into pea-sized bits

{Baker’s Note: Add a shake of cinnamon, and make it vanilla sugar, if you’re so inspired…(I usually am. All you need do to make your sugar redolent of vanilla bean is to tuck one bean into your sugar canister and forget about it. Whenever you scoop, you’ll be dizzied by high-grade vanilla notes.)}

* Spoon, dump, pour flour-sugar-butter mix atop the berries.

* Bake at 350-degrees Fahrenheit, half an hour. 

(Oh, goodness, it bubbles up, the deepest berry midnight blue. Looks like you took a week to think it through and execute. Ha! Summer in a soufflé dish. Sans soufflé….)

* Serve with vanilla ice cream. But of course….

Tiptoe out to where you can watch the stars, I was tempted to add. But then I quickly realized you might choose to gobble this up for breakfast, lunch or a late summer afternoon’s delight. In which case a dappled patch of shade will do….*

*from the pages of good ol’ Slowing Time

where do you begin summer?

and speaking of summer, two very very very beloved friends of the chair are back-to-back birthdaying in the days ahead: sweet amy of illinois (the very description long ago that introduced me to her), who dwells along the banks of the mighty mississippi, and nan of my heart….happy blessed days to the pair of you. xoxox