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Category: garden

trying to stay sane in the summer of 2018

front page NYT

well, there’s a bold proclamation, trying to stay sane in an unrelenting summer.

sanity, defined: teetering on that knife’s-blade edge between despair and shards of hope, listing away from full-on darkness, into the atmosphere where breath comes in full-enough cycles, where dreams have not lost all their air, where the few fine words you choose to speak are ones that rise up from the holier parts inside.

and how to get there, in a summer that each day brings onslaught of ugly news, the latest being the riddling of a newsroom with bullets, and yet another crop of americans now shattered for the rest of their days? that’s a question that animates so many of the soulful moments, soulful conversations i’ve been having.

what i ache to do is just plain fix it. that’s my auto-pilot. in some corners of my life, when things are broken, i leap into action. stay up all night till i get the glue to set just right, trace my way to the ends of the earth (or the internet) till i track down replacement for whatever object has gone missing.

in this particular instance the things i want to do — lock up the bullies, throw away the keys; turn back time to just before the bullets flew; wrap my arms around the little children, look them in the eye, and promise them i’ll find them their mamas and their papas and the ones who keep them safe — i can’t. my superpowers seem to have expired. they were never more than make-believe anyway.

am i fooling my sorry little self to think the most i can do is keep the circle within which i live a sphere where the light keeps burning, where the words stay gentle, where i check myself and aim to turn the other cheek, not spout the sharp retort, steer away from hornets’ nests of hate, or just plain grumbly folk? where i ought to try even harder to make this old house a respite, a hive of rooms where kids are free to romp, where i don’t nag about the silly things — the clothes in heaps, the stinky soccer bag, the chores undone? where my most important job might be to be the peace-filled center, the one who models “this is how we love”?

as i so often do when things need to get done — and here, the task is hewing toward some measure of sanity — i’m making a list. these few things have brought some semblance of serenity, some anchor in the roiling seas.

  1. i’ve found a little chapel, a sacred space with a carved-wood door at the end of a stone walk that meanders through a shady garden. inside the vaulting rooms, at the foot of the gilded altar, i listen to the words of oxford-educated men and women — yes, women here are priests — and i am emboldened, reminded of what matters, and called to action, holy action. as a lifelong believer in a hundred roads to God, i pay no mind to what the signpost names the church, all i know is what’s inside is stirring me to tears, and, sunday after sunday, taking my whole breath away. better yet, it gives me words so delicious, so must-be-remembered, i’m wont to surreptitiously reach for and scribble in the blank little book i keep tucked in my backpack, and this holy, wholly animating place sends me home with thoughts to percolate all week.
  2. i’ve somehow been pulled into the mists of history, my ancestral history. i can spend hours tracing family roots, poring over news pages from long long ago. i’ve read of a great uncle struck and killed by lightning, when he ran for cover in his tobacco barn during a summer storm of biblical proportion. i’ve read of my grandpa’s first wife (and the mother of their four young children) dying in childbirth on christmas day. and another uncle — the one who tried to resuscitate his lightning-struck brother — dying years later of cirrhosis of the liver. i’ve absorbed the truth that life is hard and, when we’re blessed, we survive — banged up, dented, hobbling along, but somehow we gather up just enough to watch the sun rise and sink again.
  3. i spend a lot of time with my toes in the dirt, out in my garden fully armed with felcro pruners, and trowel, and twine. there is sustenance to be had in nursing limp leaves back to full salute, in chasing down a runaway clematis vine or a tomato plant that’s reaching for the clouds. it’s quiet out there, save for the chatter of the birds, and the occasional butterfly who flutters by me so unassuming he barely moves the breeze.
  4. i read. and read some more. my job for work, as i’ve said here some dozen times, is to read for soulfulness. that’s my assignment: find books that stir the soul. and the occupational by-product is that my soul gets stirred before i pass along the revelation. this week, ol’ jimmy carter, 39th president and peanut farmer, did some stirring. before i go, i’ll leave you with this one passage that reminds me good will come again. it’s our job to seek out those few fine souls whose moral compass never wavers, whose goodness is so good our knees go weak just watching. here’s what our cardigan-wearing, energy-saving president spoke in a 1978 address to his fellow southern baptists:

“A country will have authority and influence because of moral factors, not its military strength; because it can be humble and not blatant and arrogant; because our people and our country want to serve others and not dominate others. And a nation without morality will soon lose its influence around the world.”

how do you strain to stay sane in this soul-testing summer?

ordinary time

noddling bells of spring

deep in the recesses of my DNA, these knowings lurk. those little bits of knowledge slipped in once upon a time, those bits that order time, that frame the paradigm, the window frame, through which i watch the passing picture show called life.

somehow this week there was a whisper barely heard that told me ordinary time had come. technically, liturgically, it had come because the church i grew up in, the catholic church, ordains the monday after pentecost sunday as the opening of the long chapter of the year called “ordinary time.” and so, this week, as i slipped into this time, i couldn’t keep myself from considering the folds and undulations of just what ordinary means.

all around me, as lily of the valley sent up its flagpoles of perfume, as apple blossoms drifted down like vernal snowfall, as songbirds in feathers shocking pink and golden yellow darted in and from my feeders, i hardly thought things “ordinary.” the world’s in exultation.

and in my daily everyday, there was no relenting from the news that never stops and never slows to a trickle, nor was there quelling from the firehose of bumps and bangs that comes with loving widely, deeply. one night had me up till 2 a.m., making sure a young typist came to the end of his bibliography and junior theme (aka massive term paper) before we clicked out the lights. that same night had me dispensing nursing cures to a long-distance patient whose neck was in some spasm. all while keeping track of a train chugging to st. louis, where my sweet mate and familial co-conspirator drew more distant by the minute and the mile. by day, i somehow managed to turn in — on deadline — my own newspaper assignment, the first such one (a cookbook tale, complete with half a dozen lively interviews) in quite a while. none of this seemed “ordinary,” if by ordinary we mean “having no distinctive features,” as the oxford american dictionary tries to persuade us.

oh, around here, it’s distinctive all right.

i even plopped my bum on the old cedar slab i call my prayer bench, amid the ferns and bleeding hearts of my secret garden, intent on keeping watch on this so-called ordinary time.IMG_0172

lured by curiosity to the pages of old books, i dug around to learn a thing or three about this ordinariness. here’s a bit of what i learned: the church, in all her wisdom, divides the year into chunks of time (perhaps to fine-grain our focus, knowing full well we’d succumb to blur if not for demarcation). the church knows, according to one wise writer, “that human psychology desires the marking of moments.”

there are, apparently, two liturgical mountain peaks in the year, easter and christmas, each with preamble (lent and advent, respectively) and in between (here comes “ordinary time”) “the pasture between the mountains,” otherwise referred to as “vast verdant meadows,” of ordinary time, of tempus per annum (my church loves its latin, and, according to my resident latin translator, this literally means “time throughout the year”).

it must be the quiet season, the chunks of year when — inside the church and beyond — there is not the cacophony that comes with birth (christmas) or death and dying and its glorious resurrection (easter).

in one lovely meditation, i read that God, in infinite wisdom, invented the notion of seasons (not unlike the kaleidoscope that turns a notch and explodes in all new shapes and colored bits) as “invitation to reflection,” to jostle us awake as the all-around ever shifts. yet another meditation opined that God uses seasons to “translate wisdoms into a language of purpose for our lives.”

what that means, i think, is that it’s no accident that some of us walk around fully willing to be klonked on the head by the 2-by-4s of revelation that have us extracting lessons from earth and sky and trickling waters in between. it’s why a vine that blooms long after deadline (the week before thanksgiving, one year) might speak to me of undying courage, and the quiet of the dawn reminds me to settle my soul and breathe deep before the launch of day. it’s why the springtime stirs me full of hope, and all but insists i power up my rocket blasters.

ordinary, i read, comes from “ordinal,” or numbered, the weeks of the year simply counted off, one by one. amid the canvas of quiet, without profound distraction, our task in this stretch of time is to think hard and deep about the mysteries in the weft and warp of being alive. as this is the longest time of year, a full 33 to 34 weeks of ordinary time, depending when the feast days fall, i suppose the point is to settle in, sink deep, into the extraordinary work of living, with our attention meters cranked as high as we can muster.

all of that is literal, is what the books i sought spelled out. i tend to veer off the page. and that’s when i began to really contemplate the power of unencumbered ordinary. as if we’re given unfettered canvas on which to quietly and without bother absorb the sacred simple. the gift of being alive without all the inner chatter. the charge to scan the hours of the day for those moments that break us out in goosebumps. the blessing of deep, slow breathing. the chance, scant chance, to catch God in the act….
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of late, i’ve become intrigued by what i call the theology of the sacred ordinary. not the loud bangs and pyrotechnics, not the stuff that comes at the end of miles-long, desert-crossing pilgrimage, but rather the stark and quiet notion that we are living the Holy right now.

it’s the hush of a whisper, the percussion of the rain, those are the sounds that call us in, call us to behold the simple pure sacred. it’s the humility of the moment that belies its grandeur, its magnificent majesty……

and perhaps that’s the invitation of ordinary time, to dwell amid the plain-jane, stripped-down quotidian of the everyday. to awaken our deeper senses, our fuller attentions, to behold the Beautiful, the Wise, the Profound amid our daily stumbles and bumbles. to live as if the Book of Wonder has been placed upon our open palms, its pages spread akimbo. to extract, inhale, deep breathe its mighty and eternal lessons. the ones that whisper, the ones we hear only when we truly, truly listen.

what does ordinary time mean to you?

this morning’s writing came in fits and starts, as it sometimes does, as somehow this morning this old house clattered like it was grand central station, locomotives and the people who aim to board them rushing in and out the station, barely and noisily keeping to the clockwork schedule.

perceptible growth

perceptible growth

i must be one of those people who needs things klonked over my head. and thus, the simple act of walking past my kitchen window yesterday took my breath away. a quick glance out the window set my eyeballs in direct gaze of what had been the straggly, misbehaving leathery-brown vines that snake along my garden fence.

only, the thing was, yesterday — just a day after the day before when i swear the straggles were mostly stripped naked, without more than a paint drop of green anywhere in sight — they had decided to erupt in a tapestry of sawtooth-edged leaves and cauliflower buds that come july or august will unfold into nodding white hydrangea heads.

that’s the thing about spring: it catches you unawares. it all but grabs you by the cheekbones, holds you in its clutches, and bellows in your face: “there is growth by the hour here, something beautiful is unfolding.”

and then the one-two punch: “pay attention. it could happen to you.”

yes, my wise old professor of a vine seemed to be telling me, even you. even after all these weeks and months of feeling about as fruitful as a stripped naked, leathery-skinned vine, even you might be growing just beneath the surface. perhaps not yet erupting into cauliflower-budded bloom, but keep the faith; there is rumbling, stretching, reaching for the depths and heights. even you, little pewter-haired flower, even you just might be unfolding by the month — if not the week or day (let us not set our growth expectations too high here…).

it’s why spring makes me dizzy.

it’s why, i think, God invented the season of promiscuous advancement and rambunctious take-your-breath-away-ness. because it comes after the long season of stillness, of winter’s deep-down stirrings, the ones that can’t be seen. and then, the very instant we’re at the end of our hope rope, the days when we’re sagging like nobody’s business, God decides to wallop us with undeniable, whirling-all-around magnificence.

the flocks of feathered things arrive as if a river, saturating sky and bough with their shots of color and their song. the trees practically poke us in the eye, with frilly, lacy shades of velvet green and white and caution yellow and lipstick pink, as if slathered with a paint brush. and then there’s the best-of-show for those who dare to bend their knees and crouch down low: there, just above the crust of earth, that’s where all the tenderest unfurlings are. that’s where fern literally unwinds from its tight-wad comma — or is it a question mark? it’s where the itty-bitty baby leaves first reach for sky. it’s where you might even spy a worm, drowsy from its long winter’s snooze, out and about for its first seasonal constitutional (if one can apply such a noun to a walk without legs), slithering in between the rising stems of daffodil and lily of the valley.

year after year, it happens: i fall deliriously in love with the opening-up hours and days and weeks of spring, the ones where the volume is dialed to blaring, so clogged-ear folk like me can’t help but catch the message, the one that beats a billboard along the side of the highway.

if it can happen to a bush, you might find yourself thinking, i suppose it could happen to plain old me. i suppose i too just might be unfurling in the tight spots deep within. i suppose i too could dare to believe that something bright and beautiful dwells deep down inside. and something gentle, too. and, like the magnolia or the hydrangea vine, if i dared to let it out, if i found the faith to strut my stuff, the stuff that God has tucked there for a certain purpose, maybe the world around me might glow a little bit more heaven-sent.

it’s the wisdom and the glory of the book of spring: the world bursts into beautiful all around, undeniably all around, so that we too might know that at the end of our seasons when no growing, no perceptible beauty is apparent, there is something breathtaking astir, something take-your-breath-away just beneath the surface, coming soon to bloom.

what lessons do you extract from the beauties — or the heartbreaks — of the spring?

bleeding heart dew

and one more little wisp from the pages of The Blessings of Motherprayer…..

wonder

once again, resilience

scilla resilient

the Great Book of Creation must understand that i belong in remedial class, the flock for slow learners, the ones who need the lessons over and over (and over) again. all but pounded into our thick Homo sapiens skulls.

take Resilience, the course now being offered in the great outdoors. the course that zips us through the syllabus of rise, bud, pummel, wait to see what happens.

the pressing question, the one the professor whispers in our plugged-up ears: will we surrender hope, throw in the trowel and clomp away, or will we stubbornly, insistently believe that one day the hallelujah will be ours?

let the examination begin:

perhaps your sliver of acreage, like mine, was just beginning to break the thaw. perhaps the itty-bitty wisps of green had risen all around. perhaps their flags of cobalt blue or white or even butter yellow had been hoisted. and then the april rain turned frigid cold, turned to slosh of snow. and the dang beauties, caught in the act, were flash frozen, stopped at half-mast.

and you, zipped inside your fluffy layers, you dashed outside to survey the damage. you stood there, gasping, hands over mouth to stifle cries of pain. anguish of the garden variety. all looked doomed just half a day ago. it looked like spring on ice. as if the waiters dumped the slush buckets on the way to the all-you-can-eat buffet.

but i’m just back in from my morning saunter through the beds, and i am here to tell you that while the little buds are still shivering, all but quaking on their tender stems, they have shaken off the icy bits, raised their heads again, unbent their necks, and — altogether now — they await the rising sun.

while i stand gobsmacked, in awe that they’ve not packed it up and shimmied florida way, i consider the legions of parallels in my own life plot: the heartaches i thought would never end, the friend i thought i’d never hear from again, the days and weeks and months when grief leadened my legs, my gut, my heart.

of all the lessons that unfurl in my earthy plots, the ones of rising up from heartbreak are among the most prolific. to tend a garden, to keep close watch on the rise and fall and rhythms of the earth, is to enter into the frailties and absurdities, the puzzles and conundrums for which there is no rhyme, no reason.

it is to know the sharp pang of brittle brokenness, and to slow-breathe the salve of picking up the pieces, slogging onward. finding holy breath again.

i am among the ones who need all the practice i can get. i need the muscles that a garden grows. and i don’t mean the ones that help me hoist the 20-pound sacks of mushroom compost. i mean the ones that teach me hope. and faith. over and over (and over) again.

and then, sometimes, the hallelujah comes.

i think the reason i settled in these northern parts, not far from the edge of the great lake, might have something to do with the lessons of this particular geography. the ones i clearly need over and over (and over). 

what lessons have you learned from the springtime garden, the one that endures whatever crushing blows the heavens send its way?

necessary harbingers

harbingers (1)

it hits me mid-morning, when i notice the light streaming in the grimy windowpanes, the panes streaked from winter wear and tear, when i notice the light has shifted toward its vernal blue. there is an undertone in spring, the light all but reaches out and wraps my shivering shoulders, the light promises: “you will breathe again. you will bask one day soon.”

so too the crust of earth. it breaks open in the early morning hours, once the thaw gives way, and only in certain patches, the ones where sunlight falls undiluted. that’s where soil softens, and insistent bulge of stem nudges through. not unlike that baby’s head crowning through the birth canal, that nub of newborn green exerts invisible, unrelenting force. it wants to breathe. it strains to make it to the light.

we strain too. we strain this time of year.

and so the earth and sky join forces, the earth and sky and their inhabitants, they give all they’ve got — full moon, sunrise streaks of tourmaline and tangerine, morning song arising from the robin’s throat — they dial it up a notch, a holy notch. they must sense that we’re inching toward end-of-winter full surrender. and if not for their employ, if not for their emphatic labors we might, well, shrivel into tight-wad commas, curl up and call time out.

to catch the earth in the act, in eternal sacred act, you need to pay close attention. need to all but rub your nose along the thawing garden fringe. but when you do, when you inspect the earth’s perimeter, the rim where underworld meets all the rest, you feel your heart go pit-a-pat at every rising quarter inch. in one wee patch along my bluestone walk, a patch where sunshine lands from 10 bells till sometime after two, the little nubs have sprouted frilly collars, have unfurled lemon-yellow petals, and emerged into a borderless swath of hope. they are the necessary harbingers, the first-line rescue squad. the ones the earth sends out to meet the winter’s end, and beckon coming spring. there they lie, morning, noon and even into night: my cheery patch of promise. as if the earth is sending up a lifeline, begging us to not surrender, not throw in the trowel, hold onto hope for just a minute longer.

at about this moment in history, this sorry moment at the end of winter’s hibernation and the daily dirge of downbeat news, when all the earth seems awash in gray and drab, we human species, we need a jolt. we crave a heavenly injection, a many-colored cloak to shake us from our doldrum. and, after these millennia of shared inhabitation, the earth — in all her glory — she gives and gives what we so deeply need.

earth, so often dispatched to be the messenger from heaven. earth, without a single word, pulses with life-saving, soul-searing homily and, in time, the hallelujah.

all earth asks is that we listen, is that we open wide the pores. earth and heaven will indulge us. will bathe us in a holy light, in skies awash in pink, in flutterings of wing, and stem and bloom that will not, will not, shrink from vernal task: to whisper the coming once again of hope.

holy hallelujah.

daffydills

what signs of hope have tickled your consciousness this week?

putting a season to bed…

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for weeks now, i’d been thinking i’d mark this one-year point with an open letter to the occupier of the oval office. i was going to politely suggest that i’d prefer a country of considerate kindness and gentleness. i’d prefer the bullying, the bragging, the bombast be put to bed. i was going to mention how i’d withered across the arc of the year, how i went to bed some nights with such a sinkingness in my belly, i ached. and then i woke up aching some more. i was going to tell him that, from the eensy-weensy spot on the map where i keep watch, i felt like i was elbow-akimbo at the edge of the fourth-grade playground, watching the schoolyard bully chase after the scrawny kids who couldn’t run fast enough, the ones who could never find a safe place to hide. i was going to ask if maybe, for the sake of our souls and our sanity, he could please swallow a humble pill, take a hard look in the mirror, and remember that children are watching, children are taking their cues, and parents all over the land are hitting the mute button every time he chimes up again. i was going to ask to stop with the tweets.

but i decided — or my wiser, gentler angels did — that i’d best invest those energies under the great pewter dome of november’s sky. i turned, as i so often do, to the balm that comes in raking my hands through cold damp earth. in tuning my ears to the sound of the blade slicing through the garden’s autumnal frost.

i spent the morning taking census of nodding heads and withered stems. i dumped out shallow pools of rainwater from the last few pots, hauled spent vessels into their winter’s resting place. the hoses i drained of last dribbles.

autumn is the season of turning in, and i partook of the liturgy with muddy hands and dirt-stained knees. there is a whole body immersion, a surrender to the dilution of light and heat, a preparing, a submission, that comes with the ticking through earthly chores. chores, perhaps, are those seasonal triggers, the ones that pull us into the lure, into the spiritual cadence of each and every turning of the calendar page.

we are on the cusp now of the darkening, a season i regard for its inner kindling — look past the inking in along the margins, dwell on the lumens arising within.

we coil now into our depths, into the nooks and crannies of our soul, and we do best to dial down the noise, to slow the beating of our hearts, to aim for a stillness shared with so many citizens of the woods and waters and sky.

consider the painted turtle, who a week ago might have been basking in a pool of sunlight atop a log, but in one invisible moment, might have heard the ancient whisper: it’s time now. and so the turtle took her last deep breath and plunged to the silty bottom of the chilling pond, pushed aside the lily pad roots and stems, burrowed deep into the mush, and settled into her wintry stillness.

just now i was reading that she goes so still she doesn’t need to breathe, “she slows herself beyond breath in a place where breath is not possible,” writes gayle boss in “all creation waits,” a breathtaking advent book i will soon share. and while the turtle is without oxygen all winter long at the murky bottom, as lactic acid builds in her heart and her bloodstream, she draws calcium from her hard shell, in order to neutralize the acid, in order to keep her muscle from burning away.* she literally dissolves through the winter, till the vernal thaw when she rises, deep-breathes again.

blessedly, we do get to breathe. and, mostly, we don’t dissolve over winter. but turtle has a lesson to share. it is this:

“…every stressed particle of her stays focused on the silver bead of utter quietude.

“it’s this radical simplicity that will save her. and deep within it, at the heart of her stillness, something she has no need to name, but something we might call trust: that one day, yes, the world will warm again, and with it, her life.”

i say we’d all do well to turn in. to tuck away our last few pots. to coil away the hose. to replenish the bins of seed for the birds. to aim for the stillness of the painted turtle. to put this season to bed. and await the deepening to come.

painted turtle from all creation waits

painted turtle, from “all creation waits,” illustrated by david g. klein

how will you put this season to bed? do you dread the darkening or do you keep your gaze on the flickering flame deep within?

* is not the divine design of creation the mind-blowingest, knee-bendingest endeavor you ever did encounter? that the pond-bottom oxygen deprivation is balanced by the turtle’s hard shell, that one yields and shields the other, that all of this was conceived….

coming home to black-eyed susan season

black-eyed susan

the patch has dwindled over the years, in both circumference and abundance. but never in delight. in fact, the delight might hold inverse capacity to square-inch acreage. it’s the black-eyed susan patch, the one that nods along my garden path, the one that won’t give up — no matter how the burning bush does all it can to block the sun. no matter the weevil that shrivels all its leaves. the black-eyed susans will not pack up and walk away.

and for that, i am so grateful.

they strike a note of familiarity, of here-we-are-right-where-we-left-off. they mark the height-of-summer, the days when light takes on its amber hint, when each hour is more cherished, as we feel it slipping through our grasp. summer’s coming to a certain close, the black-eyed susans whisper, and we’re here to carry you across the finish line.

or in this year’s case, to wrap me in their cheery joys, to give me reason to haul the clippers out from under the kitchen sink and snip away at my endless bouquets.

we pulled into the alley at close to 1 in the morning the other night, my heart drained, my legs cramped. and even in the dark, as we hauled in the one or two things that couldn’t stay outside all night, i eyed those black-eyed wonders. they brushed against my shin, welcomed me back home.

gardens can be that way: gardens, in their episodic unfoldings, mark passages, tick off time across the months. we begin in lily-of-the-valley time, flow onto peony season, then hydrangea’s finest hour, and well past intermission, somewhere deep in the third act, the black-eyed susans come along. it’s a far finer way, i tell you, to tell the hour than glancing at a blinking screen.

there’ve been summers when we were headed out as the black-eyed susans paraded in. and i’m always sad to miss their spectacle, humble as it is, delightful in its simple two-hued contrast. but this year, my black-eyed susans unfold for me precisely when i need them: here and now, in these days when i am feeling a wee bit hollowed, when the hour might open up and suddenly pull me into a deep canyon of missing the someone i so love.

count me among the ones who bend my knee in gratitude to this holy earth, and its abundant healing balms. count me among the ones who marvel that be it sky, or rain, or stems rising from the earth, there are infinite notions and potions to soothe the hurt, to amplify the joy, to take our breath away. it’s God’s apothecary, and i’m its grateful customer.

this week has brought me a root canal, and a to-do list that will not end. we’re launching into a birthday weekend of most significant milestones — one someone i love has an odometer birthday, the sort that ends in zero, and another turns 16. and all along the way, the black-eyed susans bloom. and in that certainty, that joy, i rest my weary soul.

thank you, dear sweet susans. black-eyed susan another

what brings you certain joy in the kaleidoscope of seasons, most especially in the garden?

 

“wake up!” shouts the world to its sleepy citizens

perhaps, over the long winter’s months, you dozed into somnolence. sleepy-eyed, you shuffled, as if in your scraggliest house slippers, through the days and the hours. why bow down to sniff the gnarly branches when nothing but snow — and icy cold — bumped into your nose?

ah, but then, as it’s been doing forever and ever — since the dawn of creation, as a matter of fact — the old globe turned on its axis. inch by inch. or galloping yard by galloping yard. whether we notice or not, it keeps on with its celestial work. it’s the job of the earth, for heaven’s sake, to not slow to a crawl, to not stop in its tracks. it’s the job of the earth to carry us all on its curious merry-go-round, a ride for which we don’t need a ticket, needn’t stand in a queue, waiting our turn. we’re on — strapped in or not — for the whole of the whirl.

and so, here we are, back in the part where, if we’re paying attention, we find ourselves in the minute-by-minute explosion of all that’s been quietly waiting out the winter. it’s slow seduction, this day by day, hour by hour, unfurling of all that’s within. mama earth doesn’t give away all her hallelujahs at once. she wants you back, she wants you keeping close watch on her show, so she lures you in, a slo-mo unveiling of all of her secrets.

one day you might notice a nub where the day before there was nothing but stick. and then, should you sashay back to the scene, say by mid-afternoon, you’ll see a bit more of the skin, of the bulging protrusion that is the bloom in the making.

it’s all newborn right now. the leaves, just beginning their term, as if cut from a fat bolt of velvet, pinned onto branches, by the night seamstress, the sorceress of spring, who wisps through the dark delighting our senses, making way for the morning show, when the curtain of dawn rises.

everywhere, the earth is shouting: wake up, you sleepy heads. wipe the goop from your eyes, slip on your galoshes, and come give it a gander.

and lest that all be too subtle for you, lest you miss the whisper of the garden, well, old mr. robin has a wake-up for you. and he starts his warble in the wee, wee hours. not long after three, perhaps. certainly by four. in the morning, i mean. the american robin is no dawdler, sleeping in, taking his sweet holy time. nope, he’s up well before the crack of dawn, and he’s in full throat these past coupla weeks. has he not awakened you?

here, have a listen: mr. robin singing his song.

he’s out there in the dark, poor warbler of night. good thing he’s got a fairly fine song. a clarion call of 10 consecutive notes, the ornithologists tell us. clear whistles. some folk, the ones who try to put words to the script of the birds, they say he’s calling out “cheer up, cheer up.” or “cheerily, cheerily.” i for one can’t quite make out the words, but i do hear the song, i hear it for most of the night, these past few insomniac nights.

my friend tim the birdman tells me it’s all about hormonal overdrive, of course. and the poor robin just can’t sleep when he’s got one and only one thing on his mind: he needs to procreate, plain and simple. so he’s awake at the first lumen of light. and that’s where the problem comes in, says ornithological tim. those peachy-breasted birds are suffering a modern-day plight: the extreme wattage of the world, the herds of high-intensity light poles lining our highways, the bizarre habit of planting floodlights in branches of trees, they’re all doing a number on the chorister of dawn — they’re pushing his start time closer and closer to midnight. some robins, says tim, are singing their lungs out “almost all night long.”

egad.

the over-illumination of our planet — the daylight that stretches from dawn to dawn — it’s mucking up the works in a serious way.

but, back to the lone robin who sings out my window — and likely yours too.

seems to me, he’s all part of the magnificent plot to shake us all out of our stupor, our natural-born inclination to doze at the wheel of this thing called “a life.”

there’s divine wisdom, indeed, in this once-a-year whirl through the explosion of spring. the earth is literally bursting with the beautiful. it’s beckoning, begging: crouch down, pay attention. give a sniff. plop your bum. inhale. watch me unfurl. i’ll give you a wallop, minute by minute. 

in a thousand million mind-spinning ways the whole of creation is clued in to the infinite wisdom: this is your gift, it’s yours for the taking. all you need do is open your eyes, open your ears and your nose, pry open your heart — and your soul while you’re at it — and let in the holiest whisper.

it’s the wake-up call of heaven and earth.

the springs of our lifetime are numbered, they won’t last forever and ever. the beauty is now, go bury your nose in the whole of it.

and whisper a fine hallelujah.

(mr. robin might be pleased to know that you’re adding your notes to his noisy spring chorus.)

if only someone had invented a scratch-n-sniff for the whole of the springtime….

what are the ways the explosion of spring slows you to deepest attention? 

reshuffling trees

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it’s not something i’d ever done before, not something i’d even imagined. we played a vast game of reshuffling trees the other day, as if our garden were a chessboard and white pine and oak leaf hydrangea were the king and the pawns.

img_8446we moved seven in all, including a willow that might still be weeping, what with all of the yanking and pulling and lynching there at the roots.

i watched from the window, rapt; my nose pressed hard against the glass. i poured coffee, sliced into cakes. you can’t be too fed or too quaffed when you’re wrenching old trees from the depths of the earth.

there are those who rearrange chairs in their living room, slap on a new coat of paint. we, though, are more inclined to what’s beyond the walls, under heaven’s dome (or i am anyway), so we did our shuffling out there, in the place that’s alive. in the place where shadow plays against leaves, and wind comes in whispers or roars. where chipmunks and rabbits have at their everyday’s salad. where whole families of birds have been known to move in their nurseries — and their flight schools.

i’m waiting right now for the christening that comes when the cardinals move in, come back, settle their crimson bums in the boughs, let out a whistle. let all the birds in the ‘hood know that it’s safe to return: the garden’s up and running again.

it was a reclaiming, this vast swoop of trees and shrubs and the bulbs that came along for the ride. our back garden had gotten a bit out of hand over the years, and then in the last few weeks, trees nearby had been felled, leaving big holes in the sky, in the earth, in our hearts.

the man i married, the very fine man who understands how deep these things run in my veins, he wasn’t about to stand back and watch me be felled, too. he ordered up — in a move most magnanimous — a repair, one marking the quarter century we’ve been blessedly married.

until the wheelbarrows and ropes and muscles arrived, i’d never quite realized you could rearrange your patch of earth quite this emphatically. oh, i knew you could move a clump of queen anne’s lace. guessed you might retrain a vine. but who knew whole trees could all but take a walk, shuffle a few yards to the north and the east, settle in against the old screen porch, bend their boughs just where we needed a shadow?

what i love most, perhaps, is that nothing’s been ditched. history has been saved. each tree has a story, and the story’s intact. right now, the whole crop is adjusting. getting used to new digs (literally). i’m left to do my part with the green snake of a hose, and its constant dribble of drink. rains came the other afternoon, not long after the digging and shuffling was done. i felt each and every branch let out a sigh of pure joy. each little leaf did a dance.

the bulbs will come next. i ordered up a delicate batch, in shades of white and deepest blues. i’m fine-stitching my garden, petit point of the earth. and my mama stopped by with a whole sack of birdseed, an apt gesture of welcome indeed.

it’s all sacred equation. with a fair dose of fairy tale, too. i’m one of those quirky old souls who still plays pretend, most of all when it comes to my garden. i see a meadow where you see a clump of old weeds. i make-believe i’m meandering through a secret vale, and all you  behold is a nook you might describe as a threat, with vines on the loose, and canes of old rose that dare to scratch you to shreds.

i hum best when my garden is whole. when i look out a window framed in nodding hydrangea, when a cardinal is perched on the sill. i need to brush up against God’s holy earth, the unending ebb and flow of wonder, of awe. of one season tumbling atop another. i need birdsong to perk up my soul. i need the soft light of dawn or of dusk to know i’m wholly alive.

and thanks to the shuffling of trees, i’m stirring to life again.

what stirs you to life again?

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what a week: new garden. day of atonement. manuscript dispatched to editor. all i need now is a long autumn’s nap.

bulb therapy

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the air’s been sodden around here with the sound of buzz saws and grinders and choppers, the sounds of the earth being chewed up and gnawed and spit back out. sawdust abounds.

on one side of this old yard, trees have been succumbing, falling to the ground and hauled away. on the other side of this old yard, a wobbly fence came down and with it years and years of my old vines, vines i’d long ago planted, vines i’d watched creep proudly, robustly, across the cedar planks. my climbing hydrangeas, of late, had grown into tangled, glorious specimens, their canes thick as tree trunks, some of them. but a week ago, they lay limp on the ground, some of them crushing whatever had dared to bloom in the tight space below.

i’d felt as crushed as my garden. those old vines, cascading with dark green leathery leaves, and clusters of lacy white blooms, they’ve served as the backdrop to my secret sacred garden. they were the curtain wall between me and the world beyond. they were the screen that wrapped me and my prayers when i’d sit down to offer up my petitions, or when i’d tiptoe along the bluestone steps, playing peek-a-boo behind the boughs. they were home to cardinal and squawking bluejay. they were landing pad for the occasional monarch butterfly. or the hummingbird who’s been hovering for weeks now, before she flew away south.

because i live in the middle of two houses that have recently sprung “for sale” signs, because good folk with new dreams have moved in, or soon will do so, it’s my job to shift and bend and adjust. it hasn’t been easy. i’ve lay awake plenty of nights pining for an old pine that is no longer. i’ve been out before dawn surveying the damage. i whittled away two whole hours in a dentist’s chair dreaming up the contraption i’d build to try to salvage my vines.

the trees are now piles of wood chips. the old fence replaced with a new one. old ferns have been crushed. old vines looking worse for the wear. they’re withering, some of them, and barely holding on for dear life.

and all this, of course, is backdrop to the real stuff of life: in a spiral of grief that continues to turn, this past week held poignant first-year markings of the deaths of people i loved, my father-in-law, my very dear friend. it just so happened that tuesday was both the birthday of my friend who died in march, and the first-year anniversary of my friend who died last september.

and when you’re aching in that whole-body sort of a way, when you feel sodden with sadness, you find yourself in terrain beyond words. i found myself aching to order up sacks of bulbs, to lift my trowel, to slice into the earth, and tuck away what amounts to hope, faith and promise: to plant myself an autumnal crop of bulbs, all of which will lie unseen through the winter, and then when the thaw comes, when the dregs of winter at last melt away, tender green slips will poke through the earth, will rise and reach for the light, will open in bloom. will whisper: “here’s your reward for believing.” or “here’s what you get when you hold onto hope.”

i have friends who reach for needle and thread. i have friends who click their knitting needles, who unspool their skeins of yarn, who measure their prayer in row after row. i have friends who chop, and sizzle, and stir their pots. i have friends who dab their brushes in paint, splash color across canvas. i’m apt to reach for the healing balms of the trowel, to get down on my knees and coax tender stems, prop fallen blooms, to play out the ministries of the garden. for in tending the earth, i always find healing.

the rain, blessed rain, kept me from digging this week. so i distracted myself with the next best thing: the bulb catalog. specifically, the one from old house gardens, the charmingest purveyors of heirloom bulbs that i’ve ever known, all under the wings of bulbsman scott kunst, a man so dear he scribbles love notes onto each and every order. he’s retiring this year, nearly a quarter-century after deciding to devote his life to keeping alive some of the rarest, breathtakingest bulbs on the planet. so i’ve ordered up my last batch from dear scott, the last time i’ll find one of his love notes on my bill.

i tell you, i was overwhelmed by the pull of the earth, the impulse to get down on my knees, and stitch my garden whole again, one bulb after another.

because, really, it was me i was aching to stitch together again. and i find my balm in the bulbs of september.

where do you find your balms, your holiest balms? 

p.s. a tiny word cloud about old house gardens, where each bulb comes with biography, with the year — or the long-ago century — of its first appearance on the planet (say, “little beeswings,” a dahlia from 1909), and a charmed tale of its origins or its near-extinctions. and the old line-drawings that punctuate the catalog draw a daydreamer in. the delicate blooms found on its pages are pure acts of resistance, of refusing to let the beautiful wither away from this earth. and the secret weapon of nearly each and every one is their heavenly perfume. whereas modern-day hybridized bulbs might have had their scent stripped away, these beauties stir olfactory sense, infusing your garden and your nose with the perfumes of long long ago….