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Category: garden

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….

bee balm

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maybe, in a week like this one, being mesmerized by a bumblebee is not so much distraction as act of mercy. for the broken heart. for the heart that cannot quite absorb the rat-a-tat of horrors. for the narratives that began to emerge from the bathroom stalls of a nightclub in orlando, where the scenes painted in the tellings were nearly impossible to fathom. bodies piled atop bodies. playing dead. being dead. not knowing if the body atop you was a dead one. finding out later, it was.

you can see why bumblebees and old roses and the draw of the garden — nodding heads that begged for air, for sunlight, amid a stranglehold of weeds — you can see, perhaps, why, amid this particular week, the hours and the sunlight and the shadow, all lured me in. i couldn’t seem to keep away. i’d plant myself in front of screens: i’d watch, i’d click, i’d read. i’d gasp and gasp again. and then, while i had no intention of doing so, i’d find my toes sliding into muddy garden clogs, i’d find my fingers curled around the necks of clippers, and next thing i knew i was waist-high amid the weeds, snipping my way to clearer, purer oxygen.

it’s the power of the garden in a week like this one. when the balm of sun and breeze might root out the nettles that settle in our soul. when i begin to imagine sighs of relief rising up from flocks of old baptisia (otherwise known as “wild indigo”), because i’ve finally paid attention to the fact that they were suffocating under boughs of runaway lilac. when i might have heard a soft round of applause from the out-of-control clematis that begged for fortitude in the form of twine on which to climb, to reach for the clouds. i have a habit (you’ve just witnessed) of assigning voice and charm and personality to the growing things in my garden, at least i do when i begin to notice they’re out there, straining against the forces — the inattentions — that threaten to do them in. i suppose, truth be told, i tend to garden in two speeds: que sera, sera (whatever will be, will be); and ferociously. this week, ferocious was the speed.

whole spells of time — a morning here, an afternoon there — seemed to be swallowed up in the odd postures and contortions of gardening (no wonder stinky potions rubbed into achy joints are a gardener’s best ally). i seemed to lose whole portions of the day, and finally, the week, wrestling, lassoing, chasing after trespassers, calling beds to order.IMG_7742

and then, the occasional mama wren darted by. or the cardinals commenced a game of catch-me-if-you-can. and then the bumblebee. the zaftig bee in coat of velvet stripe. the bee that practically flies in freeze-frame slo-mo, hovering mid-breeze, playing eenie-meenie-minie-mo perhaps, deciding which tuffet of rose she’ll nuzzle into next. that old bee feasted on the rambling rose for a quarter of an hour (or that’s as long as i managed to keep watch, anyway).

i couldn’t shake the sense, somehow, that i was out there playing hooky, delicious hooky. why, i had books to read. sentences to type. piles of paper on my desk called to me.

but i couldn’t break the spell. the spell of taking time to sink my toes into the deliciousness of a summer’s day. a hot and sweaty day. or a cool and cloudy day. didn’t matter. it was only in the act of whole-body immersion, of flinging my old self into the elements — thorns that scratch, dirt that worms its way under fingernails and toenails, sun that beckons freckles to come out of hiding — that i was able to find a way to untangle the brokenness of my heart, to put a breath of pure soft air back into my lungs.

of course i know — full well — that it’s all just distraction. but somehow, deep in the ministrations of gardener to garden, of human hands to tender growing things, i found a way to exercise an urge to heal, to fix, to chase away the hurt, the ugliness, that had descended on the planet. day after day, hour upon hour, there comes darkness in forms we can’t imagine. and so we’re left with the scant few things we know, to bring back light. to sow seeds of tenderness and love. of holiness, perhaps.

to lose a day, or a week, upside down or sideways in the garden, is to find a thread that just might stitch us close to whole again. or at least steady us enough to tumble forward. till the next bee buzzes along. and once again we’re swept away by wonder, antidote to that which leaves us broken.

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mrs. bee has at the old and succulent rose.

what’s your healing thread, when you find yourself in tatters? 

tender is the earth

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i am submitting to the tilting of the earth. as the oozy patch of mud that is my very own fraction of acreage leans into the less-diluted rays of the great burning star that is the sun, pivot point of the universe, as adagio quickens, and feathered choristers raise their warbles by decibels upon decibels, i allow myself to be wrapped in the soft skeins of earth unfurling, earth letting loose its tight and clenched long-winter’s grip.

i am brushing up against its tendrils, its newborn threads, as i tiptoe down my bluestone walk. as i plop my bum on bluestone stoop, the one that hasn’t yet released its wintry chill. i crouch down low, and run my fingertips across the frilly tops of fronds, just beginning to poke beyond the crust of earth, just beginning to contemplate the art of opening, sun salutation of the new spring garden.

i can’t get close enough — save for rolling in the dewy grass, smearing fists of mud across my knees and elbows. or climbing up a tree, to discover how it feels to be a bird, warbling across the heavens, toes clinging to the bough.

all in all, my daily pull is to the pulse point where earth and sky entwine, where winter’s hibernation gives way to springtime’s insistent release. i drink in the lessons, the unspoken parable: it’s letting-go time, it’s time to uncoil, time to put aside the winter pose — one born of sorrow, yes, and a hollowed-out sense of quietude — time to practice the gentle nudge, bow down low to the invitation, the one that whispers, “i offer healing, if you lean in close, breathe deep the wholeness, the promise, of the season.”

i allow myself, day upon day, hour after hour, to be soothed by the blessed balm of earth at its tenderest. of earth when heaven first begins to draw forth what’s been tucked inside for all the weeks and months of darkness.

it’s dawned on me, as i make my daily rounds of close inspection, that the truth of springtime is that of revelation, long-held secrets breaking through the cloak that kept them shrouded, not seen, forgotten.

the beautiful, come springtime, is no longer under wraps. those yellow petals clinging to the branch? the tight buds of hyacinth just periscoping through the earth? it’s all creation trumpeting its truths. it’s all been there all along, sacred DNA tightly wadded, awaiting heaven’s cue.

and now it’s come, the call to rise and shine and strut the fresh-born splendor; must have tiptoed in while we were napping. so now, perhaps, it’s time for us to ponder too what’s been hiding deep inside of all of us, while we waited out the winter.

and while i wonder what the days and weeks ahead might bring, what beauties might be on the cusp, i’m savoring this tender interlude, these holy blessed hours when all the earth is gentle invitation, and balm for where the winter wore me raw.

i seem to be transfixed — you might call it “stuck” — by the slow unfolding out my door and windows. day by day, week by week, i’m keeping watch. mesmerized would be the word. drinking deep the healing offered by this holy blessed earth, the one so alive in spring. 

since my offering feels thin today, i’ll add to it with two addenda. the first is a celebration of a blessed angel among us, the cook in the night kitchen of what was once called children’s memorial hospital (and now has someone’s too-long name attached). just last night she wrapped up 50 years on the job. a half century of serving up love and prayer, with a side of oozy grilled cheese. one of my beloved nurse friends let me in on the chapter’s ending, so i dug into my archives and found this story i wrote for the chicago tribune in 2009, when she’d been on the job for a mere 43 years. 

to whet your appetite, perhaps, here are the first few paragraphs of miss bettye tucker’s story: 

One by one, night light by night light, the rooms go dim in the not-so-hushed place where sick children, broken children, dying children, finally fall into sleep.

One by one, room by room, the big people who’ve held little hands, dried tears and rocked fevered babies all day long at Children’s Memorial Hospital surrender for a moment their long night’s watch.

It is time for all the keepers of the children–the parents, the nurses, the doctors, the ones who mop the floors, the ones who keep the respirators breathing in and out–to be fed by the comfort-slinging cook in the night kitchen.

This much-loved healer with a soup pot and a prayer is known to all as, simply, Miss Bettye.

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miss bettye tucker

the other offering is the latest of my roundups of books for the soul, with works that blew my mind from rabbi jonathan sacks, and a patron poet-saint of the chair, dear mary oliver.

what lessons do you learn from keeping watch on early spring?

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holy ground

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from Pope Francis’ encyclical, June 2015, quoting Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew:
“It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet.”

in these hours when my heart feels hollowed, i find myself staring out windows, through panes of glass, into the garden, sweeping my eyes across the mostly fallow faded landscape. mostly, all i feel is empty. the thrum of a heart’s ache drowning out the usual song. but then, i fine-tune my attention, i look more closely. i am drawn out the door and into the rinse of springtime’s particular shade of sunlight.

it hurt, at first, to imagine this year’s garden absent its cheeriest animator, the old striped cat curled into his napping coil, occasionally opening an eye, giving chase to a robin, lumbering back to the spot where he crushes whatever nubs tried to grow beneath him.

but then i started to tiptoe down the bluestone walk. i plopped onto the stoop just beyond the kitchen door, beside the mailbox that holds all my garden tools. i looked for signs of life, of earth’s wintry crust breaking open, giving way, cleaving apart so the season’s first stirrings had room to trickle back to the surface, bursting forth.

more than any year in a long long time, this month of march has my fingers — and my heart — yearning to dig in the dirt. to brush away dried and shriveled grasses. to cut back stems and sticks that reach to nowhere. to nip and tuck and prune. to break apart the winter’s hard-pounded soil, to comb through clumps, sprinkle seeds, tuck in roots. to make way for the earth to bloom in the ways it so insistently blooms, hope-filled spring after long hard winter, again and again, year after year. no matter the pounding our hearts have taken.

it’s holy ground, the acres and acres that invite us in, to begin a close and careful examination. to witness the astonishments the earth offers up, offers forth.

IMG_7252and so, this Good Friday, this holy friday, i walk in silence, and i whisper the prayer of the earth once again unfurling in beauty. earth knows just how parched our soul might be in this the season of starting over again.

it’s the garden, the woodland, the gurgling of the winter’s thaw in the creek, these are the places that animate the coming back to life — of the earth, and the curled-up spirit within me. the one that just might find the courage to reach once again for the softness of springtime’s return.

i take to heart the words of dear pope francis, above quoting the patriarch bartholomew. i subscribe to the belief that God wrote the Book of Nature, and that each and every unfurling tendril, each and every bulb that shoots down roots and shoots up that periscope of green, each and every quivering of feather or leaf, it’s all here to whisper the presence of the Divine and Holy Wisdom. all we need do is plunk ourselves amid its quiet narrative, all we need do is pay attention, and the lessons and learnings will tumble upon us. breathe healing into our brokenness. breathe hope into our hollows. breathe, again and again, the story of resurrection, of life tiptoeing in to all the moments and places where we thought only death was left in the wake.

may this Good and holy Friday fill you with prayer. and with hope to wash away your deepest sorrow. should you prefer a more solemn meditation for this day of crucifixion, i offer this post from the past, the eloquence of silence.

how do you find hope in the shadow of your sorrow?

snowdrops

the cry of the october garden

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the garden’s been hushed for months now. or maybe i’ve been too distracted to notice.

this week though, with honey-dappled light oozing across its fading, bent, and desiccating boughs and stems, with fronds of fern collapsed, splayed every which way, and nodding heads of hydrangea weighing down the branch, with my own soul ragged, in need of long slow immersion, i heard october’s garden call my name.

i’d been typing — or trying to anyway — when suddenly some drop of golden light, nectar from the heavens, caught my eye. i looked up, pushed out my chair, threw on my muck-about boots and grabbed the clippers on the way.

for a good long soak of an afternoon, i snipped and yanked and piled high the proof. my growing things, most of them at least, were forgiving; i apologized anyway. i’d left them all abandoned through summer’s height and frenzied weeks. they’d waited, as all good gardens do. they knew that, someday, i’d return. i always do.

and, apothecary on slender sturdy stem, the whole plot applied its balm. gentian blue dots, a sure cure for any faded heart, still winked at me. mopheads of hydrangea kept on their color show, turning lime to rose to tinged in plum, all but begging me to snip them at the neck and bring them in for winter. the black-eyed susan, once a perky swath of whimsy, now lay dark, nothing but the black-eyed button, landing pad for hungry songbirds, who peck and fill their bellies.

to be amid a garden in october is to catch up to the end of the story, to pay notice to what happens when the glory fades away, and yet another topography of beautiful is bared.

this is, after all, the wabi-sabi season, so defined by a farmer friend of mine as the season that pulses with the beauty of sadness and the sadness of beauty, the season that pulses with the poetry of imperfection and impermanence. nothing beautiful lasts forever, my garden whispers, so savor all of it, every drop of it, while you have the chance to reach out and rub your nose, your hands, your heart, in the whole of it.

essential wisdom, far beyond the garden.

i’m fairly certain it was the earthy, tactile element, the dirt under my nails, the pin scratches up and down my arms (october’s thorny roses are no less forgiving than the sturdy stems of june), that soothed me. the being out in golden afternoon, feeling the faintest ray of sun bathe across my sweatered back. there was healing in the garden stain splotting my knees, and surely in the armloads of autumnal offerings i hauled in the house, tucked in old vases.

once my shoulders ached, and my clipper hand throbbed, i kicked off my garden boots, and clambered back inside, content to watch the sunlight fade as i assumed my steady post just beside my chopping board and cookstove. in yet another iteration of surrendering to hands in lieu of cerebration, i turned this week to slicing, stirring, cracking eggs, and cranking up the oven. there was, there is, in the alchemy of the kitchen a sure cure for ails of the deepest-down ilk. stew and soup and pumpkin bars, i made them all this week.

i was drawn by battered heart, and sodden soul, to find my solace where the growing things live and breathe and surrender to the season’s close, and when the air grew chill, i warmed the rest of me — and those i love — by tending to the cookstove.

not a bad prescription, after all. welcome mat

where and how do you practice healing acts or arts?

the magic of the tilo tree: the tree that soaks up sunshine and lives and breathes to soothe

tilo tree

for weeks now, through much of spring and into these early days of summer, i’ve been on high alert, awaiting the precise moment when a certain linden tree growing in a convent garden would at last decide it’s time. time to unfurl its yearly offering and erupt in honey-scented blossom.

i’d never been so blessed before, so blessed to be on linden-flower standby, so blessed to have a dear nun dialing my telephone, leaving dispatches from the nunnery, a trail of progress reports from the distal end of one tree’s branches. my tree-spotting sister friend would call every couple weeks, leave messages like this one: “it’s sister rita, calling about the linden tree. as soon as our tree wants to give us its delightful blossoms, i’ll call you.”

and then, a week or so later: “i just want you to know the little buds are finally on the tree. i’ll let you know when they open.”

it is a most delightful interlude, i tell you, to find yourself awash in messages about the blooming of a tree, a tree a friend of yours is counting on to heal her hurting ways, a tree that through the ages has long been believed to store the warming rays of sunshine in its star-burst blossoms. a tree that lives and breathes, quite purely, to soothe us through and through.

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the linden tree’s honey-scented starbursts

as promised, sister rita wasted not a minute in the spreading of the long-awaited news. she called first thing the other morning. before the clock struck eight. she was on the line bright and early telling me the time had come. the linden tree was at last in bloom, and i needed to come soon, before the sacred blossoms tumbled to the ground, and we’d have to wait another year. the linden tree this year was late, deep into june, nearly july, before it became a froth of honey-dappled sweetness.

i’d be there by two o’clock, i promised. i’d rearrange the day. i’d not let the afternoon’s shadow stretch long across the garden.

the story of the linden tree, and its blessed blossom, traces back to the not-so-long-ago day in april when a dear friend and i ambled through a magic hedge. my friend has cancer, nasty cancer, and we were soaking up the day in the deepest prayerful way. as we ambled through the hedge on that april afternoon and came around a bend, we stumbled into yet another old friend of mine, one who knows his trees. my one friend’s eyes widened as she spied a broad-limbed specimen of tree, one whose branches stretched heavenward and cradled a warbling little bird besides.

upon introduction, both friends began to speak in spanish, words tumbling more and more feverishly. all i could make out was something about a mama, and something called “tilo.” turned out my friend saw the tree and suddenly remembered the one in her backyard when she was a little girl. it was a linden tree, and when she was afraid, or needed calming, her mama gathered up its blossoms and made her little girl a tea. the tea she called “tilo,” linden flower tea, an ancient balm for soothing nerves, and sweating out a fever. my friend these days is sometimes in need of soothing, deep-down soothing, and though her mama’s gone, the branches of the linden tree held out the hope of something she had thought she’d lost.

i’ll not forget her face and how it softened, nearly glowed, as she looked up at that tree, as i saw the pages of her life’s picturebook turn back in time, remembering her mama and the tea that soothed whatever ailed her.

turned out the very next morning — at the very hour my friend was once again submitting to a scan that would peer inside and chart the path of her stubborn cancer — i was visiting an old friend, an icon-painter friend, who flung open the door of her pantry, and asked if i’d like a cup of linden flower tea. now, i tell you, i’d not heard of linden flower tea till just the day before, and suddenly, within the circle of a single day, i’d bumped into it for the second time. i stood there slack-jawed, and stuttered through the story of how my ailing friend had longed for linden flower tea, but had no clue where she might find it, without her mama here to gather up its blooms, and steep the brew just the way she’d always brewed it.

because my icon-painter friend is the sort who knows no end to generosity, the box of linden flower tea was off the shelf and in my hands before i stumbled to the story’s end. i broke out in goosebumps as i glanced at the clock, and realized all this was happening precisely at the moment that the body scan began. i tapped out a message to my friend to say, guess what, i found linden flower tea, and i’m bringing it your way. and then my icon-painter friend told me that, even better than the box of pre-packaged tea, imported from turkey, she knew a convent not too far away where a linden tree spread its branches, and where she knew the nun who each year gathered up its blooms. my icon-painter friend promised me she’d put me and the nun in touch. and so she did (although she placed the call from a 400-year-old silo on a hillside in italy, where she’s gone to spend the summer painting) and that’s how sister rita and i joined in linden-flower watch, keeping vigil on bud to bloom to starburst.

in yet another wrinkle to the story, my friend with cancer hadn’t looked at her phone once she finished the scan that day, the last of april. instead she stopped by the office of a friend, and feeling achy in the belly, told the friend she had to leave to somehow, somewhere in this city, find herself a cup of tilo, the linden-flower tea for which she so suddenly deeply thirsted. it wasn’t too many minutes after that that she finally glanced at her phone and saw the message saying i had a miraculously stumbled upon a box of that very tilo and was driving it to her house.

within the hour, as we stumbled into each other’s arms on the sidewalk in front of her house, i told my friend about sister rita and the linden tree. enchanted, my friend and i have spent the last many weeks awaiting the tilo bloom. we’d planned to amble there together to gather up the blossoms, but the day sister rita called was not such a good day for my friend, so i scurried along alone. and there i met the radiant sister rita, who swiftly grabbed a crook-necked cane and thrust it into the branches thick with bloom. coaxed by sister rita’s gentle tug, the starbursts yielded to our reach. she handed me a scissor, and for the better part of half an hour, we snipped and gathered, and filled a grocery bag.

sister rita "canes" the linden tree

sister rita “canes” the linden tree

sister rita

sister rita

i ferried home our cache, and snipped for hours more. my mama joined in the snipping, as we gathered up the blossoms and left behind the branch and leaves. for days now, the linden bursts have been drying in a flat-bottomed basket, drying into tea. it won’t be long till we put the kettle on, boil up a cup or two of water, toss in a teaspoon of the linden flower offerings, and brew my friend the soothing tea that she’s so deeply longed for.

one last thing: when i sent my dear friend a note, with pictures of the harvest day with sister rita, my friend sent back a little note of her own, with just one question: “isn’t saint rita patron of impossible causes?”

she remembered that her mama always prayed to saint rita, always prayed to her when faced with the impossible. i swallowed back a tear or two, and offered up my own petition to saint rita. may impossibility be shattered, and the possible come shining through.

i cannot wait to inhale the vapors of that holy cup of tilo, and to lift it to heavens.

tilo drying

if you’ve a linden tree out your window, here’s how to make your tilo, once you gather up and dry your linden-flower blossoms: simply steep one teaspoon of the dried flowers in boiling water for 15 to 20 minutes. drink up to three times a day. you’ll be soothed. while it’s been known for centuries to be a calming potion, please be cautious if you’ve a weakened heart. if in doubt, check with someone wise to the herbal apothecary.

if you’re not inclined to sip your soothing brew, you can bathe in it. here’s a recipe for a “relaxing evening linden-flower bath” (the name alone sets me to soothing): simply boil two to three handfuls of dried linden flower blossoms in a quart of water. strain your brew, pour it in the tub, and sink yourself in. 

might you have a magic tale to tell? one with holy vapors? one that stars a tree? do tell….

tender are the hours

tender are the hours. spring.

even if you don’t yank your sit-upon from the shelf and plop yourself amid the morning’s deeply sodden garden, you can’t help but notice: the air is soft, is velvet-rippled, faint breath against the skin you’ve dared to bare (we’re talking ankles, maybe toes, nothing racier here, folks).

the boughs froth in springtime meringue, the crabapple’s creamy blossom, the redbud’s tight-stitched knots of tonsillar pink. the lilac waiting in the wings. any branch that’s not in bloom is one that’s a filigree of lace-cut leaf, from afar a mist of just-born green.

and birdsong comes in deep striations, the piercing notes atop a bank of blurred and whirling insistence. they seem to never pause to catch their breath, those choristers of each and every dawn.

but the main attraction of the spring, the one that begs the quietest attention, is what unfurls down low, just inches from the warming earth, where loamy mounds (and giddy earthworms) soak up the benevolence of sunbeams, now lavishing the northern hemisphere with increments of extra minutes, day by passing day.

that’s where the bleeding heart (above) dangles from the stem, so many pantaloons pinned to the clothesline. that’s where the lily-of-the-valley unknots its lilliputian bells. and where cerulean clouds of forget-me-not waft above their heart-scissored leaves.

and after a long night’s rinse, whole brigades of water droplets hold their pose, crystal balls suspended, shot through with morning rainbows in miniature. not far away, more animated drops offer pitter-patter, a metronome of plops. the hollow of a hosta’s broad-leaf tongue makes for a shallow drinking pond for ladybug or spider, or my cat who’s never quenched.

and if you keep closest watch on the whole tableau, if you tune into any sign of fluttering — a branch that leaps, a blossom that seems to shiver — chances are, you’ll catch a feathered glimpse of migration’s many gifts. just this morning what i might have mistaken for a hovering cicada turned out to be a hummingbird, one partaking of viburnum’s spicy cocktail.

tender are the hours of the spring.

and tender is the invitation: bring on your thin-skinned self, your delicate spirit. bathe your soft spots, your raw edges, in this pool of life releasing. not long ago, all was clasped in hard-shell incubation, the protective armament of the season of harsh winds and late freezes. but now’s the hour when the letting down begins. when our fragile selves needn’t shudder.

it’s as if all the world, all that blurs the soft edge between heaven and earth, it’s as if all of it is drawing us tenderly out of ourselves, signaling that it’s safe, offering even our unfurling selves a margin of deep-breathing room.

because i’ll always be a believer that the book of nature was one inscribed with lessons to be learned, with wisdom in which to be steeped, i can’t help but notice how this is the season that begs us to come as we are.

to not worry if we’re feeling a bit exposed, because everything about the spring is tender, too. and while we’re finding our way from winter’s harshest hours, and while we’re not yet inclined toward summer’s bold declarations, this in-between time it’s when we too can find safe harbor in the frilly arbors of the begin-again interlude.

and, right in here, i’m feeling on the verge (a word, i find, with roots in the latin virga, which, curiously, and serendipitously, refers to “a slender green branch,” aka the new growth of spring). in just one week, a boy i love will leave behind his college on the hill, and begin whatever’s next. and any hour now, he’ll be climbing into a back seat and driving hours and hours on the highway, because that’s how college kids these days mark passages, they mark them on sandy beaches far from civilization. and their parents — yes, miles and miles away, but never far in heart and soul — they hold their breath all the while. and other friends i dearly love, they are weathering all sorts of crossroads. and, in sum, i am feeling the fragility of all of life. and the world around me only serves to amplify — and yet, blessedly, benevolently, to cushion — that reality.

from the mewling of the baby birds who’ve made their nest above my doorway, to the tissue-paper petals scattered across my stepping-stone path, i am walking through the living-breathing fragility of newborn spring. the in-between season that understands the truth that sometimes we need soft hours, tender hours, to uncoil from what’s been harsh before we spread our wings, our arms, our souls, and bask in all-enveloping radiant golden light.

do you find springtime a tender time? is this a season for you that begs the soft embrace of all that surrounds us?

forced

forsythia snow

it’s come to this:

starved, hungry, every pore of our souls aching for release from the waning soot-sodden days of winter, i slide into sloppy old boots. clippers in hand, clippers that haven’t been shaken from their deep winter slumber in too long a while, i trudge across the ice-crusted snows. crunch-crunch goes the sound of my footfall. i pass bumper crops of pellets, rabbit pellets, i presume, and splashes of blood-orange whose origins i can’t bear to ponder. they’re the scant signs of life here in the tundra that is my back garden.

i’m on a mission. a mission to bring on an awakening, a seasonal awakening. and if i need to indulge in trickery, in prestidigitation with clippers, well then, that’s what i’m signed on to do.

it’s simple enough, this magic trick: trudge to your nearest forsythia bush, snip at the neck, all those long-limbed branches that, at this point in the year, look like little more than so many tangled sticks.

ah, but look and look closely: see the nubs tucked close to the stick, the tiniest hands clasped in prayer? those are the wee little blooms in the making, the sepal and stamen all huddled together, awaiting their cue. their cue of course comes from the sun, its angle and surge. any day now, the globe will have spun far enough, aligned us with just where we need to be for the vernal awakening.

but sometimes you just can’t wait. you need to get out there with clippers and boots and hurry it up, put gas to the seasonal pedal. (even when you preach the gospel of savoring the slow march of time.)

oh, there are signs that springtime is coming. they’re trickling in, a bit more by the day. i’ve heard it in birdsong. the birds aren’t checking their date books, aren’t awaiting the thaw. they’re warbling their vernal love-making hearts out, because that’s what you do when your DNA insists you perpetuate the species. you make it your job to whistle up an egg-laying mate. or at least someone with whom you can coo in the cold. and the light? the light is purer, less blue, more white. it’s straining to gather full steam — or something more zaftig than the pale arctic puff that’s kept us shivering in our cotton-lined boots.

my mama, of course, taught me this trick, and her mother before her, most likely. i might come from a long line of seasonal tricksters, miscreants of natural ilk.

it’s called forcing, and it’s plain old alchemy of life: warmth + water = blossoming. and it goes something like this: trudge. snip. fetch. plunk in water, warm water. wait. bloom. voila, you have forced.

i looked up the word force. it’s not pretty. it cropped up in the 14th century, with roots in old french. forcer, “conquer by violence.” egad. guilty as charged, me and my sharp-toothed clippers. too hungry to wait for the seasonal rotisserie to turn up its offerings in natural rhythm.

no, i had to conquer by violence, if snipping a branch at the neck is deemed a violent act (and if you were a bush you’d certainly say so).

and if dragged into the court of seasonal acceleration, i’d plea for a wee bit of compassion. i’d try to explain that here in the wee days of march, here when we’ve indulged in the season of winter with its depths and certain deprivations, we can’t help but respond to the seasonal tug, the one that pulls us, yanks us, into the next chapter. it’s akin to the itch that sometimes finds us leaping ahead in the steamiest novel, to peek at how the story unfolds, who marries whom in the end, and whose days are numbered.

my winter, you see, has taken a serious turn for the dregs in the last couple weeks. people i love are suffering, are scared, are facing the darkest of days.

i’m so itchy for light i won’t be surprised if i strip down to my bare naked legs and pull out a chair to soak up the lamest, the flimsiest of rays. in my snow-laden yard that would be.

but the light that i seek, truth be told, is the light that shines in the soul. illumination of the deepest kind. i pretty much stumble through days  — from hour to hour — with the words of my pleas and incantations rising up from my lips. there is so much to be prayed for. there’s so much at stake.

and that, in part, is what drew me to clomp through the snows, to clip what the old bush had offered. “here’s your rare chance at the promise of spring,” it whispered. and i answered. with clippers.

forsythia table

dear chairs, are you too going a bit batty by now? are you aching for the stirrings of spring? oh, for the day when the wee slips of green poke their hard heads through the soft crust of earth.

so what might be the seasonal rites and holy vespers you indulge in to beckon the resurgence of soul?

 

the day begins here…

day begins here vase blackeyed

before i’d even tumbled out of the bedsheets, i felt the low-down wobbles. happens sometimes. even on a morning when birds are in the boughs just beyond the window panes. it’s almost as if the sediment of whatever shattered in the day before is settling down, after a short night’s slumber, into the pits of your veins and your belly — and your knees, always the knees on a wobbly morning.

it’s almost as if, before your braincells awake, your body cells remember. they know there’s unsettling. they know the darkness rolled in before the day was done. needn’t be big things. sometimes the things that wake you up wobbling are simply a potage of rumbles and worries, spiced with bits of unwanted news.

once i’d splashed the cold water on my bed-wrinkled face, once i’d slipped into the shirt with the least number of holes in the elbows, i turned to tramp down the stairs.

there in the kitchen, the morning’s light awaited. the garden nodded, all dappled with dew drops.

i made a mistake in checking my phone: there lurked one of those emails you don’t want to find before the first gulp of coffee. but there it was, so i read it. and then, i glanced at the dining room table, all strewn with hundreds of pages and a fat red pen. i’ve a day of page proofing ahead of me. the last go-around with these pages that have seeped deep into my soul. these pages on which i whisper a prayer every time i begin again, start at the top, read through to the bottom, on alert, high alert, for typos and runaway commas.

i was now in high wobble.

so i did what any wobbly girl with sharp garden clippers would do: i walked straight out of the house where the wobbles had gathered, and i started to snip — the garden, that is. a long neck of yarrow here, black-eyed susans there. snip, snip, snip. next thing i knew i was clutching a fistful of august delight. and the wobbles weren’t so wobbly anymore. or at least for the moment, i’d buried my nose in the ticklish bouquet, and i wasn’t paying the wobbles much mind.

that’s what a holy morning can do for you. that’s the magic of ringing your old tired house with billows of bloom. folks driving by might think you grow bundles of things for the color, or the je ne sais quoi. ah, but you know. you know the secret: you are growing your very own apothecary out there. it’s all healing balm, and wobbly cures. it’s buoyant and tender, all at once.

it’s the deepest blessing of this holy earth: the power to heal what ails us, whatever it is.

all you need do to prompt it along is tuck a few roots deep in the dirt. then add sprinkles of rain. a few prayers and crossed fingers certainly help. never hurt. oh, and then you muster up patience. you wait. and you wait. and the globe spins around, and next thing you know it’s august, the launch of black-eyed susan season. the glorious crescendo of the midsummer garden. all the growing things — the yarrow, the hydrangea, the susans — they’re all rubbing shoulders, shoving and pushing to steal your attention. all they want is to stick out their necks, to bloom, to soak up some sunshine.

and what they give in return is pure bliss. gentle bliss. quiet bliss. a bliss that promises to bathe you in all that you’ll need to weather the day.

here’s the gardener’s pose of acceptance, accepting the gift of the garden: bend at the waist, stick your nose in the powdery parts where the yellow rubs off, now take a deep whiff, and reach for your clippers.

so it went this once-wobbly morning, when i marched out the door and into the billows, armed with my felco no. 2 clippers. i clipped and i snipped, and next thing i knew i was ready to face this fine day, not quite so wobbly this time.

what’s your garden doing to fortify you this fine day? and if not your garden, what’s your secret potion for facing a wobbly day? 

a bit of the backstory here is that i’m plowing my way through final page proofs, as that ol’ book, Slowing Time, has locked in its reservation with the printing presses, and is due to roll by the end of the month. that means every wiggle and blip on the page is demanding attention, lest it roll off the press, blips and bloops intact.