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Category: garden

holy comforter

maybe you haul your wounded self to the water’s edge, to where rocks punctuate the water’s otherwise-unstartled flow, and set things percolating, gurgling. perhaps it’s the roar of the water falling, tumbling down ledges. or the susurrations of a creek rushing through grasses. 

maybe you park your bum in the golden glowing woods, squat on a fallen trunk of maple or oak, a log now home to mosses and mushrooms. or you press your soles to the slope of a mountain, hard against granite or igneous rock, where, as the woodsman John Muir (who advised climbing barefoot) once noted, we’re wise to absorb the sacred essence “with our heels as well as our heads.” 

the other morning, knocked about by a phone call i’d been both chasing and dreading, i sought triage and solace out where the autumn light slanted in on my garden’s last gasps. holy comfort i found there with my clippers in hand, untangling my thoughts along with the last of the tomato’s serpentine withering vines, soaking in the morning’s few waning sunbeams. 

i all but wrapped myself in the strands of this earth’s balms. holy comforter, indeed. the warmth of the harvest sun. the unparalleled green. each late-season leaf expiring its last bits of life-giving balm, or what the twelfth-century mystic and herbalist hildegard of bingen termed viriditas, the divine healing power of green. she once wrote, “there is a power that has been since all eternity, and that force and potentiality is green!” in other words, the surging “thereness” of God, life source of all. and, oh, i basked in it the other morning. 

there is something particularly soothing — nay, healing — about the comforts of the late-season garden, about the comforts of each and every season, really. 

it’s as if the earth presses itself hard against my hollowed chest, against the faint beating of my worn-thin heart. it soothes without words, the whole of the creation does. doesn’t try to fill in the silence, offer quick fix. the earth, holy comforter, simply is present. stands in certain unwobbling encounter. makes real the declaration: “i am here.”

benevolent, earth offers healing by multiple choice: should you not feel the radiant heat on the bare skin of your arms, inhale the pungent spice-notes of marigold or spearmint as you break off a stem. or catch the fluttering shadow of october’s south-bound monarch playing with the breeze. or the chatter of sparrows, incessantly sparring. 

each and every sensory channel stands at the ready, inviting the way in. 

there’s a presence, grander, more tender, than i’ve otherwise known. it’s the enveloping bosom of this holy healing earth. or the soft shoulder against which i lay my weary head. 

it’s where i turn when the hurt is too big, or not yet sorted out, not pegged into words. and i’m as certain as anything that it’s the one i call God who enwraps me when i step into the wilds, when i carry my banged-up sorry old self into the balm that is this holy comforter earth. 

***

Glance at the sun. See the moon and stars. / Gaze at the beauty of earth’s greenings. / Now, think. / What delight God gives to humankind / with all these things….

—Hildegard of Bingen

how has any aspect of the whole of creation comforted you of late, or in particular?

sweet, sweet earth

it was gasping for air, really.

i’d loped to the garage, grabbed the crusty old trowel, grabbed my prophylactic spritz bottle of stay-away-squirrels spray, and headed out to the secret sinuous side garden where i looked for a desperate patch crying for hope. crying for something to rise up in the spring, on the far side of the harsh and impending winter.

i was armed with a battery of bulbs, bulbs in various girths, fat ones that promised me daffodil, itty-bitty wisps of bulbs who promised me the tenderlings, snowdrops and siberian squill, and those space-age globes of allium, in this case promising a puff ball of blue. as pretty a thing to bury my nose in as i could imagine.

i’d somehow gotten the itch to give back, to give back to dear mama earth what she so unfailingly offers me: tender and certain shelter, jolt of resilience, undying promise that even if daunted she’s not going away. not yet anyway. not if we can muscle the forces to cease and desist with the trashing of the one glorious blue marble long, long ago entrusted to us.

a few mornings before, amid the cleaning and clearing and worrying, i’d leapt into the old red wagon, the car that takes me wherever i aim it, and i’d motored over to the store with the rows and bins of springtime bulbs, an adventure that’s something like a trip to the candy counter, only without the threat of cavities. i’d filled my arms, judiciously putting aside the bulbs that would have cost as much as a pound of burgers. and then, when the urge struck, i’d be stocked and ready to dig, bury, and someday behold.

i’ve always found it sacramental, the dropping to my knees, gashing into the surrendering soil, shaking a powder of bulb-boosting fortifier, and then carefully lifting just the right bulb for the purpose: to tuck in for the winter the concentrated pouch of promise. the thing that looks like a dried-up onion, laying it to rest in the shadow of autumn, nestling it soft against the earth’s curve, the earth’s cupped hands, the earth’s promise: i’ll take it from here.

and all winter long, through the ice and the wind that will pound at my windowpanes, my bevy of bulbs will be silently doing their thing, shooting down roots, stirring within.

the tasks of autumn are the stockpiling tasks, the turning-in ones. slip on an extra layer of sweater, slow roast the last of the tomatoes, make them last through the long months ahead. upholster the garden with unseen but certain patches of promise.

when your heart hurts or is heavy, i’ve found, it helps to ply tender ministrations to whomever or whatever falls in my path. this week it was my paltry patch of earth. there’ve been times when it was one of my boys, one whose knee or whose heart had been banged up and bloodied. or a friend who needed little more than a hot mug of tea and an hour of listening.

but the taking care of this holy earth is bigger even than that. it’s understanding how sacred it is at its core, and in its every blessed breath. go silent for a minute or two (or three or four) and simply keep watch: listen for the mournful cry of the geese veeing the sky. watch the leaves go gold. plop yourself at the water’s edge and marvel at its infinite rhythm.

i’ve just started reading a marvelous book by john philip newell, one titled, sacred earth, sacred soul, and like newell’s earlier books, it’s an exploration of celtic wisdoms, a reawakening of the ancient and eternal truths long ago snuffed nearly into extinction. it’s a book i’ve already managed to slather with my inky underlinings, page after page.

newell, once the warden of iona abbey, a sixth-century monastery rising up from a wee island off scotland in the roar of the north atlantic, beckons us to listen for the beat of the sacred deep within ourselves and one another, and deep within the body of the earth. sacred, he writes, “is not bound by religion.” sacred is the soulful knowing, the keen awareness, that deep down in all things — in the earth, and in everything that has been born — there pulses an inextinguishable holiness. it’s our task, our holy task, to sense it, to seize it: to see it, to feel it, to honor it. to make way for it, make an altar for it, hold it up high.

my bulb-burying the other morning might have been seen as just another autumnal chore. or, through the celtic lens, the lens of an ancient wisdom shared by all the world’s great religions, it’s that i was quietly tucking in visible manifestations, reminders come spring, that what pulses deep within the earth, deep within each of our souls and our selves, is something unflaggingly beautiful. and holy. at once tender and resilient.

digging those bulbs, turning newell’s pages, brought me back to a peaceful holy calm. and i filled my lungs with pure blessed air.

what brings you breath? what’s your understanding of sacred? and how do you sense the sacred within?

it’s the little joys that sometimes carry us…

in which, after a seven-week summer’s sabbatical, our little scribe shuffles back to the table, ferrying a tall stack of books, and the hope of something to say….

well, good morning. i promised it wouldn’t be long, and it wasn’t. really. oh, i’ll admit to all but sitting on my typing hands the first few fridays, an itch to write that nearly needed ointment to make it go away. but i held on, and soon enough, savored the quiet. found plenty to fill the days. in the weeks i’ve been away, tucked behind the virtual monastery walls, i’ve been witness to the scattering of ashes of a woman we loved, i’ve flown across the country, had both my boys under this old roof for one 36-hour slice of heavenliness, cheered on the now dubbed TriathlonMan (aka former architecture critic) not once but twice as he gleefully crossed the finish line (well, he was gleeful the first time, and in last sunday’s 97-degree heat “gleeful” would be the last adjective i’d reach for), and said too many tearful goodbyes at airports and college dorms.

so here we are. not unlike the back-to-school rhythms of clean underwear and sharpened pencils, ready to dive back in. what a blessing that the holiest of holy days are upon us, just as the light takes on its amber molasses glow. and the blood in my veins percolates with its usual seasonal vivacity (i am autumn’s child, to be sure).

one of the truths of the summer — and of this moment — is that i often feel crushed by the news of the world around me. these last few weeks and days offer no reprieve. many a night i’ve lay awake imagining how it is to be sardined in a hangar in qatar with no water, no food, and sunlight beating down, all of it underscored with unchartable fear. and the cries of hungry babies all around. and now we’ve got a lone star state filled with deputized vigilantes racing around to turn in their already broken neighbors. let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

and so i was particularly struck when i stumbled on an essay this week from maria popova, she of brain pickings wonderment, an essay in which she writes of hermann hesse’s belief in little joys. i seem to gather proponents of littleness — dorothy day and her little courages, and now hesse and his little joys. anyway, i ran to the library — the candy counter equivalent for those who binge on poetries and paragraphs — and checked me out some hesse (german-swiss poet, painter, novelist; author of siddhartha*), specifically his collection, translated into english in 1974, titled my belief: essays on life and art.

hesse writes, in his 1905 essay “on little joys”:

Great masses of people these days live out their lives in a dull and loveless stupor. Sensitive persons find our inartistic manner of existence oppressive and painful, and they withdraw from sight… I believe what we lack is joy. The ardor that a heightened awareness imparts to life, the conception of life as a happy thing, as a festival… But the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy…

Our ways of enjoying ourselves are hardly less irritating and nerve-racking than the pressure of our work. “As much as possible, as fast as possible” is the motto. And so there is more and more entertainment and less and less joy… This morbid pursuit of enjoyment [is] spurred on by constant dissatisfaction and yet perpetually satiated.

I would simply like to reclaim an old and, alas, quite unfashionable private formula: … Do not overlook the little joys!

These little joys … are so inconspicuous and scattered so liberally throughout our daily lives that the dull minds of countless workers hardly notice them. They are not outstanding, they are not advertised, they cost no money!

Hermann Hesse, “On Little Joys” from My Belief: Essays on Life and Art

he echoes annie dillard, another of my pantheon of “little” saints, she who preaches like no other on the sacred art of paying attention, she who indelibly wrote:

The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But — and this is the point — who gets excited by a mere penny?

[…]

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple.

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

keep your eyes — nay, your whole soul — open is her point. and hesse follows suit. leaving little to chance, hesse points to the particulars, and prescribes thusly:

Just try it once — a tree, or at least a considerable section of sky, is to be seen anywhere. It does not even have to be blue sky; in some way or another the light of the sun always makes itself felt. Accustom yourself every morning to look for a moment at the sky and suddenly you will be aware of the air around you, the scent of morning freshness that is bestowed on you between sleep and labor. You will find every day that the gable of every house has its own particular look, its own special lighting. Pay it some heed if you will have for the rest of the day a remnant of satisfaction and a touch of coexistence with nature. Gradually and without effort the eye trains itself to transmit many small delights, to contemplate nature and the city streets, to appreciate the inexhaustible fun of daily life. From there on to the fully trained artistic eye is the smaller half of the journey; the principal thing is the beginning, the opening of the eyes.

yet another wise person i read this week, yuriko saito, a professor of philosophy at the rhode island school of design, calls the little joys “everyday aesthetics,” and defines them as “tiny, perfect things.” it’s the art of the ordinary, and the ordinary is where we live, those of us whose days are mapped by carpools and grocery trips and scrubbing out the bathroom sinks.

the world — even in its brokenness — is filled with tiny, perfect things. the imperative is that we keep close watch. God gave us input pipes — eyes, ears, nose, skin, tastebud. we are meant to notice. invited to, anyway. we dwell in holy kaleidoscope. it twists and turns and sways and dapples minute by minute, season upon season.

and so my days take on a hopscotch paradigm: i skip and hop from little joy to little joy, and hold on tight to those wisps of poesy that fall across my path. i mosey the alley, where wild things bloom and sway, and wander through my garden, clippers in hand, snipping stems for tiny bouquets i tuck all around the house, especially on the windowsills, a perch made for paying outward glance. i tiptoe down the brick walk to my summer porch, and keep watch from behind the screens where the birds take no notice, and carry on their birdlike ways as if i’ve morphed into just another leaf or willow frond and become unseen, no longer alien, no longer brake to their flutterings and chatter. i curl in my reading nook, keeping watch on the world passing by, on the pages i turn.

i keep a silence. a holy silence. the sort from which my prayers take flight endlessly, eternally. i pray for this world which too many days seems to be crumbling. i pray for lives i will never know. but i imagine. and my empathies carry me to faraway deserts, to tarmacs and hotlines where the desperation rises by the hour.

i’m surely not saying that the little joys will mend the brokenness. that takes a whole nother level of dedication and muscle moving. all i’m saying is that if we can fix our gaze on even the occasional tiny, perfect thing, we might stave off the paralysis that comes with the avalanche of awful news. we might gather up shards of beautiful, shards of little joy, and find the oomph to not stay stuck, the oomph to make the blessed most of these fine breaths left in us as we march through the bracketed hours of our days.

for this i pray.

what might be the little joys, the tiny perfect things that carry you through the day, even when the darkness comes?

*starting a new cumulative reading list, and first up, siddhartha, hesse’s 1920 novel which delves deep into hinduism, a religion about which i know not enough….it’s described as the “absolutely amazing and engrossing tale of one man’s journey to find that all-elusive idea of enlightenment.” enlightenment, here i come.….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

in whatever holy blessed form the beautiful comes. 

and it’s a promise i will never break. 

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

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

it’s get-on-your-knees season

from a distance, that is from this side of the windowpanes, where i tend to stand huddled in layers of wraps, it all looks like a matrix of unenlightened brown sticks. these are the weeks when winter has ground us down to particular dust. the pandemic, too. even with a shot in the arm we’re not exactly lying by the side of the pool, sipping our lemony-ades. the name for this stretch of the year might easily be mistaken for bleak.

but then, as i did this morning, you spy a runaway screen from an upstairs window, one that’s worked itself loose and taken a short hop skip and a jump off the roof and landed in the boughs of the trees. so, you, as i did this morning, you climb into your muck-about clogs, you haul out a ladder and you fetch the runaway part of your house. and while you’re out there, while you’re the wacky neighbor lady out climbing ladders at dawn, chasing after screens in the trees, you begin to notice things.

you notice that, once you’ve hauled out your magnifying lens, it’s not really all bleak. there is gazillions of action out there. why, there are sweet little clasps of leaves, gathered in prayer. and there are frilly umbrellas of green rising up from the detritus of winter.

and, like any self-respecting payee of attention, you start to put two and two together, and you start thinking maybe you could pick up a thing or two from this quiet explosion erupting from dear planet underground. maybe it’s not so bleak after all. maybe this is the season of quiet delight. maybe the starting all over again is kicking into high gear. maybe the same old same old is about to slow to a crawl, and one day soon this will all be but another badge on our we-survived-even-this sash. we’ll be sitting around in our rocking chairs, swapping tales of remember-the-year-we-were-afraid-to-touch-our-groceries? remember the year no one came home for christmas? remember the year we all sat down at our sewing machines and stitched together swatches of cotton or t-shirt, stuffed vacuum cleaner filters into the pockets?

the miracle is we’ve lived, the just-by-chance ones among us who weren’t done in by the terrible, horrible, awful red virus. i wasn’t there on the front lines, where friends of mine who are nurses and doctors faced it head on, walked into the dirge of it, day after day. i hope, for the life of me, we never forget what heroes they were, and how even the checkers at the grocery store had to dig down for a brand of courage they never thought would be part of the job of stacking cans on shelves, or ringing my celery over their scanner. and every time i read a story of someone felled by it, i look around and realize this world has lost one more incredible one-of-a-kind miracle. maybe reading all the obits is in the oddest of ways a reminder that lurking behind the facades of all the anonymous anyones we pass every day, there is inside a story of glorious wonder that might put us all in our places. maybe it’s why, once upon a time, i loved to be asked to write someone’s obit. because each and every someone has a story to tell. a story to make you sit up in your chair and take notice.

it’s not too unlike the scene out my window. from a distance it all looks bleak and windblown and soggy. but when you bend down to the ground, take a close look, you see something utterly beautiful. you see even the dew gathered in drops at the ends of each leaf. and you remember that life asks over and over again: open your eyes, open your heart, beauty abounds.

what’s some of the beauty you’ve noticed? on your knees or otherwise?

and while i’m here, a string of birthdays of aries who’ve twice had to blow out birthday candles during pandemic: happy birthday to two of my most beloveds, tomorrow and sunday, sweet P and auntie M, who i think were born back to back to emphatically wondrously remind me how glorious it is to be alive in the same span of time as the two of them. double blessing squared. and to dear amy’s papa who is turning 96 today. i don’t even know him, but i adore everything i know about him, and oh we are blessed to know of his sweet and everlasting presence here on this earth. xoxoxoxo and huge blessings to a sweet baby boy born in san francisco yesterday, and to his mama who is starting this glorious adventure she has sooooooooooooooo long awaited. blessings abound. xox

praise song for putting to bed a fine summer’s garden

the folks at freeze-warning central don’t talk pretty talk. they’ve no use for adjectives, ditch any hint of gentility. they mean business, scare-the-pants-off-you business.

and so it was that the fine folk from warning central tapped at my laptop yesterday morn. barely bothered to knock. just parachuted in with these dire words:

Freeze Warning issued October 15 at 2:35AM CDT until October 16 at 9:00AM CDT by NWS Chicago IL

  • WHAT…Several hours of sub-freezing temperatures, with lows in
    the upper 20s and low 30s. Some of the coldest locations may
    briefly drop into the mid 20s.
  • WHERE…North central and northeast Illinois away from the
    heart of Chicago and northwest Indiana.
  • WHEN…From 1 AM CDT /2 AM EDT/ to 9 AM CDT /10 AM EDT/ Friday.
  • IMPACTS…Frost and freeze conditions will kill crops, other
    sensitive vegetation and possibly damage unprotected outdoor
    plumbing.

and so, with a sigh, i knew it was time. time to amble out with my many-pocketed vest, time to pluck and harvest as if there was no tomorrow. for, in the land of orange zinger, cherokee purple, big boy, and that saucy san marzano, there was not a tomorrow. this was the end, the coda, the last gasp of summer’s voluptuous bounty.

while i played my last round of what amounts to where’s waldo (the tomato edition), searching in between and under and through the tangles of vine for any plump or lumpen orb with the faintest hint of a color other than green, i whispered a long litany of glory be’s to the incredible edible farm that had burst from the clods of earth out along the potholed alley, in the shadow of the utility pole and the too-tall fence of the neighbor next door.

it had been our virgin voyage in the agricultural realm. my beloved brother in maine, a fellow with know-how oozing from his hands and his heart, he insisted months ago that i get to work building me a plot, one raised from the earth, one that i wrapped in a wee picket fence, one i pampered with thrice-daily (at least!) devotions, once to see what had burst into glory overnight, once to sate its thirsts with a good sweet drink from the hose, once to harvest for salad or dinner. i learned the arts of staking (i’ll need an advanced class on that over the winter, for my vines wound up twisting themselves into tangles and knots of goldbergian proportion). i never bothered with pest control, the farm was there for whoever needed or wanted (only once did i find a critter had ambled in for a midnight picnic of half-chewed tomato).

but all summer, i made like a modern-day hildegard of bingen, she of the great medieval herbarium. i’d planted herbs-to-tomatoes in a 4:1 ratio, an indulgence that had me awash in nightly mounds of tarragon and dill and rosemary, too. and basil and marjoram and oregano — and thyme and chives and cilantro and great wisps of fennel to boot, and every breakfast was sprinkled in spearmint or lemon verbena. the tomatoes, a competitive bunch i discovered, were not to be beat by the delicate herbs. they merely upped their nightshade ante, and burst forth with such gusto i found myself trolling the cookery tomes, searching for ways to roast and sun-dry and stir into sauce and stretch into winter. the resident architecture critic took to dousing his daily mound of lunchtime cottage cheese with handfuls and handfuls of zingers, those orange little morsels the size of a gumball, the 25-cent — not the penny — variety.

and just the other day, the critic himself was leaping into his little-used adjective file, pulling out superlatives, waxing poetic about the wonders of watching your lunch rise out of the earthen mounds. he marveled as much as anyone in this old house at the nightly leaps and bounds of the vines as they reached for the heavens, and escaped up and over the fence.

it’s a beautiful thing, he declared, to witness the miracle of the seed tucked into compost back at the start of the sun-drenching season. to measure the almost-hourly rising, to witness the bloom bulge and birth into fruit, to taste the zing you can’t find in a plastic-wrapped pack from the grocery.

it’ll be a long winter without it, but as i put it to bed with my trowel and my vespers, i’ll unloose a long and loving litany — a canticle even — to the glories and wonder of the vines and the leaves and the delicate blossoms, the tangles and orbs and heaven-sent scents of the plot that fed us all summer.

bless you, and thank you, dear farm on the alley.

what are the blessings of the season past for which you are whispering your thank yous? or for the blessings of now that all but knock you to your knees when they burst open before you?

and a p.s.: just hours before the freeze-alert was due to kick into gear, i looked out my kitchen window and found this glorious morning glory unfurling its last-ditch trumpet call into the world. it’s still there now, alive through the night. the glory of heavenly defiance, not to be done in by the cold….

calumet farm

IMG_1558

annals of pandemic, part xi…in which surreal spring turns to summer and we set out to build a farm…

you might begin to wonder if the dictionary at my fingertips is one in which the definitions come fast and loose. if, say, there’s hyperbole stitched in on occasion. or, is it simply the byproduct of one storybook imagination?

where, for instance, i start waxing on about a farm–so you start imagining endless loam, far as the eye can see, and perhaps a barn and silo, certainly a mooing cow with muzzle pressed against the pasture gate–and then you realize that what i mean, what i’m setting out to carve into the earth, is nothing more expansive, nor more exotic, than a plain old raised bed. a 4×8 plot of decayed leaf and loam (and for good measure a pile of old manure). a mound on which to sprout a vegetable or two. perhaps an herb, for good measure.

in other words, in the world inside my head, the one where my very own picture shows play all day long, what i see might not be exactly what’s before my eyes. (effusive and sometimes far-fetched imagination is requisite number 1 for anyone who dreams of a life of pen to page, i’d argue.)

fact is, for all my daydreaming about white picket fences and tomatoes so fresh from the vine they’re still sunshine-warmed as i unscrew them from the stem, this so-called plot for which i lift my spade and hoe, might well become little more than an exercise in rolling out a romping ground, a banquet hall, for all the critters who nightly prowl along the hardly bucolic back alley.

which brings us to calumet farm.

as is sometimes the case in a writerly family–in other words, a motley crew of folk who relish words with the enthusiasms others reserve for, say, wine or dollar bills–the tangled knot of daylily, weeds, and the occasional errant acorn-on-the-rise has already been named, though i’ve not yet hauled a single shovel to the plot. (that’s this morning’s project, putting blade to earth.)

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calumet farm, outside lexington, kentucky

calumet farm, you see, is a magnificent kentucky horse farm, one my uncle danny used to run before he was killed on iwo jima in a brutal midnight raid near the close of world war II. it’s a farm where two triple crown winners–whirlaway and, later, citation–and, in all, eight kentucky derby winners ran the fields. it’s a farm where my very own papa spent his every boyhood summer, curled up reading near the barns, so the story goes.

 

history-05and my beloved bespectacled mate, the one i hoped would not mind my latest fixation, well, he latched right on–enthusiastically!–once we gave him naming rights. he’s downright tickled to have our very own calumet farm sprouting on the back acreage (even if he is insisting i hoe along the alley, where it won’t disturb his line of sight. p.s. what he’s otherwise looking at is beyond me, all i see is grass and birds nibbling at the feeder…but such are the compromises that make a lasting marriage).

history-07i believe i’ve heard him say he’ll be posting the calumet colors–famously “devil’s red” tracing the sharp edges of the pure-white barns and stables. (calumet was founded by the baking-powder folks, and to this day, that can is trademarked devil’s red.) if naming rights and colors are all i had to trade to get me a summer’s worth of fresh-plucked herbs, and one or two tomatoes, and all these hours of imagining, well that’s a deal i’ll make.

because these distractions of mine can sometimes take up more room in my brain than necessary, because i barely know my way through the tool shed, my faraway brother david, a master gardener, master carpenter, and all-round mensch, took on the role of patron saint of my plot. he’s spelled out in precise detail just the bolts and boards i need. even weighed in late last night on the contents of the 18 bags of loam and compost i’ll be mounding for the farm. when my biggest worry was whacking down the weeds, he scratched that with a simple, “google sheet mulch.” turns out those old moving boxes flattened in the garage will now be resurrected as the “floor” beneath my mounds. all i need do is slice away as much of what’s growing there, yank out roots that might have landed there over the years, and lay down sheets of cardboard. voila. instant start of compost.

once construction is done, and ben-gay amply applied to all my achy parts, i’ll begin the daydreams of what to plant. of course i picture some quaint english herbarium, as well as a bursting-with-a-vengeance vegetable plot, to boot. but truth be told, just one fistful of fresh-born dill or mint or basil, abundant and green and smelling of the earth, that’ll be enough to do me mighty proud.

there is something edifying about going beyond the confines of what you imagine you can do. and building me a farm, even a simple one by arithmetic measure, and doing so when up against an invisible plague that’s turned us upside down, it brings a sustenance you cannot buy at any grocery store.

maybe, too, it’s the turning in, the reliance on little more than our own muscles and our know-how. it’s staking a claim in this old planet, saying i can make my way here. maybe it’s emboldening in the age of pandemic to write your own survival guide. and, once again, to lean on the blessing and benevolence of this holy earth to carry us to safe-keeping.

best of all, my humble plot will always be the farm my brother david believed i could build. and his insistence, his quiet whisper, his certainty, is the bounty upon which all this will grow.

and now i’m dashing to the lumber yard, where a kind and gentle man named mike has all my boards and bolts ready to stash into the old red wagon, the wagon i will now think of as my very own farm truck.

what plots have you devised–amid this pandemic, or otherwise–to reach beyond your comfort zone, to show yourself the self-reliance at the heart of who you are, to prove to yourself you’re more than you imagine?

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coming soon: calumet farm

in which we pull spring from out of the earth…

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file this under “desperately seeking proof.” or perhaps, “it’s so necessary this time round.”

the subject is the eruption of spring: that moment, year after year, for as many years as there’ve ever been, when the whole chorus of buds, the vocal cords of feathered flocks and the tips at the ends of the trees, all decide at once to clang the cymbals, pound the drums, and explode like nobody’s business.

it’s so necessary this time round. so necessary when the airwaves fill us with cataclysmic reports, when going to the grocery is an exercise in holding your breath, when reading the morning news just might have you heaving before your first spoon of cornflakes.

Unknownhere in my little corner of the world, about three fingers in from the east coast (if you’re looking at a palm-sized map), a whole thumbprint down from the canadian border, hard against that blue pendicle we know as lake michigan, there is the faintest rumbling of spring. not nearly enough. not enough for a vast swath of humanity staring out the kitchen window on high alert for the invisible virus, not enough for worn-down souls on the lookout for hope.

so i’ve been doing my part: i’ve put serious thought to my latest rube goldbergian plot. my plan to coax the eruption out of the earth. i’ve pictured myself out in the deep ink of the night, knees folded into a crouch, fist wrapped tight around a flashlight, pointing the beam onto stem after stem, branch after branch, seeing if a little light therapy might coax things along.

i’ve got friends in far-off-enough places who are sending me dispatches of itty-bitty finch eggs already laid. cherry trees awash in their seasonal meringue.

here in sweet chicago, here so close to the lake you can hear it lapping the shore: nada, zilch, practically zero. certainly not enough for a soul hungry for spring in the same way some of our bellies growl at the first whiff of oozy cheese in a griddle…

perhaps it would help if i scrawled paint onto a banner, spelled out the plea, “dear mama earth, PLEASE HELP!” we are in serious need of emotional rescue down here. we would do well to fall into the arms of magnolia. might cheer to a bluebird riding along on our shoulder. might fling ourselves face-first and eyes wide open into a bed of tulips and daffodil. fill our lungs with parfum de lilac instead of the fear of the red-ringed demon.

oh, there’ve been the subtlest of cues: goldfinch feathers dropping their wintry drab, taking on the sunshine-gleam of gold that gives them their name; the first lilliputian daffodils putting up their periscopes of promise (see proof above); the birdsong that cannot wait for first light of dawn, birdsong so thick you might think it a recording.

but this is no year for subtlety. this is a year for all the hope we can find. we are holding our breath down here on planet earth, where the whole globe is at a standstill. we need a  vernal exclamation like never before.

those faraway friends tell me it’s coming. a friend in cambridge says, except for corona, this would be the most perfect spring she’s seen in a very long while. except for corona…

because my days are a checkerboard of occasional plug-ins — chanting with monks on mondays and thursdays, inhaling celtic spirituality direct from galway nine days in a row, chiming in on a once-a-week book group based in seattle — i’ve plenty of time for prowling my plot. i make the rounds at least twice a day, on the lookout for any sign of eruption. all but wander the walks with measuring stick and string, all in the hopes of seeing some progress.

this is a season for turning our keenest attentions to the rumblings of earth, to this most intoxicating science and faith that never fails, that offers page after page of wisdom and truth.

this unforgettable spring we are learning the art of deep patience. “ride it out,” is the mantra. “stick close to home,” the instruction.

i, like you most likely, have hours when my knees go wobbly. i’ve wiped away the occasional tear or two (or five). i’m trying to be something of a lifeline for a kid i love who’s all alone in a faraway place, where the walls sometimes press in. trying to make life here at home as tranquil and gentle and sometimes delicious as i can possibly muster. (for reasons that don’t quite escape me, i’ve taken keen fondness for a spritz bottle of lavender mist, which i spritz till the sheets and the pillows are soggy. and i figure the more delicious aromas i can stir from the kitchen, the better the chances i can steady the kid in the room up above, the one whose spring semester has — like everyone else’s — gone up in red-ringed vapors.)

it’s a master class in surrender to which we’ve been enlisted. no one asked first if we’d choose it. it was thrust wildly upon us.

the questions are these: how quiet can we go? how calm might we settle our souls? what new and wondrous epiphanies might drop before our eyes, our hearts, our imaginations? what brings you peace? where is your joy? what pulls you out from your darkest hours? who is your lifeline?

and, where oh where, is the promise of spring?

and suddenly, the holiest of weeks is almost upon us: holy week and easter for churchgoers; passover for jews. as i sink deep into the braiding of those two ancient traditions, i leave you with this from our rabbi, a page from the prayers of passover, as we mark the exodus — safe passage — from egypt, in search and hope and belief in the promised land. it’s a theme with particular resonance this year….

In our prayer book,Mishkan T’filah, we read about the crossing of the Red Sea:

        Standing on the parted shores of history

        we still believe what we were taught

        before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;

        that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt

        that there is a better place, a promised land;

        that the winding way to that promise

        passes through the wilderness.

        That there is no way to get from here to there

        except by joining hands, marching

        together.

join hands, march together; believe in the promised land….

have you stumbled into epiphanies? found yourself a lifeline? what are the saving graces in your days?

resurrection gardening

resurrection gardening

i am practicing resurrection. with a trowel and a bag of supercharger root booster. i am digging holes. big holes. unearthing what to you might look like dried brown sticks. but if you look close, really really close, there are bits and shoots — and occasionally tendrils — of green.

i call it resurrection gardening.

i’m hellbent, it seems, on bringing things back to life.

it’s a fine pursuit on a hot summer’s day when the world all around is going to hell in a hand basket. or so it sounds — especially if you listen to the chatter and the vitriol that percolates on air waves all day long, all summer long, all these-last-three-years-long.

as is so often the case in the realm of the garden, it’s become something of an obsession. i dream of half-dead (okay, five-sixths dead) vines i won’t give up on. i dream of digging them out of their sun-forsaken plots and moving them, with surgical-nurse precision and intensive-care-nursery tenderness, around a corner and down the fence line to where their ganglionic roots might take a liking to the new surroundings and do the little wiggle dance that is a root tunneling through earth, sucking up sustenance, rewarding the resurrection gardener with a little whoop-de-doop! (the triumphant yelp that comes, even in a whisper, when knot of green appears where before there was only stick. and dead-looking stick at that.)

i like to think of my little bumper crop of almost-dead things as my lazarus contingent. this week alone, i’ve counted two trees, a bush, and two vines among the not-yet-fallen. after the long hard winter, my garden had taken on a hardstruck look. bushes that once had burst with leaves were now not much besides a collection of barren stick or branch, all jutting this way and that as if to shout, “we’re dying here, and we’d like an assist before we take our last and final exhale.”

i’d ignored their cries long enough. i’d let the summer wind into july before i mustered the chutzpah, the courage, the lopper-power it takes to ply a miracle or two. or to try anyway.

this week, something hit me. overcame me, really. if you tried to find me for long hours on end, you wouldn’t have had much luck. unless you poked around the corners of my semi-acre. then you might have spied a mud-streaked, pewter-haired, shovel-wielding missus, wrenching this muscle or that, grunting on occasion, eventually trotting triumphantly, holding a vine or bush by the hairs (as if a pussycat plucked from too deep a mud puddle). i’d survey the so-called acreage, find a spot of promise, and begin again to dig. i’d sprinkle prestidigitation powders, do a little voodoo dance, and plop that salvaged  vine/bush/quasi-tree into its new digs.

by nightfall, i ached all over. and needed nothing short of a scrub bush to un-cake the muck from in between my toes, up my shins, and the same on the upper limbs, the ones that had me muddy clear past my elbows.

but deep down inside i was humming. humming a happy, i-saved-something-today tune. it’s not a song i get to sing very often. almost never. which might have been what made it so so sweet. and such an unstoppable obsession. in a world of things i cannot fix, presidents i can’t make go away, attorneys general who make me want to scream, kids i love hauling off to college sooner than i’d like to think, i am quite tickled by the notion that a sharp-edged shovel, a bag of super-booster, and a little bit of i’ll-show-you is enough to shift the narrative, to re-write the death knell of the climbing hydrangea, the summer snowflake viburnum, and the plain old humdrum hydrangea.

i’ll be keeping watch through the days and weeks (and occasional nights) ahead. i’ll be on the lookout for even the itty-bittiest proof that all is not lost, and one lowly little specimen is on the rise, not the death watch.

if i can leave this planet even one iota greener, lusher, more apt to spread its roots and rise, well then my days caked in mud, my nights caked in ben-gay, will not have been in vain.

what did you resurrect this week? 

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my most promising — and challenging — resurrectee…

a few weeks back, when i was off at poetry school, the poem i memorized, wendell berry’s “manifesto: the mad farmer liberation front,” ends with the magnificent instruction, “practice resurrection.” which is precisely what i’ve been doing all week. i like to think farmer berry would wink in approval at the notion that i’ve taken up the practice, with shovel. 

here, once again, are the lines i memorized, from “manifesto”…(on second thought, i’m letting the whole thing rip here. it’s too glorious to only quote a stanza or two.) celebrate mr. berry’s instruction: get out there and practice resurrection this week. xoxoxox

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

by Wendell Berry

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

 

 

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?