pull up a chair

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

Category: lessons from the garden

ordinary time

noddling bells of spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

all of that is literal, is what the books i sought spelled out. i tend to veer off the page. and that’s when i began to really contemplate the power of unencumbered ordinary. as if we’re given unfettered canvas on which to quietly and without bother absorb the sacred simple. the gift of being alive without all the inner chatter. the charge to scan the hours of the day for those moments that break us out in goosebumps. the blessing of deep, slow breathing. the chance, scant chance, to catch God in the act….
IMG_0173

of late, i’ve become intrigued by what i call the theology of the sacred ordinary. not the loud bangs and pyrotechnics, not the stuff that comes at the end of miles-long, desert-crossing pilgrimage, but rather the stark and quiet notion that we are living the Holy right now.

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

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

what does ordinary time mean to you?

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

perceptible growth

perceptible growth

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

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

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

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

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

it’s why spring makes me dizzy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

bleeding heart dew

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

wonder

once again, resilience

scilla resilient

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

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

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

let the examination begin:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and then, sometimes, the hallelujah comes.

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

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

putting a season to bed…

IMG_0068

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

painted turtle from all creation waits

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

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

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

tender is the earth

IMG_7423

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.

bettye tucker

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?

grape hyacinth

holy ground

IMG_7249

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

october garden

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?

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?

weeds: necessary diversion, and a wallop of wisdom besides

weeds 2weeds 3weeds

welcome to my weedy world. in which, overnight, the overpopulation of unsolicited, uninvited and unbeckoned trespassers has left the invited assembly of little darlings in my beds gasping for air, shrieking for rights, and without so much as an inch to shake out their gangly roots.

furthermore, it’s left me — the one-armed gardener — at the mercy of the zillions of tensed-up muscle strands that striate my way-down back, the ones over-used to make up for the current lack of pulling power in my left-sided yanker, the limb whose bones are deep at work knitting themselves back into a whole (or so we hope, but that’s a worry for another day…).

which is to say: no one around here is all too tickled at what’s become of springtime’s fragile promise, when the gardens were soft with tender shoots, tight-wadded commas of fern, and unhyphenated stretches of loam as rich and dark as a fine espresso.

the interlopers all slipped in whilst i was otherwise occupied. and then, once i slipped on my nifty little reading lenses (those clear-eyed windows to the world that, more and more, are mandatory lest i choose to take in the view in one big blur), i realized that all the lush foliage upholstering the gardens was not some miracle of my growing skills, but rather the mere recalcitrance of a bumper crop of weeds who took advantage of my oblivion, blew the whistle and let the gallop to the clouds commence.

why, i’ve got itty-bitty maple trees growing smack-dab in the midst of hosta clumps. and ash trees dare to squiggle through the peonies, not yet in bloom. some stinky cousin of wild fennel has set out to overtake the yard, never mind the grass that’s in its way. and dandelions? i might as well call a truce, and snip it by the gallon as i’m told it makes a fine — if bitter — late spring salad.

i was lamenting all this overgrowth when margaret roach — she of martha stewart gardening fame, and author of a weekly newsletter (awaytogarden.com) that plops into my mailbox and bolsters my sagging gardener’s gloves — dropped in to let me know i was hardly alone. she too was moaning about “the shaggies,” the inevitable season of demise when what was tender, was confined, was obeying all your garden visions, suddenly dissolves into mad dishevelment, and you’ve nothing left to do but sit and weep. or start yanking.

i yanked.

and now, hot showers ought to be my hourly balm (alas, i’m afraid of the water bills). were i to do as the doctor ordered, i’d aim the pulsing shower beads bullet-like onto my low back, and wait for the occupational spasming to pass.

in the meantime, my yard is littered with the dehydrating remains of all that threatened to do in my beds. and still there are hours left to wrestle with the tangled roots and stubborn vines, the voluptuous leaves that all but stick a thumb into my fool-gardener eye and taunt, “catch me if you can!”

i’ve mostly been attacking in spurts — for that’s what you do for distraction when you’re pounding away on a keyboard for hours on end, worrying ceaselessly about whether a comma belongs here or there, and trying to drum up a substitute word for one you realize you’ve pushed past its limits.

and during those quarter-hourly sessions, i’ve had plenty of minutes to contemplate the virtues of subtracting from our over-clogged lives whatever it is that tangles our own inner works.

for, in the end, isn’t the zen of gardening all wrapped up in the fact that we extract our life lessons from earthworms and bees, from snapped-in-two stalks and beloved perennials that, after years of sheer joy, suddenly and without notice give up the ghost?

it’s why i muck in the dirt, really.

oh, sure, my heart does a thumpety-thump when at last i awake to the morning when the peony bursts into deep fuchsia bloom. or when the blue of baptisia wafts in the afternoon breeze.

but the truth of the matter is that i pay attention to the beds because i am so deeply hungry for all the wisdom contained there. and i soak it all up like a sunflower guzzling what shoots from the nozzle.

weeds aren’t too complicated (even if obliterating them from the premises verges on the impossible): they threaten the beautiful. they inhale too much oxygen. and drink more than their share of the rain.

so, too, the parts of our life that all on their own might hold merit but in rambunctious abundance distract us from the holy essence. keep us from getting our own best job done. whether that means signing up for so much PTA, we barely have time to curl up with our babies at bedtime. or taking on so many sentences we’re shoving aside the chance to soak up an afternoon’s stroll with a friend who’s in need. or merely surrender our quieted heart for as long as it takes for a blessed whisper to settle in and remind us of the very thing we need to know to go forward.

over the years — truth be told, it’s taken a good half century — i’ve discovered the wisdom of no. of not scribbling my name on every sign-up sheet passed under my nose. of not filling my hours with command performances that wither my soul. of not living my life as if a girl scout going for badge after good-camper badge.

i suppose — after years of trial and error, of skinned knees and bare-truth confessionals — i’ve learned a thing or two about keeping the weeds out of my days.

and now, it’s the ones hijacking my yard that i’m hellbent on yanking.

on the subject of weeds, i ought to pass along this soon-to-be-published encyclopedic compendium, weeds of north america, which dominique browning described thusly in last sunday’s new york times book review: 

“If you’re someone whose idea of perfect bedtime reading is “Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs,” you’re in luck — a bumper crop of excellent reference books is on its way. The encyclopedic WEEDS OF NORTH AMERICA (University of Chicago, paper, $35; available in August), by Richard Dickinson and France Royer, is going to have pride of place on my bedside table for years to come. It covers more than 600 species from 69 plant families at every stage of growth. Royer’s photographs are almost perversely alluring. They make you want to go out and plant weeds. Which, er, actually I do.”

and now the week’s question, which you might answer here or merely in the quiet of your own heart: if you were to weed the messiness out of your life, where might you begin the yanking? 

 

my not-so-secret garden

i’ve been under the spell, i do believe, since that long-ago sunday when i should have been in church. but instead, i rubbed the thermometer on my bedsheets, allowed the friction there to be my accomplice in the charade of sunday-morning fever.

now that the statute of limitation’s surely well expired, i can confess my sin at last: i’d feigned the fever so i could stay in bed with the book that stole forever my heart, (and, apparently, my soul) and, yes, my whole imagination.
twas then and now, frances hodgson burnett’s “the secret garden,” with pen and ink and watercolors by my enchantress, tasha tudor.

twas the book that took me down the sinner’s path, and opened up a lifetime’s looking for, believing in, the dappled path to paradise.

oh, who could go to church, sit stiff in wooden pews, when instead i might tiptoe along behind orphaned mary lennox as, at last, the robin redbreast showed her the long-lost key to the long-locked little door that opened into the long-still garden, where once upon a time heartbreak happened and the old once-beautiful garden was left to die of sorrow.

indeed, instead of whispering my morning prayers, my heart leapt up and out of me, traveled off to english countryside. was there inside the garden walls, where ivy hung, “a loose and swinging curtain.” peeking through the “fairy-like gray arches” of the climbing roses, tangled over trees in slumber, swinging down in “long tendrils which made light swaying curtains.”

so it says on pages 92 to 96, where i barely breathed the first time through, nor just now as i read again the words that birthed in me a life’s-long enchantment with secret nooks and crannies where fairies dart from leaf to leaf, and robins lay their sticks, their curls of birchbark, where sky-blue eggs are laid, are hatched, where wee small beaks just barely make a chirp when mama comes with worm.

oh, i am enchanted, yes, by the secret garden.

and just beyond my kitchen door, where a summer ago and long before, was gnarly bush and weeds that grabbed you by the knee, there seems to have sprouted a patch as enchanted as any i have ever known.

i cannot keep myself from there, where fronds of fern tickle me on the shin, and hydrangea drapes before my nose. i’ve a curly-barked maple that is home, already, to the robin and the red bird.

just this christmas past, i discovered tucked between a weeping hemlock and that maple a bird-house bench, one built for me by my beloved friend, jim the builder, and left one afternoon before a giant snow blew in. i had no clue it was there, till two days later, when, out shoveling before the dawn, i caught a glint of early-morning sunlight shining off the copper-topped birdhouse peak. and there, with snow cascading down, i wept. overtaken by the tiptoeing-in of the humble builder who had faith i’d find his gift and hadn’t thought to pester me, inquire, had i found it, had i found it?

ever since, it’s my preferred spot for taking mugs of steamy morning coffee. or mid-day lemon waters. or sips of wine, as sun’s long last rays bid the garden, “good day.”

or, if i can’t bear the few-steps walk to the bench, i might plop my bottom on the blue-stone stoop, just beyond the kitchen door, just down from where the basil and the thyme and the flat-leaf parsley grow in the wooden box along the windowsill. sitting there, i am eyeball-to-eyeball with the butterflies that land in the unnamed bush, or atop the country mailbox that holds my garden gloves and clippers.

and, best of all, my meandering walk, with blooms of creamy white and fronds and leaves of grayish-green and silver-green and almost lime (who knew how many shades of green there are?), at last has the proper entrance i have dreamed about, well, forever and ever.

there is now, at the south end of my not-so-secret garden, a perfect arch, with arbors on the side, and bentwood top, where you might look up and watch the clouds, the sun, the stars, play peek-a-boo.

not yet do the roses ramble up.

but they will.

old roses, dusty pink, tissue-paper vintage roses. the ones from storybooks and block island, that faraway place a ferry’s ride from rhode island’s coast where winding lanes are lined with old stone walls and miles of rather ancient roses have been forever rinsed by sea-salt breezes, so the color’s nearly drained, and just a whisper’s left of palest oyster pink.

it is the place i’m drawn to morning, noon and dark at night. i’ve been known to stand there watching moonbeams on the mopheads of hydrangea. i tiptoe out before the dawn, just to be alone, to absorb the misty earth in morning prayer. i dart in and out all day, watch the light play shadow games.

we each, every one of us, need a secret sacred place to hope and dream and cast our prayers on passing breeze.

those of us who scatter seeds of holiness, who tuck them in the loamy mounds of garden, we are blessed with bursting forth of bulb and branch. we endure the heartache of the dying stalk, the one we cannot resurrect, not with all the love and faith we know how to muster.

there are lessons to be taught from every garden and the paths that meander through.

and, oh, to be among the ones who understand the volumes of truth nestled there among the trailing vines, the fairy-like arches and the light swaying curtains that come in many shades of green.

oh, to be grown up and, after all these years, still hold dear the secrets of the garden. even when it’s not so secret, after all.

bless you, holy garden.

where is your secret sacred place? the plane of pillows by your window? the armchair that wraps around you? the middle step on your front stairs? or perhaps you too have a slice of enchantment that grows just beyond your kitchen door, or way out back where no one knows you hide?

we are deep in festivity here at this old house, with birthday on top of birthday, a whole pile-up of cakes and candles, and digits clicking ever forward. today’s the one that belongs to the father of my boys; two days from now, my little one turns nine. just day before last, my most beloved brother david blew out candles right alongside the nation’s president. and two days before that my papa would have been 82. thirty years ago he died. be still, my ever-broken heart…..now healed enough to love and laugh beyond my wildest dreams…