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Tag: garden

reshuffling trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

what stirs you to life again?

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

practicing 10: birdsong soup and the astonishments of just after dawn

there is an art to being still, and i am practicing.

the birth of the day, it seems, is the hour that calls me. and, actually, all i’m going for is a mere slice of that hour. ten minutes, for starters. for beginners like me.

there is little hope, i figure, of trying to squeeze it in, in the thick of the day, between all the rushing and dashing and typing and trolling for words.

and, at the end of the day, when the blanket of stars are out and the house is winding down to a hum, i figure my brain has gone blank, in that numb — not that crisp — sort of a way. or, worse, it’s so overstuffed by that hour that all i’d do is churn and re-churn whatever the day had left in its wake. there’d be no stillness within.

it’s hard enough at the dawn. hard enough to keep the tick-tock at bay.

but i’ve begun.

before the first dabs of light are soaking the low-down sky, i am tiptoeing out of my bed, stumbling downstairs, grinding my coffee beans (a wake-up noise, i tell you, that might be essential, at least till i’m through with the whole-bean bag i didn’t fully intend to grab from the grocery shelf). the cat, always hungry, demands his share of my morning attentions — and a scoop from the tin in the fridge.

then, warm mug cupped in my palms, i reach for the door, and step under the holiest dome, the dome of the dawn as it breaks into double-time spring.

and that’s when it hit me, my first morning out: i’d just stepped into a cauldron of birdsong soup. there were so many layers of so many sounds, coming from so many places, my ears — at first — could barely pick it apart.

there were trills and caw-caws and whistles and chatter. short notes and fat notes. and notes that seemed without end, twisting and tumbling and climbing again. notes most insistent, and notes that dribbled off, into ellipses.

it seemed, pretty much, a gymnastics meet of bird sound. all those itty-bitty throats and tongues and lungs thrusting and lunging, spinning and twirling. all that was missing was chalk dust and numbers pinned to their backs.

and it all, all at once, seemed to be moving, whirling around me, as one song took flight, and soared to a nearby limb. or criss-crossed the sky. or merely hopped down the branch, in search of a cozier, noisier perch.

it was surround-sound at its most heavenly, this ever-circling orchestral creation, powered by wings and lungs whose weights would be measured in grams. a whole-bodied chorister not even one ounce.

and all i knew that very first morning was that everywhere i listened, there was a full-throttle sound track not to be missed. one i’d too often slept through. or, sadder, ignored in my packing of lunches, and checking of schedules.

it wasn’t as if this was new, this spanish moss of bird song, dripping from trees.

it’s been there, just beyond the panes of the windows, the other side of the door.

it was only that i’d not carved out the wisp of an hour, made room for the stillness, so that what was there all along could make its way into my eardrums, and down to my soul.

once my head stopped spinning, i did what any student of stillness must do: i planted myself firmly, solidly, on the seat of the bench in my not-so-secret garden, the one that runs along the kitchen, the one that meanders, the one that catches the morning’s first light.

i tried not to think, just to be. one with the birdsong.

and i started to look, not to glance but to study.

it wasn’t hard, what with the week’s thermometer cranked up to summertime, to notice how spring was galloping out of the ground.

i sat and watched chives grow, those early-spring straight-backed soldiers of pungence, the ones i’m already snipping for lox and sprinkling on cream cheese, not unlike bits of newly-mown grass that i bring in for breakfast.

and then, just down the walk, i spied the bleeding heart. overnight, or so it seemed, it had emerged, a jazz ensemble of cut-leaf precision and a green so velvety green, it made me want to pluck it to wear it. wrap it round my bare shoulders, or better yet make it into a slip and let the morning breeze play between it and my skin.

i have to admit, stillness didn’t come easy. wasn’t a natural fit, not for me, anyways.

before my 10 minutes was clocked, i was itching to dig in the dirt. i’d tallied a list that beckoned me and my ministrations: the climbing hydrangea that needed a lifeguard, weeds that might do with a shrill short blast of a whistle, demanding they stop in their trespassing tracks.

but i also noticed this: the longer you sit in rapt silence, utter attention, the deeper you sink into the whole of it, the line between you and the earth and the sky and the dew all but evaporating.

my next morning out, it was chilly. and a soft morning’s rain added its backbeat to the birdsong. so i sat with my stillness on an old wicker chair, inside the porch with the screens. from across the garden, and under the pines, i listened to raindrops measuring time with the ping-ping-ping from the downspouts.

while it’s not yet under my skin, this time-out for the soul, i can feel it working its way to the wellspring, this sacred act of tiptoeing out of bed to catch the morning unaware.

i’ve a sense that sprinklings of wisdom might fall on that place deep inside where the knowing is.

and in the calm of the dawn, i might remember the words to the prayer that, for too long, have been dimmed. and very much missing.

do you practice stillness? how do you weave it into the hustle and bustle of your everyday?

last gasp

for days, all of us who tiptoe in my chunk of the american puzzle piece were wrapped in the molasses-tinged, Egyptian-cotton bath towel that is a 10-day string of cloud-free, sun-drenched october weather.

and did i mention it was regularly hovering in the gets-no-better 70s?

it seemed, if you were practiced in the high art of denial, as if it might go on forever.

but then the weatherpeople cleared their throats, uttered their pronouncements, and we all saw up around the bend: cold and rain and gray upon gray.

the days were numbered. the sun’s last bone-warming sunbeams, they were numbered too. 3-2-….

and when it got to one, the last few hours between indian summer and lots of socks and sweaters, i made sure i licked up every last drop.

i hauled my barefoot self right out the screen door, one last time. i carried my humble plate of clementines and toast out to where my garden path gives way to meditation.

i sat upon the bench. i watched the sun spots dance along my knees. i listened to the rustle of the nodding heads all around me, the alliums and ferns. i startled when a squirrel with crabapple bulging from his cheek scampered just above my shoulder, along the fence-top highway that carried him from limb to larder.

i sat there as long as conscience would allow. it was a workday, after all, and there were calls to make, sentences to cobble.

it is a not-so-common thing, a lung-filling exception to the rules of life, to know, in the moment, that you are savoring the last droplets of one delicious drink, whatever drink might have been poured into your goblet.

we spend much of our lives looking back, wishing we had known that something sweet would be no more.

that we wouldn’t always have a papa there to call. that that one last saturday, when we sat beside his bed in the hospital, that that would have been the last. that no more words would have come between our lips.

that our babies wouldn’t always be. that one day they’d up and run, and that old papoose would get dusty in the corner. that the storybooks on the shelf wouldn’t flop open to the most-loved page, the double spread of mike mulligan’s steam shovel, the one we once memorized, every line and scratch of pencil.

more often than not, we have no warning from the weatherman — nor, from the voice that narrates our life story: soak it up, it’s ending at the sunset.

but this week i had that peek around the bend. and with my coffee and my clementine, i soaked up every drop. to get me through till march or april, when the sunshine calls me back. and lets me out without my shoes.

what was your last gasp this week? are you, like the chipmunks and the squirrels, storing up for winter?

the gift of ahhhhh….

the morning around me, at last, is gray. like an old cashmere blanket pulled from a chest, it wraps me.

the dirt in the garden is dark again. puddles pool at the curb. the leaves, nearly every last one of ’em, are beaded, are shimmering, what’s left of the wee-hour rain.

holy respite this morning. as if the whole globe let out a sigh. started to breathe again.

too many days in a row here, even at dawn, it’s been bright white when you awake. the sun, working overtime. as if someone shuffled off to bed, forgot to turn down the thermostat. ol’ sun, just cranked through the night.

when you start out the day dodging the heat, plopping ice in your coffee, mapping your walk to the train by tracing the shadow, sticking close to the side of the street where the shade falls, you know it’s an uphill of a climb.

and now, as with so many sieges, it’s taken a pause. given all of us mortals, or at least the ones who get prickly in heat, a chance to inhale, to shake off the sense we’d entered inferno.

i’ve been holding my breath all week, knowing, trusting, the end would come.

all day yesterday i was tracking the cold front. so much so that the people who type all around me found themselves wholly amused by my weather refrain.

thing is, i grew up with a mama who lived and breathed for that cold front, when the winds took a hook, made a drastic, resuscitating U turn. stopped their unrelenting howl from the south and the west, where, fueled by the desert and infinite dry, dusty plains, they’d reached insufferable digits, and then, without flutter or warning, they’d turn right around, come off the lake, that long lean ever-cool lake that is chicago’s cooling station.

why, my mama would yell, closest thing to a hallelujah i ever heard, “cold front! cold front! open the north windows!”
and we’d all start the cold-front dance, all of her hot little chickadees. we’d bang up the stairs, shove open the double-hung panes on the side of the house nearest the wind-change, then we’d whirl into the yard where we’d stick out our arms, making like bi-wings parked at an airfield, and we’d spin and laugh till the last drop of sweat was absorbed.

then, to polish it off, we might troop back to the kitchen, where we’d plop the last of the frozen kool-aid cubes, the ones poured as bright-colored potion into the clanky old metal ice-cube tray, the ones we had to wait for for hours, the ones that made your tongue and your lips and your chin and your knees (if they dribbled that far) an odd shade of red. a red that wouldn’t go away without scrubbing.

seems me and my brothers just grew up believing in the cold-front refrain. we knew it was coming, sooner or later.
and once it came, all frolic came out.

our house growing up wasn’t necessarily filled with frolic, but that cold off-the-lake air, it made my mama dance. and we leapt right along.

not a bad lesson, when you think about it. knowing full well that the hot air will end. that if you endure it long enough, that sense that someone’s kicking your head, and you’re about to buckle right at the knees, that odd knowing your poor heart is trying so hard to keep ticking, it all up and evaporates.

once the cold front comes. once the winds turn around.

and so it’s been this week. we put up with hell to get here to the reprieve. where gray, and not bright, is a beautiful color.

hey, someone open the windows.

how did you survive the heat siege, which seems to have swept the whole country, ‘cept for marquette michigan where the weathermap tells me, they clocked a measly 78 degrees?
and, speaking of lessons, was there one particular lesson you learned over and over, one drummed in your head when you were a kid, one that comes in handy now that you’re all grown up, and the one now charged with deep understandings of the rhythms of life?

garden emergency! garden emergency!

it appears that after you’ve dwelled under the same roof as moi for, oh, a few weeks, or, heck, your whole lifetime, you get used to the regular punch of the panic alarm.

might be the smoke billowing up from the stove. might be a critter whimpering by the backdoor, come lookin’ for a spoonful of sugar, or a wrap in a blanket. might be me reading the news, tears rolling down my cheeks. or might be a phone call, one that sets me to frettin’ and gasping.

whatever it is, you learn to take it in holy stride. “oh, that’s mama,” they mutter, “ridin’ one of her heart-yankin’ roller coasters.”

so it was the other afternoon, or honestly, it was inching into the dinner hour.

that’s when i up and shot from my typing room, where i’d been tethered all day, tap-tapping away on the keys. never mind that tummies were growling, the kiddies pining away for a plain simple supper. a cold boiled potato, in fact, might have been all they wished for.

oh, well. chalk one up for the department of children and family services’ checklist: mama abandons her kids, chooses the trowel over the cook pot.

why, with nary a second thought (save for the swift pang of guilt as i jabbed toward the pantry, called out, “how ’bout a pretzel?”), i slipped into my pink rubber garden clogs and shot into the beds.

over my shoulder, i let out a whoop, my way of explaining: “garden emergency! garden emergency!”

the emergency, in case you are starting to wonder, was this: the nice weatherman was forecasting, in no wishy-washy words, one of those hell’s-on-its-way scenarios, in which temperatures would shoot to a shrieking 100-and-something by daybreak, and my latest adoptees from the big-box nursery would be dead in their pots if i did not get them safely into ol’ mother earth, who tends far better than i do to her sweet growing things.

sure enough, when i got to the site of impending doom, where three wee delphiniums sat gasping for water, itching to kick off their hard-plastic pots and let out their roots, i hollered back for assistance. “yo, can i have a pair of hands, please?”

on demand, as i started to dig my delphinium trenches, the tall muscular man-child trod out to quell the commotion.

with nary the skip of a beat, he cranked up the full-throttle mockery, one of his signature charades in which he slips into voice, into character, and makes out like a visiting thespian, or simply an unsuspecting body-snatcher who slithers into the form of my firstborn. this time, he made like he was the surgical assistant, and i was the mad doctor, hooked on plant-booster potions.

all i’d done was ask–all right, it was rather high-pitched and panicky–if he could please pass me the osmocote, those wee little pellets i shake into every plant trench i dig. mere fat yellow bits–think oversized dandruff–they somehow manage to supercharge the roots of the tender green darlings, give them the boost they need to get growing.

as that boy-man stood serving my rat-a-tat pleases and thank-yous, passing me vials of root-booster, taking hold of the trowel when i tossed it his way, he whooped it up big time, mimicking my heightened state of emergency. with the flip of some invisible switch, he’d slipped into a riff in which i was some sort of garden-y addict (all dolled-up in pink shoes and pruners), and osmocote was my hallucinogen of choice.

wasn’t long till we both nearly buckled (or at least i did; he’s pretty good at not breaking face), our knees shaking from laughter, me seeing certain and clear my pure, utter foolishness.

it’s a beautiful thing, the gift of a child who sees through to every last one of your foibles, and loves you anyway. makes you see your quirks and eccentricities as part of the formula that makes you the wall-banger you happen to be.

God love the all-purpose balm that is laughter. God love those with the gift of shoveling it deeply into each and every day.

once the hysteria cleared, though, and my babies were settled in their beds, the rich loamy covers pulled up over their roots, i couldn’t help but notice that i do, in fact, think of my garden as a blanket of bliss that covers my slice of the globe.

i have, in fact, come to tend to each sweet growing thing as if her life depends, to some feeble degree, on my care and attention. and when, for instance, a once-dying fern is up and moved and springs back to life, i can’t help but breathe deep the satisfaction of life finding a way to keep at it anyway.

i don’t mean, really, to abandon my hungry children. it’s just that i’ve come to think of all the trying-to-live things in my life as part of my big moppy crew. and every last one, i hold quite close to my heart.

somehow i doubt i’m the only one with quirks here at the table (and believe me, the ones up above are merely the start of it). do you have one or maybe even two? are there folks in your world who’ve taught you that those silly things you do, you insist on, are really a part of the whole equation, and, like the soft spots in an apple (where the bees bumped into the wee baby fruit) just add to the overall sweetness?

power cord

week after week, i weigh the passing thought that i ought to set my alarm, oh, a good hour earlier than all the rest of the days so that i could slip out from under the sheets (for it is sheet, not cover weather these past few balmy days) and cloak myself in the velvet hours of night giving way to dawn.

so i could slither into my garden, curl up on the creaky bench, not unlike an inchworm in repose, and spy on all the doings of the morn.

i could, perhaps, watch the shrunken globes of dew catch firstlight, cast a hundred itty-bitty rainbows, a daily morning magic show for those who, like the robin and the cardinal, do not waste the dawn in slumber.

i could, if i was lucky, catch the fronds of fern unfurling, as the fiddleheads let loose their clenched-fist grip, give way to warming rays, awaken to the sun.

i might catch the first flash of golden yellow feathers, papa goldfinch, pecking at the thistle seed.

i might even be there to greet the hungry cat as he moseys back from all his midnight mischief, staggering ’round the garden bend, stopping for a slurpy drink from the mossy bowl where robins splash and preen.

the morning hours on a friday are the ones i call religion. oh, yes, i need to pack the lunches, chase the children out the door. there are chores aplenty all day long. but it’s the one day i set aside for meditation, planned meditation.

i might catch a snatch here or there, gazing out the windows of the el train as it rolls past a cemetery. or peering down an alley, watching a teetering old man picking through the garbage. i find time to stitch deep thoughts all throughout my week. but i don’t have unbroken time too often.

and that’s why i call friday mornings my very own three-pronged power cord.

i plug my soul back into the great generator in the sky. that sounds too flip, and i don’t mean it to be. it’s just that i hear the whispers of the divine when i am crouched down low to the earth in all her glory.

when i am wrapped in birdsong. when the saintly soprano of the wren sends shivers down my spine. when i am close enough to holiness itself to hear the rush of the blue jay’s wing as she flutters by.

when i am filling my lungs with the incense that wafts right now from my korean spice viburnum, a sacrament on branches if ever there was one.

some weeks by wednesday i am limping, grabbing hold of counters, trying to find my middle so i’ve half a chance of staying steady till the workday rushing ends, and before the mad-dash of the weekend reaches out to grab me by the throat.

through serendipity and schedules, friday is my sunday. the unfolding of my sabbath, the day when i drink in my strongest dose of why we’re plopped here in the first place.

for all the hurricanes and sirens that seem to whirl around me saturday through thursday, i am at heart a soul who needs a prayer shawl of quietude, to put my ear to the metronome of heaven here on earth.

i don’t want the breathing of the garden to be drowned out by what’s coursing through some squawky earphones. i don’t want to miss one inch of the slender stalks as they shimmy toward the clouds.

i want to be front-row witness to papa cardinal slipping sunflower seeds into mama cardinal’s beak, the closest thing to kissing, surely, in the feathered world of birds. i want to be the one who’s tiptoeing through the garden when the summer’s first monarch alights, the telltale stained-glass wings brushing by my nose.

and so if i don’t get my celestial dose before the house awakens, erupts in rushing-searching-slurping-dashing, i sit in solitude and bliss once the last dish is rinsed and put away, once the grocery list is scribbled, once the last bed is made, the pillow fluffed, the cat pulled out from hiding under someone’s covers.

it’s some cathedral the place in which i cast my prayers. a redbud branch is my domed ceiling. the lilies of the valley fill the choir loft. the wren’s song is my epistle. and it’s the breeze rushing off the lake that this morning carried me to where i meet the heart, the hand of God.

what on earth serves as your power cord? what recharges you? fills you with saintly essence? where did you meet God this week?