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Tag: healing garden

trying to stay sane in the summer of 2018

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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?

bulb therapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

where do you find your balms, your holiest balms? 

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

bee balm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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mrs. bee has at the old and succulent rose.

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

tender is the earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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miss bettye tucker

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

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

grape hyacinth

the day begins here…

day begins here vase blackeyed

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

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

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

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

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

i was now in high wobble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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