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Some 18 years ago I scored a real find at my local Kroger, a discovery that lit my creative fire and saved my ass. That year, in May, our son was getting married and we were hosting the rehearsal dinner in the back yard of a rental house at the beach. When I think back on how much was on the line that weekend I can’t believe we pulled it off.

We planned the party to be an outside affair because, frankly, the interior of the house was dated and small. But the back yard was dreamy. Encircled by tall, thick greenery it was private and lush. A large, sparkling pool anchored the space. Surrounding the pool, a spacious flagstone patio flowed out to meet a generous stretch of lawn large enough to accommodate a dining tent, with ample room left over for our crowd to mingle en plein air and converse, drink, and glom appetizers before dinner under the tent. I was slowly but surely getting details checked off my to do list. Caterer – check. Tent, tables, chairs – check. Centerpieces – check. Floating pool candles – check. But the lighting was a problem.

It was a large yard and the spotlights at either corner of the roof weren’t sufficient to light the far reaches of the lawn, and they were harsh. I wanted twinkle lights around the tent, the patio, and the bar, which was doable, but there wasn’t any way to illuminate the expanse of grass farthest away. There needed to be something in the way of soft, romantic light for that area, so guests could use all the available space without tripping over each other in the dark. I was wracking my brain to come up with something and was down to my last neuron when I saw them. Right there in the chotchky aisle at the grocery store along with the summer picnic supplies, pool floats, and mosquito repellants.

Lanterns.

They were a nice size, and metal – copper not plastic – classy, with frosted glass on all four sides. They would last for years. Big plus. They were very attractive, beautiful, in fact. Nice enough to house a thick candle or two and sturdy enough to safely hang from shepherds hooks. Even bigger plus. We needed maybe 15 lanterns to do the job. They were only ten bucks each. Biggest plus of all. And I could bring them home after the party and use them in my own yard. Oh. Joy.

The day of the party arrived. The tent was already up, bar and tent furnishings in place, twinkle lights all strung, shepherds hooks planted, and lanterns hung. I was thanking the beach weather gods for the clear skies and the glorious moon above as I filled each lantern with candles. Just the weekend prior, the skies had let loose with a two-day frog strangler that would have cancelled all our plans had it happened on our night. We had no Plan B. We were at the mercy of nature’s whimsy, and we lucked out. What the hell was I thinking?

We left with the wedding party for a quick rehearsal at the church just a few blocks down the beach. Our dearest friends, who were there to help, assured us they would oversee the final details during our brief absence. As the food arrived and caterers were setting up, the guitarist positioned himself on the patio and started preparing for his gig. It was now 6:00pm and guests would be arriving momentarily to our magical fairy land. We would be getting back, too, just before they arrived. The lanterns glowed with warm candlelight. The floating candles in the pool were lit. The string lights twinkled.

The guitar player plugged in his amp. Every electric light in the yard went out.

Then one of the lighted, floating pool candles quietly bobbed its way toward the pool wall and was gently sucked right into the opening of the intake valve whereupon it stopped, still lit, and began to burn the access cover, a rubbery, plastic-y lid recessed in the concrete pool deck directly above.

Returning from the church rehearsal now, we were but moments away. We had no idea what chaos had befallen our party before it had even begun. The dear friends we had left in charge stood wide-eyed and slack-jawed in momentary dis-belief, then shot into hyper-drive. Leanne miraculously remembered where the extra fuses for the string lights had been stored after Rick finished daisy chaining the strings together around the tent, the bar, the patio. She retrieved the fuses while Gary grabbed a ladder. Humphrey raced to help, and Kathi focused her attention on the caterers, servers, and bartenders whose food and beverages were still in need of some last minute order. Dan grabbed the first thing he could find to pry open the pool’s intake access cover, as black smoke seeped through the seams. Incredibly, Dan found himself wielding the business end of a long-handled butane lighter to do the job.

In the span of minutes these angel friends had replaced the fuses and re-strung all the lights properly so as not to overload the fuses again. The butane lighter served as the perfect pry bar, providentially not exploding, and the offending candle was removed from the intake filter, the soot wiped from the lid which was then replaced over the opening, not too much worse for the wear. Much fanning from all parties dispersed the acrid smoke, and the party was back on. When the guitar player plugged in his amp again all was well, and big sighs of relief blew all across the yard.

Enter the wedding party at that moment to marvel at the beauty of the pristine, sparkling fairyland we had left earlier. Moments later, dinner guests began arriving. Everyone was charmed and mesmerized by the beauty of the scene, the lights, the lanterns, the moon, the soft guitar. Neither they, nor we, had a clue about what we had all missed by mere minutes. Except I did notice that our dear friends were wet with flop sweat, their faces looked like deer in the headlights, and they had already been served at the bar. It wasn’t too long before they brought me an adult beverage and took me aside to fill me in. My turn to be shocked and awed.

It was a perfect evening, and memorable for each guest for decidedly different reasons. Now, 18 years later our son is divorced from the bride he married in the little church down the street from our beach rental. And in a final irony, the house was demolished a few years later in favor of new construction: three lots of condos.

I saved my lanterns and they now sit in rows along our sidewalk leading to the front door of our home. I filled them with strings of small outdoor globe lights that plug into the outside receptacle. Many lessons were learned that night 18 years ago. I learned not to overload string lights. I learned that I’m a damn good wedding and party planner, and a lucky one at that. I learned to turn off pool intake pumps before floating burning candles on the surface. I learned that despite their best efforts, people screw up, they get divorced, they hurt, and so do those around them, and life goes on. I learned that true friends are there when you need them and will do anything for you. I learned that nothing is forever, not beach houses, or string lights, and sometimes not marriages.

My lanterns are still going strong, although they require a little rehab now and then, but don’t we all. I love having them, along with my memories of what was, for a short while, the loveliest of times.

Lanterns filled with string lights

It’s almost time for my husband and me to celebrate our wedding anniversary. This one will be our 47th. We will celebrate it very happily. But I keep thinking about #45. It was special. And two years later I still want to talk about it.

What did we, a long-married couple, do to celebrate a remarkable achievement – our 45th Wedding Anniversary – during the hottest summer in living memory in 2016? We took a trip to an outside venue, of course: the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, to marvel at its beauty and the latest installations by Seattle glass artist, Dale Chihuly. We would have dinner “on the grounds” – actually a gourmet meal in the newly-opened, heaven-sent, sub-arctic refuge known as “Linton’s” where we would linger far longer than we ought but blessedly long enough to cool off, re-fuel, and re-charge. Survival of the fittest. After 45 years, we knew all about that.

We had considered lots of [economical] options. Semi-retirement has its pros and cons, after all, and in our case, we have more time to do stuff, but less money to throw around doing it. Go to the movies, a play, a show, an art gallery or two? Eat out locally? Grill a juicy steak and stay in? Certainly not a European vacation or a trip to anywhere very far, for that matter. Semi-retirement = my husband had to work the next day.

We are inveterate gardeners, my husband and I. We love to make our garden grow, and know that it’s only through hard work and commitment that we can accomplish that. So we chose to work in our garden on a blazing hot Georgia day in June. Just think Hadron collider when they smash gold particles together and for a split second, the temperature reaches 7.2 trillion degrees Fahrenheit, only way more sultry with 100 per cent humidity. We labored until around 1:30, then showered, dressed, and drove northward to Atlanta to spend the rest of the day and evening outside appreciating someone else’s garden! Geniuses.

Our trip into the city was typical. One minute we were sailing along on I-85. The next minute we were in the middle of a cluster of crawling vehicles with no apparent cause. Plenty of effect, though. Historically, traffic is predictably unpredictable at or near the University Ave exit and from there it’s a toss-up as to which part(s) of the downtown connector will follow suit and bungle up traffic even more.

This day, sure enough, we crawled from University Ave as multiple police cars screamed past on the shoulder headed north. Just past I-20 we saw the jumble of blue lights as we rolled slowly by, but there were no mangled vehicles, no wreckers, no debris, no nothing, save a small triangle of bright, yellow crime tape flapping with the breeze. Blessedly, we were able to exit from the HOV lane at Piedmont and make it to the Bot Garden around 3:45pm, only about 45 minutes past our target arrival time.

Little did we know, arriving closer to 4pm would be in our favor. Turned out there was a day admission until 5, after which there was a different admission for Chihuly Nights. In order to avoid paying double admission we were advised to “chill” until 4pm, after which time we could buy admission at the day rate but would also be honored for the evening as well. We were hot already. Just the thought of “chilling” gave me all the incentive I needed to go with Plan B.

Enter the ubiquitous Gift Shop, conveniently located immediately to our left. Perfect way to kill 15 minutes and cool off. Here we could most definitely chill.

We both bought hats. Characteristically, Rick grabbed a new ball cap. This one had a smart looking, crisp, green Bot Garden logo sewn on the front. I spied a large brimmed, black sun hat with white stitching and a smart bow on the right crown. I had realized the moment we arrived at the garden I should have brought a hat for shade. This one was chic, the perfect complement for my outfit, and utilitarian. It was the only one of its kind left on the rack. And it was only $24. I immediately grabbed it like a hungry child in a bread line. Boom. Done. We would wear our new hats for the rest of the afternoon, until sundown.

Then we began to search for our anniversary gift to each other. For our anniversary seven years earlier, when we were building a detached garage, we bought ourselves a large, terra cotta pig for the garden path. Our toddler grandson, Harper, loved it, and dubbed it “Pig Pig.” To this day, good ol’ Pig Pig gets a pat on the nose every time we walk down the path. We wanted something as lasting as Pig Pig. We didn’t know what it would be, but knew we would know it when we saw it. We thumbed through coffee table books, handled a variety of trinkets, and baubles, and high-priced tchotchkes. Nothing suited us.

And then, there it was. Love at first sight: A smart-looking, kinetic whirly gig with not one, but two different, hammered-copper flowers, capable of spinning independently, and yet inextricably linked together as one on the same welded, metal pole to be rooted firmly in the garden soil. We could relate. Perfect for our garden, and perfect for us. The metaphor was inescapable. It was us.

We emerged from the gift shop just after 4:00, happily wearing our new headgear and toting our now personified whirly gig. Rick gallantly ran to the car to deposit the whirly gig as I fanned and blotted myself, complaining good naturedly (I hoped) about the heat to the woman standing next to me. I stood in the shade, checking my phone while I waited. The local news app popped up with breaking headlines that solved the mystery of our earlier adventure with the traffic, and my heart sank.

Somebody had been shot and dumped from a car on the interstate. Good. God. “Unhhh” I groaned quietly. Now knowing we had come so close to being a part of that scene made it feel more personal. I felt a quick stab of alarm, assuaged by sadness, followed by an adrenalin rush of pure and simple enmity. I cursed and fumed silently in my head. “The shootings and the violence these days are fucking outrageous, and there’s no solution in sight,” I thought. Rick returned, smiling, and I closed my phone with a sigh, grateful for the interruption, thankful for my life, for my day, and for him. The heat became a bit more bearable in that moment. With sudden new perspective, how could I complain? We would continue with our splendid day, and we would have no more thoughts of bad things.

I had no way of knowing that only 2 days later, the entire world would be sucker-punched by the worst mass shooting in history at a gay bar in Orlando, Florida. Death and mayhem laid itself at the world’s feet, like a grotesque offering at the altar of terrorism and hate, and we would be helpless to prevent it or dispose of it. Not since 911 would so many be murdered and maimed, and as a world community we would be at once divided and united, taking sides, arguing about religion and guns and gays and plunging ourselves into shock, sadness, anger, and grief. I had no idea that on that sad day I would be reaching back desperately to retrieve the memory of our evening in the bot garden and holding on to it for solace; a healing balm for my soul.

So we stepped up to the booth, bought our admission, and strolled into another world.

And it was good.

We wandered up and down paths, meandering slowly and without purpose, taking everything in as the afternoon sun bore down and the day slowly turned into a hot, sticky night. There was the rich, loamy scent of garden soil; sweet blooms and botanicals full of color and chlorophyll; bird calls and flapping wings; sparkling water spilling over things and down into brooks and fountain bowls. A rare, blissful, barely-there summer breeze lightly swayed branches and rippled green leaves, caressed our sweaty necks, and carried soft conversations and laughter all about. Glass sculptures were lit and glistening like fire and ice; the angular, sharp architecture of the city in the distance jutted into the sky over the top of a round, verdant hill. There were marvelous metal garden gates forged from garden implements, and giant botanical topiaries of animals and beautiful goddesses; majestic crepe myrtles lining either side of a long walk, bending benevolently toward each other to form a high, arched, covered allée. We continued to amble along happily, chatting now and then; smiling; pointing; admiring; discussing; silently enjoying; people watching; posing for a photo now and then; taking a photo now and then; holding hands now and then. Still sweating. Still blotting. Still fanning. We stopped still and stared in awe and in silence now and then. We were happy to take it all in, all of it: the garden, the people, the glass sculptures, the fountains, each other, even the heat.

What a gift it is to just “be”; alive, content, and in no particular hurry, especially in the company of a lifelong partner and love of 45 years. No deadlines. No rushing as we walked through so much sensual stimulation. Phones off. Present in the moment. The gardens alone were breathtaking, and combined with all the added creativity and splendor of so many artful, Chihuly glass installations it was a feast to be taken in and savored. We happily gorged ourselves on it all.

As with any fine meal there’s a time to stop. Satiety becomes anesthetizing when one is full to the brim, when not one more morsel can be ingested, be it food or art. We had filled ourselves with multi-sensual food. Now it was time for a real meal. We found our oasis and took refuge in the garden’s glassed-in restaurant. It was blessed relief from the heat and we rested our eyes and aching feet, still seeking sustenance for body and soul in dinner. The provisions were delicious and welcome; our conversation lively, pleasant, enjoyable. As is his custom, Rick engaged our server in friendly conversation and we discovered her to be an art student working on her degree. I could relate, not with the waitressing part, per se, but with the part time job part and the struggling art student part.

As we spoke with her, I flashed back to my four year struggle starting 13 years earlier to check a box off my bucket list: finish my college degree. I had devoted many years to supporting my husband’s career and raising our family. With Rick’s veterinary career firmly established and our children grown and out of the house, I wanted my turn at bat. I wanted my chance to stand over the plate and swing for the fences. By the time I got around to it in 2003, however, I was apparently an ancient at age 53. None of my credits transferred. I would be starting from scratch.

My lifelong career was always in music, during which time the lack of a music degree did not stand in my way. I had sung with the ASO Chorus and famed choral conductor, Robert Shaw through 10 seasons and a European tour; I taught music at a private school where they didn’t need the paperwork, and I did a damn fine job. I performed all over the place in shows and cabarets and sang more weddings than I care to remember. I was a paid soloist in church. And I celebrated my 50th birthday with an epic, one-woman show at the Rialto Theater in downtown Atlanta. With all that it was not necessary to get a music degree. I didn’t need it.

I wanted to learn something different and I had an interest in graphic design, so I chose a 4 year art degree. I was accepted into the Atlanta College of Art on a portfolio that, looking back, was lacking but showed potential. I attended ACA for three years, changing my major to painting along the way (because the pace of graphic design was not, as it turned out, my jam), followed by one year at the Atlanta campus of Savannah College of Art and Design because – it’s true, timing in life is everything – ACA quietly, and quite inconveniently closed its doors the summer of my upcoming senior year. As non-traditional students of a certain age are wont to do, I took it all very seriously. I was stubbornly committed to succeeding in school, much like I was in my marriage.

I wanted to learn, to see how far I could elevate my learning, to be the best student I was capable of being. I wanted that degree. I would not quit. That meant a veritable four year marathon that would tax me to the absolute max, testing me physically and mentally. It was a free for all the likes of which I had no way of knowing would be so difficult. It was four years of proving to myself I could do something I didn’t know whether I could actually do.

Four years of starting over meant core classes like English Comp, English Lit, Psych 101, Math, and World Cultures, plus all the art and art history classes and subsequent assignments I would be required to accomplish after coming home from my part time job as staff soloist at St. Mark Methodist Church in Midtown Atlanta. On any given day, my commute one way meant a 45-to 90 minute drive depending on traffic. Optimistically, on the days I worked I would be arriving home at 10 or 11pm followed by homework. So. Much. Homework. On Sundays my time was consumed by the commute both ways and singing two services, requiring me to leave home at 7am and arrive back home around 2pm. The balance of the day was left for school work. It was an unsustainable agenda, and I came to realize it would be necessary for me to leave my job after a year of that grueling schedule in order to accomplish my college degree. I had been singing in that job for 9 years, and loved it. But something had to change. So, yes, I did quit something. It was a matter of priorities and reality. I simply could not do both.

Still, with laser focus on my goal and no job to distract me, I struggled. There were lots of all-nighters. So much studying. So many tests. So many papers to write. So many projects. So much traffic every day. The hard wooden seats of the drawing horses hurt my over-50 butt and lower back after a 5 hour studio class. My feet swelled after sitting in a chair for hours in my foundation classes. Spending long hours standing in photo darkrooms, bending double over silkscreen tables, standing at painting easels all took a toll. I wrote virtuoso essays and studied long hours for exams. I was crushing it with a 4.0 average.

As exciting as my whole learning experience was, it was equally arduous and demanding for both of us. My husband had been completely supportive, but even he was weary of what it took to deal with my exhausting timetable, and what it took to check the box. He was a captive audience forced to listen to some pretty dramatic primal screams emanating from my basement workspace, which were as stressful and disturbing for him to hear as they were for me to issue. He ate a lot of dinners solo while I spent late hours working in the screen printing studio or the computer lab. I dragged in at all hours freshly traumatized by the latest rush hour traffic, covered in paint, or printmaking ink, or screen printing goo, or smelling like the chemicals in the photo lab tanks. On some occasions he sweetly had my dinner waiting, and more than once I had only enough energy to bend over my plate with head in hand and stare blankly, opening my mouth just enough to allow a slim rivulet of drool escape over my lip and down my chin. How fetching.

By graduation day I had acquired a bad knee in need of surgery, frayed nerves, and a weight problem. I had been tested and stressed past the point at which I thought I would survive. In 4 years I felt like I had aged 20. But I crossed that stage in 2007 to receive my diploma, Summa Cum Laude, and I was – we were – elated, proud and so very grateful. I had done it. WE had done it.

It was the same way I had approached our marriage, and still do. No exit. Work hard with integrity. Have passion. Work through the obstacles. Support each other. The only way out is through. Build bridges, hold hands, and walk across together. Enjoy it all if and when you can. Love and appreciate it all, nonetheless.

Come to think of it, that’s the way we garden, too. It ain’t all fun and games. Things die; bugs descend; body parts ache; the work can be backbreaking; there are no guarantees; sometimes you have to start over. But commitment, faith, encouragement, and perseverance bolster a weak body. Through it all, we honor our promise to tend our garden. And the end results are, more often than not, thoroughly rewarding.

All of that flew through my consciousness as we sat there on our anniversary and chatted with a young, tattooed, millennial striving to check off her own boxes. I hoped she would follow her path and succeed. I said a silent prayer for her success. I ran through my favorite Bernstein piece in my head, “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide:

Let dreamers dream

What worlds they please

Those Edens can’t be found.

The sweetest flowers,

The fairest trees

Are grown in solid ground.

We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good

We’ll do the best we know.

We’ll build our house and chop our wood

And make our garden grow.

And make our garden grow!

Our waitress took our photo, we paid our bill, and now thoroughly sated in every possible way, we went back out to happily wend our way back through the garden holding hands, back to our car, and back home.

The roads were clear by the time we headed south, but I craned my neck as we drove by the crime scene we had passed earlier. There was no trace of the flapping, yellow tape or flashing lights; no sign that a soul once living had been taken away at that spot. I don’t know what I thought I would see, if anything. Silly of me to even look. But I did. Because, somehow, it mattered. Some ill-fated stranger mattered to me. I wondered if they were married. Did they have kids? Were they loved? Did they love someone? Did they live nearby? Did they have a garden? I hoped my thoughts made some cosmic difference. I thought of it simply as a personal benediction of sorts, my own silent send-off in case they had no one to whom they mattered, just as the strangers two days later in Orlando would matter.

Driving home I was deep in thought as I marveled at our longevity as a couple. Bernstein played again in my head. Being married 45 years hadn’t happened by accident any more than having a beautiful garden was accidental. I was 21; he was 22. We were babies. We had no idea what chaos life would lay at our feet. But we were intentional, stubbornly committed, and we hadn’t just survived 45 years, we chose 45 years. Some years were happy and some found us besieged and barely hanging on. There had been 45 years of lessons; times to celebrate and times to grieve; opportunities to learn when to listen and when to talk; children; grandchildren. And I’m here to attest to that sickness and health thing.

After 45 years, our marriage felt secure, comfortable, reliable, loving, respectful, and still – always – intentional. We did the work, accepted the things we could not change, changed the things we could, and after 45 years we earned the wisdom to know the difference.

Our 45th anniversary blessed and enriched us in many ways, most certainly with a cosmic reminder and reality check: nobody knows what the next year, month, day, or even the next moment holds. Make the best of this one. Be present. Be kind. Hang on. Love someone. Work hard at loving someone and being loved. Take a hand and smell the roses. Care for others. Be intentional. Have a garden.

And wherever or whatever your garden is, make it grow.

We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good

We’ll do the best we know.

We’ll build our house and chop our wood

And make our garden grow.

And make our garden grow!

More havoc was wreaked in my backyard here in Newnan, Ga from this past winter’s subzero temps and frozen precipitation than I can ever recall. Ever.

My (surviving) hydrangeas are all sprouting green from the bases but show no life in their little spindly, uppermost extremities. I lost two huge gardenias. An entire bed of perennial gaillardia and ice plants were lost. My Japanese Holly Ferns took huge hits, with only a few green stalks surviving each plant. The rosemary and lavender are history. The dwarf crepe myrtles are putting on modest green right now, but certainly not the lushness demonstrated in years past. At least not yet. The rhodos under my big cherry tree did not bloom at all, but at least they survived. Not sure if this was weather related, or if the cherry has now become a nutrient bully, leaving the poor rhodos lacking. Any input on that one?

But the good news: my large bed of May Night salvia has re-emerged, gorgeous, ultra-vibrant, healthy, and bigger than last year. And so have all the iris. My snowball viburnum is overflowing with blooms. The hosta and woodland ferns are happy. My Miss Kim Lilac survived and blooms away. Daphne took a bit of a hit on a few of her leaves, but overall, she pulled through and bloomed her heart out.

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And the really, really good news is this: There are lessons to be learned from everything. Every.Thing. Good years and bad years. Successful plants, and dead ones. Beautiful bounties and devastating disasters. As humans, sentient beings, we bemoan our losses because we know just how much effort went into the planning, purchasing, preparing, planting, and maintaining of each and every plant we grow. And we will miss them. We are sad to see them go. But as gardeners, we are also a sturdy, philosophical bunch; wiser and more resilient for our losses, if we will just remember to be.

There is a time for grieving. Then there is a time for moving on. Gardeners do both of these with admirable reverence and gritty resolve. They fully grieve their losses, and with an economy of time that only nature can direct and gardeners fully understand, gardeners get to the business of moving forward, unflinchingly embracing the opportunity and the challenge that presents itself:  starting over, fostering a new life, bringing new, unspeakable beauty into the world, and with it, most certainly, new lessons. Always new lessons.

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These sunny, warm January days
Are remarkable and rare.
What sirens they are,
Shameless and seductive.

“Aah,” say we kindly, impatient humans
Tipping our grateful faces skyward,
Soaking up the light
And breathing deep,
Flaunting our bare legs and arms and underbellies,
Laughing in the light,
Feasting on the early earthly heat.
“How wonderful.”

“Too soon,” murmurs the sly winter wind,
Waiting patiently,
Knowing it will have one last turn.
Or at least it will try
Having its arrogant way.

At a time of its choosing it strikes,
Exhaling ice with each windy, blue breath,
Paralyzing everything,
Just because it can.

But sweet Spring innocents,
Deaf to whispered warnings,
Are programmed to respond
To this beckoning siren string
Of strangely warm, January days.

Now, dutifully taking their cue,
One by one,
The cherry trees wake their branches.
Tender scarlet buds swell, and open;
The jonquils bloom in my woods.
And the fragile, coiled tendrils of the ferns
Unfurl on my hill.

“Too soon,” cry the warm breezes
And the singing birds
And I, all of us together…

“Too soon!”

 

-Poem by Susie Berta-

Copyright 2012

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who made the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety—

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light—
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

— Poem by Mary Oliver —

I had a painting professor at SCAD who taught me an important lesson – beyond the concrete lessons of art, like color theory and the rules of perspective (not that there’s anything wrong with those). I was having a tough time making up my mind about how to handle the subject matter of a painting I was working on. I was stuck. Afraid to choose. What if I made the wrong choice? Deadline looming, I was way behind, frozen solid in a blizzard of emotional snow and indecision.

He said to me, “Decisions take you forward.” My first thought was “But what if I choose something that turns out to be a big mistake and the painting sucks?” In other words, “What if I’m – gulp – WRONG?” And he told me, ” Don’t be afraid. Don’t be foolhardy. Take action. Make the wisest decision you can, and then learn from your mistakes. You fix them, or you paint another painting. A better one. And you keep going forward with every decision. Being stuck gets you nowhere. Right or wrong, decisions take you forward.”

Everyone’s decision-making process is different. But I think a functional decision-making process is best thought of as an active means to an end, not an excuse to procrastinate endlessly. Decisions aren’t necessarily simple. Or easy. They just need to happen if you want to make any progress.

So, I recently came to a decision – just one – to make a cairn in the middle of an ugly new bare spot in my yard… see previous post “Eureka Moment in the Garden.” How I came to that decision was through action. I tossed a few rocks. That decision led the way to another, and another, and the bed is being transformed, slowly but surely. Action! Progress! Hooray!

Here are two “before” pictures and two “after” pictures. “After” should really be translated as: “In Progress.”

“In Progress” pictures: The plants at the back are Encore azaleas. To the right are two hydrangeas that were already there, accompanied by a third one transplanted from a spot where it was not happy. Hopefully it will settle into its new group environs and the old-timers will welcome the new guy to the ‘hood. The two buckets on the left that aren’t planted yet are Camellia sasanqua. Fall blooms! Oh boy! My plans for the two pine straw beds on either side of the entry include a variety of perennials that I will probably plant in the spring. The rocks are from a bulk-stone place about 14 miles from my house. I got 1/4 scoop of small egg rock and 1/4 scoop of medium egg rock and they dumped it at the end of my driveway. I would like to thank my husband for hauling wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of those rocks! Oh, and I also got 4 larger rocks for visual interest. Now my husband is talking about wanting a fig tree. I don’t know a thing about fig trees, but I’m willing to consider it. Might help shade the hydrangeas a bit if I put a fig tree in the bed to the right of the entry.

I like the way this is going. I’d love your thoughts.

My Back Yard

My Back Yard

It was a lovely, shady spot in the back yard… two small dogwood trees, surrounded by lush green ivy ground cover, neatly kept by a curving bed line at the grassy sod on one side, and by the rock wall that borders the woodland path on the other side. For years it was this way. I grew used to it. Comfortable. Constant. Familiar. Beautiful. Low maintenance!

Then, things started changing. The dogwoods got sick and spindly, their branches producing fewer leaves, and those that remained were yellowing and falling off. We pulled all the ivy underneath, hoping to clear the roots of any competition for food and water. We fed them with tree spikes. To no avail. The dogwoods continued to struggle and die.

So we made plans. The dogwoods came down, and we had a glaringly ugly, bare slash of ground that was once tranquil and lush. It changed everything. The shade was gone. The unfamiliarity of the new environment put me off kilter. It no longer felt comfortable. It was all so different, and it put my mind in an immediate state of unease. What to do? We dreamed of a lovely patio pad, perhaps a place to put chairs and a fire pit in the fall and spring; in summer it would be a sensible pad for our grandson’s inflatable kiddie pool, eliminating the worries of placing the pool on expensive sod. I was already envisioning what plantings I would place around it to settle it in and give it what I call the all-important “nestle factor.” We could do this ourselves, we decided with confidence, and so we eagerly got string and wood and started staking it off.

Enter reality. There was more of a slope than we had realized in the bed from the front edge of the grass bed line down to the wall. It would require significant leveling if there were to be any kind of patio, enough to require major digging and major footings, and more manpower than we were willing – or, let’s face it, able – to dedicate . This dream was no longer a simple DIY weekend project. We called a landscaper to bid the project. Our budget was around $1500. When the bid came in it was $3900, and our dream went down the tubes. We simply could not afford it.

When I am forced to take a philosophical approach – usually when I don’t get what I want – I am given two options:

  • 1. Pout and get angry, shut down, and abandon all hope.
  • 2. Pout and get angry – or not – totally my choice – and then move on, opening my mind to the possibility of exploring other options.

I chose the latter. Defeat would simply not be an option. This approach doesn’t always produce the ideas for those other options right away, of course. But giving myself permission to accept that a creative idea will come, whenever it comes, opens up the channels. Being closed off and inflexible creates nothing but an impossible void surrounded by impenetrable walls, where creativity is neither welcome nor possible.

So I decided I would “be with it” for a while. I had no idea what I would do with our bare spot, but I decided to let it perk. I gave myself permission to embrace the change that was forced upon me. I was “ready to receive.” Several weeks went by as I patiently studied that spot. Every time I came up with nothing, I told myself it was a process, and it would take what it takes. I had to trust in the process.

Then just yesterday, after the lawn was mowed and the backyard was clean and smelled of newly mowed grass, and the day was crystal clear and sunny, I took my place on the bench across the yard from “the spot.” This time I felt something shift in my brain, like dropping a piece of a puzzle into place. I saw the stones that had been serving as border stones in a single file on the grass edge like I was seeing them for the first time. I walked over and starting chucking the stones into the center of the bed. I wasn’t exactly sure why yet, but I knew I didn’t want that stone border any more. Clearing the border of stones was transformational, like clearing a place in my mind for the next step. How such a simple thing could feel so invigorating was astonishing. It was like I had been suffocating and suddenly I could breathe again! I saw the pile I had made in the center, at first meant to be a temporary repository. And another piece fell into place in my brain. A CAIRN! YES!!!!

I approached the pile of stones and mindfully began choosing certain ones, stacking and carefully balancing them like a totem. It became the funkiest sculpture, and it was simply the most mind-bending, satisfying, zen-like artistic endeavor I had undertaken in recent memory.

EUREKA! This is it!! I will create a spot where nothing is forever… where nothing is constant and everything is changing… that invites, even requires, interaction. Now I am aware that this pretty much describes what gardeners do anyway. Nothing we plant is forever. And we are constantly interacting, moving plants and creating new spaces. So I guess this space would be no different. But coming to this solution with this particular space seemed like an entirely new, revelatory process, most likely because it involved not only creative input from me as creator-gardener, but also from anyone visiting my garden.  Rarely – ok, never – have I ever planted a bed with the thought that any old soul passing by had permission to totally dismantle it and create their own vision. No, this spot is uniquely different. The simple, beautiful cairn I built will stand as it is until someone – anyone – walks by and chooses to make their own version with the stones available there. Or until the wind blows it down, or a squirrel dislodges a stone and it all tumbles over. Whatever happens, it’s destined for change, always an opportunity waiting to happen. A lesson in letting go, expecting and embracing change in ways I cannot predict, starting over, re-building, finding balance. Interactive, meditative, changing, creative art. How exciting is that!

My First Cairn

My First Cairn

Cairns have an ancient history, having been built for a number of reasons. They often mark burial places, but they also exist as markers to travelers, pointing the way to safety or home; also symbols of friendship and hope; and as metaphors for spiritual beings. These are rock formations – sculptures – that stand serenely balanced, without benefit of cement. As traditions all over the world, cairns are everywhere, from Scotland to Sedona. And now, in my back yard.

I still haven’t figured out exactly what to put in the rest of the bed, but I have my first cairn as the seed from which the ideas will germinate. In time. I’m already seeing more and different kinds of stones incorporated as ground cover – and, no doubt, fodder.

I recently watched my DVD of one of my favorite musical productions, “Sunday in the Park with George”, based on the painter, Seurat, and his revolutionary painting, “La Grand Jatte.” It’s probably no coincidence the music and lyrics from the show resonate within me and have no doubt been quietly at work during this whole process, also reminding me of the elements to be considered: “Order. Design. Tension. Color. Balance. Light.”

I want to move on
I want to explore the light
I want to know how to get through,
Through to something new,
Something of my own…

Thanks be to the universe. Eureka. I’m on my way.

My precious grandson, Harper, is 3. He calls me “Gamma.” He calls his grandfather “Grampa Rick,” speaking it fluidly as though it were all one word: “Gramparick.” I love that child more than I can express, and Gramparick, who is plum foolish over him, does, too  — which may be one reason Harper likes to come over to our house and play. He feels all that love. And he returns it equally. Win-Win!

He gets 100 per cent of our attention when he’s here. I’m not the least bit apologetic about it, either. We all find each other extremely entertaining, uber amusing, and we enjoy his company as much as anyone on the planet. We three love to sing, and laugh, and swing, and run, and play indoors and out … in the house, in the playhouse, in the sandbox, in the yard, in the garden. We have treasure hunts and dress like pirates. We paint on easels with real paints and brushes. His favorite color is orange. We sing silly songs. We play, play, play.

We also talk. A lot. His favorite expression is one word: “Why?” Try answering that question multiple times in rapid succession, and see how you do. As challenging (and, ok, exasperating) as that is, it is also a teachable moment, a golden opportunity to talk to him about whatever he asks – every time he asks – over and over again. My motto concerning a 3-yr old’s curiosity and incessant questions: ask and ye shall receive. Always. Gramparick and I give him straight answers, too. You just never know how much of any given answer will stick, so give it your all and see what happens. Gramparick’s been telling him about Boyle’s Law since he was an infant. Go figure.

Day lilies

Harper is sharp, and observant. One recent spring day, as we walked through the yard toward his swing set, he noticed the bright green blades of the day lilies poking up through the pine straw on the bank where only a week earlier there had been nothing. “Woh!” he exclaimed, “What’s all THAT?!”  And we were off.  “Those are the day lilies coming up” (“Why?) “because it’s spring and that’s what they do in the spring” (“Why?) “because nature has cycles, you know, seasons: summer, fall, winter, and spring” (“Why?”) “so that plants can grow, and then they bloom, and then the leaves replace the blooms, and then they rest, and then they die back in winter, and then when spring comes, it starts all over again.” (“Why?”) “It’s the circle of life,” I replied. A gust of wind blew pink blossoms through the air, drawing his attention to the big cherry tree near his swing set. “Do you see all the cherry blossoms on that tree, and all the blossoms blowing in the air?” I asked him. “Yeaaaahh” he whispered, “they are snowing all over the ground!” “This is part of the circle,” I said, “and when those blossoms are all gone off the tree, there will be green leaves on that tree all summer long. And then in the fall, the leaves will turn brown and fall to the ground, and during the winter the tree will rest up so it can blossom all over again in the spring. That’s the full circle.” By this time we had reached the swings, and he was happily swinging back and forth, his gaze still fixed on the big cherry tree . “You watch that tree every time we come out here to swing and you will see it all happen,” I said. He stopped asking why. It was time for swinging. He was satisfied. I had no idea if he would retain even a fraction of the information, but as long as he was asking, I would happily oblige him with answers as best I could.

Fast forward to the next day, a sunny Saturday when Gramparick was home and Harper had returned to play for a little while. As the three of us walked on the grass past the emerging day lilies on the bank, Harper turned to Gramparick and chirped happily, “Gamma taught me all about the flowers and trees and the circle of life yesterday!”

You could’ve knocked me over with a day lily. I don’t think I’ve been that thrilled in a long time.

Woodland Paths

Back gate to woodland path

So this is the back gate to one of the woodland paths on my property. Don’t let anyone tell you that woodland gardens and paths are “no maintenance.” My paths and beds require a yearly springtime ritual of leaf-raking and re-mulching – a real workout – but it is SO worth the effort. When tidied like this, the paths and beds are inviting and just naturally beautiful. How satisfying!

The self-seeded Hellebore babies are being transplanted from the middle to the sides 

This spring the Hellebores (Lenten Roses) have self-seeded their babies all over the middle of the smaller central path, so I am moving them out of harm’s way and over to the sides to complete the border down the length of the path. Imagine, all those beautiful baby plants are FREE!! Such a gift.

This path is strictly a one-person walking path. The other paths are friendly, two-people paths, and one is a working path wide enough for driving the tractor-mower back and forth. But this little one is singularly special. It’s the path that invites one person on a solitary, slow meander; a quiet, reverent tiptoe down the slenderest of openings right through the middle of heaven and those verdant Hellebores. Just magical, to my mind. And a balm to my spirit.

Spring is my time to attend to my paths – all of them: those already there, and those I create that will lead somewhere new. Spring renews my very soul, and thus, the garden becomes the outward manifestation of a parallel inner spiritual journey – and the woodland paths always show me the way…

I sang a song, once, a long time ago, in a one-woman show I did. It was, and still is, a motto for living; one of the strongest and most beautiful reminders of what can happen when one who is lost in a blizzard of emotional snow, acknowledges the inevitability of spring, and daffodils…

“When lonely feelings chill the meadows of your mind,
just think if winter comes, can spring be far behind?
Beneath the deepest snows, the secret of a rose
is merely that it knows you must believe in spring!

Just as a tree is sure its leaves will reappear,
it knows its emptiness is just a time of year,
the frozen mountain dreams of April’s melting streams,
how crystal clear it seems, you must believe in spring!

You must believe in love and trust it’s on its way,
just as the sleeping rose awaits the kiss of may,
so in a world of snow, of things that come and go,
where what you think you know, you can’t be certain of,
you must believe in spring… and love.”

–Bergman/Legrand

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