Sunday, December 30, 2007

Pinetree Garden Seeds

Brochures and Catalogs: Forms of entertaining fiction published by nurseries, seedsmen, and tool manufactures.”
Henry Beard and Roy McKie, “A dictionary for Weedpullers, Slugcrushers & Backyard Botanists”
It’s that time of year. I’ve received 8 seed catalogs so far, and new ones come every day. I’ve folded page corners on each catalog and I’m already way over budget. Of course, I’ve forgiven and forgotten my failures to germinate or thrive from last year’s crop.

But there’s one new catalog that I’ve already ordered from and received seed from, and I want to share my happy experience.

Pinetree Garden Seeds is in New Gloucester Maine – about as far as you can get from San Diego and still be in the continental US. I usually like to order seed from places closer to home, and I certainly have enough to choose from without trying a new company. But Pinetree’s was the first catalog I received and their tempting offerings were too much to resist. So I ordered some stuff on line.

I received the seeds promptly, but first, within a few days, I received a letter and a small refund check. I had impulsively ordered seed potatoes to be shipped in March, but failed to note that they can’t ship to California. The check was accompanied by a handwritten note suggesting a company in, I think, Oregon, that might be able to ship to California. So my very first experience was that, instead of politely pointing out to me that I didn’t’ read catalog's restrictions, they kindly referred me to another company and refunded my money.

Then the seeds came, all but one that was back ordered. Then, yesterday, the last pack of seeds came. That’s a lot of trouble for an order that was originally less than $50. Also, the seed packets are printed with “packed for 2008”, indicating they’re fresh. Some seed companies don’t bother to date their seeds, presumably so they can sell them indefinitely. I’ve learned to my disappointment that the germination rate decreases substantially when I plant seeds from undated packets.

While I have no experience yet to tell me that Pinetree seeds are going to like my climate, I suspect the appropriate seeds I’ve selected will do just fine. I have found a wonderful company, responsive and responsible, and I’m adding them to my small list of favorites. Their customer service is excellent. Best of all, Pinetree Garden Seeds exemplifies the thing I like best about gardeners - they share their information and experience generously with other gardeners. That’s not just good business, it’s good gardening.

Friday, December 28, 2007

At the Quiet Limit of the World

"The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan…

Me only cruel immortality
Consumes; I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair'd shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn."
Tennyson, Tithonus

At first, with it’s image of death and burial, this poem seems like a bit of a buzz kill for such a festive season. But by evoking the sense of forever, Tennyson’s poem grants another kind of peace – the peace all gardeners will someday rest in.

When I was here, I tilled my garden, and I lived in it. But I dream that it will outlive me. I would be perfectly happy to believe that the woods will decay and fall long, long after I do. For man, the lifespan of a forest seem to approach the infinite, immortal, ultimate peace and stillness. Yesterday, I harvested some moss from the north shade of the house and planted it in tiny mounds with pretty stones. Today, here it is, sparkling in the morning sunshine.

In the quiet of the season, my garden sleeps, seemingly at the limit of the world. The small pots of succulents pictured above, delighted in the weak winter sun, seem match the images Tennyson paints, of heaven in the morning mists, and of some sort of peace beyond the lives of men who make gardens.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Today is the Best Day Since Yesterday

“Awake ye and come to our house
Come running – fly if you can

The doors throw themselves open
The name for this part is hearth

Today is the best day since yesterday
We share – a sense of rivers

Amazed at what we saw
We thought we were dreaming…”

C.D. Wright, “Girl Friend Poem #2”

Recently, I had some discussion with the handful of women I grew up with. We were six sisters against three brothers, unenlightened nuns in medieval religious schools, and the entire history of Western Civilization. We survived more or less sane well into our various and sundry dotages, and mostly without either heroism or martyrdom.

Now that the season precludes all but emergency gardening (hand watering as necessary to make up for Mother Nature’s lapses, replacing fences knocked over by rabbits who were hungrier than I thought etc) I rely more than ever on contact with my sisters to keep myself balanced. Conversation with geographically dispersed sisters in, chronologically, California, Michigan, Florida, Maryland, Oregon, Arizona helps us to beat the Seasonal Affective Disorder that afflicts some of us more than others.

I have come to believe that the subject our e-mail conversations matters less than the fact that we can do this. We talked about how it might be time to schedule our traditional biennial group therapy sessions/day spa and shopping excursions, aka, Sistertrips, more frequently. Planning these trips brings its own joy because – like our Daddy taught us all – anticipation of happiness is such a big part of happiness realized. We talk about which of us Mom loved the most; about who got special privileges like preferential use of the family car; about what makes each of us like our parents, for better or worse. About how we miss our folks.

We also talk about the varying degrees to which our families are making us crazy. About the stresses of having kids still in school, about having them on their own and far away, about how they are making the same dumb mistakes we made at their age.

Recently, I tried as best I could to duplicate Dad’s eggnog recipe (the best nog you can afford, and a lot of Southern Comfort in lieu of a little rum.) I had to recreate it because, though promised by one of my loyal siblings, they have yet to provide the recipe. While it doesn’t exactly suck to be me, I miss Dad’s eggnog – my drink of choice while sitting on the floor next to the Xmas tree, wrapping presents and listening to the Messiah. By the time I was singing along with the Amen – my favorite, even better than the Halleluiah chorus – I wasn’t missing the recipe as much, and most of the gifts were wrapped.

Whether we commiserate about our spouses, a rant about vulgar in-laws descending for the holidays, brag about accomplishments of our respective progeny, it helps to share. Inevitably, we conclude that our children are as likely to survive as we did, and to grow into interesting adults with their own traditions, and ways of staying sane. And we generally conclude with wishful dreaming – inspired by the above poem – of our next reunion.

One of the sensory pleasures of gardening I often forget is touch. I love the smells, and the light and shadow. I love to chew a tiny mint leaf or rub some sage on my hands and inhale it. But, this time of year, I find that I also miss the lovely texture of the potting soil I mix, adding some homemade compost with worms, some bone meal and blood meal. When I’m potting plants that won’t have a dedicated drip emitter, I love the way the tiny white crystals bloat up in water and become like tapioca, only clear. So, when deprived of these things by the season, I commiserate with my sisters and that is better, almost, than gardening, and than my nostalgically enhanced memory of Dad’s legendary eggnog.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Peace on Earth

“Many things grow in the garden that were never sown there.”
- Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732

Before I arrived at this blissful state – which is nothing more ambitious than universal tolerance of one’s neighbors – I fought and lost a war.

I'll tell you how the war went, but first a digression.

I live about 10 blocks from a dead end street called Mac Ronald. Really. My ex-urb has been upgraded by McMansions: bloated pink stucco edifices with protruding bay windows and non-functional ornamental touches with their price tags still attached. The nearby newer homes look like a bad case of adolescent acne, infesting the once rosy cheeks of my neighborhood landscapes.

I wouldn’t mind it so much if the new neighbors had good taste. But seriously: a round house sticking out of a lovely hill like the hilt of knife in your ribcage? It turns! Why? Well, because these patriotic Americans didn’t want to settle for 180 degrees, when they could afford 360. Or a bell freakin’ tower teetering over a morbidly obese single story shotgun shack, drifting away in a sea of faux clay roof tiles.

When I see scorched earth landscaping I know an old house is to be sold. First, fifty years of native and naturalized vegetation that once protected rural privacy must be replaced and re-landscaped to improve curb appeal. Once revealed from the street, the older, more modest, eclecticly funky homes must also get cosmetic surgery to tart them up like whores at an AARP convention.

But back to my war on literal and metaphorical rats that harvested my vegetable gardens.

Until recently, I tried to stem the tide of rats, mice et. al. Last week I told the guy who comes by weekly to kill the mice I didn’t want to renew his services. He says the coverage for poisoning gophers still has a year to run, and I and might as well have him continue in the front yard. (To some my front yard might be appallingly neglected. To me, it’s a habitat that supports smaller creatures like birds, bees and feral cats as long as the gophers are kept in check). I said ok on the front, but leave the back yard alone. Also, I did not tell him to be on the lookout for a gopher with dill-stained freakishly infantile opposable thumbs.

Now it’s time to negotiate some sort of mutual tolerance in my garden - I mean, in our garden. Perhaps sensing the seasonal karma, I refuse to continue poisoning the insurgents. That would defeat the purpose of growing things in the first place – to create life. That would be to fail to negotiate with the natives and jump straight to the final solution: the scorched earth policy employed by Mother Nature and her henchman Killing Frost. My lovely cabbages and hybrid purple broccoli are jet-setting arrivistes in the back yard, occupying the empty palaces of a once great empire, populated by strange natives who I have failed to understand. Genocide is not the answer.

Peace is what gardening is about, and, I am beginning to think, it’s what life beyond my garden gate is about too. People live and die, just like gardens and other creatures who inhabit them. Just like my vegetable and ornamental garden occupants have a season to live and to die, perhaps so do we as a species. And so too, the tumble-down old houses on Mac Ronald.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Saranwrap All You Can

“The first time I done it was a disaster. They all blowed off”
Tow truck driver who decorates his truck for Xmas, including lights and a tree

“Play it cool and Saranwrap all you can”
Scot Walker, “30th Century Man”

Riddles, wrapped in enigmas, and baked in a pie? The above quotes would seem, at first, to have no coherent theme, and certainly no garden theme. But wait, there’s more. I am experiencing a certain postmodern existential disconnect as winter closes in. My theory is that the gardener – separated from the garden by the weather – experiences subliminal withdrawal almost like an addict in rehab. Well, maybe not that serious, but I’m in a Saranwrap mood – wanting to preserve things I cultivated in order to maintain my connection to nature. I done tried, but my coleus has clear signs of frost damage, and official Winter doesn’t start until the day after tomorrow.

Stealing a brief hour from 2 to 3 pm last Sunday, I planted some sweet peas Ellen gave me, and I found some surprises. My dill was gone, eaten up from the bottom, neatly excavated by whoever lives beneath the freshly turned mound beneath the white rose in the fenced vegetable garden. It was there days ago – the death of the dill, Saran wrap would have saved it! We have the frickin’ technology! Neither the fence, nor the broadcasting of freshly chopped chrysanthemum foliage deterred the invader. My cabbage and broccoli starts in the backyard are still standing, but for how long?

Meanwhile, back at the Veggie Garden, critters have eaten about $60 worth of seed and about $40 worth of starts. Something big made a hole in the netting and feasted on delicate lettuce. Not to mention person-hours of blood, sweat and tears. We planted the last lettuce, beets and cabbage in the Veggie Garden last week. Today, the left raised bed had been murdered, blitzkrieged to tiny skeletal stems, remainders of the first hopeful sprouts.

How did we forget the other creatures? How did we see ourselves so apart from the world, so privileged above all species, so promised the land? It’s difficult for me to take in the murdered dill at home, the martyred lettuce at the Veggie Garden, and not feel like the tow truck driver, the first time he decorated his truck. By these standards, my gardens are a disaster.

But, the tow truck driver apparently figured out how to decorate and light a tree in such a way that his decorations wouldn’t get all blowed off. So, that’s one happy ending. From him, I must learn to accept the signs of winter telling me to depart from the back yard. Once more, I must learn to share “my” territory with nature and the other occupants. I must let the sprouts and starts of winter vegetables take their chances, even if a there is a great risk they will be harvested by night visitors the minute they stick their sprouting heads above their foxholes of mulch.

All that was forgotten Sunday afternoon: holding the pungent earth in my hands, planting the sweet peas, rinsing my dusty feet as I watered, tossing compost. I could feel the pull of the sun from farther toward the south in its effort to bring summer to drought-plagued Australia. Our fire seasons are over because of several recent rains promising some relief in winter. My garden may not be buried in snow like Kate in Saskatchewan, but its inhabitants know winter is now, and so do I. Let nature take its course while I stay indoors, stockpiling seed catalogs and imagining a perfectly decorated tow truck, defiantly, cheerfully pulling cars out of snow banks.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Season for Forgetting

“Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.”
Billy Collins, Forgetfulness

My Mom once joked about how she couldn’t remember the names of her kids because she was trying to remember the Nicene Creed. Seemed a bit of mixed priorities to me, but her sense of humor was as strong as her faith.

Much is made of how gardens are great places to learn important life lessons: birth, death, renewal, reincarnation: all the garden metaphors that mean so much to gardeners. But gardens are also good places to go to forget. Sometimes, forgetting is a good thing. Short term memory loss not only makes it possible for me to keep meeting exciting new people, it allows me to wrap my own Xmas presents. And let’s face it, who needs to remember the capital of Paraguay when there’s Google?

Looking at old pictures of my back yard, like this spring ’04 shot with Dopey, I am confronted with a number of horticultural experiments that failed. I have pictures of many plants, lavished with high expectations, who perished from one of the four horsemen of garden failure: neglect, pestilence, flood or drought. Sure, I’ve learned from each failure, but I’ve forgotten more than I recall. I once tried grow a plumeria in a flower pot, but didn’t know it was deciduous, so when it lost its leaves in the winter, I tossed it out. Surely, you’re thinking, I could have bothered to open the Western Garden Book and given a glance at the entry for plumeria. To which I reply: don’t call me Shirley.

I have since learned a great deal about gardening from reading books. But I still seem to learn more by trial and error. My former fire-pit now filled with succulents is thriving on the big rock bordering the back vegetable garden. Perhaps you’re thinking I would learn better if the price of failure was starvation. Or if I had a better short term memory, or perhaps, a better system of making detailed entries in a garden journal. To which I say, don’t call me Perhaps. I enjoy forgetting failures as much as I enjoy celebrating horticultural successes.

Besides, there’s a long tradition of forgetting some important mistakes made by gardeners. After their parents were evicted from the original garden, according to our creation myth, Adam’s sons Cain and Able got to work at, respectively, cultivating gardens, and raising sheep. But when they each offered God some of their work products, God rejected Cain’s gift of a harvest in favor of Able’s baby lamb, or so the story goes.

Long story short: Cain killed Able. Which means, as Germaine Greer reminds us, that the whole human race is descended from a murdering gardener. Which makes my almost-forgotten plumeria murder not seem so bad after all.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Winter Shadows

"Face of the skies
over our wonder.

truant of heaven
draw us under.

Silver, circular corpse
your decease
infects us with unendurable ease,

touching nerve-terminals
to thermal icicles

Coercive as coma, frail as bloom
innuendoes of your inverse dawn
suffuse the self;
our every corpuscle become an elf."

Mina Loy, "Moreover the Moon"

It’s winter in the back yard – low sun, slanting almost sideways, making early afternoon look like late summer twilight. The moon is waxing, and the late sun illuminates the same old stuff, but takes a different angle, providing backlight over here, and spotlight over there. The new lighting makes familiar summer scenes look unfamiliar. Deeper shadows contrast with stark brightness, camouflaging flower pots into hiding places where phantoms lurk. The light flattens colors, making the scene resemble a dime-store paint-by-number picture - with too few colors and no gradual shading.

The unforeseen shadows and flattened colors make my afternoon stroll through the yard feel like a conversation between estranged friends, punctuated by awkward silences and sudden interruptions. The rhythm is gone, the sentences are incomplete. The summer smells are gone too – replaced by a chill and carried on strange humidity, that seems to almost clog the air, so unfamiliar had it become after a long hot dry season. The part of my brain that houses hard-wired instincts and coded messages seems to be whispering: curl up and hibernate, keep warm and cozy deep inside your cave, behind the bars of icicles. Let the moon wax and wane a few more cycles.

It is only by detaching from the garden for a while that gardeners will be able to enjoy the promised rebirth of spring, and the joy of re-discovering forgotten smells and visions. Meanwhile, coercive as a coma, seductive as sleep before a fire, the abandoned winter garden neither invites nor promises. It waits.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Xmas Light Don'ts and Do's

“Power, time, gravity, love. The forces that really kick ass are all invisible.”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

To that list of invisible forces, add Xmas Spirit. After dinner one night last week, we went driving through the local “Candy Cane Lane” – blocks of insane people who conspire to put up more Xmas lights than their neighbors. Upon passing the 1.5 houses per block that has no lights, the stock joke used to be, that’s where the Jews live. Now, in a sign of the changing demographic on the not-so-new millennium, it’s either the Jews or the Muslims.

Anyway, driving through this fresh hell after dinner out one recent evening, I was subjected to K’s punchline: “Jeee-sus, Maaa-ry, and Joe-sef!” every time we passed a home with a crèche with JM&J up in lights on their front lawn. Which is bad enough on its own, but it’s worse in a six square block slow ride, a parade of autos with their lights out, when you’re having second thoughts about the second and third cups of wine and coffee for dinner.

But what’s worse, is putting Santa in the crèche scene. It looks pathetic: just don’t do it. Either make a stand for keeping Christ in Xmas or for washing him aside in a flood of tired generic “season’s greetings” from inflated snowman. But, Jesus Christ, stop having Santa kneel, cap-less, in line behind a shepherd or Balthazar, or Disney character.

I wonder what happened centuries ago as neighborhoods became more diverse. Did pagans and druids and what-not once campaign through the candy cane lanes of their pagan neighborhoods to keep Christ out of Winter Solstice?

Upon returning home mildly dazed by the lights, or by the high blood sugar after two mini-éclairs, or just simply relieved to make it, we decided to make our own Xmas light sign, and we opted for non-religious to avoid offending unbelievers, or as they prefer to be called, the “differently faithful.”

It took K all day, including a trip to three stores that weren’t Wal*Mart™ before he found the makings of the “L”. With due respect to religious parochialism, there’s something to be said for celebrating a generic Xmas where we wish one another peace on earth.

(Don’t make me spoil the joke by telling you. Hint: it’s in French.)

Sunday, December 09, 2007

What Do We Know?

"She tells her love while half asleep,
in the dark hours,
with half-words whispered low.
As Earth stirs in her winter sleep
and puts out grass and flowers
despite the snow,
despite the falling snow."
- Robert Graves

No snow falling in San Diego. But the winter rain for the past two days has been softly washing away my gardening mistakes. I woke this morning to the sound of rain on the roof and smiled to think of my tiny vegetable starts stretching their roots beneath the soil like a sleeper stretches her arms upon waking. Self, I said to myself. Self, let’s play a game of Wadda-We-Know, in the old Math Net sense of the word.

Ok, I know for sure that faith is ok unless it’s blind certainty disguised as faith. I know that before faith, there must be doubt. If you just believe it without even thinking about it, it’s totally not faith. It’s fundamentalist cant. It’s laissez-faire tolerance of disbelief, buried under a ton of self-righteous dirigisme beliefs. A steaming pile of certainties that smell worse than the imbalanced compost and the fossilizing heaps of dog poop in my back yard. I prefer when my doubt and certainty are more equally balanced; 1:1, like eggnog and Southern Comfort.

I do know some miscellaneous other stuff about myself, like for instance, that I love arguments that end: Shut UP. No, YOU shut up. Or that I’m easily distracted by seed catalogs these days, and I fear that if I want to remember one more plant-related fact I’ll have to make room by forgetting the name of my first best friend’s dog. It was Guess, son of You Know. That was circa 1954, before “you know” had quotes around it. We kids would love it when somebody asked the names of the dogs we played with.

I like run-on sentences and off-message asides, interspersed respectively with short ones and laser-like, conclusory judgments. I’m learning to teeter slowly at the point of uncertainty, and getting comfortable with not knowing it all. More than 50 years after I learned to ride a 2-wheeled bicycle.

I’m pretty sure that the phrase “working in a garden” is an oxymoron. I’m not crazy about self-referential writers who put words in “quotes” as a sort of non-verbal warning that they’re hip and ironic. Sometimes it backfires and you just look like a jerk. You know who “you” are, website called Korean Food Recipes, that has a hot link called “dog recipes”.

These days, I am sure I could garden longer than the day has sun. I’m not as angry as I used to be before I turned to gardening. I buy too many garden books, and I’m probably not going to stop. I like when K makes pancakes and eggs for dinner and he flashes the V for victory sign and says, “I am not a cook”. I once had a friend named Susie Miller who was a dental hygienist, but I lost track of her, and I miss her. I would have liked to talk about our daughters growing up with single-mom moms.

I love it when people talk with good fake accents, using slang that matches their accent. Think Monty Python’s “Sorry Guv’nr. Gobbed on yer rug.”

There’s some stuff I that I no longer need to know. I bet it’s the same for you. Like, I no longer wonder what would happen if I forgot to change the cats’ litter box for a whole week. I don’t need to keep looking up to confirm that the clock over the desk stopped at 3:00 weeks ago, and it still says it’s 3:00.

Here are some things I’m uncertain about. I suspect that when two people try to do the same thing, it usually ends up not the same thing after all. I’m learning to contemplate the mystery of my existence, rather than to insist on the truth of my beliefs. I suspect that the need to download one or two tunes a month on iTunes is an addiction harder to break than heroin. That’s what I think, anyway.

Finally, the 2 most important things I’ve learned so far today. I love it when after a rain, a tiny raindrop on a leaf can contain a reflection of the entire surface of the sun. And I have (finally!) figured out my life’s work: to slow down and exist in the present.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Childhood Garden Memory

“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” 
Marcel Proust (1871 – 1922)

My maternal grandmother’s garden was her six daughters and one son, lovingly raised. My mother not only raised nine, she knew the names of every plant in the world; or so it seemed. My daughter once predicted that she would someday be explaining her mother’s automobile crash as due to attention I paid to roadside flora at the expense of attention paid to the actual road. A habit I got from my own Mom, who, by the way, was probably just as good a driver as I am.

And for all that, I have precious few childhood memories of my Mom’s or my Grandma’s garden. I remember when they widened University Blvd at Four Corners, they had to move 3 or 4 houses at the intersection of Lorraine (sp?) where the Safeway parking lot now stands.

What I remember is that upon finding out the houses were going, Mom, naturally, wondered what was going to happen to the unsuspecting hydrangea bush in one of the doomed front yards. One long summer twilight I went with her, pulling a red wagon with a shovel in it, the 6 or 8 blocks from our house to rescue said hydrangea. Upon being approached by a security guard – there had been “vandalism” in the empty houses – Mom persuaded him to let her rescue the doomed plant.

That bush thrived in our yard from that day on, and once Mom put some chemical on its roots to make the flowers turn from pink to blue, or back. She explained pH, about which I know more to this day thanks to her, than thanks to high school labs and freshman chemistry. It’s a good thing that I didn’t know then, the meaning of the word “volunteer” as referring to spontaneous gifts of plants in the garden. Such knowledge might have transformed my childhood memory into a sort of post-traumatic nightmare of extreme rendition and severe interrogation.

Recalling this memory makes me suddenly understand why I don’t retain more than cursory memories of straggly childhood tomato plants. Mom and Grandma lived frugal lives in lean times, and they raised large families on single incomes. But somehow I got the love. It is thanks to them that I now have at least a dozen Martha Washington, trailing ivy, and the other plain pelargonium plants thriving in my yard – not one of which I bought. Once I figured out how easy it is to propagate this forgiving flower, I gently purloined cuttings of each from roadsides in my neighborhood to procreate them in my yard.

My last sight of Mom was the day I pulled away from the parking lot of the adult independent living community where she died within the month. I could see her on the balcony of their third floor apartment, built on the site where my public school kindergarten once stood. She waved goodbye with one hand, and held a watering can in the other. She was on her way to water the small herb gardens she nurtured in window boxes outside neighboring apartments.

Imagine the kind of garden my Mom would have had if she lived now. Had my Mom (or her Mother) been able to afford the time or invest the money, I like to think the gardens they would have made for me to remember would be like the ones I make now.

Friday, December 07, 2007

A Harmonica Crushed in a Rat Trap

Though they are, they have eyes as piercing as gimlets, 

That shine like those holes in which water sleeps at night; 

They have the divine eyes of little girls 

Who are amazed and laugh at everything that gleams.
I would be plunged in pleasure still, 

Conjuring up the Springtime with my will, 

And forcing sunshine from my heart to form, 

Of burning thoughts, an atmosphere that's warm.”

Beaudelaire, Paysages, Landscape, trans by: Roy Campbell, Poems of Baudelaire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1952)

I wrote down the harmonica/rat trap phrase as I stumbled upon it recently, and now find I have absolutely no idea where I stumbled on it. I do recall that it made me smile, because I thought it the perfect illustration of dreams that have died an ugly death but won’t give up and go away. It also fits with my new favorite song: “How Can I Love You if You Won’t Lie Down” (I woulda said “lay down” but I suspect I’m being monitored by the Department of Homeland Grammar Security, and I don’t want to draw attention to my grammar, or the fact that I should be more careful about attributing quotes).

Xmas brings to the top of my cold mental soup greasy chunks of longing for material things like harmonicas destined to rust in the teeth of rat traps. I want more stuff. As a kid I never really wanted a pony, but all my friends were getting ponies, so I was pretty sure I needed one too. Nowadays I don't really want sparkling jewelry - the kind that sends women in commercials swooning into ecstasies of love. (Instead of a tag line saying diamonds are forever, I prefer the satirical commercial with the tag line “She’ll practically have to!”)

Now all my childish dreams like playing the harmonica and wanting a pony have been replaced. I want to forget what I heard on TV yesterday, in a news story about Iran. A widow covered in black sheets, walking home in the snow, telling the reporter she was worried bout what her children would eat tonight, and tomorrow.

The picture above may, at first glance, look like ripples in a cool, shadowy pool. It’s actually a picture of the low winter sun setting between trees, taken through the middle of a spider’s web. In this season where we dress up in good will and peace on earth, I wish I could buy the whole world a pony, or, if they prefer, harmonica lessons. Or perhaps even a diamond necklace to make little girls' eyes gleam.

As for me, as winter gloom descends and Xmas shopping days dwindle, I already want to conjure up the warm atmosphere of Springtime.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Nothing Undone

“It was a perfect day
For sowing; just
As sweet and dry was the ground
As tobacco-dust.

I tasted deep the hour
Between the far
Owl’s chuckling first soft cry
And the first star.

A long stretched hour it was;
Nothing undone
Remained: the early seeds All safely sown.

And now, hark at the rain,
Windless and light,
Half a kiss, half a tear,
Saying Good-night.”

- Edward Thomas, Sowing

My sister gave me some advice that’s worth noting. In trying to console me for the fact that my date for the Freshman dance all those years ago was t-boned by an ambulance running a red light the day before the dance, and from there my life pretty much went downhill, she said I should stop trying to be perfect. The bunny statue in the long light of this picture has a puzzled expression on his face as he looks at a sign amid the potatoes that says "harvest". Not such a perfect outcome from his point of view.

Her advice? I think that we “…would be well served to eliminate… the reverence that we hold for being perfect, always right, and in control. If its one thing I've learned the hard way over the last 10 years of my life it is that we have no control, that's an illusion. And I suspect that trying to control everything makes us less open - open to whatever is out there for us to take in.” The bunny agrees.

Now, granted, this sister is not always right, and in fact, some say she’s a wack-job. But I think she is here. Right that is, not a wack-job. I spent today planting my cool season vegetable starts: red cabbage, purple broccoli, some cauliflower whose name I’ve lost. A storm is predicted to start by tomorrow afternoon. Since the pictures of tiny plants sprouting from mulch aren't pretty, here's a picture of the cotoneaster in the long last hour of the afternoon.

The early seeds all safely sown, now I wait for the rain. And stop worrying about being perfect. That’s a relief on two counts.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

December Meditation

“Calm down, my Sorrow, we must move with care.

You called for evening; it descends, it's here
The town is coffined in its atmosphere,

bringing relief to some, to others care…

“… give me your hand, my Sorrow. Let's stand back;
back from these people! Look, the dead years dressed

in old clothes crowd the balconies of the sky.

Regret emerges smiling from the sea,
the sick sun slumbers underneath an arch,

and like a shroud strung out from east to west,

listen, my Dearest, hear the sweet night march!”
— Robert Lowell, from Marthiel & Jackson Matthews, eds., The Flowers of Evil (Beaudelaire) (NY: New Directions, 1963)

There shouldn’t be sadness in December, just because the sun sets early, beneath an arch of storm cloud overhead, like a long shroud trailing from the east. We had much more than the first gentle rain yesterday. We had downpours off and on all day. Too late to get the rotten logs while they’re dry. They’ve soaked up rain like sponges. Mmmmm, rain-soaked, rotten, wood sponges…

Xmas is coming! And yet. Melancholy lurks beneath the endless new car commercials, with faux snow (snaux) and giant-sized ribbons; behind the toy and game commercials appealing to the need of every one of us to buy whatever it takes to have as much fun as those faux families (fauxmilies) in the desperately jolly toy and game commercials. So, of course the one that makes me quiver like fingernails on a blackboard is the confluence of these commercial topics. The one where the family is reunited by their new family van; the one where they come together from their isolation and loneliness at the beginning of the commercial to an almost holy reunion blessed by the setting sun, watching Regret moving from the sea with a smile.

First, we see teenage daughter on her cell: “Did you SEE what she was wearing?...) Cut to surly adolescent, sitting on porch steps, declining to play ball with still innocent little brother (did the kid’s cowlick actually frown as his big brother absently kicked the ball from his welcoming hands and down the steps?). This action occurs while big brother never once looks up from texting on his own crackberry.

Mom pulls into driveway, honks horn and yells at family to join her. Even preoccupied Mr. Mom drops the dishcloth and troops out with the rest of the grumpy family. Surprise! It’s A BRAND NEW CAR!

Cut to next scene with Mom driving and Dad&Kids laughing in back sitting around a game table. Proceed to idyllic sunset on the beach, family looking out of the open hatchback and eating deep fried mayonnaise balls from the McFood drive-in. Sunset: bringing relief to some, to others care. Which would you chose to be?

The new car saved this family from lives of quiet desperation, shallow distractions, and isolated longings. The secret to happiness is a new van where the family can joyfully reunite, playing old-fashioned games and – between yet more commercials playing on the multiple DVDs inside the car – share a blissful golden sunset, and hear the sweet night march begin. Together again. God Bless Xmas.