On the unfolding of the unfolding.

PROCESS.  It’s enough to wear you right out.

All these things you want to HAVE and to BE, like gardens, and children, and happiness…and they all just stretch themselves out haphazardly through years and conversations and unfoldings, never really giving you a clear static PRESENT.  They’re always emerging and never really realized.  It’s exhausting.

Can you tell I’ve been hard at the early spring phases of gardening?  With my four-year-old?  After, oh, four years of basic garden neglect?  My soil is compacted and clayish; my nutrient levels deficient; the late spring has left two beds soggier than they should be.  My strawberries are enough to make me weep, and not in a good way: some fool (ahem) planted a sweet little feverfew in there early last year, and whadya know!  It self-sows!  Rabidly!  And then the little seedlings root deeply enough that pulling them out leaves the strawberries upside-down, root tendrils waving in desperation.

In short, it’s hard to know where to start.

But start we did, a few days ago, and did a little more today.  Wood ash and peat moss and compost and worm castings and chopped leaves and some elbow grease and the occasional back spasm…and today, thanks to my four-year-old’s intervention, some actual planting.  He has declared one of our six veggie beds “his” for the season, though he is graciously allowing me to plant some brassicas there because of my (winningly brilliant) explanation about crop rotation.  He began with radishes (four kinds spread across one short row) and moved on to carrots (only two, so far, of the rainbow of colors we intend to plant).  He was patient with my need to rescue strawberry plants rather than sow more carrots, which surprised me.  But whenever he’s outdoors with purpose and freedom, he tends to be surprisingly mature and cheerful.  Note to self, right?

So the list of what else to do stretches long, and longer since I bought a few plants at the Fedco Tree Sale last weekend.  (I was only going to pick up the potatoes I had order, and because it’s a spiritual pilgrimage for me.  I was NOT going to buy trees or shrubs.)  So now I have to open up new ground for the new raspberries; transplant an old seeded grape for a new seedless one; make space for a beautiful Arctic Blue willow and an Ellen’s Blue Buddleia; and I think there’s something else in there I’ve forgotten.  Plus, I need to move the roses that are in too much shade come late summer (and where to?  roses near the swing set just spells trouble, no?); rake and weed the asparagus bed; transplant things from the “nursery bed” (see my earlier post on THAT sore topic here).

But isn’t this just how it is?  I mean, there are gardeners I know who stay on top of it, whose soil is rich and beautiful, whose daily chores consist of the necessary work that arises in that moment.  They don’t seem chronically behind (and yes, they are retired, these legends), but nor do they look at their gardens through the lenses of deficiency.  They are asset-oriented.  This is what I strive to be, in gardening as in life.

Years ago, in a bout of depression, I used a really irritating and fabulously effective exercise to drag myself back to healthy living: you sit with a pen and paper and write down, every day, ten things that are positive.  No sweat, right?  I remember the first time I tried it.  I was staring out at the edge of the yard, where a seasonal stream separated our property from our neighbors’.  Tiger lilies were starting to sprout there, tender green shoots pushing skyward.  And yet what I saw was a reminder that the $&%*^# deer were just waiting to eat every beautiful thing around.  I was mad that I wasn’t transplanting some lilies into the fenced garden where they would be safe; I was angry that there was no way to protect them where they were in that peaceful natural setting.  It took me the longest time to circle back on myself and arrive at this: there are beautiful naturalized lilies volunteering in my yard.  I live near that.  I live in beauty.

I’m working on holding this commitment to seeing the positive, to honoring the unfolding.  It’s not that we didn’t get far enough in today’s work; it’s that we chose to rest and play rather than push on.  (And when great clouds passed with quick but soaking rains, we hid under the deck together — and what fun it was to watch the silver sheets and hear their susurrations over our heads!)  It’s not that the radishes and carrots will be uneven and disordered; it’s that my four-year-old chose to be out there with me, participating as fully as he knows how.  The work will never be DONE — at least not my work, not by me.  That’s not how I roll.  But I can make progress and I can choose when to stop.  And most importantly, I can keep working at seeing what’s beautiful and whole, even if  it’s riddled with imperfections and its beauty is fleeting and its wholeness always still unfolding.

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On recovery.

It’s been a long week for all of us, including flu shots and incipient molars as well as a host of other, more significant challenges.  Friday comes and we’re pretty much beat.  More than beat, we’re beaten down, a little, by circumstances and the persistent tiredness of not being able to see what comes next that might fix the things that need it.

So what else is there to do, really, but head out into the evening garden for potatoes?  The fingerlings have gone untouched so far, since they were planted late and we harvested the yellow potatoes earlier and are still working through them.  But I wanted fingerlings, specifically, to go with the local lamb burgers and sauteed kale I was planning, and the boys surely needed some kind of existential shift.  We all did.  So out we went, with pitchfork and hod, and I dug and sifted while the boys pulled the bright beads from the soil.  Some were serious potatoes, but most were the kind of thumb-sized beauties that gave rise to their name.  Every time one came to light, Ezra would shout with joy, and he had a hard time taking turns with his brother (assisted, no doubt, by said brother’s stubby one-year-old arms).  Two-thirds of the crop is still in the ground, since the bugs found us shortly after we hit our stride, and we had enough for dinner, anyway.

While we were out there, we brought in a massive bunch of kale, a smaller assortment of late zinnias, marigolds, and bachelor’s buttons, as well as a few carrots whose impressive tops made us pull them just out of curiosity.  (Our fridge is full of carrots already.)  And of course, the raspberries have been loving this frost-free October, putting forth nearly as much ripe fruit as they did all summer, and better.  It was an evening to remember.

Every time we bring in flowers, Ezra helps arrange them in a vase, and then he says, in a tight, excited voice: “We have to have a celebration!  To celebrate these flowers!”  And indeed we do.  Three-year-old vision is sometimes so impeccably clear.

Best of all was Ezra’s request, at dinner, that we give thanks (which we do sometimes, but not often enough).  We held hands, and I spoke my gratitude for these sweet men, for this good food and the land on which it grew.  A few bites later, Ezra wanted more: Papa gave thanks for our family, and for all the love, and for the many people who grew the food we eat.  And then, Ezra himself spoke a bit later:

“Thank you for the good Ezra-Mama-Chi day and for whole-family-day tomorrow.

Thank you for the fruit and flowers that grow all around us.

And for the vegetables that grow all around us.”

As I write, my heart spilling over, my eyes rise to the prints on my desk, gifts from my artist friend Kim Crichton: “Grow.”  “Nurture.”  “Sow.”  (You have to see the images to really get them, but when you do, you’ll see why I’m all weepy over all this together.)  From a day when it seemed like nothing could come together, I all of a sudden see that in this moment, everything has.

On wading in: Day 21. Presence/presents.

It’s the oldest pun in the world, but it’s STILL TRUE.  Being present yields amazing presents.  Giving ourselves the gift of focusing on just one thing, being right there with it, is hard but necessary if we want to be part of the magic.  Examples:

At the Common Ground Fair yesterday, a speaker was working with a huge and restless horse, an absolute beauty of a beast who apparently has great nervousness.  The speaker told how he came to get this horse after others gave up on it, and he was only able to work with it when he could focus himself entirely on the horse.  Any lapse, any straying, any half-assed efforts the horse could sense immediately and it would freeze up and refuse to cooperate.  The owner had been able to work well with the horse and he told how it was even useful for him — though hard — to need to undertake this exercise.  “How well he works with me,” the owner said, ” is in direct relationship to how completely focused I can be on him.”

My weekends are often full of lists and planning, but my favorite days are the ones when I am lost enough to not even HAVE a list.  Those days I float from place to place and simply respond to where I am, open to what soothes me or irks me or wants to change.  By being present with the space around me, I can see with new immediacy what I should be doing in the moment.  And the results surprise me: the spice rack (a strange arrangement of small stacked painted crates bolted to the wall) got a much-needed cleaning and new contact paper; the space alongside the oven got cleaned and de-cluttered; mulch got laid; sweet woodruff got transplanted; a Barrington Belle peony got dug in; a few beds got weeded or fall-cleaned; potatoes got dug; carrots got pulled.  Even the strawberry bed, which has been a short forest of self-sown feverfew all summer, got a thorough weeding — just the kind of chore I will work hard to avoid if it’s on a list, but when it just calls to me, well, I can answer.

The most glowing moment in a satisfying day (did I mention we started with zucchini/banana/flaxseed muffins and finished with homemade potato-leek soup?) came as I was rounding the last corner in the strawberry bed, reeking of feverfew and starting to get sore.  Len was corralling the boys to go inside, and they wanted to give me a hug first, so they ran to me, barefoot and glowing in the early fall late afternoon.  One boy in each arm; one sweet neck against each cheek.  So much, so much.  How could there be more?

On wading in: Day 16. The benefits of breaking down.

Don’t worry, it’s not an all-out breakdown.  Just the sloppy, exhausted flailing of Life with sick kids, sick me, upcoming travel, house projects, and a range of professional commitments that are creeping up fast.  But two things converged today that made me want to praise that moment when things go from complicated to plain silly, causing me to just give up on trying to do it all.

One was Chi, who has been sick for days, during which time when he wasn’t nursing, he was crying.  So he was mostly nursing.  (It has made me realize, among other things, that one form of impact assessment for me is whether or not I have the privilege of wearing a comfortable bra, or whether I have to, for convenience, wear one of my aged nursing bras all day, just so I can manage the nonstop nurser.)  For much of the morning, I hoped that he would nap (he wouldn’t) or that we would go somewhere and do something, that we could jolt him out of his misery by stimulating him.  It usually works.  But today he wailed and wailed and was such a disaster that I finally just explained to Ezra that we were done trying to do anything.  As if on cue, Chi relaxed into me and finally fell asleep.  Lesson one.

Lesson two involved another form of letting go: I have two gorgeous and prolific grape vines crawling over my pergola, rich with Concords and perfectly ripe.  Every year I hope to do something with them, this year included.  But it became clear to me that I wouldn’t, and that what I hate most is not letting something go but FAILING to let it go until it’s too late.  I was not going to waste forty pounds of perfect grapes out of a misunderstanding of my own capacities.  So I had put out a note on Facebook and got a few takers.  One friend came and got a few; the other was the director of a fabulous youth gardening program in our area.  She expressed interest but we didn’t settle anything.  So I reached out again this morning and lo!  Two garden fellows and three youth gardeners came with flats and knives to harvest.  They cleaned us out, which was PERFECT, and were lovely and fun in the process.  In fact, Ezra had such a good time with them that he asked them to stay for a garden tour afterward — and when that was over, he wanted to blow bubbles with them.  And they did!  We all sat in the grass in the late afternoon sun and blew bubbles, seeing how far they would go in the wind, whether they would land in the peach tree or the grass or blow up over the house next door.   Lesson two.

Whoever said your kids are your best teachers was right — but for me, there’s even more than that going on here.  I need to be overwhelmed, to throw up my hands before I can turn something over and let it go.  A child’s misery, a vast grape harvest: these things were too much for me today, and they broke me down.  In doing so, they opened me up to greater peace, more fun, and more useful living.  I realize this isn’t news — none of it.  But it’s worth saying again, I figure.

Oh — and may I add that this little revelation was well-timed.  We’re expecting the first real frost of the season tonight, and as I speed-harvested basil this evening, I realized my usual ritual sadness at the loss of summer, of these particular plants, this particular set of joys.  I worried about Chi (aka Tomato Joe) and Ezra coming out in the morning to find blackened vines, and I suddenly realized that such mourning does not have to be private or even silly.  We can honor this turning of the seasons.  I’d even argue we should.  So I went back in and explained to the boys what would happen tonight.  Ezra teared up, though Malachi didn’t care, which prompted Ezra to say: “Looks like it’s just you and me saying goodbye to the garden, Mama.  Let’s go.”  And we did.  We found the last two Sungolds and gave them one to each boy, Ezra carefully carrying Malachi’s indoors to where he sat with Papa.  And both boys helped me strip the basil leaves from the stems for freezing, their small hands working in the bright light of the late sun.  Malachi’s chubby hands, when he reached for my face before bath, smelled of grapes, of tomatoes, of basil.  What could be more beautiful, or more perfect on this end-of-summer night?

On gardening, or planning to garden

Most awesome seed source ever.

Most awesome seed source ever.

Is this what happens when we grow up?  Do we finally get clear about what matters and just root down?  I just sent my seed order in (only to discover the empty packet of my favorite lettuce: Winter Density…argh!).  It feels late, as it always does, and a few things are on back-order.  But mostly this year I feel a seismic change in the whole process.  Every year I pull together all my zip-lock bags of seeds and corral them into one huge basket, and then I go through and inventory what I have.  It’s a process I’ve loved over the years, as it fills me with a sense of abundance (look at all these gorgeous seeds!  Think of all the gorgeous PLANTS!) and with that delicious anticipation of ordering more.  Plus, when you feel like you’ve really gone overboard, ordering like 25 packets, you realize you’re only out $35.  Which is a lot of shopping bliss for your buck.  The big change this year, though, is in me rather than in the process: for the first time in history, I’m not all that interested in growing lots of different kinds of each vegetable.  (Flowers, yes.  Still.  Always.)  But I used to want six kinds of carrots, for example, to see which were best. I wanted to compare all the kinds of peas so I could know what I preferred and have some good variety in type and time to harvest.  Now, I’m realizing, I’m becoming a much more grounded gardener.  I want delicious; I want easy; I want staggered harvests and enough variety to keep cooking and eating interesting.  But I am more than happy to stick with tried-and-true, and my appreciation of new discoveries seems happy to stay in the realm of the theoretical.  I do not need to buy new varietals.  (There, Len, it’s in writing.  To your massive surprise, I know.  Mine too.)

I suspect this change is not really about the garden.  I suspect it’s about my life.  You see, gardening used to be a hobby – and now it’s one feature of my busy life with my family.  It has always saved us money, but now we count on that.  It has always kept us healthy, but now it teaches my children a lifelong love of healthy food.  It has always been a way for me to get grounded, to come back to my most basic self, and now it does that for two much smaller souls as well.  Nine kinds of peppers seems beside the point – though I am quick to defend the obvious point that there are roasters and jalapenos and Hungarian paprikas and bells, and there’s nothing wrong with a few of each.  But will I spend time reading about the fifty other kinds I don’t have?  Not this year.  No time, and my energy and curiosity are turned elsewhere: to people, large and small; to fiber and fabric; to writing and ideas and hope.

The next step, of course, in the process is cleaning off the seed-starting mats and shelves, checking the grow-lights and the soilless mix supply, investing in more wooden plant labels and a new, sharp Sharpie.  I’ve always loved these midwinter pilgrimages, but now they seem even more special, now that they are prompted by Ezra’s impatience.  Can we start seeds, Mama?  Yes, my son.  Yes, we can.  And all throughout the summer and fall, we can point to those plants and remember the smallness of their seeds in his palm, his chubby carrot fingers working to grasp and maneuver their tiny promise.