Spring Respite for The Green Study

A canstockphoto5109847miracle finally happened in Minnesota. Spring arrived. I can’t focus. I spent time in the dirt yesterday. I scoped out my tulips, crocuses (crocii?) and daffodils, uncovered, after a long winter’s rest. It’s a week of endings and beginnings for me and as much as I think I should write or at least should want to write, I don’t. I want dirt under my nails, mud on my boots, stray leaves and grass in my hair. I want to stand up, straightening sore knees and legs after laboring over a plot of soil. I want to smell when the rain is coming and admire, once again, the hardiness and resilience of nature.

canstockphoto2064868A Northern Flicker captured my attention for the good part of an hour on Saturday. They’re the only woodpecker that walks along the ground to find food, hopping back and forth between ground and surrounding trees. Rabbits graze in the yard, delighted by the salad bar now revealed. Gnawed bushes and shrubs show evidence that they did what they needed to do to survive the deep snows.

canstockphoto6826957Black-capped chickadees are flitting in and out of the dried grape vines and robins are hopping about, gathering up their body weight in grass for nests in progress. Mallards are squawking loudly when neighborhood cats are in the proximity. The ducks have picked a nesting site near the drainage creek that has formed at the bottom of the yard.

It’s been too long. It’s taken us a few days to catch on that winter is gone. Pale and mole-like, people come outside, shading their eyes against the brilliant sunlight. We see neighbors that we haven’t seen in months. Everyone is a little pudgier. The melted snow has left vestiges of salt and sand everywhere. Children wobble haphazardly on bikes – a momentary lapse in memory. An old man roars by on a motorcycle, a declaration of resilience. He made it through another winter.

People have thrown themselves into a flurry of activity – yard work, roof fixing, car washing. They’ve spent months using their labor capital for shoveling and making vehicles run, walking recalcitrant dogs, who lifted paws in protestation of the bitter cold. The pent up energy needs to run its course before hammocks and lemonade and a need for shade.

I am taking the week off to take it all in. I can hardly make myself sit still or be in front of the computer. My winter-addled mind drags me out into the sunshine, unable to stay inside one minute longer. Spinach and green bean seeds to sow, patches of garden to till, soil samples to send…this is the world I dreamed of in January, while flipping morosely through my seed catalog. It’s finally here and I’m going outside to reacquaint myself with the light. Keep well, my friends.


Self-sufficiency in a World of Automated Doors

Last night I taught my daughter how to sew. I wish I could write that sentence without a snort of derision. In 8th grade, I had a home economics teacher who was more concerned about being popular with the cool kids than whether or not she taught me. She held my shirt project up in front of the class and they all had a good laugh. One sleeve was two inches shorter than the other. From that point on, I believed that I could not sew.

canstockphoto2020194The women in my family do not cook. Basic dishes can be made under duress –  like four hungry children and a state mandate that they should be fed. I believed also that I could not cook. I did know, under the tutelage of parental OCD, how to clean the hell out of things. My hands look like a sharecropper’s, from the many hours spent dipping into scrub buckets of hot, soapy water. Cleaning was cheap and manageable and gave some semblance of control in a world of government cheese and subsistence living.

These days, I am middle class living below my means, but unlike gun enthusiasts, my apocalyptic preparations involve learning basic skills – how to grow my own food, cook meals from basic ingredients, sew and fix things. Sure, none of it will mean anything when the starving gun enthusiast steals all my stuff at gunpoint, but we share a similar institutional paranoia. The government has some ‘splainin’ to do about how it has manipulated our food supplies, set up regulatory entities that don’t regulate and allowed us to become so dependent on corporations that we can hardly open doors on our own.

Paranoia aside, there is something personally gratifying about knowing how to do things on your own. I am self-taught on just about anything domestic and it seems more important now that I have a child. In an age of information, you can find directions on how to do just about anything, but I want her to remember what her mother taught her – how to Google. Barely kidding. My daughter will know how to cook and sew for herself, though. She will know that she is capable of growing food. She will know what homemade means.

Last week, while getting a class on art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, I was amazed at the intricate and beautiful beadwork done by the Ojibwe Native Americans. No machines, no YouTube videos, no prepackaged kit – hand sewn and woven. The time and effort required must have been intense. And that is what it boils down to – time. We say we don’t have time for anything, but that’s rarely true. We have plenty of time, but the many ways in which we can spend it, diverts it into tiny fragments, the moment, the now.

I taught myself to bake bread. I found a recipe on the internet. After a few practice rounds, I modified the recipe more to my liking. It’s time-consuming, but only requires basic ingredients and an oven. I don’t bake our bread all the time, but enough so that I know the recipe by heart and my daughter will have images of her childhood that include a mother baking bread. It is weirdly important to me that she remembers more than mommy surfing the internet.

canstockphoto3932201This spring, we will plant another garden. We’ve experimented over the years and have learned the hard way about growing things organically (damn you, squash bugs!). Our suburban yard is not a vast acreage, but every time growing season comes around, it seems like miles, as it teems with a wide variety of foods. We have a cherry tree, raspberries, blackberries, and Concord grapes that grow on the border of our vegetable garden. Each year we try new things. My daughter has, over the years, stood in the middle of it, alternately eating green beans and raspberries straight off the plants.

In an age when we barely have to climb stairs or pick our own food or sew our clothes, we become further removed from the making of the goods we use, wear and eat. I feel uncomfortable with that. A vision of a gigantic urban over-pampered baby comes to mind. Helpless, waiting for someone, dependent on whatever we are given. It’s unlikely I’ll be living “off the grid” any time soon, but even maintaining the slightest self-sufficiency makes me imagine that if I had to, I could.

Kirsten Whyte wrote yesterday that she’d like to un-invent automated doors, which got me thinking about self-sufficiency. Thanks for the inspiration, Kirsten!

Autumn: Smells Like Domesticity

Autumn is finally here in Minnesota. A bittersweet melancholy unfurls itself and settles into my psyche. I become more introverted. I am cooking and baking. The house fills with the smells of freshly baked bread and shepherd’s pie. Windows and screens get cleaned, car tires get checked, and perennials get trimmed.

I get ready for the long season when color morphs into gleaming white and my reading stacks finally start to go down. It is biological and comforting – this nesting en route to hibernation. It is the signal that soon it will be okay for me to spend hours on scanning old photographs, finishing sewing projects from three years ago,  and reading anything I can get my hands on. Sleep is now more than necessity – it’s recreation. Snuggling under duvets and blankets of fleece and flannel – that’s my idea of paradise.

My husband and daughter would be the first witnesses for the prosecution, if my lack of interest in domestic duties ever came under fire. I am not a domestic diva. I do housework resentfully. I’m hit and miss on sending lunches out the door. My biggest victory this year was teaching my daughter how to make a meal or two on her own. I am, however, creepily organized and a massive de-clutterer, but only because the thought of dusting, sweeping or wiping around one more piece of junk we don’t need, will make my head explode.

My household members are hoarders-in-waiting. He’ll ask why his favorite ratty t-shirt is in the rag bin. She’ll ask about a lost toy, triggering a lecture on how she’d be able to find things, if she’d just pick up after herself.  I got rid of that toy weeks ago, but I tend to be a bit sadistic when I’ve spent the week cleaning up a trail of socks, dishes, science experiments gone awry, and neglected toys, which I vacuum up with glee. Good-bye, miniature poky Legos from hell.

Fall is the one season when I embrace cleaning and baking and finishing up painting projects. Cooler temperatures raise my energy level and I regain the ambition that burned away in the intense drought we called summer. We pick the last bushels of tomatoes, dig up carrots, watch our grape vines begin to droop. Squirrels frantically collect their supply of everything, shrieking at each other as they cross paths.

I’m digging out the bins of photos that I have intended to deal with during every winter in the last decade. This year will be the one! My optimism is always greater when I’m not sweating and fighting off invasions of box elder bugs and wasps. All the camping gear has been cleaned, rolled up and stored away. The wading pool and garden tools have been sprayed off and wait disconsolately by the back door to be shoved up in the garage rafters.

I’ve lived in several states where there are no definitive seasons except hot, hotter and windy hot.  My temperament seems better suited to Minnesota or any place that has average annual temperatures in the 40-50°F range . Rain or extreme cold does not depress me. Unrelenting heat blanches the happiness right out of my bones. My family emigrated from England to the United States in the late 1950s. I am first generation American and I think the cold and sometimes damp weather is still very much part of my genetic makeup, like black tea and perennial gardens and an affection for bizarre humor.

The length of my reading list for this autumn is impressive, even for a bibliophile. This year I intend to revisit books that have affected me at a core level. Mostly because I’m getting that middle-aged forgetfulness and can no longer reference these books in my head anymore. It’s a refresher course of Harper Lee, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Toni Morrison and Jhumpa Lahiri. It’s contrition for reading low brow books all summer long.

And so, I embrace the chilling temperatures and begin to reflect on the year behind me, sinking into the luxury of being able to sit still, to take care of where I’m at and to let out an exhale before a long winter’s rest.

The Patient Gardener

I’ve spent much of the last few weeks working in my garden.  The timing for hard labor and solitary weeding and planting is perfect. I’ve been fending off a depression that has lingered on longer than usual- perhaps the remainder of an impotent winter – little snow and mild temperatures. It feels more like mid-summer rather than spring and I lack a sense of time or purpose.

By happenstance I began to read The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets by Bill Moyers. The book is based on a PBS series of interviews Mr. Moyers did with well-known poets. When I skimmed through his conversation with the poet Jane Kenyon, her words immediately resonated with me. She suffered from depression and spoke of how gardening and being outdoors helped. Aha. This I can understand. She went on to say “When you get to be my age and you’ve lived with depression for a number of years, you begin to have a context for believing that you will feel better at some point.” I have a context for my depression and I know that I come out of it eventually, so advice from well-meaning friends falls flat and serves to isolate me further. I feel like I have to state categorically that they do not need to call a crisis line on my behalf. I’ve lived with it for so long that I no longer view it as a natural enemy, an illness to be cured. On the spectrum of mental disorders in my family, I inherited the sugarless, low fat, decaffeinated, gluten free variety. It’s bland and serves a purpose in my life now.

For me, depression is a signpost to review where I’m at and to acknowledge that I may have gotten off track a bit. It warns me that I need time to take myself out of my life and mull it over. It’s an indicator that I’ve allowed my internal reserves to become depleted. It means I’ve talked too much, helped too much, and said “yes” too often.  It also means that I’ve allowed my unrealistic expectations for myself and others to run rampant throughout my psyche. It’s the indicator to hit the “Pause” button and that’s the challenge. In a world where kids need to be dropped off at school, legal tender must be earned and people and cats must be toted to vet, dentist or doctor appointments, there is no “Pause” button. I become increasingly hostile and maybe a little desperate to step away for a moment or two or three.

And that brings me back to my garden. I get sweaty and covered in dirt, hum manically to myself, occasionally forget and talk out loud to my plants. My knees ache and I can feel the sun searing the back of my neck to medium rare.  A smell of thyme or lilacs drifts by and the robins chirp excitedly as I clear the weeds and expose dirt with easy access to worms. Bumblebees dart and hover over bright purple flowers, butterflies flutter surprisingly close and an occasional dragonfly darts by on its commando mission. A whispered, fleeting thought occurs to me.”This is happiness”. If I say it out loud, will someone tell me that I should make a career of it? If I say it out loud, will someone tell me how they can’t stand getting dirty or the heat or the bugs? If I say it out loud, will I be giving away my not-so-secret hideout, my rehab center, my psychotropic drug? How I wish I could capture those feelings for times when I cannot be digging in the dirt, for those moments when I’ve driving from one errand to the next and feel trapped and frustrated and melancholic. If only to have the “inward eye” of William Wordsworth in the poem, “I wandered lonely as cloud”:

I WANDERED lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed–and gazed–but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Only time will evaporate the dark cloud in my head and bring me willingly back into the world. Until then, I must be patient, work the soil and see what grows.