A Name for Everything

I had stopped by my coworker’s house to drop something off.  She was elderly and proper, tall and elegant, but cranky, and given to airs, and while I thought I would just stand on the stoop of her modest home for the hand-off, she insisted I come in.

She walked me through her small rooms like a docent in a long-forgotten writer’s home, one of those dusty little places preserved by ardor, quarters and a folding bill or two.  The kind of place where, halfway through the tour, you can’t decide if the docent is a scholar of the writer’s work or a half-mad imaginary lover. 

She walked me past the sugar chest, the Duncan Fife, maybe something Sheraton, the Limoges or Haviland, or Wedgwood china.  There wasn’t much of it, what she pointed out with such love and pride, and  I was too young to appreciate any of it, although I was polite, knowing these few items stood in place of the things she once thought would be bigger, grander, more.  She was neither mad nor a fantasist, but prideful and disappointed, yet she made the most of her few but fine possessions.

Then, as it was early summer, we had to walk the grounds, the small plot of land that was her backyard. Along the fence row were bushes and shrubs, some flowering, some just past, and we walked slowly in front of them, as if inspecting the troops, her hand lightly sweeping across each one as she told me its provenance, its common name, and when she could recall, its name in Latin. 

I was missing a Joan and David shoe sale for this, one I planned to hit before returning to the office in those stolen minutes on either side of an errand, shoes my own particular vanity back then.   Even so, as I pulled away from her tidy house on the small street I grudgingly admired her knowledge of and her care for things, especially flowers and shrubs, and saw in a new light the blooms she brought into the office throughout the year, stems wrapped in wet paper towels, a vase dug out from under her desk. 

Fast-forward and now I care deeply about plants, their names, their provenance.  And while I don’t inspect them in quite the same militaristic way, I offer greetings each morning as I walk around the yard, cheerful, happy greetings, like I did when I still worked and poked my head into open offices as I I toddled down the hall.

I am neither schooled nor trained in any way, but sometimes friends ask me to come over and identify plants or blooms in their yard. Some things I identify, some I can’t.  But it doesn’t matter because I have an app on my phone that will tell us anything we want to know about flora. 

It is called “Picture This,” and it is to flowers and trees what “Shazam” is to the music world.  Instead of naming a song in a few seconds, “Picture This” will tell you what plant you are looking at once you snap a photo and wait for the results. Already this week I have identified a bald cypress tree, arborvitae, and the Star of Bethlehem. 

Star of Bethlehem crops up in one small spot in my yard and I have no idea what I am looking at.  It is small, delicate, and blooms in early spring with these little white starburst flowers.  I usually pull them up because there is something of the weed about them, but then I identified it by name, and I found the name lovely. 

It is a pretty little plant, and I was all tenderhearted about it until I read it can also kill you.  Well, maybe just the bulbs can, and some sources say it is invasive, although mine have never overrun the yard.  But I dig them up regularly, bare-handed, which is a no-no, apparently, as they can be toxic. 

But just now I read they date from the Middle Ages and the Crusades so I am back in love with them.  They don’t really hurt anything, with their slender leaves shooting up then draping gracefully, waiting for the white blooms to arrive. I guess I will leave them as they are.

I think of my old colleague, and her insistence on names, not just a plate, but Limoges.  Not a chair, but Queen Ann. Not just a shrub, but a mophead hydrangea.  She knew these things like family, loved them like family, too, I think. 

My relationship to possessions  is different from hers, in almost every way.  Yet, now I, too, like knowing the names of things, their requirements for a long life, their habits and peculiarities.  As much as I am able, I mean to accommodate.  It works in the garden, it works with friends and loved ones. It works in life.

Church Camp and Something Else

It has been well over a year, one with illnesses and deaths in the family, new babies to be passed around like warm loaves of bread, and my oldest friends and I trudged through it all without clapping eyes on each other.  We reached out by text, phone calls on occasion, and enjoyed one very clandestine lunch, socially distanced in a secret location, when one of us was home to bury her father. 

We see her so rarely that we risked getting together to hear the choir of our voices, to laugh together, because surely her father loved a good laugh, and to almost touch in that awkward Covid way in which we mime hugs.  This one small lunch standing in for all the mutual support we have missed, all the hugs and tears we might have shared, the irreverent comments and sarcasm that define us, a thing that appalled my mother when we were young. 

But we are vaccinated now and Margaret decided we should go to camp. She will deny that she decided this, but it was her idea, and she made the phone calls to find out rates and availability, and the rest of us are slobs who sit around and talk big, while Margaret gets things going.  

We didn’t go far, just to Breckinridge County, to Camp Loucon, the Methodist church camp of their youth.  And when I say ‘their,’ I mean every one in the group but me, the outlying little Baptist.  I grew up hearing about weekend retreats at Loucon, was envious and heartbroken to have missed the fun, wondered which ancestor, way back, chose one Protestant denomination over another.  I pouted. We had a church camp, too, but it couldn’t compare, and it didn’t. 

So, off we went for a couple of days to the woods with enough food for a week, to commune with nature and each other.  We spent more time rearranging the food in the tiny kitchen than we did preparing or eating it.  We need a little structure, or think we do, and I had volunteered to share with the group yogic breathing and deep relaxation techniques.  Soon, we were flaked out in the corpse pose just before bedtime,  a couple snoring away on their mats, and being of a certain age where sleep can be elusive, we decided it was a wonderful thing.

My pals are all kitted out with iWatches and Fitbits and they do love their steps.  I clocked one discussion lasting over seven and half minutes as they compared the number of steps and flights of stairs they had scaled that day, and they may be talking about it still, I don’t know.  I went to my room to read.

I was clear, then, the next day when they wanted to tackle a hike involving a big hill, I wanted no part of it.  Instead, I took a quilt, a kite, and books to the large meadow, for a quiet afternoon.  I can’t remember the last time I was on a quilt in the grass.  Was I three? Four? Suddenly a rush of memory and I am in my grandmother’s backyard.  The grass, looking so soft, but not, really, under the quilt with tufts poking through, the blades surprisingly sharp.  The smell of earth, insects buzzing close to the ground, just at my ear, the wildness of that, the safety of my grandmother’s backdoor, just over there.

The afternoon was too still for the kite, so I read some and fell asleep, waking with a start when Nancy shuffled through the grass to stand over me.  We wandered back to the cabin together, while the others caught up.  Close by we met up with friends from home, volunteers from Settle Memorial Methodist, the church they all grew up in, who were getting the camp ready for summer.  They, too, had come to this camp as kids.  

Now retired, they spend time varnishing benches and repairing screens, whatever needs doing to keep the camp up and running.  They wear old Loucon t-shirts to work in.  It’s endearing.  We chat, and they talk about how their dads worked at the camp, too, years ago, repairing roofs, hanging doors. 

And I think about connection, how it doesn’t just happen.  It takes work, commitment, a burnishing of what is important. The holding on and letting go, the small alterations that keep us afloat in a boat with worn and peeling paint, but sea worthy, even so.

My Little Family In The Dirt

Already I have stopped by a couple of nurseries and picked up some babies, herbs mostly, but a Shasta daisy or two, hibiscus, a geranium, old-fashioned perennials I’m not too sure about.  But then, how can we ever know, I mean really, what the little ones will grow into?Will they take to the ways in which we have trained them, nurtured them?  Or will they go their own way, headstrong and difficult, exasperating us, bullying their more delicate siblings, hogging all the light? 

My happiest time in spring is seeing all my young plants, flowers and herbs together, bunched up on the porch in a puppy pile of color and texture.  They sit in the shallow cardboard boxes I bring them home in, and I thrill at the riotous abundance of it.

The day will come when I separate them, take them out of the playpen and put them in their own beds, and it will be sad for all of us.  They will thrive, eventually, more than they ever could on the porch, crowded and craning their slender necks so they might face the sun.  But for the first few nights they will look small and a bit lost in all that space I’ve given them to grow.  

Soon they will settle in, they will nestle sweetly under a brown blanket of new soil and mulch, but there will be a difficult night or two. They may get cold and need extra cover, and I will oblige, placing tea towels and pillowcases just so.  Some nights they are thirsty.  Other nights will arrive with too much wind, until the time they come to rely on it, the sound of it drifting them off to sleep, their roots growing sturdier with each gust and whisper.

I have taken to calling them girls. I greet them in the morning, compliment them, even when they don’t deserve it, just to encourage them along. But sometimes the compliments are genuine, heartfelt, especially in the early days and all that color and green and hopefulness take me by surprise when I open the door in the morning or return from an errand and see their happy brilliance as I pull into the drive. 

But I am a casual parent, too.  By summer’s end they will have had it, will have grown old and tired, or turned their faces to the wall, fading as slowly as their blooms. I give them what they need, food and drink, and I help them tidy up their rooms on occasion.  Sometimes a little treat to refresh their blossoms, or support for their giant and heavy heads. But I let them be themselves. It is the only way.  For I know, I always know, these girls will leave me.

A couple of grandpas and grandmas live around my house. I am not quite so casual with them.  I scratch on their branches, looking for that bit of green that says they have survived one more winter.  I watch for signs of new leaf or budding with a mixture of dread and hope and anticipatory grief. 

I talk to them, too, but in a different timbre, and we commiserate where as the young flowers and I dream. There isn’t much to do for them, really, but sit with them in the sun, enjoy the deepening shadows as they play across their faces. There are no heroic measures to be taken in my yard.  I tried that once, long ago, and hastened the death of a perfectly good, but aged shrub.  One that had a bit more to teach me. A bit more to give. I thought I knew more than I did, and overdid the cure, a cure for which there was no disease but simple, noble old age. 

My little family will grow over the next few weeks, more plants carried home in boxes and containers and little paper packets to be opened and emptied upon prepared patches of ground. I learn each season which plants are apt to be happiest here, which ones will need more light than I can provide.  I will stock the shelves with nourishing food and special treats, but not too many.  Maybe a little something to brighten their blooms like party dresses.  Maybe something to keep the bugs off.  After that, they, like all of us, are on their own.  

Better Dreams through Yoga

An early casualty of the pandemic was the pleasant nature of my dreams. For over a year now, every night has been given over to the most vivid and unusual dreams. I am in places I don’t recognize with people I don’t know, and always, just around the edges is a Greek chorus with enough familiar faces to ground each dream in an unsettling kind of reality.

Just this past week I stood in my backyard with my neighbor, John, as we watched the back of my house crumble and fall in a distressing pile of rock, brick and plaster. John’s house, on the other hand, stood straight as a sentinel, all tidy and reflected in a large pond as the sun began to set.
He reckoned it was the stream that ran behind our properties. It must have diverted underground in some way, eroding my firm foundation. I groaned to think what fixing this would cost, and wondered, even, if it was fixable at all.

My house, you must know, is neither brick nor crumbling, nor built on rocky soil. And while John is the best of neighbors and knows lots of things, he wasn’t correct about the stream having gone underground. The only thing that runs behind my house is an alley, a very nice alley that is wide and well-paved and my mother admired it so much she would go out of her way to drive down it.

And there is no reflecting pond beside John’s house but sometimes, when it rains really hard, water will stand for a few minutes in the gutters. But I don’t dream of my mother or rain-filled gutters. I dream this nonsense. Every night, all night long.

It isn’t enough to have one such dream. I have several each night. They don’t seem to be repackaged do-overs of my day the way some dreams are. And while they aren’t nightmares, they aren’t good dreams, either. I do many things in these dreams that are worrisome and odd and and discombobulate me.

But, in the end, I am doing everyday kinds of things in these dreams and that is one of the horrors of it. My mind is on an endless loop of unfamiliar and undesired activity, none of it of my choosing, and I am not even flying or rescuing my buddies from the jungle.

Last night I didn’t have odd dreams.

Last night I slept deeply and well almost all night long. Last night I listened to yoga meditations for six hours straight, right there, on my phone, by way of YouTube. I have just gotten up and I can’t wait for nightfall so I can do it again.

We know that sounds heard at different megahertz impact the brain, creating states of high concentration and arousal to deep relaxation and sleep. Breathing helps us relax, too, especially deep, intentional breathing, sometimes called the deep yogic breath. Anyone can learn this, no spandex required.

Yoga Nidra is the practice of yogic sleep, or that state between waking and slumber where your body is relaxed and your mind is still aware. But it is a hop, skip and a jump from that to a good night’s sleep, if you do it right. Guided imagery is part of Yoga Nidra, with a calming voice directing your thoughts while you lay flat out in corpse pose, my absolute favorite.

In Yoga Nidra great attention is paid to getting comfy. All that tossing around and pulling at the covers and smoothing out the blankets and adjusting and re-adjusting your head and limbs is a crucial part of it, and the yogi gives you plenty of time to get yourself sorted.

But calmly.

All your movements are calm and unhurried and the voice is gentle and warm and some of us may even be tempted to suck our thumbs.

Then, the music. Or what I will call music although there must be another word for it. There are droning low notes and tones that wash over you while the quiet voice guides you through imagined meadows or perhaps does a body scan which is rewarding, too. Who knew thinking about your right pinky or your left ankle could be so relaxing?

There are hundreds to choose from, deep sleep meditations and Nidra offerings, or deep sleep music with no one talking. I wish I had found them months ago, when I was in the middle of the river, giving motivational speeches from the back of a coal barge to all the 4th of July boaters gathered around…all night long.

Big Art and Little Winters

I have fantasies of fleeing the country, flying the coop, finding new vistas to gaze upon, vistas both exotic and comforting, with a pub and a few rooms to rent upstairs, a fireplace, perhaps, and signposts just there, by the road, pointing the way to ancient byways and Roman viaducts. Or anyplace, really, one that isn’t confined to my neighborhood or my own backyard.

Then, I read the news, although I try to avoid it, and Great Britain and the EU can’t seem to get their vaccine programs quite right, and even if we wanted to wear a mask for twenty hours as we fly across the ocean, once we arrive there will be nothing much to see or do. Everything locked down, or locking down. Fantasies in the dumpster, like old cardboard boxes and chunks of drywall.

Then, just as I was about to despair, I saw this. The Louvre, in Paris, is making available on-line all 840,000 pieces of its art collection for us to view while they remain closed during the pandemic. The Louvre, I am saying. So much art for us to see. The first virtual reality exhibit involves that most famous of painted ladies, entitled “Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass.”

And if you have ever been in her presence you know just what this means, this small painting, enshrined in glass and almost invisible behind the wall of backs and shoulders and cameras you must clamor over to get even a glimpse. It is exciting as you come near her, hear the muffled voices trying to be quiet but not succeeding, and maybe you catch a glimpse of her hands, half her head and an eye, but mostly it is just a crush of tourists and their shambolic images cast back at you by the glass cage that holds her.

This exhibit, though, imagines more than the mysterious smile, takes us to a belvedere where she might have posed for the painting, places her there, tells us how her clothes were made, how her hair was styled, the brushstrokes of the artist, his technique. It is not quite the Louvre, or Mona Lisa, but it is fascinating all the same.

I plan to explore the site to look for a painting I saw there decades ago. I can’t remember the artist or the name of the painting, but it was huge, and it moved me as art must be intended to do. I stood looking, then I sat down and looked some more. Then I think I cried. Or what passed for crying for a twenty-something easily embarrassed and not all that deep. But I have tried since then to find that painting. Now, I think, with patience, I might.

If that is too indoorsy for you, or you just can’t stand driving by garden centers without stopping, I can verify that daily they receive plants, potting soil and manure. The little kiosks are stocked with vegetable and flower seeds and everything bright and shiny and seductive. Tonight and tomorrow we may have freezing temperatures, but next week the lows are in the fifties, and, while that may not hold, it is enough to get me out digging in the dirt, working to get ready.

My friend, Silas, says we are in Redbud Winter. He is an expert on all the little winters we have in spring. I may be all excited about planting shrubs or peonies, hydrangeas and dahlias. His enthusiasm is genuine, but muted and tinged with gloom.

“Yes, but we haven’t had Dogwood Winter, yet.”

And then he sighs.

Which leaves Locust, Blackberry and something called Britches Winters to go.

Even so, he will plant beans this Friday, Good Friday, because that, too, is a sign that gardeners know and live by. My vegetable garden consists of herbs, basil like you can’t believe, and peppers, because the squirrels won’t touch them. But I am at least two little winters away from getting all that in the ground.

Until then, I will till and weed, sow some grass, although the time for that was autumn, and thumb my garden catalogs to pieces. I’ll listen to Silas, but not too much, although we will swap advice and encouragement. Maybe in the bright days ahead you will do the same. Admire the art the Louvre has so generously offered. Admire the art of beautiful things popping up all around, just outside your door.

Eastern Redbud