All posts by Greta McDonough

I am a writer, therapist, and college professor living and writing in the Ohio Valley. My work takes me to the Bluegrass, Appalachia, and Eastern Europe. I teach and I write. I read. Everything.

Sun, Rain and the Stormy Gulf

I write this from a beautiful place.  A place known for sugar white beaches, sun,  and sea turtles lumbering around burying their eggs.  I write this from the crow’s nest of the place I am staying, digs generously offered by friends who are down here, too, and find themselves with too much room. 

I write this dry, though a driving rain beats just outside the windows. 

It is early morning, even though I was up at midnight on the covered porch as lightening blazed and thunder rumbled, sometimes in the distance, sometimes clapping overhead.  It is a big rain.  A long rain with no signs of easing up today or tomorrow. 

A biblical rain. 

And I like it. 

But one of the reasons I am high up in the house is this.  One of my hosts is here for the golf, and just yesterday, also a day of rain, was to be his first day on the links.   Or should I say link, since he got in only one hole before the skies opened up.  He’s a bit cranky and working through it. 

I feel bad for him.  

Golf, requiring finesse as it does, has never been my sport.  I’m of an age now where I no longer plan a beach vacation around the hours and intensity of the sun, cabbaging onto a lounge chair at nine in the morning so I can have it still at high noon, the best and most efficient hour to toast oneself a gorgeous brown, the same activity that will land one in a dermatologist’s office forty years hence. 

My travel prep last week included coffee time with friends, laundry, procuring a house sitter and a plant waterer, and the purchases of high tech beach towels and a crushable sun hat.  Cheap t-shirts.  Sunscreen. 

In all my preparations I failed to watch the weather.  Didn’t notice the tropical depression working so hard out there in the Gulf to get a name.  So, it was a surprise when Claudette greeted me early Saturday morning as I drove with thousands of others heading south.  

A little past Montgomery I had just about had it and I tried to ditch her, or at least minimize her particular way of annoying me.  I left the bumper to bumper traffic and low visibility of I-65 for an Alabama backroad, I don’t know which one.  But I figured, as long as I keep heading south, the ocean will eventually break my fall and from there I just have to turn left or right.

Which is what I did. 

Instead of packing golf clubs, I pack knitting needles.  Binoculars.  Books.  Notebooks to fill with inspired and inspiring thoughts.  I save so much money because I bring them home empty and just toss them in my pack for the next time.  I pretend I actually live here, in this beautiful place with the manicured lawns and wild weather.  

I see myself pensive and tragic.

I see myself famous and jaded and hiding away from the world. 

I see myself in a muumuu.

But this is just me. It is early in the week and it is apt to rain every day.  I don’t know what my golfer pal will do.  His wife and I have other friends down here with us, and they are fun and busy, working jigsaws, getting mani-pedis when they can’t hang by the pool.  I, myself, could go for a spa day, if I wasn’t too lazy to make a call.  

So, I sit in the crow’s nest, giving my hosts some space to sort out their week in a way that won’t be too distressful.  There is good shopping, a movie theatre open, but still, I’m not on that committee and they will have to work it out for themselves.

Or maybe the gods will smile on us, and in particular Burnt Pine.  The course will dry out and the sun will shine on the greens.  I can loll by the pool or on the beach and try out that sand-proof towel.  Wear my new hat.  I hope so.  My friend  needs to golf and truly I have a head for hats. 

Babies, Blankies and Great-Aunties

I spent Sunday afternoon with my knits and purls and wooden needles softly shuffling against each other as I worked on a baby blanket.  Being in the midst of a summer cold, the cruelest of maladies, I was content to sit and sip tea and think about this baby for whom the blanket is intended. 

He is already here, Master Arthur Henry, and I only just met him a couple of weeks ago, this happy little fellow who smiles and gurgles and rolls over like a champ. 

He rolls with such gusto he often ends up under things, like my rocker, and he can’t get out, and I swear, I think for him that is half the fun.

He doesn’t live all that far away, but as for so many of us, visits with new babies have been a different kind of thing. His mother and grandmother are good about posting pictures, so it seems like I almost know him.  But really, those expressions caught in mid-air, the flatness of a photo, are inadequate substitutes for real-time giggles and smiles and drool. 

He is easy to hold and likes it, nestling in and burrowing his head just under my chin, only to pop it up a short second later.  He’s a good sleeper, I hear, once he gets there, but he fights it, afraid he might miss something. 

His mother and I had conversations about yarn color for the blanket.  She and her husband like a cool and muted palette, and I think maybe “oatmeal” was mentioned as fitting into the nursery scheme. 

I aim to please, and had gathered up a very soft, very bland wad of ecru yarn, had almost paid for it, when I just had to go back for one more look.  I couldn’t imagine spending hours working with it, it was that boring, and I think a blue-eyed, ginger-headed baby needs something as bright as he is to wallow around and wrap up in. 

I found a nice blue, not garish or cliché, and muted enough to work in the nursery, warm enough to be inviting.  

So, on Sunday, unwell and feeling sorry for myself, I spend a couple of quiet hours knitting and listening to the afternoon rise and fall just beyond my windows.  I’m glad I have met Arthur now, as I finish his blanket. When I knit something for loved ones, I like thinking about them as I work.  Not exactly as one might while knitting a prayer shawl, but kind of.  

If I am working on something for a baby or a child, I don’t watch Netflix or listen to podcasts, at least not my usual fare.  I might watch a cozy British mystery, but never anything gruesome or troubling, or laden with language.  It is as if the recipient of the blanket is in the room with me, and I have to monitor my surroundings. 

This isn’t even conscious, and I only realized it while working on Arthur’s blanket. I just couldn’t find something to watch that seemed in keeping with knitting for a baby on a Sunday afternoon. 

So, I sat in the quiet and knitted and purled, counted rows. I thought about him as I worked, but nothing so specific as hopes and dreams and speculations for his future. Of course I want him to be well-loved and happy, kindly treated and nurtured in every way. But those big, specific things, those are the wishes for parents, for their quiet moments of dreaming, 

I have a different job. 

I am the auntie, the great-auntie, as it happens.  My job is easy.  I just have to be here.  Sitting with a half-finished blanket in my lap, the stand-in for the little person who will fill my lap the next time he visits.  Waiting to get to know him better, what juice boxes to have on hand, what cookies we won’t tell his mother about. Discussing what is on his mind, his worries and his favorite jokes, or discussing any old thing at all. 

All on earth I have to do is love this child.  And to love his new cousins coming along in quick succession.  Knit them blankets.  Make sure they know where I am, any time, day or night, anywhere in the world. 

HUGS, BRUNCH, AND OTHER THINGS

We met up in Lexington, first for lunch and then an afternoon of catching up that dribbled over into the evening, and ended with most of us staying over, scattered over two stories of our friends’ new house.  This is the group I see three or four times a year, often more if someone is reading or giving a presentation or just happens to be in the area. If we can, we flock to the place wherever the others are, even if for an afternoon, or  a quick lunch just off  I-64, I-75, the Bluegrass or Mountain Parkway.  

An entire year and then some has gone without us clapping eyes on each other.  A year with illness and deaths in the family, new homes and weddings and retirements to celebrate and there we all were, stuck in our homes, Zoom a sorry substitute for our old lives, but we were grateful for it, even so. 

And then, on a perfect Saturday in mid-May, we met up at Dudley’s in Lexington, just as the farmer’s market was in full swing outside the open doors. Everyone out in shorts and t-shirts and their fancy little dogs, or their sweet rescues with fancy leashes, or babies in fancy strollers, and it was almost an assault to the senses all those people and all that color concentrated in one small space. We aren’t used to it anymore.

We arrived early and were shown to our table where we waited for the others to join us.   It was graduation day at UK and the restaurant seemed full, although tables were still fairly spread out.  Maybe it was the celebratory feeling chasing around the room that made it seem full to overflowing. There was more than graduation to celebrate this Saturday, as mandates eased and the world cautiously opened up.

When the last of our group arrived it was hugs all around.  We had been talking about those hugs for weeks, and they were worth waiting for.  No shoulder bump/air kiss embraces these.  These were full-on funeral hugs, homecoming hugs, the greeting and parting hugs of every wonderful Christmas gathering all rolled into one.  We rose from our seats and stood in the middle of the restaurant, in other people’s way, announcing who was coming after whom for their long overdue embrace. 

We luxuriated in those hugs.  And then we ordered drinks. 

There is something about the brunchy time of day that just screams for some kind of pretty drink.  Even if you don’t drink, you kinda want one, and one of our pals who rarely imbibes, if ever, decided she wanted one, too.  We spent a long time discussing what she might like, talking in that indulgent way one does with a child.  Do you think you want something fruity? Fizzy?  Orange?  Peach? 

We ordered for her, making sure it was something we all would like, knowing we would probably be polishing it off for her, which we did. We shared that drink like we share desserts.  We passed it back and forth, smacked our lips and struck poses, attempting to discern the elusive flavors and ingredients like the experts we think we are. 

In the afternoon we met up with the rest of us who didn’t make it to lunch.  We sat outside as the shadows lengthened, talked for hours about what, I can’t say.  I just know the conversation never dragged, we took turns speaking like well-behaved kindergarteners, we brought each other water and soft drinks, crackers and cheese after any trip inside. 

At some point we talked about books we were reading, things we were writing, what other friends were up to.  There was a huge yard to explore, a creek, a hammock-y kind of swing no one could get in or out of gracefully. We laughed at everyone who tried it.   Finally, pizza. 

In other words, a normal, lovely day.  A day that in the depths of our isolation, we thought might never come. And yet, here we are. We have a holiday weekend just ahead, one of the little holidays, which is perfect for testing the waters, with no big expectations but some family or friends around, some potato salad and barbecue, maybe.  Which is great, really, because a simple backyard gathering leaves so much more time and space for all those hugs.

Masks No More

I took my first small steps toward living life as a vaccinated person last week, planning a quick trip to Cincinnati with my friend, Donna.  We had a small window to travel since necessary events like doctor’s appointments and graduations have hopped back on our calendars. 

But we dared to take our vaccinated selves a little bit north, to visit the aquarium in Newport, check out a museum or two in Cincinnati,  and shop at Jungle Jim’s. 

We figured we would see the aquarium first, since it was just this side of the river before crossing over into Ohio.   We spent the afternoon wandering around, oohing at the pretty fishes, ahhing at the colorful ones, and eeking at the truly horrifying, Moray eels getting most of those. 

 The museum was death on masks, with teenaged staff on patrol, checking faces, peeking around pillars to make sure the four-year olds in front of me had their little noses covered.  

I was chastised once and I didn’t take it all that well. 

Because I was hot and sweaty and couldn’t breathe. 

Barely into the first room of tanks I began to question my choices of the past year.  How did I let myself get so out of shape? I struggled to breathe, could feel my heart pounding in a disturbing way, and I wanted to sit down.  As soon as I ripped off my mask once outside, I could breathe and I felt instantly better. I’m so suggestible, I thought. 

The next day and the same thing, but this time in the Cincinnati Art Museum.  Hot.  Sweaty.  Cranky. Faint. Miserable after two hours and here I was hardly moving at all, just sauntering,  when I wasn’t floating, from one painting to another.  And again, instant relief in the fresh air. 

What was happening here? 

What was happening was this.  My mask wearing up to this point had been brief.  The grocery.  Doctor’s appointments, where, somehow masks seem less burdensome.  I thought this little getaway would be a good test for living a little larger life, masked though I may be. 

So, last Thursday afternoon I parted ways with Donna, off to take a nap, feeling sad and disappointed. If Michelangelo himself came back to give a lecture on the trials and tribulations of painting the Sistine Chapel, if he asked me to sit in the front row so he might turn to me for encouragement, being scared of public speaking as he is, I would have to turn him down. 

Because I can’t wear a mask that long.

Then, in the course of an afternoon nap, my world changed. 

New guidelines were announced while I slept and the vaccinated can ditch the mask.

Two hours later and we can’t find a place to eat.  Every hip restaurant is packed, waiting lists piling up, the front of house staff shaking their heads, unable to explain why they are so slammed, so suddenly, on a weeknight.  

I can explain it. 

That there, that was freedom in the air.  

Release and relief. 

Freedom for those who wear one mask and another one, and a third on top of those. 

Freedom for the reluctantly compliant, of which I number myself.  I will do what I am asked, even while my head is reeling with conflicting data, mandates contrary to commonsense, and a nagging fear, larger at times, smaller at others, about getting sick and what that might mean.  

Freedom, too, for those who hate to be told what to do.  They don’t have to fight about it anymore. 

The announcement came so quickly, and was so general, it will take a while for states and businesses to catch up.  But each day now corporate masking orders are dropping like flies and it is fun to watch.

Some will keep wearing masks, I suppose, and that is fine, as long as they don’t cut those shaming eyes my way.  Or anyone’s way, really.  Because for now, the worst is behind us and we can make decisions for ourselves and our own safety.  I’ll hang on to that package of disposable masks for the occasional times I might need them.  But I plan to walk bare-faced into the sunlight, and into Target, the first chance I get. 

Right now, the biggest task before us is finding something other than Covid to talk about.

Won’t that be something?  No more Fauci, CDC, WHO, all of them having worn out their welcome in my conversation rota long ago. On to better, which is to say, normal, things.

Early May Gardening

I post a photo a day on social media, have done it for over a year now. Every day, at least one photo.  Lately, because I am lazy and also because I love the newness of this season, I post images of the flowers I am planting, the pepper plants and herbs.  I never have to leave the yard, and there is the added bonus of a photographic record of my early intentions as I welcome summer. 

But it isn’t summer yet, and the spring flowers, my favorite, are still making their appearance. Some home repair last summer threatened my Annabelle hydrangea, so I separated it into three plants, which I now call Sad, Sadder, and Saddest.  But maybe after a good settling in they will survive and even thrive in their new little plots of land.

The peony has bloomed and it looked lonely.  It needs company but it is such a lovely peony I hesitate to give it any because I am convinced no other peony will compare and a less than gorgeous plant will bring down the neighborhood, knock some of the shine off this one, out there, doing its beautiful thing. 

The porch and patio table still heave with flat boxes of things I need to get into the ground.  The packets of zinnia seeds sit on the mantel by the side door in a vain attempt to remind me to scatter them in the beds that have been prepared for weeks. 

But what I don’t have, what I long for more than anything, are my grandmother’s bearded iris.  There was an ancient bed of them along the side of her house, a part of the yard we were seldom in.  There was a cherry tree near by, perfectly scaled for children to climb, and I imagine that figured into our lack of unsupervised time there.  

But no matter, her elderly neighbor, Annie Starks, had iris, too, on the other side of my grandmother’s yard, and they stood in dense and uneven rows in the cool early mornings, dripping with dew and heavy with scent, a scent I will always think of as purple. I used to sit among them, feeling the cool dry dirt that anchored them, the morning damp on my bare legs.  

But surely this isn’t right.  Perhaps I just wanted to nestle down with them, to search for the little faces of yellow that played hide and seek deep in their throats, to drink in the coolness, the rich earth, the good place for hiding and being alone.  

The iris of my heart is purple, deep purple, I think, but maybe not.  I can’t remember now the exact color and no photos exist that might tell me. They may have been lighter, lilac perhaps, and I have searched for them in garden centers and other people’s yards, and I am surprised by the amount of time I dither over this. But it seems important, that color.

For my friend, Silas, the color is yellow. He has moved several times since his aunt, Sis, died, and always she moves with him in the irises he dug from her yard, the ones he transplants and tends and tears up over each spring.  She is miles and years away from him now, but never closer than when her yellow iris bloom, filling a vase with bursts of bright and elegant color, filling the house with the particular scent, swelling his heart for this aunt who was more than an aunt to him. 

I post photos of peonies and people post photos of their peonies back.  Or share stories of their grandmother’s peonies, how they wish they had them still, long swaths of them lining the driveway of a house no longer standing. I post close-ups of sage and Greek oregano, again, out of laziness, but also because the leaves are delicately edged and intricate in a way we never notice when we harvest them in a hurry, something simmering on the stove requiring their attendance. 

There will come a time when the weather will turn hot, which is hard on me, but not as hard as the humidity that will come with it. I give my plants and flowers as good a beginning as I can, knowing that neglect is coming.  In the sweltering, asthma-inducing height of summer, my approach to gardening is Darwinian. 

But for now, for a little while longer, let the tenderness continue. 

Bicycles, Lost and Found

My bicycle, my beautiful English bike, was stolen a few years ago, lifted from my garage in the night, just as summer was arriving.  The policeman who took the report explained it.  It was the time of year when bikes went missing, kids or professional thieves casing neighborhoods, striking while we slept. 

I blame myself, in part, for the loss.   I had workmen in to shore up the listing walls of the garage, and I gave a fleeting thought to moving my bicycle inside, away from falling objects and the eyes of people I don’t know.   And the back gate by the alley didn’t latch properly at the time and some mornings I would wake to its wide-mouthed gaping, blown open in the night.  These may have been factors. 

But mostly, I felt wretched about the loss and mean-hearted toward humanity, whichever particular members were involved in nicking my bike.  It was distinctive and easy to spot and I never saw it again, although I prowled the streets and stopped by the police station once a week. 

I decided I didn’t deserve nice things.

I had fallen in love with the British “sit up and beg” bicycles while staying in Oxford, but who doesn’t fall in love with bikes there?  They are everywhere, chained to gates with signs saying  DO NOT LOCK BIKES ON GATE, they sit shoulder to shoulder in bike racks throughout the city, in front of every college, library and quad.  At the train station a sea of bicycles, shiny bikes, rusty ones, leather saddles here, saddles wrapped in plastic Tesco bags there. 

I wanted one. 

A shiny black one. 

An old-fashioned one.

So, I bought one. 

But I bought it in the States and at the time there was only one place to get such a thing and only in one size.   If I am honest, it never fit me quite right.  It was too big, but I convinced myself it was perfect.

Now, I think I want another bicycle.  But I don’t know. 

If my own friends are any indication, the statistics aren’t good.  Most of my pals who ride have had accidents.  And this is the worst part, the part that depresses me.  Most of the falls have occurred as they were getting on or off.  

Basically, standing still, which seems too cruel to contemplate.

Even so, I see myself plunking along quiet side streets or cruising the greenbelt, maybe, helmeted and slow moving, taking the air.  Never mind that my balance isn’t quite what it once was, that my reaction time now is leisurely and vague.  I am searching the English and Dutch websites for big, beautiful bicycles that weigh a ton but just roll, and roll, and roll. 

But then.  

Then. 

In my garage, leaning against the ladder and rakes, is my old Schwinn Suburban, the bike I’ve had since college.  I held it upright, and even accounting for the deflated tires, it fit.  The way the seat hit me just so at the hip, the perfect height for momentum and stability. Holding the handlebars I could feel, even now, the curve of every turn, the arc of the front wheel lifting as I jumped a break in pavement or took a curb. The geometry of this bicycle the mirror image of my own geometry.

In her memoir, “Ghostbread,” author Sonja Livingston describes her sister, Steph, as kind and strong, and the reader experiences her this way, too.  Heroic, even.  But what I love best about her, Steph, is the way she commandeered the cobwebby basement, spruced it up in order to set up shop building bicycles from old and broken parts she and a neighbor kid scavenged.  Rusted and bent pieces found in empty lots and alleys, perhaps, and then—how on earth — they crafted rideable, like-new shiny bikes.

I’m thinking of Steph as I balance my old bike against my hip, inspecting the rims and wondering  how long have they have sat there, flattening on the concrete floor. Could I restore her to something serviceable?  What would it take besides new tires, a better seat and replacing the ossified gear shifts?  Surely, this wouldn’t be beyond me.  

What I can’t fix myself,  I can hire out.  Which, even as I channel Stephanie, I know is likely to be most of it.  I even like the way the paint is worn and dull, scratched up, a place rubbed raw on the front fender where the basket used to sit. This good old girl, left too long and unloved in the dark.

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.