Flora & Fauna Friday

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My little Gekko (of PJ Mask notoriety: Gekko, Cat Boy, and Owlette). Around his knee is a taped piece of cardboard that prevented his knee from bending properly. He proudly wore it for the 24 hours I was there, except when sleeping, calling out “Gekko knee! Gekko knee! Gekko knee! Gekko knee!” Imagination, make-believe, and creativity are this one’s names. Perhaps we will be writing stories together someday, that the bigger Little will illustrate.

Also, this.

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Of Apple Trees and Books, and Missing a Generation

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The two old apple trees on my property are difficult to harvest—growing on the side of a lumpy hill. Six fall off the tree and bounce down into the underbrush for every one that lands in my apple picker basket. They need to be pruned, but the same lumpy hillside makes that task difficult too.

I don’t know when they were planted. I only know the family lore, that they weren’t planted years sooner because, my father said, “if I’d done it ten years ago there would be apples now.” But finally he planted them anyway and they provided applesauce to my mother for decades.

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When I started keeping a list of books I have read or listened to, I almost took a page from the apple tree playbook. I had read so many books in my life—going back to the Boxcar Children and Island of the Blue Dolphins, and the other many pages of words that filled my childhood—and didn’t keep a list, what was the point in starting so late in the game? It will never be complete, I reasoned. But choosing not to get sucked into the apple tree vortex, start I did. Nineteen years later, there are 905 books on my list; evidence that I am a reader. It’s never too late to start a thing.

Four of the last few books on my list are color-coded “favorites.” It’s been a bumper couple of months. For the record, the four are Educated, a memoir by Tara Westover of growing up with hard-scrabble fundamentalist parents who didn’t want her to become anything, but she did in spite of them; Becoming, Michelle Obama’s memoir of growing up poor with parents who taught her to reach for the stars, and she did because of them; Where the Crawdads Sing, a novel by Delia Owens about a girl abandoned by her parents who raises and educates herself; and an inspiring memoir, Unshattered: Overcoming Tragedy and Choosing a Beautiful Life by Carol Decker, who left the hospital months after giving birth to her second child, blind and with three amputated limbs due to sepsis, and learns to appreciate what she has rather than grieve what she lost.

It was sheer coincidence that the last books of 2018 and the first ones of 2019 have been about resilience and strength to do a new thing. Now I’m left to figure out what I’m to take from that.

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I’ve been reading my aunt’s letters home from her years as a nurse in the European theater during WWII. As I was when I read those my parents wrote to each other, I’m  anguished that I never knew to engage in conversation with her about her life before I knew her. I am knowing her now, through the letters, and I’m grateful they exist. Like my mother during those years when she was making a life on her own, my aunt’s independence and sense of adventure back then doesn’t match the person I knew and loved. It’s like reading about someone else. Who were these fierce women?

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I want all of them back. I have questions. I want the stories I wasn’t told. I want to know the mother—known only to me as an old woman—who inspired my aunt and father and lived so deeply in their hearts, the love and admiration and concern and gratitude flowing from their pens onto paper that took weeks to reach her. I want to know my mother’s mother, whom my mother came to appreciate only in hindsight. Two daughters raised so differently, yet—like Tara and Michelle—with much the same outcome.

I want back the years when they were here. But we don’t get years back.

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I went for a frosty morning drive this week and stopped at the cemetery for my first visit since the date of my mother’s death was added to the marker. I miss them so much.

I made a list on the last day of the old year of my accomplishments in 2018. In the face of all that begs to be done in a year’s time, of intentions set and not realized, it feels important to dwell on what did happen. I keep it in my desk drawer and pull it out when I feel overwhelmed by the present to remind myself that much is accomplished, even when much stays on the to-do list.

On my current list, before the winter cold and wet turns to sun and warmth, is preparing the upper floor of the house my parents built for new floors. It’s more than just moving furniture out and finding a place to put it for a week (I’ve not yet figured out how I’m going to manage those tasks), but painting rooms and closets and cleaning out the last vestiges of my parents’ 55-year occupation.

I will hold things in my hands and, if I don’t love them, thank them for their service, acknowledge the beloveds who left them languishing in the top shelves of closets, and send them to a new home. (In most cases, the new home is the bloated, constipated storage room downstairs. Cleaning out that room is another task, when my sisters want to give up some of their lives to help me. Right now I just keep the door firmly closed.)

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One (small) closet down, five (large ones) to go.

Yesterday I filled two boxes with items from the shelves of the kitchen broom closet so I could put clean color to the marred formerly white walls and shelves. I think I will not add the three yard sticks to the box of yard sticks in the storage room, printed with the names of hardware stores and flooring businesses; they feel like kindling to me. I will hold each of the other items in my hands and carefully choose what goes back in. I will return to the broom closet the tiny cabinet I loved in my childhood that was relegated to the basement at some point—still full of odd tiny things.

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When I feel snowed under by the tasks—clearing trails, finding someone to prune the apple trees, cleaning out a closet, reading wartime letters, revising my memoir, starting a new writing project, planning for my upcoming writing circle, moving toward the next phase of my business venture, a new website, picking up my ukulele, going on an adventure, or sitting still and reading a book—I will remember not to look too far ahead. The sunrise over the valley reminds me that every dawn is the beginning of a new day, the one day I have. Whatever I do in it is enough.

When I get to longing for the missing generation of my family, I look at these letters; hold the stuff in this house in my hands; feel my parents’ love for me, my sisters, and each other; offer gratitude; and write about all of it. They are here with me and in me. Their time is past—a long time in the case of the four women and two of my other aunts, with a median age of 97 years—but mine is right here, right now.

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Notes from Three of Earth Farm: Falling in Love with January

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The stress and expectations of the holidays are over. Snow could still happen. Winter has not yet worn out its welcome. It’s too early to dread the tasks of spring. Sunrises are spectacular. There is fog. Rainy cocooning days are abundant, yet interspersed with crisp sparkling sunny ones—but not too many. What’s not to love about January in the Pacific Northwest?

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True, the spring-is-not-imminent bubble is broken when seed catalogs show up in my box, and when my neighbor starts pruning his apple trees and mine haven’t been attended to in four years.

Last weekend, much to my regret after a stormy week, the sun came out and the temperature rose. After ignoring it for a couple days, I couldn’t avoid spending Sunday outside when I really wanted to stay in and paint a wall or work on my newest writing project or finish reading my book (Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens—a beautiful book).

I wasn’t going to go crazy. I was just going to accomplish one long-avoided outdoor task: get the St. John’s Wort under control. I am missing the stone retaining wall buried under it. It was harder than I anticipated. It did not pull easily, even out of rain-saturated ground; and pulling it from the downhill side of the wall caused the large stones to drop and roll, endangering my feet; and necessitating carrying them back up the slope.

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I gave it up after realizing it was going to wreak body havoc and I can’t take ibuprofen because I’m having everyone’s favorite cancer prevention procedure this week—and I don’t mean mammogram. I left the piles I had created, that didn’t put a dent in the job.

I moved on to cutting down the large dead rhododendron to add to the pile my helpmate is going to pick up for disposal soon. (He came on Monday! Two pickup and two trailers full. I created it all.)

I do love opening up space, which is kind of what January is about for me.

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Dragging the branches up to the pile, returning for more again and again, I tried to turn a blind eye to all the other tasks that need to be done before the commencement of spring adds to the list. Only sheer willpower kept me from sitting down in the driveway and crying. It’s too much. It needs a blanket of snow—out of sight, out of mind. I should live in Alaska. Or Siberia.

My mother, after my father died, hired people to do it all. I don’t have her resources. She did a yeoman’s job keeping up the house and the myriad repairs needed by an aging structure. She hired it all out; but as evidenced by the complete files she kept, it was a huge task. She got multiple quotes then followed workers around—probably with a clipboard—checking on their work, inevitably writing letters of complaint to superiors, challenging the cost, making follow-up phone calls.

Not me. I have a hard time asking for help for something I can do myself. It’s not a virtue. But when I hire someone (by webbing out from one person I like to the next), I tend to trust them to know their trade and to set a fair price. Maybe I could use a wee bit of my mother’s micromanagement, but so far this is working for me.

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Returning to the St. John’s Wort to pick up my piles, and rake storm debris out of the yard—dumping the loaded wheelbarrow over when a bolt fell out of a leg—I wondered how my father did it all. I had asked my mother if he hired any help. “No,” she said, “never. And it killed him.” We’ll never know if it killed him or saved him, but what I really want to know is did he resent the time the endless tasks took him away from his beloved workshop and creative endeavors?

This property was my parents’ life. I see that now. It had to be. I love it beyond measure, but it can’t be my life. My mother dealt with the overwhelming tasks beyond the yard by saying, “I didn’t want it to look like a park.” I’ve believed it was her rationale for letting go of what she couldn’t deal with. I do want it to look like a park; and it’s in danger of looking like back country wilderness if left on its own. But I’m overwhelmed. Hard choices are going to have to be made. I don’t know that I’ll make it to my 2027 exit plan.

Piles and branches picked up, fir needles and cones blown out of the carport and across the parking zone to add to the wet needles and leaves that need to be scraped off the edges of the driveway before they turn to soil, I was ready to call it a day. Then I remembered the roof. Holy crap. After the not-quite-epic Epiphany Storm, it had to be cleaned off. Sighing, I dragged the ladder down the stairs, positioned the wheelbarrow for dropping into from the top, threw the broom and bucket onto the roof, and climbed up. It was a mess. I shouldn’t have left if for last, when I was exhausted.

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I took two of my mother’s extra-strength Tylenol, only slightly past expiration, plugged in the huge heating pad I finally found for her too near the end of her life, and was in bed at 7:30. How many days until the rain comes back? Could it stay January for a few more months?

P.S. The dreadful procedure is over—”yucky,” as the littlest little is fond of saying—and all is well. The drugs were good, and I got to spend the afternoon napping instead of working outside. Unlike pulling blackberry vines, I won’t have to repeat that for a long time.

Today the rain is back. Yehaw!

To Love January

I clasp January to me giddy
with hope for its newborn
cry that clears away the worn
out year like so much tinsel

carted off to storage.
I love January’s uncluttered room,
its freshly laundered calendar innocent
and white beneath a pure blue sky

grazed by bone-clean trees.
To love January is an acquired taste,
like learning to let the tongue curl
around the slow, sweet burn

of Tuaca’s golden fire.
I do not want to wait for April to fall in love,
July to run with a salty sea,
October to be crowned

in color. I want to drink it all in now
when everything is possible
and I and the world are infants again
babbling, listening for birdsong.

—Davi Walders

(Thank you to Joanna Powell Colbert and those before her for sharing this poem.)

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MeMoRy MoNdAy: Another Goodbye

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It’s time for someone else to enjoy the bedroom suite my parents purchased circa 1964. At least that’s when I got their old dresser for my first-ever room of my own. They bought the old one when they set up housekeeping after the war, purchased from a hotel going out of business.

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I used that dresser for 48 years, until I moved back across the country six and a half years ago. My mother didn’t want me to take it back in 1976. “It’s mine,” she said. She finally relented, realizing it had become more mine than hers; and I began homemaking with it too.

I’ve changed its look twice. The first time I removed the blue-grey and Dijon-mustard marine deck paint my father covered the natural finish oak with; updating it. I reattached the mirror with the arms that of course he had kept for 30 years after altering the heavy mirror to hang on the wall, and changed the chrome knobs he put on in favor of something more in keeping with its original period. The second refurbish included painting the drawers and mirror frame black and changing the knobs again; updating it.

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The scrap of label on the back that I preserved when I refinished it. I assume they got it in Michigan, my father’s home state.

I guess my mother and I were both sentimental about it; I have kept it all these years. Now it has come out of storage and back into use, and I’m so happy to see it again. Someday, when she has room for it, I will make my daughter take it. My modest wardrobe doesn’t need that much room, and it has to stay in the family. (Heirlooms are hell.)

Meanwhile the Early American reproduction dresser and mirror, along with bedside tables and bed, have been donated for use by someone who will, I hope, be as ecstatic to have them as I expect my mother was. There was a lump in my throat when the guys from the charity carried it out. It’s the bed I crawled into when I had a bad dream, next to my mother on the far side. It’s the bed my parents slept in together for 30 years. It’s the bed she died in.

The chair my mother rocked her babies in stays with me.

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Notes from Three of Earth Farm: Epiphany Storm

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It was a calm evening, with a faint rainbow and a sunset that took me off my route home to bask in its beauty. From home, it was showier to the east than to the west. Maybe I should have had a clue that something out of the ordinary was coming.

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I didn’t know there was a storm brewing—”worst of the winter so far with wind gusts of 50-80mph causing massive power outages”—until I saw a Facebook post just before I headed to bed. Great.

It hit at midnight on January 6, Epiphany, the celebration of the climax of the magi’s quest. It was thunderous. Fir cones hitting the roof sounded like bowling balls. The lowest branch of the fir tree outside my bedroom window waved wildly—the branch I have regretted not including in those I had removed to open the view. At 12:25 a BOOM had me upright in bed; coinciding with the eerie silence of a power outage. Not a tree, I know that sound. A transformer, I assumed.

Branches hit the roof with a thud, then skittered off when the next gust wailed across the valley and over my hillside home and into the grove of trees on the other side of the house. Loud crashes had me clean out of bed twice, but there was no where to go. I desperately wanted to be in the basement where maybe I wouldn’t hear every cone and branch that hit the roof; but I had a guest in the Airbnb.

I wasn’t terrified, but I was anxious. I felt vulnerable, and desperately wanted it to end. I was at the mercy of nature, and there was nothing I could do about it but wait it out. When it finally stopped ninety minutes later, I prayed it wasn’t the eye of the storm. It’s not a hurricane, I told myself; there is no eye. Please, please don’t let this be an eye.

Epiphany: a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.

It was the end and I fell into fitful sleep some time later. There was no reason to get up before daylight; it was dark and cold. And there was no coffee.

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The power finally clicked on shortly after 8:00—just as I was lighting a fire—with Alexa informing me that my WiFi was disconnected from a power source. She knew the power was back before I did.

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I pulled up a chair and sat by the fire until I ran out of wood, then reluctantly dressed and headed out to clean up the yard and driveway. It took all afternoon. I hauled a loaded wheelbarrow full from two sides of the house up the driveway to the collection point. I threw that much more from the other two sides over the retaining wall into the DMZ on the east side of the house. A large branch—big enough for firewood—was probably one of the crashes I heard as it hit the overhang and fell into the narrow space between the house and the carport. I dragged it down the steps to the firewood rack to cut up later.

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Another loud crash was no doubt the stepladder falling off the side of the shed. I returned it to its place, and left the strewn plastic plant pots—that I keep meaning to take to the transfer station for recycling—where they lay for now.

The driveway debris was daunting. I didn’t know where to start; but, as always, I just began. It had to be done. It was one of those times I wished for a partner in this adventure.

Epiphany: an intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking.

The storm debris doubled the pile of rhododendron prunings I had stacked last month in my driveway’s turn around/additional parking area. There will be more before the winter is over, and I know my limitations. I can’t pitchfork it all into a trailer and all back out at the transfer station. Besides, I don’t have a trailer. I would have to ask for help, and that’s hard for me. And it needs to happen before the next storm makes it overwhelming.

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It was a lesson in doing what needs to be done in the moment regardless of other plans. I wonder how the hundred acre wood got along—there are always trees down in there—but trail and meadow clean-up can wait for another day.

I hauled a load of firewood from the grove at the edge of the meadow down to the wood rack by the house, then went back up the driveway for the rake and saw. Returning to the house, the eagle caught my attention. It glided back and forth behind the fir, coming close then moving farther back, then close again. I’m doing it, Daddy. Thank you for being here.

Epiphany: an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being.

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When I got back to the house, I sent Chris—the generous man who mows the meadow for me and for my mother before me—a text message to see if he and/or his son could haul it off at their convenience. He wrote back immediately. “Yes! Sooner rather than later.” I do have partners.

Epiphany: an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.

I checked in with my elderly neighbor. He said I was next on his storm report list. He was fine, without his hearing aides during the night he didn’t hear the three large trees that fell in the woods right behind his house that would have scared the daylights out of me. Without people with chainsaws, his access to the trail he walks with his dog several times a week—still, at 92— is cut off.

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I emailed the president of the Friends of Seminary Hill, of which my parents and my neighbors were founding members, asking if the Friends could help. He wrote back immediately. In the meantime, I will invite Robert and Gracie to accompany me on another route to his familiar trail.

I continue to live on this wild piece of property, caring for it, sharing it, loving it as my parents did. And following the star wherever it leads.

“Without the quest, there can be no epiphany,” Constantine E. Scaros.

A friend shared a newsletter from Abbey of the Arts. I think this storm and its aftermath touched on each point (detailed in the newsletter) of the lessons of Epiphany.

  1. Follow the star to where it leads.
  2. Embark on the journey, however long or difficult.
  3. Open yourself to wonder along the way.
  4. Bow down to holy encounters in messy places.
  5. Carry your treasures and give them away freely.
  6. Listen to the wisdom of dreams.
  7. Go home by another way.

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Wordy Wednesday

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For three of the last five school years, I have driven into Seattle on the Alaskan Way viaduct nearly every Monday to care for one or the other grandchild, and back across the next day. Trust me when I say it’s been the highlight of the drive, otherwise traveled on Interstate 5.

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This week was the last time. The high roadway flanked on one side by Puget Sound with the sparkling Olympics on the horizon (on clear days) and ferries, cruise liners, and barges and the Emerald City on the other side closes permanently this weekend. When it’s torn down, the penthouse dwellers will have their view unsullied by the eyesore of the roadway far below them; and the lowly commuter will travel underground in a two-mile long yellow tunnel.

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The new tunnel entrance

In the three weeks while they connect the north end of the tunnel with Highway 99, the 90,000 cars that travel the viaduct every day will be on already overcrowded I-5. Next week I’m not going. Then I will figure out some alternate timing for the duration. And will they really get it done in three weeks? Remember Bertha, the tunnel driller that got stuck?

I won’t miss the elderly short tunnel at the end of the viaduct. Remember when it collapsed on Grey’s Anatomy a few seasons back? Or the real life time not too long ago when the automatic sprinklers came on and drivers couldn’t see a thing? Then there was just last month when I drove it and the “tunnel closed, do not enter” lights came on when it was too late to abort and I had to sit in the full tunnel until whatever closed it was cleared trying not to hyperventilate.

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I will brave the tunnel (I am not fond of any long tunnel, think Princess Diana) until it becomes a toll road in June or so. When my weekly gig is over forever when school’s out (another sadness), I will probably just do the crappy interstate drive through the city on the occasional visit to the Littles to avoid the toll. Or maybe I’ll just get the darn Good to Go pass.

A cloud and I commiserated together as I drove the last few miles to the viaduct on Monday, after the relief of exiting I-5.

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On Tuesday evening, I approached the lower deck of the viaduct for the last time, heading back home. Goodbye old friend.

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