Gardening – A Personal History

When I was a little girl, my mom and her best friend (our neighbor, Shari,) would send all the kids outside on summer days to thin the carrots. We were taught at a very young age how to thin carrots, and lettuce, and basil plants. We would sit for what felt like forever, but which most likely was about 15 minutes. I remember looking down at rows of tiny, fernlike plants in perfect lines in the dirt, figuring out which ones to pluck, and which ones to leave alone. 

 

During those same years, we would be wicked children and steal Shari’s lavender flowers and run up into the woods to our fort, which we had built out of scrap wood and plastic sheeting. We covered it with pine boughs for camouflage, and built a lookout up in a tree. Erica and I decided that it smelled terrible, due to the combination of Maine rain and the plastic sheeting, and we would make air freshener by smashing the lavender flowers in an old saucer on the floor of the fort. I remember desperately wanting to live up there, thinking it was a place in which all four of us could finally be free, but never having the guts to do so. 

 

When we were kids, in Maine, in the summer, the only time of the year when it is warm-ish in Maine, we were sent out of the house after breakfast and asked to only come back for dinner. We were not allowed to come into the house during the day, as the moms were busy making bread and jam and, probably, watching some television. In those days, we climbed trees, made canoes and kayaks into playgrounds, and took said canoes and kayaks out into the ocean, always wearing life jackets and staying close to shore, because even we knew that the ocean, given a chance, will kill you with its cold temperatures and hidden currents. We knew that each year people died in the ocean for failing to understand its power. If you respected the ocean, however, and stayed close to shore, you could scoot along the ironstone rocks over to the MDI Biological Laboratory and open up the fish cages on the docks, gazing down at the tiny sharks and horseshoe crabs, sea urchins and hundreds of starfish. We would gaze down at these creatures for as long as we could until we were spotted and chased back into the canoe by wary, and kid-weary, graduate students. 

 

These stories, I hope, provide the background for why, even as I now live in Texas, that I interact with and build my garden each and every day. I started gardening in the early 2000s when I worked at Whole Foods and would bring home dying plants from the 5 cent shelf. I lived in an old house in the French Place neighborhood, just east of Hyde Park, that had a beautiful front yard just perfect for a first garden. I remember the neighborhood cats would always mess with my plants, and at the time, I did not yet understand the interesting role of a housecat in the garden. (Hint: they think you made it for them). My first real garden was in the Hudson Valley of New York in 2006, when I somehow ended up living in Croton-on-Hudson and spent a few days before I had a job digging out a 30-by-10 foot space in the sun at the top of a hill for a garden. I remember digging and scraping, gazing down at the Croton River, with the Hudson River beyond, and a giant tree at the river’s edge in which lived baby eagles. It was glorious. The rest of the property was consumed by Kudzu, which, if you have never seen, you should Google. There were two rose bushes, which I hacked down to nubs in early March, and then thought I had killed, only to watch them leap into action come April; they exploded with blossoms. In the garden, I planted all the basics and watched my first corn crop grow sky-high, trapping a family of woodchucks one at a time, and releasing them in the park across the river. 

 

Today, my garden is bigger than ever. My husband and I bought a 5-acre parcel with an old house on it about 3 years ago, and we steadily carve it, sculpt it, hack away at it with each passing week. When we bought the place, the house was shrouded on three sides by overgrown hackberry and yaupon trees, and you couldn’t even see the giant brick barns. Most of the property was also overgrown with hackberry, but now, there are trails through 1.5 acres of it. We discovered a giant, old, rambling post oak that was buttressed to the point of being choked by hackberry and mesquite. We chopped those down, cleared the site, and got married underneath it. This year, it roared back into beauteous growth and is covered with healthy, green leaves. 

 

What is the magic of gardening? Is it the soil itself, the rhythm and ritual of planting seeds and transplanting plants from one pot to another? Is it the mystery of spring when plants, hidden for months, peep out of the ground and then, seemingly in an instant, are three feet high and rising toward to ever stronger sun? Is it planting tomato plants and then noticing the baby, green tomatoes hanging on to every stem? Is it the sound of the wind, and the songs of birds, and the whisper of shifting branches? Is it wild thunderstorms that shake the house but don’t rattle the tiniest of seedlings, somehow holding on to their spot of the good earth? It is all these things, and more. It is planting wildflower seeds, afraid that none will sprout because they are notoriously finicky, and then having 5 appear! It is the first return of hummingbirds and listening to them fight over the feeder, and watching their ruby-throated gem-quality magic feeding on the geraniums by the kitchen window. It is the butterflies feeding on sap, and your puppy chasing them on the wind. It is the orchard, once dormant and cold, unfurling with green leaves, and the trees growing taller each day. 

 

I say to myself each year that I must spend 20 minutes a day in the garden, and I usually make that happen. Sometimes I plant, sometimes I weed, and sometimes I just wander. On especially lovely days, I just listen to the birds and the bees and the trees. So many trees. When I was a little girl in Maine, we used to listen to the locust trees along the driveway creak in the wind, and were always afraid they would crash down! And they never did; they bent, but never broke, not yet, anyway. 

 

There are so many lessons in gardening and being out of doors. Those lessons are patience and calm, tolerance, beauty, an appreciation of color, and soft sounds. Nothing beats the sound of wind running through grasses that are waist-high, or the feeling of the sun on your shoulders or face on a summer day, or the cool crisp chill on your shins in the mornings of spring. I check my bees each morning, taking them food, and telling them of the weather. Sometimes, on those mornings, it is yet still cool, crisp, almost cold as the dew touches my feet. 
If I could recommend gardening, and I do, to everyone, I would say remember the first line of “Desiderata” – “GO PLACIDLY amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence”. All the answers are there; in this world of ours, when we all are able to move so fast, it is a wonderful thing to do something intentionally that is so slow, so colorful, so practical, so beautiful, so calming. I hope you have a wonderful day in your garden.

 

Date: 28 April 2020

Cases: 3,116,398

United States: 1,012,582

Deaths: 217,153

Mortality Rate: 6.968%

United States Mortality Rate: 5.888%

Let Me Tell You About My Day

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Today I was given a task: something new and novel after 7 days of nothing, of stewing, of worrying and brooding. Here we were: back to work. I was asked to call every student in my 2nd period and try to talk to them and their parents. I started off the day in my seemingly neverending quest for flour, but that is another story. Flourless, I began the phone calls at about 10am.

I have this theory about education; the theory is that public education, but K-12 education in general, gets a bad rap in the press, but in reality, people love their local schools. I spent hours today talking to kids and their parents. I spent time laughing and listening and commiserating and checking that they were all mostly ok. I listened to moms so worried their kids were going to miss out, to a dad who said his son was very sad to miss school (a revelation since I didn’t know he liked it at all), to a student who told me, in his typically friendly and nonchalant way, that everything was all right and he understood what he needs to do next week.

The calls took hours: much longer than I thought they would. Even though at times I became tired, I was thankful to reach out and talk to each and every one of those people. Sometimes, I took the calls outside on the patio when I needed some sunshine, and sometimes I just sat at my kitchen table and laughed and laughed with fellow moms of teenagers. One mom told me that I am the first teacher who has ever given her child a B and she likes me for it because it taught him to work harder. One mom said she was so worried about her three girls that she felt panicked but would do her best to make sure they walked over to pick up free breakfast and lunch and did their work for school. Her daughter, fellow nervous spirit, is so worried that she doesn’t have enough hours for NJHS (she has 46 out of the required 10) and that we wouldn’t be able to host the fundraiser for the cafeteria manager who has breast cancer.  I asked a dad of a student who wants to be in Early College High School that he talk to his extremely gifted child about the importance of being flexible and open in the face of uncertainty. As I write, another child’s father just called because he received my message earlier and wanted to check about the plans for next week.

I teach in a district with 87% poverty. Let that roll around in your brain a bit. There are all sorts of assumptions about students who come from under-resourced environments. Data says they don’t achieve, that they don’t have the grit of their wealthier peers, and some folks even say that they are un-teachable. With these attitudes come years of classist and racist prejudice that are unfounded; I have done this for 14 years and I have very rarely found a parent who does not want the best for their child. Even those two moms I can remember saying so were only speaking out of their own pain, anxiety, and fear.

I started today by looking at news that said we are facing 30% unemployment. This afternoon, I spoke to a dad who clearly was very worried about getting food for his wife and himself, and was relieved to hear that there are free meals available for his children. When I listen to parts of the daily press briefings, it is abundantly clear to me that the people in government have no idea what a dollar costs. They don’t know the price of a gallon of milk, or the choices parents have to make between eating themselves and getting food for their children. When I think about these things a lot, I become very angry.

I ended today by speaking to so many parents and students; the majority of my students said they missed being in school. The majority of their parents were very carefully listening to exactly what they needed to do to connect their child with the academic expectations of their teachers. All the people I spoke with were kind and said they were doing fine and that it was important that resources went to people who really need them.

In other words, I had a very positive, human experience. No matter how angry our government’s response (or rather, lack of response) makes me, I have to remember that in order to move through this experience, whatever it will be when we get to a place of reflection upon it, will depend on the actions of each other. We will listen and laugh, and cry, and find solutions, together. We will remember that each of us is trying her or his best and that each person cares so much it is incomprehensible and indescribable.

With love and appreciation tonight, I am going to go and eat chicken and rice, and not worry about the fact that I still can’t find flour.

Date: 23 March 2020

Cases – 378,679

Deaths – 16,508

Mortality Rate – 4.359%

A Fitful, Furtive Poem

So much sleep.

Sleep like puppies sleep; fitful, furtive, with frowns.

Strange noises come and tiny movements are constant.

Picking at clothes, slurred speech, the tiny rivulets of her hands formed by 88 years of experience.

When I look at her hands, I am reminded of another grandma’s hands: so deeply carved in sinew, bone and vein.

Drawn across the skeleton, skin so thin like an onion’s wrapper.

Tonight she wouldn’t respond to me, and I had to roll her little body over and do my checks, all the while letting her sleep.

No more medicine, no more doctors, no food for two days, hardly any water.

Today I spoke to her husband’s photo and told him it is time for him to come get her.

Taking Care of a Dying Person

I remember when I first met MawMaw, she told me to keep Cody on the straight and narrow. To be honest, she kind of scared me: this tiny, old person with a perm was clearly no woman to challenge. Over the years, though, I learned that tough exterior covered an extremely sweet person who felt herself to be much worse than ever could be a reality. She has given me and Cody so much, and so, when the time was right, we moved her in to our tiny, old house, and here she remains, in the slow and strange process of leaving the planet.

Last week was hard; it started with conversations with her dead sister Tootsie about Steve (her also dead husband) going out to the chicken coop in Bossier City only to discover a snake, would you imagine? We advanced to an admission of being afraid and a night of nightmares and everyone being awake trying to coax MawMaw back to our reality from one of her own. She sleeps with a little boy but doesn’t know who he is because she has never seen him. But, the last two days have been clear and almost normal. Her “symptoms” if you can call them that follow the pattern written out in the hospice folder. Perhaps we are within days, or weeks, perhaps not. No one seems to know anything specific about this mystery we call dying.

Taking care of a dying woman who cannot walk and who is bedridden while teaching 8th graders and trying to complete my first semester of grad school is very hard, and everything is suffering. I try to not take it all so personally: I feel defeated and grumpy all the time. I feel overwhelmed and sad and worried and anxious; I have a short temper with my students. I hope that will change, for their sake and mine. It is not their fault, after all, that they are teenagers.

She tells me funny stories sometimes, and sometimes I do nice things like give her a facial with lovely oils to soothe her “onion-skin” as her nurse calls it; paper-thin, almost translucent, and apt to dry out and tear if we aren’t careful. She still has her sense of humor and she winks at me when she is being wicked. I appreciate that very much. When she gets upset I ask her to tell me things about her children when they were little and about Bill (her husband) and when they got married, and how he built their house for $6000. Many times now, she doesn’t remember the details.

I have been watching her sleep and she reminds me of a puppy right now: moving, twitching, frowning and smiling as she remembers…something. I feel she is reckoning with her life at the moment, when both awake and asleep. She said the other day she wished she had been a better mother.

This process is slow, and it is also fast. Sometimes it feels like longer than 4 months, and then I realize how short 4 months actually is. So much has changed for us; our marriage is better for this experience as we actually have learned both to communicate and to take care of/appreciate the other one. We say “thank you” more and give each other breaks when things are hard: walk away even, or just kiss one another or hold each other’s hand rather than trying to prove something. These are good things.

As I type this, the north wind is blowing around the house, as it likes to do on some winter nights. I wonder how much longer she is with us, and if the wind will take her away one evening. I know the wind is a woman, and she a harbinger of change, especially in winter. We all talked about death the other day; we are all on the same page. We will be all right when it happens. Like she says, she has to get to heaven to be with her mama again, and her sisters, her brother, and her husband.

Such a mystery this life.

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am in a thousand winds that blow,
I am the softly falling snow.
I am the gentle showers of rain,
I am the fields of ripening grain.
I am in the morning hush,
I am in the graceful rush
Of beautiful birds in circling flight,
I am the starshine of the night.
I am in the flowers that bloom,
I am in a quiet room.
I am in the birds that sing,
I am in each lovely thing.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there. I do not die.

– Mary Elizabeth Frye

The Power of an Autumn Cold

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“Wild horses couldn’t drag me away

Wild, wild horses couldn’t drag me away

I watched you suffer a dull aching pain”

 

I caught cold whilst riding horses two Fridays ago; lately, I have been going riding with a few other families on Family Night at the local riding club. One of the benefits of rural life is that people get together to ride horses and have potlucks with wine and beer in the dark of a Friday evening; it is beautiful to watch all the teenagers racing their horses around the arena, teaching littler ones to ride horses at all, and then to, occasionally, get up on a horse oneself and try to conquer that lifelong fear of horses that was borne from being thrown at a Girl Scout camp all those years ago. We have been taking the teenager, River, because he told us a while ago that he really enjoyed riding horses. Two Fridays ago, the origin point of today’s tale, he told me he had changed his mind.

Have you ever raised a teenager? I have not, but I do teach them each and everyday and have done for many years. Next year is Lucky 11 in public school, and 15 in total. Anyway, I digress. River told me in the car, after mopily being convinced to ride bareback on a paint named Zoomey, that he really didn’t like riding because he had nothing in common with the other kids there. I asked if it was because they are all girls? He responded that they don’t have a lot of brainpower, and that all of his friends use their brains a lot. I asked, are you talking about playing video games? Moving on to the kitchen in which I was trying to restrain myself from, what Maw Maw calls, braining him while he told me that everything that Cody and I take him to do and everyone we introduce him to makes him uncomfortable, but when he is at home with his mother, he is totally comfortable, not shy and talks constantly. In this moment of teenage darkness, I chose the high road and told him I thought he should get out of his comfort zone and that we just want to make him happy. Inwardly, I was consumed with anger.

This was the beginning of the Transformative Autumn Cold: one that, even today, Sunday, nine days after initial exposure, still holds on to my lungs and nasal passages. It has a lingering force that can only mean one thing; I am supposed to learn something from it. So here’s hoping.

{Please bear with this tangent-filled exploration of my human psyche today. It all makes sense in the end.}

When I was 18, I became very ill which was, at that time, a mystery illness. I was hospitalized and was out of school for almost an entire semester. I lost most of my hair, had congestive heart failure, and an incredibly low blood count. It wasn’t until almost 20 years later, when I lucked into an amazing hematologist/oncologist who did a genetic fact-finding mission of my entire extended family’s bloodwork, was it discovered that my cousin Jackie and I both have agammaglobulinemia, a genetic disease that usually only affects males, but in our case, impacted two females of the same generation on the Blythe (paternal) side of my family. It was a crazy experience that was definitely transformative and taught me to appreciate every day of my life, and that my life had a purpose, although at the age, I didn’t understand what that was or even what that meant.

As I got better, slowly, and with the help of traditional and non-traditional doctors, I left home and moved to Austin, Texas to go to college at UT. After attending debate camp several times during high school, I had fallen in love with Austin and thought it was the bees knees of cities, and, I think, it was. A lot of people still think it is, as seen by the 150 people who move to Austin each day now. I would disagree, but I am able to as I now live in the country and like the slow life much better than the hustle-and-bustle-avocado-toast-trend-of-the-moment that seems to be the lifeblood of Austin these days. Oh, and not to forget all the music festivals.

I digress, again. Since getting sick two Fridays ago, I have experienced a lot of frustration. I was frustrated with River, and with the concept of blended families in general. I am not even sure if I would call ours “blended” as sometimes I think that Cody is treated like an afterthought, or a necessary chore, rather than an equal member and a father to River. (There goes that anger again!!!).

Digression.

In addition to raising a teenager in a blended family, Cody and I also take care of his aging grandmother, Maw Maw, who is in some sort of “rapid decline” as the medical people call it, but who, herself is in some strange space of denial-bargaining. She seems to think one day this will all stop; we know that it will, but not in the way that she wants. It is crazy disorienting to take care of someone who you “know” (?) is dying who herself has not acknowledged it truthfully to herself, except when occasionally she asks us to shoot her, throw her in the river, leave her out with the garbage, etc. (yes, these are statements that have all been uttered). I don’t know how to react to Maw Maw or tell her what I think. I just try to listen, keep her comfortable, and get her to eat something.

A few weeks ago, I took advantage of the in-house teacher counseling service at my school and went to a session with our school’s counselor, Mrs Williams. I talked about the struggles I have with taking care of Maw Maw at home, teaching 8th graders at school, and having a teenager at the same time. She told me to trust the universe and remember that Maw Maw’s age is a blessing, that each day is a blessing, and that I am there solely to make her comfortable and try to keep her happy. Other than that, I cannot fix or change anything and that it is really up to God, whoever I conceive of them to be. I agreed and had a mental image of my garden in the spring: full of flowers and butterflies and bees, and I remembered how happy being in the garden makes me, so I, at that moment, tried to consciously remember to shift my perspective from helping to supporting. That shift is a difficult one that I have to concentrate on each day, especially on days when Maw Maw won’t eat, or she calls me “that woman I live with”, her heart rate goes above 130, or whatever.

The last aspect of this current experience of transformation-via-autumn-cold is that my oldest friend and I are in a spot of disagreement, or perhaps a better phrasing is uncertainty about our relationship. I went to see her in India in June, and during that trip, said a lot of things that hurt her feelings, but she didn’t tell me any of this until an email I got last week. She works for the government, and lives in different places around the world for chunks of time, and then gets zoomed back to the US before zooming off again. She planned an amazing trip for us, and everything we did was beautiful and inspiring. Of course we didn’t get along every moment, but I have never traveled with anyone that I got along with every moment. Perhaps, most definitely, this says more about me than any friend that I have traveled with, but nevertheless, I was hurt by the fact that she didn’t tell me any of this while we were in the same space together, during which time we could have talked about this and she could have told me she thought I was being a jerk, and I could have told her that I was super worried about her and it was coming out the wrong way, and we could have found a place of peace. But now, she is about to zoom off to another country and the likelihood of us being able to talk about this in a meaningful way is quite limited until I see her again. And my takeaway from the email is that she doesn’t want to see me again, at least not for a while.

In this specific situation, unlike my frustrations with River and Maw Maw, I feel adrift. I am 100% sure I make mistakes, because I often do with people: ask anyone who knows me well. I can be harsh, overly-emotional, tactless, too optimistic, too domineering with my opinions, etc. These are aspects of myself that I was unaware of until I went through years of therapy to find out who I really was under those onion layers. Despite me *mostly* keeping those tendencies in check these days, or at least being very aware of them when they pop up and being active at fixing them and reinforcing the relationships they impact, occasionally they pop up especially with older friends, who have known me since I was 10, and knew me better when those layers were under wraps than now, when they are unwrapped and under psyche-scrutiny each and every day. My friend wrote to me that we are in different places in our lives, which of course is true; this is something I have been thinking of in terms of all my friends as I approach 40 years old. Some of us are single, some are married, some have kids, some don’t. Some live in far off places, some very close. Some have professional jobs, some have no jobs (lucky ducks — I think). Some are consistently sad or anxious, some are happy at their core, some don’t know how to be, some question themselves (all), some are blinded by ideas, and some see clearly. Some think they see clearly and yet are still blinded (all, again). Some are all of these things in intermittent moments: aren’t we all? While we are all in different places at this juncture that I call 40, but some friends may call 42, or 35, or 32, we can all be great friends to each other because we love each other and accept each other as flawed human beings who experience all the iterations (and more) listed above. Right? In what perfect moment are friends at the same point in life? I find it to be impossible, but more significantly, not important. I love my friends very much, and that force is much stronger than any job or house or partner, etc.

So, I sit here, at noon on Sunday, still sniffling, and wondering about all of these ideas. Teenagers, dying grandmothers, oldest friends who can’t really talk with each other; it is a quagmire.

Unless……

Yesterday, I moved a lot of wood: giant chunks, small branches, and a lot of in between sizes. They all came from cutting down a 236-year old post oak tree in our front yard that died. It was an amazing tree and we have many giant stumps to play with for the rest of our lives. It was hard for me to believe that its first year of life was in 1783: I have no idea what was going on here in 1783. Who lived here? Did someone plant that tree or was it just one of those magic, random occurrences of nature? I love that someone built our house just behind that tree and one more, as if they were planted for this house, when of course it was the other way around. As I moved all those chunks of wood, back and forth to the woodpile using the wheelbarrow, lifting heavier pieces just to see if I could, dumping them in loads, over and over again, I felt better.

I think the reasons I felt better were a combination of exercise-created-endorphins and an understanding of how I have changed in the last few years. Five years ago was the beginning of my last winter in Maine, when I lived in a cabin on a lot of land next door to a lovely neighbor and pig farmer who looked out for me. I heated my house with wood and really experienced solitude. I wrote many entries here during that time, whilst sitting at a round, pine table with my woodstove to the left and my sweet kitchen off to the side. There was so much snow that winter, and I lived on a property that felt like the target point of the whistling wind that came between two mountains across the road. Sometimes I would go outside in the evening to get frozen wood and would just wonder what the hell was happening? How did everything get so hard? It wasn’t until deeper in that winter that I realized two things: it had become that hard because I made it so, and that it actually wasn’t hard. I just wasn’t seeing clearly and especially wasn’t seeing all the people around me who loved me.

When I moved back to Austin the next late-spring, I was in a relationship for the first time in over four years, and really struggled with the same struggle. I asked: why is this so hard? Why can’t I run away? I don’t want to be here – or do I? Do I want to teach again? All of that time, I had these wonderful friends around and a lovely boyfriend who just loved me and wanted me to be happy. Cody had his own growing to do, but he did it, but in terms of me, he was always loving and encouraging. I had this barrier up that said something like…you can’t be happy because if you do, they will find out all these bad things about you and then what will you do? It was something like that, and was couched in my experience of getting pregnant at 15 and living in an alcoholic family with a Vietnam vet for a father who never let his own bad experiences go and a mom who sought to control everything at everyone’s expense. It is fascinating to me how we can get locked in our own psyches without our knowledge, because some series of experiences can be so painful or frightening. I was lucky because I did discover the key to my own salvation: forgiving myself, grieving for that painful experience, and finally seeing all the people around me who just plain loved me. It was then that I could love them, too.

One of my takeaways from my last 5 years is an understanding that I have no control over anything (I still struggle with this: referencing that convo with River, my issues with wanting Maw Maw to get better when it is not up to me, or being hurt and bewildered by my friend’s email). This popped into my head yesterday whilst moving all those loads of wood.

Another is that I have changed over these interim years, thanks to my friends, myself and cognitive behavioral therapy. It took years of talk therapy to get to the discovery of the need for CBT. I think it saved my emotional life. I realized yesterday, whilst in the woods, walking back to the front yard, that I am so valued and appreciated by people at my school, and I have the power now to recognize that and build on it. I don’t think I could see that clearly before, because I couldn’t believe that people would see me that way. I got divorced back in 2009, and I realized that the last time I felt this valued was just before the divorce; it was a great discovery to me that the experience of divorce, in the moment, set me further back on this journey. But then again, that experience was what spurred this self-discovery of the last 10 years, so there you go. I also feel so appreciated and valued by my friends. I feel terrible that my oldest friend doesn’t feel that I feel that way about her, even though I do. I think that old habits die hard, and apparently I crossed a line for her and can only hope she forgives me.

My last takeaway here is that life just keeps moving forward each day. I have found the key to juggle all of the dishes spinning in my life right now is to remember this in every moment I possibly can. My coworker Nicole says that nothing phases me right now, and my other coworker Tori says I have such a “chill vibe”. I think they are sweet, and definitely wrong about this sometimes (the emotional swings still happen!), but I love those notes of appreciation and I look at them at lessons in remembering to stay present whenever I can, in remembering impermanence and the lesson of trying to be equanimous. It helps me find peace in this chaos.

The only power I have in this situation is to love my people: love River especially when he makes me crazy. Love Maw Maw and try to make her laugh a couple of times a day. Love Cody and thank him for loving me, too. Love my friends and try to make sure they know how much I care about them, but not in a way that offends them.

I think I appreciate this cold now, can bless it and send it off into the autumn wind that is blowing around my house. Is that rain?

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Things I have learned

My grandma was a tiny, little person who lived in a big, detached house in a town called Formby in the north of England. She walked each day to the village, never learned to drive, and was married to my grandpa for almost 50 years; he died just a few months shy of their anniversary. When he went to fight in the war, she stayed home of course, and waited for him for almost 4 years. Occasionally he would send letters and boxes of citrus from the north of Africa. When he returned, they met at Lime Street Station in Liverpool: a place I visited with my Aunt Barbara just two summers ago. My grandma was a horrible cook with a fantastic 1950s kitchen; everything she made was grey or beige and had a similar, floppy, boiled consistency. My grandpa used to say that the Yanks won the war by throwing my grandma’s cooking at the Brits!

My grandma died in 2004 of kidney failure complicated by vascular dementia. By that time, she time traveled almost daily and confused people, places and times. She told us loads of stories that had been secrets and maintained her love and devotion to my grandpa, who had left us 10 years earlier.

Tonight I sit in my dining-sewing room, at my table, staring into my living room and listening to the sounds of the air conditioner. Tonight I noticed that the light is changing, and the beams cast out by a setting sun are gold and pink and at such a slant that it catches, metallic, in the corners of your eyes, forcing your gaze up at an autumn sunset. It is a beautiful time of the year.

Cody and I have been taking care of Cody’s grandma for about a week. Maw Maw grew up in Port Neches, Texas, on Wilson Street, in a tiny green house. Her mother died in childbirth and she was raised by a stepmother and her father. She met Cody’s grandfather in high school when her girlfriend was dating him, but changed her mind and suggested Marie might like him more. They married and he built them a house a few streets over, on Lee Avenue, in 1962. It was a small house with 4 rooms and one small a/c in the window of the childrens’ room. He later expanded it with a second living room and a master suite. She spent 88 years living in such a small area: just two streets minutes from each other. She worked as cafeteria manager at the elementary down another side street, and her house is mere blocks from the intercoastal waterway: a path to the ocean. Last night she asked me if there was anywhere around here to get shrimp. I had to laugh and tell her we are a ways away from the coast. She is sweet, and easy to talk to, and a straight shooter. Taking care of her, however, is quite difficult and takes so much time. It can be a real struggle, and is an experience not understood by almost anyone we know. But there is beauty in it, and in small moments of chatting on the side of the bed, and making small victories in skin care or adjusting medicine or getting someone to stand up who hasn’t for a month.

I wonder what it would have been like to know my grandparents as most people know theirs. I still miss them, despite the fact that I only saw them every few years, and they died when I was still too young to really understand their importance. Despite that, I think of my grandpa and grandma all the time: when I eat cookies, or smell smoke, or feel wool, or eat lettuce, or think of windy beaches, good people, laughing, blue eyes, and true, loving care.

The Year of Magical Thinking

I just started reading this book, by Joan Didion. She physically (and, as I read, emotionally/spiritually/whatever) reminds me of my friend Meredith, who I lost almost nine years ago. I was inspired to write to her, as I do often talk to her, in the garden, on the patio, gazing up at the stars and the clouds of Milky Way on dark, dark nights. Please bear with me as I write to her here, and no doubt jettison us off somewhere.

I was thinking about you just now, as I was reading the second chapter of “The Year of Magical Thinking”; have you read it? When I think of you, and of Joan Didion, I think of women very physically similar: tiny, thin like birds, blonde hair, great style, strong wit, indefatigable intelligence. But you were you and she is Joan Didion: after all, there is a Netflix biography on her, when, sadly, there is not one on Meredith Farmer. If I were to see Joan Didion at the supermarket, if I didn’t already know who she was, I would see someone like you: a middle-aged lady with simple elegance, beautifully-colored hair, probably looking with disdain at something in produce, ever in judgement of all the “normal” things.

You’ve been gone almost nine years, and life has ebbed and flowed and changed, moved around, wiggled, metamorphosized a wee bit (as my grandma would have said: she now gone 15 years, and that, another story). Ultimately, though, life is still the same: I am just more skilled at handling its curve balls due to experience and therapy and probably, my friendship with you.

There was a night about  6 years ago when I chatted with you off my front porch in Northeast Harbor, Maine, when I lived in the Dollhouse (or the Fishbowl, depending on who you asked) : the tiny house on the town parking lot in which my comings and goings were very public knowledge and everything in the house was so small. My closet was a pole that hung at the end of the bed, and the shower felt like I was hosing myself off on a dock somewhere with hot water. But, it was $650 a month and the landlords were dolls and I walked to work and to get breakfast sandwiches at Ben’s, and I had a wonderful, small garden of unruly morning glories that threatened to take over the house! I had many memorable conversations on that porch, on the picnic table that I stole from someone’s trash and Dan Bondo‘d so that it would survive, and I painted Seal Harbor Green after JRa and I put in the new path up to the front door, made from stone dust that we bought mostly drunk one day from the quarry in Trenton. That was where you and I talked, formally, the last time. Informally in between, many times. I don’t know what we talked about, but I am sure that I asked you questions and you laughed at me, in a loving way.

I remember, at your funeral, there was a slideshow of pictures of you. My favorite was a photo of you in college, cigarette in your right hand and an ERA button on your left lapel. Your hair was strawberry blonde and you looked so damned engaged. I feel, I wonder, do we lose those feelings as we get older? Do we blame husbands/partners/kids and is that bullshit? Is it just projecting like everything else: an excuse to disengage, to check out? What do you think?

I see you smiling. I feel like you are at the pool right now, but perhaps that’s just because I read a chapter in which Joan Didion describes her newly dead husband as having a daily routine of reading in the pool (reading “Sophie’s Choice“, no less) while she gardened, and of course that made me think of my small 8 foot cattle waterer pool that I bought after doing some work for the old lady next door and now I share with Cody almost every day, sometimes several times a day, despite his almost constant chagrin with me about how I let the leaves and flowers and bugs in, and he doesn’t.

Such is married life, to someone I am actually married to, rather than the first one, that you bore witness to, or to your 2nd, as I bore witness to. Marriages, men, children, time: rental houses and the houses we “own”. All the stuff within those houses, the boxes, the moving, the priority of sorting out the kitchen, the living room, the bedrooms. The conversations about Mama and Daddy and who built Mansfield Dam, what the role of all the boyfriends and husbands actually were. I look at your Carnival Glass dish, blue with a sheen of multi-color on it, as if it is coated with oil, all the time: I think of you wryly smiling at me, or of that day we went fishing on the dock of my neighbor’s house on the Croton River, when Steve and I lived with Brien and you came to visit and told me I was a witch because my garden grew so well!

I think, in the end, that the boyfriends and husbands are not as important as the memories of people as unique entities in and of themselves. I remember you as such: and think of you this way often. I find it funny, sweet, sad and ultimately, joyful, that you still are such a part of me: that we still talk. I wish you could see where I am now, as it is a very nice place (and the pool is pretty nice, too) and you would like Cody a lot. You would laugh at both of us, in a loving way.

Rest in peace: I miss you. Love, Patience

In a Building, on a Mountain, near a Telescope, Hurtling Through Space

 

20180619_173034View of the Davis Mountains

Over the last two days, I have spent my time at the McDonald Observatory, touring telescopes, learning about the origins of the universe, and gazing into the cosmos. I have learned about the age of the universe and cosmic microwave background radiation, and how there is a giant telescope with 91 hexagonal mirrors being built to stare into the heavens 10 billion years back.

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Hobby-Eberly Telescope being prepped for the HEXDET Experiment

Awe is an understatement when one looks through a tiny eyepiece on a 36cm telescope and sees the Cassini Division, or a group of stars that look like someone just dropped diamond dust on a piece of black velvet. The awe extends to the surface of each of those 91 identical mirrors, as you watch a lithe and agile woman scamper and climb underneath them in order to take dirty ones out to be replaced with perfectly clean copies. Awe continues when you see photos of your heroes, Carl Sagan and Jane Goodall, Galileo and Neil deGrasse Tyson decorating the walls and declaring the power of imagination and the drive to determine the beauty and power of a great idea.

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Carl Sagan!!! 

The experience of seeing these giant creations of men and women has been nothing short of stupendous. I have decided, and inwardly declared, that astronomy is this wonderful, magic, perfect-as-is-possible discipline in which people combine science, math, engineering, imagination and art. I have seen a telescope from 1939 paid for by a kindly bachelor banker who owned a car but never drove it, who paid for a beautiful German atomic crystal clock but never saw it, and who bequeathed his books, including “The Social Life of Insects” to an astronomy department that had yet to exist. Today I was able to wander around a larger telescope birthed from the need for better technology and the funding of the space race…it is a giant, a megalith of steel, lead, glass and concrete. In it are 4 or 5 mirrors, depending on what its being used for, that bounce light up and down and back again, into the floor below, to produce spectrographs of distant stars. I listened to two students tell us about how they are looking for evidence of exoplanets using the study of spectroscopy and this giant instrument that literally beams light from distant skies down below their feet.

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Harlan Smith Telescope, McDonald Observatory 

I have learned that there is no center and all positions within the universe are the center, at the same time. I have learned that the universe has some sort of three-dimensional shape but that it exists on a plane of its own creation and has a fourth dimension of time. Is time, then, a construct? Or is it real? What is real?

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The Art in Astronomy is surprising and beautiful 

These last few weeks have been trying, terrible, and emotionally despairing times for many. Seeing, as a part of the 24-hour news cycle, that our civilization is in decline far deeper than perhaps we had thought leaves us feeling fraught and frayed. Seeing our fellow humans in pain and as humans, though, is a powerful driver in helping all of us see our sisters and brothers as just that. I am an optimist, despite the dark that seems all around. I like to think that at least we saw each other in these moments, and we reached out to help, and help we did, though we must continue. I think the power of extending a heart-in-hand, especially to children and their mothers, will never serve us wrong, and perhaps is a step in the journey to what might be right and better for all of us.

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This is our Sun, whose light is passed through and projected on a wall, and refracted using a diffraction grating. Isn’t it gorgeous? 

I generally always feel that I am exactly where I am supposed to be in any given moment. It is a strategy that helps me find gratitude and peace with what is happening. I also have been lucky, thus far, to land on my feet. I have been wondering today, especially tonight, as I sat outside a 36cm telescope and listened to it sing like a humpback whale as it re-calibrated itself, as I stared up at the stars and listened to the funny conversations of colleagues trying to take photos of the moon on their smart phones through the Dobsonian Telescope’s eyepiece, that perhaps I have been here for a few days to remember the greatness of the capacity of human possibility and imagination. There is no greater evidence of that than looking at these telescopes up close and realizing the amount of dedication and dreaming that goes into each one of them. I asked the facilitator what drives the design and fabrication of new telescopes, and she told me, “scientific goals”. I asked her what scientific goals are inspiring the new, almost complete Magellan Telescope and she told me there were so many that it was hard to think of all of them. How wonderful an idea is that? That there are so many dreams that a real expert in her field cannot even think of all of them.

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Struve Telescope, McDonald Observatory 

I love Langston Hughes’ poetry and this one really stands out to me tonight, my last evening in this building, on a mountain, near a telescope, hurtling through space. May it serve you, too. With love and hope, P

 

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

20180619_172618The McDonald Observatory grounds from my southwest-facing window. 

Uncertainty

This morning, as most of the school was walking to morning assembly, two 8th graders bounced up to me and said: “Ms Blythe!!!! It’s been SO long!” These two were my students when they were 6th and 7th graders, and I came to know them from when they were very small to when they were very awkward to when they were almost teenagers, and now, they are on their way to high school. It is amazing to bear witness to the growth of children, and to be a person they trust with their feelings: both fears and joys.

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Robert Indiana, first day of issue January 26, 1973

One told me about a drama about a friend, a fight, and head lice: the fare of middle school experience and friendship. As we were walking into the gym together, the other one said: “Ms Blythe? If we go to war, will it be like World War III?” I said, “Well. I need you to look at me while I say this.” She said, “ok” and looked directly at me. I put my arm around her and said, “I have absolutely no idea. But if it is, we will go through it together.”

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Ali Cat Leeds of EntangledRoots.com

It’s been ages since I wrote here, and really ages since I documented my last public school teaching experience in inner city Philadelphia. This school year is so trying: the students are dealing with so much stress, and so are the teachers. What is funny (the type of funny that is tragic, not laugh-out-loud) is that, in the public education sphere, or at least my public education sphere, no one is speaking out or with each other about the stress that the outer world is causing in our hearts and minds.

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Hope by George Frederic Watts, 1886

I taught a professional development yesterday on how to teach good quality projects. At the beginning, I asked teachers to play by working 6 feet of wire into something that represented what was going on with them yesterday morning. Most jumped into the task, a few fought it at first, one point-blank refused and left. After a few minutes, it was fascinating to watch a group of 30 adults playing with wire, bending it, shaping it, talking to their friends, laughing, wondering: bemused at their own inner-workings. A few spoke about their sculptures, but most just left them on a large table, much like children do. I realized during the second session that the vast majority of my adult students were overwhelmed, tired, sad, confused, stressed-out and hollow-eyed. They didn’t know what to do in terms of developing a project. I realized at the end of the first session that we really should have canned it all and done something else, but it was too late, and there was no Plan B.

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Candles burning in a Buddhist temple: photographer unknown

When that student asked me about World War III earlier today, I almost cried then and there. Later, we had a tornado drill and I envisioned my portable being picked up and carried by a giant tornado that would drop us on our side somewhere down the road.

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Teachr, Teach Peace – his Facebook is here

I watched a video by Robert Reich the other day in which he explained that stress, feelings of trauma, dread, despair, are all common-place in our current state of affairs. I think we can see evidence of that from before this president was elected in the opioid epidemic: we are the only country in the world who is dying in huge numbers of hopelessness, sadness, and desperation, however, I will say that those feelings may be experienced currently by more people than pre-election day 2016.

America, poor America! You sick culture of racism and of classism, and of feelings of not being good enough, smart enough, rich enough. As adults, we can try to dismiss those fears or at least cloud them with exercise, working in the garden, cooking, drinking wine,  and eating too much dessert. But our children: my question is, what can they do?

My students are in 7th grade. They were born in the year 2005, four years after 9/11, and after the beginning of what is now America’s longest war. They have never known their country in peace-time. During their lives, America has increased its prison population, and the awareness of the murder of African-Americans by police has become commonplace thanks to social media. Their media life is one of Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Paris bombings, Orlando and now Las Vegas shootings. Their governmental life was one of hope with President Obama, shot down by the election of Donald Trump, and colored by his rants about North Korea, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Iran.

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Unknown, brilliant Twitter cartoonist

Most of my students are immigrants or children of immigrants. Most of my children are economically classed as “poor”. Most of my children have parents who are working so hard just to give them what society demands is necessary: tiny mega-computers that broadcast this information-propaganda-fear into their pockets, into their living rooms, into their eyes, into their minds at night when they are alone. How frightening is this? How more frightening is it that we, the adults, are so scared that we do not know how to discuss it in a pro-active, assertive, and hopeful way?

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Almond botanical drawing: in the language of flowers, Almond is for Promise

Hugs do a lot, but they do not do enough. As a teacher, as a step-parent to a 7th grade child, it is up to me to shield where I can, but be willing to talk when the questions come up, because the shield that my parents had for me no longer exists. The courage lies in looking into the dark and understanding that we know very little more than we did when we were 7th graders, and the courage comes from the very thing itself: courage to believe, courage to speak, courage to love, courage to hope.

I hope to write more here. I hope to hear from you. With love, P

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Ali Cat Leeds from EntangledRoots.com

 

Heart Shapes

I have been being a snoop today. I like being a snoop, and am one of those people who is guilty of looking in peoples’ medicine cabinets and awkwardly moving around homes at parties gazing intently at curios and especially, photographs.

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“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
Brené Brown

 

This is what I did today; in the somewhat vain attempt at unpacking, I found myself snooping in one of Cody’s boxes that is full of old photo albums. Two baby books filled with sweet notes from his mother and photos in that classic 1970s sienna tone. The photos are of a blonde baby who looks remarkably like two of his nephews, Paul and Dominic. There is also a scrapbook of his first three years, filled with more photos and birthday cards. Then there are a few more photo albums. Two are of old family photos that range from baby Cody to teenage Cody, photos of his parents and grandparents. His mom had brown hair then, blonde now, cut in that poofy 70s/80s style that I think all of our moms wore. There are photos of his father cradling him as a newborn, in the exact same way that he later cradled his own son when River was born in 2004. In those photos, you actually couldn’t tell but for the age of the photographs that the man in the frame is his father and not Cody, for when River was born, Cody cut his hair short and clean in the same style as his father’s when he was born. Little Cody peeks out of photos, holding fish on fishing lines, dressed up in terrible Halloween costumes, sitting next to his father and mother and grandmother, posing on the trunk of a very old, silver Honda Civic. His father so young, and Cody so small: the family resemblance between the two is so strong. They share brows and shoulders, height and lankiness. Later, Teenage Cody begins to look as he does now: very tall, thin, with long-lashed eyes. Those long lashes show up in one photo from when he must have been about two.

There are also photo albums from later life, from when he moved to Austin in 1998. Cody out with friends, on the road to Albuquerque and Amarillo, and photos of the highways in between. Photos of him in Amsterdam with an old girlfriend who looks very sweet and very 90s in her baggy pants and oversized t-shirts. There is a photo of Cody from when he was building his first tattoo shop, when he was 25, and he looks almost exactly as he does today: glasses, beard and mustache, t-shirt, jeans, tattoos from tip to tail.

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Living with someone versus dating them and spending nights at each other’s houses is so different: all the cards are out on the table. All of each other’s strange little behaviors are on full display for each other to eke out over time; learn to tolerate, appreciate, and love. Cody puts a paper towel under the french press every morning while he makes coffee and it makes me crazy because it makes no sense. He apologizes almost constantly, seemingly just for moving around. I keep telling him he doesn’t have to do that. I wonder what things he notices about me that bug him, but he appreciates because they are mine, all the same.

In a set of the photographs, I saw the houses he lived in a tpwn in rural Louisiana, when he was learning to tattoo. There are photos of his first tattoo on an orange. There are photos of his Uncle and Aunt’s house, surrounded by potted plants and 5 gallon buckets of soil. This photo shows me why he collects so many plants and 5-gallon buckets of soil. This behavior of his ties back to the past, gives him some sense of continuity of time, perhaps. There is a photo of him in front of the school bus he lived in during his time in Louisiana, dressed up in the same leather coat he wears when it is cold, in front of a cook-fire. Cody loves cooking on an open fire. There are photos of his grandparents camp house in Center, Texas: an old, white trailer with a deck in the front. There are photos of the back porch with his mom and dad and grandmother. Little did I know that by looking at those photos on a quiet, rainy day in July (thanks be for the rain!) that I would learn so much about the man who I thought I knew the most about: the man who has become my best friend and my companion in this life.

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A few years ago, during the time when I was at the beginning of my “nervy b”, as I like to call it, I culled through hundreds of photos, scanning some and throwing away the rest. I used to have two photo albums but I don’t know where they are anymore. In some ways, during that time, I chose, albeit with a frame of mind that had a distinct lack of clarity, to literally throw out much of my past evidence. Today, I realized the sadness in that is that not that the things are gone, and neither the memories, but the signposts are no longer. Perhaps we hold on to objects not just because they are precious but because they help us re-establish that continuity of time in our own lives. Perhaps if I still had those photographs, I could remember better the times in my young life when I was friends with a boy named Eric, son of my mom’s best friend Pat. We used to do things all the time, dress up, ride horses, be really silly. Eric now has schizophrenia and lives in Florida: I wonder if he remembers anything from that time, at all?

I got rid of almost everything I owned, sold it to strangers and left it on a street in Philadelphia to be combed over by neighbors from countries near and far. I used to have a bag of my great-grandmother’s hand-made lace. Where is it now? Not that it matters much, really. I suppose I am mulling over my own rejection of my continuity of time. At that moment, in the years between 2012-2014, I was so ashamed of myself and my decisions that I threw all evidence of it away. No wedding photos, and all evidence of Steve is gone except a box from China his father once gave to me. Even my wedding ring is gone, and I stuffed my wedding dress into a trash can on the back porch of that house in Philadelphia.

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Here I am, today, in 2016, going through boxes of my own and of Cody’s, as we piece together a new life in a funky house in Dripping Springs, Texas. I grew really sad during my perusal of photographs today, realizing that whatever I had that was like these objects before me, I had destroyed in mad, sad intention. It’s true that my parents have a treasure trove of photographs, so I need not really worry about that specifically, but it’s like I am looking back at these last few years and wondering about putting together the events in a chain that makes sense and represents my memories. I suppose that is what this writing project is all about: a memoir, the establishment of the story after many years have passed.

I love Cody for many reasons, but one of the main ones is his ability to recognize his own painful life events and hold on the positives. He has a very good sense of perspective and being present. He isn’t perfect, and neither am I. This morning I hung a bamboo shade of his on the window in the living room. It has a giant batik of butterflies on it, and it used to hang in the front window of his first tattoo shop on Burleson Road in south Austin. I remember staring at it during the hours of talking and tattooing that were the beginning of our long-standing friendship. And now it hangs in our house: the home we are building together, doing our best, muddling through, baring it all to each other, every day, and every night.

“What happens when people open their hearts?”
“They get better.”
Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

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