A Bear, Tomatoes, and an Exercise in Resisting in Metaphor

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A black bear is wandering our small city. Braving the busy main roads, trotting down quiet side streets and into little backyards, finding temporary refuge in the marshes and sparse woods. Two days ago, he was across from my mother’s house, moving so stealthily through the neighbor’s yard, he didn’t even disturb the laundry on the line. He took the beach route to our side of town, must’ve walked right past our house to get to the tennis courts by my dad’s where he was last photographed. He’s a young male black bear, alone, and most certainly lost. I wish he’d stop by our backyard and rest awhile in an Adirondack chair. I’d bring him a stack of toast with butter and jam and a drink of cool water, walk him over to a good fishing spot where the woods meet the marsh, and invite him back when the tomatoes are ripe.

Days of rain kept me from the garden. When the sun finally returned, I went out to weed and see if it was too late to plant cucumbers only to discover there wasn’t an inch of space. The garden is wild with tomato plants, volunteers from last summer. I have only a little tending to do: some transplanting to reduce crowding, a bit of weeding and watering. Sometimes the things we create take on a life of their own. Some growth comes not with labor but with ease.

Before I get metaphorical and compare gardening to writing, I want to pour my Marie Howe collection of observations on the table. If you decided to play along, I hope you’ll leave me a few (or a whole bunch) of yours.

A man, large and bald with thick glasses, sweeps the cafeteria floor near the table where I sit writing, looks at me and asks, “How do you like world war three?”

The boy with the missing front tooth and greasy hair always wears the same grey-brown clothes and sits alone, but at least he has a phone, and today talks briefly–so briefly–to a girl sitting nearby.

The copy machine in the teacher’s room whirs and chugs and spits so loudly, I can practice my poem in full voice without anyone hearing.

My daughter runs across the wet, green grass through the sprinkler and shouts, “Drink, mommy, drink!” I bend down and lower my face to the spray, catching the cold metallic-tasting water that feels somewhere between a tickle and a sting. I shriek with laughter.

Thin clouds gauze over the blue sky. We count two lobster boats, one barge, four sea gulls. Charles Island in the distance.

Tiny 3-year-old feet with chipped red nail polish run through the sand.

I press my nose to the back of my daughter’s head and breathe deep the scent of salt air, sunscreen, and a sweetness that belongs only to her.

The tides comes in and we watch the seaweed–green, brown, red–dance around our ankles.

Evening on the front porch. The swish-swash of the swamp maples waving in the wind. The tink-tonk of the bamboo chime.

The full moon casts a glow over the rippling water. I sit in the wet sand and watch.

 

 

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A Mother’s Garden

To my lovely readers, if you’re not yet tired of my garden tales, I have a new essay up at Brain, Child today and would be honored if you gave it a read.

Happy August, a day late! This has become a thing with me, running a little late, scurrying to keep up. Insomnia and little panics. A mom thing? A summer thing? I’m not sure. The jam-packed calendar feels both exciting and daunting. If any of you masters of time management have strategies to offer, I’d love to hear them!

(Post 196 of 365)

 

July Garden

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The July garden is a joy. Bright yellow marigolds, tomato plants twice as tall as the toddler, and still growing. We wait for the green fruit to ripen. Fennel fronds sway. She names the herbs as she picks them, basil, lavender, oregano, parsley! We harvested our first eggplants and sautéed them in olive oil. Delicious! I want the season to stretch out long and lazy, to slow to child’s time. I can’t help making this wish again and again, please last.

The children held hands, leaning
to smell the roses.
They were five and seven.

Infinite, infinite—that
was her perception of time.

-Louise Glück, “A Summer Garden”

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(Post 194 of 365)

 

Pepper Picking

Yesterday we harvested the first pepper from our first garden in our new home. Isabella plucked the pepper from the stalk and bit into it like an apple, then offered me a bite. It was mild and crisp and warm from sunshine, an altogether different taste than a store-bought pepper. We even ate the small stem and soft, white seeds.

(Post 175 of 365)

Sweet Spot

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The day winds down, groceries put away, cats pawing at the backdoor. The toddler finds her shovel. I hose the hostas and she runs through the spray and a misty rainbow rises. “Mama, put on my garden shoes.” I kneel down before tiny feet and help them into rubber clogs. I fill the big watering can and together we carry it, walking slowly over the bumpy tree roots, water splashing, until we reach the garden, where a few of the tomato plants have fainted away from their stakes. We pour the water slowly. She wanders with her shovel, digging and throwing dirt clouds into the air around us, her wet dress caked with mud. A white butterfly hovers over a marigold and flutters away. Eggplant leaves sway. A fly buzzes. Here we are, inside the day’s sweet spot.

(Post 163 of 365)

The Garden

In the garden. Late afternoon sun. Shoveling, raking, leveling dirt until my hands blistered. While my stepdad staked the fence. He pointed to the poison ivy I can never seem to identify. He persisted with staking despite all the rock ledge, found the soft earth. And we laughed about a politician, you know the one. He wrapped the wire fence, joining it to each stake, but I never once looked up from shoveling to see how he’d done it. The sun sank into shade. And my mom put on her garden gloves and plotted out the plants and I dug with my daughter’s yellow plastic shovel because I couldn’t find the spade, which isn’t a spade but a trowel. And the spade made me think of A Tree for Peter. Then the trowel was found. And my mom and I planted tomatoes and eggplant and peppers and herbs, and my stepdad quietly persisted with the fence. Until he was finished and sat on a rock to rest. And I didn’t think to get him water. We were digging and patting down dirt. My mom in her straw hat, kneeling at the garden bed, separating the basil, saying, remember we come from pioneers, we have pioneer blood. I had underestimated all the work, but they knew exactly what they were getting into, happily, without complaint. I tromped around in my bare feet, hauling dirt and water, holding the afternoon like a smooth stone, the kind you pocket and find a special place for so you can come back to it again and again, turn it over, catch each fleck in the light.

(Post 149 of 365)

Digging in the Dirt: 83/365

We wake in the dark at 5:00 am and my head is still heavy with migraine. Toward breakfast the day reveals itself as grey gloom. This is how April always feels, like a big grey headache. Stark branches waiting for green. Strained sun. Mud.

But later on we find organic potting soil and compost on sale and walk out of the store into a bright afternoon.

At home we gather garden tools and I hack at the dirt, clearing old roots and tilling the soil while Isabella digs with her shovel. We leave the back door open. Two cats in the yard, life used to be so hard. They chase birds and squirrels and crouch beneath the arborvitaes and roll in the grass.

It’s not warm out, but Isabella is barefoot, pressing down the dirt with tiny toes. I mix the wildflower seeds with dry compost and rake them into the bed. There are hummus sandwiches, cat chases, a rest on the rock. Dirt on our cheeks and noses and under our fingernails. I find the watering can and fill it. Dig up another bed, plant sunflower seeds, the Mammoth Russian variety, along the side of the house.

Isabella blows bubbles, hair falling across her face, sun streaming through the maple branches, cats leaping after bubbles. She says, “come sit with me, mama” and “I love helping you, mama.” I sit down next to her and she leans against me and we smile into each other’s eyes.

On the back steps, inside this April afternoon, we are tucked in the space of dreams, a flash forward I conjured three years ago in wishes and prayers and daydreams, wondering if it would ever come true. Here we are, together, as if by magic, caked with dirt, smiling. The spectacular ordinariness of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Being Present: 53/365

“There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual. Such are the moments of our greatest happiness. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom.”

Robert Henri

After the St. Patrick’s Day parade, bagpipes and drums, fire engines and floats, swirls of conversation with old friends and neighbors, kids running in the bright Spring sunshine, we walk the half mile back to my mom and stepdad’s house, my childhood home, where twenty-two of us gather for corned beef Irish dinner. A blur of toddler cousins circle the house screaming and blaring a high-pitched toy trumpet. Someone is always pregnant; this year, my sister-in-law. The husbands gather in the backyard around the fire with beers and whiskey. My mom and Tim work in the kitchen preparing the big meal, refusing offers of help. Eventually everyone sits down together to eat, the littlest ones corralled into highchairs.

Later on, my brother and Chris and I are down on the floor collecting one million Lincoln Logs, blocks, dollhouse people, train tracks, and little farm animals. My six-year old nephew, Shane, bounds into the room and asks, “Who wants to go on a tour?” None of the tired adults are biting. Shane tries again, “Who’s coming on my tour? It’s a really good tour!” I raise my hand, “I’ll go on your tour!”

I follow Shane into the backyard. He points to the birdbath, “pool of doom!” We head further down the yard and he points to the fence, where a large hole and, above it, a weatherworn wooden mask, are obscured by the bushes. “Hole of doom! Mask of doom!” When did those get there? Next we venture under the treehouse – not too far in though, spiders! – and decide, naturally, it’s the cave of doom. I think of the sandbox that was there when I was a little girl. The rabbit hutch when I was a teenager. I notice the fence is old and leaning. When did the fence get so old? I’m instructed to jump over the hose behind the swimming pool because, of course, it’s a snake. I think about how Shane reminds me of me, of how I loved to pretend and make up stories.

When we reach my mother’s garden beds, Shane says, “This is where we can stop and take pictures and touch things. What would you like to touch?” I tell him I’m interested in those mushrooms growing on the tree stumps. At first he hesitates, then grabs the mushrooms with me. They’ve dried out and gone brittle, crumbling in our hands. We touch the soft, thick moss underneath. Then I pick up the old wasp hive that fell from the maple tree during the winter, hundreds of hexagonal cells made of wasp spit and bits of wood. The sublime geometrical artwork of a tiny insect. Somewhere between the wasp nest and jumping off the ledge with Shane, I realize how happy I am, that floating-on-air lightness that comes from being perfectly in the present. Texture and light, the many microcosms, the way everything ages, art in nature, body in midair, making up a story as we go along. This single moment in time, the only one that exists. When a six-year old invites you on an adventure, always, always say yes.

Indoor/Outdoor: 47/365

In the golden late afternoon light we dig in the dirt. Chris does most of the shoveling and Isabella works with her sifter and pails making little contributions to the wheelbarrow. I work in the bed around the maple tree, raking and grading the hauls of dirt. I press it down with my boots, doing a little two-step to the music. The squirrels come to say hello. We’ve been keeping them fat with bird seed and apple peels. I look up and see the cats watching us from the backdoor, bathing in the bright sunlight. Bali, the little one, for once isn’t scratching to get out. The air is cool and smells of earth. That kitty would love to be out playing in it. And I feel a real heartache.

We moved into our house in August. Before that, we had a second floor apartment with a porch, Bali’s favorite spot. She would hunt birds from her perch, roll around in the sun, curl up on the ledge, and a few times, she jumped. Now we have a big backyard, and she darts from the backdoor to the window itching to run after the squirrels and birds. But we also live on a main road and people drive twice the speed limit. The previous homeowners lost a cat to a speeding driver. We tried a leash, but she wriggled free. Cats aren’t made for leashes. I’ve been stuck in the house so much this month with sickness making the rounds, I’m going stir crazy. I think of her never getting outside and think about how unfair it is, unhealthy really. I’m struggling with this one, whether to keep her safe or set her free.