Other people’s gardens

It is possible to deliberately make a decision and know deeply that, whichever path taken, there will be regrets.

Last fall and winter, when I was studying the idea of selling our house and moving to an apartment in another neighborhood, I anticipated the loss of the part of my life that gardens. I knew I would be putting aside not just that activity, but also that self, the me that digs, plants, weeds, waters, monitors, and tends.

And I did it: I sold the house. With it, I sold the lawnmower, the surplus fertilizers, shovels, rakes, a spade, and a hoe. We moved to a third-floor apartment. While our balcony presents the opportunity for container gardening, there is no native dirt.

I wanted this, right?

We moved in February. I was relieved at the thought of shoveling snow no more. In fact, I imagined if I lived in an apartment for the rest of my life, it would always be someone else’s job to shovel.

I miss digging. Just typing those words filled me with longing, like how remembering one’s own babies provokes a physical longing to hold them again, eat their toes, smell their shampooed hair.

Not just longing, a sadness, too, for what I willingly gave up. Usually to proceed you have to let go. So, the dirt.

 

In our new neighborhood, I make the rounds of the side streets three times a day with Winston the dog. Since spring began, we’ve been examining the gardens of our unfamiliar neighbors. Winston uses his nose, and I my eyes. Slowly, through March, April, and early May the plants and trees woke up. In May, all the green exploded.

Flowers came out, and so did the porch chairs, pots, garden ornaments, and hoses. Occasionally I’d see a gardener squatting in her yard, a claw in her hand. A woman instructing two little girls in how to weed. A man, pivoting in place, with his hand clenched around the trigger of a sprayer hose.

I am like a tourist in this new neighborhood. The houses are old – about a century – with front porches and what a realtor calls “mature” landscaping. These houses and gardens are established. I’m no kid, but I’m new on the block, and as a renter I may not live here long enough to make ties.

It’s weird, honestly, to like where you live, to find it interesting and beneficial, and yet to have no house or dirt to belong to. If you’ve lived in your apartment or house long enough, you know the nicks in the woodwork, the funny way the shower valve operates, the cool corner of the bare-floored room that your dog favors, and the trick to get the kitchen door to close without slamming it. The paint: you like the colors you picked. In the yard, you like to check in on the plants that came to you from the yards of people you love, admire the magnolia you tended since its sapling years, and experiment with perennials that tolerate your dry shade conditions. You get the soil tested; you file its report card away; you adjust the pH.

That you was me.

Now I’m an observer, a wallflower, or maybe I should call myself a sidewalk flower because that’s what I do, stand on the sidewalk with Winston as my excuse for loitering and keep my eye on the progress of the landscape as it comes to life in the front yards of neighbors I haven’t met.

I fantasize about passing by at just the right time and getting invited up onto the porch and into a chair to pass the evening and let someone tell me about the neighborhood, its history, and its inhabitants.

I do say hello, and I have gathered some first names. I know the people in my building. And I live with Grace and Winston, and Eli and Lydia when they’re with us.

This is home, and yet we’re not rooted in it. We live here. Most days, I’m happy about that. I like the adventure of it. A few times, though, the implication of what I have done – uprooted our lives – hovers over me like dark wings, and I think, “My god, what have I done?”

The feeling lasts only an hour or so. It helps to take the dog outside and walk the routes I am coming to favor. I remind myself that I chose this, I wanted this, and sometimes the location cure is exactly what a family needs.

No click, no write

Perhaps one can write about absences as much as presences.

This is Winston at 8:59am today, no spring in his step, no appeal to play or go outside. Yesterday he had his distemper shot. Today he lacks inspiration, his usual zest.

Winston_poky

I’m about to put the timer on for 15 minutes, to see what kind of summing-up I can generate. Then I have to get ready for the day. The first item is to meet with a lawyer at 10:30am to sign a trust document, and associated paperwork. This is a thing you do when you are the only parent left. Personal administrative organization is important.

Fifteen minutes, go.

In my capsule bio over there on the side, it claims that I write when I feel a “click.” (You have a muse, I a click.)  Not much click in the past several months that lead to writing, though certainly there have been other sparks or even ah ha! moments.

I have packed and unpacked a lot of boxes, and with the great help of my family and friends we have moved from one address to another. The new one is better. For one thing, more sun streams into the windows. That’s both a metaphor and physically true.

I have taught classes, gone to meetings, ‘graded’ papers (shorthand for commenting on them), shopped for and eaten food, socialized, laughed, slept (but not nearly enough), listened, cried (though less and less), paid, spoken to groups of people whether students or colleagues, sewed buttons back on, gritted my teeth, sighed, touched.

Every minute of every day is filled.

Ugh, I hate that, like a topic sentence that can only announce a litany of Poor Me, I’m So Busy.

And yet it feels like  race sometimes. I eat on the way from thing to thing, like a vehicle constantly refueling while in operation. Do military planes do that, or race cars?

I’m not fast, though. I wish I were. Still methodical, still a uni-tasker or, at most, a bi-tasker.  Not multi.

I daydream about reading, yet feel incapable of sitting down for a long, luxurious amount of time which is what reading needs.

And about writing I long for it yet wonder if I am permanently impaired. Perhaps, you know, I should just have some image stand in for thoughts or even a video.

I just pictured video-ing myself, and the anticipatory stress of getting the hair and background and sweater and facial expressions just right for the medium.

Like a child, I want to call in sick because, you know, sometimes I just don’t feel like it. Then my internal dialog convinces me I should go and I can go and this is how I will do it.

Maybe we have pets, like Winston, to project not just our love onto, but our other animal wishes and desires, like curling up with our nose to our knees — I think I’m still flexible enough for the fetal position — and taking a break from our usual selves. Winston has signaled that today he is not even going to walk though I will prod him to take a bathroom break.

Me though? I’ll walk.

Alarm! Sound: piano riff. Fifteen minutes, done. In a moment I’ll stand.

Winston goes to the library

The urge to rescue is sometimes irresistibly strong.  It was a bright December day, early. Winston and I walked to the end of Ogden Road, where it joins the parkway at a right angle, as do many of the side streets in the neighborhood. Across the two lanes, which were busy with morning rush-hour traffic, I saw a big dog, black, pushing its nose into leaves in the ribbon of soft grass and dirt between the sidewalk and road. The dog was so deliberate and calm, staying in place, that it took me a few moments to realize  it was alone. No leash, no owner.

I stood where I was, and I looked up the parkway and down. Winston seemed to look in unison with me, but really it was the motion of the passing cars that fascinated him.  I don’t know if he really looks.

“No, Jane,” I said to myself inside of my head. “You don’t have to save this dog.  Keep going.” I am aware of my desire to help even when it is pathological.  I can resist, I thought.

img_1499

“Well, what’s a reasonable thing I can do?” More internal dialog. I thought of calling Grace, at home in bed. “Bring me an extra leash,” I would say to her. “We have to save a dog today.” She’s like me and would get excited by such a mission. Still, I didn’t call. I mustered my self-restraint.

Down in front of the library, I saw a man looking up the parkway in our direction, shading his eyes.  I started walking then trotting in his direction.  “Sir!  Sir!”  I was waving my free arm. Winston on leash trotted beside me.  A big man in a blue tshirt (no coat!), with a full head of gray hair and black-rimmed glasses, he started walking toward me. We were the only people outside not in cars; we had to walk toward each other.

“Sir, is that your dog?” I kept yelling as I walked closer. He walked in my direction and didn’t answer. I was confused, not only by his lack of response but also by my own fervor to solve the unaccompanied dog problem. Why couldn’t I just walk away and go home? The dog had at least one other potential rescuer. It didn’t have to be me. Continue reading

First grief, then work

One could also rewrite that with verbs: First grieve, then work.

I woke up at 5:45am, my body still not adjusted after the daylight savings time change. I went to sleep late, only intellectually grasping what was happening in the election. I woke up and, even before consciousness, I could feel my heart broken.

It’s noteworthy, isn’t it?, that the feeling called ‘broken’ is heavy like cement, or like I swallowed six hard-boiled eggs without chewing. A broken heart does not feel like shards of glass. It’s a fullness that jams your esophagus.

Next, crying. I had to do that, and a few texts to my friend Lisa. I called for a Day of Mourning. I was still in bed, and I lay there.

“First grief, then work.” I read that right before I made plans to give up on social media (that betrayer) and the New York Times and the radio. The phrase was tweeted by Ada Límon, a writer I don’t know, yet.

It’s true: I did flirt with the idea of not going to work, or of going to work and refusing to work, or of going to work and telling someone else whose fault it is. Because it’s not mine.

I sat up and wept some more, my back against the pillows I put there to prop myself up. I thought of my children, one at a time.

Then I thought of cleaning out the fridge. Really. And I thought of emailing someone I teach with and promising, “Tonight I will download all those papers and put them in our dropbox.”I imagined the downloading, the renaming of the poorly named files.

The list started to form after that.

Once, at least 25 years ago, when I worked at Harvard University in fund raising where the theme was always leadership — “We are training the future leaders of America, and the world” (I got so tired of that) — I said to my friend Joe that I regretted I was no visionary. He reassured me that there would be no movement without people like us to schedule the troops, order the supplies in advance, and make enough coffee to keep everyone energized. Everyone would also need a tshirt or uniform in a size to fit their width and height. I am good at logistics, and so was he, and there would be no progress without us.

I don’t know why that anecdote popped into my mind. I have no plans today to join a movement. But, you know, logistics. Continue reading

Un-haunting the house

5879240245_362379e396_o-1With Eli, your oldest offspring, you are texting about weekend activities.

Eli sends a photo of a new, craigslisted desk in the bedroom in the apartment in Queens.  Their comment, “definitely using redoing/reorganizing my apt as a coping mechanism now.”

You text back, “I’m cleaning out my closet as coping mechanism.”

A long time ago Eli said this, “Mom, you keep your clothes too long. When they get old and tattered, throw them out.” (And this from the child who introduced you to thrift-store shopping.) You tried to explain your sentimental attachment to things your body has worn, yet over time you realized that Eli speaks the truth. So now you find yourself throwing out these old and tattered clothes easily, or at least deliberately.

Eli, in a later text message, types a phrase, “making the house less haunted.” You don’t need a complete sentence to understand what is meant.

The conversation makes you think about what you, and the kids too, have been doing to un-haunt the house and the lives lived in it. Jimmy Guterman — husband, and father of Eli, Lydia, and Grace — died unexpectedly and traumatically on July 25.

What do you do when this happens? You shatter; you grieve; you proceed.

In the first weeks, surrounded by family, every night before bed you all watch re-runs of The Office, which you’ve seen through once entirely when it was broadcast. Now you watch it again, making friends with the characters. You ask Lydia, “If Michael Scott has so many boundary issues, and can be inappropriate so often, why do we come to like him as a character?”  Lydia replied: “Because he is so earnest.”  Lydia’s insight and that word become favorites for a while, and as you go about the business of grief and getting back to okay, your mind can’t help working on what interests it, and you study that word, “earnest,” and you look for that quality in others.

You forget about eating, until one day you realize it’s 4PM and you’re eating lunch. You decide you have to start eating lunch at lunch time, and the next day you do.

After two weeks you tell the kids, “This is the week we start eating vegetables and fruits again. We will also exercise every day.” Even walking the dog counts as exercise.

You listen when different people — visitors from the Samaritans, your child’s therapist, your wonderful friends, your own doctor — tell you that “you are alive, and you have to live.” It is an encouraging message, not at all one that promotes a grin-and-bear-it approach. You start to recognize this: “I am alive.” This, really, is good. Continue reading

Tuesday night on the couch with the dog

IMG_9830Ten minutes ago I searched for a photograph of “Jennifer Lopez without makeup.” I really did that. Her bare face is good and looks like her, although the photo caption claimed that “She is unrecognizable!”

This is not true. What makes Lopez so beautiful in full makeup, I’d argue, is that her basic face is very strong. It’s like an apartment or house with good bones – put a long narrow couch in the living room and a picture on the wall and it’s stunning.

I put the timer on for 24 minutes, the amount of time I would set aside for a nap. (I do time my naps so that I don’t overindulge and later have trouble sleeping.) What’s wrong with me?? Must everything be rationed or limited? In childhood, time could be wasted. You even had to kill some of it, there was too much.

My friend Lee is blogging daily, and Susan almost every day. I love when I get email notification that there is a new post from one of them. I’m excited, even though for the most part they are not writing essays, or full accounts, or incisive commentary. I love their posts, in fact, for not being any of those things. There is no thesis or provocation, and yet their words linger, make me think new thoughts (even if little ones), and best of all make me want to write things down.

I have been writing things down in letters, condolence notes, lists, and notebooks. There are a few personal emails but that as a medium for keeping in touch has become fraught or almost disappointing in advance. Will an email be read or shoved aside until there is more time later? Would the recipient rather I had instant-messaged them? Or will we all end up replying to replies, as Heidi Julavitz remarked so aptly in her odd yet riveting book, The Folded Clock. Note: Lee or Susan, I wonder if you have read any of this book and what you think of it.

The trick with free writing is not to look at the clock, to just keep going.

Winston the Dog is dozing next to me on the couch. He seems content just to be with us: Where you go, I go. If someone were to go stand near the kitchen door right now and rattle his leash, he would spring into full energy and run to meet them. Hey, yeah, let’s go outside, I’m ready! This is a wonderful thing about a dog. He doesn’t need the transition time or the grouch time or the resistance time that people do. He would never say, “One minute!” and then take 10 minutes. (I do that.) Every state is immediately attractive and doable. Continue reading

To a writer who is full of doubt and fear

When you talked to that student, full of anxiety about finishing a draft of the report on the lab experiment, that’s how you felt, isn’t it? That’s how you were able to remain calm and say what you did. “It’s okay. It happens. I know you are capable.” And then you added, “There are strategies.”

Both are true: a writer can be filled with doubt and fear, and a writer can employ strategies to keep going. You believe this.

FullSizeRender(1)

Winston and I search the Internets

And yet lately you are not practicing what you believe. In fact, you may be starting to believe that your work as a teacher of technical writing — planned, precise, organized — is dismantling your skill as a writer of the exploratory, the awkward and searching, the digressive.

In sum, you may be losing your strategies. “I fear that I have become so practiced at academic writing that I can’t do any other kind than that,” you tell your friend James. He says you are still capable.

You could write every day. You could freewrite for 20 minutes. You could have no goal. You could enjoy it.

But: what is the goal? what is the genre? what are the audience expectations?

These questions, ones you teach all the time, they stop you. Continue reading

You may be looking for a person you have already found

cemetery_dogI was pulled along by the dog.

It was morning, shortly after Grace had left for school and Jimmy for work. A day at home, grading papers and fixing the bathroom sink, stretched ahead of me.

In the cemetery, besides Winston and me, was only a green public works truck parked on one of the roads with a man in the passenger seat drinking his coffee out of a Dunkin’ Donuts cup. There was no driver visible. Perhaps it was just this guy, resting at the beginning of the day, in the passenger position in his own truck.

I remembered a day when I was about 16, walking from my house, through my neighborhood, through another one, and then through a cemetery on the way to Pine Street to walk to my job at the pharmacy in the center of town. I took the back roads looking for a short cut, but it would probably have been just as direct to take the two main roads, Pleasant Street to Main Street. My route, probably 2.5 miles long, seemed deserted, although there were plenty of houses along the way. It was autumn, and I kicked the eddied piles of leaves along the way. I wore a blue-flowered quilted jacket made by my mother that had a band collar and frog closures, which together made it “Chinese style” to me in my limited knowledge of other cultures.

This is not the first time I recalled that day, which is so memorable to me, not for its eventfulness — nothing actually happened — but for a feeling of happiness and oneness with myself. All conditions gave me the feeling of simply being that made me realize I can be my own best company and contented alone.

In my present life, I have been reading The Trauma of Everyday Life, by Mark Epstein, MD (Penguin Books, 2013). He is concerned with Buddhism, psychotherapy, and the transformational power of trauma, about which he writes this:

Trauma is a basic fact of life, according to the Buddha. It is not just an occasional thing that happens only to some people; it is there all the time. Things are always slipping away. Although there are occasions when it is more pronounced and awful and occasions when it is actually horrific, trauma does not just happen to a few unlucky people. It is the bedrock of our biology. Churning, chaotic, and unpredictable, our lives are stretched across a tenuous canvas. Much of our energy goes into resisting this fragility, yet it is there nonetheless. (197)

The book is punctuated with personal stories from his own life and other people he knows or has encountered. The death of his father from brain cancer, which occurred when his doctor/father was an old man, is told in fragments over the book.

cemetery_tree

I was very moved by the account of a conversation he had with his father when the older man’s days “were severely numbered” and Epstein started to wonder if he should “try to talk to him about what I had learned from Buddhism” (179). The challenge, he realized, was to talk to his father in plain language about concepts the father had never, in his life as a doctor, ever studied. The father had also habitually avoided the topic of his own mortality. “This is not an uncommon strategy for dealing with death,” remarks Epstein in the book (180).

Epstein calls his father on the phone from his office:

Continue reading

It was a beautiful morning for nematodes

Sometimes I do these things just to do them. For example, I saw on MAKE this watering can made from an empty milk jug, and I had to make one simply because I could.

nematodes_sprinkleLast year my cheap plastic watering reached the point of battered beyond use, and I threw it away. I haven’t replaced it because it seems an unnecessary purchase. The hose will do.

But I had a sudden urgent need for a watering can: 10,000,000 beneficial nematodes (Steinerema feltiae) in our refrigerator that had to be applied to the lawn on a rainy day. Today was that day.

nematodes_fridgeWhat are nematodes? They are microscopic parasites that kill other parasites, namely the grubs in the dirt under our lawn. Those grubs grow up to be some kind of scarab beetle, and beetles eat the fibrous roots of turf grass.

A mournful violin tune could be played every July in my front yard after the bright green grass starts to die off and wither in patches. I’ve done the soil analysis, and we have applied compost and extra nitrogen. No matter how much we tend to it, the lawn gets sickly after its early summer burst. I don’t want to spread a toxic chemical like GrubX on it. That seems like a greater harm than good. Nematodes, purchased from Gardens Alive!, are benign to all organisms but for beetle grubs, into which they burrow and eat their guts out.

Plus, I have seen grubs while planting — their fat, white fetal bodies curled into a C shape, so visible against a scoop of dark soil.

This morning, the ground was wet, but there was a lull in the rain. Under Winston’s supervision, I made a watering can from an empty water jug: I heated the tip of a brad nail with a BIC® lighter and pierced the jug lid many times.

nematodes_punctureThen I mixed 5,000,000 nematodes with tap water I had already put into the jug. (After I used up the first solution, I came back and repeated the process with the other 5,000,000 nematodes for the other half of the front lawn.)

nematodes_mixtureWith my homemade watering can, I applied the water-and-nematode solution to the grass by shaking the jug and squeezing it a bit too.

Continue reading

Animal rescue league

Jimmy asked, “How was your day?” We are sitting in the living room. I get the couch, the best seat, and he the green chair.

Our usual weekday subjects are work and kids.  The conversation is always better if there’s an anecdote.

“Grace called me twice this afternoon. She found a cat in the yard without a collar, and she wanted to talk it through with me.”

wild thing, you make me stalk you (june 2013)

wild thing, you make me stalk you (june 2013)

I described the stream of texts she sent, her eagerness to locate the owner, and desire for me to come home and help. It was late afternoon, and I was wrapping up anyway. By the time I pulled into the driveway, Grace had already called an adult friend for cat-catching advice, posted a photo on Instagram, searched craigslist for “lost cat,” and speculated as to who in our neighborhood might own the cat.

cat_textShe and I stalked the collarless cat for a little while, trying to herd it back to our yard where we believed we could think and plan better. After we tip-toed into the fourth neighbor’s yard, I said to Grace, “I’m going home to get a laundry basket so we can try catching it.”

The cat eluded catching with the laundry basket. Grace finally said, “I sense this cat is smart enough to survive and find her way home. And I think I know whose cat it is.” We abandoned pursuit.

Later, she took our dog Winston for a walk and rang the bell of some new neighbors. Indeed, the cat belongs to them. The woman told Grace, “She lost her collar and we haven’t replaced it yet. But we know she’ll come home when she’s hungry.”

I told Jimmy that I hoped we weren’t going to become those kind of people, always on the lookout for strays. Continue reading