Meeting my storm…


I’ve joined my friend Ruth’s Sharing Our Stories’ writing call – this week’s challenge is to reflect upon this:

Everyone you meet, everyone you scroll past on social media, everyone who is walking on this big rock of a planet has a storm brewing, a storm raging, or a storm calming around them. It is true for you. It is true for me.

There were many new traditions to learn when I first moved to America: the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Super Bowl Sunday…and days devoted to celebrating one’s mother and father. Among these, I found Mother’s Day to be the most awkward, the day an inner storm was guaranteed to rage. I had yet to be reunited with my mother at that stage in my life, and the step-mother at hand was far from worthy of celebrating. My friends would make cards or write notes to their moms, and shop for this earring or that plant to present as a token of their love and gratitude. And I would be consumed with feelings of jealousy, loss, and longing.

When I eventually did come to know my mother, Mother’s Day continued to be awkward. I had already graduated from college and met the man I would later marry, when my mother and I met for the first time since she’d left our family. We were strangers; and in many ways, we would remain strangers over the decades that followed. I think it’s fair to say that neither of us was what we’d hoped for or even expected, and it’s taken years for either of us to reconcile reality with what we had imagined. And I would be, once again, consumed by feelings of loss, longing, and resentment.

I’m not sure when my attitudes towards this particular day began to shift, but I think that process began when my own children began selecting gifts and presenting Mother’s Day cards to me. Powerful feelings don’t subside all at once, or even quickly, but over the years that day became one I no longer dreaded.

Last Sunday, Mother’s Day here in the States, my children journeyed up from Brooklyn to celebrate their mother, me. We shared memories, laughter, and news. We took long walks and cooked together. There were, as always, fierce games of Scrabble and Monopoly.

I was sad to see their little blue winding it’s way down the ribbon of country road that would take them to the highway, back to their lives and loves in Brooklyn. But storms no longer raged within on this Mother’s Day.

I had become the mother I’d wanted in being the mother my children needed.

Poetry Friday: Albert Garcia, “Offering”

Our local indie bookstore shared this book of poems on its website a few weeks ago, and I just had to have it. First, because I love the work of James Crews, the poet who put together this collection; next, because I love the work of Ross Gay, who wrote the foreword; and finally, because you can never really have too many books of poetry.

These days, I seem to have some sort of senior citizen version of ADD, and poetry is the perfect reading solution. I can open a book of poetry, read and focus on just one poem, and then mull over it as I go about farm chores. Yesterday, I opened up to this poem in between weeding and untangling a gnarly pile of movable fencing: Albert Garcia’s “Offering”.

I loved the way the line “but we’ve often said our needs are simple…” as an entrance into such simplicity. The visual of that “palmful of raspberries” stayed with me, as did the rest of each sensory detail the poem reveals. And I loved the idea of gifts being “small, bright, honest”… what else could one really need?

A call to SOS might just be my personal SOS…

My blogging world used to be very active in my teaching days. That blog, now made private, led me to a collection of amazing friends. Some of these friends I met in person at this teaching conference or that teacher’s workshop, some I connected with through the magic of virtual conversations and shared social media. These friendships kept me going in my teaching life, and truly enriched all areas of my life.

Once I retired, and took up shepherding and all those pursuits I never seemed to have the time for before (gardening, making preserves, reading for pleasure, napping any old time I felt like it), blogging took a backseat. I created a new blog, and I did post from time to time, but my new identity seem to create a vacuum in my writing life, and made me question what the point of my blogging was in the first place. Sometimes I wrote about the farm and my sheep, sometimes I opened my writing space to include what was deeply personal, sometimes I wrote about nothing more than a farm moment. It felt good to write, but I wondered about the why of writing – especially on a platform like this, which is so very public. More than once, when I opened up my laptop and clicked onto my WordPress site, I heard Emily Dickinson’s words rattling around in my brain: “This is my letter to the world/
That never wrote to me,–“.

Clearly, I have issues with overthinking everything, including the “need” for a blog.

In any case, I happened upon my friend Elsie’s blog today, and read her latest post, which led to my friend Ruth’s blog and reading her post, which was an invitation:

All of the above made me realize something that related to the blogging/writing quandary I seem to have been floundering in: I miss the friends my blogging life led me to, and I want to write to be part of that community again. And for that, I am grateful. Thank you, Elsie and Ruth…it’s good to be part of our blogiverse again.

When you get lemons…

When we first arrived at the farm, there were two gnarly old trees behind the house – an old apple tree, and an even older black walnut tree. Neither looked to be long for this world, but there was so much to tend to (the grass was waist high in places, and so much was overgrown and needed immediate attention), that I found use for it as a clothesline, and that was that…

…until a storm came through and brought down many of their remaining branches. One sunny afternoon, our arborist showed up with his team and took both trees down. This proved to be a wise move, since we discovered that both trees had rotted away inside, and were on the verge of collapsing anyway. Since this was the best place for a clothesline, I sent off an order for a new one from a Vermont wood craftsmen, and soon we had his handiwork supporting our laundry.

We chose not to have the stumps ground down, mainly because it was expensive to do so. For a while, these stumps sat, two mouths gaping in sorrow and shock (or so they appeared to me). Last summer, I filled them with potting soil and filled them with cosmos and zinnia:

And, in the Fall, I planted hyacinths which have just begun to bloom:

So, there she is…Mother Nature, finding ways to create beauty every chance she gets.

Dandelions galore…

Where did April go? After a bright and warmish start, the Spring in April just seemed to fizzle out; long and dreary days followed, one after the other. My body, craving sunlight and temperatures above 30 degrees, protested in the usual way, by ramping up it’s arthritic/fibromyalgic responses. April, like the Winter before it, became all about pain management.

The one lovely thing about April, though, was that Mother Nature was still busy allowing her blossoms to bloom: forsythia, daffodils, and lily of the valley made their usual exuberant entrances, on time and so joyful. Almost all the bulbs I had planted last Fall seemed to have survived the marauding squirrels who had been watching me so closely as I worked to bury bulbs as deeply as was wise. It was hard not to absorb some of their good cheer, cold and grey as it was.

Of especial delight this year, were the crops of dandelions that sprung up, willy nilly, all over the place – joyous punctuations in the green grass. Last year, I harvested most of them to make dandelion wine, meant to be had when the “first snow flies” – which we did indeed enjoy. This year, I am happy to leave them be, to simply enjoy their presence, and their reminder that warmer days lie ahead.

Dandelion by Ted Kooser

The first of a year’s abundance of dandelions

is this single kernel of bright yellow

dropped on our path by the sun, sensing

that we might need some marker to help us

find our way through life, to find a path

over the snow-flattened grass that was

blade by blade unbending into green,

on a morning early in April, this happening

just at the moment I thought we were lost

and I’d stopped to look around, hoping

to see something I recognized. And there

it was, a commonplace dandelion, right

at my feet, the first to bloom, especially

yellow, as if pleased to have been the one,

chosen from all the others, to show us the way.

My grandfather’s garden…

My grandfather loved to garden, and although I do not have any pictures of him, whenever I think of him, I picture him bent over and tending to his beloved gladioli, bougainvillea, and roses. While my just-divorced father was trying to figure out how to raise my brother and I, since my mother had run off to England with a new husband, we had the good fortune to be deposited in the care of my grandparents. Home, for the next three years, was a spacious bungalow surrounded woods of banyan trees on one side, and an enormous verandah facing deep flower beds on the other.

Bangalore, where they lived, was known as the “garden capital of India” in those days, and my grandfather was devoted to creating a garden worthy of those standards. Although he had several gardeners to instruct about where to dig and how to plant, Nana reserved the important jobs of pruning and thinning for himself. Also, he was the only one allowed to decide which blossoms could be cut, and where to place those flowers indoors. Nana never seemed to find a vase when he came into the house with flowers from his garden, so he made do with whatever was on hand: a brass pot to show off lotus blooms, a copper kettle to arrange bougainvillea, an empty bottle of oil for his tall gladioli. This habit drove my grandmother mad, but I loved the way he always seemed to match the most improbable kitchen vessel in which to best display his flowers. It was a lesson I’ve lived out in every home I’ve had.

I was too young for my grandfather to impart any gardening knowledge, but not so young as to not notice the way he loved shaping a space into one of visual delight. He didn’t mind having me tag along on his garden chores; quite frankly, I think he was so lost in his craft that he forgot that I was present at all. And that was what I enjoyed the most: seeing how it was possible to lose oneself in the act of tending to a garden, in the act of doing something one loved.

I did not inherit my grandfather’s green thumb, and I’ve known more failures than successes in tending to my own gardens. But, I did inherit his need to create with all that grows, to look at space and imagine what could grow. And I think of him as I garden in a climate so different from his in sultry Bangalore. He would be pleased, I think, to know that his silent little gardening shadow grew up to plant and cherish gardens of her own.

Sunrise at Hebron Hills Farm

“Every morning, even before I open my eyes, I know I am in my bedroom and my bed. But…sometimes I wake up with a feeling of childish amazement: why am I myself? What astonishes me…is the fact of finding myself here, and at this moment, deep in this life and not in any other. What stroke of chance has brought this about?” Simone de Beauvoir

Early mornings have become my favorite time of day ever since I retired and moved up to the farm. This was not always the case, though. Until the summer of 2018, early mornings were the most hectic time of the day, from the moment I leapt out of bed in pre-dawn hours, until I was in my classroom just as the sun made its first full appearance. I often felt I had already failed the day before it had really begun: had I remembered to feed the cat, give the dog a long enough walk, check a child’s homework, bring the writing folders I had labored over back to my students so that they could continue working….???

Early mornings on the farm, however, mirror the “childish amazement” and astonishment de Beauvoir speaks about, the gratitude for being where I am: “deep in this life and not in any other”. There will be the sunrise to savor, my dog and sheep to tend to, a farm house and its grounds to tend to, and a beloved partner with whom to share this good life.

And, as I go about my day, there will also be vestiges of the past to recollect and reflect upon: memories of raising my children, of my students and my teaching life, of journeys taken and books read, of people I’ve loved, of the experiences that a life of many decades affords. All of which now allow me, as well, to wonder: “What stroke of chance has brought this about?”

Looking back (thanks, FB)…

One of the (very few) things I like about Facebook is that every once in a while photographs from the past will pop up and thereby invite memories. Yesterday, these pictures showed up on my feed to remind me that I had visited my parents in London at this time in 2018, and spent that lovely Spring day at their club.

We had had a few rainy days after my arrival, typical London-in-Spring days, and then awoke to this particular day of blue skies and unlimited sunshine. The manicured lawns and beautifully tended to flower beds seemed to sparkle in a way possible only on fine early Spring days. After brunch in the conservatory, and a glass or two of champagne, my mother and I took our customary perimeter walk, one length of which lies parallel to the Thames. We stopped often to admire this blossom and that bloom, and also to allow my ninety year old mother to rest. The Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge, an annual Thames tradition, was a few days away; eights from both universities sliced their way down the river in practice, and we could hear the coxswains from both teams calling their instructions.

My mother basked in the sunshine, and took delight in all she saw. Macular degeneration had already dimmed one eye, and left the other weakened and damaged. But, her love and practice of gardening still allowed for the enjoyment of all the Spring blooms that seemed to have reserved their best day for that day. I cannot remember what we spoke about, but I distinctly recall the mood as we took our gentle walk: a quiet appreciation of being able to be together on that beautiful day.

In a few months, she would fall and break her hip; in less than a year she would lose her husband, the love of her life; and she already recognized what the rest of the family already knew – that she was slipping slowly into dementia.

It is good that cannot see into the future and know what calamities and heartaches lie ahead. And I am grateful today that we made the most of an April day but three years ago, a gift of a day.

Easters past and present…

On Easters past, when the children were young, the day began early (sometimes, too early). Our three would race around the main floor in search of Easter eggs and treats, knocking each other (and the occasional chair or vase) over in their competitive zeal. Somehow, I managed to wrench them away in time to get to church, dressed and looking Easter-y.

West Side Presbyterian was always decked in the creamy whites of lilies with dashes of yellow daffodils. Bells and brass would echo all the way to the front steps, a glorious beginning to the service that would follow. There were Bible readings, of course, and the sermon, but the star of that morning was the music – the orchestra seated in front, the choir (including my husband, Scott) ranged above. Non-believer that I am, it was always this that moved me, and raised my spirits as I stepped out of church that morning, and plunged into the joyous chaos that was preparing the Easter dinner and getting my high-on-chocolate children to help set the table and tidy the house before the arrival of our guests. Easters past were all about ceremony, ritual, the extended family gathering for feasting.

Easter present is quite different.

We’ve moved to the middle of nowhere, which makes travel (even in non-pandemic times) much more difficult. Our children are grown, with partners and other obligations; it is no longer a given that all three will be home for Easter. Advancing age and girths have streamlined all those “must-haves” for the feast: dessert is a no-no, as is heavy cream and generous use of butter. Julia Child, whose recipes have governed so many feasts in the past, would despair. There is no church to attend, certainly not one that rises to the musical heights of West Side. We make do with radio broadcasts from Kings Choir, Cambridge, and old records. Our new Easter is quiet, relaxed, and finding its own changing rhythms.

This year, we are gathering outdoors with friends. Our host is Polish, and everyone is contributing something semi-Polish (well, in our case) for the main courses he is preparing. Next year will be different, too, I expect. That is the new normal, and one we are happy to embrace, given that we will always have those memories of Easters past.

Shearing time…

One of my most favorite rituals on the farm comes but twice a year: shearing day. I was lucky to find a true sheep whisperer in Colin Siegmund, who is so gentle in guiding the flock, one by one, to be sheared. Sheep are famously twitchy and easy to startle, but Colin has a way of handling them that keeps each one of my sheep calm and therefore easier to shear.

The joy that comes from watching each fleece being peeled off and falling gracefully in a heap of glorious curls, crimp, and luster, is hard to describe. By the time shearing day arrives, the flock wear six month’s worth of coats: that’s six months of daily tending to, hauling hay and water, finding time to sit still and keep them company, and to distribute chin scratches and treats equitably. It’s a labor of love, truly.

Each fleece is bagged separately, and tagged with it’s owner’s name; although these days I have reached the stage when I can recognize each one instantly. There is a comic joy, too, in seeing the shorn flock wandering around fleece-less and puzzled initially, unable to recognize each other. At some point, they realize how wonderful it feels to be rid of their winter warmth just as the temperatures are rising, so skipping, leaping, and racing around commence, much to our delight.

Yesterday, I began the process of skirting each fleece – spreading it out on the screened table Scott built for just this purpose, and slowly picking out all the hay and poop that gets trapped over the course of the past months. As it gets warmer, I will wash some and send some to be spun into yarn. Carding and spinning are on my list of things to learn how to do this Spring, as well as using the natural dyes I’ve collected to create variations of color. That, and planting in the garden, should keep me happily busy in the months ahead.

Joyful work to look forward to, for which I am so grateful.