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Friday, May 24, 2013

Great Expectations

I have never had a vegetable garden.  I dreamed of being the kind of woman who trips out just before dinner to see what’s ripe, and tailors her menu accordingly.  Before this year though, our property failed to deliver a spot with enough direct sun to ensure success.  To appease myself, each year I plant window boxes with herbs and a few containers of tomatoes.  If it’s a dry summer, my herbs do fine, but during a damp season, the basil and parsley rot.  As the summer wanes, I’m forced to lug the tomato containers around the yard chasing the relocating sun.  Desperate for light, the tomato vines crawl thin and high.  They do bear fruit, but by late August, my bushes, if you can call them that, weaken into a tangled, yellowing mess, powdered with mildew.

This year however, hope sprang up in March.  As we cleaned up from our early winter wind calamity, I grasped that the loss of fourteen trees on our property at the end of January (five via natural circumstances and the rest as a preventative measure) meant a whole lot more sun.  Once again I contemplated strolling out to my garden to pick fresh tomatoes, maybe a cucumber, some lettuce, and zucchini.  In the spirit of making lemonade out of bitter fruit, I etched lines in the dirt plotting the brightest locale where towering pines used to block the sun.  I Googled gardening supply companies and rubbing my hands together, investigated zucchini recipes that will disguise the ingredient my husband abhors. 
Then May came and the foliage leafed out and I learned I’d been…optimistic. 
A few hours of direct sunlight do warm the part of our yard once harboring dense shade, but the key word is “few.” When the shadows darkened my coveted spot after less than three hours, I whined a bituntil  I noticed one small patch on the other side of the house, far away from the tree disaster, now bathes in direct sunlight. So what if my husband has visions of those twisted, yellowing vines I grow in pots each year advertising themselves to the neighbors.  So what that he’s afraid I won’t weed, and everyone driving by will see an overgrown jumble.  He loves me.  Together, we pulled up an 8’ by 4’ rectangle of grass he’d seeded and reseeded over the last 21 years.  Then he built me a raised garden bed.

No more lugging heavy plants.  No more paying a fortune for cardboard produce at the supermarket when it is in season and should be delicious and cheap.  No more replanting basil that has turned fuzzy with mold. No more running outside to pick up pots of tomato plants the wind has blown over.  By the end of July, I hope to be a tomato growing, lettuce picking, cucumber vining dynamo.
I will not discuss the fact that since I planted the garden last week, we’ve had about one ounce of sunlight in total.

It’s all about positive thinking here.  In that vein, does anyone know a recipe to magically transform zucchini?

Wishing you all a wonderful Memorial Day weekend, and offer my gratitude for those who have given of themselves in honor of our country.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Way of Things

It’s spring.  The ground phlox blooms pink over granite ledge, the blossoms from one round of rhododendrons drop while another readies to pop.  We’ve greened up nicely, but amidst my gardening chores this weekend, I discovered repercussions from The Great Tree Tragedy of Winter, 2013.  Although we’ve finally cleaned up the area where a massive oak demolished our shed, sheared off the tops of five pines and irrevocably altered the appearance of our yard, the tree that caused the mess is having a final say.
Our new shed rests a few feet back from the footprint of the old one.  The fat leafed Hostas that used to sit by the door of the old building now sit too far out.  While deciding where to move them, we noticed seedlings.   Amidst the wood chips left over from stump grinding, in between the stone steps and crevices that populate our yard, tiny oaks have burst forth from the bumper crop of acorns the old tree spewed when it crashed to the earth. I spend an hour on my knees yanking the little guys up on Sunday, before realizing eliminating them will be a long-term project.
Even more than the damage caused by the tree itself, this burgeoning yield communicates the ultimate authority of nature.   Oh sure.  We notice when she comes at us with wind and snow, rain, hurricanes and tornadoes. Newscasters are quick to sensationalize those big ticket events, the ones that bully us with strength and ferocity.   A few months later in our side yard though, Mother Nature demonstrates a more subtle power.

As I sat yanking sprouts up by the roots, it became clear to me how inconsequential my place is on this earth.  I’m a hiccup really, even less. We’ve lived in our home 21 years.  But were we to turn our backs, in less than half that time the yard we’ve tilled, planted and edged would return to brush and trees.  The acorns deposited across our half-acre have the potential to contour the landscape long after I’ve become nothing more than compost.  So what if I pull this crop up?  There will always be more.  Year after year, oaks, maples, pines and ash will disperse a gazillion more seeds which will in turn, become trees.  At some point, the invasive pricker-vines I dig up each spring will have their way.  The poison ivy that seeds itself in my gardens will drown out the perennials I tend to with love. Bittersweet vines will become an impenetrable tangle.
As I sat in the shade of two oak saplings we’ve “allowed” to grow over the last few years gazing out over an area now populated with baby oaks, I understood the temporary and inconsequential nature of our presence here.  We call it “our” house, and “our” yard.  But really, it’s on loan to us from a relatively benevolent Mother Nature.  Once in a while, she feels the need to deliver a blatant reminder that she’s in charge.  Most of the time though, she humors us by letting us garden and mulch and shape the land, full well knowing in the end, she’ll take her earth back and form it how she pleases.   

Sunday, May 12, 2013

It's all in the Message

My cell phone jammed this morning.  Not such a big deal, except our land line has been going in and out since before the weekend.  The repairman isn't due until tomorrow, so I sent a text to our daughter on Friday.  "If you need us, call the cells, home phone broken." But, on our way to church this morning I went to turn down the volume on my cell, and the thing was frozen.  Suddenly, I was a great big ball of fuss.  "No one can reach us now (forgetting my husband's cell).  What if Meggie needs us?  What about the repair folks, they are going to check in on this number."   

The simple solution was to take out the battery and put it back in, which my husband did.  As soon as it powered up again, I found what I knew would be there, why I made such a stink to begin with.  There, waiting for me was a text from my daughter who is away at school.  "Happy Mothers' Day Mom.  Make sure Dad makes you breakfast in bed.  I love you." 

It's the only thing I needed today.

I posted this essay last Mother's Day.  It's so wonderful, I thought a repeat is in order.  Blessings to all mothers today, and every day.

Essay on Motherhood
By Anna Quindlen, Newsweek Columnist and Author

All my babies are gone now. I say this not in sorrow but in disbelief. I take great satisfaction in what I have today: three almost-adults, two taller than I am, one closing in fast. Three people who read the same books I do and have learned not to be afraid of disagreeing with me in their opinion of them, who sometimes tell vulgar jokes that make me laugh until I choke and cry, who need razor blades and shower gel and privacy, who want to keep their doors closed more than I like. Who, miraculously, go to the bathroom, zip up their jackets and move food from plate to mouth all by themselves. Like the trick soap I bought for the bathroom with a rubber ducky at its center, the baby is buried deep within each, barely discernible except through the unreliable haze of the past.

Everything in all the books I once poured over is finished for me now. Penelope Leach., T. Berry Brazelton., Dr. Spock. The ones on sibling rivalry and sleeping through the night and early-childhood education, have all grown obsolete. Along with Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are, they are battered, spotted, well used. But I suspect that if you flipped the pages dust would rise like memories. What those books taught me, finally, and what the women on the playground taught me, and the well-meaning relations --what they taught me, was that they couldn't really teach me very much at all.

Raising children is presented at first as a true-false test, then becomes multiple choice, until finally, far along, you realize that it is an endless essay. No one knows anything. One child responds well to positive reinforcement, another can be managed only with a stern voice and a timeout. One child is toilet trained at 3, his sibling at 2.

When my first child was born, parents were told to put baby to bed on his belly so that he would not choke on his own spit-up. By the time my last arrived, babies were put down on their backs because of research on sudden infant death syndrome. To a new parent this ever-shifting certainty is terrifying, and then soothing. Eventually you must learn to trust yourself. Eventually the research will follow. I remember 15 years ago poring over one of Dr. Brazelton's wonderful books on child development, in which he describes three different sorts of infants: average, quiet, and active. I was looking for a sub-quiet codicil for an 18-month old who did not walk. Was there something wrong with his fat little legs? Was there something wrong with his tiny little mind? Was he developmentally delayed, physically challenged? Was I insane? Last year he went to China . Next year he goes to college. He can talk just fine. He can walk, too.

Every part of raising children is humbling, too. Believe me, mistakes were made. They have all been enshrined in the, 'Remember-When- Mom-Did Hall of Fame.' The outbursts, the temper tantrums, the bad language, mine, not theirs. The times the baby fell off the bed. The times I arrived late for preschool pick up. The nightmare sleepover. The horrible summer camp. The day when the youngest came barreling out of the classroom with a 98 on her geography test, and I responded, 'What did you get wrong?'. (She insisted I include that.) The time I ordered food at the McDonald's drive-through speaker and then drove away without picking it up from the window. (They all insisted I include that.) I did not allow them to watch the Simpsons for the first two seasons. What was I thinking?

But the biggest mistake I made is the one that most of us make while doing this. I did not live in the moment enough. This is particularly clear now that the moment is gone, captured only in photographs. There is one picture of the three of them, sitting in the grass on a quilt in the shadow of the swing set on a summer day, ages 6, 4 and 1. And I wish I could remember what we ate, and what we talked about, and how they sounded, and how they looked when they slept that night. I wish I had not been in such a hurry to get onto the next thing: dinner, bath, book, bed. I wish I had treasured the doing a little more and the getting it done a little less.

Even today I'm not sure what worked and what didn't, what was me and what was simply life. When they were very small, I suppose I thought someday they would become who they were because of what I'd done. Now I suspect they simply grew into their true selves because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back off and let them be. The books said to be relaxed and I was often tense, matter-of-fact and I was sometimes over the top. And look how it all turned out. I wound up with the three people I like best in the world, who have done more than anyone to excavate my essential humanity. That's what the books never told me. I was bound and determined to learn from the experts. It just took me a while to figure out who the experts were. 

Happy Mother's Day!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Ocular Spring

(Thanks to MCC for the inspiration.)
The windows are dirty.
But still, low in the sky,
a silver-sun cleans the edges,
the world sprayed with Windex,
polished hard with a soft cloth.
Out in the garden,
emerging stalks etch blue air,
like the first time
you don a pair of glasses, 
the new prescription
cuts a sharp line,
green leaves outlined
in fine-point ink.

Later in the car, 
you lumber down 
winter-pocked roads
where strobes flick and flash. 
hits air,
hits trees
hits air.
You wish the visor hung lower,
for a baseball cap,
anything to block 
the brash blaze of horizon glare,
before trees leaf out and
tint the bleach with shade.
You squint
as back-light marries
a white magnolia
branches hanging heavy,
the way limbs do
during a wet spring snow.

Tomorrow, the light will change. 
A storm that never arrived,
but washed the air anyway,
will have floated out to sea. 
All you’ll have left
of an afternoon
burnished to high-gloss
are words that try —
reminding you, perhaps,
but forever failing to capture
anything close to the essence.

Copyright Liza Carens Salerno, May 2013

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

IWSG - Month End Performance Review

This is my May post for Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Support Group, which as always features a group of writers helping other writers.  To read more posts, click here.  

When I worked for corporate America, each year before review time, we were required to write goals for the upcoming year.   Early on in the game, my husband taught me a valuable (albeit cynical) lesson.  “Make sure it’s a real goal.  But before you submit it, make sure it’s one you can achieve.  At next review time, you don’t want to have to explain why you didn’t.”

I must have had some of that in my heart when I announced my April writing quest in my last IWSG post. I planned to write 1000 words a day for at least five days a week on my first draft of my WIP,  for the entire month of April.  If I factored in the two week-days left at the end of the month, I’d write 22K by April 30.  Adhering to my husband’s guidelines, that number was a real goal, and achievable.   I could have raised the bar higher, could have gone for 1000 words seven days a week, or 1500 a day five days a week.  But I know myself.  Too much pressure stresses me out.  So I announced my modest proposal here, and went at it.  

Now I've reached review time.  In spite of a few instances when life took away my opportunity to write, and a couple of days when I managed a mere 200 words, my total word count for the month comes to over 26K (just on this project, I didn't include any other writing) which, in corporate parlance, exceeds expectations.  This brings me about 20K away from the end of my first draft.

What does any of this have to do with IWSG?  Well, one of the most difficult things about being a writer is holding ourselves accountable.  It’s so easy to say, “I like to write.”  We can like it all we want, but we can’t be writers unless we write.  No one however, is going to stand over us and watch, no one is going sit us down for a year-end review filled with financial incentives.  No one is going to stop us if we fritter all our time away Googling obscure facts, or writing Facebook or Twitter updates.  Borrowing a phrase I used to use to my staff of corporate recruiters, it's up to us to drive the bus.  It takes digging deep, setting goals and going after them (and in my case broadcasting them here at Middle Passages).  Bottom line, we are all responsible for discovering what works for us and using that tool to move forward. 

No matter how we do it, success is more likely to come when push ourselves beyond our comfortable limits, in other words, when we force ourselves to exceed our own expectations.

P.S.  A hearty thank you to Alex Cavanaugh and his A-Z challenge which triggered my April writing quest as a result of my desire to challenge myself "differently." I am so pleased with the result!