West Virginia Morning: Saturday

The house is quiet and I have not yet had my morning coffee. Through the bay window I am watching a male goldfinch feast on my fading purple coneflowers. He is so intent on plucking seeds from their dark, round eyes that he does not even notice when I draw near. Were it not for the glass I could reach out to touch him, stroke his golden beauty with my fingertips.

The dew is thick on the grass this morning, the air cool with a whisper of fall. At first light, I watered all my thirsty pots and my raised beds. By the end of it all, I too was soaked through. Back inside, I finished preparation for a no-knead rosemary garlic bread to pop in the oven later. It is rising in the window. Then I clipped some lavender and rosemary and twisted their woody stems together, curious. They are in water on the table, filling the kitchen with their spicy aromas.

I am still not used to the boys being gone. I try to be gentle with myself—it hasn’t yet been a week since Ted went back to school, not quite two since Jeffrey began his freshman year. We are officially empty-nesters, at least for a time. I still have summers to look forward to, and holidays. Time alone with my husband is sweet and we will settle into this. But I keep expecting them to come through the doors late at night or emerge on the steps with tousled hair early in the morning. This is a mother’s way of seeing, I suppose.

Yesterday, I picked my largest crop of pole beans and plucked enough jalapenos for a pint of pickling. My garden has been such a mess this year. I was overambitious with the tomatoes and they have choked the peppers. The tomatoes have been happy, and I have had a tomato sandwich for lunch every day in August; but my poblanos have not given up one piece of fruit. I’ve tried to make a sun-path for them, clipping out bits of roma and Earlygirl, but it is late and they may not give this year. Snails have been devouring the green beans and the Mexican bean beetle has made ghosts of the leaves on my squash and cucumber vines. Yesterday, as I picked beans, I noticed a vine had jumped the bed and latched on to my lilac bush nearby. One curving strand climbed all the way to the top and a cluster of beautiful beans dangled there, taunting me from ten feet above. Maybe the squirrels will find them? Or perhaps a bird. I was still able to pick enough for eight pints of canning, but none were so beautiful as that cluster on top of the lilac bush.

There is much to apply my heart to around here. Busy hands are the best medicine for the tiny ache inside but these quiet moments by the window also heal. I lift my hand and touch the glass with my fingers, as if—for the wanting— I could grasp his wildness through the pane. But at this one tiny movement from me he is gone, a streak of golden light winging through the cool air of morning.

Garden Notes: Awakening

I spent all day yesterday in the flowers—weeding, raking out, mulching. I’m late this year—the ground already warm under my hand when the sun drops the diamonds of first light. My mother-in-law once told me to wait for spring; let the birds glean what they will, she said. And they did. The coneflower is dry as straw, the Black-eyed Susans blink. But color is slowly waking up in the garden. The brittle browns and forgotten rusts shush me as they rub up against new green foliage.

I rake leaf remains out from around tubers—their faded reds and golds like scattered gems. The thick bands of iris greens reach up for the sky. I smooth around their fibrous heads, let them breathe. Already the leaves have started to make rich compost–the soil underneath fragrant and dark. I breathe deep its heady scent, close my eyes and dig fingers in the cool moist.

This morning the robins are in a frenzy over my newly cleared soil. I watch from the window as they hastily march back and forth amongst the stubby remains of my garden.  It looks so clean. The mulch around the awakening clumps of green holds such promise. I wrap my arms around my sides—hug close this seed that strains against the dark soil of my heart.

Yesterday a tree swallow came calling. Hello beautiful, I said to her, as she made a lunging swoop above my head. I watched her fly into the nesting box and peek out at me suspiciously. The memory of her glistening black wings in sky-dance speaks light into the days.

When I was in the seventh grade I wrote an essay about what I want to be when I grow up. Mr. Kovalan, our English teacher, assigned us a theme every week. It was my favorite thing about school. Each week I looked forward to discovering what topic he would put before us. Mr. Kovalan never said much, but his comments on my themes always encouraged me. This is very well written, he might pen. Or: A very good story. There wasn’t much I was good at, but Mr. Kovalan helped me see that telling stories was something I could do. But this one? What did I want to be?  A girl like me didn’t have a lot of choices. A girl like me rarely left the hollow. I thought long and hard about it.

When Mr. Kovalan graded my essay, he left me with few words.

Your choice surprises me.

That was all he said. That dear, dear man.

It was the first time I thought that maybe I could be more. That maybe…maybe there was more than what I know.

When I was in seventh grade I learned to dream the dream of the waiting soil.

I am a sleeping garden. I dream of shoots of green breaking through earth with pointed fingers.  A glimpse of sky rests on my memory—white on blue with golden hues. In darkness the dream speaks hope into the night.

In the darkness the garden becomes a thing of expectation–of sleeping joy.

Garden Notes: Rough Drafts

Every spring when time comes to weed my flower beds, the good work of it nearly kills me. And every spring, in response to my complaints about the honest work of garden tending, my husband threatens to sow grass over all my lovely blooms. I believe him just enough to find the inner fortitude required to finish the job.

I have stirred ant armies, awakened the curled grub in her buried bed, inadvertently found the source of the poison ivy, and pried the roots of wild violets from beneath my butterfly bush. Yesterday, I killed a Black Widow spider I found clinging to a daylily stalk. Every year, after bug bites, skin rashes, suffering amazingly obscure aches and pains, and consuming copious amounts of ibuprofen, I survey the work of my hands and dream a better way. I imagine planting miraculous ground covers to choke out the weeds, eye-catching perennials that require little attention, or even evergreens to lend a simpler style. Trouble is, I usually only get around to implementing a small portion of these dream-plantings, and they never quite work out as I hoped.  Come the next spring, things are a little better, but—you guessed it—I’m still on my hands and knees far longer than this aging body should be.

But when the blooms unfold one-by-one and the garden becomes a thing of beauty? I know all that time and diligence and love for the soil was worth it.

I try to fertilize the garden of my writing through careful reading and recently, I read this:

 As you start out in rough drafts, writing down stories as clearly as you can, there begins to burble up onto the page what’s exclusively yours both as a writer and a human being. If you trust the truth enough to keep unveiling yourself on the page—no matter how shameful those revelations may as first seem—the book will naturally structure itself to maximize what you’re best at. You’re best at it because it sits at the core of your passions.” ~Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir

Certain things can immobilize me in an instant: a glimpse of a red-bellied woodpecker on the trunk of my Maple tree, sunlight rippling on water, a solitary cloud rolling across crystal blue, and a phrase that ambushes me with apt precision.

Mary Karr’s words seemed to breathe a deep exhale in my soul: “…there begins to burble up on the page what’s exclusively yours both as a writer and as a human being.”

Those words, stark and black against the white of the page, fell heavy over me and I realized how life mirrors this statement. With each passing year we hammer out rough drafts of this life we craft—meticulously honing in on what is best to keep and what must be cast aside, letting what is “exclusively” ours “burple up” from the moments. And just as my garden takes shape over the long stretch of years, none of these seasons we sift through are ever perfected—it’s a constantly shifting landscape. But if we are true to the draft-writing—or draft living, in this case—we keep what is best and let go of the rest. The next season may be a little better for the pruning, but chances are, it will still have its fair share of  bending and tending to  push through.

I’ve never written a memoir, though the world of blogging bestows plenty of opportunity to offer up bits of my life for the perusal of others. This kind of voyeurism can leave one feeling vulnerable and small at times. Isn’t each life worthy of memoir? When we live through each the days, don’t the moments tell a story? What if I could think of each season of life as a rough draft, trusting in the truth enough to keep unveiling myself, to keep growing and learning and reaching for more? Letting time and diligence and love shape something that becomes more beautiful with each passing year.

West Virginia Morning: Riches

“We are told to consider the birds,” my friend says to me this morning, after I’ve confessed guilt feelings for staring out the window at the spring doings of my bird community for a prolonged time. “I don’t necessarily think it’s a waste of time.”

Sometimes God’s messengers wear skin and they bear such tidings as to douse a parched soul.

I’ve been reading John Burroughs’ Wake Robin (this version is free on Kindle). It’s a collection of his essays about birds and it has me captured. His delight for our little wingeds is so evident in his writing. What I’ve been doing is reading his description of a bird’s song and personality, then going to my birding app and listening to his descriptions take sound. It makes for slow reading but it unfetters my heart so. I can get caught up in learning about the ornithological world. Thus, guilt. But sweetness too.

There has been a bluebird pair checking out my box for a couple weeks now. Last week I saw the male dive at a red-bellied woodpecker who was clinging to the side of the box. I think that sharp-beaked intruder may have scared Mr. and Mrs. Blue away from nesting there, for when I peeked in the door this morning there was no evidence of nest-building. But I still hold out hope. Every time I pass the bay window in the kitchen I must pause to study the box and its surrounding habitat. One must be patient to catch a glimpse of nest building. Bluebirds are shy and furtive birds. I’ve stopped filling the feeders near that area so the neighborhood does not appear too noisy. I so want them to build their home inside that little shelter. Bluebirds haven’t nested in that box for over ten years. Not since the first two seasons I put it out. The house sparrows have always been more aggressive, no matter how many of their nests I pitched out.

Everywhere I look the birds are frolicking, caught up in the magic of spring. A robin couple has built their nest in one of our maple trees out back. I watched them carry dried grass and leaves to and fro for days, it seemed. But they seem all settled in now. I caught them in the act just yesterday as I walked Bonnie around the house. We came upon them unawares and they startled apart, taking flight like two nervous teenagers.

I am behind on my spring chores. Just this morning I trimmed back my crepe myrtles, meticulously making my way through each woody branch. I was dismayed to see new growth already and worried my tardiness will stunt the bush’s beauty. But nature is so forgiving. My lilac bush is filling out with heavy blossoms. And last season I neglected to prune it after its glory faded. Still, this season: beauty. The back yard is filled with its heady scent. This world dressed in spring holds so many fascinations.

Yesterday, I read this:

If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.” ~Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Yes. So many discoveries waiting to be seen. This thought fills me to overflow. I may not be poet enough to call forth the riches in my life, but my eyes will notice. My heart will be glad. There is no poverty here.

West Virginia Morning: Witness

This morning the sky is the bluest blue and the trees dress early. I look out the bathroom window as I brush my teeth. I’m on the second floor, peering over the back yard, far into the meadow behind our house. From this bird’s eye view I see the maple is taking on her early leaf flocking, a soft magenta down where buds begin to unfold. And the pussy willow dons a cottony ragtop where the sun first touches her in the morning. All the fruit trees that hide in the meadow most seasons are beginning their conspicuous bloom. I run the brush through my hair and scramble downstairs, grab the camera and go out to stand under the earth’s awakening.

The coming of spring is nothing short of a miracle most years, but when spring arrives in mid-February? This is cause for celebration. I lose myself for a time in the slow-opening of a crocus, the way a branch offers a promise—prophesies.

I try not to think about the possibility of a late-season freeze. Isn’t this hope? Giving myself fully to this moment? Annie Dillard says, “ … beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” I am there. I am here. For just this moment, I will witness the miracle of spring.