Monday, January 30, 2012

Hacking Away at It

Five months since my last post.  As I reread what I wrote two days after my father's death I am struck by the faith I had, even in those dark hours.  My garden was barren, my soul and the earth were parched, and I was recovering from surgery - unable to even get outside.  Still, I was looking ahead - knowing that the herbs would flourish again, the rain would come and the dust on my blue boots would be replaced with fresh mud.  After enough years of riding the edge of life threatening waves and returning safely to shore, I guess I have really come to trust the process.

Here I am with new cedar boxes for our raised beds, full of sweet peas and swiss chard, onions and radishes, lemon grass and thyme, carrots and spinach.  There is a bounty of fresh food for our table and the rains have come - not quite enough, but it's a start.  After Chris built the new boxes we forged ahead into the wild and untamed "back 40" of our property.  We got the city to come and take down a huge, dead, overgrown hackberry tree that was a threat to the entire neighborhood.  One good wind could have taken out everyone's Internet and HD TV for a five mile radius, as our monstrosity was standing tall three feet from a transformer. 

Once that was underway, we got our friend Scott George from Austin Beautiful Trees to come in and tend to our abused children.  I read every parenting book I could get my hands on when I became a mother 23 years ago, but here we are the caretakers of 150 year old live oaks, a 70 year old mesquite, a gnarly cedar, lovely sycamore and two black walnuts - not to mention the pear tree we planted ourselves - and I have not a clue what they need.  They all had problems - as any child who is not getting enough attention (or the wrong kind) is bound to.  We've been known to get our little chainsaw and hack away at low hanging limbs, calling it pruning.  We water our plants, but tend to think that God takes care of the trees, even in the worst drought in decades.  I mulch and compost the vegetable garden, but leave the trees starved for nutrients, until they stop thriving like a newborn whose mother's milk is late coming in.

Okay, we're not that bad.  But that's where I go with it.  I am always the first in line for a guilt trip (laid on myself).  This little slice of earth that we are blessed to be temporarily squatting on is so precious to me that I long to turn it into the paradise I know it can be.  But that often takes time, money, expertise, knowledge and energy that I don't have. 

When the longing to do something gets more powerful than all the reasons why we can't, that's when we say - to hell with it - and invest real dollars and time into what needs to happen.  In this case, it was hiring Scott and his team and watching them swing through the oaks, trimming the dead wood and creating a torrential downpour of ball moss.  They also removed the old cedar we had been trying to save for years.  When we moved in it was home to a rambling tree house, but over the years it began to tilt, more and more and more until it was parallel to the ground.  Scott had propped it up several years ago, but it was time to surrender.  Out it came creating a clear path into our bamboo nightmare.

While they had the trailer, Chris and I looked at each other and said "let's go for it!"  We spent three hours working like maniacs hacking down the emerald forest - one more time.   I know, it will grow back, but we have absolutely NEVER seen our entire back yard in the 12 years we've lived here.  It was worth the effort and we are now inspired to figure out a containment system or get rid of it once and for all.  Our dream is to have Yard Crashers come and transform our newly cleared palette in three days time, creating an oasis of water features, outdoor kitchens, fire pits and fancy furniture.  Actually, I'd  be happy with no bamboo and more funky little self-created beds lined with the infinite rock that makes up 70% of our soil, perhaps a few more yard art Buddhas and a swing set for our new grandson, Brody.

The picture I am attaching to this post is what currently remains of the hackberry.  Austin Energy hacked away at it enough to make it safe and will return to bring it all the way down soon.  If something that huge can disappear from my world with just a few phone calls and the determination to take care of it, I ought to be able to tackle some things that stand in my own way.  Look out guilt, you're next!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Resting in Peace

I titled this blog "As grows the garden, so goes my life" because that's how it is.  You can usually tell the state of my being by looking at the state of my garden.

Today we are into our third month of record high temperatures and drought here in Austin.  When 104-107 is all I ever see on my iphone ten day weather forecast, it does not inspire me to get out there and weed, plant or hang out.  Everything we have is dying.  I water on our two allotted days per week, but even the hardy, drought resistant, Texas native perennials are withering in the relentless sun and heat.  It feels barren and sad out there.

It is sad in here too.  Two days ago my father passed away.  I pride myself on being strong and resilient but today I am withering on the vine.  I feel parched and need water, but the rain doesn't come.  Just tears...tears...and more tears.

I am grateful that he has been released from a body that no longer served him.  The distress I have been carrying for what he and my mom were going through is leaving me.  When I think of him now I don't have to think of his pain; I think of his love, his humor and the bounty of gifts that he gave me every single day. 

But it still hurts like hell.  Daughters have a special bond with their "daddy".  No matter where I was traipsing around this planet I always felt his love and support and knew that he had my back if I needed him.  We had a ritual - I would call him before getting on the plane on the first leg of any journey I took.  He was my lucky charm and I felt safe as I boarded my flight.  It never was luck I needed, just love.  Love is boundless and borderless and it doesn't require a phone to connect to it.  He gave me more than enough to last my lifetime. 

I know that this is a journey and we are only passing through, with sacred occasions to mark the passages - first love, marriage, the birth of a child, the birth of a grandchild (a great gift this year) - but losing a parent is compelling me to reflect on my life in fast forward and technicolor.  It is all rushing before my eyes and filling me with sweet and bitter memories, and I am raw with the awareness that time does run out.  I have been at a crossroads this year, feeling my way towards my future.  It is time to forge a new beginning and honor my father by being my own lucky charm. 

Soon the temperatures will drop, some rain will fall and I will find my usual comfort, trekking through our overgrown yard and trying to whisper some life back into our stressed out garden.  I am sure that when the clay pots are full of fresh herbs, the ruellia and lantana are flowering and my blue gardening boots are caked with fresh dirt, I too will begin to flourish again. 

Because as grows the garden, so goes my life....

John Landreth Albert
October 31, 1918 - August 18, 2011
Send us some rain Daddy!   My father's obituary

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Trashcan Herb Farming

While rereading my last post (man, time flies when you’re ignoring your muse) I realized how narrow our window is to eat greens from the garden. In January I was still waiting for them to get big enough to pilfer from – we usually leave the plant in the ground throughout the season and just steal some leaves for the evening salad. It seems like we just got started with that when the warm weather came rolling in and the bitter taste arrived with it. Chris sampled one of the most tender, youngest leaves today and had to immediately spit it out. The plants are still there and look hearty and proud, but they taste like old news and will soon be relegated to the compost pile, forced to offer themselves up to the cycle of life, returning as fertilizer for some future batch of radicchio, arugula, butter and romaine. We didn’t leave the country this year in March like we often do, so we were home enough to walk smugly past the lettuce section of the produce department for several weeks. Still, I wish the cool weather had hung on just a little longer because store bought salad just doesn’t hold a candle to our crop. The good news is Chris was very diligent and got an early start with the salsa garden; tomatoes, peppers, onions and cilantro are all well on their way to our pottery “chips and dip” platter. “And the seasons they go round and round.” (Thank you, Joni.)

We’re finally figuring out placement for our herbs. They seem to be such fussy, fragile things – not unlike me. They wilt easily without enough water, get fried with too much sun, droop without enough sun, are easy prey for bugs – again, much like me. I’ve had a “shade garden” in a circular area among the live oaks by the driveway for years. I filled it with hostas and creeping ivy and caladiums in a wheel barrow. It’s not a true shade garden though; it gets some nice gentle morning light and then another caress as the sun goes down. Don’t ask me what direction it faces, I’m lousy at making those kinds of calls. I’m more of a left/right gal than north/south. It’s close to the kitchen door and right next to the trashcan and recycling bin, so the area naturally gets a lot of attention from us. No matter how busy we are we’re tossing wine bottles and newspapers pretty regularly, so we notice what’s going on in the vicinity.

Chris started piling his pots of herbs there and at first, I’ll admit, I felt like he was encroaching on the little slice of fern laden forest heaven I had been trying to create for so long. I soon noticed that the herbs all looked very happy in their new home. It is super easy to water and to scoot out there and pinch off some basil for the chef. He does know what to do with those herbs so I am more than happy to have them in the shade garden/mini trashcan herb farm. They also look lovely and fill up the space that really wasn’t flourishing like I had hoped it would. And if you can grow something that is pleasing to the eye and the palette, why on earth (so to speak) wouldn’t you?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

James Taylor

The recent relentless rain in Austin finally let up today so I was inspired to throw off my flannel pants and fuzzy slippers (the beauty of having a home office) and open my pores to some much needed vitamin D. I walked in circles around the track at our neighborhood elementary school while the sun was setting and the moon was rising. Whenever I find myself between these two marvels at that perfect moment, I feel like I’m getting my own personal realignment from the cosmos. The moon will be full tomorrow so she had an abundance of intuitive lunar magic to bestow, balanced by the orange winter sun lighting my path with its brilliance.

When I returned home I grabbed an O’Doul’s beer and walked around, surveying the landscape that I have essentially been ignoring for weeks now. It’s that time of year when brown is the primary color scheme and freeze stress is the most popular look. The “back 40” is overgrown with bamboo, which is blanketed with the brown remains of wild vines that I allowed to run rampant towards the end of the summer. Even the arbor that we were married under is draped with dead vines, probably a huge feng shui faux pas (if I may mix my Americanized slang use of foreign phrases.)

My lack of attention to all this has been eating away at my naturally guilty conscience, but I was struck by how comforting it was to just stand there and look at it. I never even picked up a pruner or clippers and I still felt a connection and kinship just being in the middle of the chaos. It’s different than the piles on my desk that can also feel like chaos. There’s nothing therapeutic about looking at that mess, feeling the halogen light streaming down from above or the soft breeze of the heating system tickling my face, reminding me of the huge utility bill headed my way.

When I’m out in Mother Nature, it is as if she has been waiting with open arms for me to even stop by for a quick visit. She is not passing judgment saying “hey, we’ve got some overgrowth here, when are you planning to get to work?” The winter greens are still growing in spite of my lack of attention (thanks to Mother Nature’s superb watering job this week) and the kitchen scraps continue to turn into black gold in the compost pile. This relationship is not conditional – she is not going to turn her back on me if I don’t live up to her (or my) expectations. She might not flourish with quite as much pizzazz, but she’ll keep growing and doing her thing, offering me a quiet place to think, move, reflect and connect.

While I stood there in the gathering darkness, I realized that even when I stray far from my garden for weeks on end I will still be welcomed back with no agenda. James Taylor was singing “ain’t it good to know, you’ve got a friend” on my iPod. Yeah James, it is.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Swan Song Bloom

Moments away from midnight at the end of the winter solstice 2010.  One year ago today I began this blog and my consistency has obviously wavered - no entry since before Halloween! 

It has been a year of deep grief and loss - friends dying, relationships dying, losing faith at times, losing my way and then finding my way back. Loss came with gifts...a deepening of some relationships as I was reaching out for support while struggling with others; a reminder that every moment is precious as I said goodbye to friends whose moments were cut so short; the birth of a new kind of relationship with my mother-in-law as her essence changed with the onset of Alzheimer's.  My concept of how life will be never matches the way it plays out and it's usually much richer than my vision.

I finally pulled a dead agave (century plant) out of a bed in our front yard yesterday.  It never did get enough sun there and it couldn't thrive in the shade.  Still, it had withered and died long before I finally had the courage to start tugging to remove it.  Chris is a bigger fan of those than I am and I know he wanted to keep it, so I resisted the "urge to purge" the minute it showed signs of stress.  By the time I gingerly pulled at it this week the thing offered itself to me with an almost audible sigh of relief.  Thank you - please let me move on.  I don't belong here anymore.  Each spiny "leaf" fell into my gloved hands and allowed me to toss it into the brown recycling bag.  Before I knew it there was a new space and the other succulents around it visibly perked up, allowed to shine again.  

In our back yard, on the other hand, is an agave that gets plenty of sun and threw up its one and only flower this past few months.  Century plants only bloom once and then they die, but their bloom is impressive and grand.  25 feet of proud stalk with a cluster of flowers sitting at the top like the angel on the Christmas tree.  Interesting how the same plant that didn't get what it really needed just faded away.  The one that was lucky enough to get the light and space it craved went out with a graceful and expansive dance.

The friends I lost this year passed with their spirits strong and straight and their faith and love blooming until the last minute.  I'm proud and inspired to have known them and will honor their memory by making sure I create the light and space I need in my life to keep reaching high.  And when it's time to move on I hope that someone recognizes the moment and gently lifts me... up and away.           

Monday, October 4, 2010

Full Plate vs Empty Mind

Two and a half months since my last post.  When I began this I didn't anticipate the many changes that would transpire in my life...a larger role in running Swan Songs, health challenges that demand my attention and changes in relationships with family and friends that have thrown me off balance at times. 

Yoga instructor Rodney Yee says that balance is not a static thing - you fall out of balance and come back into balance...there is constant motion and fluidity.  I notice that in my life and in my garden.  Just when I've given up hope on myself or my shrimp plant, the rain will fall, a friend will say the perfect thing, a gift will appear that is exactly what I need, the weather will cool and suddenly my stressed plant or spirit are full of life and vitality.  The hard part is trusting that. 

My mother-in-law now lives at a facility close to us and she is getting more of my attention than my garden.  She has Alzheimer's and as her mind begins to unravel she becomes more and more childlike and wears her heart on her sleeve like never before.  She has a way of leaning in to Chris, my husband and her son, and sitting forehead to forehead for awhile - she seems to find that comforting.  The other night I received a blessing from a joyful Tibetan lama and he did the same thing - forehead to forehead for a profound moment of connection.  Wherever we find the support to empty our minds and lighten our burdens, we should lean into it.

With temperatures in the high 90's for the last couple of months, issues with migraine headaches, too much on my plate and too many mosquitoes, I wasn't leaning into my garden.  As the weather shifts and the temperature drops I find myself wandering around out there or simply sitting on the porch being still, seeking balance. 

We leave for a three week tour in a couple of days, so the garden will have to wait once again.  It's always there when I return though, waiting to bless me as deeply as a Buddhist monk...and he would be the first one to remind me of that.    

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Fairies and Pasta

Chris is about to create a seafood linguini pasta (gluten free for me!) with a mini harvest of tomato, chili and basil from our garden.  He is generously contributing the photo for this post; he shared it on Facebook and I was envious of the beauty and clarity so he agreed to send it along to me.  After all, I did help to grow the bounty. 

Life has been providing a bounty of late; a bounty of activity, challenges, opportunities and new beginnings.  I have spent time in my garden but not at the computer.  The gardener and the writer often have to compete for precious time, in spite of my aching desire to do both. 

I took four days in early July and created a personal, mini retreat in my own home.  Chris was off to Nova Scotia and there was nothing on the calendar.  After the demands of this year so far I knew that it was time for some rest, rejuvenation and physical detox.  My body felt overloaded, overweight, chronically tired, sore and starved for good nutrition and quiet attention.  I had to let the garden be and know that tending to my own "mother earth" was just as important.  I stayed in, took baths, slept, began to eliminate some foods from my diet that I suspected were not agreeing with me (coffee, alcohol, meat, sugar, dairy, wheat - to name a few), wrote in my journal, read quietly, did yoga - you know, everything you pay to do at a high priced spa!  What a novel concept - to stay home and take some time off.  

After just four days I was already feeling reacquainted with my self and more in tune and in touch.  The aches and pains were dissipating and so was some of the extra weight.  On the last day I ventured back out into my garden, determined to maintain the slower pace and resist the temptation to "make up for lost time" by overworking.  I quietly pulled weeds, planted a couple of things, cleaned out some oak leaves that were still hanging around and drank in the sunshine that my body was craving.

I know right where I was, hunched over to clean up under our huge pittosporum when I had an "ah-ha!' moment that was more like a whisper from some other place - perhaps I got close enough to the garden fairies to hear their tiny words of wisdom.  

Anyone who knows me or has been following this blog can probably sense that I feel pulled in many different directions and a bit overwhelmed at times.  I am blessed to have created the career that I have, but the older I get the more I am also drawn to community service and using my talents in other ways.  Five years ago I cofounded Swan Songs, a program that fulfills musical last wishes for music lovers who are facing the end of their life here.  I love this work and have devoted and donated my time to create it, nurture it and run it for many years - long before the official corporate filing in 2005.  The work is very gratifying to me and we have been successful at establishing a solid foundation for it. 

Still, at the end of the day my personal bills await and I have to go out and earn money since I am not yet an independently wealthy philanthropist.  Swan Songs needs more attention and it is a calling that I can not and will not walk away from.  It seems obvious now that transitioning from a volunteer to a paid position would be the natural next step, but I have resisted it for a long time.  Change and a deeper commitment can be frightening and I tend to subscribe to black and white thinking - if I say yes to this new role am I saying no to the music that has sustained me for 35 years?  

The fairies helped me to remember that sometimes you have to trust your instinct and take one step without knowing how it will end and what will grow from it.  I realized that I can make room in my life to tend to this very important project and gratefully accept payment for my time, thereby taking pressure off of another area of my life.  I'm not ready to hang up the guitar, but there's no reason to at this time.  Under that pittosporum I saw it all very clearly; I presented my ideas to the board and within a couple of days the idea in the garden had become a reality in my life.  

I am convinced that this blog I began in December has helped guide me.  I have taken more time to be in nature and to write and that has led to heightened intuition, increased trust in the rhythm of life and the process of growth.  I used to yank plants out when they died back in winter because I didn't understand that they'd come back in the spring.  I bought the bigger, more expensive plants because I didn't trust that with a little patience and care I could grow that same thing from a tiny little seedling that cost a fraction of the price.

I know that my new trial position with Swan Songs will evolve at its own pace.  If it's growing too fast for me, I'll prune it back a little or turn it over to another gardener.  If it's thriving and I love what I'm doing I'll build an arbor in my life to support it.  If I'm not sure which way to turn, I'll put on my green gardening gloves, baseball cap, overalls and blue rubber boots, get down on my knees close to the earth and see what the fairies have to say.