Sunday, March 28, 2021

HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW?

When I was growing up, my mother would sometimes have me help her in our little garden. She was a farmer's daughter who couldn't wait to get off the farm, but we usually had a small garden where she raised a few vegetables. She also knew which of the "weeds" that grew in our neighborhood would cook up into greens--dock and dandelions are the two I primarily remember. She would cook them for hours and I always enjoyed them.  However, it was when I spent summers at my Grandmother's and uncles' farms that I really got a glimpse of gardening. My Aunt Jeanne had a huge garden filled with all kinds of vegetables. There is nothing quite like picking a ripe Missouri tomato from the vine, sitting on a swing, and eating it out of hand, with the red juice running down your fingers. My aunt would pay any of the nieces who happened to be about to help pick peas and then shell them. We'd sit together on the porch and listen to her stories as the peas rolled out of the pods and into the measuring cups.

After my family moved from Oklahoma to New Jersey, we seldom went back to visit my parents' relatives in Missouri. I was soon sucked into academics in high school and then college, and after I got married, my husband and I lived in Manhattan, so the closest I got to gardening was in a begonia I set in our windowsill looking out on Broadway.

When I got pregnant, we moved to an apartment in Hackensack, and the begonia came along with us. I added a few plants to our balcony, killed a bonsai that my boss gave me (unintentionally) and proved that I didn't have a green thumb.  

Then we bought a house in a town of 6,000 next door to where we had lived when we met in New Jersey years before. It was on half an acre, and I discovered how little I knew about gardening. There were green things coming up in the middle of the grass, and later, larger green things coming up in the flower beds.  I had to ask one of my neighbors what they were; she told me I had crocuses in the yard, and daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips coming up all over the flowerbeds.  The couple who owned the house before us must have planted 500 bulbs over the years they had owned the house, and I added several hundred more, so that from our first January thaw well into June, we had a symphony of color as well as fragrance, for in addition to the hyacinths, we had mock orange bushes and lilacs. I perused plant catalogues all winter and planted madly as soon as the plants arrived, in addition to all the bulbs I put in the beds in the fall.  I read gardening books and would dash outside the minute the baby was asleep. As she was an excellent sleeper, I put in hours of work in the yard every day, with her window open so I could hear when she woke up and started shouting "Mommay!" Looking back, those seem like idyllic times, though I was struggling with depression and didn't realize it until much later.  But when I was out in the sunshine life seemed happier and the dark clouds in my mind retreated. And even now, when planting my fourth tomato plant out in the garden, I realized that gardening is always a choice for hope--hope that the weather won't get too cold at night for the new tomato plants and hope that the 2" tall sugar snap pea seedlings will reward me with a delicious harvest before the weather gets too hot. The liquidambar trees are budding, and the plants that my gardener put in my flower beds this year when I decided to do a makeover are flourishing in many colors and shapes.  Spring is shaking out a many-colored patchwork quilt and my whole being is rejoicing.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

ON BEING "MOTHERLY"

My daughter Mary and her daughter Bernadette were with me recently, and she commented that a friend was concerned that her child, who seems to be a melancholic, wouldn't know that she loved him.  Many in our family read The Temperament God Gave You by Art and Laraine Bennett, as a means to understand ourselves, our spouses, and our children.  Mary has one son who is definitely a melancholic, and one of the things she has learned is that when he is in a melancholic mood, talking to him is useless.  But what she has learned is that a hug does wonders.  He is definitely a boy who loves hugs, and now that I have had my two Covid vaccinations, and they can come over, I can get my wonderful hugs from him again. 

Mary commented that while she didn't think of me as "motherly," she always knew that I loved her, just as she knew my husband loved her, although he was from a family that exchanged almost no hugs and kisses from the time that the children were about 10.  In my family of origin, on the other hand, we have continued hugging one another into adulthood. It was interesting that after my husband's brother died, the other five siblings all began hugging one another and saying "I love you." This became even more prevalent when my husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. With my own children, who are all adults, I have continued to hug them, kiss them, and bless them, and I do the same with my grandchildren (except for the year just past when we had to be physically distanced due to Covid).

I also didn't think of myself as being very "motherly" when I was growing up.  I was the oldest and somewhat of a tomboy. I played football with my two younger brothers, romped in the woods behind our house, and was aggravated when my older boy cousins wouldn't let me tag along with them when I visited my grandmother's and uncles' farms as a kid.  Fortunately, my mother's youngest brother, who was also my godfather, took me under his wing and let me follow him around. I often slept on the screened-in porch at my grandmother's house with my clothes on a chair at the foot of my bed.  I would wake up when the back door slammed at 4 in the morning, throw on my clothes, and be out the door to go with him to milk the cows.  I loved the smell of the barn made up of cow, hay, and manure, the sound of the milk pinging into the bucket or squirting into the mouth of a waiting cat.  The happiest day of my life as a child was when I was about 10 and he asked if I wanted to go out in the combine with him.  I rode in the cab with him for a while, and then he asked if I'd like to ride in the back of the combine where the grain came down. Nothing could have seemed like a greater adventure.  He put me in the back and I rode about with the grain falling around me; the sky was hot and blue and I sang up and down the fields with my heart nearly bursting with happiness.  When the grain had gotten up to my neck, he came around and pulled me out and let me sit back in the cab with him, covered with dust and dirt.  (Just a side note--don't try this at home.  I found out much later that it was very dangerous, but in those days we didn't think of that, and it was as perfect a day as I ever had.) When we came in the back door, my grandmother looked at me and said she didn't know what my mother would think if she could see me!  

I think I had only one babysitting job when I was growing up, and I was so inept I had to call my mother to come and help me before the parents came back.  When I was in college, although I was looking forward to graduating and marrying the boy who became my husband, I was almost totally focused on academics, especially after one of my professors mentioned that if I kept my straight A average, I would be the first student to graduate from that college with a 4.0.  From that point on, I was determined to rise to the challenge, and I did, although when I received the medal from the Bishop for being at the top of my class, the medal read "Frist Honors."  Years later, the University contacted me and said it had come to their attention that the medal was engraved incorrectly and they would be glad to re-engrave it.  I replied that I wanted to keep it the way it was to remind me of the mistakes that all kinds of people could make.

I got engaged just before I graduated and moved to New York City so I could be closer to my fiance. We thought we should have a year to be able to see each other almost every day, rather than depending on student standby flights once or twice a year.  We were married the following May, and two years later had Elizabeth, our first child.  My husband was the oldest of six, so he was the one I turned to for advice, often calling him at the law firm to see what I should do when the baby was crying.  He used to tease me that my tag line should be from Gone with the Wind: "I don't know nothin' both birthin' babies!"

But what I discovered was that I learned quickly and had a mother tiger's instincts to protect my baby no matter what.  With each new child, I learned more--about how different they were, how endlessly fascinating, and how my heart seemed to expand with each one, and with each day.  The same thing has happened with each grandchild, and I'm sure it will happen when #23 arrives in May. Each child is a new adventure and each one takes me on a new path of learning.  I may not be what I thought of as a "perfect mother" when I was a child (my Aunt Cecilia, who had 11 children, came very close), but every mother is different, and as long as she loves her child, she is "motherly" in her own way.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

CROSSING THE FINISH LINE

For two years I've been hammering away at a poetry chapbook. I changed the title several times, and it has lengthened from 15 pages (the version I sent to a chapbook contest, which I am glad it didn't win) to nearly 50 pages.  It had begun with a poem I wrote about our son, which was the first poem I'd written since my beloved husband had died, which didn't have the shadow of my grief cast over it. I thought that my gratitude for the times I had spent at the Wild Animal Park with our son throughout his life was a good entry point for the new life I was trying to create for myself as a widow. At some point, I decided to ask my daughter Mary, who had been an English major and who had started to work for a Ph.D. at UCLA, to look at what I had written so far.  At another point, I decided to include some quotations from Song of Songs (or Canticle of Canticles) in the Old Testament. Mary took her "assignment" very seriously and began giving me some in-depth critiques of what I had written. She suggested I take out some of the poems I'd included. In the beginning, I resisted many of her ideas, but as I began to trust what she was saying more, I started to listen and then act upon what she recommended.  Then she told me that I needed to expand a section about one of her sisters. Next, she commented that I should write another poem. After I did that, she told me I should write one about meeting and falling in love with my husband. That was bittersweet and difficult to write, but she was right. I thought of adding some other poems I'd written, but she pared those down.  Then she told me to write another poem about my husband's death.  I rebelled then, but eventually gave in. She kept adding to what I needed to write, and in the background, we had a running battle over the ziggurat which I had made the central structure and theme of the whole chapbook, which she kept telling me I needed to take out.  As I added more of the layers that she had proposed, I could gradually see that the ziggurat was in fact out of place; some day it may be its own poem, but I had to deconstruct it out of the chapbook, and set a more biblical scene, primarily Jerusalem.  She gave me a few more poems to write and I wrote one of them.  Then she told me I still needed to write the other one she had suggested. I countered with the fact that the "Way of the Cross" was implicit in the poem I had written about the Biblical scene set on the road to Emmaus, but she kept pushing me on the second one.  Finally, the day after I had my second Covid vaccination, and she gave me flowers to celebrate what one of my grandchildren calls my "Super Power," I sat down and started to write "Via Dolorosa."  It started as many of my poems do, as a tangle of lines thrown on the page just to get my ideas down, without much rhyme or rhythm or structure.  My ending image involved a window, but I couldn't seem to make it work, and I wasn't getting anywhere with rewriting the whole poem.  Finally I mentioned to one of my coaches that I was thinking of actually asking Mary to give me some advice on the poem before I'd proceeded any further, which was contrary to how I have worked on any of my other poetry. She encouraged me to go ahead and call Mary, which I did as soon as I finished my call with her.  I read the last bedraggled lines of what I had so far and explained what I was trying to do with the window.  She agreed that the idea of the window didn't work. I asked her if I should use a door.  She paused for a moment and then said, "What about a portal?"  Since the title of the chapbook is "Portal of Light," it was as if she had turned a key in the whole body of work and it illuminated the direction I should go.  I started with the end of the poem, which I also have never done before, and reworked it from there.  I set a timer for 20 minutes so I wouldn't be overwhelmed, but by the time it rang, I was immersed in Kairos--that sense of time out of time--and I worked steadily for three hours and had a completed poem at the end of it.  I emailed it to Mary, and later that evening, received her response.

I was so excited to see this email- I was telling Elizabeth earlier how amazing it has been to watch how quickly you have been writing one challenging, compelling poem after another during the past year.

What is so great about this is not just bringing the title into the poem explicitly, but also that this poem also is the moment where we see the colliding of the two worlds, 2 types of poems- personal and biblical for the first time.

I think congratulations are in order- I have some minor recommendations for this and your final poem, but every piece is in place- no more poem assignments! This is so exciting to see it all together at last. I am so impressed with the way you were willing to write, and rewrite, and let go, and write more, and let go of more.

And we can celebrate this weekend in person!!! Hurray!!!!

We can be together this weekend at last since I have been fully immunized against Covid. We have been waiting for over a year to be able to work on our scrapbooks together, and she told me a few days later that it was my persistence in having her work on her album with her photos from her year in Israel that helped her in looking at the parts of my chapbook that were set in Israel as well. So it looks as if we are drawing into a great celebration of this chapbook collaboration, and can cross the finish line together at last!


Sunday, March 7, 2021

DRAGGING ALONG WITH DEPRESSION

Decades ago when I had a new baby and my parents had moved in with us and my husband and I had a very busy marriage ministry, I gradually found myself slipping down into a dark depression. It came on gradually because I was so busy with carpools for the older children, trying to hold on to my role as an adult when my mother seemed to be criticizing me as a wife and mother, writing and giving talks in our marriage ministry and all the other myriad of things involved in keeping the home running, the meals cooked, and the calendars coordinated.

We had a group of couples who met every few weeks, and one night I remember bursting into tears and saying that I was sure I needed to see a counselor, but I didn't have anyone to watch the baby so I could go--I didn't want to ask my parents and let them know how I was feeling.  One of the wives immediately said she would, and my beloved husband found a psychologist whom he knew through a church group and offered to make an appointment for me.  He even drove me to the first appointment because it was downtown and I was nervous about driving there.  

After that, on Fridays, I would meet with the psychologist at 11 and then my dear husband would come home for lunch, and I'd tell him all about what I had discussed with the psychologist. He was an excellent listener, so I was getting two sessions for the price of one!  Slowly, over the course of the next year, things improved, but so gradually that I didn't think I was getting any better. I can remember going in one day and thinking that things were so bad that I was going to ask why he wouldn't prescribe any medication that would help. Instead, he showed me a graph he had made of the numbers I'd indicated in a journal he had me keep indicating the severity of my depression each day.  He pointed out that I never had more than one really bad day in a row. And the very next week, I felt as if I had turned the corner. The number of my sessions was reduced until I didn't need to go back, and even after my beloved husband died, although I was grieving and sad and often felt depressed, I have never felt as if I were slipping into that black hole that I thought I would never escape.

Today was one of those depressing days where I can start to worry that I'm sliding downhill.  It was a gloomy day, and I'm convinced that I have at least some tendency toward Seasonal Affective Disorder, so the fitful appearance and disappearance of a watery sunshine left me feeling less than cheery. I had two Zoom calls, one of which was frustrating, I was still feeling the negative effects of a phone call with a friend yesterday who seems to be heading toward a very bad decision.  I argued with her and tried to convince her that she is heading toward a cliff, but I felt like Cassandra, the figure in Greek mythology who predicted the fall of Troy. No one believed any of her predictions and they all came true.

I tried various remedies for depression. I had cut some freesias, and delighted in their fragrance. I discovered that the first of the orange blossoms had opened--and can look forward to a tree filled with my favorite perfume.  I planted my sugar snap peas, which I had been putting off, so I had something tangible that I had done in the garden.  I put my tomato seedlings outside for a couple of hours to catch whatever of the sun they could soak up. I even made bread, although I'm not sure if the yeast is still good, so I suppose I'll find out after I give it some time to rise if I'm going to have unleavened bread.  None of these things really hauled me out of my depression, so I decided I'd better write this blog post, which I had also been procrastinating about all week.  

As I sat down to write, I became aware of a headache threatening somewhere in the back of my head. I received a nice text from a friend and was able to reflect that yesterday I gave a talk that was helpful to a group of widowed and divorced people. I realized that one of the things depressing me was that Sunday is the only day my oldest daughter doesn't call me because we talk on our family Zoom in the afternoon, but I reminded myself that I can always call her if I'm feeling depressed.  As I kept rolling out my thoughts I felt a slight lift in my spirits, and reminded myself, as Scarlett O'Hara would say, that tomorrow is another day!

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

SOUL STRIVING

 As I near the final shape of my chapbook, Portal of Light, I've had some interesting discussions with my daughter Mary who has been critiquing it as I've gone along. The chapbook opens with what I think is one of my best poems--it's also about creation, so it's appropriate as a beginning.  We've had many discussions about what should and should not go in the chapbook, and the major point of contention was whether the ziggurat, which in some ways began as the structure for the whole chapbook should stay or go. Ultimately, I finally agreed with Mary that it didn't belong, and I excavated it out of the chapbook. 

However, the last time we were together, Mary told me that she still believes I need to have a very structured poem at the end to balance the beginning. I didn't really think I should--at first, I just thought I could never write a poem as good as the first one. But as I discussed the structure of the poem, I told Mary that because this is basically a narrative of my journey through widowhood, and that is like living through an earthquake, wildfire, and hurricane all at once, and that nothing will ever be the same again, there can't be the same structure at the end. In fact, the end will be very different. 

Yesterday I was freewriting about a gazebo that I noticed on my walks down the horse trail, and today I worked it into a poem and realized that the gazebo is an emblem of the only structure that seems possible to me now--it is an outpost, a reminder of hope, of the possibility of joy, of little snatches of order that I can still appreciate and perhaps even achieve, but that I can never go back to the calm understanding of my faith and my place in our family that I had before I became a widow. Nor can anyone go back to Eden since sin entered in. But we can find those outposts that shine with hope for a future that will be even better; we can see, as the movie Soul revealed, that tiny moments of beauty, like a winged seed, can show us a reason to live.

I turned the freewriting about the gazebo into a poem, and sent it to Mary, and she said she didn't think that was it. Then I sent another poem to her about the messages coming to me that I can't understand or read, and that didn't do it either. At last I wrote the poem on the road to Emmaus, and sent that to Mary (and Elizabeth as well). I even included a reference to the landing of the Perseverance on Mars, which was a vague echo of the opening of the creation poem that is the beginning of the chapbook, "The Smell of Space Suggests." When I had finished several drafts of the poem, I reread the opening poem and realized that I could parallel the final verse with a slightly altered final verse in the Emmaus poem.  Elizabeth emailed me back that that verse had brought tears to her eyes, and Mary said that yes, that was the kind of poem she had been imagining.  

The next day, she had offered to take me to get my second Covid vaccination, and she gave me a complete printout of all the final tweaks she thought I needed to make in the chapbook.  She bought me flowers to celebrate what one of my grandchildren called a "super-power" of being able to resist Covid. On the way back to her house, though, she said very cautiously that she still thinks I need to write one more poem reflecting on the Way of the Cross.  My first reaction was to resist, saying that the beginning of the Emmaus poem reflected the reality of Good Friday and that I didn't think I needed to write anything more.  Then I told her I would meditate on it during Lent and see what happened; this was a way of postponing what I thought would be an extremely difficult piece of thinking and writing.

The day after this, as I was sitting at the breakfast table, I thought back to my time in Israel when I was 21, and how the group I was traveling with had walked the Way of the Cross, the path that Jesus had taken to his death, in the midst of markets and crowds, noise and smells.  I began writing lines that reflected those memories and the vague intersection of my traveler's recollections with the events of nearly 2000 years ago and the current chasm of my grief. I wrote a few more lines Saturday morning as I thought about the comments my daughter Elizabeth had given me when I told her about Mary's "assignment."  I'm now in the midst of the construction, the "messy middle," which always looks as if very little creative can come forth.  But I know that it will if I keep after it like a scuptor carving fleck after fleck of marble away to reveal the statue within.  And I am glad that I took up the challenge right away. I have kept on my desk a quote about Teddy Roosevelt that often keeps me from procrastinating.  

“As soon as (Teddy Roosevelt) received an assignment for a paper or project, he would set to work, never leaving anything to the last minute. Prepared so far ahead "freed his mind" from worry and facilitated fresh, lucid thought.”―Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism

Now that it is begun, I believe I can finish it, make the final few tweaks, and actually complete the chapbook.  This has become my chef d'oeuvre and as I come closer to the end, my excitement grows. How appropriate that "Portal of Light" is coming into port as the light increases each day, and spring provides me every morning with new surprises: the orange blossom buds are forming, a branch of honeysuckle fills the air with scent, the freesias promise their intoxicating perfume in a week or two, my five tomato seedlings are growing sturdily with time in the sun and a grow light when they have to be indoors, and the first hyacinth has opened.  There is a portal of hope in the air.