All posts by Susie Middleton

Hello, Henri. Goodbye Fair-Weather Neighbors.

THERE IS NOTHING BETTER than being inside your cozy home on a stormy day. If that day is a Sunday and you have a good book or a pile of magazines, a comfortable chair, a dog at your feet, coffee or tea brewing, even better. 

Perhaps the window is cracked and the breeze is on the back of your neck. You listen as the wind swoops through the trees, humming and whistling as it builds to a soft crescendo. Looking out, you see limbs of leaves bouncing wildly in and out of your view, tall grasses and random flowers flattened against themselves like a cotton skirt wrapped around your legs.

You might venture out with the dog from time to time to inspect the gentle carnage, leaves and lichen plastered to the floor of the wooden deck, acorns and twigs and branches morphing into mossy tableaus under the oaks. A pole bean vine or two dangling from a fence post.

There is a litter of pink cosmos petals across the maroon marigolds and a single cosmos heading sideways. No sign of the two baby bunnies you’re been keeping an eye on, but they are probably safely under the deck in a nest of pine needles.

Later you might drive up-Island to see the storm surf, to watch the waves roll in, cresting and crashing on the slick rocks and rutted sand.

You’ll catch the early evening light turning the clouds a rosy pink and the water an inky denim blue with frayed shadows. 

Swaths of goldenrod and phragmites might sway under the causeway as you walk back to the car, hand-in-hand with the person you love.

You would miss all this of course if you jumped on a plane and left the Island the night before as many people did. The constant drone of jet engines gave them away. Staying the course was not for them.

The thought of this exodus might make you a little sad if you were the nostalgic type, wishing for that time, not so long ago, when a storm meant staying put, battening down, stocking up, dragging the boats up to the dunes, taking down the clotheslines, staking up the garden plants, harvesting all the veggies and flowers, moving the outdoor furniture, filling pots with water for flushing the toilets, making sure your neighbor doesn’t need anything.

Not heading for the nearest exit.

It seems that moving around or away from discomfort instead of through it is the modern way. Which of course means missing all the beauty that hides in the dark spots. (Says she who is prone to assigning metaphors to everything!)

No matter. If you were here as the storm passed to the west, leaving a branch or two down here and there, you had a good day. And you remembered why you live on an Island, why you stick close to the sea, how beautiful the light is after the storm passes.

P.S. Even though the storm did not turn out to be a big deal, the gusts were aggressive enough to flatten some zinnias and sunflowers I hadn’t tied up properly (I knew I’d missed something!). But for the most part, they’re fine. I just stood them back up and lassoed them to a stake or two. And some things looked even happier after a bit of rain!


BOOK RECS THIS WEEK


I know I mentioned the novel Cutting For Stone last week, but in the interim I finished reading it, and I believe it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I don’t know how I missed it when it was published in 2009, but I’m grateful to have discovered it now. I put it down thinking about the arc of life, about how the little (and big) actions we take (and don’t take) have deep repercussions. I learned a little about the country of Ethiopia. I learned much about the job of a surgeon. And I was challenged to remember that people show their love in different ways. And that bonds of family are never truly severed, even if they seem broken.


I recently discovered Sarah Raven through her Instagram account @sarahravenperchhill and through an interview she did with flower farmer Erin Benzakein. Once again, I’m not sure how I missed this talented and accomplished British flower maven, but I’m glad to be on board now. I just got her newest book in the mail and I am over the moon about it, especially her tips, her suggested color palettes and her lists of favorite flower varieties. Beautiful photographs by her collaborator Johnathan Buckley featured in a compact book with a lovely design make A Year Full of Flowers: Gardening for All Seasons one I will be reading from cover to cover.

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Releasing the Pressure Valve – Now Off to the Fair

NOTHING LIKE RELEASING the pressure valve to flood the system with endorphins. I’ve been sort of floating around the last couple of days, freed from the anticipation of the event I moderated Wednesday.

It was a marvelous day all around, successful on all counts. You can see a handful of photos by my dear friend Jeanna Shepard over on the @cookthevineyard Instagram site. All three panelists were amazing, and Dr. Jessica B. Harris dropped some big news on us too, about another season of High on the Hog, and about the groundbreaking subject of the newest book she’s working on, which will weave the three threads of American cooking – Indigenous cooking, European immigrant cuisines, and African-American influence – into a historical narrative.

Me, Dr. Jessica B. Harris, Sam Sifton, Dawn Davis, Jane Seagrave 
Photo by Jeanna Shepard

Anyway, with that behind me and a short (very short) break in the constant deadline schedule, I have spent the last couple of days sleeping late, eating buttered cheese toast (Swiss levain from our Vineyard Baking Project bread CSA), catching up on garden maintenance, reading a good book (Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese — I never read it!), taking a little ride off-Island on Thursday with my partner, and, most importantly, obsessing about my Fair entries. 

The ride on Thursday was just the thing. It’s funny how hopping on the ferry and going for a quick off-Island jaunt can change your mindset when you live in the middle of what has become a pretty intense vacation destination. It’s nice to get away from the crowds on the Island, and a change of scenery is always uplifting. We took a drive along the coast (Buzzards Bay) through West and North Falmouth, past Snug Harbor and Old Silver Beach – so pretty.

But then once you’ve been in a big-box store or two (the budget toilet-paper-and-laundry-detergent-run which every Vineyarder does when off-Island), you can’t wait to get back on the ferry! 

But about my Fair entries. I was chatting with my co-worker and fellow gardener Steve at our editorial meeting Friday morning. I told him I entered way too many categories (14 in total), and he looked at me with his deliberate gaze and said, “You said the same exact thing last year!” Oy, so true I guess.

Anyway, this year I have entered more flower categories and less vegetables. I won’t have enough green beans, but I will enter cherry tomatoes (Sweet 100 and Sungold), roma tomatoes (Midnight), eggplants (Fairy Tale), and peppers (Shishitos).

But not only am I entering two size categories in zinnias and dahlias (as well as cosmos, marigolds, and coneflowers), I am also entering two arrangement categories. One is the “tea cup” arrangement, which I’ve always wanted to do, because how cute is that? But the other is a more standard arrangement, which of course terrifies me, as I am still in pre-school (maybe kindergarten) when it comes to flower arranging.

And once again, I am entering everything in the commercial (not home grower) categories, partly because I am a former farmer and mostly because the requirements suggest that if you teach or lecture about vegetables or flowers, you must enter commercial, and technically I do that through writing and occasional demonstrations.

Being in the commercial category in vegetables used to be an advantage, as busy farmers would often not enter, and even if they did, there were far fewer of them than home growers.

But these days we have so many young farmers on the Vineyard that I bet the categories will be crammed. And I can’t even begin to tell you how talented the flower arrangers are on this Island. So I won’t feel bad if I don’t get a ribbon in those, though there are opportunities where I might have a shot. (For instance, I doubt commercial flower folks will enter the marigold category!) We’ll see.

My friends on the Vineyard Dahlia Collective Facebook page are gearing up for the Fair so it should be interesting. The crazy humidity and the short window of time to put everything together puts a bit of pressure on the whole flower thing. I’ll probably pick as late as I can on Wednesday evening and put the flowers in buckets of water in the cool basement. Then I’ll get up super early on Thursday to do the arranging. Perishables are due at the Fair grounds by 8:30 a.m.

Delivering is always a fun event; you see your friends in line and get a peek at what everyone else is turning in. Then you go home and hold your breath until the hall opens later on Thursday.

We usually go over in the evening, cruise through the hall to check the ribbons and see all the beautiful quilts and pies and artwork, visit the magnificent teams of oxen in the animal barn, eat BBQ and french fries and ice cream at the picnic tables, and watch the Tilt-a-Whirl light up the night sky.

I’m just hoping this crazy Delta variant doesn’t throw a wrench in the Fair. Not so much for me, as I get a lot of joy out of my flowers every morning when I go out to the garden. (Those dinnerplate dahlias – OH MY!). But for the sake of the Ag Society. The Fair is their main fundraiser and they really need this to happen. Last year the Fair was virtual, and that was a bummer.

Plus, we all want it to happen simply for the good will it generates. From the pet show to the Firemen’s burgers, from sheep shearing to prize-winning pickles, the Fair is classic old-school Vineyard. To me it represents everything that I love about living here.

See you at the Fair!

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From Stranger Things to High on the Hog: Is it Life or Netflix?

THE TWO HUMANS AND ONE CANINE in my household have been in the Upside Down this week. (Not all three at once, but seemingly two at all times.) You know the Upside Down, that flipped-over underworld home of seething demons that plagued the characters in the most excellent Netflix series Stranger Things?

We’ve taken to saying we’re in the Upside Down whenever we feel not quite right, like an alien alter ego has invaded our equilibrium and left it teetering. Of course the canine did not verbally check in with his symptoms, but anyone who’s ever hung around a dog who’s a bit punk knows the signs – the lethargy, the clinging, the forlorn look in those big eyes.

But hey, if a bunch of 12-year-olds on banana bikes can conquer the creepy demogorgons and silence the Mind Flayer, then I think we should be able to toss off a little August weirdness.

Though if you are a Vineyarder, you might agree that the whole Island seems to be in the Upside Down this August.

Here’s an example: On each of the three days I left my house early last week (Sunday, Monday and Wednesday – I stayed safely at home on Tuesday), I found myself behind major car accidents (twice) or pulling over for emergency vehicles (twice). And this was all on the same road — the road we use to get everywhere, a two-lane road that runs from east to west (and west to east), down-Island to up-Island and back down-Island. There are no stoplights on the Vineyard; max speed limit is 45 mph. In other words, we’re not well set up for an onslaught of city drivers who race to get everywhere in humongous vehicles twice the size of an average Vineyard pickup truck.

I’m starting to feel like when I get to the end of my dirt road I should have a special force field to raise around my car as I turn out into the parade of whizzing cars.

The record number of cars and people on the Island this summer is a bit jarring, to say the least.

Also, it was grey and rainy most of the week – lovely for the plants but surreptitiously mood-reducing. Add to the mix a report on mounting Covid cases on the Island again, complete with Delta variant and a high percentage of “breakthrough” cases of vaccinated folks. And Whoopee! Way to put a damper on getting out and enjoying the 4000 events that go on out here in the second and third week of August.

It’s hard to know whether to hide under a rock or throw caution to the wind.

Of course, as you know, I’m mostly the hide-under-the-rock kind. (All alcoholics are excellent isolators – they excel in it, I’m afraid. It is not something they willingly give up, even years into recovery. That’s why we have sponsors to check in with.) But that is not going to work for me this week. Of the bigger events coming up, one of them is ours (meaning the company I work for, the Vineyard Gazette Media Group, and specifically cookthevineyard.com), and I must be, er, present for that.

Actually, not just present, but on point: I’m moderating the panel discussion between Sam Sifton (NYT Cooking), Dawn Davis (Bon Appétit), and Dr. Jessica B. Harris (author and historian). Our topic is The Changing Story of American Home Cooking, and we’re taking a look at how the food media is opening up to a broader spectrum of voices. (We’ll be under a tent at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum; if you’d like to join us, you can get tickets online.)

Honestly, this will be exciting (though my stomach will betray me as it always does before I go in front of large groups of people), and it’s not like any one of these three people is a shrinking violet – they could talk amongst themselves quite easily without me even being there. (Indeed, ideally that will be mostly the case!) But since I am so goal-oriented, I want to be sure the audience will walk away with a clear story in their heads, to know about the changes the food media is undertaking to tell a wider range of stories.   

One of the things I’m doing to prepare is watching High on the Hog, another excellent Netflix production, though this one a documentary series. Maybe you’ve seen it by now; I’ve been meaning to get to it all summer.

Inspired by Dr. Harris’ work tracing the journey of African ingredients and cuisine to this continent in her 2012 book, High on the Hog, the documentary is a fascinating and emotional look at how much of what we think of as American food has its roots in African ingredients and African American cooking. Macaroni and cheese, for one. (Here’s a link to Dr. Harris’ recipe for Spicy Three-Cheese Marcaroni and Cheese.)

The host of the series is personable food writer Stephen Satterfield, who travels with Dr. Harris in the first episode to the West African nation of Benin, where almost one million Africans departed for a life in slavery. The four-part series travels back to America – first to the Low Country of South Carolina where enslaved people built the nation’s first big business – rice farming – and from there to Philadelphia, Virginia, Texas and California.

If you are a lover of food and history and interested in expanding your understanding of the African contribution to American cuisine, I highly recommend watching this beautiful documentary.

Once again I’m reminded that to enrich my life (and come back from the Upside Down), I just have to stick my nose out from under the rock. And maybe watch a little more Netflix!

I wish you could all join me on Wednesday, but I’m comforted in knowing some of you will be there and that the universal topic of home cooking will be center stage. No matter what you cook or where your food traditions come from, the act of gathering at the table for a meal cooked with love is a universal connection we all share.

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The Edit

I AM HAPPY to be home. I was sorry to leave Delaware. I am loving the cool breeze, the dry air, the deep blue sky and the rustling leaves here in our backyard on the Vineyard. I am missing the enveloping warmth of the hot, humid, languid days of last week.

I am happy it’s the weekend and that we could splay out on the back deck this morning, books and phones and coffee and toasted cinnamon raisin bread strewn about, freshly clipped flowers stowed in mason jars of cool water in the shade. I am wishing I didn’t have work to do, many hours of it, inside, and bills to pay and housework to do. But I am looking forward to a long walk and grilled chicken for dinner. And maybe a game of Scrabble if there is time.

I was beside myself with excitement and joy to see all the flowers blooming in my garden when I got home. But bummed that a critter has apparently eaten the first ripe beefsteak tomato. And sad when I think of my father outside in the sun, dutifully pruning and hauling and replanting his garden plants, but with no family dinner to look forward to tonight.

I’m happy for the quiet day here with my partner, but missing my Dad and sister very much.

It occurs to me once again how much influence the narrator has over the trajectory of a story. (Just think of the impossibly fictional creation of a social media feed…even my own, where I mostly show the pretty flowers—not the rotten or bug-eaten ones.) Amazing how details are carefully plucked from life and arranged in a row to advance one (white-washed) story line over another. 

But real stories are never linear, and real emotions are never constant.

I craft my own stories so that they lean positive, mostly because I do want to share the joy I feel like I’ve worked hard for, and because I think it’s especially great to show how life smooths out in sobriety. But also, I probably don’t dwell on the negative or the controversial as much because I’m not as confident there. I have to be very very sure of my knowledge of a subject before condemning an action with opinion.

But on a given day or in the space of an hour or a minute, no matter how much joy I’m experiencing, there are always moments of malaise. Mostly they pass quickly, and I am back on the bright side. But sometimes they linger on in the background, naggingly present, even though I’ve made every effort to stash them.

Living in joy is a good place to be, but it isn’t possible all the time and even difficult for some people to do most of the time. (Understanding that is called empathy.) I like to think of it as a choice, but it isn’t – at least not in the moment. Though it is a series of a zillion choices, starting with making the decision to be honest about what you feel, which can change like the wind direction in a nanosecond. And sometimes you feel two ways at one time.

All the little choices that move you towards the light matter. I chose to live on Martha’s Vineyard because the suburbs of New York were too frenetic for me. I chose to quit my job as editor in chief of a national food magazine because, in sobriety, I discovered that I actually don’t handle stress well. I’ve made a lot of bad choices, too, over the years, but they are surprisingly less frequent now that I listen to my gut (whenever I am quiet enough to hear it). (And choosing to plant a lot of flowers this year was definitely a very fine decision.)

I have a good life, interrupted by occasional bad things, like everyone else. That’s my story for today.

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Fifty-Nine Candles of Gratitude

EXACTLY 59 years ago on a sultry July night (4:30 a.m., to be accurate) in the City of Washington, in the Columbia Hospital for Women on NW 25thStreet, my mother gave birth to a six-pound baby girl. My father told friends the baby’s name would be Laura. My mother told the same friends the baby would be Susan. Guess who won?

Soon baby Susan met her six-and-a-half-year-old sister, who wasn’t immediately happy about the intruder, but would quickly become the most loyal and fierce protector, friend, and even caretaker to the baby. Six months later, the baby would meet her other best friend for life, who came into the world on December 31, 1962.

Baby Susan, by all accounts, was not very cute. “Where’d you get that homely baby?” a great aunt commented upon seeing her, noting that the older sister couldn’t have been a cuter baby. (Apparently Susan looked a little like J Edgar Hoover in the early days.) This story would be oft repeated to peals of laughter, so one can only hope that this means baby Susan grew out of her awkwardness eventually.

Small strides were clearly made, but the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly is still magically happening, 59 years later.

All this of course, is just a way of saying that it’s my birthday. Of the immense gratitude I have today, those two women – my sister and my best friend – are at the top of the list. My healthy father, and the healthy relationship I have with my wonderful partner are the source of so much joy for me.

In my view, my 14 ½ years of sobriety has made all the difference in distinguishing the importance of homely-baby comments vs. how I see myself as a whole person, one who is always growing. But instead of growing into a persona I created for myself based on others’ expectations (something I embraced whole-heartedly pre-sobriety), I am just watching how I grow closer and closer to my true self by following my gut, being honest about my own limitations, and embracing imperfection.

A friend and I were walking through my garden this week, and I said, “It’s not perfect.” And she said, “That whole perfection thing is overrated, especially in the garden, but in life, too.” So true! In the recovery world, “Progress, not perfection” is a common refrain.

One of my biggest challenges – one I may never master – is balancing work time vs. play time. But due to it being birthday weekend, I went along with my partner’s request to do whatever I wanted to do this weekend (which meant Friday-Saturday, since if I don’t work this afternoon, I will completely crumble. We leave for Delaware Friday, and I have three deadlines before that). We went out for a fancy and delicious dinner Friday night.

And on Saturday morning, we went to the beach. We took advantage of the foggy weather and the early part of the day to avoid the crowds. And it was lovely. We weren’t there for a long, but it was so peaceful that we promised ourselves we’d go back, work or not. (Though negotiating the crowds on Martha’s Vineyard this summer is pretty much the number one hassle on everyone’s minds.)

Of course, these days I don’t have to go to the beach or go for a walk to find joy. It is right in my own backyard, where I have cultivated it. The seedlings and young plants I worried over for months are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do. The flowers are just as beautiful as I imagined they would be. Our first cherry tomatoes and Fairy Tale eggplants and shishito peppers are coming in. The peas have been generous, the beans are proliferating.

There are at least 59 reasons to be grateful just out in that garden, and many many more deep in my soul.

P.S. There will be no blog from me next week while I travel to visit my Dad and sister. See you in August!

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Hugs Are Free (No Matter What Snoopy’s Sign Says)

MY PARTNER AND I share a home office, which works out surprisingly well, all things considered. It’s a big space, and I have my cluttery cubby-ish space at one end (it’s kind of a nook under the front eaves) lined with bookshelves and filled with baskets of magazines and other Susie-stuff.

Every surface is covered with little ceramic dishes, old family photographs, oddities like dried straw flowers and pressed pansies and packets of seeds, and more books. Inside the little ceramic bowls and cups (mostly handmade, given to me by my best friend over many years) are the usual things like paper clips and rubber bands, ear buds and USB drives, sticky notes and colored markers, and more personal things, like a collection of all the anniversary coins I’ve gotten in sobriety.  

The walls are lined with bulletin boards which I’ve covered with favorite quotes (a lot of Wendell Berry, I realize), more old photographs, photos of beautiful gardens and flowers I’ve ripped out of magazines, and other odd bits of art.

On the floor, nestled in the nook behind my desk chair, is a fleecy blanket that Farmer settles into on cold days.

On the other side of the office, the lawyer has a tidy desk, neat piles of manila folders, and stacks of cardboard file boxes filled with case files.

An assortment of odd throw rugs winds around the furniture from here to there. An orchid blooms improbably under the north window. My desk faces east. His, west. He gets the sunsets and the garden view, I get the sunrise (not that I’m ever at my desk to see it), the crows (hanging out in the roof gutters), and the treetops (tall oaks strewn across the field in front of our house). Bonus: I can see cars turning into the driveway!

In the middle of the room are two low credenzas pushed together. They neatly divide our space; technically we split the surface area on top of them. But my half is covered (currently) with a stack of African-American cookbooks, a bag of camera equipment, two framed photos I’m hoping to hang, a West Tisbury Farmers’ Market tee shirt, an old grey wool sweater I’ve had for 20 years, six Fine Gardening magazines, a box of art supplies, and a stack of Vineyard Gazettes. There is also a coffee cup and a sandwich plate waiting to go back downstairs.

On his side, there are three pieces of paper and a stapler.

He is a very good sport about the differences in our office décor.

Every once in a while, I get up and go over to his side and give him a hug. Every once in a while, he does the same. (He is an excellent hugger.) He also brings me a freshly brewed cup of Tazo tea every night when I return to my desk after dinner. Coffee in the morning, too. He deserves a lot of hugs (not just for the coffee and tea, but for many, many reasons).

The other day, I thought he really needed one (a hug, that is), so I devised a way to let him know that one (or more) might be available.

I still have my old blackboard-painted farmstand sign, currently propped up against our outdoor shower. I use it as a surface for photo shoots, but I’d been toying with the idea of drawing on it.

I started thinking about the Peanuts comic strip where Lucy sets up a booth and a sign that says “Psychiatric Help: 5 cents” on the top and “The Doctor is IN.” on the bottom. Snoopy thumbs his nose at her (she isn’t getting any business) and sets up his own booth that says, “Hug a Warm Puppy, 1 cent.” “The Puppy is IN.” So I figured I’d advertise free hugs on my sign and see if I got any (particular) takers.

Yup, it worked.

Corny, I know. This compulsion I have to write things down and collect neat little sayings and quotes to sum up what I’m thinking is not going away any time soon. In fact, it’s getting worse. A few months ago, while off-Island shopping with my sister at Target, I bought a letter board – you know one of those things with changeable plastic letters like you see outside of churches and barbecue joints, only smaller. A home version (only $15!).

I unpacked the (cheesy) plastic letters and figured I’d put a favorite quote up and change it out every so often. The act of spelling it out would help me remember it, and then I’d look at the board for inspiration from time to time. I decided I’d channel Amanda Gorman for starters. “Be the Light,” I spelled out.

I put the board on top of one of my bookshelves facing in my partner’s direction. When he gets cranky I point to it. He does not appreciate this.

But I haven’t changed the quote because I think it is going to be a very long time until I feel like I’ve soaked that up. Actually — probably never. I need that reminder every day, not only to keep my head up for other people, but for myself, too. Some days, life can be so complicated and frustrating that all I can really do is offer a hug. Or ask for one.

And pick flowers, of course.

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And hey, by the way, the featured recipe in this week’s newsletter is one I know you’ll really like. Check out Summer Squash, Corn, and Pearl Couscous with Coriander and Herbs.


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A Little Rain Must Fall

THE COOL RAINY weather following the heat wave is a bit jarring.

Returning to work at the office for a few hours here and there this week and last has been disorienting.

The explosion of traffic on the Island is jaw-dropping and completely unnerving (today, a 5-mile backup on the Edgartown-West Tisbury road).

The summer work schedule is relentless.

I feel somehow like I am wasting time on all the wrong things. And I’m having trouble getting excited about what I should put my energy towards. I guess I’m just a little out of sorts. Not hugely. Just bitly. Well maybe more than bitly. Moderate-ishly. Certainly in that place where inventing words seems appropriate.

With my energy low, I’m happy enough to be inside on this rainy Saturday, curled up in a chair, with my partner reading nearby and Farmer snoring on the couch. Right there is pretty much all I want in this life, and yet somehow I am feeling that little devil on my shoulder, the one who’s sole purpose it is to remind me that I’m not doing something I should be doing.

I know enough to recognize the devil and start working my toolkit to banish him. My first sponsor years ago reminded me to “move a muscle, change a thought” to get out of a bad headspace.

Normally I would head straight into the garden, but the weather is not cooperating. That may be half my problem – I’ve missed my gardening time this week. Or most of it. I’ve still gone out most mornings to snap a photo for Instagram. For me, just the small act of capturing a pretty flower or a baby vegetable in a photo is joyful. I like the cropping and photo correction, too. It’s a mini distraction — a pleasurable, creative way to start my day.

Recently I decided to revive a little personal Instagram challenge I did years ago on the farm. I posted a different vegetable variety for 100 days straight over the summer. The next year I did 100 different things on the farm for 100 days straight. This year I decided to do 100 different flowers and veggies. Even though I’m growing in a far smaller area than the farm, I have managed to cram in quite a large variety of flowers and vegetables. (Follow along @sixburnersue on Instagram if you like.) It’s fun for me to see if I can find a different one blossoming or newly fruiting every day.

This afternoon, I am going to distract myself by writing down a complete list of what I’m growing in the veg and cut flower garden. That might sound tedious, but for me the mental concentration of organizing, going through my plant tags, looking up names and pictures online, and typing it all out will be productive and distracting – even if it isn’t the work I really should be doing.

Maybe you have some trick like this to turn your mood around when you need it. If not, think of something you absolutely love and go do it. I find when I’m down, it’s usually because I’m directing my energy towards something I don’t want to do, or I am feeling bad because I’m not doing what I am “supposed” to be doing.

More and more I’m inclined to do more of what I love, and less of what I don’t. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to clean the house (which I don’t do enough but when I do, I feel satisfied) or go to the dentist or pay bills or whatever. It just means I’m going to keep seeking out joy, wherever I can find it.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day (attached below). I know many, many of you have read it, and love it, and the last two lines have sadly entered Hallmark territory. But I still treasure them, keeping them nearby and reading them over and over. The ability to live life fully seems more important every day, as it seems I get news of an illness or passing on of someone I know more and more frequently. I don’t like it, and I don’t have any control over it, but I owe it to myself and to them to embrace life, even when it means (metaphorically) sitting in the rain, stepping in the puddles, getting soaked. I think I’ll put on my galoshes and go check on the garden.

The Summer Day

By Mary Oliver 

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

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Texting with Dad (at Almost 91)

An old summer photo of Dad, undoubtedly taken while he was working in the garden.

MY DAD TURNS 91 in three weeks. My sister and I were worried about him this morning, because he hadn’t responded to a three-way text that we keep pretty active – a very 2021 kind of way to stay in touch with your family. When he first got his IPhone, he’d been shy about texting. He never learned to type; the idea of struggling with that little keyboard seemed like too much trouble. But once he realized his busy daughters were apt to communicate more often by text than by phone, little by little he joined in.

But in his typical way (he is a wordsmith and a careful thinker), he has fashioned a style of texting that is uniquely his. Every text is carefully worded, in complete sentences, intentionally witty, and warmly and articulately expressed. Usually with an emoji.

These are not texts he can bang out in rapid fire; response from him takes a little time.

This morning, my sister was in a board meeting, and since I had just finished wrapping up a publication to send to the printer, I offered to call Dad so that I could reassure my sister that everything was fine.

He picked up after a couple rings and I could hear outdoorsy noise in the background. So right away, of course, I realize he’s fine. I’m thinking he’s in the backyard.

But no, he’s over at his friend’s house – one of the nice ladies he plays bridge with – installing a garden he designed for her over the winter. Actually, he wasn’t installing it himself – one of the only concessions he’s made to being almost 91 is that he can’t put as many plants in the ground as when he was almost 90. (Last year during the pandemic he occupied himself by redoing all the planting beds around his house with hundreds of perennials. That’s a lot of digging.) This time, he had help in the form of his friend’s gardener. But having drawn the design and traversed the length of Delaware several times visiting nurseries in search of very particular plant varieties for his friend, he of course had to be there to supervise!

He apologized for not answering the text. But they had started the installation project yesterday and had been at it ‘til late. When he got home, he laid down for a nap and fell asleep. In the morning he had to dash back over there to help finish the project.

One of many birthday celebrations with Dad (in plaid pants), Uncle Rodney (right), Uncle Doug (left), and my grandmother Honey (and her famous chocolate cake).

I let him go back to work after a brief chat about the dates in late July that we’ll be driving down to see him. Three months is about as long as I can stand to go without seeing him these days. And if possible, we like to celebrate our birthdays together. We’ve been double-celebrating for a mighty long time, sometimes with my grandmother’s chocolate cake, sometimes without. (My sister made it last year, complete with 7-minute boiled white icing.)

As I was watering my garden tonight, I kept thinking about Dad and how much he loves plants and gardening and how thoroughly he has passed that love on to me and my sister. It is a true gift. I’m never more content (the opposite of anxious) than when I’m working in the garden.

Last weekend, during a three-way Father’s Day text, I sent along some photos of our progress in the garden, including the newly expanded veg and flower garden with the little retaining wall.

His response was effusively complimentary (with emoji). He also offered support and empathy to my sister for some work she is trudging through.

But my favorite part of the text?

“Thanks to you both for your loving messages. The best thing about Father’s Day is…well, being a father!”

This Dad just gets better and better with age. I can’t wait to see him. I think I’ll bring him a plant for his birthday.

The Dad Chronicles:

Beam Me Up (or Down), Scotty! (April 24, 2021)

My Father the Instagram Star (January 28, 2021)

Cooking with Dad (Vineyard Gazette) (March 22, 2020)



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The Tale of Bunnykins Rabbit and Ms. McMiddleton’s Garden

Carding Mill (a David Austin English rose) sat out 2020 in a pot but is happy to be in the ground this year. It greeted us in full bloom upon our return from Georgia.

I call him Bunnykins. Which is ridiculous on many levels, I know. Why come up with an endearing nickname for a creature who is singlehandedly destroying your vegetable garden? And if you’re going to call him something, a sappy name doesn’t seem quite appropriate. Peter would be a more suitable moniker, since our resident rogue rabbit has taken a page straight out of Beatrix Potter’s famous tale, a copy of which I happen to keep on my shelves. (Apparently bunny – and human – behavior hasn’t changed much in 100 years.)

But look, Bunnykins and I get to talking most evenings, and I have to call him something. He’s a little guy, so that’s the name that came out of my mouth when he and I first found ourselves in the garden together — with the gate closed. (He was as surprised as I was and began to bounce off the fence in every direction, looking for an exit, any exit, the likes of which he seemed to have forgotten after his feast of lettuces and French beans. Just like Peter.)

How did Bunnykins get in?

Earlier in the week I came home from Georgia to many beautiful surprises – roses and other flowers in bloom, dozens of peas to harvest, garlic scapes curling, tiny green tomatoes forming on the vine – and one unpleasant surprise that took awhile to completely reveal itself.

First I noticed the tops of my baby bush bean plants had been lopped off. My struggling little snapdragons were beheaded too. Birds, I thought, those damn crows!

Then I noticed a whole row of lettuce, heads nibbled neatly all the way around into jolly rosettes – rather pretty if you didn’t actually care about eating your lettuce.

Maybe not birds, I thought.

Worst and last: I noticed some of the pea vines were withered. I followed the clues right down to the base of the plants and found them cut off at the knees (so to speak) – completely untethered from their roots, ripped in half by some jagged teeth. I looked up at all the beautiful pea blossoms and newly forming peas at the top of the plants and thought this was just not going to be a good thing if the vines continued to be chewed. I’d lose dozens, maybe hundreds of peas.

Still there was one reason to hope – the vines were clinging to the back fence and it looked like whatever (whomever) was gnawing the bottom of the vines was doing it from outside the garden, grabbing the vulnerable vines that had meandered outside the fence.

However, the very next night I found severed pea vines inside the garden, parts lying around like Lincoln Logs in the path in front of the bed. Not an outside job. Critter (please, please, don’t be a rat) was working on the inside, under the cover of darkness.

Critter had found an easy way into the fenced garden, so I began to scour the fence. I was worried because I knew our fence was not as secure as it should have been. We’d had to leave for Georgia in the midst of a garden expansion project. (Thanks to a small retaining wall and some fill, we have been able to nearly double the size of our little vegetable garden to make room for my cut flowers.) We’d quickly erected the deer fencing but hadn’t added the chicken wire around the bottom. I soon discovered that our critter had taken advantage of this and simply chewed through the plastic deer fencing in a few places. I’d certainly seen that before back on the farm – and it was almost always the work of a wily wabbit.   

It’s not like I hadn’t already noticed Bunnykins in our yard. He – and his appetite – were quite evident in the perennial garden. I often saw him out around dusk, and in the morning the coneflowers were another inch shorter. (I’ve tried really hard to plant deer- and rabbit-proof perennials, but apparently I was asleep at the wheel when I added multiple echinacea to our beds.) 

The night Bunnykins and I met face to face in the garden was the night after I began a harried effort (this was during the work week – the real work would have to wait for the weekend) to run as much chicken wire along the bottom of the fence as I could, and to barricade the rest with bags of mulch and bricks.

I thought I’d done a pretty good job, but now here I was inside the garden, and who should I meet? I caught him right in the pea bed. The only good news was that now I could be 100 percent sure I wasn’t dealing with a rat. 

I can’t say that I really chased Bunnykins with a rake like Mr. McGregor chased Peter, but I was anxiously following him as he rushed around looking for an exit – I wanted to know if he was going to find a secret spot to get out. Darn if he didn’t disappear, squeezing between the raised tomato bed and the back fence into a space I never really would have thought of as wide enough for anything other than a slug to transgress.

By this time, both my partner and Farmer were on the scene. Thinking Bunnykins was hiding – that there was no way he could have gotten out – we shined the flashlight in all the nooks and crannies. Honestly, it was like the final scene in The Sound of Music when the Von Trapps hide in the Abbey cemetery. I pictured Bunnykins with his back up, trying to be vewy vewy quiet and not move a muscle as the flashlight flooded back and forth.

In searching we found that, in truth, the narrow space between the raised beds and the back fence , obscured by clumps of grass, was actually a perfectly fine little rabbit tunnel. A great place to hide or move around under cover (but not escape, since this older part of the fence was locked in with chicken wire). But Bunnykins was not in the grassy tunnel, not anywhere. He’d found a way out. We left, shutting the gate, and I went back again before bed with the flashlight to make sure he wasn’t inside.

It was only in the morning when I scoured the fence again and looked for places just big enough for him to squeeze through (remember, he’s pretty small), that my eyes settled on the entrance gate, not the fence. It’s the only gate into the garden, an old baby gate turned on its side, covered with plastic hardware cloth. The baby gate has 2-inch openings. The plastic hardware cloth has only ½-inch openings and is plenty sturdy enough to withstand chewing. But that morning I noticed we’d never completely attached it to the bottom rail of the gate. Essentially, I could see now by lifting the hardware cloth up, it could act as a kind of bunny door (a flap, like a cat door) if you ran through it from the inside. (Though I don’t think a bunny could lift it to enter from the outside!)

I’m pretty sure that’s how Bunnykins got out that night we were tailing him, as the end of the little tunnel along the back fence brings you (if you’re a little rabbit) right to the gate. I think he got IN to the garden that evening when I was working in there with the gate open.

I quickly devised an instant temporary solution to the gate problem by jamming a roll of chicken wire against the bottom of the gate when I left. (Yes, you could call me Ms. MacGyver rather than Ms. McMiddleton. No one ever said I was the queen of infrastructure, and luckily I have help from my partner with the real work.)

The last two nights, I’ve greeted Bunnykins outside of the garden. He’s been hanging out up on the hill where the garden is, near or under the garage steps (a favorite hidden lookout spot for him), clearly baffled by the newly fortified fortress. Inside the garden, there’s been no pea damage and the lettuce is growing back. And we set to work on finishing the fence this weekend. 

Perhaps Mrs. Rabbit (Bunnykins’ mother) will put him to bed with some chamomile tea, reassuring him that another day will come, another human error will occur, and by then the carrots will be ready for digging.

P.S. You may wonder why I’m so sure that Bunnykins is one rabbit and not one of many. Well, I have no doubt that it’s a virtual Watership Down around here, but most of the rabbits we see out in the field in front of our house are large, mature rabbits that would have trouble getting through small holes. Bunnykins is not a baby, but he is small enough (a teenager?) to be distinctive, and tends to favor a particular schedule and favorite grazing spots. Alas, removing Bunnykins from the premises, as some have suggested we do, wouldn’t solve much. I’m sure there are more Bunnykins in Mrs. Rabbit’s warren.

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A Tree Grows in Georgia

PLUCKED OUT of my normal routine and my familiar landscape and plopped into the middle of a family reunion (of family other than my own) in coastal Georgia, I am finding my equilibrium in the trees.

Not that I’m climbing them or anything (way too tall for that), but walking among the live oaks, with their gauzy curtains of Spanish moss, and under the towering pines that punctuate the blue (sometimes thunderstorm-black) sky is both soothing and awe-inspiring.

Crepe myrtles and evergreen magnolias are instant reminders that I’m not in New England anymore.

Miles of majestic marshland define these Georgia islands. Though much grander than the marshy coastline of Delaware where my family is from, this, too, is comforting and calming.

Also, just sayin’ – I’m not really an air-conditioning person and it is eternally chilly indoors. The thick, sticky humidity seems somehow more tangible to me, and definitely familiar, a part of my childhood DNA never to be erased. Along with the high heat index, I feel like I’m in a sauna sweating out the long Vineyard winter. 

But the trees are something else. Some are hundreds of years old: Quercus virginiana, the southern live oak, can live for 500 years; Pinus palustris, longleaf pine, almost as many (or so I read!). Many are over a hundred feet tall or wide, with lateral roots extending even farther. They are older, bigger, and I think wiser than us, with survival instincts and subtle communication systems we will never know.

My fascination with trees is partly just a new interest (I’m going to ask for The Tree Book by Michael A. Dirr and Keith S. Warren for my birthday!). But also it’s not lost on me why I’m focused on them here, where I’m experiencing a (gentle) growth spurt in my role as a new limb on an old family tree, a tree that has lost the last of a generation.

We are here to celebrate the life of my partner’s mother (she was the youngest of 11 children), but just as importantly to acknowledge the strength and connection of the remaining branches – the four siblings, the grandchildren, and the people they love and call family.

Branches (like people) grow in different directions, depending on their environment – some get twisted and then straighten out, some spring out ahead of the others, only to get knocked back in a hurricane, some stay safely low and close to the trunk. But all are part of the same tree, with roots going deep and wide.

Occasionally an old branch grows a new limb, which leafs out and gathers sunlight and food for the tree, signaling it to send down new roots to bring water back to sustain the new growth – and the old. Trees are pretty smart, aren’t they?


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