Recalibrating

LAST WEEK I backed my car into a tree, striking the trunk with a force that shattered the back cargo window and left me somewhere between surprised and horrified – and with an aching neck. I was far down a long dirt road, in a woodsy area with the sun at its slanty best. I missed a turn, pulled off at the next dip in the road, backed up to turn around, and bam! Apparently my ability to use a rearview mirror properly was impaired.

Impaired by rushing, stress, distraction, general neuroses, impatience, anxiety, fatigue, hunger. Oh, I could go on blaming anything and everything, but not everyone – it was my fault.

I found myself at that moment, as I hopped out of the car, concerned with making sure most of the glass was falling (as it does in slow motion, breaking apart into those tiny green puzzle pieces) into the back of my car and not onto the ground so I wouldn’t be leaving a mess. (Note: I was still rushing, on my way to an appointment. The brain is a stubborn organ.) Later I couldn’t even reconstruct in my mind how this could have happened, as the tree was not a small object!

I cried just a little, called my partner, then straightened up and went on to my destination — an interview with a farmer for a newspaper article. It was not an ideal day to do this interview, as I had two impending deadlines already. But the words, “No, I can’t do that,” are sometimes hard for me. Still.

A few days later I lost my credit card in a crowded store. And found it. Fortunately. (In the half hour of time that passed between losing and finding, I managed to alert (alarm?) three other people who kindly went to work looking for the card in the places I had been before entering the store.) Eek. Poster child for embarrassing, absent-minded goofball-ism.

There were some other little mildly confounding matters. Mostly things like finding myself in the basement and wondering why I went down there. Arriving at the post office without my post box key. Misplacing my favorite pink hat (again) and my eyeglasses (again) and my brain (oh, I already mentioned that).

So all this seemed to be sending a pretty high-pitched message to me, like one of those horrible beeping tornado alarms that command you to take shelter. But if the tornado were really coming, I’d be screwed. I’d be like Dorothy out there looking for Toto long after everyone else has taken shelter.

I wish I could say I stopped and used all the tools I’ve learned in sobriety to make an immediate course correction. But that would not be entirely truthful. I did tell on myself to my sponsor, who recommended, in her kind way, that more meetings might be helpful. (They are, and they were. Turns out I’m supposed to let go of control of certain things – HA HA HA.) I did practice saying no by getting out of one commitment. I did make sure I walked every day this week. (Last week, zero meetings, 3 walks; this week 3 meetings, 6 walks. So there’s that.)

But truthfully, the main reason I’m feeling calmer is that I pushed my way by sheer force of will through a to-do list that had grown to several yellow legal pages. With one big deadline looming, I had no choice. At least not in my mind. But like I say, my mind is a strange place.

It’s not just me, though, I know. This push-and-pull, the struggle for balance, is universal, especially in the cacophonous modern world we live in. (I finally got a new phone, and it keeps informing me of nifty things it can do for me. It also keeps informing me of where I am, how many steps I’ve taken, who’s stealing my passwords, the exact spot I live in, the most recent purchases I’ve made, what my favorite songs are, what the weather will be like ten weeks from now…I think Siri may even have told me she can do a better job of driving my car than I can. Now that’s just rude! I feel like this creepy little computer I’m walking around with is following my every move, and far from making my life easier, is probably the crucible of all the devil’s charms.)

On my walks (the fiery sunsets have been otherworldly) I’ve been thinking about this thing we like to call the work-life balance. Then today I happened to be looking at Facebook (something I try not to do unless I have to; it’s a quagmire) and saw a West Coast friend’s post that I immediately related to. I asked Sophy if I could share it with you because I was struck by a couple things.


Sophy Chaffee

I was reminded that everyone needs a secret garden (or some equivalent place) where she can go to sort things out. And I was reminded that engaging in physical creative expression can offer a surprising window into what’s really going on in your brain. You may not be able to verbally communicate your state of mind, but your hands act like a conduit from your innermost thoughts, forming and shaping something tactile that you – or someone else you are trying to communicate with – can understand. 

I liked that Sophy’s rocks and pinecones formed a swirl, a fluid imbalance – like a wave turning back on itself, both decisive and uncertain. The pattern also reminded me of a labyrinth – that circular path you walk to try to get closer to the center of yourself.  

Also, I liked her reminder that even when we are trying to do something good for ourselves – like recalibrate – we’re never completely in charge. Though we do have to learn to pay attention to where the compass is pointing, to notice the clues.

The other day I was fussing around with house plants in the breakfast room, arranging them on benches and stools. Many of these were potted plants I swore I wouldn’t bring inside and through another winter – just too much going on (maybe you remember what this room looked like last winter). But the plants decided not to let me have my way with them and they followed me indoors. I reluctantly nestled them all in sunny spots and went about my business.

A few days later I found myself watering them, picking off yellow leaves, turning them to better angles, and generally losing myself in the warm sunshine coming through the southern windows. One geranium had a dozen tiny pink buds on it, another had already begun to lean in, growing towards the window gratefully. It was beautiful and soothing to tend my little window garden. Why had I wanted to get rid of the plants?

Just shows you what I know.

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Gradually, Then Suddenly

THERE IS A NARROW SHAFT OF SUNLIGHT beaming from the south-facing window in our bedroom across the room and onto the keyboard of my laptop. Normally — meaning summertime — the sun pours in through the easternmost window in the room this time of day, lighting up our morning space with a cheery greeting.

But the sun is so far south and so low in the sky now (well, actually the sun hasn’t moved, but we have) that it now sneaks around the south side of the house while it is still low enough to shine a pale luminous beam through this window, and to light up the breakfast room for several hours downstairs. If you live in the north, especially far to the east like we are, a south-facing window is key to surviving winter with its scarcity of daylight hours. If I had my way, I’d plaster the south side of our house with windows.

I am awake early because of the change from daylight savings time to, well, no daylight savings time. It is only early mornings like this (and mostly Sundays) that I indulge myself with writing from this comfortable position, propped up by colorful pillows, blanketed by an old quilt and new flannel.

To move to that black plastic chair in the office (on the north side of the house) would be disheartening — I spend so much time working there. And here, not only do I have the south and east windows, but I am three feet away from a double window facing west. 

From my comfy post up high here on the second floor, what I see out those windows is a sea of oak branches, oak trunks, copper oak leaves dangling from limbs, brown oak leaves carpeting the ground below. I can see our old wood pile and the path we use to wind our way through the woods across fields and down to the water. The oaks are not pretty; fall on the south central side of the Island, where scrub oaks and pines predominate, is not classically beautiful.

But those stubborn oaks, clinging to so many of their brown leaves despite last week’s hurricane-force winds and subsequent deluge, do mark the transition effectively. Along with the change in sun direction, I wake up knowing where we are in time.

Less than a week ago, we had a light frost. Then another. But still a few random zinnias, low-lying nasturtiums, sturdy roses and purple hardy geranium blossoms carried on with color. I snipped orlaya and snapdragons to take inside. Then Friday night, bam! Not a hard frost but an actual freeze. Odd to go straight into a night where temperatures dipped below 30 degrees and stayed in the freezing zone for so many hours that buckets of water were frozen and every tender leaf turned to black.

I had not dug up the dahlia tubers, partly because the plants were still green in many places. Also, I was busy and thought I had time. Yesterday when I knelt down to put my hands in the soil, the top two inches were crusted together from the freeze.

Fortunately the dahlia tubers all lay several inches below the surface – at least in the garden. I had a few in pots, and I noticed when trying to dig those out that a few tubers near the surface had actually frozen and turned to mush. 

With our ground so moist right now, and not knowing when another very cold night would come, I decided I couldn’t take the risk of leaving the tubers in the ground any longer. So in a fit of deadline procrastination, I grabbed my gloves, my pruners (to lop off the stems), and my pitchfork, and dug up half the dahlias, arranging them — with their name tags — in anything I could find in the garage. (It looks like our plants produced a lot of tubers!)

Suddenly I realized that I really had to go inside if I was going to leave myself enough daylight to cook and photograph a recipe for this week’s Cook the Vineyard newsletter. Food photography in natural light gets really tough this time of year. So when my partner arrived home from running errands, I Tom Sawyer-ed him into digging up the rest. He was a good sport as always. An amazing man.  

Not only did he finish digging the dahlias, but he picked the hundreds of Rattlesnake beans left hanging on the dead vines after the freeze. They were in varying stages of development, and except for the ones that had dried on the vine, their pods were left wet and limp from the freeze. But still we will be able to extract the seeds; we’ll let them dry in the warm air inside, and save them for cooking this winter – and a few for planting next year.

This is the funny thing about transitions — they seem to move in slow motion and then in the blink of an eye, they are manifest. We are left wondering where the time went and how we got to where we are, and most especially what the future will hold.

P.S. If you are looking for Thanksgiving menu inspiration , be sure to check out Cook the Vineyard’s Thanksgiving recipe collection. And, um, if you are not subscribing to the free Cook the Vineyard newsletter, be sure to sign up while you’re over there! (Sign up on right hand side of any page.)


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Crafty Like a Fox

“Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction.” 

— Wendell Berry

How I wound up on Martha’s Vineyard had much to do with farmer-writer Wendell Berry. A friend gave me his book The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays when I was in very early sobriety, and it was no less than a complete wake-up call about the discomfort I was feeling living in a high-end suburb. I had no idea how much my true self longed for a more rural lifestyle, longed to be part of the natural world rather than a distant observer of it.

I had a chance to meet Berry several years ago, and he is as gracious and wise as one would hope. And I continue to dip in and out of his writings, because he is more articulate about the declining state of our natural world — and the declining relationship between man and nature — than any living writer I know (he is now 88). And he’s been at it for decades.

As early as 1968, when his essay, “A Native Hill,” was first published (collected in the 2002 edition of The Art of the Commonplace, yet not read by me until 2007!), he writes:

“We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world – to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity – our own capacity for life – that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled.”

Berry’s prescient prognosis nearly 60 years ago reverberates in most of his writing since then, but not without a great deal of optimism and love. He has never given up hope that man will do the right thing.

Recently I was reading a collection of his Mad Farmer poems and found myself reading and rereading Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, an enthusiastic exhortation to “do something every day that won’t compute.”  (Please read it!)

Examples include: Love someone who doesn’t deserve it…ask the questions that have no answers…put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years…Be joyful though you have considered all the facts…”

And my favorite, the last lines:

“Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.”

That image of the crafty fox makes me smile. (How many times have I made too many tracks, often in the wrong direction?!) Perhaps the fox is intentionally misleading those who might be inclined to follow a straight line (or him). Or maybe the fox knows the wisdom of a circuitous path through life. And definitely Berry means to exhort us to question the status quo — whether in the world at large or in our own lives.

The word ‘crafty’ has two definitions that at first look seem to have nothing to do with each other:


This is Google’s (Oxford English Languages) take:

1.    Clever at achieving one’s aims by indirect or deceitful measures.

2.   Involving the making of decorative objects and other things by hand.


But Merriam-Webster’s streamlined approach exposes a similarity in both definitions:

1.    Skillful, clever

2.   Adept in the use of subtlety and guile.

“Artful” is offered as a synonym for both.

I like the idea that being crafty in an artistic way is so closely aligned with being deliberately subtle in revealing intention. What is art if not an invitation to wander off the expected path?

Yesterday I found myself consumed by a spontaneous crafting activity. Having spotted grape vines in the woods (thanks to my partner who pointed out the luminous yellow leaves), I wondered why I’d never thought to gather them and make a wreath from them. Wild grapes grow all over Martha’s “Vineyard,” though the grapes themselves are not very palatable. But it took me 14 years to look at them with a slightly different eye.

I clipped some of the vines (they were in a semi-dry state, still pliable), dragged them home and intended to leave them be until I had time to do something with them.

But I was afraid they’d dry out so I began twining them together. An hour later, I had a wreath, haphazardly and inexpertly decorated with garden flotsam and jetsam. What it looked like hardly mattered – it was the act of defying the time pressure I felt to “work,” “to check things off the list,” “to accomplish tasks” that was my heart’s not-so-subtle way of thumbing its nose at my head.

My spirit is crafty like that. Just when I am about to melt under a mountain of man-made minutia, nature beckons me off the path to a place where time stands still and the simple art of crafting something lovely from nature becomes a message to myself, as Berry advises, to “do something every day that won’t compute.”

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Writing in Circles

IT WAS STRANGE not writing the blog last weekend. I do have an excuse, but it’s the same old one I’m always using: I was working.

The same thing nearly happened this weekend, with a magazine story due tomorrow. It’s like the weekend falls into a black hole. And here’s Monday again. With all the other deadlines stacking up like planes on a rainy runway.

Three times this weekend with short windows of time here and there, I sat down to work on the blog and found myself writing in circles. I was trying to articulate how the work stress makes me feel, but I couldn’t capture it. I thought writing about it would relieve it, but that didn’t turn out to be true.

Could be that my head is too full right now to find a good thread and follow it. But I also think I have very mixed feelings (like many of us do about a lot of things) about my workload.

The weird thing is that on the Vineyard, work is also life. In fact, separating the two is nearly impossible, especially if your job (like mine) is to cover your community. The people you work with and report on are your friends or at the very least, acquaintances. There is an adage on the Island that there are only two degrees (not six) of separation between everyone who lives on the Vineyard year-round. This is not an exaggeration; I’ve very rarely met someone for the first time who doesn’t know at least one other person that I do.

To write about the food and farming community (my “beat”), I shop at farm stands, talk to farmers, talk to people about what they’re cooking and growing, and often take part in food and farming events on the Island. Much of this is fun and serves to remind me of why my life on the Vineyard is so good. 

Last weekend, my beat collided with a request to contribute to the newspaper, resulting in a long-form feature on how Island farms are producing more food – on the same amount of land they were using 10 years ago. This turned out to be a stimulating challenge for me, which I like. And at the same time it exasperated me, sucking the time away from an entire “holiday” weekend.

But I landed a nice front-page top-of-the-fold byline, so there’s that!

Also, I got the satisfaction of helping my co-workers out, and that’s a great feeling.

These days I am fantasizing about long winter evenings reading by the fire. Quiet and stillness. The unusually warm weather right now makes that seem far off.

The garden, on my infrequent visits this week, seems oddly suspended between decay and rebirth. An intense tobacco-y smell of aging bean vines hits you when you walk in, the cosmos (all but one!) are spent, the squash vines are desiccated and crackly, and the dried sunflowers bow their heads like monks in prayer.

Yet the peppers and beans are still fruiting, a random sweet pea blossoms, and those darn dahlias and zinnias are six feet tall and delivering me buckets of blooms every few days.

The nasturtiums are happier than they’ve been all season, sprawling from one raised bed to the next.

The whole thing is as marvelous as an aging Broadway star.

When I bring the flowers inside, instead of arranging them on the breakfast room table, I bring them upstairs to our office now, where we can soak up as much of their cheer as possible before they go away for months.

Bringing the outdoors in while you’re working never hurts. But it doesn’t substitute for actually being outdoors, so those end-of-day-walks are still one of the best ways I handle work overload.

With the exception of an occasional Monday or Tuesday when that deadline runway is especially slippery, I walk most every day. With Farmer, with my partner, and by myself on occasion. It forces a separation from the computer (and the phone if I can stand to leave it). Someday I’ll probably realize I handed over too much time to technology, too.

But for now, they’re the tools I need to do my job, which of course pays my bills and also guarantees me a place in a community that gives a whole lot back in return. Because of that and the people I work with, I like my job – enough, more than enough at this point — to equalize the stress, a stress (I remind myself often) that never comes close to the levels I had in my pre-sobriety life. But if the equation gets too far out of balance, I know what to do about it.

In addition to this crazy gift of sobriety I’ve been given – which has taught me to listen to my gut – I also picked up this useful motto from the school I attended for nine years: “I shall find a way or make one.”

Most of the barriers to positive change are in our heads, whereas if we follow our gut, we can literally find a way to do anything. I’ve heeded that motto as I’ve muddled through any number of predicaments.

I may be walking around in circles, but at least I know where I’m going!

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The Necessary Art of Lollygagging

THE BUSIER I get, the more stress I’m under, the more I tend to dive into molasses when I get some downtime. It is almost comical watching myself waste time.

The last three weekends have been full-on with travel to Delaware, two weddings to attend, and work duty this weekend at the first annual Martha’s Vineyard Oyster Fest. (I played Vanna White on the culinary stage, chatting with chefs as they demo-ed.) The event was pleasant enough, but being “up” for several hours is exhausting, I find, and since my free time has been so limited, I’ve been starting to feel an intense need to crawl into my comfy little crab shell. Plus, it’s October – isn’t the busy season supposed to be over?!!

To be perfectly clear, it’s not that I’m so much busier than the next person – I’m surrounded by colleagues who bust their you-know-whats seven days a week – but I know my limits. As a recovered alcoholic, I’ve learned to recognize when I need to depressurize.

Yet I also recognize that I am a world-class ditherer, capable of going down any rat hole, and staying there for quite some time if I am finding reality too noisy.

The other day I took my walk in the morning, alone, in order to fit it into a busy day. What was supposed to be a quick turn or two around a nearby field slowed gradually to a wander as I fell into the lure of wildflowers (asters of every kind) and berries (Autumn olives) and blue sky. The walk took twice as long as it was supposed to.

My favorite distraction of course is to go into the garden with my camera (you knew that). The dahlias are, at long last, proving why they are worth the wait. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the garden is like a cocoon now, woven tight by pole bean vines. Inside it feels a bit like being Charlie in the chocolate factory.

If there were a handy portable endorphin meter, you could easily see the dopamine spreading throughout my body when I’m in the garden. I feel it physically. In some ways, this is a little disappointing, as it reminds me of how I run at somewhat depleted levels the rest of the time. But it is also a mild and healthy high that does not involve illicit substances – like ice cream (every recovered addict’s favorite vice).

I have been off the ice cream for weeks, but found myself with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Salted Caramel Core Friday night late. You can shelve this under the immediate gratification category – it doesn’t really offer much benefit beyond that while also producing (mild) guilt.

The last and perhaps best place I go is into my comfy reading chair. One of the tangible ways I can tell that I’ve been pressed lately is the growing piles of magazines, newspapers and books that are next to my chair — and spilling over my bedside table as well as creeping around the living room and breakfast room.

I have been stubbornly adding to these piles for weeks. I was at Bunch of Grapes bookstore signing my cookbooks the other day and came home with Louise Penny’s new mystery (The Madness of Crowds) and Richard  (The Overstory) Powers’ Bewilderment, and I put Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle on order. I bought a slow-cooker magazine and a fall gardening magazine at the grocery store.

Glancing at the excess this weekend, I realized the piles are a passive-aggressive message to myself, a not-so-subtle manifestation of a little resentment growing towards all the time-takers (I don’t discriminate – they are all on my list!). Resentments are about the unhealthiest emotion you can have as an addict. As Anne Lamott says, “Resentment is like eating rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.”

Time to do something about that. Last night I sat in my comfy chair (without ice cream) and started in, first putting all the shopping catalogues in one pile (mindless! fun!), next the quick-to-read alumnae magazines (which turn out to not be so quick to read), the gardening mags, the cooking mags, the latest publications from my own company, the odd New Yorker I’ve snatched from my partner’s piles (there is an entire table devoted to New Yorkers), and then the books. The flower books, the books of gardening essays, the new novels, the partially read ones.

The simple act of organizing the piles was soothing. Stacking the spent catalogues and magazines next to the back door was a relief.

And doing some actual reading? Completely absorbing, in the best way.

Now if I could just master the art of going to bed early, rather than indulging myself in epic reading jags. Ha — good luck Susie!

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Letting the Days Go By

FALL COMES in slow motion on the Vineyard, especially to our little acre, where the landscape is all oaks and evergreens, some of nature’s most stalwart resisters of changing seasons.

Every morning acorns plink and plonk on our back deck, falling randomly from a canopy of oak branches, heavy and drooping with an exceptional crop of nuts this year. I’m hoping the abundance will keep the deer happy over the winter. They won’t get all of the acorns, of course. Other critters will gather them and stash them in odd spots — in the wood pile, inside a stack of terracotta pots, underneath the steps, in a mulchy bed of perennials – so that in the spring we have a sea of pinwheel-shaped mini-oak trees germinating all over the place.  

When the acorns land, the noise is startling; too many at once and Farmer heads for cover. Give him a minute though, and he’s back in his sunny spot, stretched out to soak up as much solar power as he can.

We’re doing the same, maximizing our back-deck time, enjoying the whir of the steady fall breeze and stockpiling sunlight before the days arrive when darkness comes early and we enter the long stretch of dormancy known as the Vineyard winter.

We have time, though. October on an Island buffered by summer-warmed seas is a gift of suspension, sort of like overtime in the football game of seasons.

The gift of extra time in the cycle of birth, growth, flowering, senescence, and death has the effect of being surreal, in the David Byrne “how did I get here?” kind of way. Surreal in part because it is hard to delineate with logic or structure, but surreal, too, because it invokes an overwhelming sense of gratitude that is nearly impossible to quantify.

I feel this way about time with my Dad, who has outlived all of his brothers, my mother, and many of his friends. The seemingly “extra” time he’s gotten has given my sister and me a new friend, someone who has been a star in the sky all of our lives, but because of a planetary shift, has moved closer to our orbit and is now a constantly luminous presence.

Last weekend, we stood on the beach in Lewes, Delaware, on a beautiful warm evening, to witness the wedding ceremony of my second cousin Gregory. My father was the oldest guest and the oldest member of the family present. Gregory’s 10-month-old son was the youngest.

Four generations of our family (or at least some of us) gathered, along with other wedding guests, in a spot on the shore where many, many generations of our family have pushed boats off, dipped a crab net, dug for clams, thrown a fishing line, waded out to a sandbar, hunted for remnants of shipwrecks.

Later in the evening, one of my cousins got Dad out on the dance floor. His glee was contagious — and his resilience impressive when he took a stumble and the younger generation of doctors in the room ran to his side. He was perfectly fine, he said. “I’m pretty good at falling,” he said. “I used to play soccer.”

And with that comes a small clue, perhaps, as to one of the possible reasons time has stretched out for Dad. In all those millions of moments in life when we are thrown a curveball and the impulse to shut down, sit down, give up or give in comes over us, we also have the opportunity to stand up, go forward, keep at it, and make the most of it.

I apologize for the clichés, but time (when it isn’t suspended) is flying, and I want to make the most of it. Fortunately, I’ve got a good example to follow.


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Looking Up

THE LOOP AROUND Nat’s Farm field dips down through a scrubby glade along Old County Road before it takes a roughly 90-degree turn and begins to rise again. If you’re walking the trail, as we were this weekend, you’ll hardly notice the gentle incline passing under your feet as you make your way from shade to light, swinging left, then right, to skirt an evergreen bowing the path.

There’s a point, though, when your eyes – at least on a brilliant September day – will likely send a message back to mission control to put the brakes on your forward motion.

Before you, at the crest of the path, is a vast swath of blue sky painted across the horizon, a brilliant counterpoint to the rich golds and greens of the wildflowers and grasses in the pasture beneath it. It is such an open and expansive view that you could be out West, not on Martha’s Vineyard. 

That sky, that color! To me it is Carolina blue and always will be. It’s a deeply nostalgic color, the color of childhood and the happiest of warm summer days. The field is glorious and nurturing, too. As we keep walking, I bend down to catalogue the latest declension of wildflowers signaling summer’s end. Tiny star-shaped purple asters, random Black Eyed Susans, and clutches of scarlet Sumac berries have replaced the Queen Anne’s lace and flowering vetch from a few weeks back. And everywhere, knitting sky to field, those yellow fronds of goldenrod. 

Looking down on a walk is routine. Looking up is different. It requires stopping.

I have been looking up at the September sky a lot lately. Not just on our walks, but in the garden, too, where nearly everything that is still alive and thriving towers over me.

I have to turn my camera up to photograph the tithonia, the dahlias, the zinnias, the pole beans, the return of the cherry tomatoes, the sweet peas, the sunflowers, and the cosmos.

Once my eye is trained up there, I can’t help but linger on the brilliance of the sky. Some mornings I just stand in the garden, close my eyes, tilt my chin to the sun and bask a minute. Maybe say a little prayer.

Looking up, after all, is a form of reverence. I remember being astonished when I saw my dying mother-in-law, a deeply religious woman completely at peace with moving on, reach up from her bed with her frail arms several times during her last hours, as if she was greeting someone on the other side.

It’s not been lost on me as September 11th has neared how blue the sky was on that day 20 years ago. We woke up that morning and looked up at that cheery sky, naïve and grateful for the sunshine, only to watch with horror as it turned gray a few hours later.

As I was reading my colleague Paul Schneider’s poignant essay in the Vineyard Gazette yesterday, Waves of Grief Roll in Twenty Years Later, all of my own memories of that day flowed back to me. Strangely that blue sky is in most every vignette I recall.

The scenes are vivid, starting with my sunglassed drive up through the Connecticut hills to my office. But of the many frames from the September 11 reel in my head, one stands out most.

By midmorning, our office in Newtown had closed, and when I returned home, driving down eerily empty roads to the coast, it was just me and my 85-year-old father-in-law to huddle together. We decided to walk down the street to a small park on a point jutting out into Long Island Sound. We stood together looking over the water at lower Manhattan, and there against that azure sky was a plume of grey smoke, visible from so far away. We wondered aloud about all the commuters from our town who were likely right there. Some of them friends. Would they be on the train coming home that night? We didn’t know then that the trains weren’t even running.

The last frames in my film memories are all grey, of course. Everyone’s are. The smoke erased the blue sky at Ground Zero, and it would be a long time before it would reappear.

This morning I wanted to post a photo of a distinctly tower-esque 12-foot helianthus salicifolius (perennial willow sunflower) on Instagram for #day70 in my #100daysofflowersandveggies series. This crazy plant was a gift from Polly Hill Arboretum director Tim Boland, and I had no idea it would get so tall and branch so much. It is covered with hundreds of green buds, and we have been waiting for the flowers to bloom for weeks. This morning the first bud turned to bloom and many more showed hints of yellow – against a deep blue sky.

I took my photos and came inside to crop the images. To my surprise, in every frame a looming daddy long legs was smothering the top bloom. Not that I can blame the daddy long legs, but it was a little creepy. The things you don’t see with your naked eye!

You just never know.

Look up, look down, look all around today. Grab the moments of beauty and hold on to them.



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Hidden in Plain Sight

USUALLY my partner wakes up before I do. He pulls on his slippers quietly, grabs his book and heads downstairs to turn the coffee on. When I finally open my eyes, sit up, and swing my feet to the floor, I lean over to the windowsill and peer outside, sometimes pressing my head against the screen so that I can see the back deck below better.

There he is, moccasin-slippered feet crossed and poking out from plaid flannel pajama pants, that grey tattered zip-up sweater hanging loosely over the mustard-yellow West Tisbury tee shirt. He fills the Adirondack chair like he means it, left arm draped over the ample chair rail, hand clutching his coffee mug, book on his knee. The tousled bed-head of silver Christopher Lloyd-ish hair belies gravity.

This is comforting to me. Not only that he is there, but that he is allowing himself this time of peace and quiet outdoors before the day begins (and before I start a nonstop stream of chatter). 

The very next thing I do is putter around the bed and into the bathroom, where another set of windows along the back side of the second story of our house offers a different view. From this vantage point, I can see the perennial beds along the walkway below, the mounds of catmint and lamb’s ears and sedum and Russian sage bunched together just as I drew them on paper two winters ago. Better still, I can look up the hill to the fenced vegetable and flower garden.

The garden faces east, and since it sits up on a rise, it draws the early morning sun like a magnet. Right now, the garden is almost completely enveloped in bean vines, with the occasional sunflower or cosmos poking out here and there. I planted the Rattlesnake pole bean and sunflower seeds halfway through the summer all along the bottom of the semi-circle of fence on the east side and all across the back of the west side, where the peas were in June and July. 

I always forget that the vines race up the six or seven feet of fence in a few short weeks. After that, in an effort to keep growing, they travel sideways, up, down, and around each other, twining themselves into a massive heavy canopy that bends the top of the wiggly deer fence in on itself. The effect is dramatic, essentially creating an outdoor room within, almost like a secret garden.

Inside, the zinnias and cosmos are pushing six feet tall, reaching up for the midday sun now that the vines throw so much shade at sunrise. In the shadowy paths between the beds, bits and pieces of light that manage to filter through the vines dapple on bouncy nasturtium leaves and flowers, picking an occasional chocolate lace flower or snapdragon to spotlight. A few winter squash vines have taken off in the oldest bed on the north end of the garden, forming a horizontal canopy that matches the vertical bean vines in mystery and abandon.

This morning when I looked down on the back deck, my partner was not in his chair. Moving to the bathroom window, I looked out to see him padding down from the veg garden.

Hello!

Hello!

He paused, a broad smile bridging his face. 

“I’ve been in the garden,” he said slowly and deliberately, looking up at me, the smile widening. “It’s lovely in there. Did you know the zinnia blossoms have these little tiny yellow star-shaped mini flowers in them? And that Tithonia — it’s magnificent.”

He went on to say that he thought of me up there, and understood why I like to visit the garden and linger inside it every morning. It is serene and beautiful and magical, he admitted. But something you have to appreciate alone. (Usually his visits to the garden – since spearheading the construction of it and occasionally venturing in for infrastructure repairs – are on my urging when I’m busting to show him a new dahlia or a heavy branch of ripening tomatoes. It’s fun to share my enthusiasm, but not the same as enjoying the serenity the place brings in solitude.)

A hummingbird has been visiting me frequently in the garden. It’s almost as if it wants to communicate, hovering as it does three feet from my face until I hear the distinctive thrumming of its wings and look up to greet it.

Yesterday afternoon the hummingbird appeared on the back deck and visited my partner, choosing to greet him first, hovering to say hello before spinning off to poke around some salvia along the walkway. My partner loves hummingbirds and was thrilled at this gesture — a tiny messenger from the land of serenity reminding him not to forget what he gleaned that morning. An acknowledgment of what comes into focus if you stop to observe. And a sheer delight, if nothing else.

Odd as I am sure it will appear to some, I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening. A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but his is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.

The care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.

This is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread.

Wendell Berry

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A Body in Motion Stays in Motion. A Body at Rest…

“Take one thing and do it very deeply and carefully and you will be doing everything at the same time.” 

— Thich Nhat Hanh

I AM NOT known for my ability to stand still or pay attention for long periods of time — my default setting is constant motion. And my brain is even worse. A nonstop game of ping-pong is going on inside that cavern. 

At this particular moment, there are 45 windows open in the Chrome browser on my laptop. There are 10 books and 12 magazines on and below my bedside table. I am ostensibly working on this blog, but in reality I’m thinking about a friend’s sick dog, another friend’s illness, an event I need to wrap my head around, a telephone call I’d like to make, two appointments I have tomorrow, and a recipe I plan to test today.

Getting my thoughts to settle in one place seems nearly impossible sometimes. Worse, sometimes (many times), I verbalize them: Words come streaming out of my head in the form of a Faulkner-esque soliloquy which my partner must listen to with patience. (God bless him, he has that ability.)

That may be why I am drawn to gardening, to photography, to cooking, to arranging flowers, to writing. These activities require extreme focus, and inevitably when I am deep into one of them, my anxieties drop away, my whole body slows down, and I feel peaceful and content. I’m still energized but the concentration of the energy on one thing is very freeing.

“Nothing feeds the center so much as creative work, even humble kinds like cooking and sewing.” 

— Anne Morrow Lindbergh

I’ve gotten pretty good at turning to one of these activities as a natural way of calming down. Sometimes I feel like I’m just a hedonist, seeking out pleasure, but most of the time I identify this impulse as one of the ways I manage and maintain both physical and mental sobriety. It may not be the thing that someone else has to do to get through life, but for me these pursuits are essential.

Late in the day on Friday (after our internet returned from its fifth hiatus this week), I decided to press the button and sign up for a gardening photography class happening the next morning at Polly Hill Arboretum. Naturally I didn’t sleep well Friday night and after a cup of coffee, I was still regretting my decision when I got in the car to head over there at 8 a.m.

Bear in mind that Polly Hill is only a couple miles from my house, the place is gorgeous, a front had blown through leaving us with much cooler air, and the class promised to be laid back. A couple hours of wandering around outside in a beautiful place with a camera — how hard is that?

Of course, it turned out to be a good call, sleep or no sleep. The teacher – Dan Jaffe Wilder, the author and photographer of Native Plants for New England Gardens – was lively, articulate, and down-to-earth. The class was small, we moved through almost the whole arboretum, and we photographed a range of subjects. Best of all, I stimulated the learning part of my brain, which I always enjoy. It’s not that we covered a lot of technical camera things (which frankly make my brain short circuit), though I did push myself to use the camera in ways I don’t normally.

It was more about making art ­– looking at scenes from different angles, moving around rather than shooting straight on, framing a shot in different ways, dividing a shot into thirds to find the interesting off-center spots to focus on, noticing unusual interplays of texture and shape.

It was very freeing since I realized that I normally tend to dive straight into the most colorful or most graphic object in a scene — the flower, the bee, the rusty door, the moss-covered pig.

But that means I often miss the more interesting and dynamic contrasts of shapes and textures — the place where the meadow meets the stone path, where the climbing hydrangea begins to take over a stone wall, where the flowering branch interrupts a stream of light spilling through the opening in a hedge. Just the hint of a barn door through a veil of foliage.

I took literally hundreds of photos. That is a little bizarre – all photographers, especially in the digital world, do this to some extent and cull out much of what they shoot. They “bracket” a shot by changing the aperture and shutter speed and the distance from the subject so that they have lots of options of one scene. But I don’t think they are wasting shots the way I do – I still take way too many photos without really changing much in each frame. Ironically, I might need to move around more!

But taking so many pictures yesterday was helpful as I was able to look at them last night knowing why I had 20 versions of one thing…that I had been concentrating (as instructed!) on framing, on depth of field, on the flow of a photo, or the location of the subject.

I think that may have been the biggest takeaway for me from the class: Work on one thing at a time. (Ha! Difficult for me.) Break photography down into components. Work on just composition or just light or just depth of field. Instead of randomly firing off a million photos and hoping for the best, focus on one thing and slowly consider different approaches to it.

 Doing this requires stillness.

“The basic condition for us to be able to hear the call of beauty and respond to it is silence. If we don’t have silence in ourselves—if our mind, our body are full of noise — then we can’t hear beauty’s call.

Thicht Nhat Hanh 

Well, it’s something to aim for anyway, even if I never quite get there.



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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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Vegetables, flowers, and serenity with Susie Middleton