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!
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.
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,
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.
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 Musicwhen 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.
PLUCKED OUTof 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?
The first fuschia flower of Beauregarde snowpea appeared today. Lots of peas on the way.
I’VE DECIDED that when I finally get the headspace to write the memoir I have false-started many times, I will call it One Vegetable At a Time. (A not-so-clever play on “one day at a time.” Ha, ha, I know. Funny, not funny. But appropriate for me.) Not that any publisher in their right mind would let an author actually pick the title for her book. But the magazine editor in me always wants to sum up the story before it is written. (Yeah, that’s a problem in itself!)
But I’m thinking about this right now because I am feeling overwhelmed. In three days, we get on a plane to go to Georgia for a memorial service, and between now and then I have three work deadlines, two more publications that need to get moved forward substantially before I go, four work meetings, and about 60 plants that need to go in the ground — after erecting a new fence and filling two large raised beds with soil. Got to clean the house for the dog sitter and of course eat, sleep (very minimally), pack and get to the airport. Yada yada ya. Everyone has this stuff, these weeks, so I feel a little silly carrying on about it. (Well, more than a little silly.) Especially because half of it is self-induced stress.
This is the first time I’ve grown clematis, and it is so exciting to see it bloom on the trellis we built last year. This one is called H.F. Young and is paired with a peach climbing rose (Crown Princess Margareta) that is about to burst into bloom.
I am so very adept at stressing myself out! I always take on too much and then feel like I must accomplish it all in proper fashion. God forbid I should just not do some of it.
Then there’s the complicating factor of actually wanting to accomplish some of the tasks more than others. Spending time in the garden this time of year is probably my most favorite thing in the whole world. Not being able to do it is doubly frustrating since I can see the garden from my office window. It sings out to me like a Siren, begging me to come out and leave my work, unfinished, behind. Day after day it taunts me.
Lately, I’ve taken the last hour of daylight – between dinner and a return to the desk – to give in to that call. I’m snatching a little time in the early mornings, too – the garden being one of the only things that can get Susie out of bed early (since Susie reads and/or tosses and turns until very late at night!).
With these little windows of time, I take things one flower, one vegetable at a time. The other night during the rainstorm, I sat in the garage and began repotting the top-heavy tomato plants, one by one. Pretty soon I had 30 done. The temperature of my anxiety dropped in a short amount of time.
By breaking things down into simple tasks and not trying to be too ambitious, I can get one thing done and feel good about it. (I was taught to do this in early sobriety, when often I didn’t feel well enough to do half of what I needed to do.)
One day last week, I used 10 minutes to get 12 zinnias into a corner of a raised bed. Not much, but it was something! It felt good. (The gangly zinnias had been languishing in six-packs with tiny root balls. I know they felt better, shaking their roots out.)
I try to use the same approach with my work. If my head is about to burst, I stop and rewrite my yellow legal-pad lists. I have a different legal pad for each aspect of my job (and different colored sharpies, of course!). If I get even a small task done, I cross it off the list. (My mother was such a big list maker that she wrote things down every day just so she could cross them off, starting with “Get up.” Yeah, and you wonder why I am crazy. By the way, the next thing on her list was usually “Vacuum.” That is almost never on my list.)
This bite-size approach isn’t novel, and I think my favorite illustration of it is an anecdote from author Anne Lamott on how she came to call her book on writing Bird by Bird:
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.“
I also keep this quote (that also happens to be about writing – which apparently inspires stress and anxiety in even the most seasoned authors!) from novelist E.L. Doctorow on my board:
“Writing a novel is like driving at night in the fog – You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Page by page, bird by bird, vegetable by vegetable, flower by flower, task by task. Not only do small accomplishments move you forward and push you through anxiety, but sometimes performing smaller tasks, especially in repetition, is particularly soothing to a noisy brain.
Tuck that into your toolbox to use when you need it.
“I’ve got something for you,” my friend Ann said, reaching into the back seat of her car.
We were standing in my driveway, a tomato-plant hand-off about to take place. (A lot happens in my driveway. It’s all legal though, I promise.)
I started salivating. Would it be almond bars? Or oatmeal cookies? Ann has a cookie-baking business, and she hardly ever travels (even from Chilmark to West Tisbury, which is a hop, skip and a jump) without some delicious thing wrapped up in cute paper and tied with a bow.
But it was something even better. Out from behind her car door she appeared, hugging an armful of flowers. Not just any flowers, but freshly cut bearded irises, the stems bursting with buds about to bloom any second. One already had, and it was truly beguiling – the color a soft Pat-the-Bunny-peachy-pink with a tangerine seam, the contours unabashedly frilly and feminine. (I hope the bearded irises are not self-conscious about their beauty, but I bet not — they seem like flirty flowers to me.)
Ann left with a Sun Gold, a Sweet 100, a German Green, a Jet Star, and a Bodacious, reducing my tomato load to 34 from 39. (Originally there were 40. One snapped in half during the tempest a few nights ago — the tempest before the current Shakespearean tempest, which has stopped ferries and left us marooned once again. Using a flashlight to guide me, I’d managed to usher all the poor leggy plants into the garage and prop their sodden necks up in milk crates and clay pots, but not before one succumbed to the conditions.)
I went inside with the irises and found a pitcher to hold them. But I couldn’t let them be. I grabbed my camera and started moving the pitcher around. I found a complementary tableau with a Max Decker painting and a koginut squash over the fireplace! But I wanted to get the blooms (now two more) up close. I requested the use of my partner’s hands and tee shirt for a dramatic look.
Next I tried laying the flowers down on wood to photograph from above, but found that those nifty still lifes you see in all of Erin Benzakein’s books (husband Chris Benzakein’s photos @floretflower) are much more difficult to take than you’d think. And the light has to be just right, which it really wasn’t anywhere in the house.
Nevertheless I persisted with a few more versions (and again the next day with more blooms).
The point is that I was overcome with joy and happiness playing with these intriguing old-fashioned but new-to-me flowers. I considered what a thoughtful gift the flowers were; the bearded iris only blooms once in spring – when the flowers are harvested, there aren’t more where those came from (though some do rebloom in fall). It’s not like giving someone zinnias or pansies that will just replenish themselves. Ann gave them to me because she knew I would appreciate them. And knowing Ann, I bet she probably enjoyed the act of giving them almost as much as I enjoyed receiving them. She’s a generous person.
Sure, they were a trade of sorts, but not in the usual sense of quantifiable value. Here on the Vineyard, while bartering and trading are long-standing customs, held over from days when procuring things from off-Island (or getting rid of something on-Island!) was much more difficult than it is today (unless there’s a tempest), it’s the paying forward of good will that guides these transactions. There’s a ridiculous amount of sharing and giving away of things that goes on out here, because if you take part, the good will inevitably comes back around to you. As a bonus, you’re filled with a sense of belonging to a caring community when you participate.
Tomorrow I will head out to deliver a couple of tomato plants to a friend who gave me her potting bench last year when she cleaned her shed out. Tomorrow night, we join dear friends for dinner who have returned to their seasonal home on the Island, a home they have shared with me when I’ve needed a kitchen, when I’ve needed a place to sleep, when I’ve needed a cup of tea. I’ll be bringing tomato plants (of course) and dahlias that came out of their garden as tubers last fall and were entrusted to me to bring back to life this spring. By starting the dahlias early, perhaps I’ll be giving our friends the gift of dahlia blooms before they leave the Island in the fall. But I could grow dahlias and tomatoes all day and all night for these friends and never repay them for their kindness to me over the years. I know they don’t care, though.
Over the winter my friend Katharine, who’s beginning the process of decluttering and possibly downsizing a lifetime of collections (she’s on her third dumpster), called to see if I wanted cooking equipment – an Insta pot, a deluxe toaster oven/air fryer, a cast-iron wok. Yes, please.
I offered money and she declined. I couldn’t think what to bring a person who’s decluttering, so I stopped at Mermaid Farm farm stand on my way there and bought her a big bag of fresh pea shoots.
Another friend left dahlia tubers on her front porch this winter for me to pick up. Over the years on this Island, I’ve received gifts of homemade cheese, compost, freshly picked apples, tree seedlings, books, tee shirts, furniture, you name it. And you’ve got to know this has nothing to do with me personally. My friends put up with me despite the inordinate amount of time I spend not socializing. (I’m not a group activity person and I get antsy when I feel work hanging over me.)
But if you need a tomato plant, I’m your gal. And come August, I’ll be calling everyone over for cutting-flower free-for-alls! I love this place.
More on Bearded Irises
My friend Cathy Barrow tells me this particular bearded iris is most likely Beverly Sills.But if you are enchanted by these spring blooming rhizomes, right now Floret Farm is offering a free PDF guide to bearded iris (which ironically arrived in my email the day after Ann brought the flowers!). It includes profiles and photos of favorite varieties and comes with a 20 percent off coupon to Schreiner’s Iris Gardens, where you can also view hundreds of iris varieties.
FARMER AND PIGGY and I spent the afternoon in the garden yesterday. It was lovely. Piggy has a habit of moving around when I am not looking and today I found him hiding in the lamb’s ears and later peeking out of a forest of bee balm. By late afternoon he was over by the rose trellis sniffing the hardy geranium that’s about to bloom. Honestly, Piggy.
Farmer loves gardening. He lies in the grass, baking in the sun until his black fur is as warm as beach sand on a hot July day. Then and only then does he move into the shade. Occasionally he gets up and wanders over to a mossy patch under the oaks where he immediately dives on to his back and does a roly-poly, squirming with glee as he scratches his back.
He’s a big help.
Today’s project was planting up containers and pots with annuals and herbs. It was a total immersion in dirt. The driveway was a disheveled disaster zone, pots upturned everywhere, bags of potting soil spilling in the gravel, various plants in various stages of undress waiting for new homes. Whenever I am covered in dirt, I think back (way back) to making mudpies with my best friend Eliza. This makes me happy. Dirt makes me happy.
My joy at being outside with Farmer and Piggy (yes, I realize that one of these two is an inanimate object) was coupled with relief, having powered through practically nonstop from Sunday midday to Thursday evening on a series of deadlines.
I was so tired Thursday night that I couldn’t even read. I settled myself in my comfy chair, surrounded by stacks of books and magazines, thinking I’d be dipping in and out of any number of things.
Sadly, I was exhausted. Disappointed, I yawned and thought to make tracks for bed. But I hesitated, looking at the book on the top of the pile and thinking I had just enough energy to page through it. Again. It’s a book so charming as to make you weepy with gratitude.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and The Horse, by Charlie Mackesy, arrived earlier in the week, a gift unbidden from a friend, a kind and thoughtful friend who also happens to be a sober friend. She shared the book with me in part because it is so darn beautiful and sweet (and we already know that receiving wisdom from animals is actually my preferred wisdom-delivery form) but also because it is an affirmation of all the self-knowledge we’ve gained in recovery, the painful scraping away of the superfluous junk to arrive at the truth of who we are and what really matters in this life.
Wisdom delivery is a very tricky thing. No one really wants it thrown at them in a neat little package. But what is it about young children (in this case a boy), animals that talk, and a mythical land, that turns a story into a fable and creates a safe place to have honest thoughts and to express love?
In the book (which Mackesy hand-wrote in pen and ink and illustrated with sketches of the four unlikely friends on a journey through the wild to what may or may not be home), there is a moment when the boy — who was lonely before he met the mole, and they met the fox, and they all ran into the horse — is looking at his reflection in a pond.
“Isn’t it odd? We can only see our outsides, but nearly everything happens on the inside.”
So true. One of the first things I learned in early sobriety was to look past the outsides of people and to imagine a person as a struggling, yearning, vulnerable soul, someone just like me. (In the world I grew up in, appearances were valued above all else, so I had to unlearn this. In the book, the boy asks, “I wonder if there is a school of unlearning?” Don’t we wish!)
A wise person taught me to practice stripping away a person’s trappings and circumstances and to try to feel compassion. Not saying I’ve mastered this, but forced humility (in the form of realizing you are an addict who is unable to recover on her own) helped. And I clearly remember a moment when being judgmental suddenly felt less comfortable as a prop. I was listening to a woman talk who had recently been released from prison. Mind you, this was early on and I was still in a fog. I immediately began to judge her … until I began to truly hear her story. She had gone to prison for killing an elderly couple in a car accident by driving through an intersection while in a blackout. While I wasn’t prone to blackouts, there were certainly many nights when I had to drive with one eye closed to keep the yellow line in focus. But for the grace of God, there go I.
Later on in The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and The Horse, the mole asks the boy, “Is your glass half-empty or half-full?” And the boy replies, “I think I’m just happy to have a glass.”
I love that! I know I sure am happy to have a glass, and even though some days it is three-quarters empty, it is still sturdy enough to hold the few tablespoons of (non-alcoholic!) hydration I need to get through the day.
And if it is truly drained dry, I know (now) what to do. It’s something the boy learns from the horse, who is the most wise of all the creatures.
“What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?” the boy asks the horse.
“Help,” said the horse.
It gives me goosebumps to think about how life-changing that plea can be. I know that I can pinpoint the exact moment my life began to change course – and it happened the day I said out loud, “I can’t do this myself.”
If you know someone who needs help but is afraid to ask, perhaps a gift of this book might provide an opening. I also highly recommend at least one furry creature (real or imagined, live or inanimate) to talk to.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse grew from the response British illustrator Charlie Mackesy got when posting his thoughtful drawings on Instagram. The book was published in October 2019 by HarperCollins and has become an international bestseller. Read a bit about that here. And be sure to visit his website and follow him @charliemackesy on Instagram. All illustrations pictured here are Mackesy’s, of course!
I STOPPED AT SOUTH BEACH on Thursday. Didn’t intend to, didn’t stay long. But man, what a lungful of sea air and some brilliant sunshine can do for a girl.
I was out on assignment and early for an interview. So on a whim I drove to the end of Katama Road, pulled into a sandy parking spot next to the dunes, and hurried up and over the path, feeling my pace slow as the sand swallowed my shoes with every step.
And then that horizon. The Atlantic Ocean sparkling and uncharacteristically calm, the color of Coke bottle-sea glass bumping up against a Carolina blue sky. (Carolina, of course, nowhere to be seen. The next stop due south is the Dominican Republic, about 2500 miles away as the crow flies. For those of you not on the Vineyard, the screen grabs below will show you where South Beach — aka Katama Beach — is on the Island.)
I chided myself: ridiculous that I live on this Island and don’t afford myself this opportunity for nearly instant calm more often. Remarkably, my friend Liz gets up every single morning to photograph the sunrise over Nantucket Sound in Oak Bluffs. I am envious of her ability to do this, to get up early. But I am not willing to let go of the night, especially late night when the work is done and a pile of books waits for me.
But this morning the birds woke me up and I got out of bed. Hit the coffee button and padded out to the garden in my PJs. If one thing can lure me out of bed early, it’s the prospect of a garden inspection, Farmer along (mostly doing roly-poly’s on the mossy un-lawn under the seven-trunked oak).
This morning I am especially happy to be reminded of a gift that arrived yesterday. Two fine men, on the request of my partner, drove up the driveway, unloaded some freshly bought lumber, and built three new garden boxes for us.
The long one is for the dahlias. The dahlias that are still alive. Yes, I do feel a little bit like the boy who cried wolf, because the dahlias are hanging in there. But we’re not quite out of the woods yet. We still have plants with curling brown leaves, but they are in the minority.
It seems the rest of them needed fresh air, just like me. Duh.
My friend Laura the plant doctor (as opposed to my other gardening friend, Laura the horticulturalist) made a house call last week and declared the dahlias longing for sunshine and fresh air. She was right (she usually is). Clearly stressed out by the lack of adequate light and wonky watering, they grew too fast for their own good. They are definitely much taller than they should be at this point (meaning the stems are weak, and they’ll be an unwieldly size for transplanting in our windy climate), but they do seem to have really perked up in the sunshine.
Despite a busy work week (including a celebration for the Vineyard Gazette’s 175th birthday), I made time to put together those makeshift little hoop houses inside the fenced veggie garden. I had a roll of plastic, some wire hoops, clothespins, and bricks. A half hour here and there, and done. By midweek, more than half of the dahlias were spending the nights out there and their days in garden sunshine. I put all the pots in trays so that I could bottom-water them, which makes a whole lot of sense, because that’s the quickest way the water can get to the roots. If you pour water on top of the tuber, the tuber can’t use it – it will just rot if too wet. Plus the stems and leaves don’t like to be wet, either.
Out in the garden, the peas and radishes are doing well, the garlic is thriving, and the sweet peas have germinated. It will be the first time I’ve ever grown sweet peas, the fragrant, old-fashioned cottage garden flower.
There is so much more to do out there — including setting up those three new beds — but I have to be patient. Even when I’m on deadline (which is most of the time), I have to remember that a little bit of fresh air and sunshine will work wonders if I just seek it out.
P.S. The tomatoes mentioned to me that they would very much like to go outside this week, also, if only for an hour or two.