Category Archives: Serenity

A Miracle on South Summer Street

BY SOME MIRACLE, I have a summer intern. A really good one. Work life has taken a turn for the better.

I can’t truthfully call it a miracle. (Though you know me and the God thing – I’m pretty sure this is an answered prayer because I certainly put my work fatigue out into the universe. In other words, not only did I pray about it, but I told everyone who would listen that I was wearing down.)

My boss and I talked about this a few months ago, and she, being the supremely practical person that she is, suggested that giving me my own summer intern might be at least a partial solution. In the past, I’ve tried sharing interns with the newspaper, but it never worked out. I got the short end of the stick because there were plenty of news stories to keep the two interns busy.

But this year, when all the summer intern applications were in, four smart young people rose to the top of the pile. And instead of just hiring two, my boss gave the go-ahead to hire all four – two for the paper, one for the magazine, and one for me (special projects editor).

My intern wound up starting first, and he bounded through the front door of the office with a backpack of positive energy. From that moment on he’s been fantastic. And the work he’s done in just a few short weeks has already lightened my load considerably.

My business is all about content production. I hate that we use a banal word like content to lump together all the stories, photographs, illustrations, designs, maps, graphics, tips, recipes, resources, schedules, directories and every other form of useful information destined for a digital or print product.

Product is an equally horrible word. But again, since we’re not just making a print newspaper and a print magazine, but websites, newsletters, and all kinds of specialty publications, too (hence the need for a special projects editor), we need words like product and content to encompass everything — even if the words do rub out whatever romance was left in the idea of being a writer, an editor, a photographer. (Remember, romance is important in the absence of large salaries!)

And here’s the thing: Products are insatiable consumers of content. To feed the beast, new content has to be created constantly.

So basically the intern’s job is to produce some of the content for some of the products that I am responsible for. The more he produces (competently, requiring only a reasonable amount of oversight and editing), the less I have to produce. I didn’t really boil it down to this simple equation before he arrived, as I wondered (maybe feared) how much time managing him would add to my already stretched schedule.

But the math is working — exponentially. I’m gaining just enough time to do a little gardening in the morning before work and some in the evening when I get home. I’ve gained a little weekend time, too. Wouldn’t you know it, I’m actually sleeping better – I haven’t had one of my 3 a.m. wake-ups in a while. The more I garden the better I sleep. The less time I spend on the computer late at night, the better I sleep. The more I sleep (and garden!) the better I feel about my job.

Thank you, intern.

It all seems too good to be true, so I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. But in the meantime, I’m marveling at how the physical and mental activity in the garden has improved my mood. Stretching under-used muscles feels so good. And focusing on satisfying tasks like getting every last plant and seedling in the ground, crafting trellises out of stakes and twine, repairing hoses and MacGyvering solutions with zipties, clothespins, fabric staples, and no carpentry skills (!) — this is all the anti-anxiety medication I need.

Today I took my notebook into the garden (the fenced garden) and recorded how many zinnias are in the ground (75) and what varieties they are; how many (and which) dahlias are planted (32) and how many are still in pots (16), how many cosmos are in the ground (50) and how many tomatoes have been planted (10). I’m happy to say that this nerdy notetaking — counting and recording things — is for me a pure delight. 

Tonight I picked purple snow peas and green sugar snaps for dinner. I planted a new herb – African Blue Basil — and crammed the last of the cosmos in the ground. (It will be a jungle again this year. Oh well.) I arranged the rest of the potted dahlias in alphabetical order and grouped together ones I’m going to bring to friends. I said hello to a small mouse who has been eating my strawberries. I made a fresh flower arrangement from roses and hardy geraniums and salvias and chocolate cosmos and bee balm from the perennial garden. I watered. I stared at the ground wondering when the nasturtiums are going to germinate and if the sunflowers will grow where I planted them and whether I should rip out the peppermint that jumped the fence and broke through a weed barrier. It got dark. I came inside. I made tea. I ate chocolate (just a little bit). And all was well.

Thank you, intern. I’m hoping you hang around for a long time!


se·ren·i·ty /sə-ˈre-nə-tē/
noun:serenity 

  1. the state of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled.

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Good Morning Garden

IN THE MORNING, I slip out of bed, pad down the carpeted stairs in my pjs, open the living room shades to let the sun in, and head for the kitchen to hit the coffee go-button. It is early. Not sunrise-and-birdsong early (that was 4:47 a.m. today) but Susie-early, meaning I have borrowed a few hours from my preferred pre-8 a.m. activity (sleep) to do a garden check. I am full of Christmas-morning glee, anticipating the joy of finding something new, something sparkly, something captivating.

I love this garden check so much that I do it every morning now on repeat. Farmer joins me. I throw a flannel shirt on over my PJs and stuff my bare feet into a pair of old Keen slip-on mules I keep by the door. Out I go.

And back in I go. Out and in. Back and forth until I’ve hauled out whatever plants spent the night indoors. I am still hardening off the last of the 60 dahlias and 200 seedlings that started life inside in the bathroom shower and under grow lights.

Farmer heads off to the woods while the coffee cup and I start our rounds. We head down the gravel path past the towering Bowl of Beauty peony my sister gave me from her garden a few years ago. It has finally settled in and is showing off its lollipop buds by hogging the air space a small rose and some Russian sage were supposed to commandeer.

I stoop to pull from the stone path another round of offspring from the flighty geranium Karmina. The tiny volunteers are everywhere, both in the path and in the horseshoe-shaped perennial bed to my left, where a war of aggressors is being waged. The marauding Blue Moon “Sugar Buzz” bee balm has marched, in an unstatesmanlike manner, across the border of its own territory and into several neighboring nations, including Zagreb coreopsis (no shy foe there) to the north and Tutti Frutti Apricot Delight yarrow to the west. In clear and present danger to the south is a thatch of Amethyst Pearl phlox I am so hoping to see bloom profusely this year. A lone poppy is holding its ground.

I stop at the outdoor shower, anxious to see if anything has snacked on the clematis or the climbing rose we’ve trained up the trellis. I’m relieved that my stinky Bobbex-spraying seems to be working. The clematis has bloomed, offering up humongous lilac-blue flowers that are so pretty as to be almost fake looking. Next year, I hope there will be more blooms, but even if there are, I doubt they will coincide with the rose blooming. I’m afraid I chose the wrong rose-clematis combo. The rich apricot blooms of Crown Princess Margareta climbing rose were meant to be a foil for the blue clematis, but H.F. Young appears to do its thing almost entirely before Margareta’s first bud breaks.

Farmer is back, doing a roly-poly on a mossy patch beneath the seven-trunk oak. By now I am around the corner, past the Millenium alliums that some critter (maybe a bunny) decided were not too oniony for his taste, and the daylilies, fenced off with an ugly chicken-wire-and-stake situation because there is no question that they are on the deer dream menu.  

I am staring at a fat mound of perennial willow-leaf sunflower stalks (Helianthus salicifolius) squeezed between three Karl Foerster feather reed grasses, wondering what to do with this bounty. There are maybe 40 or 50 stalks (there were only 5 or 6 last year) about waist high right now, and each will grow 10 feet tall as they did last year. (Which in itself was astonishing to watch.) Who knew this plant was a secret kudzu, pretending to play nice and offer a cheery, late-season skyline of bright yellow flowers, all the while spreading like wildfire at its roots. I think I might have to yank some of this up. I make a mental note, never having paper and pen along on these garden checks.

By now the coffee cup is abandoned and I am focused on counting the number of coneflower blossoms I see coming when I’m startled out of my reverie by the whir of a hummingbird. Our little guy is back – hurrah! He’s come to poke in and out of the tubular flowers of a new salvia I’ve just planted. My eyes follow his zippy path back up the hill to the vegetable garden, where I see that Farmer has taken up his position in the direct sun near the garden gate. There he can keep one eye on me and one eye on the back door, where he expects Daddy to arrive any minute, usually offering treats for no particular reason.

I realize I am running out of time and must move on to the vegetable garden (aka the fenced garden where flowers for cutting are grabbing more and more space from the vegetables every year). The peas are happy, the lettuce lush, the radishes ready to pull. Pots of dahlias are everywhere, some lined up and ready to go in the ground. 

I see that my flats of zinnia and cosmos seedlings came through the cold night without distress. My onions are perky. I will need to water later. I stare at the five beds that still need prepping and long for the time to do that.

I hear my name from down on the deck. Farmer is looking my way, too. They both are telling me what I already know but want to ignore: it is time to come inside, get ready for work. Leave the garden to itself for the day. Sigh. I don’t want to leave, but I know the garden will welcome me back just as soon as I can get here. And I am grateful for that.


se·ren·i·ty /sə-ˈre-nə-tē/
noun:serenity 

  1. the state of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled.

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Taking a Beauty Break

ALL IT TOOK was this:

I got a haircut.

I climbed a tree.

I lay down at the end of a dock in the middle of a pond on a warm sunny day and stared up into the blue and white accordion sky. An osprey flew over, then another.

I walked on the beach. I crouched in the lee of a tall dune, closed my eyes, and listened only to the surf rolling in and rolling out.

My best friend and her husband came to visit us for the weekend. We walked for miles. We climbed to the top of a big rock. We climbed to the bottom of a rickety beach stair.

We ate extravagant pastries and freshly baked bagels and charcuterie from the North End. We grilled swordfish, baked chocolate chip cookies. Listened to music, sat on the couch, looked at photographs, walked the dogs.  

My peas came up. My radishes sprouted. Three little chrysanthemums arrived in the mail.

The wild blueberry bushes came to life in the woods, hundreds and thousands of tiny blush-colored bell-shaped blossoms popping out against a tedious sea of brown decaying oak leaves. Overnight, the grass in the hay fields grew a foot tall and turned the color of a leprechaun’s top hat. 

I planted 72 zinnia seeds in six-packs and plopped them on the heating mat.  

I picked cream-colored daffodils and shy pink hellebores and arranged them in green glass bottles.

I talked to my sister. She sent me a photo of her new red sneakers.

I called my Dad. He told me what he cooked for dinner.

I took a nap.


Just like that, I felt better – lighter, saner, happier.  

It’s not so hard, really, to lean into the things that bring me serenity, if only I will listen to what I need. If only I will avoid obfuscating the obvious: that I need fresh air, and lots of it. I need to get out of myself and out of my desk chair, to be with people that I love, relaxing and enjoying life. I need to break up my work day with acts of joy, no matter how simple.

If I work all the time, I will go crazy. A few weeks back, I was mired in deadlines, feeling like a gerbil running on one of those spinning wheels – on Groundhog Day, no less. Not this again! Another day, another deadline.

But the universe intervened to offer me a break, to open up the space and time for our friends to come visit, and that was a boost of the first order. I got to see the beauty of my Island home through their eyes. It’s embarrassing that I could forget for even a minute that I live in a truly beautiful place, and that I can access that beauty literally any time I want. Oy, that just blows me away.

If I am feeling like my head is going to explode, all I have to do is walk outside. Even when I’m in the office in downtown Edgartown, I can walk out the door, down the tree-lined street two blocks, and be looking over a white cap-rail fence at the harbor, sparkling in the midday sun. If it is noon, the Federated Church bells will be ringing. Soon all the village fences will be covered with the blooms and leafed-out canes of climbing roses or obscured by the blousy blue blossoms of mophead hydrangeas.

If I am working at home, Farmer and I can do a garden check in the morning. This week I will inspect the Black Parrot tulips frequently as they begin to unfurl their gargoylian petals.

I will peek under the cool canopy of rhubarb leaves to see whether any fairies are dancing in that little forest of pink stalks beneath them. I will thin the lettuce beds and keep the extra seedlings for salad. I might give the peas a pep talk.

At noon, Farmer and I will go back outside for a brief sunbath – he on the cool moss, me lying flat on a deck bench.

In the evenings, I will walk with my husband down to the big field, where I’ll listen to the birdsong in the hedgerows and watch the peach sky bloom behind a distant herd of deer. I’ll pluck wild field pansies growing amidst patches of clover and wild strawberries and bring them home to float in a dish of water on the windowsill.

And I’ll call my Dad.


se·ren·i·ty /sə-ˈre-nə-tē/
noun: serenity 

  1. the state of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled.


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Why Write?

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice‚
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations‚
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do‚
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Mary Oliver

I have not been listening to myself, I realize now. It’s not like I haven’t been talking (I have), but I haven’t heard what I’ve been saying. Because I thought I was talking (or more accurately, writing) to you. You, my reader. Let me see if I can explain.

Three or four times in the last month, I’ve tried to pen a blog, but each time I’ve pulled back, feeling like I was writing around something, rather than into it. It was discouraging – not being able to complete an essay. Writing is always hard, of course, but it is usually an enjoyable challenge for me – to locate the thread, weave it through, and tie it up. Even better is the opportunity to offer the reader a takeaway – something useful or inspiring, or at least a story that makes one nod along in recognition, feeling less alone knowing there are others who feel the same way.

In the best of both worlds, a personal essay is both illuminating to the reader and cathartic for the writer. But what I have been trying to write lately I now view as pure navel-gazing. Of course I sensed this, which is why I kept stalling out. I’d drive down a long, twisting road, take a fork, then another, and realize that anybody following me was now surely lost. Yet stubbornly I’d turn around and go down the road again — pursuing the same topic, thinking there must be something inherently beneficial to writing about it. 

Turns out there was! Only it was beneficial to me, not to you. (But hold on, I do have something for you.) I didn’t see or hear it at first, but gradually I realized that the hands on my keyboard had taken the gibberish inside my head, translated the whole mess, sorted my thoughts into a logical framework, and displayed them on the screen in front of me. There, to the left of the blinking cursor, was the thing that had been puzzling me.

I finally understood that solving this puzzle was important to me; it needed my attention. But not yours.

Yet here’s the takeaway for you: Write.

Writing is an excellent way to reach that place inside yourself that may not feel like it has a voice. It’s a way to capture your feelings and articulate them, to quantify your spirit. You never know what might be pulsing in your fingertips as they hover over the keys.

You don’t have to keep a daily journal, or write complete essays, or show your writing to anyone else. You don’t even need to write down more than a sentence at a time. But you do need to hold on to what you’ve written. The big idea here is to collect your thoughts so that you can look back at them from time to time. You’ll find out what really matters to you.

While you’re collecting your own thoughts, collect those of others, too. Grab snippets and quotes and excerpts and poems that you like and stash them all in a little notebook that will become a gift to your future self. I started my wisdom notebook in the early days of my sobriety to try to keep hold of the good and useful things I was hearing. Over time I added poems (like those from Mary Oliver I’ve included here) and passages from books and favorite authors.

By gathering what I like, I’ve learned that the topics I gravitate to most are grace, faith, addiction, spirituality, nature, the psyche, family, gratitude, honesty, fear, responsibility, and materialism.

I look at this notebook frequently for advice and reminders:

“You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.” — Annie Dillard

“Addiction exists wherever persons are internally compelled to give energy to things that are not their true desires.” — Gerard May

“Grace is accepting the fact that in the end we are accepted, despite being unacceptable.” — Paul Tillich

“What we are looking for already resides within us.”

It was reading this notebook the other night that sent me back to look at what I’d been writing recently, that opened my eyes and ears to see and hear what I was trying to say to myself. It was my younger self reminding my older self of how wild and precious life is (to paraphrase Mary Oliver) and that “whoever you are…the world offers itself to your imagination.”

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

— Mary Oliver

LISTEN TO KRISTA TIPPETT TALK WITH MARY OLIVER


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The Power of Pansies and The Peace of Wild Things

I AM PUSHING a rickety garden cart through Pepper’s Greenhouses in Milton, Delaware, following behind my 91-year-old father as I have done in plant nurseries and gardens my entire life.

(Once when I was six, I tagged along on a fancy garden tour, shadowing my Dad so closely that I caught the wrath of a bee’s nest he awakened as he forged ahead of me through a narrow gap in a privet hedge. One sting on my tummy under a loose-fitting summer sleeveless blouse and one on my bare freckled arm earned me a place in his arms for the trip back to the car.)

Today it is cold and drizzly, a maddening reminder of the fickle fate of March vacationers. My husband and I have been luxuriating in the past three days of 60- and 70-degree weather, using our little respite from real life to explore the Delmarva peninsula during the day while visiting with my Dad over coffee in the mornings and family meals in the evenings.

From the wild ponies and windy dunes of Assateague Island to the salt marshes and Loblolly pine barrens of Prime Hook Wildlife Refuge and Cape Henlopen State Park, the hours of walking outdoors have been thoroughly restorative.

Yet the turn in the weather provides a good excuse to go plant-perusing (and shopping) with Dad.

I have filled the top basket in the cart with six-packs of pansies. Pansies were the first flower my Dad let me pick from his gardens when I was young, and I loved to bring them to my teachers at school, my fist nearly crushing the fragile stems wrapped in wet paper towel and aluminum foil before I ever reached the classroom.

Here I spy my favorite Frizzle-Zizzle mix amidst a sea of color. Flats and flats of pansies line the long corridor that connects the maze of greenhouses at Pepper’s, each a domino of treasure: one housing perennials, another annuals; herbs to the left, vegetable seedlings to the right; woody perennials and deciduous shrubs around the corner, fruit trees further on down the line. But the pansies merit a special spot in March — the plant nursery’s equivalent to Easter or Halloween candy in the grocery store.

Some people scoff at pansies, or worse, ignore their ubiquitous presence in early spring, thinking them mundane. But I will always love them and their little viola and johnny-jump-up cousins, especially now that I know how many truly beautiful varieties are available if you look hard enough (or decide to start them from seed).

Curly petals, sweet scents, unusual colors, artful veining and Jackson Pollock blotches – their charms are many. Not to mention their habits: They tolerate the cold, show up early in spring, and bloom profusely as long as you keep picking them ( a win-win). Plus, the petals are edible!

Erin Benzakein at Floret Flower Farm (my flower hero) even grows them as cut flowers, lengthening the stems to up to 15 inches by growing them under row cover. I might try that. But even without long stems, the shorties make long-lasting posies in a creamer or small glass jar.

Dad and I have come to a crossroads. To the right is the hellebore and snowdrop greenhouse. To the left is a wooden door leading out to a small yard filled with dogwoods. I follow Dad out to the dogwoods and the drizzle, my cart rattling now with a ceramic flower vase I’ve nabbed as we passed through the vast houseplant wing. The owner of Pepper’s stops to greet Dad, who is a frequent visitor. Everyone knows him there and treats him warmly.

Theoretically we are just browsing, but as Dad begins to tell me about the merits of this and that dogwood (his current favorite is Appalachian Spring), I start looking at the tags on the Kousa dogwoods (Cornus kousa), the pretty Chinese dogwoods that are less susceptible to the anthracnose disease that has attacked and killed many native dogwoods (Cornus florida). Dad mentions he has been looking for a Kousa called “North Pole” as a possible replacement for the Japanese maple at my mother’s grave. I bend down and look at all the tags, moving pots around on the puddly tarmac to peer in. But no North Pole. We turn to leave and I notice a handsome dogwood set aside on a bench with a “sold” sign on it. Dad asks me what the variety name is on the tag, and I report that it’s a “Snow Tower.”

“That’s it!” He says excitedly, laughing, realizing that in trying to recall the name of the variety he’d read about, he’d settled on North Pole when really the name was Snow Tower. Quickly I see that he is disappointed though, as this one is sold. I tell him I’m sure that I’ve seen another Snow Tower in all the tags I looked at a few minutes ago. I go back into the sea of pots and soon we have three Snow Towers to look at. We debate the merits of each and discuss how each might be pruned, finally choosing our favorite. I tell Dad I would like to buy it as my contribution to the gravesite landscaping (Mom is in with a bunch of other relatives!), and soon we are stuffing it, along with the pansies, some Thai Basil, the flower vase, and a few bottles of deer repellent (for me, cheaper in Delaware than on the Island) into the car.

Not our biggest haul ever, but a good day. A stop at the Food Lion to pick up a can of baked beans to go with the BBQ pork Dad has in the slow-cooker for dinner, and we’re home.

Photo of Dad taken back in November before the wedding by fabulous photographer Maria DeForrest.

This is a day I want to bottle up and bring back to the Vineyard with me along with the pansies. Is that possible? Can you carry over the good feelings from one day, one week, to the next? I wonder, can you actually bank the comfort and joy of these days, storing them up to fall back on when you need them, here on the sharp side of reality where pure evil looms?

I think so.

One morning in Delaware I toppled out of bed early, grabbed my coffee, and found a quiet nook to squinch up my knees, rest my laptop on my pajamas, and dial into a virtual meeting of my fellow travelers in sobriety. One of the first things I heard that came bounding through the fog of sleepiness was the phrase “spiritual armor.” I smiled at that and knew right away what the speaker was referring to – the idea that all the work we do on a daily basis (from doing the next right thing to letting go, from praying to forgiving, from checking our motives to practicing acceptance) makes us better able to handle the wonky stuff when it threatens to throw us off the beam.

#pansiesforUkraine

There is such a thing as building up a spiritual reserve, keeping our spiritual muscles flexed. Not only has this idea been hammered into me, but I’ve experienced the benefits of it again and again.

In the same way, I’m using those days in Delaware – both the relaxed time spent in nature with my husband and the precious time spent with my Dad, as well as my sister – as a deep well of comfort right now. Dipping into that well is a tool, a deliberate practice of gratitude, that feels especially important to use right now. I (like all of us) must focus my energy on what’s good and delightful and joyous in life — or despair, as Wendell Berry says in The Peace of Wild Things (below), will grow in me, and in us all.

The Peace of Wild Things 

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

— Wendell Berry

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This Way to Spring and The Growing of Things

JUST CALL ME CLOUSEAU. Like the inspector, I’ve been bumbling around, searching for clues of spring. Yesterday I got down on my hands and knees in the cold, black, barely defrosted soil and rooted around amidst piles of sodden leafy detritus and tangles of winter-bleached-blond grasses, looking for bits of green.

Ah ha! A chive! I found one, then two. This one no bigger than a pencil tip, another barely a speck of emerald dust in a leprechaun’s eye. I suspect that little Irish trickster has been mischievously dancing in my garden, spreading false hope. I did notice a tiny rainbow the other day, but no pot of gold. It is only February, after all.

But the signs are all pointing in the right direction. Literally. For some reason, on my long walk yesterday under a brilliant Carolina blue sky, the weathered trail signs kept grabbing my attention. In the dull grey icy afternoons of January, the signs shrivel and recede into the dusk. On a day like this, they pop, beckoning passersby to take heed of the journey, to make choices, to mark progress. Time is passing and we’re all going somewhere, rather too quickly it seems to me, though it is so tempting to want to project into the future.

Lately, it seems my restlessness has been at a fever pitch.

But today, another graciously warm and sunny day (two in a row – be still my heart – and on a weekend, too!), I stopped in the middle of tidying up my vegetable garden, suddenly struck.

I realized what’s been bugging me all winter: winter.

Okay, duh. But by winter I mean the absence of the growing season. The time when I cannot forget myself with an obsessive project like making pea trellises out of stakes and twine, cannot put on my farm boots and my jeans with the hole worn in the back pocket where the pruners go and head out to deadhead or weed or puzzle over the knotted snarl of irrigation hoses. I cannot cut flowers and drop them gently into buckets of water, carefully curating them by stem-length and color. I cannot crouch and straighten out repeatedly, stretching my hamstrings as I side-step from bush bean to bush bean, flipping over the shy plants with one hand to reveal the hidden gems to pluck with the other. Or stand on my tip-toes reaching for the Sungolds and Rattlesnake beans dangling from the tallest arch in the garden.

But now that the days are longer, the sun still above the horizon at 5 o’clock, I can feel the relief coming. A day like today when I could actually work outside for a bit is such a noticeable boost that I wonder, once again, why I forget how closely tied my well-being is to the garden. All that is coming excites me – seeds are arriving, we’re moving the seed-starting shelves upstairs, I’m planning how to start the dahlias, dreaming about a hoop house or a little greenhouse – but it makes me a bit panicky, too: I know that the hours I must log for work each week (work as in employment) mean that I’ll need to make Herculean efforts to maximize garden (and sunshine) time, too.

I can do it. I must do it. I first realized how important being outside is for me in a series of tests given to me by a kind and gentle life coach when I was in early sobriety. (Don’t laugh – you would think one wouldn’t get to be almost 45 years old without knowing what makes one tick. But I was, well, busy.)

During the first six months following the day (Christmas day, 2006) that I finally put down my last drink, I gained a life coach, a therapist, a 12-step sponsor, a literary agent, and a new friend – five women who alighted in my life like angels at the exact moment I needed them. Little by little they all helped me realize that I was withering under the fluorescent lights of the office (among other maladies!). I ached to be in nature. Only when I got up enough courage to quit my job as editor in chief of Fine Cooking magazine did I unwittingly open the door to coming here, to the Vineyard, to write my first cookbook (the plan) and to wind up moving here permanently (not planned) and learning to be a small farmer (a complete surprise).

I became a grower of things and for that gift I am enormously grateful. I will always have it, even though reality requires a steady paycheck. But I will turn 60 this summer and time seems so fleeting that I’ve begun to dream again about a bigger garden, maybe a small cut-flower business, when I retire. My husband says he’ll help build the big garden, but after that he’ll wave to me as he heads off to the golf course. Deal, I say.

P.S. I wrote this yesterday, contentedly reflecting on a day spent outdoors on a warm (ish) sunny February day. Today it is 32 degrees and grey, with snow in the forecast. Ouch.

P.P.S. Farmer (aka The Farm Dog) turns 11 tomorrow, Valentine’s Day. Happy heart day to all.

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Stir-Crazy, Gitts Crazy, and Just Plain Crazy

BETWEEN OMICRON and Oh-My-God-It’s-Freezing-Out, there is some serious winter-itis going on around here.

Turns out hibernation is not all it’s cracked up to be.

I’m getting restless. Frankly, stir-crazy. I have no right to complain – I am warm and cozy in my house, and I can take a nice walk (in the 30 mph wind and zero windchill) any time.

And it’s not like I don’t have plenty of work to do. But there’s just something equilibrium-swallowing about Covid winters. Winters plural – that in itself says it all. Plus, we are, um, on an Island. Which is never exactly hopping in the wintertime.

The evidence of my scattered state is everywhere, strewn around the living room in seed catalogues, piles of magazines and garden books, bags of old clothes I’ve rounded up, oversized graph pads and pencils. Colored pencils. Collage glue. Pieces of fabric. Paint chips.

I bounce from one project to the next.

I have been reorganizing my pantry (aka rickety shelves in the basement), starting with grains and legumes. Someone gave me a lot of arborio rice and red lentils in bulk, so I have an excuse there…but where did all the rest of this stuff come from? I guess I buy grains and beans every time I go to the store. Oh well, it’s very satisfying to package them all up and label them and arrange them in orderly rows.

I “redesigned” the kitchen (on paper) – again. This whole kitchen renovation will probably never happen, but I will be ready with multiple versions if it ever does! This time I took my stepson’s advice and co-opted the space where the downstairs bathroom is now and added it to the kitchen. (Yeah, we won’t talk about what that means for the bathroom—and the rest of the downstairs—just yet.) Playing with this bigger space kept me entertained for three nights running while the Wolf Moon prevented me from sleeping.  (I’m sorry the scribblings are barely intelligible.)

In this new (paper) kitchen I have lots of light (check); the range goes against the outside wall for venting (check), there is a nifty floor-to-ceiling shallow pantry (check), a small second sink (check), a smallish Island (check), and no corners (I hate corners). Who knows what the next iteration will look like?!

I finally sat down with all the seed catalogues. I’d been avoiding them because I have so many seeds from last year and I wanted to be fiscally responsible. But my new husband/old live-in partner (who should know better) said, “Don’t skimp – how much can seeds cost?” Ha. Ha. Ha.

We now have 17 varieties of zinnia seeds (among other things) coming in the mail. (This, in addition to the ones we grew last year, below.) Once I started I couldn’t stop. Did you even know there were 17 varieties of zinnias? Well, there are even more than that!

Of course, I’m not giving up on dahlias either. But I have been super restrained, only ordering five new tubers — so far. They are Labyrinth, Sweet Nathalie, Break Out, Crichton Honey, Rip City, and Kharma Gold. Oops, that’s six. Plus, I got Otto’s Thrill and Thomas Edison at the end of last summer (discounted!).

And they join Bumble Rumble, Jowey Frambo, Andrew Charles, Parkland Glory, Omega, Gitts Crazy, Hamilton Lilian, Noordwijk’s Glory, Bishop, Brown Sugar, Bluetiful and Maarn from last year. (Photos below are from last summer.)

Last year’s tubers are all stashed in the basement in bags of peat. Every so often I go down to check on them and wind up doing something else. The basement is a mess, so it’s easy for me to forget why I went down there in the first place once I start restacking prop dishes, moving suitcases around, breaking down boxes…It’s not a good place to go for someone like me with concentration problems. But it’s better than the garage, which is a whole other story.

This problem I have with jumping from one thing to another is not new. I’ve never been able to sit still for very long. I was nearly thrown off the set of Romper Room – my first TV appearance! – for refusing to stay seated in my chair. Apparently ice cream was used to bribe me (why does that not surprise me?), and I managed to last the week and get my Good Doo-Bee certificate. 

But these winter willies feel different, and unsettling. I think maybe it’s because life seems extra precious these days. Two very kind and good people I knew died this past week, both in their 60s. Another friend is having cancer treatments. Friends are retiring, moving, downsizing. The news makes one wonder what life in this country is going to be like in five, ten years from now. I don’t know about you, but I tell myself that I’m letting it all slide off my back, but that’s not really true. In the back of my mind linger the same questions all the time – What should I be doing with my time? Am I making the most of my life?

The only way I could think to calm the jumpies today was to call my Dad. Conversations with my Dad are never short, so they force me to get in a comfortable chair, relax and be present. There can be no better use of time than talking to this interesting and smart and amazing man who I am so lucky to still have in my life. I always learn something from him and hopefully absorb just a thimbleful of his wisdom. Every time I hang up the phone with him I am filled with enormous gratitude. 

I have to remember that gratitude answers a lot of questions. Especially about what one should be doing with one’s time.

Now if it could only stop my head from spinning!

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Seizing the (Grey) Day

IT’S FUNNY WHAT EMERGES from the fog of a languorous week, a week when the ordinary cacophony of work and self-made busyness is dimmed, a week when the wet blanket of a cloudy sky obscures the nuances of time passing.

On the one hand, the weather makes you feel like you are dragging a drogue around behind you. A single days passes in a blur of stingy daylight hours: By the time you sleep in, have your coffee, read a gazillion year-end features on your computer, tackle de-ornamenting the Christmas tree, vacuum, and eat the rest of the holiday chocolate candy, it’s almost dark. You just manage to squeeze a walk in under that haunting pewter sky. Oh, and it’s still hunting season, too, so finding and donning the orange hat, orange vest, orange doggie vest, orange everything, means the machinations of walk preparation move in slow motion.

On the other hand, if it is possible to be both dazed and stimulated, this is the week. As we reach the bottom of the calendar (I always visualize the months stacked up on top of each other) and jump back to the top again, it’s hard not to be both reflective and projective. Especially when one message seems to emerge out of the gumbo of commentaries and obituaries and films and documentaries and novellas that simmer in your skillet of inspiration this week.

The message seems to be clear: Carpe diem. Seize the day.

Joan Didion, you might have heard from a thousand sources, has died, yet she seems to be speaking (or writing) from the grave at every turn. This showed up on @nytbooks this week:

“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment.”

Not only that but Robin Williams came back to life this week, too (at least on Amazon Prime video), to star in Dead Poet’s Society and to whisper carpe diem in our ears. And to recite Walt Whitman (“That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”)

Whitman is everywhere it seems, including in the final scene of a remarkable film called Nine Days (also on Amazon prime video) when the character played by Winston Duke, a man charged with choosing a soul to come to life on earth, recites the final section of Whitman’s 52-part poem, Song of Myself, as a tribute to humanity and its unbreakable connection to the life-giving (and taking) force of nature. (“… I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.“)

And this morning the latest edition of the most excellent newsletter, The Marginalian, written by Maria Popova, arrived in the inbox with an absolute treasure: Resolutions for a Life Worth Living: Attainable Aspirations Inspired By Great Humans of the Past. (Life-tested wisdom on how to live from James Baldwin, Ursula K. Le Guin, Leo Tolstoy, Seneca, Toni Morrison, Walt Whitman, Viktor Frankl, Rachel Carson, and Hannah Arendt.) 

Popova includes this from Whitman (from his preface to Leaves of Grass):

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.  

Meanwhile, downstairs Kenny Chesney is singing “Don’t Blink” on our Spotify wedding playlist, followed by “Live Like You Were Dying” (Tim McGraw), two songs my rock-and-roll loving husband chose for his country-music loving wife but that he now plays on repeat while washing the dishes, tiny tears appearing in the corners of his eyes if you look closely.

We are at that age when a constant reminder of the passage of time is enough to scream carpe diem at every turn. On New Year’s Eve, we sat side by side in the near-dark a few minutes before midnight (only the dim glow of a few remaining fairy lights to light our Dickensian faces) and said aloud to each other what our hopes were for the new year. Not goals like weight loss or more exercise, but dreams like creating a life where spontaneity and creativity and maximum immersion in nature are the norm.

The next day — New Year’s Day — we ventured beyond our usual walk (hunting season finally over), heading through the thick fog to the South shore, where we found the ocean raucous and alive and the sea air so invigorating that breathing it in and out felt like filtering out the cobwebs and dust bunnies from our winter weary bodies. Reminding ourselves once again that it does not take much to seize the day, to move a muscle — to rage against the dying of the light as Dylan Thomas wrote.


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A Muddling of Dark and Light

THIS IS A CONFUSING time of year, don’t you think? It’s really really dark outside most of the time (15 hours here on the Vineyard), your diet suddenly shifts to 90 percent sugar (perhaps a wee exaggeration), and your body wants to sleep or slouch on a couch all day long.

Meanwhile there’s the holly-jolly brigade out there reminding you to be festive! Wear funny hats and jingle bells! March in the Christmas parade (well, maybe that’s just a Vineyard thing…)! Buy your secret Santa a gift! Don’t forget to line up at the post office for two hours to get those presents in the mail! Haven’t bought those presents yet? No problem, just spend a lot of money and stretch your carbon footprint by ordering everything from Amazon and Target and Chewy.com! (Not that I would know anything about that.) Bake cookies! Wrap presents! Bake more cookies!

Then there’s Covid. Covid is to Christmas like the Grinch is to Whoville. A very bad mix. It’s already hard enough to figure out the right social protocols during the holidays, but throw Covid in, and well, even the Secret Santa Swap becomes fraught. And just when you thought it was safe to grab a coffee with a friend, the coffee places are all suddenly closed and you wind up sitting outside in the freezing cold six feet apart on a wet bench just to catch up a bit.

Ugh. I know a lot of people who just want to slip under the covers and stay there.

I am one of them. I conveniently forget every year that I am adversely affected by the decrease in daylight. Somewhere in the late fall I start to feel very fatigued, headachey, hungry for carbs, and extremely sluggish. I sense my work productivity going down and my mojo slipping. I inevitably make an appointment with my doctor, who looks at her charts and tells me I came in the same time last year with the same symptoms, and that I’m not sick, I’m depressed. I’m just one of many people who get SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) this time of year.

Oy. How is it that I can forget this? In fact, I am so thick-headed about this that yesterday I took a Covid test, convinced that I must be sick because I was so tired. (It was negative.) My husband gently reminded me that it is time to get the lightbox out, just like we’ve done every year for the past three years.

The buildup to the wedding and the cluster of deadlines in November kept me so distracted that the symptoms were pushed off this year. And now that this heavy feeling has arrived like an unwelcome elephant, it feels particularly odd, coming as it does on top of my general contentment with life. But chemistry is a powerful thing – a decrease in sunlight can cause serotonin levels to drop, especially in people genetically predisposed to SAD. So is it possible to be both happy and (mildly) depressed at the same time? Apparently.

And that’s okay. Most of us go up and down to some degree many times during the course of a day or a week or even an hour. Not a reason to pummel oneself, though it is good to be aware that it’s possible to take positive action even when you’re feeling blue. 

Hence the sparkly fairy lights, twinkling tree lights, glowing candles – and the fake fireplace flame (sorry, but we haven’t gotten the flue fixed!) in our little house. I went a little crazy decorating with the many strings of battery-operated fairy lights leftover from the wedding. I started with a few and just kept adding more. And more. They’re nestled in plants, draped across the mantle (with my mom’s wooden santas), wrapped around the bannister, looped over windows. I didn’t even realize what I was doing at first, but obviously I craved light.

Technically, they’re no substitute for a lightbox (which has to be used rigorously and in the morning), but they are enchanting and I find them uplifting. I look forward to turning them all on at 3:30 in the afternoon, and before I go to bed at night I sit in the living room quietly with them for a bit; it’s peaceful and calming.

Decorating with lights is just one way of taking care of myself, something I learned to do in sobriety (my 15th anniversary is Christmas Day!). I know I also need to take Vitamin D and Omega 3, plan to do my walks in the daylight, set up that lightbox, and give myself permission for that extra hour of sleep (why not?). A  few chocolate candies won’t hurt either; I can diet in January. (Or maybe February, when we will finally have 10 full hours of daylight on the Vineyard.) I need to ask for a hug when I need it, decline group activities I’m not comfortable with (but say yes to those uplifting one-on-one meet-ups with friends), and snuggle my dog frequently. Whatever it takes. Winter is here, but spring is coming.

Take care of yourself and have a peaceful holiday.


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Hitched

ON SATURDAY, November 27, at 3 p.m., my 91-year-old father walked me up the aisle of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Lewes, Delaware. As the organist played, we followed my sister and oldest friend up to the altar, past mostly empty pews, with only the first two on either side filled with family and friends.

There I joined with my partner and the rector in a short but deeply powerful marriage ceremony that included a riveting homily about how we are meant to love.

Outside in the three-hundred-year-old graveyard surrounding the church, generations and generations of my relatives and ancestors, including my grandmother and great grandmother, grandfather and great grandfather, my father’s brothers – and my mother – paid witness to the ceremony.

During the ceremony, we sang, we prayed, our family members read (and, upon the rector’s encouragement, loudly proclaimed their support of our vows!), and my soon-to-be-husband and I held on to each other’s hands with an unbreakable grip. We spent more time looking directly into each other’s eyes than we probably ever have.

As we left the church, bracing ourselves for the blustery cold November chill, we linked arms again, happy to be facing the future together, whatever may come our way.


When I wrote a few weeks ago about feeling stressed, I wasn’t entirely forthcoming with you. My apologies. Planning a wedding (even a very small one) in just a few short months and doing my job at the same time proved to be challenging, to say the least. Also, in all honesty, despite my tendency to bloviate about personal matters (!) I have felt protective of the privacy of my family in this case, and also unwilling to carry on about an event from which we necessarily had to exclude so many people in our lives.

I’m happy to share our good news now, but I also am content to leave much of the weekend as a little jewel box, where memories live as sparkly treasures, to be opened and cherished from time to time.

For now, we have chosen not to share photos on social media, and I am happy with that decision. But because I won’t be able to help promote the fabulous people who we worked with to pull this off in a short amount of time, I wanted to thank them here. Almost all of them have been double-booked all year due to Covid wedding backup, and many of them squeezed us into their schedules, even though they are running on fumes at this point.

We are so grateful to our amazing cake baker, Jeanne Scott of Mill Stream Farm Bake Studio; our talented floral designer, Jamie Taylor of J. Starr’s Flower Barn; our wonderful photographer, Maria DeForrest; and all of the folks at the Hopkins Heartland Honey Bee, especially Ingrid Hopkins, where we had our reception (in the middle of a corn field – of course!).

A very special shout-out to a certain young lady (she knows who she is) and her mother, who helped make everything better. And to my talented friends on the Vineyard who provided goodies for us to take with us, including cookies from @sweetannabellescookies, sea salt from @mvseasalt, and chocolates from @saltrockchoc.

And so much gratitude to my husband’s family (and now my second family) and my cousins for traveling on a busy weekend, because you were what it was all about. And to my big sis, who has always been there for me no matter what, and to my Dad, who put up with bossy me with his usual composure. All of these folks handled the inevitable glitches that come with any gathering like this – there will be laughs and sighs and head-nodding when we open up that memory box – with grace and unwavering support.

They all made me feel like a princess for a day (or more accurately, for a weekend). I got to wear a fabulous pink dress, have fancy hair and makeup, and carry the most beautiful flowers. But none of that compares to the life I have every day with the man who walked out of the church with me.

Simple Gifts*

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d,

To bow and to bend we will not be asham’d,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come round right.

*Simple Gifts is an old Shaker dance tune which my father suggested we include in our service. It is traditionally a fairly upbeat song, and can be played on the organ with an upbeat tempo. If you want to listen to a more haunting version of it, this Alison Krauss-Yo Yo Ma version is beautiful.


P.S. Please note the photos on this page are family snapshots (thank you family!), not from our photographer, Maria DeForrest, who’s beautiful work we will see in a few weeks.


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