Category Archives: Sobriety

Fifty-Nine Candles of Gratitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yup, it worked.

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

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

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

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

And pick flowers, of course.

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One Vegetable, One Flower, One Bird at a Time

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.


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The Mole and the Fox, The Dog and the Pig

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!



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A Beautiful Failure: Gardening From Mistake to Mistake

A DAHLIA DISASTER is looming. It has the potential to be a colossal gardening failure on my part and is already a crushing disappointment. Crushing, but not career-ending. If in fact every single one of the twenty-five dahlia plants which I started from tubers (in the bathtub) meets an early and untimely death in our breakfast room, I will pick up my gardening ego and carry on.

I have done it before and I will do it again because I am stubborn, and because I think half the time I cause these problems by moving too fast, planting too much, trying to squeeze too much out of too little. And I don’t think I’m ever going to stop being this way. The only good news is that I’ve learned to accept the outcome. Sobriety has definitely taught me this. And that you only have so much control over things. (Well, actually very little control. Especially when it comes to nature.)

However, if whatever pariah is affecting the dahlias (could be spider mites, could be potting soil with too much nitrogen, could be a temperature swing or a moisture thing, a virus, or God knows what) migrates to the tomato seedlings (which are looking spindly and a little droopy), I will have to beat myself up just a little.

The problem is that I started way too many things indoors, everything grew super-fast under the new lights, and the weather is still too cold to move anything outside, even during the day. So I am using limited window light to provide plants that need a lot of sun with, well, not enough sun. I should absolutely know better. And just because I am always wishing I had a greenhouse, that doesn’t mean that one is going to magically appear this instant. I should really rig up a little temporary plastic hoop structure outside, but I haven’t had time to do it yet. 

Seedlings are survivors though (yay, we love survivors – tough cookies!) and my bet is that most of the vegetables, zinnias, cosmos, Thai basil, etc., will power through the less-than-ideal conditions inside and make the transition to the outdoors in a couple weeks.

The dahlias are a different story. One morning at the breakfast table I looked over at the leaves curling on most of the plants and headed for the internet (a frustrating activity if there ever was one. No two dahlia growers agree on anything). By dinner that night I told my partner that I thought the dahlias might all have spider mites (probably from our house plants) and that it might be nearly impossible to eradicate. He looked at my face, and I know he thought I was going to cry. He offered every possible kind of positive encouragement, including suggesting we buy dahlia plants from a local nursery to replace them. He knew how much fun I’d been having planning the dahlia garden – lists and charts and pictures cut out of catalogues – and he’d been planning (still is!) to build me a new raised bed just for these flowers.

We decided we’d simply have to wait and see. So far some still look okay, but several are looking worse, and others that were just starting to leaf out are now relegated to a different part of the house in the hopes that they won’t get contaminated (if in fact it is a virus). They will be the first to go out to the little temporary plastic-covered holding area if I can get going on it. 

If we do lose some or all of the dahlias, we’ll replace some with whatever similar varieties I can find at the nurseries, though certainly not 25 plants (they are pricey!), and sadly it will be hard to find the exact same ones which I chose for color and shape. Maybe in the future I’ll give up on trying to start dahlias inside to get a jump on these gorgeous blooms. But probably not. I’ll come up with what I hope will be a better way to do it next year.

Dahlia Parkland Glory from last year.

I’m fascinated by the amount of failure I am willing to tolerate when it comes to gardening. You could toss it off to the familiar adages about failures adding up to success, etc., etc. But I think there is another reason I put myself through this: I enjoy the process, the doing, the thinking, the reading, the trying, the puzzling, the planting, the watching, the coddling. I like engaging this way so much that even if things don’t work out, I’m still happy. (Some people enjoy banging their heads against the wall repeatedly!)

So I guess I’d have to agree with Winston Churchill:

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

P.S. Sorry for the late delivery this week. I had my second vaccination yesterday. But now that it’s Sunday, I can wish you Happy Mother’s Day.

Last year, I paired a little Bishop dahlia with Thai basil and annual pennisetum in a container on the deck. It turned out to be a nice combo, though little Bishop grew quite tall!


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Where Our Wild Things Are

That February was cold and clear, a month of little snow and many blue-sky days. The year was 2008; I was thirteen months sober. I had taken the last ferry on the last Friday in January from the mainland to the Island in an act of bravery or insanity or cruelty, depending on what story I tell myself now. 

Officially I needed a rest; unofficially I needed a month or two away from my husband — space and time and water between us. But there was nothing official or unofficial about the way I felt: sad, scared, and completely confused about who Susie was. Early sobriety had made one thing clear: I wasn’t who I thought I was. But who was I? 

The crossing was a bit rough that Friday night. The boat lumbered through the swells, rolling slowly from side to side while I holed up in my red Honda, packed to the gills with books and whatnots and a Raggedy Ann, crying my eyes out, wondering what I had done.

From the ferry landing in Vineyard Haven, I made my way to Oak Bluffs along dark roads I’d never driven to a rental I’d never seen, but for a small photo on the internet. I was to let myself in; there would be no key. Once there, inside the cozy cottage furnished with comfortable old furniture, I was relieved. I unpacked. I tucked myself into a strange bed up the loft stairs under the eaves, and wondered, now what? 

In the morning, I drove to Lambert’s Cove beach, where I’d once been taken by friends on a visit to Martha’s Vineyard years before. I remembered the name, and fumbled with my folding map to find it. There I found a sandy path strewn with pine needles leading up and over an impressive range of dunes and down to a pretty shoreline stretching this way and that, the sparkle of sunlight on the water forcing me to squint for focus. 

Without warning I began to cry again. There was nothing I could do but walk and walk, stooping for shells and rocks, tracing the trail of foam left behind by spent waves returning to wherever they came from. Water. Walking. Brilliant sunshine. I felt better.

The next day I ventured further “up” Island thanks to my crumpled map. I parked at the trailhead of Menemsha Hills Reservation and began walking through the woods. This was not the beach, nor was it familiar terrain. I was leery of this strange world of twisted trees, bare-limbed and wallpapered with lichen. It seemed as if they were in an active battle with the elements and that they might come alive to skirmish at any minute. 

I followed the path, at times a staircase of thick knobby tree roots, at times a black ribbon of dirt composted from ages of decay, uphill, left and right, right and left, finally taking a short spur to a clearing and a lookout, where Vineyard Sound lay blazing blue below me, the ellipses of the Elizabeth Islands punctuating the horizon.

Back on the path, I found myself descending through thicker, mossier, messier growth, over the occasional crumbling stone wall and certainly, I thought, on a journey to the bottom of the world. Or at least Middle Earth. The path got steeper and sandier and harder to navigate. When would I get to the end? How much further did I have to go? When would the water come back into view? This was scary. Very scary. Yet also very beautiful. And very quiet. I thought to turn back but I pushed on. At last, my reward was a rocky beach at the bottom of a rickety wooden staircase. If one wanted to be alone with oneself, this was, without doubt, the place to do it.

The walking went on like this for days, over wind-scraped dunes pricked with bayberry and beach plum, along rocky, sandy paths pocked by deer hooves and rabbit paws, into the deepest part of the thickest woods. I rubbed up against my fear, exposed my vulnerability, stripped down the layers of veneer that had built up between me and the natural world during too many years in an office, in the suburbs, in somebody else’s shoes. 

In the woods, where I feared the wild things were, I discovered that the fear was inside me all along. I felt self-conscious and uncomfortable at first, but it was almost as if a powerful spirit surrounded me when I was completely exposed to the wind and the sun and the whispers in the woods. It was like becoming a part of something bigger while becoming smaller at the same time, and feeling good about that. 

I am still walking, thirteen years later. Still on this Island. Still heading out every day during this pandemic to expose myself to the healing power of nature. It is a lifesaver.

AND YET only this week have I learned what might lie at the root of this drive to inhabit nature. A friend sent me this interview with British naturalist Michael McCarthy (author of The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy), who, in an effort to persuade us to find joy in the natural world, has written:  

 “The sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us may well be the most serious business of all.” 

Among other illuminations, he cites an idea that comes from a field of study called evolutionary psychology which posits that we have a deep affinity for the wild held over from our ancient selves:    

“The core perception of evolutionary psychology is that the 50,000 generations that preceded us in the Pleistocene, which is the age of the Ice Ages, when we became what we are as part of the natural world — when we were wildlife, if you like — that those generations are more important for our psyches, even now, than the 500 generations of civilization which have followed the invention of farming about 12,000 years ago. So that there is a legacy deep within us, a legacy of instinct, a legacy of inherited feelings, which may lie very deep in the tissues — it may lie underneath all the parts of civilization which we are so familiar with on a daily basis, but it has not gone; that we might have left the natural world, most of us, but the natural world has not left us.” 

McCarthy goes on to suggest that, “the natural world is a part of us, and that if we lose it, we cannot be fully who we are.”


That’s a good place to stop and offer you further inspiration for finding joy (and perhaps a part of yourself) in nature:

Why I Wake Early: New Poems, Mary Oliver

A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, Wendell Berry

Deep in the Green: An Exploration of Country Pleasures, Anne Raver

The Rural Life and More Scenes From the Rural Life, Verlyn Klinkenborg.


P.S. Thank you to all of you who continue to email and comment on the blog since the reboot! So nice to be reconnected. If you feel comfortable, I encourage you to post your thoughts in the comments section under this blog post, so that we can share conversations with each other. 

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I’ll Take an Order of Beauty and a Side of Color, Please. And a Better Night’s Sleep.

I am writing on four hours of sleep. I think I mentioned in passing that I was aiming to be honest with you, so let’s not waste any time. Here are three things not to do in the evening: Stay on your computer until 11:30 p.m. absorbing the screen’s blue light, which suppresses melatonin; eat a bowl of chocolate chips during this light show; and decide that climbing into bed and reading a riveting, gut-wrenching novel like Sadeqa Johnson’s Yellow Wife will lull you to sleep.

You might perhaps wind up like me, staying awake until 5 a.m. finishing said book.

I didn’t just stay awake; I also tip-toed downstairs to the comfy chair in the living room, where the dog was snoring on the couch and the Scotsman had turned the heat down to a level that would just barely keep pipes from freezing. At least I had a wool hat and a cheap throw. 

To improve on this situation, I then decided that drinking a cup of warm milk would be a good idea, because that’s what my grandmother Honey always did when she couldn’t sleep. But I couldn’t resist turning it into a big mug of hot cocoa (at least it was good quality cocoa!), which zeroed out any drowsy-making and put my bladder into overdrive as a bonus.  

Looking on the bright side, at least it wasn’t a nip of scotch, neat — a frequent trick during the Before Times that I used to treat sleep disturbance caused by too many evening drinks. Catch the irony there? A vicious circle.

The point is, even though I may be sane, sober, and well-intended these days, I’m still stupid. And stubborn. You?

I listened to a great podcast this week, The True Hard Work of Love and Relationships. On Being’s Krista Tippett interviewed Alain de Botton, the author of the widely read New York Times opinion piece, Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person. In it I was reminded, with relief, of the importance of realizing how imperfect we all are so that we don’t experience the chronic delusion that everyone else’s relationships are better than ours. And more importantly, so we don’t set up ridiculous expectations of our partners. We’re all crazy in some way; if we’re going to make a go of it, we’ve got to accept each other’s craziness, starting with our own. 

I bring it up because it never hurts to take a gentle look at the crazy stuff to see if it’s really working for you. And because lately I’ve been thinking that my stubbornness – or insistence on doing (or not doing) things a certain way – can sometimes actually limit my imagination (as well as affect my sleep!).

For instance, how is it that I managed to grow things outdoors for so many years, across three seasons every year, without realizing I could (more or less) recreate the experience indoors in the winter?

It took a pandemic and hibernation to snap my longing (and need) for year-round beauty into focus. In this most wintry of winters, I finally embraced the house plant. Or, more accurately, plants in the house. It started with a collection of scented geraniums I rescued from outdoors — peppermint, orange, lemon, rose — each plant with its own seductive fragrance and uniquely beautiful leaves. Some leaves as soft as bunny ears. But then I bought real houseplants, too. A fern. A jade plant. Ivy. Two fancy rosemary topiaries.

I swear I’ve done nothing more than crowd them all near southern windows and water them sporadically. And I’ve been wildly rewarded. In the breakfast room, we have a sea of soft green leaves blanketing one wall like a living mural. In the bedroom, a tabletop collection of greenery that lights up in the mid-morning sun, casting cartoon shadows on the dog basking on the carpet below. 

“Put yourself in the way of beauty,” Cheryl Strayed wrote. I have loved that ever since I read it in a little book of hers called Brave Enough. (You need that book!). But I never stopped to think about how beauty really works. What is the real reason that I love flowers and foliage so much?

Sure, nurturing plants fills a need and assuages anxieties (not inconsequential). But there’s more. It turns out there’s a connection between our vision and areas of the brain where pleasure thrives. Beauty, and its sidekick color, can actually stimulate serotonin production.

Ah ha! No wonder, for one who runs a wee bit under the optimal serotonin levels during the winter (lightbox: check, vitamin D: check, omega 3 fish oil: check), the pleasure of seeing green every morning is so rewarding. The color green supposedly reminds our brains of peaceful and pastoral settings. The color pink (my favorite) is relaxing, blue (the color of our walls) calming. And while I don’t normally lean into yellow, it’s the color of happiness — which may account for the very cheering effect of some bright yellow (and red) tulips that wandered into our house last weekend.

My suggestion? Get thee to a florist, please, and purchase a plant, some flowers, a flowering plant, or a planting flower. That’s the good kind of crazy.

Have a beauty-filled day.

P.S. Thank you to all of you who emailed me last week or commented on the blog after the reboot! So nice to be reconnected. If you feel comfortable, I want to encourage you to post your thoughts in the comments section below, so that we can share conversations with each other. 

Read last week’s post: Be the Light! Rebooting the Sixburnersue Blog

Looking for new recipes? Visit cookthevineyard.com and sign up for the free weekly newsletter. (Something I do as part of my day job.)

Be the Light! Rebooting the Sixburnersue Blog

You may be wondering why I picked now to reboot a blog that’s been dormant for a few years, and why there are no vegetable recipes or garden reports in your inbox.  The truth is, inaugural poet Amanda Gorman lit a fire under me with her poem, The Hill We Climb.

I was already headed toward reconnecting with you, what with this little pandemic and all. Since it began, I’ve found that writing is one of the best ways to quiet all the noise in my head. But I wanted to share more than recipes and garden tips with you.

And then I heard Amanda say these lines (many times, since I played the recording over and over again after the actual inauguration).

For there is always light,

if we’re brave enough to see it,

brave enough to be it.

Be the light! I love that idea, and I began to think about what it really meant to do that. To be kind, generous, supportive, positive, unselfish, enthusiastic, accepting, exemplary, visionary, honest, fair, passionate. A dozen people might come at it a dozen different ways.

But for me, I’ve been thinking it might mean sharing a little bit about how I find peace and serenity through creating — the cooking, the gardening, the flower arranging, the photographing, the meandering through the woods and over dunes. You see, I’ve been sober now for 14 years, long enough to be humbled by an impressive roster of missteps — and long enough to be honest with myself about what I need to get through the day (other than chocolate): Beauty, color, flavor, comfort, focus, activity, air, touch.

I’m also well-practiced at looking for light in the darkness. Believe me, Amanda is right; it takes courage. But looking for the light, then finding it, and finally, letting it radiate through you — that’s truth. And by truth I mean something possessed of much more energy than you might realize.

Years ago, reading a little book of essays called A Season for the Spirit by one Martin Smith, I learned that the original Greek word for truth is aletheia, which literally means “un-hiddenness.”

 “Truth is not a thing, it is rather an event. Truth happens to us when the coverings of illusion are stripped away and what is real emerges into the open,” Martin wrote.

Think about that! Truth is the act of revealing ourselves — of actually being our real selves — and in turn becoming that bright light in the darkness. It’s hard — getting there, I mean. Annie Dillard wrote, “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.”

But remember this, too: Darkness is a great place to visit, but don’t pack a suitcase – overnight stays are not advised. (That’s me channeling my favorite sober funny person-writer, Anne Lamott, who would totally say that.)

Come along with me into the light. I promise nerdy quotes, real-life stories (triumphs and debacles both), pretty photos (a LOT of flowers), book recs, music, kitchen wisdom, garden wisdom, and wisdom-wisdom. (That’s the stuff gathered from the universe of wise people — not me. I should come with a warning label.)

If you’d rather sit this one out, I totally understand and will not stick pins in a voodoo doll if I see your name fall off the subscriber list. (Though just thinking about that might keep you on.)

And by all means, to get your recipe fix, you should visit cookthevineyard.com and sign up for the free weekly newsletter. (Something I do as part of my day job.)

Here’s my reading suggestion for the week, an oldie but goodie: Ann Lamott’s Traveling Mercies.

Yes, the cosmos are from last summer, but they’re cheery, don’t you think? And pink. I plan to grow a couple dozen varieties this year, because, well, overdoing things is how I roll.


And here’s some feel-good music, just because I love these guys.