Hello friends and visitors. I’ve been remiss in posting a notice here that the Sixburnersue blog is now a Substack newsletter (as of January 2023!). It comes out every Sunday morning, so if you’d like to subscribe, I’d welcome your support. Thank you! Susie
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!
- the state of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled.
LOOKING FOR RECIPES?
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
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
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.”
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
LOOKING FOR RECIPES?
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.
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.
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
LOOKING FOR RECIPES?
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.
‘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.
LOOKING FOR RECIPES?
How I wound up on Martha’s Vineyard had much to do with farmer-writer Wendell Berry. A friend gave me his book The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays when I was in very early sobriety, and it was no less than a complete wake-up call about the discomfort I was feeling living in a high-end suburb. I had no idea how much my true self longed for a more rural lifestyle, longed to be part of the natural world rather than a distant observer of it.
I had a chance to meet Berry several years ago, and he is as gracious and wise as one would hope. And I continue to dip in and out of his writings, because he is more articulate about the declining state of our natural world — and the declining relationship between man and nature — than any living writer I know (he is now 88). And he’s been at it for decades.
As early as 1968, when his essay, “A Native Hill,” was first published (collected in the 2002 edition of The Art of the Commonplace, yet not read by me until 2007!), he writes:
“We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world – to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity – our own capacity for life – that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled.”
Berry’s prescient prognosis nearly 60 years ago reverberates in most of his writing since then, but not without a great deal of optimism and love. He has never given up hope that man will do the right thing.
Recently I was reading a collection of his Mad Farmer poems and found myself reading and rereading Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, an enthusiastic exhortation to “do something every day that won’t compute.” (Please read it!)
Examples include: “Love someone who doesn’t deserve it…ask the questions that have no answers…put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years…Be joyful though you have considered all the facts…”
And my favorite, the last lines:
“Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.”
That image of the crafty fox makes me smile. (How many times have I made too many tracks, often in the wrong direction?!) Perhaps the fox is intentionally misleading those who might be inclined to follow a straight line (or him). Or maybe the fox knows the wisdom of a circuitous path through life. And definitely Berry means to exhort us to question the status quo — whether in the world at large or in our own lives.
The word ‘crafty’ has two definitions that at first look seem to have nothing to do with each other:
This is Google’s (Oxford English Languages) take:
1. Clever at achieving one’s aims by indirect or deceitful measures.
2. Involving the making of decorative objects and other things by hand.
But Merriam-Webster’s streamlined approach exposes a similarity in both definitions:
1. Skillful, clever
2. Adept in the use of subtlety and guile.
“Artful” is offered as a synonym for both.
I like the idea that being crafty in an artistic way is so closely aligned with being deliberately subtle in revealing intention. What is art if not an invitation to wander off the expected path?
Yesterday I found myself consumed by a spontaneous crafting activity. Having spotted grape vines in the woods (thanks to my partner who pointed out the luminous yellow leaves), I wondered why I’d never thought to gather them and make a wreath from them. Wild grapes grow all over Martha’s “Vineyard,” though the grapes themselves are not very palatable. But it took me 14 years to look at them with a slightly different eye.
I clipped some of the vines (they were in a semi-dry state, still pliable), dragged them home and intended to leave them be until I had time to do something with them.
But I was afraid they’d dry out so I began twining them together. An hour later, I had a wreath, haphazardly and inexpertly decorated with garden flotsam and jetsam. What it looked like hardly mattered – it was the act of defying the time pressure I felt to “work,” “to check things off the list,” “to accomplish tasks” that was my heart’s not-so-subtle way of thumbing its nose at my head.
My spirit is crafty like that. Just when I am about to melt under a mountain of man-made minutia, nature beckons me off the path to a place where time stands still and the simple art of crafting something lovely from nature becomes a message to myself, as Berry advises, to “do something every day that won’t compute.”
LOOKING FOR RECIPES?
FALL COMES in slow motion on the Vineyard, especially to our little acre, where the landscape is all oaks and evergreens, some of nature’s most stalwart resisters of changing seasons.
Every morning acorns plink and plonk on our back deck, falling randomly from a canopy of oak branches, heavy and drooping with an exceptional crop of nuts this year. I’m hoping the abundance will keep the deer happy over the winter. They won’t get all of the acorns, of course. Other critters will gather them and stash them in odd spots — in the wood pile, inside a stack of terracotta pots, underneath the steps, in a mulchy bed of perennials – so that in the spring we have a sea of pinwheel-shaped mini-oak trees germinating all over the place.
When the acorns land, the noise is startling; too many at once and Farmer heads for cover. Give him a minute though, and he’s back in his sunny spot, stretched out to soak up as much solar power as he can.
We’re doing the same, maximizing our back-deck time, enjoying the whir of the steady fall breeze and stockpiling sunlight before the days arrive when darkness comes early and we enter the long stretch of dormancy known as the Vineyard winter.
We have time, though. October on an Island buffered by summer-warmed seas is a gift of suspension, sort of like overtime in the football game of seasons.
The gift of extra time in the cycle of birth, growth, flowering, senescence, and death has the effect of being surreal, in the David Byrne “how did I get here?” kind of way. Surreal in part because it is hard to delineate with logic or structure, but surreal, too, because it invokes an overwhelming sense of gratitude that is nearly impossible to quantify.
I feel this way about time with my Dad, who has outlived all of his brothers, my mother, and many of his friends. The seemingly “extra” time he’s gotten has given my sister and me a new friend, someone who has been a star in the sky all of our lives, but because of a planetary shift, has moved closer to our orbit and is now a constantly luminous presence.
Last weekend, we stood on the beach in Lewes, Delaware, on a beautiful warm evening, to witness the wedding ceremony of my second cousin Gregory. My father was the oldest guest and the oldest member of the family present. Gregory’s 10-month-old son was the youngest.
Four generations of our family (or at least some of us) gathered, along with other wedding guests, in a spot on the shore where many, many generations of our family have pushed boats off, dipped a crab net, dug for clams, thrown a fishing line, waded out to a sandbar, hunted for remnants of shipwrecks.
Later in the evening, one of my cousins got Dad out on the dance floor. His glee was contagious — and his resilience impressive when he took a stumble and the younger generation of doctors in the room ran to his side. He was perfectly fine, he said. “I’m pretty good at falling,” he said. “I used to play soccer.”
And with that comes a small clue, perhaps, as to one of the possible reasons time has stretched out for Dad. In all those millions of moments in life when we are thrown a curveball and the impulse to shut down, sit down, give up or give in comes over us, we also have the opportunity to stand up, go forward, keep at it, and make the most of it.
I apologize for the clichés, but time (when it isn’t suspended) is flying, and I want to make the most of it. Fortunately, I’ve got a good example to follow.
LOOKING FOR RECIPES?
THE LOOP AROUND Nat’s Farm field dips down through a scrubby glade along Old County Road before it takes a roughly 90-degree turn and begins to rise again. If you’re walking the trail, as we were this weekend, you’ll hardly notice the gentle incline passing under your feet as you make your way from shade to light, swinging left, then right, to skirt an evergreen bowing the path.
There’s a point, though, when your eyes – at least on a brilliant September day – will likely send a message back to mission control to put the brakes on your forward motion.
Before you, at the crest of the path, is a vast swath of blue sky painted across the horizon, a brilliant counterpoint to the rich golds and greens of the wildflowers and grasses in the pasture beneath it. It is such an open and expansive view that you could be out West, not on Martha’s Vineyard.
That sky, that color! To me it is Carolina blue and always will be. It’s a deeply nostalgic color, the color of childhood and the happiest of warm summer days. The field is glorious and nurturing, too. As we keep walking, I bend down to catalogue the latest declension of wildflowers signaling summer’s end. Tiny star-shaped purple asters, random Black Eyed Susans, and clutches of scarlet Sumac berries have replaced the Queen Anne’s lace and flowering vetch from a few weeks back. And everywhere, knitting sky to field, those yellow fronds of goldenrod.
Looking down on a walk is routine. Looking up is different. It requires stopping.
I have been looking up at the September sky a lot lately. Not just on our walks, but in the garden, too, where nearly everything that is still alive and thriving towers over me.
I have to turn my camera up to photograph the tithonia, the dahlias, the zinnias, the pole beans, the return of the cherry tomatoes, the sweet peas, the sunflowers, and the cosmos.
Once my eye is trained up there, I can’t help but linger on the brilliance of the sky. Some mornings I just stand in the garden, close my eyes, tilt my chin to the sun and bask a minute. Maybe say a little prayer.
Looking up, after all, is a form of reverence. I remember being astonished when I saw my dying mother-in-law, a deeply religious woman completely at peace with moving on, reach up from her bed with her frail arms several times during her last hours, as if she was greeting someone on the other side.
It’s not been lost on me as September 11th has neared how blue the sky was on that day 20 years ago. We woke up that morning and looked up at that cheery sky, naïve and grateful for the sunshine, only to watch with horror as it turned gray a few hours later.
As I was reading my colleague Paul Schneider’s poignant essay in the Vineyard Gazette yesterday, Waves of Grief Roll in Twenty Years Later, all of my own memories of that day flowed back to me. Strangely that blue sky is in most every vignette I recall.
The scenes are vivid, starting with my sunglassed drive up through the Connecticut hills to my office. But of the many frames from the September 11 reel in my head, one stands out most.
By midmorning, our office in Newtown had closed, and when I returned home, driving down eerily empty roads to the coast, it was just me and my 85-year-old father-in-law to huddle together. We decided to walk down the street to a small park on a point jutting out into Long Island Sound. We stood together looking over the water at lower Manhattan, and there against that azure sky was a plume of grey smoke, visible from so far away. We wondered aloud about all the commuters from our town who were likely right there. Some of them friends. Would they be on the train coming home that night? We didn’t know then that the trains weren’t even running.
The last frames in my film memories are all grey, of course. Everyone’s are. The smoke erased the blue sky at Ground Zero, and it would be a long time before it would reappear.
This morning I wanted to post a photo of a distinctly tower-esque 12-foot helianthus salicifolius (perennial willow sunflower) on Instagram for #day70 in my #100daysofflowersandveggies series. This crazy plant was a gift from Polly Hill Arboretum director Tim Boland, and I had no idea it would get so tall and branch so much. It is covered with hundreds of green buds, and we have been waiting for the flowers to bloom for weeks. This morning the first bud turned to bloom and many more showed hints of yellow – against a deep blue sky.
I took my photos and came inside to crop the images. To my surprise, in every frame a looming daddy long legs was smothering the top bloom. Not that I can blame the daddy long legs, but it was a little creepy. The things you don’t see with your naked eye!
You just never know.
Look up, look down, look all around today. Grab the moments of beauty and hold on to them.
LOOKING FOR RECIPES?
USUALLY my partner wakes up before I do. He pulls on his slippers quietly, grabs his book and heads downstairs to turn the coffee on. When I finally open my eyes, sit up, and swing my feet to the floor, I lean over to the windowsill and peer outside, sometimes pressing my head against the screen so that I can see the back deck below better.
There he is, moccasin-slippered feet crossed and poking out from plaid flannel pajama pants, that grey tattered zip-up sweater hanging loosely over the mustard-yellow West Tisbury tee shirt. He fills the Adirondack chair like he means it, left arm draped over the ample chair rail, hand clutching his coffee mug, book on his knee. The tousled bed-head of silver Christopher Lloyd-ish hair belies gravity.
This is comforting to me. Not only that he is there, but that he is allowing himself this time of peace and quiet outdoors before the day begins (and before I start a nonstop stream of chatter).
The very next thing I do is putter around the bed and into the bathroom, where another set of windows along the back side of the second story of our house offers a different view. From this vantage point, I can see the perennial beds along the walkway below, the mounds of catmint and lamb’s ears and sedum and Russian sage bunched together just as I drew them on paper two winters ago. Better still, I can look up the hill to the fenced vegetable and flower garden.
The garden faces east, and since it sits up on a rise, it draws the early morning sun like a magnet. Right now, the garden is almost completely enveloped in bean vines, with the occasional sunflower or cosmos poking out here and there. I planted the Rattlesnake pole bean and sunflower seeds halfway through the summer all along the bottom of the semi-circle of fence on the east side and all across the back of the west side, where the peas were in June and July.
I always forget that the vines race up the six or seven feet of fence in a few short weeks. After that, in an effort to keep growing, they travel sideways, up, down, and around each other, twining themselves into a massive heavy canopy that bends the top of the wiggly deer fence in on itself. The effect is dramatic, essentially creating an outdoor room within, almost like a secret garden.
Inside, the zinnias and cosmos are pushing six feet tall, reaching up for the midday sun now that the vines throw so much shade at sunrise. In the shadowy paths between the beds, bits and pieces of light that manage to filter through the vines dapple on bouncy nasturtium leaves and flowers, picking an occasional chocolate lace flower or snapdragon to spotlight. A few winter squash vines have taken off in the oldest bed on the north end of the garden, forming a horizontal canopy that matches the vertical bean vines in mystery and abandon.
This morning when I looked down on the back deck, my partner was not in his chair. Moving to the bathroom window, I looked out to see him padding down from the veg garden.
He paused, a broad smile bridging his face.
“I’ve been in the garden,” he said slowly and deliberately, looking up at me, the smile widening. “It’s lovely in there. Did you know the zinnia blossoms have these little tiny yellow star-shaped mini flowers in them? And that Tithonia — it’s magnificent.”
He went on to say that he thought of me up there, and understood why I like to visit the garden and linger inside it every morning. It is serene and beautiful and magical, he admitted. But something you have to appreciate alone. (Usually his visits to the garden – since spearheading the construction of it and occasionally venturing in for infrastructure repairs – are on my urging when I’m busting to show him a new dahlia or a heavy branch of ripening tomatoes. It’s fun to share my enthusiasm, but not the same as enjoying the serenity the place brings in solitude.)
A hummingbird has been visiting me frequently in the garden. It’s almost as if it wants to communicate, hovering as it does three feet from my face until I hear the distinctive thrumming of its wings and look up to greet it.
Yesterday afternoon the hummingbird appeared on the back deck and visited my partner, choosing to greet him first, hovering to say hello before spinning off to poke around some salvia along the walkway. My partner loves hummingbirds and was thrilled at this gesture — a tiny messenger from the land of serenity reminding him not to forget what he gleaned that morning. An acknowledgment of what comes into focus if you stop to observe. And a sheer delight, if nothing else.
Odd as I am sure it will appear to some, I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening. A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but his is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.
The care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.
This is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread.Wendell Berry
LOOKING FOR RECIPES?
THERE IS NOTHING BETTER than being inside your cozy home on a stormy day. If that day is a Sunday and you have a good book or a pile of magazines, a comfortable chair, a dog at your feet, coffee or tea brewing, even better.
Perhaps the window is cracked and the breeze is on the back of your neck. You listen as the wind swoops through the trees, humming and whistling as it builds to a soft crescendo. Looking out, you see limbs of leaves bouncing wildly in and out of your view, tall grasses and random flowers flattened against themselves like a cotton skirt wrapped around your legs.
You might venture out with the dog from time to time to inspect the gentle carnage, leaves and lichen plastered to the floor of the wooden deck, acorns and twigs and branches morphing into mossy tableaus under the oaks. A pole bean vine or two dangling from a fence post.
There is a litter of pink cosmos petals across the maroon marigolds and a single cosmos heading sideways. No sign of the two baby bunnies you’re been keeping an eye on, but they are probably safely under the deck in a nest of pine needles.
Later you might drive up-Island to see the storm surf, to watch the waves roll in, cresting and crashing on the slick rocks and rutted sand.
You’ll catch the early evening light turning the clouds a rosy pink and the water an inky denim blue with frayed shadows.
Swaths of goldenrod and phragmites might sway under the causeway as you walk back to the car, hand-in-hand with the person you love.
You would miss all this of course if you jumped on a plane and left the Island the night before as many people did. The constant drone of jet engines gave them away. Staying the course was not for them.
The thought of this exodus might make you a little sad if you were the nostalgic type, wishing for that time, not so long ago, when a storm meant staying put, battening down, stocking up, dragging the boats up to the dunes, taking down the clotheslines, staking up the garden plants, harvesting all the veggies and flowers, moving the outdoor furniture, filling pots with water for flushing the toilets, making sure your neighbor doesn’t need anything.
Not heading for the nearest exit.
It seems that moving around or away from discomfort instead of through it is the modern way. Which of course means missing all the beauty that hides in the dark spots. (Says she who is prone to assigning metaphors to everything!)
No matter. If you were here as the storm passed to the west, leaving a branch or two down here and there, you had a good day. And you remembered why you live on an Island, why you stick close to the sea, how beautiful the light is after the storm passes.
P.S. Even though the storm did not turn out to be a big deal, the gusts were aggressive enough to flatten some zinnias and sunflowers I hadn’t tied up properly (I knew I’d missed something!). But for the most part, they’re fine. I just stood them back up and lassoed them to a stake or two. And some things looked even happier after a bit of rain!
BOOK RECS THIS WEEK
I know I mentioned the novel Cutting For Stone last week, but in the interim I finished reading it, and I believe it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I don’t know how I missed it when it was published in 2009, but I’m grateful to have discovered it now. I put it down thinking about the arc of life, about how the little (and big) actions we take (and don’t take) have deep repercussions. I learned a little about the country of Ethiopia. I learned much about the job of a surgeon. And I was challenged to remember that people show their love in different ways. And that bonds of family are never truly severed, even if they seem broken.
I recently discovered Sarah Raven through her Instagram account @sarahravenperchhill and through an interview she did with flower farmer Erin Benzakein. Once again, I’m not sure how I missed this talented and accomplished British flower maven, but I’m glad to be on board now. I just got her newest book in the mail and I am over the moon about it, especially her tips, her suggested color palettes and her lists of favorite flower varieties. Beautiful photographs by her collaborator Johnathan Buckley featured in a compact book with a lovely design make A Year Full of Flowers: Gardening for All Seasons one I will be reading from cover to cover.
LOOKING FOR RECIPES?