Sunday, January 31, 2010

Living in the Strength of Trees

We always say - half in seriousness, half joking - that the two age old cottonwoods that stand so firmly in our front yard, will someday be the eventual demise of our house.

They're 90-some years old and that many years around. We've found roots from those trees all the way in the back yard - roots that have grown either through or under the foundation of the house. But as certain as we are that we'll be gone before the house is, we would never think of trying to repair or disturb a single one of those fractures - evidence of the time it has taken our house to settle on the roots of those old trees. The river rock foundation - the work of someone long ago, who so carefully selected each stone and its placement - adjusting as needed. I've always known in my heart that the roots of those trees were what protected us, what made our house so strong.

Those two trees, with their loving arms, have embraced our roofline for years. One of them are prominent in a photograph we have of our house, taken around 1932. A young man, Jack Wilson is his name, stands with his father by one of the cottonwoods. He is a strapping young adult - dressed in the manner of the day. The same porch swing hangs on the west end of the massive porch, and a leaning trellis is supporting the wild rose that still grows there today.

The cottonwoods were already too big for where they sit - so close to the house. They're bigger around than Jack, already then, and their long branches have begun their journey towards the second story windows. In the photo, the trees' roots had not yet begun to tip the ground or form their long tentacles in the grass - heaving the soil as they do now. But you can see that they are firmly established - as well as you can see the roots of the family living in the house in the faces of Jack and his dad.

We knew, too, that this house was the house that would suit our lives. We knew that we would embrace this home as fervently through the years as those trees embrace the house. It would be where my daughter would finish school, in the gardens surrounding the house where she would marry. It would be where we would plan a future. It was where we were supposed to be.

The first day we owned the house, now 22 years ago, we ordered pizza to be delivered to our new address and we all sat in each room, one room at a time, and felt what is was going to be like to live there.

We also explored the barn that sat on the north end of the property, boarded up for years, listing heavily to one side - surrounded by fields and fields of weeds. My husband's curiosity had been peaked from the first time we'd seen the old place as to what stories that old barn had to tell. But until it was ours, he felt unable to rip away any of the layers of its history to investigate.

We know now that it was Jack Wilson, the young man in the photo, who built the barn and started a small dairy in it. His father, he told us when we met - he and his wife on a Sunday drive, spotting new owners in the old place - his father had been a traveling salesman for most of Jack's life, and Jack missed him when he was on the road. So, he figured, if he started this dairy - his dad could stay home and help him run it.

And eventually he did - they had about 36 cows and a milkhouse, which no longer stands, where they had a steam boiler to clean and sterilize equipment. At their best, Jack said, they delivered 700 quarts a day, at 10 cents per quart. They also did a stellar apple harvest, using the cellar under the main room of the barn for storing the apples that grew rampant in the fields around the property. They started hauling them by the truckload to Montana and, by 1936, Jack and his father had started a produce business together, moving the whole family to Kalispell.

We didn't know any of this on our first afternoon of owning our house and our barn, some 50 years later. But we had suspected the presence of a cellar under the barn and we squatted down, that day, to the foundation and tore at the rotten boards. Sure enough, there was a window frame - the glass covered with years of soot. By lying flat, we could see through a large crack to the shadowy outlines of a room.

And I do remember the faint smell of apples.

My husband might say that that was the day he began his task for life - his master, the house, its repair and upkeep his mission for the rest of his days. But I know it has all been done with loving hands - for the house and for the barn, for all the days passed and for all to come. Like Jack, we've made our living in the barn, our lives in the house.

At night, in the wind, the branches of our cottonwood trees ache in the moonlight, their fingers tickling the windows panes - and we are reminded that we, for certain, are as firmly planted in this house as those trees are in the yard. Our roots help sustain that which is dear to us.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Rows of Words

Blogging, I told someone today, is going to give me a chance to do some recreational writing. Maybe it's just the novelty of it all, but considering putting something - not down on paper, but onto the screen and out through the wall, is giving me a new lease on the sport.

I don't think I've ever had to courage to actually call myself a writer, and by that I mean attaching it as a title. I accept comments that I write well - even that I am a good writer, but I still feel I lack credentials on some level, although I've been published a little locally and regionally, and once in a national publication. So, recreational writing - I like that thought.

Everything is possible when you write - if you look at it right, a blank page can be just the promise of more words to come. I have files upon files, filled with starting sentences and thoughts that have come springing into my mind, musings that I thought I would pursue. Finding those loosely organized words I've scratched down, or logged in or committed to on some level can sometimes catch me by surprise, as I can scarcely remember being present for that level of creativity. Maybe I am a writer.

I know I'm not nearly as charming in private conversation as on a page filled with sentences and clever turns of phrasing I've had the luxury of editing and whispering aloud a few times. With the tap of my fingers, I can experience the thrill of words perfectly chosen, without the pain of having them left my mouth before they've been tidied up. I can improve myself and my surroundings with the stroke of my pen, yet I can find lessons I may not realize are mine, until I've read back to myself the full honesty my own words have produced. When I write, I figure stuff out - I work it all out until it sounds right.

Like this: I can extend the pleasure of a joy, a happiness felt, by recording it - just as I can find, hidden in an entry, something I didn't realize I was feeling. I give myself the evidence I need to know myself a little better - whether I like what I see or not.

Someone once said that writing - and gardening - are two ways to render the world in neat little rows. Rows of vegetables, rows of flowers, rows of words.

Wouldn't you say, then, that in the pages of a gardener's journal, seeds of thought can take root and grow?

Yes, and it is sentences like that one that can make someone who thinks she has a way with words, wince.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Importance of Winter Naps

The scene: our living room on a Sunday afternoon. I'm dozing lightly in my chair, a requisite fire in the fireplace and yawning cat at my feet; a gardening magazine open in my lap. My husband tiptoes by and, when I begin to snore (just a tad, mind you) he lingers for a moment - examining what I, was reading.

Perhaps if he knows what I was perusing before I started purring, he will then know what gardening chore he'll be hearing about this season of long winter naps - when I do all of my (and his) garden planning courtesy of my dreams.

Was I looking at greenhouses again? Am I still plotting that new bed in back? Will I want some grow lights to start seeds under this year?

He covers me with a quilt, stokes the fire and pets the cat. He sighs and shuffles off - his shoulders heavy with the thoughts of a new water feature.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Doing What You Can

I’ve got a stack of old business cards. Flipping through them, you can follow the many reincarnations of me. I’ve worked since I was 15 years old – although the jobs that warranted having a card with my name and title on it came long after that.

My friend Tonie and I once gave ourselves an assignment before we were to meet for lunch – we were supposed to each compile a list of jobs we’d had throughout our lives. Although I’ve forgotten most of the details of her listing, I do remember she had “artist’s model” on there – along with her early work in the apple orchards in Wenatchee, researching fruit crop disease. I had selling cars, driving taxi and skip tracing deadbeats on mine.

We were each fascinated with the other’s lists, and howled together at some of our choices…stops we’d made along the way, stories those jobs had given us to tell. She insists she took the easy way out – a good college education, steady advancement in her studies, a good solid footing in her field. She thinks how I’ve done things is more admirable – getting on where I could, scratching around for good benefit plans, trying to have something interesting to do with decent pay.

Hard to say which path offered the most challenge. And at this stage in our lives, it hardly matters. Everything we brought along with us stays with us, ready to be put to use.

I find myself so blessed to be where I am, right now, being asked to do what I do. Coordinating the programs of the WSU Master Gardeners in our county is, quite simply, my job – one that fits me like a good pair of gardening gloves. It allows me to teach while learning and puts my creativity to work by necessity. Because I need to fund the program, my business management skills come into play. Because there is so much to do, I can craft a flexible schedule. And because it involves an ever-changing population of volunteers, it has brought wonderful people into my life - people whose lives center around gardening.

One of those volunteers gave me the name Program-o-Gal, like someone from an action series. I’m no super-hero, I’m just a lucky girl in a costume that fits her well.

How the Zags Saved our Marriage

My husband was the first one to say it – that’s my story and I’m sticking to it, but the Zags really did save our marriage.

I think it was during all the ruckus the 1998-99 team made, that we first started paying attention to Gonzaga basketball. That was the year Dan Monson took the Richie Frahm/Casey Calvary/Matt Santangelo team all the way to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

We all know that now, but you couldn’t help but pay attention as this Gonzaga team made history. We, like others, vaguely knew there was a basketball team - when you could waltz into the Kennel and get a ticket for that night's game. At his gas station up the street, my brother worked on the school’s dilapidated vans in the early ‘80s, which was how they hauled the team around then. Dan Fitzgerald, I remember, would come and pick them up himself, sometimes being ferried over by a tall student folded into a cramped little car. We used to have lunch and drink beer at the Bulldog Tavern, but not because of the basketball – because of the good hamburgers and cold beer.

My husband and I were never much in the way of sports fans. Our daughter says we are behaving this way now because, when we were raising her, she lettered in music. So we spent most of her school years attending concerts and recitals, clapping politely and commenting on the lovely pieces we heard played on her violin. Rarely did we come up off the bleachers shouting “Call the foul!!!” Well, almost that one time when she didn’t get First Chair in the orchestra (and clearly deserved it). So, she says, we’re getting this out of our system.

And, yes, it was about the same time the “Cinderella” Zags team grew that year, with almost all of Spokane paying attention, that our little musician flew off on her life adventure to Seattle and our nest emptied. And we were a little bereft – of concerts, of what to focus on, of who to applaud for. I mean, musician or athlete, you know for 18 years that your child is going to grow up and go off somewhere, yet it catches you by total surprise. So we flopped around a bit. There was some sobbing (I won’t say who). Work didn’t satisfy, home didn’t satisfy; we lost our focus as little.

I was working out in my office, I remember, and begrudgingly turned on a little television to watch that Elite Eight game in 1999. I also remember thinking they played 4 quarters of ball per game, and was surprised when the second half was the end of their run, the end of their last game for the year. And I was sorry I hadn’t paid more attention before. I heard the term “March Madness” for the first time that season.

So we found ourselves paying attention the following year, too - trying to follow every game that we could, regardless of the fact that we didn’t have cable television. Around that time, my husband and I started having date nights - for dinner, in a sports bar – arriving early enough to score the perfect view of the best screen. We put in some late nights, learning to be fans. The next day, we’d talk about the game and who did what well and what could’ve happened. We looked forward to the next game.

We started wearing logowear.

Once, while we were running errands before we headed out to the chosen location for the evening (wherever we could find ESPN) – my husband reached across the seat of the car and grabbed my hand. “Are you excited about tonight?” he asked. I said oh yeah, sure am, can’t wait, and probably something about the team. And he said “Who would have thought the Zags would save our marriage.”

To us, Gonzaga basketball is just all about Spokane and why many of us live here. That you can watch the boys play on a Saturday, and then maybe run into one of them on Sunday afternoon at Safeway and get a chance to say: good game, son - you played some good ball out there. It’s because when the cameras scan the McCarthey Center crowd, it might be a cameraman from ESPN or it might be your neighbor’s cousin who does camera work for KHQ.

Because it is Spokane, you can send an email to Tom Hudson, the radio announcer of the games, and ask for clarification of a basketball term you don’t understand - and he’s nice enough to answer you. We love the way Greg Heister, who does the commentary for most of the local games, blubbers through his broadcast. We shake our heads and laugh at how he more often than not gets his statistics all bound up, because he’s just so danged excited about the game and can’t get his words out to tell you about it.

Craig Ehlo, his sidekick for a few years, created a whole new vocabulary for himself, and for us – he gave us words we’ve jokingly added to our own conversations – the meaning of which only we could know. We love that in the closing moments of a game, where our lead is strong enough, Mark Few gives everyone some minutes of play and clears the bench.

Now, we look forward to seeing the student athletes return to school in the fall. We talk about how certain players have improved their game, or bulked up over the summer. We recognize players from the other teams - and thoroughly enjoy the excitement of big non-conference games. We take note of our other players on the bench, redshirting until their time to play, and look forward to seeing what they've got to offer. Quiz us on where each player is from – and how many local or regional hometowns are represented on the team, and we’d know.

Sure, when we follow a player from his freshman year to the final game his senior year - we know he'll be flying the coop as well. But we're getting better at that.

Following Gonzaga Basketball gets us through our long Northwest winters; it gets us through the daily-ness of our lives and it gives us something to look forward to. Together.

When did this happen?

Growing Escargot

In my very first garden, I grew escargot. Certainly nothing culinary or anything you’d ever want to sauté in butter – I like to say I grew just plain old slugs, slugs wearing seashells on their backs. They arrived, uninvited, to a small patch of earth I had claimed on the island of Guam, where I had optimistically planted some vegetables behind our military housing.

There I was, freshly married to a young man in the Coast Guard, away from everything and everyone I’d ever known – really missing my mother and my mother’s garden. So in that very first garden of my life, when I still believed that enthusiasm alone could sustain all my endeavors, I planted my little mail-order seeds into the sandy soil and soon, I thought, had developed a delightful little square of country, right there in the tropics. All my rows neatly marked with the seed packets turned upside down on bamboo stakes; my scarecrow, resplendent in his military garb and pith helmet, adorning my efforts.

Well, the brutal tropical heat and daily rains took the color from the seed packets immediately – which seemed to mock my efforts right away. But, I’ll tell you, with the hot sun blazing on the moist ground morning and afternoon, sure enough, stuff actually grew! As I recall, things sort of exploded from the ground – lettuce came up really fast; the beans were like magic, they curly-cued up and out – and before long, I had squash leaves the size of tiny umbrellas. I may be dreaming it differently than it happened, but I remember everything looking great for about three weeks.

Until the snails came.

When I looked out there that morning, at first, it looked as though someone had thrown a quilt made of seashells on the ground - until I realized with horror that it was hundreds, literally hundreds of snails, clinging to (and sucking in satisfaction) on my fledgling zucchini plants, my corn, and the onions - even the scarecrow! I’ll never forget how embarrassed I was when I realized my foolishness in trying to grow a vegetable garden where no one else does.

Oh my, how that first garden from those many years ago is still with me as I take my morning walk through the flowers and vegetables I grow today. And when I take time to reflect on one of the many adventures with Mother Nature that I’ve had - I can, sometimes, with the pinpoint accuracy of hindsight - match it to a checkpoint in my life, to a time when perhaps I experienced some growth myself. Starting with that young girl who was determined to turn the tide of vegetation on a Pacific island, and who was just as determined to blindly begin a future without the roots to sustain it – many of my gardens seem to have run parallel to my life’s events.

So what lesson did I learn in my island garden? Pay attention to my surroundings. Maybe the wisdom of looking - and learning - before I leap.

After we were transferred stateside, another garden took shape. Only this time the California weather, and soil, were ideal and everything thrived as I waited for my daughter to be born. Once new motherhood arrived the garden was the first thing to go as my days filled with the never-ending care of an infant and battling those overwhelming feelings of inadequacy most new mothers experience. As I stumbled through those first few months, I can remember mournfully worrying how I was ever going to be a good parent if I couldn’t even keep a garden alive.

Maybe that’s when I learned I could prioritize. Temper my worries. Decide what is important. Grow what I can, when I can.

It was probably learning also to trust my abilities - perhaps the most valuable lesson ever learned - that helped me during a period a few years later, when I struggled to find a new life for my daughter and me. While leaving bits and pieces of our old one behind, I tried to establish continuity for us with a garden - each rental house benefiting from some bulbs buried or a start of mint planted. To establish that we’d been there, at least for a little while, until we found where we were supposed to be.

Within these many experiences, I’ve also come to note that often my garden reflects my life at that very moment. Sometimes it’s in straight rows, neatly arranged just the way it needs to be found – at the same time that I have other things in great order. And sometimes we’re both a little overgrown – neither of us getting the kind of care and attention we need.

Sometimes I’ve been challenged to bloom where I didn’t want to be planted and had to acknowledge the growing odds of that happening. And sometimes my mistakes are right out there for everyone to see – like hundreds of snails lying asleep in the morning sun after having feasted through the night.

More than once, my garden has provided a means of survival. I remember one summer, when my daughter was struggling to step through that doorway to adolescence, and I found myself out the back door and into my garden with great regularity – a safe place to be during a painful confrontation between a mother and daughter. And in my garden, I would hoe with great intensity, my thoughts somewhere else. Or plant another round of onions sets. Or prune - oh boy - would I ever prune! Everything thrived that particular summer, including my relationship with my daughter, partly because of a rule that still applies today: no one is allowed to raise their voice in my garden.

Last year, my daughter was married in that garden – and another lesson from it was revealed to me. The winter before had been brutal, and had ravaged some pretty significant areas - and I was feeling overwhelmed by the impending festivities and how much there was to be done. When, on a beautiful late spring day, I experienced the surprise arrival of more than a dozen people - Master Gardeners all - favorite gardening tools in hand, spreading out and joyfully, swiftly and accurately going to work tidying up my garden. They cleaned out areas I could have only dreamed of getting to, and gave me a head start to complete the rest of my planting list.

What did I learn in my garden that day? To let go, to let something happen with love, and to hold strong in my heart how lucky a person is to have friends.

Many days, I find myself reflecting on where my gardens have taken me and how I try to live by what they’ve taught me. We have shifted and settled, the plants and I, our roots run deep now from years of cultivation. If I could give my daughter advice on how to make the gardens of her future grow, I’d say it’s always hard work – and be thankful for that. And there will probably be some real buckets of snails to shovel on occasion. Just learn to firmly plant your decisions and don’t forget to drink in the sweetness of your successes. And remember to always laugh, dust yourself off and learn from your mistakes – because that’s the key to growing right along with your garden.

And know that, sometimes, all you ever need is a little sun, a little faith, and a few friends to help you weed through what is important.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Resolutions are Promises to Yourself

I can't help but make resolutions each year...and I like to put some thought into making them. At least I do now, at this stage - each January, when I'm granted more calendar days to fill. I've often found other documented lists of mine from various stages of my life - revealing many of my thoughts then - evidence of how I felt about my life at the time, or who I was. Many of those lists of resolutions surprise me by how superficial, how young they are - lots of thoughts tossed off without much depth. I found one, for instance, written so long ago that I read I'd wanted to "lose 10 pounds". Oh my. When did I only need to lose ten pounds? And did I think that would somehow make me a better person?

As I've traveled further into my life, I've worked hard to set resolutions that are somewhat attainable, still offer up a challenge, but also ones that make a promise to myself to have some fun. To wit, my resolutions, for 2009, included 1)Be nicer to my husband, 2)Wear more jewelry, and 3)Work on my foreign accents.

Shall I report on my accomplishments?

Well, after 28 years together, sometimes we both need to remember to make that effort. Our days lapse into the routine of our committments, our jobs, what to eat for dinner, what to watch while we're eating it. We do laugh a lot, we share a couple of common interests - and a few of our own individual activities. If I was nicer last year, did he notice? Maybe I should keep this one on the list for 2010 - as it's always a good one to work on.

This one was tough. The thing is, wearing jewelry makes me feel so adorned, so jangly. It makes me feel too flamboyant; even a simple bracelet can make me feel...loud. Others seem to wear it with ease - I put something on, look in the mirror, and wince. The good news is, my late mother-in-law had a wonderful eye for unusual pieces. And several times, throughout the year, I made a point of digging around to find some of the lovely items I'd saved of hers and slipped them on for the day. Mostly, they generated a lot of comments...which, I have to say, tends to add to my feeling-too-bright persona. But there was this one evening...I pulled out a copper and silver piece she had picked up in some foreign country, some fabulous place she had traveled to. It was very unique, heavy and clunky, and went perfectly with my outfit choice. That night, a woman I'd just met - a friend of a friend - commented on the necklace. Actually, she was mesmerized by the necklace and wanted to know where I'd gotten it, where it was made, how did I come to be wearing it. The best comment of the evening was, from her - "You know, she said, not just anyone could wear something like that and pull it off."

It is probably the only piece of jewelry I continue to wear.

It's something I felt pretty foolish practicing, even in the privacy of my own home, of my own bedroom. But things did improve. I even went through the trouble of visiting some websites that offer audio pronunciations of various dialects. Thinking of how the words would be spelled with each different accent helped a little. The overall report on this resolution would be: My Irish is quite smooth, very funny and I can lapse into it quite easily. My Scottish, unfortunately, dissolves into Pirate much too often. My British, or English accent still needs some work...but I get to listen to a co-worker who afflects that as her genuine speak, so that gives me a lot of material (and she's a really good sport to let me gently mock the things she says, while I try to learn to say them like her). My son-in-law does a crazy good East Indian dialect and I've stolen most of what I do from him. My favorite to do is a Swede...even though most of the time I just sound like the Swedish Chef from Sesame Street.

To find satisfaction in having done enough for the day, and not worry about what is undone.

More friendship time.

Write a blog.

Call my mother more often.

Let go of some stuff - some is metaphoric, some is actual stuff.

Sing more.

I'll let you know how these go. Meet me back here this time next year.

Late to the Party

I heard the funniest line on television the other night. Someone was starting up their own blog, and told their friend how excited they were about it. Their friend - a friend with a somewhat caustic attitude - rolled his eyes said, "Wow, that's so like 6 years ago."

Yes, I would imagine I am late to this party.