I made my annual pilgrimage to see the “church in the woods” near winter Solstice time. It isn’t a church, just an outdoor theater, but the aspen copse it’s carved out of is a special place. I feel really calm when I’m there.
Fall is here, for real. After a terribly dry summer the rains have come. It’s a little disorienting but also comforting. We can stop trying so hard now, out in the gardens. The compost is turned. The harvest is in. Time to rest.
I canned 27 pints of applesauce made from our own apples, this year. The best kind has lots of fresh ginger in it, so as soon as I figured that out, I did the rest that way. I made 24 half-pint jars of blackberry jam from our blackberries, too, and heaven knows who’s going to eat it. The tomato harvest was late but bountiful and we ate as much caprese salad and BLTs as we could hold, never mind eating them out of hand, while still standing in the garden. Basil was good, too. I’ve made pesto three or four times.
And now that it’s rainy and chilly, everything outside is succumbing to the inevitable creeping mold, and we turn our attention to the real “fall foliage” around here: mushrooms.
I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll keep saying it: I love all these beautiful things that grow in the damp. Fungus, lichen, slime mold, primitive plants. The desert is interesting to visit, but give me trees and moisture. My skin needs to suck it up.
And since it’s coming on mushroom season, my husband is starting some of his own: shiitake and oyster mushrooms. We have plenty of old logs sitting around the place. He drilled this one full of holes and inserted the mycelium plugs. Fingers crossed that they grow.
I lost my words this summer.
I don’t know why, just that I lost the desire to write things down. Stories. Blog entries. Lists. Daydreams. My imagination stopped working.
Maybe I haven’t been feeding it enough books and music, or maybe I’ve been feeding it the wrong ones. Maybe having my daughter home for the summer, with all her still-only-six-years-old demands and no reliable respite from them, sent my creative mind into hibernation. Maybe I worked so hard in the garden that there was no energy left, or maybe–maybe–my life has finally become full enough that I don’t need to live other ones on the side.
Or maybe the long wait for approval is grinding me down. I’ve had all my books out of sales for a long time, which means no one is reading them or reviewing them or saying anything to me about them. And I thrive on outside attention, yes I do.
Anyway. I was here this summer. I summered hard. We walked in parks, we swam in the pool, I put in a flower border and a shade garden and a vegetable patch, we picked blackberries and I made jam and canned plums and got a lot of sunshine and sweated my ass off.
And now school’s back in session and it’s time to slow down. I’m back to writing. Back to trying to love some other characters. And I’m afraid, so very afraid, I won’t.
But I’m trying.
We’re back from a week in the desert, where my parents have moved. I was looking forward to some heat and sunshine after the cold Pacific Northwest spring we’ve had. I got it, but my body is getting older and adjusting isn’t quite as quick as jumping into a cold swimming pool, anymore. My husband went fishing in the hills of Santa Fe County and came down with a severe fever and weakness the next day. I was worried he might have plague (three confirmed cases there in the month of June, if you think I’m joking) but no buboes formed and the fever went away, and though he’s been dragging himself around as if half-dead, I think it was only Airport Germs.
Coming home was instructive, as always. The gardens flourished without me. Things in the veg patch are three times as big. Only the newly-planted things in the raised beds, which dried out rather badly, didn’t thrive, so I’ve been tearing them out and replacing them with nearly-forgotten corms. I have sixteen dahlias I hope will come up, and a row of five cannas that are growing so well that I’m ashamed of myself for having neglected them.
And it felt cold, here. Pleasantly wet though. A week of Russian sage and cholla and artemesia makes a stark contrast with the hardhack, daisies, and blackberries of home. Foxglove season is coming to an end. The swathes of them along the highway have bloomed up to their tippy-tops, and the fireweed is opening, looking like their skeletal ghosts.
While my husband was sick in the desert I took Benadryl and slept on the sofa. It’s surprisingly okay, if you hug a pillow and put another between your knees, but drugged sleep isn’t real sleep and now that we’re home, I’m diving into bed each night and sleeping hard. I am working hard at sleeping well. Age comes into play again, though, and I’m not recovering very fast. My brain is fuzzy, my temper short, and the very thought of trying to write–especially since our daughter is on Summer Break and needs perpetual companionship–is unthinkable.
And so I wander. My favorite book is Howard’s End. I wish I could be a Mrs. Wilcox. Or maybe I am. It feels conceited to say I am, but I’m not a Bast and the Schlegels of the world frighten me. Left to my own devices I’m interested in all sorts of things, and come up with all sorts of clever things to say, and start to feel good about myself. So I say one of my clever things to a Schlegel and she comes right back with something cleverer for which I have no reference point, and I’m lost. Quietened. There is nothing impressive about me; my stories, my degrees, my work history aren’t stellar compared to any Schlegel’s. All I have to fall back on is myself, and the place I go when I’m alone. I wander and I rest and, after a long time, I find something new to feel happy about.
Like the wildflowers. God, I love wildflowers. Everywhere I’ve lived. They’re particularly impressive here, though, and we have over three acres of them, so I cut bouquets. I have to put my vases on mats of aluminum foil to keep the cat away, but I lay down the foil and bring the bouquets in anyway. My house is a mess. The bouquet is lost in the coats and shoes and unsorted mail of the front hall. I try to remember what it was like when it was just me–in my small single-person space–in complete control of where objects ended up. I think I was tidier. I would have straightened up the whole hall and taken pictures of it, then. Now, I don’t have the time or energy to seek approval. I am me. I ramble in the meadow. I have fuzzy thoughts. I live in the midst of my slightly messy but plague-free family. And one day, after I’ve been home enough, I’ll start to feel clever again and I’ll write.
Seasons in the Midwest are a binary. You go from winter with subzero overnights and sub-freezing days, into summer, with highs over 90 and humidity over 80, sometimes in as little as a week. Even in years when the temperature moderates for a month or two between seasons, strong winds make the cold part feel colder and the humidity makes the warm part feel hotter. If you haven’t grown up with humidity, you can’t understand. If you have, you’re nodding.
This always led to–with me, and I think with many Midwesterners–a sort of double Seasonal Affective Disorder. January and February are so nasty that you regularly take your life and your insurance premiums in your hands when you try to drive somewhere. Sometimes–at least once per winter, unless the year is extraordinary–you’re literally stuck in your house. When, like I was for a few years, you’re a SAHP to a small child, it’s inexcusable to take the risk of going out, sometimes for a week at a time. You watch the icicles, watch the roads, watch the reports, and judge your desperation. You read Little House in the Big Woods and wonder how Ma did it. Playing in the snow only gets you so far. Eventually you decide you’d better get orange juice and TP before the next big storm hits, and you go out, and it scares the dickens out of you, and you go home penitent and ready to hunker till spring.
Then summer comes, usually in May. It’s instantly blazing hot–say over 90F with humidity over 80%–and for about a week you bask. You get a bit of a tan. You break out your flip flops and shorts. Life is good.
And then it goes on, and on, and on until October. Nobody sleeps well. The air conditioning runs literally nonstop, all day and well into the night (just like the furnace ran in the winter–don’t you dare imagine open windows are an option, in the Midwest). Your underwear is perpetually soggy. If you try to work in the garden, you come in feeling ill. Your garden wilts. You can’t afford to keep it properly watered. And the rain doesn’t come, and doesn’t come, and doesn’t come.
Then there are the storms. In the Midwest they come in great rolling billows, with tarnished skies, dramatic flashes of lightning, and rolls of thunder that shake the house. Rain falls horizontally and you keep the weather station tuned, waiting for the moment when you have to grab your kid, your phone, and a quilt, and hunker in an interior bathroom until it’s over. Then you come out for the damage reports: the tornado went south of town, demolished two trailers, there are trees across the road so you can’t take that path out; also there’s flooding along the river so the east and north routes are impassable. Guess you’re stuck in town for a few days. Ain’t everybody grateful for FEMA?
Tornado sightings are badges of honor. Hail is a gossipy delight. Big enough to dent your car, eh? Awesome. Need a new roof? Get your claim in before the insurance company stops paying out–cuz they always do. They can’t replace every roof in town.
The snow is beautiful, of course. After the first big fall you go outside and flounder around, taking pictures of bird and deer prints and of the red hawthorn berries covered in big fluffy puffs of it. Each new fall thereafter makes you feel a little better again, but in between there are the long icy stretches when the snow turns gray and the roads are black ice, when a gust of wind in your face makes it feel like your eyeballs will pop, and when gassing your car is an almighty misery. You stand by the pump, not sure you can bear the pain in your fingers any longer, and when it’s finally over you get in your car and unzip your coat and stick them under your armpits until things are okay again.
And the summer evenings. There are cicadas, in the Midwestern summer, always. They screech aa-WEEEE aa-WEEEEE aa-WEEEEE all night and day. Toads sing. In June and early July there are lightning bugs. Kids chase them and catch them in jars to make “lanterns” and smash their abdomens with a stick, then carry it around like a torch until the light fades. If you’re lucky enough to live near an unmown patch of ground you can sit in a lawn chair and enjoy the show, twinkling bright and thick for an hour after sunset.
Cold-weather garden crops are a problem. It’s hard to get in radishes and peas and lettuce before the weather gets too hot and they turn tough. Forget brassicas. You grow tomatoes, though. Peppers. Eggplant. Zucchini. Cucumber. Melons. Okra. Corn. Pole beans.
Wildflowers are variable. Trilliums come in red and white. Violets in blue, white, and yellow. Spring beauty. Butter & eggs. Crown vetch. Chickory. Dame’s rocket. Ditch lilies. Daisies. White clover and sweet clover. If you walk in a woodland at just the right time, you can turn up the leaves of the mayapples to see their white mayflowers. Sometimes you see a jack-in-the-pulpit or a pink lady’s slipper. There will be one magic day in springtime when the honeysuckle blooms, and the whole woods smells of it, and its petals drift down like snow. And there will be one magic day in autumn when you need a sweater but not a coat, and you go to the farmer’s market for a hayride and you buy some overpriced pumpkins and doughnuts and apple cider, and the neighbor burns leaves, making the whole neighborhood smell nice. In summer there are garden-ripened slicing tomatoes, and pick-your-own strawberries. Milk & Honey corn from a farmstand. One summer evening after the sun has sunk and you’re sitting on the porch, the neighbor’s cat will come to visit and will let you pet her belly. The dusk envelops your garden, and a hummingbird moth works over the coneflowers, and you just about feel that things are all right.
And that’s what weather is like in the Midwest.
I have a personality trait where I believe that I can set something up for the rest of my life. I have figured out eating plans for the rest of my life, exercise plans for the rest of my life, wardrobe plans, reading plans, knitting and gardening and writing plans. I approach each new hobby holistically, by which I mean I research what materials one would need if one were going to keep at it for the rest of one’s life, and settle on those as the minimum basic set. Thus I have a fairly good setup for binding books by hand, for example, and for marbling paper, for small-scale loom weaving, for scrapbooking, for writing letters by hand–all things I’ve lost interest in. I am constantly trying to find the correct combination of luggage that will solve my How To Pack For Travel problem forever. And when I was young–oh so young and foolish–I thought I could settle on a kind of shoes for the rest of my life. Jewelry for the rest of my life (pearl stud earrings, btw). I felt that having these questions answered would leave me free to move on to bigger and better things.
It’s all foolishness, of course. Our society is too materially rich and I am too flighty a person to settle on practically anything for the rest of my life.
Of course, some things are different. My kid is my kid for life, for example, and I sincerely hope that my husband is also my husband for life. Back in my high-earning days I bought some nice furniture that is probably my furniture for life, and that’s fine. I have romantic ideas about being allowed to make my current home into my home for life. The longest I’ve lived at any one address was seven years. I’d like to find out what it’s like to live in one place for multiple decades. Given my history of moving around, though. . .well, we’ll see. My husband lived at our former house for fifteen years, and in that area for thirty. That was a long time. Maybe he’ll anchor me.
Life being what it is, though, not only circumstances but I as a person change. Now that I’m out of my tumultuous twenties and more than halfway through my thirties, I can, funnily enough, observe certain things be pared away from my life. I am less likely to pick up a new hobby and its paraphernalia. I am less likely to spend time forming a coherent scheme for my wardrobe. Paradoxically, I am also more likely to stick with a garment for multiple years once I buy it. That’s wisdom. As for the hobbies–well. Let me say that as one ages, one comes to term with limitations. When you’re young, you feel that anything you don’t get done, doesn’t get done because you’re lazy. Later on you realize that there are simply only so many hours in the day, and that you only have so much Voom. You can focus on maybe one major and one minor interest at a time while keeping up with practical obligations, and the rest has to slide. So you approach hobbies with more suspicion.
Does that mean I’m actually finding my Patterns For Life? I don’t know.
To connect this to writing: I find that some of the most appealing books are ones that seem to present a Unified Scheme For The Rest Of The Character’s Life. Happily Ever Afters in romances, for example. Mary’s gardening in The Secret Garden. Insanity in The Yellow Wallpaper. We want to watch a character approach an unchanging state in life; something that can always be depended upon. Of course real life just isn’t like that–but oh. It’s so soothing.
I’m uncomfortable with the phrase “post-scarcity economy.” It suggests that scarcity is gone–dealt with. We’ve had the scarcity to end all scarcities, and from now on, we can all have as much of everything as we want, no matter what.
I don’t think that’s true. It is true that the US has enjoyed almost seventy years of a degree of plenty that was previously unheard of, but think of where Britain was during the fifties. Rationing that began in the late 1930s didn’t end until 1954, FCS, and even when it was officially over, luxury goods were still scarce in the shops. I’ve been reading Beverley Nichols’ Merry Hall trilogy (if you like gardening and/or cats and/or flighty Englishmen who would have gotten along with Bertie Wooster, look him up), which was written over the course of the 1950s. At the beginning of the third book Beverley cleans out his outbuildings. He finds a flower catalogue from 1911 and flips through it. What does Beverley marvel at?
The plenty of it. Literally everything was there. A person could order any flower he could imagine. Beverley luxuriates in the wonder; the whiff of a bygone age. He might be a well-to-do, well-heeled Englishman who can drop a pretty penny on old balustrades scavenged from derelict Victorian houses, but he can not have anything he wants. Money isn’t the issue; things just weren’t available.
The old Chinese curse says “may you live in interesting times.” Beverley lived through interesting times–and frankly, I’m starting to wonder if the broad patterns of the 20th century aren’t about to repeat themselves in the 21st. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is one of my rationales for Stocking Up.
I don’t hoard. Not yet, anyway. My house is sanitary and at least 90% of the available floor surface is clear, aside from normal furniture. Almost everything I have has a shelf to go on. But as to the amount of yarn I have? Fabric? Books? Art supplies? Notebooks and pens? Clothes? The amount of food in my (walk-in) pantry? A lot more than everyday need calls for. Certainly more than I could knit or sew in ten years. But I feel comfortable having it there, and–this is true, I don’t care what you say–most of it has reached a critical mass. I have enough yarn, because I have enough to last me at least a decade. I have enough fabric for the same reason, and art supplies. My book acquisition, in the last few years, has shifted from art and literature to how-to manuals. Because, ladies and gentlemen, if the internet went down tomorrow, and wasn’t back up for (insert length of time, from ten hours to ten years), how many of us would be up Schitt Creek?
Civilization isn’t going to collapse. I took enough history courses to understand that its Cliff’s Notes are “it seems like the world is going to end, but it doesn’t.” Things could get a lot less plentiful than they currently are, though. War and rationing. Trading sanctions. Who knows? Nor do I think that scarcity would be a permanent situation. Since the second World War, society has arguably made a leap forward comparable to the leap from hunting & gathering to agriculture: we can have a lot of things made for us by machines that couldn’t be, a hundred years ago, and that knowledge won’t go away easily.
I don’t know where I’m going with all this, other than to defend my current mania for gardening. Isn’t it a perfectly normal kind of mania to have? The June 2 episode of Gardener’s World featured a primary school where gardening is a regular lesson for all the students. I think it would have been lovely to have had that at my schools. I think it’s lovely to be doing it now. Growing a few tomatoes or strawberries because they taste better than store-bought is still a paradigm away from growing all your own fruit and veg, though–a leap that I sometimes make in my head, but am absolutely unprepared to make in real life. But let me tell you, when you have a whole packet of seed for tomatoes or beans or whatever, it’s an almighty temptation to sprout it all and grow it all on and plant it all out, and have enough beans or tomatoes to feed the whole neighborhood. Doesn’t that sound like fun?
I think it sounds sensible, in a fantastic kind of way. For the moment, though, I only have so much arable ground (Read: here in Cascadia, they bring in sand to level lots for building, which leaves it un-gardenable. Phooey.), and that limits my production. The first raised bed is now in existence, though, no thanks to Home Depot, who fluffed the second order, too. Grr.
Off I go to keep killing myself in the garden. It’s the only sensible thing to do.
The past week has been dominated by two things: working myself to death in the garden, and the slow realization that I am actually married to an absentminded inventor.
That my husband’s job title is “inventor” is indisputable. He designs, builds, and sells electronic equipment and he’s damned good at it. He gets nice emails telling him he’s a genius all the time. Over the past nine years, understanding that he’s an Inventor might possibly have been of some help to me, had either of us fit the appropriate archetypes for our characters. Him: a pudgy benevolent graybeard gently pottering about the house, leaving teacups in his slippers. Me: the affectionately tolerant wife, trailing after him to clear up his debris.
Unfortunately I’m a bad housekeeper who doesn’t notice trails of debris until they fall on me, and also unfortunately, while my husband is gentle and benevolent, he is also a large man with a fearsome Resting Bitch Face. He’s been untangling a tricksy piece of code this week, and as a result I’ve spent a serious amount of time wondering if I should fear for my safety when in reality he just wants to know what’s gone wrong with his XOR operator.
Because he’s preoccupied with this problem, and because the weather finally got nice, I’ve been escaping to the garden. I have twin mountains of nine yards of garden soil and five yards of mulch to dispose of, as well as a lot of planting to do, so I’ve been getting to it. This has led to sunburns and exhaustion and a lot of positive talk from my FitBit; also I have the planting nearly finished and the mountain of garden soil severely reduced. Today, Memorial Day, the sun did me the favor of going behind a cloud for a bit, so I worked on the pile of mulch, which happens to sit exactly where my Mother’s Day raised garden beds are supposed to go.
Wait wait, you say. Wasn’t Mother’s Day a long time ago?
Indeed it was. On Mother’s Day, my husband ordered lumber to build four 4×12 raised beds for me to garden in, because I’m a hopeless mess with arranging our veg patch tidily. The lumber was supposed to be delivered the following Thursday.
And it wasn’t. And no one called. And I was frantically shoveling dirt and my husband was scowling at his XOR operators, so we didn’t notice until another week had gone by. He phoned Home Depot; he was assured they’d straighten it out and call back within the hour; they never called back.
The next morning he had to call them again to convey his Resting Bitch Face over the phone. Forty-five minutes later they admitted they had sold us material they had no means of delivering, and hadn’t bothered to call to explain this, all the while having charged us on the day the order was made and making no effort to return the money.
I had a Resting Bitch Face too, by this point, but after he brought them to confession, they refunded our money and he ordered different lumber. Which is supposed to be delivered this coming Thursday.
We’ll see. In the meantime, I’ve planted thirty hostas and a dozen other plants in my forest garden, planted a 7×40 herbaceous border and halfway mulched it, straightened out the tangle in the veg garden, and had a fit of hysterics when my husband, still thinking about XOR operators, accidentally stepped on a baby hosta. I still have the forest garden and half the herbaceous border to mulch, hay to lay down in the vegetable patch, raised beds (eventually) to fill and plant, and Guilder to blame for it.
And that, dear literary agent, is why I’ve written no more than 400 words any evening this week. In two different books. That you haven’t heard about.
I’ve got gardening fever bad, this week. Too many old episodes of Gardener’s World, too many trips to the garden center, too many tantalizing green shoots coming out of the ground, giving me foolhardy ideas about starting my solanaceae seeds…which I did, by the way, and probably killed them all in the doing. Le sigh.
Some books are like socks and some books are like gardens. In the writing, I mean. Sock books you cast on and dutifully knit one stitch after another–maybe needing to rip back completely once or twice–until you come to the end, and then you have the sock/book. This feels like a blessed occurrence and if you’re a knitter it means you’re skillful, but if you’re a writer it probably means you don’t know what you’re doing.
That was a snarky thing to say. I won’t apologize.
Other books are like gardens. You know basically what you want. You lay plans. You order seeds and haul the supplies home; you have the tools hanging in the garage already.
And then you put it together, and it all goes to pot. Some things grow, some things don’t. Some things seem to be coming along nicely, then die. A lot of things have to be dug up and replanted due to circumstances your plans didn’t, well, plan for. There are freak storms that decimate swathes of the garden/book, blights, weeds, droughts, heat waves, frosts. A nursery sold you the wrong variety of bulbs and you don’t find out until they flower a year later. You sow your zinnia seeds in the wind and they’re all blown away…and you’re filled with a million restless questions like “what IS this ‘grit’ I keep hearing about? Is it vermiculite or is it fish gravel? Or maybe they just don’t make it in America…maybe you have to be English to get it”, and “I’m technically in zone 8 but I don’t think it’s the zone 8 anyone means when they say a plant is hardy in zone 8”.
So you move things. Replace them. Pull weeds. Learn to mulch and to set up irrigation systems. You–yes–lower your expectations about the exotic flourishes and settle for big swathes of monarda because dammit, it grows. You never have a moment’s peace in your garden. Even in a lawn chair at dusk, with a Strega and soda in hand, all you can think about are the changes that should be made.
And every spring you spend unreasonable amounts of money on plants you know won’t work. But they’re so charming in your mind.
There is no endpoint to the book/garden. It can, if you let it, be a perpetually evolving beast. Maybe a publisher buys it and you have to, half triumphantly, half regretfully, let it go. Your baby. Your project. You sweated blood for it, and now it belongs to someone else. So you start a new book/garden, regretful for the loss of the old one and no longer perfectly charmed by the idea of starting fresh…but armed with everything you learned in the last one, and still infected with springtime optimism.
And I guess that’s all right.