Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The best day of the year

I count it a measure of my inexperience as a gardener that I still love planting day the best. Hours go into my garden plans as I scope out which plants like which others, how to lay out paths, what did well last year and what I would like to try this time. The fickle Vermont climate here in Zone 4 adds unpredictability, an insouciant invitation to try peppers and okra on the chance that this may be their year.

The Deep South, where I grew up, is so different in its seasonal sighs. There, flowering trees bloom every year in colors that are startling only in contrast to the gray, rainy winter. But here in Vermont, trees are blooming this year that last year did not. Old news to the locals that sometimes the blossoms freeze before spring, but this chilly truth requires an adjustment on my part. The higher peaks and lower lows of Vermont seasons also demand the observer’s keen attention, particularly if the observer wants to garden.

In the South, the long growing season allows for a more gradual slide from winter into spring, spring into summer, although most people still put in the largest part of their gardens all at once. The tradition is that you plant your peas on St. Patrick’s day, not that they are likely to do much before the heat of the summer comes. You plant most of your garden on Good Friday. In Vermont, our last reliable frost free date is Memorial Day, and there has been frost documented well into June. With this weekend’s perfect weather for planting, there must have been millions (billions?) of seeds nestled into plots and fields, covered over by a warm blanket of earth and gently nourished by last night’s soaking rain. Perfection!

We must be grateful for planting days like the last three. Now the race is on! Soon it will be the Fourth of July, sometimes barely warm in Southern terms, then August’s second cut of hay. And after the second cut, we feel the chill at our backs as we hurry to prepare for another winter. A critical skill for Vermont gardening is to read the back of the seed packet: days to harvest mean the difference between getting a crop and not.

I do love the planning stages. I love dreaming over my graph paper and my books, imagining the soft sweep of fennel behind a bed of tall marigolds. I love walking around my yard and pondering seriously the consequences of where I plant rhubarb, horseradish, and lovage. I will never plant Jerusalem artichokes again, and I am astonished that anyone would plant morning glories.

Sometimes I struggle because I so badly want to put seeds into the ground. At one level I am falling back into the seasonal patterns of my youth—surely it must be time! But I know that it is best to proceed systematically, laying in the paths, planning crop rotation and labeling as I go. Still I yearn to dream over the little seeds, to put them to bed as I conjure visions of tall, perfect specimens untangled by weeds.

Then one day it is time. This is it. There is soft sunshine in the morning and almost no breeze, but thundershowers are forecast for the afternoon. The garden is tilled, and the paths are laid out, if not quite properly clothed in newspaper and straw. A week of daily gentle showers has left the ground dry enough to work but moist enough to show a darker shadow of where the rake has been. It’s time to plant!

About two thirds of my garden is in. I am trying corn this year. There is a whole row of beans of different types, alternating colors so I can easily tell which is which for the freezer. I had no squash last year or the year before, so this time the whole bottom row, which tends to be wet, is a trial of three years worth of accumulated squash seed. There are beets and carrots and radishes. The vegetable garden gets the messy annual herbs, like coriander and borage and summer savory. And for serendipity, there are two kinds of melons. Maybe this will be their year.

I made some mistakes. According to my notes, sunflowers do not like pole beans and vice versa, but there is a long row of sunflowers behind the corn and the pole beans. We’ll see. Onion sets still need to go in, and maybe some seed potatoes for a new experiment. A big crop of garlic. And a variety of greens, which last longer for us than for Southern gardeners.

And the herb garden still waits. Seven of the eight wedge-shaped beds in the circle have been dug and prepped, and the planting plan which looked good on paper is evolving nicely. Having banished the weedy herbs to the vegetable plot, I am considering a veritable avenue of lettuces for this new garden just outside the back door.

There comes a day when the planning and the preparation aren’t done, but it is time to plant. So we respond to the day, we fling ourselves into the task. At the end of the day, we see that we have accomplished not only a good day’s work but also a turn of the season. And we turn our faces toward the joy of whatever comes next.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Vermont perfection

It was supposed to rain all this long Memorial Day weekend. But not so far.

Yesterday was one of those days that made me fall in love with Vermont. Bright sunshine, cool breezes, and black flies that respected my lavish application of Deet. I had to be outside, and I had loads of outside things to do.

The new herb garden—a circular design that makes the former above-ground pool almost worthwhile—is coming together. I’m taking this opportunity to visit local nurseries that have teased my interest for years, and I have some sparkly new dianthus, a look-at-me-wow vanilla allium, and a sample of each nursery’s idea of the ideal lavender to try in the new space.

The dogs are always happy when I spend time with them outdoors. Even Jake comes around, the old Lab the next house down who is alternately their buddy and their arch-nemesis. Max, somewhat recovered from last week’s ills, has happily buried, dug up, and reburied a piece of steak that I judged a bit too old for me to eat. We are still in the “all-the-cookies-you-want” mode, and after reading the current Ever So Humble http://everyday.blogs.com/humble/ I got both Max and Toby yet another cookie. Good dogs! How easy it is to lose patience with them, and how quickly they forgive!

The lawn mower is working again, and I have a nice, tidy border mowed all around the vegetable garden, preparation for the July explosion of green matter. The vegetable garden paths are in process, and in deference to the work required to get the new herb garden started, I am not even pretending to dig those raised beds this year. Let’s try the newspaper and straw right on trampled garden soil. Let’s just see. Gardening is a creative act, one experiment after another. The designs that seem so compelling indoors give way to new ideas that burble up while digging proceeds. What if and what if and what if. Some ideas work, and some don’t, and that is just fine.

A nap at midday (must preserve the magnolia blossom look) and another couple of hours in the garden, then it is time to put away tools. Lawn mower. Shovel. Fork. Wheel barrow. Garden plans. Was that a raindrop?

Raindrops gathered into downpour, soothing sounds of rain on the roof, the sun is back out, and there it is. The rainbow. In what I have come to know as the field where rainbows come. Somewhere buried in my brain, there is a line from Goethe that I cannot quite retrieve, but the idea is this. Should we ever experience a moment in which we say, “Stop, moment, thou art so fair…” we will have met heaven on earth, and we will cease to strive toward heaven. It wasn’t quite that moment, but for what it was, it was perfection.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Just till Tuesday

By the time people are my age, we have generally figured out how to live in our skins. Whatever our own peculiar mix of talents and attributes, we have adapted. For myself, I know that I have a high need to be entertained and that I do my best work in the morning. I know that I derive new energy from the free flow of ideas. Creativity is my thing. And I know that I am introverted, that spending time with other people drains me, and I need to be filled up again.

Feeling calm, whole and happy for me means working around these personal truths. But sometimes the outside world’s demands don’t line up with my needs just perfectly. I find myself thinking, “If I can only make it to Tuesday…” Just wishing my life away. I have passed entire years like that—not a healthy life plan.

But really, if I can just make it to Tuesday….Tuesday I will mail the grant and be able to tackle the funding issue. I am already more relaxed than a few days ago. With days left and only budgets to finish, the grant will get done. It is on the downhill side, and as long as I carefully dedicate a few morning (productive!) hours, the work product will be adequate to suit even my harshest critic, myself.

I can handle a week like this now and then, but I resent facing time and space constraints. Acceptance trumps that resentment. There is never enough time.

Meanwhile, my garden has been tilled, and if my rows don’t get built and seeds don’t get in the ground on this traditional planting weekend, well, maybe later. Or maybe some of them not at all. I am lucky that my survival does not depend on my backyard crop. The new herb garden is laid out, and I have seeds to scratch in. In between trying to make those financial projections balance, I intend to go hunting for a few plants that make me happy: scented geraniums, perhaps, or creeping thyme. The gardens are supposed to be restorative for me, not one more set of “oughtas.”

Why have I allowed a work project (or two) to take over my mind and spirit this week? Why would I ever do that? Well, because this one project is really important. I have come to accept that I cannot do everything, but when I see something I believe in, once in a very long while…maybe once or twice a year…I can give up even my own peace of mind in pursuit of that ideal….but only once or twice a year, and only for a week. To tackle more would be an arrogant overestimate of my strength, as I have learned the hard way. It is a slippery slope, the thin end of the wedge that separates us from health, wholeness, love and goodness.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Breathe in breathe out

Vermont is not supposed to allow for weeks as stressful as this one. On the other hand, this is what my life in New York was like all the time, all the time. So can I take it a couple of weeks a year? Don’t ask.

We won’t catalog all the stressors, not the failing but beloved dog, not the identity theft experience, not the wild swings in expectations of my major funding agency. There are more, but really, I don’t want to catalog them. Stressed. Overstressed. Stressed in the extreme. How did I ever tolerate this level of total system toxicity?

Yesterday I spent the day at a major business networking event. With piles of work in my office, I had a hard time justifying it, and I did opt out of breakfast in the interest of a little strategic organization of one of my major projects. I felt much relieved for those few minutes in the office, and new assistant kept things moving while I headed for the big city of Burlington.

Checked in with board members who were having their first exposure to Expo, and networked, networked, networked. It’s funny to look back two years, when I was just getting ready to interview for this job that I now love; I went to Expo to scope out who all these people were and whether I could work with them. Oh yes.

Went to lunch and was lucky in my choice of seat with good company on either side and some of my favorite people at the table. Excellent speaker. The kind of presentation in which you say, “Yes! That’s what I have been trying to say. That’s what I mean. How did you know?”

Came home refreshed, reinvigorated and happy all over again.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Loving old dogs

Thanks for all your kind thoughts about my dog. Max is elderly and not eating well. He is down to 78 pounds from 93, but this is easier on his joints. He seems to have fleas and a bit of mange, which are creating hot spots. In the last year he has developed a heart murmur. But a little care and attention over the weekend seemd to help a lot. Both Max and Toby hate baths, but cold water on those itchy spots seemed like a fair trade for the horror of wet feet.

I have switched vets, or maybe just added one, but I am happier with the care Max is getting. The other one does a lot of large animals in their practice, and I felt they were not really paying attention but maybe that is a function of this busy spring season. The new one put Max back on antibiotics and explained that the murmur is likely to lead eventually to congestive heart failure and that it is not treatable with medication. It is the kind of thing that requires surgery, but they don't do that, nor do they really recommend it for older dogs. Nor would I consider it. Heart surgery for an 11-year-old dog is not the same decision as hip surgery for a bouncing 5-year-old.

Max is an old dog, but I could have him with me for some time yet. I haven't asked for a prediction of how long, and I don't really want to know if an end point is near. I just want to feed him cookies and scratch his chest and take him for walks. I want to listen to him lecture me about how there are never enough cookies for such a good dog. I want to sleep with him in the room as long as possible so that I can hear snuffly German Shepherd breathing. These days, my best measures of how he is doing are his general mood and whether he can make it upstairs at night. More and more often, he prefers to sleep next to the stove in the living room on the bed I made for him as joints got creaky and old bones needed cushioning from hard floors. And one day, I want to come downstairs to find that he has gone to sleep there for the last time. I want Max to have a good life, but I want him to have a good and peaceful death, too.

I love my dogs. There is a special joy in living with and loving old dogs. I have a friend who adopted one of the puppies we fostered over Christmas. A couple of times a week she has new stories of the horrors that Sweet Pea has wrought in her house: peacock feathers, yarn, candles, all lost! No item is safe now that Sweet Pea can reach the tops of the counters. But every story of treasures lost is overbalanced by the puppy's charm, the sheer life that she has brought into the household. Even their old dog steps a little more smartly in the company of this bright young thing.

Old dogs, when we pay attention, still have that same sprightly appeal in layers deepened over our years with them. Max is still drawn to men, he still can lift them off the ground if I don't pay attention, and he still lectures me in that deep baritone. What a talky dog! There is a depth, a richness, a pentimento of the puppies we once knew still there, but old dogs don't yank us around on walks, they don't destroy household items, and they can generally tolerate more schedule unpredictability. But this time of their lives--and ours--when the occasional bathroom incident occurs, we can just look at each other and shrug.

When the puppies were with us over Christmas, it was notable that they never overshadowed the big dogs. The puppies were fun, but they had small personalities and no depth of character. The big dogs oversaw the whole distressing array gravely, and they let me know that I was testing the limits of their patience, but that they would tolerate it, for me. Sometime in the next few months I may be ready for a puppy, but not yet. This is not the time for tiny, new, rambunctious personalities. This is a time for being with Max and Toby. This is a time for caring for and appreciating especially Max, who has good days and bad days. It is a different stage of life, and once we are more accustomed to it--all of us--then we will be able to welcome a puppy with open hearts. Breathe in now, so that we can breathe out. Thanks for listening.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

New paths

On Friday I woke to doggy health problems. My well loved 11-year-old German Shepherd had a hot spot. Small things like this are big for Max, who has a replacement hip. Having come to me as a foundling, it was always a pretty sure thing that he would have the hip problems that are so common to the breed, and when he was five--far to young for me to accept the loss of this wonderful dog--his painful hips led me to get him a major operation, a hip transplant. The whole question of how one comes to the decision to spend a couple of thousand dollars on a hip transplant for a companion animal leads to some interesting discussions, but that's not today's topic.

For Max, post operation, any open wound requires him to go on antibiotics. An open wound puts him at risk of infection, which could rapidly go into the implant area. We are all obsessed with healthcare issues in Vermont these days, and as this well loved companion ages, I watch him tenderly. Whatever time he has left, I want it to be peaceful and happy and without pain. Some days I am overcome with my fear of losing him, although I know it is a day that must come. Some days, I just wail, please not quite yet. So I made an appointment with the vet, and by the end of the call, I was in tears.

My reason for moving to Vermont and the lesson I have continued to learn since moving here is that when emotion overwhelms me, it is time for some self care. The only thing on my calendar for the day was a dentist appointment, so I made a quick trip to the office and put up a sign: "Closed today due to medical emergencies." Many medical emergencies. My assistant's baby daughter in the hospital. A family member facing long term critical health issues. A dog in need of antibiotics. But mostly an emergency need to take a little care of myself lest I bite the next person who walked into the office.

I spent most of yesterday and today on the garden, laying out paths. The herb garden is new this year, and I am trying out paths of chamomile which grows wild here. I lay out my paths with string, then I turn the soil in the beds. As I go, I take the baby chamomile weeds from the plots and transplant them as much desired chamomile turf in the paths. The exercise of creating a path by cutting away the undesirable thatch of weeds between the paths is a meditation in itself.

The vegetable garden is in its second year. Last year I hired the plowing done, then laid out my paths with string, then dug a few inches down in the paths and put the soil on the beds to raise them up. Then I put down a layer of something covered by a layer of straw, and I had beautiful paths. The preferred underlayer was old dogfood bags, saved just for this purpose on long remembered advice from one of my gardening uncles. They turned out to be way slippery, and I didn't have nearly enough, so I tried black plastic on another row and then newspaper on another. Lack of planning turned experiment, and through the season, I found little difference in function on the paths.

The careful reader will note that this process is exactly the opposite of what I am doing in the herb garden. Vegetable garden--dig the path, herb garden, dig the bed. Throughout last year's growing season I nourished the hope that I would not have to rebuild the paths again, thinking of what it would take to pull out the remains of the dogfood bags and the black plastic, not to mention all my hard labor to move all that dirt. My favorite Vermont tractor guy showed up on Friday, he opined that he thought he could preserve the paths, and no, he wasn't worried about stuff in the garden. After the first pass, he stopped and used a knife to cut out of his plow blades the remains of dogfood bags, black plastic, and even a little pea netting unwittingly left.

Here's a lesson! Don't worry about the stuff under the ground. Just plow through it, then cut away the excess. Here's another. There is no way to preserve those paths. I have laid them out again, and I suspect that I will be a little less vigorous about moving dirt this year, maybe shoveling just enough to suggest terraces on the gentle slope. And I will use all newspaper. Five paths, five bales of straw, and it will be good to go again. It is hard to have to rebuild paths, but it is easier the second time.

In spiritual practice, too, it is building the path the first time that is the hardest work. We keep relearning the same old stuff, or at least sometimes it seems so. But it is easier each time we tackle an old battle. And sometimes we learn a new technique, like digging the beds instead of the paths. I have been reading a wonderful little book called Taming the Tiger Within: Meditations on Transforming Difficult Emotions, by Thich Nhat Hanh. Each right-hand page has a short thought which floats in visual space; each left-hand page is blank.

Here's one: Recognize and embrace your anger when it manifests itself. Care for it with tenderness rather than suppressing it.

Here's another: Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the energy of hate, of anger, of fear. We forget that in us there are other kinds of energy that can manifest also. If we know how to practice, we can bring back the energy of insight, of love, and of hope in order to embrace the energy of fear, of despair, and of anger.

And one more: Faith is the outcome of your life. As faith continues to grow, you continue to get the energy, because faith is also an energy like love. If we look deeply into the nature of our love, we will also see our faith. When we have faith in us, we are no longer afraid of anything.

Thich Nhat Hanh also wrote another wonderful book that Robert of Beginner's Mind gave me when I, a Christian, asked him in all sincerity about what attracted him to Buddhism. When he first gave it to me, I got bogged down in the introduction, but the book itself, Living Buddha, Living Christ is a rich treasure I have just begun to tap.

I have missed writing. It is one of my daily practices (the other is walking), and this blog community offers me real connections. I've had a crazy winter, and I'm feeling a little overstimulated, a little bruised. Time to build some new paths.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Thanks for noticing

The brass ring that represents the end of my technical worries seems just beyond my fingertips. One more (please, just this one more?) connection problem with new laptop and home network, and I believe that I will be back operating on all fronts.

I have really missed blogging. I have missed writing. But spring has come to Vermont whether I document its coming or not, and its unexpected glory has swept me away all over again.

Thanks to everyone who noticed my absence. Back soon, I trust. Meanwhile, here's another good horoscope for anyone, any day.

Something seems to be holding you back. Something seems to be preventing you from reaching your full potential. Whatever it is, you must get over it quickly because very soon the kind of opportunity that only comes once in a lifetime will be heading your way. Let go of your fears. Anything is possible if you want it enough.