Rain and Trees and a Good Summer Gone By

     Last week a rainstorm blew in – a drenching that called for sturdy shoes and coats and startled after this summer of day-after-day sun.

     During the first week of August, in the midst of that sunshine, Lady B came to visit. We did all our best things: drawing trees at Bloedel, beach time and hikes, painting pottery, and visiting the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. She overlapped a day with Sweet B, and the two of them decorated our driveway with chalk flowers and a “welcome to the neighborhood sign,” and then camped out in the living room for a sleepover night.

The next morning, we rode the ferry to meet Lady B’s mom and eat crumpets and ice cream before they returned to Alaska. Sweet B stayed on with her family for three terrific weeks.

     In September, the Garden Project at the Bainbridge Arts and Crafts Gallery succeeded with a near sell-out – earning more than $800 for the food bank. In an exciting development for me, I met another artist in the exhibition, a kindred spirit named Lou Cabeen. Over coffee one morning, she told me about the Elisabeth C. Miller Library at the Center for Urban Horticulture, part of the University of Washington Botanic Gardens.

In addition to emphasizing books about horticulture, botany, plant ecology, and garden design, this library presents monthly exhibits by artists who share the library’s love of plants, gardens, and nature. I applied to exhibit, and a lucky vacancy allowed me to be accepted for a show in July 2022.

     The Miller is heaven for me – books and gardens! Last month I rode the light rail to the University of Washington, walked along a wetland path on the shore of Lake Washington, behind the huge stadiums and athletic buildings, to meet librarian Rebecca Alexander and see the available space. It’s plentiful, varied, and inspiring with possibility – and a little intimidating.

But really I wanted to make this update because of this piece by Adrian Higgins about trees. It reminded me that, in my efforts to transform the pumpkin patch into a long-lasting space, more trees are in order. (I’m beginning this process, but for now, more than 25 pumpkins nearly engulf the shrubs I planted last spring.) Our neighborhood has seen the destruction of all sorts of small habitats these last few years. It’s fall planting time, and a joy, to put some back.    

The Quiet Week

Now, between the celebrations, we acknowledge our good fortune to be whole when so much sadness, worry, and fear haunt the nation, and our monster of a leader flames out to his own script. My old friend asked me if things felt flattened, diminished in the world, and to me that seems a reaction to a constant background of death and uncertainty.

My friend commented during a trip to Seattle – yes! After nearly a year, we spent a day in the city (accomplished with much thinking and laughable preparation on my part – extra mask, hand sanitizer, battery charger, warm clothes – how could a day in Seattle seem a Big Adventure, but it did).

On a blue-sky, frosty morning, we rode a nearly empty ferry to Seattle. Past Hammering Man who still pummels his target, we walked up First Avenue and encountered stores with buzzers to ring for admission or service windows where there used to be doors.

The Pike Place Market was busy, not the crush and bustle of old, but many vendors and masked customers. The Crumpet Shop, a favorite place for 40 years, drew us. We sat outdoors, side-by-side on metal chairs, ate crumpets and drank tea, watching masked passersby. We took home packets of crumpets for Christmas morning.

As you walk east with deserted office buildings overhead, it’s sadder. Westlake Center and Pacific Place malls are ghostly. In the eerie vacantness a few shops remain open, but tasteful graphics on boards hide more that are closed, and restaurants and food courts echo with empty. Up the street, the flagship Nordstrom hangs on – with perhaps more employees than customers.

We sat outside in the sunshine on the ferry home, protected by a glass windbreak, the Olympics with new snow stretched white on the horizon – a spirit lifting day with a good friend, walking familiar streets, and seeing well-known places, changed but there.

In the days leading up to Christmas, I read with grandchildren north and south together. My friend who paints in the woods taught me how to juggle phone and computer on Zoom, so the book was visible to the children, but I could also see their faces and talk to them (and they to each other). A technological challenge, but by Christmas eve we finished “The Yule Tomte and the Little Rabbits,” and Lady B read to us, “Mrs. Claus Saves Christmas.” (She must act because Santa falls asleep and misses his midnight departure!)

Beginning with a Christmas Eve trumpet carol concert by Papa Jim, played on the front porch for Zoom dinner and neighbors, we found more joy on Christmas than I ever expected, a warmhearted though electronic celebration. It is odd to have one’s old age observer status made concrete, but COVID has done that. We were grateful to be part of the California Christmas, participate in stockings and present opening, and share dinner at festive tables (with the Alaskans joining in), but it feels awful to be no help at all to the young parents. (Christmas magic requires a lot of work from them!)

So, we welcome the new year this week – with some trepidation, as hopes for respite rest on banishing 2020’s many woes. But I’m wishing a happier, safer, and kinder new year – for all of us!

Strange Times

     And growing stranger and more worrisome and locked down yet again.

     Recently the wordsmith used an expression she likes – “coming apart at the seams,” and maybe the country is. The absurd, dismaying sight of this defeated president refusing to face reality (supported inexplicably by his party), assaults democracy. Our nurses, doctors, and hospitals are overwhelmed by citizens’ failure to contain the coronavirus. The dreaded fall surge turned into the predicted winter disaster. How anyone can think the virus is a hoax or that masks impinge on freedom is so far beyond me as to melt my brain.

As the holidays approach, all seems disjointed – also speeded up. The natural world alone seems as it should be. Recent rain and wind tossed colored leaves into red, yellow, and orange circles on streets and sidewalks. The geese paused for a rest on Eagle Harbor, and continued south. Nasturtiums, blooming so cheerfully once the pumpkin vines shriveled, collapsed. But indoors, my aged wild amaryllis bulb (a gift in the 90s) is blooming now – a usual New Year’s event.

We had tentative plans to travel (each day the possibility grows slimmer), so in the meantime I’ve been shopping locally to gather the contents of Christmas boxes, readying them for the mail. It’s privilege of course – being able to shop.

I wish the legendary Christmas ghosts could appear to Mitch McConnell, and while pointing out his Scrooge-like refusal to help people, terrify him just a little, miraculously transforming him into a caring human! A generous federal stimulus package would be an appropriate response right now.

     I keep trying to express here what haunts me, I suppose it’s the uncertainty. But many things are known to fortunate families like ours – we only need to “rethink these holidays” as Governor Inslee said in his plea to forgo in-person Thanksgiving celebrations.

My impulse is always to make plans, and realistic COVID influenced plans can be certain. We can adapt and do things to let our families know we care and guarantee some joyful, seasonal normality for the children. Assuming the Internet stays strong, we can promise festive Zoom exchanges, making them somehow different from the “regular” (and cherished) Zoom or FaceTime moments.

     I hope.

J for Joy and for Joe

Alerted on my morning walk in a quiet neighborhood by a wildly honking car, my phone revealed that CNN had called Pennsylvania for Biden. By the time I was exchanging tearful exaltations with a stranger, AP and all the other outlets had declared as well.

For an interminable four years we’ve known daily despair and anxiety, suffered reckless incompetence and cruelty, and watched norms of decency and international accord shattered.

I know fewer than five million votes (and a sturdy win in the Electoral College) separate two visions of America, and a mountain of work remains to fully restore our government. But the American people did the job – overcoming the president’s disinformation offensive, the voting obstructions erected by Republicans, and the coronavirus plague – to vote. The people did “fire the liar,” and democracy held. Let joy ring!

Saturday night was a time to savor the national and world-wide celebrations of hopes for better times, the end of a malignancy, and a “time to heal.” Our yard sign says what Biden promised in his speech: Decency, Truth, Hope.

Oh – and then there is Kamala, fully prepared to take her place in history with her litany of firsts, inspiring and delighting every little girl and woman – and the men who care about them.

Bring on Thanksgiving please – sequestered and odd it may be – but we have SO much to be thankful for!

 

“Their Finest” Hour and a Half

     In a happy accident (born of trying to escape Alexa’s decision to play heavy metal music instead of a requested BBC show), we discovered “Their Finest,” a British movie from 2016. Beginning with jerky World War II footage of factories full of women making armaments, it settles into the story of Catrin, a young Welsh woman come to London with an artist love interest – and her unexpected transformation into screenwriter. From a book titled “Their Finest Hour and a Half,” it’s a movie about making a movie, about imagination, about women’s work – and about romance, of course.

     In the story, Britain’s Ministry of Information Film Unit wants to make a movie to inspire the war effort, and decides on a fudged (by Catrin) version of a true story about two daring sisters, who nick their drunken father’s boat, and, heroically join the rescue effort at Dunkirk.

It’s fun to see the primitive sets and lights (movie magic being made in the olden days), watch the script being written on the fly using clunky manual typewriters and much verbal sparring (as many cups of tea are drunk from real mugs). Hired to write “slop” (the term for women’s dialogue), Catrin turns out to be more clever by far than her male writing colleagues.

     I enjoy Bill Nighy’s flighty mannerisms, and his role here as a washed-up actor long past fame perfectly suits. He’s charming, old fashioned, and silly, full-of-himself and kind. He takes in hand the non-actor American hired for his good looks, and the hope he might inspire Americans to enter the war.

     “Their Finest” seemed a wonderfully long movie, and we spread it out – grateful during our own scary and uncertain days (unleavened as yet by time and creativity) to have this escape each night. There is joy in Nighy’s version of “Wild Mountain Thyme,” sung around a pub piano with the whole film crew – and joy in the theatre audience’s reaction to the movie.

And joy is good right now.

Total Transport from Now

These weeks leave us anxious, holding our breath, too worried to hope, but desperate to hope. A terrific book changes the subject.

     When they came to visit in the Before Times, friends of our younger son brought Caroline Van Hemert’s book, “The Sun Is A Compass: a 4,000 Mile Journey into The Alaskan Wild.” Van Hemert was their high school classmate, and her life took a turn – she made her life take a turn – that none of them expected.

     Van Hemert’s book is the tale of the trek she and her husband made in 2012, traveling those 4,000 miles under their own power – by foot, by ski, by canoe, raft, and rowboat from Bellingham in the Pacific Northwest to Kotzebue on the shore of the Bering Sea.  

     Trading time in front of a computer studying data for her real love – the outdoors and all it contains – Van Hemert describes the decision to attempt this epic journey. In one of my favorite passages (and there are so many), Van Hemert and her husband, as they leave the coast and head into the mountains, sit on a snack break and together identify birdsongs. She writes: “But today the graphs and calculations fall away as I inhale the scent of dirt and spruce needles. Out here I am half scientist, half disciple. I’ve left the laboratory far behind and, with it, the need to quantify and contain. In its place, I’ve reconnected with the simple act of observation.”     

Observation, yes, and treasuring every day. Toward the end Van Hemert writes: “In life we’re always closer to the edge than we like to admit, never guaranteed our next breath, never sure of what will follow this moment. We’re human. We’re vulnerable. With love comes the risk of loss. There are a million accidents waiting to happen, future illnesses too terrible to imagine, the potential for the ordinary to turn tragic. This is true in cities and towns as much as it is in the wilderness. But out here we face these facts more clearly, aware of the divide between today and tomorrow. And, for this reason, every day counts.”

Picturing her exhausted in the tent at day’s end, scribbling in her journal, I marveled at how she kept the saga’s rich detail in mind. She is the finest of writers, scientist and poet, with an ability to capture the landscape, the animal life, and the action. And her knowledge of and love of birds is thrilling.

But you can’t help reading it as a page-turner as they traverse this unthinkable distance, by sea and river, over glacier and mountain, and hummocks of tundra. Crossing shockingly cold Alaska rivers, frigid with glacier melt in tiny packable rafts, encountering bears and a caribou migration, and surviving hunger, a terrifying dunk in the Arctic Ocean, and discovering the kindness of strangers.

     I often identified with Van Hemert’s parents, supportive with love and logistics, but uneasy as the left behinds. It tickles me that now Van Hemert has children, she will learn what it’s like to be the one at home. Our younger son wrote to me, “I can’t imagine what her boys will do to one-up her, but I’m sure they’ll figure out something.”

     As children do. And same for Lord B – Professor Snape now – adventurer-to-be!

“Putting Up” and New Postcards

     Local squirrels worry not about the pandemic or the election, they scurry about, gathering and stockpiling their winter supplies. Following suit, I’ve given away and stored away all 27 pumpkins from our little patch. Pumpkins gone north to Alaska and south to LA, they decorate the porches of friends who may or may not make pies.

Pumpkins to my neighbor who recently gave me some of the big bag of onions she brought back from Eastern Washington, where the summers are hot and tasty onions grow. She recommended freezing them after chopping – something I’d never known to do. Handy!

     Pumpkins for our friend of the fine blueberry patch who said come to get apples and pears, and when I arrived, also offered tomatoes for sauce and a pepper, “off the scale hot!” I sent it on to the Sweet Bride, who says no pepper is too hot for Thai taste.

So far, I’ve baked a first pie, and made pear butter with most of the pears (and painted one), and a plan for applesauce. And also new to me, tomato sauce – if you briefly boil the tomatoes six or so at a time, the skins slide off, then cook down. Now to make pasta sauce with these cooked tomatoes.

     And for a winter scheme, this week Sweet Baby began our new alphabet postcard project. A friend accuses me of too many words, my return postcard proves her point.

Needs Must, Just Deserts

     This weekend those two phrases kept floating through my mind.

     Our old friends came to dinner on Friday night. That used to be such an ordinary event, but not since March. We ate in our friends’ beautiful garden in the summer – one night in spring the fireplace provided warmth, but it never seemed welcoming here – our patio too hot on a summer evening, our back deck so small.

     But on Friday it felt exciting to be welcoming friends after so long, and, though we’d be outdoors, I cleaned house. I made a pear dessert, totally simple and really good. (Halve and core pears, place in a baking dish cut side up, sprinkle with crushed walnuts and cinnamon, drizzle a teaspoon of honey over each, and bake 30 minutes at 350°.)

To figure out “outdoor dining,” I’d been inspired by Lady B’s mother’s tale of a little farmers’ market-like canopy and a gas firepit in their Alaska back yard – and my old friend’s plan to expand her covered porch or set up a table and chairs on the existing narrow one – and figure a way to add heat as the winter descends. It is going to be a long winter – needs must.

     On Friday, I separated the tiny patio tables, placed starters on each, and laid another little table with a cloth, a water jug, and glasses. The purple footstool from the front porch became a landing spot for pizza boxes (our dinner).

     The sky cleared of fog and smoke by late afternoon and the sun warmed the little patio, but the sun soon disappeared behind neighboring trees. I always forget how suddenly real darkness descends in October. The solar fairy lights came on, the moon rose (a lovely pale yellow instead of smoke-filtered orange), and by the end, most all our house candles, in various holders and unused all summer, glowed at our tables.

We ate and talked of our families, the difficulties of any plans for the upcoming holidays, and the week’s mind-boggling events. That other phrase “just deserts” comes to mind, along with hopes for survival, and the (probably useless) wish that this development might grow some empathy for those who have suffered and change minds toward universal mask wearing.

     We have probably seen our last 70° windless, rainless day, but even wearing down jackets, and sitting next to the car, it was a candlelit, bistro-someplace-else evening. With no hope of a repeat, the memory glows – a quartet of old friends, food and wine, in the midst of a pandemic.

Needs must can make magic.

St. Francis Leaves the Bluff

When we moved to Bainbridge two years ago, we wanted to make sure the move was right, so we didn’t sell our house, but leased it. Planning to visit often, we kept access to the guesthouse, the Buffalo. But the universe conspired to prevent visits, and time has come to put the property on the market. (I recognize this as a tale of privilege. Several times that’s stopped me from writing, but the blog began on the bluff, and now that part of the story ends.)

Only 900 square feet, the Buffalo is still a complete house with the utensils, bedding, linens, art, photos, books, and furniture of a house. And, because of a big closet, extraneous things got stored over the years – all our photo negatives packaged in labelled shoeboxes, beloved aged backpacking tent, sleeping bags, extra kid equipment. An empty file cabinet became the repository of my mother’s things when she died, her purse, her files and photos, and little stacks of expired passports and driver’s licenses.

In her book of essays, titled “Everywhere I Look,” Helen Garner quotes a clergyman’s wife on changing houses, “Every time you move you have to work through your whole life.”

Because we never really lived there, the Buffalo’s emotional weight blindsided me. In the first few of many trips to clear out, I thought it would be just sort, give away or toss, pack. But things speak of their provenance to a person packing up, voicing memories and original hopes.

A lot of the things I hoped for came to be. We built the bigger house and a garden and moved there, our sons came willingly to visit, and one married there in a beautiful ceremony. Eventually the Buffalo sheltered their growing families, and always it made it a pleasure to have guests.

In the drawing below, done early in the garden’s life, it’s orderly. But this spring, nature occupied every available space. Thuggish plants crowd and engulf plants once cosseted. Buttercups invade the beds, water suckers ruin the shape of the enormous Sambucus, the paths are clotted and choked by grass. I used to fantasize it was “contained abundance” – no longer.

My friend the wordsmith (who has been the most amazing help and support, making a sometimes hard thing cheerful) says it looks like the garden of an abandoned English estate. Kinda. The realtor will have it cleaned up for listing, and I’m hoping for a new gardener to love it.

The wordsmith’s husband muscled our statue of St. Francis (it stood for years in the center of the foursquare garden) into my car. I remember the first time Lady Baby spotted him and stood nearby, seemingly shocked he was taller than she. He looks contented now, in his tiny pretend Tuscan courtyard, surrounded by rosemary and welcoming hummingbirds who visit a nearby fountain.

 

Both Anguish and Action

It’s impossible to ignore what has happened this last week in America. And from a position of white privilege, but with no political power and no ability to influence unacceptable police behavior, hard to know what to do. I’ve already voted for people who support fairness and equity under the law and against the evil occupant of the White House.

And yet, just to post the blog intended for today, is inadequate. To say nothing at this moment seems completely head-in-the-sand unacceptable.

So, I offer the Obama Foundation’s suggestions for turning anguish into action, because, of course, these people have thought long and hard about what needs to happen. They make concrete recommendations for how to get informed and involved – for people like me – and hopefully you. Their statement of purpose:

We work to help leaders change their world—and the world needs changing. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the loss of far too many Black lives to list, have left our nation anguished and outraged. While now is a time for grief and anger, it is also a time for resolve. Find resources below to learn what you can do to create a more just and equitable world.

https://www.obama.org/anguish-and-action/

 

Gardening in the Time of COVID-19

The other morning I read an inspiring and joyful article by Charlotte Mendelson titled, “It’s Time To Grow Your Own Beans.” Right away I forwarded it to the California gardener, and put a handful of heirloom cannellini beans (from a sealed bag I seem to have saved for the apocalypse and can now use to make soup) in the mail to California.

I kept thinking that the author’s name sounded familiar, and, to my chagrin, realized Mendelson’s gardening memoir, “Rhapsody in Green: A novelist, an obsession, a laughably small excuse for a vegetable garden,” has sat unopened on our coffee table since last year (it does have a wonderful cover, but still).

For this whole strange time when thinking about reading, I have assumed I would concentrate better on a page turner, some junker that could transport me to a different catastrophe, one with an ending. I would never have predicted a memoir about a “comically small town garden, a mere 6 square meters of urban soil and a few pots,” would be my escapist dream.

Mendelson’s writing really appeals – and her delicious sense of humor about gardening, gardening experts, and gardening desires – also slugs, failures, and small triumphs. In her prologue, she welcomes the reader, “Come into my garden. Try to keep a straight face.”

Gardening season begins now in Washington, but we are weeks behind California. Over these last years, Sweet B’s dad (with her help recently) transformed a barren urban plot into a green haven. Larger than Mendelson’s garden behind her terraced London house, the California garden has a tiny square of lawn (just big enough for a small bike rider to make circles), and a brick patio (just big enough to hold a large deep wading pool). A pergola, covered in grape vine and shade-cloth, provides shelter from the sun for an outdoor couch, chairs, and table.

A podocarpus hedge grown tall shields the garden from close next-door neighbors. A variety of fruit trees in garden beds surround the lawn: banana, pomegranate, lime, papaya, orange, plum, and an olive. Bougainvillea climbs the painted bright-blue cement wall at the end of the garden, and throughout the beds California drought-tolerant perennials crowd huge lavender and rosemary shrubs and smaller herbs. Seasonal color flashes from early sweet peas, California poppies, red hot pokers, and more.

In the past, family summer traveling limited vegetable growing, but this year, by using a graveled-with-pots, previously ignored space at the corner of the house in full sun, a vegetable plot took shape. The chief gardener and his assistant cleared out the gravel, constructed an L-shaped raised bed, and erected a sturdy trellis.

By ordering soil and starts online, the gardeners planted food – tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, strawberries, snap beans, carrots, chard, kale, lettuce, green onions, radish, and zucchini. Behind the garage by the compost (beside a volunteer pumpkin), corn, melons, and cucumbers found space. (I had to ask for this list. It ended with, “and a few things I may have forgotten about – we’ll see if they grow.”)

And now there’s a chance for Jack-in-the-beanstalk moments!

Blue bird, butterflies, and bees visit flowers in her garden, by Sweet B.

 

Olive tree with climbing ladder, spirit house on stilts, and gardeners watering, by Sweet B.

Sheltering with the Alaskans 

Lady B made the drawing below of her situation (that’s Baby Brother playing with trucks nearby). But I’m a little doubtful that her speech bubble contains a meaningful comment, because we hear tales and see photos and videos of a giant pile of snow in the back yard for snow caves, and of great cross-country skiing.

Lady B is learning to skate ski, but on the downhills, she gets her skis in the tracks, tucks, and hurtles around bends. Baby Brother rides in a trailer behind his dad (a handle on the back allows Lady B to also catch a ride). Luckily, good weather and plentiful snow fill these quarantine days!

She sees her class on Zoom – she tells us they each log in with something to share and the big screen fills with the classmate talking, the others appear in little boxes at the bottom. We are all pixels now.

But there must be moments like below.

Sweet Brother and Big Sister

Suffice it to say that Sweet Brother looms larger in real life, than in this drawing of him with his mother – made by his sister on his first day home. Now, nearly three weeks later, although nested with his mother most of the time, he’s an impactful presence.

I don’t remember the day my sister came home. Do any oldest children remember the day? Such a profound event – gaining a sibling – influencing us forever. The initial arrival brings sudden puzzling changes, distracted grownups, and most of all a very busy – with somebody else – mother.

And then there’s this long-awaited baby in person – after months of imagining a playmate, a partner, reality presents in this useless form. I remember Lady B telling me how she’d teach her brother about seat belts and helmets and how to keep safe (now – three years later – she does that). Her dad, when his brother came home, dashed to get his best friend next door. They came back with a cowboy hat and six shooter for the baby to wear. When that didn’t work, they lost interest.

Sweet Baby (who should really be Sweet B now, five years old in a month!) has more sustained attention – she falls in the camp of wanting desperately to participate in some way. A virus has stalked amongst us limiting her hands-on exposure, but she understands that in time she will be much help.

And on Valentine’s Day after she received a cobbled together “Best Big Sister” necklace to wear – she made valentines for all of us (she’d already made them for her class). She left out her brother, but told me how wonderful it would be when she could make him one – “in a few years or so!”

 

Sweet Brother

Yes! – the first post back for the new year introduces Sweet Baby’s sweet brother! He really is very dear and calm – the name fits. His mom did a great job of bringing him into the world on the 29th of January. He was six pounds, 11 ounces, and 19″ long, and he’s beautiful! He’s figuring out how things work in this night and day routine, and, with luck, his parents might soon get some sleep.

Sweet Baby, like her cousin, will be a terrific big sister, this baby already turns his head at the sound of her voice – he’ll soon learn how much fun she is!

December Days

Bustle – and I hope it is cheery bustle for you all – not just the stress of to-do lists!

Music and lights and evergreen garlands, flashes of red and green and gold interrupt the dark, wet gloom outdoors. I always love this season, and this year more than ever in my gratitude for life and mobility. But am I behind in all I’d like to do? Oh, yes!

In Hawaii, Lady B, her brother and Sweet Baby added their creative touches to our Christmas cards – between swimming in pool and ocean, they sat at a table outside the sliding door and used watercolors (including swell metallic ones), colored pencils, and rubber stamps to make every card unique and colorful.

So, before I begin to write them and mail, I’ll post a handful – though it’s hard to select just a few – I love them all!

One day on the trip, I found Sweet Baby and her parents at work – brushes in hand – so I can’t resist adding two of theirs.