Summer Revisiting

The beginning of September brought a return to summer heat, and everything is dry, dry. A handful of flowers remain to draw for Sweet B’s postcard project, crocosmia, tall purple salvia, tiny cyclamen. The lower leaves of sweet peas grow crinkly and pale, but a few stragglers still bloom up top. The old, indomitable rose bushes put forth a second flush of blossom after a mid-summer pruning. So many orange orbs of pumpkins show through huge and tattered leaves – nearing their allotted 110 days. Maple leaves begin to fall.

The solar twinkle lights shine and only a glimmer of light shows in the sky, when I take my seat by the window in the morning. And with the light, neighborhood birds appear – the tiny house wren who’s been near the patio all summer, often startled when we walk through the rosemary into her space, juncos, and lately a blue jay. Hummingbirds check out the last flowers and dip and dart into the little fountain. All summer I’ve heard mourning doves, watched them visit the birdbath, then fly high to the top of a huge fir tree. Their cry sounds like somewhere else or something sad.

The other day I walked through town to drop a package at the Post Office. Every other conversation I passed contained the word COVID, “if it weren’t for COVID,” we could do this or that. Masked tourists and locals queue by the ice cream shop, and masks cradle chins of people eating at outdoor tables, separated under umbrellas in the middle of town.

Winter is coming to this COVID year. Light bulbs reveal they are burned out, like light bulbs always do in the fall, but no gaggles of backpacked kids walk by our street. We’ll be more indoors, with flu and darkness. In my head I try to turn it around, what if we kept our masks on and didn’t get the flu, didn’t make each other sick with colds?

What if we settled in to enjoy all that’s newly on the screen? The brochure for the Seattle Arts and Lectures series came, and all lectures (including Maira Kalman and Tana French) will be available online. We missed Lord B’s birthday, but could watch our older son’s Zoom trial – with participants in different towns, even different states. My husband’s university classes are online – no long trek by ferry, train, and foot to the campus.

But I don’t think I can make it work – not with all the misery the government seems too broken or heartless to address, not with people dying, little businesses folding, civil unrest, and the threat of retaining the unspeakably bad president, with his political vaccine and cruel words and actions.

Oh, no way to end a post. What about bulbs – those hopeful packages – can we plant them now and picture a better time in the spring?

 

Blackberries

Forty years ago, when I first looked for property here, a patient realtor drove me around. Sometimes we’d stop and graze on blackberries in brambly thickets, warmed by the sun and tart, bits of wildness on a cultivated island.

Blackberries grow in bunches, a couple ready to pick, alongside others still red or pink – food for another day. Sequential ripening benefits scavengers of all kinds. On the bluff, shaded by huge firs they never fruited, but only stretched thick, aggressive canes armed with sharp thorns, over the salal onto the driveway.

Wild blackberries are often deemed thuggish interlopers, best controlled by goats. But in this summer of our discontent, I see them as a gift. On the big street near us, passersby stop to pick from a hedge thick with berries, deep purple stains the sidewalk below. One morning, when I asked what she’d do with them, a woman gathering blackberries along a quiet street said muffins – and to freeze and eat in the winter. She recommended a handful on the top of sweet lemon cake. My neighbor and another friend make freezer jam – and inspired me to try.

On a commuter path nearby, blackberry vines entwine themselves in the lowdown branches of a young cedar. I passed that patch repeatedly before noticing a dark spot, then another. The cedar boughs protect a little from the sharp barbs of prickles snagging clothing and skin.

The construction behind us (thankfully paused since early summer) destroyed giant tangles of berry bushes, but a thick patch remains – alive with birdsong all spring. North facing, those berries have been slow, but now, encouraged by weeks of warm sunny weather and one downpour rain day, they ripen.

Sweet B quickly learned to discern ripeness by a gentle tug, and with her parents gathered berries for pie from the hedgerow in our little neighborhood. On her dad’s shoulders, she reached high up, where dark clusters dangle, and her mom topped our blackberry pies with crusts of woven lattice.

It was summer.

 

A Visit in the Time of COVID-19!

 

Back in early June, Sweet B said we’d have to give the proposal that I park a camper in her driveway “a little more thought.” And so she did – and her parents did – and yesterday afternoon about 4:30, an enormous RV pulled into our driveway!

Despite many weary miles of mountain driving, her dad emerged looking cheerful. The Sweet Bride (smiling broadly at the ending of all those miles) appeared with Sweet Brother – happy to be out of his car seat and bestowing single-dimpled grins on his unfamiliar (and ecstatic) grandparents! And finally, Sweet B, having momentarily retired to change clothes in her curtained bed over the camper cab, came down the steps and into my arms! Hugs – actual hugs!

In a phone consult earlier in the day, we’d discussed our protocol for masks and distancing. The camper has everything, bathroom, kitchen, water supply, and lots of food storage. Stopping only for gas and nursing breaks and spending every night in campgrounds with campfires and s’mores – they’ve truly been bubbled. And we live in a bubble. So now we’ve merged – just like that.

Sweet Brother was not enthusiastic about the journey, but Sweet B, by all reports, uttered not a word of complaint – she listened to stories on her “radio,” watched the mountains and valleys of the American West pass by her picture window, and slept well every night. On one memorable stop, after a little hike upstream, she floated down an Oregon creek with her dad. And now they’re actually here. It seems a total miracle to me, I am so grateful to them for making this journey.

I finished the painting I’ve been working on with crossed fingers since the plan was hatched, being sure that something would prevent this trip. But no – they made it, and we have a couple of weeks to savor summer together!

And it’s time for the August blog break. Thank you for reading, I wish August pleasures for all of you in our masked and turbulent times.

Returning To The Subject of Pumpkins

My post last week confused things – written quickly early Tuesday morning, in the euphoria that immediately followed unscheduled but successful surgery – I didn’t make it clear that my good-natured husband was the patient!

During this recovery week (he’s really recalled to life now), we’ve watched the season shift. One day the north wind blew, the temperature dropped, and it hailed! The autumn signals sound – mice move indoors, colds and flu shots happen. Trees blaze gold and red against blue skies, alongside the flashy colors of late season flowers like cosmos, zinnia, and lantana. Suddenly the puffer jacket and watch cap dress code applies, and what the Seattle paper calls “The Big Dark” – rain and wind and glowering skies – settles in.

The seeds Sweet Baby and her dad planted in our little patch on Mother’s Day produced 25 pumpkins and a dozen delicata squash. I harvested the pumpkins, pulled their shriveled leaves and stems, and uncovered a cascade of orange and yellow nasturtium blossoms from the seeds they also planted.

Already I’ve given away a lot of pumpkins, stored some in the garage, and made several pies, including one to pack up for Lady B and her brother – carried back to Alaska by their dad who came down to help and cheer the hospital stay and the patient’s return home.

Winter begins – with hopes for health – and pies aplenty!

 

A Snow, Snow World

My Washington experience doesn’t include what is happening these days. Historically, snow falls, accumulates a little – maybe on Christmas Eve – and is gone by the middle of the next day. People tell me they don’t own snow shovels because it always melts. (And maybe some people own them and leave on the bluff along with the car window scrapers.)

But this snow event – variously called snowpocalypse and snowmageddon – started with a good size storm on Friday, clotting roads to complicate commutes and cause a run on grocery shelves. And that was just the beginning – two more storm systems (this time uncommon convergences of moist Pacific air and cold air from British Columbia’s Fraser River Valley), have since moved through – bringing hours of accumulating flakes. Easily a foot of snow has piled atop the patio table and covers the eight-inch daffodil spears that dared to emerge in January. Mounds of snow muffle the twinkle lights on shrubs.

Yesterday, Sunday, with main roads cleared, islanders emptied the grocery stores again and battened down for more snow (six inches fell on the car overnight). It began again by 11 a.m. My email pings with winter advisory notices from the Municipality – power lines down and roads closed. Power outages, especially in heavily wooded parts of the island, are a constant threat.

Rain (the weather prediction calls for “cold, miserable rain”) threatens to join the mix this evening. So maybe by the time this posts, things will be different – or maybe by Valentine’s Day we’ll welcome our familiar 42° with rain falling on bare pavement!

 

 

A Spiral Story and A Book of Good Cheer

At the print shop last week to copy our Christmas card, the woman helping me said, “It’s begun – the holiday rush!” I commented that time seems to go more quickly every year, and she told me that a friend of hers says a life is like a spiral. In youth, at the big outer edge, time goes slowly, in the middle of the coil, years seem of similar duration for a long time, but then, as one slips into the center, the circles are smaller, and hence faster and faster. Maybe this is a commonplace – but was new to me and seems spot on.

So, for this rapidly disappearing year, one last book. On my recent birthday I received the perfect gift book: “Gmorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & You” by Lin-Manuel Miranda (the genius behind and star of the musical, “Hamilton”). In short word salutations for each day (originally written for Twitter), Miranda channels Dr. Seuss and his own sweet soul. Page spreads feature a morning greeting on the left and an evening salute on the right, and the book is filled with charming pen illustrations by Jonny Sun. In an introductory poem, Miranda describes how the book came to be:

 

…Then we sat down together and made this;

It’s the book that you hold in your hands.

You can open it at any moment or page

With the hope you find something that lands…

 

I find lots to land and make me smile.

A Happy Solstice to you at the end of the week – the season turns toward the light!

“Warlight” by Michael Ondaatje

Everybody is busy with preparations for the Thanksgiving meal or important parts of it, hosting or traveling – and time is short. So I’ll quickly write of one book (and add a couple of the little watercolors).

“Warlight” joins Michael Ondaatje’s, “The English Patient” (way up on my list of favorite books ever), in making me reach for words like magical, murky, puzzling, beautiful, enthralling. The one word title “Warlight,” refers to the ambient light during a wartime blackout:

     We continued through the dark, quiet waters of the river, feeling we owned it, as far as  the estuary. We passed industrial buildings, their lights muted, faint as stars, as if we were  in a time capsule of the war years when blackouts and curfews were in effect, when there was just warlight and only blind barges were allowed to move along this stretch of river.

but it also describes Ondaatje’s prose and complex story – you don’t see with clear light, but see enough.

The novel begins in 1945 London at the war’s ending. Fourteen-year old Nathaniel and his older sister have been left in the care of an elusive character they call “The Moth,” while their parents leave for the Far East. Or do they? Set in 1959, the second part of the book tells of the attempts by Nathaniel (now grown and working in the Foreign Office) to unravel the mysteries of his mother’s wartime years.

I love to read Ondaatje for his way with words and sometimes puzzling words: “printless foot” and “nightingale floor,” his plots full of unrelated events (perhaps intertwined), and his intriguing characters. The children’s guardian, The Moth, is probably a thief, The Darter smuggles greyhounds on the River Thames, and Marsh Felon, a roof thatcher who broke his hip in a fall, now climbs the roofs of Oxford’s Trinity College by night (and may be connected to Nathaniel’s mother).

But see, I meant to be short and Marsh Felon is only just a part of this fine, totally engaging novel of spies, secrets, and memory.

 

I wish you such a good holiday of giving thanks – celebrating with family, friends, and food in abundance!

Joy

In the early morning this fall, I often read Michael McCarthy’s “The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy,” and knew I wanted to write about it at the winter solstice.

McCarthy’s book acknowledges the dire environmental straits we find ourselves in – and issues a plea to our emotions – feelings we have had toward nature for all of our history. For McCarthy “We may have left the natural world, but the natural world has not left us.” It seems a slim hope in this political climate, but he hopes by reconnecting with this part of ourselves, we might be more invested in repairing the damage.

In the first part of the book, McCarthy blends his personal story of loss with the earth’s man-made damage, and it’s painful. But then, in rich chapters, he points out the love and joy we can feel for the natural world, describing human interactions with creatures from butterflies and moths to megafauna.

He tells how he’s found “Joy in the Beauty of the Earth” and “Joy in the Calendar,” the latter through experiencing seasons, migrations, and blossomings – including importantly – the miracle of winter solstice. “The moment when the days stop shortening and start getting longer again, celebrated for millennia.” The words he uses – joy, wonder, love, beauty – are the words we associate with all this season’s celebrations.

In a short, early December trip to Downtown Abbey in climate-changed Anchorage (48° with rain-slicked ice underfoot), Baby Brother charmed me anew. He moves lickety-split on all fours around the house, stops to burst out his big smile, or to pull himself upright to explore more. He has many words, and learned to say “Kay-tee” in the most endearing way.

We got a full-size tree for the living room, and a tiny one for Lady Baby’s bedroom. We cut out and decorated cookies shaped like stars, gingerbread people, and hearts, and read “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree.” Lady Baby demonstrated her new skating skills, flying with speed and strength across the ice at the school’s hockey rink. She was making a menorah with her class, and told me about celebrating all the holidays: “the Jesus one, the Santa one, and Winter Solstice.”

Winter solstice is a calculable moment. It occurs this year on Thursday the 21st of December at 2:23 p.m. – a perfect time to pay attention and rejoice, as we turn toward the light!

A Very Happy Time

A pre-Christmas trip north to Alaska is a cherished tradition now. Several mornings we drove to preschool, where candlelight flickers in the classroom, and viewed the “snowcake” Lady Baby created. We decorated the Downtown Abbey Christmas tree, read many Christmas books, and did a lot of “come let us adore him” around Baby Brother. After her mom laid it out for us, Lady Baby helped me (sitting in my lap, and pushing the lever for backstitching) sew a stocking for her brother.

One day we made Christmas cookies – a nearly all-day affair. Lady Baby can now do all the steps – rolling and cutting and decorating. For part of the time, Baby Brother slept on me in the Ergo, but he woke in time for decorating at the kitchen table.

He’s so long, he’s outgrown the nest I can make for a baby by crooking one knee and placing my ankle on the other. So we used a pillow as a head prop, and he smiled and chuckled (he does that now!) as frosting flew nearby, and Poppa Jim pretended to be stealing cookies.

This year Mrs. Hughes suggested a Saturday morning exchange of our gifts to each other, and Lady Baby was so excited to come downstairs and discover presents under the tree. Outdoors, the North wind did blow in cold and snowy dark till after 9 a.m., inside we sat in the cozy living room by the lighted tree. Baby Brother slept on his dad while Lady Baby deciphered gift tags and dispensed packages – a perfect sampler of Christmas morning magic.

When we reminisced about the cookie making, Lady Baby said: “That was a very happy time for me.”

So me too – the whole trip.

pears-red-bartlett

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December Red and Gold

It’s bleak this early December – Thanksgiving put away and Washington dark of evening and dark of morning. Winter is come.

But it’s the political landscape that chills. A good friend says when she wakes in the night and worries, she reminds herself that President Obama is still president, it’s OK to go back to sleep. And it is more important than ever to look for the cheer and light in this month, for us and for the children for whom we pictured a world with increasing compassion and decency.

On Instagram I’ve comforted myself by posting pictures of #goldreclaimed, because I loathe the recent associations of gold with intolerance, ugliness, and tastelessness. This political year did a number on red as well.

I began the Instagram posts after my eyes fell on a little tourist picture we bought – the reclining figure of Peace – a reproduction from “The Allegory of Good Government and Bad Government” (here) in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Italy. Painted in the 14th Century by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, this huge three-paneled fresco remains painfully relevant.

On the “Effects of Good Government” panel, depictions are pastoral and bountiful as you might imagine. The panel on bad government is faded, but you can make out the captive figure of Justice, deserted derelict streets, and two armies advancing toward each other in the countryside. The “Effects of Bad Government” depicts “a devious looking figure adorned with horns and fangs…identified as Tyrammides (Tyranny). He sits enthroned, resting his feet upon a goat (symbolic of luxury), and in his hand he sinisterly holds a dagger.”

Ugh. So here’s to holding on to hope ‘til time to act, and in the meantime to red and gold in art and life. This little bit of research lifted my spirits not at all, but the red and gold in Lorenzetti’s Peace does.

peace

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Lady Baby Spring Doings

Because I was in Alaska when news came of the Sweet Baby’s arrival, I got to watch Lady Baby see the first photos of her new cousin. With the sweetest expression of curiosity and awe, she said, “She’s so tiny. She’s the size of Pink Baby, right?” (Pink Baby is a soft doll clad in pink terry cloth, a long-standing, cherished member of the family.)

At Downtown Abbey now when I’m with Lady Baby, it’s like visiting with a really good friend. We enjoy each other, laugh at old jokes and memories, and share new experiences. Her dad came home one day and said, “You two are thick as thieves!”

He’d found us sitting at the top of the basement steps with the door closed. (It’s always closed and has a cat flap because the Ladies Cora and Winnie aren’t allowed in the basement where the Lords Cromwell and Wolsey spend a lot of time.) I’m not sure why we hunkered on the top step chatting. Well, actually, (as Lady Baby often begins a sentence), she had requested we sit for a “meeting,” because of some “concerns” about Baby Boy. (He likes to skate but fell on the ice. I said: “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” She replied: “It’s OK, he’s a doll.”)

We spoke of other matters, the weirdly painted stairway walls (my doing long ago), more “concerns” (not serious ones because I can’t remember them), questioned how bulky Wolsey clambers up to his perch high on a shelf, and I told her the story of how Frances came to live with us. Lady Baby loves stories, and ones grounded in reality work just fine.

We only broke up the meeting because we’d discovered her bike in the basement where she showed me her steering and braking skills. We realized we could take it outside! (A miracle if you live in Alaska and only know bike riding in the basement.)

It’s a purple bike with training wheels, and must be really hard to pump, but she rode the whole way to the bakery, bike wheels spinning out a little on snow patches. Liberation – a bike to ride in springtime.

Muscles grow stronger with daily rides around the block, and one day we rode to the nearby school playground. We stayed a record two hours, sliding, swinging, and watching a family hide Easter eggs.

Whether Lady Baby rides her bike or we both walk, we’re fond of singing loudly “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor….” Lady Baby doesn’t know Mr. Rogers yet, but she surely knows the first part of his song, and sang with lusty enthusiasm while tromping the gritty sidewalks.

This time I suggested the ancient Johnny Horton hit “When It’s Springtime In Alaska…”, but couldn’t remember any words. So Lady Baby sang, “It’s springtime in Alaska, and the birds are nearly singing!”

And that works just fine.

Scanned Image

Daffodils and More Birds

At the beginning of March, sunshine and daffodils in yellows warm and pale lit up the world. Cold mornings gave way to warm middays, and all day the sun shone into my workroom onto bird photos and paintings. Welcome rain returns this week, but I loved sitting and painting in warmth.

I discovered other amazing bird photographers to add to my acknowledgement list, most specially Alan and Elaine Vernon’s beautiful photos. They are generous and their site a fine resource: www.naturespicsonline.com.

With frets in the air about the early spring and low snowpack, I wait for the migrants to return. No sign yet of these two, the White-crowned sparrow and Violet-green swallow, but I hope to see and hear them soon!

White-crowned sparrow

White-crowned sparrow

Violet-green swallow

Violet-green swallow

The Spring March

Everyone, everywhere seems to be glad to see the last of February this year – moving happily on to the promise of March!

And the booksellers Vamp and Tramp just leapfrogged over spring and feature my foldbooks “Summer Into Fall” with their offerings this month. (It’s a privilege to be included and always a pleasure to look at the artists’ books on their site (here).

Seeing those images reminds me of that best time of year here – hot days and harvest food. But, though chilly weather will linger before real warmth arrives in July, I am also grateful for the long Washington spring, with bare soft earth and emerging plants.

And light! Unlike a winter day when the lamp on my desk stays on, now, on a good day, sun shines into my little workroom from early to late. Outdoors, buds triggered by lengthening daylight begin to change the view.

And the soundtrack changes, too. In winter months only the muffled scuffle of boots on fallen cedar fronds and fir needles, and raindrops through the canopy break the morning silence on the woods walk. Now faint notes of the spring morning chorus begin – little bird twitterings and the haunting songs of winter wrens.

Winter blossoms – snowdrops, crocus, and hellebore bloom in the garden. But daffodils hold the most promise. Their beginnings lead the parade of flowers to come. Nosing through the compost in early February, March finds them six inches up and stretching, green buds brushed yellow.

I’m ready to begin “spring into summer!”

Daffodils in Millbrook vase