Tending a plot

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Backyard herbs in the summer.

By all accounts, I am a lazy gardener, but I relish the time for scheming that winter provides.

Gardening offers such rich mental pleasures. It opens a private world for planning and discovery. The plot itself becomes a little space for experimentation and redemption, yielding up the freedom to fail and fail grandly. I am already eager for spring, and my mind is filling up with inchoate plans for the front yard. My campaign to kill the lawn continues, if tediously, and I have grand designs for the plants to move and add to continue to colonize the grass.

Gardening has made me more comfortable with failure. We have failed, in many respects, this season. We didn’t clean up the monstrous overreach of our blackberries. We didn’t plant garlic in time, long a staple crop of our backyard. We didn’t support the enormous elderberry bushes very well, and we have no idea what to do with our three sickly apple trees. The yard is also a mess right now. After a busy summer and fall, the backyard looks more shabby than usual. But I feel uncharacteristically calm. Spring brings new life, unfilled time, the chance to start again.

Because this is the comfort of gardening: Gardening is never done. You’re never finished tending. There is no end in sight. And that is a deep, renewing joy.

. . .

Every fall, I forget about the tremendous joy I experience when I switch our bed from a quilt to our down comforter. The warmth and weight of the thing makes me feel a little less rage at the frigidity of the season.

. . .

two petals fall
and the shape of the peony
is wholly changed

– Shikibu

. . .

Thankful for

  • A week full of dinners with friends
  • An aging dog who still greets me with veritable leaps in the air
  • Yorkshire Gold tea
  • Cashmere sweater dresses
  • The linen tea towel of the Proust questionnaire that Guion bought me in Paris, which I’m finally using (life is too short to not use precious things)
  • Sugar maples
  • These Chelsea boots, to replace much-loved synthetic ones
  • Anne Lamott
  • Hair being finally long enough for a bun
  • The public library, always and forever

The young garden

Easter 2016
Just look at this blowsy camellia of mine.

April weather has been fickle, but I pull open the curtains every morning with pleasure and note how my front yard is coming back to life. I’ve been in a mood lately and studying English cottages and gardens with my typical fervor. I have such strong ambitions for my meager garden, and I feel like a failure more than half the time, but the context of English gardening has made me feel more relaxed. First, it is very loose and impressionistic. Gardens are simply packed with every conceivable flower and shrub, with little form or order imposed. Second, the English have been gardening for hundreds and hundreds of years. A refined plantsman in one of the books said his garden was so young; it was only 20 years old. This surprised and comforted me. I recall that my garden is four years old; it is but a mewling thing, inchoate and desperate to be tended. I have a long way to go until it feels finished, and I am happy about that. Because maybe a garden is never finished.

Next: To figure out how to persuade Guion to jack up our horrible concrete walk and replace it with pea gravel. (I mean, I’ll help, but it’s such man’s work.) This project feels incredibly essential to me right now. I’m also hankering after a Virginia rose, but I can’t find one anywhere.

There is a very old tin of Burt’s Bees’ lemon butter cuticle cream at my desk; I use it infrequently. When my grandmother was alive, I’d give her this cream every year for Christmas. She’d clasp the little circular tin in her narrow fingers and say, “Oh, I have needed this! My cuticles get so dry!” She’d say this every year as she unwrapped it, even though she probably knew she was getting the same thing she got every year, and it pleased me. Whenever I use the stuff, the faint lemony scent makes me think of her, and I smile.

Now that I am 30, I have put childish ways behind me:

  • I am acclimatizing myself to being referred to as a “nice lady”; it is horrible beyond words to be called this.
  • I think I’m still in college, but then when I meet an actual college student, I think, Good grief, look at this infant.
  • I have to repeatedly Google the meanings of acronyms that my young colleague uses in Slack.
  • I want to be in my bed, skincare routine complete, by 10 every night.
  • I cannot fathom wearing a bikini in public. It now feels inappropriate, to show this much flesh in my old age.

Recently, in reading life:

I’ve fallen in love with Teju Cole, and I feel a particular bitterness toward my boss for loving him before I did, as if I have to lay claim to an author first, before anyone else recommended him to me, as if that mattered at all. If I heard that Teju Cole was speaking somewhere nearby, I’d probably travel an unconscionably long while just to hear him. I read the infinitely strange Two Serious Ladies, by Jane Bowles, and I have been thinking about her ever since; I lent it to a colleague, and he gave me the slim volume of Paul Bowles’s Tangiers diary, and I am curious about what kind of marriage they must have had. I’m reading Spring, the latest little release from Karl Ove Knausgaard, and it charms me in all the predictable ways that he works on me. Specifically, he has this magic for making me ponder questions that I don’t encounter anywhere else. The one that has been haunting me lately is what is personality FOR? What is its function? I’ve been asking lots of people this question lately, and Grace M. gave the best answer I’ve heard yet: That human animals have personality because it makes society better; different personalities fulfill different roles, and so we have a collaborative, healthy, diverse community because of the multiplicity of temperaments.

I feel like I should surrender as a creative writer. I sat down to write a story recently, and was feeling into it, coasting along in this great groove, and then I stopped and re-read the character I thought had sprung from my fresh mind. I had just written an exact replica of Elio from Call Me By Your Name, down to the lounging on a mattress listening to classical music daydreaming about boys. What a hack! My brain is a thief. I give up.

Plants doing as they please

Garden in June
The outrageous coreopsis in the front yard.

Latest obsession, because I always have one: Native plants!

I just finished Nancy Lawson’s book The Humane Gardener and have felt the full error of my amateurish ways. I have planted a handful of native southeastern plants, mostly by accident, but I am so ready to focus on them and eschew the imported, exotic interlopers. (Gardening with native plants makes you sound really xenophobic really fast.)

There are so many plants that gardeners hold up as a standard of aesthetic beauty that are non-native and often invasive — and offer zero benefits to the insects, birds and mammals that cohabitate with us. I was also reminded, by Lawson, of how arbitrary the definition of a “weed” is. Unless it really is an invasive non-native plant, “weeds” generally serve useful purposes in your local ecosystem. I am more inclined to leave (some of) them, having been more informed of what “weeds” actually belong in Virginia (such as that wild violet that I keep ripping up).

I found Lawson’s book so heartening, because it made me realize that my little yard is actually my most powerful weapon against the grave tide of climate change. I can’t do anything about the Paris Accord. I can’t do anything to persuade China or the United States or India to reduce their carbon emissions. But I can garden for my native ecosystem, and in this way, boost a little bit of the earth that falls under my purview.

A few photos of the native plants that we have thus far:

Garden in June
Christmas fern (one of three).
Garden in June
Blossoms on our gigantic black elderberry.
Garden in June
Spiderwort.
Garden in June
Even more spiderwort.
Garden in June
Little bees on the coreopsis.
End of April
Baby oakleaf hydrangea. Can’t wait for it to get HUGE.

Natives planted but still growing: Purple coneflower, more spiderwort volunteers, pokeberry (which I previously ripped out but will now allow in select areas, having been informed of its usefulness to Virginia wildlife).

Next garden ambition: To turn the area that was formerly a chicken run in the backyard into a native wildflower mini-meadow, to attract lots of pollinators and let things grow a bit wild and unchecked.

All summer long, I am happiest when I am eating an unadvisedly large quantity of cherries.

“I write to find out what I think about something.” — Anne Carson, quoted in her Art of Poetry interview, Paris Review

She would buy the flowers herself

Neighborhood strolling(As a preemptive warning, all of my post titles are probably going to be lifted straight from Mrs. Dalloway, which I am currently re-reading for the fifth time. I am suffused with emotion! It is everything I remembered it to be and more, particularly because I am actually living in her pulsing city.)

Neighborhood strollingThis is our neighborhood. It is immensely charming.

Neighborhood strollingNeighborhood strollingThese gardens are the grounds of our neighborhood church in St. John’s Wood.

Neighborhood strollingLooking forward to our first full weekend together in the city!

Easter and family

A good portion of my family came to see us on Easter weekend — to celebrate birthdays, to labor in our yard, and to provide general merriment. I can’t get over how much fun these people are sometimes. I felt like my Gran when they returned to their respective homes. She, normally of the stoic and sarcastic temperament, would always turn her face and cry a little when family left. This is what I did for a moment on Sunday afternoon, but I know we’ll see each other again soon. (And, ideally, in Europe.)

Spring is finally here, and I am grateful.

Easter 2016The big project: Adding pea gravel to our little fenced garden area. We will eventually add two more raised beds, but we wanted to go ahead and finish the gravel before we depart for the summer.

Before:

Easter 2016

And after:

Easter 2016Easter 2016Didn’t the boys do a marvelous job? I’m so happy with how it turned out. To finish it up, I want to find some low-growing, flowering perennials to put around the edges.

Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016

Inscrutable titles

Amaranth
The backyard garden has become a bizarre Seussian jungle. Guion grew these giant elephant amaranth plants from seed. From seed! They are now between five to six feet tall.

“Do you ever feel lonely in your particular brand of Christianity?” I asked Guion last night, as we ate dinner on the back deck. The evening was mild, with scant humidity. The mosquitoes were out but I daresay as a reduced horde. We took our time with our food. We had been talking about the meteoric (terrifying, seemingly unflappable) rise of Donald Trump and then we took a turn toward religion. “What do you mean?” he asked. “I sometimes feel like I have more in common intellectually with agnostics or atheists than with mainstream Christians,” I said, with a fretting tone. “And what worries me more is, What if the mainstream version of Christianity really is true Christianity and I’m just clinging to this specific, progressive, grace-filled Christianity that I—and our church and Mockingbird—believe in, which isn’t real Christianity at all? Is that a problem? Do you ever worry about that?” He paused, took a sip of (weird, juicy) red wine, and said, “No. I don’t worry about that.” And so maybe I shouldn’t either.

Semi-related humbling observation/note to self: Abby, when you are eager to write off an entire swath of people, based around some media-generated stereotypes or some fervent book you just read, go meet a person from this group. Learn his name. Ask her what led her to be a part of this group. Imagine her at home, alone, with her thoughts, or him interacting with his dog in a tender way, or taking care of his mother. And let go of the judgment.

I love inscrutable, lyrical blog titles, if you can’t tell. There is usually no rhyme or reason to them; most often, they are plucked at random from the brain, frequently related to some musical phrase I have been privately enjoying.

“All I really want to do with my life is sit on the couch and eat Sabor de Soledad,” Jonathan told me recently. That about sums it up for me too.

The view from my window is a constant reminder

Front yard in July 2015
Daylilies in the front yard. July 2015.

“In my youth, I considered Cicero’s claim, that all a man needs to be happy is a garden and a library, utterly bourgeois, to be a truth for the boring and middle-aged, as far as possible from who I wanted to be. Perhaps because my own father was somewhat obsessed with his garden and his stamp collection. Now, being boring and middle-aged myself, I have resigned. Not only do I see the connection between literature and gardens, those small areas of cultivating the undefined and borderless, I nurture it. I read a biography on Werner Heisenberg, and it’s all there, in the garden, the atoms, the quantum leaps, the uncertainty principle. I read a book about genes and DNA, it’s all there. I read the Bible, and there’s the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. I love that phrase, “in the cool of the day,” it awakens something in me, a feeling of depth on sunny summer days that hold a kind of eternal quality, and then the winds from the sea come rushing in the afternoon, shadows grow as the sun sinks slowly on the sky, and somewhere children are laughing. All this in the cool of the day, in the midst of life, and when it’s over, when I’m no longer here, this view will still be. This is also what I see when I look out my window, and there’s a strange comfort in that, taking notice of the world as we pass through it, the world taking no notice of us.”

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, in Windows on the World, by Matteo Pericoli

Front yard, before and after

The (fuzzy) listing photo of our house, October 2013; when we saw it for the first time:

listingphoto

Front yard now, circa July 2015:

front yard, July 2015

Plants (and shutters!) make all the difference. I’m still scheming about how to improve the exterior. I desperately want a new front door (I can’t wait to toss that storm door), and I’d love to completely renovate the front stoop (get rid of that concrete and use slate slabs and beef up those skinny columns) and the old concrete front walk. So many plans, so few monies…

Favorite books from April

A list of the best things I read in April.

My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante. It is as good as everyone says it is.

On Immunity: An Inoculation

On Immunity: An Inoculation, Eula Biss. Beautifully written meditation on the history and language of vaccines.

The Blue Flower

The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is my latest lady novelist obsession.

The Diary, Vol. 3: 1925-1930

The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. III (1925–1930). Her happiest, most productive years.

The Writer in the Garden

The Writer in the Garden, ed. Jane Garmey. Charming collection of essays, poems, and thoughts about gardening from talented writers.

Life and Times of Michael K

Life & Times of Michael K, J.M. Coetzee. Darkly moving.

What did you read and enjoy in April?

Mental potpourri

Starting to look like a jungle
This is the magnificent, prehistoric-looking birds’ nest fern from Windy!

Guion had me take this StrengthsFinder survey, and let me tell you, the results of this little online questionnaire resembled a talented fortune teller. So accurate! So specific! One of the statements said, “You probably learned to read at a very young age.” Yep. How did you know that?? Or: “You love to collect information and read books and websites that most people would probably find boring.” Uh-huh. Or: “Your ability to accomplish goals you set for yourself each day affects how you feel about your success as a human being.” Most definitely. Or: “You need to tone down the violence of your opinions about abusive dog breeding practices.” OK. Not the last one. But I wouldn’t have been surprised.

Things we’ve planted in the yard that we hope will live: forsythia, three blackberry bushes, three blueberry bushes, two apple trees, one (producing) cherry tree, two ilex hollies. Things to plant still: more hollies, rosemary, sedum, columbine, lavender, black-eyed susans, coreopsis, and later, irises and daffodils.

The horde of boy children next door have been very effective additional birth control.

I’m reading Hillary Rodham Clinton’s autobiography (Living History) right now, and I want to say, (1) I will always love Hillary, forever and always, and (2) Why are politicians such a pain to read? I feel like they’re always trying to sell me something about truth, justice, and the American way, and hence, I never believe anything that comes out of their mouths. Even when it’s the majestic Hillz.

This weekend, I am attending a seminar/conference on the church and homosexuality. I am expecting to hate it, but I am trying to go into it with an open, peaceful, nonaggressive mind. The seminar is not at my church, so I am a bit less emotionally invested in their conclusions, but as my mother recently said, every church, sooner or later, is going to have to take a stand on the issue. I just hope and pray that, when the time comes, our church takes a stand on the right side of history.

Semi-related: I am often troubled by the fact that the modern church is rarely an institution of social progress. Sometimes we are. More likely than not, however, we take the backward view. This is odd to me, because Jesus was such a progressive, radical dude. This is not to say that churches are not involved in social issues; of course they are. I suppose the deeper question is whether the church should be a progressive institution. Or is the church intentionally slow to change?

Would that we were all more like Jane Goodall.