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

Not purely animals

Paris
Paris, July 2016.

I have only rarely felt physically unsafe around a woman. This is not the case for everyone, I am sure, but it’s probably true of the majority of people, regardless of their sex. Women are safer than men.

I have felt unsafe around men many times, more times than I can count. Men have taught us, over and over again, that they are not safe. I am not alone in this feeling; a veritable legion of women, half the Earth, has shared this feeling with me, at one point in their lives or another.

(Sometimes it not just a feeling. Sometimes the danger is tangible, experienced.)

In the company of men, especially unknown men, I have no expectations that I will be safe (free from bodily harm). I am far more alert, on edge, ready. In the company of women, I relax. I let down my guard. I exhale and trust that my body is safe, unhindered, mine. Unconsciously, I do not make the assumption of physical safely around an unfamiliar man in an unfamiliar place. I am on the edge of caution.

(Perhaps it is no wonder that we keep to ourselves.)

Women can and do, of course, make one feel emotionally injured. We’ve all been there, wounded by a stray barb thrown at a party or in passing in the break room. But this is not the threat of physical danger, which looms large. It can take over rational thought. And men can be afraid of women too. But as Margaret Atwood said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

(How long will fear have to flicker in our minds? Or is this merely woman’s “natural state”?)

“Nature” is on everyone’s minds these days, in the regular news onslaught of another man accused or convicted of sexual assault or harassment. Is this simply how men are? Roving around, threatening and challenging anyone who crosses their path? Andrew Sullivan, and many others who place their full faith in hormone levels, would like us to think so. Men are beasts, ruled wholly by testosterone and rapacious urges. If this were not the case, the argument goes, why else would the sexes languish in this everlasting tension between force and fear?

This line of reasoning makes me feel very tired. To Sullivan and to others fixated on hormone levels: I submit that humans are not purely animals.

It is futile to look at the ways that mice or lions or baboons or fruit flies interact and assume that this is the way the human sexes relate. Even our closest animal relations differ wildly from us in their sexual mores and practices. Extrapolating animal behavior onto human behavior is an interesting thought experiment, but that may be all that it is. We have studied every other species far more deeply than we have studied ourselves. We are still a profound mystery, perhaps because we are always spanning a duality: we are our bodies and our minds, our strength and our souls, our biology and our society.

Biology is not everything. And socialization is not everything, either. When it comes to being men and women, it’s always both. It’s your body and it’s your culture. You act “like a man” partly because of your biological impulses, which are always and forever interacting with society, with expectations, with how you were raised. It is nature and nurture, all the time. (Neurogeneticist Kevin Mitchell parses out the so-called biological differences between men and women, and how they express themselves, rather neatly in this post.)

If this is the case, that testosterone and estrogen are not fate, we need a broader vision for male and female relationships. Banking on worn-out stereotypes (men are devils, women are angels; men are heroes, women are witches) is circular and shallow.

I am cheered by those who are still able to cast a vision for harmony and mutual respect between men and women. I still hope for this. I have no hope in evangelical leaders and sleazy politicians alike, who both claim, nauseatingly, that (1) this is just the way that men are and that (2) men should still be in charge of all spheres of public and private life.

Harmony cannot be achieved if we throw our hands up and say, “Boys will be boys!” By all means, let’s call it like it is: Men have a lot of reckoning to do. The murdering and molesting and raping and war-mongering are overwhelmingly the purview of the male sex, even in our presumably enlightened, developed country. But do we stop there? Do we have no hope for the future? Do we really not believe that men can resist the pull of biology when faced with a dynamic, expansive, civilizing culture? It’s a culture that is riddled with error, of course. Progress is slow, of course. But we have to believe in—and then pursue—some kind of progress, no matter how slight.

We must have higher expectations for one another. Nothing changes if we cannot.

I don’t know where to begin

Nature therapy day

How deeply I looked forward to celebrating our first woman present; how sincerely I dreaded the other outcome, the one we now have.

I will only say a few things, because my filtered version of the internet is daily bursting at the seams with astonished essays, angry stances, assignments of blame, and other iterations of deserved and palpable grief. I am right there with it all. But I have had to turn away from it, if only to preserve my sanity. That is what we did on Sunday; we left our screens and went to the woods with the dogs.

Nature therapy day

Some thoughts on surviving the next four years.

  • Celebrate the tiny things. I went to the library book sale this weekend, and this thought actually ran through my head: “At least I can still read. At least we can find solace in books still.” It sounds silly to say out loud, much less to write, but it was sincerely comforting to me at that moment.
  • Champion the women and people of color in your life. We need each other now more than ever.
  • Spend time with mute creatures. Like babies and dogs. They have no idea what is going on and in this way can be infinitely calming.
  • Make art. In whatever form most calls to you, create something with your mind or your hands. Artists tend to make their best work under the shadow of frightening regimes.
  • Support nonprofits who are doing the hard work every day. I’m giving to New City Arts Initiative, the ACLU, Oceana, Planned Parenthood, and the NAACP. There are hundreds and hundreds of amazing organizations all over this troubled country who need us. Find one that speaks to you.
  • Kiss your loved ones.
  • Turn it off when it gets too much. Go outside. Read a novel or a random Emily Dickinson poem. Write your grandfather a letter.

(Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing)

The good:

My beloved sister and brother-in-law are coming this weekend for our annual feast. I love my new job, my new teammates, the things I get to think about at work. Our dogs are stupid but were so happy and carefree on our hike. This beautiful golden basin of a city that we live in. Sumi ink. Liturgy. Guion.

(My soul also is greatly troubled)

Listening to birds

The sparrow
Photo of an older painting by the fabulous painter Matt Kleberg. Source: Moi.

At lunch today, I sat on the back deck and read My Brilliant Friend. The dogs happily accompanied me outside; Pyrrha positioned herself at my feet, as she is the inveterate family beggar, and Eden amused herself by chasing dancing pairs of carpenter bees. (That dog. She is exhausting, but she wears a face of perpetual joy all day long. The only time her face falls is when you tell her to come inside.)

I found myself easily distracted from the novel, as much as I’m enjoying it, and watched and listened to the birds instead. We have a gigantic white spruce tree in the yard, and it seems to function as a high-rise complex for birds. Today, it sounded like an avian domestic dispute happened midway up the trunk, and two robins emerged separately, chasing each other with what I can only presume was marital fury.

When I tried to focus merely on sound, I could hear at least six different bird calls happening simultaneously. I wanted to know what kinds of birds they were and what they were trying to communicate.

I am halfway through Jonathan Franzen’s controversial piece about conservation/birds/the Audubon Society, and so I have been thinking about birds a bit more than usual. Also, our good friends Maddy and Sam are devoted birders, so I always think about them when I notice birds.

Simply: I wish that I knew more than I do, which is one of my most frequent desires.

Corollary thought: Have you inherited your family’s prejudice against certain animals/forms of nature? Odd question, I know. My parents separately taught me quite a bit about plants (my mother) and animals (my father), and I realized today that I bear a lot of their likes and dislikes, for purely emotional or aesthetic reasons, regarding certain species. For example, my mother loathes Bradford pear trees, and I realized this week that I do too (the stench, the shape, the mendacity). We both love cherry trees and dogwoods, however. My father dislikes blue jays, cats, and hyenas, but loves falcons, dogs, and bears, and so I do too, accepting these preferences blindly, as I have since I was a child.

Prayed heartily

Some flowering bush
Some flowering bush in our old yard.

“No man has ever prayed heartily without learning something.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

My family is heading into this sadder, weightier Christmas time, but my heart is gravitating toward simple expressions of faith and comfort. I suppose this is what happens to all of us when we are so nearly confronted with grief and death. Small things resonate with me, like the verses from Psalm 4 (one of my favorites, probably because of the influence of Jennifer Knapp on my teenage self) that Guion read to me one night when I could not stop crying: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8). And even silly lines from Sufjan songs: “Since it’s Christmas, let’s be glad/Even if your year’s been bad, there are presents to be had.” Hugs from friends and my boss. E-mails from people I rarely see. Lasagna with these wonderful women this week:

Left to right: Me, Audrey, Stella the terrier, Sarah, Rachel, Casey, Palmer, Kendra, and Lizzie. Photo courtesy of Lizzie.
Left to right: Me, Audrey, Stella the terrier, Sarah, Rachel, Casey, Palmer, Kendra, and Lizzie. Photo courtesy of Lizzie.

There is hope and joy. Wishing you both during this Christmas season.

To the attentive eye

chickadee
(c) Erin Boyle.

“To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”

The soul finds its own home

Click for source.

“That odd capacity for destitution, as if by nature we ought to have so much more than nature gives us. As if we are shockingly unclothed when we lack the complacencies of ordinary life. In destitution, even of feeling or purpose, a human being is more hauntingly human and vulnerable to kindnesses because there is the sense that things should be otherwise, and then the thought of what is wanting and what alleviation would be, and how the soul could be put at ease, restored. At home. But the soul finds its own home if it ever has a home at all.”

— Home, Marilynne Robinson

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And with that, today I am headed to my old home to watch my sister get married to one of my good friends. What an unexpected blessing! The weekend will be one crazy, happy whirlwind, and I can’t wait to celebrate with and for them. See you next week!

Calligraphy and nature

Guion, tending to his hop “tree.”

Exhibit A: Guion vs. Cat

The photograph above shows Guion tending to his deeply beloved hops. As you can see, he’s constructed a makeshift hop maypole running up the dead evergreen tree. Every time he climbs up there, I expect one of those branches to break, but he assures me that it’s very sturdy. He’s very adept and quick up there and the hops have been thriving, thanks to his ramshackle fence.

The fence keeps the deer out, but it hasn’t been successful in prohibiting a more malevolent animal: The domestic cat. We have noticed a tabby cat prowling around the tree and the hop plants and we didn’t think too much of it. But the other day, Guion comes in, huffy and disgruntled. “Cats are evil,” he says. The cat, apparently, dug up one of his precious hop seedlings, pooped in this hole, and then covered it back up, leaving Guion a special little present when he went to check on that lingering seedling. This made me LOL all over the place, but yes, it’s also proof positive that cats are evil. And that they potentially share my father’s sense of humor.

Exhibit B: Escaping calligraphy

I was positively exhausted this weekend by demanding calligraphy jobs. I shouldn’t complain–I am so grateful for the extra cash–but spending one’s entire weekend hunched over a desk, slave to the pen, is not necessarily my idea of a good time.

I was desperate to get out of the house, so we took a brief hike through Pen Park for my Saturday reprieve. A hot day, but the trails are so shaded. We met an equally shy German shepherd puppy, saw three deer crashing through the woods, and lost Pyrrha for a few minutes (turns out her recall is not as good as I thought it was). And then we came home, tired dog in tow, and ate and… did some more calligraphy.

Pen Park walk.

Even though I get easily stressed by these little things, at the core, I feel very peaceful. We have a good life.

Horticultural learning curves

Inherited perennial beds.

How I have changed since moving to our mini-homestead:

  1. I am no longer as bothered by bugs. There are seemingly a million different types of insects who reside in our fertile backyard (as in, slugs wearing the coats of leopards). Many of them often make their way into our home. Stink bugs, my former archenemies, are now low on the list of my concerns. I swear there are ten times as many insect varieties in Virginia as there were in North Carolina. Some of these bugs are so exotic-looking. We dug up the wild bed of mint last weekend and found cicada larvae, which are supremely creepy and ghost-like. We find brilliantly colored beetles, giant ants with wings, wasps the size of small mice. The yellow swallowtails that visit the butterfly bush (featured above) are the only ones who make me happy, though. Pyrrha is also our resident moth huntress in the evenings. While I have no particular problem with moths, I do enjoy watching her stalk them.
  2. I want to go walking all the time, all day long, particularly now that I have a perpetually eager walking companion. Our early morning walks are the best, because the streets are quiet and the heat isn’t oppressive yet. We are still exploring this new area of town. Every new street makes me feel like I’m in a foreign country. This morning, we saw a hunky German shepherd walking a balding man and a rainbow hot air balloon dipping low over the street, gliding down through the neighborhood, looking as if it were about to land on our house. Pyrrha was as interested in it as I was; she’d stop and pause to watch it every so often.
  3. I don’t read as much. This is a shame. I am trying to figure out how to amend this, but I don’t think I can keep up with my former pace. I am ambling through Proust, picking through Joyce, rushing through Covey.
  4. I like sleeping without the A/C on, to a certain extent. It’s like a game. Almost every night now, we ask each other, “Can you sleep without the A/C on?” And the other replies, “I can if you can.” (The dog, however, is a diva and hates the heat. Could have something to do with her full fur coat. I don’t know.)
  5. I don’t spend a fortune on berries anymore, because we grow all of the ones I’d want to eat anyway. Yes. That was not a humble brag; it is a full-out brag. (But one we can’t take credit for; all glory due to our landlord, the gardening goddess.)
  6. I feel more grown up somehow.
  7. I never want to go anywhere anymore.

Good things? Bad things? Qui sait? But they are things.

Reverence and awe for creation

"The White Horse." Paul Gauguin.

This is something I have been feeling quite strongly lately:

“All animals, all beings, deserve respectful consideration simply for the fact that they exist. Whether animals think and feel, and what they know, is irrelevant. Reverence and awe for creation should guide human actions, along with a humble acknowledgment that humans have limited knowledge about the mysteries of our own existence.”

— Marc Bekoff, The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint

More specifically, it disturbs me how many Christians write off environmentalism and animal rights as spheres belonging only to atheistic liberals. We barely care enough about humans, it’s true, but we also have a divine calling to care about animals and the earth. It is an easy thing to forget, I suppose; animals and the earth are so easily subjugated, so often voiceless. We have so far to go until we can say that we treat all animals with gentleness, respect, and grace.