Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Garden Catalogs

The nursery catalogs are beginning to arrive. What a wonderful way to start the New Year as a gardener, looking ahead.

Be it resolved, that I:

--STOP PROCRASTINATING…which means I get on top of those weeds ASAP before they take over my life. Little messes clean up a lot easier than big ones. My happiest days in the garden have been when I grabbed my trowel at the first sign of trouble.

--PERSIST. When in doubt, repeat. After two preemptive weeding sessions, pesky interlopers actually start to get the message. I am not going to let them prevail. Perhaps the same approach will carry over into my exercise regimen. Ya never know.

--SIMPLIFY. It has been obvious for years now that those iris clumps are too crowded. Disturbing them may interrupt their blooming for a season, but the alternatives are worse. Too much closeness can be very unhealthy. Root rot sets in. Borers have a field day. Time to bite the bullet and thin ‘em out.

--LOOK FOR THE SILVER LININGS. If I tackle the tough stuff, like thinning out the beds, it can be a wrenching process. Then again, in the process I gain an excuse to meet that new neighbor and take over a chopped-off gallon milk jug filled with the best of the excess. My plants become ambassadors of friendship flourishing in new ground.

--LEARN THAT TIMING IS ALL. I lost my Shasta daisies three years ago. I miss them. If Shastas are too fragile, then maybe it’s time to explore other varieties that are hardier. Knowing when to replant and when to give it up is an art not a science, I am discovering. There is a time for all things.

--DREAM. The wonderful thing about seed catalogs is their sense of promise, just waiting to be fulfilled. Those photos and lush descriptions speak to the dreamer in us, speak of hope when our garden is at its bleakest. The realist in us fights back with arguments like maybe our climate zone is too harsh or that introducing something new into our garden is too risky—it takes work. But then gardening is always a leap of faith…and maybe that’s a good thing.

The days are getting longer. Imperceptibly at first, but soon we will feel the warming sun against our faces, marvel at the scent of spring on the wind. As children of the earth, that cycle grounds us.

At this time of giving and celebration, maybe those simple junk-mail catalogs, arriving unbidden every day, are among the most precious gifts of all. I wish you Happy New Year and happy gardening.

Monday, November 26, 2007

GPS systems and Thanksgiving

GPS systems and Thanksgiving. . .the milestones that define our journeys.

As a writer, last summer’s cross-country book signing tour was an amazing experience. For starters, my long-suffering spouse and I were traveling in our 25-foot motor home with GPS leading the way, an interesting bit of hands-on research for my upcoming novel, "In Transit," set for release in April of 2008.

Someone buys your book, reads and hopefully enjoy it. End of story. But now and then someone reads those same pages, falls in love with the work and the magic begins.

At the Southwest Gardener in Phoenix, two of my daughters were helping with the signing. "Summer is the slow season for us," warned the gracious shop owner as I settled down in her lovely shop to wait. "Don’t necessarily expect a land rush."

Our banner went out on the wrought-iron fence bracketing the stucco doorway. A woman came in, purchased "TIME in a Garden," talked for a bit and left. After about twenty minutes, one of my daughters came to me to report in an excited whisper: "Mom, that lady is sitting at a table on the patio outside the shop. She’s reading your book."

"Wonderful," I said.

Within minutes, the reader was back. "I’m loving it," she said, her excitement contagious. "I decided I’d like a copy of VOX as well. I’m the gardener, but back in the Midwest where I’m from, I have a friend who grew up as a church organist like the woman in your story. I thought it would make a great present."

A wonderful morning of personal encounters was about to begin. Book signing is not about autographs and celebrity. It is about quietly making friends, one sentence, one page, one book at a time. It is about connecting with people who "get" what you as an author are trying to express and start spreading the news.

Early-on during the tour, a talk at Thiel College about VOX HUMANA: The Human Voice brought back priceless memories of our years living in western Pennsylvania. At the end of the formal program, the whole bunch of us piled into cars and drove the mile to the little Episcopal church that had inspired the novel and I played that lovely tracker organ for the first time in 16 years. My tears that magic day were ones of sheer, unadulterated joy.

Stuff happens. Through some wild foul-up, the date a bookstore in Michigan advertised for the signing was a day AFTER the one typed on my website. Ooops. An email pops up on my computer informing me of that fact, from a couple of fans who drove 70 miles [140 total, round-trip] to meet me. They had purchased going on a dozen books, anticipating the signing, and had left behind instructions for me how to sign them.

Mercifully, they weren’t angry—but understandably disappointed. I fired an email back, invited them to visit me personally at my summer cottage when they returned to pick up the books. We would have tea.

It turned into one of the most delightful two hours of the summer, with the two fans, their spouses and my husband chattering away about writing, our life stories and the ties that bind us. It seems one of the women had received "TIME in a Garden" as a Christmas present from a friend on Long Island who had heard me speak at a garden club in New York about the novel. "The author summers in Michigan," the New Yorker said. "You have GOT to meet."
We did. And I’ll treasure the memory always. Small world, indeed.

A friend in Maryland has been single-handedly urging libraries in her neck of the woods to buy my books and gifted eight friends at Christmas with TIME. That led to a book club in Maine and a garden club and church group in Grosse Point reading the book. They liked VOX just as much and are scheduling a discussion about it. Summer 2008 I will be visiting that city to meet friends I know only through emails about my work.

To date, the New York connection and a major event sponsored by Martha and the great folks from the Michigan State University Extension Master Gardener program have led to multiple bookings with garden clubs, churches and reading groups through Fall of 2008. The emails from fans continue.

Stories like these are changing me as a writer. They keep me going on dry days when the words on the page come harder than others. You will catch a glimpse of "why" if you browse the Summer 07 Tour slide-show.

At one point, I was worried a Spring 2008 release date for "In Transit" was unrealistic. And then we went on the road. The work is ahead of schedule and advance readers say it is the best yet. I can’t judge.

As I write these words, in anticipation that you among others just might read them, I only know how grateful I am—grateful for every mile and keystroke. It’s Tuesday. Thanksgiving is forty-eight hours away.

I wish you and yours every good thing. May you know the joy of friendship, love and family. May you know life, fully lived, in all its ambiguity and wonder. May you rejoice—and share it!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Cat's Cradles and Holy Weeks

We lost author Kurt Vonnegut this week and in my own sadness at this amazing writer’s passing, I found myself turning over in my head a statement he made once, that if proof of the existence of a Divine Power were ever needed, look for it in music. Truth, if I ever heard it. Having just finished playing the overwhelming Holy Week calendar of masses and services for three different parishes and churches, I still find my nerve endings tingling at the intense memories and emotions that particular musical journey always evokes for me.

Life is good, in all its contradictions. Spiritually energized, as an organist I ended the week by phoning my physical therapist to get the kinks out of my back from the grueling physicality of all the playing. Outside my apartment window as I write, the birds are celebrating the season with their own festive choruses, at the same time squabbling over the gourmet bird seed we set out in the feeder. A howling storm yesterday dumped inches of rain in the birdbath and pond, a signal to the daffodils to uncurl their tight-curled heads, all the while flinching from the unseasonable cold.

In the middle of all this, a friend and fellow local American Guild of Organists member showed up with a photo she had found wedged in between the organ case in the lovely pipe organ I had played for the past ten years at a local congregation. It was of an eight-year younger me, standing balletic-fashion on the E. Power Biggs star on the Hollywood walk of fame. My smile was half-embarrassed, knowing full well it was an enormous stretch between my own performing skills and the enormous talent of that legend in the organ world. But then, like Vonnegut and those feathered creatures at my birdbath, our common bond—music—looms bigger than all of us, the celestial rhythm of the spheres, set in motion at creation, pulsing through our lives from womb to that final plot of earth and beyond.

I’ve worked with choirs and musicians that understand full well how small our personal gifts seem when we presume to make a song or anthem or instrumental composition truly “our own”. In the end, after all the rehearsing and practice, we all just give in and celebrate the mystery as we risk sharing with others what those sounds and rhythms, the pitches and silence mean to us. What joy it is for all the potential mistakes and possible missteps, to give ourselves to the moment fully and completely with everything we have.
And how very different the results than when we work with those souls hell-bent on control, tapping out the beats as they desperately try to reign in and channel all the wild and wondrous glory, an exercise in futility that rips the heart of a piece and leaves the listener and singer alike feeling cold and empty.

Life lived, at its best, is no less spontaneous and dangerous. To risk loving flat-out, pedal to the metal, is both terrifying and exhilarating. Even as I consider those go-for-it moments in my own life, in my gardening or music or personal relationships, I hear the remembered rush of the wind whispering through my hair and the silent thudding of my heartbeat responding to the wonder of it all.

Kurt Vonnegut was right. The presence of God is there for the experiencing with or without our feeble consent or control.

And so, may the song of Spring bursting forth in all its untamed splendor echo in your heart as you move through these days of flowers and gloomy downpours—like those shivering daffodils, courageous and hopeful. I truly believe that as we open ourselves to those rhythms, that all-embracing power and energy, even in our darkest moments we are never, ever alone.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Community Gardening

The current Farmer’s Almanac quotes one gardener who insists that the more we involve others in our garden, the less ownership we feel in it. As a convert to "community gardening", I would argue that the very opposite is true.

Community is the natural state of things in a garden. Plants do not exist in isolation. Even as they jostle each other for space or nutrients, there is an interdependence at work that for the individual plant is life-changing. Growth and change come with the territory. Gardens are never about "status quo" and never about being alone.

Community gardening consciously promotes that kind of nitty-gritty sharing. We all bring to the process unique strengths, literally and figuratively. Our backs may not sustain prolonged digging, but instead we can contribute the patience of a weeder. Some of us are master dead-headers capable of hours spent carefully trimming back the bloomed-out and weather-damaged.

As we delegate and broker such gifts, humility and mutual support become part of the equation—a mirror of successful garden design itself. Lowly border plants may not be among the flashiest plants, but they are crucial to hold the line between lawn and bed. Shorter, sturdy species can work better than external stakes to support taller, more fragile stalks. So, too, people in a community garden each have a role to play, promoting a healthy sense of self-worth and mutual respect.

Gardening in community can promote sharing that goes far, far deeper than just such tasks at hand. A wise crew leader knows this and tries to pair workers in small groups rather than just deploying them individually in isolated parts of the garden. The conversations that result can be far more powerful as motivators than just checking off "jobs-accomplished" on a to-do list.

Shared garden maintenance becomes less of a "competition" and more of a "contact" sport. Gardening alone, there is temptation to become obsessed with "how big" and "how much" a plot of ground can produce. In a community garden, rewards center around recognizing the value of the "whole"—beauty stemming from the overall impact of the garden, not just the spectacular achievements of a single plant or bed or even gardener.

Competition can be a lonely and divisive business. It magnifies our faults as well as our accomplishments. As we garden in community, we are cultivating a very different kind of kinship, not just with those plants we till and tend but with one another. The sense of connectedness of plant and people can become truly profound and life-affirming.

Folk wisdom says, where there is a bare plot of earth, there is a garden waiting to bloom. These grim winter months can be a good time to look around for those places in everyday life that could profit from a bit of nurturing. It might be a bare foundation wall in front of the office. It could be a foot-trodden spot along the curb on a residential block.

To reclaim the neglected or down-trodden—whether soil, land or friendships that need cultivating—can be as simple as enlisting partners in the process. Recruit several neighbors or co-workers. It could be a friend we need to cultivate. Make a plan and pool resources to purchase the seeds or plant stock. Establish a work schedule that depends upon time spent together sharing tools, sharing skills and know-how and celebrating tasks jointly completed.

Community gardening, on whatever scale, can be one of the most important commitments we ever make. The beauty achieved is only a by-product. The most powerful accomplishment gets to the very heart of what it means to garden: the search for healthy community.