Gardening and me: a tale of neglect

I always think that I ought to be a gardener, even though I’m terrified of most bugs (especially spiders) and really hate having dirt under my finger nails.  When I’m being practical, I have to admit that I’m really not made for mucking about in dirt and nature.  But I have these fond memories of helping my grandmother plant marigolds in her garden, some twenty-five years ago, before my dislike of bugs and dirt was so pronounced.  So when my husband and I moved out of our apartment to our current place with its small plot of land, I really thought that I would suddenly become a gardener.  Let me share just how delusional I was: I was 7-months pregnant and had a nursery to set up (as well as boxes to unpack and a seriously dirty house to clean), but I really thought that I was going to jump into the habit of spending an hour or two a day kneeling in the dirt and making things grow.

I didn’t.  I spent one or two hours total outside and then followed my usual pattern when things turn difficult: I let my husband handle it.  My husband is actually quite a good gardener, and he’s particularly good at transforming out-of-control patches of garden into controlled and flourishing little landscapes.

I had an epiphany on Saturday afternoon, and I want to share it with the Internet-verse, because epiphanies don’t come my way very often (unless I’m cracking open a bottle of Epiphany wine… it’s good stuff.).  Gardening can be a fairly good metaphor for life, and my approach to gardening  (whether or not it leads to actual gardening, I should point out) is similar to my approach to relationships old and new.

When gardening, my favorite thing to do is to re-pot or plant in the ground sad, neglected root-bound plants.  It doesn’t matter to me if it was my neglect that caused that sad mass of roots to congeal at the bottom of the pot.  I like being the one to help that plant out.  I talk to these plants.  I reassure them that life will get better from here on out.  I call them my darlings, my lovelies.  I find a hospitable pot or dig them a big enough hole, and I mix compost, native soil, and plant food together for them before tucking them in with a hearty helping of native soil and a layer of top soil.  I want the best for them.  I hope they will thrive.

And then I go inside my house and I promptly forget all about them.

I’m bad at maintenance.  I have to schedule regular meetings with friends or I’ll completely drop off the grids of their lives.  It isn’t that I don’t love them or that I’m a bad person (necessarily)… it’s that I’m a bad gardener.  A friend or plant who is immediately before me gets my full and loving attention, but as soon as that friend or plant is out of sight, they are out of mind, too.  Maybe that’s normal.  But I see a lot of people doing their daily gardening maintenance while I drive through my neighborhood on the way to work every morning, and it always makes me feel just a little bit bad about myself.

And now, because photos are awesome, here are some progress shots of our massive garden undertaking from this past weekend (most of the work was done by my husband and best friend, by the way.  I planted some sad little root-bound plants and dug up some weeds, but I was mostly on kid-watching duty.).

When I woke up on Saturday morning and wandered outside, I discovered that my husband had been quite busy.

We planted some trees and new shrubs, and my husband and best friend installed landscaping fabric to block all the weeds from coming right back.

Here’s a status shot from Sunday morning after about half of the mulch had been put in. I forgot to take a picture this morning of the finished product. Looks great, though!

I just had to include this one because our roses finally decided to bloom. I’m pretty sure they used to think we were the scum of the earth, but maybe they like us now!

Why did I decide to write about gardening on a blog that’s supposed to be about reading/neurosis?  Well, I replied this morning to a comment someone left me, and in my reply I referenced Anne Lamott, a truly wonderful writer whose book Bird by Bird is one of my favorites.  I’d already had my gardening:life metaphor epiphany (not all that earth shattering in the scheme of things, but it was meaningful to me at the time), and I remembered my favorite little bit from Bird by Bird.

People used to give me potted plants and trees, and what happened to them is really too horrible to go into here.  They’d end up looking like I watered them with Agent Orange.  I’d tell people that I didn’t do well with potted plants, and they’d decide that I’d just never met the right one and that they were going to be the person to free me and cause God to restore my glorious gift of sight and all that, and they’d bring me some little training plant, and I’d try really hard to water it and keep it in or out of sunlight, whatever its little card of introduction said it preferred, and to take it for little walks around the house, and within about a month you could almost hear chlorophyllous breakdown, a Panic in Needle Park sort of thing.  Then you’d see it clutching its little throat, staring at you with its little Keane eyes, gasping and accusing–and I mean who needs it?  Believe me, I have enough problems as it is.

And I thought, hey, why not?  So maybe gardening is a metaphor for life and relationships, and maybe I’m kind of a failure at all of that, but at least I’m in good company being such a terrible gardener.

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Stress – I has it

I usually try not to allow myself to experience stress.  You know how stress is: it creeps around the corner and stomps on top of you, in a quiet way, until all of your muscles are tense and you’re not sleeping well and you start dreaming about being a super spy under attack (or is that just me?).  Stress is insidious and awful, and I’m really not a fan of it.  When I feel it creeping in, I start to take measures to counteract it.  I might spend a little extra time reading really lame books (because they’re funny); I might paint my fingernails or my toenails, hoping that some pampering might have a calming effect; I might switch up the music in my iPod–from Muse to Enya or Beethoven or Sibelius.  The point is, when I feel it coming, I do my best to make sure stress doesn’t take up occupancy in my mind or body.

I feel stress.  There are dark circles under my eyes that even makeup won’t cover, possibly because I don’t know how to apply concealer properly.  I’ve been waking up in the night with muscle spasms in my neck and back (hence the dark circles…).  I’ve been clenching my jaw a bit too much.  Any day now, I’ll start to get snarky without being properly provoked.  I feel it coming.

Most unfortunately, I can’t exactly cut away those causes of my stress.  I have to work, I have to be a mother to my children and a wife to my husband.  I have to be a friend to my friends.  I have responsibilities at my church (Vestry member, Junior Warden, Chair of the Profile/Search Committee, member of the choir, member of the social committee (hee hee!!!), congregant, etc.  It’s a lot.), though I’ve been dropping the ball on a lot of these responsibilities lately.  I need balance, some moments when my time is my own, when I am simply Kelly rather than Assistant (and chief proofreader and quasi-media liaison), Mommy, Wife, Jr. Warden, etc.  I feel like I’m slipping away, even though I’m not.  That, to me, is the most awful thing about stress.  It’s like all the weeds choking out the plants in my garden.  It’s so easy to get covered, entangled, choked out by all of the various responsibilities, often conflicting, of one’s life.  How can I be a good mother and a good employee simultaneously?  What’s more important to my family, ultimately?  Where is the lesser evil/greater good?

Actually, it’s a budgeting issue.  I have a limited amount of time and energy every day, and all of the things that I need to do far exceed that daily budget, and decisions have to be made.  What are the priorities; which balls can I drop? It’s rather like deciding which bills need to be paid and which can be put off for a time, and it’s just as devastating, isn’t it?

So, to lower my stress levels I am (1) writing about it, (2) listening to Tori Amos’ Night of Hunters album, (3) reading, when I have a chance, Tristan’s Loins, believe it or not.  My husband thinks I’m totally lame for reading romance novels, but they really are stress-relieving to me.  I’m not saying Tristan’s Loins is at all a good book, but it isn’t nearly as terrible as I thought it would be, considering it was free and it’s about a romance novel character come to life by magical means.  Actually, it’s really funny, and it pokes fun at a ridiculous genre in a really great way.  So take that, stress!

Oh, and here’s the awesomeness that is Truly, Madly Viking.  Having mentioned it in my previous post, I really felt the need to share exactly how wonderful it is.  I particularly like the fur-lined gauntlets on a shirtless man.  Anyone else think his belt is a little WWE?  So fancy!

Cover image, Truly, Madly Viking by Sandra Hill

I really don’t know writing at all (does anyone?) – shower thoughts

As someone with relatively few talents, I have tended to clutch to my heart the one or two that I possess, quietly and internally considering them an adequate raison d’être while outwardly feeling inadequate on a near constant basis.  It’s a problem.  The thing is, I have a hard time talking to people.  The thing is, if you put me in front of a keyboard, I suddenly feel capable of a greatness that I do not otherwise possess.  The thing is, what is important is not that I actually achieve any sort of greatness on a regular basis but that I am actually occasionally capable of it.  Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself.

Oh God, I’m being neurotic again.

Anyway.  A lot of my thoughts come to me in the shower.  I’m not sure what it is about the shower that makes it a great fermentation chamber for thought, but it works for me.  Steam, hot water, nice smelling soaps, time, that pitter-patter sound of water falling against the FRP siding in my ghetto shower all combine together to create a time and space in which thoughts can bounce around and sometimes coalesce in my otherwise scattered mind.  This morning, among various non-thought reflections (ugh, tired…. ugh, back hurts… ugh, morning… etc.), I thought about the process of writing, how I write, how other people write (how would I know?), and whether I can ever know that what I write is actually true.

I edit while I write, a simultaneous process.  I’ll start to write a sentence and then I’ll stop for a while, looking up and to the right, twitching my fingers about, tapping them lightly on the keyboard, perhaps creating a connection between the pitter-patter sound of the keyboard and the sound of water in my shower.  Who knows?  The process happens so quickly, so unconsciously, I suppose.  It’s slippery, like a well-used bar of soap.  Writing, to me, is a process of taking my often nebulous ideas about my self or my life and translating them into English, the only language I know.

It is definitely a matter of translation.  For example: when walking in the rain earlier this afternoon, I reflected on the singular pleasure I experience when rain falls with a light splat on my nose.  The transcript of that thought would read only “Hm! Nice!”  A film of that thought sequence would include a close up on my nose while the rain drop went SPLAT!  Then would follow a montage of other moments from my life when rain has fallen softly on my nose: SPLAT, SPLAT, SPLAT! ending with a lingering shot of me smiling slightly at the fond, wry memory.  The film would be a very accurate depiction of my actual thought patterns–they tend to be more visual than verbal–but I just don’t have a videographer following me around at every moment helping me to make sense of my thoughts.  When I write, I think back on those moments that are true, and I attempt to take them out of the realm of indistinct impressions and into the bright, definite, black and white world of written language.  I hope that these moments remain true throughout the translation process, but how can I know?

Days off in Monrovia – perfect weather and grilled cheese with bacon

I just had a three-day weekend.  I didn’t exactly go anywhere or do anything amazing, but that one extra day of sleeping in and loafing about made a profound impact on my Monday morning outlook.  I feel sanguine about the coming week.  I will accomplish everything on my to-do list.  I will remember to smile and laugh  more often.  I will be a better person.

Counter and menu board at Monrovia's The Market Grill

Perhaps it’s ridiculous to attach so much importance to one extra day off.  Even without the extra day, this past weekend would have been great.  On Saturday and Sunday, I painted my nails, bought new bras (that alone is enough to impact my outlook on life), spent time with family, enjoyed all the pomp and circumstance of a full processional on Palm Sunday (it was glorious…), took deep breaths of after-rain air, and had chocolate pie!  That’s a great list of weekend accomplishments, but the day before the weekend officially started, I got to sleep in and then I went to my favorite burger joint (although I had the grown-up grilled cheese–with bacon!–rather than a burger) and, after that deliciousness, went to see a movie with my honey.  I know I’m belaboring a stupid point, but my weekend was simply 33% more awesome than it would have been otherwise.

The view facing north, across the street from my parents' house. Overnight rain plus Santa Ana winds equals beautiful weather.

Yesterday was a beautiful day in Monrovia.  I always get excited whenever the clouds cast shadows on the foothills.  I call it El Greco weather, because it reminds me of one of my favorite paintings, View of Toledo by El Greco.  It’s a bit silly that I have this mental connection, because Monrovia doesn’t look a damn thing like El Greco’s Toledo, but the dappled effect of light and shadow in the one view always reminds me of the other.

View of Toledo, El Greco - Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Where we are (and where we were) informs who we are.  I simply can’t look at Monrovia’s foothills with objective eyes, because when I see them, I see not only what they look like now but what they looked like every time I looked north in the twenty years I lived there.  All those pictures overlap in my mind, creating a sort of mental collage overlay through which I see their current incarnation.  And, strange as it may seem, El Greco’s View of Toledo is one of the layers of that odd overlay.  In my interactions with the world, I wonder how much of my perception of the here and now is influenced by my recollections of the past.  When I look at a friend, am I ever able to see who he really is today, or am I blinded by that overlay of everything I thought he was before?  Of course, that’s assuming that the overlay is a negative thing, an obscuring thing.  I’d prefer to think that it enables me to see the world (or portions of it) in greater detail than would otherwise be available. Instead of blinding me to the present, perhaps all those accumulated perceptions help direct my attention to nuances that may help me to understand both the current picture and all the images that came before.

For example, in the case of the Monrovia foothills, my overlay of recollections enables me to recognize changes wrought on the foothills by time, weather, land development, etc.  Those foothills are not exactly as they were twenty years ago, and I would not be able to appreciate that fact in a personal way if I did not have my recollections to serve as a comparison.  There are, of course, historical photographs of these foothills, documenting the changes in an impersonal way, but when I stand on the sidewalk outside my parents’ house and look north, I am able to perceive not only the changes wrought by time in the foothills but also in myself.

I suppose it is the same in the example of the hypothetical friend.  If we take a moment to be still and look at one another and see the image proffered by the present day as well as all of the images that came before, we have the opportunity to struggle to differentiate between all of those different images of the object of our attention (the hypothetical friend) and to determine what those images might tell us about our own selves.  It means something that when I return to my parents’ house, I take a moment to stand out on the sidewalk and look north at the foothills.  It means something that when I look at a friend, I notice certain details rather than others.

My husband would say that I’m thinking too much (he’d be right).

What is analysis anyway?

Right now, I am reading Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolis, The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae by Stephanie Laurens, and The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal.  As I have time, I’ll post about these books and any others I pick up.  I am not certain that I will finish Charterhouse.  120 pages in, I still hate all the characters, and I don’t really care what happens to them.  I am reading Elizabeth and Hazel for a book club at work, and I am really enjoying it.  Glencrae is pure fun–not much to analyze about it, per se, but self-analysis is possible regardless of the quality of the stimulus–but fluffy books of its ilk give me blessed relief from my ever-churning thoughts.

There are a lot of very good book review blogs out there, but reviews aren’t precisely what I’m going for with this blog.  My starting perspective is that everything that we experience in our lives changes us in some often ineffable way so that, every day we have the opportunity to get to know ourselves, to incorporate these changes and figure out where they leave us.  I have this horror of waking up one morning, looking in the mirror, and seeing a stranger.  It is so easy to allow habit and mental laziness to work their magic on our lives, to slip into mental somnolence until we no longer know our own minds.  It is easy to hide things from ourselves, to fool ourselves into believing that we are better than we are.  I am absolutely terrified by the very real possibility that I could, one day, be a stranger to myself.  As I mentioned earlier, I’m quite neurotic!

Analysis, then, is my means of making sure that I never get away from myself.  And, since I spend an awful lot of time reading every day, a good deal of my analysis is directed at what I’m reading: what I think about it, how it changes or challenges my beliefs, how it might be changing me.  So this isn’t really a review blog, although I will doubtless give my opinion of what I’m reading.  What I am interested in is having a record of my thoughts and, if possible, entering into a dialogue with others about those thoughts so that I can move forward with the ones that make sense and have a certain universal (ish) applicability and reject those thoughts that don’t.

Abrupt subject change: I made a wonderful and dangerous discovery a few months ago at work: there is an automatic espresso machine on campus that doles out free custom-made cappuccinos (or lattes or americanos) all day long.  In addition to the three cups of brewed coffee that I had this morning, I have had three of those lovely cappuccinos, the last of them with an added shot.  It is wonderful to have no real limit on the amount of caffeine I consume, now that I am no longer pregnant or nursing.

It’s a dangerous business, going out your front door…

Usually, when I start a project, I want to have a clear idea of what it’s going to be.  In the present case, I don’t, but perhaps that lack of a preset expectation on my part will enable something organic, something creative, to occur.  I need a project to focus my mental energies and take some of those energies away from the neurotic meanderings of my mind, but I am yet unsure what sort of project will accomplish this goal without feeding further neurosis.  I will have to see what develops and whether I have the stick-to-it-ive-ness, as my sister would say, to keep it going.

My initial notion of this blog is based on a quote that was displayed prominently above the chalkboard in my eighth grade language arts class.

 “Reading without reflecting is like eating without digesting.” – Edmund Burke.

Until today, I never knew it was a quote–my recollections from that class, now eighteen years past, are not perfect–but Google does not lie.  Mrs. Thomas, the teacher, had created a banner using stencils and colorful construction paper, and the quote certainly had pride of place at the front of the room.  I have always remembered the quote as “Reading without analyzing is like eating without digesting.”  Perhaps my substitution of “analyzing” for “reflecting” is indicative of my rather more active manner of thinking about anything that crosses my path.  When “reflecting,” one can recline in a leather wing chair and, with eyes unfocused, saunter along clearly set out mental pathways.  “Analyzing,” by contrast, conjures a certain twitchiness, a mental tangle that needs to be worked out.  One does not analyze in repose.  Or, at least, I do not.

Like many neurotics, I tend to analyze everything, including everything I read.  The trouble I run into is that I generally do not have anyone to talk to about the things that I read.  I don’t know anyone who has taste like mine, who has read what I’ve read and would be willing to talk about it.  All that analysis without an outlet leads to a whole lot of crazy–thoughts that never get out of my head, context that no one else can understand because they’ve never heard it.  Enter this blog!