Therapy

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There is something about working outside in my yard that is primal. I throw myself so totally into the tasks of planting and feeding and weeding that I eventually resemble a wild woman with my matted hair and dirty fingernails. My arms and legs and clothing bear the stains of the dirt in which I luxuriate. I’m no Martha Stewart with cute rubber boots, a fashionable hat and perfectly coiffed hair as I tackle the tendencies of nature to challenge me in planning a lovely vista for the plot of land that is my domain. By the time that I finish my work I resemble someone who has been living on the streets without access to soap or water. My muscles, my back and my knees ache from the contortions to which I must subject them in order to keep my garden in tip top shape. There is nothing glamorous about the labor I do in my yard, but somehow it brings me so much contentment that it works quite well to soothe any anxieties that might be stalking me. It’s rewards are immediate and tangible unlike so many of my other duties.

I sometimes feel as though I carry genetic tendencies to luxuriate in the back breaking labor of gardening. All four of my grandparents thought of growing and caring for plants as a glorious pastime. My grandmothers tinkered with their flowers daily and my grandfathers dreamed of becoming independent of markets with the produce from their bountiful crops. Both men toiled on less than satisfying jobs for decades, dreaming of a time when they might own enough land to be known as farmers. One grandfather eventually achieved that goal. The other died before it became a realization. There is something in my own nature that compels me to hold dirt in my hands and watch my plants bursting forth with color or bounty from one season to another.

I remember going to visit my paternal grandmother as a child and taking walks with her to gaze at the wonders of what she had grown. She was known for an ability to reproduce any kind of plant. Someone once joked that she could take a dry dead stick and bring it to life. She rarely purchased vegetation at a nursery. Instead she worked with seeds and cuttings from friends. Both she and my maternal grandmother caught rainwater in barrels and took the time to lovingly water each plant by hand. They collected egg shells, coffee grounds and unused portions of fruits and vegetables to enrich the soil of compost heaps. The food they gave their flowers and bushes and trees came from the recycling of nature’s bounty. It took time and much effort to grow the magnificent specimens that decorated their yards but theirs was a labor of love and a desire to keep the earth beautiful.

Neither of my grandmothers had much formal education. They were unable to read or write, and yet the knowledge of gardening that they held in their heads was encyclopedic. Sadly I was too young to take full advantage of what they knew. I never dreamed that I would one day be as taken with growing things as they were. Had I known that my obsession with gardening would grow as much as it did I might have taken notes and garnered their expertise. They certainly were unable to leave a written record of their practices. Experience was their only guide.

I had a lovely compost heap at my last home. I lived in a neighborhood unencumbered by rules from an HOA. I chose a spot behind my garage that was visible to my neighbors who seemed unconcerned with the unsightly mound. They instead used the times when I added scraps to the soil to talk with me over the chain link fence that separated our property. We conversed quite often and got to know each other well. The loveliness of such moments made my gardening experience even more precious. It took on a communal nature that brought me happiness and security.

Now I generally work behind a wooden fence that is lovely but has the unexpected consequence of keeping me from really knowing the people who live around me. I have privacy but few opportunities to talk with them as we all come and go in a continual rush to complete the tasks of our lives. Most of them hire people to mow their lawns, put mulch in their flowerbeds and generally tend to the upkeep of their yards. When they are outside it is usually behind the wall of the fence so that we hear them but cannot see them. Like the neighbors in the old television show Home Improvement we may catch a glimpse of the tops of their heads if they are especially tall, but little more. We make promises to get together but time passes quickly and the right moment rarely comes to do more than just smile and wave as we go about our individual lives. I sometimes long to tear down the barriers that separate us but instead I just toil quietly on my own.

Working in my garden is a joy. It releases so much serotonin into my brain that I feel as though I have taken a powerful happy pill. I feel close to the earth, to my ancestors, and even to those neighbors that I cannot see. I enjoy the sounds of life and laughter along with the buzzing of the bees and the chirping of the birds. I like the idea of providing a home for butterflies and hummingbirds and tiny lizards and dragon flies. It’s a dirty job in the heat of the south, but one that brings me more happiness than I might ever describe.

As I grow older I am less able to spend hours working outside. I recall the time when my grandmothers eventually abandoned their adventures with nature. They became unable to tackle all of the work that a splendid garden requires and their lovely collections of flowers turned to seed. I dread the thought of becoming that way so I know I must take advantage of the energy and good health that I still possess while I can. Yard work is a lovely therapy for me. I intend to enjoy it while I can. 

The Metaphor

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In early spring our yard was a mess. Weeds filled the flowerbeds and the lawn. Our neglect of simple maintenance was in full view. It was time to begin the restoration process in earnest if we were to reclaim what had once been a lovely sanctuary for birds, bees, and ourselves. We spent whole days pulling the offending stray plants, adding new soil, spreading mulch, and fertilizing grass, roses, azaleas, and hibiscus. We had to rebuild barriers to keep the nutrients where they belonged, instead of allowing them to run into the street when it rained. To do that we hauled heavy stones, one after the other for hours. By the time we had completed our tasks we were covered with scratches and scapes, insect bites and allergic reactions. Our backs ached and our hands were worn, but the view from our windows was enchanting. With the help of God and nature we had created a bit of heaven on earth.

It was during the renovation phase that I found myself thinking of the past, and the kind of hard labor that our ancestors had done. I viscerally felt what it must have been like to haul stones to build some magnificent structure, or to be bent over in a field under a hot sun. My work had been brief in the grand scheme of things, but many humans spent their entire lives engaged in brutally harsh conditions, and they didn’t have the luxury of retreating inside an air conditioned home at the end of the day. I felt a kind of kinship with them, and an appreciation of their efforts.

As I labored I somehow thought of people who had been forced into cattle cars and taken to concentration camps to either be worked to death or killed immediately for no real reason. I realized that there had been individuals as old as I am among the prisoners, and I understood that they would have had to prove their mettle or die. I am certain that I would not have made it more than a week or so before being tapped for extinction. I felt their pain as I pushed back my own, and wondered why we humans are sometimes so cruel.

As I grow older I feel the presence of God and our human history all around me. I now have the time to slow down and think. I realize both the beauty and the ugliness of what we have wrought in ways that eluded me when I was raising a family, working, and balancing a million different responsibilities. Now I see the past, the present and the future with far more clarity. I appreciate small things that I had ignored before. Seeing a butterfly flit across my yard makes my day exhilerating. Hearing the joyous giggling of the children on my street is all I need to make even a dreary day seem perfect. My needs are little, and I find happiness in the most unexpected places.

Just as we were completing the reclamation of our yard I learned that the glorious Notre Dame cathedral was on fire. I had never seen it in person, but I have an image of it in my mind from the countless times that I have viewed it in the photos from friends and family who traveled there. I have visited its smaller reproduction at Notre Dame University. As a Catholic Notre Dame has always been a symbol of my faith, and as a human it has spoken to the efforts of humankind to rise from the muck of the earth toward heaven. Seeing it in flames tore at my heart and left me pondering for days and then weeks. The event was a metaphor, a symbol, a message that I needed to consider.

I thought of how nothing about our humanity is a forever thing. We are from dust and to dust we shall return. We create things and ideas and sometimes seem to have little need for higher powers than ourselves. It is possible to live a very good life without religious fervor, but I often wonder if such an existence is missing something essential. We are a truly great species, but we are also flawed. We can build soaring structures that stand for centuries after we are gone, but without attention they become cracked and weak, just as do our hearts and souls when we become more enchanted with power and wealth than with the needs of our collective humanity.

I saw a commentary from a stranger asking why God had allowed the destruction of the cathedral. Wasn’t the Lord after all powerful enough to save it if he is actually real? I thought of how Jesus had performed miracles but did not use his abilities to save himself from an excruciating death on the cross. That is not how any of it works. God does not prove himself in that way, and yet somehow I heard a message whispering from the ashes of Notre Dame, a lesson or reminder of how we are supposed to be.

On the day after the fire there were videos of people of all nations, economic status, political persuasions, and religions holding hands and singing in a united sense of determination. I viewed a photo of the inside of the church demolished save for the altar and the cross. I felt it was truly God’s way of telling us that even as we sometimes attempt to destroy ourselves, he never leaves us. I thought of Jesus reminding us again and again that we need only remember to love one another and we will have understood his teachings and the reason why he lived and died among us.

I believe that there is hope for us in the burnt structure of Notre Dame. The grand lady will indeed rise again just as we humans keep finding our way even as we sometimes become lost. What we have in our souls is the capability to bend the arc of our history in the right direction as long as we remember that our first duty is to love.   

Into the Weeds

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I love to watch all of the programs on HGTV. There are so many good ideas that always appear to be so easy, at least until I try them. Then I find myself taking two to three times longer to accomplish any of the tasks than indicated by the always lovely looking stars of such programs. Not only do I generally end up with a huge mess to deal with but I myself look like a homeless person or a time traveler from the Tudor era when nobody took baths or washed their hair. I have no idea how to stay put together when attempting home repairs, decorating or gardening. In fact, I try to do such things during the week when my neighbors are not around so they won’t see what becomes of me when I begin to sweat and get grimy. I’d hate for them to be thinking, “Well there goes the neighborhood!”

I have lately been working on my yard. Aside from the fact that it almost always rains when I choose a day for such work, I find that I invariably end up looking like I have been participating in a mud wrestling competition. I also have a tendency to get scratched by thorns and bitten by any stray insect that might be around. I do wear gloves and heavy rubber boots, but somehow the injuries to my skin and my appearance have a way of happening in spite of my best efforts, and I always run into some unforeseen problem.

I have a nineteen foot long flowerbed on the side of my house that is filled with double knockout roses that are simply gorgeous at this time of year. I prune and feed them and watch for problems. Generally they are quite lovely, literal car stoppers. I’ve had folks drive by and thank me for brightening the neighborhood with them. So why is it that in the long hedge there is that one bush that doesn’t make it? All of the others did just fine, so why that one that leaves a hole?

It reminds me of the time that I planted a trio of pines in my front yard. They were growing just the way I had hoped, and the look was exactly what I wanted to achieve. Then one day one of them was damaged by beyond repair by a freak accident. Somehow the balance was never quite right again, but I suppose that it could have been worse like the time a tiny tornado moved over the yard taking out everything in sight. I was glad that nobody was hurt and nothing major was damaged, but had to wonder if my yard was some kind of magnet for trouble.

I’ve put down tile floors and painted just about everything known to man. I’m not afraid to do things on my own, but I have learned that if the directions say it will take an afternoon, I must expect that afternoon to turn into several days. I don’t know if I’m just slow or if it’s a rule of thumb for Murphy’s Law to be part of every home improvement project. If there is something that might go wrong, it will go wrong for me. I’ve had to cultivate lots of patience which I suppose is a good thing after all.

My neighbor across the street works as hard as I do to make his home lovely, and it really is, but both of us noticed that the lawn at the house where nobody does anything is the greenest on the street. We were wondering if the key is to neglect and let nature take it’s course. Instead I’m becoming a devotee of Randy Lemmon, a local radio talk show host who has a supposedly sure fire schedule for achieving the perfect lawn. I’ve applied the fertilizers and pre-emergent herbicides as well as the weed attacker exactly as he outlines. I’m waiting to see if the dollar grass goes away and the St. Augustine flourishes. We’ll see. With my track record it will work and then some fool will lose control of his car as he enters the cul-de-sac and make tire tracks on the lovely green carpet.

I suppose that I should just be satisfied that I am not one of those poor souls who has lost a home due to flood or fire or tornado. I saw so much of that during hurricane Harvey. My heart was saddened by the damage that was all around me. Earlier this spring I saw a before and after photo of a home that was totally destroyed by a tornado. I can’t even imagine how horrific such a thing would be. My little annoyances are nothing by comparison, so I should just count my blessings.

Still I am intrigued by the beautiful women who demolish walls, install wiring and plumbing, paint exteriors and still look as though they are ready to model the latest home repair fashions. Seriously, do they not think that we are on to them? Of course they don’t really do any of the work. They just pose for the cameras after some poor soul gets their hands in the muck. They can preach all they want, but I know how it really works, and it is never easy.

I tip my hat to the folks who work in yards or on construction sites every single day. They must have callouses and scratches and dirt under their fingernails. They are hardy souls who wade into the weeds and rarely get the credit for the beauty of the world. I try to remember that they are the ones who dug the holes and carried the bricks. They are my heroes.

A Springtime Ritual

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Winter has returned again after several days that made those of us in Houston feel as though spring had come early. I took advantage of the warmer days by working in my yard and beginning the clean up process that ushers in the best growing season of the year. It felt so good to work out every muscle in my body lifting and bending and filling bags with the refuse of pruned roses and weeded flower beds. I felt so alive and robust and in harmony with nature. As is usual, however, the cooler temperatures and rains came back to chase me indoors just as February always does. Mother Nature may still have some winter blasts up her sleeve before we get those lovely months when our gardens burst forth in all of their glory.

Until the next lovely day I suppose I’ll begin the process of reorganizing my space indoors. So many folks are giving Marie Kondo credit for showing us how to simplify our lives, but my mother taught me the same techniques back when I was still a child. She had a college degree and worked for a time as a teacher, but she always seemed most proud of her home economics skills. She often quoted the high school teachers who had taught her how to cook, sew, and clean. She had an uncanny knowledge of nutrition and often told us about the value of each of the foods that we ate. Whenever spring was on the horizon she organized me and my brothers for a cleansing assault on our house that she somehow managed to turn into a fun activity.

She’d assign tasks to each of us, turn on some rousing music, and then give us pointers on how to achieve the best results. No nook or cranny was left untouched as we washed down all of the walls from the floor to the ceiling, and cleaned the venetian blinds by hanging them from the clothesline and blasting them with the hose. We polished furniture, and waxed the floors. We scrubbed the grout in the tile with cleanser and a toothbrush. We emptied every cabinet and pantry, getting rid of items that were outdated or never used and cleaning the walls and the crevices. By the end of a week or two every single part of our home gleamed as though the place was brand new.

To this day I get a kick out of spring cleaning. Life is unpredictable in so many ways, but deep cleaning is something over which I have total control. It has a way of redirecting my worries and anxieties into something quite practical. Removing the grime and reducing the overstock of things, has the power of making me feel accomplished and more in tune with my universe. I know that there are other grander purposes in life, but sometimes the simple act of taking care of what I already have is a freeing experience.

There is so much waste in our world today. I see people who literally move because they feel that their homes have become too crowded or outdated. They begin anew rather than attempting to first redo and repair what they already have. I learned from my mother how to repurpose everything from food to clothing. She’d take old t-shirts and turn them into rags for cleaning or dusting. She used leftovers to create grand new dishes. There was little for which she did not find some use, and she knew how to organize and recycle with the best of the those who do such things.

As my mother grew older her energy waned. There came a time when she no longer engaged in her springtime tradition of making things gleam. Her home became dusty and broken. We’d try to help her get it back in order again, but she had let so many things go that the task was exceedingly difficult. Even then, however, we got that same feeling of accomplishment whenever we managed to restore her house to a semblance of order.

I’ll be starting on my own springtime ritual very soon. We put things in perfect order last year when we had to virtually start over after our hot water heater damaged so many areas. In the rush of vacations and holidays we’ve accumulated a few messy areas again that scream for our attention. Improving them one day at a time will be a fun way to pass the hours until the long warm days pull us outdoors again. We will no doubt fill bags with trash as well as offerings for Goodwill. We’ll set our home in order, and feel a bit more healthy mentally as well. It’s nice to know where everything is rather than having to hold scavenger hunts just to find particular items.

There are some things with which I still refuse to part. I love my books and have many that date all the way back to my childhood. I fondly read or use them again and again. I have my high school grammar books, and many a time I have referred to them when my grandchildren have questions about usage or punctuation. I reread classics like To Kill A Mockingbird and find new joy and meaning in the words.

I also have keepsakes from family and friends that have deep meaning for me. I have no desire to exchange them for trendier artifacts. The old things bring me joy. There’s a painting over my sofa that hung in my mother’s house. I can’t remember a time when she did not have it. She often spoke of how she and my father chose it together. I have built an entire room around it’s colors and essence. I gaze at it each day when I write my blogs and somehow derive inspiration from the very sight of it.

In the same room is a vase that once belonged to my great grandmother. My grandmother Minnie Bell gave it to me long before I truly appreciated it. Now it is one of my prize possessions. I would no doubt rush to grab it before leaving a burning house. I think of how it must have graced some table or dresser in my great grandmother’s humble home. I think of my own grandmother presenting it to me with so much grandeur regarding its importance. It is a link to my history.

So on these rainy days I’ll commence the spring cleaning and renew that age old feeling that I have enjoyed for seven decades. Whether its Marie Kondoing or just following my mother’s lead I know that it will bring me a sense of peace.

A Great Destination

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It’s January and I have roses and azaleas blooming in my yard. Houston is a funny place. Some years the weather is like Florida or southern California. The temperature stays in the sixties and seventies for most of the winter and the plants are fooled into thinking that it is already spring. Now and again we actually get some ice and snow, but generally our winters are mild. It’s one of those lovely things that makes up for the heat of the summer, and it’s still just cool enough to allow women to wear their boots.

Houston was named a top place to visit by Forbes magazine. Lots of folks wondered why in the world anyone would choose our city as a destination. After all our roads are perennially under construction and the traffic can often be brutal. Most of us who live here take it for granted that nobody would come for the scenery with our flat as a pancake landscape. What we don’t seem to think about are some quite wonderful attractions that we have that might actually be quite appealing for visitors.

For some time now Houston has been ranked as one of the best foodie towns in the country. It competes nicely with New Orleans, New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are some who believe that the food here may even be the best in the country. We have some amazing chefs and they don’t just provide a meat and potatoes kind of fare. The diversity in our city brings cuisine from all over the world and innovations in cooking that make it worthy of a visit for anyone who enjoys fine dining at its best.

Of course it may seem ridiculous to think that anyone would want to visit H-Town just to eat, and that’s a good point, but there are still lots of things to do here. We have sporting events at the professional level year round and our universities provide additional athletic venues that are lots of fun. Our museums are wonderful and boast variety from science to medicine to space to modern art. It would take a week to visit each of them and the effort would be well worth it.

Speaking of the arts, our Alley Theater is world renowned and it’s not the only cast of players in town. There’s also the Houston Symphony, the Houston Ballet, and Theater Under the Stars. At any given moment there are great musicians and comedians playing in town at Jones Hall, the Reliant Center, the Toyota Center, the Smart Financial Center, Jones Hall, the Woodlands, the Wortham Center or the Hobby Center. Our universities also host plays and musical festivals which are of exceptional quality.

Shopping is world class as well with the Galleria attracting folks from all over the world and smaller places like Memorial City, Highland Village, or the Woodlands offering a wonderful experience in their own right. There are even outlet malls and quaint shops dotted all over the city and its suburbs. Houston has a number of Farmer’s Markets as well that offer everything from spices to pottery along with fresh fruits and vegetables.

A short trip of about an hour will take visitors to Galveston with its beaches, historical homes, and quirky shops. There’s fun to be had swimming, boating or just relaxing in the sun and sand. The seafood there has its own unique taste and ranks with some of the best to be found anywhere.

I think that those who are quick to make fun of Houston’s designation as a great place to visit forget about how fun a trip here might be. With the right planning a traveler can catch the Houston Rodeo or spend a day at the Nutcracker Market. We host quilt shows that feature exhibitions from all over the world. The Houston Garden Club Bulb Mart is a fall favorite along with some of the most glorious weather that the city has to offer.

Those of us who live here are always so busy that we don’t stop to think of how much there is to do at any given moment. For a newcomer the possibilities for fun and entertainment are almost endless. We don’t boast any mountains or grand natural wonders but our springtime Azalea Trail is breathtaking. A trip along Buffalo Bayou is a wonder. A day spent at Brazos Bend State Park is both educational and inspiring with its up close encounters with wildlife and its observatory aimed at the heavens. A drive through River Oaks is a fun as visiting the lovely homes in New Orleans.

I suspect that an out of towner would easily be able to fill a calendar with activities for weeks just with things I have mentioned and I haven’t even skimmed the surface of the many sights that we have here in Houston. I totally understand why my city was chosen as a great destination for anyone hoping to have a great vacation. In fact, I’d like to challenge Houstonians to try a “staycation” someday to enjoy what our great city has to offer.

I am the first to admit that Houston has its flaws but I have yet to travel to any place that is perfect. In the grand scheme of things Houston can be lots of fun and even provide a few nature activities for those who prefer the outdoors. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to find more than enough to do.