Planting A Garden Of Love

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While there are still signs of winter in many parts of the world here in Houston, Texas spring has definitely arrived. The azaleas in my yard are blooming and the roses are bursting forth in all of their glory. The once barren trees have tiny leaves peeking from the limbs, and tiny ferns are popping up from the soil. Signs of life are everywhere with even the pair of doves that live in my backyard cooing in harmony with the noisy mockingbirds and jays. This is one of my favorite times of year when nature reminds us of redemption and possibilities.

This year I decided to plant some vegetables in my flowerbeds. It’s been many years since I have done that. For a time when my daughters were still young we had bountiful crops each spring and summer. Our larders were filled with green peppers, tomatoes, squash and cucumbers. This year I am hoping to enjoy my former success at gardening, but a worry about the pesky squirrel that often visits my yard or the countless birds searching for a meal. I’ve been doing some research in how to prevent critters from consuming my vegetables before I have the chance to harvest them and I’m not so sure that I will be able to ward them off because I don’t own the one thing that is supposed to be a great guard against pilferers. Namely my best bet is to have either a cat or a dog to chase them away.

Back when my farming was so successful we had a fabulous dog named Red. She was a born hunter who often displayed her trophies for us to find. She was a golden retriever who had perfected every one of her instincts. She was fast and always alert. No mice dared come near our place and birds were very respectful in her presence. They tended to stay perched in the trees rather than attempting to make a snack out of my vegetables. I suppose that I never really thought of just how much Red was doing for us in the way of standing watch. I knew that she was a great guard dog when it came to humans, but I didn’t appreciate her vigilance over my garden as much as I should have.

Red was as smart as they come and always faithful. She loved everyone in the family and most of the neighbors as well. Sometimes she hopped the fence and took little strolls around the block but she always came back home. I was amused by the fact that she was able to get out of the backyard but could not seem to get back in, so she just waited patiently on the front porch for us to notice that her wandering was done. I’d sure like to have her back, but she crossed the Rainbow Bridge long ago along with other friends like Buddy and Scarlet and Shane. So I guess I’m on my own in protecting my garden this summer if I’m to taste some juicy tomatoes or enjoy a bunch of succulent squash.

It’s going to be fun watching all of my plants grow from the sun and the rain. I’m anxious to see what varieties will be the most successful. I have onions and potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes. There are peppers and squash and all kinds of herbs. Last year I enjoyed having fresh basil and oregano for my soups and salads. This year I’ve added parsley, cilantro and thyme.

While I was searching for ideas as to how to keep the marauders at bay I found recipes for preparing a hot pepper concoction to create a ring of protection around my plants. That’s when I discovered a cute little poem about how to plant a garden of love. It suggested that it’s time to squash hate, prejudice and jealousy while peppering our actions with kindness and compassion. I liked that idea and began to think of how appropriate it is to focus on renewing ourselves as well as our gardens at this time of year. Much like the plants that are springing back to life, now is a time for each of us to consider how we might grow and become the best versions of ourselves.

Working in the soil and creating life is one of humankind’s most basic tasks. As we plunge our hands into the dirt to plant seeds and cuttings we become one with nature and feel the kind of unity that we should always enjoy with the world around us. We need to be the stewards who care for the wonderful things that we have, and that should include the air, water, plants, creatures and people with whom we share this earth. We cannot forget our obligations to treasure this amazing planet and all that it holds. Springtime reminds us of what we need to do.

When I think of Red I realize the kind of traits that all of us need to cultivate. She was as sweet and loving as any creature might ever be. Best of all was her infinite loyalty and unwavering instinct to protect. She was also sensitive and compassionate as in a time when I was very ill with the flu and she slept by my bed all day long, making certain that I would be okay. We might all learn a thing or two about faithfulness from a wonderful pet like Red.

I jokingly told my eldest grandson that I was turning into my grandmother Minnie Bell. I would like to think that I am somewhat like her, but I have a way to go to be as remarkable as she was, a humble and uncomplicated woman who simply enjoyed life as it was given to her. She had an almost sacred communion with nature and the people around her. Without judgement she embraced every person that she met. Those are things that I am still working on achieving, but sometimes when I’m puttering in my yard and listening to the birds I think I understand how Grandma found her contentment. I realize that all the things in the world cannot compare to the pleasure of seeing someone smile or watching the earth burst into a symphony of sounds that rival the most glorious musical composition. I hope that my plants provide me with a bountiful crop, but more than that I want to spread the seeds of love this spring and all the year through.

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A Fevered Illness

seagull-flying-aroundI woke up one recent morning with an illness that has overtaken my body just a bit more with each passing day. There is no medication for what I have nor is there a reliable treatment. I can’t be immunized to prevent the recurrence of the symptoms because nobody has yet thought of a reliable way of preventing an epidemic. My only hope is that it will pass without inflicting too much damage. I’ve had bouts with the same disease now and again since I was a child. It always occurs at about the same time of year right alongside the allergies that cause me to sneeze incessantly and otherwise fill my eyes and ears with fluid draining from my sinuses. It is a debilitating sickness that has caused me at times to take off days from work while I wander lethargically around my home. I suspect, but am not certain, that it may be infectious because the people around me sometimes show symptoms similar to mine whenever I am down with a full blown fever. This year in particular I appear to have a real doozie of a case.

The signs that I have been infected are always the same. I’m an industrious person, someone who never really sits still. I can’t even hold a conversation without moving my hands or wiggling in my chair. I’m always on the go and measure the accomplishments of each day with precision, reflecting on how well I have done by calibrating the merits of each of my actions. When the sickness comes my productiveness slows down to a crawl. My home fills with dust bunnies while I sit quietly outdoors listening for the sounds of the birds and watching the antics of the squirrels that scamper in my garden. I lean back and gaze at the brilliant blue sky enjoying the cool breezes that brush across my face. I think back to the games that I might have played as a child and how wonderful the new grown grass felt on my bare feet when the days became warm enough for me to toss my shoes into the far recesses of my closet.

I imagine myself flying to the beach with the seagulls that squawk as they pass overhead. I suddenly long for the life of a gypsy, one in which I have no responsibilities and I go wherever my heart leads me. I pass my time without being aware of the hour. I toss dishes into the sink and look away from the pile of dirty clothes that grows ever larger. I have better things to do. I take long walks without saying a word or drive to lovely places that seem to be calling me to tarry for just a bit. I sleep longer in the morning and stay awake deep into the night. I eschew my usual habits and become quite lazy, a person so unlike myself that I might worry if I were in a normal state of mind and body. But I am not, and so I just let the illness run its course for I have learned that if I simply go with its flow it will soon enough pass.

There is indeed a name for my affliction. It goes by the seasonal label of spring fever. it has been stalking me for as long as I am able to remember. In some years it passes over me with hardly a notice but in others it attacks me with a vengeance and I become a hopeless victim of its control. This seems to be an especially toxic year for me. The start of it came without warning and thinking that it would soon be gone I did little to steel myself against its effects. Unfortunately my symptoms have grown almost out of control as my usual routines have been neglected to the point of absurdity. While the fact that I am retired makes the impact of my idleness matter less, there are still things that must occur to keep my little world running smoothly but I can’t yet get myself fully back into the groove. I use any excuse to dally and to dream.

If I were able I would begin a long journey on foot and just keep going like Forrest Gump until I finally felt as though I was done. I would soak in the world and its creatures like a gigantic sponge. I’d bypass our manufactured creations in search of the ones that nature has made. I would quietly watch the passing parade of people and try to imagine what they were all thinking and doing without ever uttering a word. I would be little more than a fly on the wall, an observer whose only job was to watch and learn.

I suppose that it will not be much longer until I am myself again. I’ll chide myself for letting things go so badly when I finally take the time to look around. I’ll make new lists of things to do and become an industrious cyclone. I won’t notice the doves in my backyard so much when I’m busy dusting the baseboards. I’ll set up appointments and keep them. I’ll join the mad race that is always swirling around me.  I will be in a normal state of health again and firmly in control of my Type A personality. The fever will be gone, replaced by a sound determination to keep my eye on the challenges of life. Nobody will accuse me of sloth or shiftless behaviors. I will be fully engaged in the routine swing of things.

For now though I plan to feed the fever that has overtaken me and actually enjoy its impact on my attitude. It is ironically a disease that I secretly appreciate. It slows me down enough to show me the side of life that I miss when I am one of society’s most productive contributors. It adds zest to my personality and a lilt to my steps. It is the one illness that actually makes me feel good. Since I am retired I am now able to surrender to the siren song that is calling me to embrace the beauty and the joy that comes to such glorious life each March. There will be time enough for labor when I have become myself again. Today I am going to let my spring fever run its course.

Magical

downloadI’ve been retired from a four decades career in education for almost six years and I still can’t seem to avoid following the academic calendar. Perhaps it’s because a school bus stops in front of my home each morning to pick up the neighborhood children and I am daily reminded that the process of educating our youth has endures with or without me. Maybe it’s because I still tutor students twice a week at two different schools and in the evenings. I suspect that it’s mostly because I followed the August to June routine for so long that it has become embedded in the heart and soul of who I am. So it is that I continue to immerse myself in spring break rituals each year even though that special week for students and teachers shouldn’t make much difference to me now that I am free to do whatever I wish whenever I wish.

I made no plans for the annual March respite this year and yet the serendipity of my activities made it one of the most memorable and relaxing weeks that I have experienced in all of my years of partaking of the annual spring fling. It began with an evening track meet in which grandson Eli broke the district record for the 1600 meter run. Watching him plying his craft is akin to viewing a gazelle. His form is a breathtaking sight of beauty. Even better is his determination to continually compete with himself to be his personal best. I am in awe of him and watching him on that night was magical just as the rest of my spring break adventure would prove to be.

Husband Mike and I traveled to bluebonnet country the following day, enjoying the lovely blue carpets of the state flower that are so glorious each spring. We had bonafide Texas barbecue and sampled fruit kolaches that warmed the Slovakian half of my heart. We walked among the rows and rows of flowers at the Rose Emporium and brought home two more gorgeous bushes to join the collection that we already have. It was one of those absolutely perfect days that reminded me just how much I truly love the people and the sights of the place I call home.

The weather took one of those unexpected dips in temperature a day or so later just as it always seems to do this time of year. It was a perfect moment for making paprika stew for my grandson Andrew who had arrived for a sojourn from his studies at Purdue University. We had one of those old fashioned Sunday night dinners with him and his family. We caught up on all of his news and lingered at the dining table with stories and lots of laughs, ending our meal with pies that we had purchased at a bakery in a small town known for its sausages, baked goods and ice cream. It felt good to fill the house with our children and grandchildren. It had been quite some time since they had been able to steal a few hours from their busy school time schedules. Not wanting to end the joyful feeling of the evening we all agreed meet up again the following day for a musical light show at the Burke Baker Planetarium followed by dinner in Rice Village.

Just when it appeared that I would return to a somewhat uneventful week my granddaughter Abby who lives in San Antonio called me to request my presence at her home for the next few days. Mike had things to do, like taxes (ugh), so I hit the open road on my own. The drive has become second nature to me since my daughter moved there a little over ten years ago. I break down the distance into discrete parts that tell me that I am moving ever closer to the other half of my ever growing family. The weather was spectacular much as it generally is in March. The bluebonnets were even more profuse than they had been only days before and now they had been joined by the red Indian paintbrushes that shouted out, “This is Texas at its very best!”

My daughter is about to move to a new home so she was busy sorting and packing belongings while I was there. She reluctantly took a small slice of time to join us for gourmet burgers and milkshakes at Hopdoddy as well as a round of bowling at a rather unique emporium. Afterward we played board games and watched old Star Wars movies until late into the night. It felt so much like the kind of activities that we used to enjoy back when we my daughters were just girls and we spent our spring break time chilling out and enjoying life in slow motion.

While my daughter returned to her duties the children and I continued our adventures with a visit to a small hill country town called Boerne where we found treasures in the many different antique shops, including a slightly damaged kachina doll that grandson William named Footless Fred. We laughed with delight as we scored a tiny house fit for the gnome garden that the kids are designing, an old Stars Wars book, a poncho, and a set of quilted placemats. We ended our day with a side trip to Guadelupe River State Park where we skipped rocks and told one silly joke after another.

It was with a certain level of reluctance that I headed back home toward the end of the week, but the kids had things to do that they had been putting off while I was in there. I too needed to get back to reality, but not until I enjoyed what may well have been the most magical day of my spring break.

Mike and I began the final Saturday of my mini vacation by meeting Andrew once again for a farewell lunch. He looked so happy, rested and ready to tackle the next six weeks at Purdue. Like me had had been energized by the people and places that he most loves. He had an optimistic and determined twinkle in his eyes and I felt quite comfortable sending him off to joust with his challenging  engineering and mathematics classes. He will be halfway through his collegiate journey by May. He sees the light at the end of the tunnel and it is a beautiful experience to listen to him voice very adult and wise pronouncements about the future and life in general.

From our sojourn with Andrew we traveled to the home of one of my former students, a young man named Bieu. We have known each other for well over twenty years now and he faithfully maintains a constant connection with me just as he promised he would when he was just a boy in my math class. On this day he was hosting a crawfish boil, another March tradition in the Houston area. He had great pots of the lobster like creatures turning a bright delicious red as the water bubbled around them. He cooked potatoes and corn as friends and family enjoyed the cool afternoon in his backyard.

I continue to marvel at what a fine person Bieu has become. I am as proud of him as if he had been my own son. I laugh that he was the one who most closely followed in my father’s footsteps by earning a degree in mechanical engineering from Texas A&M University. I feel quite certain that my dad would have loved Bieu and his family as much as I do had he been around to meet them.

I ended my glorious week that evening at the seventieth birthday party of Josefina Carrillo. She once worked for Mike at a bank in southeast Houston and he insists that she was his best employee ever. I also had the privilege of teaching her daughter Josie at South Houston Intermediate. Because southeast Houston has always been a small and very friendly kind of world the connections to Josefina go even deeper. Her son married the sister of one of my daughter’s best friends from our old neighborhood, so it was like old home week at the gala.

We feasted on fajitas and sipped on margaritas while a mariachi band played “otra mas” tune after another. There was dancing and enough smiles to light up a city. We learned that many of the people who had come to honor Josefina had lived in our old neighborhood and been involved in the same circles that had defined our lives for years. The kinship centered on the birthday girl bonded us all together and we had an incredibly lovely time remembering how many joys and blessings we had all experienced.

As I think back on my week of simple pleasures I realize how lucky I have always been. I not only have happy, healthy children and grandchildren but a host of friends who have brought sunshine into my life over and over again. I thought of how so much of my good fortune came to be because of the time that I have spent in what must surely be the most inviting city anywhere, Houston and its surrounding areas. Where else would I eat New York style pizza, crawfish and Tex Mex all in one day? Where else would I be so welcomed by Vietnamese and Hispanic families within the space of only a few hours. Where else would the people be so hospitable? Where else would I have enjoyed such a magical spring break? Where else would I rather be?

Tick Tock

collection of vintage alarm clocksChange, chaos, confusion! No, I’m not speaking of the political realm but something far more insidious, the springing forward to Daylight Savings Time that occurs each March. Even after a week people are still dragging around trying to adjust their internal clocks to the loss of an hour and wondering just why we insist on torturing ourselves by moving the hands of our mantlepieces twice a year. Who thought of this process and does it really make a difference of any kind?

During World War I someone decided that Daylight Savings Time might help the country save energy. Maybe it was a good idea back then but somewhere along the way as our world turned into a twenty four hour frenzy of lights, television programming, computer use and shopping the concept of everyone quietly turning off their lights and going to bed doesn’t appear to be what it might once have been. Research shows that having an extra hour of daylight does little to curtail the use of electricity, gasoline, natural gas or any other form of energy, not the least of which is because we use the same hour’s worth of lighting when we rise in the dark each morning that we would have used if night came a bit earlier in the evening.

I recently read that more people have heart attacks and wrecks in the first weeks after a time change than at other moments in the year. Farmers report that their animals have difficulty adjusting to changing routines as well. So the burning question that keeps coming back to mind is why we torture ourselves by doing something that most of us dread? Why don’t we just choose either Daylight Savings Time or regular time and then stick with it forever? It would certainly be easier on the constitution.

I generally reach the point at which I am fully accustomed to the new timing just shortly before it is about to readjust again. I sleep well in those last weeks and feel a level of energy that is unbounded. Once we go through the gruesome alteration process I find myself dragging for weeks and I am plagued by insomnia for months. I suspect from comments that I hear that most people feel the way that I do. I don’t particularly care if my mornings are dark or my evenings come a bit earlier as long as I get to become acclimated to one way of marking time or another and then never again have to change unless I choose to travel to a different time zone.

Unfortunately we seem to be doomed to continuing the silly tradition of switching from one method of timing to another simply because we once started it. Have you ever noticed how reluctant we are to abandon a process once we decide to try it? It is some crazy aspect of human nature to prefer sticking with a plan even if that plan proves to be ridiculous. We see it most especially in government where that status quo becomes the way of doing things ad infinitum. We fear the idea of admitting that we my have been wrong about the merit of an idea and so we commit ourselves to absurdities again and again. It almost takes a rebellion to repeal a rule once we have made it part of our routine.

I applaud states like Arizona and Indiana that don’t go along with the time change shuffle. They merrily buck the tide and enjoy the certainty of no loss or gain in hours. They have no need of clock changers who must spend wasted time moving the hands of timepieces back and forth, back and forth twice each year.

I once saw an interesting documentary detailing the unbelievable number of days that it takes just to adjust all of the clocks that belong to the Queen of England. Many of them are complex antiques that must be very carefully calibrated and only experts are able to do so properly. It is a herculean task that is both expensive and time consuming.

I feel as though we have so many truly important problems in the world and recalibrating the time again and again should not be one of them. I advocate for suspending this policy and freeing ourselves from the tyranny of sleepless nights and energy-less days. I call for letting the natural rotation of the earth determine the timing of our habits just as it did for the thousands of years before someone got the not so bright idea of artificially determining when our days should begin and end.

Since it is more than likely that we will never rid ourselves of this onerous habit I instead extend my sympathies to those who become discombobulated each March and then again in the fall. I feel for all of the teachers who must spend the next many weeks looking at students slumped lazily on the tops of their desks. My heart goes out to the mothers of babies who insist on keeping to their sleep routines regardless of what the clocks may say. I understand the frustration of pet owners whose kitties and puppies react to the sun rather than the manmade schedule. For those like me who are now spending their nights staring at the ceiling I give you the hope that this too shall pass sometime around September or October just in time for it all to begin again.

What a piece of work is man. We sure know how to make things more complicated than they need to be. Maybe instead of making so many more new rules we may want to consider getting rid of some of the ones that make our lives more difficult. Starting with omitting all of the time changes seems to me to be a great place to start.

A Rainy Afternoon

rainy-afternoon-zadar-93e60d499c2f267c33de164c89ad35caLast Sunday was a dreary day, a kind of last hurrah for winter in the south that always seems to arrive in the first weeks of March. The rain washed out my plans to tinker in my yard so I ended up at Costco along with a huge crowd that included some of my neighbors. I suppose that we all decided to go in spite of the weather, or maybe because of it.

I played a game of noting what everyone had in their carts. It’s always a ton of fun to see what items people select from the vast inventory of televisions and popcorn, clothing and canned goods. The winner always seems to be one of those big batches of toilet paper, the reason that I was there, but there are also many boxes of cereal and cartons of eggs lolling inside the grocery baskets of almost everyone.

Some people appear to be preparing for Armageddon with many years’ supplies of everything from vitamins to dog food. They literally need rolling pallets to carry all of their selections and I find myself wondering where they will be able to store all of the makeup and motor oil. I imagine rows of shelves along the walls of their garages with labels indicating when each item of inventory expires. I like to picture their families and the reasons that compel them to choose certain things.

I limited myself to purchasing only the basics, toilet paper, paper towels, two chickens, a pot roast and some pork chops. I have to control my impulses or I will walk out with more than will fit in my car and even worse, more than I will ever use. With no children in the house a flat of apples tends to be an overabundance that will lead to rotting fruit at the bottom of my produce drawer. Still I am often tempted to purchase enough facial tissues to last through several flu seasons simply because the price is so fetchingly low.

I almost always enjoy lunch while I am there. After all, I can’t resist the idea of getting a huge polish sausage on a bun with endless refills of Pepsi for only a dollar fifty. Besides, sitting at a table munching on my feast allows me a bit more people watching time and it is definitely a show. I find myself wondering who all these folks are and from whence they come. They are a diverse bunch who seem to represent every possible strata of American society. Somehow the buyers at Costco have managed to carry all of the items that they seek, including motorcycles and tires. I laugh a bit when I think of how much joy a place like this would have brought my mom. The two of us might have sat for hours just soaking in all of the entertainment that comes from viewing such a large a slice of life.

Once I got home the downpour had increased and it was obvious that there wasn’t going to be a break in the weather. I sat in my favorite chair and read one of my several latest books. I tend to be in the middle of three or four at a time which may sound a bit strange but I write it off to the effects of my attention deficit disorder. The one that seemed appropriate for a rainy day was a volume that I found on my last trip to New Orleans entitled 1 Dead in Attic. It is a compilation of articles written by a reporter from The Times Picayune written in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Each essay is short and quick to read so I can enjoy one or multiples depending on how much time I have to devote. The author, Chris Rose, shares his love of New Orleans and the stories of despair and revival that kept him and his fellow citizens from going insane in a time that was almost beyond the capacity of words to describe. His sense of humor and humanity captures the appalling images as well as the can do spirit of people who refused to declare their home town dead on arrival. It is a joyful dirge and intimate portrait of a city in total disarray that somehow found the where with all to overcome the most unimaginable tragedy. It will make you laugh and cry at one and the same time which is an oddly appropriate way of thinking about New Orleans.

I thought of the first time that I returned to New Orleans after Katrina. The city was still devastatingly somber. The crowds that had so often filled the streets were decidedly small. There were diehards attempting to keep the spirit of revelry alive but they were definitely struggling. We had breakfast at Brennan’s and there was still an odd aroma of mildew in the air. We didn’t need reservations because hardly anyone was there. The waitress who served us literally cried when we told her that we were from Houston. She and her family had found refuge in our city after hers had been so destroyed. She thanked us for our hospitality and told us that this was literally the very first day that the famous restaurant had been open since the storm. I almost lost my composure as she fell all over us trying to express her happiness that things were beginning to return to normal.

I remember how we drove around on the highways trying not to look like buzzards as we gazed at entire neighborhoods that had been reduced to rubble. It was like a scene out of a dystopian movie and it broke my heart. As I read Chris Rose’s descriptions of what he encountered only days after the hurricane it was difficult to imagine that I had first seen the city after it had actually made great progress in coming back to life.

I have always loved to watch rain from my windows. It comforts me. Sadly many of the people who came here from New Orleans after that horrific storm confided that for quite some time the sound of rain was terrifying. I remember having to console children and teachers who literally came undone whenever the weather became frightful. Some of them cried and related tales of things that they had seen that would never really fade from their memories. In reading 1 Dead in the Attic I have truly begun to understand just how much their lives were forever changed.

Its been twelve years since that unbelievable natural disaster. New Orleans was rocking on my last visit and yet it had still somehow changed. The people who stayed and those who came later have continued the traditions and still harbor the unexplainable feelings of devotion that they have for this very special place but now there is always an element of fear and caution in the back of their minds. Only recently they were once again reminded of just how fragile their home is when tornadoes ripped through an area of town that had barely been reclaimed from the ravages of Katrina. It takes a special kind of personality and resilience to live in New Orleans but Mr. Rose explains quite well why there will always be those who are willing to endure hell and high water just to experience the magic.

All in all I have to admit that people watching at Costco and reading vignettes from a well written book made for a very fine Sunday afternoon. It’s good to have a change of pace now and again. Sunshine is always nice but there is much to be said for the comfort of a gentle rain and a view of the ever present parade of humanity.