Wednesday, December 29, 2010

One Step Ahead

or A Rake's Progress

The earnest, much-pierced young stock clerk at the natural foods co-op was doing his best to persuade me that spending $26 for the 32-oz. bottle of certified organic maple syrup was a good idea.  The ex-Vermonter in me, on the other hand, was doing her best to convince the clerk that all maple syrup is produced organically, and that spending an extra $10 for the label was just plain wrong.  The conversation went something like this:

Clerk:  Organic producers can't use pesticides.
Me:  Sugar maples grow in forests.  The trees aren't sprayed.
Clerk:  Then how do they keep the insects under control?
Me:  Well, the trees grow in forests, where there are natural predators.  Besides, the sap starts running in early spring, before the insects are out, and anyway, it comes from deep underground, where insects aren't a problem. 
Clerk (sceptically):  Sap?
Me:  Uh-huh.
Clerk (visibly debates calling security and changes his mind):  And the land has to have been chemical-free for three years.
Me:  The syrup comes from trees.  Trees take a lot longer than three years to grow.  And they're growing in a forest, not in an orchard or on farmland.
Clerk (confused):  How can they grow in a forest?
Me (confused):  They're trees.  Trees do that.
Clerk (sceptically):  What, on their own?
Me:  Well, you know, with ferns and brambles and birds and deer and stuff.
Clerk:  But that sounds like one of those Eastern forests.
Me (confused):  Yes.
Clerk:  How do they harvest a forest?
Me:  They go around and tap the trees.
Clerk (possibly suspecting a conspiracy):  "They?"  Who are "they?"
Me:  Guys.  Just, you know, guys.
Clerk:  You mean farmers.
Me:  No, just a bunch of guys in the woods.  They get permits to tap trees on state or national forest land, and maybe ask if they can tap their neighbors' trees.  You know, guys
Clerk (startled):  You make them sound like the guys around here who harvest piñon nuts.
Me (startled):  Yeah, I guess so.
Clerk:  But that's, just, like, some guys in the woods.
Me:  Yeah.
Clerk (desperately):  OK, but for maple syrup to be organic they have to use organic fertilizer, too.
Me (blank confusion):  It's a forest.
Clerk (blank confusion).

(Light dawns:  the clerk is young, maybe 20, and a local—he's probably never seen a deciduous forest.  He knows pine and juniper woods, with the occasional deciduous tree thrown in as make-weight, but nothing that would support large-scale commercial production.  The orchards he's encountered have been heavily managed apple or pecan orchards; his experience of "soil," if any, is mineral-rich, nutrient-poor "decomposed granite."  Deciduous forests occupy a theoretical place in his awareness, but he hasn't had a reason to think them through.)

Me:  When the leaves fall every year they just stay there on the ground and get covered by rain and snow.  They pretty well decompose by spring.  It's like the trees are self-mulching and self-composting.
Clerk (light also dawning):  Oh, like in an eco-system or something.
Me (beaming):  Exactly!

With that little misunderstanding cleared away, we both go about our business feeling pleased with each other, as if we are mutual converts to...well, we don't know what, but we're both pleased.

All to say, I'm not planning to rake the garden this winter.  The sand cherries and desert olives have never shed enough leaves for raking to be an issue before, so this is the first time I've actually faced the choice.  Whether to rake can actually be a rather heated issue in the gardening world—the impulse to tidy the garden for winter is deeply ingrained (and yes, some of us are just getting around to that now here in Albuquerque), and many of the reasons for doing so are good.  On the other hand, my garden doesn't exemplify any of the good reasons:  it doesn't have lawn or easily smotherable, delicate perennials; it's in the high desert where crown rot and slugs are ogres we frighten badly behaved children with, not things we ever expect to encounter in real life; and garden-magazine tidiness is not really an issue.

I did consider gathering all the leaves into a pile, putting them in a corner to compost, and then replacing them on the garden beds come March, but besides not having the energy to do any of that, something about the process struck me as...redundant.  The whole sense that raking is something I "ought" to do was making me feel like the serious young stock clerk, whose ideals were perhaps one step ahead of his information.  Like most of us when we're in a fundamentalist mode, he just wanted to do the right thing.  Yes, zeal and a pure heart do count for a lot, but weighing circumstances correctly is even better; the right choice doesn't always have to be the most difficult one.

The sand cherries and desert olives are native plants; somehow they manage just fine in the wild without having someone come along to rake the leaves and compost them specially before returning them to the soil.  A tiny, urban garden may create different growing conditions than, say, the vast expanse of the Gila Wilderness, but I don't see any reason why these plants shouldn't be as self-mulching and self-composting as they would be in the wild. 

Ooh—like in an eco-system or something!

Sunday, December 26, 2010


or Evoking Joy

I was thinking today about brevity, not as the soul or wit or anything, but as something potentially useful, and found my thoughts turning to the
haiku, with its few syllables and its shorthand ways of saying much with little.  Haiku encapsulate a place or mood or season in a word and evoke an ever-widening world:  "mist" opens the curtains on autumn; "clouds" suggest summer and all that summer brings.

Evergreens are surrounded by a rich symbolism in many cultures, mostly redolent of steadfastness, permanence, life, protectiveness, even joy.  My first winter in Albuquerque, I was struck by the number of broad-leafed evergreens that flourish here—pyracantha, photinia, euonymus, boxwood, nandina.  Winters are far greener than I thought they would be (but then, summers are browner, so it all evens out).  My favorite of the evergreens is Winter Gem boxwood, which has adapted readily to the narrow strip of ground outside the kitchen door.  It roasts in full sun all summer, freezes in full shade all winter, receives no care other than an occasional dousing in pasta cooking water and even more occasional rainfall, gets pillaged regularly for vase cuttings, and remains sturdily green and shiny come what may.  It is one of my role model plants—unassuming but reliable, and ready to stand forth cheerfully when the days darken around it.  It's one of the unsung heroes of the garden, a giver of quiet, steady joy, a maker of few demands.  I can see why evergreens have become symbols of so many good things.

My family has just left after a truly joyful Christmas celebration, a model of love and of giving on many levels.

a Christmas feast
candles gleam on laughter,

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Turning the Corner

or Celebrating Light

Every winter solstice, one of my dearest friends in Vermont happily points out that "We've turned the corner!"  Her blitheness used to drive me crazy when I lived there.  The sub-zero Fahrenheit temperatures of January and February were still ahead of us, and even worse, the cruel tease known as "March," not to mention the disgusting weeks of mud season, when knee-high boots are sucked off your feet to disappear forever in the muck and mire.  To be rejoicing that the days are each growing one minute (oh, wow, one whole minute!) longer seemed to be missing the point of the three months of winter and their 129,600 minutes yet to come.

And yet, truth be told, we have turned a corner, away from darkness toward ever-increasing light.  Spring is, in fact, if we are to be completely technical about it and ignore such incidental phenomena as snow, ice, and frigid temperatures, on its way.  Here in New Mexico, as in much of the West, the coldest months of the year are December and January; the solstice really does mark "midwinter."  We're at the nadir of this very shallow valley and beginning to saunter out again.  Now that I'm here and not dreading any actual, you know, weather, I can appreciate my friend's point of view a little better.

I was thinking about that yesterday morning, the first day of winter, as the combination of sunrise, unseasonable warmth, and a hot cup of tea beckoned me outside.   I was taking photograph after photograph of the painterly clouds and thinking of the view as a sunrise (which it was), all the while wondering what distinguished it from a sunset, other than the whole obvious east/west factor.  Visually? perhaps nothing.  Experientially? almost everything:  the sense of vibrancy rather than of sleep, the pull toward action, the glad shout of life—

And rather than being intrinsic to the sunrise, almost all of that experiential difference comes from inside our own heads. 

When I first became ill, I slept between 12 and 14 hours a day, at the minimum. I would sleep through two alarms, and wake feeling as though I had never slept at all. After several months of that, I realized how much hope comes from the idea that "it will all look better in the morning"—how deep the belief in dawn, in the solstice, in turning points, in improvement, runs. When you wake in the morning feeling worse than you did the night before, and realize that that's just the way things are going to be from this time forward, it's not only physically wrong, it's counter to everything you know in your gut about the way the world "should" work.

At some point you realize that turning points don't just happen.  Solstice isn't meaningful all by itself; the days may grow longer, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they will become any better.  A sunrise may suggest an awakening to life, but that doesn't mean the awakening will occur.  You have to make those moments pivotal.  You choose to see the dawn as a time of possibility, to celebrate the growth of light rather than to bemoan the cold of winter, to live your values rather than to harp on your losses.  Hope is something you decide on, not something that automatically waltzes your way with the sunrise or the solstice.

This is the time of year for celebrations of light. As a more-or-less Friend, a Quaker, with deep Protestant roots, I celebrate the birth of the Christ child—the Light come among us.  To those of you who also celebrate Christmas, I offer best wishes for a very merry one!  To those who do not, I warmly extend my hands in a wish for peace on earth and good will toward all.

May God bless us, every one.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


or Letting the Dust Settle

The two least restful words in the English language are "should" and "ought."  They nag at you, they poke you in the conscience, they tug at the sleeves of your awareness, they rake fingernails of unease down the chalkboard of your soul.  They are little linguistic chihuahuas, yapping and yapping and yapping for your attention.  (I'm having fun with this one.)  Even when you take a well-earned breather, they whine in the background of your rest, preventing you from gathering the refreshment you need.

This past week, "the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang [sorry, I don't know the past tense of gang] aft agley."   Because of a CFS flare, my beautifully planned,  gently paced schedule of Christmas preparations—the one that was designed to manage my illness while getting things fully ready for the holiday—still looks a little too pristine, with no satisfying "X"s next to most items on the list.  The shoulds and oughts are piling up, and I don't see how I can fulfill them all without sending my health into a nosedive.

One of the hardest and most valuable lessons illness teaches is that at some point, if you want any of the healing rest your body demands, you have to shut the door on those two words.  Unfortunately, for me, at least, it seems to be one of those lessons that has to be relearned every time a new "should" comes up.

We had rain and snow in Albuquerque this week—about an inch of rain, and a couple of inches of good, wet snow.  We were parched for it, and even though the snow has melted again, the earth is moist, and everything looks fresh.  Some winters we don't get much moisture at all, and then the grit blows in the streets, and the evergreens are dusty and dirty and drab.  For now, however, the dust is settled, the streets and leaves rinsed clean.  With the sun diffused through a thin scrim of clouds today, the catmint, yarrow, and oregano leaves in the garden look spring-green; the boxwoods gleam in the soft light.

An inch of winter rain can be a mixed blessing out here, as roots that like to fight for their moisture resent having to take long baths in it instead—we'll see how happy the rosemary is come spring.  But for now, the garden is wearing an air of ease, as if it is enjoying a moment's respite from the constant struggle with drought.  As I sit on the patio this morning, soaking up the atmosphere of freshness, a tension that I wasn't even aware had been riding my spine begins to let up.

Walking along the path, I notice that some of the newly planted ipheion bulbs have started sending up their fall foliage—one (1) spindly, grassy leaf apiece.  (Next year they will be a thicket.)  I kneel to look more closely and catch a sudden whiff of tarragon from the neighboring bed.  The tarragon leaves themselves are nothing but a wet, soggy mess of compost that still has the misfortune to be attached to the stem, but the moisture and mild sunshine are enough to bring out the herb's clean, anise-y fragrance.  It is a moment of pure loveliness, and I rest in it, free of shoulds and oughts.  The dust settles.  In that moment of ease, I remember what is important.

My family is coming for Christmas, and I am blessed.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Out of Commission

But Not Quite Down for the Count

Most of you probably remember pre-cable television days.  Every so often in the middle of a program the screen would go blank or snowy for a minute or two, and then a blocky, rainbow-striped backdrop would appear, with the phrase "Technical Difficulties.  Please stand by."

I'm having technical difficulties myself today—not with actual technology, more with my brain.  Another head-cold has brought on a big fibromyalgia and CFS flare, and suddenly trying to combine words into sentences has become very, very complicated, and resting seems like a very, very wise alternativve.

I promise that when I get back to writing a real post, I won't do what they did in pre-cable television days and "resume the regularly scheduled program in progress," skipping over all the important, juicy bits and cuing back in just in time for the commercial break and end credits. 

[Open to ideas for clinching one-liner here...]

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Dubious Moral

or Better Late Than—

Never let it be said that I am a bad influence.  Far, far be it from me to lead the innocent down the primrose path to vice, profligacy, and unhelpfulness, let alone to traipse down that path myself.  And yet...

First, however, let me apologize.  The world is a wide and varied place, and some of you are reading this from the balmy coast of southern California, the warm mesas of Arizona, or even the summery Swartland of South Africa.  You won't be remotely impressed by what follows, but please be patient—there's always the moral.

Meanwhile, others of you are struggling against blizzard winds, blinding snowstorms, and sub-zero Fahrenheit temperatures, and, if you have the same reaction as one of my Vermonter friends this week, you are likely to be really, really irritated.  As I was drafting this post today (in the sunshine on the patio, while a finch murmured sweet nothings to the world) I threw down my pen and literally said out loud, "I can't show this to anyone north of the Mason-Dixon line."  Then the immortal words of Jerome K. Jerome came to me, from the Preface to Three Men in a Boat:
The chief beauty of this book lies not so much in its literary style, or in the extent and usefulness of the information it conveys, as in its simple truthfulness. ...This, more than all its other charms, will, it is felt, make the volume precious in the eye of the earnest reader; and will lend additional weight to the lesson that the story teaches.

Truthfulness, yes!  One of the great virtues.  With that reminder, emboldened to continue on in the pursuit of "hopeless and incurable veracity," and without even a hint of southwestern smugness, I offer this current photo from my garden:

The fall-blooming crocuses keep on coming.  I'm pretty sure that the ones blooming now are the batch I planted late this fall—too late, really, or so it seemed at the time.  The pickings at the local garden center were slim, and I took the last few bulbs out of a "grab bag" bin.  But the timing has worked out surprisingly well.  Whereas the bulbs I put in last year flowered this October, the ones that didn't get planted until November are just beginning to make themselves at home.  One at a time they're coming into bloom, and each blossom is its own little explosion of joy.  Even compared to the flurry of blossoms in spring, this little scattering in December makes a pretty impressive emotional impact.  The bare fact that there are flowers in December—how much more exciting does it get than that?

Had I planted the bulbs in September, when they're supposed to be planted, they would long since be a thing of memory.  Instead, by deciding to plant more at the last minute, I am enjoying zing after zing of late-blossoming excitement.  To me this seems to be a clear instance of the virtues of procrastination.  I don't know how else to interpret such plain facts, or what more obvious moral can be drawn from them.   It may not be the kind of moral you want to teach your children, and yet, the facts remain. 

Vice.  Profligacy.  Unhelpfulness.  I do apologize.

At least it's all true.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


or Putting the Shine Back On

You never realize just how cluttered an urban landscape is until you try to photograph a sunset, and then you become all too aware of the busy-ness you have been mentally photoshopping out of your vision.  Cameras aren't nearly as adaptable as the human psyche.  The lens will show you exactly which objects are in front of it with painful clarity; it's up to you to get the camera to lie about the ones you don't like as best you can.

Thinking with mild annoyance about rooftops and poles and wires and such has reminded me of one of the poems in Paul Verlaine's La Bonne Chanson (The Good Song).  The poem's narrator is riding in a noisy, coal-burning train and looking out at the landscape,
where thin telegraph poles sag, their wires having the strange allure of a flourish of the pen.

I can see the mysterious appeal of a bit of swirling calligraphy—a line of Spencerian script with curls and sweeps tailing the capital letters, the kind of thing that makes you aware of appearance rather than meaning, of the process of writing rather than what the writing says.  It makes you see penmanship with new eyes, at least for a while. 

Verlaine published La Bonne Chanson in 1870, several decades after the invention of the telegraph, but not long after the laying of the transatlantic cable.  Telegraphic technology was not so old as to have acquired a patina, but the shine, perhaps, had worn off.  In this poem Verlaine doesn't focus at all on the marvels of long-distance communication.  Instead he looks at the apparatus that makes it possible and weighs it purely in terms of its visual effect.  The poem's narrator, looking through the lens of the train car window, seems to be newly aware of the poles' rhythmic spacing, the black curve of wire between them.

Add an extra 140 years, and I think we can safely say that the shine has faded altogether from poles-and-wires technology.  I'm embarrassed to admit that I don't even know whether these are power or telephone lines; they're just a part of the landscape that I take for granted and ignore, except when they interfere with a sunset.   The lines in the newer part of the neighborhood are buried, but for the most part, these older lines are just as invisible to awareness as if they were.

That's kind of disconcerting.   I mean, they're big.  And kind of important.   And yet, they're so ubiquitous that they fade out of the line of sight altogether until some kind of focal lens lets them be seen afresh.  That's one reason I enjoy cameras so much—they are like Verlaine's train window, putting you at a distance from the familiar and making you see it in a new way.  They put some of the shine back on the things you've taken for granted for a lifetime.

Which doesn't mean I still won't do my best to get the camera to lie about the bits I don't like.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Tiny Slice of Pie

or Seizing the Moment

If summer were pie (bear with me here) it would be a large one, made with the season's abundance, and served by a generous hand.  You would fill your plate and enjoy every bite, but by the time you'd reached the end of the slice you might not be paying quite as much attention as you did for that first glorious taste.  When the same generous hand offered you another overflowing serving, you would keep eating gamely, because it's so delicious, and you really do like pie.  But once you had emptied your plate again, you might just be ready to be done with pie for a while.

If winter were pie, it would be a small one, made with rare and expensive ingredients.  It would be served by someone counting both cost and calories, a tiny sliver of pie dwarfed by a landscape of a plate.  You would take small bites of the enjoyment offered you and pause between each bite, drinking a sip of coffee perhaps, or admiring the table setting, so that you could stretch out the enjoyment as long as possible.  Each bite would be its own memory.

I  know that technically winter hasn't arrived yet, but last week's cold snap finally discouraged the Wild Thing autumn sage from blooming any more, and in my book, that makes it winter.  In the mornings the cold drives me inside before I've finished my coffee on the patio (besides which, it's darkish out), and since my garden is shaded in the afternoon, it's too chilly to spend much time there after work (besides which, it's darkish out).   So instead of the leisurely hours of reading or moseying or crossword-puzzle solving or writing or observing or photographing, there are only tiny slivers of time to enjoy outside and try to make the most of.   (As, indeed, is the case for most of us in the northern hemisphere about now.)

Weekends are another matter, and on sunny mornings, the garden is still a fine place to drink a cup of tea and meander around the circle path to see what's changed during the week.  As I was admiring the rumpled-fabric texture of the dried sand cherries and thinking how glad I was not to have to iron them, I was reminded that December's beauty is fragile and evanescent in any case—that no matter how much time is available for its enjoyment, the enjoyments themselves are short-lived and precious.  As my camera hand neared the cherries, it brushed one of the ragged leaves, which went tumbling; it nudged a branch and sent a whole flock of leaves fluttering to the ground.  I cupped a cherry in my hand, and its flesh crumbled, leaving only the bare seed dangling from the stem.   The whole experience had a certain "oops" factor to it; I didn't really mean to hasten the process of winter.  On the other hand, each of those moments had its own tiny, individual piquancy that has caught, separately, in memory.  I am grateful to have been out at the right time to see (er, make) those leaves fall.

That's the real problem I have with winter:  opportunity.   In summer, with all those outdoor hours stretching ahead, the odds of experiencing something amazing or intriguing or entertaining or breath-taking are fairly high.  In winter, if you're not there when they're handing out the pie, you're just not going to get any.  So you hold your plate out hopefully every chance you get, and presumably, at some point, it will be filled.

With a tiny slice of wonder that you had better savor, one intense bite at a time.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


or Cleansing the Palate

This is the snowstorm that closed both interstate highways in town for several hours on Thanksgiving morning.  To be fair, black ice was the real culprit, and to be even more fair, the 25-car pile-ups caused by the black ice are what really got in the way.  The native Coloradoan/transplanted Vermonter in me snorted a bit at all the drama, but then, I wasn't out on the roads until well after the sun came out.

I don't recall snow even being in the forecast for Thanksgiving, so waking up to a little dusting of it—not to mention the overcast skies and the sight of the Sandias blanketed in clouds (clouds!)—was a lovely surprise.  Normally the color palette here leans toward the warm side; I think of it as the visual equivalent of local flavors, whether the earthy spiciness of red chile or the smoky pungency of green.  The cool colors of snowfall are like a lemon ice—refreshing, cleansing to the palate, and deeply appreciated in small servings.

Wandering the garden on Sunday morning after the holiday away, I encountered more fall-blooming crocuses, this time in bud.  Apparently, not only the leaves but also the stems show up late in the growing process—the buds arise almost directly from the ground. (Aha! I will know what to look for next year.)

In spring, I would probably interpret this shade of lavender as a harbinger of warmth; in late fall, hard on the heels of what we might as well call a snowstorm, it strikes me instead as cool bordering on icy, as a refreshing "verge of winter" purple (destined someday to become a Crayola color, mark my words). The color venations in the bud seem as precisely etched as the edges of a snowflake.

As one of my friends is fond of saying, "We create our own realities." I might not go quite that far, but I would say that our interpretation of reality depends a lot on context: a storm that wouldn't even be a blip on the radar in Colorado brings life to a halt in New Mexico; clouds that would be oppressive elsewhere are a pleasant change of pace in the desert; colors that sing of warmth in February murmur of cold in November.

A palate cleanser only works in context; you don't start a meal with the lemon ice. I've never known anyone who really stopped to think about it who didn't find it eerie how little of their perception is based on unshakable truth and how much is based on circumstance; maybe that's why I have an odd liking for ex-pat communities, who encounter that truth every day and are willing to be thrown off stride by it.  In a way, living with chronic illness is like living in a foreign country, because things you used to take for granted no longer work in familiar ways:  flights of stairs that never used to phase you suddenly become epic obstacles; accomplishments that used to come easily—like writing a simple sentence—become Herculean labors.  Everything takes more effort than it "should," if a state of health is your context.  In the context of illness the moments of refreshment are exquisite, like a holiday visit with family, or a crocus in November.

Like a snowstorm in the desert.