Sunday, May 19, 2024

Holes

Last week at this time I was digging a hole. It was three feet by three feet and maybe six or seven inches deep. It was hard work, and immediately my heart was pumping, and my hands around the shovel started to ache. I was standing in a very large field, and it was raining, and I knew that when I finished digging this particular hole, I was going to move onto another. 

How this came about was my husband and I were visiting our son and daughter-in-law and basically jumping into their lives for a few days, and this meant showing up at a farm to help one of their friends with whatever farm-related tasks needed to be done. What needed to be done was dig holes. 

I was working alongside my son, who was using a pitchfork to pull straw off the ground. The point of the holes, the straw, was to get the field ready for planting. Ooh! I said to the farmer when he explained. This is like the lasagna method!

*The lasagna method is an alternative to the more traditional "tilling" method. Instead of tearing up grass where you want to plant, you lay down cardboard or newspapers and make layers with grass clippings and leaves. You do this in the fall, and then later, in the spring, you've got some nice soil to work with. The farmer was using a thick layer of straw, which he'd covered with a tarp. Now, the tarp was removed and our job was: 

1. Fork off the straw.

2. Dig a hole.

3. Add compost from the giant compost pile at the edge of the field.

4. Repeat until the entire field was ready to be planted.

While my son was forking and I was digging, I was chatting with another volunteer, comparing notes about our gardens and what kind of compost we like to use. For example, she likes to use deer hides, animal blood, and dead fish. 

Oh, I said, I use eggshells and coffee grounds, but otherwise, samesies. 

It was mother's day and for various reasons, mother's day is a hard day for me. I was glad to be digging holes in a muddy field and hanging out with my husband and son and daughter-in-law and texting sporadically with my daughter and listening to my new gardening friend talk about how I shouldn't be scared of eating stinging nettles. 

*Stinging nettle is an herb that I have growing in my garden, but now I am afraid to harvest it because like it says in the name, it stings! So, I've been pretty much leaving it alone, but apparently, if you put it in hot water, it removes the stinging, and then you can eat it how you would spinach.  

The trick, my new gardening friend told me, is: Use gloves and tongs. She was pausing for a moment in her digging, and she bent down suddenly and picked up what looked like a rock, Look, it's a beaver skull, she said. 

Well, there's something you don't see every day, I said, and then I went back to digging my hole and marveling at my son who was pitchforking like a pro and stopping every now and then to text back and forth with my daughter. 

When we were all done working, we had a big feast in the farmer's barn. I felt like I had been through something but I didn't know exactly what. Work, rain, mud, and dead animal skulls. But also, a lovely meal with family and new friends. 

Before I left, I asked the farmer if I could have a few of his bean seeds. He jumped right up and returned with a handful. Isn't this what it's all about? he said. 

Yesterday, I dug holes in my own garden. It was sunny and hot and the holes were small and relatively easy to dig. I planted the seeds, and then I ate a big bowl of stinging nettles. Ha ha. I'm joking. I am not quite ready to do that yet, but when I do, you will be the first to know. 

holes




Sunday, May 12, 2024

Some Questions I Have on My Vacation (in no particular order)


1. The town where my husband and I are staying operates on the honor system. We walk into the inn where we have a reservation, and before we say a word, the owner is shaking our hands and leading us to our room. How does she know who we are? 

2. It’s the same system at the little cafe across the street (the inn has a deal with them, that guests can pick up a free breakfast each day of their stay). Hi, we say, We’re staying at the inn. And the cafe owner is already handing us the menu. Don't they want an ID? A jangle of a room key? Nope. Just hello and here's your coffee. I love this town. 

3. They have llamas. The last time we were up this way (the far far far north country of New York to visit our son and daughter-in-law) we saw llamas in someone’s front yard, and one came right up to the fence with a look on his face like, Hey! And I was like, Hey! back. 

But later when I told my son we saw the llamas, he asked if we had fed them. Apparently, there’s a food bag near the fence and they were expecting that. And, he added. Those aren't llamas. They're alpacas. 

4. The farm where my daughter-in-law works has 200 newborn lambs. How do you know there are 200? I asked my son. Because the farmer counted them, he said. 

5. New York and Vermont used to be on two separate continents millions and millions of years ago. I learn this by reading a sign at the stone quarry up the street from the inn. Also, the lady in the cafe this morning said that last year someone set up a grand piano in the quarry and had a concert. Wow, I said. How did they get the piano up there? 

I don't know, the lady said. I was wondering that too. 

6. At the farm there’s a small pen of orphan lambs, and one immediately climbs on me and licks my leg and tries to eat my purse. Why are some of the lambs orphans? 

Because, the farmer says, for one reason or another their mothers rejected them or they're a triplet and their mothers can only handle one or two. But, she adds, at least they have each other. 

7. What is the the difference between a llama and an alpaca? 

8. I am still thinking about how I can walk into this inn and take a water from the fridge in the sitting room or make myself a cup of coffee and it’s no big deal.

9. Would you ever consider moving up here? our son asks us. We are sitting at a different cafe, a place where they serve you a bowl of ice cream with a drizzle of espresso on top, and I am immediately trying to figure out how to make this at home.

Through the window we can see the lake, and beyond that, the mountains of that long ago continent, Vermont. 

Answer: yes

orphaned lamb


a farm


seriously, how would you get a grand piano out here? 




not a llama

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Stay, Bubby

There's a funny video going around online about how people's names for their pets change over the years. My dog is Zooey, but sometimes we call her Zo-Zo, or Zo-bee-doh. Which turned into Do-bee. Which somehow became Bubby. 

Zooey responded to all of these names. Just as she responded to Come, Sit, Stay-- a particularly tricky command, where my husband would place a treat on the floor right at her feet, and she would know not to eat it until he said, Release. 

She knows other words too, Walk, being the primary one. Because she would get so ridiculously excited when she heard the word, my husband and I would spell it when she might overhear, but then she learned W-A-L-K, so we would have to say, "We're going to take her for a You Know What," and she figured that one out too. 

I didn't realize how much I talked to Zooey, how much I expected her to hear me--telling her what a good dog she is on our You-know-whats, or giving her a heads up about a car trip, or picking her up from the vet and saying, Wanna go home? and making sure I grabbed the leash tight first before she pulled me off my feet in a mad scramble to get the hell out of that place-- 

until I realized she can't hear anymore. 

I don't know when this happened. It's possible it's been a while and I haven't noticed? I'd come home from work and she was still snoozing upstairs and startled when I walked into the room, but I had chalked that up to: she's older, she needs more rest, she knows I'm home and will come down shortly to greet me. But now I know that she just didn't hear me come in.

She can't hear the particular sound the mailman's truck makes when it rolls down the street, or the squeaky sound of her squeaky toys, or the doorbell ringing, or the opening of her dogfood can, or me, when I croon at her, Where's my Bubby? Where's my Zo-bee-doh? 

And it's changed our relationship in ways that I still don't quite understand. What is my relationship with my dog? What is her relationship to me? I read a book recently called The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. It was a disconcerting experience reading this book. First, I didn't know what it was about until I'd read a good fifteen, twenty pages into it. And then I was like, wait. What? 

(As a back story, I work at a library, and often see the same books come across my desk again and again. This particular book is a small book with a bright, colorful cover, the title and author in big font, and that's it. This is a trend in book cover design right now, particularly with literary fiction, which is nice, but it makes it difficult to know what the book is about. 

I don't know why I decided to check this book out except that it passed through my hands so many times that it finally made me curious. But then I brought it home and forgot about it for months. I would look at it and see the bright colors, the title, the author, and think... nothing.)

Anyway, I finally started reading the book and was immediately intrigued. It's about a woman who is a writer who has lost her very good friend who is also a writer. Ah, I was thinking. This is a book about friends, about death and grief, and possibly, about writing. But then I got to the part where the friend who died left the main character his dog.  

The woman does not like dogs and does not want this one. To further complicate matters the woman's apartment is small and does not allow pets of this size. (The dog is a Great Dane.) But she takes the dog in, despite all of this. 

Here is when it occurred to me that this book is not about the writer friend who died, it's about the dog--HE'S the friend!--and oh my GOD, please don't tell me this dog is going to die! The author, anticipating my fear, writes, Don't worry, reader, the dog is not going to die, and I breathed a sigh of relief, and kept reading.  

She was lying. But I don't hold it against her. The book was a good book and (spoiler) when the dog dies, he dies in the most beautiful way imaginable. I don't know how the author accomplishes this, but she does. And I don't know how she manages to take a fairly predictable story--a person who doesn't like dogs falls in love with one--and turns it into something complex and surprising. 

Once I was that person who didn't want a dog, who reluctantly took one in, and somewhere along the way, she became my friend. I don't talk to her as much anymore. It just seems silly if she can't hear me. Maybe it was always silly. But I have found other ways to communicate. Flicking a light on when I come into a room so as not to scare her. Showing her my sneakers when it's time to take a walk. I am working on how to convey the word, Stay. And in the future, Release.  

Something that truly shocked me about the book was that all of the many times I looked at the cover, I never really saw it. It wasn't only the title and the author. The dog, apparently, had been there all along.  

 



Sunday, April 28, 2024

Notes on Visiting a Friend You Have Never Met

We have to tell each other beforehand what we look like. For example, she is wearing a purple sweater. And I say, I am the one in pink. Up to this point, all of our interactions have been online. Long emails back and forth. Several manuscripts exchanged. A handful of phone calls. At least we know each other’s voices. How did we first “meet”?

Well, that is a funny story. Once I wrote a blog post about the summer I helped paint the trim on all of the McDonalds in central Connecticut, and she commented that I must have painted the McDonalds in her town because she used to live in central Connecticut. Turns out, we grew up in neighboring towns. 

And another coincidence: she worked at the same mall, the same year I did, at the Burger King I used to go to because I worked at the steakhouse next door, and the dinners there were too pricey. What if she served me a Whopper Jr and small fries?! How small the world is. 

We became pen pals. Is that a term anymore? Ten years of writing back and forth, and now, an in-person visit, a short plane ride away. How do you jump for a weekend into—I was going to say, a “virtual” stranger’s life—except, the truth is we are not virtual strangers, we are virtual friends. Anyway, you just do it.

On the plane I read the newest book by Anne Lamott called Somehow: Thoughts on Love. The night before I’d had the chance to see her in person and I was majorly fangirling. I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s books for years. A longtime friend introduced me to her writing. Another friend is also a fan and we went to the event together. 

Anne Lamott was as funny and as smart and as inspiring as you would expect. She told us she wrote her new book because she wondered a lot about love and how we can hold onto it in an increasingly scary world. The answer is you just have to do it, giving love, as hard as that might be, to others, and possibly more difficult, to ourselves. 

My virtual friend and her husband live outside Philadelphia, and she takes me into the city. I have been there before and have seen the usual touristy sights. The Liberty Bell, Betsy Ross’s House, etc. So, we hit some places off the more beaten path. A museum of illusions. A museum of art and wood. 

One of the exhibits is a wooden chair, and in front of it are all of the scraps and shavings of wood leftover after the chair was made. Why do I relate so much to this chair? Anne Lamott quotes kept popping into my head. 

The secret of life is to read a lot of books and don’t keep bad secrets.

And,

Whatever problem you have can probably be solved by taking a ten-minute walk. 

Over the next few days my virtual friend and I become in-real life friends. We talk and talk while we take hours-long walks. We browse a used bookshop. We stroll past buildings covered with colored glass and bits of tile. We visit a nature sanctuary filled with wildflowers. At night we work on a puzzle and talk and talk some more.  

Then suddenly, the weekend is over. I feel like I have been away from home forever and at the same time, I’ve barely had a chance to visit with my friend at all. I leave the Anne Lamott book behind because I know she will love it.





 


Sunday, April 21, 2024

Friends

This is a story about a dead mourning dove, but I promise it is not a sad story. What happened was I went out into the backyard, and there were the remains of one of the mourning dove babies in the back corner by the ferns. I was planning to transplant the ferns that day, but first I would have to deal with the dead bird. I am not good with dead things. But who is. 

This one hit me particularly hard. For weeks I was an increasingly invested witness to the Mourning Dove Circle of Life going on in my backyard-- the return of the bird couple, the building of the nest on the back porch, the sitting upon the nest, the very cold nights when I'd worry it was too cold out there, or worse, snowing, or worse-worse, a tornado, and through it all, the mother bird sat there, 

sometimes poofing up her body to twice its size to cover her eggs, her non-blinky eyes staring right at me whenever I peeked out. And then, finally, the hatching, the feeding, the babies flying out of the nest and hanging around in the herb garden, the parents close by and then gone, and only the two babies left pecking under the sage and camouflaging themselves in the dried up vegetation. 

A cat must've gotten the bird. Or a hawk. When I ran inside to tell my husband, he said, Maybe it's okay. Maybe it's not dead. Oh, it's dead, I said. 

I went back out and tried not to look at the mess straight on, while nearby, the sibling baby bird cooed alone, and it made me sad all over again. What was the point of it, the building and sitting and feeding if it was all going to come to this in the end.

I know. I promised this would not be a sad story, but here we are. Wait, my husband said, are you writing about the dead bird? Well, what else am I going to write about, I said. 

How you went out with your friends Friday night. 

(Okay, true. It was a meet up at a local brewery with my co-workers to toast to the union we have been trying to organize for the past two years, a rehashing of events that led to this point, as well as a nice reminder of why I love these people and how much I love what I do at the library.)  

And you're going out of town next weekend to visit a friend. (True.) And you hung out for half the day at the book festival downtown where you got to see more friends. (Also, true.) 

See. My husband said. This is really a story about friends. 

I laughed. (I was thinking of one of the author friends I spoke to at the festival, how happy he was sitting there signing his books but took a moment to tell me he likes reading my weekly posts and asked me what I was going to write about next, and I said, I don't know, You? as a joke, but then I remembered that I had written about him once, or more specifically, I wrote about his socks and when I reminded him of that story, he immediately pulled up his pant leg and showed me his socks.)

But the bird, I said to my husband. What about the bird?

The bird was a friend too.   

True. 

A friend's fun socks





Two bird friends

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Dispatches from the Eclipse

The news was giving so many warnings. Make sure you have a full gas tank and pack snacks and water in case you get stuck in traffic. Print out a paper map because you might lose cell service. Whatever you do, don't take off the eclipse glasses and look at the sun for even one second or you'll get permanent retinal damage. And then there was the possibility of clouds. The whole thing was looking like it might be a bust. Should I even bother to go? 

I went. 

The nice thing was that I didn't have to go far. Columbus, Ohio, where I live, was right outside of the 100 percent totality path, but if I drove ten minutes up the road, I'd be right there in it. I didn't understand what In It actually meant. But I was taking the advisements seriously because a more science-y friend told me that the difference between 100 percent and 99.9 percent was everything. (I didn't understand what Everything meant either.) 

The problem is I am lazy--the prep work (what route should I take? Where would I park myself to watch?), and prone to anxiety (what if I got stuck somewhere, cellphone-less and with damaged retinas?!) Adding to the issue: my husband was out of town for the week. He was the one who was all gung ho eclipse in the first place, and now because of a last minute work thing, he was going to miss it. He was so upset about this, that I felt a responsibility to go, if nothing else, so I could tell him about it. 

Here is what I told him about it:

I found a public park off the beaten path that seemed to be in an area where there would be thirty seconds of totality. I printed a map and packed water and a snack. I walked the dog under a sunny, cloudless sky, tucked her safely in the house, and then started the 4.6 mile trek to the park. There was no traffic. I made it to the park in ten minutes. Only a handful of other people were there.    

I sat in my car and looked at the sunny, cloudless sky and was immediately bored. I remembered that I have a friend who lives nearby. I invited myself over to her house. When I arrived three minutes later, I found her and her husband sitting on their patio, passing a pair of eclipse glasses back and forth. 

I said, I should've brought an extra pair of eclipse glasses with me! (Fun fact: the Columbus libraries gave away 100,000 glasses in the weeks leading up to the eclipse.) But my friends didn't mind sharing. I put my glasses on, and I have to say this was my first AHA moment. The sky was completely normal, the sun, simply "the sun," but through the glasses, there was the moon quite clearly making its way across the surface. So, that was cool. 

The total eclipse was supposed to happen at 3:11 pm. Meanwhile, I was texting my son who was watching from a farm in the far north country of New York. He was in the path of totality too. What are the animals doing? I asked. He said someone was offering balloon rides to see the eclipse and the balloon was floating over the farm and the cows were more interested in that.  

I kept putting my glasses on to see the slice of sun behind the moon growing smaller and smaller. And then I would take my glasses off (don't worry, I did NOT look at the sun) to see if the sky was getting darker. It was not. 

I remembered I had my sunglasses on and I took them off and what do you know, it really was dark outside. I put my eclipse glasses back on. 

A white splinter of sun. And then it was gone.  

I took my glasses off and there it was, the black circle, the white rim, sparks coming out at the edge that my son told me later were solar flares. I said, Amazing. It was the only word I could think of. People in my friend's neighborhood were exclaiming and whistling and clapping. 

The birds in the yard quieted. Time slowed down and sped up again. The thirty seconds passed and the splinter of light grew again as the moon continued on its way. Did I keep my glasses off for too long? Did I get permanent retinal damage? I hope not!

I drove home in the dusky light, fast, to beat the crowds, my headlights on, the roads mostly deserted, as if I was the only one who had gone anywhere, the only one heading home. 






Sunday, April 7, 2024

A Bad Storm

There was a bad storm, and the water rushed like a river down the street, rolling over the rocks and plants in the hellstrip. The hellstrip is what we call the slice of land between the sidewalk and the street. In our neighborhood a lot of people plant flowers there instead of grass. When we moved into our new-old house, I liked this idea and immediately wanted to try it too. 

The first spring, which happened to coincide with the covid lockdown, I had a lot of time on my hands. My plan was to dig up some plants from the backyard and transplant them into the hellstrip. But first I had to get rid of a pile of large rocks at one end of the strip. Why were the rocks even there? Who knows. My husband and I decided the previous owners were weirdos, and we loaded the rocks into a wheelbarrow and dumped them on the side of the house. 

I plunked the newly dug up plants into the holes the rocks had left behind and felt very proud of myself. A few days later there was a bad storm. I watched from the porch, horrified, as the water rushed down the street and crushed all of the new plants. When the rain stopped and the road-river subsided, all of the plants were gone. I found them later in the Wendy's parking lot at the end of the street, mucky and ruined. 

My husband helped me put all of the large rocks back. I planted more plants and hoped they'd grow deep roots before the next storm. From then on, whenever it rained hard, I would watch the water hit the rocks and part, relieved when the plants held steady in the center, but knowing how precarious the whole set up was. 

The other night we were out to dinner, and my husband said I was a different person from how I used to be. Maybe it was when we moved, he said. You were different in our other house. Or maybe it was the pandemic? Or the election, the one in 2016 when you lost your mind? Or the one in 2020 when you lost your mind again. 

He didn't say the "you lost your mind part" but I knew what he was getting at. We were eating pizza at a restaurant up the street. This is a tradition we started several years ago, a weekly date night where we'd take turns surprising each other with reservations at new-to-us local restaurants. We did this maybe three or four times and then it was March 2020 and that was the end of that, until now, when we've cautiously gotten back into it. 

Maybe I am a different person, I said. Or maybe that person was there all along. I was remembering something my therapist said to me about trauma and how sometimes you think you're over it, past it, healed, and then a bad thing happens, a storm, for example, and while a trauma-free person can glide by on a cruise ship, you're down there in the water, fumbling with one paddle in your leaky canoe.  

The storm that came through this week happened in the middle of the night. The river, when we could see it, when the sky was just beginning to lighten, was rushing by faster, deeper, than we had ever seen it, the large rocks no match for it, the plants completely underwater.  

I drank my coffee and watched cars stopping and backing up on the street ahead of the rising water, a train of garbage bins floating by and knocking into each other. When the rain slowed and the water receded, I walked across the squishy lawn to inspect the damage. The scooped out ground, the few remaining deep-rooted plants, the rest, a blank slate, ready for spring planting.  

In the late afternoon a double rainbow rose over our house. I looked up at it from my canoe, which I have decided is not leaky after all. I have more than one paddle. I have learned how to row.