It's almost Summer Solstice. Here in Vermont, the days
are extraordinarily long, because we are so far north. I often don't get out to the garden until as late as 6:00 p.m., yet
there are still hours of light in which to work. I often don't come in
until I'm ravenous and it's almost dark and it's dinnertime. Which,
this time of year, may well be 9:00 or 9:30. Almost dark: but still a
little light. Though it may not officially be summer yet, it's definitely past spring. The lilacs, for instance, have already come and gone. (Right, there they are, or were, the lilacs in full bloom, earlier this year, mid-May. Photograph, like all those here, by David. We're going to go on a little photographic lilac journey throughout this post).
David, my partner, has more than once described these days as "deceptive" —
meaning, I think, that because it's light so long you think you can get much more done than you actually can. No matter how many hours of the day are light, there are still only 24 of them.
Since May, every other Tuesday
morning we've been going to an "eco-agriculture" gardening
class with Tatiana Schrieber of Sowing Peace Farm in nearby Westminster West (here's a piece she wrote on celeriac). Tatiana has a Ph.D in Environmental Studies; her focus
was and is environmental anthropology; that is, the way people and environment interact. She blends hard science and long garden experience with her personal pull towards social justice: so, the workshop might be summed up as organic gardening plus-plus-plus.
Yesterday, in one of the less-esoteric class discussions, Tatiana brought up succession planting (what you plant in the garden in the place that, say, the early crop lettuces and peas, now harvested, have vacated) as well as planning for the fall garden.
And she said that it was time to start seeds, especially the brassicas — broccoli, kale, the cabbage family — for our fall gardens. Our fall gardens? It's June! It's not even officially summer yet! How can this possibly be? (Left and above: we interrupt the lilac series to bring you this beaut of a picture David took, I believe autumn before last: a maple leaf on a still-productive broccoli plant, in that year's fall garden.)
It's natural to think about time. Natural in a garden class, surely, for time and nature are inseparable.
But natural,too, as one experiences time. As one ages, and is humbled by it. As one's parents and partner and children and friends age. As the ones who cared for and protected you becomes the ones you care for and protect. As those who came before you die, and you find you must step to the front of the line. Right, the lilac bush outside our front door in early spring… if you enlarge it you can see that trees in the background are still bare and skeletal, but it knew — in whatever way a lilac bush knows — that spring was on the way, and that it would eventually flower into what you saw at the top of this post).
And natural at time's interstices, solstices and equinoxes, when
the year inaugurates the next quadrant of its great turning wheel. There is so much I would like to say about these linchpins of time on earth.
How I got married for the first time, at age 16 (back when I was in "pre-Ned school", as I sometimes say) on the spring equinox.
How, almost 40 years later, I would have a friend named Ami and her 21-year-old daughter would die of a heroin overdose on that same day.
How I no longer celebrate Christmas (18 years of decorating 8 different Christmas trees at the inn got all that washed right out of me, permanently) but I do celebrate the solstice; sometimes by going to a party I'll describe later, but always, since I've come to Vermont, by going on a night-time horse-drawn sleigh ride at Fair Winds Farm.
How my beloved adopted parents, Louis and Elsie Freund, about whom I'll write a post one of these days and who lived with verve and luminosity until their nineties. managed the following: he died on the winter solstice. She died, a year and a half later, on the summer solstice.
And how on David's and my first extended trip together, a long several day drive up the California Coast, he arranged for us to spend a few hours in the middle of the night — from 1:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. the only time non-resident guests are allowed! — in the then-newly restored salt-water hot tubs set high into cliffs above the sea, at Esalen, at Big Sur. It happened to be Winter Solstice, and a full moon rose over the sea below.
When I met David six years ago on an internet dating site — before we took that up-the-coast trip — I used Andrew Marvell's phrase, "time's winged chariot" in an early email (I can't remember the context). This slightly astonished him, in that way that things do when you're starting to consider the possibility of love or friendship with someone — wow, you do that too? You like that, too? Every commonality signifies, or appears to, though perhaps, finally, it's what you don't have in common that keeps things interesting. The poem in which the Marvell phrase is used, To His Coy Mistress, was one of his favorites; in fact, he'd memorized it, along with several Pablo Neruda sonnets. (I got to hear him recite the Neruda, in Spanish, then in English, on the coast trip. He had the moves!). (Left and above, the lilac bush, a little further along… note the tree in the background, just starting to green.)
There's no way of knowing whether Andrew Marvell 's unnamed mistress did indeed give up her virginity when she read that poem, in which he tried to persuade her to do so. But almost 400 years later, long after her quaint honor and his lust are long since ashes, and even with our far-longer lifespans today than in his time, that chariot still hovers precipitously, ominously just over our heads. It always has and always will. Time rubs our face in our mortality daily, since, especially as we age, we discover every day is so full of beauties we will clearly miss or barely have time to see (like the lilac again, this time its buds, all green, in close-up) and it's just choice, choice, choice and the minute you say yes to one thing, you're saying no to something else, perhaps equally marvelous. The passage of time at the center of Marvell's poem is at the center of life… at the center of life itself and our individual lives.
At least, our worldly lives, life as embodied beings, temporarily in residence on this beautiful, perplexing globe, with its endless seductions. (The spiritual life being the only place where we transcend time… except, conundrum-like, of course at that moment we aren't "we" any more, just That. Which takes it beyond the realm of discussion. Doesn't it?)
Time is certainly much on my mind these days. It's a rhythm steady as a pulse, a heartbeat. My mother, the writer Charlotte Zolotow, is about to turn 94; my aunt, Dorothy Arnof, a former editor, is about to turn 100. My boyfriend, unspeakably… except I'm okay with speaking it… will turn 70 this fall. (70? Can I even call him my boyfriend? Would this mean I'm dating, like, my grandfather? But wait, I'm 56…) Left: the Charlotte, me and Aunt Dot on Charlotte's front porch, in September 2007.
(Digression: when my mother and David –— pictured below that same day on the porch, jiving around with Charlotte's beloved decorative sheep, Baaa — first met, she was 88 and he was 63. She was in the hospital at the time, an old lady tiny even in a twin bed, wearing a bright blue nightgown. Now understand that even before she was elderly, my mother used to mix up words in a manner everyone who knew her found charming and hilarious. For instance, in Charlotte-speak a sangria became a "shangri la" and the city of Manila was located in "the Philistines." The other piece of back-story is that David, in his youth and still, has always been active in social justice movements, including racial equality. As a student in Stanford, he traveled with six African students on a "fact-finding tour of the South", during which they met, among other, Martin Luther King and Orville Faubus. So, anyway, Charlotte and David meet each other. Things go swimmingly. Evidently David makes the grade, for Charlotte starts bragging about to friends. Immediately! No sooner are we back home than the phone rings. It's one of Charlotte's pals, apoplectic with laughter. "As soon
as you left the hospital Charlotte called me," says CZ's friend. "She said, 'I've met Crescent's new young man.'" Funny enough in itself since he was then 63. CZ's friend continued, "And then she said, 'He was very active in the Civil Wars, you know.'")
(Meaning, just in case you didn't get it, Civil Rights movement.)
(This is why I have very mixed feelings about Facebook and Twitter, though I use them: you just can't tell a real story. It's like the one-line poem written by the late poet, William Matthews, which appeared in an early '70's chapbook called "An Oar in the Old Water." The title of the poem: "Premature Ejaculation." The sum, complete total of the poem: "I'm sorry this poem's already finished." )
But back to time and the lilacs. (Another close-up bud, below, starting to take on to color).
I think it's especially natural to think about and be aware of time in Vermont, where the seasons are radically different from one another. With the dramatic seasonal extremity and summer's brevity, consideration of time is unavoidable. If you don't get your wood in before winter… or your garden in in early spring, it'll be too late. (I have yet to really succeed with growing okra. a hot weather-loving crop, in chilly Vermont. Last year I got beautiful okra plants, with their sensuous, velvety saucer-sized blossoms, but only about three or four actual pods. I'll try again this year. Photo: the okra seedlings. Prosper and grow, little okras! As a Southerner who has only recently become a Yankee, I found it shocking that my favorite area farm-stand, Walker Farm, sold okra for 50 cents a pod… and hilarious that they labeled the okra basket "curiosity." !!! But now, having tried, and failed, to make crop of okra, I almost see their point.Though given how much I love okra, I might say "tragedy" rather than "curiosity.")
Sometime in late March or early April, Vermont begins its slow, gradual shift from winter to summer with what locals call Mud Season. My Southern friends often say to me, in a tone of concerned urgency, of the shift from Arkansas to Vermont, "But what about
the winters?" To which I sometimes reply, "Aw, you just suffer from from claustro-snowbia," and at other times quote what my friend, neighbor, and fellow cookbook Deborah Krasner says on the subject: "It keeps the riff-raff out."
But in fact, winters are actually not nearly as difficult as Mud
Season, when all the snow melts. This year, 2009, all the old-timers were saying "Worst Mud Season I've seen in 40 years." We got pulled out by Triple-A twice, and often just plain forwent driving rather than risk the mud. I had a Scarlett O'Hara moment in early April… "As God is my witness, I will not spend another Mud Season in Vermont!" I didn't fall to my knees, as Vivian Leigh does in the famous radish-eating scene, because the ground was… mud, and I might never have gotten back up and out. (P.S. So far, I'm doing very well, thank you, in setting up gigs in points considerably South in late March/ early April 2010.) What could be so hard about Mud Season? See picture, above right. That's my car, right in front of our house. It just… sank.
But how swiftly we went from that mess to full-throated spring! DK and I just couldn't stop marveling at it. "Two weeks ago the trees were bare! And now —!" Do we marvel this much every year? Spring is, after all, a perpetual renewal and I think everyone whp experiences gets amazed all over again each year. But perhaps because this particular Mud Season was so extremely dreary, protracted and difficult, we were even more spring-struck than usual.
(Above, our house in early May. That bush to the left of the door? The lilac. And maybe a foot further back from where this picture was taken is the road… the exact spot of the sinking car above, only a month earlier! And below? Another close-up of a lilac bud. Enlarge the picture, look closely, and I bet you'll marvel, too).
One night recently, DK and I were talking over dinner, again, with wonder about the rapidity with which mud had changed to greenness. I said, "You know what? I think this has something to do with what you talked about in the car, when we were coming home from that party at Leslea and Matthew's, that first time we went."
That party had the celebrated the winter equinox two or three years earlier. It's held annually (though 2007 was our first time), at the home of two doctors, Leslea Goldman and Matthew Pearce. Only Leslea is a practicing physician now … several years ago, Matthew left medicine to pursue a second vocation which had always called him: painting. (That painting, "Bearing Fruit," is one of his, left. Look at how luminous the skin is! I think one can see the healer still, in the artist).
After the party, in the warm quiet car, traveling the few miles home alone the
snowy road, in that coupled intimacy, checking in with
each other, once again a dyad after a larger group event, we were talking.
(This after-the-event checking-in was one of the recurring experiences in which I missed Ned most achingly after I was widowed, in the years before David and I fully connected. To leave, or — if you were the one entertaining — be left alone after everyone leaves, and not to be able to check your reactions, explore your thoughts and perceptions, with a beloved partner! It was a silence so noisy, one's mind and heart became an internal emotional Times Square. I know a period is likely to come when I am again unpartnered, given the difference in my age and David's. Will I be able, by then, to experience that quiet in peaceful solitude instead of longing? I don't know. I do know that I treasure it all the more now, having done without it. I do know that never do I do a post-party deconstruct / decompress with David without being aware that to do so is both privileged and temporary.)
Anyway, as we made our way home in the dark, snow so high on either side of the road that at times it was almost like traveling in a tunnel of white, after that solstice gathering, David said, "You know, I was looking around the room, and I thought to myself, 'you would never, ever see a room full of people like this at a party in Los Angeles'."
I thought back through the evening. Finding the house; the sudden bustle in the quiet night: many cars, figures visible inside in silhouette, almost palpable warmth on the longest night of the year. Coming in, shedding our various layers of coats, hats, scarves, boots. (Vermont has its own winter-time etiquette: bring slippers or house shoes with you when you go visiting; take your boots off and change at the door). Entering into the warm people-filled kitchen, every flat surface and stove burner covered with baking dishes and bowls and jars with spoons sticking out of them and crumbled foil spoons — the detritus of an almost demolished potluck. An equally people-filled living room and study adjacent the kitchen. Lights low; lots of candles, a wood-stove cranking out the heat. David and I separated, to eat and explore. There were many conversations , in and out of which we, like every one else, eddied. It was neighbors greeting neighbors, not fancy. Jeans, sweaters (the distinctive smell of damp wood and woodsmoke when you hugged someone, a scent I also remember so fondly from my Ozark days), lots of town vests and Polartek. The photo above has nothing to do with the party— it's just in case you think I'm making this up: our mailbox, midwinter, in snow.
We were still relative newcomers, and didn't know many people there besides Leslea and Matthew. I did talk with my own doctor, Gary (with whom I play Scrabble occasionally, and have hiked and swum with a time or two). I had my then-typical twinge: if I was back in Eureka Springs I would know every single person here, and my then-typical self-soothing internal talk: relax into your new life, CD, open, soften. Isn't it nice to meet people without having to dance through what they've heard about you? I remember I talked, that night, with a woman who raised sheep, a potter, a teacher, and a couple who replace automotive glass. And I had faith that with every year, I would grow more deeply rooted in the community, and come to know more people, and that some few of them would grow to be close friends. As has happened.
Faith. That's what moving to a new place and starting over takes, even if it's shaky at times. And that's what a Vermont winter takes. Left, a picture taken at Aubuchon Hardware in March: garden supplies, piled high with snow.
"What do you mean by 'people like this''?" I'd asked David in the car. "You mean, no make up, no dress-up clothes?"
"That too," he said, "But what I was thinking of was, everyone looked their age."
"Ah," I said.
And, two years later, this spring, I continued (he immediately referenced the earlier conversation). "You know, in L.A. maybe it's not just the youth-and-movies thing. Maybe it's the climate. You have pretty much the same weather every day: that Southern Californian mild, sunny thing. Nothing to say 'Time's passing.' It's lotus-land. What seasonal changes that are, are very mild and subtle, compared to here. Here, because of the climate you can't duck the passage of time. It's in your face. Maybe that's part of why people wear their faces here, they don't attempt to alter them."
As if such alteration worked. Even when it works visually — the person looks good, instead of surgically altered — it doesn't work. (Left: oh so many lines around those alteration-free eyes…) You can't outsmart time, as Andrew Marvell knew. And countless others — among them, Shakespeare ("Summer's lease hath too short a date.").
Contemporary gardeners can approximate that date; you look up where you reside to find the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone. From there, you get the estimated frost dates. After the final date of frost, you can, theoretically, plant in the spring. And, as Tatiana told us, you look at the estimated first frost date and count backwards, to figure out what you can plant that is likely to reach maturity before a killing freeze sets in.
One of my own poems is about that date. It creeps me out that it was written two years before Ned died:
Estimated final date of frost, Zone 6: May 5.
You put your tender plants out two weeks later.
Climatically, the odds are good; it probably
won’t freeze, and they’ll survive. The ground
is warm, and your Big Boys and jalapenos,
impatiens ‘Little Twinkle’, holy basil
will be protected from inclemency, and harm.
Yet I remember 18 inches on May 9
And hail, two Aprils in a row, left us all peachless.
Fronts met and clashed above.
Five minutes made the orchards into holocausts
of beaten useless blossom-covered ground below,
odd white balls still melting calmly on the sodden ruin.
This has some relevance to love.
There are some calculations best avoided
by those who say, “Ah well, it’s for the best.”
They had to ship in fruit fr
om California, twice,
to Clarksville, where they hold Peach Fest.
Protection’s not available
to those who raise a pig or grow a fruit.
We bite July’s Red Havens, sweet and acid:
juice, which trails our chins,
explodes in yellow, red, and pink,
the fleshy meat of summertime
within our mouths, and
fiber between teeth. We don’t suspect
the work and the travail,
and all it took to give us what we eat.
In this, a farmer or an orchardman’s like us.
A day that ought to be pure spring may freeze.
you tend while knowing,
unprepared to be reminded,
there are no guarantees.
As always and with everything, Ned's sudden death in 2000— for which, despite my own prescient words, I was wholly unprepared to be reminded — figures into my considerations of time. Ned is now, forever, in one way, a beautiful and vibrant 44-year-old. (In another way, of course; he isn't; he isn't period. He doesn't exist, is vanished: it' was hard for me to not be angry when well-meaning people said "Of course he's always with you, " or "He's always watching over you." No, he wasn't. He was and is gone; what I remember about him is precious to me, but it is no more or less than memory. Memories of Ned are not Ned.)
One strange gift of his death, an event I would never ever have chosen yet which is not without gifts, is this ever-present sense that there are deadlines. Some deadlines you know about, and to some extent they are negotiable: you can file for an extension with the IRS, you can ask your publisher for another couple of weeks or months. But some deadlines — the big ones — you have not a clue about. As W.S. Merwin writes in "On the Anniversary of my Death", "Every year without knowing it / I have passed the day…"
We all work and live under both kinds of deadlines. What message do I take from all this? Don't waste time. Or, as I sometimes say, "Listen to the fish!" The fish being a carp, as in "carpe diem."
This year springtime brought something unusual: I was invited to teach at Rancho la Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. This is a place about which I'd always had intense curiosity and to which I had always longed to go: click the link and you'll see why. (The experience there, which exceeded my expectations, is a subject for another post). The invitation was the good news. The bad news was, it could only be scheduled for mid-May — right at the start of the time to get the garden in, in our part of the world where, as you know by now, every day counts.
Too, it looked like we would miss the actual blooming of the long-awaited lilacs, that sublime color and fragrance I love to bury my face into (which David has, several years in a row, taken a picture of me doing; you saw one earlier and there's one, a bit more natural, still to come).
But I wasn't going to say no to Rancho la Puerta. I was listening to the fish! (FYI, I've been invited back for 2010 — but will be teaching next in March and December, not garden prime-time).
So, I determined I was going to plant all I could (potatoes, hearty greens and yes, brassicas, carrots, beets) before we went to Mexico. And, I was going to mulch it down so the weeds couldn't get a jump on me. Left, the garden post-early planting, pre-mulch. Looks pretty unprepossessing, right?
Only problem was, Mercury was retrograde and despite my best efforts, the mulch didn't get delivered until the Thursday before the Friday we'd be getting on the plane for San Diego.
Reader, I woke up at 5:00 a.m. without an alarm and got my ass out to the garden and mulched the whole thing that damp, overcast Friday morning.
He also said, eying my head-to-foot straw-covered, mud-covered clothes and shoes, "You might want to get undressed outside."
Which is what I did when I came in at 8:00. After that I showered and we ate breakfast. Then we made our flight with time to spare, arrived in San Diego that night, ate great Thai food, and went off the next morning to a fitness adventure and beautiful flower-filled terrain wholly unlike what we had left. In Mexico — my first trip to that country.
Above right, the garden as it looks today.
But, back to the morning of the mega-mulch.
I had exited out the side door to go to the garden, but I headed around
to the front to come in, stripping off as I came. I piled the hay-covered clothes on the steps. And there I saw —
how marvelous, unexpected, kind, generous! — that David could take his annual photograph after all.
For the lilac, just in time, was in full bloom.