As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m working on being happier this year. Not that I wasn’t pretty happy last year. I just want it to be more…conscious this year, I guess. More intentional, since last year’s was in large part the result of non-repeatable actions. Moving 1/2 way across the country, downsizing to a new house… That accounts for a great deal of my excitement last year!
This year, however, we’re living here already. And have more or less ‘settled’ in. We’re (literally!) putting down roots: planting trees & shrubs & flowers and garden beds and swing sets. Well, if digging holes and filling them w/wet cement to ‘plant’ swing set legs counts…
It seems like I’m grownup enough (finally!) to work towards happiness, if necessary. And it appears that’s actually not a bad plan. Last week’s prompt asked me to consider what I do well. And how much of that comes naturally, compared to what I’ve worked to grow better at. And it turns out? There is very little I think I’m ‘naturally’ good at.
This week’s prompt asks me to list ‘what things do you do that take you out of your head?’ Good question! And many of them are the exact things I listed the week before, that required me to study them, practice 🙂them, learn them.
I wonder how many of us still believe the happily-ever-after stories of our childhood. That we would somehow just ‘become’ happy…? That it would descend upon us like a warm sunbeam, and wrap us in light.
Instead, it’s beginning to look as if happiness is more like the garden bed I put in last fall: I had to dig out the execrable red clay (down 10+ inches!), mix peat moss & manure & dirt together, and then put it back in the bed. My beloved had to put in edging to hold the newly raised bed surface in (N.B.: other folks aren’t responsible for our happiness, but they can help!). I had to plant seeds I bought into tiny peat pots, and put them under the lights on the light table, and water them until they were ready to transplant outside. And then I had to mulch the little plants, watering when it was dry weather. But by October? The bed was so lush & lovely no one could believe it! See above. And that was in autumn, when gardens are supposed to be winding down!
Another metaphor (you knooow how I love metaphors): aging is like autumn — full of brilliant light, even when the leaves are falling and the air is chilling. Even on the days when arthritis is a royal pain, and other attendant challenges rear unreasonable heads, I’m grateful to be here.
That too is a part of the whole happiness thing, I’m learning. Gratitude. Another thing I’ve been practicing, writing regularly in my gratitude journal. With entries that range fom the chickadee on the feeder outside, to my elder grandson telling me you’re the best, GiGi!
So here’s my prescription for you and your future happiness: practice it. Treat it like a skill that you can learn. Because it is, I promise. And the more you practice, the better you’ll get at it. Honest.
This week has been a gardening bonanza. A few days ago we went to the garden center and bought several plants, ranging from white cosmos to blue sage to orange-yellow coreopsis to red&green striped fountain grass. Nectar plants. Bee & butterfly plants 😊 It makes me a happy happy camper.
I love the smell of dirt. It heals me. I am ecstatic in the warm sun, w/ a breeze lifting my hair. And there’s little I like better than sitting on the our front porch afterwards, w/ a glass of cold tea from the morning pot’s leftovers. My nails will never be long — I’m lucky they aren’t ragged, given how often I forget my gardening gloves! But the trellis is up, and the 3 climbing roses (two single whites & a single red, w/ a yellow heart) have either already bloomed (the red), or are blooming now (the whites). The trellis makes the front porch so … well, I know it sounds trite & veddddy British, but it’s cosy. Honest. So I put in a window box planter filled w/ meadowy flowers: cosmos, rudbeckia, red fountain grass, blue sage. It’s sitting on the porch floor, and looks like a verrry tiny meadow — filled w/ bees working the old-fashioned flowers.
And then there are the 5 crape myrtles — like we had at our old house, in multi shades of red, cherry, pink, & white — and the very nice mail order place sent a 6th cherry red one. So then we had to buy a 7th white one, so that the island ‘balanced.’ It’s right outside the kitchen window, in front of the back fence. If it all ‘takes’ (gardening is always fraught with weather ifs!), it will be gorgeous to see in the heat of mid-summer.
When I’m in gardening mode, I think in flowers. Or at least in plants (right now I’m beginning to think of an herb border!). I read gardening books: meadow grasses, herbs, garden design, native plants for pollinators & birds. I ‘try on’ this shrub, this understory tree, this climber. And I watch the sun move through the yard, trying to get a feel for this new landscape & what should go where, to be happiest. It’s all a totally absorbing puzzle, w/the added bonus of being outside in this soft mountain early summer.
It’s also meditation, really. Time ceases to exist, at least not in a linear fashion. There’s the soft fluff of peaty soil, the careful choosing of foliage to complement flower, and the smell of water as it soaks a freshly planted pot. Sensory immediacy is a kind of counting of the breath, at least for me. I breathe in. I breathe out. But what I’m really doing is focusing on the plants, their needs. The now of dirt & root & pot.
If you don’t have a yard, it doesn’t matter. Some of my happiest ‘gardening’ days were the clay pots on the front porch of a rental duplex I shared w/ my sister. Then as now, I made tiny meadows in window boxes, and seduced bees w/what they like best: fragrant flowers filled w/ nectar. All you need is dirt, water, & some seeds. You & Mother Nature can do the rest together.
The overgrown slope to the west of our house is NOT merely a weed patch. It is…an incipient meadow. On a verrry small scale. There are thistles, and there’s clover, and there are the tiny yellow blossoms of sheep’s shower. There are gorgeous flowering tall grasses, some blue with oat-like heads. Others are vivid green blades, w/ thinner, more elongated heads. And did I mention the 100 or so orchard bees diligently working all of it?
It’s all in how you look at it. You see a weed patch (probably our downhill neighbors do, as well). I see where the wildflower seed will go, and a place for the native bee house we’re going to put in. We brought with us to Virginia the lovely little native bee ‘condo’ my beloved bought for me from Crown Bees. It was a Christmas present — a cedar bee house that he put a copper roof on, setting it on a post capped w/ a matching copper top. Beautiful! Just right for our neglected native bees.
I’ve encouraged mason & orchard bees since then, buying cocoons (well, they aren’t really cocoons, but pupæ) from Crown, and putting them out to hatch & reproduce. It’s far easier than keeping honeybees (which aren’t as good a pollinator, and are a LOT more work!). And like honeybees, native bees are having a hard go right now.
I’m besotted with bees. They seem to know this, seeking me out when I’m outside, & settling on my hand, my arm, sometimes in my hair. They never sting me, and seem to understand I love them. But I have stepped on honeybees in clover, as a child, so I’m well acquainted w/ the searing fire of a sting. Just not in decades. I even took a beekeeping course, intending to try keeping honeybees. Note to folks who think they’d like the honey: get it your local farmer’s market. It’s HARD WORK, like farming tiiiiny animals!
Bees need pollen & nectar sources, and suburbs are increasingly limiting their plantings to stuff that really doesn’t feed bees. Not to mention poisonous pesticides that contribute to their ongoing demise. Folks don’t want clover or dandelions in their lawns (we do!), and they don’t plant nearly enough native species (which tend to attract more pollinators, including butterflies). So hearing my beloved say he’s okay w/ putting a path around the perimeter of our slope, and calling it a bee meadow, was wonderful! I may even get industrious & put in edging, to make it look even more intentional!
You may still see a weed patch. But it’s not. It’s a bee meadow, complete w/ viewing path/mowing strip & bee house! It just requires a bit of creative re-framing. Like far more of life than we often admit.
My birthday has come & gone, and my presents are still arriving. We’ve planted the 19 lavender plants, the 2 roses (gorgeous cherry red singles). A border of nectar plants: milkweed, agastache, coreopsis. A hummingbird bush (clethra alnifolia). Green giants (7 to be precise). And four trees! Sweet bay magnolia and Japanese maples, 2 of each! Houston, we (almost!) have a garden.
And that’s a way to live forever.
Seriously: gardens — especially those that provide habitat & food for birds, bees, butterflies, et al — are long-term investments. Ironically, they also pay off in the immediate present. Sons come for lunch, to help you pick up the trees in their truck. They come back on the weekend to help plant. My beloved has shown enormous patience as I say What about this? Do you like this rose or that one? Not to mention just drooling over the local nursery and various websites, or the (numerous!) trips to our favorite nursery.
Gardening — like writing — seems to me such a Buddhist endeavour. It requires you to be both optimistic and objective, such a difficult juggling act. On the one hand? I need to assess my soil, my sun & shade ratios, the new zone we live in. Those are all objectively verifiable, and need to be considered accurately. On the other? I’m dreaming of 30-foot trees from 6-foot saplings, of 4×4 roses from small 4″x4″ pots. And imagining, this chilly rainy day, the hum of native bees — hopefully a fat bombus terrestris, the aerodynamically improbable bumble bee. How Buddhist is that?
I just wish I was half as good a Buddhist as I am a gardener! I fully expect 90% of our new trees, perennials, & herbs to survive. My good intentions? Hmmm… That’s a lot more difficult!
This is what my plant shelves on the deck looked like earlier this summer. I’m not posting what the shelves look like now, because they’re mostly empty. It’s the time of year when plants come inside. And, since we’re moving across country this winter, I also gave several away to my sister. The orchids found good homes but I’ll miss them…, as did several succulents. Including a jade tree at least 15 years old. Sigh…
But it meant today, a day that began with a sad email from a dear friend, who said she just couldn’t be on my FB anymore because of folks asking her to move on past the election. Like me, she’s still mourning. And she isn’t ready to hear ‘play nice,’ or ‘suck it up & get back to fighting for social justice.’ We’re still angry here (which I think is stage 3…?)
Anyway, it wasn’t a great morning. Until my sister who’s in town from Dallas called, & asked us to join her, and my youngest sister (as well as her son) to get together for… Thai food! And from there the day brightened considerably. Because she came back by the house, I was able to load her up w/ great (at least I think they’re great) plants: the orchids & jade plants, a lantana in orange/pink&yellow, great succulent fixings for a couple of the mixed succulent saucers we love, and others. All going to good homes! The orchids — which are a bit particular — went in their pots. The others I nudged from theirs, & sent over naked (well, in grocery bags!). I’ll need those clay pots at the new house!
It was the best of therapy. After my sister left, I brought in what won’t weather the upcoming cooler nights (mostly the remaining succulents), and worked on the inside plants. Then I tidied up the debris on the deck.
Something there is in me that responds happily to dirt. To get my hands into dirt. To rinse out pots, & scrub them clean for next season. To sweep off the deck in preparation for tomorrow’s morning sun (usually taken on the deck, w/ a big cappuccino!).
And I’m so very grateful for all of it. I am my old ladies’ kiddo: from Grandmother’s African violets to Grandma’s roses to Aunt Bonnie’s broom, rake, & shovel, I’m sprouted from those green hands. Like my mother & mother-in-law before me, the garden is my place to absolutely forget what’s bothering me. The birds come visit happily, & we all bask in the late afternoon sun. It’s a huge gift, and today it dominates my gratitude list.