Despite what we thought would be the case, we’ve had several visitors to our new home in Virginia. And that’s GOOD! In part because not only do we love them all, but they’ve all worked hard to be great house guests. Want to know how to ace that rôle? Listen up:
The biggest help is to be sure the folks you’re visiting adore you. That’s been the case with all of our guests: my three sisters — one with beloved partner; my younger son; my niece & her wife, plus friend; and a very dear old friend of mine. Each is a pleasure to visit with, and a necessary element in my very happy life. So that’s #1.
#2: Give your host and/or hostess some notice, so they can anticipate! Not to mention do the sheets in the guest room… 😉 In our case, it means we can also make reservations for Sunday brunch at the coooolest little restaurant in the Blue Ridge Mountains!
#3: Let them know if you have dietary issues. A couple of old friends are coming in a few weeks, and she was thoughtful enough to let me know they all have celiac. So I can show off our amazing local bakers, who do GREAT gluten-free! And I was able to send her the link to a great local restaurant that has a lengthy gluten-free menu, as well. We all win!
#4: If you’re staying for more than a few days-ish, pitch in. My younger son is the king of this — he takes out trash; he empties wastebaskets; he goes to pick up last-minute necessaries when I’m cooking. It’s also nice if you ask about stripping the bed when you leave, but not critical. Still, when my girlfriend did it, neatly folding the dirty linens on the ottoman, I was sooo grateful!
#5 is optional, & dependent on finances, obviously: Take your host/ess out for a meal. My sisters aren’t particularly flush — one is retired, another in FT grad school, and the 3rd unemployed. Yet each found a way to take us out, and it was such a thoughtful gesture!
Finally? HAVE FUN! If you’re at my house these days, chances are we’ve picked up some creeping bug from the grandsons, and are lower energy than we’d like to be for guests. Which means I’m über paranoid that you’re bored! If you’re obviously enjoying what we do most days — drinking tea or coffee, watching birds, reading, just talking — then I’m happy. And while it’s NOT all about me (honest), it’s sooo much more fun for ALL of us if I know what you enjoy, from the food (if you don’t like cornbread, be sure to let us know! We eat a lot of it!) to the bed (close the door if you don’t want the cats on you!) to the weather (we can’t fix that, so just enjoy it — our town is gorgeous!).
In other words, just be your normal kind & thoughtful self. Having fun! How hard is that??
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.
This is the year I lose what little faith I had left in the American Dream. Not ‘the’ American Dream — I’m not sure I’ve believed in that for a long time. All people can’t become president (unless they’re über rich…). Nor can just anyone come to America — especially these days — much less become whatever s/he wants to be.
No, this was the dream that drove America to international acclaim during the 20th century. The dream that birthed so many great poets, inventors, philosophers, scientists and musicians. The dream that flamed bright in Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, César Chávez. The dream of a quality public education that was the right of every American child.
I am trying to come to terms w/ the idea that while we say we care about education, what we do (remember the whole actions speak thing?) is cut funding, deride teachers, slash their pay and benefits. And blame them, in the meantime, for ills that are societal in nature. Witness our current Secretary of Education, and her disinterest in traditional public ed. Despite, for instance, the research that shows (fairly conclusively) that charter schools are NOT as strong, overall, as public schools, and that $$ DO make a difference in quality of education, she & her bosses continue to tout charter schools. Which make PROFITS off of kids. Grr…
John Steinbeck once said (in one of my very favourite books, The Log from the Sea of Cortez) that American society pays lip service to abstract ‘good’ values like ‘wisdom, tolerance, kindliness, generosity, humility.’ But in reality? The man who forced Americans to confront the realities of the Great Depression argues that we ‘envy and admire the person who through possessing the bad qualities [cruelty, greed, self-interest, graspingness, and rapacity] has succeeded economically and socially, and will hold in contempt that person whose good qualities have caused failure.’ We love Jesus in the abstract, he says, but we’d rather be successful than good. Because to be good is to be weak. A ‘value’ we see repeated over & over in the current electoral results.
This is painfully evident today. We see sharing — w/ the poor, w/ other countries, w/ the elderly and people who look different than we do — as a sign of weakness. Those people, I hear over & over. Those loafers. Those non-believers. Those who are not like me. I hear people say ~ I have to work hard. They just want it free. Hence the horrific “health” plan that will leave the elderly, those w/ health conditions, and many many other Americans w/ no hope of health care.
I don’t really know how to draw lines between human hearts. If we all believe in the magic that keeps the world turning, does it matter whether we call it God or Allah? Or science? If our children laugh when tickled, does it matter whether their first words are English, Czech or Spanish?
Don’t all parents awaken each morning hoping that their children will grow up happy? That our sons & daughters will find meaningful work, be able to live on the proceeds, and be safe from war and want? If so, why is it we can’t meet there? What is so damn important that we can’t sit down over tea and talk? How the HELL do we expect our children — ALL our children — to become what we dream of w/out benefit of education? I would think even the most diehard no-funding proponent would see that an educated populace is an economic advantage for all of us. Even w/out benefit of their taxes, the educated can work, and support themselves…
We cut education $$ because we would rather give tax breaks to 1% of American taxpayers than fund reading and writing programs that do hundreds of thousands of children good. In my previous state of residence — Oklahoma — we have cut education funding more than ANY other state. And we’re proud of it, most of us. But me? I’m grieving. Mourning for a country that I thought believed in our children. That cherishes them as our future.
I keep poking this wound. Even though I was expecting this outcome, knowing that I’ve agreed w/ Steinbeck on this since I first read him, I am heartsick. I know that there is enormous fear and hatred raging at floodtide throughout the country. And I don’t understand it.
As I drove to get coffee yesterday, I passed houses redolent with the fragrance of old money. Their bricks were all neatly pointed. Nary a shingle curled. Each fence contained its private sanctuary with evenly spaced and level boards. The neighbourhood was so beautiful in the balmy not-quite-summer sunlight that it made you smile in delight. People live here, I thought. In these houses as big as libraries. Within these walls of stone and brick and privilege. But it didn’t make me jealous. It made me deeply aware of how blessed we are. How blessed the owners of those lovely old homes are. How much we have to be thankful for, and how often we feel that offering opportunities — real, tangible, concrete opportunities — to those less fortunate is ‘redistribution of wealth.’
In Wisconsin recently, there are people who said they have no jobs, so why should others? What happened to empathy? If my life is hard, I don’t want everyone to be at my level. Misery really doesn’t love company. Even when I was poor — so poor that I did w/out a telephone, had no TV, lived in a 3-room shotgun apartment cut from 1/4 of an old derelict house in a very bad neighbourhood — I wanted peace and plenty for all. I didn’t begrudge pocket mansions or expensive imported cars. I just wanted every one of my friends to have the opportunity for the same.
And this week, it feels like that hope is a completely dead American dream. And I can’t understand why.
If you don’t like poetry, this probably isn’t going to interest you. Unless, that is, you do like Buddhism. Or education. Or writing. Fair warning, right?
Because it’s a kind of once-upon-a-time story, of sorts. See, when you have an advanced degree, folks often ask you: what was your thesis/ dissertation/ publication/ whatever about? And I always want to say — breathing. In a manner of speaking — and not all of it metaphor — it was.
Poetry is about pause & effect. The poet leads the reader through the lines of the poem, using line breaks, white space, punctuation (if so inclined — a number of amazing poets are eschewing punctuation altogether, these days), and other strategies to focus attention here, and elide attention there. Words at the beginning & end of lines take on more prominence. Rhyme (internal or end-of-line), consonance, assonance, alliteration — all are ways to slow readers down, or drive them forward relentlessly.
In poetry, we talk about the breath pause: that place the reader naturally (or through skilful direction) stops to draw breath, when reading aloud. And here’s an interesting aside: poetry should — at least initially — be read aloud. Or at the very least, subvocalised. In fact, the readers of poetry whom I know ALL subvocalise and/or read aloud poems they’re working on. After all: poetry is a kind of music. It has rhythm (metre), and the same pauses for breath that a chorale arrangment does.
Buddhism, too, is about the breath. We focus on the breath as we meditate. When my brain is overrun with the day’s minutiæ, I turn to the comfort of noticing my breath: in out in out… And soon the day falls away, and I’m quieted. During the day, if the same thing happens (or grief, or physical pain, or anger red&white), I exhale deeply. Slowly. Then pause — like a line break. Then inhale, slooowly. Then pause again. Another line break. Not to mention that the air we inhale/ exhale is us. Our very essence — the infinitesimal molecules from our inmost bodies — floats on the oxygen-depleted air leaving us. We share each other’s breath quite literally.
So my dissertation — which was a look at my own work, which (surprise!) grows from the fertile soil of Southeast Asia & the Southeast Asian Buddhism I knew as a child — looked at how these two perspectives on the breath intersect. Become words, then lines, then poetry. Hopefully shared.
if you’re not bored out of your socks, you can see where I was going when I said I mostly want to say my diss was on breathing. Here’s another reason: to me, poetry is (almost) as necessary as breathing properly. Sure I can ‘breathe.’ We need no class in what sustains us moment to moment. And yet… To breathe ‘properly’ is to draw in from the gut, pull through the diaphragm, fill the lungs and almost the entire upper body. The shoulders relax, rise & drop. Exhaling is then a long, slow, reversal of the process. None of the quick, in-your-head pants we do when stressed! Far more respectful of the worlds each breath contains, right?
Poetry is like that. Like waiting for tea to brew. Like watching the sky darken slowly towards nightfall. Like a long inhale that calms & energises. Both a luxury and a necessity. I recommend you revisit it.