Thinking Outside the Garden Plot

By Carole Corlew
A friend says I should think outside the garden plot. What? “You make the best pesto in the world.” Okay, I agree (ha ha). “You should take it to the farm market.”

She says she knows someone who quit her day job after getting involved in olive oil. Yes that’s right. Olive oil. She and her husband researched and researched it and know all about the many kinds and they order it and sell it at farm markets and the like. They don’t even produce the olive oil.

So my friend said I should make my pesto from the organic basil I grow, freeze it in little containers and take it down to the EPA’s little farm market held on Fridays, I think, just to start. And see how it goes. Because the word is someone brought a big cooler of frozen pesto there and sold out in two hours. Selling that pesto for $12 a container! Imagine!

My pesto is something I originally made from The Silver Palate Cookbook. Then over the years I adapted it. I don’t measure. I use nuts and parmesan and olive oil and salt and pepper. But I also use flat-leaf Italian parsley to cut the taste of the basil depending on how strong the basil tastes. I don’t always use pine nuts. I might use something else. And I don’t use olive oil and cheese in the quantities called for in that original recipe.

My pesto is good, I admit. And I like to use organic ingredients. And sea salt because I think it has a pungent taste and supposedly it has more nutrition.

I might just do it. Think outside the garden plot.

And because I’m practicing my linking, I am linking to Miss Moon here.

Published in: on July 9, 2011 at 1:50 am  Comments (1)  
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When I See Cleome, I Think of You

The cleome reminds me of Alabama, of long stretches of green hill and field and wood. But it also brings to mind a tall, skinny boy and a stunning, unexpected romantic gesture.

The spiky flower that comes back year after year looks like the Wild Honeysuckle that grew in the woods behind my childhood home in north Alabama. My father tried to transplant a bush or two into the yard, but they never grew outside those woods.

I loved the flowers that cascaded from the Rhododendron canescens. The blush blooms and spiky stamens set the woods on fire. I’ve never tried to grow them here in northern Virginia because I can’t imagine they would survive. So instead I scattered seeds one year from some cleome I’d brought up from Alabama. They’re not the same, but they’re close.

And every year, when I see that first spiky pink bloom, it takes me back.

I remember the knock on the front door. My father opened it. He looked outside and no one was there. He went out on the porch. I followed. Then he said, “Well, there goes that boy, running off into the woods. He left you something.”

My father pointed to the porch step and a huge stack of Wild Honeysuckle, my favorite flower. Which that boy knew. That boy and I had exchanged taunts for ages, never saying a nice word to each other that I had recalled.

I was a young teenager holding onto my tomboyish ways. I was mad about the flowers. At first. I think I charged into the house, slammed the door. Then I went back and got the blooms, put them in water. I remember being puzzled. Why did he do that?

I never asked him about the flowers. He never mentioned them. We stopped taunting each other. Then, he moved away.

I forgot about the flowers, about the boy, for a while. But obviously they were a gesture that said so much more than the boy was capable of saying.

Something along the lines of: I care. I always have, that’s why I bug you. I have to leave now. I’m sad about that. I know you love these flowers. I hope you will remember me.

And I do. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, know this: Every single summer when I see the cleome, I think of you.

Published in: on July 13, 2010 at 3:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Sharing Space

I had lived here only a short time when a neighbor asked me to share in the rental of a community garden plot. At first, I was not particularly inclined. The space, a new one just opening up, was not close and the beds would need lots of work to resuscitate.

But squirrels had demolished my attempts to grow vegetables in the back yard, a hazard in our neighborhood. Plus I liked this woman. My transition to a new home and motherhood at the same time had not been easy. So I agreed.

I was in for some surprises. The first one was that my new friend, who had been a successful businesswoman before changing careers after becoming a mother herself, had absolutely no idea how to garden.

We were both busy and I went to the space several times by myself, turning over the packed soil, adding top soil, amending it to add richness so plants would grow. I remember wondering when she was going to join me.

Then, kneeling in the soil, spade in hand, with several tomato plants I had just bought at a nursery, she confessed. “Now what do we do?” she asked, or something to that effect. “I meant what I said. I don’t have any idea how to start.” She was laughing then, saying something about digging holes. Or was it rows? Or what exactly does a person do?

I had gardened with my parents in rural Alabama as a child. My sister and I skipped barefoot down garden rows, dropping potato pieces into the freshly turned soil. We pulled weeds and picked the produce we ate minutes later on the supper table. My father gave me a small plot to grow gourds.

His strawberries were so delicious people begged him to grow more and he did, turning it into a small side business. He paid my sister and me, and our friends if they wanted, to pick the berries and handle sales to people who made reservations for as many quarts as possible every year, their names written in a notebook he kept in the telephone stand in the hallway.

My friend’s mother was from Alabama, so I had assumed some familiarity with gardening had been imparted at some point. But I was wrong. And I’ve come to find that my friend is not really that unusual, at least not in places like this, in northern Virginia close to D.C., where available land and time is scarce.

But gardening is regaining in popularity, even in urban areas. People talk about it frequently, this yearning to have a closer connection to their food and to beautify homes and neighborhoods with living things.

In fact, another friend and I plan to start a raised garden soon in the yard of her new home. Her 5-year-old son can’t wait. He wants to grow beans and pumpkins. And I plan to slip a gourd plant into a corner for him. For old times sake.

So I’m thinking back to my other friend and our time at the county garden plot, her surprise “confession” that she didn’t have the slightest idea how to start. And I remember that she seemed a bit embarrassed by that.

But there is no need for discomfort. Gardeners aren’t like an old co-worker who would charm favorite recipes from others, then act coy and ultimately refuse to divulge her own. Gardeners love to share. We give of ourselves. But the thing we need to remember is that sometimes we really do need to start at the beginning.

And my neighbor? We aren’t gardening together these days. I got absorbed in flower gardening around my home. Plus, the plot was too far away and people waiting at the bus stop caught on and kept filching the produce. But my neighbor and I grew a friendship. She’s my closest friend in the neighborhood, to this day.

Published in: on March 24, 2010 at 9:44 pm  Comments (2)  
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Friendships as Perennials

New Year’s Eve found us, uncharacteristically, plunging into the cold, icy night for a party in the urban wilds. I couldn’t believe he wanted to do this. And that I agreed. But the boy was out for the evening and maybe J. was feeling the chill of an empty nest a bit early. That’s just like him. Pre-emptive suffering via hyperactive behaviors.

But it’s good to get out, change long-established habits involving hibernating all winter, especially when the cold just keeps getting colder.

So, we found parking, got out of the car and braved the hoodlums making suggestive comments in front of the 7-11 (“How y’all doing,” I drawled, smiling, looking one right in the eye in a pathetic attempt at surprise tactics). We made it in through the gates and the security door, up the elevator and many other doors and into the hostess’s apartment.

Finally settled in, I looked around and realized that most of the women at the party were the soccer teammates of the hostess. Not work colleagues or other friends. Which represents a sea change from my generation in D.C., which is largely a transient city.

How does this relate to gardening? I’ll get to that.

I am 20 years older than the women who were at this party. But we operate in a parallel universe. The hostess and I are/were both journalists in the nation’s capital. And back when I used to pick up my son at the soccer practice fields, I would notice young men and women gathering on the sidelines in uniform, with coolers, tying cleats, stretching, getting ready to play a game under the lights.

They were very patient and polite. Waiting to start a soccer game when the little boys left their practices, sometimes at 9 p.m. On a weeknight. With work looming the next day. Because they loved it so.

And this is how those young women at the New Year’s Eve party bonded, some of them on teams that played in D.C. for 10 years or so together. And they all ventured out into the deep, cold, icy night to attend a party given by one of their number. An adorable young woman who is moving in about two months, back to New York. Only a few of her work colleagues came. But her teammates showed up, in force.

I was so impressed.

These women nurtured their relationships through the love of their sports, the way I nurture my plants. They started playing sports early, as little girls. I actually came from a state where schools could not by law field teams for girls back then. They told us a girl playing basketball had died on the court (not that I believed that). “Don’t tell that,” J. said. “You’re dating us.” Like I care. I told it anyway.

So I relied on work friends when I moved to D.C., away from my family, from my oldest friend, J., who I met at five., away from K., who I met on my first day of college, at the University of Alabama. From the many friends I met just going about my life. I worked so much anyway, I had few opportunities to meet anyone else.

And I found out those friendships, although splashy and intense at the time, like annuals, are ephemeral for the most part. They go away. As do most of the friendships made through the children, through the kids’ schools.

That’s why I loved seeing these women at the party. Because people move here, work long hours, spend ridiculous amounts of time commuting, then flee back home. I’ve been here so long I’ve become loathe to introduce myself to newcomers, something that goes against my every southern fiber. But, I tell myself, they’ll be leaving soon. Don’t get involved, you’ll grow to love them and they’ll leave.

But the women at the party defied that. They bonded early and intensely on their soccer teams, their friendships like perennials in a garden. They nurture them and stay, growing and evolving, over the years.

Which teaches me a lesson: To treat people more like my garden. Kindness for all. More lasting attention for the perennials, of course. But warmth and care for the annuals, too. Because the human garden is worth my time and cultivation, again, too.

Published in: on January 2, 2010 at 3:18 am  Comments (2)  
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Feeling Lost Without the Garden

I’m feeling lost without my garden and zinnia and rose bouquets that filled my house for months. I’m dabbling in the kitchen to try to fill the void.

We are strictly in survival mode here. That means I am just doing my best to keep the plants in pots alive until April when I can start taking them back outdoors for a bit during the day. Maybe I can plant some cuttings in May. June is for the zinnia seeds.

Meanwhile, everything has been cut way back for the long, cold winter in Northern Virginia. My husband, the Iowan, thinks I am not normal for saying that. But for someone born in Texas and raised in Alabama, the winters are long and cold here. And they always will be (meaning I’ve been here for 30 years and I’m not going to change my mind).

My plants are squeezed into small spaces and corners with trays of gravel and water around hopefully to provide some humidity against the onslaught of the electric furnace heat. It’s cold here, in the 30s at night.

I’m blue about it. I’ve never done much indoor gardening in winter other than buy the occasional houseplant, which I don’t do much with. I promised myself to do something about that this year. But so far I’m resorting to my old tricks. I’m baking again and catching up with old friends. I have three book club sessions this weekend, one of them at my house.

Recently, I said sure when my husband asked me to bake cupcakes for someone who works with him. It was his birthday and my husband assumed I would use a mix and buy some frosting. He should know me better than that by now.

I decorated some with chocolate grated from a semi-sweet chocolate bar with a carrot scraper. I sprinkled others with French Dragees. That’s a smart way to market sprinkles to grownups. I also have some glowy powder, fairy dust I guess, in the small bottle.

I used a recipe from a restaurant called Eve’s in Old Town Alexandria, VA. The cake is light and airy, angel’s food-like, but the taste is buttery, like pound cake. Absolutely delicious. It wasn’t easy to make cupcakes out of this confection, but I managed. The frosting is made with cream and powdered sugar. Heavenly. Eve’s is famous for its birthday cakes.

The chefs make a tiny one and tints it pink. They say even straight-laced businessmen are seen in the dining room at night, digging into the small, pink birthday cakes. The cupcakes I made weren’t pink, but everyone loved them.

I think all of us should be fussed over on our birthdays.

But my fussing is because I don’t have the garden. The baking is old news. I’m not really happy with this substitution. After all, I’ve been baking since I was a very little girl and would pull a chair up to the counter to stand on. I would pull down ingredients and make cookies and cakes and everything my siblings and I liked from Mother’s cookbooks.

We thought we were scamming her. She gave us free run of her kitchen and everything in it. If we needed ingredients, we got on bikes and rode down the country lanes to the general store and charged things to her account. That way we indulged our sweets habit with my baking using Mother’s ingredients and my labor. And we saved our allowances for other things. Meanwhile, I taught myself to be a decent cook and baker.

But the baking is not really scratching the itch I have now.

Because it’s not really feeding me down deep inside the way the garden did this past summer. Being surrounded by all that wild beauty, working in it, touching it, bringing the flowers inside, filled me with such light that it carried over into everything I did all summer. I miss that.

How do I replace that in the cold dark winter? I just don’t have any idea.

I’ll make it, I always do. I’m just wondering what other gardening fanatics in cold climates do in the winter. While waiting for, say, the lillies to come back.

Published in: on December 2, 2009 at 5:16 am  Comments (11)  
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The Tree Said Hello


I am drawn to a certain crepe myrtle just outside my back gate. I have always loved them and this one is particularly beautiful. My son recognized this at a very early age, too. He would run to this tree and stand in it, just stay there, quietly.


I would sit on the bench nearby and wait for him until he was done communing. Even though this was not like him to do this. He was the kind of active boy who usually ran to the big pines out front and climbed, fast, before anyone could yell him into a stop.

I remember, because I had lots of trouble getting the pitch out of his clothes. Sometimes, of course, this was not possible and I had to “pitch” plenty of them.


So I wasn’t really surprised the other day when I walked by my myrtle and saw an accessory waving in the wind. It looked like something I would wear as a necklace. Or as an earring. It was a dried plant cap, attached to a gossamer thread from a spider web.


It was really cute. I went outside at night with a flashlight to see if it was still there. It was. I knew it would photograph well in the night.


Look at the markings on this tree, behind my accessory.


However, the bark on my myrtle not as dramatic as one out front, which is beloved by my friend and neighbor C. Which makes sense. You wouldn’t know it right away, but C. has more flair. She is a government bureaucrat, conservative dresser, initially very quiet.

But if you are out early on a weekend morning, you might see her coming out dressed in a formal riding habit. C. has a horse she keeps stabled in the country and goes riding with a friend. She is a lawyer married to an Irish chef she met overseas as a young woman. He fell madly in love with her and pursued her from afar, persuading her, finally, to marry him.

She loves my gardening and has very strong opinions about the plants. She says they remind her of earlier times when people decorated with large blocks of color via the flowers. She thinks the hostas and nursery flats of impatiens and pansies are boring. So there.

It makes sense that the crepe myrtle she has claimed as hers is one of quiet drama. Routinely, she dons gloves and collects her tools and carefully trims the suckers that try to grow from the base of the tree, which stands guard just outside her bedroom window. Her cats sit on the sill and watch the tree, too, which has vivid coloring.


There’s a new crepe myrtle out front now, to the side. I think the young tree is watching people, trying to see who resonates with this new plant life. I look forward to seeing who it chooses. I bet we’ll know by next summer.

new tree

It’s funny how nature leaves little gifts sometimes. Walk slowly. Open your eyes. See. Really see.


Published in: on November 16, 2009 at 6:15 pm  Comments (7)  
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The Elm Made Me Do It


(Special thanks to the writer of Secret Cottage Garden for showing me I was on the right track all along, even when I didn’t know it: Mary Delle
<a href="; and of course someone who inspired me to write about it all, Ms. Moon,

I have fallen in love with the big elm just outside my back gate. I resented this tree for years. The wood giant drops seeds and dead leaves all over my patio. But my former dislike had roots in the tree’s glory, the full leaves that block the sun, keeping my back yard in shade during the summer.

Not to mention the times it has tried to strangle my holly and my dogwood tree.

Crowds holly

My old tea roses bloom lavishly in the spring, before the elm wakes up properly. Then I have to settle for a bloom or two here and there for bouquets.


Between the shade and aggressive squirrels, I also can’t grow vegetables back there. No bright, splashy sun lovers. Only shade plants. So for years the back has been neglected.

But I ignored what this big elm was telling me with the big fat leaves and long arms that blocked the sun during prime growing season. Go to the front. Show yourself. Don’t hide in the back, behind the privacy fence. You have something and you don’t even know it.

So I did. I started cultivating the small plots in the front of the house, little squares of dirt that had been lying fallow, covered by mulch and defined by monkey grass. With her permission, I pulled out the dead lavender that a neighbor had planted on my side and hers. Dogs with careless owners had promptly killed these with daily markings.

The neighbor was thrilled that I was working on the plots, even though my style was undefined and hers was: English gardens, precision, careful cuts and frequent trims. She even owns a chain saw. But her work for the Secret Service meant she was away frequently and she had no time for gardening. She happily turned it all over to me.

At first I bought plants from the nursery. They were nice, but I was not satisfied. So I started buying seeds. Better. I was enjoying myself, experimenting, shaping the beds, putting my imprint on it all. Letting the garden grow on both sides into riotous shape and color. No English garden this!

That’s when neighbors started coming out of the woodwork. Yes, with the occasional disapproving glance. The architecture is prim and proper here, all red brick and white columns. The plantings run to hostas, evergreens, impatiens. In the fall the mums and pansies are broken out.

Except for my wild garden. And the yeas for this rare color riot far outnumber the nays. We need this, they say. It is different. It breaks the sameness and brightens our day.



Before the wild garden, I had been so timid. In that front plot, I had planted two miniature rose bushes from Trader Joe’s. They were nice. Sweet. Tiny. One still blooms, a reminder of my timid time.

And every year these roses are dwarfed by zinnias grown from seed, some old and some new. Angel’s Trumpets multiplying in height and number like wildfire now that I am not just talking to them, but listening to their needs. Starburst hydrangea. The flame orange dahlia, which survives every winter even though C., who designed the ghost lamp in my previous post, says “they don’t come back here, how do you do it?”

Well, I started putting the pulp left over from my vegetable juicing into the soil this summer. But the dahlias were coming back before that. I do give the flowers a bit of Miracle Gro now and then, sprinkled on the ground, no mixing it in water or such carrying on for me. So, I just love them and they respond.

The elm was behind it, really. The elm pushed me to the sun, to the front. I had grown vegetables with my father as a child and again in a plot rented from the county and shared with a friend. But I had never tried my hand with flowers. It just finally seemed the thing to do.

At last, I listened to that small, still voice. And it was saying you are a gardener, you were born to this. You are not alone. We are with you.

Show your love.

beach 00008

Published in: on November 5, 2009 at 5:55 pm  Comments (11)  
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Illuminating the Secrets

The pinkMy tiny riot of a garden still is illuminating non-botanical secrets. The plants have counterparts in the human world. Did you know this?

Consider the Angel’s Trumpet. Last year, the pink annoyed me to no end. It would not bloom no matter how much I coaxed, fiddled, moved it around, amended. I tried ignoring it as well, a technique that works when all else fails. Sometimes.

The white bloomed. So why not the pink?

I was flabbergasted. I had gone to considerable trouble to bring these shoots from my expert’s lair, the most eccentric farm market in the world. Previously, I had planted seed pods that failed to come up. I had tried to root in soil. Finally, though, I had hit upon the right formula, for me, to grow what are really South American trees in smaller versions in Northern Virginia.

But the pink wouldn’t bloom.

I couldn’t bear to end it though. I brought the potted pink indoors anyway, in October. The sky was falling then, doom permeating through my pores, and I was sadder than I’ve ever been at any time that I can recall. I put it beside a window that gets very little light. Now and then I threw some water on it, in a pouting way.

Then around Easter, it gave me a surprise. There were several large green spears shooting out from from the leaves. It couldn’t be. This recalcitrant trumpet was going to bloom? I refused to acknowledge the pods, thinking the trumpet had the disposition of a cat and would snatch away those bloom pods if it caught me staring.

Then, a few days later, I came downstairs early one morning to a sight that released the heavy weight that had held my heart’s joy dark and silent for so long that I was sure it had died. There in the shadows, barely illuminated by arrows of light reaching through slits of wooden blinds, dangled three large pink Angel’s Trumpet blooms.

Oh my God! I said this aloud. My knees went weak. This plant I had very nearly given up on, that had resisted every trick, all gardening advice I could find, the scribbled instructions from my eccentric farm market oracle in north Alabama. But there it was clearly, right before me. Three vibrant pink blooms, healthy, glowing in the shadows, on Easter.

And what I didn’t know then was that this gift from a plant named after angels also signaled the end of my long, dark winter of the soul. That it would be the most stunning of the astonishing blooms in my most ravishing garden ever. This pink that grows bigger with little encouragement and blooms and blooms again. And gives me so many baby plants with cuttings that easily sprout roots in water that I don’t know what to do with them all.

My stalwart. My hero. The tall green knight, my height now, that stops all of us in our tracks with shining pink blooming soul food weaponry.

Think of it — this plant that almost was thrown away because I could not help comparing it to others performing with less encouragement. Like that in-ground white trumpet, which sadly died over the cold, hard winter despite assiduous, heroic (okay compulsive) mulching efforts.

This summer, I have another trumpet that behaved like the pink during its balky days. On instructions from my gardening oracle, I wrapped the white plant carefully in newspaper and carefully encased the mummy-like package in clothing in my suitcase since I had to fly back to Virginia this time. I got it home and trimmed it up, replanted it in excellent potting soil and gave it time outside under a bush to acclimate.

I’ve alternated between chatting it up and neglect, except for the occasional bit of fertilizer and lots of water. Trumpets can never get enough water. It has not produced as much as a microscopic bloom pod. But am I in a pout and threatening the trash heap, though? Not a chance.

I’ll bring it inside with the show offy pinks before long. Because who knows, the white could surpass them all next summer. Just like those of us in the human sphere who bloom late. We have our reasons.

Those reasons often aren’t accessible to us, buried as they are deep in the subconscious or the unconscious dank. Then someday, the color, the truth, the life bursts loose, suddenly free in the clear, brilliant sun and air. Who knows what brings forth the miracle.

It can be as simple as the surprise of three pink Angel’s Trumpet blooms on an early Easter morning, a spark that pushes us from hiberation. We just don’t know what finally will push away the clouds and bring forth the light and then the flowers. Finally, taking us to the place made for us, the way we always were meant to be.


Published in: on September 20, 2009 at 4:18 pm  Comments (10)  
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Is the Rare Orchid a Clue?

I keep thinking about it, the rare hybrid orchid born of fire and ash, lemon yellow blooms reaching into blue sky from a nest of green leaves topping charred earth, only a few hours drive from my own tiny garden.

I had spent a long time staring at the pictures in the Washington Post, reading the story, grasping for more meaning. And as the idea pulled together in my mind, I pushed it away, but it came back, insistent. I could not ignore it. Like the man I am thinking about, J’s childhood friend S. There is no other way to describe him, trite but true — tall, dark and beautiful, and conjured up by the orchid.

The hybrid was discovered after managers of Maryland’s largest private nature preserve burned 240 acres there this spring. They hoped the burning would trigger growth of long-dormant native plants. And it did, producing the rare hybrid found in Maryland only once before — 18 years ago.

They found three specimens of a naturally occurring hybrid of the white fringed orchid and the crested yellow orchid, known by its botanic name, Platanthera x canbyi. The hybrid sends up a 12-inch flowering stalk in summer, but the blooms are lemon yellow in contrast to the white flowers and orange blooms of the primary plants.

And why does this fascinate me so? I do love orchids, but I’m not a freak. I am not preparing to drive over the ever breath-taking Chesapeake Bay in a car stuffed with gloves, shovel, buckets, plastic bags and other tools of abduction. I am not an orchid thief.

But what if we’re like the plants, in a sense. I don’t understand biology and the spark of life, having left all that to my best male friend and exemplary lab partner MC the few times I was forced to ponder. That exquisite man child who once jumped in front of me, swooping away a container of bubbling caustic chemicals on a tower disastrously falling toward my 17-year-old face. Leaving us both, miraculously, untouched, unharmed.

So. I couldn’t stop thinking about these things, old friends lost, the hybrid, what it meant, and S. Because S, a professor, always said that when we die, that’s it. Nothing. The great goodbye. The ultimate blackout.

S, my husband and several other men in their group grew up together in a small town. Even though they eventually moved lengthy plane rides away, they stayed friends.

S orchestrated weekend trips for them at least once a year. These were centered around some sports event or the other. But really the trips were about male camaraderie, eating too much, downing pitchers of beer, arguing, yelling. Red-blooded Midwestern males who told the same stories on each other from fourth grade and had strict “no physical contact” rules in cabs and the like dating back to first grade or earlier.

And then a few years ago S, a marathon runner, extreme biker, iron man, got sick. Very sick. And in less than a year, he was gone. The death of this very affable, irreplaceable man devastated family and friends all over the place. And it shattered the close bond of friendship between his oldest group of friends. These men no longer fly or drive to distant cities at least once a year, without wives, children, responsibilities. “The heart has gone out of it,” said J. Which breaks my heart.

So, I am grasping for something here. Stretching as I study the now-torn newspaper article about the rare hybrid orchid that rises, not like Lazarus from the tomb, restored to himself as before, but as an entirely new entity.

Could the hybrid be a clue? A small glimmer reflecting an “afterlife” maybe? Because the hybrid is a different creature altogether. What if S is just beyond the veil separating us from what comes next. But instead of the white fringed or crested yellow he was in this life, figuratively speaking, he soared from the blackness, through new, low-lying, strap-like green leaves, a bold sword of lemon yellow?

Watching. Waiting, in the gloaming, with those who went before. With a few things carried over, like the smile that never failed to lift hearts.

Published in: on September 15, 2009 at 7:21 pm  Comments (5)  
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Confession: Not Just A Garden

8-21-09garden 004

He never gave her flowers, this man of the sweeping, studied romantic gesture. He did manage a small, wilted plant he bought at the grocery store after acting horribly for weeks. And she accepted that.

The meager apology should have been a clue. It wasn’t in her, then, to understand that she was held in so little regard by someone who claimed he was unable to live without her.

Part of it was her upbringing in a land of magic. Not a place of old world fairy tales, but a vast, lush river valley where the elite were viewed with suspicion until they had proven their worth. Where children with little or nothing won keys to the kingdom with quick wit, fleet feet, a smile that opened up hearts.

She had to find out the hard way. A journal left open, on the antique desk that overpowered the small room. His spidery, cramped script lashing the paper with long-held contempt, conjuring a vision of his well-formed nose, distaste ever so slightly flaring the nostrils.

She hadn’t understood. Why had he married her? Why had he stopped on a bridge in Paris, pulled a velvet box cradling a diamond ring from a suit pocket, held it out and said let’s get married?

The engagement was a farce. He wanted to square her away. But was not ready to settle down, precisely, at that moment. He pulled away, she retreated, he pulled her back. But he insisted, again, that he could not live without her.

Foolishly, they married. In the hilltop garden of his family’s ancestral home. The son of southern landed gentry, educated in the Ivy, a man who “could have married anyone,” as they made sure to tell her, so she would be grateful, so she would know her place.

But she did not. Know her place.

The honeymoon was a trial. They drove from town to town in a rental car on Crete, running from quiet times together. She broke out in a rash of unknown provenance that started on the hands, moved up her arms and settled on her chest, like weeds choking her heart.

One night in a club, feeling herself shrivel inside, she walked off and left him. She had no idea where she was going. But she walked anyway, wandering narrow streets in the tiny island town late at night. She’d had wine, a bit of ouzo, enough to fuel an idea that maybe if she walked long enough she would disappear into the night, never to be seen again.

Men hissed at her, a strange local custom? One followed in a car. She realized she’d made a mistake, but didn’t care, despair trumping caution and regret. And then, a young man with long brown hair flowing over his shoulders stood up from a table at the taverna on the square and spoke. “Yes, hello, and are you okay?” He had a beautiful smile and warm eyes. She walked to him, he held out his hand and took hers and they sat down together.

He asked what she was doing, a young woman traveler out alone in the night. The car with one of the glaring, hissing men came back, slowing down, and the man at the table yelled something in Greek, waved the car away. It moved on, stopped, like a scavenger waiting for prey to be discarded by another.

But then the young man at the table said an amazing thing. He was a shepherd. From a farm some miles away on the coast. He came into town on weekends sometimes, with another farmer, to sit at the plaza and eat, drink, watch the crowds. He was about to leave when he saw the young woman walking alone, obviously lost, being pursued by “bad men.” Again, he asked why she was out in the night alone.

She wanted to tell him. But her story would make no sense to him. Because it made no sense to her. So she said, simply, “I’m just lost. Very lost.”

And at that moment, she believed, he seemed to understand, fully, what she was saying. He ordered another drink for himself, and a coffee and some water for her. She spoke no Greek and his English was limited, basic. But with the words he knew, gesturing with his hands, and sometimes drawing on a napkin, he talked.

He spoke about the sheep and the tending of them and his farm. About the rocks and the coastline of Greece. The sea, the tides, and away from those crashing waves the quiet. And the light. The brilliant, consuming, purifying light of Crete.

The young newlywed sat across the table and listened to the shepherd’s gentle voice. She saw sunlight, sheep and lambs. And when he placed a work-callused hand on hers, again, he said, “You must come and live with me.” And for one mad moment she actually considered it. Because that night she had sensed the withering loss of herself, an awareness conjured away by a long-haired shepherd who dispersed the wolves and summoned forth endless sun dancing on a tableau of vast water.

And suddenly he was there, her new husband, standing before them at the table in the square. He had been looking for her. His practiced, gracious self sat down and joined them.

He was furious, of course. But pretended otherwise. He shared a smoke with the shepherd, heard his story, collected his new bride and hurried up the hill with her to the hotel. Unable to comprehend her circumstances, she could not tell the truth about her feelings. So she lied. She blamed the alcohol. And after several days of ranting, he accepted the explanation.

A month later, she and a friend moved a bookshelf from one spot in the living room to another. “Let’s just try it,” she said. “You’ll see.” He came home. He was furious, yelled, cursed them. The friend left. And he moved into the spare bedroom. The new bride left that night. But again, she blinked. And kept blinking.

He talked her up in public, told people he adored her. But in private it was another story. She held him back. Left him uninspired. Her clothes, her hair, her body. All of it was, well, wrong. She was his “albatross,” he told her.

In response, leaves shriveled, blooms closed. She cropped her long hair so close to her head that the natural curl vanished. She grew thin, threw away dangling earrings, heels, tight clothes. Dressed in navy, beige, gray. Suits, v-neck sweaters, khakis. She no longer looked like herself. Because she wasn’t.

She had married for life. Had been told she could not leave, that her family did not shame each other by divorcing. Each time they separated, she blinked.

The she went to Europe for a few weeks, for work. She felt tendrils of life sprout in her while walking beside the canals of Venice, where men collecting garbage cans early in the morning sang opera! And then, an admirer gave her an armful of flowers. Someone she barely knew, had hardly spoken to, in fact. On her last day in Venice, he shyly presented her with a bouquet of pink roses. Stunned, she carried them on the fast boat to the airport and held them in her arms as she flew to Paris.

The customs agent raised an eyebrow and asked about the blooms. “Un homme,” she said, a smile she had not intended overtaking her face.

It did not happen right away, but she had decided. Her hair grew long, her clothes took on bright colors again. During the best of times, her husband was a roommate, formal, polite. The worst of times will not be spoken of here. For now. He refused to speak to her for days over some trifle. Finally, that was enough. She left. She did not blink.

The journal left out on his desk on the day she went back to get some belongings said it all. This man who was far from flawless outlined her physical and other shortcomings in minute, scathing detail. And then, “My parents were right. She is not good enough for me.”

In the moment the words stung. But not for long. She had left behind the dark, airless space imposed by others. It did not matter what, why, how, even who. The roots were stifled, but had not died. The leaves had started greening, unfurling, vigorous in the breeze. Vibrant blooms snapping from the bud, reaching for the sun. Watered, nurtured by butterflies.

And so she doesn’t forget, ever again, she plants a wild garden in front of her house. It is a mirror, of sorts. And she lets it grow, lush, a riot of color, just barely tamed. Every year. Without fail.

Published in: on September 8, 2009 at 4:22 am  Comments (5)  
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