time to garden

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I’m better at growing cats than veggies

I feel the vibrations in the air, the low hum: spring is here.

(no, really, it is- this is the Southern Arizona desert, after all)

I’ve got these bright, happy looking flowers planted in colorful pots beside the driveway, but it’s not enough. I want to plunge my hands into the dirt. I want to cut away the dead and coax forth the new. I want to smell and dig and brush my hair out of my eyes and squint and frown and sigh with pleasure at the return of the perennials. I want to water. And water. And water.

I want a real garden.

I’ve always lacked the discipline to be a true gardener, especially in a challenging desert environment, although I could pretend like I was one when my ex was around; he would breathe on scorched earth and an Eden would miraculously burst forth at his feet. I’m lazy and my material abilities are often not enough to realize or sustain all that I get interested in, so a lot of efforts to garden through the years have never really come to fruition. But I’ve always had this passion for living things, for life. I love to surround myself with growing things. And  I want my daughter to share in it, to relish the simple joy of watching a seedling sprout overnight, of savoring summer’s first tomato.

In recent years I was too much the gypsy for a proper garden to make sense; low-demand plants on the back patio of a rental had to suffice. Now that I have a house and I’m there pretty much all the time, it doesn’t feel like mine without abundant planters, without garden beds in tidy rows, full of new green tendrils popping through the soil, seeking the sun and air.

As things stand now, the back yard looks more like Syria than Better Homes and Gardens. There is much work to do, but it is time.

finger rock

Finger Rock is a lean, delicate spire, daintily extending out of the craggy Santa Catalina mountain skyline as though it were a little girl’s pinky finger counterbalancing an invisible porcelain tea-cup. This feature can capture the eye from almost anywhere in Tucson, including my driveway. Many novice day hikers have tasted the bitter tang of regret when they realize that the popular Finger Rock trail they have been huffing up for the past 2 hours doesn’t actually bring them to Finger Rock, which after getting closer, closer, slinks out of view like a beautiful stranger at a cocktail party. But for the intrepid, she is reachable; for those that wish to ascend her, 100 feet of easy technical climbing is the reward after hours hiking up the steep, loose approach. And once you make it to the top, standing on a shifty summit flake, you can regard magnificent views of the shimmering Tucson valley below, or the limitless bowl of azure sky above.

But here’s the disclaimer: I’ve never climbed Finger Rock. I’ve never breathed hard on the challenging ascent, skin burning where the ubiquitous shin daggers drew blood. My eager, calloused fingertips have yet to explore her contours, her secret holds.  I have yet to balance on that unstable summit flake, sweat and satisfaction dripping off me in equal volumes. I’ve dreamed of this adventure through. You see, I’m an untalented if enthusiastic rock climber; I am the kind of hiker that’s happiest if the journey takes all day. In short, it would be the perfect adventure for a person like me.

Or, to be more accurate: would have been a perfect adventure for someone like I was.

I shrug away the longing as I unload groceries from my Subaru, my newborn daughter snoozing in the backseat. A year ago, Finger Rock seemed like an ambitious-but-feasible Saturday plan; now it sounds as remote as visiting the moon. I can hardly manage a trip to the rock climbing gym for a few hours, certainly not an all-day excursion up a mountain. Overweight, overwrought and over-tired, my muscles have atrophied, my ambitions to climb mountains transformed into the goal of just trying to get to the goddamn grocery store. I am soft where I used to be hard. I am stretched where I used to be comfortable. I am winded where I used to be strong.

My daughter frowns, half-awake and smacking her lips. I slide her out of her car seat. She is all warmth and softness; we exhale in the sweet relief it is to be holding, to be held by. Her eyes, twin glacial pools, have started to focus on the world around her and she takes a moment to regard the mesquite tree in our yard. I bring her to my breast after I take a seat on the red Adirondack chair jauntily positioned on the front porch, Finger Rock still squarely in my line of sight. She latches on and I breathe in. She is exquisite. I feel the full, ridiculous weight of the love which flash flooded my life the moment I gave birth a few months ago and somehow keeps rushing and rushing from an invisible, inexhaustible spring.

Even in this sublime moment, my eyes flicker north, to Finger Rock. I am content, yet somewhere inside of me a wild cat paces in a secret jungle, silent, patiently insistent. She can wait, she will wait, but she claims the right to remind me of a different path, the wilder world beyond caregiving. No matter how sweet the gifts of mothering a newborn may be, her shadow makes me tingle, a specter from my old life of physicality, of independence, of wildness. She reminds me of dreams I’m not sure even make sense anymore. Afterall, I’m still figuring out this new landscape since my entire life blew open with the birth of my daughter. In many ways I feel like a stranger to myself, my new world a drawn-out zen koan. Opposites find symbiosis; contradictions are the norm. I have never felt weaker, and I have never felt stronger. I am contentedly consumed by caring for this precious and demanding newborn, yet I miss my old life, with all its adventures and micro freedoms. I fantasize about rocks I haven’t climbed, may never climb, and perhaps these flights are sustaining a part of me through this time of early parenting. Or maybe I’m engaged in a reflex fantasy, simply playing out old thought patterns, scratching old itches. Maybe that life is over.

But I don’t think so.The ground under a mother’s foot is never solid, after all. I feel myself sinking as soggy sand beneath me is sucked into the tide. I wobble and catch my balance as I stand on the shoreline of mystery, waves lapping around my ankles. What is true today ceases to exist tomorrow. My daughter is growing, the days are getting shorter, and everything changes, but there is so much more possibility balled into each and every moment than most of us dare to realize. The same miraculous force that pulled me off the mountain to nurse a baby on an Adirondack chair may one day push me back up into the wilderness. And these dreams are the red thread tying together then and now, proof that something original remains after the cracking, the flooding, knitting together a changed woman, a brave new mother in a soggy, strange world.

 

***

 

This post took me ages to write- another casualty of new parenthood, I suppose. My baby is one year old now. I still haven’t climbed Finger Rock. But I haven’t stopped gazing at her and dreaming of the day.

first tooth

Her first tooth erupted on Saturday after a prelude of drool and night nursing. She is six months old, it seems too fast, but isn’t that the way it always is? For every new milestone represents a loss as well as a gain. She’s a different baby this week than she was last week. She is the river I can never swim in twice, the shifting clouds, the unfurling leaf. I gasp as I smile, I embrace the new child I meet while I long to hold her a bit longer as she is, to keep her small. 

Perhaps it’s the curse of an older mother. We know the heartache of loss, and these mini ones sting old wounds. I’ll never know what kind of mom I would have been in my twenties, but I suspect more like my own, with a sunny optimism that pushes away the painful realizations. Or maybe not. Maybe it is part of me, this longing to have things be as they are, yet also different. Maybe Mom experienced some of these feelings too, but I can’t ask her, and she never would have shared with anyone if she did, for she kept close vigilance over her darker thoughts and generally did not give them the dignity of breath. I can only go my memory of her and her words, spotty and inaccurate as that can be:

Do you miss me being a baby?

No. I always feel like I love the age that you are. It’s fun watching you grow up. Plus babies are a ton of work. 

Well, then. Was she protecting me? Giving me the answer I wanted to hear? Or was that really her truth?

I guess I want to shield J from my sorrows, the twingy sadness that comes with every leap forward. I want her to feel my love like sunshine, warm and shining, not heavy or mournful. Her victories we can share but my grief will be my own to hold.

her hands

If I were to claim any part of her as my favorite, it might be her hands. They dance when she is alert, fingers waving,coaxing the air into becoming her own invisible instrument.  When she is startled they bunch up into tight fists and she gives them a shake or two. Often a finger or five can be found in her mouth, shiny with drool. Lately she has started to explore the opening and closing of her hands. She touches fabric or skin or anything really, and her little starfish fingers  joyfully leap forward only to immediately spring back to nestle her palm again. Open close, open close. And sweetest gestures of all happen during nursing, as more frenzied activity slow to sweet caresses. She feeds quietly, eyes closed and gracefully, ever so gently traces her fingertips along the outside of my breast, my sternum, my chin. The very light touch of her fingers, so tiny, not yet hardened by life’s labor, feels more like a brushing of butterfly wings than the touch of a human, but here she is, real and mine. 6 months after her birth I still check her breathing while she sleeps. You are okay? You are okay.

tadpoles

The annual reprieve is here- monsoon season. We desert dwellers look to the sky, to the dark clouds which form in the afternoon hours with hopeWe need this, the nourishing rains, the plummeting temperature which follows in its wake. In an instant lightning rips across the sky, big fat drops kiss our face and we clap our hands in gratitude. Yes. 

The desert hangs on to nothing, and water rushes and rushes, trying to return to the sea. It flows down alley ways and pooling only when contained. In a flood zone at the end of my street, the dusty embankement has given way to lush Johnson grass stands and puddles. But even in monsoon the water is not always enough.

I noticed the wriggling tadpoles after the season’s first big storm. The desert toad laid those fertilized eggs remains unknown to me; I’ve never heard their mating song at dusk, or seen one hopping around in the grass. But there they were, thousands of tadpoles in the seasonal water stand. Undulating and undulating, some of them clumping together, some perpetually pushing forward, on and on. Countless miracles, nearly in my own backyard.

But then things dried up. The puddles shrank, retreated. The tadpoles become a writhing mass in the small amount of remaining water.  I prayed to the God of Rain to bless us thoroughly and quickly, thousands of tadpoles depended on this. I prayed to the God of Frogs that they may develop preternaturally quickly. My prayers went unanswered; yesterday they had evaporated along with the puddle, leaving behind only a greyish film in the center of a mud ring.

It made me hate the kind of world were thousands of beautiful creatures live and die in a breath. The waste, the injustice.

But then today the rain returned. Again the streets flowed, water pooled, and there are tadpoles once more. Well developed, survivors transplanted from other puddles perhaps. I watch them undulate with a renewed sense of gratitude. With a renewed sense of hope.

movement

I am packing boxes, surrounded by dust bunnies, wrapping paper, and the odds and ends that baffle any sort of organizational schema. Should this be in the “kitchen” box, or the “buffet” stuff? Keep it or throw it? What did I need this for anyway? The animals pace, smelling domestic upheaval in the air.

Yes, it is once again time to move. I have predictably timed this transition for the hottest part of the year. Highs temperatures are said to be 111 degrees on Saturday.

Most pictures are packed away yet one photo remains, taped to the inside of my bookcase. A smiling image of my mother presses the infant me joyfully against her cheek. I look to her image as though it were an icon, Our Lady of the Uhaul, Patron Saint of Gypsies and Restless Humans Everywhere. She who loved this shit. She who couldn’t live in a house more than two or three years. Houses were places to leave your mark, and then leave. Enter, refurbish, enjoy for a time, exit. When she wasn’t moving her own family she was shuffling her mother around: Now, she needs a senior apartment! No, assisted living! A senior apartment with some assisted living services! No, something closer to me! And so on.

I pack and remove, unwinding my life in this tiny casita, a cozy abode with blue-green walls and saffron ceilings and windows, so many windows. The light streams in at all hours of the day and if you catch a beam just right in the winter it warm you straight to the core. When I arrived here two years ago I nearly wept with joy because it was so perfect for me. The person I was. The house I needed.

The promise came true. What was broken down and dead healed over and woke up. I grew into me here. My life is now as vivid as the paint on the walls.

And now it is time to go. I have a new chapter to begin, and it will be in a different house. One that can better shelter me, now that life has become so full. So bright.  

 She understands. 
  
 

no words, only beauty

I got the news– her father passed away.  Cancer.

The news detonates a dam, and the tragedy of another triggers a flood of memories. I remember the quiet that pervaded the house during my mother’s final days, even while streams of thoughtful friends and family trickled by with somber faces.  The flocks of grey geese, a silent V slicing the grey skies above. The terrible disbelief that sets in after the final, jagged breath.

There are no words to comfort.  Maybe I can say that I understand what she is going through. Afterall, I too have lost a parent, but everyone grieves differently.  It is a lonely road, and she is a mother, she must carry on for another. The phrase “I understand” seems a bit inauthentic.

I can tell her that I’m sorry, because I am.

I can tell her everything will be different going forward, but how? I cannot predict. It is for her to discover. The truth will dazzle gradually.

What I can say, and what is the greatest truth: the only thing that knit me back together again was beauty.  People, with their awkward hugs and concerned faces, tried to comfort me, but I was beyond reach. There is nothing that anyone could do or say.

But there was poetry.  There were brilliant Arizona sunsets. There were songs that managed to fill a broken heart with joy and hope.  There were mountains that touched puffy white clouds.  There were birds, so many birds.

The beauty of the world can deliver you from her horrors if you open yourself to it.

 

Alan (4)