Tag Archives: Tucson

time to garden


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.


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.

mother’s day without you


the ring I gave you for Mother’s Day- 2007?

It is hard to be without you today, every day. My soul still seeks you, a message in every throb of my aching heart:

I miss you.
Thank you. 
You were wonderful.

On this day, I would buy you flowers, or a piece of jewelry.  Some small, stupid item that could never say enough the good you did the world, how tremendously kind and loving you were to everyone and everything you touched.  Mothering is more than giving life- although you did that for me too. I was your only child by birth, yet you were a mother to many. You nurtured, you encouraged, you eased, you pushed and you believed. And we miss you here, in this life, in this world.

The Mother’s Day gifts of the past were inadequate, but it felt good to do something, to make even a lame attempt at showing gratitude. I miss the simple joy of sliding a necklace around your warm neck, or watching you close your eyes as you inhale the aroma of roses. These days, I have no such recourse for showing thanks. Maybe your spirit is at such great heights, a little fleck of firmament, too distant to hear murmured prayers of thanks. Or perhaps you have absorbed into my skin, or disseminated into the air I breathe, and you are so very small, so omnipresent, so close there is really no you anymore. In either case, I cannot reach you. You are too close.  You are too far away.

So, I could do nothing else with today but surround myself with beauty, to ease the aching loss of you. I went to Sabino Canyon with my dear friend. The one I believe you sent for in the last hours of your life, so she could be there for me at the moment of your departure. You loved her, I love her, and we remembered you today, as we gazed upon the wonder of it all.


where I lived

I used to live in a track home outside of town, on land freshly poached from the desert. Like a number of choices made at age 24, it isn’t a decision I would repeat; this was life in the country without the benefits of country life. There were the long commutes, the automotive expenses, the 15 miles to the grocery store. My bedroom window stared into my neighbors’.  I had a tiny yard that was mostly composed of a pile of rocks.  In a desperate move to beautify I tried to grow succulents on the rock pile, but the succulents would inevitably die off, exposing the truth that, no, there’s no rock garden here, only an eyesore.

I moved to that house having only lived in a very urban environment.  At first it seemed strange, but I grew to love both the silence and the sounds. The coyotes would sing at night over the howling wind. I would run in the darkness of the early morning with the milky way shining down upon me and hear owls flapping their wings as they hunted their prey. Hoo, hoo.  

I now live in a central part of the city, and the constant, bustling noise grates on my nerves.  I run on asphalt with no owls in sight, only pigeons. I appreciate being able to bike to work, to walk to a grocery store, but I seek out quiet corners of the city in which to recharge. I miss the roadrunners, the quail, the hawks soaring ahead.  I miss the forests of ocotillo, reaching towards looming mountains above. My happiest moments are when I’m outside of the city limits, on a hill overlooking the twinkling lights, or camping in a forest somewhere.

Turns out I’m a bit of a country girl, afterall.

the rhythm of where I came from, the rhythm of where I am

It is amazing how my ideas of the seasons, the natural cycles accompanied by Earth’s journey around the sun are so shaped by growing up in the Midwestern US.  Even after dwelling in the desert for 8 years, I frown at the shoots of wildflowers reaching green tendrils up to the sky in January and exclaim No! Its too soon! Of course, what is wild and natural can be neither early nor late, but there is a part of me that still exists in Minnesota, that still appraises within the constructs of that world: long winters with temperatures that plunge well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit  Short, glimmery summers that pass with a breath of humidity, the buzz of mosquitoes  and then suddenly are gone. The sacred two week race between the 15th of May and memorial day to plant seeds if there is to be any hope of tomatoes in August.

The day I saw the beginning of wildflowers there was a high of -5°F in Minneapolis, and I think it was that part of me, still shivering in the North, that couldn’t accept my new home, the new rhythms of life. Barry Lopez writes on how disconcerting life in the Arctic is for those of us dominated by the simple truths of temperate living: the sun rising in the East, setting in the West, day after day. It is true in Tucson, albeit to a lesser degree. I get frustrated with Midwestern transplants that complain about the lack of seasons in the desert.  There are seasons, magical ones, but they aren’t our seasons. I understand this is really what they miss: the comforting truths of fall leaves crunching underfoot in early October.  The heavy snows of March. The breeze off the lake cutting through the humidity of July. And we can adjust to new places, humans are adaptable afterall. I tend to lettuce and chard during these months while Minnesota is under a blanket of cold and snow and ice, I open the door and let warm January breezes pass through the house. But there is still the part of us gazing at the world through the eyes of our childhood, from the perspective of where we came.

Tucson in November

November in the desert is a study of opposites.  The skies have gone quiet, awaiting the arrival of winter migrants. The sun still shines warmly yet the wind blows cold, laced with the sweet smell of decay.  Night come early and lingers well into the next day, and even though I am a morning person, I find myself slumbering longer and longer under heavy blankets.

The chickens are up with the sun when she shows her face, and demanding squawks eventually pull me out of bed and into the garden. The cold is quickly dissipating under the sun’s loving stare; even though I can see my breath in puffs, my rumpled hair is warmed by sunshine as I feed the birds and release them from the coop into the yard.The air is perfumed with the aroma of the growing and the dying.   I appraise the winter lettuce,whose green fingers tentatively reach upwards from the deep black earth.  The fig and peach trees shed their leaves like a papery dress, yet the carrots extend tender young greens upward and wave a feathery “hi!”

Even in Tucson, winter gardens can be a bit of a gamble.  With hardly a warning the long night could decide to push the temperature below freezing and irreparably damage the brave young plants that dare to grow in the coldest, darkest months.  The eggplant has already taken a hit, and its only mid-November.  But we are fearless beings, the veggies and I, and seek the light wherever we can find it.

The warm sun, the cool breeze, the sweetness of the earth, the cackle of the chickens are intoxicating, but the afternoon pulls me indoors.  Today has seen temperatures well into the 70’s, but deeper instincts of the dying light and coming cold cause me to seek shelter.  Home yields its own delights; before long the kitchen smells a curious combination of burned sage, the yogi tea bubbling on the stove, the yeasty sweetness of bread in the oven.

It is fall.  We grow upward, we turn inward  We shiver through the night and bask in yellow sunshine during the day.

Our Fall Garden, 2011

May you find your own sweet balance between the light and the dark.

one of the haunted

Halloween.  Día de los Muertos. The season of the undead, of ghosts come to visit the living.  The stories we tell this time of year speak of forbidden desires and longing for that which we cannot let go. The fear of ghosts we felt as children grows into a thrill to think maybe those that have left us aren’t really gone, that maybe they can come back to give us messages, check up on us, or just to have a good time in the way you can only on Earth.

I have always had a skepticism about the afterlife, but when my mother was dying, I held her thin hand and asked for her to come visit me after she had gone.

If you can, anyway that you can, I want you to come to me and let you know that you are there.

She amused me and said she would try.

She hasn’t done a very good job.

I live 40 miles from Mexico, and calavera skulls stare at me from store windows. Miniature skeletons drink alcohol or play mariachi tunes.  Carved pumpkins glow yellow in the dying sunlight.  It is the season to celebrate the haunting and the haunted, but I am not one of them.

She simply isn’t here.

I don’t hear her voice, feel her sweet presence.

She is gone.

In this season of ghosts, I wish my dear one would visit.  I wish I was one of the haunted.

escape artist

I attended a conference last week in Phoenix. Excellent professional development aside, it was a reminder on how much I dislike the city.  Phoenix, this sprawling urban behemoth epitomizes what is difficult for me about urban life.

It wasn’t always like this; I used to think I was a city girl.  I loved the excitement, the convenience of mass transit, the nightlife.  The feeling of slipping on a beautiful dress, going out and being seen. The thrill of a nightclub bass that you can feel right down to your toes, drowning out your voice while you shout into the ear of an attractive stranger.   The proximity to beautiful and interesting people.

I now live in the rougharoundtheedgessignificantlylessmetropolitainyetstillurban community of Tucson. I still love being able to bike wherever I need to go, to be able to eat Ethiopian, South Mexican, or Thai food on a Wednesday night if I feel like it.  To work at a major academic medical center.  But I don’t like the garish billboards, the chain stores, the traffic.  Car exhaust choking my lungs. The push to be thinner, richer, more productive, mostly because someone will then be able to make more money off of you.

Being stuck at a stoplight, or in a traffic jam makes me die a little inside.  To be fair, I’ve never lived outside of the city, so I really don’t have an equal point of comparison. But I do know that I love is being in the woods, in the mountains, in the desert, in the quiet.  I love gazing at birds, hearing the canyon sigh in the afternoon breeze.  It’s difficult for me to put into words the effect of being in nature.  But its fundamental.  It connects me to something far greater than myself.  Its a living meditation and meaning and purpose and joy. It’s a little bit like discovering that I’m finally home, when I hadn’t even realized I had been away.

I also really love my job and suppose I will stay put in the city (if you call Tucson a city) for now. But I will always escape to the wild at every opportunity.

the last straw (aka my mental breakdown over football tickets)

I woke up on August 29th, my mother’s birthday, feeling calm.

I meditated.  I sipped tea.  The world looked beautiful.  The sadness in these moments were trumped by a feeling of gratitude, and amazement at the world that produced such a kind and lovely soul, and I was lucky enough to call her Mom.

It was also the anniversary of my first date with my husband, and I wanted to focus on the positive on this day.

Then, I tried to buy football tickets.

See, I work for a healthcare organization that is a huge, multi-limbed animal.  Being located in a college town, this organization has an annual tailgate party before one of the games.  Think private tent, hot dogs, tshirts, etc. Its fun.  Tickets have historically sold quickly, so I think the strategy this year was to make ticket-buying as inconvenient as possible.  Or maybe it was just terrible planning.  Anyway.  Said football tickets were supposedly being sold at an administrative building some distance from my house.  I fought traffic to get there prior to the advertised 8am end-time for ticket purchasing.

I got there before 8.  It was abandoned, nobody in sight.  It either ended early or never started to begin with.  A kind secretary picked up the phone, and a disembodied voice said they would start selling again at 5:30pm.

Irritated, but convinced not to let my mood go completely south on an important day, I drove off to work.

During my lunch break, I called Grandma at her new residence, a group home for individuals with dementia and other heath care needs.  She had moved in about 5 days prior, but due to a comical series of events I hadn’t been able to speak to her until the 29th.   It was great to hear her voice, until it wasn’t.  In her demented anxiety, she was verbally abusive. She told me that I was boring, that she didn’t want to talk to me at all. Maybe mistake number 1 was reminding her it was her daughter’s birthday.  I don’t know.  It most certainly had nothing to do with me, but it was hard to let go.

I wiped away my tears and went back to seeing patients.  It becomes a little bit like acting sometimes.  You might be breaking on the inside, but you must push the emotions aside so you can smile, nod, be present to someone else’s needs and problems.

So, I finished up my work day with a forced smile and drove back to the administrative building to once again try to buy football tickets.

Locked. Dark.  No way to get inside.

I waited around in the heat for a while, hoping someone would leave through a locked door but no luck.

I slammed my hand against the gate.  Fuck Fuck Fuck. I kicked the gate too, for good measure.  But it stayed locked.

I raged against a world that was set against me from buying football tickets, that makes people too stupid to organize a tailgate, that clogs up traffic and makes you sit in your car, in the sun, going nowhere.  A world that locks doors, that looks at what you desire and doesn’t blink when she tells you “no.” The same shitty place that took my mom too soon and my grandmother too late.

I arrived home, on what was supposed to be a date night with my husband, tear-streaked and shaking.  “Don’t worry about the tickets” he said. And he took me to the one place I could go.  The ashram.  We indulged in a delicious vegetarian buffet.  Chant piped in quietly over the trickling of a fountain while parrots squawked in their cages.  The air was perfumed with incense. After my emotional outburst, I once again sipped tea and felt calm.  I circled back to where I started. I once again could see the beauty in everything.

I may plunge into dark recesses of anger and despair, but this is impermanent.  I will always return to a place of centeredness, of peace.

statue of Ganesh in the gardens of Govinda’s. Copyright Katharine M. Hanna.


on faith

I am not a girl who was blessed with the gift of faith.  I fully embraced my secular family member’s values of critical reasoning from childhood.  And in many aspects of life, it helps to not place too much stock in what you believe to be true.  It may well be completely false.

But losing my moms taught me how to embrace faith.  I am changed now, and I understand how faith can be as important as the air we breathe.

Part of me still rebels against the very idea of faith. Despite the fact that my most brilliant family members include devout Christians,  I long attributed faith as something embraced by those less-intelligent than myself. Bad things happen, why dance around like everything will be okay?  Don’t believe that a God will make it all better– he/she probably won’t.

I grew up and became a nurse. The optimism of doctors in oncology was particularly annoying. Whatever, this patient is going to kick the bucket, why not face the music and get them go to hospice?  Maybe it made me feel superior, feeling like I could predict life and death.  The thing is, sometimes those patients did survive. Or they walked out of the hospital. Or they lived long enough to clap and laugh at their child’s birthday. Miracles happened, and sometimes I was too busy rolling my eyes to notice.

Mom, she had faith. Deep into her illness, she still believed she would get a bone marrow transplant and achieve that long-sought remission.  Or at least, that’s what she told me.  Who knows what is in another’s heart?  It drove a wedge between us, because I believed she would die only a few months after she started chemo.  She will die, she will die, she will die. It was all I could think about.

And she did die. But unfortunately, we didn’t bridge that gap between her faith and my obsession. In a certain way, we were estranged during the last year of her life. I did the best I could do in a painful and heartbreaking situation, but I still wish that things were different.

With my patients I’m not crippled by fear. I find myself saying so much more often you will do this, and its going to work. You’ll do very well. This cancer will be beat. I can’t predict that my patients will survive any more than I can predict that I will survive.  But hope is everything. I wasn’t able to embrace hope with my mom because I was too fearful. But if we only have today, this present moment, this now, why not be optimistic? Why not count on the very best?

In the end, we can’t fight what will and will not be. The cosmic die are cast, and are tumbling towards destiny.  We don’t know what is ahead of us tomorrow. So why not embrace the light, count on the miracle, expect the very best? The present moment is all we have.  Believing in a bright tomorrow helps one relax a bit, don’t you think? The energy we spend dwelling over the certain destruction ahead can be better spend enjoying the sun, the smile of a loved one, the wagging tail of a dog.

The monsoon has come to the desert, and we have spent this 4th of July doused by the rains. I raise my face to the sky, embrace the drops stinging my face, and join the chorus in faith that these showers will transform the sterile, dusty earth to a green paradise, full of life.