First Flower of the Season

Sister number three in our line is a winter baby, born on this date a few decades or so ago. But like the few blooms that brave the cold grip of the January earth in Washington state’s temperate climate, she is an early sign of the season of warmth and growth yet to come, a reminder that winter is finite and spring is ahead.Photo: First Crocus

Like the ethereally delicate crocus, whose pristine tenderness belies its vigor in breaking through the hard earth of the cold season, my sister brings a shining intensity to life that would be unexpected in someone so kindhearted and sympathetic and sensitive, at least to any who didn’t know better. But like the first flowers of the season, she is tougher than even she gives herself credit for being. She sustains an accomplished life that no shrinking violet could hope to do, raising with her marvelous husband two outstanding, smart, and exceedingly charming sons, and keeping her three sisters in line when our inappropriately youthful enthusiasm for life occasionally threatens to get in the way of getting any grownup sort of business done. She’s practical and clever enough to corral our tangents, but also creative enough to steer us toward worthwhile tangents of her own when it’ll help get our projects in hand. For decades, she’s also successfully applied these cat-wrangling skills to the demanding and volatile world of tech business, being the administrative linchpin of support for an array of engineers and executives and other fellow workers that surely must remind her at times of a class of unruly kindergartners destined to never graduate to the first grade. And yet I marvel that she rarely seems to lose her equilibrium over their, or our, antics for very long.
Photo: Thalia in Bloom

Like the Thalia narcissus, she instead continues to break through the tough old world as a spot of dazzling joy, her bold and decisive will to prevail against life’s trials and vicissitudes carried always in the fragrant flowering of early bloom highlighted by the solemn backdrop of the still-sleeping earth. May the year ahead hold bouquets of such lovely surprise for her, in turn, and her days be a garden of promise and delight. Happy Birthday, my sweet!

Things to Remember

Apparently I am sucked into the Throwback Thursday vortex, for amid my housework wanderings I stumbled across some dish-drying towels that brought a flood of memories over me. The first thing that came to mind was curiosity about whether there are many others who grew up using tea-towels like these made of flour sacking material and hand-embroidered, often with a small posy or aphorism in the corner, and usually by Mom or some older relative, at least until we ourselves were conscripted for the task.

My mother enjoyed embroidery as a relaxation mode as well as art form, and the last batch of dish towels that I know of her having made were a series of line drawings of local native flora, based (with the author’s permission) on a book of lovely little watercolors of the same plants and flowers. I chose one representing a favorite alpine blossom, even though the creamy white blooms were guaranteed to fade quickly against the pale fabric, and the outline of them remains faintly visible even after many years of hard use. That’s a perfect representation, in its way, of how my memory works. I began to reminisce, seeing this embroidery, on the alpine plants that have always signaled peace and freedom to me as I day-hiked on the flanks of Mt. Rainier. So I meandered over to search online for native alpine plants of the northwest, and as soon as I began looking at the images I was struck with an infusion of the very scent of those hikes, a spicy, earthy, fresh and herbal blend of tree resins—cedar, pine, alpine fir—and sun-baked earth, lightly perfumed flowers, crushed needles and fallen leaves underfoot, the brisk dash of elevated air. What a lot of fine things to be contained, in addition to the treasury of love and family history, within my mama’s embroidered dish drying cloth.Photo: Mama's Embroidery

You might think I’d’ve inherited an embroidery gene, because in addition to my mom’s fine handiwork, I grew up seeing and using Grandma’s embroidered towels and pillowcases and enjoyed them, too. I did not, and since I had these two sources readily available, I didn’t mourn the gap in my skill set. I could always go to one or the other of them and find some new kitchen linens in a time of need.

My father’s mother never got so inventive as to design her own embroideries based on book illustrations like Mom’s were, but Grandma chose for her projects the resource of hand-me-down and found patterns, most of them quite out of date already (hence the ease of her collecting them), and almost all of them much quirkier and tackier than her normally refined taste would have allowed. These were, however, mainly destined to be given to charity or sold for the proceeds that would go to the charity in their stead, so she had no attachment or agenda for showing them at home. I, on the other hand, bought a few not only out of any little do-gooder intentions but because the sheer silliness of some of the designs so delighted me.

This one, for example, that was my inspiration for joining now in the Throwback Thursday brigade, was highly amusing to me in its ridiculously fantastic subject, its period style, and its girly goofiness. I couldn’t resist it. I found no other Days of the Week as companions, so I can only imagine what happened on those days, but it was enough to find this towel that could simultaneously remind me of my grandmother and my youth and make me laugh, all while getting my dishes dried.Photo: Throwback Thursday

Fashions change, and with them, the decor and even tools that fill our lives and homes. Yesterday’s dish towels are probably more often machine-made of some high-tech sort of microfiber or super-absorbent bamboo fiber blend with an artful printed-on design in the proper Pantone colors of the year. But do they do a more artful job, as well, of wiping dishes dry after washing? Can they strain soup broth into crystal clarity? Do they make perfect wraps for ice packs when a sore neck or bruised arm is in want of one? No better than the old standbys of my youth, I imagine. Old as I am, I come from good stock that valued something a bit quaint and very handmade, and if it managed to accomplish the task and carry memories for decades at the same time, why, I suspect I’ll do well to try to be a human imitation of it myself.

Sometimes It’s Hard to Tell Who’s Giving the Gift and Who’s the Recipient

I have been taught that it’s polite to accept generosity with good grace: say Thank You, show proper appreciation, and humbly know that even when you think you don’t need or want the gift, it is your turn to show kindness by recognizing its significance to the giver. That doesn’t mean I’m terribly shy about ‘re-gifting,’ or passing the gifts along to someone I think will better appreciate and use them, eventually. It also doesn’t guarantee that I’m entirely alert to when I’m being presented with something valuable and meaningful. Even when I’m fully aware of my undeserving, I’m not exactly a genius at generosity myself, let alone fully attuned to how much I am given and how often.

Take the times when I am being thanked with gifts for doing things that I should have done as a matter of course, and often have done very grudgingly at that. I have always been a poor excuse for a visitor, supporter and caregiver, being intimidated and squeamish and easily unnerved by others’ needs and ailments and trials. I was terrified of visiting my own grandparents when they were old and shut-in, unable to be the people I had known in their healthier and more mobile and cogent days, and could rarely face the strangers that they had become, let alone the alien and frightened person I was myself in their presence.

Long before those times, even, I was both younger and less experienced or brave, if you can imagine anything yet more craven. My parents had always taught me by example that care and compassion, generosity and hospitality and respect, all of these were essential life skills and characteristics that should be nurtured and cultivated through consistent use. And I never got good at any of that.

Once, when Dad was making a hospital call on a parishioner who was dying of cancer, it happened to be when Mom and I needed to be along with him for something later in the day and it wasn’t convenient for anyone to be shuttling back and forth multiple times, so Mom and I rode along. Somewhere on the trip I realized or was persuaded that I should join both of them in visiting this man who was a stranger to me, rather than sitting and waiting in the car on a cold, damp day in the first week of December. I’m quite certain that I was both reluctant and frightened to make this visit, parental support notwithstanding. I’d never seen a person so near to death, and his being unknown to me did nothing to ease my fears; if anything, my perpetual social anxiety probably spiked to all-time highs at the thought of meeting someone new just when he was about to die. I’m quite sure that I wasn’t mature enough to recognize that this was a clear instance of the occasion being ‘about’ him, and not about me at all.

I remember rather little of the actual visit, only little bits. I had met this man’s wife once or twice, so I suppose we exchanged some small talk about that acquaintance. He asked me about my interest in art and shared that, while he’d had some entirely different sort of day job, he’d always had a creative urge and had made many small stained glass pieces as a fond hobby, something I gathered he sold to make a little pocket-money at times. His inquiry about what was happening in my own life just about then eventually revealed that the anniversary of my birth was approaching just as the end of his life was to come.

He was a pale, yellowish creature after cancer had defeated most of his bodily systems and all of his treatments, bloated but in an empty way; an airy husk of the man that had been, now nearly ready to blow away. His hospital room smelled just like hospital rooms have always smelled, overlaid with the added imaginary pall of looming mortality. I wasn’t a baby—I understood well enough that his sort of death wasn’t contagious—but I couldn’t help itching to escape all the same.

When this pallid wraith offered me his dry, cool hand I took it in mine and held it for a while as he and my parents continued to talk softly about more needful things. I did my best to give the appearance of better bravery than I had, if not compassion, and still he showed me more sympathy than I expect I did him. He thanked us all quietly for the visit as we left, and I was too immersed in trying to console myself over the sadness and discomfort of it all to realize that it was he who had done the kindness.

I heard in just a few days of his death and thought with some melancholy of how sorrowful it must have been for him to face it, and for his loved ones to cope with its eventual, if expected, arrival. Only a couple of days later, I thought of him again.

It was my birthday, and among the presents I received was one small package that was not from a family member. My parents told me that my acquaintance had asked his family to see that I be given this gift as a token of his gratitude for my visit. It was a table-top stained glass flower he had crafted sometime back when he still had the strength and skill to make such things. The little blue flower bowed gently on its wire stem, and I was abashed and moved by it.

This was a delicate token of real grace. It made a fine representation of that goodness, its glass petals and leaves letting light filter through, its slender stem so fine, yet resilient enough to spring back upward when pressed. It was a flower that stubbornly refused to wilt, even when it was a post-mortem gift from a virtual stranger. I don’t know, after all of these years, precisely what happened to it or when and where it disappeared, but I kept it for a very long time indeed and found in its simplicity a constant reminder that the little things even a reluctant and weak person might do in the name of duty or expedience or, however hesitantly and ineptly, for kindness’ sake, might in the end have some power. That this power is not our own matters less than that it can change the course of the moment, or sometimes, perhaps, even make a difference in matters of life and death.Digital illustration: Stained Glass Flower

Blowing through the Wild Grasses

Weed or wildflower? Messy or naturalized? Everyone has an opinion, and they often differ distinctly on the same little plant or plot. Part of the pleasure of good company will always be in its variety and the interest that it brings to life. Gardening tastes are very much in that vein.

Digital illustration: Wild Grasses

As a sometime gardener, however amateur, I can think of few styles of landscaping that I don’t find appealing and attractive in their own ways. I admire the near-perfection of elaborate, formal palace gardens and magnificent, fountain-filled parks with their follies and allees. I am fond of a rustic campfire-side bramble patch, punctuated by straggly hydrangeas run wild, down by the lakeside. There is both soul refreshment and eye appeal for me in a delicate Zen garden with bonsai, laceleaf maples and a barely rippling koi pond.

When it comes to my own gardens, I tend to walk just a little farther on the wild side. I hate to fiddle and fuss at length with the hard labor of a garden. I greatly prefer the genteel pleasures of the design of the garden, and perhaps the occasional artistic pruning to shape a rhododendron or sapling tree. But I’m not so wild about back-breaking rock picking and digging; I moved from incredibly rich but equally rocky volcanic glacial till of western Washington to the cement-like red clay of Texas, both places where putting a one-gallon root ball into the ground requires a pickaxe.

My first garden was an exploration of the beauties of cottage style gardening. Washington, temperate and moist, was ideal for a grand assortment of bulbs, flowering shrubs and cutting flowers, so I had profuse blooms and constant green with little effort. The traditional cottage style allowed me to squeeze a massive amount of lively growth into a normal city house lot, and the more I wedged into the ground, the less room there was for volunteer and invasive plants. Weeds had a tough go of it there, so it wasn’t especially hard to keep ahead of them.

There are plants I don’t invite to my parties. Much as I enjoy and admire most, I’m no friend of those pest plants that choke out others, cause massive allergies, or stab at me with cruel thorns, or those that threaten entire ecosystems, mine or others’. Good riddance to misplaced English Ivy, kudzu, poison oak and wild blackberry canes. Conversely, one of my particular favorite garden options is to find ways to encourage native plants to thrive. The more a plant is suited and accustomed to its environs, the more it will grow and be healthy and attractive and weed-proof.

Texas has reinforced that love in my aggressively. It’s a harsher climate than the Pacific Northwest’s in which I now garden, so what I plant and tend must needs be up to surviving and flourishing in those more demanding circumstances—or die. Even desert plants don’t necessarily have what it takes, since north Texas can still get true freezes in winter, and occasional snow, hail and ice. This last winter, a relatively mild one, still killed off a lot of specimen agaves and prickly pears and even cut some mighty oaks down to size.

I’m finding that the area’s status as an extension of the country’s central prairies may be the key to what will survive and grow here long term. When anything will grow, that is. I’m tending to my little wildflower meadow out back, to see if I can’t reintroduce something a little more self-sustaining than those long cultivated but seldom successful hard turf lawns that were popular in our area and surrounded our house when we bought it. Even better than the wildflowers, I’m finding, will be the ‘amber waves of grain’ I seeded in  among the wildflowers, the native prairie grasses.

Prairie grasses have some of the deepest, toughest and most tenacious root systems of any type of plants, and along with the leaves that sway in every breeze, often creating symphonies of susurration, they go to seed in many attractive ways. So I really am enjoying ‘sowing my wild oats.’ And Little Bluestem, Fountain Grass, Weeping Lovegrass, and many more. My backyard creatures will enjoy them, and their varicolored, many-textured attractions will beat any struggling, forced lawn that ever tried to eke out a living where its native cousins once roamed free.

Eating Thistles

Photo: The Big ThistleCardoons and artichokes are every bit as admirable as their strictly-for-visual-admiration wild growing thistle cousins. But as any avid eater should know, the aforementioned relatives are terrific dining companions as well as being attractive plants. Sure, I love the silvery magnificence of a shapely cardoon leaf accenting the garden border, but if I can admire its beauty and then eat it as well isn’t that just so much the better?Digital illustration from a photo: Antique Artichoke

And artichokes, well, we all know those are as worthy of battling past their thorny armor as it was ever worth storming a castle’s battlements and portcullises to get to the treasury inside.Digital illustration from a photo: Artichoke Arrangement

The wonderful earthiness of the artichoke is an outstanding companion to the similarly strong-yet-subtle virtues of asparagus, mushrooms or root vegetables. All of these, in turn, play nicely with the denser, meatier varieties of fish—roasted monkfish or grilled salmon, for example—or a roast or stew of wild game, if one has access to, say, boar or venison. Or, if meat or fish is simply not right for the moment, some boiled, steamed or poached eggs.

How about this for a tasty Collage of Earthy Vegetables:

Blanch some cleaned asparagus, small to medium-sized artichokes, halved and trimmed, and russet potatoes, skin on and cut into modest wedges. When they’re all blanched, stem and clean some Portobello mushrooms, toss everything with a little avocado oil, kosher salt & cracked black pepper, and grill or roast until tender.

Serve with any or all of the following as a finger food, small-plate meal or as a side to the main entree (fish or meat or eggs):

Toasted hazelnuts, small wedges of Manchego or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, brown butter Hollandaise, and/or rosemary sherried green olives.

This compilation seems to me almost a vegetable representation of terroir. At the least, it’s very down to earth!

If My Song could Last Forever

Photo: Well Seasoned 1Hours into Seasons

There’s a sweetness in the morning when the sun has yet to rise

And the blooms lie, still unopened, under sleeping butterflies;

When the stars still wink and glimmer, while the frogs yet softly sing—

There’s a sweetness in the morning that is like the breath of Spring.Photo: Well Seasoned 2

There’s a graciousness at midday when, amid the racing streams,

All arise and put in motion yesterday’s profoundest dreams;

When the past its chains has loosened on the race of all alive,

That in joyful forward motion we, like Summer, grow and thrive.Photo: Well Seasoned 3

There’s a calm amid the evening when the birds come to the trees’

Respite from the day of flying, echoed by our evening ease;

When the cares of noon have lessened as the dusk swept into place—

There’s a calm amid the evening, peaceful as the Autumn’s grace.Photo: Well Seasoned 4

There’s a beauty to the nighttime, glorious and peaceful bliss,

Treasured for the kind renewal of the souls that rest in this

Cradling darkness and this languor, in this place of mending rest

That, like Winter’s dormant healing, lets us wake refreshed and blessed.Photo: Well Seasoned 5

I would take these hours’ presents as my guide through seasons long,

Through a lifelong path that’s pleasant as a choir’s finest song;

I would be a seasoned traveler, happy above everything,

If my song could last forever,

Summer, Autumn, Winter, Spring.Photo: Well Seasoned 6