Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Girl Gone Wild
We'd just come home from a properly leashed and well-behaved walk. 
Can't really say I blame the girl for wanting to run a bit wild. 

"Gracie! C'mon, girl!" My voice rang out across the lawns as my eyes scanned the street for a glimpse of red motion.

My dog was on the loose, running wild through the neighborhood.

Unlike my previous setters, Gracie does not often give me the slip. And 95% of the times she does get out, she doesn't go far. Over to the next door neighbors' house and into their garage, most likely. The previous family had a dog and she figured out that they kept an entirely accessible bag of dog food handy so she'd stop in to help herself to a little snack. Poor dog hasn't quite figured out that a new family has moved in, and they have no dog and thus no dog food. Still, she makes a beeline to their open garage and then quickly heads home when she realizes the treats are much better at our house. 

But today, my dog was apparently overcome by a greater sense of adventure. She shot past the neighbors' garage and headed off down the hill to explore the great beyond. 

As soon as I realized she was off on a run, I turned on my heel, marched into the house, and totally ignored her misdeed. 

* * * * *

Those previous dogs of mine, Casey and Ranger, were classic bolters, as are many Irish setters, and they schooled me well in the fine art of coaxing a wild dog to come home. 

Step Number One: DO NOT GIVE CHASE! 
Though we humans know that we pursue our wild beasts only with the intent to rein them in and haul their naughty selves back home, the dogs see it something like this. "Oh, look! My favorite human has decided to join me on my Grand Adventure. How wonderful! Let's keep running!" This works out quite well for the dogs but ends poorly for the humans who an hour later find themselves a mile and half from home, chasing their dog over hill and vale.  

Step Number Two: Don't Say "Come" 
Over the years, I've come to agree with a Golden Rule of obedience training: I only give a command to my dog if I'm sure I can enforce it. Otherwise, I create the risk of teaching my dog that obeying my commands is an option, rather than an imperative. So even though my dogs have been quite obedient to a crisply delivered "Come" command on leash or around the house, I avoid using that word when they're enmjoying an uncontrolled rampage, and go instead with the distinctively different and generally joyful "C'mon!"

Step Number Three: Play A Little Hard To Get. 
I've learned the hard way, a zillion times over, that the only way to get a runaway dog to come home is to trick them into wanting to come home. Let's face it, there's a lot to be said for running at breakneck speeds through a neighborhood full of delicious sights and scents, so this is no easy task. But here's the secret - I do what I can to make them think of me. And the way I do that is to disappear. Back into the house I go, where my absence will eventually register on the freedom-drunk brain of my escapee, and they will certainly think to look for me. I leave the front door wide open.

So even in the 4% of cases when Gracie romps off beyond the neighbors' yard, she's usually back within two minutes, chuffed with her escapade but also very curious to see where I've gotten off to. It's a marvelous solution and it almost always works. 

* * * * *

Today, however, was a rare case indeed. A one percenter in which I ignored my naughty girl and busied myself inside the house, but after oh, 7 to 10 minutes, I realized that my dog still had not come back.

Dang it.

Now I must break the sad news that there is no reliable Step Number Four. At this point, I just wing it. And today, that looked like me standing in the middle of my front yard, calling my dog's name with forced gaiety, listening for sounds of other dogs barking (a highly reliable way to locate a dog on the loose - the others rat her out), and thinking what to do. 

And then I heard it.

The subtle but unmistakable sound of a big dog galloping up the hill.

I smiled. 

I listened to that happy commotion, growing louder all the while, for several long seconds before I actually saw her. 

Finally, from the far edge of the next-door neighbors' rhododendrons, my big red dog came sprinting up the sidewalk at top speed, burned a hard right across their driveway and tore across their lawn, all wagging tail and thrilled to see me. 

* * * * *

And though this last step always kills me, it is crucially important. 

Final Step. Reward Your Fugitive For Coming Home.

Gracie knows the ropes. Her trajectory continued into the house as she skidded across the entry rug, slammed on her brakes as she veered into the kitchen, and slid into a perfect sit right in front of the pantry door. Ceremoniously, I opened the door, reached into her treat bowl and removed one delicious morsel. 

As I handed it to her, I told her just what she wanted to hear.

"Good dog."

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

A Lake Lady Makes Do

I am a Lake Lady.

My daughters coined that term to describe my passion for craving water in the summer sun.

Undoubtedly, these are the marks left on my soul from a childhood lived on a lake: I find any form of water-related activity to be irresistible, and I'm drawn to running hoses, wading pools, bubbling streams, lazy rivers, and of course, any sort of lake, like a pig to mud.

For that matter, I don't mind a nice mud puddle either. 

I consider it perfectly normal to wake up on a warm summer morning and put on a swim suit. Even if I have no other plans than meandering around my backyard, this has been deeply ingrained in me: hot days are for swim suits. And I wear it all day long. 

This is Lake Culture life, and even though I'm decades deep into this non-lake suburban lifestyle, I can't stop, won't stop.

Because it's true. I am indeed a Lake Lady.

* * * * *

Now it bears mentioning that my husband holds a different opinion. He is what I would call a Terra Firma Gent because he has zero interest in water-related activities. 


No one's perfect. At least he does our taxes.

So the idea of settling down in a lakeside cottage somewhere, or navigating a sailboat through local waters, is not really in the cards for me. But there's one dream that still burns within me.

A backyard pool.

Now there are reasons good and bad to invest, oh, upwards of fifteen grand into a big blue hole in my backyard, and while I've pondered every angle of this dilemma for years, I'm currently stuck on one key issue:

Here in the Pacific Northwest, swimming weather lasts maybe two months. For the cost of constructing and maintaining a pool year round, that's not a lot of bang for the buck. Yes, I could heat it and extend the swimming season, but there will still be many months of the year in which I'd be staring at my money pit, unable to put it to good use. 

On the other hand, two months of swimming in my own back yard sounds like pure heaven.

* * * * *

As spring has crawled toward summer in this season of quarantine, I've been particularly itchy to get to some water. I know a lot of people are carefully venturing out to the mountains, the beaches, even the local lakes, to partake of summer fun but that is just not for me. Until Covid is wrestled into submission, I'm planning to recreate entirely on my own property.

Which would have made this an ideal time to pull the trigger on that pool.

But alas, the timing slipped away from me and I've found myself smack dab in the middle of a glorious summer with nowhere to swim.

Until a few weeks ago, when a glorious plan began to take shape in my head:

Kiddie wading pools just don't cut it for me, but this year, more than ever, there seem to be a bevy of generously proportioned inflatable pools floating around on the internet. 

And while even an massive blow-up pool does not allow for proper swimming, it could allow me to float. 

Ah, what could be more lifegiving that drifting around a pool on an air mattress, 

cool water below as the sun warms from above, 
safe and secure on a bubble of bobbing comfort, 
adrift on a sea of sensory satisfaction.

And so, with a few flicks of my finger, I ordered myself my own personal sized backyard pool complete with floating mattress. And today, I got it all set up and climbed in.

^ The air mattress fits perfectly into the pool. With great ceremony, I laid first the inflated mattress on the floor of the empty pool, then climbed in to lie down on top of it, and pulled the running hose in after me. I was hoping that if I was patient enough, the water would eventually fill the pool to to the point where I would suddenly begin to float. My experiment worked like a charm, and my first half hour of soak time was  pure delight

^ Serendipitously, the pattern on my new air mattress matches exactly to a floatie ring I bought three years ago in Mexico. 

Here's a quick glimpse of it that year, popping up in the background of a photo of fish tacos. 
And here's an even tinier peek of those same bright flowers, in a story about my second trip to Cabo, in which I wax poetic about my passion for swimming. Ha. Lake Lady strikes again. 

The fact that this same tropical print of flamboyant flowers and lush green leaves has popped back into my life tells me that I'm on the right track.

^ So in a spirit of fellowship and good fun, I brought my ring out for some sunshine too.

^ After much deliberation, I decided to put the pool on the patio rather than in the yard so I could leave it set up for days at a time without any fear of destroying the grass underneath.And while that location means that I'll have to put up with a bit of midday shade, I'll still have long hours for lounging in full sun.

 ^ Gracie took the new blue beast in stride. Standing at the side of the pool, gently licking off the stray drops of water, she looked a bit wistfully at me bobbing about. But Gracie has her own pool and I suggested to her that she might want to climb in and swim with me.

I even offered to lend her my matching float ring which I think she would enjoy. Because I'm pretty sure that Gracie is a Lake Lady too. 

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Home Sweet Home

Something's been niggling at me for the past few days. 

That feeling of forgetting something important.

But what?

A birthday? An anniversary? 

I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but day after day, there it was, a persistent mental tickle that just wouldn't quit.

Until day before yesterday, when my fourth-born was looking through a stack of old photos and turned one around to show me. "Mom, look."

In a heartbeat, I remembered what I'd forgotten.

July 18. It's the anniversary of the day we closed on our house. 

July 18, 1986, to be exact.

Which means we've lived here at Casa Streicher for thirty-four happy years.

My father-in law took this photo when he and my mother-in-law drove out from Ohio to see this new place we'd made for ourselves in the west. Though he loved the American West and had championed a lifetime of family vacations criss-crossing the states beyond the Mississippi, my father-in-law chose to live his life close to his roots in the heartland, I think he found great fulfillment in knowing that his son had decided to settle in the Seattle area. His unspoken dreams of moving to the west came true through us, and that has always made me happy. 

Of course, the trees have grown in three decades.
The landscape has evolved considerably.
But surprisingly, comfortingly, our house looks exactly the same. 

Even though so much life has happened inside. 

* * * * *

Our four daughters were born and raised here, as two decades of wild childhood unfolded under this roof. 

From handmade "It's A Girl" banners painted in pink on old school computer paper with the little holes on each side of the connected pages and hung in the front window, 

to endless weekly deliveries from the big white Baby Diaper Service truck and daily Cheerios and apple juice tea parties on the front lawn, 

to dozens of Girl Scouts descending for weekly meetings and the breathless excitement of Halloween trick-or treating, 

to teenage friends hanging out till all hours of the night, and prom photos. 

to packing up the car and heading off to college,

our grown-up girls eventually moved out into the world. 

And I do mean the whole world - besides semesters abroad during college, our daughters have lived in Arizona, Nova Scotia, Vietnam, South Korea, and now Ohio. The younger pair are living with us at the moment, and while I know they will soon be off again on new adventures, I treasure their company for now.

Three Irish Setters have lived here with us. The first one arrived a month after we did, and the others came in their turn. Five cats - four of them black cats, all strays - have joined our family as well and often grace the ridge line of our roof during their daily meanderings. All these sweet souls have done much to make our house a happy home, and I can't imagine our lives without them.   

* * * * *

As for my husband and me, well, the years may have changed us a bit.

See? Here we are, captured at my husband's family dinner table just a few months before our big cross-country move, all those years ago.

If you drive by our house on any given weekend, spring, summer or fall, you'll probably catch us out in the front yard with our green bin and pruning shears, shovels and wheelbarrow (which also dates to 1986, by the way), forever working in our gardens.

And though you may notice some outward changes in our appearances, on the inside, in our hearts and minds, we are still young and full of promise, eager to see what the next thirty-four years of life may bring to us. 

Just like our home sweet home. 

Friday, July 24, 2020

Worth The Wait
Twenty-one years is a long time to wait for a patio. But I have no regrets. 

Last weekend was spent laboriously hacking back my enthusiastically overgrown hedge of rhododendron bushes. As I worked, alternating between standard clippers, long-handled pruning shears, and a no-nonsense hand saw, I considered the garden around me. 

I wasn't satisfied.

The basic design was okay - a pair of perpendicular paths ran along the hedges and then out to the driveway, and a couple nice beds of blooming flowers. But something was off.

It was the area in the middle of the largest bed. Originally this space was supposed to fill with small flowering ground covers that would make a poetic spot to spend a late summer afternoon, presumably in a floral sundress and a straw hat with a book of verse and a glass of lemonade. But the ground cover was under constant assault from tenacious dandelions, evil Columbine, and other unfriendlies, and the soil was cratered by my furious attempts to dig them out. 

This was not a pretty place.
I did not like to work here.
And I most definitely did not entertain any readings with e.e.cummings. 

Why? I wondered to myself as I hacked back another rhodie branch and admired the rising blister on my thumb. Why did this space go so horribly wrong and what can I do to fix it?

And I realized I already knew the answers to both of my questions.

It was back in 1999 that I first designed this space. And I'd seen it right from the beginning - a small flagstone patio, perfect for slim volumes of Emily Dickinson, etc. etc.

You've heard all that before. 

But at that time, we were supposed to be working on a different patio project. I'd convinced my husband to jackhammer up our old aggregate rectangle of a backyard patio and help me rebuild it in a bigger footprint, using classic red bricks instead. And to be fair, he held up his part of the bargain. I was the one who went completely off the rails, dreaming up not one additional patio - the one in the far corner of the back yard - but a second add-on here in the front. 

Even though I had this marvelous vision of  a precious flagstone seating area in the middle of this flower bed by the rhododendron hedge, my husband heaved enough of his patented heavy sighs that I knew I best throttle back my enthusiasm and offer up a compromise. 

Forget the flagstone, I told him. I would make do with ground cover.

And for twenty one years, I did. But then last weekend happened and my patience officially wore out. 

So as I hacked and chopped and pruned away at those rhodies, this original vision for a flagstone patio came floating back into my head, like a helium balloon launched decades ago that suddenly floats right back into your hands, and I knew the time was ripe for change.

Do it this week, I dared myself. Don't waste another day. 

And so last week, I built myself my long-awaited flagstone patio. I finished on Friday afternoon.

^ Before starting in on the patio proper, I forced myself to rebuild the little rock wall that holds the slope under the rhodies in place. The old wall, built from smaller, fist-sized rocks stacked three high, was sadly tumbling down and in a precarious state of disrepair. Once I got the new wall built and happily resettled with fresh soil, it was ready for new lodgers. I salvaged much of the ground cover fighting to survive over in the main garden, and relocated it here.

^ ^ Here's one of my favorite pro tips for building a patio: create a flood. Once I cleaned the ground cover and yes, more weeds, from the center of the bed, I cranked the hose and used hydropower to even out the soil and carve out the possible edges of my patio's future shape. It's a great way to visualize the arcs and curves, and for my money, a fabulous excuse to play in the mud.

^ A casual observer strolling up my driveway or along the sidewalk may not notice my new creation...

^^ ...but step up closer and look over the taller mounds of flowers, and there she is, my new flagstone patio, for all the world to see.

^ This side of the yard slopes gently from the uphill rhodies down toward the driveway In order to keep my creation from descending into tilting chaos, I built the patio level with the driveway, and created a step up to the main path which sits about ten inches higher.

^ Which gave me just the excuse I was looking for to buy a big stone to use as a step. I could not be happier with the slightly wonky shape of this big boy and his next-door neighbor stone, and I plan to plant a little spring of ground cover into that little round opening between the two.

^ I tucked more mounds of ground cover and a few wayward foxglove children into the spaces along the edge of the new patio stones. They are happy for their rescue.

^ As per usual, Gracie was my constant companion and second-in-command. Which means she mostly laid on top of my hostas and napped. Good dog.

^^Maybe it's just me, but the flowers around my new patio seem to be thriving in their newfound glory. Apparently they appreciate the upgrade as much as I do.

^ Ahh, so satisfied. Now pardon me as I finally delve into some Dylan Thomas. 

Twenty-one years is a long time to wait for a project to finally bear fruit. But I must say, this little patio was well worth the wait. 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Big Red Balls Redux
At different times of year, the plants here wax and wane. Right now, things are looking a little rough. But my big red balls are killing it. 

Well, all I can say is that it was about darn time. 

My big red balls had been looking mighty shabby. 

And considering their only purpose in life is to look good, this was not an acceptable situation.
The foxglove has just about ended its 2020 run. But imagine the glory of a half-dozen tall lush spires of these delicate purple trumpets, waving over my big red balls like guardian angels. 

My big red balls are actually white acrylic globes, intended to live their lives as ordinary light covers. But years ago, I envisioned them painted in shades of pink and red, living their best life as overgrown inorganic berries, forever brightening a stubborn patch of garden with their whimsical fruit.

And you know, by and large, they have lived up to my hype. 

The neighbors ask me, from time to time, polite perplexity written all over their faces, if there is a particular meaning or purpose to my big red balls. 

They are Art, is my only explanation. Because really, that says it all.

* * * * *

Anyway, the other day I noticed that the art was looking pretty shabby. Five of the eleven balls had mysteriously rolled away - the winter winds will do that - and the paint on the six who'd stayed behind was faded, chipped, and definitely the worse for wear.

As always, love is the best answer. After a quick trip to the Depot to replace the MIA, and a few hours of TLC, mostly scrubbing off the dirt and spraying on some fresh color, my big red balls are back in full display.
Someday soon I will rake up the fallen leaves, lay down a fresh layer of bark, maybe even plant more of the lush ground cover that has grown here in the past. But for now, my big red balls are the main attraction. 

While the overall effect may be a bit scruffy, what with the random scraggly foxglove plants  and the  yellowing rhododendron leaves littering the installation, my big red balls arrest the eyeballs and captivate the imagination of all who pass by. And that is exactly what they are meant to do. 

* * * * *

More stories about my big red balls.

* * * * *

I've experimented with other colors too:

But I always go back to red. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Rock Dreams
River rocks for sale, about the size of my head. I'll take ten to start. 

Today I started a new project in my yard.

Step One: Go to the stone yard and buy 400 pounds of rocks. Bring them home and get them organized at the work site. 


To make that task even more delightful, factor in some heat. Today was the hottest day of the summer in these parts - we actually broke 80 degrees, which I realize hardly compares to the fiery gates of hell that most of the world must endure by July - but for me, dang, it was one hot and sweaty afternoon.

Since this brutal process of hefting hunks of stone around all day did not exactly engage my creative energies (or take my mind off my suffering,) I entertained myself as best I could by thinking of lovely things.

The Vancouver, Washington artist who goes by Banyan Bridges rocks 
the colorful stripe like none other. I truly admire her genius. 

^ For example, these incredible painted stairs. With a few slight tweaks to the color story, I'm seriously considering decking out my own stairs in a similar fashion. I love the whimsy and blast of saturated colors, but also the neat and orderly rectangles that keep the full effect feeling very down to earth and sensible. I think I need these in my life. 

GLADOM tray table white 20 5/8 " 17 1/2 "

^ This is a lot of table for $20 and I can think of about ten places, inside my house and out, that I could put one to use. I'm a little sad that the colors in which IKEA currently offers the table are not my jam, but if I got white, I could easily paint it any color I want, right?

Mid Century Mod Geometry in Pink and Orange Art Print
apricot+birch is my favorite society6 artist. 

^ As much as I love to browse art online, and find quite a bit that is affordably priced, I always end up thinking it would be more fun to make my own version rather than buy someone else's work. I could easily watercolor up some pages of pinks, yellows, and tangerines, then snip out tiny quarter-circles and glue them in a grid onto a blush background. And the more than I think about it, the more I want to do it. 

Image may contain: sky, night, tree, outdoor, nature and water
Neil Weaver Photography on Facebook

^ I saw Comet Neowise with my own little eyeballs last night. I mean, granted, I was standing in the middle of the street in my neighborhood around one a.m., holding my father-in-law's old Bausch & Lomb's to my face, hands cupped to block out the street light, and squinting just so at a blurry column of light that my daughter promised me was the actual comet. My world was rocked, but even more so by the exquisite photos that are popping up all over the internet. Science is beautiful. 

Summer white - attic room - pendant - shiplap - white room
Serena & Lily on Pinterest

^ Ever since I can remember, I've been obsessed with attic bedrooms. Funky ceilings, minimal distractions, and best of all, those white wooden floors. Years ago, I ripped out our second floor carpet and painted the subfloors white, and while the long-term plan has always been to install new hardwoods, I'm seriously rethinking that option. Maybe I want to keep them just the way they are. Is that wrong? And if so, do I care?

* * * * *

Sigh. Such beautiful thoughts danced through my mind as I worked, and helped the hours fly by. And though the preliminary hefting and hauling has been accomplished, my project is far from done. Tomorrow begins the arduous process of preparing the ground and laying the rocks. 

I should have plenty of time for more rock dreams. 

Sunday, July 19, 2020

We Looked Like Giants

I've known my rhododendron bushes since they were tiny babies. 

When we first moved into the house, I found them scattered here and there around the property, filling in corners and providing little pops of green against the expanses of brown mulch. 

Not my idea of a landscaping plan. So during the course of the first winter we lived here, I dug them all up - there were at least eight - and moved them to a border on the east side of the yard. 

Since then, they have survived and thrived. And now, my little baby rhodies have grown to be giants.
Day before yesterday, these innocent-looking chairs were a red hot danger zone. Thank goodness for my trust clippers and dogged determination to create a spider-free space.

So. For the past three days, I have dedicated my life to pruning those gigantic and entirely unwieldly rhodies back. 

The first day, I hacked and chopped back the leaves and smaller branches to figure out which of the larger limbs needed to go.

The second day, I, um, directed my husband's energies with the hand saw to eliminate those trouble makers and create clearance to walk through the front of the hedge.

At this point in the action, I took a celebratory amble around this part of the garden, pleased as punch with my progress. Wanna see?

^ The space under the bushes lately resembled the Amazon jungle, and I mean the non-deforested bits. It was dark and dangerous. Now, daylight and soft breezes flow free.

^ Firecracker red day lilies bloom nearby.

^ This path leads to the mailbox and represents the straight line for the garbage bins (which live on the other side of the fence) on their way to the curb. But the rhodie branches drooped so low that I had to stoop to pass through. I also had to hold my hand up in front of my face to break all the spider webs across the path. This is not right, people. Life is too short for spider webs in the face.

^ Ah, the sun beams now stream down to the ground. Heavenly.

^ Even the hydrangea bushes decided to clap their hands and shout for joy by bursting out in bloom.

I must say, if I could burst out in bloom, I would. I'm so happy with the fruits of my two-day labors.
^ This is less than half of the total pile. All told, the loosely piled branches were approximately the size of our car. Mhmm. That was some serious pruning. 

And today, the third day, I dealt with the dirty work, the hangover, if you will, of any great gardening project: the giant heap of cuttings. 

Feeding this pile into our weekly curb-side yard waste bin would have taken the rest of the summer so I decided to look for alternative disposal options.

I suggested only half-jokingly to my husband that after he went to bed, I'd take matters into my own hands with the can of lawn mower gasoline and a match. 

Okay. One quarter-joking. 

But it turns out that the local solid waste facility accepts yard waste so we spent Day Three bundling most of that God-forsaken pile into the back of our trusty CR-V. 

Pick-up? Who needs a pick-up? 

But never fear. This trip to what we affectionately refer to as The Dump is actually a Yard Waster Collection Site which means that all of our cast-offs will be reborn as compost, and if there's any justice in this world, will someday be tucked in loving care around some unsuspecting gardener's baby rhododendron bushes. 

I hope they will grow to be giants.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Waiting Together
Though he is not in a literal hole, and I have no desire to fetch sticks, 
this is a story about my friend, Kellen, and me.

Once upon a time there was a little boy. Quite an ordinary boy - neither too nice nor too naughty - and he deserved to be happy in all the most ordinary ways.

But there were monsters in his life. 

Oh yes, there were. Real monsters who came to him, day after day,  

who scared him, 
who hurt him, 
who made him feel terribly afraid and ashamed.

And so this little boy decided, quite understandably, that he needed to get away from these monsters. To make himself safe. 

So he decided to look for a hiding place. He ran and he ran until he came to a deep, dark hole in the ground. He didn't even think about how deep and how dark the hole was; his only thought was that it looked like a safe place to hide from monsters. 

So the little boy jumped into the hole. 

And he was right. His hole was so deep and so dark that even when the monsters came looking for him and stood round the top of his hole, peering down at him so far below, they knew they couldn't reach him down there. But they lingered and lurked, those monsters did, not daring to go into that deep and dark hole themselves, but waiting and watching to see what the little boy would do next. 

Far below the monsters, the little boy huddled in the hole. And he understood in his bones that as long as he stayed put in this hole, the monsters could never reach him again. Which was a great and beautiful relief. 

Days and nights went by. Neither the sun nor the moon ever shone their light all the way down to the boy in the hole. Soft summer breezes never reached him there; neither did the snappy autumn winds, winter gales, nor the gentle zephyrs of spring. The little boy was terribly alone in the deep, dark, unending gloom.

With an aching heart, the boy began to understand that he was facing a terrible problem. Should he try to get out of the hole, knowing that the monsters still waited for him and would certainly continue their torment if he were to climb out? Or should he stay put, safe from the monsters but denied every single gift of a sweet and ordinary life?

The hole presented misery but the monsters, he decided, were much worse. 

So the little boy stayed in the hole. 

Seasons changed. Years passed by. Time became a blur, but eventually, the little boy grew to be a big boy, and then a man. 

The monsters remained terrifyingly unchanged. 

And so he stayed in the hole. 

* * * * *

One day, an ordinary dog came walking through this place. She saw the monsters standing in a circle, peering down into that hole in the ground, and as ordinary dogs do, she got a bad feeling about this. So she growled and barked, put her hackles way up, and chased those monsters away. 

Then she walked back and sat at the side of the hole, looked down at the now-man who sat huddled at the bottom, and wagged her tail. She barked, happily, confidently, sending the message that all was now well, and it was safe to come out. 

Deep in the hole, the man looked up at the dog's bright shining eyes and the brilliant blue circle of sky about her head, and he shivered with fear. 

No, I can't come up. There are monsters up there.

I have chased them all away.

They'll come back.

Then we can chase them away together.

No, no. It's too late for me to live up there. I only know life in a hole.

I think you should come up, We could have a good life together. You could throw sticks and I could chase after them and bring them back to you. We could walk in these woods, and I could snuffle through the leaves as you put your hands in your pockets and hum a little tune. We could eat our dinner and watch the stars come out and enjoy an ordinary life together. I think we could both be happy up here.

No. No. It's too late for me. 

And so the dog, seeing that there was nothing more she could do to convince the man, still hoped for the best, She laid down at the side of the hole, and decided to wait for him to climb out. 

She's waiting for him still. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The Perks Of Being Called A Karen

"Like a cool summer rain, humor may suddenly cleanse and cool
 the earth, the air, and you." -Langston Hughes

"Everything is funny, as long as it's happening to somebody else." -Will Rogers
This small scene near my kitchen sink also cleanses and cools me like a summer rain. 

I heard them before I saw them.

Gracie and I were heading out from the back side of the high school, coming around a corner into one of the main gathering areas of the campus. As usual, she pranced along far ahead of me, taking full advantage of her fifty-foot leash as I strolled leisurely behind her. 

Sure enough, there on the broad sidewalk and loading zone sprawled a group of maybe a dozen students - unmasked and close together - standing in an awkward circle. Clearly uncomfortable in the social magnitude of the moment, the girls bunched together on one side of the circle, giggly and nervous, while boys strutted their emerging cleverness by talking over the top of one another. 

I'd bet my bottom dollar that they were incoming freshmen. 

I slid my face mask into place and motioned my dog to join me on the far side of the drive as we neatly skirted around the throng. 

As I expected, our sudden appearance sent off an entirely predictable thread of adolescent jokesterish commentary among the male banterers:

"Whoa, that leash is so long!"
"I thought that dog was just walking along by itself."
"But it's a dog with a really long leash." 

Behind my mask, I smiled to myself. My dog garners a lot of attention, even from preening teenagers. 

Then I heard one last quip delivered with a full measure of sass and defiance:

"And a Karen with a missing mouth." 

Wait. WHAT. Did some bratty little punk just call me a Karen?!
And in the same sentence, mock me for wearing a mask?

Uhh. OK Z-er.

Lol I must admit my temper tried to get the best of me. Behind my mask, I instantly imagined myself walking over and lecturing this kid on just how much of a Karen I am NOT, and delivering a crushing blow to his fledgling ego that this sort of indiscriminate judgment and hate is exactly what Americans everywhere are rising up to protest and change. Bad enough that we have a president who talks trash and makes fun of decent people - we don't need and won't accept these qualities in punky little teenage boys.

I wanted to turn to the girls and say, "Do not date this boy, any of you. He's a jerk."

And I fantasized about pulling Dr. Fauci out of my back pocket and setting him to deliver a firm but fair lecture to these kids about the vital importance of keeping distant and, yes, WEARING A MASK in order to get our raging epidemic under control. 

But of course, I did none of those things. I simply walked on, giving my fight or flight reflexes a hot minute to cool down. Behind my mask, I puzzled over that last offensive comment, my flash of white hot anger, and wondered what had actually happened. 

The kid was struggling to live up to a challenging social situation.
He was attempting to use humor to shore up his status in the group.
As I walked by, he tried to use the new stimuli to his advantage.
He relied on two trending tropes - white women over age 40 are Karens and masks are for squares - to try to create humor.

And after Googling around a bit and watching this TED talk called What Makes Things Funny? I learned that effective humor relies on a combination of benign violation, and that this kid's handle on creating that delicate balance needs some work. 

Growing up takes time. 

Ahh. I feel much better now. 

And interestingly, I'm quite thankful for this momentary irritation. Though this youngster was willing to put me down for a laugh from his friends, he actually brought to me a valuable and much-needed reminder. Especially during this time when our emotions are stretched so thin, genuine humor - like a cleansing, cooling rain - is a gift that we all need. 

Monday, July 13, 2020

How To Plant A Garden

"God Almighty first planted a garden. And indeed, it is the purest of human pleasures." 
-Francis Bacon
Gracie knows that traipsing through the flowers is completely forbidden but she's bewitched by the fascinating aromas of the fresh compost laid in this newly planted bed, and I can't blame a girl for sniffing. 

The past week had found me up to my muddy knees in hard-core gardening projects.

Which means I've been whiling away the hours by:

digging out big nasty roots and invasive chunks of weeds, 
pruning away major branches of rhododendron bushes and rose canes, 
stacking heaps of refuse around my driveway as my compost recycling bin overflows, 
weeding dozens of dandelions and those evil Columbine seedlings, 
drinking endless cans of Pamplemousse LaCroix, my refreshing drink of choice
and asking my husband every ten minutes, "Do you see where I set down my trimmers?'

In between staunching the blood flow from my various rose thorn injuries and casting admiring glances at my ever-patient dog mapping under the nearest hydrangea, I've been thinking about the art of gardening.

The art of perennial gardening, I should say. For perennials - the flowers that bloom for only a few weeks each year but come back season after season, like the most reliable kind of friend - are my heart's desire and my gardening jam. 

Now it's only fair to point out that I've been at this game for decades, but I've come a long way as a gardener. Sure, I started out by reading all the gardening books I could get my hands on (no internet back in those days) and taking in advice from anyone who might offer it to me, including even the nineteen-year-old landscaping entrepreneurs who dug great wholes in which to plant bushes in my brand spanking new yard but were otherwise blissfully unaware of the nuances of their profession.

And I spent an inordinate amount of time studying other people's gardens. Even before I moved into my own house and began my life as a gardener, I was obsessed with analyzing every yard I passed to see what I could learn from the gardener in residence. To this day, I 'm still inspired by a country garden with white daisies, bright yellow day lilies, and a pink climbing rose next to a sweet blue cottage down the street from my home in Evanston, Illinois. 

But as I looked around my chock-full-o-blooms yard this past weekend, feeling a deep sense of satisfaction and delight in my happy, thriving gardens, I realized that my success is due to just a few simple steps. Here I present my three best tips for growing the gardens that have made all my dreams come true.
Even though all of my garden beds have been double dug many times over the years, whenever I'm replanting an area, to this day I still give the soil a good working over and enrich it with a wheelbarrow load of homemade compost. That feeling I get when my shovel slices smoothly and effortlessly through the deep rich soil is my sweet reward for all that back-breaking work. 

Dig Deep

This fact is boring and annoying but one hundred percent true: before I made even one single trip to the plant store to buy all the plants I was dreaming of, I forced myself to do the right thing. I prepared the soil. 

And that was hard, wicked work. 

I knew it would be a bear, so I started this process going one bed at a time, enlarging the beds and eventually connecting them as the years flew by. Painstakingly, with a fair share of sweat and moderate to severe cuss words, I did what's called double digging.

Which means that I dug down as far as the depth of my shovel blade. I heaped that dirt out of the way, and then I dug down again, as deep as my shovel blade. 

Oh that sounds so simple, doesn't it? But it's wretched, back-breaking work. And I'll admit there where afternoons when I couldn't bear any longer to torture myself in this way, and desperately sought someone to work a spell while I took a break.

Like a husband. Or indentured servant. Same difference, right?

Just kidding. I do most of my own digging. It's a point of honor for me. 

Anyway, once I got all that soil out into the sunshine, I noticed that it did not look a darn thing like the rich, crumbly, dark brown stuff I find inside the bag of garden soil purchased from my local big box home store. 

Here in the Pacific Northwest, where real estate developers sell off all the lovely topsoil from the forest floors that become our neighborhoods, we are left with hard-packed clay. My mom's natural soil was literally sand, dropped in her Michigan back yard by those pesky glaciers. My father-in-law's natural Ohioan soil was fine and dusty, and blew away in a strong wind. 

The point here is that no one's natural soil is all that great. It needs to be amended. 

Which is to say that I needed to mix some good stuff into my yard's natural soil in order to make a delicious brew for my future plants. Peat moss, organic compost, sand, steer or chicken manure -I learned that these delightful supplements would improve the quality of my soil, and make my plants sing for joy. 

In those pre-Google days, I read around to figure out exactly what to add - spoilers: it's all good so you can't really go wrong - then dragged a half-dozen heavy and unpleasantly grubby plastic bags of said additives from the store to the back of my car to the side of my garden hole, then dumped everything into the hole and mixed it together. 

In the end, I found myself the proud owner of a good eighteen inches of soft, humus-y rich soil and that was a major accomplishment. In fact, this is the step that separates the casual weekend  garden from the magical plant wizard that I was hoping to become, and to this day, I'm well chuffed with my happy double dug gardens.
I wanted something tall and blue at the back of this bed, and to be honest, my first choice was delphinium. But I know, through many years of experience and frustration, that the slugs love delphinium almost as much as I do, and despite my best efforts to keep the slimy beasts at bay, they usually end up gnawing my precious children to the ground. So in my never-ending pursuit to find a tall, billowy spire of soft blue petals, I'm trying some phlox, which thrives in many spots around my yard. 

Plant what grows

My first few trips to the nursery were a rude awakening for me. As a novice gardener, I'd spend hours poring over books and magazines full of plant suggestions, make up long lists of the plants I wanted, and then skip off to the plant store to gather them up and bring them home.

Well, I quickly that plant shopping doesn't work like that.

First of all, I realized that I could only buy what the nursery has to sell. So while my hours spent drooling over photos of other people's gardens helped me focus in on the looks I liked, once in the store, I had to translate those types of plants into the options that were actually available. 

In the beginning of my journey, this was a struggle. 

These days my brain is fairly well stuffed with plant knowledge and I can deftly translate a photo to reality. But that skill took some time to develop.

Rude awakening number two: not every plant fell in love with me. Even after making allowances for growing zones and sunlight requirements, some species just didn't dig living in my garden. 

However, the really great flip side of that discovery was that other types of plants adored what I have to offer. And they became my tried and trues. Over the years, I've learned which plants I can depend on to thrive, and I lean into them by planting them in multiple places around my yard.

Trial and error were my best teachers. I bought what I liked, what made sense for my space, and I watched to see how the plants would respond. Once I got more beds dug, I experimented with moving unhappy fellows around to different spots in the yard and that often helped. My gardening philosophy is positive vibes only, and I've found plenty of plants that delight in living with me.
After several years of upheaval, I've finally filled in the blank spots along this stretch of my back yard border, and topped it all off with a thick layer of bark mulch, which is a lot like spreading creamy icing on a cake or peanut butter on a slice of warm toast, only a whole lot more delicious. 

Mulch Madly

For the first thirty years of my gardening life, I held a strong anti-bark mulch position. Oh, I was a huge fan of mulching with compost - usually my own homegrown version but I was down with store-bought too. Overdressing my plants with compost - which is a fancy way of saying "pile it up all around the base of the plant" drenched the little darlings with nutrients and gave them an extra layer of protection from the hot sun (well, warm anyway- this is Seattle) and its drying effect. 

And you know, that was fine. 

But about five years ago, something switched in my brain and I decided to give bark mulch a try. I grabbed a few bags from Home Depot and spread it about four inches deep over my beds, packing it close to the plant bases and then gently smoothing the lower leaves over the top. 

The results have been life changing. No exaggeration.

My plants are significantly more lush and luxurious, even with less frequent waterings. 

My garden beds are (mostly) free from invasive weeds, and the ones that do pop up are super easy to pull.

Plus the bark looks neat and clean, and gives my gardens a more polished, pulled together look. 

Life changing, I tell you.

And I tell my husband this pretty much every day he comes out to the yard to see what I'm doing and help me find my misplaced trimmers.His support is crucial to my mulching methodology and here's why. Mulch breaks down fairly quickly over time, so I'm constantly renewing and refreshing my beds. From March to October, every time he makes a Home Depot run - which is at least once a week - he brings me another four or six bags of bark. When he finds our favorite brand on sale, he may scoop up ten or twenty. 

I have definitely overcome my anti-bark biases. I now consider it my secret weapon.

* * * * *
A gardener must have patience, but a gardener's dog even more. 

To be sure, gardening is one part science, one part art, and six billion parts hard work. But with my three killer strategies of digging deep, finding the plants that grow best for me, and mulching madly, all my hard work is paying off. My gardens fill my heart with pure pleasure. 

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Lavender Love

When I look at this photo, the first words that jump into my head are, Baby Moses in a basket floating through the bull rushes. 

Can you see it? 

I mean, the poor kid has a purple head and a green body, but that's not a deal-breaker for me.

Next, my brain leapfrogs to the one and only time in my childhood life that I went to Sunday School.

With my grandmother.

She was a highly qualified Sunday School teacher, having graduated with a degree in children's ministry (the only option for a woman in those days) from Cincinnati Bible College and Seminary back in the mid-1920s. Grandmother raised her own daughters in the church, but when it came to bringing her grandchildren - or at least my brothers and me - to the faith, she followed a strictly hands-off policy. Just once was I invited to join her, when I was maybe five or six years old, and I leaped at the chance. 

That morning impressed me deeply. We learned the story of - you guessed it - Baby Moses in a basket floating through the bull rushes which both fascinated me and filled me with heartbreaking horror. What kind of mother would abandon her baby by shoving him into a river?

Well, a desperate one, for sure. I understand the story better now, but I still find myself horrified at the thought of what this dangerous world sometimes does to us. 

On that morning, all I knew for sure is that the story was imprinting itself on my psyche as I sat and quietly punched out my cardboard figures, then set up my own scene of the baby's miraculous recovery. 

And though I never went back to my grandmother's Sunday School classroom, or anyone else's for that matter, much to my surprise, I later became a Sunday School teacher myself, and for many years, taught fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking stories to another generation of children. 

I'm glad my grandmother was still alive to know about that. 

But I digress.

This story is actually about the lavender plants growing in the south gardens of my front yard. After suffering a torn rotator cuff and ignoring this happy corner for, oh, you know, ten months, I finally got to it last weekend and made some much-needed structural changes. Over the years, the lavender plants in this space have grown leggy and wooden, which signals big trouble for such a plant. Though they were giving the current bloom all they'd got, they were undeniably overgrown and out of sorts.I decided to give them a hard pruning, but first I called to my fourth-born.

I need to cut these suckers back and today's the day. Would you be willing to harvest all the flowers?

And before I could say, Bob's your uncle, she'd grabbed her trusty bonsai scissors and a basket, and began to gather the lavender in.

Watching her work, my thoughts drifted first to the aforementioned Baby Moses in a basket floating through the bull rushes image, and then to my grandmother's sachets.

Now, my mother liked to garden too, but my exuberant passion for gardening is a gift from Grandmother. 

She too cut huge beds into her lawns and heaped them with dazzling displays of blooms, just as I do. 

She too loved lavender and planted wide swaths of it, just as I do. 

And she too harvested the buds of lavender flowers, just before they opened into full bloom. She tied them into careful bundles, and dried them in a dark, cool corner of her mysterious and slightly spooky basement. When they were ready, she sewed tiny pillow cases of muslin, and stuffed them full of the tiny purple gems, and showed me how she kept them in her dresser drawers to infuse her clothing with the sweet scents.

And better yet, she gave me some of the dried lavender and a few scraps of cloth so I could make my own dresser drawers smell sweet.

Just as I still like to do. And my daughters also do too.

As I watched my daughter sort and stack and prepare our lavender for drying, all these memories about Moses and sachets and warm stems of lavender lying in the sun tumbled merrily around in my head and soon connected together to become one cohesive and unending story about family and faith and flowers. 

About love. 

And now I'm happy to share my story with you.