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Month: February 2004

Time in the Garden

Time in the Garden

There’s a terrific piece in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle by Hazel White about how gardens keep us connected to “body time” — that is, how gardening keeps us in tune with earth time, the rhythms of the earth and our bodies, as opposed to “mechanical time” — the kind of clock-driven time that all too often has us running to accomplish things according to some external measure. We fall into “mechanical time” when we allow ourselves to be driven by “shoulds” — when we allow ourselves to be driven by plans we’ve already made and wind up all thrumming nerve endings as we rush to “get everything done”.

Garden time, body time, earth time happens when, as Hazel White did, we walk out the door on our way to someplace and notice, for example, that it’s been cool and rainy and the oxalis is ready to be thinned. And so we stop and thin the oxalis, not with an exasperated sigh, as though the oxalis is bothering us by being ready to be thinned, but rather, with something akin to a sigh of relief. Ah. It’s time to thin the oxalis — oh, and look, that vine that was so brittle and hard and difficult last fall is now all soft and gushy and ready for the compost. We stop and thin the oxalis, and open ourselves to seeing what else is ready in the garden, open ourselves to letting the garden’s time show us what is happening today, instead of imposing our own timetables on the garden.

If there’s anything I learned from having a garden for a year before Patrick died, was that things happen in their own time. I’ve spent the winter resisting doing anything that feels like it’s something I “should” be doing — which since I’ve always been a reasonably driven person, has been interesting. Instinctively, I just knew I needed to hole up this winter and allow my grief to work itself through my system, allow myself to go fallow like those raised beds out there. And every time I resisted this instinct, for instance by rousing myself to go skiing, I wound up feeling really disconnected and jittery. Some of my friends have worried, not unreasonably considering the history of depression in my family, but I’ve been around enough depressives to know what that looks like — this hasn’t been depression, it’s grief, and I was determined this time around to do grief on my own timetable.

When our brother Michael died, there was a lot of pressure on Patrick and I to be “okay”, to be “fine”, to assure the grownups around us that despite having lost our brother and despite our parents concurrent divorce, we were okay, we were fine, we weren’t adversely affected by the cataclysmic deconstruction of our family. We weren’t fine, of course, but we were good kids, and we wanted to please, so to the extent to which we were capable, we sort of tried to be okay. I grew up in the town depicted in Ordinary People, a town where the highest social values were placed on projecting a seamless appearance of not just normality, but success and wealth and status. So we learned early to hide how things were, to put together an “outfit”, to have lovely manners. We passed, in other words, as being significantly less broken than we were.

When Patrick died, I was determined I was going to do this my way, and to do it as honestly and transparently as I could. And if that meant giving myself as much time on the couch this winter as I needed to get through it, well, then that’s what it took. Coming home from Chicago after the funeral, there were garden tasks to be done — dead sunflowers and annuals to be pulled, zucchini vines and spent greens to be cleared from the raised beds, leaves to be raked, roses to be pruned and mulched against winter. When I came home from travelling at Christmas, my house was blanketed in snow and, feeling like those bulbs out there underground, I hunkered down, turned inward, gave myself permission to sit on the couch for weeks and weep. And now, the earth is still turning, the days are getting lighter, and despite being greeted this morning with a snowstorm, I can feel spring coming. Can feel my own energy and hope and vitality returning. I’m interested in things again.

Little did I know when I planted this garden that it would teach me how to survive the worst blow I could have imagined, that it’d give me the faith to get through losing Patrick, who was my rock, my ballast, my dearest friend and only true family. Little did I know that planting roses and vegetables and composting would give me both an activity and a metaphor engaging enough to see me through this terrible loss. Little did I know that my faith in the Church would fail, but that the garden (and Johnny Cash and a lot of African-American spiritual music) would provide a source of faith and hope and joy in the deepest, coldest, darkest winter. But it did. It does. To the extent that in the middle of what looks to be an all-day snowstorm, I can say without pretense that I’m looking forward to the dumptruck load of compost I ordered, looking forward to adding to my garden, planting the roses I ordered from back east, planting the vegetables, starting seeds in my basement. I’m off the couch, and planning what to cook for tomorrow night’s Oscar party I’m having with my dear and wonderful friends who have seen me through this winter. Cooking! I’m cooking again, having people over, letting the air and light and life back into my house.

A Scare and Two Wet Dogs

A Scare and Two Wet Dogs

The boys were downstairs last night, goofing off in the basement guest room (which they’ve sort of colonized) when I heard Owen yelp, and then he came running upstairs on three legs, holding his left hind leg hitched up behind him. He jumped on the couch, and I felt all along his hip and knee and hock, looked at his pads, and nothing seemed to be overtly wrong so instead of panicking and calling the Vet’s 24-hour emergency number, I waited until morning.

This morning, he was still gimping around on three legs, so we didn’t go to the dog park, and when the vet said they couldn’t get us in until 2:00, I ran down to Bozeman to do a couple of errands. Driving back to town, I had an extended moment of terror — what if something was really wrong? What if I had to put my beloved puppy down? I could kind of deal with Patrick, but I don’t think I could deal with anything happening to Owen or Raymond … they’re dogs. They’ve been my rocks.

So, this afternoon, I took Owie to the vet who checked him out and thought maybe it was his ACL. He wanted to keep him, take some x-rays, sedate him a little to check out his joint mobility. His ACL? I go home imagining rehabbing my dog — and even more frightening, I realize I am the kind of person who would spend anything to fix my beloved dog. Of course, he’s only a year and a half old, and his chances of recovery would be really good, but still. I spent the afternoon trying not to panic. I don’t like surgery — for me, for dogs, for anyone I love.

So the vet finally calls. The x-rays look good — it doesnt’ look like he’s blown a ligament, there’s a small bone chip in his hock joint. Patrick had issues with bone chips in his ankle — he fell in a hole about three years ago, sprained the hell out of his ankle and being a guy who hated doctors, decided that simply tying his Ariat boot tight around the ankle, and buying a cane were appropriate treatment protocols. A year or so later, he was in Texas for a NASCAR race, and the track doc noticed him limping (the weather had gone cold and damp on them) and asked what the deal was — when Patrick told him, he said “here, look we’ve got an x-ray machine, let’s take a look.” Patrick hadn’t broken it, as he’d feared, but he had torn a lot of bone chips off with the ligaments — it was a mess in there. Owen only has one little bone chip floating around in his ankle, so we’re not going to do anything about it right now. The vet thinks that rest and anti-inflammatories will clear it up. If the weather stays nice, maybe some swimming in the river will help. That was the good news.

The bad news is that both dogs have LICE!

LICE! Who even knew that dogs got lice? Ticks, yes. Fleas, yes. Lice? The vet assures me they won’t move from dogs to people, which is good, but LICE? Ick. Owen got his first de-lousing bath at the vet — poor guy, he was all groggy from the drugs, and then they gave him a bath, and he came home just miserable. But the worst was yet to come — Raymond needed a bath in the special lice-killing soap as well. I only have a cast-iron tub, and there’s no hand-held shower thingy. Raymond is a dear, but very high-strung, so I got the vet to give me some doggy-tranquilizers. I gave Ray two of them, like the vet suggested (note to self, two is too many — poor guy was staggering), and when they kicked in, I picked him up and put him in the tub. I’d had to put a wet towel on the bottom of the tub so he wouldn’t slip — poor stoned guy — and then not just soap him up with the lice shampoo, but let it sit on him for TEN minutes.

So, now my house is redolent with the smell of sleepy wet dogs — wet dogs who luckily don’t need surgery, but who do need de-lousing once a week for the next few weeks. I am so grateful there’s nothing seriously wrong, but I’m trying very hard not to succumb to the psychosomatic itching …



Sunday I built the Patrick Shrine — or, as I alternatively call it — the Wall of Dead Brothers. Right after Patrick died I ordered a set of those crown moulding shelves from Pottery Barn but I haven’t had the energy to figure out how to put them up. My walls are very old, very fragile, very bumpy but wonderful real plaster and so, putting up these moulding shelves was going to involve a lot of measuring, finding studs, and careful use of the drill. Until Sunday, I just didn’t have the energy. It all seemed too complicated. And frankly, it was the kind of thing Patrick would have done for me — I just couldn’t bring myself to do it alone.

But Sunday, after walking the dogs I decided I had to drive to Bozeman to buy a New York Times, since mine hadn’t come in the mail last week. On the way there I got thinking about the shelves, about how I could do this … so after buying a paper, I went to Home Depot in search of a good stud finder. I have a couple of not-good stud finders but my walls here are so funky that I decided to splurge on a decent one. It was between the stud finder that made noise and had a built-in tape measure, or the stud finder that didn’t make noise but had a built-in marking pencil. I took the noise one.

I’m fighting off another head cold, so I got home and thought feh, not today and sat down to read the paper. But then, somehow in the middle of the afternoon, I had a surge of creative energy. Maybe it’s the sunshine. The sun has been shining all week and I finally feel like I’m coming out of the tunnel that has been this winter — I no longer feel like I’m walking around in someone else’s skin. My life without Patrick is starting to feel real, and possible, and not always so terrible — there’s sunshine, and my garden will be blooming soon, and I have nice friends who love me, and although I’ll never get over losing him, I’m not feeling like my life has been blasted apart anymore. So I looked at these little ledges, and the wall, and the pile of photos and tschotchkes that had been collecting in the basket tray underneath the portrait of our paternal grandmother that my Uncle Jack left me when he died of AIDS several years ago. I was tired of that basket. It was messy. It was time to break it up.

So I pulled out the directions for the shelves, and managed to free the stud finder from the impossible plastic packaging. I eyeballed where I wanted the shelves to go, held one up against the wall with the level, and drew a pencil line. Then I measured, and adjusted so the three shelves would be equidistant. Then I had to find studs, and re-adjust. Finally I found two studs that were sixteen inches apart and drilled into the wall. The drill was Patrick’s — a really nice cordless drill that I’d borrowed a lot last spring to build fences for the garden. It’s one of those objects that while I certainly never would have wanted to have acquired it the way I did, I’m still awfully glad to have it. Cordless drills are one of those conveniences like gas stations with card swipers at the pump, once you’ve used one you can’t go back. So I managed to drill level holes at the right distance, and without causing big hunks of plaster to fall off my wall, and when I hooked the moulding shelves on them, miracle of miracles, they were level, and they held.

So then I started hanging photos. There’s the thirty-year old photo of Patrick and our youngest brother Michael, who died at two years old from cancer in 1972, on the beach at the resort we went to in northern Wisconsin. I remember picking that photo up a couple of years ago in California and thinking what a shame it was that when Michael died Patrick lost the opportunity to be a big brother. In the photo, Michael who was about 18 months old, is looking up at Patrick who is wearing long cutoff jean shorts, no shirt and a big floppy felt hat that belonged to one of the big boys. Patrick’s a skinny five-year old hitching up his pants and talking to someone and Michael’s looking up at him with that I-wanna-go-with-him little-kid look. It made me so sad, that day in our dining room, thinking about what a rock Patrick’s love for me had always been, how much of who I am is because I was Patrick’s Big Sister, and how sad it made me for Patrick that he’d lost the opportunity to be the Big Brother. So now they’re hanging there together on my wall — the two of them. Joseph-the-psychic tells me they’ve found one another on the other side, and said, somewhat inexplicably that they’re playing baseball. Patrick wasn’t a baseball guy in life, but who knows? Maybe in the afterlife he’s taken up a new hobby.

There are other pictures — the one of Patrick and I in a golf cart the summer after I graduated from college when I ran that awful horse show. We were both exhausted, and although it’s not a photo I particularly like of myself (which since I’m in the foreground is sort of a problem), it hung on Patrick’s office wall all those years. He liked it, and it’s of the two of us together, so on the wall it goes.

There’s the duck print I bought him from my first job ever, when I worked in a store selling duck and hunting prints. There are a couple of old duck decoys that were always in Patrick’s rooms growing up, and the Navajo duck I bought him in Tucson several years ago that has a sort of blinky expression on its face that reminded Deb and I of Patrick. Pato his Mexican guys called him. “Duck”.

There’s the “Good King Wenceslas” photo of Patrick at Christmas dinner in 1998, the year Deb came to stay with us after her marriage had broken up. She gave him warm wooly socks and he gave her a Mr. Potato Head — she said at his funeral that it was the perfect gift. In the photo Patrick is at the end of the Christmas table, wearing the paper crown from his Christmas cracker, his arms wide open, decalaiming on something to Dillon, who was about five at the time.

Then there’s the collage of pictures that Paige, Matt’s wife took of the two of us when Patrick had just picked Raymond up from the breeder. Patrick’s couching down, puppy Ray between his knees, and there’s a couple of them I like of myself, which is rare. What I like about those picutres is that they show our life together, we’ve got a new dog, I’m talking, then laughing, Patrick’s leaning down to kiss the puppy. We were happy. Things were going well. We were okay.

And then I hung his strings of credentials from a hook — all those Nascar and drag racing photo IDs — At the wake I was saying to Patrick’s big fire guys, the ones who drove two days from California for the funeral, that I didn’t know what to do with the credentials. John Newcomber told me to hang them on the Christmas tree — which I think is a great idea. “You can’t throw them out,” he said to me. “That’s a NASCAR hard card! Not just anyone gets one of those.” So until next Christmas, when I maybe have a tree again, there they are, hanging on my wall.

The topmost shelf on the wall is other family members — there’s the picture Dad sent us when he left for Europe, an old Christmas photo of Mom and Patrick and I when we lived in Madison, the portrait of us cousins as little kids (plus Randy Baker, who for years was the mystery-kid in the shot. Now he leases our fields). There’s a photo of my mother, my two aunts and my uncle as little kids lined up on the couch that I love. They’re all giggling and Molly has lost it entirely — she’s about three and has her head thrown back and a finger in her mouth.

There it is — the wall of family. My brothers are dead, my father is in Europe, my mother has taken refuge in alcohol and we can’t talk to one another, but they are my people nonetheless. There they are, for everyone to see. And I like it. The portrait Bill took for Patrick’s business, the one we used for the Mass card and the thank you card had become so entwined in my mind with Patrick’s death that I was thinking of it as his death portrait. Having it up on the wall with all those other photos of happier times makes me feel watched over in the best kind of way. It reminds me of our life together, and not just that he’s gone. And besides. I’ve always loved collage. That the walls of my living room are becoming a big collage space feels right to me.

Valentine, oh Valentine …

Valentine, oh Valentine …

I’m still not the cheeriest bunny on the block these days, but I have to say I’ve been glued to the TV and San Francisco Chronicle website all weekend watching with tearful glee as the city by the bay stands up for Love. Big L Love. As they turned their gorgeous City Hall, truly one of the most elegant buildings around into a great big old wedding chapel and not just married any and all gay people who showed up, but married them with pride and joy and tearful wonder. Mark Morford’s column sums it up this morning, sums up all the reasons that as a straight progressive person one can really be proud. Go read it right now.

I’ve been thinking of my college friend Michael, raised in a reasonably liberal Catholic household on Chicago’s North Shore (meaning his parents weren’t raving conservatives, but weren’t liberal by West Coast standards). Michael who fought his sexual orientation all through college; Michael who used Susan as a beard so his parents wouldnt’ think he was a loser who didn’t have a girlfriend; Michael who went to Paris the summer before our senior year and came to terms with being gay, but unfortunately that was 1984 and Michael figured out his sexuality by cruising, and by cruising before anyone really knew about AIDS. Michael who was afraid to be gay, and afraid to come out, partially because he wanted a family and kids, and in those days it was still pretty unthinkable that you could be gay and have a home, a partner, kids, a dog … the whole suburban normal enchilada. Michael who never got a chance to be a boring suburban gay dad because he got sick and then he died just before the protease inhibitors came out. So it fills me with great joy to know that all over America, kids who think they might be gay are looking toward San Francisco with hope in their hearts, with hope that if that’s what they want, they too can be boring married people (or since it is San Francisco, they can be flamboyant queers as well). Whatever. Life’s too short to outlaw love between consenting adults. So hats off to Gavin Newsom for having the balls to stand up and call discrimination discrimination and hats off to all those City Hall employees who’ve worked around the clock to make this possible. Here’s to another week of weddings at City Hall!

Wireless Blogging on the Front Porch

Wireless Blogging on the Front Porch

My Apple AirPort base station came today, and in about an hour, I had the card installed, the base station plugged in and configured (including setting up my printer on the base station so I can print from anywhere) and now I’m free to roam the hacienda! And it’s warm enough (42.5 degrees reads my fancy new wireless thermometer) that I’m sitting out on my front porch, enjoying the first late afternoon porch cocktail of the new year. A little buffalo salami, a little cheese, a little glass of lovely Pouilly-Fuisse, the dogs, a cat across the street, some sunshine, and a wireless connection.

And it makes me happy knowing that for Valentine’s Day, Mayor Gavin Newsom has unlocked the doors of the fabulously re-done San Francisco City Hall (love that gold leaf!) and they’re marrying gay people! I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would thing that these two ladies are a threat to the family. It’s not like marriage is all that successful for heteros — what’s the divorce rate these days? Still hovering somewhere around 50%? And if gay people can do for marriage what they’ve done for urban renewal around the country, I say, bring it on! Marry ’em all! You go San Francisco … I’m proud today once to have been a denzien of that nabe …

Kitty Revival

Kitty Revival

I always swore I wouldn’t be one of those fancy-pet-food people, but over Christmas Hope and Matt turned me on to this stuff called the Missing Link. It’s a supplement for dogs and for cats that’s full of omega-3 oils and freeze-dried liver and things. Because everyone was having issues with their coats, I switched all the animals from Science Diet to California Naturals, which Hope and Matt also raved about. Then I bought some Missing Link as well — and I discovered that they also have a formula for cats.The dogs have hair issues sometimes — Raymond is nervous by temperament, and the hair on his neck tends to disappear during times of stress. Owen’s hair got sort of burned-looking at the end of the summer; I thought it was just sunburn, but the vet suggested Science Diet’s sensitive skin formula (just writing that makes me feel like the biggest yuppie on earth). But it helped, so I figured if that worked, and if Hope and Matt’s vet is such a fan of both the California Naturals and the Missing Link stuff, I might as well give it a try. It’s been a hit. The dogs like it, and their coats have gotten very fluffy (which considering how much time we’re all spending in a pile these days, is a good thing). But the real miracle pet has been my cat, Patsy.

Patsy is fourteen, and, well, ornery. She’s always had coat issues — she sheds more than the two dogs put together, and the fur on her hindquarters in particular, tends to come out in clumps. I always thought this was just the way she was, but the prospect of sprinkling a little powder on her food and not having so much hair all over my house, well, that was appealing. It’s been about six weeks and not only is her coat all, well, fabulous, but she’s playing again. I hadn’t noticed that she’d stopped playing, that she’d stopped bugging me and jumping on things, knocking stuff over, etc. I hadn’t realized how sedentary she’d become, how she was slowing down until this afternoon when she jumped into a shelf I’d emptied and started fooling around with an old paper clip. She was perkier than she’s looked in ages. I even made her a new version of her favorite toy — the wine cork on a string — and we had a rousing game of chase-the-cork. She’s all shiny and gorgeous — she’s a calico and I can now see her pretty oranges and blacks again. But most of all she seems demonstrably healthier than she has in a long time. So, I guess it’s fancy food for her from now on. Who knew?

And despite feeling like a big old yuppie for feeding my pets fancy-dan food, I figure if I don’t eat processed food, and don’t feed processed food to my friends, then why would I feed it to my pets? (Of course, this is precisely the argument the pet food people use to suck in people like me.) But it’s an extravagence I can afford, and the animals seem so much happier — they’re certainly all glossier.

Cooking again

Cooking again

So, I’m starting to cook again, which is a relief. Although the Albertson’s frozen lasagna and mac-and-cheese did see me through the worst of it, I always liked cooking, and not being interested was strange to me.

Last weekend I made a soup (I blogged it but then lost the entry in a small snafu) from leftover duck stock I found in the freezer, lentils, sausage and a mix of kale and turnip greens (also from the freezer and last summer’s garden). It was great — the unctuous duck stock is the perfect foil for the slightly bitter turnip greens, the lentils provide the perfect neutral base note, and the garlicky sausages provide the right note of interest. I’ve been eating it for lunch all week, and somehow, in the dead of winter, eating dark greens from the garden feels healthy in both physical and spiritual ways.

Late last summer, I bought a box of salmon from a neighbor. Twenty-five pounds of gorgeous wild salmon that Chris caught himself off the coast of Alaska. It’s packaged in big fillets — one side of salmon per plastic vaccuum pack. And until recently this has sort of defeated me — that’s a lot of salmon for one gal to eat. But last week, after reading an article somewhere about Omega-3 fatty acids and depression (not that I’m depressed — in a family of depressives I’d recognize real depression, but I am still considerably sad and if Omega-3s can help, well then I’m all over it), I got inspired. I threw a salmon side in the fridge to start to thaw, and then when it was just slightly thawed, I cut it into single portions, which I then resealed using my handy seal-a-meal thing I bought last summer. Now I have five portions of yummy salmon in the upstairs freezer. So, last night I had a piece of salmon I’d thawed, and I went downstairs to see what’s in the freezer veggie-wise and noticed that I have a lot of tomatoes left. When the tomatoes came ripe last summer I drizzled them with the parsley-basil oil I made, oven-roasted them and froze them in packages. So last night I put a piece of salmon in a gratin dish, dumped a package of my own tomatoes over them, and baked it for half an hour. It was delicious. It took two minutes to prepare. And it was all home-grown (or caught), and somehow, eating tomatoes from last summer, tomatoes I grew myself and harvested before disaster struck was really comforting.

Today I’m off to Bozeman to do some errands — get my hair cut, that kind of thing. And I’m going to buy half a lamb from Thirteen Mile Ranch. Unlike the lamb I didn’t buy last fall after Patrick died, this one comes already butchered and packaged (although I had been looking forward to watching Matt, of Matt’s Meats butcher my lamb — well, next year). I love lamb, and would eat more of it but finding local lamb in the grocery stores around here is difficult (I’m not sure why), and buying Australian or New Zealand lamb at Costco when I live among sheep ranchers seems the epitome of everything I was hoping to subvert buy starting a garden in the first place. So on the way to get my hair cut, I get a lovely detour out the Springhill road, where I can pick up a box of lamb to go in the freezer with the box of antelope that Parks brought me, and the box of salmon that Chris caught.

I like knowing my food. I like knowing and paying the people who produced (or procured) my food. And as I learned last fall, buying food from people you know, and with whom you live, makes you a part of the community in a really visceral way. And you never know when you’re going to need to rely on your community.

Or as the bumper sticker says around here: “Be a Yokel, Buy Local.”

Blogging is Slow

Blogging is Slow

Blogging has been slow lately, in part because I’m writing again. I’d been having a really difficult time figuring out how to proceed with this memoir-thing I’m writing. Memoir implies that the writer has some sense of perspective on events, or some inkling of what events “meant”. Since I’m still in the middle of this whole grief thing, I really didn’t feel that I had any idea of what my relationship with Patrick “meant” and hence, I was having a really tough time getting started.

So, inspired by Andy Goldsworthy’s method of just going outside and making something every day, I figured out a new (for me) method of working. I cut up a lot of slips of paper, and wrote a topic on each one. I folded them each up, and put them in a jar. Every day, I dump the slips out on the table, close my eyes and pick one. If it’s too hard, I put it back and pick another one. Then I write about the topic, print it out, and put it in a box. Among my “rules” are that I don’t go back and re-work them, I’m just piling them up and figuring that at some point I’ll either run out of slips of paper, or I’ll fill up the box — at which point, various common threads should be beginning to appear, and I can go back and shape these fragments into a book of some kind.

It hasn’t escaped me that this method is pretty similar to blogging. I started this blog over a year ago, in part to develop my nonfiction voice, and thinking that perhaps I’d try to write a nonfiction book about moving to Montana and building a garden. So in a funny way, the blog has taught me a method to work on this new book, but unfortunately it seems to be using the same energy that I had been putting into blogging. So, blogging may not be as frequent as in the past, but don’t worry, spring is coming, my seed orders have arrived, and there will inevitably be news from the garden in the near future.