Sunday, June 24, 2018

Meadow Dreams

An antique teddy bear sitting in an antique chair surrounded by meadow flowers

Ah, a meadow. Even just the sound of the word is pretty. When I was a kid, a meadow was not a thing I ever encountered in my daily life in 1970s suburbia. No, it was something that I came across only in storybooks and daydreams. If my sister Kris and I ever found a little patch of clovers in our Tallahassee lawn, we’d call it a meadow; we'd pretend it was a meadow. We’d make clover-flower crowns and try to frolic in our little two-foot-wide patch of weeds, but even though it was fun, we were never quite satisfied. We still longed to see a real meadow.

It turned out I’d have to wait until I was 30. That year, my husband, Rob, and I went to Colorado on vacation and we spent a summer afternoon in a meadow near the little mountain town of Silverton. It was an amazing alpine meadow with a ghost town in the middle of it. The buildings were silvery skeletons inhabited by chipmunks and birds. Blue larkspur grew up through the floorboards of the old houses, and larkspur, bluebells, showy daisies, Indian paintbrush, and soft grasses filled the places that had long ago been streets. As we watched the sun set from a half-rotten porch and ate a not-very-tasty picnic of stale English muffins, the chipmunks kept trying to steal our crumbs.

About a year later, we bought our first house, in Atlanta, and we decided to plant our own meadow on our narrow city lot. Unfortunately, the yard was very shady and there was only a tiny corner, maybe 6 feet long and 3 feet wide, that received any sun at all. Well, we crammed that little spot with purple coneflowers, prairie coneflowers, mountainmint, ageratum, cup-plant, joe-pye weed, milkweed, and more—and pretty soon, despite its small size, our miniature meadow was humming with pollinators. Rob, particularly, fell in love with that little meadow garden. He was always poking around out there with a hand lens. I remember there was a green lynx spider that lived on the cup-plant, and he would watch the spider so carefully that he came to know all her daily habits and to regard her, it seemed, as a dear friend.

As soon as we moved to Quincy, I set about creating another, larger wildflower meadow in a barren spot between the driveway and the old detached kitchen behind the house. At first I planted all kinds of plants that didn't work, but now, 14 years later, our meadow is full of plants that do work: bluestar, Indian pinks, Atamasco lily, white wild indigo, purple coneflower, prairie coneflower, swamp tickseed, oxeye sunflower, bellflower, beardtongue, ageratom, and mountainmint, to name just a few.

I love my Quincy meadow because it brings a bit of wildness into my yard. It's interesting rather than tidy—bursting with color, buzzing with bees, and fluttering with butterflies. It's so wonderfully alive that it makes the rest of my yard seem a little boring.

One of the big reasons I planted my meadow in Quincy was for my niece, Sophie, to help fill her childhood with flowers, with beauty. In the early days, as I was digging and watering and weeding and seeding, I'd often imagine her skipping down the path through my future meadow, or I'd picture her picking lavish bouquets or making flower hats for her dolls—and those dreams drove me forward, kept me going. I wanted to give Sophie a lovely place to play and learn about nature, and I wanted to fire her imagination, give her fuel for her own meadow dreams.



A girl sitting in a meadow next to some prairie coneflowers

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Little Things

Table in a green garden with colorful paper decorations hanging in the trees

The other day I read an interesting opinion piece in USA Today suggesting that the epidemic of depression in America (suicide rates have increased dramatically over the past 20 years) is largely caused by our culture's overemphasis on personal accomplishment. Our emotional suffering, the writer said, is “a rational response to a culture that values people based on ever escalating financial and personal achievements.” She went on: “We should stop telling people who yearn for a deeper meaning in life that they have an illness or need therapy. Instead, we need to help people craft lives that are more meaningful and built on a firmer foundation than personal success.”

I thought she was right on the money.

But if meaning doesn't come from personal achievement or self perfection, where does it come from? Where can it be found?

When I was young, I used to believe I needed to create meaning by doing something great with my life, by having a big career, by becoming somebody important. But now I know I was wrong. I was way off. I don't need to do anything dazzling to be happy. I don't need to create meaning—because the meaning is already there, in every little thing, in every little moment, and it always has been, since the beginning. I just needed to stop fretting and striving long enough to see it, to appreciate it.

For me, it's easiest to find meaning in the little daily things, the things I do before and after my office job—feeding my cats, watering my plants, sweeping the front porch, buttering toast for my husband. . . . If I'm mindful, if I'm really there in the now, not worrying about the past or the future, these little chores can be very pleasant and sweet. The little tasks of caretaking can take us quicker than anything else, I think, to the heart of what it means to be human.

I love Michael Pollan's Netflix series Cooked, especially the “Water” episode, when Samin Nosrat, a young chef, says (in so many words), “We often think that doing little things like peeling and chopping vegetables is getting in the way of life. But I think we're mistaken. This is life.”

When I was young, I was really ambitious, but in a negative way. I thought I didn't deserve to be loved unless I made the best grades, got into the best college, landed the most prestigious job. I worked so hard, but my work ethic came from a dark, sad place. I was driven by insecurity and fear of failure, not by love of what I was doing.

I'd always heard that we're all children of God, that God loves us all equally. The words went in one ear and out the other—for a long time. But then one day, quite late in my life, they actually began to sink in. What a surprise! One day I actually began to believe them. And that changed everything. I began to live completely differently, to work because I wanted to be helpful, not because I thought I had to prove my worth.

I still work hard, but I also take a bit of time now to enjoy the world and my existence in it. These days, my favorite kind of Sunday afternoon is one spent petting my cats or sitting on the breezeway to watch the cardinals in their nest in the lime tree.

When I look back, the best times, for me, haven't been the big times—big accomplishments, big adventures. No, they've been the small times. Like when I feed watermelon to the box turtles in my yard in summer. Or when I stop and eat ripe mulberries from the tree that hangs over the parking lot at work. Or when I'm taking out the trash at night and I remember to look up at the stars and the moon and the midnight-blue sky.

The best times are whenever I pause to realize that creation is beautiful and amazing and that I'm a part of it.

A garden with a table set with brightly colored dishes

A pond surrounded by ferns

A man standing in a kitchen holding a loaf of homemade bread

A breezeway decorated with a pie safe and jelly cupboard

A white cat relaxing on a table

Monday, May 21, 2018

Ode to Spring

An antique teddy bear sitting in a Chickasaw plum tree

Spring is my favorite season. It always has been.

When I was a child, spring started, in my opinion, in February, when the wild violets appeared like magic in the little scrap of woods behind our backyard in Tallahassee. My sister Kris and I would make tiny bouquets, and we’d tuck the prettiest, most perfect flowers behind our teddy bears’ ears. Even though our toes would turn bright red with cold, we’d run barefoot through the woods, delighting in buds and fiddleheads, in the subtle signs of change.

In March, we picked loquats wherever we could find them—next to stores, in parking lots, in our neighbors’ yards. We were always hungry. Though I haven't tasted a loquat in a long time, I remember them well. They were kind of like peaches and kind of like plums and kind of like apricots—pinkish orange and sweet and sour, with jewel-like, shiny seeds in the center. Loquats kept us fueled up for all the running and gathering we needed to do in spring. We were always picking things—harvesting. There was so much to take in, to try to hold close.

March was the best month for making bouquets. We’d pick armloads of flowers from our dad's George Taber and Formosa azaleas, huge plants that formed magnificent, sweet-smelling pink and purple islands in the sea of henbit, partridgeberry, ponyfoot, and other weeds that made up our lawn. We’d pick dogwoods too, and redbuds and Japanese magnolias. March was the glory time, when the bridal veil bloomed in Rena and Earl’s yard next door and was so white it was almost blinding.

One of my favorite memories of spring is from the year I was 12, when our neighbors the Shaws had a party on their back deck and our family was invited. Not to crack on my rather uptight parents, but a party was a very rare thing for our family. Kris and I were wild with happiness, practically giddy. All the kids at the party were running around, squealing and screaming and playing in the dark. I remember there were candles and Dr. Peppers and barbecue shrimp galore, and the dogwoods glowed in the surrounding woods.

I’m so glad that spring’s wonder never wears off, that you can feel it all your life without any diminishment of its power, without any fading of the excitement. A few years ago, when my mom was 78, she remarked, rejoicing one gorgeous spring day, “Oh, the flowers and just . . . the air! It all gives you such a feeling! It’s like being in love, but way better than that!”

Mom is long divorced and may be a little cynical when it comes to romance, but I think she was onto something that day. The joy of spring is a feeling of love, and it is bigger than love for just one single person. It’s the feeling of being in love with all creation, with the pulse of life, with God. It’s the best feeling I can think of.

An antique teddy bear among the Fairy roses

An antique teddy bear with a Hello Kitty purse

An antique teddy bear sitting among the powderpuff plants

An antique teddy bear sitting among the Indian pinks with a pink cupcake

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Lush

Two antique teddy bears having a picnic

In my opinion, gardens should be lush, with places for fairies to hide. Yards with nothing but grass make me feel bored and hopeless. I prefer shadowy yards full of secrets, full of surprises. Full of possibilities.

I grew up in the lushest backyard, created by my mom and dad. It fed my imagination and provided my sister Kris and me with endless "ingredients" for our games. Wearing eye shadow concocted from daylily pollen, we strolled about under elephant-ear parasols and fanned ourselves with canna leaves.

My parents never had much money and our house definitely lacked for pretty things, but the yard was different, another world. It was flowery and fancy, lacy with ferns, curtained with Spanish moss, a realm of beauty and abundance.

There were so many "rooms" in the yard (separated by trees or overgrown hedges), including a riotous vegetable garden with peanuts, corn, tomatoes, and okra, and a secret garden containing my dad's prized hybrid teas. In a woodsy spot, Kris and I built a little cemetery where we buried the poor moles that our cats hunted. The cemetery was landscaped with haircap moss and protected by a delicate fence of toothpicks.

As kids we were never bored, because the yard was an inexhaustible source of entertainment, with climbing trees, a swing set, and a trampoline. There was always something to do in the yard, something to discover. You could find treasures—ripe blackberries, maybe, or wild violets or maybe a peach or a plum. The yard was like a magician's hat, seemingly bottomless; you could always pull some new delight out of it. Yes, it had rabbits. And it had box turtles and owls and even a Mississippi kite!

As an adult I've tried to re-create the yard I grew up in. In other words, I've spent a foolish amount of money on plants. For 14 years now, I've been cramming my yard here in Quincy with wild azaleas, needle palms, bluestem palmettos, and dozens and dozens of trees, and the place is finally becoming just how I want it to be—green, jungly, tangled, and wildlife-friendly.

I've created shade and secluded spots. I've set the stage for mystery. Sometimes in the morning, I'll come outside and find deer or raccoon tracks, or I'll spy a new nest or an egg, and I'll get very excited knowing that in my absence there have been secret doings, sacred rituals, that I've made a safe place for such things. My arm hair will stand on end. I'll feel as if I just missed God by a minute.

An antique teddy bear wearing a dress and sitting on a cement toadstool

Safrano rose
Safrano rose

Perle d'Or rose
Perle d'Or rose

Florida azalea
Florida azalea

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Alice

antique teddy bear and Penelope rose

Alice and I had tons of fun in the yard on Saturday morning. It was so nice to feel the warm sun on our heads and to be surrounded by blooming roses and Indian pinks—and butterflies and peaceful bees. In a breeze, petals fell and dotted Alice's dress. These snaps are of Alice and my Penelope rose, whose creamy petals remind me of antique lace.

antique teddy bear and Penelope rose

antique teddy bear and Penelope rose

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Toys

Fenna!

I'm a grown lady, but I’m still crazy about stuffed animals. I love their soft, ineffectual bodies and their sweet, humble expressions. I love how patient they seem, how forbearing. Part of me knows they’re just pieces of cloth, bits of stuffing, but another part of me is a magical thinker. Part of me, probably 99.99 percent of me, believes they’re alive and "real."

When I was little, I had trouble accepting that people are a mixture of good and bad, that nobody is purely nice or sweet. I was mortified that I wasn’t all good, and I was always deeply hurt if somebody I thought was nice revealed himself or herself to be a little bit unfair or mean—I’d be crushed. (I was an intense—and annoying!—child.)

To me, toys were better than people because they were always lovable, always innocent. I could imbue them with all that was good in my own heart, with all that was good in the world, by using the power of my imagination.

But it didn’t seem like I was imagining. It seemed like I was just telling the truth about my dear stuffed-animal friends, bearing witness to their innate gentleness of spirit.

My sister Kris and I had lots of special animals when we were kids, but we had one who was the most special: Fenna. Fenna is a teddy bear who came to us by way of our neighbors the Folkses. Ann and Marie Folks were about 10 years older than Kris and me, and one day, when I was maybe six, Mrs. Folks brought over a bunch of Ann and Marie's old toys and gave them to us!

They were fabulous, expensive toys, from the 1950s and early ‘60s, in perfect condition. There was an elaborate dollhouse, and a Patti Playpal doll in her original dress and black patent Mary Janes—and there was Fenna, a plucky-looking teddy bear with a certain sparkle in her eyes.

Isn’t her name great? Fenna. Kris made it up. It’s short for Bearifeen. Her full name was/is Bearifeen Marie Mayfield. In our games, she was such a hilarious, slightly ridiculous, yet vulnerable character—thoroughly lovable. She was like Miss Piggy in that she hid her pain, and like Charlie Brown in that she never gave up. Fenna wanted to pretend to be rich and classy, but she was constantly being undermined by her own toys, a pig doll named McSnout, who was country, and a china doll named Chablis, who was just kind of a butthead.

Kris and I played with Fenna every day for years and years, and she had all kinds of adventures. Once, she was involved in a fire in our backyard fort (our “cottage” as we called it) when she was cooking some raisins over a candle and the roof, which was made of dried juniper branches, suddenly went up in flames. (The details of the fire are fuzzy, but I know that rubbing alcohol was involved somehow; we were the stupidest kids.)

Poor Fenna. She deserved better parents than us.

Kris and I played with Fenna until we were old enough that we had to hide to do it, for fear the other kids in the neighborhood would make fun of us. In the lush, secret shadows of the backyard, we’d sew her clothes and bead bracelets and necklaces for her. We even made her a little pair of wire spectacles. Her shoes, which we also made, had cardboard soles and wine corks for heels.

Sometimes at night now, just before I fall asleep, I like to wonder what heaven might be like, and I often speculate that it might be different for each person, tailor-made to each individual's taste. For my dad, for instance, I think it would be full of daffodils, his favorite flower. And for my mom, every shop would be an ice cream shop. My own heaven would look a lot like my childhood backyard, with azaleas and a trampoline—and Fenna would be there.





Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Easter Tree

bunny in a basket ornament

I had so much fun putting up my Easter tree yesterday. It’s one of my favorite rites of spring! I love having a tree in my living room, even if it's fake.

The tree itself is kind of weird. It’s made of white-painted rusty metal and really doesn’t look a bit like a tree. But I load it up with silk flowers and glittery glass ladybugs and birds—and when I’m all done, the effect is quite charming, I think.

Making Easter ornaments is how I get through the gray, dreary days of January and February. I like to sit at the dining room table, up to my elbows in pastel felt, ribbon, and seed pearls, and create very poorly sewn bunnies, chicks, lambs, and other baby farm animals. The fact that they all tend to have some sort of deformity—uneven eyes, maybe, or one small leg and one big one—only makes them more endearing to me.

When I’m sewing, I like to listen to audiobooks and run my trusty little space heater as the chandelier makes rainbows on the walls. It’s so cozy listening to somebody read me a story. Buntin, our passionate tortie, likes to nap on the table, on a tuffet of felt scraps, as I work and the tale unfolds around us. She's very devoted. Sometimes Rob will come by and praise her purity of heart: "Oh, look at sweet little Buntie," he might say. "All the other cats want treats, but Buntin just wants to be friends."

felt bunny and beehive ornaments

felt chick and other Easter ornaments

felt chick ornament

blue felt bird and other Easter ornaments

Monday, February 5, 2018

Teddy Bear Tea Party



On Saturday, Fenna and Claudia Rose had a tea party in the yard, even though spring is still a far-off wish, a dream. They held bouquets of pink camellias, the stems tied with satin ribbons, to add a little cheer to the brown and wintry setting. I had so much fun taking pictures and sampling the party treats. The Hostess cake balls were heavenly—filled with cream and topped with pink sugar that sparkled softly in the morning sun.











Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Shutters!

For thirteen years, I've dreamed about adding exterior shutters to the house, and now finally my dream has come true. I’m so excited to show you my new improvements!

Our house must have had shutters in its earlier days. You can still see the indentations on the window frames where the old hinges used to be. Nearly all the houses in Quincy’s historic district have dark green (“Quincy green”) shutters.

Our new shutters are 78 inches tall and 16 inches wide and made of cedar, to resist rot. I just love the way they play up our beautiful old windows, which are original to the house (I've been told). They’re like tasteful eyeliner around lovely eyes.

I know this post is supposed to be about shutters, but I want to take just a minute to rhapsodize about the beauty of old windows—because they’re becoming more and more rare as people rush to replace them.

Our windows are six-over-six, meaning there are six window panes in each sash. Narrow strips of wood, called muntins, divide the individual panes of glass and hold them in place. Because each pane is a separate piece of glass, each reflects light in its own unique way. This special play of light is part of the appeal of old windows. Aesthetically, the muntins are just as important as the panes because they’re slightly raised, not flat—so they add depth to the windows and cast delicate shadows on the glass to add even more visual interest.

Now back to the shutters. They went up yesterday while I was at the office. I was so excited I couldn't concentrate on my work, and when I got home I ran around with my camera in the fading light, frantically snapping pictures, Rob following me and recommending different angles.

“You should get one here with the lemon tree,” he said. “It just looks so Florida.”

Unfortunately, my lemon-tree shot didn’t turn out (which is the case with about 99 percent of my pictures), but here’s one with the persimmon and the silver saw palmetto:



Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Citrus



Rob and I are up to our ears these days in homegrown citrus. We've got 19 trees, and just about every one is covered in glowing, golden, sunny fruit. We've got a Cara Cara orange, a Roble orange, a Hamlin orange, two Ambersweet oranges, two Kimbrough satsumas, two Owari satsumas, a Rangpur lime, two Meyer lemons, a Changsha tangerine, two Ponkan tangerines, a King Mandarin, a Nippon orangequat, a Nagami kumquat, and a Meiwa kumquat. We can't believe the bounty! We've got citrus fruit piling up on our counters, sitting on the breezeway in baskets, weighing down the trees, and riding around in my car.

Our trees seem to produce like magic. They don't require much maintenance at all. Rob sprays them with neem oil (for whiteflies) sometimes, and I fertilize them three times a year, in March, May, and July, with copious amounts of Holly-tone or Citrus-tone (24 cups for trees over 9 feet tall). But other than that, we just let them be.

We don't even have our trees planted in really choice spots. No, we've got them crammed into weird places around the house, mixed in with our camellias and wax myrtles and such—in shade and clay. I honestly don't know how they're doing so well.

Right now, we've got so much ripe citrus rolling in that we can't possibly eat it all. As a result, Rob spends most of his waking hours scheming about how to give it away. See, he's a very conscientious person, and he would never want any of our delicious citrus to go to waste. Plus, he's very friendly and kind and enjoys giving bags of homegrown citrus to people he barely knows.

"Next year we should buy some nice brown paper bags with handles so we can hand out our citrus in cute little gift bags," he said the other day. "When you give your citrus away in old plastic grocery bags, it just seems like trash. But if it comes in a nice gift bag, it seems more like a thing. We can even have a stamp made up so we can personalize the bags."

"What should the stamp say?" I asked.

"Spruce Pine Cottage Citrus," Rob suggested.

"How about Spruce Pine Cottage Citrus and Sundries?" I said.

"Hmm," Rob said. "I'm skeptical about the sundries. What are the sundries?"

I could tell he was worried I might be tempted to quit my full-time job with benefits and start my own small sundries business, so I decided to tease him a little. Rob is always concerned that I'm about to launch an ill-conceived business venture.

"Oh, I don't know," I smiled. "Waxed camellias . . . artisan bread . . ." (Rob has recently gotten into bread making, and I would love to learn how to wax camellias.)

"I don't think I want to get into sundries," Rob said.

"Citrus and Sundries does have a nice ring to it though, you've got to admit," I said, still teasing. "Maybe we could just tell people the sundries are sold out. . . ."

"Or we could just use plain bags," Rob said. "Yeah, on second thought, plain bags seems like the safest bet."

Baskets of ripe Rangpur limes