It was solid hedge, loops of bramble and thorny as it had to be with its berries thick as bumblebees. It drew blood just to get there, but I was queen of that place, at ten, though the berries shook like fists in the wind, daring anyone to come in. I was trying so hard to love this world—real rooms too big and full of worry to comfortably inhabit—but believing I was born to live in that cloistered green bower: the raspberry patch in the back acre of my grandparents’ orchard. I was cross- stitched and beaded by its fat, dollmaker’s needles. The effort of sliding under the heavy, spiked tangles that tore my clothes and smeared me with juice was rewarded with space, wholly mine, a kind of room out of the crush of the bushes with a canopy of raspberry dagger-leaves and a syrup of sun and birdsong. Hours would pass in the loud buzz of it, blood made it mine—the adventure of that red sting singing down my calves, the place the scratches brought me to: just space enough for a girl to lie down. ~Karin Gottshall “The Raspberry Room” from “Crocus”
The raspberry bushes are worth exploring, despite the scratches required to be there. The reward for drawing blood is finding a sweetness hidden away which no one else can see: a lady beetle circumnavigating a tiny golden globe.
…and the garden diminishes: cucumber leaves rumpled and rusty, zucchini felled by borers, tomatoes sparse on the vines. But out in the perennial beds, there’s one last blast of color: ignitions of goldenrod, flamboyant asters, spiraling mums, all those flashy spikes waving in the wind, conducting summer’s final notes. The ornamental grasses have gone to seed, haloed in the last light. Nights grow chilly, but the days are still warm; I wear the sun like a shawl on my neck and arms. Hundreds of blackbirds ribbon in, settle in the trees, so many black leaves, then, just as suddenly, they’re gone. This is autumn’s great Departure Gate, and everyone, boarding passes in hand, waits patiently in a long, long line. ~Barbara Crooker “And Now It’s September” from Spillway
The advance of autumn usually feels like I’m waiting to embark on an unplanned journey that I wish to avoid. I don’t like airports, don’t like the strangeness of unfamiliar destinations, don’t like flying with nothing between me and the ground.
Now “fall” is just like that — like I’m falling.
I look at what is dying around me and know these blasts of color and fruitfulness are their last sad gasps.
So too, when I go out the departure gate, may I go down the long ramp gaily without fear and without regrets — maybe even with a skip in my step as I fall.
…It’s true it can make you weep to peel them, to unfurl and to tease from the taut ball first the brittle, caramel-colored and decrepit papery outside layer, the least
recent the reticent onion wrapped around its growing body, for there’s nothing to an onion but skin, and it’s true you can go on weeping as you go on in, through the moist middle skins, the sweetest
and thickest, and you can go on in to the core, to the bud-like, acrid, fibrous skins densely clustered there, stalky and in- complete, and these are the most pungent… ~William Matthews from “Onions”
…I would never scold the onion for causing tears. It is right that tears fall for something small and forgotten. How at meal, we sit to eat, commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma but never on the translucence of onion, now limp, now divided, or its traditionally honorable career: For the sake of others, disappear. ~Naomi Shihab Nye, from “The Traveling Onion” from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems.
Onion, luminous flask, your beauty formed petal by petal, crystal scales expanded you and in the secrecy of the dark earth your belly grew round with dew. Under the earth the miracle happened and when your clumsy green stem appeared, and your leaves were born like swords in the garden, the earth heaped up her power showing your naked transparency…
…You make us cry without hurting us. I have praised everything that exists, but to me, onion, you are more beautiful than a bird of dazzling feathers, heavenly globe, platinum goblet, unmoving dance of the snowy anemone
and the fragrance of the earth lives in your crystalline nature. ~Pablo Neruda from “Ode to the Onion”
Everything smells of “eau de onion” here in the kitchen as the onions are brought in from our late summer garden to be stored or dehydrated and frozen for winter soups and stews.
This is weepy business, but these are good tears like I spill over the whistled Greensleeves theme from the old “Lassie” TV show, or during any childrens’ choir song, or by simply watching videos of our grandchildren who are quarantined so far away from our arms.
It takes almost nothing these days to make me weep, so onions are a handy excuse, allowing my tears to flow without explanation:
I weep over the headlines. I weep over how changed life is and for the sadness of the stricken. I weep over how messy things can get between people who don’t listen to one another or who misinterpret what they think they hear. I weep knowing we all have layers and layers of skin that appear tough on the outside, but as you peel gently or even ruthlessly cut them away, the layers get more and more tender until you reach the throbbing heart of us.
We tend to hide our hearts out of fear of being hurt, crying out in pain.
Like an onion, each one of us exists to make the day a bit better, the meal more savory, to enhance the flavors of all who are mixed into this melting pot together. We aren’t meant to stand alone, but to disappear into the stew, and be sorely missed if we are absent.
So very dish needs an onion, and for the sake of the dish, every onion vanishes in the process.
No, I don’t mean to make you cry as you peel my layers away, gently, one by one, each more tender until you reach my heart. Chop away at me if you must but weep the good tears, the ones that mean we weep for the sake of our meal together: you eating and drinking, and me – consumed.
Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound When the spade sinks into gravelly ground: My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds Bends low, comes up twenty years away Stooping in rhythm through potato drills Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft Against the inside knee was levered firmly. He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep To scatter new potatoes that we picked, Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade. Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day Than any other man on Toner’s bog. Once I carried him milk in a bottle Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up To drink it, then fell to right away Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods Over his shoulder, going down and down For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge Through living roots awaken in my head. But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it. ~Seamus Heaney, “Digging” from Death of a Naturalist
Digging potatoes is one of the most satisfying tasks for a farmer. Often the dead above-ground vines have melted into the ground, blending in with the weeds and encroaching sprawl of squash vines. Finding the treasure underneath the topsoil is an act of faith. You set the shovel or fork boldly into the dirt to loosen up the top eight inches. Then you submerge your hand into the dirt and come up with a fistful of potato gold nuggets, each smooth cool tuber rolling into fresh air like so many newly discovered hidden Easter eggs.
A daily dig for words to write isn’t nearly as easy as finding potatoes in the soil; the bounty under the surface often remains hidden away from my view and elusive. I have to keep searching and sifting and sorting. Some that I end up with are rotten. Some are overexposed, too green and toxic. Some are scabby and look ugly, but are still useable and hopefully tasty.
Yet I get out my virtual spade and dig into the dirt of life every day, hoping, just hoping, to come up with words in my hands that are not only beautiful, colorful, smooth and palatable, but a sheer delight for the digger/reader to discover along with me.
The lawyer told him to write a letter to accompany the will, to prevent potential discord over artifacts valued only for their sentiment.
His wife treasures a watercolor by her father; grandmama’s spoon stirs their oatmeal every morning. Some days, he wears his father’s favorite tie.
He tries to think of things that could be tokens of his days: binoculars that transport bluebirds through his cataracts
a frayed fishing vest with pockets full of feathers brightly tied, the little fly rod he can still manipulate in forest thickets,
a sharp-tined garden fork, heft and handle fit for him, a springy spruce kayak paddle, a retired leather satchel.
He writes his awkward note, trying to dispense with grace some well-worn clutter easily discarded in another generation.
But what he wishes to bequeath are items never owned: a Chopin etude wafting from his wife’s piano on the scent of morning coffee
seedling peas poking into April, monarch caterpillars infesting milkweed leaves, a light brown doe alert in purple asters
a full moon rising in October, hunting-hat orange in ebony sky, sunlit autumn afternoons that flutter through the heart like falling leaves. ~Raymond Byrnes “Personal Effects” from Waters Deep
We’ve seen families break apart over the distribution of the possessions of the deceased. There can be hurt feelings, resentment over perceived slights, arguments over who cared most and who cared least.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen with our parents’ belongings. There had been a slow giving away process as their health failed and they needed to move from larger spaces to smaller spaces. Even so, no one was eager to take care of the things that had no particular monetary or sentimental value. We still have boxes and boxes of household and personal items sitting unopened in storage on our farm for over a decade. Each summer I think I’ll start the sorting process but I don’t. My intentions are good but my follow-through is weak.
So my husband and I have said to each other and our children that we don’t want to leave behind stuff which ultimately has little meaning in a generation or two. We need now to do the work it takes to make sure we honor that promise.
There is so much we would rather bequeath than just stuff we own. It can’t be stored in boxes or outlined in our wills: these are precious possessions that don’t take up space. Instead, we bequeath our love of simple everyday blessings, while passing down our faith in God to future generations.
May our memories be kept alive through stories about the people we tried to be in this life, told to our grandchildren and their children, with much humor and a few tears – that would be the very best legacy of all.
O gather up the brokenness And bring it to me now The fragrance of those promises You never dared to vow
The splinters that you carry The cross you left behind Come healing of the body Come healing of the mind
And let the heavens hear it The penitential hymn Come healing of the spirit Come healing of the limb
Behold the gates of mercy In arbitrary space And none of us deserving The cruelty or the grace
O solitude of longing Where love has been confined Come healing of the body Come healing of the mind
O see the darkness yielding That tore the light apart Come healing of the reason Come healing of the heart
O troubled dust concealing An undivided love The heart beneath is teaching To the broken heart above
Let the heavens falter Let the earth proclaim Come healing of the altar Come healing of the name
O longing of the branches To lift the little bud O longing of the arteries To purify the blood
And let the heavens hear it The penitential hymn Come healing of the spirit Come healing of the limb ~Leonard Cohen “Come healing”
We are all in need of healing, none more so than those who have been affected by the pandemic, either dealing themselves with the illness and its long-lasting effects, or grieving the untimely loss of family and friends.
There is need for healing in relationships, either because of too much proximity or not nearly enough due to quarantine.
There is need for a sense of purpose without a schedule of regular employment or schooling to occupy our days.
There is need for healing for the wrongs we do, intentionally or unintentionally.
Our hardships are meager compared to the plagues of the past but they are nevertheless real and undeserved, so we pray for relief, we pray for grace and mercy, we pray for healing of mind, body and spirit.
Even a tiny blue forget-me-not blossom reminds us: we need to seek the fragrance of promises made and harvest the fruit of promises kept.
God does not make promises to please us, like a politician in an election year. He keeps promises because He knows we need to believe they will happen according to His plan— He forgets-us-not because we are the troubled dust upon which He has blown sweet and fragrant breath.
But you can have the fig tree and its fat leaves like clown hands gloved with green. You can have the touch of a single eleven-year-old finger on your cheek, waking you at one a.m. to say the hamster is back. You can have the purr of the cat and the soulful look of the black dog, the look that says, If I could I would bite every sorrow until it fled, and when it is August, you can have it August and abundantly so. You can have love, though often it will be mysterious, like the white foam that bubbles up at the top of the bean pot over the red kidneys until you realize foam’s twin is blood.
You can speak a foreign language, sometimes, and it can mean something. You can visit the marker on the grave where your father wept openly. You can’t bring back the dead, but you can have the words forgive and forget hold hands as if they meant to spend a lifetime together.
You can have your grandfather sitting on the side of your bed, at least for a while, you can have clouds and letters, the leaping of distances, and Indian food with yellow sauce like sunrise.
You can’t count on grace to pick you out of a crowd but here is your friend to teach you how to high jump, how to throw yourself over the bar, backwards, until you learn about love, about sweet surrender, and here are periwinkles, buses that kneel, farms in the mind as real as Africa. And when adulthood fails you,
you can still summon the memory of the black swan on the pond of your childhood, the rye bread with peanut butter and bananas your grandmother gave you while the rest of the family slept. There is the voice you can still summon at will, like your mother’s, it will always whisper, you can’t have it all, but there is this. ~Barbara Ras from “You Can’t Have It All“ from Bite Every Sorrow
My pragmatic mother who gave up her teaching career for marriage and family reminded me regularly that I couldn’t have it all: there was no way a woman can have a husband and children and a farm and a garden and animals and a profession and travel and volunteer in the community and not make a mess of it all and herself.
My father would listen to her and say softly under his breath: “you do whatever you put your mind to…you know what you are here for.”
They were both right. The alluring abundance of this life has invited me to want to touch and feel and taste it all, not unlike another woman who was placed with purpose in the Garden to be side-by-side companion and co-worker. Yet she demonstrated what happens when you want more than you are given and yes, she made a mess of it.
Yet there is this: despite wanting it all and working hard for it all and believing I could do it all, I indeed missed the point altogether. It’s forgive and forget walking hand in hand for a lifetime. It’s all gift, not earned. It’s all grace, not deserved. It’s all August abundance, all year long, to sustain us through the drought and drab of winter.
Dry is all food of the soul if it is not sprinkled with the oil of Christ. When thou writest, promise me nothing, unless I read Jesus in it. When thou conversest with me on religious themes, promise me nothing if I hear not Jesus’ voice. Jesus—melody to the ear, gladness to the soul, honey to the taste. ~Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)
The world, to our limited vision, exists as light and shadow. Without shadow, nothing has depth or detail. Without light, there will be no shadow.
There is no flower that blooms, no story told, no song sung, no food eaten that doesn’t bear the color and melody and sweetness of Jesus himself.
He infiltrates all because He encompasses all. He is shadow, He is light, He is why we are at all. Our eyes, our ears, our tongues fill with gladness whose Name is Jesus.
Outrageous flowers as big as human heads! They’re staggered by their own luxuriance: I had to prop them up with stakes and twine. In the darkening June evening I draw a blossom near, and bending close search it as a woman searches a loved one’s face. ~Jane Kenyon from “Peonies at Dusk”
There’s not a pair of legs so thin, there’s not a head so thick, There’s not a hand so weak and white, nor yet a heart so sick But it can find some needful job that’s crying to be done, For the Glory of the Garden glorifieth every one.
Then seek your job with thankfulness and work till further orders, If it’s only netting strawberries or killing slugs on borders; And when your back stops aching and your hands begin to harden, You will find yourself a partner In the Glory of the Garden.
Oh, Adam was a gardener, and God who made him sees That half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees, So when your work is finished, you can wash your hands and pray For the Glory of the Garden that it may not pass away! And the Glory of the Garden it shall never pass away ! ~Rudyard Kipling from “The Glory of the Garden”
There is no better place to be than in a garden down on my knees. Humans were created for this: the naming, the turning over of the soil, the planting and nurturing, the weeding and thinning, the harvest and gratitude, and then a time of lying fallow to rest.
The garden is a place for prayer and praise.
When I meet a truly great gardener, like my friend Jean who has grown and hybridized dahlias for decades, what I see growing in the soil is a tapestry of artwork made from petals, leaves and roots. She has passionately cared for these plants and they reflect that love in every spiral and swirl, hue and gradient of color, showing stark symmetry and delightful variegation.
Arising from the plainest of homely and knobby look-alike tubers grow these luxurious beauties of infinite variety. I kneel stunned before each one, captivated, realizing that same Creator makes sure I too bloom from mere dust and then set me to work in His garden.