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Ever since we got home (is it really nearly three months ago already?), I have been disgraced by the state of the front yard. Never really an attractive space to begin with, a year of neglect and our neighbor’s efforts to clear the dirt out from under our shared fence rendered it hideous. Every time someone comes over, even a complete stranger, I feel it necessary to apologize for the state of the garden and explain that we’ve been gone for a year. But that excuse only lasts so long.

I promised myself that after our conference in October was over, the front yard would be the first thing to go. I came up with a relatively simple plan, one that I didn’t think would require much of Gabe’s time and effort right away, since he’s so busy teaching this quarter. I thought, OK I can do this on my own, he doesn’t even need to be involved.

Oh but I forgot: I am married to an engineer. And the reason we don’t do more on our house (or that we pay other people to do it, as we did before moving home), is because he’s incapable of doing things half way. I do love him for it, but it means that things inevitably take longer and get far more involved than the original plan requires. They always turn out great, yes, and probably will outlast us all, but it can make life rather complicated. Not least of all for him.

This time was no exception. My simple berm and raised bed combination in the front has now turned into a far more elaborate project, one involving foot after foot of pressure-treated lumber, either attached directly to the fence or held up with rebar. Before we can do any of that, however, we have to dig out and raise up the existing sprinkler system so that it will reach above the new level of the soil.

We were reassured that the system, though old will still work fine — once we fix the main faucet, which was so rusted and rotten that it popped off as soon as Gabe touched it yesterday, sending gallons and gallons of water gushing down our driveway and into the yard for about half an hour before the city guy arrived to turn it off and cap the pipe. Oh well, at least the ground is nice and soft now!

This minor setback pushed our progress back quite dramatically yesterday, and Gabe ended up with only two boards notched and in the ground before sundown. These projects always take a while to get off the ground, as you have to remember which tools are where, how things work (which line means level again?), and the right order to do things in.

But our experience with redoing the side yard two years ago showed us that while slow, these projects are indeed possible, given enough time and patience. And sweat. And dirt. You can turn a pile of mud (or a concrete pit filled with disgusting brackish water) into a lovely patio and garden bed. Who knows, you might even have fun in the process.

Setbacks aside, I think both of us are excited to be starting a new project again. We went to the Home Despot on Friday to pick up supplies (lots of them!), and I found myself looking forward to the work that lies ahead of us. Of course that was before the pipe broke and our already ugly front yard turned into a huge mud puddle, but hey, it just gives us all the more to look forward to. Right? Right.

Here’s some pictures of our progress so far (such as it is):

Vodpod videos no longer available.

I woke up last night to a sound I haven’t heard in what seems like a long, long time: rain. It startled me so much that I came fully awake, and was unable to fall back sleep for an hour afterwards, so happy was I to lie there and listen to the gusts and the gutters.

This morning dawned clear and sunny, with the world glistening and smelling like… what’s that smell? Wet earth? As I opened the door to step outside, coffee in hand, that magical, heady perfume hit me full force. Everything just looks and smells better with rain.

See, for a Californian, the return of the rainy season is a sacred and wonderful thing. Even though I’m about as civilized as it gets, I still felt a primeval joy at hearing the life-giving water hit the warm, snug (for now) roof over my head. As the long and early fire season showed, this has been an extremely dry year, so early rain is a good, good thing.

Sure, it’ll get really old by January or February. But for now, it’s new and refreshing, and just about the only sign of season change that we get around here. So bring on the rain.

We spent the first half of this year doing a major overhaul on our side yard… and now are spending the second half of the year enjoying the fruits of our labor, which at the moment look something like this:

I mean seriously — you just can’t help but be happy when you look at those things. Less than a year ago, the ground these fabulous flowers are now growing on was an overgrown concrete pond of some sort. So we’re doing pretty damn good.

There is something deeply satisfying about sitting outside, eating lunch on a patio that I helped construct with my own hands, looking at plants that I grew from seed into six-foot tall behemoths of sunshine. There is little that I have done or accomplished so far in my life that can rival that feeling.

It’s just one of those things in life that are very simple, and yet so, so good.

Tonight, I tore myself away from my laptop long enough to go out into my “zen garden” (as a friend very kindly referred to it today) and spend a few minutes just being outside — not gardening, not fussing with the plants, just being.

OK so maybe I fussed a little bit: hanging up my new hummingbird feeder, propping up a sunflower whose head had gotten so heavy that it was leaning halfway down to the ground, etc. But otherwise I just wandered around aimlessly, enjoying the fact that I live in the middle of a city block and can enjoy relative peace and quiet (except for when the neighbor’s cat jumped from our fence into another neighbor’s backyard, taunting the small dog therein — pure evil, I tell you!) literally in my own backyard.

Almost daily, my husband and I have been checking on our rapidly ripening crops of yellow plums and red apples. Today, for the first time this year, I found a plum that was ripe just to my liking: still firm, yet yielding to the touch. And the smell — oh, that smell. It took me back to childhood, to the old farmhouse where we grew up, and the red plum tree that spread its branches in our front yard and produced pound after pound of ridiculously juicy, violently red fruit every year. Our dog, when we had one, would eat them off the ground until she made herself sick, and the very next day go back for more. The rest of us also gorged ourselves on a regular basis, although we preferred to eat them in baked form: pies, crumbles, jams, jellies, you name it.

Around the same time, our house would shut down for a day or two for the annual round of canning. It was a mysterious and exciting time of the year, one that involved large quantities of fruit and sugar, all of which are Very Good Things as far as a child is concerned. My mom and grandma would do the plum jam, of course, along with apricot, raspberry, and boysenberry, but also tomatoes (whole and in sauce), and just about anything else that we had too much of to eat at one time. All I can recall of this complicated process was walking into the kitchen, which was busy masquerading as a smoldering volcano, and seeing my mother’s face rise up out of the billows, red as the fruits she was boiling. Glasses fogged, canning tongs in hand, she would drive us out of the stove area just as fast as we came in.

I don’t remember when we stopped canning our harvest bounty, but it was well before I was old enough to take any real interest in it. Thus when my husband suggested that we can the mounds of plums that are soon to grace our backyard, I had to admit that I have no idea what that actually entails.

But today, those future mounds of plums are still hard and yellow on the tree. Instead, I found just one, perfectly ripe, along with a windfall apple that didn’t have too many worm holes in it. I took them both inside, chopped them up, and ate them. The plum, still warm from its place in the afternoon sun, tasted every bit as good as I’d anticipated. The apple, on the other hand, not only had a hidden worm hole in it (thankfully no worm), but was sour and hard. I ate it nonetheless, which could explain why I’m feeling about as green as our dog used to look in the height of plum season.

It’s amazing how the simplest things can take you back like that. With that one warm plum, suddenly I was a chubby, bowl-haired, big-eyed kid again, gorging myself on plums along with my skinny, quiet little brother and our overgrown beast of an Irish wolfhound.

Ah summer, in all its bounteous, nostalgic glory.

Once again, forgive the radio silence. I’ve said before that I process things kinetically, and now is definitely not an exception. These days, there’s a hell of a lot to process, so I pretty much had two choices: run an ultra marathon, or redo our garden. Due to the state of my knees and our friends’ quickly approaching rehearsal dinner in June, I chose the latter.

Thankfully, I have found in the garden a respite from the maelstrom of words in my head, from the relentless clamor of the thoughts and feelings generated by my father’s illness. So I have embraced the hard, exhausting work with gusto, throwing myself into it with the knowledge that by the end of the day, I will simply be too drained to think about anything more than flopping onto the couch. As far as narcotics go, I think it’s a pretty safe way to attain oblivion, that is until I injure myself again (fingers crossed).

Below my search for numbness, however, is the half-realized knowledge that I am creating something beautiful and lasting out of a time of transience and grief. In that, gardening provides the perfect foil for my caregiving responsibilities: beautiful, simple, life-giving, physical labor. And in the end, if something I’m caring for in my garden dies, I just buy a new one, simple as that. Unlike my father, my plants are ultimately replaceable (shh don’t let them know!), so nothing I’m doing here is really all that earth-shattering. Thank God for that.

Before I begin yet another day of labor, I will leave you with an essay called “The Light of Death,” which I read in TIME magazine last night. It is really all I have been wanting to say about death and more. With that, it’s now time to go plant some lovely, simple, undemanding things in my new garden beds. Bliss.

Please excuse my temporary radio silence. We have been very busy working on the garden, which at the moment looks like we’re attempting to create a scaled replica of World War I trench warfare in our backyard:


Actually, we are laying down irrigation lines in preparation for making two raised beds in the side garden. But this makes almost six weeks we’ve been working very hard in the garden, and so far all we’ve done is make it look significantly uglier.

So tell me — at what point does that start producing this? (Taken at the Farmer’s Market last week.)


Last night, I stood in our front doorway to say goodbye to my husband, who left on a short snowboarding trip to celebrate the end of the quarter. (Leaving me cause to celebrate of my own — house to myself, huzzah!) As he was busy packing his board into the back of his car, I really just wanted to say, “OK bye honey have fun!” and go snuggle into my nice warm bed with a book. While it would satisfy my true cat nature, I thought it wouldn’t be very wife-like, so I figured I should at least make some effort to bid him a proper goodbye.

So instead I remained in the doorway, trying to find something to divert myself from the cold, harsh reality of the world outside my bed covers. My eye was soon drawn to the flower bed by the front door, which is my current obsession, I mean, project. Normally, when my gaze falls on this particular bed it is with a critical cast — analyzing how much each plant has grown in the ten seconds since I last inspected it, planning what plants to put in next, or figuring out what to do with the existing ones.

In the dark, I couldn’t see any of this. All I could see were the shapes of the established plants, illuminated by the light spinning out from the doorway: the spiky leaves of the iris, the spindly branches of the rhododendron, the delicate oval leaves of the startup (OK, weed!) growing into the cracks of the front pathway. No matter what the plant, in their blind, instinctive way, they were all twisting away from the shady overhang of the house towards the life-giving comfort of the sun. And every single one of them, regardless of size or shape, was leaning at the exact same angle.

At that moment, the shape of their yearning struck me as simply, elegantly beautiful, and stayed with me long after the house grew quiet and I was tucked up in my bed. I think we are all a little bit like the plants, growing towards whatever source of heat and light we have put first in our lives. If we are put in a situation where we have good exposure to that source, we thrive and produce things of great beauty. We might do OK in less than optimal situations, but the growth just isn’t quite the same as when we’re allowed to follow our personal sun.

Take my good friend who is getting married in June. The other day, I was lucky enough to witness her baptism, a symbolic washing away of the past before starting a new life with her wonderful husband. She and I have very similar stories, and somehow, miraculously, we both seem to have ended up at very similar places in our lives.

For her, religion has been the light towards which she grew. She met her fiance at church a little over a year ago, and by becoming a part of the community there, she ultimately gained the courage and confidence to accept his love. As the culmination of that year of growth and hard work, her baptism was a hugely important step in her life, and I was immensely honored to bear witness to the cleansing of her soul.

Alas, my own belief in organized religion took flight once I went to college, along with my virginity and a number of other cherished symbols of youthful innocence. So I was slightly skeptical about going to church again, thinking the dry tinder of my soul’s transgressions would surely catch fire immediately upon setting foot in a holy building. Luckily, no such combustion occurred, and the ceremony was done with such simple beauty that it brought tears to my eyes and restored some measure of faith to my battered, cynical heart.

What truly took the breath from my lungs, however, was the look of sheer joy on my friend’s face as she emerged dripping from the water. In a word, it was holy. She had the look of a plant who has found the perfect angle to the sun, and I for one cannot wait to see how she continues to grow and bloom.

So for my dear friend, faith has been the light that made her growth possible. But we all have different ways of leaning towards the sun, and it sometimes takes a while to find which angle gets the best exposure. My husband’s is teaching, and mine without a doubt is my family. I spent years trying to get away from my hometown, only to get desperately homesick as soon as I left and come running back at the soonest opportunity. Once I finally embraced my life here and my role as a family person, I started to grow in ways I’d never imagined possible: I fell in love, got married, and achieved a contentment that no amount of traveling had ever produced in me.

Most recently, in order to improve my sun exposure, I left my job to spend more time as a caregiver for my family. Although the decision continues to be a scary one, I keep reminding myself that I am only doing what every good plant does best — following my sunshine.

Just after I’d finished writing yesterday’s entry, my husband got home brimming with excitement about a meeting he’d had that afternoon regarding a new consulting project. During this three-hour meeting, they’d made a possible breakthrough on a problem he’s been trying to solve for years. He started to tell me, “And the other guy said, ‘But doesn’t that violate Einstein’s theory of _____?’…'”

Alas, I will never find out if their idea does in fact violate Einstein’s theory, because by that point I was already laughing too hard for my beloved scientist of a husband to continue talking. You see, all I could think about was this: the entire time he was getting paid a ridiculous amount of money to sit in his office and talk about Einstein, I was shoveling poo onto our lawn.

The juxtaposition was just too good for me not to crack up, even though it clearly hurt his feelings that I did not in fact care about Einstein’s theory. No, I cared much more about the fact that my muscles were (and still are!) sore and my back hurt, I cared that my hands still felt dirty even after washing them about a thousand times, and I cared that I didn’t even get the entire freaking lawn done in a whole afternoon’s work.

Sometimes, life just isn’t fair. But then, as my mom so wisely pointed out — just look at Einstein’s lawn. Guaranteed it didn’t look as good as mine is going to. Ha. So there.

These days, my life is all about therapy. When I am not actually at my parents’ house, I am busy trying to wrap my head around the recent and impending changes in my life. Thus everything I do becomes a form of therapy, and it happens in myriad different ways.

Last weekend, I partook in some of the group- and shopping- types of therapy during a day full of girl time in the Bay Area. We went shopping for my friend’s wedding dress, which she found within ten minutes of walking into the first store we visited, thanks to being the über prepared girl we all know and love. She asked for The Dress by designer and style number, and walked out an hour later as the proud owner of a gorgeous wedding dress. Easy peasy.

The rest of the day was spent in the sunshine, walking, talking, eating, and drinking. And talking. We covered the entire gamut of subjects and emotions, and at one point I realized that the strange, tight sensation in my jaw was actually from laughing all day. It’s been a while since that has happened — usually it’s stress that makes my jaw tight. But in laughing, and especially by talking, I was able to work through a number of things that I’d been holding on to for quite some time. I tend to be fairly in touch with my emotions, but even I can only do so much processing on my own. The day was lovely and therapeutic, not to mention highly successful in terms of the mission we set out to accomplish. If only all days could be so good.

Today’s therapy, on the other hand, involved a whole bunch of poo. Or, more precisely, two bags of steer manure. About a month ago, I decided to reseed the bald portions of our lawn prior to having my friend’s rehearsal dinner here in June. I am finally done with the preliminary prep stages, and decided to lay out the seed today. Thinking it couldn’t possibly take that long, I waited until later in the afternoon to start.

Big mistake. I completely underestimated how long it would take me, so three hours later, I was still spreading my nice mixture of planting soil and steer manure all over the area I had put seed on. The sun was busy setting, and I was still dragging that last bag of $&@*! planting soil over to the lawn. “Just one more bucket full,” I kept thinking, which soon turned into, “OK just until the end of this bag,” and so on.

As I was working though, it occurred to me that quite frankly there was no where else I’d rather be. For the past couple of days, I’ve been totally frenetic, unable to either focus or relax for any length of time. But the repetitive physical motion of the digging and lifting, spreading and tamping, finally quieted down my mind, and for those three painful, dirty, sweaty hours, I was at peace. My back might never recover, but hey, it’s worth it.

Therapy comes in many forms. I do see my actual therapist every other week or so, but there’s a lot of processing to do in between visits. So every day, I have to decide what will be the best therapy for me on that day. Will it be shopping today? Will it be gardening until my arms are so sore I can’t even type? Running? Yoga? Perhaps I will just stay in bed and read a book — there’s plenty of that, too. It may sound selfish at first, but by taking care of myself, I become a better caregiver to my father and support to my family. And that, in the end, is the best therapy life has to offer.

As of yesterday, two very good friends of mine are now officially engaged. Huzzah! I am to be a bridesmatron, which will be a great honor, as both of these friends played vital roles in our own wedding. In fact, I’m not really sure what we would’ve done without them, and am glad to have a chance to repay the favor so soon.

Unfortunately, I seem to have lost all perspective on the madness of the wedding process. So soon! It must be like giving birth — you just have to totally forget the trauma in order to continue living with any dusting of sanity. I’m already thinking, “Well, she should just remember that it’s not the details that matter, but rather the bigger picture of this wonderful day and what it symbolizes…”

Oh, barf! I can’t believe I have regressed so far. I am truly a Smug Married if I can think that way only four months after my own insanity ended. As you may remember, it wasn’t so long ago that I was arguing with my husband-to-be about the merits of chicken vs. beef and having panic attacks over last-minute RSVPs. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

And yet, here I am already getting caught up in the details of my role in her wedding. We are hosting the rehearsal dinner at our house, which shortens the schedule for our total garden overhaul by about oh, five years. There is a three-foot-deep concrete pit full of green rainwater just off the kitchen patio, people! Are we really going to have all of my friends’ nearest and dearest sitting right there in about four months’ time???

The answer is, of course, yes we are. And the truth is, through my own wedding experience I know that everyone will have a great time, regardless of what the garden looks like. In fact, they probably won’t even notice any of the details I will have worked so hard to perfect. (As long as they’re not sitting directly IN the aforementioned pit of despair, of course.) But because I love my friend, and because I am so overjoyed that she is marrying one of the most loving, wonderful men I’ve ever met… I want everything to be perfect.

“Treat history as a springboard, not as an anchor.”

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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