Wild Animals

I’ve been up since four — woke up with my heart thumping from a bad dream. It’s sort of ridiculous in retrospect, because it wasn’t anything like my childhood nightmares of being trapped in a house with wild animals trying to eat me (for some reason, that was my recurrent nightmare in childhood, and interestingly, I got quite good at fighting the animals over time, but let’s put that aside for now).
My heart was thumping because I had *forgotten something on the schedule*. Specifically, I’d forgotten that I’m hosting a seed starting garden club meeting at ten a.m. today, and the person I’d inveigled into presenting would have been there for half an hour without the handouts I was supposed to print out, and without being introduced, and without the lemonade and cookies I’d planned to bring, and I felt horribly guilty and was going to throw my hair in a ponytail and pull on some jeans and jump in my car and race over to the library, which is thankfully only five minutes away, in the hope that I could get to her before her talk ended. And then I woke up, heart thumping.
I might have a few too many things on the schedule right now.
Local folks, you should come to the garden club thing. There will almost certainly actually be lemonade, cookies, and handouts. Main library, small meeting room, 10 a.m. today. Stephanie Wahlquist of West Cook Wild Ones will be talking about seed starting, and I plan to overcome my weird anxiety about seed starting and actually just try starting already, after hearing her talk.
I would like to set small things growing right now.
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On January 25th, it was unseasonably warm, and I noticed that my forsythia was covered in tight little buds. I took the opportunity to prune the shrub, giving it a nicer shape, and brought all the trimmed branches inside. I soaked them overnight in a warm bathtub (which was slightly messy to clean up, but not too bad!), gave them a fresh cut the next day, and put them in a pitcher of water. I’ve been changing the water every few days, wondering if anything would happen.

The first picture was taken February 4th, by which point lots of little green leaves had emerged. Cheery, but I was still hoping for flowers! A little worried that I had done something wrong. But today I noticed that two little yellow flowers had emerged, hooray! I expect that the branches will be covered in them before long. It may have been 0 degrees outside yesterday, and not much warmer today, but in my dining room, it’s spring. 

All of which reminded me of a poem I wrote a long, long time ago…

flowers and branches

it started on the worst kind of day, the kind of day when your boots pinch and your head aches and there’s an itch on your back just where you can’t reach it. I had no one to scratch it. he was there and I was here and it was my own choice so I couldn’t exactly complain but I certainly wasn’t
happy. he had done something, I can’t remember what, to make it worse instead of making it better, and I just hurt. so I asked him to send me flowers. please. he sounded startled but agreed and that was a small victory though bitter too. nine years together and only recently had he decided that it would be acceptable to give me flowers. as long as I didn’t take them the wrong way.

he had given me flowers twice at that point. firstly: when I was terribly sick, at the instigation of our old lover who was visiting town. she chose them, orange mums. secondly: when we were buying groceries at the small gourmet store and I asked him to buy me some flowers. he agreed. I chose them, yellow daffodils. he did pay both times, so technically they were from him. more importantly, he agreed they were
from him. baby steps.

these flowers that I asked to be sent to me were another baby step. he agreed. casually, and I wasn’t sure that he would remember. when days went by with no sign of them I assumed that he had forgotten. he didn’t often forget things but sometimes he forgot quite important things. then
a message on my machine said that they had tried to deliver flowers but I hadn’t been home. then there were three days of missed messages and missed delivery attempts and after three days of this the flowers, all the
flowers, started to feel like they were maybe more trouble than they were worth. he was apologetic on the phone, though he really had no control over the situation.

finally they arrived, only two days before I was leaving town, and so there was little time to enjoy them. lilies, little red berries, tall elegant dry branches. they were rather impressive, actually, and he had chosen them himself, or at least something like them. the web page warned him that they did not guarantee the same flowers would be delivered. I determined to enjoy them, despite everything, and for two days I took very deliberate pleasure in my flowers. then I left. I thought about throwing them out before leaving. one of the lilies was already drooping, and they would be sad and dead by the time I returned three weeks later. I have an unfortunate tendency to see omens in this sort of thing, and expecting to be depressed, it didn’t seem wise to leave them to rot and greet me with
foul scent and mold on my return. but they were still beautiful. I left them in the vase.

one week with him. a few days with an old lover. a little more than a week with my family. a miserable cold. when I took the taxi back from the airport I wanted nothing more than to be home, even though being home meant being alone again. I unlocked the door, turned on the light,
climbed the stairs. and at the top of the stairs, the dining room, and in that room, the dining table, and on that table, the vase of flowers. the lilies had gone dry as dust, and crumbled to the touch; the red berries were dry and hollow. there was no scent. but the tall thin branches had
put out fresh leaves, pale and green and very much alive. once I had cleared away the dust and rubbish, they were lovely.

my first thought was that I should make a poem about these branches, that they were just too good a metaphor to waste. something about not giving up, about how you think something’s dead, but if you just hang in there
and clear away the old rubbish, you may find something beautiful, yadda yadda yadda, you know the routine, squeezed into a few lines, some good clean words, maybe some rhymes. but that was no good, really.

it was simpler than that in the end (though longer, too, unsurprisingly). those branches, those leaves — that is how I am, when I think of him. he is green leaves within me. I live in the heart of winter, and despite everything, he is the spring.

January 6, 2001

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A lot of tropicals go very dormant in the winter, dropping most, or even all of their leaves. I find it a little scary, to be honest, because I’m not at all sure that the plant (a bougainvillea, in this case) is still alive. You can bend the branches to see if they’re still supple — if they’re snapping, that’s a bad sign. But mostly, I end up just waiting and hoping, that when the warm weather returns and it’s save to return them to my sunny porch, the leaves and flowers will come back too.

In the meantime, some grocery story primroses underplanted add a nice note of cheery color in January, and don’t make me feel quite so despairing when I glance in this plant’s direction. They should last a few (or even several) weeks, and when they’re finishing up, you can dig them up and plant them in the garden, in a nice part-shade woodlandy spot, where they should be perennial (in zones 4-8), returning for a number of years and even spreading by seed

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It’s called forcing, when you cut branches from the trees and shrubs and bring them in to flower early, but I prefer to think of it as gently encouraging. We had an unseasonably warm few days last week, and my forsythia was heavy with buds. The contractor who’d planted it for me years ago had asked why I wanted such a weedy shrub. At the time, my only answer was that my parents had had a row of them, and they seemed so cheery in early spring — I’m not normally a yellow fan, but I make an exception for forsythia (and daffodils).

Now, though, I’d add that weediness can be a virtue. That first photo is the forsythia unpruned. I went in with my pruners and clipped away branches that were going off to the sides, falling over and touching the ground, crossing other branches. I neatened up the whole shrub, which gave me a nice armful of branches to take back inside.

Then a few sharp splits to the stems (you can take a hammer to them, if you prefer), and submerged in a warm bath I had ready. I left them overnight (putting a towel over the stems to weigh them down into the water, as they kept stubbornly popping up). And now they’re waiting in water; I’ll try to remember to change it every few days. The buds should continue to swell, and then open, sometime in the next 1-8 weeks, giving me a host of little yellow flowers that shout the news that spring is coming, spring is almost here.


In the depths of a Chicago winter, I need the reminder.

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As I headed out to the airport, I had to pause and take a quick pic of this beauty.

(I’m safely at the gate now, with plenty of time to spare, but I had a moment of panic that I was going to miss a flight because I was obsessively snapping photos. I feel like there’s a lesson there, about how I pack as much as possible into my life, but also feel like I must document every moment, and maybe I should just chill a little…but that’s not likely to happen, is it?)

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Winter blooms

It’s time to plant your paperwhites and amaryllises, if you haven’t yet. Fifteen minutes with some rocks (or soil, if you prefer), and you’ll have flowers in December, January, February, March.

You can find them at big hardware stores, like Home Depot, some big grocery stores, or via mail order. I usually get my paperwhites from White Flower Farm, because I like the Ziva a little better than the ones I find at a hardware store — they tend to give double-blooms on strong stems, and don’t get quite as leggy and floppy.

I succession plant my paperwhites, planting a few more (usually in odd-number clumps, three or five, for a more natural look) every two weeks, so I have blooms all spring. (They do have a strong scent, which I like, but not everyone does.) Paperwhites don’t generally re-bloom. I absolutely adore the tall green shoots and delicate white flowers; a note of freshness in the midst of a long winter. And they mix beautifully with traditional Christmas festive decor, especially when held upright with bright copper stakes.


I also do both South African amaryllis (which blooms in December-January), and Dutch amaryllis (which blooms in February-March). In theory, you can get them to re-bloom year after year if you plant them in soil and follow the right process; this is the first year I’ll be trying that. They usually will need staking too. Glorious on a holiday table; they also make a great gift.

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Back deck tropicals — mandevilla, bougainvillea, duranta, plus a Christmas cactus (slightly different category). It’s lovely going out on my tiny back deck and being surrounded by a little taste of the tropics.
I’ll be bringing them in for the winter soon, but not quite yet. I have been limited in my love of tropicals by only having one sunny room suitable for overwintering them, although I do have a friend who has kitted out a room in her basement with grow lights, which is giving me IDEAS.
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Cancer log 193: Art.

When I was invited to participate in this breast cancer gallery exhibition, I wasn’t sure what kind of imagery I’d end up with for the finished piece. I felt a faint pressure to keep the work positive, uplifting, and that made me cranky, because my experience of breast cancer had plenty of darkness to it. I was a little tempted to slather black paint over the whole thing and have done with it.
But that’s not really me. I had one idea that I thought would work well, to build a harness to surround the torso, sort of a warrior woman kind of thing, calling back to Wonder Woman and Amazon mythology. But that wasn’t really me either — I didn’t experience cancer as a fight, a battle, the way it’s so often depicted.
In the end, I thought about what sustained me, through that difficult year, and I came up with three things: my garden, my writing, and my friends and family. They’re all represented here. I started with a blue background, the color of a sunny sky on a beautiful day. I added marbleized gold and gold glitter — that’s my friends (both online and off, and even a few total strangers) and family, who gave so much support in so many different ways.
Then I added a poem, “Tornado,” that I wrote during the year of treatment, a difficult poem, but a hopeful one too. I gathered flowers and leaves from my garden and the grocery store and pressed them, and then placed them on the piece. The front and back were approached differently — I started with bougainvillea petals on the left breast, where the cancer had been, because bougainvillea will always mean Sri Lanka to me, and that’s a piece of my heart. They scatter outward from there, pansies and hydrangea and mums and even a poisonous oleander blossom, as if picked up and tossed about in the storm.
On the back, I composed a little differently — a crown of hydrangea blooms above what looks a little like a face, or a mask. Sometimes, cancer felt like that — as if I were overexposed, with all the world knowing what was happening to me, and all I wanted was to disappear, to hide. And then roses, for the people who live in my heart, with a scattering of petals and greenery beneath. Green for life, and healthy growth emerging.
I didn’t have to make something pretty, but in the end, I’m glad I did. That’s important to me, and is what I’m often trying to do as a writer — to take pain and try to make beauty from it, when I can.
We knew it would rain today, but
driving to the first chemo appointment,
the radio upgrades the warnings –
thunderstorms, yes, the drops hammer
against the windshield. But hail too,
strong winds, the chance of a tornado.
The garden is waking slowly, early snowdrops
giving way to scilla and chiondoxa,
tiny and tough. With rising warmth, bluebells
and crocus emerge, daffodils open. Cool whites
and blues are joined by warmer tones; pink
hyacinths release their scent –
washed away in today’s storms.
Some flowers may survive. Others will be beaten
down, petals tattered, leaves and stems dragging
in the mud. Tomorrow I will walk my garden
and count the toll of devastation, mourn each
brave blossom – my hands dug them in,
planted them deep, for this?
But roots survive, the bulbs beneath the soil.
Most daffodils still hold themselves tight-budded,
will open when the sun returns; the tulips
will spring forth, straight and proud and tall.
Into every life a little rain must fall. Last night,
we read over the lists of symptoms and side effects.
No toxins in my soil, but we still pour them
into my body, to fight this strange unwanted growth.
At garden club, I ask, despairing, what to do
about the burdock – I dig and dig, but it keeps
coming back, the bastard. A long taproot, tenacious.
She says even eco-conscious sorts
may resort to poison in the end. But rather
than pouring it over the plant, the soil,
they paint it on, delicately, with a paintbrush.
The new drugs work like a paintbrush – focused,
targeted. We hope their poisonous effects
will be lessened and contained. There will still,
undoubtedly, be some damage.
We ask the universe for a favor today.
Let the worst of the storms pass us by,
let the tornado touch down, lightly, and rise again.
Let the winds dissipate
while there are still flowers on the bud.
Let the sun return.
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Press On

Accompaniments done, on to rice and breads. A little slower than anticipated, because I had a flower pressing emergency. Huzzah for the microwave, but it still took some time to get through the first wave. Also spent a little while pruning the hellstrip. V. satisfying, rehabilitating some of the damage from the road construction. It’s going to look very nice in a week or so, when it’s all done.

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