Bloom Even If No One Is Watching

In the spring when I walk through my rose garden, I often feel overwhelmed with the abundance of blooms and explosion of color. I raise my arms in joyful awe while uttering delighted oohs and aahs that must make my neighbors wonder what’s happening on the other side of the fence.

This time of year the experience is much more placid.

The bushes are drifting off to sleep. The smattering of late buds tease me as they take their sweet time to open. I watch them daily like a mother bird waiting for eggs to hatch. Typically, I know where each and every one is incubating, and I’m poised to greet them when they burst into breathtaking splendor.

Despite my tender devotion, twice in the last week I walked right past hidden jewels.

On Monday, I was taking a second lap around the garden when a bright splash of red deep in a Sedona bush caught my eye. Two days later, as I was evaluating my George Burns for fall pruning, a white and red blossom tucked into the canes near the crown surprised me. In both cases, I whispered sweet nothings to the flowers and stroked the soft petals as though they might be the last I would touch in my lifetime.

If I had never seen them at all, it would have been a shame. But, I realized, only a shame for me. The roses may have basked in the shower of my adoration, but they quite obviously didn’t need it to bloom. They did exactly what they were born to do, and did it remarkably well, without so much as a glance from the gardener.

I wondered. Do I have as much humility? Would I spend time writing a blog and a full-length novel, growing flowers and taking pictures of them, if I didn’t expect someone to appreciate the result? Is it all about attention and approval? Or, as some say, is it really the journey that matters?

After deep reflection, I’m convinced it’s about the journey.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good pat on the back as much as the next guy or gal. I feel fulfilled when someone is moved by something I’ve written. The point is, though, I wouldn’t stop doing what I do if no one was looking.

In the hierarchy of life’s hallowed purposes, embracing our unique gifts is second only to sharing love. In fact, in its own way, exercising our gifts is an expression of love. Love for the source of the gifts – whatever you believe that source happens to be – and love for the singular soul you are.

Every word I write, rose I nurture, and picture I take contributes to my growth as an individual. I understand myself better, have more insight about the reason I’m here, and feel more at peace. With all that as the reward, I would truly be content to bloom unseen for the remainder of my days. In so doing, if I touch someone’s heart, all the better.

Thanks so much for reading.

Trust the Gardener

“My roses seemed oblivious to the drama.”

I made that observation in my last post (Keep Calm and Carry On) while describing my unfortunate encounter with fungi in the garden this summer.

Today, while continuing my work to treat the problem, I also continued to wonder why the roses were blooming so beautifully despite the attack by an enemy I’ve nicknamed unscrupulous slime balls. Unbidden, the words …

Trust the Gardener

… suddenly floated across my thoughts as if the whispering voice from Field of Dreams dropped in from Iowa. Just like the astonished Kevin Costner character, I spent the rest of my morning trying to figure out what exactly the voice meant.

Are my roses blooming because they trust me to worry about and address the nasty organisms assaulting their foliage? If so, I’d like to think they’ve put their trust in the right person. I love each and every one of those bushes in equal measure and would do just about anything to help them thrive.

But then, I thought, what if the voice was not answering my question about the roses but talking to me? Advising me?

I was raised in a Christian household, although I can’t say we consistently attended church or knew a whole lot about what’s in the Bible. I wouldn’t call our family religious then. And I’m not religious now.

What I am is someone who passionately believes in a higher power. Whether it’s the universe, the collective unconscious, the force, or the Good Lord Himself, there is a sacred, spiritual energy that connects everything. Love and goodwill run through it like currents in a river, and it grows stronger when we link into it through prayers and positive thoughts. I have faith that it’s there because I feel it.

Maybe the voice among the roses this morning was reminding me to trust this higher power that I so strongly believe in. Trust that I’m not alone in my struggle with the fungi … or in any of the struggles in my life … or even in coping with “the overwhelming level of ugliness that exists in our world today” (as I wrote in my last post).

Interestingly enough, for someone who doesn’t know a whole lot about the Bible, one verse I do know is this: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the Gardener” (John 15:1). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it came to mind this morning not long after the voice whispered in my ear.

There really is a great deal of comfort in knowing that someone’s got your back. Metaphorically speaking, I’ve got my roses’ backs. Spiritually speaking, the Gardener has my back … and yours.

Trust the Gardener

Keep Calm and Carry On

Powdery mildew. Black spot. Rust. These are not conditions a rose enthusiast wants to see in the garden. They’re all forms of fungal disease and, unfortunately, my roses were hit this year.

I’d like to say that the first thing I did after discovering there was a problem was to identify the source and fix it. You know what they say about any kind of hole you want to crawl out of. Stop digging, for crying out loud.

Alas, my first reaction was to literally cry out loud.

When I collected myself and did my due diligence, I realized we needed to reprogram the entire drip system. The roses were getting watered in the early evening along with everything else on the property that likes a little drink before bedtime. Roses prefer their brandy in the morning, thank you very much. It turns out, evening binges leave them with a nasty hangover and vulnerable to any sleazy fungi loitering around looking for an opportunity to stake their claim.

Reprogramming the drip system probably sounds easy-peasy … if you’re high-tech savvy. When I was a kid, adjusting the water meant moving a sprinkler from one side of the lawn to the other. Now it means entering numbers into something that looks like a bomb detonator. You have to know what sequence affects which drippers and whether to include said sequence in Program A, B or C. One mistake can foul up the whole thing.

For a 65-year-old who’s still trying to figure out how to stop text alerts after 9 p.m., the prospect of reprogramming the drip was paralyzing. Here’s where I pause and extend a thousand thank yous to my husband who did battle with the blasted thing for me … twice!

Arresting the source of the problem was only the first step, of course. Then I had to play surgeon and remove the diseased foliage. Next I tapped into my inner fireman and sprayed the bushes with some healing mist (an organic brand that promises not to kill bees or animals or humans along with the sleazy fungi).

All the while this was happening, I couldn’t help but notice that my roses seemed oblivious to the drama. They calmly continued to produce new foliage, grow new buds, and take my breath away with spectacular blooms. They continued to live their beautiful life despite the ugliness that threatened them. It was like they inherently knew what we humans must see repeatedly in memes and on coffee mugs, posters, and t-shirts before we realize the genuine wisdom embedded in it.

Keep calm and carry on.

It might seem impossible to live a beautiful life with the overwhelming level of ugliness that exists in our world today. I don’t need to waste space here to list the maladies. You know them by heart.

The question is, can we also teach our hearts to memorize the goodness that surrounds us? Can we still grow, learn, and bloom despite the drama? Can we spend every day spraying our personal healing mist on those around us to make their world just a little more beautiful?

I’d like to think we can.

All Part of the Experience

During the blooming season, posting pictures of the most stunning roses in my garden is an almost daily task. It’s like keeping a diary, and I admit to enjoying the compliments from friends and family.

Yet, I sometimes feel a little guilty. Deceptive maybe. Rarely does anything with a less than 90% perfection rating (on my personal scale) ever make it to social media.

That doesn’t mean I don’t love each and every bloom in my Garden of the Rocks and Roses. It simply means that my admirers see only what I choose to share.

Recently, a swath of new and aging roses on my Pumpkin Patch bush captivated me so completely that I posted pictures of it more than once. Friends responded with thumbs up and flattering comments. What they didn’t see, in close up, were the imperfections on some of the individual roses.

I see the imperfections daily but, to me, it’s all part of the experience. I learn from every flaw. Why are the edges of those petals black? Why do these leaves have dark blemishes? What should I do? Figure out the problems, resolve them, and keep moving forward, of course. Not surprisingly, the flaws make the near-perfect flowers seem even more miraculous.

Like so many lessons in the garden, it’s the same in the whole of life.

My husband and I celebrated the 45th anniversary of our first marriage on July 6th. You may think that’s an odd way of describing our annual commemoration, but it’s accurate. We were married on that day in 1974, divorced on Christmas Eve 2001, and married again on August 16, 2008.

When I announced the milestone on social media, I didn’t explain all that. I focused on the highlight, not the lowlights. My post began, “45 years ago today I married the love of my life.”

Sitting on our patio, chatting with visiting relatives around the time of our anniversary, someone asked whether we also celebrated on August 16th. Or, he wondered, have all the years just merged together.

Merged, I said. Most years I don’t even remember the August date.

Like all marriages, we’ve had wonderful stretches of nothing but smooth sailing and full hearts. We’ve also had periods of acrimony and hardship, and differences that threatened to end us forever.

Yet, even when we went our separate ways, the love was never really gone. We were on a Ross-and-Rachel-esque break that gave us both an opportunity to explore the world on our own. I won’t speak for my husband but, once I got over the initial shock of the split, I grew and flowered in life-changing ways.

Looking back, I wouldn’t trade anything about our relationship, nor would I wish for a do-over. I’m grateful for every thorny problem that needed to be resolved as well as every moment that rated 90% or better on my personal perfection scale. The flaws have truly made the near-perfect moments that much more miraculous.

It’s all part of the experience.

Grow Old With Me

Not every great picture of a rose needs to look like a tulip just beginning to open.

I ran across that observation when looking for tips about the kind of photographs the American Rose Society might want for its 2020 calendar. It stuck with me because, for the last 10 years, I’ve repeatedly roamed my own garden with digital camera in hand looking for exactly that.

After ruminating on this for a few days, I browsed through hundreds of rose pictures online. Some of the most striking shots were of roses that were nearly spent. In fact, I found myself strangely drawn to the older blooms – perhaps because I’m older myself.

It turns out I’ve made a grave mistake when I’ve passed by roses whose petals were fully open. The center stamen is absolutely stunning with its thread-like filaments tipped with bulbous anthers covered in golden pollen. If you want to photograph bees happily at work, that’s the time to pay attention.

Once the pollen is gone and the bees move on, you might think it’s time to deadhead. But you’d be so wrong. With a little patience, you’ll be treated to miraculous changes in color and texture. Rio Samba, a yellow and orange rose in its youth, turns red in adulthood and pink in old age. A Queen Elizabeth that looks smooth and stately when it’s first opening turns into a pink splash of delightful ruffles as it hits that familiar middle-age spread.

After all the petals have scattered, the green sepals that protected the original buds resemble five-pointed stars in a sea of green. But even that’s not the end. Rose hips – the bulbs that hold the stuff of future bushes or a hot cup of tea – are fascinating little vessels in their own right.

It’s certainly not a stretch of the imagination to liken the life of a rose to our own life cycle. Humans go through essentially the same stages, although we’re so slow about it that we have plenty of time to agonize over each change.

I’m my own best example. I look in the mirror and can’t see any sign of the skinny teenage girl who swam for the high school team, sang in the choir, and chased after skinny teenage boys. My long, blond hair morphed years ago into a short, white style befitting my age. My teeth, once perfectly straight thanks to two years of braces, are crooked again in a couple of places. I’m shorter, rounder, more ruffly, and less nimble.

Intellectually, I know I’m just as beautiful at age 65 as I was at age 16. Yet, vanity or ego or some other irksome quality in my psyche thinks I’m not picture material anymore. I pose for my adult kids when they want a shot of me for posterity, but I warn them they better not post them on social media.

Maybe it’s time to change all that. Maybe … just maybe … not every great picture of Laurie Samsel Olson was taken 50 years ago.

Home Is Where Love Resides

Recently I transferred the rocks from the grotto under one of our wisteria trellises to a raised planter that once housed a large, yellow mum. The idea was to move the rocks out of the line of fire when fall leaves drop and to a spot that would be easier on my knees during spring cleaning.

It turned out to be far more than that. As so often happens in my garden, the task took on special meaning for me – this time unexpectedly deep meaning.

The grotto rocks are not random stones. Some are river rocks from property we once owned on the slopes of Oregon’s Mt. Hood. Some are from our second honeymoon to Arizona. A few are souvenirs of a genealogy excursion to Montana. Some are cut stones handed down from my husband’s grandparents who were rockhounds. I could go on, but you get the idea. The stones mean something to us.

In their new location, I carefully arranged each rock to create a world where tiny gnomes could live in fairy houses and frolic in a petrified forest. A wrought iron hose horse we’ve never mounted became a bridge. An old piece of driftwood my mother brought from the Oregon Coast became the welcoming arch. A string of tiny lights twinkles across it at twilight.

I found joy in this warm-weather project for the same reason setting up my Christmas village makes me happy in winter. The original four buildings that anchor the Christmas village, the evergreen trees, and a set of porcelain carol singers belonged to my father-in-law who passed away in 1992. In the grotto outdoors and in the Christmas town, the building blocks hold memories of places and people I’ve loved.

It’s more than that, though. Creating these little towns allows me to build worlds where I have final say over what happens. In real life, we don’t have that control.

Serendipitously, at the same time I was building the fairy garden, the house my grandmother lived in from 1944 to 1979 came on the market in the Los Angeles harbor town of San Pedro. Even though it’s a tiny cottage far away from my children and grandchildren, if I could afford the asking price, I would be talking to the realtor.

It’s home to me.

I never actually lived with my grandmother, but I spent so much time there that I went to the school nearest her house instead of the one nearest mine. In the back room, I used a set of worn-out children’s blocks to build houses, furnished them with plastic beds and tables, and arranged little Disney figurines here and there. In the narrow living room, I watched cartoons and roller derby. In the kitchen, I watched my grandmother scoop bacon grease into a sizzling hot skillet, ate the eggs she fried, and spread strawberry jam too thick on my toast. The memories are so thick I could eat them, too.

When my grandmother died, I was 24 and had no control over what happened to the house. I was the second youngest of 25 first cousins, but more importantly, all 10 sets of our parents were alive and well and in charge of the situation. As might be expected in such a large family, the house was sold. I not only lost my grandmother. I felt like I lost my connection to home. It’s haunted me for decades and spurred an endless quest for a replacement.

Creating the grotto and fairy garden, thinking of the Christmas village, remembering the houses I made of old blocks, and learning that my grandmother’s house was on the market brought me to a conclusion – one that I hope will finally rid me of recurring nightmares about being lost in a city and not being able to find my way home.

Home is not a place you live. People die. Deeds change. Sometimes walls crumble and gardens go to seed. Families scatter. The only thing that endures, the only thing that doesn’t slip through your fingers, is the memory of love.

Lately I’ve been worried about what will happen to our house when my husband and I are gone. We’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my life, and it’s the closest replacement to my grandmother’s home that I’m ever going to get. I imagine our children will decide to sell. The new owners will renovate and perhaps change the landscaping if they think our garden is too much work. My children and grandchildren will not have the joy of returning home, just as I could not return to my grandmother’s home. I wish with all my heart I could spare them that loss.

Today I’m beginning to realize that it doesn’t really matter. As long as our family creates loving memories here, our legacy will endure and our children and grandchildren will always be able to return to this place in their thoughts.

Certainly, they may take some rocks from the grotto, transplant a rosebush into their own yards, and put some of our knick-knacks on display in their living rooms. But those things won’t matter if they don’t also associate the keepsakes with love.

Because here’s what I think could be the answer to my 40-year itch.

Home is not a place you live. Home is where love resides … even if its resting place is only in memory.

 

 

Pollyanna Grows Up

When I express my almost unshakeable optimism, people who don’t know me well call me Pollyanna as though it’s a gentle joke to wake me up. I know the tone of voice and the body posture. The world isn’t all sunshine and roses, they seem to say.

What these well-meaning folks don’t realize is that I don’t want to live in a world where sunshine and roses are reserved for days that are otherwise bright and beautiful. We need them on dark days most of all.

Nothing could prove my point more than last week’s spring freeze.

It came after our weeping mulberry tree was covered in new shoots. After the roses began to sprout buds. After the lilac bush was topped with panicles of small, purple blooms and the wisteria was dripping with clusters of lavender blossoms.

We knew the frost was coming. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much we could do about it except pray it wasn’t a killer.

Two days after the freeze, I walked around the meandering paths of our backyard checking on every tree and shrub. I was glad to see that our lilac and the bushes in my centerpiece rose garden survived with only minor injuries. The weeping mulberry and wisteria were not so lucky. Except for a few protected branches inside its umbrella-like crown, all the new growth on the mulberry had succumbed. The wisteria blossoms drooped sadly, withered and deflated from the unforgiving chill.

Admittedly, I was feeling a bit deflated, too – until I walked around the edge of the crabapple tree in the middle of our secret garden.

You’ve heard of moments that take your breath away. Well, this one did. I audibly gasped with delight and joy. Hundreds of healthy, yellow buds covered the vines of my two Lady Banks roses, and several groups of the tiny beauties had already opened in sunny splendor.

As I wrote in my November 5, 2018 post, “One Brief Shining Moment,” this rose variety isn’t even supposed to do that well in my planting zone and is quite vulnerable to frost. Yet there it was, blooming gaily like nothing grim had happened.

In that sublime moment, I felt just as glad as Pollyanna in Eleanor H. Porter’s 1913 children’s book and the 1960 Disney movie. I could clearly hear her happy voice in my head.

When you’re hunting for the glad things, you sort of forget the other kind.

Certainly, I wish the mulberry and wisteria had fared better in the sudden cold. But just as certainly, I came back into the house with a smile on my face and a spring in my step because of the Lady Banks.

I was introduced to Pollyanna at the age of 6. I loved her immediately, probably because I already saw myself in her. Today I’m grown up. Very grown up, in fact. I’m 65. But I love Pollyanna as much as ever. And I’m never going to stop hunting for the glad things.

Pollyanna? Yes, that’s me. So glad to meet you!

Lady Banks Roses 5.5.19

Dirty Jokes

If you read my blog, if you know me well, or even if you accidentally breathe near me, you know I love my garden. It’s a constant source of comfort, peace, and inspiration.

What you may not know is that, at times, it’s also like a slapstick episode of I Love Lucy. Oh, the comedy lurking in every spade of earth!

Take the past two days.

Yesterday I tried out the new gardener’s bench I was given for my recent birthday. Right side up it’s the ideal height for deadheading roses. Upside down it’s a knee pad with tall braces to help me get this creaky body back to a standing position.

There I was, cleaning last fall’s mulch away from the crown of a rosebush and contemplating the amazing review I would write about this magical bench. I leaned back on my heels and crunch! I suddenly didn’t need the tall braces to rise. Thorny canes on the bush behind me took care of that. My legs and my fanny made a perfect sandwich out of those lanky stalks. I’m thinking my product review should contain a warning that the package doesn’t.

Back-up mirror not included.

Undaunted by yesterday’s rear-ender, I was back in the garden this morning. Part of my early spring routine is to give each of my 40+ rosebushes a dose of special fertilizer. The brand I’ve been using for years comes in a large jug with a cap that requires you to squeeze and push down while you turn it.

This year, not even a month after my 65th birthday, I couldn’t get the blasted cap off. On about the third try, I started to mutter under my breath about the irony of putting childproof caps on a product that I’m pretty sure older adults use more than anyone else. I finally got it off, but my letter of indignant outrage is going to go something like this.

Hey, Fertilizer People! Is anybody home? If the pharmacy will put an easy open cap on prescription bottles for seniors, why can’t you make a cap for 65+ gardeners that doesn’t require the help of Superman to open? Superman being my grandchild, of course.

Sometimes ridiculous things don’t actually happen, but they play out in my head anyway. My musings typically start with near misses or what ifs and end with imaginary headlines.

Rose Enthusiast Blinded by Cane She Was Pruning: She didn’t see that one coming.

Local Woman Trips and Dies in Garden While Husband Watches TV: She somehow managed to dial his cell number, but he didn’t answer.

Early-Bird Gardener Mauled by Cheeky Cottontails: Morning is our time to play in the yard!

Of course, it wouldn’t be all bad if something completely ridiculous happened. Ridiculous stories go viral every day. It would make my little gardening blog an overnight sensation. It might even inspire an epic spoof on Saturday Night Live!

Move over, Lucy. Oh, cottontails! Come out, come out wherever you are!

Bunny - Spring 2018

 

 

 

Garden Envy

During a visit to Oregon this month, I walked into my brother-in-law’s living room and was mesmerized by four old-growth camellia bushes outside a large side window. They were so heavy with stunning blossoms that they took my breath away.

Never have I felt more garden envy than I did in that moment.

Picture hundreds of pink ruffled tutus dotted with fresh Pacific Northwest rain. Hundreds of red sunbursts with yellow stamens reminiscent of Hawaiian hibiscus. Hundreds of paper white puffs tucked amid broad, green leaves like a ready-made bridal bouquet.

Immediately I wanted this kind of evergreen fairytale in my own yard.

Alas, living in the high desert of Northern Nevada, trying to replicate the splendor of these camellias is impossible. They do well in shade or dappled sunlight, which are in pretty short supply here. They don’t like extreme heat or alkaline soil, which is exactly what we do have. I still thought I might try one until I called our local nursery. “Too tender. We don’t carry them.”

It’s not that we don’t have many attractive choices for desert landscapes. Roses, honeysuckle, moonlight broom, lilacs, forsythia and bridal wreath spirea all usher in springtime with colorful blooms and heavenly scents.

Can I help it if I also have what can only be described as a spiritual adoration for everything else God created on this good earth?

With that question in mind, I found it delightfully serendipitous that I felt this soulful garden envy at the same time I was reading a new book called Holy Envy.

Written by Barbara Brown Taylor, the memoir is a treasure chest of insights the author gained as a professor of Religion 101 at a Christian liberal arts college. She’s an Episcopalian priest and, in the process of leading spiritual field trips for 20 years, she found something to love about all religions while remaining faithful to her own.

From Hinduism, she learned that religion is not a competitive sport. From Judaism, she learned it is not our beliefs that define us but what we do and how we live. From Buddhism, which is actually more a way of life than a religion, she learned that evangelism in its purest form is like a rose. “It simply spreads its fragrance, allowing people to respond as they will.”

Perhaps what I like best about her story, though, is the comparison of religions to the ocean. Each is a wave. Together, they are the sea.

Gardening is very much like that. The robust camellia belt across the humid southern states and up the west coast is enviable. But it’s not all there is. Here, purple sage blooms throughout the desert summer but wouldn’t like the moisture and shade the camellia covets. Likewise, the succulent yucca, with its impressive stalk of bell-shaped flowers, would disappoint a gardener in a cold, wet climate.

Garden envy or holy envy, I live in constant wonder that there is something to love in every wave in the sea.

 

It’s All in Your Head

The joy of gardening is all in your head.

That is never more true than at this time of year when spring is struggling to keep the calendar’s promise. Mother Nature teases us with scattered days of pleasantries, abruptly disappoints us with stormy behavior, and repeatedly threatens to give us the dreaded cold shoulder.

By the time she finally warms up to our adoration, most gardeners have already worked through the entire growing season in their heads. I, for one, do more gardening while sitting by the window sipping warm coffee than I ever do outside.

Even as I write this, I’m mulling over the idea of planting a climbing rose in a small splash of bare earth by the front walk. I’m contemplating how to elevate the grotto in my secret garden so I don’t aggravate my aging knees every spring clearing winter debris from the rocks. And I’m considering whether to trim a creeping juniper away from a footpath or drape the spears over a low barrier.

Once I get to these tasks, sweat will sting my eyes and underused muscles will scream. But the hard work – the creative process that gives my brain cells a run for their money – will be far behind me.

This process is likely to be just as familiar if you’re a dancer, an artist, a musician or a “creative type” in any discipline. Just replace the word “gardening” in my opening line with anything you happen to fancy.

As a writer, it’s actually a required step in our secret playbook. Whether I’m composing a blog, an article or a book, I spend hours in thought before I ever sit down at my computer.

Recently I watched Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks and, for me, the best moment of the film came in the first 15 minutes. The ever disagreeable Mary Poppins’ author, P.L. Travers, wasn’t even plotting a storyline when she turned away from her frustrated visitor, looked out a window, and tested a metaphor to describe the pink blossoms on a flowering tree.

I’m fairly certain most of the family watching the film with me wouldn’t even remember that line, let alone be affected by it. I, however, can’t forget it. I’m forever hunting the same kind of metaphors.

Do the purple flowers dripping from the branches of our locust tree look more like clusters of grapes or kaleidoscopes of butterflies?

In the spirit of dynamic retirement, my experience with the creative process is playing out in yet another arena. In the last six months, I’ve spent a good amount of time thinking about taking up watercolor à la Georgia O’Keefe or impressionist painting in the style of Claude Monet – and no time at all actual trying either one. While I might be tempted to beat myself up for such willful procrastination, I choose instead to see this time as the prelude to a new kind of rapture.

Like gardening and writing, the joy of it is all in my head.

Purple Robe Locust