The Rose

I’m one of those offbeat people who think a Christmas card isn’t complete unless you stuff a heartfelt letter or perhaps a comical poem inside. It’s been my modus operandi most of my adult life. I know it probably annoys the heck out of some of my friends and family who have a hard time deciding whether to round-file it or read it on the off chance that it might come up in conversation, but a tradition once begun is hard to abandon. A few years ago I actually did take a break. This year I’m back at it. Here’s why … and, not surprisingly, here’s the letter.

“My heart to yours. Your heart to mine. Love is a light that shines from heart to heart.” (John Denver)

The long road to this year’s Christmas letter began last spring when a fellow writer said we ought to be journaling during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic for posterity’s sake. Who better than a couple of regular gals with a gift for words to tell it like it is/was for the masses? I agreed but never followed through. The words just wouldn’t come. Now suddenly – after all the laugh-out-loud jokes about how slowly time has passed – we are actually nearing the end of this cruel year. And I finally know what I want to say.

Looking back, I fared pretty well when the crisis first made home the safest place to be. As a retiree, it was all about stocking up on food and household essentials, hunkering down with the person I love the most, and immersing myself in cherished projects. Then spring came, and the dependable beauty of my rose garden kept me going through the summer. Never have I been more grateful for every promising bud and breathtaking blossom.

Too soon, though, the garden went dormant. Every day since, I’ve felt myself sinking. The surging pandemic, the merry-go-round of hateful politics and gut-wrenching division, the extended isolation from family and friends, and a handful of non-Covid deaths and health misfortunes in my personal circle collectively beat me down into near hopelessness. Even the encouraging announcement of vaccines didn’t seem to lift me up.

But just the other day, something finally pried open the corner of my heart where despair was growing. Like little wisps of smoke from a flickering candle, the hopelessness began to escape.

What was responsible? Why, it was a rose! A rose in freezing weather. A rose as big as my hand with petal upon petal spilling into a perfect sphere. A rose so fragrant that if you close your eyes, you would swear you were out in the garden in springtime. A rose specially preserved to last for months. I never even knew this was a possibility, let alone expected to possess one.

And who was responsible? Why, the dearest friend a person could ever hope to have. I’m not sure she imagined how much the rose would mean to me, although I have no doubt she went out of her way to get it. That’s her nature – endlessly kind, unapologetically generous, spreading love as if it was fairy dust, a true angel on Earth.

Which brings me to the real point of this story. It wasn’t the rose that climbed into my heart to ease my despair. It was my friend.

I so needed this gentle reminder. A kind heart — mine to yours, yours to mine — has always been the way to survive troubled times. I forgot for a while, but I’m more of a believer now than ever.

Believe with me, won’t you? There’s never been a better time to shine our lights and watch hope bloom.

Yours Never More Truly, Laurie Samsel Olson

Merry Ginger Muses

The purpose of this space is to tell stories about my garden and connect lessons learned with other aspects of life. Today everything is turned around.

This morning I spent an hour or so preparing dough for gingerbread men. I’ve never made them. I’ve never even thought about it. Yet, for reasons that elude me, I recently put them on the growing list of things I want to try before my window of opportunity to try new things expires.

So there I was, my grandmother’s old apron tied around my waist, chuckling when I poured molasses into a measuring cup for the first time and realized where the term “slow as molasses” originated. A few minutes later I was laughing again when I dug my cookie cutters out of the back of a cabinet and noticed that the gingerbread man was not actually a cutter. It was a toy from a kitchen set we gave our kids 40-some Christmases ago.

Merry Gingerbread Man“That says two things,” I told my husband. “I hang onto the weirdest stuff, and I’m not much of a baker. Otherwise, I would have noticed before now.”

As amusing as my little adventure was, making the gingerbread dough got into my head in a way I didn’t expect. Sifting the dry ingredients together reminded me of sifting fertilizer into the soil in the garden. Patting the dough into blocks reminded me of patting water and dirt together to build a protective berm around plants to minimize runoff from the drip system.

I began to wonder. If I’m brave enough to try something new in the kitchen, why am I hesitant to try something new in the garden?

For the last few years, I’ve been curious about encouraging hips to form on my roses and harvesting them for tea or potpourri. I’ve even thought about planting a few new bushes more suited to this purpose than my current array. Yet, season after season goes by without a step in that direction.

Why? Well, I guess I’m like nearly everyone else. We dream of things – large and small things like career changes and cookies, costly and free things like vacations and nature walks – but dreaming doesn’t turn into doing. At least not often enough.

As my gingerbread dough chills and I’m writing this piece, I have two windows open on my internet browser. One is a gardening blog that explores how to grow rose hips and suggests using Rugosa roses. The other is a breeder’s website that explains just what a Rugosa is.

I consider my Google searches a good sign. After all, internet surfing for a novice-friendly recipe is the first step I took toward making gingerbread men this Christmas. Maybe, just maybe, spring will see Rugosas in my garden.

At the moment, I don’t know how my first gingerbread men will turn out. Crunchy or gooey, misshapen or perfect – it doesn’t matter. I love those goofy, round-faced guys already. They’re not just cookies anymore. They’re my Merry Ginger Muses.

Have a Little Faith

When winter comes to the rose garden, you rely on faith that you’ve done enough to get your precious bushes through the harsh months ahead.

For me, that means no pruning after mid-September, raking fall debris that could harbor destructive pests, and blanketing mulch around the base and over the crown of every bush. I consider the last step essential in the high desert since the overnight temperatures dip below freezing from November through March.

It isn’t until April, sometimes May, that I know whether my efforts were successful. Knock on wood, I’ve been pretty lucky. Most years all the canes green up, new growth appears, buds form, and beautiful flowers bloom.

The faith that gardeners and farmers place in the Earth is a lot like the faith people exercise this time of year. Maybe you hand a five dollar bill to a ragged man. Perhaps you pay for the coffee the person in the next car ordered. You don’t really know the effect these deeds will have on the beneficiary. You do it on faith that the gesture will make their day just a little bit better.

This year I wanted to take that concept and go big. I wasn’t particularly interested in the typical things people do and that I happily did alongside co-workers before I retired. Christmas dinner, Christmas presents, and other seasonal tokens somehow didn’t sound as helpful as paying a medical bill, wiping a school lunch tab clean, or filling an empty gas tank. As I described it to the social services specialist I contacted, “A Christmas gesture but not necessarily a Christmas need.”

In the end, I took on a wish list for siblings whose parents couldn’t afford to buy presents. It wasn’t my vision, but I was assured it truly was the highest need. I dived in with enthusiasm and recruited my family to help. We checked off nearly every item on the list, threw in a few surprises, and included an unsolicited present for the parents.

I choked up when my husband and I delivered everything to the collection point. At the time, I couldn’t really figure out why. It was just a pile of ordinary gifts. We’ll never even know who these people are. Then it hit me.

Have FaithIt isn’t about the gifts. They will be opened, and the kids will exclaim in momentary delight. The clothes will be worn and outgrown. The treasured toys will wear out.

What will remain is the memory that someone they didn’t know helped them have a nice Christmas. Even if only the parents are aware of the secret, the underlying message will become part of this family’s story. There is good in the world. There are people who care.

Just as I put faith in winterizing my garden, I’m putting faith in our Christmas gesture. One day the effort will bloom. We may not see the flower, but I have to believe that its beauty will make the world just a little bit better.