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.

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

Run for the Roses

While browsing around my garden last week, I was surprised that the roses most anxious for spring are two that were not bred for the Northern Nevada climate.

Run for the RosesMy 2016 Portland Rose Festival Parade Roses, started in an Oregon nursery and transported here on faith, are greening up in eager anticipation of the blooming season. Even better, ruby shoots of new growth are forming on the emerald canes.

Like a prize stallion in a run for the roses, I expect that the rich, pink buds of these transplants will burst out of the starting gate before most of my other bushes have saddled up for the race. In fact, I’d bet my last dollar on that.

The value of going first, of not being afraid to bloom while others watch and wait, is a notion that actually occurred to me last summer. On bushes that produce roses in bouquet style, I noticed that typically one bud will explode in a flash of brilliant color while those around it seem to creep toward maturity. It’s as though the one is leading the way saying, “Come on, everybody. If I can do it, so can you.”

Greta Thunberg is like that.

If you don’t know the name, let me introduce you. She’s the 16-year-old Swedish girl who was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her fearless and determined effort to raise awareness about climate change. Correction. Her effort to get adults to do something about climate change.

Go FirstLast August, when she first began school walkouts and protests in front of the Swedish parliament, she was a lone figure. Now around 70,000 youth in 400 cities regularly walk out of school on Fridays to demonstrate their concern. And get this. Last week more than 1.5 million kids in 125 countries participated in a worldwide climate strike.

It’s worth mentioning that Greta has inspired this impressive youth movement even with the challenge of Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s on the Autism spectrum, and one of the characteristics is difficulty with social interaction. For one thing, someone with Asperger’s may continue a conversation past socially acceptable norms because they don’t notice the social cues that signal most of us to shut up.

Let that sink in.

Is it strange that a 65-year-old woman who grows roses in Nevada is in absolute awe of a 16-year-old who has captured global attention?

Most of us will never achieve a fraction of Greta’s influence. But we can learn something from her and from my Oregon roses growing in the Nevada desert. They aren’t afraid to go first. And we shouldn’t be either.

Are you holding back on something? Is there a dream that you’ll “someday” pursue or a movement you’ll “someday” support? Are you waiting for someone else to test the waters?

Don’t wait anymore. Jump in. Go first. Bloom first. Or as Dan Fogelberg sang in 1982, Run for the Roses.

“It’s the chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance, and it’s high time you joined in the dance.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdDwm3QIwfg

Heart and Soul

Every rosebush in my garden has my heart. If one begins to struggle, it also has my soul.

From deep within, I draw upon my natural instincts to tend to the afflicted and distressed. It doesn’t matter what they need. If it’s in my power to provide it, then I provide it.

More water? I drag the heavy hose across the yard to supplement the daily ration from the drip system. Special fertilizer? I drop to my knees to sift healing granules into the soil. Strategic pruning? I gladly reach inside the thorny web to clip a sickly cane or invasive sucker.

And always, I speak of their beauty in warm tones, gently brush my hand across leaves and petals, and let them know they have a caretaker who loves them.

The whole experience of caretaking in the garden is so similar to caregiving in the human world that it’s like a vast reflection in a cosmic mirror.

My mother was 77 when she came to live with me in 2001 and was 80 when her health took a serious turn for the worse. She came back from what looked like the brink and lived nine more years.

Not without considerable care.

Check-ups, medical tests, procedures? I escorted her and stayed with her every moment the doctors would allow. Prescriptions? I sorted a rainbow of pills into multi-compartment trays and ensured she took them all. Embarrassing accidents, wound care? I slipped on latex gloves and did what I had to do.

Wisely, we hugged often and spared no words when it came to expressing our love. When she passed away in 2013, there truly was nothing left unsaid.

This past week, all of the ailing bushes I’ve tended in the garden, along with all those precious years of caring for my mother, washed over me in quantum waves while I’ve tended my husband. He had cancer surgery last week. Details are his to share if he chooses. Suffice to say “thumbs up” so far.

Caring for him is another story, though, and it’s mine.

The basic tenets of the task are familiar – food, drink, reassuring words, doing what you have to do. Something new is a stubborn independence that my roses lack and my mother quietly suppressed.

“No” is the word of the day.

As soon as we knew he needed surgery, I promised my husband I would do anything in the world to help with his recovery. Anything. By the day of the surgery, I had instinctively resurrected my caregiver’s don’t-worry-I’ll-take-care-of-everything posture. The day after we came home, I had to let that go.

As it turns out, he mostly needs me to let him lead this dance.

It was a surprising, new lesson for a seasoned caretaker who usually thinks she knows best. But I got it almost right away. When you’ve known each other since American Pie conjured up images of driving your Chevy to the levee with Don McLean, words aren’t as important as heart. Or soul.

Heart and Soul

Something to Count On

Every year about this time, I start to feel an itch.

It first flickers in the back of my mind and slowly makes its way down my shoulders and arms. Pretty soon my hands and fingers ache for the feel of garden gloves and the weight of pruning shears. Even my knees seem to want to touch the soft earth, though almost as soon as I kneel they’ll undoubtedly begin to curse me.

Always, I’m chomping at the proverbial bit before the garden. It pays me no mind. It’s still fast asleep, and its alarm clock won’t go off for another few weeks. There are no buds on the trees. Canes on the rosebushes are still wintry shades of ginger. Not even a weed has popped its head through the chilly ground.

So I wait. I wait while the calendar counts down. I wait while Mother Nature sends the last of her wet and windy storms. I wait by the windows and look for clues of spring.

Sometimes I do more than wait. I worry. Was there enough moisture this season? Did the temperature drop too far below freezing too often? Will everything wake up strong and healthy?

That’s about the time I take a deep breath and resurrect pictures of the garden from prior years. It’s reassuring to see the vibrant colors and the thick foliage. It reminds me that I can count on spring.

Being able to count on something is such a blessing, don’t you think?

It seems serendipitous that, in the days and weeks since I shared news about three loved ones who have cancer, I’ve been able to count on something besides spring. You. The one with your eyes on this page right now.

This stormy day, while I wait for the latest winter advisory to pass, seems like a good time to thank you all for your prayers and messages. They’re priceless. As are you.

Most especially …

Thank you, John, for generously paying for Saturday brunch even though you were at a table full of women who have a habit of talking about things you’d sometimes rather not hear.

Thank you, Mary and Diane, for the cheerful cards and notes. And to Mary again for volunteering to sit with our family at the surgery center on Wednesday while we wait for news about the leader of our band.

Cathy, you’ve done more than this, but I’m compelled to call out your text message that began, “Now that I’ve stopped crying….” It meant so much to have someone care enough to weep at the fretful news I’d just shared.

Leslie, Jesse, Lori, Paul, Joan, Barb and Jan – I’d be lost without your unconditional love and ready support even when some of you are in the midst of your own challenges.

By this time next month, when the first flowers are getting ready to grace the garden, I’ll be remembering you all. It’s a gift to know I can always count on spring. And on you.

Rose Garden in Spring 2018

Earth Up

Today in the rose garden my bushes are resting in a blanket of white. It’s been snowing off and on for the past couple of weeks and more is expected. In Northern Nevada and the Sierra, we’re on track to set snowfall records.

Yet as I write this, the clouds are coming apart like old seams on a gray dress, revealing a shiny blue underskirt. The sun is taking advantage of the moment, throwing delightful shadows across the yard and igniting tiny points of light on the crispy snow. It’s as though someone tossed handfuls of diamonds on the back patio, and they’re out there just waiting to be collected.

Admiring the utopic but chilly scene, I’m grateful that I mounded plenty of organic mulch around the crowns of my rosebushes in the waning days of autumn to protect them from winter elements. You may have heard a gardener call this “earthing up.”

And now, as is my habit, my thoughts about gardening turn to life outside the rocks and roses in our yard. I find myself comparing the fall mulching to the way our immediate family quickly “earthed up” around three that were diagnosed with cancer in the last six weeks – prostate, breast, bladder.

Two will go under the knife in about nine days. The third will have chemotherapy first, then surgery. There’s little need to describe the anguish and worry for the family or the grueling treatment for the patients. Even if you haven’t had cancer yourself, then it’s highly likely you know someone who has.

What is more heartening to describe is the almost mystical way a family draws closer in moments like these. The roots are already intertwined, but somehow they manage to stretch out further and become more interdependent. You can’t tug at one without tugging at the rest. Everything that happens to one happens to all.

Case in point, the rear neighbor at my last home grew prolific flowering bushes that sometimes poked their pretty heads through the slats of the fence. For a fledging gardener like me, that was pleasant enough. But whatever he used to enrich his soil filtered into my soil and the plants on my side of the property line flourished as well. His efforts were like a prayer said for one but showered on many.

In this trying time, I like to think of our family as a collection of trees and flowers and bushes that appear to stand alone but, if you look beneath the surface, are eternally and inalienably connected. Turn off the drip system and you withhold water from every living thing on the line. Fertilize a single bush and the ones around it also absorb the boost.

The clouds are merging again now. A few snowflakes are drifting on a light breeze. Shadows have drawn up, and the sparkling diamonds have been collected by the elusive fairies that inhabit our garden.

I am left with a prayer. Said for three but showered on many.

Winter Scene - Earth Up

Show Up

When Katie, my happy-go-lucky Springer Spaniel, was alive, she and I took a walk around all the paths in our back yard every evening weather permitting. I didn’t always want to go. She consistently persuaded me with her gleeful anticipation.

Katie - Springer SpanielShe’s been gone more than two years, but I can still picture her out there among the roses and the aspens. What a girl. She was never more content than when she was by my side, and she never tired of poking her nose in familiar bushes in the hope of discovering something new.

Her “cute dog trick” (as my mother called it) was to sniff out mysterious creatures in the sandy soil, stare at them motionless like a hunting spaniel that had spied a pheasant, and then pounce. She’d wiggle her butt and her little stump of a tail, spin joyously in circles, and then do it all over again.

We never actually saw what she was chasing, but we decided to nickname them graboids after the colossal sandworms in the campy movie Tremors. She didn’t catch a single one, but she made it her lifelong mission to try.

Katie Hunting GraboidsWith tears in our eyes, this was the last story we shared with our veterinarian as Katie drifted off to her final sleep at the ripe old age of 14. I like to think she’s merrily hunting graboids in heavenly rows of flowers and fruit trees, waiting for me to finally show up.

I still like to stroll around the yard weather permitting. Sure, I’m out there almost daily from spring to fall weeding, pruning, deadheading, and fertilizing. It’s not the same, though, as just enjoying the space.

Sometimes I simply soak up the beauty of the roses I so carefully tend. I take pictures by the thousands and sit on my stone “count your blessings” bench doing exactly that.

Sometimes I see miracles. Once while approaching our ornamental pear tree, I looked up just in time to see a mother hummingbird feed her fledging offspring by sliding her long beak down the little bird’s throat. I stopped dead in my tracks and watched in awe.

I’d like to think I appreciate everything in life as much as I appreciate my garden. I’m not perfect, but I do try. Especially as I’ve grown older, and life has naturally grown shorter, the value of walking in constant gratitude has come into sharper focus.

It’s not just about rare moments like seeing the Northern Lights or your daughter in a wedding gown. It’s the everyday gifts – the majesty of a fiery sunset, a song that unexpectedly touches your heart, the last poignant lines of a soulful book, your goofy dog romping in the snow.

Maybe the best thing we can do is live every day like we’re hunting graboids. It doesn’t matter if the prize is something no one else can see, or that we may never actually catch it. We can still delight in the chase. We just have to show up.

Katie in Snow