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

From Bitter Comes Sweet

Every bitter situation has at least one sweet moment. In this story, the moment came in the form of a golden forsythia.

It was the spring of 2010, and I was about to put the house my mother and I once shared up for sale. We had moved to a larger place about 18 months earlier just as the market started a downward trend. I had intended to sell the smaller house then, but decided to try renting it out in the hope of an economic upswing. Ultimately, I exhausted my resources and was forced to short sell.

My sister and nephew visited from Oregon around the time my tenants moved out. They volunteered to help me clean out the thigh-high weeds that overwhelmed the back yard. On the third day, while silently cursing the renters’ neglect, I stopped in sudden surprise.

“Leslie!” I called to my sister. “Come over here.”

“What are we looking at?” she asked as she peered over my shoulder.

“Mom’s little forsythia. I forgot all about it. I thought it was dying when we moved out, but it’s green and has new growth. I’m digging it up and taking it home.”

My mother was thrilled when I transplanted the forsythia into the garden outside the living room window. She enjoyed its bell-shaped flowers and stunning arches three more seasons before she passed away. It remains a favorite of mine; not just because it’s beautiful, but because of what it represents.

From bitter comes sweet. From the dark enters the dawn. After the winter comes the spring. It’s like clockwork. Good always emerges from a challenge.

Challenging isn’t a strong enough word to describe the last two years of my career. Abominable is closer. Most of it had to do with a disastrous change of leadership, but during that time I was also diagnosed with cataracts and breast cancer. Early retirement was a chance to escape the collective pressure.

Now, looking back on my first year as a retiree, it’s been so much more than an escape. It’s been a new start. A rebirth. I’ve taken enrichment classes, read several books, started work on a novel I’ve been wanting to write for the last five years, brought order back to our overgrown front and side yards, and started this blog. My vision is better than ever, and my cancer hasn’t returned.

I can identify with the little forsythia I rescued from our old house. Like it, I wasn’t dying. Just forgotten. Or neglected. Or overwhelmed. Or a bit of all three. All I needed was a change of scenery to find myself and flourish.

I know there are scores of people struggling like I was — forgotten, neglected, overwhelmed. My heart goes out to each and every one of them. As we count down to 2019, my wish is that everyone in the throes of bitter tastes something sweet, everyone in the midst of darkness awakens in the light, and that winter gives way to a stunningly beautiful spring.

Forsythia 2013

What Matters Most

The long, dry summer of 2018 in the high desert of Northern Nevada was a record breaker. For 56 consecutive days the temperature hit at least 90, and on 20 of those days the mercury crept up to 100 or more. If that wasn’t enough to make you hide indoors, thick smoke from historic wildfires certainly did.

In the garden, my roses absorbed plenty of water through the drip system. But I could do nothing to shade them from the sweltering sun or help them respire (the plant equivalent to breathing). They had to figure out a way to survive on their own. It wasn’t until I noticed a marked drop in new buds that I understood their game plan.

They prioritized.

I looked it up. When conditions are less than favorable, roses put their energy into keeping their foliage healthy and hydrated. Producing blooms takes a back seat.

How smart is that? It’s exactly what humans do when times are tough.

In my (almost) 65 years, I’ve weathered periodic financial crises with my parents and my husband. It’s a no-brainer that you first focus your resources on the necessities – food, shelter, transportation. If there’s anything left over, maybe you keep a few luxuries – internet, television, dinners out.

Rose - Blog 8You just have to figure out what matters most.

That’s actually how I retired 15 months ahead of schedule. When I realized that a climate change at work had extinguished my passion, I started preparing for departure. First I paid off my car and consumer accounts. Then I began socking money away to create a cushion. Finally, I plugged my projected date into the retirement system’s website.

I cringed. The hit to my pension was roughly 50% of my discretionary budget.

It took me less than a minute to remember how fortunate I am to have a pension at all, shrug my shoulders, and request transition documents. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

When my husband and I were younger, we used to joke about how nice it would be to stay home and have somebody deposit money in our checking account every so often. In retirement, I’m living that fantasy.

Sure, I can’t buy every pretty thing I see (I have enough stuff anyway), and I can no longer treat the family to a dinner out whenever the mood strikes (they’re working and have decent incomes anyway). It’s a fair exchange for peace of mind.

Sometimes in my head I hear that old MasterCard commercial. You know the one.

The freedom to get up each morning and do whatever I want? Priceless.

Is it a nice day? Hmmm, I think I’ll do some gardening. Is it windy or cold out? Maybe I’ll do some writing. Do my grandsons want me to hang out with them at the lake? Heck yeah!

My roses figured out how to survive on less this past summer. Because I also figured out what matters most, I’m having the time of life.