July was a month of gardens. There was, of course, the late start on the garden here at home, which began with the shade of a couple of market umbrellas, after which came a sort of zig-zag trellis made of lattice panels, and then a pair of larger lattice panels and tallish evergreens flanking the door to the studio, all intended to deflect the harsh sun and create a retreat, a pleasant and restorative place. There are flowers, vines, trees, and shrubs. A patch of grass, a view of more. A lot of sky.
You can look from within, or from a distance
A very small house seems much bigger with an outdoor room, and as someone who works from home, it is handy to take breaks in a “room” that could not be more different than the little white box of an office where I do most of my writing. But the process of making a garden is possibly more important than the end product. One element goes in–for instance, a trellis. It looks great, and inspires an improvement, or a balance, in another part of the garden. In time, the sense of personal space grows, right along with the plants. Old ideas are given a new twist, bad ideas are chucked. Good ideas provide rewards again and again. And sometimes a meditative oblivion sets in during an hour of weeding.
Last week I helped my mother tackle her grass-choked flower bed, but we were only able to rescue a handful of the annuals she had planted in the spring a few weeks before my father’s death. After pulling out the grass (over a foot high, two giant wheelbarrows full), we went to a tiny hamlet where there was a fruit and vegetable mart that still had a few trays of rootbound annuals and a stack of cypress mulch. They charged a little too much, but it saved time and gas to buy things there. It is unclear whether this will be my mother’s last garden, as she weighs her residential options. But for now she spends a lot of time on the porch that overlooks the flower bed, watching the stunted little pinks and ageratum grow a bit sturdier, perkier, and brighter by the day, and watching the cars go by on the highway a half mile away at the end of a soybean field. She finds it quiet and peaceful, in a mix of relief and sadness.
My garden is filled with others’ contributions. Steve laid the paver and pea gravel patio a few years ago, and this week he added more pavers to the gravel, so there are more places to set a chair or four without sinking. His way of laying out pavers is full of character and movement, nothing like the sterile displays in home improvement stores. There is also his work on the trellises, the pear trees we planted when they were twigs (and now about half their full-grown size), the ornaments and plants from family and friends–it’s all in the garden somewhere. A couple of days ago my daughter-in-law encouraged me to paint the door to the garden purple, a lovely reddish purple like the coneflowers; I’ll do that once the rain passes this morning. We agreed that the garden is now a peaceful and cheerful place to play with a baby, which is back on the agenda for next summer.
Gardens, and perhaps their gardeners, have their peak moments, when all the leaves are green and the flowers are profuse, ranging from the final spring bulbs and lilies to the first of the rudbeckias that will last until late fall. The mud and weeds are tamed, there is a shady place to sit, the birds have found the bath, the butterflies and bees have reconnected with the salvia and the daisies. The resident bunny watches, unthreatened, from the lawn next door.
The sand felt good and hot to walk on, and it was good to see and hear the waves again. When I used to live in that Great Lakes village, it seemed like there was never enough time to take advantage of it. Isn’t that always how it goes?
A little change in perspective can be a good thing
Back at home, the garden was a mess after six untended weeks in May and June. Several mornings of weeding and pruning brought it up to date. We seriously thought about adding the arbor I planned on last fall, but it would involve permits, footings, really heavy timbers, massive holes in the patio, possibly hiring a contractor, an awful lot of money, and more time and aggravation than I feel I have to spare, so we just put up a couple of cheap market umbrellas and it’s enough. The weather this summer has been much more reasonable than last year, so we are having more suppers on the porch, drinks in the garden, and–
–bike rides! I got brave and got a bicycle, first one in years. It’s a cruiser that perfectly suits my plodder style, and I’ve been riding it on short trips around town, even to the public garden to say hello to the turtle and the carp in the pond, and down shady streets to my son’s house. It simply needs a wicker basket on the front, so I’m looking around for one that is roomy. I’ve also been wearing this wonderful straw hat all the time since spring–it stays on my head even in a fairly stiff wind without giving me a headache–so the effect (middle aged woman in straw hat pedaling basic old-fashioned bicycle with a pannier on the back) is terribly English Village, but that’s okay. We’ve been watching Midsomer Murders on Netflix, and it’s beginning to rewire my brain, I think. Read more »
It has been an odd time, this spring. Different threads of my life have been variously worked, unraveled, reknitted, and sometimes even finished. Others are stubbornly left hanging there, neither one thing or the other.
A Stack of Washcloths from Leftover Yarn
At the moment I’m sitting at the table in front of the patio doors that lead out to the deck of a house in the Indiana Dunes. The view is woodsy, trees just leafing out, mostly oaks, maples and cottonwoods. It’s very different than the view from the big window at home, which looks across the street at a massive plain brick wall, the swimming pool side of a former YMCA. It’s a bit of deja vu for me, as I’d once lived in these dunes for fifteen years. It’s also very different than the spring I’d originally envisioned, which was working and puttering under a shady arbor in my garden, and getting to know and play with a grandchild. I’m still getting my sea legs with the current reality, so that I can make the most of it.
The novel proceeds apace, and the first quarter is currently in the hands of my Reader Team. There are similarities between learning to write a novel and learning to knit well: the choices, the options, are vast, for one thing (pattern/plot, yarn/protagonist, color/style), and it takes a lot of practice to do it well, to get a flow going, and to have consistency in the gauge. Many writers say you have to write a million words before you get any good at it, and I think the same might be true of knitting (or crocheting or other needlework), although the speed at which my daughter-in-law went from knowing nothing to producing stunning sweaters could not possibly have added up to ten thousand stitches, let alone a million.
While working on the novel, I moved from hacking together a plot line and some characters to refining them, and became aware of elements such as dramatic tension and telling versus showing. My protagonist has become less and less like myself, taking on a life and attitude of her own, which means that when I now sit down to write, I must enter into her point of view, get inside her head. The other characters have become more real, as well, and the plot has shifted because the more they become distinct personalities, the more their motivations become clear, the way their threads of the story want to play out. I find myself no longer working to a formula, which is thrilling and scary at the the same time. Riskier, too.
Risk is relative. I will turn 58 this summer. It’s not old, but it’s not young. I’ve written my million words and knitted my million stitches, so even doing something new is not as new as it would have been thirty years ago, or not new in the same way. Some of the baby steps in learning something new can be skipped, while others can be real hurdles. But time itself becomes a more pressing factor. Over the winter, we were near as a close friend gradually faded out from a brain tumor, an inescapable reminder that time can run out before finishing the normal course of steps toward a goal. And the likelihood increases with time.
Time, too, increases the number of loose ends, incomplete story lines, unresolved plots. “You can’t go home again” becomes an echo that doesn’t end. “What happens next?” becomes an unanswered question. I used to have a bad habit of not doing the tedious finishing work with projects, the blocking and the weaving in of the loose ends; it didn’t matter back then, there was plenty of time to do it later. These days, however, it brings great satisfaction. Actually seeing something to completion, dotting the last “i,” crossing the last “t,” weaving in the last loose threads, finishing Act I, then Act II, and finally the entire story with Act III–it’s a gift, really.
There’s a catchy title for you, hm? Seriously, though, it’s been a while since I’ve taken a step back and thought about why I’m a minimalist. Now is a good time, especially with spring cleaning coming up, and Courtney’s Project 333 is about to have another seasonal go-round. And, incidentally, if you are new to minimalism, Project 333 is an excellent way to start, a real mind-opening experience that I can’t recommend enough.
It’s Time to Do It.
There are as many variations on minimalism as there are minimalists, and that number seems to be increasing, hopefully faster than the number of useless items in our respective junk drawers. Far from dead, minimalism appears to be seeping into the mainstream. Earlier this month, The New York Times featured an article by Treehugger.com’s Graham Hill, entitled “Living With Less. A Lot Less,” which is an account of how he became a minimalist, and the high-end way in which he lives it. In turn, it triggered a recent post by Katy Waldman on Slate.com, “Is Minimalism Really Sustainable?” which expressed the feelings of many that minimalism itself may be okay, but Graham Hill’s version was just a variation on conspicuous consumerism. The Hill article also inspired Dana Feldman of BreakThruRadio.com to remind us of Barry Schwartz’s TED talk ‘way back in 2005 on Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, and the relationship between minimalism, pessimism, and the delight in things that comes of lowered expectations (and many thanks to Dana for mentioning this blog). Read more »
Suddenly it’s been a month since I last posted, and am not quite sure how that happened. January-February-March always seem to be a blur, where I go into a physical and psychological Maintenance Mode, doing nothing more than what is absolutely necessary. Perhaps I’ve only really noticed the passing of time because I worked on the business taxes yesterday, which are of course due a month before personal income taxes. Perhaps the stress of trying to figure out what I was doing gave me an adrenaline hit.
Setting Down the Pen for a Moment
This does not mean I haven’t been writing. In fact, I’ve been writing more in the past month than I usually do, just plugging away at my novel, and continuing to learn the craft. Writing a novel is very, very different than writing a blog post, a nonfiction book, or even a short story. There are so many different elements and so many different approaches, and so many decisions to make. The ability to see many possibilities is a desirable trait in any kind of creative endeavor; so, too, is the ability to make decisions. The two traits, however, are often in conflict.
Should my heroine be in the throes of a personal disaster at the start of the novel, or should she be past it and yet a little scarred? Should the small town be landlocked or in a waterfront resort? Should the old lady be killed off or should she live another twenty years? Sometimes I think I’ve made my decision, write several chapters based on that decision, and then suddenly run into some sort of problem that a different decision could have avoided. Sound like real life, doesn’t it?
Yet if I don’t make a decision, the story doesn’t move forward. And that’s what we novel-readers want, isn’t it, for the story to move forward? Even if all that happens is a bit of personal growth, it’s a step forward for both the main character and the reader’s experience. Our own lives only move on as a result of decisions and choices.
Thus, while immersed in trying to make decisions that move my novel forward, the sense of suspended animation increased in the rest of my life. It was time to take a look around and reconnect. We’ve begun to put some plans in place, to change things up a bit on the home front and spend more time in the company of good friends during the warmer months. Fortunately, I’ve been dieting since the holidays ended, and have managed to fit back into my basic blank tank bathing suit, which I’d purchased seven years ago but never wore. There are supposed to be plentiful opportunities to wear it this summer. (And also fortunately my friends have aged just as much as I have, and my flabby arms will be in good company.)
The writing, however, will continue throughout. At this point, I predict the novel will be finished before summer, some good six months later than I’d originally planned. On the bright side, I’ve been taking my time to learn the craft as thoroughly as I can, and laying the groundwork for the novels that will come later; those will hopefully not take quite as long to hammer out. When I’m ready I will post a chapter or two or at least share in the details. It’s getting closer and closer to being finished, and I’m writing the last part of the story now. Never thought I’d see the day that I could say that I’m finishing a novel.
So I guess my own story has been moving along, after all