31 May 2011

Running With Scissors

Robert Doisneau
Every year at this time I think back to what it felt like as a child to know that summer vacation was about to start and the next few months would be one long, lazy and idyllic landscape of playing whiffle ball in the street at night after supper; riding my bike up to the Schultz's house to play; sitting on the Coca-Cola cooler in Jimmy's Market, legs dangling, drinking a Gold Nugget soda; reading the latest Nancy Drew or Happy Hollister book in the crook of a tree in Frank Duffly's yard; or chasing the ice-cream truck down the street  for a "Drumstick".  (The sound of our screen door slammming -- a kind of low squeak, followed by a sturdy thud -- is a sound that I hope never, ever falls through a crack in my memory bank.)  

All those memories came flooding back recently when I received an insightful essay in my email (author unknown) about what it meant to survive growing up in my day.  (You know, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.)  So here's a shout out for growing up on the edge, 50s style, with a tip of my old baseball cap to the author, whoever you might be.

First, we survived being born to mothers who smoked and/or drank while they were pregnant. 

They took aspirin, ate blue cheese dressing, tuna from a can and didn't get tested for diabetes.
Then after that trauma, we were put to sleep on our tummies in baby cribs covered with bright colored lead-base paints. 

We had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, locks on doors or cabinets and when we rode our bikes, we had baseball caps on our heads, not helmets. 
As infants & children, we would ride in cars with no car seats, no booster seats, no seat belts, no air bags, bald tires and sometimes no brakes.
Riding in the back of a station wagon was routine, but bouncing around in the back of a pick- up truck on a warm day was always a special treat.   

We drank water from the garden hose and not from a bottle.  

We shared one soft drink with four friends, from one bottle and no one actually died.   

We ate cupcakes, white bread, real butter and bacon.  

We drank Kool-Aid made with real white sugar. And, we weren't overweight. Why? Because we were always outside playing.
We would leave home in the morning and play all day, as long as we were back when the streetlights came on.  No one was able to reach us all day.  And, we were okay.  

We would spend hours building our go-carts out of scraps and then ride them down the hill, only to find out we forgot the brakes.  After running into the bushes a few times, we learned to solve the problem.   

We did not have Play stations, Nintendo's and X-boxes.  There were no video games, no 150 channels on cable, no video movies or DVD's, no surround-sound or CD's, no cell phones, no personal computers, no Internet and no chat rooms.  Instead we had friends, and we went outside and found  them.
We fell out of trees, got cut, broke bones and teeth and there were no lawsuits from these accidents. 

We would get spankings with wooden spoons, switches, ping pong paddles, or just a bare hand and no one would call child services to report abuse.

We ate worms and mud pies made from dirt, and the worms did not live in us forever.  
We were given BB guns for our 10th birthdays, made up games with sticks and tennis balls and, although we were told it would happen, we did not put out very many eyes.  

We rode bikes or walked to a friend's house and knocked on the door or rang the bell, or just walked in and talked to them.

Little League had tryouts and not everyone made the team.  Those who didn't had to learn to deal with disappointment.  Imagine.

And the idea of a parent bailing us out if we broke the law was unheard of.  They actually sided with the law. 

The 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s have produced some of the best risk-takers, problem solvers and inventors ever.  The past 70+ years have been an explosion of innovation and new ideas.  We had freedom, failure, success and responsibility, and we learned how to deal with it all.

(Kind of makes you want to run through the house with scissors, doesn't it?)

26 May 2011

Hey you

Well aren't you cute.


During my first visit to Oxford, there was a fancy dress ball at one of the colleges. Several of my acquaintances were going, but their plans had been made long before my arrival and there was no hope of my attending on such short notice. I resigned myself to spending a quiet evening on my own, investigating some of the lovely old quadrangles and alleyways.

A young fellow I'd only just met (but already liked a good deal) had made arrangements to attend the ball with a group of friends.

Just before sunset, I stood in the college courtyard, waving to everyone as they piled into cabs to go to the dance. As my new friend hurtled past, black tie still undone, he stopped briefly to apologize for leaving me behind. I only laughed good naturedly.

"I do feel a bit like Cinderella," I grinned, "with everyone going to the ball but me!" 

He smiled and leaned over, whispering in my ear, "Ah, but Cinderella ended up with the Prince in the end, didn't she?" 

We ended up the best of friends, visiting one another as often as we could and occasionally traveling together throughout England, Wales, and even Paris, having the most outlandish adventures. He asked me to marry him once but I gently turned him down, convincing him that it was a terrible idea. Thankfully he laughed and agreed.

In my darkest moments, when things are their bleakest and it seems that whatever hopes or dreams I have are destined not to be realized, I remind myself that life is full of fairy godmothers, and despite how grim things might seem, Cinderella does always end up with the Prince in the end.

25 May 2011

Let's hear it for mystery, surprise, and a little light-hearted gaiety

With their mystical charm and romantic aura, English cottage gardens exhibit a style that is the direct result of having been born of a Romantic movement in literature and art -- a movement against Classicism and its appreciation for order, discipline and moderation.

Romanticism not only focused on the emotional, but also placed the peasantry on a pedestal. And it was originally the peasantry that had planted and maintained English cottage gardens long before it became trendy with more affluent groups. The true English cottage garden of the peasantry was practical, as well as aesthetically pleasing. Thus herbs were common components, used both for medicinal and culinary purposes; and fruit trees, too, were often included.

One of the most famous English cottage gardens was designed by none other than the French Impressionist painter, Claude Monet (1840-1926). No discipline exerted a stronger influence on garden design than did landscape painting. It was a case of "life imitating art," if you will. Monet is a particularly interesting case, being not only an artist who painted landscapes but also someone who was active in garden design. With Monet, the influence went both ways.

English cottage gardens, with their wild abundance of rose bushes, perennial flowers, vine-covered arbors, and plants tumbling over walkways, are widely emulated in America. It is an informal style meant to evoke a mood of light-hearted gaiety, letting the eye feast on a diverse jumble of flowering plants, distributed in a seemingly haphazard manner, evoking thoughts of a "natural landscape." The plants themselves are just as important as their use in the overall composition, and the wildness of the arrangement is meant to suggest a closer communing with nature.

Cottage gardens don’t have to take hours to look after. By choosing the right type of features one can plan a garden that almost takes care of itself. Cottage gardens are all about plants. Hard landscaping, such as paths, seating areas and containers, is just there to help you enjoy them. Hard surfaces contrast well with plants so use them to break up large areas of planting. Several different climbers can share the same support, whether it is a tree, pergola or arbour. It’s a good space-saving technique that creates colourful features for months on end. Containers are the convenient way to add lots of extra colour around your back door, close to seats and benches, and on the patio. Old bits and bobs like chimney pots, earthenware land drainage pipes and bottomless metal buckets can be recycled to make authentic, aged features that all add to the character  and charm of a cottage garden.

Cottage gardens break all the usual rules of garden design, adding elements of mystery, journey and surprise.

— English Garden Design (David Beaulieu)

16 May 2011

What's in a name?

Only in the garden can you find such whimsical company! 

Cup and Saucer Vine
Student Parsnip
Cupid's Dart
Flower of an Hour
Danvers Half-Long Carrot [which half, one might ask]
Forget Me Not
Four O'Clocks
Wren's Egg Pole Bean
Job's Tears
Turk's Turbin Squash
Love in a Puff
Hamburg Parsley [hold the lettuce]
Love Lies Bleeding
Early Blood Turnip 
Long Pie Pumpkin [not to be confused with Short Pie, Mammoth, or Neck pumpkin!] 
Grandpa Ott Morning Glory
China Rose Radish
Prince's Feather
Mangle Wurtzel Beet 
Bouncing Bet
Florence Fennel [didn't she have a sister...?]
Tennis Ball Lettuce  
Scarlet Tassel
Sweet William
Jacob's Cattle Bean
Sensitive Plant [no doubt a distant relative of mine...]

11 May 2011

Things That Matter

There was a book I saw once on a shelf in a church library. It couldn't have been more than half an inch thick and when I turned my head to read the title I laughed out loud:


I guess when it comes down to it, you really can reduce all the arm flapping and folderol to those few things that truly matter.  So, here's this week's list of things that truly matter.
  • the way the redbud trees look on campus
  • how the flowering apple tree next door seems to fill every window on that side of the house with a soft pink veil of blossoms
  • the package that arrived from a distant friend filled to overflowing with sock yarn
  • getting to see my family this weekend
  • the smell of the rain on the newly sprouted garden beds
  • the fact that Tim Thomas's body was apparently cloned in a slinky factory 
  • getting to spend another Mother's Day with mom

Roger that.

10 May 2011

The Lady and the Unicorn

Once upon a time there was a small village by the edge of a forest.  In this village there were many houses, and the tiniest of these was a dear cottage with a beautiful garden.  The lady that lived in this cottage kept to herself most of the time, but this isn't to say that she was unkind or unloved.  On the contrary, nearly everyone in the village liked her: the women would come to her for advice about their gardens, the animals knew that they would always find a soft hand if they came to her door, and the children loved the stories, sweets and toys she would share with them.

Each day the lady would walk into the forest where she would sit and listen to the birds singing, or wander along the brook that flowed through its center, or gather wild flower seeds to bring home to her own garden.  One day, she strayed further into the forest than she ever had before. There she discovered a beautiful moss-covered clearing surrounded by tall willow trees that hung like a veil as if to protect the space.  In the midst of this clearing she saw something she had never before seen:  a beautiful white creature that looked very much like a horse, except that it had a glimmering horn protruding from its forehead.  The horn sparkled in the sunlight like spun sugar and his white mane shook out like silk as he nodded his head towards her.  The lady could only stare in disbelief, wondering what this marvelous thing might be.  She should have been frightened and yet something about the beast made her feel safe and she found herself walking nearer until she could have reached out a small hand and touched it had she wanted to.  The beast only bowed its head slightly, bending one of its front legs at the knee.  The lady smiled and curtsied, delighted by this gallant display.

What are you? she asked.   

The beast stood upright again and whinnied, cocking its head and sending magical thoughts into her heart.

I am a unicorn, the thoughts murmured, the only one of my kind.

A unicorn! she whispered, as much to herself as to the beast.   

She had heard of such things, of course, and had even read of them in the faëry books she would share with the village children.  And in her heart—a heart that easily imagined things that other hearts did not—she always wondered if such a thing might truly exist.  But to imagine they did, and to find one in the forest near her own village, was more than even she could expect.

The unicorn lifted its muzzle and she instinctively placed her palm on its nose.  How soft it was!  The animal whinnied softly and then backed away, through the veil of willows, disappearing into the inner depths of the forest. 

The lady turned and hurried home, excited about what she'd seen but unsure as to whether or not she should mention it to anyone.  After all, she didn't want to invite the ridicule of those who wouldn't believe her. She stopped a moment and peered into the brook.  What if they did believe her?  What then? She didn't want to endanger the creature or invite intruders into the place it called home. 

As she approached her small cottage, she decided that for now she would keep this amazing discovery to herself.

And so it happened that the lady would take her walks each day, and each day she would approach the place where the circle of willows formed a perfect veil around the moss clearing, and there the unicorn would be waiting.  Over time, she learned how to listen to the things he would think.  And oh! what things he would tell her!  Stories about magical castles and fire-breathing dragons and sleeping princesses and faëries that were so small they could sit on the tip of a lily without even bending the stem. 

All the things you've ever read and dreamed about are true, the unicorn told her, but only a special kind of heart can believe, and only a special imagination can ever see a unicorn. 

Most often, the unicorn told her, only children's hearts and minds can imagine such things.  Rarely does a grownup heart find the pathway to the truth behind the faërie tales they knew as children.

One day, while reading to the village children, the lady could not help herself and she told the children of her secret:  that a unicorn, very like the ones she had shown them in her picture books, really could exist. 

A unicorn! the children squealed. 

Yes, she said with a smile.  In fact, there could be one in our forest. 

The children's eyes grew wide at this, drawing closer and begging her to explain what she meant.  With careful words, without revealing the exact place, the lady explained that once, while walking through the forest, she had seen a unicorn with her own eyes.  She warned them that only those with imagination and open hearts could see such things, and that they must do what they could to remain as children for as long as possible, in order to enjoy all the magic in the world.

The next afternoon, as the woman returned home from her daily walk in the forest, the parents of one of the children were waiting for her by the cottage gate.

Why are you filling their heads with such things! they cried.  Telling our children about mythical beasts that can't possibly exist!  Hereafter, you must either explain to them that you were only spinning tales, or we shan't let them come to your cottage again!

But they do exist! the lady insisted, incensed by their lack of imagination and unable to stop the words before they spilled out. In your own forest you can see such things!

The parents' eyes grew wide at this and they ran off into the village center, looking back over their shoulder at the lady who stood alone by her gate, already regretting what she had said.

Later that evening she sat by the fire, worrying that she had been unwise to say anything about the beautiful unicorn, and fearful that she had shared a secret with hearts and minds that could not grasp such things.  What would they do?  Would they hunt for the unicorn?  Would they spread rumors to the other villagers that she was mad?  Or worse still, tell the children that she had lied to them? 

All night long she stared into the fire, wondering what to do.  And then, as the chittering of birds started to fill the air and the milky light of dawn began to shine on the flowers in her garden, she smiled to herself, realizing what the solution was.

Within the hour, a group of villagers came to her door and demanded that she speak with them.

About what? she asked, trying to mask her nervousness.

About the silly tales you've been spinning to our children, they said grimly, and the impossible lies you've told their parents.  

The lady thought a moment, looking off into the forest and then turning her face to the garden where sunlight was dancing on all the flower tops.  Was a that a faërie, sitting on one of the lilies?  The lady only smiled to herself and then turned back to the adults who stood there, waiting for her reply.

You are right, she murmured softly, it was wrong of me to fill their heads with such things, wrong to get caught up in the magic of the story books and let them think those creatures and stories were true.

Then you admit that the things you told them aren't true? one of the villagers asked.

The lady only laughed and the sound danced like chimes over the garden. 

I admit it freely, she said.  None of it is true.  I was only trifling with their imaginations, letting them enjoy a bit a magic before the long years of tedium and responsibility overtake them. Indeed, I even allowed myself to get caught in the web of my own stories.

The villagers muttered and looked at one another, satisfied with this explanation.

Very well, one of them said. Let this be forgotten then.  But mind you do not do such things again!

And with that the villagers shuffled off into their humdrum lives, leaving the lady to smile sadly and shake her head. 

Later in the day, just before twilight, she took her usual walk into the forest, approaching the clearing and then smiling as the willows parted and she saw the Unicorn standing there proudly, his hooves pawing the beautiful moss.

Without having to say a word, the lady's thoughts were made clear to the beast.

You told them I don't exist, he said quietly.

Yes, she whispered, coming nearer and placing her palm against the side of his beautiful face. But I did it to protect you.  If they think you don't exist, they won't harm you.  

The unicorn only nuzzled his face on her hand, grateful for her wisdom and her caring.

Yes, he said, I know.  

Over time, the children would still come to the lady's cottage, and she would let them pick the flowers in her garden, or play with the toys she kept, and every now and then she would read to them.  But never again would she let them think that anything in the magical books was true. 

And so it came to be, throughout time, that no one believed in Unicorns. 
And that is how they remained hidden, and quite safe.