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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Zombie Flower

Check out my Zombie Flower, back from the dead! I last planted pansies in this pot in Spring 2010. They withered from the summer heat and my general neglect. Then they got dumped on by brutal snowstorms all winter, and spit on by harsh spring rains. But this week, strangely, one has defiantly pushed up through the soil and rotting leaves to raise its head high. Mysterious! I thought pansies were annuals and weren't supposed to do that. This is one hardy pansy.

This morning I saw evidence that squirrels had rummaged around the pot. They left the Zombie Flower alone. It wields an eerie power.

I have to admire its pluck. If it's looking for care, it's come to the wrong place. I don't have time to water it or to deadhead its spent blossoms. Gardening is at the bottom of my list. Heck, it's not even on the paper. It's a postscript following an afterthought.

It shouldn't be. I come from a big gardening family. From people who actually think it's fun to weed for hours in the baking sun, and who eschew fancy irrigation systems for the joys of wrestling a hose. My people have lush yards, front and back, tangled and perfumed with thriving plants. They can throw a stick in the ground and watch it blossom into something extraordinary. My grandfather was a salesman for the Lily Seed Company, and a passionate, gifted gardener. He passed away over ten years ago, yet my mother, who lives in his house now, still finds the odd flower cropping up amidst hers, some persistent strain he planted so many years ago making its way to the surface. 

I often feel I lack the gardening gene. Maybe I just lack time. Maybe when I emerge from under my novel revisions, my family obligations, other work, and the many people and things that seem to demand my attention, I too will get to see the sun and try my hand at plants. It's an intriguing idea.

But more intriguing to me is the concept of a plant that thrives when untended. Kind of like an idea. Have you ever noticed how when you turn your back, or switch to some mundane task, the best ideas sneak up on you? Or a concept you had months or years ago suddenly explodes in your mind, and you have to drop everything and write it all down? This happens to me a  lot lately. It's why I keep white boards on my kitchen wall. Just as I think I'm stuck in my book, I'll go rinse off some dishes, or start fixing food, and bam! --  there's the insight I was looking for. I scribble it down, my hands dripping wet. I love it when I find an idea has been quietly developing all this time, beneath the surface, and suddenly pushes through. (Yeah, I guess I'm not much of a cook either. But that's another story . . . )

So I guess I am gardening these days, in a sense. I'm trying to harvest ideas and words. But I look forward to taking a break at some point to try my hand at an actual plant.

Meanwhile, I'll enjoy the Zombie Flower. Maybe I'll even throw some water on it this afternoon. Or, I don't know, tomorrow. I expect it'll hang on awhile longer without my doing too much.

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Getting to Z

It did not hit me that my son's first year of preschool was really ending until yesterday afternoon, when I took his art projects and papers out of his cubby. There it was: the letter Z. I felt the floor drop away from me as I stared at that final worksheet. My hands actually shook. I marveled at how neatly my son had traced the dots to form the Z and then how he'd copied the letter beneath it. At the smiley face sticker to reward his good work. I thought back to A, B and C back in the fall. The wobbly lines, the tentative pencil. This Z, in comparison, exuded confidence. Z may be the last letter, and underutilized, but it should never be underestimated. It's fierce. Zounds.

I remember the middle of the alphabet, which hit in the dead of winter. M, N -- what awful letters. How to tell them apart? They're like close-in-age siblings who look like twins, dressing up in each others clothes, fooling people.  O is Okay, I guess. But  P, not so much. And Q  . . . Q! That maddening little tail! And don't get me started on R -- so hard to distinguish from its cousins B and P.

There were dark days this year when I didn't see how we would make it to Z. The end of the alphabet, like the spring, seemed elusive and receding. Even when W and X appeared in the cubby several weeks ago, I was in denial.

But here we are at Z. Even preschoolers get to enjoy a sense of completion and a sense that goals can be attained. They made it through the alphabet. They are LEARNING TO READ AND WRITE. This is big stuff, people. This is where it all begins. 

I have my own receding Z to look toward right now. The next stage of my novel revisions. Back to work I go, fueled by my son's amaZing final letter, now proudly tacked above my desk. 

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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Mysteries of an Attic

Here's a picture of my great-grandmother, looking on as I helped clean out my mother's attic last week. I can't tell if her expression is one of bemusement or horror. For decades, her portrait has been the silent guardian of family archives and objects, in a house that's been in my family since the 1920s. When my grandfather passed away ten years ago, my mother and stepfather moved in, having inherited not only the house but all the generations of junk -- er, I mean treasures -- stored upstairs. We then added to the heap -- uh, collection -- by moving our own boxes up there. My sister and I both packed up our entire childhoods very quickly. I'm sure we planned to sift through them. But we both moved out of state, traveled a lot, and never quite got around to it. Years passed, and dust snowed down on our boxes.

For as long as I can remember, this unfinished attic has been a massive repository for our family's memories. Among the keepsakes my grandparents stored there were furniture, stacks of old letters, vintage clothing, and assorted remnants of my great-grandparents' life in Norway (a violin, an old trunk, a giant gilded Norwegian Bible, various fading photos). There was also a marvelous collection of my mother's old toys -- tin wonders from the 1940s, paper dolls with stunning wardrobes, and fun board games like The Nancy Drew Mystery Game. There were volumes of children's books, mostly mysteries -- all the Nancy Drews, and other gems, like The Clue in Blue, by long-forgotten authors.

My grandfather used to take me up to the attic to choose a toy or a book to borrow. I would stare at the shelves in awe, while dust danced around us and sunlight leaked in through the one window that was not papered over. It was like time travel, being up there, and thrilling, as there was always a risk (I was warned) of falling through the floor, or tripping over boxes. The attic offered an endless scavenger hunt. I guess I thought someday my own son might experience a similar thrill, foraging for generations of old toys and books.

My mother, understandably, would prefer not to be the caretaker of everyone's memorabilia. The attic is enormous, and could be refinished. The ceiling needs insulating. It was time to start dealing with stuff.
I dove in to the boxes and found a few gems. My old record collection. All my childhood books -- the old Nancy Drews I loved to read, both my mother's and mine, and the horse books I used to devour. I found some disappointments, too, like toys I'd hoped to pass on to my son that had not aged well. (A family of mice had lived like kings in the Fisher Price castle; I found signs of nests in the turret). I discovered bizarre things,  like a high school boyfriend's skis. (Why?) Like someone's false teeth. (Whose??) The attic, as always, offered up intriguing mysteries, and items that had sifted together in bizarre juxtapositions.
(Pictured above: My grandather's fedoras, hung on antlers from moose shot by my great-uncle, next to an old boyfriend's skis. Too weird).
But the biggest mystery I found up there was the question of why we hold on to things so fiercely. I'm an archivist at heart, a lover of musty documents, ancient books, family photos, old maps. Also, as a writer, I know I tend to hang on to information -- especially books and documents and zillions of printed-out drafts -- thinking it will all become useful.

The Internet and digital storage have altered this need. I also live in close proximity to six libraries. This realization made it easy to throw out a lot of things in that attic, like all my college papers and notes. Am I really going to teach Romantic Poetry someday? If so, am I really going to refer back to my college lecture notes from the 1990s?

The other compelling reason to hang on to things is for the memories they evoke. Yet it felt okay, and got easier, to look at childhood mementos one last time and send them on their way. Do I really need to hang on to years of ballet costumes? A report on the Plains Indians? 3x5 index cards for an eighth grade speech I gave about wigs? (Yes, wigs. For the record, I got an A. And I'm sure the wigs can be found up there too, somewhere, if I look hard enough).

I managed to whittle down my section of the attic to just two small boxes, filled mainly with juvenile writings and art projects that predate electronic storage, and my grandfather's Coast Guard cap. I salvaged some  childhood books in good enough shape to enjoy with my son. Everything else went to the Goodwill or trash.

For a paralyzing few seconds, as I looked at the cleared space and the dancing dust motes, I felt I had thrown out twenty years of my life. But then I felt an incredible sensation of lightness. I have my own mental attic to visit if I need to rummage around for material. And I'd rather spend my time creating new memories and experiences instead of sifting through old ones.

It's easy to think our family histories and childhoods can be found in things, but I think they live on in our character and our values. And of course, in the stories we tell.

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