Monday, June 15, 2015

Carolina Gardening: Year One, Part One

Last year's "garden," on our back porch.
If this spring was about changes and shifts in my internal and work worlds, it has also been about the kind of growth that happens slowly, under the earth at first, then out in the open. The garden we had back in California always felt like a paradise I escaped to whenever I could. When the boys were born, I didn't garden, because new-parenthood turned out to preclude gardening for me. I know, there are some parents who garden with their infants strapped to them or lying blissfully on a blanket nearby. Those infants were not my infants, and I could not have been that parent.

The Oakland garden at its best.
And now we've left that garden behind, and while I miss our California poppies and the 11 month growing season, I am learning to garden here in North Carolina.

All this grass was great for three-year-olds to push stuff around on at first, but when summer struck, much of it turned to hard-packed earth and weeds. There are some new aspects to my gardening here: for one, we could afford to do some hardscaping, so we did (ah, the joys of a lower cost of living!).

My favorite part of the brickwork.
Extra bonus: the hardscaping meant tons of pre-turned and pre-mulched soil, saving us most of the effort that it takes to start a big old garden from scratch. The dry creek lends structure to the yard and creates different planting zones: the hummingbird garden, the butterfly garden, the semi-shady but mostly sunny stuff.

And we made a space for the boys to play in while we work and laze outside, which makes tending a garden easier. The bottles, above, like the plants, are a long-term project.
No, the sand looks nothing like this now.

But the creek is always like this when it's wet.
As it turns out, our soil is somehow even more clayey than in CA. So some plants we can keep growing here—salvias, buddleia, agastache, and penstemon (below) all do well.

Berries also grow well here, and I've planted two varieties of raspberry and a thornless blackberry in the hope of recreating our years-ago bliss. And there are new things to grow, like blueberries! A tomato hornworm and a flock of cankeworms did some serious damage to one plant, but next year we should have a small, delicious harvest.

Other new discoveries: Pink muhly grass and easy-to-grow verbena (below), the latter of which somehow stayed green over a very cold winter.

The sun-drenched strip along the south side of our house is where I'm slowly building a butterfly garden to delight our eyes when we're looking out the windows. Across from that strip is another, wider strip which I haven't planned out yet; we got suggestions from our land design folks that I'm toying with, but I'm saving that planting for the fall. For now, I'm cultivating a fine collection of weeds and volunteers from my neighbor's yard. And some muhly grass (barely visible to the left below).

In the butterfly strip above right, you can see how wonderful my neighbors are: one of them gave me a ton of plants and seeds to experiment with last fall—the anise hyssop (foreground) and salvia (next down the row on the right) are doing splendidly. A month later (below), you can see the hyssop nearly covers the garbage carts, while the rest of the plants have started filling in nicely.

Not pictured in this post are the gorgeous red yarrow that I dug out of the same neighbor's yard this spring, and the thyme I dug out of another neighbor's yard. Everyone has irises to share, of course. And the brilliant carpenter who built our shed and gate has brought me a few lovely hellebores which will be beautiful early next spring. This kind of community is exactly what I was hoping to find here. Some people go to church. I stand around and look at plants and talk to my neighbors. Below, an aster that I pulled from a neighbor's yard last fall wakes up in April.

All kind of things have been slowly emerging in the last months. Some things take longer to reappear than you would think, if your main gardening life has been in always-growing California. Dormancy made me worry that all my plants were dead, when really they're just taking a long, long nap. And of course some actually did die. That's disappointing, but anyone who loves plants knows that a dead plant is just an opportunity to acquire more plants.

The same aster is the big thing center/rear-ish, above. The big tallish thing toward the front is an agastache. That mound of silvery stuff is an artemisia, which is hardly notable except for the fact the Nicky pulled the center of it out not once, not twice, but three or four times. I will no longer get annoyed at him for doing it—the plant certainly doesn't seem to mind.

I am glad that I'm inclined to wait and see if something's a weed before I pull it—if not for my magnificent procrastinating skills, I might have missed the tiny sage that I remember watching die almost as soon as I planted it last fall, and I might have pulled out the pomegranate tree that's now exploding with fresh, healthy growth.

I might have missed the minute signs that the Russian Sage, which looks so spare next to the lush verbena, is healthily spreading its roots. So I will keep waiting, sitting on my favorite step, watching the plants grow.

Russian sage, looking good.

The second thing to bloom in our yard this year: Gaillardia.
The most satisfying aspect of this waiting game is noting the small changes every day, in addition to the big shifts from April to June.
Summer Phlox ('Nicky' varietal—how could I resist)

Asclepias incarnata
Every bud, every tiny flower is a revelation, a sign that things are working. There are more weeds than I'd care to admit, but when it's 100 degrees for nearly a week straight, my focus is on keeping everything alive. So I kill wooly aphids with Dawn, water at dusk, and keep my eyes on the tiniest parts of the plants.

Gosh, it almost looks like a real garden! (asclepias, mistflower, rocks. Pawpaw in background on left)

This coleus. So cool.

Coleus bloom.

It's hard to wait, but the beauty of waiting is learning more and seeing what thrives. I've got plenty of time.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

This Is What They Don't Tell You.

They don't tell you, when they tell you to pursue your dreams, that your students will look up at you like puppy dogs and ask, "Why are you leaving?" And you say that you are tired, and those stories you tell about your children staying awake too late and getting up too early and sometimes waking up in the middle of the night are all true stories. And they say, "But you're my favorite teacher!"

And you will feel sad and wish you hadn't decided to follow your bliss.

And then you will go pick up the kids, and one will fall down while he's running on the meadow, and his favorite shirt and favorite skirt will get all muddy, and you'll scoop him up (all 40 pounds) and say, "I know. It's not fun falling down."

Before the fall, you will ignore the 5-year-old girl who asks your son, every time he wears a skirt, why he is wearing a skirt. You will resist the urge to ask girls you don't know why they're wearing pants. No matter how cool you think it is that your boy loves skirts, you will feel violently, painfully protective of him, even though it doesn't seem to bother him that other kids ask him why he's wearing skirts and dresses.

After the tears stop, you'll go to your kids' favorite museum, because they've been wanting to go for two days, even though the thing they really want to climb on there will be wet and slippery and not at all fun. So you'll go back inside and do the same favorite things you've done all winter.

On the way there, you'll pull over in the same place you pull over every single Thursday, to let one child pee along the side of the road. Even though you know it will happen every single Thursday, you will find it frustrating and annoying beyond belief. Even if he's just four years old and more interested in playing and running and holding his baby doll than thinking about his bodily functions, the same functions which have consumed astonishing amounts of your energy, focus, and time since the moment of his birth. You might swear, quietly, under your breath.

Nobody tells you that parenting is a constant renegotiation and reconsideration of codes and rules that you'd never known existed. You'll sometimes tune out the children's conversation while you're driving to ponder why the dress code requires 3 and 4 and 5-year-old kids to wear shorts under their skirts, especially when shorts and a skirt and underpants are really just too many layers in the summertime.

You're going to feel like you won the lottery when the kid who never wants to pee anywhere but home agrees to go to the bathroom because he so obviously can't hold it anymore.

When the pee doesn't make a sound, it's because it is slowly soaking your kid's underpants. And the shorts under his skirt. But not the skirt. Thank god. Not the skirt. Nobody warns you that letting your kid go commando in a skirt at a children's museum produces an astonishing amount of anxiety—what rules are you breaking; who will ask you why your boy doesn't have any underpants on; and always the need to justify your choices to everyone else.

And when you finally get home, to the sanctum where anything goes, and you notice a tick on a scrotum (thank goodness we are not so strict about pants in our house), and you have to listen to an hour-long tantrum over the two-second extraction, nobody has warned you about how intense it is, to know that you have to do this unpleasant thing that every time feels like a violation of the secret covenant between you and your child: I will not hurt you. Because he doesn't understand right now that getting that tick out *is* not hurting him. That the fretting and worrying and watching for fever and rashes that starts every time we find another tick has good reason.

When the kids are finally in bed after fifty rounds of back-rubbing and leaking water cups and cries of "mommy, mommmmmmy!" you will lie in the dark with them and soak in the sound of their breathing, the touch of their toes under your body, their warm hands wrapped around your arm. You will lie there in the dark with tears streaming down your face. You will cry silently, feeling conflicted about crying over what wasn't really such a bad day, considering all the things that are awful in the world. And then you might, possibly, go write a blog post about it. In case someone else was wondering: how was your day? Consider yourselves warned.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Setting a New Course

Sometimes, the universe is sending you a message and you refuse to hear it. Sometimes, you hear it and ignore it for a while, until the din is too loud, the message unavoidable. And even then, doubt makes you hesitate, even though every sign points to yes.

A couple of weeks ago, I told my colleagues that I wanted to let go of the unpaid work I was doing at the lovely school where I teach—I'm just over half-time and had taken on much of the extracurricular work of a full-time teacher, including establishing a new diversity program. Then we went on our trip. I thought some more. I feel proud of a lot of the work I am doing. I know I'm a good teacher, and I love working with adolescents, who are so eager to discuss everything. I hope the school is a better place for my having been there. And I know that my kids are better off for having been there. I'm a better parent, in some ways.

Having four-year-olds is easier than having toddlers, mostly: they can be remarkably independent and creative. Sometimes I get a break—they go into their room, into the brother zone, and play beautifully. And at the same time, they're equally, if not more, exhausting. That two-hour nap in the middle of the day, during which I would daydream, write, get some work done, and drink tea? It's long gone, replaced by wrestling with two energetic chatterboxes who can't sleep at night if they take a nap. "Quiet time" consists of my scuttling from room to room while they try to play on top of my head. Yet this age is so short. In a couple of years, they'll be in first grade, learning to read and write, finding deep interests.

Last Friday, I drove to school feeling certain. I taught my classes, sat down to talk with the high school coordinator about a diversity issue, then closed with, "Well, I guess now is the time when I say I'm not coming back next year." The clarity and lightness I felt stayed there until I told my kids' teacher. I have loved all the teachers my boys have had at this school, and nothing has made this decision harder than having to say goodbye to them. It is perhaps fitting that I'm coming around to this decision while I'm in the middle of teaching The Odyssey for the fifth or sixth time. That text never gets old, with its questions of what it means to be a good human being, and its pursuit of the peace of home in a world full of monsters and disasters.

My Facebook feed is full of everybody's real-life disasters and joys. If disaster visits me, shouldn't I have spent some time stretching away from the easy comfort zone of the familiar into new territories? I'm not sure that I'm quitting teaching—in fact, I'm considering shifting my teaching to a slightly different age group. I'll still be doing some work with teens, this time as a college application essay tutor. So let us say for now that I'm quitting this particular combination of joys and costs.

I don't know what I'll be doing this time next year. I don't know what the kids will be doing.

But I know a few things:

I am choosing rest.

I am choosing to connect regularly, not just on Facebook, with my friends.

I will be writing more, more often.

I will walk more every day, alone, and with four-year-olds to guide me.

I will spend 10 minutes sitting in my backyard every day watching the plants grow, and listening to the boys play.

I will make a Southern-style Wish Tree—call it a Wish in A Bottle Tree.

I will learn new things and find new ways to teach people.

I was on my way home from watching some of my students present their 8th grade projects a week ago, the evening after I'd declared my intention not to return to EWS next fall. As I drove down the winding, dark road from Chapel Hill to Durham, I found an old mix CD, cryptically labeled "Hip Hop," and put it on. A few tracks in, Aesop Rock's "No Regrets" played, with its propulsive refrain:
You can dream a little dream
Or you can live a little dream
I'd rather live it
'cause dreamers always chase
But never get it
It's time to live the dream, not just dream it. Here we go: more smiles, adventures, and joys unknown.