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Posts Tagged ‘musings’

… then bring the mountain or at least a portion of it to you. “Do what you love.” That is what the outpatient therapists reiterate to Steve as we continue on this journey of stroke recovery. One of the things he loves is woodworking, old school craftsmanship. Think The Woodwright Shop. His woodworking shop is in the basement. Hmmm. We’re not quite there yet because yes, it is another spiral stair, but his therapy team said if you love woodworking then do woodworking, figure out some simple projects and go to it. I asked Steve what would you like to do. He said, “Make cutting boards.” Now I’m not a woodworker but I’ve seen him make cutting boards and I responded after a deep breath, “Uhm, do you think there’s something even simpler to begin with? You know you have some cedar panels from a previous project. I can bring them up here. You were supposed to make me some moth repellant hangers for the closets …” He processed it and said, “Okay, we can do that. I need the Jorgenson clamp.” I blinked a few times and then said, “Well, of course,” as I slid my phone out of my pocket to google what that meant. But what I didn’t remember was “old school” and so in the end he had to sketch what he meant and if you google what he meant it falls under beautiful wooden vintage. And so on this journey I’m learning new language (fret saw?!) and new skills (how to make a straight cut). He’s got a goal. He’s making a bunch of very practical (and oh so wonderfully smelling) cedar hooks to give to family and friends for their closets. Life is so interesting. 🙂

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Outside this window, down below, there is a yard chaotically divided into lots of pocket gardens. There is a trio of pots that still have remnants of basil though I think they will fade to black when the night time temps drop into the 30s this week. There are raised beds bright green with red clover growing and the bright gold flowers of tall stalks of mexican tarragon. I specifically placed pots of orange and burgundy mums in the furthest bed right next to a forest of rosemary. I wanted that burnt beauty to be part of his line of sight once he returned home. And now that Steve is home, practicing his steps deliberately, he can walk from the living room to the distant kitchen window and see the wider world, the gardens that he helped plant and dream of what we will plant in the spring.

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I don’t remember writing the story in 2012 or so. What I do remember is that early on in our relationship I might say to Steve as we hiked, “Ah, we’ve come to a fork in the road. Which one do we take?” And his response was always something to the effect, “If there’s a fork in the road, pick it up.” Not so helpful a reply in the moment but more helpful creatively than I ever imagined. The seeds were planted so when one day a little girl asked me to make up a story about a stone in my rock collection … well, the following story somehow evolved. https://www.creativity-portal.com/articles/cynthia-staples/long-walk.html

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My dad used to say when he needed to pray he prayed in the garden. I don’t think I pray in the garden but the garden does provide respite as well as nutrition. For all sorts of reasons this year’s garden has been a source of joy … and a chore. In part I think I was too ambitious. I had no plan though I think I was pretty good about not planting things we didn’t actually eat. And we did try some experiments like kale that survived the bunnies and tasted so good cooked with store bought turnips … which inspired us to try planting turnip this fall. We’ll see …

The basement is full of hardneck garlic (which means that we were able to eat some garlic scape before the bulbs were fully formed). Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes everywhere. I’m trying to find ways to preserve them. The Italian basil, planted all over the place, has thrived. Lots of frozen pesto (and herb butters) to be had later in the year. I feel bad that life situations happened such that the Thai basil could not be used to our favorite extent (e.g. in stir fry) but the beautiful purple flowers were a treat for pollinators.

Though we near the end of a hot dry July I can look out the kitchen window into the garden below and I can see tomatoes reddening. Roma and Big Boy (or Girl) and a cherry variety. A lot of things are withering in the current heat wave. Sunday will be 100. There’s a part of me, and I did confer with that fellow, that knows some things have had their run and so in the cool of the morning I will simply need to weed and clean and begin to prep the earth for our fall plantings. I must say I never imagined that indoor and outside watering could be an exercise. But I think it truly is!

That is the beauty of gardening … the transition of seasons … engaging with the flow of time … it has been a particular joy this gardening season to see perennials planted last year, just green leaves, return and thrive and for the first time flower. Yes!

From the kitchen window I can see the bounty of the coneflower. I cut some of the flowers for the house and now know the rest will wilt and the dried seed heads will feed the birds into the fall. I watched them last year but never had my camera in reach. Maybe this year.

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Behind the garage is goldenrod, blue cornflowers and red clover. They grew up on their own, seeds dispersed by the wind or planted by some former resident. I planted pink dianthus, orange-red marigolds and some carnations from seed. No rhyme or reason. No theme. There is even a pot of white snapdragons just because they were on sale in the store.

Behind the garage is an unsettled area. Every hard rain reveals bits of old thick glass … recently I’ve been finding marbles … what stories do they have to tell? … and cement chunks from some demolition that took place not too long ago. One has to be careful where one walks.

Behind the garage there is the remnant of an old apple tree, its bark overgrown around what must have been a chain link fence at some point. Pieces of metal still stick out. Animals parade through. It is an avenue. I’ve seen possum, raccoons, cats, squirrels and lots of rabbits. I can only imagine what else might meander through in the dead of the night when I am not looking.

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petunias in the garden

I photographed the petunias in the garden today but I don’t have any petunia stories except that my mother used to plant them in the raised beds my father built for her in Virginia. Beds maybe 1′ or 2′ by 4′ or 5′. Nothing fancy. Plants purchased from the farmers market in downtown Lynchburg. Straightforward colors of red, purple and white come to mind. Although I do remember in later years when I returned home after college the selections had expanded and there were striped and maybe spotted petunias in the beds. As a child, in the early evening hours when the sun (and therefore heat) was low, I remember my mom and I would go out and pick the dead flowers to encourage new growth. It came across as something calming for my mother. My dad’s domain was the vegetable garden. The flowers were my mother’s and I think she cherished it.

Even after I moved from home I often managed to garden though I was not drawn to petunias. I have a growing fondness for them and an appreciation of how they fill in a container and complement other plants. As a child I didn’t appreciate them at all except as an opportunity to stick my hands in the dirt to help plant them and an opportunity to hang out with my mom as she took care of them. I was completely clueless as she included me in this process of caretaking and nurturing. I’m still not great at it with petunias. I try to find new varieties that need no deadheading. I seek out colors that complement the “main” plants I have growing in a container. And yet as seasons continue to pass I find myself planting more of those things from my childhood that I took for granted like petunias, scarlet sage and sweet william. Spring is near done and summer approaches. We’ll see what growing opportunities, prompted by the past or by the current moment, present themselves.

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my super eclectic 2×5 raised garden bed

I have to admit it has been mostly people of color who have been most vocal in their curiosity. “Do you live here?” “Nice neighborhood. What’s your rent like?” And if they see Steve standing about with his silvery beard and walking stick, some venture to inquire, “Are you a home health aid?” These are Uber drivers. The White drivers tend to pull up, look at the house and then at me, curious clearly, but leaving the questions unasked.

It is a 1920s wood frame two family house with good bones that need some work. Stuff like fixing holes in walls, replacing plumbing, updating the 1970s washer and dryer in the rental unit and so on and so forth and ,ah, the learnings! One small brick porch was recently repaired while the larger brick porch had to be replaced completely because, as Steve thought based on his tapping his walking stick on the bricks, the interior bricks had crumbled and there was a disaster in the making. That had to be fixed and it looks good. The exterior painting that’s clearly needed? So long as we don’t look too shabby that’s getting pushed out into the far future. I did not realize owning a home was so expensive. But as Steve likes to remind me, we really don’t own the home. The bank owns it until we pay off the mortgage. 🙂

There was an incident on the street recently and the police arrived. I went outside by myself to inquire what was happening. In short during the course of the conversation I informed the officer I was not a tenant, I was the landlord. There followed that moment of silence and that too-familiar look on his face. I was treated with respect but the curiosity remained clear in his face, the Black officer, and later on the face of a White officer.

There are times of late on the Uber ride home, especially after a long day in Boston, and I see the question(s) forming, I am tempted to make up a story. “Yes, I’m a home health care aid. That’s why my bags are filled with groceries and flowers, so that I can take care of the people inside.” “Yes, I’ve been renting for years and luckily the landlord hasn’t raised the rent. Indeed it is a nice neighborhood and I am lucky to be able to afford it.”

I do not think of the queries and reactions as necessarily racist. I think of them as unintentionally or unknowingly biased. There is a perception of me by people of different races and backgrounds that kicks in when they see me, a small brown woman who may look a bit younger than I actually am, standing in front of a multifamily home. Is it so rare that a Black person owns a home in the Greater Boston area?

Yes, it is.

There has been much research on the subject and there is continuing work by people at many levels to fix the inequity in home ownership that has evolved over many many many decades.

I am by trade a storyteller but I will ignore urges to make up a story about our home and my presence in it. It serves no purpose to lie except to perpetuate a misconception. I am simply reminded of my research, and the research of so many scholars, with regard to systemic racism and the seeds that are implanted in the minds of people of all backgrounds as to who Black people are and what they are capable of.

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basil from the garden for pesto

Yesterday Steve and I were looking down at a single sheet of paper. His last will and testament dated August 2018. In that year during that month just a few days before that will was completed we had sat in a doctor’s office, the top in his field. He stared intently at a scan of Steve’s brain. He eventually nodded and essentially said I see where it is, it is growing fast so how about we do the surgery early next week.

What followed was this blur of activity as Steve kept us focused on the practical like preparing his office to be without their scientist, contacting financial institutions, filling the fridge, making sure I knew passwords, and of course sharing the news with family and friends. We had been in the process of updating his will and doing my first will anyway. But there was no time to complete that process so the lawyer coached him through what to put on that single sheet and to sign with witnesses present.

As I have told Steve over the years he attracts a strong team and the medical team was strong for the surgery. And they were strong for the unexpected second brain surgery that took place the following year and the subsequent intensive physical therapy. In between the two surgeries my youngest brother died in Virginia. Steve couldn’t travel with me. Following the second surgery my second oldest brother died. Steve determinedly made that trek. He could not do so when my eldest brother died only a few months later of cancer during the midst of the pandemic. Nor could I.

And in the midst of all that we closed on a house just as the pandemic struck. It was one of the most onerous processes I’ve ever been through. We moved ourselves in. The backyard was a demolition area but we managed to use every nook and cranny on the side of the house to grow a garden. Steve had his tomatoes and basil. I had my herbs and flowers. I accidentally hoarded eggs instead of toilet tissue and Steve was able to work in the basement and build us a dining room table. We zoomed zoomed zoomed like everyone else for work and to connect with family and friends. We did make excursions around the neighborhood with me constantly snapping at Steve to pull up his mask. We were cautious but not afraid. In a sense we were resolute … you deal with what comes at you because that’s all you can do.

Before August, nearly three years later, we will have our official wills completed. That’s why we were looking at that older document, to remind ourselves, and to reflect, “Wow. Three years? Is that when this whirlwind journey began?”

The yard that was a demolition project is now a full-fledged garden with different raised beds that Steve built. He has retired, more or less, and now enjoys the ability if not the outright necessity of impromptu midday naps. I was able to remain employed and of late have been given leave to do more writing and historical research. I’m committed to resuming photography and more creative writing, with what extra time I don’t know.

Soon Steve and I will go outside to pick some basil. Pesto will be made along with dinner. He moves a little slower in the kitchen in the evening hours so I will be sous chef and perhaps take some photos for instagram. I’ve had more pesto this year than in all the earlier years of my life. I can’t complain. I don’t think I can complain about much of anything.

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Late evening zooms are wearing me down but I am going to try to watch tomorrow at 7pm, “Every Pecan Tree: Trees, Meaning and Memory in Enslaved People’s Live.” It is part of a lecture series produced by the Harvard Arnold Arboretum.

The title was provocative and made me think about trees in my life. I photograph a lot of trees and as the sun pours through the window now I know at some point, I hope at some point, I will bundle up and head out the door with my camera. The branches are all mostly bare of course but with several days in the 60s coming … I will try to get some before and after shots. Some things might accidentally bloom by week’s end. We’ll see …

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a pecan tree. I’ve got books that help me identify birds and herbs, butterflies and moths but none about trees. I think I take trees for granted. The only tree I think I ever learned to recognize by leaf and seed was the maple tree because it grew next door in my Aunt’s yard and my brother grew one from one of its helicopter seeds and my dad actually planted the resulting seedling in our backyard though he did so with a big sigh because he knew one day its shade would cover his garden but he did so for the smile on my brother’s face.

Our yard was small but for the most part you don’t need a lot of space to grow trees.

We had a green gage plum tree. It was on the fence line so that meant the neighbors could pick some plums if they wanted too. My dad made wine that was apparently very tasty. He never let me drink it though. I suspect it was rather high octane. There was an apricot tree that I think produced one apricot over the span of its long life. The next door neighbor had a huge black walnut tree but I don’t remember people eating the nuts back then.

Across the street a neighbor had a towering pear tree that bloomed so white in spring. When the wind blew it was like snow was falling. The smell was divine. The fruit was so so. Small, green, hard to eat fresh but my mother would make small jars of pear jam that we’d eat on hot biscuits. Down the street was a sprawling mulberry tree. I heard stories of people making mulberry wine but mostly people hated the mess the berries made as they fell to the ground and they squished beneath your shoes. I fixed my dad a plate of them once, using my new tea party set, and he ate them with a smile. Citrus trees that people mentioned were before my time. No apples in the neighborhood and today that seems strange.

During the lecture, Tiya Miles, Professor of History and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor, Harvard University, will explore “the importance of trees as protectors of bodies and spirits, as sites of violence, as memory keepers, and as historical witnesses in the Black experience of captivity and resistance. Ultimately, time spent with these examples will underscore the centrality of the natural world to Black, and indeed, human, survival.”

If you’re interested in the lecture, you can find out more information here: https://environment.harvard.edu/event/every-pecan-tree-trees-meaning-and-memory-enslaved-people%E2%80%99s-lives

Meanwhile, I think the air has warmed just enough for me to venture out into the world with my camera. We’ll see which trees speak to me.

Have a good day!

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branches

I’ve only done one art installation. It revolved around the childhood food memories of former slaves living in the deep south. It was an installation that was visual and tactile with hanging branches and shells. Thankfully, people found it thought provoking. A new installation comes to mind based on the experiences of children enslaved in New England. The concept is based on the content of advertisements in newspapers from the 18th century. With regard to slavery, you can divide the ads into at least two categories: “to be sold” and “runaway.” And then there were a few ads I came across that one might almost categorize as “giveaway.” These ads most often involve young children.

“A negro infant girl about six weeks old to be given for the bringing up. Inquire of John Campbell Post-Master to know further …” (1706)

Imagine walking into a room lit by flickering lamplight. Against the wall there would be a simple desk and chair and on the desk accessories strewn about appropriate to the times including a ledger book. Nearby stands a period printing press. In the air are sounds one might hear to give a sense of place, perhaps the scratch of a quill pen on stationery, the shuffling of papers, the machinations of the printing press, and maybe someone whistling or playing a bone flute with some ditty of the day. And in the background, steadily becoming louder, is the sound of a child crying. And that building sound might draw the viewer’s attention to a different part of the room where there is a big wooden block, not unlike an auction block, and upon the block is a straw basket. The cries emanate from it. Hanging, or projected onto the wall, is that ad: “A negro infant girl about six weeks old to be given for the bringing up.”

Then one might enter a different room, a small room, dimly lit. Scattered about would be household items appropriate to the times including clothing for young children. The sound in the air this time? Perhaps the babble of young children, the gurgle of a baby and then a mother’s voice, frantic yet calm, as she tries to rush them, to shush them, and get them moving out a door. That door slams shut, “Wham!” and then the ad is projected on the wall:

“Ran away from their Master … a Negro woman with four small children, three of them mulattos, the youngest a Negro that sucks or is lately weaned …”

In a later newspaper advertisement I would find that that same woman would runaway from that same man this time with just her now two year old Negro child. What was this woman’s story? What was her name? What happened to the other children? What choices had to be made?

The following ad particularly struck me because it helps bring to life in a different way the economic linkages between north and south long before this land was ever one nation.

“Any person with a Negro man slave or slaves to sell or to be transported to Virginia for a market may repair to John Cambpell Post-Master of Boston … transport will be free …”

For this ad the viewer would be directed to walk into a room that is a carpenter’s shop or a blacksmith’s shop or even a distillery. You’d hear the sounds of men at work, orders being placed. Then as the din dies down you hear a man with a British accent call out a list of names to come to him … Cato, Scipio, Jupiter, Prince. Maybe he’ll say, “Gentlemen, you’ve done fine work but I have need to send you away.”

Why revisit the past?

So that the past will not be repeated. But also so that we better understand what actually happened. Just these few ads paint a different picture of colonial New England for me. The historic landscape is deeper, richer and darker. It gives further credence to how the contagion of slavery is part of the very foundations of this country. We cannot move past something if we do not understand what it is that we are trying to move past.

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