In March. I played a piece for one of Matt’s choirs called Songstream by Alice Parker called. The piece is a nine-movement setting of poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Ms. Parker considers the piece to be her response to Brahms’s Liebeslieder Waltzes. Many of the movements are not in 3/4, however, but in 7/8, giving the waltz meter a kind of noticeable limp.

I could relate entirely. This asymmetrical meter a good metaphor for my life all semester. I think I’ve been limping along since January, the year having either one extra beat or one too few, I’m not entirely sure which. It’s an interesting notion to consider, whether our problems with life balance and rhythmic flow are a result of too many beats or not enough. It makes me think of that idea a friend reminded me of just this week that our response to an especially busy day should be to double our meditation time. I get the concept, but never practice it. It is the simplest things that are hardest to implement.

The last few months saw a lot of traveling: a garden tour to Pasadena with my mother, a visit with my best friend in Denver, a weekend hiking along the CA coast outside of Monterrey for my sister’s 40thbirthday. It was all lovely, and I felt grateful for the connection time with the people I love, but every trip out of town was a bump, a lurch in my routines on either end, the meters of my regular life patterns changing constantly, and a doubling up of everyday life maintenance when I was home. Not to mention all the extra make-up lessons. Good God, the make-up lessons. Eliot had his coffee spoons by which to measure his life. I have make-up lessons.

If I had any extra beats this spring, they were spent in the garden. “You need to garden,” an acupuncturist once told me, speaking of the spiritual and psychological grounding that comes with digging in the dirt. When we bought our house thirteen years ago I inherited a garden or, rather, the bones of one. The previous owner had begun to make a garden: laying down flagstone walks in the backyard, digging borders of flowers in the poor desert soil, planting Lady Bank roses to weave into the trellis that separates our property from our neighbors’. That first spring, I watched in amazement as the rose bushes bloomed, snapdragons awoke from their winter’s nap, a viburnum burst into white blossoms outside the courtyard wall. I had already fallen madly in love with this little house in the weeks since we had moved in on a sunny January day. But watching the backyard explode into color over the next few months, I was a goner, my heart stolen forever.

Tending a garden has meant acquiring another practice of sorts: creating the rituals of weeding and planting, watering and pruning that organize the year into seasons and chores. Year around, I compose lists of tasks: buy seeds, cut back the roses, clean out the cacti bed, turn the compost. During the cold winter months, I read gardening books, finding a strange inner repose in studying the peculiar habits of plants I will never grow. Once spring arrives, I live in the garden. After being cooped up indoors with my piano and my books, there is nothing I want to be doing more than to be outside carrying buckets of water to the holly at dusk, cutting back the lavender and the sage as the sun comes up in the morning, staking the climbing roses and the wisteria along the fence as the light makes its kaleidoscopic shift in the evening.

My grandparents are the spiritual roots beneath the garden. These were my father’s parents, who were married while my grandfather was stationed in Florida during World War Two. After the war was over, they moved back to Kansas, had two children, bought a farm and lived there quietly for the next forty years. On the farm, they raised cows and grew acres and acres of every vegetable imaginable, far more than one family could ever eat. “Gracie Girl,” my grandfather teased Grandma every spring, sitting at the kitchen table with the seed catalogues, “How many plants can I buy this year?” He dreamt of the gardens that could sustain them for all of eternity. Grandma would shake her head at him indulgently, but ever mindful of the hours of planting and weeding, picking and canning ahead. “We had no money,” Grandma would sigh. “But we ate like kings.”

For the grandchildren, the farm was our favorite place on Earth to be. On the other hand, my mother shudders to remember the farm, still seeing the dangers lurking around every corner for her brood of naive children. She doesn’t know the half of it, I suspect, remembering all too well the fun we had rope swinging from the rafters in the hay barn. My siblings and I spent hours tramping through the pastures or sitting in the strawberry patch, stuffing our mouths. We climbed the fruit trees in the orchard and ate apples and mulberries, not even bothering to climb down. In the evenings, we helped milk the cows and cheerfully churned butter, sitting on the kitchen floor with the ancient glass butter churner between our legs. In spite of our initial willingness for this novel task, we’d always tire long before butter formed, leaving the chore behind for more appealing adventures outside. By the hour, we chased the wild barn cats, who were tame only when Grandpa put out the nightly bowl of fresh milk for them. “If you catch one, you can take it home,” he’d promise us, knowing that we never would.

On hot summer afternoons, we’d sit languidly in the swing hung from a tall oak tree outside the kitchen window, or lie on the couch reading a book, wishing for a cool breeze to come through the screen door. We slept with every window and door open, the house full of the unfamiliar sounds of nighttime in the country. At breakfast there was always sweet rolls dripping with icing and glasses of cold, cold milk. Grandpa ate berries swimming in real cream and we grandchildren followed suit, lapping up the thick cream eagerly like barn cats, a far cry from our diets of skim milk back at home. Sometimes we ate leftover pie for breakfast, which pleased us no end. Grandma was happy to serve us pie. “It has eggs, flour and fruit in it,” she would rationalize, thereby shutting the door on any debate about the possible nutritional value of such a meal.

In this season when it seems the garden chores are never done (Water. Prune. Water. Plant. Water. Repot. Water. Move. Water. Rinse. Repeat.), Matt’s interest goes only as far as to amble around the garden after work with a drink in hand. “I’m surveying my domain,” he tells me when I question his behavior. Matt is proud of the garden, just as long as it doesn’t involve chores. Once I asked him to dig a hole near the street. I wanted to put a lilac bush in that spot, but knowing that often I start to dig a hole only to have my plans sabotaged by hitting an elm tree root the size of my thigh, I wasn’t about to buy a plant until I knew I had a safe place to put it. But I didn’t explain this rationale to Matt. He worked and worked, sweating and groaning until he had dug a hole several feet deep. Only then did I tell him that it was “a practice hole” and that he should replace all the dirt. “I don’t want a student falling in,” I said. Matt found my logic less than amusing.

My father, who ran as far away from the farm of his childhood as he could, also doesn’t like garden chores. “I’m painting the fence,” he tells us when Momma or I suggest he help us dig a hole. But while he doesn’t like to putter in the yard, he has a lot of opinions. “I don’t like hollyhocks. We had those on the farm. They’re too tall,” he says. “Irises are no good. They don’t bloom very long and then they are just ugly. How about a rose bush?” These opinions seem rather arbitrary and illogical to me. I try to point out that nothing blooms very long in a garden. That is one of the many things gardening teaches you: in spite of how we might pretend otherwise, life is impermanent, transitory, fleeting.

Perhaps, now that I think about it, that’s the point worth pondering in the end. There is no permanent balance, extra beats always find their way into our measures and routines causing us to trip and stumble. In fact, maybe we are fooling ourselves to think that we aren’t limping all the time. Maybe, just maybe, 7/8 is exactly where we should be living and working, digging one practice hole after another.

 

(Both the daffodil and the bee photos were taken by our good friend Daryl Lee, who occasionally says things like, “Amy, do you mind if after work I come over to your garden with my camera?” Thank you, Daryl…)