Cherry-dark mums are just the color of all my heart. The self-inflicted worries and disappointments; the sweet throbs that race ahead of thinking and good sense – all as deeply held in their shadows as they are brightly curving in the light.
I wanted the flowers’ darkness to remain intact, the most important thing to know about them. One petal after another, each a strand in a story that can’t be told with only soft tints that let the light shine through.
And now we are back to cold, windy walks – an inevitable feature of life where winter lingers.
You need to acquire a taste for the cold – the way, for example, people keep telling themselves they like Negronis. If you can’t find a way to make the most of the cold, you are going to be grumpy and uncomfortable here at least 5 months of the year. And some would say 7 months because there are no guarantees in April or May. (Another thing about the cold – it gives you something to write about. Just ask Garrison Keillor.)
One thing about taking a walk in the cold – you feel like you accomplished something. That’s the trick I play on myself to make it worthwhile. Olbrich Botanic Gardens is my favorite place to walk during the winter. The gardens are guaranteed to get whatever wind is coming off Lake Monona. Once the lake freezes, that wind is 100% ice. So you’d think you’d want to hurry through the gardens just to get your walk over with. But that’s not the case at all.
Instead, you stop to say hello to all the things you have not seen since the last Ice Age. Seed heads reflecting every speck of sunshine in their feather-light curls. Deep red strands of willow, busy with ground-nesting birds sheltering at their base. Stand-tall stems of hydrangea and viburnum, their brown flower heads perfectly preserved by autumn’s dry chill. Thick-berry branches of crabapple, and weeping trees – maybe almond, maybe beech – spreading their curtain for theblossoms that are waiting in the wings.
It was a gorgeous day in the gardens. My ears are still a little cold, though. I can’t say I mind all that much.
Now it really is November, as we all knew it would be one day. Overnight, the wind and temperatures remembered their purpose – to chill and nip us, and give everyone a reason to cuddle up and sleep.
The cold reminds us of our good fortune. To be able to come inside and warm up, to linger in in the security of lights burning, to accept the companionship of darkness in quiet and safety. We have more than we need to face winter, and most of us know that isn’t the case for everyone.
This week was full of the ways I need my friends – and I hope a few of the ways I help when I can. Sometimes, when Sunday arrives, and I look back at everything that has happened, I can’t believe it. As much as I try to pull back with all the resistance my anxiety can muster, life still hurtles me forward. Events that must happen, like groceries and doctors visits. Moments that offer themselves as a path to a different future, like a disappointment or a kiss. And the disruptions we go looking for – another window full of flowers, a farewell to a favorite ghost.
Bundle all that happens into winters’ nights, to cure and transmute with a power that moves so slowly it can’t be seen. But we can feel it in the November air, sparkling our blessings like all the stars in the chill black sky.
It was a bit of a week, and this one coming up will have some steep curves to get through as well. Saturday, I felt lonesome for the garden, and drove by a few times to make sure it is still there (it was). Owing to this undeniably wrong November weather, I can plant some more bulbs next week, as an excuse to scrumble around in the dirt. It was too soggy for digging yesterday.
I’m not telling myself most of my feelings – or at least not too honestly. They come down to wishing for fleeting perfection to last, I suppose. Driving into the sunset with you, in particular, but also laughing so hard with Pammy at Captain Kirk that my stomach hurt.
But I don’t want to look inside too closely just now. I don’t want to see, that’s partly true. Mainly, though, because I have a habit of finding such painful ways to fill in the blanks. I think maybe if I leave them open a little longer, I might remember to be kinder about myself, and with those kinder answers, let the ghosts drift back to their shadows and rest.
Any pictures that work out do so purely on Flower Power. That’s a fact.
It felt good to sleep a little later on Saturday. I did miss waking up beside the stretches of fields and groves waking up, too, on my drive to the farmer’s market. I let myself imagine that I will not be sad next Saturday to see even more clearly how they counted each autumn day without me, shaking off the last reds and golds and settling into russet and grey.
Carnations came my way through a flower friend who had more than she needed for a wedding. Carnations’ folds and frills have come back in fashion – although the spicy-sweet fragrance is gone from the industrial varieties. Dense and almost fluorescent, the red is hard to photograph, but can’t we all see them so clearly in our minds’ eye? The First-Date Bouquet, the Valentine Present, the Christmas Table. We know these very flowers so well.
Meanwhile, what happens next with the flowers remains a puzzle. How many Sundays is it until spring, when I can scrounge branches in bud and indulge in petals and petals of ranunculus and tulips? Can I make friends for the winter with the uniformity of commercial flowers, after my fling with the rowdy, unkempt creatures who filled my summer?
And, well – I am just tired. I keep saying it, maybe in hopes that repeating it will help me find the right mix of persistence and surrender. To keep going but not as hard – and perhaps discover in that quiet release, something still and requisite that I have blundered past in all my wandering.
So there it is – a summer in my own little hundred-foot acre, and a year in this place. The garden is done and this is absolutely all that was left over. Sedum and rose pilfered from the haphazard plantings outside my building; marigolds, aster seed heads and crabapples from the common plantings at the community garden; and the dried zinnias and sunflowers that have accumulated over the past months. It’s hard to let the spent blossoms go – each one a sculpture made of time and color, and as fascinating in their way as fresh blooms are enchanting.
I drove out for the last farmer’s market, under an empty sky pulsing with light as golden and rosy as the flesh of a juicy plum. Coastlines of sand-colored stubble where soybeans have been carved away, and the corn – now as tan as dried oak leaves – being churned from its great heights into oceans of kernels for food and who knows what else. There weren’t any flowers in Fort Atkinson, but I found instead the Biggest Apple I have seen in some time, and asian pears, salad greens, and a dozen eggs in ruddy dark brown, as if the hens also know it’s fall.
I have not been counting Sundays for – oh, it seems like a few months. Just the momentum of picking weeds and watching for seedlings, then finding the first buds and blossoms – this timeline replaced my other urgencies with a to-do list far beyond my control. Then, this week – just as my little enterprise culminated in the last bouquets and first new seed packets for 2023 – I saw my person a few too many times. And felt myself begin again to watch the days for some little glimmer of hope.
I’m not sure how much longer there will be flowers every Sunday. This experience has had its own momentum and its own timeline, and has worked deep changes in my life. But it has also taken me out of the world of friends and housework and poetry and even other art that matters to me – even other photography I no longer do.
Over and over, I think – I just want pleasure. To enjoy what is here, and who I am, and the people I love. I might need some art/life balance, I think, to re-seed those other little patches in my 100-foot acre and plant something new for another spring.
Autumn is counting down, cycling through shining reds and brilliant golds under the bluest skies we’ll see all year. It’s hard to believe all this fire will soon burn out, leaving only the hard edges of dark, bare branches waiting for the snow to find its way to us. Summer’s warmth lingers in the colors, as if the trees are wearing on the outside their remembered pleasure of those sweet and easy days.
Saturday the community garden closed for the season. So, I dug up the cosmos, with their inch-thick stems, and pulled out the lily-pad nasturtiums that have grown so fast in these cool and sunny weeks. It was strange to see the plot reduced again to its 10×10 dimension. Hope had made it large with petals and leaves. And next year fits into that space already, in seed packets and bulbs I brought home Saturday afternoon.
Aside from germinating the seeds and keeping down the weeds, I didn’t even try to do a good job at the garden. I didn’t even want to. Instead, I wanted to enjoy how something might happen in its own way, and to let it be outside my control. I suppose that is another way of saying I wanted to trust something. And what all those seeds turned into – I’ll be thinking about that for a long time.
Friday was the most beautiful day to sit inside and stitch with my friends. (I made something with paper and glue, but that’s beside the point.) I haven’t been able to join their regular get together in a long time. Afterwards it felt like some inner balance was restored that I hadn’t realized was off kilter. There is no substitute for the companionship of making things together.
The sharp curves and steep climbs have not abated. The friend who has to take overnight shifts to stay afloat; the one with the house that won’t sell and won’t rent; the open heart surgery for the healthiest, skinniest runner I know. Each event unthinkable, until it became the inevitable next thing.
So I drive out Saturday morning to reckon with other inevitables. Harvested strips define the fields, making clear for the first time how vast were the oceans of soy and corn that now surrender the work of their season. The sky – a ready symbol for powers we cannot hope to change or even influence – is as immense over the Moraine as any vista in the Great Plains, and measured with its own rows of low, receding clouds.
And the cold night has pulled innumerable crystals of water from the surrounding air – that cling now to every green and tender leaf, and every spent and lifeless one as well. Every week, these same wonders on this same road – which is never the same.
Oh, my friends. There is nothing to do but keep going.
I’ll need to let the dahlias and the zinnias make up their own story tonight. I really am tired. I’ll be leaving the dishes and the coffee fixings until tomorrow morning, too.
Listen to the morning sun and foggy mists they have to tell. All the growing days they’ve spent, and nights standing in the warm sing-songing darkness. Layers and layers accumulating exactly as written in the capsule of seed, and yet each one unfurling a new and unprecedented creature when the time comes.
Listen to the dahlias and the zinnias. They tell it better than me.
Rain and fall go hand in hand, as a way to begin saying goodbye to summer. Cold, inevitable rain is what makes a crisp autumn day such a delight by contrast. Rain, we had this Saturday. The 40 degree nights have left their mark. Behind the veil of grey, gold is spreading the through tree tops, corn stalks stand dry and tan, and overhead the conversation of geese debating their route south. The purple asters are showing now – one of fall’s most beautiful colors.
The rain has not discouraged my cosmos or nasturtiums or hyacinth beans – nor has the cold weather slowed them down too much. Dahlias and zinnias will probably last until the farmers market closes in mid-October. There will be apples, too – and onions and greens. Winter is still some distance away – but moving at its steady pace, one chilly night at a time.
This pear has now been eaten, each succulent mouthful restoring the taste of pears from childhood to the present moment. What could be sweeter?