The Dead Wood

I trimmed my roses back a week ago. Or, maybe it was two weeks ago. Not that it matters. The important part is that I did the trimming, not the time frame in which it happened. I love my roses. I really do. Generally, I don’t even mind pruning them. I try to keep up with dead-heading them in the Summer, when they bloom and bloom and bloom. And then, as cold weather approaches and Winter starts to close in, I give them a really big prune. And I mean “big”. We are talking a drastic cut back.

The last two years of my life have been a mess. In so many ways, I have felt like most of what I knew was wrong … most of what I had built was crumbling … and a lot of fear and uncertainty took hold. I still struggle with my own depression. My daughter was diagnosed with depression. My husband had a heart attack and quadruple by-pass. I lost both my beloved aunts. My husband lost his job. And he is still searching for a new one. And truthfully, I know we are still lucky and blessed. There are so many people who are suffering and sad in this life. There are so many people who have it much worse than me. It feels selfish, in a way, for me to talk about or write about the things I have struggled with over the last couple of years. And yet, selfish or not, it has been a struggle. And continues to be one.

flowers-vase-shelf-sm

My roses have always been such a joy. They have bloomed enthusiastically and energetically all throughout the Spring and Summer. And even into the Fall. But this past Summer, they hardly bloomed at all. And I realized that, in the scurry and struggle of my life, I had been a bad rose mama. I had neglected them terribly.

And so, I pruned. It felt good to stand in the gentle breeze and focus on nothing more than the one cut right in front of me. And, after that, to move on to the next and the next. All things in their proper order. As it should be. It felt good to talk to my roses, to apologize to them for being absent for so long, and to thank them for all the beauty and joy they have brought into my life. The rhythms and motions were familiar and comforting. It feels like it’s been a long time since I have slipped into my own life and worn it like a comfortable shoe.

rose-raindrops1-small

At the end of it all, I was left with something that resembled a pile of sticks. By the time I was done, the sun had started to set. I stood in the gathering half-light of dusk and surveyed my work. And, as always, I had this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. What had I done? My beautiful roses! Had I gone too far? Had I ruined everything in trying to do something good?

Right now, my rose bushes look sad. Our weather has been cloudy and drippy and chilly. I think this makes them look even more pathetic, and the one little string of lights we have wrapped around them to decorate for Christmas hasn’t helped in the least. Have you ever seen that Charlie Brown Christmas special where Charlie Brown rescues the saddest, smallest, most pitiful little tree and, then, the whole gang puts lights and decorations on it? Yeah. That’s what my rose bushes look like with their little string of holiday cheer.

rosylady-raindrops1-sm

But I have to keep faith and hope that, by Spring, things will look different. Things will look better. By Spring, there will be fresh leaves and new growth where, before, there was only dead wood. And by Summer, there will be blooms once more. Even though, all Winter long, I am going to look at my stick-bushes and feel that same sinking feeling. But it’s temporary. I have to remind myself it’s temporary. And I have to remind myself that removing the dead wood is good, even though it might feel like a bad thing. New growth can’t happen without it.

And maybe there is a life lesson in there for me, too. Maybe I need to cut away some of my own dead wood: my regrets, my sorrows, my guilt. I need to look in the mirror and say kind things to myself. I need to have faith that this difficult time will pass, and that there are better things on the horizon. In the Spring, there will be new leaves. And in the Summer, flowers.

Dear Tuesday,

a Dear Tuesday,

You suck. I tried to think of a kinder, gentler way of breaking this to you, but, really, what’s the point? You have single-handedly made this week a living pit of suckage and doom, and I don’t feel like sugar coating things to salvage your delicate sensibilities.

It was bad enough that your cohort, Monday, brought a blown-out tire. Yes, this was an unexpected and unpleasant surprise, but I could have dealt with it. “Oh, that’s Monday,” I told myself, “That’s just how Monday is. Tuesday will be better.”

Oh, how wrong I was, Tuesday. First, you forced me to waste away four hours of my life sitting around the tire shop, waiting for the repairs to my car. Let me repeat that, Tuesday, just in case you glossed over it: FOUR HOURS. This is practically an eternity, particularly when spent in a frigid room that would give the Arctic a run for its money. This is time I can never get back, Tuesday. You stole that from me. The one, shining bit of niceness in the entire situation was the fact that I was alone in the waiting room, and it was blessedly quiet and peaceful — until one of the shop’s employees came in to let me know I could turn on the TV, if I wanted. She proceeded to grab the remote and flip channels, staring blankly at me when I told her I preferred the quiet. Then she stopped at some inane game show, gave me a triumphant smile, and said, “There! That’s better, right?” before exiting the room. I know you sent her, Tuesday.

Just like I know you sent the manager who came after her, at the end of my four-hour ordeal. Believing I would be worn down from the wait, he then tried to con me into buying four new tires when all I needed was one. But I didn’t fall for it, Tuesday. I might have boobs, but that doesn’t mean I can’t tell when someone’s trying to cheat me. And so, I went on my way, thinking I had triumphed over you and your minions.

Ah, but you weren’t done with me yet, were you, Tuesday? Because you left me only enough time to race over to a favorite restaurant, take food to go, and gobble it in the car during the fifteen minutes of “down time” I had before picking my daughter up from school this afternoon. And then … once we got home, it turned out she had forgotten her math homework. So, we all got back into the car and headed back to school in order to retrieve it. I know you were laughing about it the entire time, Tuesday. Not cool.

Even so, I might have been able to overlook your snide attitude and catty amusement if we had been able to find my daughter’s math homework. But no … You denied me even this, Tuesday. The paper was nowhere to be found, leading to a frantic search of every bit of paper stuffed into my daughter’s overflowing backpack once we got home. And could you let us win, Tuesday? No, of course not.

And, even then, you hadn’t run out of tricks. Because this evening brought a stopped-up toilet — thanks so much for that, by the way, Tuesday. How very thoughtful of you. And an overly excited Springer Spaniel who jumped up and accidentally nipped my boob. That hurt, Tuesday. Don’t think I’ll be forgiving you for that one any time soon. I finally decided I had had enough of you. I figured a nice, hot shower would be enough to wash your stink off of me for good, but you had other plans, Tuesday. Because I managed to pop a blood vessel in my finger while opening my shampoo.

My shampoo, Tuesday. Seriously — how could you stoop so low? Is nothing sacred? It’s like you’re tossing flowers on my grave before my body is even cold.

And so, Tuesday, I regret to inform you that we must part ways. I bid you good luck and I hope you won’t let the door hit you on your way out. If you decide to come back around next week, I expect better from you, Tuesday. I know where you live.

No Love,

Me

 

A Time to Prune

I pruned my roses today. It’s a necessary yearly task, but one I don’t relish. As a result, I’m a bit late in tackling it this year. Ideally, I would have finished all of this by the beginning of March … or even by the middle of the month. But it’s been cold and a bit snowy, and I’ve been sick. So here we are, running toward the end of March in a headlong rush to get everything done. But that’s all right. Sometimes, life is glorious and comes off without a hitch. At other times, it’s zany and strange, without making a lot of sense, and it refuses to run on anything but its own timetable. I try to tell myself that’s what makes things fun, but I don’t always believe it.

roses, Bishop's Garden, National Cathedral

I haven’t always been the best keeper of my roses. The bushes in front of my house are ten years old, and, when I first planted them, I thought I could get by without trimming them during the growing season and without pruning them every winter. Part of it was that all of it seemed like so much work. And, of course, there were the thorns, too. But, mostly, it felt cruel to me. To see my beautiful rose budding out with new growth, only to have me snip all of it away, leaving her looking like a pile of sticks sticking up out of the mud, felt like the height of meanness. Wouldn’t it be better to leave her alone? To let her grow as she wanted? To let her be free? In the beginning, that’s what I did, because I couldn’t bear to cut her back so drastically.

But I was wrong about this. Roses need to be trimmed back and pruned so they will continue to grow. Cutting them back redirects growth and energy throughout the plant, and it keeps the wood alive and thriving. And my mistakes have left dead wood throughout my beautiful rose bush — places where new stems and blooms can never grow.

my rose bush

I think life is a lot like a rose bush. At first, life is free and easy. It’s nothing but blooms, blooms, blooms all the time; everything is fun and pretty. But it doesn’t stay that way. Stuff crowds in and begins to take over. There are people who weigh you down with their negativity, sarcasm, and hostility. There are doubts and fears, which take away all the joy and light that make life worth living. There are responsibilities and requirements. There is self-hatred, anger, and bitterness. There are people who pretend to be supportive, but who suck all the emotional well-being out of your world. And on and on and on. The parade of negativity never seems to end.

It’s hard to trim those things out of our lives. It’s especially hard when the negative things weighing you down are people that just aren’t any good for you. It hurts. Unless you’re completely lacking in compassion, it doesn’t feel good to think you might have to hurt another person. And it takes discipline and determination to keep from falling into all the old traps and snares. But it has to be done. No matter how hard it is or how much it hurts. Because it’s impossible to keep dreams and creativity alive with all that other stuff in the way.

my rose bush

Today, as I trimmed my roses, I cut away some of the new growth and the dead wood, too. I thought about how much better off she would be once our Spring and Summer weather arrives. I thought about how I was helping her to save her energy for the places where growth could happen, instead of forcing her to waste time in spots that were beyond help. And I thought about myself, too. How it would be nice to cut away some of the dead wood in my creative life so that, finally, I could bloom.

The Insanity of Hope

I think there may be a fine line between insanity and hope. At first glance, these two concepts seem to be about as far apart as … Well, as two concepts can be. And yet, there’s a little bit of the raving lunatic inside all of us that convinces us to cling to hope. Madly, stubbornly, we grasp at it with clutching fingers, clinging to it by the very tips of our nails and with our last fraying nerve, if need be. After all, isn’t there a popular saying out there that defines insanity as “repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results”? But hope can be like that sometimes, too. We know someone we love will react negatively or say hurtful things when we share something new and exciting in our life — something that causes us such joy that it’s almost painful not to share it. Do we keep our joy a secret, knowing what we do? Or do we share it, anyhow, hoping that this time will be different. This time, we will find the love and support we’re seeking.

cherry blossoms: meadowlark botanical gardens, va

Somewhere — in some deep, dark, partially hidden place down inside of us, I suppose — we know it’ll never work. The response will be the same. It always has been, and, on some level, we know it always will be. And yet … And yet, there’s that teeny, tiny speck of hope. Maybe things will be different this time. Maybe this will be the time when she smiles, instead of looking hurt or disappointed. Maybe this will be the time he says he’s proud of you, instead of pointing out all the little ways in which you could have done better. It’s that little speck that keeps us coming back, time after time.

bishop's garden hinge: national cathedral, washington dc

So, when does hope stop being a good thing? Is there a point at which exuberant optimism slides into the depths of raving insanity?

crazy-fuzzy green plant: meadowlark botanical gardens, va

There is a rose bush that grows at the side of my house. I have no idea how old she is, but I presume she’s fairly old, as roses go. She was there when we bought the house. To use the word “bush” to describe her seems a bit ridiculous, as this plant is spindly and unattractive. In her defense, she hasn’t had the easiest time of it. She is planted in the shade of the house, so that she has lived most of her life in shadow, instead of the sun she must crave. No one, before we moved in, ever bothered to care for her. She was never trimmed back; her spent blooms were never deadheaded off during the growing season. No one fed her or removed the bugs and mold from her leaves. Even so, she continued on. She didn’t thrive, but she survived. Against all the odds.

one of my roses in the rain

When we moved in, I was dismayed to find that little rose bush, mostly buried beneath tall weeds and an overly bushy White Cedar Tree. I thought there was no hope for her, but I cleaned out her bed. I trimmed back the tree. Over the objections of different family members, who felt it was a waste of time and effort, I fertilized her and cleaned off the few pitiful leaves on her branches. I trimmed her back, working carefully because there wasn’t much space for new growth to occur.

my rosebush

That first year, not much happened, except my little rose bush lost all of her leaves. And I thought, for sure, it was a sign. I had been too late. The second year, she managed to regrow a few leaves. And a few new branches appeared. The third year, she produced a flower.

flowers

I know — one flower doesn’t seem like anything to be excited about. But this bloom … I’m not sure how to describe it. In a word, it was incredible. It was one of the most beautiful, most perfect roses I had ever seen. Pale pink, with layers and layers of delicately frilled petals, and nearly as large as the palm of my hand. It took me by surprise and took my breath away. It was so beautiful that I thought, surely, this was my little rose bush’s last gasp of life. Maybe putting all of her energy into this perfect bloom was her way of saying “thank you”. I thought this even more when the bloom died and, shortly after I trimmed it away, all of my plant’s leaves fell off. But, when the bloom returned the next year, I realized something. This is what hope is: that one delicate, fragile thing that keeps you going … that makes you keep on trying, even if it seems impossible.

roses, bishop's garden: national cathedral, washington dc

To this day, my little rose bush is pretty pathetic. She is the rose equivalent of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. She is spindly and lacking in leaves. Really, she resembles nothing more than a jumble of sticks jutting out from the ground at odd angles. Nearly everyone who sees her tells me to give up. They say I should pull that rose bush out, once and for all, so I can finally plant something “pretty”. And, truthfully, I think about it. I think about it every year, even as I trim her back and check her few leaves for aphids and mold. Each time, I wonder if this will be the year I’ll finally do it. Will this be the year I’ll finally give up on her? Will it be the year she finally gives up on me?

tattered butterfly: niagara falls, canada

But, every Spring, I hold my breath and wait. Sure enough, my little rose bush produces her one beautifully perfect bloom. I smile as I trim it away, trying to thank her with the gentlest of touches, hoping she can feel my joy and love. I take that bloom into my house so that I can cherish it — this perfect, amazing gift of love and hope. And I know: It’s not time to give up. Not just yet.

Flowers

flowers“I’ll bring you flowers every day, so you’ll always know you are loved,” he whispered.

He wasn’t the kind of man who made promises like that. He didn’t know what had come over him; he felt a shock of surprise at hearing the words pass his lips, and at knowing he meant them. Perhaps he had allowed himself to be carried away by the moment. He pulled her close so that he could bask in the scent of her hair and the feel of her skin against him. He was afraid of the emotions suddenly surging through him. His world was whirling away from him, out of control, and she was the only solid, stable point. The only thing for him to cling to. She laughed in reply to his gallant statement, and he smiled, knowing that he would never — could never — bring himself to disappoint her. If she wanted flowers every day, that was just what she would get.

“Okay, then,” she said, “I guess I’ll have to stay with you forever. Just to hold you to your promise.”

******

He stood in the drizzling rain with his hair plastered to his head and his suit — the shabby one with the too-short sleeves — soaked through. He clutched the bedraggled bouquet of flowers in his fist, feeling the lines of their stems pressing into the flesh of his palm. The rain hadn’t been kind to them. They drooped and flopped over his clenched fingers, their heads heavy with water.

He frowned down at their wilted lifelessness. They weren’t good enough for her, but they were all he had.

It had been eighty-seven days … twelve hours … fifteen minutes … and ten seconds since she left. Every moment of her absence sliced through him — a hollow ache that made him realize how alone he was, and a despair that swallowed everything in its wake. For a short time, he had been … more. He had been the hero on a white horse, riding to the rescue of his fair maiden. He had been silly and romantic and carefree. He had believed in fairy tales and happy endings. But, no. That hadn’t been him — not really. He had come crashing back to earth to find out he was just this: a wet man in a shabby suit with a bunch of wilted flowers.

With each passing second, the knowledge of it chewed him up, only to spit him back out into the world as a shadow of the man he had been. He dreamed about her every night — the smell of her hair, the silky-soft feel of her skin, the sound of her laughing in the dark — and woke up to find his cheeks wet with tears and his arms aching for her. He would do anything, give anything, promise anything to have her back. He wasn’t a proud man; he would happily fall to his knees and beg her to return. She had made him better and stronger. Now, he was none of that. He was no one, adrift without an anchor to keep him from floating away into nothingness. He held tightly to his golden-tinged memories of her. Without those, he wouldn’t have known whether or not he was real; he wouldn’t know whether or not he had ever existed.

He wanted to tell her all of this. But he knew it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t change anything. So he knelt on the ground, not even feeling the cold wet of the grass soaking through the knees of his pants, and placed the flowers on her grave. He paused long enough to let his fingers brush the dirt in a gentle caress as he whispered, “I love you.”

Finding My Way

Inspiration is a fickle thing. It has no beginning or end. It’s not finite; the more you use it, the more there is to use. And yet, when you want it the most, Inspiration tends to be elusive. I find my frustration showing its angry head at those times. The ideas are in there — somewhere in my mind. And so are the words. But I can’t seem to put them together in any sort of coherent or entertaining fashion. Inspiration dances in front of me. She remains just out of reach, playful and laughing while my inner child throws the mother of all temper tantrums.

I’ve had more than my fair share of creative temper over the past year and a half. I feel like I spend most of my time playing tag with my muses, and I’m not nearly as fast as I used to be in my younger years.

The plus side of all of this is that it’s led me to ponder the types of things that seem to make my Inspiration tick. As the old saying goes, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” I don’t think my Inspiration particularly likes honey, but there are a few things that seem to make her purr like a kitten hopped up on catnip.

Garden Path: Bishop's Garden, National Cathedral: Washington DC

 

Pathways that seem to wander around into nowhere. The isolation of them draws me in, like a special little secret the universe has saved back, just so that she could whisper it into my ear. I love the soft sounds of my shoes against worn brick or packed earth and the fresh smell of all that “green” growing around me. It’s lovely to meander around with no particular destination in mind — not lost, but also not found — and there’s a feeling of expectation in the air, as if anything is possible and waiting just around the next bend.

Roses, Bishop's Garden, National Cathedral: Washington DC

 

Much to my surprise, my Inspiration seems to be something of a “girly girl”. As such, she loves things that are bright and shiny. And, like all girls, she loves to get flowers. Roses are a favorite. They are delicate and a bit frilly, but there’s also something strong and brave about them. I love looking at all the layers and layers of petals. It’s a miracle and a mystery all wrapped into one. Plus, like all of us ladies, every rose has a few thorns hidden under her outer beauty.

Bees in the Bishop's Garden, National Cathedral: Washington, DC

 

I’m afraid of bees. And pretty much every other bug, too. If something has more than four legs, I tend to regard it with a healthy dose of skepticism and suspicion. But, much to my chagrin, my Inspiration is fascinated with bees. She loves to watch them — from a safe distance, of course — for hours. I think it’s because they really are busy and determined little creatures. I love how they remain focused on the task at hand, in spite of the fact that they’re rather teeny critters surrounded by a huge world. I find I often lack discipline and focus in my own creative efforts. I think my Inspiration can learn a lot from bees.

Snowy Farm, Warrenton VA

 

I grew up in the country, so there’s just something about quiet, out-of-the-way places. Large, open fields or rolling hills — it doesn’t matter. I feel like I can breathe and shake off all the niggling doubts from my daily life, and that’s when my Inspiration likes to come out to play.

Constitution Avenue, Washington DC

 

But, in true twisted fashion, my Inspiration also likes the city. All those people, all going about their business and rushing from point A to point B … and all points in between … focused in on their own desires, creates a manic sort of energy. There’s something a bit crazed about it all. And exciting, too. It’s like this great, big, pulsing organism has come to life around me and swallowed me up. It tends to get my Inspiration’s engines revving.

Store Window, Washington DC

 

Window displays and reflections. I’m not sure how this one works, but my Inspiration loves these things. I find myself photographing them all the time. Perhaps it’s the way each display tells a little story. Or the feeling of some kind of imaginary, fairy-tale world that’s just out of reach.

Store doorway: Harper's Ferry, VA

 

And doorways. Have you ever looked at a doorway, soft golden light spilling through it to pool on the ground just outside, and thought that you might be able to step through there and stay forever? I have.

On Gardening

The Cherry Tree in my front yard.

 

I wouldn’t call myself a gardener. I don’t love it, but I love the idea of it. Mental pictures of a perfectly ordered garden — lush, green grass sloping down toward beautiful bushes full of blooms: hydrangeas, poppies, peonies, and roses — fills me with a  giddy kind of joy and contentment. I imagine a riot of color, attracting butterflies, bees, and birds to my back-yard oasis. And a maze. Somehow, there’s always a maze in my imagined garden. What can I say? The available real estate in my mind is vast and untamed. The available real estate in my back yard is about the size of a postage stamp. Okay, maybe two postage stamps taped together, if we’re being generous. So, yes … in my mind, I love gardening and everything to do with it. It seems like a perfect fit — out communing with nature, turning over the cool, rich soil in my hands, singing Disney songs with the squirrels and chipmunks.

San Francisco sunflower

 

In reality … not so much. It’s back-breaking work that I find less than rewarding. I don’t like getting dirt under my fingernails or ground into my skin. I’m afraid of spiders — and most other bugs, too, truth be told. I’m allergic to pretty much everything that grows or blows around on the wind outside. And, if a squirrel came up and tried to sing with me, I would probably think it was rabid. The thought of this, alone, is enough to send me running toward the house, crying for my mama.

Garden: Colonial Williamsburg, VA

 

But, a few weeks ago, the “great outdoors” and I collided. It was a long time coming and, quite frankly, unavoidable for both of us. You see, my house has a front flower bed. And, when we bought the place and moved in, there were some juniper bushes planted there. These were not huge bushes. They were low-growing, prickly-spiky sorts of things that just sort of sat there and added nothing to the landscape. Well, nothing except for a hearty dose of “Hey, you! Get away from our house! We’re prickly and not friendly or happy! Grrr!” Seriously, if plants could talk, that’s what these bushes would have been saying. The first thing I wanted to do after taking ownership of the house was to pull those darn bushes out. Everyone told me to leave them. My hubby said it would be too much trouble to pull them out. My parents told me the bushes were “pretty” and that I was only trying to change things for the sake of changing them. But I didn’t care. I hated those bushes. HATED THEM. They had to go.

Roses from King William Resort, Williamsburg VA

 

But … life happened. I had a kid. I lost a dog. I got a new dog. And another dog. And two hamsters. And volunteered at preschool and then elementary school. And then Girl Scouts. Somehow, when I wasn’t looking, ten years zoomed by. And I was still walking out of my front door, looking at (and, often, stumbling over … because it had grossly overgrown the confines of its bed) this darn plant that I despised. Call it apathy. Call it laziness. Call it being overwhelmed by life. Call it whatever. The juniper was still there, still going strong. And I hated it more than ever. It had become more than a plant. It had, somehow, become a symbol of everything I don’t love about my house.

Bishop's Garden, National Cathedral: Washington, DC

No more. On that day, I had had enough. It was time to begin the long task of wiping  the slate clean for me and for this house. While my kiddo was a couple of houses down, trading Pokemon cards with a friend, I got out the pruning shears. I cut. I lopped. I demolished with a brutal zeal that, really, should have frightened me. But it didn’t. Instead, it only drove me on. And now, the juniper is gone. Mostly. I still need to dig out the last few roots. But, for now, it’s enough to know I won’t have to look at that prickly mess any longer. For now, I am content.

Mums and a bee, Leesburg VA

 

What will I plant there? I have no idea. For now, I am enjoying the empty space — the utter lack of anything sharp, prickly, and uninviting. I think that’s enough for the winter. Soon, it will be spring — a time when every girl’s mind dwells on one eternal question: Can I fit a hedge maze into this flowerbed?