Sunday, December 30, 2012

All the Things You Wish You Could Say

Ray Py and me
My father Ray Py is in a hospice bed likely taking his last breaths on this earth. He isn't able to talk anymore. I spoke to him on the phone yesterday. He said something unintelligible and all I could muster in return was an incomplete 'I Love You, Dad." That's all. Then I read through the emails of people saying their farewells. My sister's last note. "He's comfortable. . . Unresponsive."

And I tried to sleep, but my chest heaved. I think words don't convey any meaning to what was in my chest, where my heart lives. The epicenter. The force pumping life's blood, where emotion resides—where fear and anxiety and anger and frustration and hope and joy pound out the beat of our lives.

Sleep was calling me, but I couldn't release myself to it. It didn't seem right to sleep last night. Instead, I thought about Jesse Jackson's eulogy for Jackie Robinson—we all have a birth date and then a dash. And then we all eventually have a death date. "But on that dash is where we live," he said. "And for everyone there is a dash of possibility, to chose the high road, or the low road; to make things better or to make things worse." And as I tried to think about the dash of my father's life, that ache in my chest grew more demanding. On my father's dash, there are so many stains and blots and discordant dots. So many transgressions and mistakes. So many fits and contretemps. Something worse than sadness and grief pulled at my chest cavity.

I'm glad to know that I loved him. I sometimes worried that I didn't. I sometimes thought about his death and imagined that it would pass without too much sadness. But I couldn't have been more wrong. The complexity of my relationship with my dad makes his passing so much more wrenching than I could have ever imagined.

When my mother died, there was a deep well of sadness. So much sadness, real, genuine, honest, heartfelt, a tragic loss. Real grief. I went through the classic stages and finally arrived at a place where I imagined that she rested with me in my heart, living life alongside me, whispering helpful hints to me as I made my way through each day. She was there with me for the ride. She was me. That is the completeness of a healthy grieving process. Perhaps it was her grief then last night, too, that filled my chest to the point of bursting. I think she must be there pounding out her sadness, inside the wall of my ventricle cavities.

The space my dad occupied in this world, I now realize, was massive. He was my childhood hero. He was a child himself, mischievously devising games to play, adventures to run off to, discoveries to make. He joined us in secrets behind my mother's back, breaking the rules in a way that endeared him to us forever. We built forts in the living room. We drank coke for breakfast. And stole sugar cubes. We had picnics in front of the TV. We got in the car and drove off to find adventure. My favorite was to go to Dulles and ride back and forth on the buses out to see the airplanes. "Let's go exploring," he would say. And the jokes and one-liners. The quips. The giggles and the belly laughs.

Forever in childhood is a very long time. But it doesn't last forever, and when we tried to grow up, we lost our hold on all that fun. He must have looked at our teenage bodies, and saw the eventual separation that would tear us from him. Divisions grew. When I made him mad, it was a cruel anger that was so bitter, so heartbreaking. And that bitterness is in my heart, making my heart ache so much today.

There is much on my Dad's dash that I don't understand and now, I won't know. I think he would say he had a lot of joy in his life. I think he did find happiness. I know how proud he was of us. I know he wanted to be more to us. And maybe he just couldn't figure how to do that. I know many people who will tell me how much they loved him. And I am very happy to know that.

But nothing hurts more than a cruel comment from your father. A word. A phrase. A shout. They well up in your heart and there is no way to cope. So you steal yourself. You block yourself. You build up walls. And you can't tear them down. Then when you have just one last moment to say goodbye. And you try to think of all the things you wish you could say, nothing comes out, and you can't say anything, except, I love you.

I guess that is all there is. Really. Thankfully.  The Putterer

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Plot is Doing Its Own Thing

From my plot, The Wonderful, Happy #24
Now here's a little secret about gardening that nobody knows. It's not that much work!

Everybody thinks that there is a lot of labor involved in having a garden. Well, guess what! Not so much.

Plot # 24 at the Fenton Street Community garden is doing all the work. I show up occasionally in the morning when temperatures are expected to climb and I give it some water. That's it all it ever asks of me.

Well, okay. One day, after the June 29 derecho storm, I had to help the tomato plants find the vertical path again. They were tilting dangerously over and shading my neighbor's plot. So I pounded extra stakes into the ground and jerry-rigged them with twine until the plants were approximately back in place. And I thinned out the yellow leaves at the bottom of the plants, but my Better Boy, my Mortgage Lifters and my Romas were all standing tall again. The okra, meanwhile, were so strong, that not even a 60 mile per hour wind gust could budge those babies. They are producing so quickly that sometimes I think they grow a fruit while I'm standing there.

The soil in the plot is rich and well-dug. Last fall, I grew clover for a few weeks and then double dug trenches from the front of the plot to the back. I layered compost over it and then this spring I turned still more compost into the soil. So now when I accidentally step on the soil, my foot sinks an inch. Last summer,  after I first got the plot, putting a stake in the soil was nearly impossible, the ground was so compacted. This year, it yields to just a few simple strokes of my hammer.

And the rain we've had! Almost every three days, either a gentle downpour, like the one we had this morning, or a monsoon, like we had the other night. So that the ground is always moist around the roots of my plants. We've had rainfall all through June and now into July consistently. At the expense, of course, of the Midwest, which is disastrously dry this summer.  We'll take it here, though.

Now on to planning my fall garden. It's time to put in more seeds. What's next? The Putterer

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Kathy Jentz, Publishing Gardener, Plot 16

Kathy Jentz, Plot 16, Fenton Street Garden. Kathy’s work is featured in numerous area publications including the Washington Examiner newspaper, Pathways Magazine, and Washington Women magazine. In addition, she appears on regular gardening guest spots on Channel 9, Channel
4, and WAMU radio.
I've known Kathy for quite awhile. She is my gardening guru, living the enviable life of producing both a magazine and several gardens. Kathy is editor and publisher of Washington Gardener magazine and a life-long gardener. She says that growing plants should be stress-free and enjoyable. Her philosophy is "inspiration over perspiration."

When we were assigned plots in the garden, I was delighted to learn that Kathy would be gardening just down the row from me in her Plot 16. She's always got a good tip handy; knows most everything there is to know and if she doesn't, she'll figure it out for you. Having Kathy around the Community Garden has also proved useful because she's a natural-born leader. When there's a project at hand, she's got the chops for it. With a quick command, we're all happily lined up and executing the orders. And as a result, we've got two gorgeous communal herb and wild flower patches growing in what once a messy mix of angry, ugly weeds. Without further ado, here's Kathy: 

Kathy lays in the brick path for our herb and wildflower corne
As a gardener, what do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Mid-December thru February - HATE HATE HATE the Mid-Atlantic Winter!

Other than the state of Maryland, where would you most like to live?

New Orleans

What is your idea of earthly happiness?

Time enough to read everything in my stacks, cool drink in hand, surrounded by my cats and bunches of cut flowers

To what faults do you feel most indulgent?


Who are your favorite environmental or botanical heroes?

Ben Franklin, he is not thought that way, but if you really read his stuff, he was a great protector of the Earth

Who are your favorite gardeners in history?

The originals: Adam and Eve

Who are your favorite heroes or heroines of fiction?

Indiana Jones

Your favorite painter?


Your favorite musician?


Your favorite tool?


The quality you most admire in a gardener?


Your favorite virtue?


Your favorite occupation?

I'm not sure if this means job or way to spend my time?

Who would you have liked to be?

is this a historic or fictional or not specific person but a job category?

Your most marked characteristic?


What do you most value in your garden?

Anything that takes care of itself and thrives

What is your principle gardening defect?

Hate the thought of weeding - but once I get going, it is not too bad

What is your dream of happiness?

See: What is your idea of earthly happiness?

Friday, June 8, 2012

A Proust Questionnaire for Gardeners

Proust Questionnaire: A Peachy-Keen Idea
Today, I am inaugurating my new summer project on Garden Putter. I am seeking out anyone who loves to play in the dirt and grow things to answer my "Proust Questionnaire for Gardeners."

Vanity Fair has a decided edge on the Putterer in this tradition. Its famous last-page interview of luminaries has been long-celebrated, and I admit to shameless borrowing.

But then again, it's really Marcel Proust we should all thank for this.

And speaking of shamelessness, and for those reading this who are unfamiliar with the tradition, I lifted this directly from this Proust Questionnaire site:
The young Marcel Proust was asked to fill out questionnaires at two social events: one when he was 13, another when he was 20. Proust did not invent this party game; he was simply the most extraordinary person to respond to them. At the birthday party of Antoinette Felix-Faure, the 13-year-old Marcel was asked to answer fifteen questions in the birthday book. Seven years after the first questionnaire, Proust was asked, at another social event, to fill out another; the questions are much the same, but the answers somewhat different, indicative of his traits at 20.
Proust Interviews of random individuals are now being captured and preserved for posterity at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Mine is a less ambitious project. On a good day, the Putterer's readership is somewhere around 17 page views—a circulation limited to friends and family, so for anyone feeling shy, no worries, few will ever find you here. Send me your answers in a comment below. Or contact me via email: The Putterer

Proust Questionnaire for Gardeners

As a gardener, what do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Other than the state of Maryland, where would you most like to live?

What is your idea of earthly happiness?

To what faults do you feel most indulgent?

Who are your favorite environmental or botanical heroes?

Who are your favorite gardeners in history?

Who are your favorite heroes or heroines of fiction?

Your favorite painter?

Your favorite musician?

Your favorite tool?

The quality you most admire in a gardener?

Your favorite virtue?

Your favorite occupation?

Who would you have liked to be?

Your most marked characteristic?

What do you most value in your garden?

What is your principle gardening defect?

What is your dream of happiness?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why We Garden

Yesterday at the Community Garden, we gathered for a little Memorial Day picnic and group gardening session. I offered a door prize, a copy of the new Smithsonian gardening book and we drew names from a hat. Each person had to write down why the loved to garden. The results?

A Poem of our Collective Thoughts on Gardening

I like to eat fresh things.
I like to eat and experiment.
It's like having little babies. And it's so delicious eating my own grown-from-seed crop. I learn so much, too.
It brings peace, allows me to help create.
I garden in the backyard, and so far my vegetables and herbs are doing great. I garden because I love vegetables and it gives me great pleasure to reap and cook my vegetables and they taste so much better.
I like to garden because I love watching things grow. it's amazing to see a seed or a small plant grow up to be something so large and edible.
I love to garden because it gives me peace of mind, it teaches me about life, and it gives me food (for mind, body, and soul).
Veggies are delicious, and home grown is a lot better than store bought.
I like to garden for tomatoes.
I like to garden as redemption.
Because it brings the Earth's energy into my life.
I like to garden for the connection to the elements of Earth and Beyond!

Below, an assemblage of portraits of my fellow gardeners. They all glow with health and from hard work. Just like Mama said, "You gotta eat your vegetables!" The Putterer


Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Memorial Day Recommitment

"I was lucky," my friend told me.
Three words. "I was lucky." My mind is on replay this weekend. I keep returning to a moment and hearing the story all over again. I repeat it to my friends. Each time I retell it, the story becomes a little more breathtaking.

I was over at the gym on Friday waiting for our instructor to arrive. My long-time yoga neighbor and I were lying next to each other on our mats. She's quick to laugh, so I say silly things to amuse her. We always giggle during a balance exercise and throw each other into a tumble.

So I was just on talk vomit, releasing whatever random thoughts were in my brain and this time it was cookies. The delicious cookies that my friend Tamara makes, a delicate near cloud-like confection of chocolate chips and oatmeal. They are manna from heaven and I had made a special request for them the night before. So trying to limit my sugar intake before bed that night, I was hoping only to have one. But then this new mantra that I've been practicing of respecting my impulses took hold and I grabbed two more and ate them with pleasure. The morning after, I told my Yoga friend, the scale registered almost five extra pounds. We were giggling then. I wasn't serious at all. Cookies. Weight gain. Just word vomit. To make my giggly friend giggle.

"Beth," she said, "when I eat cookies, I just eat as many as I want."

I don't know when the story turned, but it fell like a quiet thunder from her lips. Because, she said then, during the communist time "we ate nothing."

Washington, D.C., is a melting pot of nationalities. You almost forget how far people have traveled to be your neighbor. And when you ask sometimes the countries are so exotic, Togo, the Philippines, Malaysia, that you can't even imagine visiting.

Remind me, I said to my friend, where are you from? I heard it before she said it.


Your family?

All dead, she said.

The Khmer Rouge. My lovely friend. Always smiling. Always kind.

And then, with her hand over her face, she told me her story about living three-and-a-half years, beginning when she was 17, in a labor camp. Hard labor, she said. "It was our job to clear the land mines from the fields to grow rice."

But the rice, she said, was exported to China. And she got no food.

Oh, the killings, she said quietly. "I was lucky."

She was lucky because she lived. She was lucky because she managed to navigate a harrowing journey out of the camps as a refugee. She was lucky when she escaped the rapes and the murders in the refugee camps. And she was lucky she said that she wasn't pushed off a mountain when she arrived in Thailand. She was lucky she had a brother in the United States, who had left Cambodia before the ascent of the Khmer Rouge. And she was lucky because she managed to get a letter posted. And she was lucky because he found her. And on September 17, 1980, she was lucky because she came to the United States.

My beautiful friend. She works for the United States government now. After we work out, we laugh together in the locker room. I was always tease her because she takes too long in the shower. We get dressed again for the afternoon meetings. She puts on an elegant dress and heels, she paints her lips. I don't know what her profession is, but she commands a quiet authority, when she leaves the locker room. I always wish her a pleasant day.

The roads we've traveled brought us together. I don't know how she does it. But to her, she simply was lucky. And now she's quick to laugh at whatever silliness that I can concoct.

But the next time, I eat a cookie, I'm going to eating it slowly, and joyfully, and revel in my great good fortune. And for Memorial Day this weekend, I honor my friend, and all those in this world who suffer so unfairly at the hands of evil. The Putterer

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Weary Warrior

My goodness but the garden did its job this weekend. It took me into its embrace and nurtured me, gave me a place to recover and rest. And then once it had accomplished restoration, it demanded a kind of industry that energized me and gave me such sweet satisfaction.

I've been thinking about sustainability. Ever since my daughter Claire took the bold, brave move to visit a completely self-sustaining farm in Ecuador. She spent an entire week off the grid at a place called Sacred Suenos near Vilcabamba in southern Ecuador. I've been thinking about how I have slowly been evolving a garden that once only grew pretty flowers along pathways of stone and grass to something that is sustaining life and repurposing itself in its compost and in the food it grows. And as I've evolved from a rather uneducated gardener to one that sees the garden as a metaphor for all things, I've also somehow managed to turn a rather dispassionate young girl, who sometimes stopped to admire it, into a young woman, who cares enough about gardens that she spent a week working hard on a real one that tries vigorously to be a fully sustainable farming venture. Last night, she told me that she thinks that whereever she goes, she'll try to grow something in a garden.

Well, I guess my garden has done its job there too. For me, I arrived home Friday completely wiped out. This project was for all practical purposes nearly impossible to do. Had I tried to do it all by myself, I would have failed. Fortunately, I was able to multiply forces by engaging my colleagues to pitch in just small amounts, in a many-hands make less work fashion. Still, I woke early each day, worked through lunches, stayed late in the evenings and even worked through on a Saturday. So that by the time, I signed off at about 7 p.m. last Friday, I had clocked innumerable hours.

Saturday morning, I woke at 4:30 as if I was still on deadline. My body wanted to sleep, but my mind tracked only to this rigorous schedule. So I got up intent on reading all that I had missed in the past four weeks. By 8:30, I was coffee'd up and so Kate and I went off to Behnkes. There, I wandered around studying the plants, thinking of places in my garden where I might add this, or transplant that. But the thought of raising a shovel or turning any dirt was so beyond anything I could possibly do. When I got home, I took a book and some tea down to the garden. And there I rested, reading and listening to the catbirds call each other. I drifted off to sleep in my purple chair. The cool breeze sometimes pushing a lock of hair across my forehead. And there I rested for a couple of hours, until I realized that what I needed to do was to go to bed. And so off to bed, in the middle of the afternoon. And through the night and into the morning, I slept and recovered.

Well, Sunday morning, the catbirds called me into action. I felt so good. The morning was fresh. The garden was glorious. I took my bike to the farmer's market for the first time. All those times we've traveled Piney Branch Road by car, I never realized how steep those hills were. Pumping harder, accessing core strength, even screaming out with joy as I pushed myself up the hills. Heads turned inside passing cars to check out the crazed woman. Sailing back down on the other side, wind in my hair. Oh joy, I live a charmed life. All day, I worked in my garden, mowing grass, feeding compost, pulling weeds and singing the songs that pumped through my iPod into my ears. And when it was all done. I took a look at what I had created and I felt so happy. What joy! The Putterer

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Putter Splendor

Yesterday, I went out to get the paper and the profusion of blooms just took my breath away. I got my camera and started shooting. Peonies, roses, irises, everything. The Putterer

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Book Binge

Love this book
So. I had to pick up some books at the library. I was participating in World Book Night. I volunteered to pass out 25 free copies of one of my favorite books. That would be The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. (I read that book that time we went to Africa.) When I got to the Wheaton Library, I found they had a used bookstore. So I went to the gardening shelf and bought four used books for five bucks. I gave away my free books and started reading my used books. One book, had a list of favorite books recommended on the inside cover. So I bought those books on Amazon in the used book section. Now I got more books coming, including this great classic called Norman Taylor's Encyclopedia of Gardening and a collection of essays and poetry by a feminist farmer named Janet Kauffman. I got up early this morning and started reading one of my used books, a collection of essays by Dorothy Sucher called The Invisible Garden. It turns out she's from Silver Spring, Maryland, like me. Great lady. Lovely book. "I had become infected with my first bout of garden fever, a recurrent disease, like malaria; an obsessive state in which plan piles upon plan, project upon project, the more grandiose the better, and nothing, absolutely nothing, seems impossible." I know this feeling. I wish I could have known Dorothy. I passed out my books last night in just 20 minutes. I gave away 25 books and most people smiled and thanked me. Some people, though, looked worried when I approached them and rushed away. Some said no, thanks. A disturbing few even laughed and jostled the arm of their buddy derisively, as if reading were so uncool and I was freakishly weird. Meanwhile, I wish I had an extra pair of eyes, because I've got a lot of books to read now. The Putterer

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Month Ahead and A Month Behind

Azaleas are peaked or past peak.

Roses are busting out.
I was just going through last year's photos of the garden and it looks like we are almost a month ahead in terms of bloom times. In fact, my garden seems like it's in a big hurry, and every flower and every plant is vying for attention. The azaleas bursted open as if they were trying to beat out the daffodils. The roses woke up so early, I thought they might ask for a cup of coffee. The dogwoods flowered so fast, I almost missed them. And the May-blooming irises and peonies are warming up in the batter's box for their turn at the April plate.

We're finally going to get some rain today and it couldn't come at a better time because while the garden is out ahead, the Putterer is way behind at work. So today, I'm going to be head down at home on the keyboard. Though, really that doesn't bother me. It's a pleasant task, I'm writing little blurbs on the cool things to see at each of the museums. I might even run downtown and take in a museum, or two, to complete the task.

A bus man's holiday.

Meanwhile, I couldn't be more pleased with the garden this year. I'm right on schedule, having put down mulch for the first time in half a dozen years on some of the beds and staunched a few weeds. I got grassseed down just before the early spring showers arrived, so the blades are robust and thick. I grew red lettuce, kale and chard from seed, so the vegetable patch is ready to deliver. I worked and worked
Dogwoods are showering their petals.
Swiss chard is ready for picking
the soil over at the community garden. I grew a cover crop of clover, then turned it over in trenches, row by row, mixing in compost so that my beds are thick and spongy, and teaming with earthworms. Over there, I've got sugar snap peas and greens growing in one bed and the others are ready to plant just as soon as the nights can be counted on to stay warm. I've got tomatoes, melons, cukes, swiss chard, basil, eggplant, peppers, onions and parsley starts all thriving under my lights and waiting to go out to be hardened off and planted.

Today, the temperature shouldn't  rise above 55, so I've got my fireplace humming with a toasty blaze. Delicious coffee in hand. Snoozy pup snuggling beside me. It's going to be a wonderful day today.

An early spring for an at-the-ready gardener. Not a bad thing at all. The Putterer