Monthly Archives: October 2012

Hoping For Spring

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The days are shorter, and the bright, white sun is stingy with heat. This morning I drew in a lungful of cold, sharp air and knew that the time had come to plant tulip bulbs.

I almost didn’t order any bulbs this year, and it was because of voles. Those small, cunning, voracious eating machines had infiltrated my garden and were poised in subterranean comfort to attack anything I put into the ground. Thus it was that last spring I saw the beautiful tulips sprout, bud, and then literally vanish into the ground! All I could do was stare helplessly at the ruin of spring.

The sweet young promise

            Of buds waiting to flower

            Had turned into dust.

Well, spring came anyway, and no doubt the voles prospered and grew fat and sleek while I learned ways in which to block the little varmints. Still, even armed with knowledge, I shied away from the catalogues advertising tulips. Sorbet, Barcelona, Burning Heart… each tulip was more breathtaking than the next,  but not for me their springtime magic. The voles had taught a bitter lesson.

But a spring without tulips? Over the months my resolve turned to jelly. After all, the tulip has been around for a long time, flourishing in parts of Asia, North Africa and Europe before being commercially grown during the Ottoman Empire where, according to a Persian legend, drops of love shed by a heartsick lover produced the first tulip. In spite of all the woes, the droughts, famines, wars, persecutions and disasters throughout history, tulips have gone to sleep in the winter only to bloom bright and hopeful in the spring.

So who was I to deny this ancient flower? Emperor Red and white Tuxedo tulips are in two of the packs I am now carrying to my carefully prepared garden bed, along with bulb food, watering can, and a hope that the voles are being traumatized by the net I have carefully spread under the earth to block their dinner. With luck I will have a blaze of color in the spring. On the heels of that thought comes another: these small, self-contained bulbs I am planting are not unlike my own projects and inspirations.

Oh, come on!” I can almost hear the tulip bulbs groan. “Now she’s starting with her so-called homespun philosophy. We’ll never get this show on the road.”

            But the idea is intriguing, and I play with it as I work. Because just as these bulbs need food, creativity needs to be stoked from time to time. I can’t count the number of times I’ve worked and re-worked an idea only to find it going from bad to worse. Then, when I’m ready to give into my mean-spirited mental voles, someone suddenly says, “You know, I like it…don’t give up on this!” And then there are small kindnesses, and thoughtful criticism, and a hefty dose of optimism and —all of which act like this bulb food I am sprinkling in the ground.

So I work and plot and cover my desk—or my sewing table—with a mess, and mutter and grumble until suddenly, almost unexpectedly, something clicks into place. And what was once a hopeless kernel of an idea flourishes, and that idea buds and bursts into flower, and all at once the world is full of possibilities!

Perhaps that really is one reason we all keep planting tulip bulbs in the fall.

            Pushing clear of earth

            Expecting only sunshine…

            Those hoped-for flowers!

“Hoping For Spring”

 

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Stories Best Told In the Dark

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These shortened days and long, shadowed nights are a perfect backdrop for Halloween— which hides around the corner. It is also the optimum time of year for tales of ghosts and goblins and things ‘that go bump in the night.’

Ghost stories! Who hasn’t heard at least one that sent a delicious sliver of ice up the spine? There is something about the unknown that both beckons and frightens. Reading (or writing) such a story sends us out to walk down a long dark road and makes us turn a corner to find… what? Ah, what indeed.

You have a favorite ghost story, don’t you? Growing up in Japan, I heard more than my share. Usually these were told in August rather than in October, the rationale being that in this Obon season spirits of the dead returned for a visit. Also, the terrifying stories were supposed to work better than air conditioners to make listeners shiver.

And shiver I did. The Japanese ghosts meant business. Instead of gore and outright violence, the specters that I most feared preyed on the subconscious, defying the listener to guess whether what was happening was reality or hallucination.  Instead of leaping up and yelling ‘Boo,” like any self-respecting apparition, they would slither up behind and gently lay a cold hand on the shoulder.

That tale, long ago

            Waits until the lonely dark…

            Then sighs in my ear.

One tale in particular—something called Yotsuya Kwaidan (or ‘Ghost Story Of Yotsuya’) involved a man who murdered his gentle and loving wife in order to marry a rich man’s daughter. The dead lady’s ghost was anything but gentle or kind, and she exacted terrible vengeance in a sequence which kept me from turning off any of my bedroom lights for a week… never mind that I was 16 and all grown up!

I have never actually seen a ghost, but while we lived in Thailand many years ago it wasn’t difficult to imagine disembodied beings lurking about. Back then one had only to travel outside the city to enter a world where there were no lights anywhere. Here great palm trees threw sinister shadows along the ground and the imagination ran riot. And though I never met a ghost personally, the house in which we lived was said to have a visiting Presence in the wraith of our landlord’s late first wife. We never did encounter her, but one evening our Thai cook came racing down the stairs shouting, “Pii ma leo!” thus announcing the arrival of the Ghost.Mike remarked that as long as the lady was around, she might as well pay some of the rent.

I don’t think we ever really outgrow our campfire fascination for the dark unknown. Young (and older) readers regularly delve into stories about vampires and werewolves, and writers enjoy such tales (I know that I had fun writing my one ghostly novel, The Promise). So, as the shadows lengthen and a cold breeze wraps itself around our ankles, we shiver deliciously… and imagine, or read, or write, or tell yet another story that will send icy fingers dancing across the spine.

In the moonless night

            What is that thin, dark shadow

            That glides before us?

“Moonsong”

 

Conversation With a Caterpillar

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My favorite maple tree has begun to change. Leaves that were green a few days ago are now a peculiar and unattractive shade that hovers between lime green and chrome. It’s October and the seasons are changing.

I am not fond of change. Though I recognize that change is necessary and sometimes even for the good, I like the tried and true.  Routines are like old friends, comfortable and undemanding, and I cling to them like a barnacle. On my morning walk I tend to take the routes that are so familiar that my feet know the way without any active participation from my brain. And though I read the new and well regarded books, I still turn to my old favorites now and then.

In my salad days I craved adventure, delighted in the new and exciting and challenging. These days, though I still enjoy such things, I do not leap out the door at every opportunity (leaping would probably not be so good for my knees, anyway). But whether I will or no, change in this season is everywhere. The sun sets earlier, the winds are cooler. The summer flowers are gone, and thread-thin dragonflies dance amongst the black eyed Susans, which have turned  brown and are ready to seed.

Brace of dragonflies

            Dance against a cooling sun…

            Autumn pas-de-deux

Admittedly, my mood is mournful and mumpish until I meet the caterpillar, a small and undistinguished specimen which is busy spinning itself a cocoon. Since this seems late in the season for this sort of activity, I watch it and wonder whether a caterpillar enjoys change. Surely, if it could think and reason, it wouldn’t relish the idea of being wrapped up like a mummy and suspended from a branch for weeks on end. Amused by the thought, I imagine a conversation:

Me: Why are you working so hard to turn into a mummy case? Didn’t you enjoy being a caterpillar and  chewing up everything green in my garden?

Caterpillar: That’s in the past, yo. Right now I’m late, and it’s your fault. If you’d pulled out your kale earlier I would’ve started building my chrysalis a long time ago.

Me: So you’re twisting yourself inside out for what? Do you even know?

Caterpillar:  I don’t know, all right? But I feel change in the air. If you had a brain, you’d know that and … and not to be rude or anything, but will you please get out of the way so’s  I can get back to work?

There is a great and ancient wisdom in Nature. We call it instinct, but I suspect that instinct is often another word for faith in the unknown. The caterpillar has no idea that at the end of its long and gloomy incarceration it will emerge with wings that will carry it into the sunshine, yet it labors on because something tells it that this is the right thing to do.

So now I am reminded that soon the leaves will have finished turning colors, and I remember that the sun will shine through those leaves so that I can stand, breathless, under a canopy of brightest gold. Soon the October moon will hang low on the horizon with its promise of harvest; the holly berries will blush crimson. Soon there will come that first sun-splashed morning laced with frost. And my complaining knees notwithstanding, I know that I am still ready to leap, to run, to rejoice in all the new and wonderful things that change can bring.

Though the sun has cooled,

            Crickets will still sing praises

            Of the autumn moon.

           

          

“Autumn Gold”

 

 

 

 

The Story of Laura’s Quilt

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Every quilt has a story

There are quilts that are made to cuddle a new baby, or to comfort a sick child. There are prayer quilts and those that offer solace and some which are created to remember a dear lost one. Then there are quilts that sing only of joy.

This particular quilt stirred to life one warm August afternoon when the members of my quilt group, known as the Jewel Box Bee, were together. As usual, most of us were sleepily and happily digesting an excellent lunch when the question dropped like a pebble into a drowsy pool. “What are we doing about Bridget’s daughter’s wedding?”

What, indeed. And Laura’s wedding was in September! We looked at one another blankly for a moment and then our hostess sprang into action, hurrying to bring out yards of fabric from her personal stash. Now wide awake we debated each color and pattern, remembered that Bridget liked a neutral palette, and made a decision. This–  a mellow beige—would be the cornerstone fabric, and each of us would add a paler and a darker fabric to make several of our bee’s signature ‘jewel box’ blocks.

Animated discussion followed. We considered colors and values and the merits of this pattern over that. During all of this, Janet rushed off to the sewing room to cut out squares of the chosen fabric. These small squares were passed to eager hands, and the story of Laura’s quilt began.

The members of our group went to work. We e-mailed absentees with instructions and suggestions. We dug out our own fabrics. Construction began. Then the finished 6 ½ inch jewel-box blocks were handed to Janet, who had volunteered to put them together, and in the fullness of time the quilt top was presented to the mother of the bride.

We compared stories of how we had rushed to finish our blocks. “I had to mail Janet the blocks because I was away,” Carol laughed. “I handed mine in under the wire… just a week ago,” Nan—who had been away in Pennsylvania—confessed. I pointed out that I had  stayed up late to finish my blocks before leaving for Rome and our cruise. And Judy summed up: “I couldn’t believe how my blocks would end up in something this beautiful. There is so much love in this quilt.”

As each of us added our reminiscence, I thought that these are the kind of stories that are at the heart of the most beloved quilts. Yes, surely there are more newsworthy stories. There are tales of quilts that sailed across the seas with ancestors in long years past, and there are quilts that have comforted through war and flood and killing winter cold. We have gazed at heirloom quilts that have been  passed down for generations and been awed by the exquisite work that wins ribbons at shows. But I believe that it is in homespun anecdotes and everyday stories such as ours— filled with easy talk among good friends, the soft whirr of sewing machines and the shifting, golden light of a summer’s afternoon—that the life-force is strongest. For here each stitch is a thought or a wish or a prayer from the heart and hands of the quilter

In the planning, the making, the giving, and the receiving, a chapter of this quilt’s story is complete. When its new owner traces the names that have been written in the blocks; when she wraps herself in its warmth and draws in its scent and makes it her own, a new story will begin. And because this is Laura’s quilt, those stories will be hers to tell.

Into each small block

            Are sewn so many stitches…

            Each a wish for joy.

 

Detail from ‘Laura’s Quilt’