I like to read multiple books at once. I’ve been doing this since I was a child, checking out a tall pile of library books and carefully bringing them home on my bike, titles jolting out off the basket whenever the tires hit a bump. Those few blocks were a slow and careful journey home.
Out of the pool of current reads (doubled due to last spring and summer’s reading drought: I’m still catching up!), I picked the ones that most remind me of spring, this time of fitful sunshine, rain, and snow time; packed with flowers and (sometimes) floods; a burgeoning moment towards summer and deep green; sometimes tragic but more often abloom.
A Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings by Bashō, trans Sam Hamill: I came across Shambhala’s pocket library edition at my favorite local indie bookstore and couldn’t resist. And so began my journey with the Japanese poet Bashō (and Sam Hamill, one of my favorite translators). Page by page, we walked through mountain passes and villages, meandered along beaches, sailed coasts, met fellow poets, stopped at temples, hot springs, and historical sights, all the while scribbling down poetry to note different occasions of being. Spring marks the time for travels, leaving home and going somewhere new after the long dark winter, be it long distance away or a beloved spot nearby.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau. I started Walden last summer for bookclub and thought I’d finish it quickly as it’s a slim read. To my surprise, I’d read a few pages at a time and then spent days afterwards pondering Thoreau’s views, philosophies, and observations. This is one of those rare books that is intensely thoughtful and joyful. It pairs well with Bashō, two artists who looked closely at the natural world and wrote deeply about it.
How to Know the Ferns by Francis Theodora Parsons. I came across this exquisite book while browsing through the Sterling Library, a tiny library at the Morton Arboretum. Parsons’ guide book contains the usual identification points for keying out ferns but also includes beautiful illustrations drawn by her friend, Marion Satterlee. The best entries center on Parsons’ personal experience on hunting for certain ferns, entertaining moments with fellow fern aficionados (both fern hunting together and arguments included) and some beautiful quotes by Thoreau. Parsons was a naturalist in the 1890’s and one of my heroes—she tramped everywhere in upstate New York, identifying plants and trees and delighting in nature. She shared her love of nature through her massively popular books and made a living this way as well. Her books were coming out around the same time that Elizabeth von Arnim (Enchanted April) published her first book, Elizabeth and Her German Garden, a memoir on gardening, which skyrocketed her into popularity as well.
Orphic Paris by Henri Cole. I picked this up during one of NYRB book sales, started reading it last spring, put it down, and have returned to it once again. It is a travelogue of sorts, one that comes from walking the streets of Paris while also journeying through the mind. The two are joined through Cole’s act of writing, so that they cross, diverge, and meet up again. He visits Baudelaire’s gravesite, considers Oscar Wilde’s last days, recalls his own mother’s life and last words. His walking continues: he visits friends, contemplates monuments, films, parks, and memories. A deeply melancholy tone pervades the book but it doesn’t feel out of place for Paris or spring; life is everywhere but also mortality too.
Another book about walking through Paris but from a completely different point of voice, is Violette Leduc’s The Lady and the Little Fox Fur. This was one of my last orders from Book Depository (RIP, BD! You are missed) and so far one of my favorite reads for this year. We follow an unnamed woman, elderly and close to destitution, as she wanders the streets of Paris, starving and alone. This could be a story of absolute despair but under Leduc’s brilliant and empathetic hand, it’s not—the nameless woman possesses a brilliant and glowing imagination. Resting against a post, she becomes a peasant woman from a hundred years ago, taking a breather before she goes on to the market to sell her horse. From time to time, the pain of starvation forces her to huddle down, but she revives once more and carries on. Remnants of papers and oranges in the train station’s waiting room become little gifts left just for her and she chooses to take a train ride and skip her daily meal instead. I’m half way through but I’ve already decided to read all of Leduc’s translated works. She is not to be missed.
The Music at Long Verney by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Lolly Willowes was the first book I read by Sylvia Townsend Warner. I was completely captivated by Warner’s droll humor and witchy sensibilities, coupled alongside a deep empathy for nature and human beings. The Music at Long Verney is a carefully curated collection of her short stories and the perfect follow up to Lolly Willowes. It has that same humor and empathy but also showcases her other moods too. Her imagination, compassion, and sarcasm are a joy forever. I look forward to reading more of her work.
I’ve always thought that autumn was the most melancholy season with the its dying flowers and falling leaves, weeks of sweeping rain, and the ever plummeting temperatures but over the last few years of my life, Spring has stepped forward as a possible contender.
There is something brutal in the racing green, the tender spring flowers leaping forth before they’re smothered by the emerging foliage of tree and brush overhead. Birds and animals are racing too, hurrying to carve out territories, find a mate, build a home. Rainstorms and occasional snowstorm cause the river to overflow its banks and the parks flood, ducks go floating by in puddles turned to ponds. Spring is the rush season.
Over the last few years as I’ve struggled with chronic joint issues, Spring has been a merciless time, it’s hurling push more like a joke than anything else. In the beginning years of unrelenting joint pain, I shut myself away, ignoring the season and reading instead. But even under the weight of immense pain, being locked away became boring and unbearable and so I sat outside last Spring, unable to walk but content to look and listen. I settled into my chair every early morning and watched the treetops, noting the first emergence of light green, the tiny buds unfurling, and finally the spread of a gorgeous green canopy, all the more momentous because I had watched it emerge every day over the course of weeks. I listened to the birds too noting who was new, local, or just passing through. At last came the buzzy bumblebees, ponderous and loud, like dizzy helicopters on a mission to gather pollen.
This Spring I graduated from sitting in my backyard to walking through my neighborhood, joint pain eased over time due to correct diagnoses, correct treatments, and my own on-going work with drawing boundaries and practicing self-care. I take walks in deep gratitude, admiring the greening grass, the children and dogs passing by, and my neighbors’ tulips, daffodils, and blooming magnolias.
But as Spring works hard to cover-up winter’s pulverizing blow, I find that I cannot forget the past. Time is passing and each day shoves us forward whether we’re ready for it or not. Some go forth happily but for many, going forth is complicated, complex, and more painful than easy. And so there is a melancholy in the soft green leaves backed by the dark bark of trees, in the bright tulips springing forth out of the dank heavy mud, and in the cold breeze that causes magnolia petals to fall just after blooming. Already everything is passing, clearly illuminating the transient nature of life which sometimes is sweet and other times too painful to behold. Holding both of these emotions at once is the place where poetry emerges and who better to linger in this in-between state but Li Qingzhao, the great immortal poet from China’s Song Dynasty. Below are a few of her ci poems, translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung.
The Day of Cold Food
Clear and radiant is the splendor
Of Spring on the Day of Cold Food.
The dying smoke of aloeswood incense
Floats above the jade burner.
My dream is broken and hidden
like my flower hair ornaments
Buried in a pile of cushions.
The swallows have not come back
From the Eastern Sea, but already
People are gathering wild flowers and herbs
In the meadows. The plum blossoms by
The river are gone. Catkins
Appear on the willow branches.
And then—in the orange twilight—
Fall widely spaced drops of rain.
I Gave a Party to My Relatives on the Day of Purification
Tranquil and serene, the night
Seems to last forever.
Yet we are seldom happy.
We all dream of Ch’ang An
And long to take the road back to the capital,
And see this year again the beauty of Spring, come with
Moonlight and shadow on the new flowers.
Although the food is simple, as are the cups,
The wine is good, the plums sour.
That is enough to satisfy us.
We drink and deck our hair with flowers
But do not laugh,
For we and the Spring grow old.
Fading Plum Blossoms
Spring is hidden in my studio,
Daylight locked out of my window,
My painting room is profoundly secluded.
The seal character incense is burned out.
The shadows of the sunset
Descend across the curtain hooks.
Now that the wild plum I planted myself
Is blooming so well this year
I do not need to climb the waterfall
Seeking wild plum blossoms.
No one comes to visit me.
I am lonely as ever was Ho Sun in Yang Chou.
I know that although my plum blossoms
Are lovelier than all others
The rain will soon scatter them away.
The sound of the horizontal flute fills the whole house
With a melody of dense sorrow.
I will not feel badly when their perfume dissolves
And their jade snow petals fall.
When they have all been swept away
The memory of my love for them will remain.
It is difficult to describe the beauty of their shadows
Cast by the pale moonlight.
Japanese anemone flowers open blush pink petals in the park. Their tall, delicate stems hold up the tender flowers, and in the centers glow tiny pistil-laden suns. Furry carpenter bees buzz in a frenzy, adoring the tiny suns. Like all true worshipers, they circle round and round the yellow centers, smearing themselves in joy and pollen.
I also circle a center, but the object of my adoration is the park itself. As the path guides me around and around, my body, full of the usual tensions and distresses, takes the cue, finds the beat and the measure and walks to it.
The English Romantic Poets of the early 19th century were great walkers and believed that walking was essential to writing to poetry. With the body busy, the mind can walk freely, investing in its visions and tunneling down into what were previously subterranean thoughts.
This small park is my open field, my verdure, my ramble through hill and dale. My feet move on, sometimes slowing to a near pause, other times hurrying, suddenly propelled by a new and vivid notion.
About the fifth time around, a sort of mesmerism occurs and I fall under the trance of the day. The circle becomes a mantra uttered by my feet—knees, hips, shoulders, and arms follow along and we head down the path. I must walk, I must keep walking, I must continue to walk and the resolution becomes a reassurance as a cool breeze fills my lungs; I am alive and refreshed.
I pass under the oaks and dodge their falling acorns. Sometimes I entertain the notion that squirrels are hurling them, but when I catch sight of their small triangular faces they look as startled as me. It is the oaks themselves that are throwing the acorns down. I momentarily consider bringing an umbrella, opening it when I walk under the oaks, but this an old consideration that I’ve been contemplating for years of autumns and I’ve never acted on it. Instead, I dodge and the squirrels stare hard.
Finally I have to go but the revolutions and bees in the park stay with me even after I leave, continuing with their wheeling. They pass through the days and nights, rapturous and serene, monotonous some days and a miracle on others, and on most days both. They exist in the circle that is sometimes opened, sometimes closed. Within the circle, everything changes and nothing changes each time we pass through.
A favorite film of mine, The Taste of Tea, centers on an eccentric family living in the Japanese countryside. They spend a great deal of time sitting outside, sipping tea and staring into space. They sit as a family, alone, or in a small group and no one talks. They just stare out into the deep green that is the summer. And then they get up and go on walks or go off to work.
The first time I watched The Taste of Tea, I was shaken and delighted that the film gave space and respect to one of my favorite pastimes: sipping tea and staring into space.
When spring grew warm enough, I was inspired by the film to sit outside and stare into my backyard in the early morning. The Taste of Tea had given me a sort of permission to leave stress behind and take this time for one of my deepest desires: to enjoy and contemplate nature while sipping tea.
I named my new practice “Sipping Tea and Watching the Grass Grow.” I felt ridiculous whenever I mentioned it to anyone but that hardly mattered. I was doing what I loved so much, watching plants grow, watching the birds and small animals moving through it all, and sky glowing blue and serene over us all.
Grass grows slowly, imperceptibly but after each rain, it leaps up by inches. The violets came in May and they lasted for weeks. After that the dandelions bloomed and I lost a little bit of my heart to them. The wind picked up their seeds and sent the white fluffs floating into the air in sweet, downy clouds. After that, small wild strawberries, glowing like fierce red gems, appeared in the lawn. Now at the end of June, a luxurious, emerald green covers nearly everything. It reaches up from the ground, covering fences and stones or it high overhead, green leaves moving in tall, imperceptible breezes.
The heat has settled in so now even in the mornings, I pour sweat while drinking my tea. On some mornings the birds are noisy and busy and on other days they are not. Sometimes a great big bumblebee comes tumbling along, droning in that low, hazy buzz as it investigates every surface and flower. And then sometimes it does not come. Some days the clouds are like fluffs of cotton, other days there isn’t a cloud in sight. Each day brings a new configuration, nature is never still. I watch it all and at other times, I close my eyes and listen to my breathing. I’m not alone, never alone, a part of a whole.
The thick green groves of cup-plants (silphium perfoliatumare) stand eight feet tall and are in their late summer glory. I look up at their bright yellow ray flowers and shield my eyes, the bright flowers sway so high and run so close to the sun. When I squint, the flowers darken into forms without color like the outline of the sun beating through closed eyelids.
I take a step nearer and peer into the leaves. Tiny pools of still water collect where the thick cup leaves meet the stems. It has not rained in the last few weeks and I’m surprised there is any water here at all. For leaves that are not broken or rotted, thimblefuls of water weigh without movement, rimmed with the detritus of summer: a fly’s wing, a wad of spider web, bits of dead grass and portions of pollen.
These tiny pools are water for goldfinches, tiny birds that flash by like rays of light. It hasn’t rained for weeks and this is left, tiny pools of water full of dirty summer. I consider drinking it. With one quick gulp, I’d drink the essence of a passing summer, imbibe what August means, and taste the bitter part of the growing season. This is living but rotting part that underlines all our lives but that no one likes to see, much less taste.
I shift my weight from foot to foot. The sun beats heavily down. The yellow flowers tumble in overhead breezes and the goldfinches live nearby, finding water where they can as the dry weeks pass. My hands drop to my sides and I pass back through the grass, ready for the shade. Perhaps when it rains and all the cup plants are full, I’ll take my drink along with the many others.
There was little snowfall this winter. When there isn’t a snowpack to melt in the spring, there is drought because the melting snow fills the rivers and creeks and creates spring flowers. So I thought this spring would be sad. It would be sad just like this election had been sad, the healthcare system in this country is sad, the state of the mental health of this nation is sad and so on and so forth. It would be one more thing.
But no one can predict the weather. It rained and rained at the start of this spring and the miraculous happened: flowers bloomed in a frenzy (it’s been a month and I’ve got the same tulips blooming still), trees let out baby leaves before I could blink and the grass roared to green life.
It is one of the greenest springs I have ever known. And now that it’s been going strong for a month, things are happening. The rain has not stopped and now blooming bushes are pulling down fences, sidewalks are disappearing under green and mud, lawns are growing faster than people can mow and the birds never stop singing.
During a walk, I passed by a young tree packed with chickadees. My husband thought the chickadees were cute (they were). I told him they were vying for territory, their cheeps filling the air with lust for power, trees, and land. And as I said these words, I thought of the few things we know about the Celtic pagan past and that this time of year was not a just sweet time but a pulsating, racing, hungry time. Nobody was full of food yet, that wouldn’t be until later on in the summer. The sun was coming back and people obsessively followed, traced, and urged along her every movement.
This is a season when the continuation of life hangs in the balance. Will the sun come back? Will the green come back? Will the birds come back? Will we survive into the next season? Will there be plenty or starvation ahead?
I sit down to eat breakfast and look out the window. In the garden, bleeding heart flowers cascade from slender green stems. Birds disappear in the riotous lawn only to reappear again as they wing upward and away. The maples unfurl their leaves in the sun while the red oaks are more steady, slow, and cautious. A faint, tender green line the tips of their branches. A small squirrel inches to the end of a slender tree branch and places maple tree helicopter seeds in her tiny cheeks.
It is drizzling out. The sky is heavy but in the gloom, the daffodils lining the chain link fence grow brighter. I thought they had been destroyed by early morning hail but it must have been heavy rain instead for they are jaunty as ever.
I read the news and within ten minutes, I stop and stare across the kitchen table, unseeing. Words course through my brain and I lose my self in them. The swirling words in my mind are moving so rapidly, it is hard to pick out one from the other.
I suffer from C-PTSD. It is not usual for me to disassociate. I often do so without noticing. The news is making me disassociate but I haven’t noticed this yet. I am lost within the funneling word storm.
My unseeing eyes flick towards the yard and the yellow in the daffodils’ skirts urges my self to emerge out of the abandon. The daffodils are calling me come back into the physical world. Anxiety, coupled with an internal deadness, start to slide out of my mind. I start to see but it is a struggle. Anxiety is a serious business and believes its cause is true. No doubt it is. But I have to let go because I can’t live here. No one can. I cannot have a self and reside in this place where words and images babble and scream. It will and is and has pulled me to pieces for years without ceasing.
I extend the trust that it is ok to come out of chaos and let myself look at the flowers.
We enter into the clear space together. The daffodils are my teachers, the illumination into a reality that has few words but is present in every line of plant, stone, green, sky, our very existence. It is a sort of “underworld,” a way of “seeing in the dark,” a place that poetry often seeks and sometimes finds, that other world associated with night and knowing. And here it is, in the heart of a daffodil, beckoning you and I out of mental hell, away from brains lit on fear and terror both for ourselves and others, making a space where we can regain the quietness that lies deep within the soul.
The daffodils were not shredding by hail this year. They called me away from dissociation and back into life.
Tradescantia ohiensis is more commonly known as bluejacket or Ohio spiderwort. It grows to 1-3 feet and produces bright blue, 3-petalled blossoms in early June to mid-October.
Back in January ’14, I tore a tendon in my thumb. It was a freak accident that occurred while I was easing into parking spot at CVS. A driver backing out off the next spot over didn’t see me. I tried to sound my car horn to let her know I was there. The horn was broken, unknown to me at the time, and I tried sounding it over and over in a panic, desperate to alert another driver of my presence while her car backed towards mine. My hand was at a strange angle with my thumb on the horn and other fingers on the steering wheel. My adrenalin surged, I pressed the horn as hard as I could, and it never sounded. The driver saw me but only after she missed me by an inch.
Ohio spiderwort can be found in to dry to mesic prairies and savannas. It grows along trail sides, fencerows, and railroads. It prefers wet, humid conditions.
I went to the emergency room that evening when the pain became unbearable. The doctor told me I had completely severed my right thumb tendon and recommended me to a hand surgeon. A nurse wrapped my hand, wrist, and arm in a splint and I went home.
The hand surgeon saw me a few days after and told me I had not completely severed the tendon. A thumb tendon was torn and new blue splint was fitted my hand, wrist and upper arm. I was sent on my way to function as best as I could with an immobile right hand.
As long as I wore the splint, I felt no pain. It would take months for the tendon to repair (tendons take longer than broken bones to heal) but in the meanwhile, I learned to function with my non-dominate left hand and my husband, Jeff, helped me with everything that involved two hands. He opened containers and chopped up food for cooking. Not having my right hand was frustrating and maddening but not impossible. It would all be over in a few months.
The plant’s range covers Massachusetts to Nebraska, up north to Minnesota and down south to Texas and Florida. It is resistant to herbicides and attracts butterflies and bumblebees.
This is not what happened. My hand came out of the splint and within a few weeks, the ache was unbearable. I went back to the doctor and she discovered I had developed ECU tendonitis. Since my thumb was so weak, the outside of my hand (pinky finger to wrist) had compensated for thumb and now there were tears in the tendon running along the outside of my wrist. It would take a few months for a year to heal.
That was the tipping point. After that, I developed lateral epicondylitis (tendonitis on the outside of the elbow. Also known as tennis elbow) in my right elbow. And then medial epicondylitis (tendinitis on the inside of the elbow, known as golfer’s elbow) in that same elbow. That occurred because I had been guarding my right hand by holding it against my body.
Then my left elbow developed the same injuries as the right elbow. That happened was because my left arm had become overloaded from doing everything without the right hand for so long.
Then the right outside of my foot became painful and I had tendinitis there too. That happened because I had been injured for over a year. My body had been thrown off for so long that it was mirroring itself.
The stamen of spiderwort changes from blue to pink when radiation is present.
I was barely able to function over the fall and winter months and there wasn’t a medication that put a dent in the constant pain I was in. The splint no longer helped. I tried physical therapy, massage, acupuncture, supplements, anything that might do something.
While I tried everything within my means to heal, the physical therapy for my foot tendinitis took a terrible turn. I developed a severe allergic reaction to spray adhesive for tape (tape is often used to relieve pain in feet and leg injuries) and my leg broke out in a weeping rash and swelled to three times its size during Christmas. I ended up in the hospital after a blood test came back with the probability I might have a blood clot.
I did not have a clot. Instead, I sat on the sofa with my leg firmly wrapped in ace bandages and kept my right leg elevated for two weeks till all the swelling was gone.
Needless to say, Christmas was the lowest point of this whole debacle and things crept along for the better after that.
The plant is edible, especially when young and tender. The greens can be eaten raw, parboiled or fried. The flowers can be eaten or candied.
This spring, the pain greatly diminished. My hand therapist believed my laptop keyboard could the culprit, inflaming my wrist injuries. I hunted down an ergonomically correct one that helps people with my type of tendinitis. I’m typing now because of this keyboard. It has been a savior.
My massage therapist was another savior. She listened to what my body was saying about the pain and her work and conversations helped me keep my sanity.
And then there’s the care of my acupuncturist. He was deeply troubled over my condition and he too listened to what my body was saying. His help gave me pain free moments during very dark times.
Dear friends and family members provided much consolation and compassion. I thank all of you.
And last but not least is my wonderful husband Jeff. His continual willingness to help was a bright spots during this ordeal. His cheerful smile and wicked sense of humor helped me find reasons to get up in the morning. He is one of the greatest people I know and I am so lucky to have found him.
In the past, the Cherokee Nations have used a compound infusion of spiderwort for female ailments or kidney trouble. The roots were made into a poultice to treat cancer. The plant was also mashed and ground to treat insect bites.
And so I have good weeks that are free from pain. But I have bad ones too where the pain won’t let go. My healers and friends rejoice with me during the good weeks and help me through the bad ones. I am incredibly privileged to know these people and receive their aid.
I was forced to give up a lot this last year and a half. A lot. But to my shock, life continued and all survived. Pain became a doorway for me. It forced me to make choices about how I saw the world around me and how I would chose to participate with it.
It’s a bitter thing to lose a year and half of your life. But, if I turn the lens of perception just so, I see I did not lose part of my life. I changed with my life. I made important internal decisions whenever I could. The time became holy; so much nonsense was removed because I couldn’t physically move or do anything about it. I was alone with my pain.
And now I’ve come back to talk about that and other issues. My pain is greatly lessened and I can do more but the pain is not all gone and I am still learning the delicate balancing act of pain. This blog entry is my re-entry into the conversation I left off when my injuries overcame me. Sparrow Post will continue to be a place where I muse on art, spirituality, and nature.
The 3-petalled blossoms of spiderwort point to balance. Three is about opening the mind, letting go of binary thinking. The blue flowers are cheerful and exquisite yet only last for a day once they bloom. They last than less than a day in fact—once noon hits, the blooming flowers close and die.
Pollination must happen in the morning hours and so bumblebee tumbles from flower to flower in the early light. A few other types of bees and flies join in the pollination.
For this summer, I’m inserting native plants into each entry. Plants are our allies and they are at their zenith in these sunshine laden months. Native plants are hidden stories begging to be told, medicines waiting to be used.
Beautiful Dana of Wild & Magic gave plant medicine to me during some of my worst moments and now I’m ready to learn on my own and share what I can in return. I will not pick these native plants with my hands but use my camera instead. Since my hand is not fully healed, I will not be concocting teas or salves but I will be reading and sharing.
The color of spiderwort’s flowers, ranging from blue to purple to white, is a small part of its charm. Its true powers are hidden in its physical properties. The pleasant blooms rapidly pass away but the plant gives more than its beauty: it feeds the hungry and aids the suffering.
Summer is here. Let us enjoy it.