In the Midsummer Garden

“A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.” –Gertrude Jekyll
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Summer in the Midwest is fleeting. Here it is, July 25, 2016, and though we’ve been suffering in the heat and humidity (though not as much as you Southerners!), we will soon bundle ourselves in woolen sweaters and goose down to fend off the cold. This spell of warm weather with the humidity induced mists over the fields will be but a memory. That’s why I decided to share with you some of my favorite parts of my gardens, my favorite place to be this time of year.

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When we moved into our house, we had no gardens at all, only sandy dirt and rocks. Over the course of the last ten years, Bruce and I have worked to create gardens all around our house. I cut out pictures from magazines of what I liked. With his own artistic vision and the muscles to help me realize my own, Bruce and I have nearly “finished” our landscaping. Here is the vegetable garden. Two years ago we decided to take up square foot gardening. It has been a qualified success. We don’t get quite as much produce as we once did from approximately the same area, but the garden itself looks beautiful, I think.

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The picture above shows our vegetable garden where we grow all our vegetables in raised beds, except our tomatoes. This year we’ve experimented with growing tomatoes in pots. I’m not sure I like that as well–lots of hand watering–but they have not been afflicted with the diseases they were plagued with before. We’ll see how they taste this year. My hubby is the muscles and brain behind the design of this garden. He’s a landscaping artist! In this area we are growing carrots, parsnips, collards, ground cherries, kale, peas, basil, eggplant, bell peppers, pole beans, cucumbers, mustard greens, arugula, radishes, mesclun mix, raspberries, and just out of the frame, rhubarb and some herbs.

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In the rest of the yard so many flowers are in bloom or have just finished blooming. I love all the natives and the easy growing flowers like purple cone flowers and liatris. I’ve said since I moved here that I won’t have a flower that is not tough enough to withstand a sub-zero winter. If it wants to be in my garden, it has to be tough. I can’t tell you how many plants I’ve tried out that just didn’t have what it takes to withstand the cold and less than hospitable conditions here. I think there is a metaphor in there somewhere….

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I Belong to Two Places

A couple of years ago I read a book that has stuck with me, The Conditions of Love by Dale M. Kushner. As I read, I dog-eared pages and underlined passages even though my copy is a hardcover, not a paperback. I couldn’t help myself. It’s that good. Each time I go back to the book, I discover something else that makes me think or appreciate Dale’s writing. As I was thumbing through it not long ago, one line in particular gave me pause, and I’ve thought repeatedly of it since. Here it is: “To learn is to forget, the events of one life crowding out the events of the next.” If that is true, what does it mean to my life? How does that affect who I am? Does it change my identity as a person? A writer? A teacher?

Change is difficult because we have a  tendency to hold onto what we know out of fear or the desire for comfort, but learning requires that we step out of our comfort zones to experience something new, and that can be scary but also exciting and liberating. Since I’ve lived in the Midwest, I’ve felt myself to be on the fringes of society at times, not able to fully understand or participate in the culture here because it is different from what I grew up with and identify with, but also because I don’t want to lose my identity as a Southerner. Just the idea of being any less Southern made me rebel against embracing the Midwest, yet I also pride myself on being willing to experience new things, on learning. I think of myself as an educated woman. I like the challenge of learning something new, but if I refused to change, or to embrace this place, every bit my home as the place I grew up in, what does that say about me?

If I learn how to be a Midwesterner, do I have to forget about being a Southerner? Perhaps, but I don’t like to think of it that way. I prefer to think of it as change. I’ve changed to live here, and the most noticeable way is how I talk. My speech no longer sounds like that of my friends down in Georgia; my vowels are less rounded. I’ve learned to endure the cold, sort of. I complain when it gets humid here, even though at times I still miss the sticky air of Georgia. Heck, two winters ago I was alone the entire month of January in 40 below temperatures with a poorly working furnace and had to shovel LOTS of snow, and stoke the fireplace to help heat the house without my Midwesterner husband around. If that’s not Midwestern, I don’t know what is. In fact, lately people have acted surprised when they find out I’m from the South. Lawd have mercy, I need a trip home to get my drawl back!

Do those things mean I have “forgotten” some of what makes me a Southerner? Maybe. I can hear my Southern friends blessing my heart right now.

Yes, I’ve changed, but the South will always be a part of me. When I write, I write about the South. I can’t help it. The South bubbles up out of me when I put pen to paper or at least hands to keyboard. And that’s when I hear the cadence of my people, no matter that I live so far north of the Mason-Dixon line that I might as well be in Canada. Though I’ve become accustomed to the fast flat vowels of the North, they still seem foreign to me because when I go home and hear a sweet southern drawl or hear my niece and nephew say yes ma’am or no ma’am to me, I fall into that drawl like I never left. I still make tea, though no longer sweet, but flavored with mint. I still love pimiento cheese, fried chicken, The Masters, and good sea food. I still long for the smell of magnolia blossoms and tea olive in the spring; UGA football in the fall, even if Larry Munson no longer calls the games; the occasional 75 degree day in winter; being close enough to the ocean to drive there for a weekend; and having everyone ask after your mama. I know these are only surface traits, but they represent the culture that Southerners hold dear. What keeps me feeling connected to the South is going back and being enfolded into family and friends as though I never left. The open hearts of the people, my people, are what keep me longing for the South.

What keeps me here then? Why don’t I return to my roots? That’s a question I’ve pondered lately. The answer I’ve come to is that I love what my husband and I have built here. I love my home here, my friends, my colleagues and my students, my writing friends, my church, my community. I became a teacher here, built my reputation on my own. I became a writer here and have a community of writers who support me. I’ve built a life here that would be hard to walk away from even though I feel the pull of the South. I look out at the gardens I’ve labored over, the house I see my husbands handiwork in, the town where I raised my children, the parks they played in, the rivers and lakes we swim in, the sunrises and sunsets we’ve seen, the trees we’ve planted that have grown so tall, the farm fields, the forests. Could I leave this place? This place I’ve come to love?

I have wondered if I would ever feel like I belonged here in the Midwest, and I finally feel like I do. Is it because I was finally willing to? Maybe. People here have welcomed me in their midst and I love them for that. But if I have to forget where I came from to fit in or belong, I don’t think I can. Being southern is part of my identity. I can’t separate myself from that part of me any more than Churchill Downs can separate itself from horse racing, mint juleps, or big fancy hats. I think what Dale Kushner meant is that to fully embrace where you are you have to be present in the moment. I’ve tried to do that, even though at times I long for my people and the place I’m from, the familiarity of home and the love of family. What I’ve come to understand is that I belong to two places now: the Midwest and the South, both lands  whose features have a way of becoming a part of your identity and whose people have the same generous hearts. Perhaps I’ll move back “home” one day. I want to, one day. But when I do, I know I’ll miss the Midwest, my other “home.”

My Writing Forecast

Storm Clouds

Great Plains clouds rolled in this morning like smoke billowing from a great fire dragging their ragged edged cousins along behind them. Rain and storms have arrived this morning and will develop again later today, but that is not unusual here in June. Weather in the Midwest is rarely settled or predictable. One day the weather will be fine and sunny with no humidity, still a source of wonder for this Southerner even after nearly twenty years here. In a matter of a day or even a few hours, however, the temperature and the due point rise making the air sticky and uncomfortable, bringing storms in their wake, a familiar pattern I recognize.

The unpredictable and changeable nature of the weather here mirrors my writing life. Turmoil about whether my writing is good enough, whether I will finish my novel to my satisfaction, whether I will one day be published affects my mood on a daily basis. I’m sure all artists suffer the same angst. I think overcoming my doubts and fears is a process, one which all writers must work through to become healthy and productive. Learning to manage writing and living in the world is a struggle, one all writers are familiar, but because I have the summer off from my job, I have the luxury of tackling my writing full time right now, and I plan to take full advantage of my time. After a wonderful week last week at Write- by-the-Lake in Madison, Wisconsin, under the tutelage of Laurie Scheer, Media Goddess, I’ve committed to two things for the summer: being healthy and being a productive writer. Today was the first day to put my plans into action.Stella and Me after a Run

My day started with a two mile run with Stella, my running partner (See above photo). We managed to outrun the rain today but only just. I can’t help noticing the metaphor there. I often feel just ahead of my doubts and feelings of inadequacy, but I managed to finish the run and write this blog post and work on my novel which (Laurie if you’re reading this) WILL be published soon! The trick to success, I think, whether it is in being healthy or being productive at work or writing is having a plan and putting the plan into action. I have to block out time to do what is important, make time to reach my goals and achieve what sometimes seems impossible. I outran my doubts today just as I outran the weather. Each day I just have to realize that though there will be stormy days full of rain in this writing life, they are necessary because the rain yields beautiful results. Write on people!Peonies in Celadon vase

Hello world!

Southern Roots and Northern Blossoms

Twenty six years ago as one of my bridal showers was wrapping up, Mrs. Shirley Friedman and I were talking about my upcoming marriage. I felt overwhelmed with the generosity of my mother’s friends and wondered what would become of me when I left my home in Georgia to marry my handsome Marine husband.

You see, he was also a Yankee which could only mean one thing—he didn’t have the appreciation for the South that native Southerners do, a potential problem when it comes to choosing where to live. I was scared to death he would take me out of the South; I was right to be afraid. Though we didn’t immediately move away from all that was dear and familiar to me, moving was inevitable when he became a helicopter pilot.

I confessed my misgivings to Ms. Shirley. (Any well-raised southern child knows you never address one of your elders by their first name. You always include an honorific even with a first name.) She understood my dilemma immediately.

When she wedded Mr. Maurice, she lived in LaGrange, Georgia, and he moved her all the way to Sandersville, only a couple of hours away, but back then it might as well have been a world away. She tried to ease my mind. “You shouldn’t worry, Sugar,” she told me. “You’ll have Southern roots but you’ll have Northern blossoms!” I was charmed but still dubious. I wasn’t sure I could be as optimistic about my future away from home, but if Ms. Shirley had faith that I could blossom in the midst of a strange locale.

It has taken me many years to acclimate to the Midwest and to lose a great deal of the accent that so marked my language when we first moved here, but I have remembered Ms. Shirley’s words. Her words have inspired me to do something with my life, to plant seeds and nurture them to see what my “blossoms” will be. I have worked as a travel agent, substitute teacher, stringer reporter, and high school English teacher. I am now moving into the next phase of my life.

Ms. Shirley is still my mother’s friend. She and I still keep in touch, occasionally through the mail but also through Mama. I owe her a debt of gratitude not only for the title of my blog, but also for her faith in me, a faith I’ve finally come to share. In my early years I was sustained by family, by red Georgia clay under a sky shaded by pines. The South with all its flaws and finery formed my core.

In the South I absorbed the stories of my people, the cadence of their language, the history of my home, but now I walk among those with clipped vowels and curt nods. I bathe in the lakes and rivers of the Midwest where I feel the essence of this land coursing through me. Something about this place feels limitless—I know why settlers went west years ago—it’s a place where I can create my own place, my own destiny. This is a place where a woman like me can become what she wills. A writer. With southern roots and northern blossoms.