Monday, July 29, 2013

My Rose of Sharon, One Year Later

You will hear thunder and remember me,
And think: she wanted storms. The rim
Of the sky will be the colour of hard crimson,
And your heart, as it was then, will be on fire.

That day in Moscow, it will all come true,
when, for the last time, I take my leave,
And hasten to the heights that I have longed for,
Leaving my shadow still to be with you.

Sometimes we must genuflect before the poignant confluence of art and life. 

A crimson sky bathed the rear garden in an ethereal glow moments before darkness shrouded this part of the world--yet it was not at the time conceived of as a prelude to the dramatic storms that would follow several hours later. 

Torrents of wind-driven rain produced a turbulent river down the street, carrying the detritus of human life and the limbs and leaves of trees with it; rolling crescendos peaked into the denouement of piercing claps of thunder; and razor-sharp streaks of lighting slashed the skies while illuminating black, angry clouds.

I did hear thunder and I did remember her: our beloved Sharon who left this world one year ago today.

And this morning she appeared to me in different form: an exuberant display of her favorite flower in my garden: Blaze Starr Rose Mallow, which last year in commemoration of her brief life and indescribably humbling relationship with her cancer, I dubbed my Rose of Sharon.

Not to be overly metaphysical about it. 

But Sharon identified with the flower: for her, looking across the street every morning for weeks during summer's midpoint and decrescendo, she absorbed its beauty, mused on it.  It was often the opening salvo of our daily morning conversations, her sitting on her stoop having coffee, me, emerging to feed the outdoor cats.

But the sunset, the storms, the Akhmatova poem (a particular favorite of mine), Rose Mallow's first display of more than 6 flowers at a time: their junction struck me as a sign.

But the cancer...

But it was her cancer. She took ownership of it in order to accept it. She did not fight in the way we normally attribute "struggles" or "battles" with cancer; in this way, she lived Susan Sontag's exegesis, Illness as Metaphor. And her ownership of this virulent, fast-consuming thing, we think, helped her move forward and live "normally" for months with few ostensible effects. And then suddenly, one morning she awoke, and she appeared different, for the cancer, overnight, transformed the physicality of our beloved Sharon. And such began the rapid descent...

We may find and derive meaning in and from the lives of others: what they do and how they are helps us intuit their Being. And Sharon did ever so much, welcoming us into a predominantly African-American neighborhood, when many looked down upon us with disgust and suspicion, and warding off the vitriol sent our way. And over the years, we cultivated a harmony and camaraderie because, as she occasionally said, we are all in this together. That's what Sharon brought to this world. And what she left us.

And so today I see signs of her, and celebrate her life, even if the celebration is marked by tears and pangs of pain, much like the fuchsia droppings of Rose Mallow as she discards those magnificent blossoms daily, during the evening, as if exhausted from serving as a vanguard of beauty.

Such is the residue of a powerful life lived that all of us must bear.

Sunday, July 21, 2013


 I am increasingly convinced that a majority of the successes of gardening owe not to design and careful planning and planting, but to the happy accident we call serendipity.

Two years ago, I was a beneficiary (one of thousands) of the Delaware Center for Horticulture's tree planting program. Six of us on the block received Syringa reticulata (Japanese Tree Lilac), a small to medium sized tree, perfect for urban living, upright and compact, distinguished by its mass plumes of showy white flowers in late spring (no picture available).

I asked the DCH team to plant my new Tree Lilac not on the mass of my front sun garden, but slightly on my side of this neighborhood's ubiquitous waste-land: that sliver parcel of property that marks the division between all of the semi-detached homes with which no one quite knows what to do.

The tree was situated just in front of the bed of pale yellow bearded irises. In previous years, the mass of irises bloomed in unison, though the few pale lavender irises which somehow became mixed up in the yellow bunch bloom slightly earlier. This year, however, the irises bloomed as a successive wave: those that get full sun bloomed first, followed by the irises that were only partly shaded by the tree lilac, which were succeeded by those that received sun starting in the very late morning. The results were spectacular, and my blooms lasted for several weeks!

I am sure more seasoned gardeners know this design trick, but for me it was accidental discovery at its finest.

Yesterday, I was reminded of the joys of serendipity--one of those nearly inappreciable moments of time that usually get lost in the shuffle of doing but, when noticed, strike one as a sublime manifestation of Being.

After the nursery folks helped me carefully load a 6 foot Paniculata Tree Hydrangea into my MINI (yes, you read that correctly!), I turned on the ignition, completely shocked that the tree fit, and feeling rather smug.

My smugness quickly turned to ethereal awe and a bizarre sense of humility when Handel's triumphal Music for the Royal Fireworks played on the Symphony channel of Sirius Radio.

Neither could the moment have been more perfect, nor could I have planned it. Serendipity.

On the drive home, during which nary a leaf was lost, I felt that which the audience in London's Green Park must have felt back in 1749 when the music was first performed: relief that the War of the Austrian Succession was over, and joy in the certitude of life.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Social Event of the Season

Every community seems to have its "social event of the season:" Baron's Balls, black tie dinners, silent auctions, banquets, garden parties, regattas, casino royales, art galas, opera first nights, opera-under-the-stars--all organized for some philanthropic endeavor. These are events not simply for the social mavens, doyens, debutantes, and more aged afficionados to display their finest attire and jewelry, but for others to be welcomed not merely to the charitable circle of donors, but to the hierarchy of society itself. Simply stated, one obtains social standing.

Today, social events of the season seem not to be a thing of the past, but certainly a vestige of the past. In an age of Facebook and Twitter, video and instantaneous communication, almost any event ascends to the hierarchy of attention given proper dissemination. Wrapped in hyperbole, nearly every event arrives at the pinnacle of importance which, of course, only demands that the next be characterized more effusively.

Somehow, these events seem to have lost their privilege and with it, their meaning. At least in my warped vision of the past and the present. But it need not be that way.

For instance, let's consider the following. Bill Cunningham of the famed fashion pages of The New York Times delivers weekly to a worldwide audience a display of (usually) New York fashion, such that you would think this week's 'Baked Apple' play on the 'Big Apple' was the social event of the summer fashion scene. Perhaps it is.

Please dear reader: I emphatically plead with you not to misinterpret. I love Bill and crave his weekly insights. He rises above the din and places his finger, effortlessly, perspicaciously, on the pulse of life. Or at least of an aspect of life. I would not have it any other way. It's the way he sees beyond and through people and their superficialities and captures a moment's essence that has, seemingly, arisen and presented itself organically, unconsciously, and only constitutes a trend--and this is critical--because Bill has observed and decreed it as such. Therein lies the power of a social event of the season.

But here is where, somehow, most of our social events of the season part company with Bill Cunningham and seem less peculiar and special moments in time for which we prepare weeks if not months than an instance among many on a streaming calendar of life. We are all Twitter and Instagram and Facebook and status updates and tweets: we are moments vying for attention. And somehow we lose our way.

Perhaps indicative of the poverty of my social life, one event does appear on my calendar: the appearance of Blaze Starr Rose Mallow, which today offered her first dazzling spectacle. It is the summer solstice of gardening.

Like any social event of the season, she is larger than life. Well, now, that surely is an exaggeration, but seriously: the flower is enormous. Here, for scale, I photographed it from across the street against the backdrop of No. 410.  And she dazzles. Her fiery fuchsia and morphing lavender-to-magenta-and-plum colored stems, along with those palmate leaves: well now, that is one chic gown she sports!

Like any social event of the season, she lasts for a brief period of time, her moment on this earth infused with a curious mix of frivolity and seriousness that defines it. More properly stated, each flower lasts one day, though she blooms from mid-to late July into well into September.

And, like any social event of the season, she heightens one's sense of anticipation such that when she arrives, one feels relief and satisfaction, and somehow more alive having experienced it.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Opposites Do Not Always Attract

Romantic lore (er, wisdom?) has it that opposites attract.

You know: the petite blond attracted to the strapping tall, dark, and handsome specimen of humanity, positive ions attracted to negative ions, and all that.

My intended research on the origin of the adage yielded not a linguistic history, but affirmations and denials, and an eponymous Paula Abdul song.

One website claimed that when it comes to values and qualities, people actually seek the similar.

Another claimed that in terms of the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator, people usually are attracted to their opposite with respect to the Introversion/Extroversion and Judging/Perceiving scales.

Silliness: life is an amalgamation of many truths, not singular ones.

Yet I can affirm that at least one pair of opposites do not attract: sun and shade.

My neighbor recently spoke to me about trimming the shade- and privacy-providing, albeit severely overgrown and misshapen hedge that divides our properties. I understood him to be asking for permission to pick up any debris that happened to land on my property.

On Sunday morning, after a delightful Saturday away, I awoke, turned on the computer, and glanced out the study window to look upon the garden. What greeted me was horror: the trimming of the hedge row more properly stated proved to be an extermination. The yews. His pogrom--one designed to trim the mass as it were--clearly, quickly morphed into a genocide. My East Side Shade Bed (ESSB) was now the East Side Full-Sun Bed, though I could think of a four-letter F word that would nicely take the place of "Full" and express my feelings.

Sure, he left several feet of bare trunks to protrude (oddly) from the ground, a memorial marking for what once stood on his property, and nothing else save for a rhododendron which he recognized, and the two final bushes that marked the end of the hedge: a yew and the enormous Viburnum.

Soon, I heard not the metal clacking sounds of a hand-held shears, but the gas-motorized roar of a mini-chainsaw.  Out the door I ran.

He greeted me with, "Oh my God, where were you yesterday?! I needed you...."

I started with recognition of his property rights.  "Hi X. Please don't misinterpret, for you have every right to do whatever you wish to your property. But I admit I am shocked and now extremely worried about my plants. I thought you were going to trim the yews, but you.... you,"  (I stammered, overcome with shock) " cut them to the ground."

"I know, I know: I didn't know what I was doing!  I am so sorry! That's why I needed you yesterday but you weren't around! I am so sorry!"  Not the reaction I expected, but good. My genocidaire was actually reasonable. To a degree.

"This isn't your problem," I continued, "but I have some very expensive unusual specimens in that bed that need full shade. I haven't time to relocate an entire bed of plants, so if I could plead with you, could you please not chop down the remaining yew and the Viburnum?"

"The what? What's a Vi-....whatever you just said."

So we talked. And, together, we trimmed and shaped the remaining yew, which shades the Buddha bed and my now-beloved, and expensive, Edgeworthia. And the Viburnum remains....vibrant.

Over the last few days, in the wee hours of the morning before the temperatures quickly reach the 90s and the humidity level makes gardening unbearable, I've been moving things around. Not quickly enough, however. Yesterday's high heat and full day of sun were not kind to the plants of the Formerly-Known-as-the-ESSB.

But that's what gardening is all about: successes and losses. And in the gardening world, those opposites certainly always do attract.