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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Spring Things

Move, pen, with the vigor of this early, unexpectedly beautiful spring. Move in honour of the forsythias that waved to you this morning. In the laneway forsythia branches draped themselves over the tall garden fence like so many languid Sirens, saying, "Help us, help us escape." I knew that if I got too close to them they would draw me onto the rocks and that would be the end of my ship's journey.


I passed them by, but I stayed on forsythia alert. When I reached the street I saw on my left a huge forsythia that had been allowed to flow, her golden locks streaming like those of a pre-Raphaelite maiden. Oh, for that just-out-of-bed forsythia look, wanton branches offering themselves to all comers.


And then further up the block I found the opposite. When I am empress, I will devise an appropriate punishment for those who dare to prune forsythias into rigid, flat-topped shrubs.


No, let's not go that way. Let's think along the lines of "Mother, forgive them for they know not what they do." These people need re-education, not punishment. As empress I will establish a school for gardening aesthetics and arrange for these louts to be sent for remedial work at the school, where they will learn the following lessons:


Lesson One: forsythias are sacred to spring. Without them there would be one less marker between the freezing days of winter and the balm of soft air on the skin.


Lesson Two: Forsythia grows in long, flowing branches. This is for a reason—namely, that Mother Nature likes it that way. You lop off those waving branches at your peril. Do you want Mother as your enemy? Let them flow. Let that bush become as big as it wants to. Then glory in it for the length of its three golden flowering weeks.


Lesson Three: You may prune it, if you must, from the base. Please register for Pruning 101.


Lesson Four: If you wish, you may cut a few stalks from the base in February and bring them inside, which will force them to flower early. We deserve to be reminded of their promise during the interminable last weeks of winter, and luckily, forsythia is happy to oblige.


Forsooth, Forsythia, thou are forsworn.

Thine end is near, thy coming death foregone.

Happily thy life's prolonged

by Spring's cool days

(though shortened by its hot sun's rays).

Sooner or later, thy golden locks

will fall to ground, glory betrayed,

thy radiant self replaced

by summer's undistinguished green.


Forsooth, Forsythia, reveal to us again next year,

lest we expire with despair,

thy golden hair.



Copyright 2011 Ann Tudor

Monday, May 23, 2011

Upsetting the Applecart

If by "applecart" you mean all the little safe routines we hide behind, then let me be the first to say that it's way past time to upset the applecart. I can almost hear the crash it will make, the cart itself turning over, axle breaking, one wheel cracking, the other spinning off into the darkness (applecarts are more properly upset in the dark, giving us the opportunity to face the unknown). And then there are the apples, those predictable, cherished apples: my things, my habits, my foods, my animate and inanimate loves. You know the drill: all my fabrics, all my papers and paints, all my children (oh, I believe that phrase has already been used).


See those apples rolling beyond reach, leaving the cart empty and me bereft of apples. Some are trapped under the cart. Some, having chased that spinning cartwheel off into the dark distance, are gone forever. Maybe by the time the light comes I will even have forgotten what they were. And then I'll never miss them.


Perhaps I can push my old broken cart upright again, call in the wheelwright (or maybe he deals only with wheels, not axles; no matter, since I need two new wheels as well). Get this show back on the road. A road show. Now, remind me where I was headed.


Oh, of course. I was moving in the direction of The Land of Old (or am I already there?). Now I'm traveling with a cart empty of apples rather than overflowing with a superfluity of them. Though at the moment I wouldn't mind having a few on hand for sustenance. Can I make it the whole way without food? I've become dependent on the kindness of strangers, though I have to say that there have been better times and better places for such reliance. I'm well aware of that, having passed three panhandlers in the last two days without dropping so much as a loonie in their cups. If I can't rely on the kindness of strangers during the rest of this journey, then that leaves me with only myself to rely on. Ye gods and little catfish, what a concept!


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Spring Garden

I've spent ninety minutes gardening every day for the past week, yet I've barely scratched the surface. As I've crouched over one small patch after another, I've pondered the question of why there's so much to do this year—as opposed to last year, when I hardly set foot in the front rock garden.


The difference is that last spring I was too busy to take on the garden. Then, by the time the first flush of spring had passed, the weather turned stinky-hot and I refused to go out into the heat to garden.


Talk about paying for one's sins! Last year's negligence has tripled this year's work. Lying awake the other night, rather than counting sheep I began to count the number of invasive species I have acquired over the years, inadvertently or through deliberate foolishness.


1) Garlic chives, once they are in flower, pop their little black seeds over a wide area, and the following year you find garlic chives growing vigorously in the midst of every grouping in the garden. Fail to eradicate them and the following year the problem multiplies exponentially.


2) Tradescantia's seeds do the same thing after hanging for a week in those little post-flowering seed pouches. It took me many years to realize that just because the tradescantia plants are flourishing doesn't mean that I have to leave them in the ground. That's why God made trowels! Now I dig them out as soon as I see them insinuating their long green leaves in unwanted places. Last year, of course, they got a reprieve, so this year I'm finding incipient stands of tradescantia every few feet.


3) In the flat part of the garden in front of the house, I planted (on the advice of a landscape architect), a spurge with a pale green variegated leaf. Its yellow flowers pop up on an eight-inch stem to stand above the leaves. Very pretty in late spring. But its ivy-like stems travel out to the wide world, and each terminus of a stem sets a tough root that hangs on for dear life when I try to pull it up. I've nearly finished yanking out that guy and his cousins by the dozens as they attempt to take over the world.


4) I admit that I actually bought a lily-of-the-valley plant years ago. It's my own fault. Much as I love the fragrance—muguet, in French—I am too lazy to pick more than a small handful to decorate the dining room table for two days. For the most part, I walk by the stand of lilies of the valley and see them testing the boundaries of their territory. Like all the rest of my invasive friends, they're doing their best to claim the entire garden as their rightful dwelling place.


5) But the violets are NOT my fault. I swear I never bought even that first plant. It came from nowhere—like a monster alien in the movies—and it is winning the battle for garden space. And if I fail to do more than a token cutting of the lily-of-the-valley flowers, you can imagine how loath I am to create those pretty, French-style violet nosegays that poor women used to sell outside the theaters, offering violets to rich men for their attendant ladies. I don't pick many violets. But as soon as I finish with some of the other aggressive plants, I'm going to uproot every violet plant I can find. Ruthlessly. Enough with the violets. May this year be the last. (But I'll probably leave a token plant or two out of pity, and then the whole business will start all over again.)


6) The Greek oregano is almost under control. Its growth is as vigourous as its flavour is overpowering. So I'm hedging the truth; it is NOT under control in the slightest.


7) The mint comes up wherever it wants. Oh, I know. You should plant it in a pot that you sink into the ground. Well, the pot broke during some long-ago winter. Now the mint has its way with us. My husband, luckily, likes mint tea in the summer, so I taught him how to identify it (try smelling) and he now is a one-man mint-control machine and feels rich with his endless supply. Nonetheless, eternal vigilance is the price of freedom from excessive mint.


8) Visiting friends in Campbellford ten or so years ago, I bought a sweet little bright-green ground cover at the town market. It was called something like "butter & eggs." Its round, nickel-sized, shiny leaves are accompanied in mid-summer by pretty dandelion-yellow flowers. It looks as if butter wouldn't melt in its mouth, but I promise you that it is my second most invasive plant. Its long shoots reach out from the mother plant and, before I know it, it is in seven other locations, from each of which it sends out additional colonizing shoots. The plant I bought sat sedately in its spot for three years, never budging, never causing a problem. But once it reached critical mass, its aggression began. It wiped out other ground covers before I realized they were under attack. This is its last year as a free plant. I will cut a circle around the mother plant with my scissors—a generous circle, I promise you—and then I will rip out with my bare hands any sweet-looking, round-leafed, yellow-flowered, vicious punk that dares to appear outside the circle.


9) Which brings me to vinca minor. A sturdy, attractive ground cover, its stems travel two, three, four feet in all directions, looking for an inch of ground to call its own. Another inch. And then it's on to the proverbial mile. It tramples over anything in its path. I've thought occasionally of abandoning the garden to these two—the vinca and the butter-and-eggs—and letting them battle to the death. The vinca has an interesting self-preservation strategy. It flowers in May (periwinkle blue, of course), with blossoms so cheery and welcome that you say to yourself: There's no way I can pull these flowers out of my garden. I'll just wait until it has stopped blooming. And by that time, the vinca has taken over another four square feet.


This will be the year when I establish firm boundaries for each of my nine (count 'em: NINE) invasive little friends.


Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Remnant of the Past

What do we owe to the past?


My former husband recently gave me a little book bound in soft leather. He'd found it among his papers as he was sorting and weeding.


The little book is a prayer book. On the inside front cover is my name and my address in Montpellier, France, where I lived when I was 19. This prayer book, which I have no memory of, is now in my hands. Am I supposed to know what to do with it? Within its pages is a "holy card"—a bookmark of thin cardboard edged in gold, with a religious image printed on one side. On the back of the holy card in my prayer book is an inscription saying that the book was presented to me by the Alain family in Montpellier.


I have no memory of this family. I did spend Christmas Day that year with a kind Catholic family. I don't remember their name, but I do remember finding a pearl in one of the oysters I ate at that Christmas dinner (my first raw oysters ever). It was my twentieth birthday, and I thought it was very special to have found a pearl on that day. So perhaps the Alain family were my Christmas hosts and it was they who gave me the little prayer book and the inscribed holy card. The prayer book is in French, of course, which I haven't spoken in 30 years.


The question is this: what do I do with it? It's safe to say that I won't be using it as part of my own spiritual practice. I don't want to bury it among my papers, deep in the basement, for someone else to deal with after I'm gone. I don't feel comfortable throwing it out. Is it a sacrilege to recycle a prayer book?


Let's see. I could call the Alliance Francaise and ask if they need a 50-year-old prayer book for their archival collection. I could call the local Catholic French-immersion high school and see if they want to add an old, virtually unused prayer book to their library collection.


In the meantime, as I work through the problem of how to dispose of it, it sits on top of my dresser. And we all know about dresser tops: I just cleaned that dresser top last week, sorting through six solid inches of things that needed to be filed or thrown out or otherwise Dealt With.


The minute I put the prayer book on that cleaned-off dresser, I knew it was a mistake. Any object, no matter how small, placed on a clean dresser-top acts as a magnet to attract more and more homeless objects. Soon a new pile covers the whole dresser top to a depth of six inches.


Back to the question. What do we owe the past? Does the prayer book represent the Alain family? Does it represent my year in France when I was 19 and 20? If I dispose of it will I be expunging the Alain family from my memory (though they were pretty much expunged already)? Does honoring the past mean that I am obliged to hang on to objects that I will never use again?


Or can I just let go of this book, no matter what part of my past it represents? Call me if you want it, and I'll dig it out from the bottom of the dresser-pile and send it to you.



Sunday, May 1, 2011


Say the word Easter and here's where my mind goes: four days of church-going.


Memory: Entering the church on Good Friday to see purple velvet covering the fourteen Stations of the Cross and the large crucifix above the altar and the life-sized statues of Mary and Joseph that flanked the altar. I could never figure out who draped all that purple velvet. Probably the overworked nuns.


Memory: The Holy Saturday Mass performed with wooden clappers instead of tinkling bells.


Memory: A Holy Saturday litany sung by the priest at the back of the church (I was in the choir loft right above him, so I never knew exactly what he was doing). But whatever he was doing, he punctuated his chant with "Flectamus genua!" (let us bend our knee), a phrase that has rung in my mind all these years just because of the way it sounds. Flectamus genua!! When someone chants that at you, you don't need to be told twice to bend that knee. After we had all knelt, even those of us out of sight in the choir loft, he would chant "Levate!" ("Get up!" Or rather, "Rise.") And we did. And then he would chant some more and tell us again to bend our knee. This went on a long time, which may actually be the reason I've remembered it.


Memory: A lengthy foot-washing business at the altar, though I don't remember whether it happened on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, or Holy Saturday. Nor do I remember who did what to whom. I think maybe the priest washed the feet of the teenaged altar boys. Now there's a penance!


Memory: An Easter candle three feet tall and three inches in diameter, set in a holder that was itself three feet tall. The creamy white candle was decorated with colored wax designs pressed on to it. I found it beautiful.


Memory: The priest wearing once-a-year celebratory vestments. I remember a rose chasuble garment with much gold embroidery.


Memory: My mother, Eileen, never one to make life easy for herself, subscribed to the (Irish?) view that on Easter one should wear new clothes, from the inside out. So at some point during Holy Week she bought new socks, underwear, and shoes for each of her six children and she managed to sew dresses for the three girls (usually from the same bolt of fabric) and shirts for the three boys (also matching, but not matching the girls' dresses, I hope). She bought the boys' pants.


Memory: The church choir, composed, as I remember it, entirely of girls from "the big room" of the parochial school—that is, girls in grades 5 through 8. Some of whom could sing. There were about ten of us in all, unless I'm totally mis-remembering this. It can't have been pleasant sitting in those hard pews listening to ten untrained pre-pubescent voices singing their version of Gregorian chant, accompanied by a wheezing organ.


Memory: The choir on Easter Sunday, which for me was the culmination of the choir experience because we sang my favorite hymn:


"The DAWN comes purpling o'er the SKY-EYE,

While AL-leluias filled the AI-AIR.

The EARTH held glorious jubilEE-EE,

Hell GNASHED its teeth in fierce de-SPAIR."


This was the verse. The chorus, a series of vigorous alleluias, was followed by another two pot-boiling verses that I have mercifully forgotten.


I'd like to say that the reason I loved it (you have to admit it has a certain panache) was the challenge of picturing "Hell" gnashing "its" teeth. What exactly would that look like? But I think the real reason I liked it was its punchy, vibrant rhythm.


Memory: When Easter Sunday Mass was over, we all went home in our new finery, had our pictures taken with a little brownie camera, and ate a ham dinner.


This completes the litany of Easter memories from my childhood.