Balance: Sunday Journal


Spring has never felt more welcome. And as sure as it has felt like spring for the past week we are evidently in for 50s, clouds and rain for the next. It’s okay by me: there is no snow in the forecast, and I have noted very definite signs of thickening in the tips of the tree branches. Tender green shoots are poking up through the ground everywhere, and soon everything will explode.

The theme around here continues to be balance. There has been some progress, a bit of failure. Last Monday I foolishly decided I’d repeat my Saturday run after work. It was a beautiful afternoon, perfect weather. Anterior tibialis and hammies cared not one jot and screamed and cried like big babies. Still, a four-mile walk was better than a no-mile walk. I continue to work like crazy at the gym most days after work, pushing myself further in yoga, and actually increased my weights in Pump You Up class last week (my moniker, not theirs).


In spite of allowing myself to slip some in recent months, I am seeing and feeling palpable progress now. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I went for a run together yesterday, and it was absolutely delicious. We were also charged by a bull protecting his womens, true story. Good thing there was a fence separating us; adrenaline flowed nonetheless—that was a first for me (the bull, not the adrenaline). The communication was very clear: get the hell away from the cows, they are mine. I still love hollaring hello to all of them. It’s my turnaround spot, a high point of the route. As is a sign reading “Aflac was here,” posted in some woods on the edge of swamp where the Battenkill backs up; we have no clue, but somebody has a sense of humor.

Last night HCB made a beautiful dinner, planned ahead of time, to go along with North By Northwest, also planned. I managed to work a reference to the movie into some writing at work not long ago. That got me thinking about the movie, which is why it was on our radar. HCB observed during an opening scene how different it would look and feel if it were shot today, because nobody cares about grooming and couture anymore. I tend to agree; we’re pretty dang sloppy as a society.


Meanwhile, a failure. I have not kept up with my friend Rebecca’s reading challenge. I am still on the March book and should be halfway through April’s by now. At least I am reading.

It is spring. We have had a lovely weekend doing projects around the house, inside and out. HCB has already cleaned up the tiny garden patch, which you can see in the middle of this photo, a tree limb defining its edge. Last year that tiny piece of earth yielded quite a lot of veg—more than you might imagine. Also note the stream at the bottom. It normally flows across the driveway, but HCB has been working hard in recent days to divert it: lots of digging and soil schlepping. (The man cooks, coaches pole vaulting, knows how to juggle, and moves the earth. What next?)


And here is a rare, sanctioned, photo of HCB, who is incredibly camera shy.


Yes, mowing leaves to mulch them and get the yard looking more like a yard again. Still so much to do before the work day arrives early tomorrow morning. And so much on my mind: ballet, writing, more writing, parenting, influential people, unstable people and personalities, people to avoid, people to love. Stories waiting to be told.

Next weekend we get to hang out with some friends over in Cambridge, NY. Looking forward to that. And the continuing search for balance.

Grey Day


Today I decided I would document my walk backwards from my mailbox. The air smells every bit of fall but still felt summery to me. This dairy barn  across from the property where I am a squatter is long out of service, but its owner recently gave it a new roof to slow its demise. I know this about it because I spoke with a family member who works in the town hall and we talked about it and the property for a long while one afternoon. I find its shape and texture and small windows hugely appealing.


I turned my back on the highway to head back down the driveway. I sat on the wood bridge leading onto the property and dangled my feet from it for a while. There is a sensory collision here of the freshness and roiling from moving water and cars zipping up and down the rural highway parallel to the stream.


I love the orange carpet at the end of the long straightaway and the embracing trees overhead; they make a nice portal to a private place. I have followed many deer down this drive in my car’s headlights at night; they tend to disappear into the woods at the turn. I have also upset more than one gang of turkeys.


Right at that place a smaller stream disappears under the road through a culvert. Torrential rains at times during the spring and summer sent it sloshing over the top, taking some driveway with it.



An unused outbuilding stands resolute with its steeply pitched roof; it housed a small real estate office long ago, I am told, and later a college student. It has no running water, but a pretty wood floor.


Somebody was still very busy today with the flowers.


And just beyond, my tomato plants, which have not bloomed, nor will they likely before the first frost gets them. I am pleased that I started these from seed, and actually a little amazed I managed this at all. But as was the case with my first ever attempt at gardening this year, the outcome is wanting–I did not achieve Gracie’s tomatoes. I learned a thing or two. For example, do not put young tomato plants in a hot room with no air circulation; they will be dead within hours. And also, you can’t really dig in Vermont soil deeper than an inch or so before you hit rock. You need a stronger constitution for that than I possess.

I am hoping for sunshine tomorrow and tomatoes next year.


Bleeding Hearts and Good Intentions


Dang, that sounds like a country song.

It is time to fess up and explain what happened in the Secret Garden. The ugly truth is that I tried to have my first-ever vegetable garden and the stupid groundhog emerged victorious. The wind is officially knocked out of my sails. Groundhog 1, Deb zip. No beans, no chard, no peas, no squash.

I planted my beautiful heirloom beans (which had already yielded a full serving of veg before I even got them out the door). In two days’ time the cheeky rodent–who stands on its haunches in the mornings and mocks me from the field while I yell obscenities from my window–had stripped the stalks bare. Not of beans, mind you, but of the leaves. ALL of them. There were actually a few beans still dangling miserably from what was left of the stalks. Groundhog left them there, kind of an in-your-face taunt lobbed at the humans who had tried and failed (miserably) to trap and relocate the destructive little miscreant. Handsome Chef Boyfriend walked out to check the trap one morning to find the creature sitting on a piece of cantaloupe meant to be bait.


As my great-grandmother Gracie would have said, it aggravates me. Only she would have put the emphasis on the third syllable, like this:  it aggraVATES me. Yessir, that it does. And I want to deal with that dumbass groundhog the way Gracie used to threaten her husband Ed when he misbehaved:  stitch it in a sheet and beat it with an iron skillet. (Only Gracie would have called it an ARN skillet.)


You may be wondering why I have included photos of these gorgeous plants in this post. These are right on the property, planted by people who lived here before me. They are beautiful and alive and I get to look at them every single day. I decided showing you photos of pretty flowering plants would be more entertaining than a picture of dead bean stalks.

I have only a vague plan now for the thriving young tomato plants that are still inside my loft. I am going to try a container garden, like my bloggy friend Katie has done. (She is hugely inspiring.) I am hoping I can put containers somewhere outside, out of reach of the hog. Still hoping beyond hope for Gracie’s tomatoes.

I leave you with a photo of Handsome Chef Boyfriend’s own vegetable garden which he sent me when he arrived home earlier today. Showoff.


Houston, we have a problem.


Last weekend Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I had our first springtime work session in the “secret” terraced gardens on the property I call home at the moment.  During a cool, misty afternoon we raked and shoveled and pulled weeds and prepared a bed in anticipation of putting my started-from-seed-inside veggies in the ground.  I don’t grow things:  I kill them.  This is a big moment for me.

While he was working HCB noted the presence of a pretty well- engineered system of tunnels in the middle terrace, and judging from the size of what appears its main entrance we concluded the critter who lives there must be big.  A couple of days later I took my morning coffee up to the garden and saw that the holes–which HCB had carefully filled–were freshly re-excavated. After all our clearing I could also see that these underground digs (get it? digs? underground?) probably set in motion the partial collapse of the massive stone retaining wall in the middle terrace (we are working around it for now). Its structure is in fact so fragile that I am reluctant even to walk in front of it, as I fear the rest could go any time.  You would not want to be standing there with coffee in hand should this come to pass.

Later that same day I observed a healthy looking groundhog lumber past my back door, down the stone steps, through a pleasing, curved section of lawn leading to the garden, and–you guessed it–right into the largest hole we found.  The woman who owns this delicious property–a colleague of mine–quipped, If you’ve got a groundhog, you’re not growing vegetables.


I did not proceed as planned with my vegetable garden early last week.  I decided instead to contemplate the problem.  This weekend I headed to HCB’s house, and we concluded the best course of action is a live trap.

When I returned home earlier today, I noted a couple of exciting developments.  First, I have beans!  They did not wait for me, friends. They made an executive decision to grown in my absence, without my permission.  I could not be more thrilled.  I do not care whether they seem puny, or that there are not many of them.  In my mind, this is gardening success.  I have about enough of them on my plants for a single serving.  I grew my own food.  Badabing.


And second, I have almost-tomatoes!  Yep!  They sprouted while I was gone. (And also some more beans, and also some more chard–just in case.)


So now I am more resolute than ever that this garden will be.  We will bait the trap next Friday night, and if we succeed in catching a groundhog, will transport it down the hill, across the river, and release it into a field (where, my colleague noted, I will probably piss off somebody else). Don’t care.  Not sharing my veggies (key word there, my), with a toothy, overgrown rodent who can find its own dang beans.

Have not yet concluded how to proceed if there is, say, an entire family living in my garden….

Will keep ya posted.  Oh, and by the way:  my squash plants are thriving. And a very kind Vermont friend pointed out that the stuff I thought was chard is in fact rhubarb!  Have no idea how to prepare it, but I do know how to love it, and have access to a chef….


Secret Garden Part I


Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I squeezed much into our Saturday as we are wont to do; it is really our only day together every week, so to quote Eloise, You can imagine….  In the late afternoon we pushed up our sleeves and got to work clearing and preparing beds in the terraced gardens on the beautiful property I am fortunate to call home for the time being. We talked about doing this last summer on a sweltering day as we walked around and took inventory of what this place has to offer.  The deer flies that afternoon made it just about impossible to enjoy the wild beauty around us.  Still, we could see its potential.  You’ll want to clean this up in the spring, he said.

Cleanup I can do; growing things, not so much.  But I am resolute in my desire for vegetables in my garden this summer.  The heirloom beans I started indoors too soon from seed recently sprouted purple flowers. They have absorbed most of the soil nutrition in the planter where I moved them after they sprouted, and need to go into the ground now. There are no frost warnings in the ten-day forecast, so I think I shall risk moving them later today.  Ditto my very healthy-looking squash plants. HCB, in true HCB-stealth-style, prepared one bed for me while I was showering.

Nobody has lived here for the last couple of years, and the terraced gardens are badly overgrown.  But in the space of about an hour my envisioned vegetable garden plot had morphed into this:


HCB paid closer attention than I to what was growing where among the weeds and volunteers on that day when we walked around and explored last summer.  He knew there was a mainly bare patch, and so that is where the vegetables will go in.  A healthy raspberry patch on the other end of the bed will be left alone except for weeding.

In my vegetable garden, though, we also found this, which looks like chard (something I am also starting from seed), with its bright red stems:


Later I will ask my colleague, who owns this beautiful place.  We also found a thriving patch of chives, some of which found their way into the turkey burgers HCB made for our dinner.


 A row of something-or-other planted across the front of the upper tier remains a secret for a while longer.


Soon I will poke tomato seeds into this flat I prepared while we worked outside yesterday.


HCB went about the somber business of starting a grave for Clarence-the-Canine, who will finally have his burial very soon.  We chose a spot near the entrance to a path in the woods where Clarence once attempted a solo flight, relenting only when he heard the panic in my voice.  It is a nice final resting place for him, but the soil is rocky and difficult to work, and there is more to do.

When the cool afternoon drizzle reached a crescendo and our sweatshirts were soaked, we put away our tools and called it a day in the secret garden.


Gracie’s Tomatoes

IMG_20140422_114811My great-grandmother lived ’til I was into my thirties; notably, for all but the last couple of months of her life, she was pretty dang lucid, too.  Had she survived another year she’d have met her great-great-grandson.  But, to quote a friend, she still won.

Gracie.  She lived in a tiny, vernacular cottage perched at the summit of a steep slope on the main channel of the Tennessee River; the view was to die for.   Any morning of the week found her hunkered down on the corner of her worn wicker sofa in the 1970s addition she built on a tight budget.  (She did everything on a tight budget but only because of willful frugality–as an adult woman she never wanted for anything.)  From there she could observe river traffic and the wildlife on her three rural acres, and opine about anything and everything, politics mainly.  At her right elbow sat a saucered cup of black coffee and another saucer of crisp bacon slices (she rarely had fewer than two pounds in the fridge). When they were in season there were also a few generously salted tomato slices on that plate.  Wisps of smoke unfurled from the cigarette between her fingers, her skin and hair betraying a lifelong nicotine addiction.  It took so  little else to make her happy, with the possible exception of the company of her multi-generational progeny.

In her last decade Gracie lived in a nursing home where she made daily trouble for the staff.  She defied the no-smoking-in-the-room rule, sitting openly on her toilet with cigarette in hand.  You could confront her about the ash pile on the floor in the bathroom and she would only shrug.  A small pleasure in the absence of coffee and bacon and tomato slices on the Tennessee River, for a woman who had lived nearly a century, and who was the only sibling of five to survive childhood during hard times in Victorian-era Knoxville.

She broke rules without a stitch of guilt.

Of Gracie’s culinary triumvirate I share her passion for black coffee and tomatoes.  (Bacon is evil as we all know.)  But at the confluence of this holy trinity I can taste the southern-grown and harvested fruit at the height of the season, and there is nothing like it.  I have had some pretty good approximations here in New England.  Not a true Southern tomato, though.  That succulent mouth explosion is Nirvana, enough said.

Last week I resolved to start tomato plants from seed inside (since it is Still Winter here) as I intend to make a vegetable garden this summer, dammit.    As I mentioned in the last post, I enjoyed success starting other vegs indoors from seed but was a bit eager and now have sprawling plants that are ready for the ground too soon.  They will probably die before I can move them, although they continue to look pretty healthy and I will nurture them inside as long as they will allow.


Gracie had the Midas touch with gardens and houseplants, African violets especially.  She did not share this particular gift with me.  But sometimes I think I possess her intransigence, which is occasionally desirable and even helpful when you’ve got to navigate through tough and unforgiving wilderness.  I leave you with Gracie’s language, written in her own hand, and I shall keep you posted on the tomatoes.

Needle Threader If you use one put it back Dam it Gracie


What NOW?


This is food, potentially.  Heirloom beans, organic peas, Swiss chard, summer squash.  All started from seed, in these little incubator thingummies that come with soil pods.  Not making this up:  you just add water and then poke a couple seeds into each cup.  Problem is, I am a terrible gardener.  I could not grow a veggie garden (nor flower garden, nor herb garden) if my, er, life depended on it.  I can’t even keep a plain old, garden variety houseplant alive.  People have given me plants as teacher gifts for years and my reaction is always the same:  I smile and say thank you so much, and then I turn around and apologize in advance to the plant, which I can virtually guarantee will be dead inside of two weeks.  (Sorry, ballet families, if you are reading this.  My secret is out.)

You’re probably over-watering, people will tell me.  Or under-watering. Or there is too much light.  Or not enough.  Or the pH in your soil is all wrong.  Or you need to fertilize.  Or not fertilize.

Some people “get” it and seemingly make things grow and thrive, effortlessly.  I am not one of them.  Ask me to dig a ditch.  Or create a serpentine pathway.  Or line a beautiful bed with rocks.  That, I can do. But I will kill the organic things growing in the bed if their care and upkeep depend on me.  It is only a matter of time.

So I think I should get props for my unrelenting optimism of late:   This. Is. The. Year. I. Will. Have. A. Garden.  I will do the Vermont thang and grow my own food.  Maybe.  Handsome Chef Boyfriend is walking me through this process and suggested I start my plants from seeds because this is less expensive than buying baby plants at a greenhouse (although that shopping process is deliciously fun).  HCB gardens.  And juggles.  And knits.  Have I mentioned this?  As time wears on I am discovering there is very little this amazing person does not or cannot do, with the possible exception of deciphering crossword clues about classic literature and opera.  (Enter his classically trained girlfriend.  Who cannot garden.)

Anywho.  There is one leetle problemo with the beautiful seedlings in the photo, which was made a couple of weeks ago:  it is way too soon for them to be this big.  Don’t get me wrong, universe.  I was thrilled and delighted when the first tender shoots poked their way out of the soil.  I kept looking at them hour by hour, imagining I could see them growing more.  And I was tickled pink the day they grew so tall I had to remove the clear plastic incubator lids.

But then that joy morphed into concern when I realized these plants–some of them, anyway–are evidently almost ready to go into the ground.

Did I mention I live in Vermont?  Nothing can go in the ground here safely ’til after Memorial Day weekend, I am told.  Today is April 6.  Sigh.

So my first effort at growing veggies finally may be only a science project that ends up in the recycling bin.  Last week I went to a big box store looking for cheap plastic planters (big ‘uns), and something to train the beans and peas on, and potting soil.  Don’t spend more on the stuff than you’d pay for the food, cautioned HCB.  He was right, of course, and ultimately I could not justify the planters nor the climb-y things.

So I left the store with potting soil and bamboo skewers, which I reasoned could be taped together end to end when the beans get really tall and rangy.  Once home I fished around in the garage underneath my loft and found a big plastic planter which I scrubbed out with hot, soapy water.

The chard and the squash can wait a bit longer to be moved, perhaps. The rest I moved today.  You can see the fruits (or veggies! ha!) of my labor in the photograph, with the gigantic piles of plowed snow still on the ground outside my second floor, south-facing windows.

I am sure my novice approach to growing things must be laughable for seasoned gardeners out there.  But if any of y’all are reading this, and have words of wisdom to offer this newbie, I am all ears.

Sit up straight and eat your veggies.