The Garden

I have a love-hate relationship with my garden.

In fact, to call it a “garden” feels a bit grandiose. It’s more appropriate to call it a collection of seemingly randomly placed plants and flower beds anchoring the edges of my front lawn. Moreover, calling my relationship with it “love-hate” is probably more generous and optimistic than the situation deserves.

I love the idea of having a garden. However, what I really want is a gorgeous refuge of healthy plant life that calls to mind the best quality of a traditional English garden: an idealized image of nature. I want lots of colorful flowers against a deep green backdrop, roses and dahlias and hydrangeas with butterfly weed and tall double hollyhock in supporting roles. I want a groundcover of whatever those charming purple blooms are that persist in growing in the shady parts of my yard that no one seems to be able to identify or sell me more of, but which are blessedly bereft of excessive weeds. I want purple crepe myrtle and blue jacaranda trees, and deep magenta bougainvillea that blooms heavily all year. I want the kind of fruit trees and vines that produce things I like to eat.

And I want my homeowners’ association to leave me alone about my yard. It is possible I want too much.

The likelihood of any of those floral desires coming to fruition is dependent on one of a few possible scenarios coming miraculously true:

1.  My work schedule changes so that I am actually at home during the daylight hours for most of the year, and not completely worn out when I get there, a to-do list a mile long awaiting me.

2.  I acquire an exceptionally talented gardener for my birthday.

3.  The position of my house changes so that it no longer blocks all the sunlight from reaching the garden spaces on my property.

4.  I move to another house which already has this perfect garden and a caretaker to maintain it.

5.  I move to someplace other than what appears to probably be zone 9 or 10.

6.  I am suddenly transported into an actual fairy tale.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, each of those six scenarios just might be equally likely to happen. So what’s a girl with a black thumb to do?

I’ve been thinking of zero-scaping, or simply tearing everything out and replacing it with artfully stacked rocks. Not a lot of support for this among the other members of my household. (Not that I can blame them. There’s a reason I don’t live in the desert – which, incidentally, appears to be better at keeping plants alive than I am. I have managed to inadvertently kill every cactus I’ve ever tried to grow. Or forget about growing – I can’t even keep cacti which are already thriving in their current state. It’s as if they simply succumb to despair when they realize they’ve landed in my possession.)

I have tried. I have made honest efforts. I have read books on gardening for my specific plants and for my specific area. I have investigated related websites and spoken with people from the local rose growers’ association and consultants at independent nurseries. I have planted in locations which seem to get enough sunlight. I have watered diligently and for long enough, according to expert opinions and directions, when there wasn’t enough rain. I have pulled weeds. I have pruned. And for these pains, I have been repeatedly disappointed, even to the point of having to occasionally do deep pruning – you know, with a shovel.

My front lawn and flower beds have been landscaped, or at least planted, a few times, sometimes by myself and my husband, sometimes by my mother-in-law (“Surprise! Happy Birthday!”), sometimes by professional lawn care services and even, once, an outdoor space designer. Yet things always fall apart due to the weather or my inability to maintain the place when I go four or five days in a row without getting home from work before dusk. I can’t really control either of those things. Sometimes I’ve bought plants that, despite their marketing, won’t grow in our zone. Sometimes the problem is with the soil in my yard, and I don’t identify the true problem or how to fix it until it’s too late. Sometimes the fruit tree I buy and then plant and then wait exuberantly for the fruit to grow ends up being the wrong variety, which was mislabeled when I bought it – for example, not sugar figs but some weird fig I end up being allergic to. And then that’s the plant that thrives and and has three successful blooming seasons a year! Ultimately I’m left feeling demoralized.

So it’s January again, which in my area means it’s time to prune and begin thinking about what to do with the space next. I must have indomitable spirit, because I’ve actually been brainstorming with my husband some ideas for what to do with these stubborn garden spaces.

It will begin with cutting back the roses, again, both the bushes and the climbing vines. And pulling out the weeds, which spitefully and tauntingly thrive, thrive, thrive. And perhaps purchasing some soaking hoses to make the job easier.

After that? Well, sigh. It’s anyone’s guess.

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New Year’s Resolutions

Happy New Year, everyone.  Have you made any resolutions?

I tend to root myself in traditions, which I find stabilizing in the general maelstrom that is my overbusy life.  Not all traditions, mind you, and not even all the ones I grew up with.  Just the meaningful or interesting ones.  Among my New Year’s traditions, along with black-eyed peas for good luck on New Year’s Day (which, sadly, my husband and children have so far refused to eat even when I make them with ham) and drinking a toast at midnight, is setting for myself some resolutions.

Sometimes these are successful.  I remember one year, before we had children, before we owned our own home, even before I was teaching full-time, when my husband and I decided we watched too much television didn’t indulge enough our passion for reading and so would stop sitting in front of the idiot box, spending our unoccupied evening hours with books instead.

That was one of the best Januarys ever.

We managed it for a full month and really enjoyed it.  But we sort of missed our favorite television shows.  (This was back in the day when Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and the incredibly offensive Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? and MTV’s The Real World were the only “reality” shows on the air, and back before we owned a house that offered us opportunities for improvement and upkeep and so home improvement shows on HGTV were fun to watch.)  So on January 31st, we decided that we’d had a good time reading and would allow television back into our lives more sparingly without letting go of reading every night.  We learned how to enjoy the proverbial best of both worlds, and our lives were better as a result.  I count that as a successful resolution.

I have made other resolutions over the years that did not turn out so well.  I remember the time in college when I decided I wasn’t going to shop anymore.

That lasted almost a week.  I tried giving it up for Lent that spring, too, which turned out slightly better.

There was that other time when I resolved I would stop procrastinating.  I ended up having to give that one up for Lent, too.  Didn’t work out either time.

I could go on, but somehow spending the first day of the new year recounting past failures seems counterproductive.

So in thinking about this year’s resolutions, I determined that — as in any good problem-solving strategy — I should look at the root of the problem to find a way out of it.    And if the purpose of making resolutions is to improve the quality of my life — and honestly, isn’t that the idea, really? — then I should figure out what about my life needs improving.

I know, I know:  Elementary, my dear Watson.  Sometimes I come to these epiphanies slowly.  Bear with me.

There are things in my life — and most of us can say this — which drive me a little nuts on a daily basis.  And I would love it if I could eliminate those things, or at least ameliorate them, so that they didn’t bother me so much.  (And maybe not letting myself get so worked up over them would help, too, although I admit I’ve tried that before with little success.  I just ended up feeling like a slacker who had given up on her standards.  Not really the direction I was looking for.  There has to be a compromise in there somewhere.)

So here we go, New Year.  Today, January 1st, is the day I identify the things that stress me out unnecessarily and figure out daily ways to make those things better.  This is a resolution to enjoy my whole life more, every single day.

It’s a noble goal.  Wish me luck.

Feeling Like a Poem This Weekend

So Friday night I went to a book launch reception and a spontaneous poetry reading broke out.

This was the Mutabilis Press event for Improbable Worlds.  It was a lot of fun catching up with old friends I hadn’t seen in a while.  I was pleased to see some of my students out there, too; it’s nice to provide a little real-world context for what we do in the classroom.  And I admit I like it when they have a chance to see me as an author and not just as a teacher.  Even though this is no doubt all in my imagination, I get the sense this lends me a little more street cred come Monday morning and I’m back behind the podium.

I had really wanted my children to come to the event, too, but it just wasn’t practical.  It’s actually more important to me that my kids see me out in the world being an author, so that they can have some context for when I have to tell them I can’t take them somewhere or play with them or sit and watch cartoons all Saturday morning because I have to go to a writing date or a writers’ group meeting or poetry reading.  But taking them to The Jung Center this past Friday night just wasn’t practical.  Ah well, someday.

In the meantime, here’s a quick little poem I wrote a while back (speaking of my kids).  It started off as an exercise, but it turned into something, sort of.

***

A Hand-Drawn Card from the Girl Who Does Know Better But.

after Craig Raine after John Berryman

 

I am the girl who does know better but.

I am desperate for your attention.

I am apologizing for pushing the little brother in the yard.

I am planning the next push anyway.

I am pulling the long hairs of the cat when your back is turned.

I am shouting a song to the sleeping baby while you nap.

I am offering the hamster a fruit snack.

I am changing clothes a dozen times a day.

I am adding extra sugar to the lemonade when you are not looking.

I am wishing you had brought me to school a little early so I could play.

I am wishing you had ironed my clean dress.

I am insisting I can brush my hair myself.

I am happier when you brush my hair for me.

I am asking you five times a night for one more bedtime song.

I am breaking and entering in your nail polish drawer.

I am impatient to grow tall enough to build my own sandwich.

I am asking for potato chips for breakfast.

I am sad when you go to your party.

I am trying to learn how to read.

I am pushing the little brother off the couch.

I am waking you up with kisses.

I am loving you, loving you, loving you.

I am trying to be patient for my sixth birthday.

I am plunging my face into the bowl of cake batter.

I am waiting for you to giggle with me.

I am looking like you every day.

I am turning into a little lady.

I am hoping you’ll take me to tea in my new hat.

I am five and loving you so much.

A Little Contest

First, I want to thank everyone who is reading this blog.  I really appreciate it!  In my stats, it looks like a LOT of people are reading every week, which is both surprising to me and flattering.  I promise next weekend I’ll get back to posting prose about things which are more interesting, but this week I want to send out a little thank-you to everyone who’s reading by way of a little contest.  (Maybe that’s not how blogs are theoretically supposed to work, but I’m going to do it anyway.  I’m new at this.)

I have copies of all three Houston Poetry Fest anthologies in which I’ve been published (including this year’s), and I’m offering a signed copy of each to three lucky readers who subscribe to this blog in the next week.  That’s right, between today (October 16th) and next Sunday (October 23rd), subscribe to this blog — and get as many people as you know who might be interested to do the same.  At the end of this week-long period, I’ll put all my subscribers’ names into a hat and draw three, and those three will win one of the aforementioned signed copies.  Yay!  You can get an extra shot at winning one of them if you convince others to subscribe as well.  (Sure, why not?)  You’ll have to let me know you’ve done that, of course.

You might be wondering how to subscribe?  There’s a widget on the menu bar just to the right.  Your right.  Yup, right there.  —>

It should be pretty self-explanatory.  You can enter your email address and then get an email whenever I post something.  (Usually once a week, on the weekends when I’m slightly less frantic, just like all of you, probably.)

Thanks again to all of you for your kind support!  Sometimes watching my blog stats sort of makes my day.

Best of luck.  My next post will be about spiders.

Hey, Look! A Poem.

So in the spring of 2010, I began having some serious anxiety about my poetry.  Here I was, with a degree in poetry from the University of Houston, two books of poems under my belt, and a job teaching Creative Writing and English at a tiny high school which had developed enough of a reputation for Creative Writing that at least a couple dozen kids a year applied there because they wanted to be writers.

That’s all great, I thought, but a part of me was slowly turning to dust inside because I hadn’t written what I thought was a decent poem in several years.

To be fair, I was embroiled in writing a novel and had made some forays into memoir.  And I had always considered myself a fiction writer more than anything else, even from the time I was a child.  (I think the first time I read one of my short stories in front of an audience was during fourth grade, and yeah, I knew then that Story was It.)  But though I’d begun my education at UH as a fiction writer, about halfway through I felt stymied and switched to poetry, and then I wrote nothing but poems for about three years.

What did I learn from that?  Simply, how language works.  How to navigate the relationships between words.  So after writing only poetry for a while (other, of course, than the literary analysis essays — about other people’s poetry — required for some of my classes), when I came back to fiction, the result stunned me.  My stories were a lot better.

But back to 2010.  I hadn’t been writing poems.  I had barely been scraping together enough time to draft more than a chapter or two per semester on my novel, thanks to my job teaching high school.  I was coming slowly out of what some might have called a mid-life crisis but which my artist friends assured me was really an artistic crisis.  My identity, which had for most of my life been at least partially wrapped up in my ability to be creative, was suffering due to a lack of time for anything creative.  After having two kids and continuing to teach high school full-time, I had quit my hobbies (dancing, painting, jewelry making), and I was treating my writing (and please forgive me for this) like a hobby.

So Aaron encouraged me to sign up for a poetry workshop at Inprint over the summer (when I do not teach).  I took it.  It was transformational.  (And here I must give a shout out to the most excellent Paul Otremba, who was leading the workshop.)  I wrote a lot of poems that summer, and many of them received a good welcome, but beyond that, I was actually satisfied with my work.  I felt so relieved, every other aspect of my writing career began to flourish in the wake.

* * *

When I began teaching, lo these many eons ago, one of my classes challenged me to write a sestina with six words they chose on the spot at random.  They gave me a week to do it, in what I imagine they must have thought was a fun table-turning moment.  I laughed.  I’m not a trained monkey.  Why should I perform?

“Come on,” they said.  “If this form is so much fun, just do it.”

I sighed.  “Okay, this does sound interesting.  What are the words?”

They came up with them quickly, enthusiastically.  Flower, grace, cold, water, coward, chump.

“You’re on,” I grinned.  “I won’t need a week.”

* * *

So why am I telling you this story now?  I have learned, in the past month, that my poems are making their way into the world again.  Of those poems I wrote last summer, several are under consideration for publication right now, and one has been selected for print in two different anthologies.  I’m also going to be a Juried Poet at Houston Poetry Fest again this year.  I’m jazzed.

So I wanted to share a poem with you.  Since I can’t put any of those newer poems here on my blog while they’re under consideration or about to go to print, I thought I’d share that poem my students challenged me to write way back in the day.  (It has been published, in the e-magazine PHUI and in my book Gypsies, but I own the copyright.)  It’s also sort of an important poem for me because I think when I wrote it I crystallized, internally, the generally stoic nature toward most of the world which I hoped to adopt in my life.

If anyone is interested in the mechanics of a sestina or how to write one, please post a comment.  (And apologies:  one of the lines in this poem is really long, and the margins of the blog template won’t allow it to fit all on one line, and I can’t figure out how to tab it over, so it looks like two lines, but it’s not.)

Enjoy!

For the Cold Lovers
(or, Survival of the Fittest)

I must have been a real chump
to be excited by that rare treat, the flower
you gave me.  Maybe because I had been a coward
then, I thrilled to see the graceful
petals even after they’d fallen – gracefully – into the water
glass on the table in the cold

corner of the room.  (I thought the cold
would preserve (my chump-
euphoria and) the life (in the watery
grave) of the tiny flower.
I was wrong.  It died a pathetic – yet graceful –
death, leaning slowly toward its demise like a coward.)

That plant was a coward,
and so had I been, unafraid of the cold
(the wrong thing to trust) and worried, like a graceful
music box dancer, by the independence which might protect me.  We’re a bunch of chumps –
me, the satin-slippered chick, that slowly dying flower –
and we ought to be put out to sea without food or drinking water

in the hopes that the salt-water
creatures will overturn our craft of cowards.
Then I will try to hold, to comfort the choking girl as she weeps for the flower
(that has already found a grave in the cold
sea) and thrashes about (like the chump
she is proving herself to be) in that graceful

way she has, until I say,  “To hell with this grace
and daintiness, you’ll drown in these waters
if you don’t stop acting like a chump
waiting to be rescued and grow some strength!  The cowards
can’t swim to shore, and the cold
will overtake you if you aren’t wise.  The flower

is already dead.”  She’ll weep for the flower
and the death and the woe until her pathetic, graceful
thrashing convinces me not to care anymore, and I leave her to the cold,
unforgiving, undrinkable ocean water,
letting her gently (tired from the thrashing) weep, a quieting coward
sinking into the deep, the grave of the chumps.

And I, no longer a chump or a coward,
will swim back through those waters, strong of arm and a new grace,
wary now of the cold and unimpressed by flowers.