Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ajuga: Groundcover or a Hiding Place for Little People?

Can you find the bumble bees?

The rains came and the grass grew and soon it was looking shaggy. I have a small lawn; it used to be bigger, but since I’ve been unable to mow it myself, I have been reducing the size by adding parts of it to the mulched garden beds. Now it takes my daughter-in-law Tammy less than ten minutes to mow it. So she hauled out the mower over the weekend and prepared it for use. Then she cut her grassy paths and patches near her vegetable garden and my little piece of lawn. When she finished, she stopped by my house to say “I couldn’t bear to cut that little patch of ajuga blossoms that’s growing in the lawn, so I left it. I’ll cut it next time after it’s done blooming."

When I went out later to have a look I was struck by how beautiful that cheerful patch of ajuga is. There aare several bright yellow buttercups blooming just a little higher than the purple ajuga (also called bugleweed), and the entire patch was alive with multi-colored bumble bees. I called out to my son Robin who was coming out of his photo studio where he had been working on a project for a forthcoming exhibit. I asked if he could take a picture of the rescued flowers for my next blog post. He got his digital camera and came at once. As we stood there admiring the scene at our feet, Robin told me that once when my mother was visiting, she had called his attention to a patch of that same groundcover, saying, “Look, it is a little choir.” She then proceeded to point out small groupings within the mass and telling a story about some of the choristers.

As he told me, my mind flashed back to my mother and her eccentric friend, whom we all called “Emma P.” I could hear them avidly discussing unusual little flower groupings like wild daisies growing in a circle or a large leafed May Apple that created a place to hide in its shadow. The subject was Little People, or fairies, in the Irish tradition. Emma P. told us she could see these little people and knew their ways and just how they hid in the foliage or disguised themselves as flowers.

She lived in a little bungalow and that word itself was magic to me. (We always lived in two-storey houses and bungalows were just in books.) All the surfaces in her house were covered with magazines and newspapers, and her little end tables had stacks of stuff spilling off the shelves below. There were bookcases full of novels and religious books along with references on wildflowers, birds and the lore of fairies.

She was a vegetarian, something I had never heard of, and she scared me with her terrible tirades about the evils of eating organ meats where all the body poisons go. But she enchanted me with her stories about nature, birds and all kinds of fairies, elves and leprechauns. She was an amateur artist and her walls were filled with her own work and the house smelled faintly of oil paint. I remember that she could draw well and made little pictures for me. She also had pretty brown hair, a soft round face, a comfortable lap and an ample bosom. There were (at least for me) many mysteries about her and I sensed she was a little too extreme in her views for my father’s taste, but she was mother’s good friend and I loved her myself. One of my grandmothers died before I was born, and the other one only visited occasionally, so I often adopted other older women to fill in that gap.

I absolutely believed what Emma P told me about Little People. It wasn’t like hearing a story, but more like listening to an ardent birdwatcher talking about the many kinds of finches she had seen. (One of my other grandmotherly friends was in the that category.)  I was fascinated by fairy tales—which are usually more about people with the occasional good fairy or wicked witch— and books about fairies—the real ones, as I thought. I had read most of what the public library had to offer in those categories. I paid attention to wild flowers everywhere I walked and looked for unusually large toadstools, or a little thicket of one species like the ajuga, hoping I’d catch sight of a leprechaun or a tiny fairy princess. I talked myself into believing that I too could also see those magical tiny creatures that Emma P. told me about; although with hindsight, I can equally credit a vivid imagination for my occasional sightings. However, as an adult, I remain open to the possibility of wood sprites in our hemlock grove or a fairy choir hiding in ruffled ajuga blossoms in my lawn.

Shortly after Bill and I were married, we went to see the famous comedienne Bea Lillie at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. She closed the first half of her one-woman show with her signature number,  called “There Are Fairies in the Bottom of my Garden”. While I was following the memory trail back to childhood and Emma P, I decided to see if I could find the lyrics and if they were in the public domain. Google found them and they are still under copyright, but you could find them too if you’re curious. The song has lots fairy lore woven through the lyrics and of course, there is a joke at the end.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Annual Physicals: Stop, Look and Listen, Then Go

I was forty-something when I started having annual physicals. I remember at one of the early ones, I told the doctor that Bill had asked me if I would consider having another child now that our youngest was about to leave home. The doctor laughed and said, “That man needs a grandchild.” Fortunately it wasn’t all that long until we had one.

I didn’t mind annual exams back then. I took an hour or so of personal time from whatever job I had and went off to be inspected and usually got a clean bill of health. It was an easy time to ask any questions I might have, and only rarely were there any follow-up tests. It was a get-it-done, check-it-off-the-list moment.

Gradually it became a larger and larger event. I think our bodies must be like an archeological dig or maybe like the rock strata a geologist studies to glean the history of the earth. As I get older I keep discovering that some little problem (or so I think) has its origins in something that might have happened forty or fifty years ago or even earlier in childhood. Annual exams have been expanded by the proliferation of tests to verify a diagnosis or further explore a symptom. Patterns of medical practice have changed for both the protection of the patient and of the doctor. No longer can I take an hour, have an exam and check it off the list until next year.

I have graduated to the status of complex patient because I have more than five diagnoses and everything affects everything else. It’s definitely not a badge of honor unless you consider that my doctor has affirmed that I am healthy in spite of (or because of) all the things I have to manage in order to achieve that verdict. I feel considerable gratitude to her for guiding me through the medical maze and supporting my desire to include acupuncture, massage and Feldenkrais work in the constellation of efforts to get the gold star of “Healthy.”

This year the tentacles of the octopus that is my annual physical numbered seven (lab work, mammogram, CT scan, four specialists). I have one more consultation coming up in May and that may lead to a surgery in the fall. Yesterday’s trip to the Asheville medical village was for a relatively simple procedure involving my ear, which unfortunately did me in. I could barely finish my needed grocery shopping and gratefully leaned back and closed my eyes as my daughter-in-law Tammy drove us home. I intended to finish my already half-written weekly post for this blog, but when I sat down at the computer, I simply could not focus and the result was entirely unsatisfactory. I closed the file and went to bed.

This morning I was telling Tammy that my ear felt huge and she was assuring me it wasn’t the least bit swollen when she removed the bandage. I then said that maybe I ought to give up on my other idea for this week and write about my ear. She answered, “Do that, I think it’s a natural.”  But there’s not much else to say; it’s slowly getting better and this afternoon it no longer feels huge.

This is what I have learned about age and health and annual exams over the past decade. We all know people are living longer and dying of fewer things. Many chronic diseases can be managed well for years until pneumonia comes along and provides an often-gentle end to what might have become a living ordeal. Fortunately it is also possible to have a good quality of life as you age, but it is definitely not automatic. It involves a commitment to exercise, making sure you meet your basic nutritional needs, and sometimes taking several prescriptions. It also requires that you tend your friendships, give your spiritual life the space and intention it needs to keep the inner light burning, and be clear about what quality of life means to you so that those things get first priority. Perhaps the most important bit of advice about maintaining quality and not just longevity came to me from my mother who lived 94 years. She always reminded us, “If you are feeling down, do something for somebody else.”  And she followed her own advice to the end.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Gray Hair, Beauty, Creativity and Age

Karen Karnes with Michelle Frances, Penland's Archivist

There were thirty-five comfortable captain’s chairs arranged in a horseshoe in the handsome meeting room in Tuton Hall at Deerfield, a retirement community in south Asheville. I was there to read several selections from my memoir, Decrescendo, and to have a conversation with the audience. As the hands on the clock moved toward the appointed hour last Wednesday, people began to arrive and soon most of the chairs were filled. As I was introduced by my friend Bob, who had arranged for this presentation, I had a moment to scan the people in front of me. I noticed the ineffable beauty of age: soft faces, bright eyes, gray or white hair and a quality of being present in the moment.

For the thirty minutes I read some passages (assisted by Bob, who read one story) from my memoir, the creative work that has dominated my life for the past five years. Then I responded to excellent and sometimes challenging questions from the people in the captain's chairs. At the end, many of those lovely faces, smiled and thanked me. A friend, who, together with her husband, had driven from their home in Black Mountain, presented me with a copy of her book, recently published. A man with a broad engaging grin told me that he also had written a book and used the same Print-on-Demand company that had published Decrescendo. It was an hour that had warmed my heart.

I spent the evening with my friends, Bob and Marian, and left the next morning after breakfast. I carried with me, not only contentment, but also a cheese spreader made of cherry wood, the work of Bob’s hands, and a small quilt, made by Marian which will find its way to Charlotte where my fourth great-grandchild will be born in July. I was struck again by the importance that creative endeavors can have in all our lives as we age.

On Friday night, I attended a reception at the Penland Gallery in nearby Mitchell County for a new exhibit, Many Paths: The Legacy of Karen Karnes. The artist, now 86 and still working, was there, and she epitomized the beauty of age with her soft face radiating both peace and vitality and her glorious white hair, more stately than a crown. It is an inspiring and satisfying exhibit and I encourage you to read the on-line catalog and, if you live in near enough to Penland, go stand in awe at the exhibit and think about creativity as a lifetime gift. Stay long enough to watch some or all of the video of Karen Karnes, that is playing continuously in a room nearby. Fill your heart with possibility.

On Sunday afternoon, I sat in the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in Asheville, bathed in orchestral sound as the Asheville Symphony treated me to the musical pyrotechnics of the Brahms violin concerto, flooded my mind with memories as Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik danced around the room, and then took me back to my eighth grade Music Appreciation class with the bombastic Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Straus. The personnel of the orchestra is diverse and probably tilts toward younger musicians, but several heads with gray hair picked up and reflected the stage lights and called out to me, “Here we are, still playing.” As I moved toward the exit amidst a babble of excited chatter, I was greeted twice by people who had heard me read at Deerfield.

During every session at Penland School of Crafts, there is a fine representation of elders. They might turn in a little early at night or take an afternoon nap, but they bring the same intensity, focus and creative imagination as all the other students and, perhaps, a touch more patience. In my circle of peer friends, there are gardeners, musicians, writers, poets, knitters, painters, quilters, weavers, potters, woodworkers and jewelers. They make beautiful things, they live beautiful lives, and the wisdom and peace they have gained in life help them transcend the inevitable losses and challenges of aging.

Now I am aware that I am applauding people of my generation. The truth is I am proud of my friends and their accomplishments. I am grateful to the craftspeople, musicians and writers who continue to grace my life, long after they start using Medicare. I am also proud of my own wrinkles and my gray hair: I’ve earned them.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ephemeral: Cherry Blossoms, Joy and Sometimes Grief

A fire has burned down to ashes with a few embers when a sudden draft creates a puff of smoke that wafts into the chimney and disappears. That’s what the word ephemeral sounds like to me. I think it is a slightly onomatopoetic word, and it pleases me. So many joys are short-lived, and I try to grab hold to make them last, but they have their time and then they go. Grief is not like that; it hangs on as long as it can, or maybe as long as you let it.

Two days after the weeping cherry tree bloomed in my garden the weather forecast threatened a freeze. I asked my son Robin to take a picture in case the cold night would cut even shorter the brief life of the abundant blossoms. As it happened, I didn’t need the picture because there was no freeze, and the beauty was there for me to behold for a full week before a strong wind caused a snow shower of petals. Even in the best-case scenario, cherry blossoms are ephemeral.

My husband Bill talked about wanting a large ornamental cherry tree for twenty years. He kept looking at them in nurseries and deciding they were too expensive. By the time he convinced himself we could afford it, he was pretty certain he might not live to see one grow tall enough to light up a spring day and grace our lives for a week or so.

In the spring of 2000, we were tramping around Beverly Hill’s Nursery in Celo looking for shrubs to plant around our new guesthouse, when Bill discovered that she had weeping dwarf cherries that were full of buds. He bought one on the spot and Beverly and her helpers brought it over and planted it in the place he selected, believing it would be visible both from our house and the guesthouse. He saw it bloom three times before he died. However, as everything else we planted flourished, other foliage obscured my view of the little tree from our house within about five years.

I asked Beverly, “Can we safely move the cherry tree?”

She replied in the affirmative and together we found the perfect place. She decided when would be the right time. In preparation, we had to remove an arbor (which soon found a new home) and reconfigure some garden beds and part of a path. My daughter-in-law Tammy dug up and replanted some small shrubs, a climbing rose and perennials. When the day came, the move was a major undertaking with a two-man crew plus Beverly and Tammy working away on the sidelines. The ball around the root was enormous and the new placement required that the tree be moved through a garden gate. The laws of physics came in to play as they maneuvered that heavy, awkward burden through the relatively small opening, down a little grade and into the carefully dug hole without breaking so much as a twig.

The tree is very happy in its new location and each year the display has been longer and grander. It does, however, reignite the embers of grief because Bill is not here to share it. But that too is ephemeral and wafts away to the blue sky as I think to myself how happy he would be to know it has found its way to the right spot—with a lot of help from Beverly and her crew.

When my mother was in her nineties and housebound, I asked her if she still had moments of joy. She answered that indeed she did but the joy came from smaller and smaller things, like boiling hot coffee or a perfectly poached egg. I have found that to be true as I grow older, and I have concluded that in the face of the vicissitudes of life, joy itself is ephemeral. We cannot readily make it stay, but I find if I can pay attention, it lasts a little longer.