Discover more from LivingSmall: The Subversive Power of Scaling Down
Flowers and Smoke
Abloom and ablaze at the same time ...
We’ve had such a late spring that all the flowering trees have burst into blossom at once. One day, nothing was greening up, and the next day, the entire town is awash in blossom. The apple and crabapple trees are glorious. I don’t know if it was the cold winter or what, but I haven’t seen this many flowers in the 20 years I’ve lived here. Every fruit tree is covered in spurs all up and down every branch. Apple, crabapple, lilac, cherry, and plum trees all burst into flower on the same day. Daffodils and tulips came up at the same time, along with all the little blue scilla and grape hyacinths.
And then came the smoke. Northern Canada is on fire, and we’ve been buried in smoke for a week. I’d drive down to walk Hank and you couldn’t see the mountains from Mallard’s Rest — we’re only talking a distance of 3 or 4 miles. They’re right there, these mountains, but all you could see was thick yellowish haze. I’ve written before about the toll the smoke takes on us. Three years ago it was California on fire, now it’s Alberta.
Chuck had to go to Bozeman to renew his driver’s license. He came back shaken. Driving the pass, visibility was terrible. Giant trucks were passing him at 90. And to the right was a coal train, being pushed up the grade by three engines, each belching black clouds of diesel into the air. “We’re fucked,” he said.
And yet, this afternoon I was working in my office when I saw a white van pull over across the street. A guy got out, cut a small bouquet of lilacs off the giant hedge in front of the blue house, stuffed his nose into them and jumped back into his van. Washington plates. The beauty is irresistible.
Everything sounds like bees in fruit trees.
I spent the weekend harvesting greens and putting them up for later. I have two raised beds where I usually put the peppers and tomatoes, and where I started greens under plastic a couple of months ago. They too burst forth this week. Beds solid with broccoli raabs and spinach and mizuna and pak choi. All about to bolt as the weather went from daytime temps in the 60s to temps in the 80s. We usually get snow on Memorial Day, or hail, but this year, it feels like summer has sprung forth. And so I pulled greens. A couple of bushels got blanched and frozen, and a couple of bushels went to the soup kitchen 2 blocks away. The walking onions are about to set scapes as well, which is why they’re perennial. They make these heads of mini-bulbs on a long scape, which weighs it down so they take root. Hence the “walking”. The scapes are hard and unpleasant and render the onions not really usable. There’s a stretch of early summer when I wind up in between onion sets. The early ones go to scapes, but the new ones haven’t really come up yet. So I pulled up a bushel of onions, and cut and salted them to ferment. I did a test run 2 weeks ago and it worked, so I’m hoping to preserve the specific pungency of these onions, a pungency I miss in the winter when I’m forced to buy regular scallions at the store. I’m going to wind up with a lot of jars of fermented onions on the bottom shelf of the fridge, but fingers crossed, I’ll have enough to see me through next winter.
I’ve been thinking about shame a lot lately, and how corrosive to the spirit it is. I grew up in a suburb where people attached, and still attach, enormous value to things like: which country club you belong to, which neighborhood you live in, where you “summer”, what you wear and drive and where you send your kids to school. Because we flamed out so early and so spectacularly — my mother was only 32 when the baby died and dad left and we had to move off the horse farm in the country and move back to town to an ordinary suburban house and then he bankrupted himself and there was really no money. So I was spared the pressures of having to climb the social ladder. I was invited to a few of the fancy pre-debutante dances, but we could barely afford the ticket, and I was usually safety pinned into a skirt my mother had made because although she could sew, she coudn’t do zippers or buttons. So she’d make a pleated cummerbund for a waistband, and safety pin me into it, and off I’d go, to the country club we didn’t belong to, where I’d lurk around the corners until I could go home. I could never compete, so I didn’t compete, and left town as soon as I could.
For most of my 30s and early 40s I felt this relentless undertow of shame for not having a real house and a real husband. I had my brother Patrick, and we loved one another, and teaming up the way we did in our late 30s was probably the healthiest thing either of us ever did — we learned how to live in a house with someone without drunken scenes or hysteria or accusations. We learned how to pay the bills and put some money away and we bought furniture. We each got better jobs. I managed to put together the tiny down payment on this house here in Livingston and while I couldn’t save him in the long run, when California went south on him, he had room in my basement while he got back on his feet.
But everyone we grew up with had bought suburban houses, and gotten married, and was having kids.
And we were not. We were just barely keeping our heads up above the waterline.
Twenty years later, when my house is pretty great, and paid off, and my student loans are paid off, and I have a lovely partner and raised beds I built in my backyard full of greens, it’s sometimes hard to remember how sketchy it all felt. Livingston is hip now. People where I grew up know what it is. But when I first got here?
There were people I love back in the town where I grew up who are still deep in that shame cycle, and it makes me enormously sad. Aren’t we old enough to all know now that life is hard? Bad things happen to even the best of us, and sometimes people don’t bounce back. But it doesn’t mean we don’t love one another.
If living with your own shame is difficult, there should be one of those German compound words for the deep sorrow of watching someone you love suffer needlessly by being ashamed for things that couldn’t be helped.
The First Noble Truth is that all life is suffering, and maybe that’s what all of this is. The smoke from the northern boreal forest in flames. The challenges of burying our parents, and the ongoing ramifications we all still feel from the children who died when we were just little kids. Worrying about where we’ll live and how we’ll pay our bills in our impending old age. Wondering how on earth people buy all those trucks that cost as much as my house, and the snowmobiles on their bed decks and how they pay for the gas to drive it all. Gas that winds up heating the atmosphere and causing the fires that we’re all breathing. Ongoing worry about Covid and the long term effects on people we love, too many of whom have had it multiple times.
And then you wake up one morning and the entire town is in blossom. Every block you walk with the dog there’s another apple tree aflame in white flowers, a pink crabapple like an explosion, and bank after bank of purple and white lilacs, lilacs so glorious strangers pull over, cut off a few branches, and burying their nose in the scent, drive off in an old white panel van, that now smells like lilacs.
It’s a mystery this world.