What I’m Reading

Summer has finally arrived in the Pacific Northwest, bringing sunshine, warmer temperatures and garden happiness. Our veggies have stopped pouting and are galloping to catch up to where they normally would be at this time of year. It’s been an odd gardening year though. Summer started out cool and wet; we’ve been dealing with Covid restrictions and stock limitations at many garden centres; and we’ve been in observation mode in our new garden – watching what flowers when, checking out the light levels and exposure patterns, and planning for next year. It’s left me more time to read . . . and I have a lovely patio where I can enjoy a good book. Here’s what I’m reading this month.   

The Comfort Food Diaries by Emily Nunn

The Moonglow Sisters by Lori Wilde

In an Instant by Suzanne Redfearn

Books read to date in 2020: 36

Divine Timing

The garden sent me a lesson the other day. It’s a lesson I’ve witnessed repeatedly in writing and gardening. But it’s a lesson I’ve yet to master. Everything happens when it’s meant to happen. The unfolding of life has its own rhythm. And as much as I’d like to think I’m in charge, I am not.

I’d seeded tomatoes and peppers and broccoli and basil. Sweet peas and eggplant and cilantro too. The broccoli popped up first, quickly followed by basil, tomato and sweet pea seedlings. The eggplant was slower, but it eventually germinated. The pepper and the cilantro seeds languished under the starting soil. I hovered and fretted and hovered some more.

Cocooned in their dark bed, the pepper and cilantro seeds paid no attention.

Meanwhile, the effects of the Covid-19 slowdown continued. I learned of more work cancellations and delays. I heard of more writer friends having their book releases postponed. Or having their books come out without the expected fanfare of a launch (if you’re a writer with a book releasing during the Time of Covid, email me and I’ll plug it on this blog).

Nothing was going according to plan, one friend wailed after she’d been hit with a particularly bad piece of cancellation news.  Indeed.

In the big picture, she and I both know what matters is life and health and slaying the Covid dragon. We know it’s shallow to worry about book releases or cancelled tours when people are dying. We’re wearing our grown-up pants (yoga pants) these days. We have our priorities straight. But at the same time, we wish things were different. We wonder why things are the way they are. We worry that maybe if we’d made different choices or worked a little harder or taken a different route, things would be going according to plan. According to our plan.

But they aren’t.

Maybe they will eventually.

And maybe they won’t.

The peppers finally germinated. In spite of my very best hand-wringing, the cilantro never did.

Life has its own rhythm, my seedlings whispered. Maybe someday I’ll learn the lesson and won’t need the reminder.   

My March Reads

 

Today is the first day of spring in the Pacific Northwest and for once the weather is in line with the calendar. The sun is shining, clear and strong. The crocuses are up. The birds are in high spirits. And so, apparently, are the sea otters. Yesterday, one propelled its way up from the water’s edge to our house. I know they’re cute (at least some people think so) but they’re particularly aggressive with dogs so I’m careful to watch Team Sheltie when they’re out in the garden. Because the weather is warming up, the garden is on my mind and one of my current book picks reflects that. Here’s what I’m reading this month:

Beside the pond: Plants That Speak, Souls That Sing by Fay Johnstone

Before bed: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Spears

On the weekend: The Care and Feeding of My Mother by Jann Arden

Books read to date in 2019: 12

Revamp, Revise, Redo

If you follow astrology (and I don’t mean the daily horoscope stuff), you’ll know that there are six – count ‘em six – planets retrograde in the heavens right now. It may or may not be affecting you but it’s forcing some unexpected revamping, revising and redoing around here.

Last week, during a home inspection, we discovered a whole lot of galvanized pipe running from the street into our house. We thought we had copper . . . we mostly do have copper . . . but there was a long length of galvanized piping and it had to come out. The good news is one of the companies that came to give us an estimate had a cancellation; they could do the work Friday morning, providing we dug up and moved the plants.

So Thursday afternoon, rather than writing, I was digging out perennials and moving them into the shade. At the same time, Mr. Petrol Head was hauling wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of landscape pebbles out of the way. Friday morning, the guys showed up just after 7:30. By 1 pm, they’d dug down 24 inches, replaced the galvanized pipe in the ground, drilled through our foundation to replace the length in the house, and put the soil back in place.

It was our turn to replace the pebbles and the plants, basically to turn that scorched earth back into something pretty. For one, the plants we’d dug up wouldn’t tolerate sitting in their temporary homes, even if they were shady, for long. And for another, we pitied the poor neighbors having to look at the disaster that was our front yard. So this weekend we dug and placed and planted and watered. It was hot, tiring work but in the end we have a much tidier rockery and entrance to the house.

I had planned to revamp the area this summer. The rockery was overplanted and without a sense of cohesiveness. In fact, the rockery redo was quickly reaching the top of my ‘to do’ list; good thing I hadn’t gotten to it yet.

Ironically, and as is often the case, my garden project mimicked what is currently happening in my writing life. My current WIP is overwritten, meandering and without a sense of cohesiveness. I need a better handle on the through line. As I ripped out plant after plant, it occurred to me that sometimes manuscripts need a little tough love too. This one does; it needs some ruthless gutting and reshaping. Gutting and reshaping, like digging and replanting, is hard, hard work. But it’s often the only way to end up with a book – or a garden bed – you’re satisfied with.

An Attitude of Gratitude to Kick Off 2018

Last January I started a gratitude jar. Whenever I thought of it – sometimes every day or maybe a few times a week – I’d jot down something I was grateful for and slip the colorful Post-It note into a jar. This practise has been around for a while; I’m sure you’ve heard of it.

I sat down and read through my 2017gratitudes last week. A clear pattern emerged. The largest number of gratitude notes focused on the support of friends: the walks and talks, watching movies together, sharing meals, laughing and commiserating. Gratitude for the books I read and the movies I watched came next, closely followed by gratitude for the beauty of nature; for the food I managed to grow in the garden; and for enjoying the best margarita of my life, thanks in part to the company (waving at you Keith and Carol-Anne).

There was gratitude for Mr. Petrol Head’s successful surgery; gratitude for letters and emails I received thanking me for my work; and no small amount of gratitude to my family, including Team Sheltie who share my days.

It occurred to me as I read through the notes that virtually every gratitude depended on the energy of someone or something to make it happen. The energy of a reader writing a thank you note . . . the energy of a friend making time to visit . . . the energy of nature providing such spectacular sunsets.

I’m doing the gratitude jar again this year. As I slip in the first few notes, I can’t help but see the same trend emerging. So this time, along with being thankful for the thing I write about, I’m also sending up a whisper of thanks for the energy behind the action. Happy 2018! 

 

A Lesson in Patience, Persistence and Timing

The garden is one of my best teachers and I was reminded of that last week when we picked kiwifruit from our vines. Seventy-five of the fuzzy, egg-shaped fruits if you want an exact number. I planted the vines myself over a decade ago and this is the first year we’ve had any kind of harvest.

Kiwifruit typically take 3 – 5 years to mature and produce fruit, so we didn’t expect fast results. Being reasonably patient I was good with that; some things are worth waiting for. After the first five or six years with no sign of fruit we began to wonder. But we didn’t wonder too much because life was busy and we had a crisis-filled stretch there for a while. By about the seven year mark, however, when we had flowers but no fruit set, I began to fret.

Maybe I needed to augment the soil with more organics. Prune differently. Maybe I wasn’t watering properly. One cool spring I was convinced we had a shortage of bees at pollination time. Maybe I needed to throw a party for the bees and make sure they hung around for a while. In short, I was convinced the lack of fruit set was the result of an operational error on my part. I had to be doing something wrong. So I began to adjust and tweak and adjust some more.

Around the barren eight or nine year mark, Mr. Petrol Head noticed that the flowers on both sets of vines appeared to be identical. This was significant because kiwifruit need a male and female vine to produce. We hadn’t given it much thought up until then because we knew we’d purchased a male and female vine; they’d been labelled as such at the garden centre.

By now the stocky vines were half way to heaven and we needed a very long ladder to reach them. We plucked a couple of blooms, googled, scratched our heads, googled some more. Finally we took the delicate flowers out the peninsula to a famed tropical fruit grower who told us within seconds that we had unfortunately been sold two male vines. Mislabelling tended to be a fairly common risk with kiwifruit vines, he said, adding that he’d lost track of the number of customers who’d come to him with the same problem. And so what to do?

We considered digging up one of the two vines but I was reluctant. For one thing, the trunks were the size of a small child. For another, they were like my children. Barren or not, I was attached to the damned things and I couldn’t bear the thought of adopting one out or tossing it onto the compost heap. The grower suggested we opt for a graft. For a small fee, he’d be happy to make a house call and do the deed. Yes, we gave our kiwifruit vine a sex change operation, turning one of the males into a female. Twenty months later we were harvesting fruit.

Coincidentally (or maybe not because I don’t really believe in coincidence) while this was going on, I was circulating a YA novel that has yet to find a home. It’s a story I love, solid and well told. After yet another ‘no thanks’ I began to fret.

Maybe I needed to boost the story somehow. Or cut it down. Maybe the main character wasn’t likeable. Maybe there was a shortage of descriptive passages. Or one too many. Maybe the party scene out at the lake needed more bees! In short, I was convinced my inability to sell the novel was the result of an operational error on my part. There had to be something wrong with it.

Or not.

Maybe the novel is a little like the kiwi. Maybe it needs a period of dormancy before it’s ready to shine. It’s doubtful the story needs a graft or any kind of sex change operation but for whatever reason, it’s not bearing fruit quite yet. Selling a novel, like growing kiwifruit, requires patience, persistence, and timing.

In my enthusiasm to place the novel, I’d conveniently forgotten that. It took my first ever kiwifruit harvest to deliver yet another lesson – a repeat lesson – from my garden.

Don’t Be a Plastic Flower

Plastic flowers are popping up around here like fall mushrooms sprouting in my lawn. And when something shows up repeatedly in a fairly short time I think the universe is trying to get my attention. I’m weird that way.

This summer after a friend finished staging her house she gave me the faux flower display she’d used to lock down the sale. It was an attractive, life-like arrangement and the colors were pretty. Despite the fact that I’m not a fan of artificial flowers and had an abundance of cutting flowers growing in the garden, I put them in the dining room thinking I’d enjoy them for a few weeks before passing them on to someone else. The faux flowers remain in their waterless vase, a testament to my over-committed schedule (aka laziness) and my inability to say no to a well-meaning friend in the first place.

Last month, the subject of plastic flowers came up again. A bride-to-be was discussing floral arrangements for her wedding and said she was probably going to use plastic flowers as they were considerably cheaper and flowers ‘really didn’t matter.’ My response was immediate, visceral and surprisingly strong. Flowers do matter, I thought to myself, and plastic flowers seemed so wrong in the context of a wedding. Better to have only a few real flowers than a boatload of fake ones I told the woman when she asked my opinion. I couldn’t articulate my reasoning, beyond the fact that I’m loyal gardener and ardent lover of all things floral, and that I almost always favor real over fake.

Last week, plastic flowers reared their perfect perky little heads a third time in a book called Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier. The authors have a fresh take on an entrepreneurial approach to business, and much of what they say (delivered in blog style chapters) is applicable to self-publishing. One chapter is called ‘Don’t Be a Plastic Flower.’

Intrigued, I turned to that one first. Their points were simple: in order to succeed and grow a business, be real, don’t fear your flaws and accept the beauty of imperfection. They go into more detail than that, and they tie it into a business sensibility, but it boils down to giving customers something tangible and genuine, and recognizing that in providing something of real value, there’s always the risk of flaws. In short, no plastic flowers allowed.

The Japanese have something called wabi-sabi. It’s an aesthetic based on the appreciation of beauty in a transient and imperfect world. Character and uniqueness are favored, scratches and fissures are okay. In that culture, many of the antique bowls used in the tea ceremony have cracks, uneven glazes, and imperfect shapes. And they are highly prized for their inadequacies.

When I write novels, I’m always careful to develop characters with flaws. Most writers I know are careful to do that too. We recognize at a deep level that flawed characters are more believable, more relatable, and more likable. And yet it can be a real challenge to accept and let our own imperfections show.

That, I decided, was the lesson of the plastic flowers. In a culture that favors the flawless, the perfect, the plastic flower, I need to honor the beauty of imperfection. And I also need to find a new home for the faux flowers in my dining room.

My October Reads

The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder and the fields are full of pumpkins (I had my annual pumpkin pie feast about a week ago). Usually by now, the outside chores are done and I have lots more time to relax and read. But this year it hasn’t quite worked out that way. We devoted a few extra weekends to putting the garden to bed: digging, weeding, deadheading, cleaning, and covering most of the beds with black landscape fabric to discourage weeds from sprouting when the weather warms up. With luck, it’ll make things easier for us in spring.

Once the garden was tucked in for winter, I still had a few garden-related indoor tasks to complete. There were about three dozen plant tags to wash and put away (something else I often ignore to my chagrin come seeding time), the last few tomatoes to turn into sauce and a batch of Serrano peppers to clean and tuck into the freezer.

Now, finally, the garden chores are all done and that means I have a little more time to read. Given that Halloween is approaching, it’s only fitting that my tastes are running, at least in part, to the dark side these days.  Here’s what I’m reading this month:

Beside the fire: Victoria’s Most Haunted by Ian Gibbs

On the Kindle:  A Mind for Murder – The Real Life Files of a Psychic Investigator by Noreen Renier

At the gym: Here’s to Us by Elin Hilderbrand

Books read to date in 2017: 62

Bountiful August

There’s a crispness to the morning air these days and the sun is setting a few minutes earlier every night, but summer isn’t officially over until September 22nd. I love this last month. It’s harvest time. The garden is overflowing with tomatoes and peppers and beans and figs. The dahlias are spectacular, the California tree poppy is putting on a second show, and there are still a few sweet peas blooming in the garden. If I’m not working in the office, I’m working in the kitchen, making basil pesto, peeling and freezing peaches, and canning tomatoes. And at the end of a long, satisfying day, there’s always a good book to read.

Here’s what I’m reading this month:

On the Kindle: Family Tree by Susan Wiggs

At the gym: If I Could Turn Back Time by Beth Harbison

By the pond: Paranormal: My Life in Pursuit of the Afterlife by Raymond Moody

Books read to date in 2017: 50

My May Reads

Reading time is at a premium right now as the garden calls. The tomato plants are taking over the greenhouse, and so are the peppers, basil, sweet peas and a few restless eggplants. Normally everything is in the ground by now but things are different this year. After weeks of not being able to work outside much, of wearing a hat and a heavy coat to walk Team Sheltie, we’re now outside in t-shirts and capris. Seemingly overnight we’ve gone from October-like cold to July-like heat. The garden is confused. Some beds are still heavy with moisture while others are sprouting weeds faster than I can pull them. Consequently I’m working outside most evenings until sunset trying to get on top of things. Here’s what I’m reading when I finally come in for the night.

On the Kindle: One Perfect Lie by Lisa Scottoline

At the gym: The Happiness Animal by Will Jelbert

Beside the bed: 100 Best Plants for the Coastal Garden by Steve Whysall

Books read to date in 2017: 32