Seeing Flowers with New Eyes

 A few weekends back, I zoomed into an all-day writing workshop. One of the speakers was author Jeff Elkins.

Elkins spoke at length about how we can develop and deepen our characters through the use of dialogue. As soon as he brought up what he called the character daisy, I was hooked (anything that relates gardening or food to writing gets my immediate and full attention).

Flowers grow in a predictable order: roots, stems and blooms. Jeff believes that order is reflected in the way we develop as individuals too. We also start off with roots: the genetics we inherit from our family, our ethnicity and nationality, and our gender and family history. Our stem grows out of our roots. That stem represents our hopes and dreams, our strengths and weaknesses, and the inner facets of the personality we bring to the world. The flower is the outer way we show up: what we focus on in our lives, how we talk, live and interact. The bloom is, in essence, our gift to the world in the same way flower blossoms are gifts to the garden.

Literature is full of references to flowers. An old French proverb says, “Wherever life plants you, bloom with grace.”  Saint Francis de Sales, the Bishop of Geneva, made the phrase more colloquial in the early 1600s when he urged his followers to “bloom where you are planted,” and artist Mary Engelbreit picked it up and turned it into a catchphrase in the 1990s.

Author Stephen Richards links flowers to the way we think. “Minds are like flowers; they open only when the time is right,” he says.

Musician Aaron Neville says flowers offer lessons on how to behave. “Be honest, be nice, be a flower, not a weed.”

Poet E.V. Rogina believes flowers can teach us about inner growth. “Like wildflowers, you must allow yourself to grow in all the places people thought you never would,” she says.

And last but definitely not least is John Lennon: “Love is the flower you’ve got to let grow.”

So, as the last of my summer flowers slowly succumb to cooler temperatures, and we hunker down for fall and winter, I’ll focus on the words of poet Jennae Cecilia:  

My May Reads

The seedlings are doing what seedlings do best: growing madly and readying themselves for more spacious surroundings. In other words, they need to be transplanted, which means I have my work cut out for me getting them from the greenhouse to the ground. I’m not complaining. This time last year, I was struggling to learn the microclimates in our new garden, and I was doing it under less-than-optimal growing conditions. Things are better this year, though the learning curve is still steep. Good thing I have some great books to settle down with at the end of the day. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

Breath by James Nestor

Barry Squires, Full Tilt by Heather Smith

Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story by Erin French

Books read to date in 2021: 36

Creativity is Messy

We’re in the process of gutting and rebuilding an area of our garden. We have a vision of how we want it to look when it’s done, we know the steps needed to get us to the finish line –we’ve done multiple garden overhauls before—yet we’ve been surprised at how much chaos our efforts have created.

Creativity is messy. All of it is. Whether you’re sculpting, painting a picture, cooking a meal, rebuilding a garden or writing a book, there are sloppy and disordered times, and depending on the complexity of what you’re trying to create, there can also be times of feeling muddled and overwhelmed.

American novelist Ellen Klages wrote: My process is messy and non-linear, full of false starts, fidgets, and errands that I suddenly need to run now; it is a battle to get something – anything – down on paper. I doodle in sketchbooks: bits of ideas, fragments of sentences, character names, single lines of dialogue with no context.

Messy. Non-linear. Fidgets and doodles. All that’s true for me too, whether I’m working in the garden or writing a novel.

Creativity is also unpredictable. We can’t be sure how things will turn out. We can plot and plan and sketch things out, literally on paper or figuratively in our heads, but even with our best efforts, weather happens or plants refuse to thrive. Story characters act out in ways we don’t expect, taking our stories in directions we hadn’t anticipated. Editorial input or our own fresh insights results in revisions and a completely new take. When it comes to creative projects, there’s always something to tweak, adjust or reframe.

In the end, though, if the final result doesn’t quite match the vision we hold in our heads, there will always be another opportunity. Another project, another mess to create. Because as Michael J. Fox says, a creative mess is better than idle tidiness.

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.