Time Will Have His Little Scar

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I was sixteen years old when my great aunt’s house fell in love with me. Well, technically, fell on me. But I knew what it meant.

The timing was apt. Not because I was at some peculiarly ripe age for handsome old houses to start noticing me. I mean. Is there ever a wrong time for a house to choose you, and mark you as its own?

This is probably not a hypothetical question.

Our house, as I’ve mentioned, was old. Inherited complete with its contents from my Great Aunt Eva, who left us in sole possession of her lovingly hoarded Staffordshire collection, a handful of blown eggs, and a prodigious assortment of clawed mahogany furniture, which we proceeded to trash. Three kids, five Newfoundlands, and a stunningly casual attitude towards housework will do that to a place.

The house was delightful. Built sometime around 1910, it featured six-over-six leaded glass windows (which it would be my teenage duty to clean in the spring), beautifully inlaid floors (which we would laboriously refinish one hot autumn), and a generously proportioned porch (which would choose to hug me in an exuberant fashion in the summer of my sixteenth year).

It was the summer of our big family reunion, so we had an unusually large audience for the occasion of my great aunt’s house declaring its love for me.

For this is, in fact, how I chose to view it. Oh, sure. Some skeptics might have called it the inevitable consequence of going too long without addressing the need to replace the rotting wood at the base of the pillars that bore the weight of our veranda.

I’m gonna be honest with you. With my wider extended family arrayed almost ceremoniously in front of me on the wide, freshly mown lawn, it felt more like a declaration than that.

It took me quite by surprise.

I was doing what most teenagers do at large family gatherings — standing awkwardly to one side, rereading the latest issue of Smithsonian magazine. My mother had bought me a subscription the year before for my birthday, to support my burgeoning interest in geology. I remember flipping the pages idly while looking up to see who was winning the badminton game being played out a few paces in front of me on the lawn.

It was the badminton that saved me, I guess.

For in that moment, I saw that the white grecian column closest to me was slowly tipping over, cascading down toward me without a sound — but with alarming haste — toward the top of my head.

I took one quick, furtive step back. The ragged edge of the column’s top grazed down across the front of my shirt, sheared delicately along the length of my legs.

It was a very near thing.

In the end, we decided that most of the blood was coming from the large gash on the front of my shin, a cut only about three inches long. We debated for a while about whether or not we needed to mark the occasion with a visit to the emergency room for stitches, but it was eventually agreed that a few butterfly bandaids stretched gamely across the wound would do the trick.

My mother and uncle are both nurses, so I was quite thoroughly cleaned up, you needn’t worry. And the party went on.

From that day forward, I felt a new bond between me and that house. I had always loved it, from the moment we first moved in. At the time of the move, I was young enough to only associate it with the warm smell of cookies Eva was prone to baking for us when we came tumbling off the school bus. All I knew, when she passed away, was that we were moving into the house with the cookies and the gleaming cabinets of white.

Later, I learned to love the speckled green paint on the back hallway floor. The rough, raised surface of the alligator staining on the doors. The cool, embracing velvet of the curtains that hung between dining room and parlor, allegedly there to conserve heat in the winter but really, as we all tacitly understood, hung for the sole purpose of the theatricals I mounted with increasing regularity for my assembled, eternally patient family.

It’s no wonder we fell in love, really. It was such a heady time.

I hardly ever notice the scar now, of course, although it’s never really faded with time. The house has continued its long, slow decay. All of the columns were long since replaced by less graceful posts erected more for duty than for flair, and the gleaming white porch has been tinged a damp olive green after too many summer rains.

The last time I was in my old bedroom — to rescue some old books from storage, no doubt, or to rummage around for the odd picture or two — I noticed with dismay that there were tendrils of ivy snaking quietly in through the splitting window frame.

Then I saw it more clearly; saw that it was just the old, viney hands of great aunt Eva’s old house, reaching in for one more sweet, leafy embrace. I ran my hands slowly down a thin, green stem, and remembered how gently this house had always held me.

Notwithstanding that one time it climbed all over me like a big, clumsy dog, her claws drawing just a little bit of blood in her happy eagerness to get close.

Notwithstanding that one time, this house and I have always been in love.

 

Image by wickenden.

 

MacGuffin

Opera BoxIt’s now two weeks before the end of the year, and I have a million things to do.

Oh, it’s not the Christmas presents, or the wrapping. It’s not even the food or the party planning, or some silly old year-end budget at work.

No, all that’s long since been done and dusted. My problem is not the holidays, or a performance review, or even the truly disturbing lack of salt pork and black eyed peas in my pantry.

My problem is that the year is almost over, and I’ve got all these damned loose ends to tie up.

Projects that need finishing. Questions that need answering. Stories that need endings.

It’s the end of the year, and as usual I have a desperate need to wipe the slate clean and start again.

Maybe it’s because I stayed in school too long. It’s probably because I stayed in school too long. But I always feel like a big, red curtain drops down with a thunk at the end of the year, and then lifts up again with a flourish at the start of the new. And it’s my job to wrap it all up, hustle the actors off of the stage, and get all the scenery dressed up for the next show.

Do you ever feel that way?

Did you stay in school too long?

So what is it that’s got me up all night soliloquizing like some shiftless Danish prince?

Well, it won’t sound like much to you, but I am knitting a hat. One of those really, really long stocking caps, with the point that hangs down over your back in a somewhat slightly comical manner. It’s bright red, and awesome. I was thinking that I would give it to somebody for Christmas, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.

But I still have to finish it before the new year.

I’m also knitting a sweater, which is for me. It is one of those rollneck sweaters that I used to love wearing in college, but which seem to have fallen out of favor in recent years, and so I apparently have to make one for myself. The Gap won’t sell it, so I gotta make it.

And the last one I had in college, I left behind at an after-hours party in Amherst.

I’m knitting this new sweater out of this soft, nubbly brown yarn that is the color of hot chocolate, all smooth and silky and so wooly that you want to chew on it. Beautifully drapey, lusciously swingy, with a big wide boatneck and edges that curl at the cuff and the hem like the edge of an oyster shell.

Yep. That one’s for me. And I clearly have to finish it before the new year.

I am also making opera gloves, minus the fingers. Ultra-fine merino wool, in the deepest, darkest blue you’ve ever seen. Knitted in the finest possible gauge, all the way up from the crook of your elbow to just whisper over the knuckles of your hands. Perfect for those long, tedious evenings at the opera when the draft is blowing through the dark velvet curtain lining your mama’s private box on the mezzanine floor, and you want to stay warm, but you also very much want to keep your fingertips free to caress the small bunch of flowers that were brought to you by a servant mere moments before the curtain went up. Peonies. Where the devil does a person find peonies at this time of year? And who on earth would have sent them to you?

You can only discover that it was a gentleman, and that he did not leave a name.

You would wear these gloves on such a night.

But only if I can finish them before the end of the year.

I’ve also picked up the embroidery hoop again, after a fairly long hiatus. There’s a lovely bit of muslin in my workbasket that is just dying to be embellished in a cryptic pattern of swirls and glyphs of mysterious intent. It is coming out looking a little like something that Edward Gorey would stitch, if he were having tea with Lemony Snicket. And it will serve no earthly function whatsoever, it hardly needs saying.

This article is scarcely likely to please anyone but me, but still I hope to finish it before the year is out.

What else? Well, not to bury the lede, but I’m working on another story. One of mild intrigue and extreme romance, of course, which has been steadily accruing both mass and volume for some weeks now. It’s nothing too terribly similar to  other stories of mine, except in that it concerns two voluble and engaging young people who spend most of the story being obstinate about accepting the fact that they are made for each other. They naturally are willing to go to very great lengths to convince themselves and everyone around them that this is quite entirely not the case.

Oh, but don’t worry. It all comes out right in the end.

Naturally, I am fully planning to finish this story before the end of the year.

You see what I mean about staying in school? It always twists you, in the end.

It must be because this is the time of year when I always had three papers, four lab reports, and two oral exams to complete, and things just don’t seem to be in their proper place unless I’m under that same kind of pressure today. I just can’t shake the feeling that the last day of December will be my last chance to get it right, to give my work one final proofread before I sprint across the green and slip it under the professor’s door.

It just feels like nothing should take longer than a semester to finish. And that everything that the Fall saw begun needs wrapping up before the Winter term can get under way.

Or maybe I just really need something to keep my head toasty warm when I sleep, and a stocking cap would be just the thing.

And I really just want to recreate that sweater that I left at some boy’s house in college, in the hope that he’d call and invite me over to pick it up.

And I’m only looking to conceal the pulse that is pounding beneath the skin of my wrists while I try to puzzle out who these flowers are from, and how in heaven’s name he discovered just what peonies mean to me, and what they can do to my otherwise implacable sense of propriety.

Or perhaps I am just obstinate. And I am willing to go to great lengths to see things out to the last, as I do every year, racing toward the final curtain in a fever of anticipation, knowing — hoping, at least — that it will all come out right in the end.

Which I’m sure it will. Aren’t you?

How to make your deadline

Portrait of a GentlemanAt the beginning of October, my friend Susan Scott invited me to join her on one of her frequent trips to Colonial Williamsburg. Always game for an unscheduled frolic through the past, I naturally agreed.

I had a dark, ulterior motive, of course, and it didn’t even have anything to do with stalking a bunch of living, breathing people who make a habit of gadding about in cravats and stays.

No, no, that was my obvious motive. My ulterior motive was what caused me to book myself passage on a 14-hour train ride from Boston to Williamsburg and back, rather than on some nice, modern, speedy airplane.

I was on deadline. I was determined. This is my story.

I’d been on deadline for a couple of months now, you see, and I had until November 1 to finish what I needed to get done. I figured that a long, uninterrupted spell on a train would impose on me the cone of silence and concentration that I needed to cross that editorial finish line.

So I boarded a train in Boston on the Thursday before Halloween at 9:30 in the evening, opened up my laptop, and got to work.

By the time my train rolled in to Williamsburg 14 hours later — ten minutes ahead of schedule, even — I was halfway done.

I then commenced to ignore my work, and to focus purely on frolicking about in the 18th century. I figured it would be good inspiration. Research. Yes. Research.

So Susan picked me up at the train station, because it was raining, helped me settle into my hotel, and then drove me right into the heart of Colonial Williamsburg and the glorious, fascinating 18th century.

As it was already well past breakfast, and I am a junkie, the first order of business was finding me a cup of coffee.

We stood in line behind a nice man who also seemed to need his morning fix.

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Then we started snooping around other people’s homes, looking at their family portraits, asking nosy questions.

You know. The usual.

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Susan listened to a tour guide tell us what it was like to be a slave in pre-Revolutionary Williamsburg.

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She was a very good tour guide.

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She had sources. And she wasn’t afraid to use them.

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We went by the Governor’s Palace, where I would later go dancing with men in cocked hats, white silk stockings, and peacock blue jackets, but where I would not be allowed to take photographs. Alas.

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I danced a reel, in case you are wondering.

I fantasized about living in beautiful old brick houses.

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Then Susan took me to meet her friends in the millinery shop, which was almost the highlight of the trip.

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Yes almost. I did mention the dancing, yes? By candlelight? At the Governor’s Palace? Yes. I thought so. Good.

Her friends the seamstresses were lovely, talented, and unbelievably generous with their time.

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Naturally, I gravitated immediately to those things that are relevant to my interests.

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I cannot possibly express to you how soft these were.

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But I kept stroking them, just in case I would somehow find the words.

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I did some very serious literary research.

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The ladies tried to distract me with their very large hats.

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But to no avail.

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Then they took me upstairs to their secret lair, where I got to see the things they make in their spare time.

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For fun.

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Because they can.

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They showed me dresses that would make your head explode with joy.

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It was hard not to squeal too loudly.

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I might have disturbed the neighbors.

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Then we went back outside, where it was still raining.

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Folks in historical dress seemed better prepared for the weather than I was.

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Some ladies taught us how to make cosmetics and other beauty aids.

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They knew what they were talking about.

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“Unadorned beauty” indeed.

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Making cosmetics looks like this.

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Knowing exactly what you are talking about looks like this.

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We poked around inside more folks’ houses, taking pictures of their personal items.

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Most of which I coveted.

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Oh, let’s be honest. All of which I coveted.

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They enjoyed bright colors.

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And the finest scientific instruments of the day.

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I coveted them, too.

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Patrick Henry had been left waiting in the parlor, which seemed rude.

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So I walked around, coveting things.

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We went to the wheelwright’s shop. It was still raining.

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Elkanah is a good name.

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The wheelwright was the boyfriend of one of our seamstress friends.

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His name is Andrew.

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He has an apprentice, who mixes his paints and paints his wheels.

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Andrew is also very covetable knowledgeable.

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Next door is the blacksmith shop, where fires raged and guys in aprons made loud clanging noises.

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We had a really good lunch. It was still raining.

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We went back to the Governor’s Palace the day after the dance — did I mention I danced? With that guy? In the peacock blue jacket? Okay then. Good. Fine. There is no need to yell.

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They let us take plenty of pictures at the Governor’s Palace during the day, when all the fancypants men were gone.

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Well, almost all of them were gone.

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Susan introduced me to her friends all over the place. She knows everyone.

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I mean, everyone who matters.

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Everyone who lets me sit in their fancy carriages, that is.

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Geek alert.

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On the last day of my trip, the sun came out at last.

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So I spent the whole day inside, at the museum. Yep. That’s pretty much how I roll.

I took pictures of things that struck my fancy.

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Kids pointing at cats. It’s a thing.

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Muscle cars.

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A carved wooden figure of, apparently, George Wickham.

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Seriously.

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Dance riot.

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The original, red version of that black dress I was coveting in the seamstress’s secret lair.

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Whitework.

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By Jane Riggs.

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Socks with clocks.

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The oft-referenced reticule.

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Velvet pants.

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Out friends the seamstresses, meticulously recreating a famous picture.

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Meticulously.

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Recreating.

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This.

Cravats aplenty, of course.

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I looked at old maps and started getting homesick.

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It was time to get back on the train and head home.

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So I took my seat, opened up my laptop, and got back to work.

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Somewhere around New York City, I hit a wall. I had just one chapter left to revise.

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I slept until Providence, then suddenly realized I needed just one more scene inserted into the end of the first chapter. I started writing again.

It was only when they cut the power and my screen went blank that I realized we were back in South Station.

I closed my laptop and headed home for the last leg of my trip.

A massive, unprecedented, highly unseasonable storm had swept through New England in my absence, dumping snow, snapping trees, and leaving thousands without power.

I got safely back to Cape Cod, made it all the way to the end of my street, but could go no further.

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All of the wires were down on my street, and there were trees blocking the road at both ends. Trees with wires wrapped around them.

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We had no power — no lights, no heat, no internet. I got back in my car.

I still had one chapter to go, and my deadline was at midnight that night.

I drove to the Hot Chocolate Sparrow, my favorite coffeeshop of all times, where they had wifi. And lights. And coffee.

And where it was also Halloween, and the staff was feeling festive.

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I sat down, opened my laptop, and got back to work.

A bear cleaned tables nearby.

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I finished my chapter, gave the whole damn thing one last look, and then sent it in.

As promised. On time.

Then I went back home, where the lights would still be out for three more days, and the internet would not come back for five.

But all of that was just fine with me. Because I had candles, and knitting, and cats that needed pointing at.

And I had made my deadline.

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A Turn About The Room: May 2011 Edition

It’s become a tradition with me since I started working from home to end my day in the warmer months with a walk around the yard. Poking my nose into flowers’ blooms. Checking on shoots who show signs of faltering. Cheering on buds whose time has not yet come.

In short, it’s a walk-about. And it helps clear my brain of the cobwebs that build up after too many hours of making out with the internet like it’s going out of style.

But today is the first day of the long Memorial Day weekend, a weekend when most god-fearing Cape Codders know better than to venture out of their own little half-acres for the fear — for the certainty, really — of ending up in an unending hell of traffic, tourists, and bad manners.

So instead, we go shopping a few days before the hordes descend, stock up on whatever we might need for the days to come — oh, say until next Tuesday — and hunker down in our own neighborhoods and on our own dirt roads, waiting for the crowds from the city and suburbs to ebb once more and leave us to our business.

So I walk around my yard, to mark the end of the day, the beginning of the holiday weekend, and the official start of summer on old Cape Cod.

Just outside the back door is the adorable little shed that my dad’s best friend built years ago. I am currently doing my best to cover it in clematis, and the effort seems to be paying off. Lots of little buds, many tightly clustered tendrils, and a very healthy attachment to the trellis I kept propped up through many a winter storm this year. They’ll burst out into great, fat purple blooms come July or so.

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Just to the right of the shed is this beauty, planted almost 50 years ago by my grandmother, when she lived in this house.

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I hear that she was worried this kind of shrub wouldn’t thrive in the acidic soil we have in this part of town. Rest easy, Ella. I have to prune this beast back by a third each year just to be able to look out my front window and see beyond its thick, glossy leaves.

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Well, the rhodies may not be in full bloom just yet, but GUESS WHO IS?

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OMG. The lilacs I planted six whole years ago burst into bloom for the very first time this year, and I am in heaven. I grew up with lilacs surrounding us on all sides, and I was determined to grow them here if I could. Even in this crazy acidic soil that gets covered in pine needles every fall, and that my grandfather apparently felt the need to litter with as much construction refuse as he possibly could.

Even then. They bloomed! So happy. God, I wish you could smell them. It’s the best thing ever.

Purple blooms are kind of the theme in the yard at this point in the season, it seems. We’re simply filthy with wild lupines, for instance.

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And I’d say that only about a third of the blooms have actually blossomed at this point. So there’s even more bleedin’ lupines in store.

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Because as we all know, lupines fix bloody everything.

Lots of wild daisies this year, too. Last year it was black-eyed susans, this year it’s daisies. I love wildflower gardening. Brings back the element of surprise to one’s yard, don’t you think?

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Today was the first day my beach roses saw fit to bloom, too! Everything is turning out so well.

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These guys were another type of plant I was determined to have in my yard if I could. I bought five buckets of mangy looking beach roses (Rosa rugosa) at half price from the garden shop down the road in very, very late fall when we first moved in here nine years ago. And just as I had hoped they would, they are totally, utterly taking over the front of the yard.

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Yesssssssssss.

They flank my driveway, and are in my direct line of sight from my office window in the front of the house. I watch them all day long out of the corner of my eye, swaying in the breeze coming off the river across the street. And in the late afternoon light, they glow like old stained glass.

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Sprinkled in among the beach roses are daylilies. I got a grab bag a few years back of all sorts of different varieties, mostly in shades of red and yellow and orange. Some of them are frilly. Some are deep, dark scarlet. I am looking forward to seeing them again this year. And a friend just gave me some of her tigerlilies, which I plan to stick in the dirt in a prominent spot sometime this weekend.

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The heather and heath is doing extraordinarily well this year, considering all the staggering about I did in there while Jane Eyre was in the theatre this winter, sliding and sobbing and falling in the rain.

OK, I didn’t really do all that. But I do like having a large patch of heather handy, just in case I need to.

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One side of the yard contributes considerably less to the bloom quotient than the other side, and I don’t know why. But rather than focus on the flowers that I don’t see here every year, perhaps it’s best to focus on the fact that this frustrating lack of vegetation leaves the lovely peeling paint and lichen of the fence rail all the more exposed to view.

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Ahem. Yes, I posted that specifically for the more avid peeling-paint-and-lichen fans of my acquaintance. Happy to help feed anyone’s fetish if I can.

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Hey, we all have our little quirks and peculiarities. Lord knows I have mine.

Boy oh boy, do I have mine.

We’ve got just a crazy amount of mayflowers scattered throughout the more wooded side of the yard this year.

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Or maybe I’m just venturing out early enough in the season this time around to see them.

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No idea who invited these festive little guys to the party, but they’re loitering most insistently right by the front door. Somebody oughta let them in.

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More deep purple, this time in the form of some intensely raucous Bachelor’s Buttons.

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Makes me want to find a bachelor’s buttonhole every single time I look at them.

And on the other side of the door, of course, everything’s coming up Hostas.

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There’s more to come, of course, this being merely May — and a cold and wet May it was, too.

Among the roll call of fellows yet to be heard from, there’s russian sage, echinacea, coreopsis, and a thick cluster of Shasta daisies that always seems to wait until July to get its act together. And I’m sure I’m forgetting a ton of other guests, invited and otherwise.

I don’t really put a whole lot into my garden, workwise, which is why I tend to stick to calling it a “yard” instead. You can see from these pictures that I blew off raking entirely this spring. I’m not ashamed to own up to it, either. Life’s too short to do yardwork, sometimes.

So no, I don’t put a whole lot of effort into my garden/yard. Mostly, I throw down a bunch of wildflower seeds each year and hope for the best. And I try to give any donated friends a good, loving home. But despite my shocking lack of investment in how it all turns out, I sure do get a whole ton of great dividends out of the end result.

This, my friends, is where I’ll be spending the greater part of my three-day weekend. I hope you find half as pleasant a patch of land to spread your toes in, too.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

not dead yet

I took today off from work, as I was weak and frail like a kitten from the flu. Also, my head was pounding its way out of the tops and sides of my skull, which made it difficult to think.

Fortunately, it turns out that a rigorous schedule of sleeping, moaning, drinking licorice tea, and moaning myself back to sleep is pretty effective in getting me back into fighting trim. So I feel almost mostly better now that it is almost mostly time to fall back into bed, and I can hope to feel pretty tolerable by morning.

Or I’ll have a complete reversal and lose my voice by morning. Which also sometimes happens.

During my sojourn at home, I was reminded of what life was like when I did this every day, when I was a poor, wretched freelance editor, eking a wage out of inserting the serial commas and deleting the rampant, unnecessary apostrophes that sadly litter today’s romance novel manuscripts.

I didn’t do much but drive to the post office and grocery store every day, drive back home, and turn the blinding white pages of the latest missive from Pern with my trusty red pencil by my side.

Some days, I would take a walk around the neighborhood, taking very bad photographs of leaves and things, muttering insensibly to myself about all the great things I was gonna do someday, and how much I loved this “lifestyle.”

This crippling isolation, my friends, is what led me to blog in the first place. Please don’t make me go back there again. It is a dark, dark place.

So yes, I puttered about the house for most of today, when I wasn’t sleeping, or moaning — no wait, I think I did manage some simultaneous moan-walking — watched a little PBS, realized that my tearing up at the intro music and montage for American Experience was probably a sign of mental decay, or at least a high fever, but something about it is all so reminiscent of my early teenage years, which were all mixed up with swelling, surging John Williams soundtracks, Indiana Jones fantasies, the music from Epcot Center (I owned the album) and more re-readings of Jane Eyre and Little Women that I could possibly make you understand…

So I love PBS, right? We all know this. And they’re in the midst of a mostly awful but highly watchable series of Jane Austen-based flicks this month (Northanger Abbey, Good; Persuasion, Not Bad; Mansfield Park, Perfectly Atrocious; Miss Austen Regrets, Don’t Even Get Me Started…) And I’m in a bit of a feeble mental state just now, right? Maybe just a little emotionally vulnerable, perhaps a tad excessively open to sentiment.

But tell me you don’t clap your hands with joy at the last part of this final scene from Northanger Abbey.

Should I go back to moaning? I think I’ll just go back to moaning.