Happy Tenth, Little House By The Sea

Patience has never really been one of my virtues. I hate waiting. And I especially hate waiting for a gradual thing to come to pass.

But then, I’m so rarely asked if I mind about such matters. So I generally end up just rolling with it.

Gardening is so obviously an exercise in which patience is called for in extreme measure. I think that’s why so much of gardening is physically taxing. If you could actually do everything you wanted to do all at once, you might be tempted to expect a little reciprocity from the soil and sun. A little immediate return on effort. A soupçon of instant gratification.

But no, growing things takes time.

When I was a kid, I never really recognized the significance of the song Inch by inch, row by row, I’m gonna make my garden grow. This is, of course, because I did not garden as a child.

Boy, you ain’t kidding, song. Inch by motherlovin’ slow inch.

I went into spring this year with the knowledge that it had been ten years since I’d moved back to the Cape this May. I kept meaning to mark the occasion here on the blog, but the timing never seemed quite right.

Instead, I kept my thoughts to myself. I pondered things, like Mary, in my heart.

And mostly I thought about my garden.

As you already know, I’ve been getting a whole lot of action in my garden these days. We’ve got some real showstoppers holding court out there right now, I’m not gonna lie.

But I wanted to give a little extra love right now to the first three things I ever planted here, humble though they may be. They’ve put up with a lot out of me, mostly in the form of extreme neglect. But they keep on showing up, year after year, and continually surprise me by thriving despite my worst efforts at caring for them.

Let’s hear it for the Little House By The Sea Garden Originals.


These heathers were the first thing I ever planted here. It was shortly after we moved that we realized we needed to get a whole new septic system put in, which entailed the wholesale brutalizing of half the yard. They bulldozed down a bunch of trees, mowed down anything green, and basically just killed everything that stood in their way. They left us with what was supposed to be several inches of “good topsoil,” but was really nothing but the scantest layer of parched, inhospitable brown dirt. It was like a moonscape out there.

That was when I realized I needed to start gardening.

I planted heather because it seemed easy, and because the internet told me it would be drought-tolerant. I knew I couldn’t be counted on to water my plants with anything like regularity.

Also, I wanted to have a great expanse of heather in my yard so that I could go staggering woefully across it like my hero Jane Eyre. What? That’s normal.

Ten years later, my heather is still there. One or two patches have died out. But the vast majority of it is thriving, spilling over the edges of the bed, panting to be divided and propagated in pastures new. Some of it has even started to naturalize, staking out self-selected little homesteads among the rowdier wildflowers yards away.


The neighborhood I grew up in was absolutely filthy with lilacs, great big overflowing stands of them lining the curving dirt road that ran between our house and the house my great grandparents lived in. Old local history books even regularly referred to our street as Lilac Hill. So naturally I needed lilacs, too.

I ordered these lilacs through a catalogue, because at the time I didn’t know you could propagate things, and it was my first experience planting bare root woody plants. I thought there had been some kind of mistake. They looked like twigs you might collect for roasting s’mores. No more than six or eight inches long, they looked mighty silly poking up out of my solemnly constructed and dutifully watered mound of soil and mulch.

They now reach up past my shoulder. Two of them have even started blooming. They’re past all that for this year, of course. But you can take my word for it.


I planted beach roses, because when I decided it was time to move back to the Cape I kept fantasizing about having a little house by the sea (that’s how I always talked about it inside my head, my Little House By The Sea) with rugosas rambling in a wild thicket out front. By this time, I’d been here for a couple years, and had managed to locate my local garden store. Had noticed that they marked things way down in the fall. Scored a half dozen roses for 75% off.

Now they are taller than I am, spilling out over the fence and sending up spikes against the sandy shoulder of the road like they own the place. Some of the more ambitious shoots are even starting to reach up into the lower branches of the pin oak above them. I think I’ll let them. I mean really. Who am I to judge?

Honorable Mention: The Wildflowers

The wildflowers, of course, have been a tremendous success. If you ever want to feel like an accomplished gardener with a minimum of effort expended, throw down some wildflowers. I use the excellent Northeastern Natives mixture from American Meadows, augmented by the occasional bulk single species spree. The lupins, for instance, were a one-off. Highly recommended. This year I put down a bunch of purple coneflower. We’ll see how they come out next year.

Wildflowers are so disproportionately rewarding. A little bit of effort gets you so much in return. I mean, you can’t just hurl out fistfuls of seed across your grassy lawn and expect a meadow to appear. I went through the whole process of turning the soil, tilling it out, scattering the seed in the proper mixture of sand for even distribution, and even went around stomping on top of a piece of plywood so as to press the seeds firmly into the soil.

That first year, the results were only Pretty Good. But every year since then, it’s been nothing short of Spectacular. Of course I throw down a bag of something new each year, just to keep things fresh. But the perennials from that first batch are still doing the lion’s share of the work in here.

I’m not saying I am getting good at patience. All I am saying is that I am starting to see why it gets such a good reputation.

I’m so glad to be here in my little house by the sea. In the summer it is open and blowsy with the southeast salt breeze. It the winter it is all tight and snug like a nut. It holds me like a cupped palm, like a curled leaf.

Like a patient friend.

Thomas Say, Noted 19th Century Hottie

Thomas Say thinks you look smashing

Thomas Say, Noted Hottie

I’ve gone and written another one of my madcap historical essays over on Wonders & Marvels, this time ostensibly on the early American natural scientist Thomas Say and his trip down the Ohio River on the famous “Boatload of Knowledge” to found a utopian settlement with the best scientists of his generation.

Apparently, Say is most well-remembered these days for having a particularly handsome portrait in the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

And while I’m certainly the last person to dispute anyone’s right to come at history with an eye toward its more aesthetically pleasing representatives, I’d actually suggest that Thomas Say’s story has a fair bit more to recommend it than just a fine pair of eyes.

While Thomas Say’s latter-day designation as a 19th century hottie may be what catches the eye, the man’s actual career is fascinating enough in its own right. Already a successful and highly respected natural scientist by the age of 25, Say was a founding member of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. He formed lasting friendships with many of the most respected and prolific scientists of the day, each of whom it seems can lay claim to being the “Father of American” this or that. Auspicious company, indeed.

And it was in some of this auspicious company that Say travelled to Indiana in 1826 on the delightfully named “Boatload of Knowledge,” a gang of top scientists headed for the utopian community of New Harmony that was then in its heyday of attracting the best minds of the young republic.

The heyday didn’t last long, as is so often the way with utopian societies. But Thomas met his future wife, Lucy Sistare, on the Boatload of Knowledge. Lucy was herself a gifted illustrator of the natural sciences, and would in fact go on to be the first woman elected to the Academy of Natural Sciences. Her own thoughts on her husband’s relative attractiveness have not been recorded, though perhaps they can be reliably inferred.

The Boatload of Knowledge was actually a fascinating episode in history. I think it has all of the makings of a swashbuckling tale of adventure and romance. These wayfaring scientists were trapped in ice, threatened by attack, locked in endless nights of heated debate, and, in at least one instance, scared out of their daylights by the violence of a midwestern thunderstorm. In between adventures, they played whist.

Also, I’ve included a picture of Paul Tillich, jumping. Trust me, there’s a connection.

Read A Boatload of Knowledge on Wonders & Marvels.


Brainy is the New Sexy

The second season of Sherlock started airing on PBS tonight, which means that I can expect all of the friends I’ve been mercilessly hounding to watch that show to start calling me and telling me I was right, it’s wonderful, and they should always, always, always listen to what I say.

What? It could happen.

It isn’t even so much that I need to be acknowledged as right (though of course that’s a teensy, eensy part of it), but more that it’s always so much more fun to enjoy the truly quality obsessions of life in the company — albeit virtual company — of others.

I mean, that’s pretty much why God invented Tumblr, am I right?

What’s so insanely great about Sherlock (and you must understand that I am talking about the BBC Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch now) is that it assumes that you are bright enough to follow along.

Seriously. It assumes you are smart.

It’s kind of pathetic that this should come as a new sensation to us television viewers here in the states, but let’s face it. It’s a compliment we’re not often paid. And Sherlock flatters us, my friends, flatters us at every turn.

It’s frankly kind of thrilling, if you want to know the truth.

An optional and entirely parallel series of thrills can be had if you’re at all familiar with the Sherlock Holmes canon (by which you must understand I mean the original works by Conan Doyle, as well as various of the more esteemed adaptations). It’s not in any way essential to the full enjoyment of each episode that you get all of the adorable little in-jokes and references and easter eggs that the writers and set designers have strewn throughout the new series.

But if you’re a Sherlock geek, then you’ll get them. And you will more than likely flip right the heck out.

Which is all we ever really want out of our favorite adaptations of our most cherished written works, isn’t it?

It’s not just the thrill of recognition, of seeing your best loved characters spring into new life on the screen. Although that helps.

It’s not just the new spin that different writers, different actors, and even different fandoms will put on your beloved work of fiction. Although that, too, is awesome.

It’s the sudden and startling sense of community that you get when you realize you’re not the only one, not by a long shot, for whom this stuff matters. Matters deeply.

And I ain’t even ashamed.

I’ll admit right now that I was late to the Sherlock game. I only discovered the genius of the original books after I’d accidentally stumbled across the Granada series, in reruns, on PBS, about seven years ago. From the first clip-clop of horses’ hooves in the sepia-toned opening credits, to the wistful little smile Holmes gives at the end, I fell completely, head-over-heels in love.

Jeremy Brett’s Holmes is just perfect, spot-on, unbelievably good. And when I started borrowing the original books from the library, I started noticing how often the series even tried to recreate the original series illustrations, too. They didn’t make a big deal of it, but if you know what scenes are depicted so memorably in those original sketches, then certain scenes in the tv series just leap out at you. Like a mugger. A mugger who is wearing your favorite sweatshirt from high school.

You’re startled, but nostalgic at the same time. And you’re not entirely sure why.

So seven years ago was when I first established my by now well known pattern of recording the whatever episodes of period drama were on offer via the local PBS station, waiting until I knew I reliably had the house to myself, and settling in for a mad little spree. A little Thai food take-out, some Earl Grey tea, and two or three episodes of Sherlock, and I was all set.

And yes, if you had talked to ten-years-ago-me and asked her what she considered a mad little spree to consist of, she would have given you a very different answer.

I prefer now-me, to be perfectly honest. And trust me, so do you.

So I imagine that’s what I’ll do at some point this week, too. I’ll wait, having duly recorded tonight’s new episode (which of course I have already seen but we don’t need to discuss that now), and isolate some evening when I am alone and in need of Thai food and London and a script that assumes, just takes for granted without even considering the alternative, that I’ll be able to keep up.

And I will soak up that flattery like a sponge.

Real Snow, Our Snow

real snow, our snowThere’s a passage in The Great Gatsby that I want to talk to you about.

Well, there’s a ton of them, frankly. But this one in particular.

Gatsby is a book filled to bursting with phrases and images that make your heart stop, that force you to pause, close your eyes, and breathe for a few seconds before you can carry on with the story. Bits and pieces of prose that are wondrous in their perfection.

And lots of the people I’ve talked to about it tell me about how it’s a book about extravagance, about the excesses of the Jazz Age, about the inevitable fall from grace of a wild, reckless generation.

Other, equally thoughtful readers point out its insistence on the tragic importance of first love, of dreams, fantasies, and grasping after something ideal and impossible.

And before I reread it last Thursday night, I might have agreed with them all.

But I had forgotten this one bit, towards the end, that crystallizes for me what the whole, remarkable story is really all about. At least, for me. Right now.

One of my most vivid memories is of coming back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o’clock of a December evening, with a few Chicago friends, already caught up into their own holiday gaieties, to bid them a hasty good-by. I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This-or-That’s and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances, and the matchings of invitations: Are you going to the Ordways’? the Herseys’? the Schultzes’? and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate.

When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner though the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

For me, Gatsby’s not about a girl, or about a mysterious, vaguely sinister parvenu who dreams of possessing her. It’s not even about the incredible carelessness of the rich, those charming creatures who are able to retreat into their money and let other people clean up their messes.

Of course it is about those things. It’s a book that is about a lot of important things, which is why it’s been considered the epitome of the great American novel by so many, and for so long.

So like any great work, it calls out in each reader something important about themselves. Something that they knew about their own hearts, but hadn’t quite yet been able to articulate. Or even understand.

I read that passage and I realized that that sense of belonging to a particular place, of having an origin and a sense of home in a place that the world doesn’t credit much, is really what I’m trying to get at in a lot of my writing. It’s why so many of my own stories are set in the past, occasionally in my past, taking as their theme some meaningless event in my youth or in the overlooked and obscure history of my own personal real or imagined half-acre of this world.

It’s why so many of my posts begin, or could begin, with some variation on the words, In my younger and more vulnerable years…

And yeah, part of it is because we’re all of us, inevitably, borne ceaselessly into the past.

But part of it also is that there’s real meaning to be found there, that the forms and patterns of the past — our own personal pasts and the wider historical canvas — give form and pattern to our lives today.

Because everybody knows what the home of their childhood smells like, what unique blend of scent and association will greet them with either delight or dismay when they first roll down the car window back in their old hometown. That the snow that falls in whatever glittering city or grungy town they now call home is somehow different than the snow they grew up with. That this snow is indescribably less than the Platonic ideal of snow, which is only to be found within a certain set of county lines.

For those of you who grew up outside of the frozen north, I have no doubts that there is an equivalent. The shape of the trees. The shadow of the leaves. Even the rain falls differently in your own home town.

And I realize that I am an outlier. That most people don’t set out for college and then professional life, only to return home after little more than a decade. A decade of both successes and failures, but one that cascaded in increasing insistence on the wrongness of the snow in that other town in which we lived, and on the limited number of winters we would be granted to raise our heads to the sky and let the right kind of snowflakes dissolve silently on our lips.

But I did come back, and I found myself waiting for me here. As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s unnerving to come back to your old hometown and realize that earlier versions of you are lurking around every corner, waiting breathlessly behind each bush, ready to ambush you with all the old stories that you’d thought you’d left behind.

Like Easter eggs, I pick them up and put them in my basket.

I know I will leave some behind. Some will remain too well hidden, or will be stolen by birds.

But on the whole, this has been the most rewarding experience of my life. Coming home. Finding myself in curious corners. Crooning softly to younger versions of me who have lain crouching, hidden, neglected and ashamed while I went off to my own West Egg and ran with the fast crowd.

I read that passage and realized that’s what I’ve been doing. And then finally, a part of me that has been struggling hard with what kind of writing I really want to do in this world relaxed.

Flexed its fingers. Nodded. And got back to work.


Image by Chicago Rail Head