Thursday, August 28, 2008

In Jane's garden

This summer we spent some time in England and Wales. This garden belongs to the house in Chawton where Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life. The house is now a museum, and tells the story of her life. It is mostly well preserved, and only minor structural changes have been made.

Three years ago hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf coast. Now Gustav is on the way. Even though we are not living on the coast, this makes me nervous since we felt the aftermath even here, much further inland, with fallen branches and trees all over town. Houses and cars were smashed, and we we experienced only the outer remnants of the then storm. Fay brought much needed rain, and it felt like in country over there when it can rain for weeks at a time. Let's hope Gustav will not bring so much devastation as did Katrina.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


If trees could speak, what story would they tell? All those scars that show in the face form an intricate lace of memories so deeply ingrained and here to stay. Leaning sideways from a heavy burden or were it the unrelenting winds that made it bend? Maybe it was just reaching for the sun. It has witnessed times and changes and has carried the weight of the memories. I take it any day over the straight upwards growing column of smooth and plain bark of its neighbor.

It is writing week. Back to my paper / article. I am writing about death and literature, maybe that triggered new entries.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Long ago...

A wonderful color combination in the gardens of Lacock Abby. I love the silvery Eryngium slowly turning blue combined with the pink on gray stems. I think it is a Sea Holly, and I should try to grow it here in the South. It should do fine if planted in sandy soil. I know it can take the heat, but I am not sure about the humidity. There is something poetic about this plant that I always found attractive: vulnerable in spite of all its spikiness, a tender soul hiding within thorny little stars giving away its underlying fear to be hurt.

Our fantasy can help us with hard and unpleasant times in childhood. When I was five years old my mother died. I remember playing later for hours in a fantasy world I had created in a corner on the floor of my lonely small room. On a gray linoleum tile I had placed a little plastic monkey, a palm tree made out of wiry material with fuzzy stuff around it, like pipe cleaners, and a stuffed giraffe inhabited the island in the sea. I arranged and rearranged the island dwellers, sent them on many adventures, but in the end they were always safe and sound on their protected gray island tile. When I was eight my new step mother told me to pick that "stuff" from the floor "where it does not belong." She could not understand my need for my fantasy island. I put it away, and put it up again the next day, she complained again and on it went. I was not spiteful. I simply could not part from my best friends. They were the last I saw from my bed before the lights went out, and they were the first to greet me in the morning. How could I put them away? They were not "stuff" cluttering the floor and possibly prone to catch dust bunnies, they were my sanity on that island in the huge ocean that had turned my ship and caused me almost drown. I barely kept my head above water, and seeing my pals on their island kept my focus and gave me hope in the rough sea while I was slowly learning to tackle the weaves. Going under, not being able to breath, ready to give up and drown, when the waves popped my had up again at the last moment, just enough to catch enough breath to continue the fight with the next wave pulling me under. Just envisioning my friends in the darkness was comforting. In the eyes of my stepmother I could have cleaned up after playing. I could not conceive her inability to recognize the beauty and sanctity of gray linoleum island. Was it despair and anguish that I felt when told time and again to get rid of "that stuff"? I remember the tears when my father finally talked to me about cleaning up, I think he sensed my irrational despair because his voice is soft and soothing in my memory. I could keep my island.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Snow lion

What excitement - it snowed not too long ago, actually the second time this year. We took our sled from ice box state and drove out into the country to find something that resembles a hill to go for some fun in the snow. On the way I came across this snow lion.

I am upset. Teenage Daughter came home from school yesterday running to the bathroom. When asked what was going on she explained that several fights in her high school resulted in the closing of all bathrooms with the exception of one. This is a school with about one thousand students. A teacher or principal accompanied those who had to go or I should better say, managed to go to the bathroom. Today the situation went from disturbing to upsetting, at least in my opinion. This past weekend there had been a shooting in U Town, and one teenage kid shot and killed another teenager. This shooting obviously triggered some kind of gang or group induced violence throughout the city high schools. So this morning all the kids were greeted not only by metal detectors but teachers and principals body searching each individual student entering the school. Teenage daughter had two tests scheduled today, first Biology, and later Algebra. All the searching – the airport is nothing in comparison according to Teenage Daughter – caused Biology to start about 45 minutes late, and there was not enough time left for the test. Throughout the day, kids were searched, and not allowed to go outside in the enclosed courtyard, same bathroom procedure as yesterday. The disruption of the daily routine reached a point that the school administration let parents pick up their children early at noon if they wished to do so. However, the only way for the students to reach the parents was via cell phones that students were not allowed to have and were taken away. But there must have been still enough cell phones around, even with all the searching. So, why am I upset. First of all it is more than horrible if teenagers start to shoot each other because they cannot settle an argument. Secondly, it is disturbing that groups identify with teenager x or y, and start fights in high schools not even directly related to the shootings. And thirdly, I am upset about the school administration not informing themselves all the parents, that they may pick up their children. I do not care, how many teachers it takes to call all the parents, or even try to reach the parents. It is unacceptable not to allow cell phones, search for them and take them away, but then let the kids know that the parents can pick them up – hoping for some of the illegal cell phones having stayed in circulation to be used by the students. What kind of signal does that send? Yes, we know that we are not successful in finding ALL cell phones? And what next? Yes, we know that we cannot be successful in finding all possibly lethal weapons?

This is supposed to be the “good” public high school! Is this what school is about? Security and lock downs? Confused students and upset parents? We wanted Teenage Daughter to experience the “real” world, hence her switch this last year to the public school system. Yes, she has had some good teachers, but yes, she has also experienced some not so good teachers. But learning governed by the fear of violence? Will we send her back to private school? I almost guess so. But what about the other parents, who do not have this choice because they cannot afford it?
I am upset, saddened, and concerned.

Monday, January 14, 2008

the saga continues

The night was cold, the sky is a clear blue. This weekend I finally saw La Vie en Rose about the life of Edith Piaf in our little art movie theater. What a great film, wonderful acting, but then such a sad life story. I could not hold back the tears. When she sang Non, je ne regrette rien, a song from rather late in her career, it was just too much. Here is a YouTube link, not from the movie, but the actual Edith Piaf. Seeing the movie helped to see and put matters in perspective, especially concerning the saga around our neighbor, Republican Gay Guy.

On Saturday our street had a meeting to discuss the concessions our neighbor agreed to in regards to his plans to build this monstrous four-car garage with an apartment above. The discussion focused on the question if we are happy with the concessions he made or if we continue to oppose the project. Some expressed that he goes for confrontation, and we will “fight” him, and this is where I have problems. The emotions are running high, especially if people get offended, and calling people names and threatening them, like Republican Gay Guy did, does not help. Even the most rational thinkers can get angry. But I feel uncomfortable. If my neighbor behaves like an adolescent (“if you do this to me, I will do that to you”), we should restrain ourselves not to do the same. I do not want to “fight” him. You fight injustice, yes, but here we should oppose his plans, and not fight him. Even though he acted like a jerk, it does not give us the right “to go after him.” It is not about the person, but about the issue. My neighbor from third country over there thinks that you cannot have it both ways. What does it mean, “to have it both ways?” Do you need to fight the person in order to oppose the project? Am I just hair splitting?

Well, Republican Gay Guy has a right to build a garage, no matter what, but he has to adhere to the guidelines of the historic district. Our concern is that he will be renting out the apartment above the garage. He claims, he needs storage, and this is a rather silly argument. The house is huge, he lives there alone, currently with a “cousin” (his words, but the cousin has mentioned that he is not a cousin). But still, the entire third story is for storage, and a garage alone would do without an additional apartment above. In the end, we do not know why he wants to build this large compound, including a building with an outdoor kitchen, swimming pool and a “lanai.” My personal guess is, that he wishes to create his perfect fantasy world with this project.

What did we decide? The concessions were not deemed sufficient. Most Special Spouse and myself said that we could live with the concessions, but we would prefer not to have the monster garage with a still forty-feet curb cutout (should be only ten in the historic district). This is actually our major concern: this garage house will change the look of the entire street.

Last night, a second meeting took place with the chair of the Historic Commission on the speaker phone. I opted out to go in order not to get worked up, but Most Special Spouse and Teenage Daughter went to Cool Freelancing Lawyer’s house. It turns out, that the Historic Commission had been influenced beforehand, and the chair now regrets voting for the project. As most Special Spouse put it, the city is reluctant to oppose projects, is rather open to variances, and only when citizens complain, they will actually stick to the rules. It appears that most members of the Historic Commission were simply reluctant to speak out against the project. So we, the citizens should raise concerns that projects have to keep to the rules, putting us in the role of the “bad guys.” I do not like this, especially if you have a neighbor who appears to have such a vindictive nature, clear from comments such as “I am ready for mud slinging,” “If you go after me, I will be going after you.”

So here I am. I do not like the project, I am opposed to it, but I do not wish to fight the person, I oppose his plans. Is this like attempting to have it both ways? What to do if this is your next-door neighbor? I so much fear for our peace of mind. I only know that this whole affair is costing me already way too much energy.

Friday, January 11, 2008

things I did not write about

Emil Nolde, Sunflowers in the Windstorm (1943).

Yesterday was my first day of classes, and we had a violent storm system coming through. Luckily we were spared any major damage, whereas in other parts of the country many people were not so lucky. This morning it is nice outside, and I can think about what I will change in the garden and what to plant.

What I did not write about in the last days:

I worked frantically on two new syllabi for two new courses, one undergraduate and one graduate literature seminar. I always plan out all assignments for every session and create web pages with links to tons of materials. Initially it is a huge amount of work, but once the semester has started, I know exactly what I will be doing, and students are aware of what is expected from them. I am excited about both courses; this should be a fun semester.

Gay Republican Neighbor
One of our neighbors in our street only recently heard about the compound my gay Republican neighbor on the corner is planning to build. She is a true activist and got the plans from the court house, contacted all neighbors in our short street, called an ad hoc meeting, and we founded a neighborhood association. At the end of the month his plans will be presented to the city planning committee. He is applying for tons of variances, since the historic district allows only for two car garages (he wants a four car garage), the driveway can extend only 10 feet (he wants 50 feet), there cannot be a dwelling above a new built garage (he wants to have a full apartment), and there are many more. We decided to tell him in advance about our intentions to oppose his plans, at least to some degree. Yesterday my Activist Architect neighbor, Cool Freelancing Lawyer neighbor, and Most Special Spouse met with him. Wow! Republican Gay Guy was aggressive and defensive from the get go, and had even his lawyer there. He more or less offended all neighbors in the street while stressing how well he can relate to people. “I have lived in Liberal State, I got along with everybody; all kind of people like Jews were living there.” Activist Architect and Cool Freelancing Lawyer are by the way both Jewish. Activist Architect’s professor husband was deemed “a liar” (there had been some misunderstanding with parking at some point). My friend and direct neighbor from other country over there was called “the crazy lady with K-Mart junk in her front yard.” She has a gorgeous flower garden in the front and her husband is an artist, and some of his art is integrated in the flowerbeds. In the past, Gay Republican Guy had told her that she was talking down to him: “You Europeans always think you know better.” In short, our short street is more Bohemian, he does not like us, and he obviously goes more for the traditional and formal look. In the spring and fall he drives off to Lowe’s, buys plants that do not do well in this climate, sticks them in the ground, all neatly in a row and the same distance apart, and after they die, he plants new ones, sees them die, and so on. And these are not just annuals, but perennials and shrubs. As nice it is that he keeps Lowe’s in business, it is sad to watch what he is doing. But enough of that, I just betray my own love for living plants, or is it my ‘knowing better’? So he was ready to fight. Most Special Spouse is the calmest person in the world and explained that we do not wish to fight but live with him. His lawyer and friend tried to keep him under control and told him to let people finish what they want to say. At the end there was some kind of compromise reached, have a little green zone between the garage and our property, not to build the wall right up to the street, have the driveway only as wide as the four garage doors, and that is at least something even if he still goes for the Holdiday Inn look. In some ways I feel for Gay Republican Guy. I think he grew up in the country, and I bet he must have been an outsider in a conservative environment. Maybe that explains his defensive aggressiveness, in my opinion showcasing his insecurities, but going around and offending people to the left and to the right will not help either. He is so full of contradictions, from supposedly getting along, but actually offending, and most obviously expressed by being a gay Republican, in my opinion a contradiction in terms. On Saturday morning our newly formed neighborhood association will be meeting at our house to inform everybody a discuss how to proceed.

Blue Fence
Inspired by Phillip’s purple wall, Teenage Daughter and I painted this last Monday our wooden fence in the backyard blue purple. It looks quiet stunning, will take pictures soon, once I have put up some artwork.

Bone Setting
I had twisted my ankle during writing week, and a friend of a friend who is familiar with bone setting did her magic on me. I could walk right afterwards, but had been on crutches before. I am still amazed. I still can see swelling and cannot wear all shoes, but I can walk. Experiences like that make you question the medical establishment.

Talking about medical establishment. I had stopped taking hormones I had been taking from the time I had for medical reasons a hysterectomy and ovariectomy. I knew that I had become depressed, but I realize only now how serious that actually had been. A few weeks ago, I started taking a lower dose of estrogens, after researching the pros and cons. Now I am back to my old self. It is rather amazing if you go through artificial menopause within three months, a process that naturally is gradual and takes years. It is even hard to write about this now, since I felt such a looser that I am not able to live without those artificial hormones. I do not like to take medication, and I perceive(d) this as such a failure from my side. I still have to tell myself, it is fine to take them. There is a higher risk for breast cancer, but all in all the life expectancy of women who underwent an ovariectomy and taking hormones (HRT) is higher than of those not taking hormones.

And do go full circle with confessions – I still see it as a confession to write about – the day has passed when my mother died many years ago when I was five years old. I learned not to talk about that because people do not know how to react, especially women. It is like you tell someone that you have cancer. Then, you are tainted by a disease, and people who talk to you or even just know you are forced to face their personal vulnerability. If you tell someone that your mother died when you where a child, similar fears emerge, the loss of the own mother, and with that, the loss of some deep ingrained underlying security, even if mothers and daughters always fight or the mother is neglectful, just her existence weaves a layer of security, even if thin. So you learn not to talk about it. I still feel like I do something forbidden when I write here, where others can read it, about the death of my mother. I obviously feel guilty and hence my unconscious choice of word, confession. I am now mentally tired, just writing about my feelings of guilt. Maybe I’ll write about her death another time. I so strongly feel the urge to end on a positive note. Well, the sun is shining today.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

transformation zen card


Cyca revoluta. Mine grows in a container and is much smaller.

It was cold last night. My neighbors warned me of freezing water pipes. After having lived in Ice Box State, I wanted to shrug such warnings off, but houses are built differently here. So Most Special Spouse disconnected all water hoses outside, and we left the kitchen cabinet under the sink open. I had already brought in my cyca the night before. I have it in a pot, so that I can move it easily. It is a wonderful plat, often referred to as sago palm, even though it is not a palm at all, but a cycad, a very old plant from the time the dinosaurs roamed the earth. It is a resilient plant, and can grow in full shade or full sun. It should be safe in gardening zone 8, meaning that it can take some frost, but I do not wish to risk it. My neighbor’s cyca is several years old, and it has grown fairly large, even in a pot. The photo above is from Beach Island with the cyca in the ground.

I like to grow plants that have some meaning, the ancient cyca, the pass along cassia from a friend who moved to a country on the other side of the globe, echinacea for its medicinal qualities, nasturtiums for they are a faint reminder of my mother, and the like. Those plants hold a special place. And I am happy to discover new ones, such as the cyca that I bought last spring.

I am taking the day off, no administrative emails or other university related activities, no cleaning house stuff, just sitting here on the bed, not even at the desk, with Black Dog next to me. Teenage Daughter is still asleep. This is unusual since she is an early riser, and that is not an oxymoron in her case. But she spent the last two nights with friends, the first night here at our house, the second at one of the friends, and now she has to catch up on sleep. It is always fascinating how, at some point, the body will no longer put up with whatever we do to it. So I am glad to see Teenage Daughter still sleeping.

I had yesterday my tea hour with my close friend from third country over there. She talked about the long anticipated visit of her sister who is two years older, and even though she loves her dearly, she always feels inadequate around her. We ended up talking about how it is unavoidable to compare ourselves to others, at least for the two of us. In fifth grade I looked at awe at those who were in eighth grade. As a university student, professors were demigods in my eyes. After becoming a professor, those with tenure were the ones to be admired. The variables are indefinite and differ: those owning their own house, those with a loving spouse or partner, those with children, those with a mother, those who are thinner, those who are fuller figured, those who can wear high heels, those who are smarter, those who appear to have no problems with self-confidence, I guess the list could go on and on. Vulnerability is part of the human condition. I know that, and still I have to remind myself from time to time, to live in the moment and not think that everything will be better once I am in eighth grade, have the job I always wanted to have, have tenure, you name it. A fulfilled life is the one lived in the moment and not tied to anything in the future. It is good to set goals, but will you be truly happier once you lost ten pounds? Only if you enjoy the moment and not jump on what still ‘needs’ to be achieved. Ten pounds are great, yes, but I will never be able to wear that dress like xy and the like, these are deadly thoughts, deadly to the self-confidence.

An 'academic friend' of mine who received tenure at a great institution with one of the top programs in the country and a book with one of the most reputable presses experienced a severe case of post tenure depression. There she was, having achieved the thing she had wished for most since high school, and then she suddenly faced emptiness, and all the things she had not ‘achieved’ caved in on her. Achieved in the sense what one could have, what others do have, what one does not have. Comparing oneself to others. Has this not been a reoccurring theme while I have been writing this blog? Am I repeating myself? I guess I am. I know what I should and should not do, but knowing does not prevent me from doing what I should not do. My friend knows that she should not compare herself to her sister, and still she does it. How much of our behavior is imprinted patterns? I really have to get a pair of sharp scissors to cut my own pattern apart, maybe those zigzag scissors would do. What would happen if we had no patterns in our life? Would we feel lost? Not belonging? Lonely? Like a motherless child?

Living the moment, following the path, the path leads the way. Enjoying the journey while looking around and putting one foot in front of the other on the path. Last year I bought a deck of Osho Zen Tarot cards. This is not a divination tarot, no telling the future or the like. It is deck of looking into the inner self. I bought my deck via amazon, but I just discovered also a website for the cards, and one can click to look at some of them and read the explanations. I hardly take them out, but I did last night, just the general five cards spread with all cards, and transformation turned out to be my “issue” card. I like the card.
I found it again online. Here are the explanations for the card:

A master in Zen is not simply a teacher. In all the religions there are only teachers. They teach you about subjects which you don't know, and they ask you to believe because there is no way to bring those experiences into objective reality. Neither has the teacher known them - he has believed them; he transfers his belief to somebody else.

Zen is not a believer's world. It is not for the faithful ones; it is for those daring souls who can drop all belief, unbelief, doubt, reason, mind, and simply enter into their pure existence without boundaries. But it brings a tremendous transformation.

Hence, let me say that while others are involved in philosophies, Zen is involved in metamorphosis, in a transformation. It is authentic alchemy: it changes you from base metal into gold. But its language has to be understood, not with your reasoning and intellectual mind but with your loving heart. Or even just listening, not bothering whether it is true or not. And a moment comes suddenly that you see it, which has been eluding you your whole life. Suddenly, what Gautam Buddha called "eighty-four thousand doors" open.

Osho Zen: The Solitary Bird, Cuckoo of the Forest Chapter 6


The central figure in this card sits atop the vast flower of the void, and holds the symbols of transformation - the sword that cuts through illusion, the snake that rejuvenates itself by shedding its skin, the broken chain of limitations, and the yin/yang symbol of transcending duality. One of its hands rests on its lap, open and receptive. The other reaches down to touch the mouth of a sleeping face, symbolizing the silence that comes when we are at rest.

This is a time for a deep let-go. Allow any pain, sorrow, or difficulty just to be there, accepting its "facticity." It is very much like the experience of Gautam Buddha when, after years of seeking, he finally gave up, knowing there was nothing more that he could do. That very night, he became enlightened.

Transformation comes, like death, in its own time. And, like death, it takes you from one dimension into another.

Yes, I do like this card. And I am fine with transformation coming in its own time.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

to do

Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) remnants.

to do

1. Work on the two syllabi for this coming semester
2. Working in comments by editor from last article
3. Reread article from one year ago, make possibly changes and submit
4. Write letter to friends
5. Go shopping with Teenage Daughter

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

8 happy thoughts for the new year

Ornamental cabbages, I have never seen such huge ones. Coastal climate or genetic mutation?

I am writing while listening to the The Vienna Philharmonic New Year's Concert on NPR. According to the official website “Georges Prêtre becomes the first French conductor to lead the traditional New Year's Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna on January 1, 2008.” Next year the concert will be conducted by Daniel Barenboim. I love this concert, and I have listened to it many a times, even though it makes me a little homesick for Europe. So, there is already a little thing that makes me happy, even though bittersweet.

One of the most inspiring garden websites is Phillip’s A Southern Garden. I also enjoy reading what other gardeners write and look at their photos, such as those by Pam at Digging. It is fun to see how the garden changes throughout the year. And of course there are many more. But my favorite is Phillip’s A Southern Garden along with his blog Dirt Therapy. I admire the creativity how Phillip approached this piece of initially almost bare land that is now his garden. And after ten years he created a little paradise on earth, just beautiful. And I admit, I am also one of those who dream of a purple wall in the garden, but my gardening space is limited. It will be the back fence that soon will change its color. It was Philip who tagged me recently. I am fairly new to the blogging world, and I do not wish to tag anyone yet, but I like the idea to think and write about Happy Things, especially for this coming new year. How can you be positive and inspire others if you are not happy within your own skin.

Eight things that make me happy:

1. Playing board games with Teenage Daughter and Most Special Spouse, spending quality time with TD, MSS, and Black Dog in general
2. Reading
3. Gardening time, real or imaginary, including reading gardening books, flower catalogues, gardening blogs, gardening journals
4. Hearing from friends far away
5. Traveling and also visiting friends far away
6. Modern Art, Modern Art Museums
7. Doing some house remodeling projects, such as painting walls and the like
8. Painting with water colors

If these things make me happy, I should take more time doing those things in the coming year since I am not necessarily taking the time to do them. So instead of resolutions here are some of my personal guidelines for the coming year:

1. Spend more quality time with TD and MSS. Make a point to eat every night dinner together or play one game. Thirty minutes per day of quality time with the people I love most is time spent wisely.
2. Take the time to read one book per week and do not feel guilty – after all, I am a professor of literature!!!
3. Realize a number of garden projects: Put in a new flowerbed after getting rid of the slope in front of the house; have an arch made for the front and plant it (maybe a rose such as Zéphirine Drouhin); paint the backyard wooden fence; create small garden rooms in the back.
4. I love hearing from friends, but I have retreated too much into myself. So, get out of the shell, and let my friends know that I care about them. Especially the sudden death of my friend in country over there was a wake up call. We have lost in the last year two of our graduate students in our program to death, and a former student was just diagnosed with stage three cancer of the breast. It is time to let my friends know more how much I appreciate them.
5. If no long trips overseas are possible, take the time for weekend or day long trips and smaller excursions. There are many parts of the state we have not explored yet. How long will Teenage Daughter be able or willing to do such things with us?
6. The modern art museums are a tough call. But I finally want write more about contemporary art and literature.
7. The house needs some major remodeling work, but those are costly, so maybe I will paint the walls in the stairway.
8. I would like to paint more with water colors, maybe find one to two hours per week.

In short I want to become more aware of life and be content with what I have. I want to be happy so that I can pass on a positive way of seeing life to others. This does not mean seeing the world through pink glasses, but rather taking life for what it is by not glossing over but recognizing the positive force at moments that are rather dark.
In short, keep Socrates in mind: “The unexamined life is not worth living.