Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Strawberry season

There are many reasons why I'm very happy not to have to go to work in the morning, but in June, one big reason is the strawberries. It's such a nice morning routine, to go out to the garden in my pajamas and look for strawberries. If I were a morning person (or, maybe, a person who had to go to work in the morning and still wanted her strawberries), I'm sure I could manage it--it just wouldn't have the leisurely quality it has now.

Every day for the past week or so, there have been more and more strawberries. Today, I picked almost a pint--more than I actually need for my breakfast. It's kind of a treasure hunt--the ripe strawberries are not always obvious. Next to the garden is a lovely Japanese maple tree, and so there are lots of red leaves that have taken residence in the strawberry patch. I can't just assume that any flash of red is a berry. Plus, the strawberries have spread, as they are wont to do, and so I find them on the other side of the raspberry canes, actually in the grass on the edge of the garden, in the cat mint, casually drifting across the herbs.

Sometimes I wish I were the kind of gardener who kept my strawberries in line, who moved the plants and was vigilant about not letting them spread. From reading my various gardening books, especially Barbara Damrosch's The Garden Primer, I know that I really should impose more discipline on the strawberries (not to mention the raspberries, which, this year suddenly seem to have expanded exponentially), but I can't help thinking that if I have more plants, then I'll have more berries. And it's not like the rest of my garden is so orderly to begin with.

The other thing, I've realized, with the strawberries, is that there's strategy involved. The birds like the strawberries too, and they especially like the ripe ones. Every morning, when I go out to collect what I can, I have to decide whether to pick a strawberry that could maybe use one more day out there, except that the moment it reaches its perfect state of ripeness, the birds might get it. Do I pick it when it's almost, but not quite, ready, or do I wait? There's a philosophical conundrum in there somewhere. Depending on the day, my mood, the berry, sometimes I pick and sometimes I wait. This year's berries seem especially good--bigger than I remember, and sweeter, even when picked a day early. I wonder if that blast of heat last week helped. Somehow, I don't even mind sharing the berries with the birds--at least they're somewhat discriminate. When things get eaten at the community garden (usually by the dreaded woodchuck), everything gets chomped on. I still remember, sadly, the row of carrots, of which every single one had been eaten at the top, as if the woodchuck had just eaten down them until his mouth got too dirty and then moved onto the next one. (I thought of that woodchuck when I read the article in the NY Times a few weeks ago called "Peter Rabbit Must Die.")

In other garden news, I also picked my first bouquet--I don't have enough flowers in either garden for even a little bouquet, but with some of each, it was enough:

As an experiment, I included some cat mint, to see whether the cats would notice.

I think maybe they noticed.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Happy Birthday Readerville!

I've always been a bookish sort, as anyone who's known me since childhood will attest. Once, as I was returning a massive stack of library books to the public library, the librarian informed me that I would only be allowed to take out 10 books at a time, since I couldn't possibly read any more in one week. Once I started telling her the plots of all of the books in the pile, she relented. My first paying job was as a page in the children's room of the same library--my salary can't have been much, but I was allowed to take as many books as I wanted just by signing my name, and I could keep them as long as I wanted. Bliss. (My desire for library books did not cease as I got older. For a time when I lived in Delhi, I belonged to five libraries all at once--the American Library, the British Council Library, the American Embassy Library, the Nehru Library and the Sahitya Akademi library.)

But this isn't a post about my love for public libraries, though I remain a stalwart supporter. In my adult reading life, one of my best discoveries was Readerville . I looked at the site occasionally in its first few years but didn't become a regular til I came back from India in the spring of 2002. At Readerville, I found a community of book lovers, and over time, my To Be Read lists grew and grew, as did the stacks of books in my house. As time went on, I also found myself turning to Readerville for recipes, garden recommendations, knitting patterns, online friends and real ones, and the occasional spectacular dust-up over something that maybe didn't seem like such a big deal at the time, but once 57 people felt compelled to comment, it became one.

The short-lived print version of The Readerville Journal gave me my first published articles and the opportunity to write my first real essay as well as to correspond with one of my favorite writers, Barbara Trapido. (The Journal has been reborn in online form in recent months, which is nice to see.)

I have friends whose participation in Readerville was literally life-changing (you know who you are). For me, it's been more life affirming. It's been lovely to be able to interact daily with so many kind, often funny, always bookish souls, and I've loved how formerly invisible friends have become real ones.

And while my shelves might have looked like this without Readerville, they would not have been filled so quickly or so happily.

So, Happy 8th Birthday, Readerville, and many happy returns. Thanks, Karen.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Signs of Early Summer

So, there's a bit of a heat wave going on here. Very strange to think that last week, I was wearing long pants and sweaters, and now, I'm trying to get away with as few clothes as possible. I suspect the cats wish they could unzip themselves from their black cat suits and run around pink and naked for a little while. They're both mostly lolling around on the floor near the fans. Chaya hasn't even woken me up the past two nights, I suspect because it's slightly cooler downstairs.

The garden is simultaneously lush and parched, if that's possible. Things are growing like gangbusters, but I'm worried about this blast of heat. I'm wondering if it means the ruin of pea season, for one thing.

Here's what a few things look like.

My lovely peony at home went from being on the cusp of opening to looking a bit blowsy and over-ripe. The color is still pretty, but it's not the best display. I'm hoping as it cools off a bit that the last buds will open more slowly.

The white peony at the community garden is a bit more decorous.

Also at the community garden, the annual corn poppy display has begun. It's a good thing I have both sides of my four-plot. Up until last year, the poppies mainly stayed on the side I had first, where I first planted the seeds, many years ago. But now they've migrated, and they're such a nice show every year, that I can't bear to pull any (or many, at least) out, even when they seed themselves in inconvenient places. The problem is that, when they die, there are big gaping holes. I'm attempting to combat that on this side of the garden by planting a bunch of annuals in the spaces between them, so something, at least, will be coming up when the poppies die down.

On the left is the first red(dish) strawberry to have been discovered by the birds, and on the right, are the first red(dish) strawberries that are (so far) intact. I stumbled upon them when I bent down to pull out a weed (as often happens), and now I'm going to keep my eye out for them and try to get them before the birds do. There are lots of green strawberries, which is encouraging, though I think it will be at least another week before I have more than a few to put on my breakfast cereal.

This is one of the pleasures of being a haphazard gardener. I bought this last year and didn't plant it right away. By the time I got it into the ground, it wasn't doing very well. But I made sure to give it lots of compost, and then I basically left it alone. This year, it seems to have settled in quite nicely. I'm not even positive what it is, but I'm assuming some kind of salvia. It's my first fully blooming plant at home--well, not counting the daisies and the irises and the peony. (Okay, and some other stuff. But in that section of the garden, it's the only thing blooming.)
I think poor Kalu wishes he felt as fresh as the flowers look. It was hard to get a picture of him in that pose--he gets excited when he sees me on the other side of the window and starts pacing and seems to want me to pet his stomach through the screen. Yesterday, this meant that as he attempted to roll onto his back on the narrow window sill, he fell off. (He's a bit of a klutz that way.)

Tomorrow, the high is supposed to be 90, and usually, that wouldn't be a good thing, but I'm hoping it's a sign the heatwave is breaking. After the combination of living in India (for quite awhile without AC) and living in an attic apartment for 7 years, I seem to have more tolerance for the heat than I used to, but I still don't like it. I'm hoping for some cooler days for us all--plants, animals and people alike.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

In Memoriam

A few weeks ago, I went to a memorial service for my friend Doris. She had died in January, of cancer, at the age of 82. I was in Sri Lanka at the time, and it was such a disconnect. There I was, sandy and salty, having just eaten a beach-y kind of lunch of a prawn omelet and a banana milkshake. It started raining suddenly, so I ducked into an email place to get onto the computer and wait out the rain. Mostly, I was expecting that I'd hear about an annoying freelance project I didn't want to be working on while at the beach (though I was grudgingly doing it). But there was an email from my friend Susan, with the subject, "Sad News from Home," and I knew exactly what it was.

It was pretty much the opposite of when I lived in Delhi in 1994-95 and three of my four grandparents died in a six month period. The first grandfather died in June, and the fax from my parents arrived the day after I'd left to go up to the mountains for 3 weeks. I got it when I returned to Delhi, and the fax telling me of my second grandfather's death arrived a week later, so it felt like I'd both lost grandfathers in the same week. That was a different kind of disconnect--being so far away while things were happening at home and really feeling the distance.

It's a different kind of strange to be so far away and know immediately that something bad has happened. It was a small comfort, at least, that I was in Sri Lanka visiting Sonia, because Sonia had been with me the first time I'd met Doris and Dorothy in 1996. We spoke on the phone that evening (she was working in Colombo while I was at the beach), and she advised me to go to the old Dutch Reformed Church in Galle Fort and spend a moment thinking about Doris. Obediently, I did.

I had known that Doris had been frail for the last few years I knew her, but I hadn't known that she was so sick. I immediately flashed back to our last real visit, more than a year earlier. It was late summer, and Doris was having an allergic reaction to something, so she'd been exiled from her house to a friend's cottage to make sure that she wasn't allergic to their 3 dogs or multiple cats. (She thought this unlikely, given that she'd been living with animals for so long, but she had gamely agreed to the exile. ) The cottage was by a lake, and we sat on the porch in back and looked at the water and talked. There had been an article in the NY Times the previous weekend about female to male transsexuals, and we spent a long time talking about that. Doris thought that actually changing your body parts indicated a "lack of imagination," and when I finally left, I was just tickled that I'd had that particular conversation with my then 81- year- old friend. Although I'd seen her briefly once or twice after that, I was glad to have that as my last memory.

I was grateful, also, that the memorial service wasn't happening right away so I could attend. It happened on a perfect spring day, sunny and windy and warm, and the auditorium was nearly full. At the entrance was an enormous bouquet of flowers from Richard Gere, who had been one of Doris' students at UMass and who continued to hold her in high esteem. The memorial service was, basically, perfect. An interesting selection of people from different parts of her life spoke--old friends, former students, colleagues. One of her poems was set to music, and there was a string quintet along with a small chorus to perform it. One man played the guitar (an arrangement of an Emily Dickinson poem set to music), and another the piano. There were many very funny moments, and I was amazed to hear how many people Doris corresponded with--many people mentioned her steady flow of notes. She wrote to me at least a few times a month for most of the time I knew her, and it made me realize that I was just one of many, many correspondents for her. (It seemed that we were all equally amazed and saddened that there would be no more notes signed, "love from D and D and the menagerie.") At the end was a slide show of photos from her life and her long relationship with Dorothy, and the last slide was a shot of her study with its empty chair. (There could not have been a dry eye in the auditorium by then.)

I was going to write all of this earlier, right after the memorial service, and I started but got sidetracked. And then a week ago, I got an email from Karen Templer at Readerville asking if she could publish on the web the essay I'd written about Doris and Dorothy and their bookstore, which I originally wrote for the print edition of The Readerville Journal in 2003. As a writer, I see things I'd change, but the rest of me is glad I wrote it when I did so that Doris and Dorothy could read it.

It's called "Uncommon Readers," and it's here. I'll also link (though it's also linked at the end of the essay) Doris' wonderful Boston Globe obit.