Archive for September, 2009

The Gardener’s Lament

While I was home in July, I saw Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince with my mom and siblings. There’s that part near the beginning where Hermione is standing over the pot of love potion in Potions class,  revealing in a breathy way the aromas it carries for her–freshly mowed grass, new parchment, spearmint toothpaste–as the other girls lean in and swoon looking as if they might jump right into the cauldron.

While there has been no swoony teenage angst, or potion making for that matter, around here, I’m finding myself all wound up in a love potion of my own. Its name is Autumn.

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Let me straight with you. I have never liked this time of year. It means school, and cold weather, and the longest period of time possible standing between me and some of my favorite things: swimming in a lake, pesto with freshly picked basil, bread and cheese by the river, and skirts and sandals. However, autumn carries its own allure as well, and for the aforementioned reasons, for those things I know I will lose if I succumb to its draws, I try to resist it.

For me, the Autumn potion smells like the damp boards of the deck and cold stone doused with water. Sometimes, in the evening, when the shortening period of heat has warmed overrippe berries and gone-to-seed grass, it smells like the subtle aroma of beer on the breath of my parents’ friends in the late hours of a barbecue, when they’d sit around the fire with instruments and we’d beg to hear “I’m My Own Grandpa” again.

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Around this time of year, I find myself feeling conflicted. Somewhere near the first of September, I begin to smell these things, and I want to curl up in Fall, to indulge in that earthy smell and burrowing instinct. I want to feel neutral about autumn, even glad perhaps, to enjoy its first signs just like I rejoice in the first daffodil tips in the spring and the first raspberries in summer. Fall itself, though, is bound up in a tidy package of crisp temperatures and vibrant colors, sometimes obscuring the winter it brings in its wake. How can I endorse such a masked monster when the green beans are still producing, the watermelons have not reached their peak, when we continue to plant radishes as if the warm weather will never subside?

To allow myself to succumb to creamy soups and Sunday mornings reading the paper in a coffee shop is somehow to betray the garden. It is around this time when standing outside in a tank top, one thumb on the end of the hose for a half an hour, as I pull weeds and admire oncoming vegetables doesn’t seem like the perfect morning. I start becoming relieved when it rains so I don’t have to stand outside and water.  All through August, I compete with the basil, tearing its flowering heads off as they begin to appear in a vain attempt to keep the plants producing forever. At some point, this practice abates, and I hate myself a little bit for giving in. I know it’s happening. I can feel this potion of sorts getting the better of me, and in the end, its not the turn to Fall that distresses me, but the fact that I can be persuaded from something I love so much.

Compared to a real love potion, though, Autumn really is exceedingly gentle as it takes over. Actually in general, aside from the the ability to apparate, become invisible, and a few other things that could prove supremely useful, living in the muggle world, where deception is not so rampant and good and evil are not so woefully at odds (my subjective opinion, I suppose – a pamphlet I found yesterday in a public bathroom argues otherwise), is not so bad.  I admit I’ve been suspicious of Autumn, for its ability to lure me from these plants I’ve so lovingly tended. Some years I’ve worn sandals into late November, trying to ignore it like an annoying tag-along. This year, though, I’m working to embrace it.

We’ve been picking peppers and canning berries like crazy. The first step to loving fall, I think, is squeezing out every last drop of summer.

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My mother used to weave baskets with soaked reed
that smelled like the picnic table in the rain.
Square, stout hands grew rough taming unruly ribbons
that flipped and thwacked in long arcs, left thin streaks
of water across her lap and mottled the floor with drops.

But the earthworms succumb when she lifts them
from piles of pulled parched weeds, and coaxes
their pink-brown bodies to shaded bee balm roots.
They dangle limp over fingers, ends like narrow tongues
coiling to darkness, to the damp of unmade canals.

Her hands are their caves, stalactites clinging to knuckles,
dirt ensconced under nails, skin like the uneven surface
of flagstone. And when we sat outside at night, plates on our laps,
her palms gently brushing my upper back, calluses hung
onto the fabric of my shirt and the back of my neck.

And I thought of the Russian sage growing by the fence,
the roughened hairs that catch on my forearms and wrists.
The forget-me-nots that cling to fabric like tiny burrs,
The purple cone flowers whose yolk-colored centers bloom soft
like a paintbrush and grow tough and bristly by August.

In September, my mother picked a bouquet for the black
vase, blues and pinks of autumn cut from the backyard.
It was the grass caught my attention, wisps that reached
fingers over the road. What is it called? I asked,
as she bent, pliers in hand, to snip another stalk.

Calamagrostis brachytricha,
Calamagrostis acutiflora,
Calamagrostis arundinacea.
She recited them like items on a shopping list.
It’s not that I hate fall, I hate to see them dry.

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Had I written a list of life goals every year of my childhood, the item “wear a hoop skirt” would have topped the majority of the lists. Who knows what other qualifying requirements I devised—wear it to a masked ball? Around the house? In a play? With glass slippers? In all likelihood, specifics were of little concern; I just wanted a hoop skirt. Forget their restrictive nature, there are few things more enticing to a young girl of the twentieth century than hopping into the wardrobe of her distant ancestors—to feel the swish of curtain weight fabric around her legs as she walks or the puff of a taffeta sleeve brush her cheek as she turns her head.

Around the age of six, in an effort to fabricate such an experience with tools at hand, I dressed myself in every skirt and dress I owned, one on top of another. I started with the fancier ones, stiffer and less forgiving in their form and finished with the stretchier sundresses that could fit over several layers. The satisfying weight of the fabric was there, but unforeseen was the ungainly growth of my waist. Far from any dainty corset look, my makeshift hoop skirt was frumpy. And so, unlike bandanna veils secured with underwear, which I wore out and about between the ages of 3 and 5, this hoop skirt technique died in about a tenth of the time it took me to pull all of the dresses back off.

In following years, I spent many hours as Laura Ingalls Wilder, a more modest ensemble, easily acquired with braided hair and small alterations to existing dresses. I dappled in hoop skirt imitation with a favorite turquoise dress from our dress-up chest that probably found itself on three quarters of the neighborhood children (boys and girls) at one time or another. At the time, it seemed like a hoop skirt, with its tiered ruffles and puffy sleeves. Looking back, though, it couldn’t have been more than a cocktail dress; its hem barely reached a ten-year-old’s ankles.

At the ripe age of sixteen, having never worn a hoop skirt, I encountered my first one in the prop room of my high school theatre department. I spent the first several weeks of my junior year sorting through leisure suits and white marching band boots, donated dresses of every shape and material, prop weapons, hangers, hats and character shoes, organizing them by period and size and hanging them on racks in a trailer (our new costume closet) behind the school. When I found the large circles of white cloth, pulled tight by wire and propped against the wall, I didn’t recognize them at first. I had seen some weird things and it took me a moment to place them. But I did, and no amount of childhood goal-setting could have prepared me for the magical moment that took place in the tiny room behind the stage that morning. There was shrieking and flouncing as we unfolded the hoops and tightened them around our waists, searching for the perfect dresses to adorn them. There would be a dance, we decided, to “Like a Virgin!” There would be prancing and flirty looks and skirt popping up and bloomers! We would put it in the annual dance concert.

The final product was simple and blatant —the skirts were central—but it was among the most enjoyable things I have ever done on stage. It was easily the most entertaining garment I have ever worn. And so, if you’ll excuse me for a moment, I just have one thing I’d like to make clear: Yes, six year old self, hoop skirts are everything you ever dreamed them to be.

There are a few exclusive places where these types of clothes still appear with any regularity. Perhaps, if you are lucky enough to set your hands on it, you might find a tragically misplaced dress stuck between shoulder padded suits at Goodwill. I’m still waiting for my chance in this situation. The bulk of the dresses though, I would have to guess, reside demurely in the stores of community theatre costume closets.

Perhaps this is why many of us turn to performance art to fulfill our aspirations: to the doublet and cloak of Shakespeare in the Park or the tutus and tights of Sleeping Beauty. For me, it is modern dance, where one can make these costumes perform movements they were never meant to do.

Costumes are kind of a point of contention among modern dancers, since some look down upon all the traditional hoopla surrounding outfits for the ballet. It’s easy to be in many modern dance pieces before the costumes are much to speak of. But then one day, you find your self in a dance for video project for the The Magic Flute and the costumer happens to be a woman with connections at the community theater and an eye for fabric and elegance. She decides Victorian dresses will be the most fitting garments and you can’t help but agree. And the videographer/choreographer’s vision requires you dance in the wind and sand of the Oregon Coast, and in a courtyard surrounding a pool of coy and a sculpture of flute-playing nymphs. It feels pretty dang cool to lean against the pillar in a museum courtyard when you are wearing clothing from the Victorian era. If ever there were any doubt, moments like these make me want to pat myself on the back for following an impulse and choosing a dance major.

So, I’m sorry I’ve been rather absent this week, and unabashedly missed my Wednesday post. Since Sunday, I’ve been most often seen in a long, heavy green skirt, a feathered hat, a frilly blouse, bare feet, and stage make-up. In short, I’ve just been living the dream.

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