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The Zen of Gardening April 13, 2009

Posted by alwaysjan in Gardening, Hobbies.
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Growing up, my gardening experience was limited to weeding one very small strawberry patch, which was also our dog Holly’s favorite pooping spot.  To this day, I always wash strawberries one more time – just in case.

In the suburbs, people didn’t actually garden as they were too busy slavishly maintaining The Lawn.  One of my enduring memories is of driving past our neighbor’s house and seeing him sitting out in the front yard after dinner every night with a bucket, methodically digging up dandelions. Night…after night… after night.  What a monumental waste of time, I thought.  You go to work all day in a cubicle (though cubicles had yet to be invented and popularized by Dilbert) and come home to THIS.  But I was young, so what did I know?

In 1996, we bought our first house and the pipeline of “Better Homes & Gardens” began flowing (Thanks Mom).  I realized that I actually liked getting my hands dirty and watching the bugs and worms scuttle off when I overturned a rock. (See Bugs Don’t Bug Me.)  Rabid do-it-yourselfers, my husband and I broke out the concrete patio, then meticulously reset the broken pieces of concrete in a bed of mortar with a scattering of polished black stream stones.

In the middle of our new and improved patio, we planted two queen palm trees inside a 3-foot high circular concrete planter.  My husband and I personally hand-mixed 42 bags of concrete to pull this off in a day (with only one emergency trip to Home Depot to buy MORE concrete). When I look at the planter now, the only logical explanation for undertaking such a project is demonic possession.

We planted a variety of plants around the base of the palms.  Strawberries for our pig (above dog pooping level), some bulbs, a succulent, and ivy so it cascades over the top of the planter, which is outlined in bricks.

One night my husband noticed I was hovering over the planter, which I’d come to do more often than not. Night…after night…after night.  I fussed over every incursion by a weed and meticulously clipped away any leaf that dared to go brown on the tip.  What was happening to me?

I’d started teaching, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that my first three years of teaching, I had horrible classes.  Horrible.  I’d often come home feeling overwhelmed and then have to start calling parents about what their little darling had done that day.  It was incredibly stressful.

That’s when it hit me.  So much of my life was out of control, and the one thing I felt I could control was a little patch of dirt.  Suddenly, my heart went out for that neighbor from my childhood.  After a day at a mind numbing job, he was out picking dandelions most likely for the same reason I was hovering over my “garden” with manicure scissors.  To keep his sanity. To keep his head from exploding a la Scanners.

What better place to clear your head, but in the garden, where you can lapse into the rhythms of nature and use your hands to do something besides double click.  I can’t think of anything more zen than whiling away quality time in the garden, allowing your soul to feast on the beauty of the natural world.

I’m feeling settled as a teacher these days, and my newfound serendipity shows in my gardening, which is sporadic and in spurts. My husband likes to say there’s nothing I like better to do than sit out in the dirt.  It’s true, I’ve no need for those high tech knee pads, as I just plunk myself down and get to work.  I’m a Taurus and that IS an earth sign.  I wonder.

Not long ago, my husband wandered out back looking for me.  Not seeing me, he stood still for a moment until he could hear me.  I was sitting in the dirt behind a giant perennial, pruning.  Clip.  Clip.  Clip.  My jeans were encrusted with dirt, as was my face.  He took in the view. “You know, back in the pioneer days,” he said, “If you’d been kidnapped by Indians, you would have SO gone native.”

You know, I think that’s one of the nicest compliments my husband has ever paid me.

I’m Sewing Mayhem August 5, 2008

Posted by alwaysjan in Hobbies.
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There’s evidence everywhere. Needles are strewn about the house, even embedded in the carpet, so it’s not like I can hide my addiction. Tweaked on caffeine and a creative high, I was up half the night. Yeah, I’m sewing again. When I told my husband I was thinking of making something, he said without a second’s hesitation, “And that would be a mess?”

I first learned to sew in 7th grade Home Ec (home ick to slackers). I’d already learned how to make floury white sauce, and how you can sprinkle sugar on half a grapefruit, pop it in the broiler, and garnish it with a maraschino cherry to create a healthy breakfast. But, back to sewing.

Our first project was a beach bag with a drawstring. Did it. Next up was a simple shift with darts and a zipper. I became so frustrated trying to sew the 18-inch-long zipper into the back of the dress (baby blue cotton duck), that I decided to just blow off this whole zipper thing. I’d pull the stupid shift over my head and wriggle into it!  But my mother, who was a talented seamstress, would have none of that. I’m sure she quoted entire passages from The Little Engine That Could to motivate me, or just to induce guilt. I put the damn zipper in. Never mind that I never ever wore that shift.  If you look up ugly in the dictionary, you can see a picture of it.

I worked at fabric stores in high school and on summer vacations in college. With that employee discount, I was able to develop a full-blown habit. Soon Simplicity didn’t do it for me and I graduated to Vogue. I was churning out long-sleeved tailored shirts by the dozen. I enjoyed the high of saying, “I made it myself.”

At one fabric store, employees got to sew samples for display and have all the materials paid for.  I made a plaid blazer (100 percent cotton brushed flannel), which required that I match the plaid on nine seams so the garment would look oh so professional. When I was done, even the plaid on the sleeves aligned with the plaid on the body of the jacket. Never mind that to achieve this amazing effect, I’d sewn the sleeves in so that you couldn’t raise your arms. Despite my best intentions, I’d created a Tartan straightjacket. But it looked great!

Growing up, my sewing was a late-night affair in our basement in Omaha. I’d stoke up on iced tea and pull a late nighter. Long before people had a personal pin number, my dad could personally tell you the number of pins the vacuum cleaner repairman had removed from the vacuum hose.  He would ban sewing. I’d lay low for a week then start up again.

When I got married, I made my own wedding dress (crushed ivory satin) for a whopping $12. I got the last piece of fabric on the bolt at a wholesale shop in downtown LA. When I was almost done, I trimmed the long sleeves to put the lacy cuffs on, miscalculated, and realized I’d cut them too short. I had a total meltdown, which my husband witnessed. I pulled an all-nighter and figured out how to add a piece of lace and an extra strip of fabric to salvage the dress. So it’s not like my husband didn’t know what he was getting into.

Years later, I marveled at all of the work I’d put into making my wedding dress – before I dropped it off at the Salvation Army. I’m not particularly sentimental and it’s not like I was going to wear it again.

When we lived in New York City, there was no room to spread out and sew, so I took up knitting.  I made two sweaters for my first son. I was so afraid the sleeves would be too short that I made them too long. The sweaters would have been perfect had my son been a gorilla. (What’s with me and sleeves?)

For a while, I took to making baby quilts because they were so cute and small. Did I mention they were small? But when I made a really special one for someone and they didn’t offer to thank me by giving me their first born, I decided people just don’t appreciate real art.

I don’t sew much anymore, but I was at Joanne’s and linen was on sale. Patterns were also on sale for only $2 and that’s a far cry from the $25 that the designer patterns fetch. I fell off the wagon. So now I’m living in my sewing netherworld and cranking.

I cut out two rectangles to make the first skirt and put in an elastic waist. When I tried the skirt on, it looked like I was wearing drapes. I spent the next hour ripping out all my handiwork. I don’t believe in seam rippers because I never can find any of mine. I removed the last stitches with a dental tool designed to clean out plaque.

I then spent two hours copying the pattern from a Made in China skirt I’d bought for $7.99 at Ross. It’s a gored skirt with a zipper. I’d never made a skirt like this before. It was touch and go, but when I pulled it over my head (zipper still to be added), it looked fabulous! Never mind that I spent an entire night and day creating this masterpiece and time IS money. I made it myself!

I read that with rising petroleum costs, all those cheap clothes from China will eventually become a thing of the past. I’m prepared to go local and sew my own clothes and to selflessly teach others this lost art. Those interested should drop by after midnight, as that’s when I do my best work. Be careful, though, to step over all the needles and pins.