There are some plants in the garden that seem to thrive no matter how hot and humid August gets. My zinnias are one. Those flowers just never stop! But it seems like most of my perennials wilt during the overbearing weather of late summer, a lot like we as humans do. Those days when you just step outside and break a sweat can be tough. The weather completely zaps your energy before you really even get anything done.
So when my coneflower quit blooming and the hibiscus succumbed to an insect that totally disseminated its leaves, I figured it was getting to be the time of year to start cutting back and moving on. After all, the first frost would be just around the corner.
But then I had a happy surprise. Through the month of September, when the days were warm but not as hot as August, I started to see a revival of sorts in my garden. Not only were the mums and asters blooming, which they’re supposed to do in the late summer/early fall, but some of my perennials started to perk back up and bloom again. I’ve had a second round of blooms on my rose bush, the coreopsis, and the ‘Going Bananas’ daylily.
Here we are in the third week of October, and I have a garden that looks like an odd mix of early spring and late fall. Maybe the name of that daylily was symbolic. Is this a sign that our climate is going bananas, when I have daylilies blooming on October 19? Late last year, after our first frost, we had a warm spell long enough that some of the forsythia and other early spring bloomers started blooming. I worried that they wouldn’t bloom again in the spring, but they did. And now we have a summer that seems like it just won’t end.
It’s hard not to worry about climate change. This article from Slate.com written in March and updated monthly, shows in a humorous way just what we’re experiencing. What will our world be like in 20 years, or 30, when my children are adults and raising children of their own?
I can only hope that we are taking steps now to stall some of the dire affects climatologists warn us of. And in the meantime, I will ease my worries by enjoying the blooms in my garden. After all, it’s hard to deny that a cheery yellow daylily brightens up your day!
I have to admit, August isn’t my favorite month in the garden. The squash and green beans that were so lush and productive in June and July are have given in to bugs and powdery mildew. The flowers that looked so perky and perfectly mounded in the spring and early summer are now overgrown and straggly. No amount of cutting back seems to bring back that spring-time vigor.
But all of that doesn’t keep me from going out to the gardens. There are still plenty of zinnias to pick, and a few tomatoes that have escaped the nibbles of deer. And the other day, when I went to see what produce I could scrounge from my mid-August garden, I found my flowers alive with butterflies. It was the most I’d ever seen in one place. I only have about a two-foot line of zinnias out at the vegetable garden, and I counted seven butterflies there at one time. They were so intent on getting the nectar from the flowers some of them didn’t even move when I came near them. A few would fly up and away only to come back and light on another flower.
Watching those butterflies made me happy. There are many reasons why gardening is touted as a good activity for stress relief, and the connection to nature is one of the biggest. It’s so peaceful to watch the butterflies at work, collecting nectar. And so beautiful, with their colorful wings flittering against a background of colorful flowers.
Here I was, thinking it was the ugly stage of the garden, when I was overcome with beauty. If you look for it, there’s beauty in every stage. The colorful leaves of the fall, the stark limbs of shrubs in the winter, each season has its highlights. Thinking of the garden is peaceful in so many ways, but it also brings peace when you realize that just like the garden, life itself is beautiful at every stage. So many articles and blogs write about the fleeting moments of early childhood, and how that time is gone before you know it. It is. But then the next stage comes, and the next. And each is beautiful, fun and awe-inspiring in its own right.
The other day I when I was sitting on the porch at my parents’ house, the smell of gardenias hung heavy in the air, and I breathed it in deeply. For those of you who aren’t familiar with these iconic southern flowers, the smell is sickeningly sweet, in much the same way as old-fashioned roses whose blooms perfume the air with strong fragrance, enough to inspire perfumes and poems. Yet the fragrance of gardenias is nothing like roses. Gardenias have their own unique smell.
For me, the smell of gardenias inspires vivid memories of my grandfather. Sitting on the porch that day, I could see in my mind as clear as day my grandfather sitting out there too, wearing his button-down, short-sleeved shirt and dress pants, usually in a tan or brown color, reading the paper or going through the mail. We spent a lot of time out on that porch. It was the house that he grew up in and then lived in once he retired from a career as an industrial engineer, and he loved it.
Out on the porch, he taught me about what it meant to be a Presbyterian, and he also taught me about other denominations as well. When I dated a boy who went to the Church of Christ, Grandpa handed me a book with a chapter to read on the history of that denomination, and then we sat on the porch and talked about the differences and similarities between my church and Chris’s. The porch was where we had conversations about the environment and the need to recycle, something we disagreed on greatly as I was passionate about conservation, whereas he came from a generation that was taught the world was ours to use. And the porch was where he got out his scrapbook from World War II, and shared some of his memories with me and my brother.
He also liked to eat lunch out on the porch, and the summers when I worked at the bank downtown, I would walk the three blocks to Grandpa’s house and join him and Grandma for lunch on the porch. I probably associate egg salad with that porch as much as I do gardenias.
All of these memories and more flooded my brain the other day on the porch, and all because of the smell of the gardenias. The funny thing is, Grandpa wasn’t someone you would normally associate with flowers. He didn’t garden, that was my grandmother’s arena. He didn’t even do yard work. He paid someone to mow the lawn.
But for some reason, he loved those delicate little white flowers and their sweet fragrance. When the gardenias were in bloom, he always had one in his shirt pocket. And there were vases with blooms set out all over the house, so no matter where you went you could smell gardenias.
No wonder I associate Grandpa with that smell. His house was probably the only place I was around gardenia blooms as a kid, so every time I smelled them I was with him.
And now I’m thankful for the memories that those flowers conjure up. Not only of the man who studied and read and liked to have serious conversations, but of a man who saw beauty in the world and appreciated it, in his own way. He may have had a stern demeanor, but he had a soft side as well. It was something I got a glimpse of once in a while, on rare occasions. I saw it when he held out his arm to help my grandmother down the stairs, in an unspoken gesture of compassion. I saw it when he spoiled my cousin’s cat Mosca, giving her treats and letting her sleep on his lap. And I saw it when he bought himself a very thick, heavy winter coat just so he could come to the high school football games and stay warm while watching me play in the marching band.
For me, I will never be able to see a gardenia without thinking of my grandfather. And maybe those gardenias were important to Grandpa for the same reason they are for me, for the memories. For a smell that brings to mind a time of life filled with family and home.
On Tuesday, Caroline came home with homework. Something she wasn’t expecting during her last week of school. They were going to write an essay, or maybe just a paragraph, she wasn’t sure, on “What C.B. Eller Means to Me,” and her homework was to plan out her essay and come up with a strategy. Being her last week of fifth grade, her last year at this great little elementary school, I guess her teachers were wanting them to reflect on their time there before moving on to middle school next year. So I hijacked the assignment. I am doing it for myself, because listening to her brainstorm made me realize just how much I appreciate this school and everything it has meant to my kids, and how much I’ve grown to love it.
What C.B. Eller Means to me:
A Home Away from Home. C.B. Eller is like a second home for my kids. And when I say that, I don’t mean it’s just a place where they spend most of their time. It’s a place where they feel safe and loved, just like at home. I remember clear as day, just like it was yesterday, Caroline as a kindergartener walking herself in to school on the second day, all by herself. Most of the other moms were still walking their little ones in, but Caroline had informed me on the first day that she didn’t need me in the morning. And even though I had a tinge of a sentimental feeling rise up in me while I watched that jaunty little girl walk into school, I felt totally confident in letting her go. I knew that she had a teacher who loved her, and school staff and administration who were there for her. Ever since that second day of school there have been countless ways these great people at C.B. Eller showed me that they cared about my children like family — notes of encouragement, high fives from teachers, teachers who eat lunch with the kids even though they could be having down time in their room or the teacher’s lounge, a secretary who always has a smile on her face, a helping hand from the principal to jump over the puddles getting out of the car on rainy days — it’s the little ways they show they care that matter most.
It’s more than just EOGs! Even as early as preschool, parents of Caroline’s friends were talking about the dreaded EOGs. Will our children be able to handle the stress? Should schools be teaching to the test? What is too much when it comes to practice tests? It’s a big worry, but not for us, thank goodness! Yes, the kids at C.B. Eller take EOGs starting in third grade, and have more assessments from the time they’re in kindergarten than I ever did. But teaching to the test isn’t the priority at this school. They learn all year long, and when it’s time for those end of grade tests, they’re told to get a good night’s sleep, eat a good breakfast, and do their best. And along the way, in addition to a few days of tests, Caroline has been able to take part in a wax museum filled with notable North Carolinians, do three different science fair projects, work on research of a topic of her choosing (which happened to be sink holes for some reason), make applesauce in a crock pot to honor Johnny Appleseed, learn how Christmas is celebrated around the world, and countless other hands-on learning opportunities that you don’t find on a standardized test.
The Field Trips. Yes, one of the things I love about C.B. Eller are the great field trips each class goes on. In addition to great performances at the John A. Walker Center at Wilkes Community College, Caroline has gotten to go to the North Carolina Zoo, Grandfather Mountain, Catawba Science Center, and many other places where she explored and leaned new things.
In the end, I can see why it was hard for Caroline to put into words what C.B. Eller means to her, because even though I can go on and on about how much I love the teachers, the community, and the things she has learned at this school, there’s a part of what this school means to me that just can’t be put into words. I’ve watched my daughter learn, grow, and make lasting friendships and wonderful memories.
And maybe most importantly, what I love about Caroline’s time at C.B. Eller is that it has prepared her for her next adventure — middle school here we come!
If you asked me in any given year, I would say April is a pretty uneventful month for the Alley family. There aren’t any birthdays, big occasions like the first or last day of school, or weather-related events like sledding or swimming. It’s just a month of days where we go to school or work, do our chores around the house, and live life in ordinary days.
But now that we are at the beginning of May, I took the opportunity to look back at the camera roll on my phone, and it turns out this April has been pretty eventful in a variety of ways.
- The kids and I hiked to the top of Stone Mountain, the full 4.5 mile loop. This is a big one for us because even though we live so close to this wonderful state park, we haven’t hiked that trail together. It was so beautiful up on top, and the kids appreciated the time just sitting, taking in the view, more than I imagined they would.
- We all experienced our first Merlefest, which turned out to be even better than I expected. It didn’t hurt that an old friend from college was playing at the event this year, and it was pretty cool to see Jeni & Billy perform, and then get pictures afterwards!
- Carter and I got to visit SciWorks for the first time, and quickly became huge fans of this science museum in Winston-Salem.
- Caroline proved she is well on her way to growing up by becoming a server rather than a spectator at the library’s annual Storybook Character Breakfast, as well as trying out instruments and making the decision to be in band in middle school next year.
- Carter got the chance to go on his first real fishing trip, heading over to Kerr Scott Dam with his father and grandfather for a boys’ day out on the lake.
All the fun activities in April afforded plenty of family time. But I’m also thankful for the opportunity to try new things and partake in new experiences. Spring is a time for new beginnings. We see it every year as the leaves bud out on the trees, baby calves frolic in the pastures and little birds hatch out of fragile eggs. But it doesn’t always correlate to new things for me. Spring can be just another season, months full of days consisting of work, cleaning the house, working in the yard, and keeping up with the kids and their school work and activities.
This month reminded me how important it is to try new things. Whether that’s blowing into a trumpet even if your heart is set on playing the xylophone or learning how to put a minnow on a fish hook, we learn from all of our experiences, both big and small.
I’m thankful for all the big and small things I got to experience with and through my kids this month, and look forward to many more months full of days of fun adventures!
In my many years editing for Carolina Gardener and reading various gardening publications, I became very familiar with the extension agents’ favorite saying: “Right Plant, Right Place.” Basically this means you want to understand the environmental needs of a plant before you put it in the ground. You don’t take a sun-loving zinnia and plant it in the woods, just like you wouldn’t put the shade-loving heuchera out in an open garden with full sun.
So when my grandmother gave me a bunch of Lenten rose babies, I did what I thought I was supposed to do. I dutifully planted these shade garden plants in the shade. I dug up a nice little area in the wooded spot of our backyard, right by the bench Bill had bought as a birthday present for me years ago, the beloved bench that has been in three different backyards and is still going strong. I planted them the same fall we moved into this house, in 2008.
For years, I watched those plants, pulling weeds around them, watering them when necessary, and nothing happened. Nothing. It has now been eight years, and while those plants are still there, nothing has changed. They still only have two leaves each. They’ve never bloomed, and they haven’t even grown. I read all I could about Lenten roses, and asked a couple of people who were writing for Carolina Gardener at the time who were experts, and the reason for their struggle remained a mystery.
After my grandmother passed away, I was helping my parents clean out her garden, and there were multitudes of Lenten roses. The plants kept re-seeding, and no one had been there to keep the population under control. My mom offered for me to take some, and at first I said no. I felt like a failure, because I hadn’t been able to do well with the first ones Grandma gave me. But in the end, I couldn’t resist. I love these flowers, the greenish-white harbingers of spring, and I’ve always wanted them in my garden. So I tried again.
This time, I really wasn’t worried about whether they survived or not. After all, I knew where I could get more. So I recklessly planted them in front of our house beside a couple of rose bushes. A non-shady, mostly sunny area right out in the open. Totally against everything I’d known about the perfect spot for Lenten roses. But I needed something for that space. And you know what? These two plants have grown like gangbusters! After two years, I now have big, healthy plants, and this spring I was blessed with a full spray of blooms.
I’m not saying you should ignore cultural requirements and plant with reckless abandon in your garden. I can’t explain why the plants did better in one spot than another. All I can say is, I’ve learned that it pays to experiment a little. These little flowers that bloomed so beautifully in a place where they shouldn’t have grown well showed me that stepping outside your comfort zone just might be a good thing once in a while. Maybe I can learn a thing or two from these beat-the-odds Lenten roses.
When I was in the 8th grade, my class trip to Raleigh included a stop at Four Seasons Mall in Greensboro. I will never forget overhearing one boy exclaim in excitement about his first ride on an escalator. Having lived in Atlanta as a child, and traveled with my parents to other cities, escalators were no big deal to me.
Now I am a parent, raising my children in a small town. We moved here because we like the sense of community a small town affords, the absence of big-city problems like traffic and crime (well, there is crime here, but not in the same volume) and the opportunity to hike in our own woods and fish in our own creek, among other things. But I am fully aware that there are disadvantages too, like the fact that our community is pretty homogenous, and opportunities to experience the arts are few and far between. I don’t want my kids to be the ones who go on a field trip and have never ridden an escalator. A few years ago one of my friends reassured me that wouldn’t happen, because as a parent I would make sure to expose them to a variety of things.
And she was right. At least I hope so.
One of those opportunities came last weekend. Bill and I took our kids to the Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Peter and the Wolf, part of the Discovery Concert Series for Kids. It was a great event. They had activities before the concert that included an “Instrument Petting Zoo” where Carter and Caroline each got to try their hand at playing the violin, the cello, the flute, and the clarinet. And we got to experience the world premiere of The Wild Woods, a piece commissioned by the Winston-Salem Symphony written by a young and very talented composer, Viet Cuong. That was a very modern piece, with lots of atonal music and interesting rhythms. I can’t say the kids appreciated it as much as I did, but between that and Sergei Prokofiev’s family friendly music, they got a good introduction to the symphony in a concert that was appropriately kid-length.
On the way home, I talked about how much fun we had, getting out and doing all those neat things today. And Carter piped up from the backseat, “Yeah, I got to ride an escalator four different times.”
I know that Valentine’s Day is over. Time to move on to St. Patrick’s Day and Easter, as we trundle through our calendar. But bear with me, because I have a Valentine’s Day post that I couldn’t put up before the actual day without ruining a nice surprise for many of my family members.
If you watch TV at all, or happen to walk into a store, the marketing gurus and consumer products manufacturers would have you thinking that Valentine’s Day is all about celebrating romantic love. They want you to buy wine, roses, jewelry, chocolate and sexy lingerie, and they try to sell it all by making you think that you need a fabricated, romantic holiday to make use of all that stuff.
But let’s face it, other than young lovers and newlyweds, Valentine’s Day isn’t that big of a deal, on the romance side. (It is DEFINITELY a big deal for preschool and elementary children, but that’s a different topic.) I loved last week’s episode of Fresh Off the Boat, where the neighbors volunteered to keep the kids on Valentine’s Day so Louis and Jessica could have a romantic evening out, and instead of going out for dinner and dancing they did their taxes. Pretty good look at typical married life! And if you’re not in a relationship, it’s just a day to hate because you feel bad that you’re not in a relationship.
Instead of romantic love, I believe Valentine’s Day is a great excuse to let loved ones in your life know you care about them. My daughter is one who has taught me that. A few years ago, when writing her name on cards for kids in her class, she decided she wanted to go a step further and send Valentines to people in our family. And that tradition stuck with her. This year she spent most of the Sunday afternoon the week before Valentine’s Day cutting out construction paper and putting stickers and glitter on 15 Valentines.
As I addressed the envelopes and got those big, somewhat cumbersome Valentines ready to mail, I couldn’t help but be proud of her for all the thought she put into them. One person was new on the list this year, and when asked why she was added, Caroline said, “Because she’s sad, and I want to help her feel better.”
These Valentines aren’t the most beautiful pieces of artwork. They weren’t purchased for vast amounts of money. And because I didn’t want to go back out to the store, they were stuffed in letter-sized envelopes, so they probably arrived at their destination somewhat folded and worn looking. But I hope that each person who received one knows that they were made with love. And that for a few hours that day, Caroline spent some time thinking about each one of those people, what they mean in her life, and sending a little love their way.
In this age of texts and emails, we’ve lost the personal touch that a heartfelt letter brings. It took making construction-paper cards on Valentine’s Day to have a few heartfelt pieces of mail be sent out to the family. It’s always good to have an excuse to reach out, and maybe we need to get better at reaching out without an excuse of a holiday. So as commercial and fabricated as this holiday may seem, there was some good that came from it after all.
There’s something in the air that has me seeking out conversation. Maybe it’s my more intense than usual interest in the presidential primaries, maybe it’s a little bit of early spring fever (since we did have a big snow storm and now sort of a thaw here in the foothills of North Carolina), or maybe it’s just that time of year in my work cycle, where I’m home more days, and longer periods during the day, than during that busy time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Whatever it is, I find I’ve been reaching out to people, scheduling lunches with friends and other work-at-home editors, just to have some face to face talk time.
I might score as an introvert on the Myers Briggs personality test, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love to talk. One on one, or in small groups, I can talk for hours. And I like good conversation, not polite small talk. I am the one who learns all about a mom’s worry about her daughter’s future and subsequent acceptance to the North Carolina School of the Arts from a complete stranger at a Halloween party, while others come away knowing nothing more about the people in attendance than what they came as and why.
That’s why it’s so disappointing to me to hear that the art of conversation is dying in our country, thanks to the prolific use of smartphones and other devices. A Google search with the words “conversation dying art” immediately brings up pages worth of articles on this very topic. But there’s nothing better for the soul than a great conversation with someone, one where you share ideas, debate different points and end up walking away feeling inspired. Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation, uses conversation as her organizing principle because so much of what we value in humanity is threatened when replaced with electronic devices. She states that it’s only through face to face conversation that you feel truly connected to people and gain empathy.
This is all something that is very important to me as a person who works from home. Gone are the days of having conversations with co-workers about Trump’s second place finish in Iowa or the best way to cook a pot roast. I admit I have found myself leaning on Facebook for “interactions” with other people during the long, silent work days. But I realize that is not enough, and it isn’t enough for anyone, no matter how much of an introvert you consider yourself.
So here are the ways I make sure I still have conversation in my life, tips that I think are important for most people who work at home.
Make time to talk with your spouse.
If you happen to work at home you are married, you have built-in conversation as soon as your spouse comes home. I remember reading a long time ago in a John Rosemond article that it sends a good signal to your kids that you value your marriage if you take a few minutes right after work each day to talk to each other, the two of you adults, before turning your focus to your kids. So for us in the work-at-home crowd, it’s a win/win. You get a positive for your marriage and some much-needed adult conversation.
Foster friendships in your community.
For me, I live in a small town, and there aren’t a lot of other people who do what I do. But there are plenty of people who have flexible schedules and can get together during the day. Whether it’s people I’ve met at church or parents of my children’s friends, some socialization (with our without kids in tow) provides a great break from the mundane work day. And thankfully, my grandmother’s old rule that you don’t talk politics or religion in polite company doesn’t hold true with my friends. No subject is taboo, and I love the chance these outings give me to talk with others about books we’re reading, TV shows worth watching or even dive into the problems of our economy and the health of the people in our community.
Network with others in your profession.
This one can be harder if you’re isolated, but it’s so important. I make sure to keep up relationships with former colleagues, as well as joining professional groups and associations where I have the opportunity to meet others who do what I do. And then I make a point to get together, face to face, with these people. It might not be as often as I’d like, but those times are so rewarding. It’s a great opportunity to have conversations with others who care about things like the Oxford comma or struggle with figuring out their estimated taxes. We bounce ideas off each other, share information, and every time I come away with a confidence boost in my own work and inspired with new ideas.
The important thing is to get out and talk face to face. Email, texting and phone calls are great, and they’re the lifeblood of my communication in a work-at-home career. But Turkle is right, there is no substitute for interacting with another human being.
It’s the first month of a new year. Have you made any New Year’s resolutions? I’m not usually a big resolution setter. Really, I have plans and goals, especially when it comes to work, but I don’t necessarily use January 1 as a date to set those. They’re more ongoing. But once in a while I will come up with a New Year’s resolution. For about 10 years, my resolution was to make a will. It’s something Bill and I kept putting off, and I can proudly say we finally did that last year. Better late than never.
Last year I also made a resolution to write more. Granted, I write almost every day for work, but that’s writing that’s assigned to me. Articles about LED lighting in merchandising cases, news about the latest innovations in fish food, interviews with psychologists about how to have meaningful conversations with your kids when you’re divorced and they’re at the other parents’ house, and many other topics. They’re all interesting and I love the opportunity to meet new people and learn new things, but I wanted more.
I’ve always had a dream of writing a romance novel. And I began to think, I’ll never get a romance novel written if I don’t start doing some sort of creative writing. So for 2015 I set a goal to write creatively at least three days a week for an hour each morning. And I did it, thanks to writing prompts, for two whole weeks, one in January, and another week in September. I didn’t really meet my initial goals, and decided it was worthwhile enough to make it a resolution for 2016.
Only this time, I’m taking a different spin on it. After talking with my friend Carin Siegfried about my writing, and her hearing me say over and over how I wanted to do it, but then never having anything to show for it, she said maybe I should just forget about personal writing goals. And I did think about it, but realized I don’t want to cross it off my list.
The problem is, writing creatively is hard. Coming up with stories and characters after years of writing articles full of facts and quotes is something very foreign to me. So Carin suggested I keep my goal of personal writing time, but change what I’m writing. Write what’s familiar. Non-fiction, essays, and articles. And you know what? Her advice has been great! I’ve spent some time writing an essay about my experiences with post-partum pre-eclampsia, and I’ve really enjoyed figuring out a way to get my thoughts and feelings in writing that’s hopefully interesting for other people to read.
Another thing that’s helped with my writing goal is giving myself a deadline. I guess after 15 years in the publishing business, I’m more deadline oriented that I thought. The vague goal of “writing for myself” really didn’t give me anything to work for. So I searched out a writing contest that accepts non-fiction, and used that entry date as a deadline for my essay.
This Friday is the deadline for a relatively new but national and noteworthy writing contest, the Women’s National Book Assocation Writing Contest. They accept poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. And I am excited to be submitting my first “personal” writing. We’re only 15 days into the new year, and I already feel a sense of accomplishment for working on my New Year’s resolution!