The Summer Affair

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Purple bean blossom, with mature bean behind.

I had wanted more beauty in my life. Isn’t that often the way affairs go?

More specifically, I yearned for beautiful flowers in my garden. I craved a break from what sometimes felt like workaday vegetables and their attendant chores. I enjoyed the healthy produce but after four summers of effort, desired a relationship that was independent, required nothing past superficial attention, and gave me more than I gave it.

Later summer bounty.

Summer bounty, hard-earned: beans and carrots.

***

Back in April, from the bin of donated seeds at the community gardens office, a hand drawn packet from the company Renee’s Garden shone out at me. I’d heard of something called borage oil, which sounded medicinal and icky—like cod liver oil—but I didn’t know anything about borage flowers. The front read “Kitchen Herbs,” pictured five-petaled blossoms and promised, “pollinators love the flowers of this fast growing plant.”

The back panel assured that in addition to bees and ants, children adored blue borage and further, the blooms could be frozen into ice cubes or sugared as cake decorations. Traditional herbalists gushed that borage was thought to “lift the spirits and inspire courage.” Visions appeared in my head of feathery green shoots and midnight blue petals that skipped up and down on the slightest breeze.

When the sprouts came up, I fell instantly in love, in spite of their appearance not matching my fantasy.

Early buds of blue borage.

Early buds of blue borage.

No leggy stalks and stems–instead furry, silvery, thick-trunked bushes emerged. From somewhat more delicate branches, clusters of stems drooped. The flowers sparkled at the tips. Like Jack’s magical beans, more and more plants germinated and grew tall, taller. They crowded out of their designated plot and into the peas, the tomatoes, the carrots, the peppers.

Beauteous blue borage in full bloom.

Beauteous blue borage in full bloom.

Borage bloomed a lighter and yet more intense blue than I had imagined. Many individuals budded pink-blue, then deepened into a pale ultramarine. Once in a while a flower stayed vivid cotton candy color through maturity.

Blue borage with just the tips still pink.

Blue borage with just the tips still pink.

My eyes could not get enough of them.

Makes my heart ache.

Borage in the morning–

Borage in the morning.

–makes my heart ache and sing.

***

The best time was early, when dew still hung like drops of cool moisture on warm lips; early was when the light came from all angles. Before dawn, I would roll out of bed, slap a baseball cap on my flattened dirty hair and hurry on garbage-strewn sidewalks to unlock the garden gate.

Early sun on borage.

Early sun on borage.

Blue borage accepted me as I was. It patiently waited as I stumbled in, half awake. My own tendency to be thick-stalked and overly prolific was not important. I, in turn, accepted its prickles, which never worked under my skin like the hairs on cucumber vines.

Morning after morning, I slow danced with blue borage, marveled the way a new lover does, at its beauty in the light, its shy loveliness in shade. The color softened through petal edges, like a misty photograph. I melted at the sight of these sweet little flowers, stars happily star-gazing, in the dazzle of dawn.

Bee flirting with borage.

Flirting with borage.

The bees and the ants could visit, but these were my flowers.

***

Over time I discovered that to harvest borage, I didn’t have to pinch hard on the open flat flowers. If I waited just a bit longer for full ripeness, the petals would pull slightly away from the fuzzy sepal, like a forward fold in yoga. Then the blossoms could be teased off with gentle pointed fingers into my cupped palm.

Ready for harvest.

Ready for harvest.

On the seed packet, the flavor of borage was advertised as mild, like cucumber. It was a change from the peppery orange nasturtiums from personal gardens past, or the vibrant but grassy-tasting pink and white orchids on restaurant plates.

To me they were strangely reminiscent of the Catholic communion wafers of childhood. Those dry, pale, wheat colored rounds from Sunday Mass had barely a flavor at all. Yet borage was herb-crunchy too, the petals, intensely white center and black stamens, and all that aching blue-pinkness.

Exotic and yet familiar. I smiled at their oddness.

I nibbled borage as I weeded and harvested vegetables, and collected tiny floral gifts for later. They were snuck into salads, with their unapologetic blue, and yes, into ice cubes for sexy summer sangria.

Striking and delicate blue borage flowers.

Striking and delicate blue borage flowers in salad.

***

Half-way through July, my beloved bushes were trounced by a woodchuck. The pushy rodent sneered at my floppy fence and leapt it with ease. He burrowed and jumped and thumped onto my blue borage plants, beating them up, breaking their juicy stalks, crunch! on the way to strip the tricolor beans of their own deep purple beauty.

Willful woodchuck damage.

Willful woodchuck damage.

But borage would not disappoint me.

A week later, I found shoots coming up from the stomped stalks. Bunches of fuzzy leaves, short perhaps but strong, determined—courageous even.

Like a steady love, the plant grew up from the ground once again. Its resilient arms reached out for me and soon bristled with color.

New growth, after disaster.

New growth, after disaster.

By early September, fewer and fewer flowers nodded on the stems, until I went out of town and was surprised not to think about the borage while I was gone—or even when I came home. I’ll need to put the garden to bed this week, and I know that now, since the first frost, what is there will not resemble my summer infatuation. I already feel a tinge of sadness.

Is this the way things always end? I ask, and then answer: Of course. Annual flowers are always destined to live but a few short months.

In addition, I realize it wasn’t just a meaningless or superficial affair; instead, it was one of many gifts given to me, when I have paid attention and let myself fall in love with the natural world.

Winter approaches and along with it, the inside loves of my life. I must return to the hardy, four-season relationships that have patiently awaited me while I tarried outside.

Perhaps blue borage and I will dance again some future June.

Darkness falls, but the sun will return next summer.

Darkness falls, but the sun will return, next summer.

***For anyone in the New York Capital District, please come over to my business website for information about my first nature photography show, at the Bethlehem Public Library in Delmar NY, running for the month of December 2015.

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Choosing Beauty in the Every-day: New Dishes

My first plate, resting on the Frank Lloyd Wright inspired placemats.

My first plate purchased in July, resting on the Frank Lloyd Wright inspired placemats: spinach fronted by fresh mozzarella, tomato, and garden basil.

Last week I bought the (almost) final dish in my new set of Bennington Pottery.

That’s important because three years ago, I found myself suddenly a one-person living unit, every room of the new apartment stacked with bins and cardboard boxes six feet high. I was Keeper of The Household as I had always been, but now with a much smaller Household to manage.  It was simultaneously frightening, sad, and a relief.

The containers spilled over with stuff saved for other people, for future needs and/or disaster: financial papers, cooking equipment, furniture, clothing, decoration–and dishes. Most of it had been purchased already-used decades ago, found on the street, or gratefully acquired as other people cleared out their basements and storerooms. The items didn’t necessarily match or work optimally, but they functioned, and when you are just barely surviving, that’s what matters.

Happy to have a very different life now,  I’ve been learning to go beyond the idea of just-surviving, especially since–as witnessed by the stockpiles of food I’ve been using up–I am releasing myself from the burden of so many belongings, the weight of saving in order to feel safe.

In addition, in the small amounts I keep, I want not only functionality but also beauty.  When my best friend was making a pittance on the front lines in human services, she would still buy a little piece of handblown glass or earrings, telling me:  Beauty is as important as food. 

Since Bennington Pottery is not only beautiful but relatively expensive, I’ve been acquiring the matte finish Elements design over time, buying most of them as “seconds” from the outlet or Potter’s Yard in Vermont (making me much more comfortable with the idea that I might break a piece here or there).  I certainly don’t need all of the sizes, just the couple that work for me ; I chortle over picking four different colors to mix and match, the option to make my table look different at every meal. The quirks in curvature and mis-splotches of color, part of being a not-quite-perfect dish, endear each salad plate and soup bowl to me.

Ham and lentil soup, toast with cherry preserves, in and on the new dishes

Ham and lentil soup, toast with cherry preserves, in and on the new dishes

During the factory tour on a slow day, one of the fewer-than-ten potters took visitors behind the scenes to see how they smooth and glaze and fire the clay.  To meet the artist-makers of my belongings moves me, and I often relive those discussions when I encounter the objects in my home.

Behind the futon on which I sometimes sit while eating out of my new palm-sized bowls, hangs a yellow-and-red Amish quilt, signed on the back by a northern Kentucky woman named Ella Bontrager.  As I study its shifting geometry, the rainy April afternoon of its purchase returns: talking in Ella’s little farm-shop, hearing how her husband and daughter work with her, why she used a nontraditional “proud” color in this artwork, what is valuable to her and her community.

A corner of Ella Bontrager's Amish quilt

A corner of Ella Bontrager’s Amish quilt

My gaze moves to the purple and green and brown placemats I splurged on at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin-Martin house in Buffalo.  The nuance in their colors and patterns frequently draw me to thoughts of architecture, simplicity and beauty–same as the quilt and the plates.

In the window, light glows through two tiny hobnail glass vases.  From over three dozen of varying sizes, I have kept only a few; the rest were donated, moving on to other people’s homes for their flowers and their meditations. The mis-matched plates and bowls from my past left in that give-away box, too.

Every day we eat off dishes and placemats, look at interior walls and surfaces, use the items we share our living space with.  How do we make this inside life beautiful?  What choices do we make, what do we get rid of, to add beauty to our lives?

Moments of startling light.

A moment of warm afternoon light.