Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

24 March 2007

From the Garden

Now that I'm finally not sick, I'm trying to catch up on my gardening. It's slow going when you start late. I have lettuce and radishes out, but not yet up, and about 3/4 of the garden dug up for replanting.

I love to dig, although it exhausts me. I dig with a gardening fork, the quintessential gardening tool, in my opinion. We had one in Connecticut when I was growing up, but they are not used much in this part of the country. I can't figure out why not. The fork is the only tool that enables me to dig down really deep into our rather clayey soil and then turn the weeds under. There's something so satisfying in that.

Another part of gardening that I like a lot is weeding—but only when the dirt is still damp from a recent rain and the weeds just sort of slide out into your hand. Another nice feeling. On a day like today in Westville, Oklahoma, after a little bout of much needed rainy weather, it's hard to resist pulling the weeds out instead of turning them under, but the turning under takes care of two crucial jobs at once.

Also, if I start getting down close to the dirt to pull up weeds, I inevitably discover plants I want to save from the fork. New garlics and cilantros growing up from last year. The prettier weeds: wild bluets and violas, both spring bloomers, and what I want to guess are baby black-eyed Susans. Carcasses of hearty plants—fennel, broccoli, Russian sage—that I neglected to dig up at the end of their growing season and that have overwintered and are now sprouting back from their still viable roots. Opting not to notice them is the hardest part of gardening for me. I want to save them all. If I do, though, I will never get to the soil turning part and then the planting of seeds, the part I like least—it's so fiddly—but the part that is most important if I want to have any vegetables.

One year I skipped turning the soil altogether and just planted new between the existing plants. I ended up with a garden of mostly cilantro and elderly crucifers with woody stems and leaves so chewy and insistently cabbagy-tasting that no one would eat them. Usually I break down and allow myself to save some plants—this year I dug up and relocated about a hundred garlics—but in the process of doing so, I rediscover the futility of such acts of mercy: there are just too many little plants that want saving. So, I steel myself and dig.

I hope you're not thinking this is one big metaphor for some sort of cock-eyed message about salvation that I'm trying to make—the futility of it all, so many damned souls out there, some so woody and cabbagy-smelling at the core as to be undesirable even when you do manage to get them saved. But it's not, and I'm not. I'm just cultivating my garden.

Later in the season—once the garden is dug and planted, in the main—I allow myself to save warm season plants that sprout up: tomatoes, zinnias, arugula, basil. And some of the dill. I relocate them to my flower beds. And then, when they get big and scraggly and make my flowerbeds look like old overgrown homeplaces and provide me with more tomatoes and arugula and pesto than I want to harvest and than my family can ever eat, I tell myself, "That was a waste of time, all that transplanting. I won't do that again." But then I do. Over and over. There is something so compelling about the urge to save those little plants, so stout of stem, raising their first fat leaves to the sun.

16 March 2007

Sick, Silent, and Surly

The title about says it. I'm just now getting over the worst flu I've ever had—one of those old-fashioned kind my siblings and I used to get as kids which included gastrointestinal events I won't go into (well, all right, you twisted my arm: one of them amounted to foul, sulfurous belches we used to call "the eggy burps") and fever and upper-respiratory symptoms and wanting to die. When my girls were little, I learned that flus that involve the stomach aren't real flus at all but roto viruses, whatever those are. I think this distinction might be one of those important bits of nonsense—like that tomatoes aren't vegetables, they're fruits—that snobby stupid people like to go around telling everyone. I have decided, nonetheless, to give my flu a name of its own: a retro-virus.

In any case, I had to teach my poetry workshop in the midst of this flu, because we meet only once a week and I am attending a conference in New Orleans on one of the classdays coming up and I just felt like it would be too big of a loss of workshop time not to meet. I spent the day at the university, as I usually do—preparing class all morning and teaching in the afternoon. I got almost nothing accomplished. I was so freezing cold I had to keep going down to my car and turning the engine on and setting the heat and the seat warmer on high, wasting natural resources and polluting the air just to get warm. Then, halfway through class, I had to leave. I was getting delirious. When I got home I had a temperature of 103.5°—the highest I've ever had! My normal body temperature is in the 97's.

Anyway, I got this retro-virus about the time of my last post and then spent the next two weeks in the bathtub, asleep, which is what I do when I don't feel good. That's why I haven't had anything to say yet this month. I've been wellish since then, but in a bad mood—recuperating, I guess. I about stopped talking except to hiss from time to time, "Just leave me alone. Please." Lulu complained that she was going to get a nutritional deficiency from no meat or vegetables because I stopped cooking for the most part, and what I did cook had to be odorless.

Here's what I thought about during this time: How do people who are seriously sick for long long periods of time manage to stay so eager to live and even happy-seeming? I have had three close friends struggle with cancer and horrifying bouts of chemotherapy, and all three, although certainly beset by fear and depression and other sorts of negative thinking from time to time, acted, for the most part, really truly happy to be alive. Speaking out of the experience of my own recent illness, mild by comparison, I am filled with awe.

I thought about all the spiritual commentary I've read on sickness. I remembered a passage in Kathleen Norris's wonderful little book of lectures called The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and "Women's Work" (well worth the mere $5 or so it costs with your Reader's Advantage discount at Barnes & Noble, by the way) where she compares the response to terminal illness on the part of two friends of hers: one turned sweet and the other turned mean. If I were close to death, I am convinced, I would be one of those who turn mean, despite my best hopes to the contrary. Flannery O'Connor, I read once, used to lament on behalf of others that they didn't get to have a terminal illness, as she had, because they missed out on the opportunity that constant pain and suffering and fear afford to make them value life and God as she did. So I figure O'Connor was probably one of those who turned sweet as she approached death, although she said some pretty tough things in her writing and I could also imagine some of the dry, hard-minded things she might have said to her mom toward the end. I imagine she must have had to pray that prayer that the weird little girl in her story "Temple of the Holy Ghost" prays: "Hep me not to be so mean." I pray that prayer a lot; occasionally I have it answered.

And recently, at breakfast, Kris was reading aloud from Julian of Norwich's writings in which she prayed ardently for—and was eventually granted—the opportunity to have and survive an illness unto death so as to become more appreciative of Jesus' suffering. I got the creeps as Kris read and decided she was a bit too much of a crackpot for me. (Sorry, you Julian-lovers out there. She just doesn't blow my dress up. She did have this very nice metaphor of a nut in her hand, but the no amount of pondering could make me understand what it was intended to describe. Worse than the Bible for obtuseness!)

And while I was sick and convalescing, I thought, a little bit, about Lent. Jesus suffering. About to die. Afraid.

Yes, I think he was afraid of dying. Certainly, we know, he was reluctant to die. It is odd to imagine God afraid. Or worried. Or cranky. Or reluctant to do the Father's bidding. Reluctant about anything, for that matter. But there you are. That about sums up the crux—mark the pun!—of the God-man.

What a God. What a man.