Tag Archives: fifty

Shedding the Old

I weeded the herb garden today, a cool place in the morning’s high-90s heat. We built this herb bed out of redstone slabs two years ago in the hope that raising the soil in stone with landscaping cloth underneath would impede the prairie grass that invades all things perennial on our farm. So far, so good; the weeds are mainly annual dandelions and thistles.

In this bed we grow our farm favorites: chamomile, tall and short oreganos, tarragon, lavender, catmint, Mexican mint, and spearmint, with a little horehound and hyssop thrown in. A whiff of mint while weeding reminds me of my grandparents’ farm, where peppermint grew in a cement crack under the outdoor spigot of the farmhouse. Because we vacationed there throughout my childhood, mint always smells like summer to me.

While I weed, I keep an eye out for snakes that might be hiding from the heat between stones or in the tall grass around the perimeter of the bed. I’m looking for snakes these days because last week I almost stepped on a particularly colorful snake curled along the step inside the greenhouse.

Yellow with rectangular burgundy splotches, the snake slithered its four-foot length down behind the clay pots on a nearby shelf at my scream. Later it emerged outside the adjoining community room, where I was able to take a few photos with which to identify it. A corn snake, I think; I’ve sent the photos to our county expert for further ID.

Two years ago I startled a five-foot bull snake on the same step, or rather it startled me. Large snakes aren’t unusual out here, especially after rainy springs since rain brings tall grass that brings mice that bring snakes. My yellow and burgundy snake was exceptionally vibrant so it may have just shed its skin. I searched the greenhouse for the remains but found only the S tracked in the dirt where the snake had fled.

A friend tells me that snakes are an omen of birth or re-birth, which seems right this summer as John and I both initiate new ventures. We’re both looking ahead to a time when we can move on from our current careers by trying to figure out how best to use our skills toward furthering our own interests.

But moving ahead means leaving something behind as well, just as the snake must shed its old, faded skin to reveal its most brilliant colors. It’s the leaving behind that seems difficult for me, especially at 51.

I don’t know whether a snake notices its skin-sloughing or just glides out of its tired skin as it travels forward, but this shedding is necessary for its growth. What emerges glistens in new light. Perhaps that’s the lesson of the snake for me: keep moving and the old will simply drop away. Keep moving and the old will soon be left behind.


Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

Giving a Horse

Growing up, I was a bit of a horse girl. I was one of those girls who cried over Black Beauty and Misty of Chincoteague. My favorite book in first grade was Brighty of the Grand Canyon, about a sweet little burro, which was close enough to a horse for me. Around fifth grade or so I received The Girl Scout Book of Horse Stories as a gift, stories combining Girl Scout resourcefulness and courage with the wild independence of horses. Like horses, Girl Scouts have a mind of their own.

I collected Breyer toy horses too and but I never had as many as my older cousin did. She had a whole cabinet for hers while mine fit on a shelf. I didn’t have any of the showy appaloosas or pintos or paints like hers; instead, my horses were classic breeds, making up in elegance what they lacked in variety: the white Arabians, the golden Palominos, and the dark brown Thoroughbreds. I collected my horses in families of mother, father, and foal, with a cousin pony sometimes keeping them company. I still have those horses.

I love the beauty of horses but not so much riding them. They’re alarmingly large to me and unpredictable. I’ve been on a horse a dozen times and always just manage to ride comfortably enough, the horse paying less attention to who’s on their back than to finding dinner back at the stable.  I may not be a rider, but I’m always thrilled to come upon a herd of multi-hued horses pasturing in the foothills along my drive to town.

And I’m still happy to chance upon a good horse story, like The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss, a novel of an unusual young woman, Martha Lessen, who “gentles” horses for a living. Inspired by the oral history of a “rancher’s daughter” whose words introduce the story, the novel is set during WWI in eastern Oregon and the plot device—she travels a circuit of several ranches to train each family’s horses—allows Gloss to examine the rural situations and prejudices of the times. I’m not sure what interested me more—young Martha’s avoidance of gender restrictions with her “man’s trousers” and self-reliant ways or Gloss’s descriptions of the horses Martha handles. Despite her bashfulness, Martha never shies away from doing what’s right, whether it’s rescuing a horse from a foreman’s whip or helping a family in need.

Gloss’s authorial point of view is particularly adept at capturing the innermost thoughts of characters so that by the end of the novel, we’ve intimately experienced the sensibilities found in the rural West of the time. I didn’t want the novel to end, but it did, beautifully.  Leaving Martha as a young woman, newly married to a man who can love a woman who “doesn’t want to stay in the house like women usually do,” the novel flashes forward to an older Martha at a time far removed from the West of her young adulthood: “She said to her granddaughter, without planning to say it, ‘You know, honey, I guess we brought about the end of our cowboy dreams ourselves.’ It was a startling thing to hear herself say, but then she thought: Here I am in my old age and just at the beginning of figuring out what it that means, or what to do about it.”

I have that feeling myself; even though I’m not yet facing old age, I am trying to figure out at fifty what to do with the next part of my life. As a young girl dreaming of horses, this jumping off feeling was breathless with possibilities of what I might be when I grew up. Now that I’m grown, I’m more cautious about the choices I may make, or more certain of the criteria they must fulfill. Still, at any age, we must choose how far we’ll go without knowing exactly where we’re going. Do we give the horse we’re riding its head or hold the reins even tighter?


Filed under memoir, sustainable agriculture, women's writing

Round Your Garden

My Grandma Smith taught me to crochet when I was in junior high in the early 1970s. My first real project was a red, white, and blue granny square vest from a kit that I bought at the Williston Ben Franklin when I was visiting my grandparents’ farms one June. Both of my grandmothers crocheted potholders and doilies and afghans; I still have many of their creations, including a round throw rug made from cotton scraps, one of the many that Grandma Smith made for everyone in the family.

Later I learned to knit, putting aside crochet for a while because I wanted to make sweaters and two needles seemed more versatile than one. When my daughter was just a baby, I took a class on designing a sweater that liberated me from strict adherence to patterns. I learned that by figuring out the measurements I wanted, fitting the gauge as needed, and following basic elements of style, I could design many different kinds of sweaters.

I’ve been making sweaters for years now but lately I’ve been wanting to make something smaller as gifts for the many babies that have recently come into our lives. I thought about knitting hats but I honestly don’t care for the double-pointed needles necessary at the tippy top of the crown. I looked at crocheted baby hat patterns online but didn’t find any that fit my notion of quick, easy, and cute, so I decided to design the hat myself.

With my basic knowledge of crochet stitches and techniques, I sat down with a skein of worsted weight cotton baby-type yarn and a size J crochet hook and started crocheting in the round, just like you would for a crocheted rug or poth and of course it’s faster than single crochet.

Once I thought the crown was large enough in diameter, I reduced stitches for one round to shape the brim, continuing on for a few inches to give the hat length. Then to add a little more design, I finished with a row of triple crochet for a band and a scalloped edging to give it a vintage look. Cute—but not quite what I wanted.

What did I want? I love those knit vegetable or fruit children’s hats that look like strawberries or eggplant, so I decided to adapt my pattern that way. But I like flowers too, so I started the round in green for the sepal where the flower or fruit attaches to the stem. Then I crocheted the rest of the hat in whatever color struck me: purple for a pansy, red for a tomato, blue for a blueberry. Still, it needed something more, so I reattached green yarn at the top to crochet three stems or leaves in single crochet sprouting out of the center.

Round Your Garden Hat

My first Round Your Garden hat

Fresh-picked from Round Your Garden

Now I’ve got a pattern that is quick (because it’s double and triple crochet), easy (because you size to a measurement rather than counting stitches), and very adaptable (since you can use about any kind of yarn you want). I think of it as a “make do” hat, great for “making do” with whatever leftover yarn you have lying around. I also really like its vintage look, like the crocheted doilies or potholders you can pick up for a couple dollars at a flea market.  My mom said it reminds her of the hat my grandmother made for her when she was little, a hat with earflaps to keep the North Dakota wind out of her ears.

My mom's winter hat (check out that snowball)

Mostly I love my hat’s playful and colorful style. Children are like flowers or vegetables—fresh and sweet, like something just-picked from the garden (hence the popularity of Anne Geddes’ photos of babies in pea pods).  I decided to call the pattern the Round Your Garden hat because it’s crocheted in the round and because it reminds me of one of my favorite children’s books, In Your Garden by Omri Glaser with illustrations by Byron Glaser and Sandra Higashi. This book of bright, close-up illustrations follows the biological cycle of a garden from a tear drop to a vegetable feast. It’s a seemingly simple story that contains the whole of life, a delight for children and adults to read together.

I guess at 50, I don’t want to follow patterns. I want to make up my own. I want to figure out what I need and what I know to fashion what I can imagine. Making up this hat made me happy, kind of like when I was giving my daughter advice recently and she said, “Well, you’ve got a lot more experience than I do so I’m going to listen to you.” Wow! In my 50s, I do know a few things, so I might as well listen to my own wisdom and create from there.

A Garden of Hats


Filed under memoir, sustainable agriculture, Uncategorized

The First Post

Odd how coming back [to London] upsets my writing mood. Odder still how possessed I am with the feeling that now, aged 50, I’m just poised to shoot forth quite free straight and undeflected my bolts whatever they are. . . . I don’t believe in ageing. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun.

                                          Virginia Woolf’s diary, Sunday, October 2, 1932

Where to begin is always the question, so today I start this blog with Virginia Woolf, the writer to whom I turn most often for insight into a woman’s writing life.

Since reaching 50 last year, I’ve kept Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary by my bed, reading entries randomly for insight into her genius and “determination not to give in.” Facing 50, she wrote, “Oh yes, between 50 and 60 I think I shall write some very singular books, if I live. I mean I think I am about to embody at last the exact shape my brain holds.”

Woolf is one of my many mentors; the night before I started graduate school, I dreamed that she invited me for tea. Tea with Virginia Woolf! What better way to assure myself that I was ready to realize my own intellectual voice?

Now, as I alter my aspect toward the sun of less certain but newly imagined years, I turn to Woolf again and find that at 50, she too was poised to follow her own mind wherever it might lead. “Shoot forth quite free straight and undeflected my bolts whatever they are.” Let that be my motto as I round the fullness of 50 like a pearl moon embracing the plenitude of its shine.


Filed under memoir, women's writing