Google+ The Bluestocking Firefly: April 2011

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


From part two, 'Gardens', of my senior undergraduate writing portfolio (May 2010).
I should possibly note that the assignment was to write a critical essay exploring what it was that made us who we were as a writer. The essay would then serve as an introduction to our final body of work. In part one, I looked at the influence of music. Here, in part two, I look at the influence of gardens on my life.

‘There is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colours are brighter, the air softer, and the morning more fragrant than ever again.’
- Elizabeth Lawrence

I have always been surrounded by beautiful gardens. My maternal great-grandmothers were gardeners, my maternal grandmother was a gardener, and my mother inherited their green thumbs. Our yard in Folsom was always beautiful, despite that tendency of the California climate to reach out and crisp everything it sees. My mother grew roses—I particularly remember a tiny mauve bush, and the climbing rose that wound its tendrils around the trellis around the back fence. The side hill was covered in shrubs, and I used to run up along the top, to a particular low-hanging tree with a hollow beneath it, covered vinca vines with their little purple flowers, the kind we used to pick and suck on because they tasted sweet. I used to hide under that tree and play pretend, bury treasures under the vinca and come back later to rediscover them.

There were two trees in the left back corner of the yard, separated by a shrub that I think we planted over the grave of my dad’s dog. We buried all of our goldfish in that corner of the yard. There were a lot of dead goldfish. We made them little gravestones out of pieces of wood—probably my idea. I was very small, after all.

I always wanted a tree house. Daddy promised me he’d build one in the left-hand of the two trees in the grave-corner of the yard, that in another year it would be strong enough to bear the weight of a tree house. And then the next year we moved, and I never did get my tree house. That was the side of the yard lined with fruit trees (so many fruit trees). The play-structure Daddy built hunched on the other side of the yard, at the foot of the hill, sitting in a bed of gravel with bees constantly buzzing about. Mum’s raised beds filled up the space between the structure and the hill and the house. There were blueberries under the kitchen window, and around the other side of the house were raspberries. We’ve always had fruit trees and berry bushes and raised beds everywhere we’ve lived—it’s one of the best things about my mother’s gardens.

Daddy built a deck in the back yard, so that when we walked out the kitchen door or out my parents’ sliding door we walked onto the deck. There were two of those trees at the end of it, the kind with those heavy grape-like blossoms—locust trees—and by the time we moved they loomed over the house. Between the deck and the trees and the play-structure and the back fence was the lawn, the sod lawn that they had to roll into place when we moved in, and when I was small I used to lie on that grass and try to tame my cat, my second cat, because my first cat, Rose, ran away when I was very little. My second cat was feral, born in the wild, and I wanted another cat so my parents got her for me. I named her Cinnamon Nose, because I was only about four, after all, and her nose was the colour of cinnamon. But she was skittish and wouldn’t let anyone near her, so I spent hours and hours on the lawn trying to coax her to come near, and she would sprawl on her side and stretch out and dig her claws into the dirt and slowly inch closer. Years later, we gave her to my grandparents.

There were butterflies in that garden, huge beautiful butterflies in gold and orange and black, and praying mantii too. Once I saw a praying mantii with babies, and they were so tiny it was difficult to believe they were real. We always had cats. Daddy’s dog died not long after we moved to Folsom, and we didn’t get another one, so the cats usually dominated the back yard. But when the wild turkeys came over the fence, then the cats scattered, because the turkeys were much bigger, and the noises they made frightened them.

Sometimes my dad and I sat in the back yard, on the steps to the deck, and ate peanuts, the unshelled kind, because the best bit was getting them out of the shells and then just tossing the shells to the ground. And sometimes in the summer we put up the wading pool on the deck—because we didn’t have a real pool—and I splashed around until I got bored and went back inside. Once, this provoked a black widow, and she came climbing through the cracks in the deck and started stalking the boards between me and the kitchen door and I was trapped in the pool, terrified, because I was only a little girl but I knew that black widows were poisonous.

The front yard was not nearly as interesting as the back, but there was a little Japanese maple in front of my room—it was my sister’s room first—and I used to sit underneath it, because it was just the right size for a little girl, like a little umbrella. And once I skied down the grass on the hill, because there was never any snow but I must have wanted to go skiing anyway. Usually we put the slip-n-slide on the hill and slid down. Daddy used to have a truck back then, and sometimes it would have windows in the truck bed, and sometimes it wouldn’t, but it was always tempting to climb in and play; he got angry at us, once, because he was afraid that we would fall out, and after that we were not allowed to play in his truck any more.

It took time before the yard in Olympia turned into anything, but gradually it blossomed under my mother’s green thumb. My parents took out most of the lawn and once more put in fruit trees and raised beds and more blueberries and raspberries. There is a tree outside the laundry room window, just to the left of where I once dug a giant muddy hole, back when my parents were still working on redoing the yard. Perhaps it is some unspoken rule that every child must either try to fly, or try to dig a hole to China. Or maybe I thought that if I just dug far enough, I could get back to California.

I never got my tree house, but my dad built a deck with a sunscreen in the back corner of the yard, and I used to climb the tree next to it and sit on the wooden slats of the sunscreen. And I used to take a book up into the tree and just sit and read, or pretend I’d escaped someone and I was hiding up there. Daddy built another deck, a smaller one, in the opposite corner of the yard, but no one ever used it, and it’s gone now. There’s a black ironwork bench there now. My cat likes to sit in the exact middle of it. Our neighbours, once upon a time, built a deck of their own, and as their yard slopes upward and the deck sits high, anyone could see straight into our yard. My parents planted trees along the fence, and those trees have grown into a massive wall of green. If I were Sleeping Beauty, I’d pity the prince who had to hack his way through those trees. But it would be worth it for the flowers—every year, the ground beneath those trees, along the edge of the patio, blossoms into a glorious explosion of colour as my mother’s flowers come out to play.

The roses live in the side yard, where we can see them through the living room windows. Mum’s recently taken out a few bushes, including the white bush I claimed as my own years ago. Most of the rest are varying shades of pink and red—love and passion. The trees outside those same windows were once small and scrawny, but now they block out most of the afternoon light. I usually forget about the other side yard; it’s a no-man’s land, and I almost never go there. The front yard is trees and grass and hedges, but it is pretty, because the heather and the hedges bloom, and two of the trees are maples with deep purple-red leaves that stand out against the blue of the house. When I come home for the summer, Dad and I get out the bat and mitts and balls, and he pitches and I swing, and if I’m lucky and not too out of practice, I sent the ball sailing across the street and over the mailboxes and into the drainage area. I am as close to a son as my dad got, so we play softball together.

It is harder to remember the garden in Olympia as it was than it is to remember the garden in Folsom, because I think about Olympia and I see the garden as it is now, or as it was the last time I was home, not as it was six or ten or fourteen years ago. And when I lived in Folsom, I was constantly outside; since moving to Olympia, I have spent much less time outdoors—it is too rainy, I was too sick, I grew up and had less interest in being outside…and then I was simply not home.

I count my grandmother’s garden as my garden as well. She lived in a one-story house smack-dab in the middle of a wonderful triangle of land. There was a canal that ran along the back of the house, beside the fence; there was one place at which a set of steps bridged the canal so that we could reach the fence and peer into the field behind it. At the bottom of the house, my grandmother grew fruit trees and all kinds of berries. The strawberries ringed the trunks of the trees, so we had to be especially careful not to crush them.

At the very top of the yard my grandmother grew vegetables, and since we were always there in the summer, there was never any shortage of things to eat when we were outside (if we were inside, there was always popcorn and ice cream and sweets in dishes around the house). And in the middle, between the house and the vegetable garden, were my grandmother’s roses, all kinds, in all colours. There were probably other kinds of flowers as well, but I remember the roses most of all.

On the other side of the house, at the bottom of the hill, the big windows of Grandma’s living room looked out over the extra parking spaces, and the big stretch of yard full of interesting shrubs and bushes and all of the yummy-smelling firs and evergreens and her lovely birdbath.

My family visited every summer, and at that time of year the garden was in full swing. My cousin Jessica and I spent hours outside when we were there, playing Orphanage or the Violet Pretend, and when we had to go in for lunch or when it finally got dark, we pretended that the orphanage had captured us again. It was less fun when it was just me, but I still ran around outside in that wonderful garden and picked flowers and ate Grandma’s food. One year Jess and I made swords out of sticks, complete with hilts tied on with string, and taught ourselves to fight with our stick-swords.

And then eventually Grandpa died and Grandma moved to Olympia, and now that house and garden belong to someone else. I hear they put in a lawn. But in my head, it is still a garden, and will always be a garden, because it was always a garden when I was a child.

I have not inherited my mother’s green thumb, as she did her mother’s; it seems to run unpredictably throughout the family, like freckles or a penchant for brussel sprouts, as my Aunt Laurie is a gardener, as is her daughter Jenny, but my Aunt Bonnie is not, although her daughter Jessica has recently discovered that she does have an interest in gardening. I do not like gardening, although I do like gardens; I like the pretty, but I hate the dirt. I miss living somewhere that there’s a garden; Knox is bleak for much of the year, its trees bare and grey and lashed by the winds. As angry as I was to move from California, the one thing I grew to love about Olympia above all else is how very green it is, not only from all the rain, but because there are so many evergreen trees that it stays green all year round. Now, everywhere I go, there are never enough trees, and it is never green enough. And I miss the gardens. I loved being in Oxford, because all of the colleges have full-time gardeners; they are smaller, enclosed spaces, and they reminded me of proper gardens, especially in the spring. [An addendum: it is spring in St Andrews, and the green fills me with hope. There are flowers, and there are trees, and even if it is not green enough, there are flowers everywhere. There were crocuses and snowdrops first, and then there were daffodils, and now there are tulips and hyacinths and the trees are in bloom. It isn’t the same as a proper garden, but at least it’s an improvement over Knox…]

But the thing I think I miss most is that ability to pretend, to run out into a garden and pretend that I have indeed run into another world, complete with a new name for myself and a new story. There is something so simple about it, though at the time it is the most important thing in the world. Children, especially imaginative ones, constantly create and recreate stories without even thinking. They simply make it up as they go along.

And then one day, the years of magical thinking fade away and children simply stop pretending, walk out of their imaginary worlds for good and almost never go back. They stay firmly planted in the real world. But writers go back. They are anchored to that imaginary world, to their gardens, wherever those gardens might be; they are able to return to those worlds, or some imaginary worlds inspired by those worlds of childhood, because there is something in them that cannot let go of pretending.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


From part one, 'Music', of my senior undergraduate writing portfolio (May 2010).

‘Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.’
- Victor Hugo

My grandfather was a musician. He came from a musical family; my grandmother has said that when she first met his family, she had never met more musical people. They never stopped singing, and there was always someone playing the piano. My great-aunt Della Jane, maybe. He taught music, at university, I think, once upon a time, though what kind of music or for how long he taught is beyond me. My grandfather belonged to a barbershop quartet, which is one of those curiously mid-century things that conjures up an image of men in pin-stripes and braces and straw boaters, standing outside on the pavement and singing to the passersby. Inevitably, in this image, one man seems to be wearing glasses, one man seems to be very short, and one man seems to be very tall and thin. I think my grandfather was fairly average, not especially tall, not especially short, so perhaps he was the member of the quartet who no one ever remembers because he does not stand out. But he could sing in perfect pitch and harmony, and he taught my aunts to sing when they were only little girls.

My grandfather also fiddled, on an old violin his grandfather made for him. That violin is tucked away upstairs in my sister’s closet now, hidden away in its worn blue case, the strings loose and discordant. The A string has been missing for years, and there is a crack in the back from when my grandfather and his sister were riding to play at a school dance and their horse spooked and the violin fell. It belongs to my sister, maybe because she is the one who first learnt to play, but I liked to pretend that it was mine, because I loved that battered old instrument with its scratched body and its too-short neck. Its sound is different than that of my own violin, my Emma; it is softer, mellower, sweeter. My grandfather’s violin sat in my orchestra locker in middle school, for use during the day so I did not have to carry my instrument back and forth from home; there was never much concern for its safety, because it was old and it had little value. But I loved that old violin.

When my grandfather was old and blind and living in the nursing home in Grants Pass, he used to listen to tapes of classical music. He could not see; there was little else to occupy his time. One day when my mother was visiting, he told her that he did not want to listen to the music any longer. When she asked why, he told her: he could not follow all of the different layers, all of the different patterns, all of the different harmonies as the instruments played them, and this upset him, because once he had been able to follow them all. My mother replied: this is the way most of the world hears music. To others it is just music; they cannot follow the underlying patterns.

We would go to visit my grandmother every summer. We always had, first when we lived in California and then later, after we had moved to Washington. The difference was that after we moved, Grandpa had two strokes that left him blind. Grandma tried to care for him for awhile, but after four years it became too much for her and he had to go and live in the nursing home, where the dementia began to set in. If you did not already know that he was blind, you would never realise it; Grandpa was charming and charismatic and could make you believe anything. He still recognised voices, even after decades of not seeing someone. Voices have their own individual musical patterns: a certain timbre, certain inflections, certain accents. To someone with a good ear, it is easy enough to recognise voices, especially if that is their only way of identifying people.

Even with his memory going, even when he did not remember other people, Grandpa always remembered me and Carly, because we both played his violin. That was his instrument; we had carried it on. I do not know why my sister chose violin; I cannot honestly say I remember why I chose it, though I suspect it was in large part because of my sister. But we were both violinists, and so our grandfather remembered us. My sister used to bring her violin when we came down to Grants Pass, and she would bring it to the nursing home and stand and play for Grandpa.

I cried at Grandpa’s funeral. Not because I was especially sad; I never knew my grandfather especially well, nor was I very close to him. But my cousin’s wife, who has an amazing voice, sang ‘Amazing Grace’, and I thought how much Grandpa would have loved it, because of how beautiful the music was.

This is how I like to remember my grandfather. I never heard him sing a note in his life, and I never heard him play the violin, but he is inextricably linked in my mind to music. I know bits and pieces about him that are not as beautiful as the music, that are about him as a husband, as a father, but because he was my grandfather it is easier to remember music.

My grandfather came from a musical family; he passed that on to his children, and his children’s children. My mother played the piano, though she has not done so for years; my Aunt Bonnie was a cellist. She still has her cello, though we were in possession of it for many years. And my sister and I both play the violin. I think we are the only grandchildren who continued to play; though my cousins Jessica and Jake have taken lessons in the past, neither of them plays anymore.

My sister still has her violin, though she barely touches it anymore; it sits in her open case in her flat, the brown wood gleaming against the blue lining of her case. She is much too busy to take it out and play. I am afraid that this will happen to me. Already, I see it happening; I have little time to practice, and I walk into my lessons week after week having to admit that I have not had the time to look at the material. But I love it. I love the music, love the feel of the violin under my chin, love drawing the bow across the strings. I have had a succession of teachers, most of whom I have liked. The only one I really disliked, Ludmilla, tried to make my left hand do strange things, and she terrified me because she was so strict—she was from Russia and had graduated from the Conservatory there, and so she was rigid in how things had to be. She had two little dogs and a dark house full of trinkets and ornaments and beautiful rugs that were stained, because the dogs never got let out in time, and so it always smelled as well. I hated having lessons from Ludmilla. But I walked away from her with a really good bow hand, even if she never did manage what she was trying to do with my left hand (every other teacher I have ever taken from is bemused by what she was trying to do, so I think that perhaps she was just a bit mad). I have problems with my left wrist, which prevent me from playing for too long, and my wrist gets tired quickly when I have to do certain things: double stops, or upper positions on the G string, for instance.

Lately I have discovered I also love the piano. Really, truly love it. I took lessons once for about a year, when I was probably six or seven, because this is the sort of thing mothers do to their children—they make them take piano lessons when it is the last thing the child wants to do. But then I did not take piano again until the very end of my first year of uni, when I had to take piano as part of the requirements for my music major. Because I had indeed declared a music major—before my creative writing major, actually—because I loved music so much. But I struggled with piano, or at least I thought I did, because when you are eighteen years old it is difficult to learn to play a new instrument, and I only read treble clef, not bass clef, so I constantly had to stop and think about the notes I was playing. But I loved hymns, loved the chord progressions in the hymns, and my teacher told me I played them well, and that that was good because hymns were hard to play. I always thought that odd, because I never found hymns particularly hard.

Piano is not the only instrument that I tinker with; I also sing, and have had some lessons there as well. I love to sing, and never could in high school because if you took orchestra, you could not also take choir. I participated in my church’s youth choir, however, where I sang soprano, and I have a tendency to wander around singing at random. When I was in Ireland, one of the other girls on the tour and I sang in a pub to pass the time, and we sang together in a cave with amazing acoustics. I have also played the cello, though I cannot boast to have taken lessons or to be any good at all on that. When we had my aunt’s cello, I used to take it out and teach myself, learning pieces by ear. The cello is beautiful; it is rich, and soulful, and it thrums deep beneath your feet and in your soul like some distant, far-off engine. I always wanted to learn to play the cello properly, and always hoped that I might someday, but my aunt finally took her cello back, and I never did learn.

My grandmother told me last summer that of all of her grandchildren, I am the one who has most inherited my grandfather’s musical talent: that I am the most musical of the grandchildren. Somehow, I am not surprised. When I listen to music, I can feel it in my bones. Like my grandfather, I can follow the different lines, though I cannot follow every single one as it seems he could. It is as though I can see the music, the world it creates; not a physical world, not even an imagined world, or a world of emotions, but that world of the unexplainable, the inexplicable, everything that is and was and ever could be. My heart fills so full that it could burst, and I sit and listen and feel myself caught up and filled up until it feels I could burst. It is not happiness; that is the wrong word. Try as I might, there are not words to describe what music does to me. Sometimes I think that there is a part of me that is like liquid music, liquid notes, flowing and sounding and never not singing. Sometimes, even in the quiet, when I am sitting alone in my room with the music off, and by some strange chance my suitemates are quiet as well, I will hear snatches of song, off in the distance; it is not music that someone else is playing, but music that I just hear. I can hear the music that is played, but when I listen to a piece I often hear the music that could be, the different ways the notes could go, how it could be different, how it could be changed, how that one little pebble could divert the tide and the piece would feel completely different.

Perhaps I should have continued on with music. But the problem I inevitably have with music is that it requires energy, to stand, to sit, to pedal, to move the bow, to press the keys, to sound the notes. And energy is unfortunately something that I simply do not have in abundance. Time and again it has prevented me from practicing, and that is the very least one must do in order to pursue a path of music. So I have set music aside, as something in which I dabble, as something to which I listen, in order that I may pursue something with which my health may better agree.