While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.

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Cat Tales

Guess what time I’m writing this.  No, earlier – much earlier.  Guess why.  Yes, we’ve got A Kitten.  As I lie in bed, listening to the thunder of kitten paws running full-speed from the kitchen through the living room, into the bathroom, then a straight shot into my room, wondering how I can get this little guy to fall back to sleep – bam!!  He’s on the bed, chasing my feet under the blanket and – ouch!  those tiny claws are sharp as needles.  No sooner is he on the bed then he’s out the door, through the hall and back into the living room.  He’ll be 4 months old on the 4th of August and he has entered the Full-speed Ahead in Any Direction phase of kitten-hood.  He reminds me of our first cat, Leo.  Leo was faster than wind and no more easily caught.  This little one will be like that.  Leo wasn’t any good at hunting or catching (he wouldn’t slow down long enough to hunt even a catnip mouse), but our other cat, Toby, was the Boss Cat of hunting.  I remember seeing him strut up the walkway to our front door with a deflated rubber ball in his mouth.  He was so proud of that ball – it must have been a difficult kill.  One hot summer evening he proudly brought home a T-bone steak.  My neighbor, Dave, didn’t talk to me for a week after that incident.  One other time, Toby brought home a stray cat whom we named Chuggi, because of his slight limp.  He chugged along rather than gracefully glided, as a cat should do.  When I finally tamed Chuggi enough to take him to the veterinarian for vaccines and check-up, the doctor estimated his age to be about 9 months.  The doctor said he would outgrow the limp but never catch up in other areas; in other words, Chuggi wasn’t the brightest light in the house.  He had a habit of getting his front paw stuck in his collar.  The sight of him limping up the sidewalk to the front door, front paw tucked under his chin in the collar and a bewildered look on his face, is a memory I will always have.  He had one injury in the many years we owned him.  This injury resulted in having to wear a cone to prevent him from pulling out the stitches.  Poor Chuggi spent the entire first day back home from the clinic walking backwards throughout the house, trying to back out of the cone.  Toby was amused.  Chuggi was baffled.

And there goes Bemo, our kitten, full-speed into the bathroom door.  His little head must be very hard.  He’s brave, confident to a fault, and thoroughly inquisitive.  And a complete opposite of the cat who preceded him in our home.  Her name was Taggy, and she was a nervous, timid cat who was slow to warm up to life.  She spent her first 5 years with us under my daughter’s bed so I don’t remember much of her kitten-hood.  I can say that it wasn’t like this new kitten’s baby-hood.  But, later in life she became friendlier, and in her final years she turned into a loving, talkative companion who would follow me around the house holding up her end of the conversation.  I still miss her.

And I just saw Bemo fly past the kitchen and head straight into the bedroom.  My spouse is still asleep – how he can sleep through this amazes me.  I manage to entice Bemo out of the bedroom and into the living room.  I try to settle him down on his blanket on the back of the couch (he’ll be an indoor cat only) but he jumps out of my arms and attaches himself to the window screen.  He sees a bee on the blossoms outside the window.  Which reminds me of the time Toby caught a bee and was stung in the mouth.  The vet said he’d be fine and that the swelling would subside after a day or two.  And that reminds me of the time that our dog, Pippin, decided that Taggy needed to be chased around the house.  She – Taggy – ran under the bed and Pippin followed her, resulting in a long scratch across his snout.   The vet said, “You must have a lively household.”  Yep.

And there goes Bemo, again . . .



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On the Nature of Forgiveness

To begin – a few explanations will help define this most important aspect of human life.
Buddhists define forgiveness as an act of genuine love; an act that requires immense courage and strength but one that, ultimately, is the only path to peace. To forgive harm does not mean we condone the harm or that we make ourselves feel better by retaliating. Instead, we commit to disallow the harm from happening to us in the future, to accept that all beings are capable of harm and kindness and that all have done both, and will do both, and to allow ourselves to let go of the harm in order to proceed with life. The path to forgiving someone for the harm they have done may include multiple levels or stages – grief and deep sorrow, confusion, anger, an immense sense of betrayal, and eventual acceptance. One or a combination of these emotions will be experienced during healing, and the entire process may take a short time or years of dedicated, intentional work. In Buddhism, forgiveness meditation performed daily during the time of healing brings both immediate and long-term benefits. Insight meditation will be of benefit, but should be performed after the initial pain has subsided and thinking is clearer.
In Islam, responsibility is a crucial component of forgiveness. Accepting responsibility for ones’ actions is directly correlated with the intellect of the actor. For example, young children are not held responsible for their actions until they are old enough – until their intellect is developed enough – to understand the consequences of their actions. If an adult has limited intellect, he/she is not held completely responsible for actions that may cause harm. A fully functioning adult is responsible for his/her actions, intention(s) motivating the action, and its consequences. Islamic teachings state that humans need two types of forgiveness – from God and from other humans – and admonishes the guilty to work and pray for both.
In Christianity, Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness have received multiple interpretations over many centuries. Ultimately, however, we are taught that God’s forgiveness is inclusive and unending if we actively work towards forgiveness. This work usually requires confessing ones’ sins and praying for forgiveness. Unfortunately, modern interpretation of these teachings does not emphasize making reparations or sincere attempts to make amends to the harmed individual. God’s forgiveness is said to be the most important – sometimes the only – requirement needed to be cleansed of a harmful act. Again, this is a contemporary interpretation of Jesus’ teachings, and one that I find not in keeping with the historic reasons behind his teachings.

As with most any adult I know, I have a long history with learning to forgive. From childhood through adulthood, I have spent the majority of my life learning how to forgive.  At times forgiving was easy; I would keep in mind a favorite expression of my father’s – Consider the Source. This kept many wounds from developing into major, destructive injuries. At other times, however, I was presented with or observed a struggle that continued for years. I have questioned more than once how humankind can forgive God – after all, if we approach the concept of God to be correct as taught, doesn’t He have a responsibility to His creation? If so, from my point of view He has abdicated His responsibility with each sincere but ignored prayer.

Forgiving someone we love who has harmed us is even more difficult – kin, friend, lover – the relationship is secondary to the act of harm.  The fact that we assume love to be reciprocated in action sets us up for further hurt when we are betrayed.  Because even though someone we have trusted has harmed us or those we love, our love for that person remains intact.  It may be diminished, it may be reticent, but it remains.

And therein lies the rub.  This aspect of forgiveness is rarely addressed – when people we love abuse us or someone close to us, forgiving is even more difficult because we continue to love them.  And just because we love someone, we assume that love is reciprocated. When we discover it is not, and face the deep harm that has occurred over a lifetime, we are left with rubble. What do we do then? It is not a matter of rebuilding a life; rather, it becomes a process of building a new life. If this happens to you, what do you do? Remove the harm from your life. In whatever form that harm has taken and by whatever safe and healthy means available, remove the harm permanently. And then look closely at all you have, not what you have lost. Look closely at those you love and who reciprocate your love. Look closely at your strength, your honesty, your integrity, and your gifts. Look closely, and acknowledge them. Honor all you have been given. But most important – forgive. By whatever means is easiest, kindest, and most effective for you, forgive. Give those who have caused such harm nothing more of your life.  As Rabbi Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the whole Law. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn it.”
All I can add is this – be kind, enjoy each day, and live your life in love.


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On the Nature of Prayer

Many years ago, I had a friend whom I adored.  She was vivacious, lively, often funny, a bit self-centered, comfortable with everyone she met, and devoutly Christian.  I gladly accepted her frequent proselytizing because of her sincerity and joie de vivre.   She had a remarkable ability to gather people around her and even make strangers comfortable within moments of meeting her.   Although she was not inordinately physically attractive, most men seemed to fall in love with her within moments of meeting her.  In the 2 years that I knew her, she received gifts and notes from admirers (including a diamond and topaz necklace), 2 marriage proposals, and so many date invitations that she occasionally forgot who she was seeing on which night.  She gracefully rejected the marriage proposals but kept the gifts.

A favorite activity of ours was to go out for lunch to a café that offered our favorite foods and a flirty waiter.  This café was in the heart of downtown, so finding a parking place was most always a challenge.  One particular day found us circling the same 2-block radius for almost 10 minutes.  As she was the driver, I would pay for parking and this time I offered to pay for a spot in a nearby lot, but she declined – “We’ll find a place soon” she insisted.  And sure enough, we turned the corner just as a car pulled away from a perfectly placed parking spot.  “Praise Jesus!”  she laughed.  So, I laughed, too.  She turned to me in noticeable irritation and asked, “Why are you so cynical about Jesus?”  I was surprised and confused – I honestly thought she had been joking.  I mumbled out an explanation and an apology.  She explained that she had asked Jesus to find a perfect parking place for us just before we found one, and that she knew Jesus would answer her prayer.  I didn’t pursue the matter.  Although we remained friends for a while after that incident, as she explained her belief in prayer to me I sensed that our friendship would not last much longer.

In my late 30’s, I had the opportunity to return to college after an absence of many years.  The experience – challenging and rewarding – was enhanced by a mentor-like relationship I developed with a young woman from Korea.  We sat next to each other in a literature class.  I took the class as an elective; it was a requirement for her.   Although English was her second language and she struggled with some of the material, her understanding of the themes of the books we read was sophisticated and insightful.  A few weeks into the quarter, she asked if I would be willing to help her translate a few words and phrases, and some concepts she was unsure of.  Noticing how much work and effort she put into the class, I was happy to help.  As we came to know each other, I discovered she had a deep Christian faith from which she received daily guidance.  When she politely asked if I was Christian, I said no, and briefly, cautiously, explained my belief in god – an impersonal, vague deity.  She seemed genuinely interested, and most impressive to me, she did not proselytize.  During one of our study sessions (for an important test), she asked me if and how I prayed.  She shared that her prayers were of gratitude, and for guidance.  She pointed out that she did not believe in praying for “things” – she said that praying for help with a test or other situations was a misuse of prayer.  She believed that God guided her work and studies, but she was responsible for the outcome.   As the quarter progressed I felt safe with and accepted by her; she did not judge, quarrel with, or belittle my beliefs.  (This was an unusual experience for me – so much so that I began to view Christianity differently than in the past.)  And her hard work paid off – she passed the test with a high score.  On the last day of our class, she gave me a hand-painted thank you card which I still have.  She signed the card, “God bless you for your kindness.”

An experience from approximately 30 years ago that I remember vividly occurred when I worked in a hospital pharmacy in a rural town.  I was the IV Admixture tech – the person who mixed various medications in solutions to be administered to the patient over many hours.  Late on a Saturday afternoon, a teenage girl was brought into the Emergency Department with severe injuries to both legs.  Somehow, she had fallen into a large machine with an auger being run by her father and farmhands.  Damage to both legs was extensive.  As this was a small hospital, and weekends were slow, the information – both accurate and gossipy – flew around employees in every department with amazing speed.  But what I remember most vividly was a report from the nurse who started the patient’s IV.   She had come to the pharmacy to pick up the STAT admixture I made and had a short wait while the pharmacist checked my work.  The nurse gave us an update on the girl’s progress – not good – and of the condition of the parents.  Both were praying fervently.  As the afternoon progressed, we learned that she might lose a foot.  The parents had asked all staff to pray that their beautiful daughter would remain whole.

Days turned into weeks.  Often, we saw the girl’s family members in the cafeteria looking haggard and exhausted.  Hospital staff reported that her family was deeply religious (this was a Catholic hospital) and that their prayers were working.  But as her stay lengthened and the surgeries increased, the patient eventually lost both legs – one below the knee and one above the knee.  Infection had set in and spread.  After almost one month in hospital, she was discharged home.

What is prayer?  Is it nothing more than our species’ attempts to exert control over the haphazard and unpredictable events of life? I have read anecdotal stories of people with no belief in God or gods who, when faced with crisis, find themselves praying.  Often, these crises involve a sick or injured child.  Any parent knows, or can commiserate with, the panic experienced when faced with a child’s illness or injury that we are unable to heal.  That panic, fear, and helplessness can at times disable an adult to such an extent that the only response is prayer.

Is prayer a genetically driven reaction, much like a reflex?  We Thank our Lucky Stars when life goes our way; we resort to superstitious beliefs and practices when we want a specific outcome; we often look up in a beseeching manner when we experience great need.   Is it fear that motivates prayer?

And what of prayers of gratitude?  No doubt you have experienced at some point in your life a moment of overwhelming appreciation and joy without any immediate cause – joy at simply being alive.  What do you do with that surge of emotion?  If you have a belief in a higher being/power, you will attribute this experience to that being and you will be compelled to give a prayer of thanks.  But, what if you do not believe in a higher being or power?  That urge to thank something or someone remains.  Why?  What is its source?  Is it simply a free-floating, archaic emotion?  Is it the random firing of synapses in the nervous system?  A result of the evolution of our species?  Or is it a sincere realization of the immense gift of life?

Of course, some individuals use prayer as a weapon.  Specifically, the phrases “I’ll pray for your wisdom” or “I’ll pray for you”, when expressed during an argument or when people don’t see a situation in the same way, are cruel, sanctimonious, and deeply self-centered uses of prayer.  This type of prayer reveals a selfish motivation behind the act and signifies a profound misunderstanding of the use of prayer.  Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence.

All the above suggests the problem of unanswered prayers, or prayers that seem to be answered No.  The New Testament, specifically the Book of Matthew 21:22, states “Whatever you pray for in (with) faith you will receive.”  But when a sincere, altruistic prayer is refused?  How can we understand the response?  We know of tragic situations where young children die of illness or injury while surrounded by love, prayer, and medical expertise; or in wars and conflicts in which they play no part.  We know of lives with promise ended too soon; mistakes young people make that follow them for the remainder of their life – sincere prayers built on love, yet denied?  Has God abdicated his responsibility to human kind in situations such as the above?  Can an answer, an understanding, be found months or years later?  Do we create our own answers and understanding?

Or do we misunderstand the nature of prayer?   There is a possibility that prayer is not for our own advantage; not a means by which we satisfy desires or needs beyond our ability.  Altruistic or uncharitable; eloquent or barely thought-out; long-lived or immediate – prayer may be a form of communication that we do not fully understand.   Prayer may be the most important form of communication we can engage in.  The true recipient of prayer may never be knowable to us, but the act of prayer may be of benefit far beyond our own life.

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Humble plants, majestic rewards.

One welcome trend that has captured the interest and imagination of neighborhood gardeners in the past 2 decades is the use of ornamental grasses in place of high-maintenance shrubs.  Ornamental grasses offer many benefits for a small investment of money, time, and maintenance.  Most all grasses require little or no care once established – just a “haircut” once a year in early spring (and not all grasses require this).  Cultural needs cover a wide range: some need no supplemental water, some thrive in bogs, and many will grow equally well in sandy or clay soils.  Grasses can be grown in conditions as varied as deep shade to full sun; in containers or in a rock garden.  Few need compost or fertilizer; grasses are adapted to a lean life.  Of the 26 species of grasses I grow (from 20 genera), only one seems to want compost or fertilizer – Imperata cylindrical – and during those summers when I am too busy to tend to it, I am still rewarded with its beautiful show of brilliant red as summer ends and fall arrives.

One note of caution, however; some grasses will become invasive if given the chance.  This depends upon region, of course, so a little research should be done before deciding on the plant for your garden.  In the Northwest, two grasses that can be rampant spreaders are Nassella tenuissima, Mexican Feather Grass, and Phalaris arundinacea, Ribbon Grass or Reed Canary Grass.  In my garden, Mexican Feather Grass has spread via seedlings faster than I can hunt them down and pull them up.  As much as I love this grass, I am still pulling out seedlings seven years after planting just two specimens.  On the positive side, this grass is always available in my garden, in various stages of growth, so it is one plant I no longer need to purchase.

Phalaris arundinacea, Ribbon Grass, will take as much space as it can find regardless of what else is growing nearby.  As stated before, research and careful planning can alleviate potential problems with plants that can become invasive over time.   This is a plant that needs to be contained!  (My experience as a Forest Steward in a city park has shown first-hand the damage just a few invasive plants can cause in an environment where they have not adapted with controls on their growth.  In this part of the country, English ivy (Hedera helix), English holly (Ilex aquifolium), Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus), and Butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) are rampant growers and have displaced and/or shaded out countless native plants.)

For versatility, Carex is the group to choose from.  Not true grasses but sedges, Carex is a large genus that contains over 1,000 species – from water-lovers to the drought-tolerant, ground covers to giants over 6 feet in height, must-haves for container gardening to stand-alone specimen plants.  If you choose only one grass or grass-like plant for your garden, a Carex is an excellent choice.  Of special note are C. testacea, C. buchananii, C. eleta ‘Aurea’, C. mertensii, and C. douglasii.

For outstanding accent plants, blue grasses are at the top of the list. Their color complements every shade of green; harmonizes with yellows and reds; the thin blades contrast dramatically with the wide variety of foliage shapes found among perennials and shrubs; and the plants hold up well in winter.  Blue grasses work well in any style of garden: from formal to casual, rock gardens to perennial borders, Japanese-style to English cottage gardens.  Three of my favorite blue grasses are: Festuca glauca, Blue Fescue, Helictrotrichon sempervirens, Blue Oat Grass, and Leymus arenarius, Blue Lyme Grass.

To add a delicate look to your garden, Miscanthus sinensis, Morning Light, Deschampsia caepitosa, Northern Lights, and Molinia caerulea, Purple Moor Grass are good choices.  Finely textured and graceful in movement, these grasses bring an ethereal quality to the garden that few other plants offer.  When partnered with dwarf conifers and evergreen perennials, they create a beautiful and unique landscape.

For dramatic color, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, Black Mondo Grass or Imperata cylindrical, Japanese Blood Grass, are outstanding selections.  I use Black Mondo Grass as an edging plant that I weave between perennials of much lighter foliage color (it pairs well with Heuchera ‘Lime Rickey’).  Japanese Blood Grass is very effective planted in mass or as a specimen plant where it will be back-lit by early evening light and the colors of sunset.

To add fall color to your garden, Panicum virgatum, Shenandoah, and Schizachyrium scoparium, Little Blue Stem, can’t be matched.  In early fall, Shenandoah grass is such a strong presence that it outshines all other plants around it.

Little Blue Stem brings a complex array of purples and silvers to the garden that no other grass offers.  Both grasses are outstanding in rock gardens and require no special treatment.

Panicum virgatum, Shenandoah                                    Andropogon gerardi, Big Bluestem