The Magic of Buried Banana Peels

azaleasWhy didn’t I stop my elderly and disheveled mother from scooting out to the rose bushes flanking our front door to bury the breakfast banana peels? The short answer would be: she’s my mother. The longer answer would be: she so believed those banana peels would help my roses, she had me half-convinced, too. That was how we rolled, for decades. So firm were her beliefs about any number of  VERY outside of the box things, that I couldn’t unequivocally decide she was wrong.

So I didn’t stop her from rooting around under the rose bushes, even though I was uncomfortable with the activity for a number of reasons.  Foremost was the fact that this woman who was still climbing trees to prune them when she was in her sixties, and showing off her can-can kick in her seventies, was now in her late eighties, post a few strokes and the passing of my father.  She was frail, unsteady on her feet, and had retreated deep inside herself, courtesy of depression and beginning dementia. Second was the fact I wasn’t super supportive of burying any of our garbage a few feet from the front door, especially in daylight, and I wasn’t too sure my neighbors would be, either. And third, while I was open to the fact that the peels might help the roses, I was also concerned that rooting around the rose roots in the dirt among the few remaining strawberry plants that were supposed to be ground cover could be more harmful than helpful to that little front walk ecosystem.

I also didn’t stop her because my mother loved to garden; one of the only joys she had left. It didn’t bring a smile to her face; nothing did at that point. But fussing over plants was about the only place where present-day challenges would fade, and she would lose herself out in my yard, burying banana peels or pulling weeds, or in the house, walking around grooming my houseplants. Gardening was a comfort, one she’d enjoyed as long as I could remember. If I made her come in the house, or stopped her from taking her tipsy weak self up the stairs to complete her houseplant routine, what was a saving her for? If she died gardening, I knew she’d be happy.

My mother has not been in my garden for a number of years, or any garden for that matter, except perhaps a great garden in the sky. If we have any say in what our heaven is, my mother is gardening. My indoor and outdoor plants now survive despite the care, or lack thereof, that I and my husband can give them. Even with her crazy schemes, my mother was a better influence on any garden than I probably will ever be, even with a horticulture degree as one of my credits.

But I did inherit my mother’s curiosity about plants and what makes them grow. So last week, years after those banana peels were laid to rest under my roses, as I researched the answer to the garden legend that peonies need ants to bloom (they don’t), I stumbled upon banana peels under the rose bushes. Roses supposedly like buried banana peels because they increase soil potassium. However, the soil microorganisms breaking down those banana peels have to extract nitrogen from the soil to complete their job, so the soil can end up low in nitrogen along the way, and without even much potassium to show for it. A net negative. Composting the banana peels first is the way to go, followed by spreading compost around the roses.

I may have also inherited impatience from my mother. Who wants to wait for months down the road for the banana peels to be composted, after all that monotonous effort of liming and turning?  Burying banana peels to make your roses bloom is magical, a fairy tale we want to be true. Practical is important, but magic is imperative.

Note to son: the day I shuffle my silver-haired self out to scatter used coffee grounds under the azaleas in your yard, let me be! I’m doing just fine.

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Why Are Restaurants Trying To Kill Us?

salmonI met my mother and sister for lunch recently. They live about an hour away, but there’s a large shopping area between us. We have a choice of several restaurants, but I like one in particular because their food seems healthier. And you can ask for nutrition data, which they’ll gladly bring you. On one sheet, in teeny tiny type, but at least it’s available. Like all restaurants, you have to be careful not to overeat the bread or sop up half a cup of olive oil with it. This time they had a new menu item, Sesame Hoisin Salmon salad. Spinach, snap peas, mango, Napa cabbage, pickled ginger, and shaved carrots. Wow! Cabbage and carrots, spinach and snap peas! Just reading it made me feel healthy. Then there was the salmon, “grilled and lacquered with a sesame hoisin glaze.” Lacquered brought up images of shiny furniture, but hey, grilled fish is good! Omegas! And finally, “orange-sesame dressing.” No mention of oil there, or cheese, so that also sounded light. Sign me up! I ordered that salad and ate every bit of it. It was delicious. It didn’t come with any bread — because I’d already had a third of what they brought to the table to begin with — so I really felt like I’d done myself a favor with my choice.

Then I went home and looked up the nutrition data for my lovely salmon salad. WHAT? Eight hundred and seventy calories! How is that bleeping possible? Did they inject the salmon with straight-up FAT? And thirty-two grams of sugar? From WHAT? It was a SALAD! Oh, and that bread and oil for the table? Twelve hundred and seventy calories! Divided by three comes out to … TOO MUCH. THIS is what makes me crazy about dining out. I eat what I think are healthy items, and they’re not. I know, if it tastes that good, it’s probably not good for you.  And restaurants load up on fat and sugar because our little lizard brains adore it, and it keeps us coming back. Yes, if I’m ordering fries or a brownie sundae or a big plate of nachos, I know I’m getting a huge number of calories and fat. But a salmon salad should not be a big surprise. We spend a lot of our food dollars at restaurants, and a lot of us eat out several times a week. We’re great customers! So why are restaurants trying to kill us?

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Ah, Fresh Cinnamon!

Women living here in New England in eras past did not have an easy time running a household. Gathering wood and maintaining a fire for cooking and heat. Hauling water. Caring for and butchering livestock. Growing vegetables. Yet I’m not convinced that a more contemporary ideal of doing as little as possible is the answer either. I find real satisfaction in hand washing a sink full of pots and pans, shoveling the sidewalk of snow, growing my own tomatoes. But I know not even prairie women grew, dried, and ground their own spices. Civilizations have been built on the commerce of these natural treasures; murders committed, lives lost, over cardamom and cassia.

I won’t say I was ready to kill anyone when I discovered my cinnamon bottle was empty the other morning, but I wasn’t happy.  My husband could have told me he used it up. (Homemade applesauce with cinnamon is a favorite comfort food around here.  And apparently, he did tell me, but the exchange went right by me.) I had almost out-of-season cranberries. It was the weekend. I had time to bake. I was looking forward to trying a new recipe for cranberry nut muffins. With almost all the ingredients lined up on the counter, I discover the empty cinnamon bottle. Loud sigh. Once I get going in the creative process, I’m not interested in stopping. Getting dressed—I was wearing layered sweats fit for no eye—and going out in the frigid cold to the grocery store to pick up the cinnamon was going to ruin the whole process. Not to mention make it too late to get these muffins prepared for breakfast.

Plan B? I did have cinnamon sticks. I pulled out a grater and gave that a try. No surprise; that didn’t work. Not one to give up easily, I turned next to the little mill I use to grind the flax seeds I put in blender drinks. I broke up the cinnamon sticks, popped the lid on, and pushed down to hear the whir of the engine, and things flying helter skelter in there. I wasn’t really convinced the mill was going to make the pieces small enough, but what the heck; it was worth a try.

I eased the top back off and beheld: copper-hued brown gold! Finely powdered cinnamon of a deeper and richer color than I’ve ever seen in a store. And the scent! Mulled cider. Cinnamon buns. Apple pie. Burning candles that smell like mulled cider, cinnamon buns, and apple pie. Everything homey cinnamon evokes. And I’d made it myself.

I do a juice fast from time to time, and one thing I’ve experienced repeatedly. If I make my own juice, I can do the fast without feeling overwhelmingly hungry and bereft of sustenance. If I use store-bought juice, I can’t. Fresh juice nourishes me in a way that the exact same mix, premade and bottled, does not. Some explain this as life energy, that fresh food has life energy that processed food does not. I do not know what this means, or what this could be; I only know this is the best explanation I’ve heard for why fresh is organically more sustaining.

I made those muffins, and using my own ground cinnamon created an experience that quite surpassed making muffins with cinnamon poured from that mega-bottle from Costco. Life energy? Or just the eternal pleasure to be found in even a small measure of self-sufficiency…

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Post Card from Cape Cod (Falmouth, MA)

Almost twenty years we’ve been going to Falmouth, MA, lucky enough to have a summer home there. What a beautiful place, in terms of nature –land, sea and marshes; and so many charming homes and shops, a quaint downtown. Cod fish and seagulls; Quakers and whaling ships; Wampanoags and quahogs; cranberry bogs and lighthouses. All that good stuff. Plus, time to slow down, enjoy the sunset, and have “visits” with friends and neighbors. But this year, more than other years, something is not right in paradise. This year, folks on the Cape are suffering, in crisis, in danger of losing themselves, quite literally, to drugs, alcohol, violence and injury.

Summer brings all kinds of folks to Falmouth, and not surprisingly, an uptick in crime, injury and accidents. The ER can be pretty busy from fish hooks in thumbs to accidents on the bike trail to tick bites and allergic reactions. And this year, heroin and opiate overdoses, sometimes fatal. In one week, five drug overdoses were reported in the Police log: two were revived with Narcan on the spot, two hospitalized, and one dead at home. There was an obituary for the 19 year old who died, with a picture, listing friends, family, hobbies. Looked like a nice middle-class white kid — with issues, no doubt. Two OD’s were in cars, one parked at Walmart; one at Christmas Tree Shops. Where we shop.

This week, my husband left Stop N Shop at four in the afternoon with his cart full. A group of people were staring at man hanging onto a light post; no one knew what to do. Another day, another man sat down in the street, unable to stir himself. Another was walking along the sidewalk, shirtless, missing a shoe, incoherent, without direction. There are flyers up around town about a man who has gone missing, middle-aged, with perhaps some mental issues. Like a dog or a cat. “Have you seen this man?” Along with the drug use, there have been a lot of cases of theft and break-ins, not a few in our part of town, uncomfortably close to our idyllic little corner of the Cape. On my solitary walk around the bog, I came across two men, meeting briefly and then parting; I kept my distance, feeling fairly certain it was a drug deal.

Besides the summer visitors, Falmouth has a sturdy year round population of people from all walks of life, including the Woods Hole scientists, the artisans, old Yankees, lively Irish, and the descendents of Portuguese and Cape Verde sailing and farm immigrants. It’s a changeable life, and yet, sometimes remote and even boring in the off-season, providing few jobs more than building, landscaping or services. The allure of drugs is widespread, but some areas seem more vulnerable, no matter how beautiful. Perhaps it’s the contrast of the wealthy who come and go to those who are stuck and struggling.

I’ve been aware of recreational drugs for most of my life, on some level. But this, what I’m seeing in Falmouth, is different. They are falling fast, these casualties of the drug war, bringing the battleground to us. My mother has said, “No one chooses to grow up to be a drunk or a drug addict; something has happened along the way.” It’s one thing to waste time, money, health, over time. But another to lose yourself completely, to lose your life, just like that. I wonder how these Cape Cod folk are any less victims than the Central American children being brought across the border, moved by terrible forces to places they never wanted to be due to their weakness and someone else’s greed.

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Touching

Portland, ME – Soakology, a place of retreat and massage. I went with some friends a while back, as a kind of joint birthday present. It’s not everyone’s idea of a gift – some folks don’t like their feet to be touched, or, to have a body massage in state of near nakedness. Me, I’m not one of them – I’m a big fan of massage, and so are my sons.  As we soaked and relaxed, one of my single women friends mentioned that something she missed in a close relationship was touch. In our society, with the unspoken rules of personal space, touch is a “touchy” subject, the when and why and how. I’m certain it has to do with so many folks’ infatuation with their pets, the permissible touching, petting, cuddling and stroking. Human touch, at its best, is art and medicine. At its worst, soul-destroying.

My family background was not especially warm and physical. However, as one of six children close in age, we were thrown together in bedrooms, church pews, and the back of the car – “squeezed in”. Really, I think it was college and California that opened the door for me to the pleasure and the power of touch. Acting in scenes, we had the reason and opportunity to touch, embrace, slap or kiss others, even relative strangers. Off stage, theater types tended to be fairly open and expressive, shall we say. Giving and receiving massages, often in a line. Hot tubs under the stars, often naked. Which, I learned, did not imply that sex was to follow, necessarily. And I learned there the language of touch, how to communicate what was acceptable to me, and what was not.

At Soakology, I asked the woman massaging my feet what had led her to that profession. Strong hands, she said, and a kind of gift that was pointed out to her by someone in alternative healing, an acupuncturist. Besides the retreat massage, the young woman had another vocation, pediatric therapeutic massage. It was for helping young people to heal after injury, but primarily it was to help children of abuse or neglect re-learn how touch others and be touched. For them, touch was a weapon, a source of pain and domination, although, even at its most destructive, it was about human contact. Therapy was permission-based, and proceeded slowly, with games and exercises. Touch rehab.

Touch is communication at the most basic level, and, the masseuse told me, babies without live, physical contact will die after 7 days, even if otherwise fed and sheltered. What she said brought to mind a movie, Lars and the Real Girl. In the movie, Lars is unable to make physical contact with others because of an early trauma – his mother’s death in giving him birth and his father’s subsequent withdrawal. The older brother does not know how to help, but Lars, intuitively, comes up with a solution – an anatomically correct blow-up doll that he deems his girlfriend. I won’t give away the conclusion, just that I was moved to tears, not really knowing why, realizing later, it was the profound loss of touch and its fearful connotation that hurt Lars, not lack of love.

My husband has learned that a sure form of comfort and happiness to me is a foot rub. My sons have been the recipients of many a foot, back and shoulder rub from me, so it is not foreign or “loaded” to them, but a gesture of love and care, which hopefully they will share with others. My son’s pre-school teacher told me this story: one day, she had gotten bad news of some kind while still in the classroom, and had taken a seat to compose herself. The children could see she was upset. My son went up to her and placed his hands on her shoulders. Did she want a back rub, he asked. That might make her feel better.

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Folks and Spokes – or, Hold the Spandex

Too late now – the invasion has begun. The bicycle folks are out in numbers, in our little town, and it looks like they’re here to stay. Almost every day, mostly all day, there are bicyclists on the road, clad in their black and neon spandex outfits, hydration at the ready, sunglasses, and – helmets, I’m happy to say. Like it or not, car drivers and pedestrians are having to share the roads and crosswalks with the folks on bikes. Most times, we adjust, but sometimes it’s not so pretty and can be downright scary. Twenty years ago when we moved here, it was not so. Now, they are part of the landscape: bright, quick, darting insects, in whizzing motion, on the periphery of my vision.

I enjoy riding a bike myself on occasion, on quiet roads or cleared trails. More or less I enjoy the scenery, taking my time, fresh air, small hills and few gears. Not so much for the bike folks, I think. The bikes themselves are highly engineered pieces of sporting equipment, not mere transportation. Expensive. And tricky to repair, requiring knowledge and expertise. The bikers themselves are by and large a fast, fit group, no dawdlers among them, and in it for speed and distance, I suspect, not recreation. No doubt there is merit in it, and benefit: stress relief, exercise, endorphins, perhaps and maybe a kind of meditation in motion. But, the hazards! My frequent reaction is to wonder, “Don’t they fear for their lives on these narrow shoulders?” or “Don’t the gas fumes bother them?” or, “Why do they want to scale that big hill on a bike, anyway?” Even more perplexing, to me, is the “spinning” craze, of indoor cycling that gets nowhere and sees nothing, but has its true adherents, I know. Maybe, like the more extreme sports, it’s the adrenaline rush and the escape from everyday problems. Yet, that hasn’t been, for me, the experience of biking.

I logged a lot of miles as a kid on a bike on rural roads in Connecticut, and I know that my husband was attached to his bike like another leg, that got him where he wanted to go. It was freedom, for us. No helmets, of course. There were the occasional accidents, although none fatal. My cousin Bobby had a spectacular “wipeout” at the bottom of Newgate Hill. We must have been ten; I was first on the scene to observe the damage to boy and bike, a bloody mess. I rode like holy hell to get help from the adults. Only, it was a minor cut after all. Apparently, the forehead bleeds a lot. My husband bought a piece of land on the Cape (with his mother), from a settlement after being hit by a car on his bike, around 12 years old. Also broken leg, missing weeks of school, and tutor at home. Our associations with bikes were not very glamorous or associated with anything like achievement. A means to adventure, yes, but not an end in itself.

In another chapter of my history with bikes, I arrived in Gloucester, England for a homestay during a semester abroad, and was promptly given “my bike”. That was it; no family car. Wherever I needed to go in town, hop the bike (buses or trains for longer rides). The trick there was figuring out where I was going. Fortunately, I had a self-appointed guide, the family’s 12 year old daughter, Moira, who took me everywhere. The biggest adjustment, of course, was the left-lane car traffic, and for bikes, too. And, the experience of being among so many other bikers on the old city streets. Yet, we managed without much fuss, and I’m here to write about it today. In visiting Europe in more recent years, there is still a “bike culture”, men and women, young and old, casual or business, priests and nuns. But not much spandex, that I could see. And how many would have said they were riding for exercise, I’m not too sure. Don’t think so, though. My son made great use of the bike-share program in Paris, and it seemed to work very well, but the bikes themselves were kind of bland, gray, workhouse models, maybe less likely to be coveted and stolen.

My old purple bicycle has gone out to pasture. I’d like a new bike; that is, I’d like to be able to go bike riding. But where? I’m still old-school when it comes to bikes: safety, comfort, and enjoying the scenery. Hold the spandex, please.

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The Lost World of My Youth

One of the series I’ve been following lately is “Call the Midwife”, one of those wonderful, well-crafted British productions that recreate another time – in this case, the late 1950’s.  The story takes place in Poplar, a poor section of London, and the main characters are mid-wife nurses and nuns — somewhat dated roles, by definition. As much as I enjoy the program, the social conditions, and the conditions of day to day life, as depicted in the series, have shocked me on occasion.  And shocked me into realizing that these were the years when I was born and brought up.  How distant and far away they seem, even primitive. Like a different world, almost. 

 One of the episodes takes place in 1958 – the year of my birth, only 13 years after the end of WWII.  For the characters in the show, not many years have passed since the Blitz, and all the trauma of war, including the families who lost husbands and fathers, and old soldiers who fade away with little reward for their service There is an epidemic of TB in the area, and one of the nuns is sent away to the sanatorium to recover. “Pregnant out of wedlock” is cause for firing of a single woman from the typing pool.  A married woman with 8 children tries unsuccessfully to abort herself, and then almost dies of a botched illegal abortion. The elderly and mentally ill must cope as best they can, and with the help of the fragile networks of relationships that support them.  Women at risk of abuse have almost no recourse; nor are the nuns and midwives able to offer much help.

 Yet, in 1958, there are signs of hope and progress. TV is a novelty, and a motor scooter is a thrill to the women who ply their trade mostly by bicycle.  A couple of the more adventurous don pants, after Princess Margaret has been spotted wearing them.  For me, in rural Connecticut, it wasn’t until a few years later, in the early sixties, that we girls wore pants to school, instead of skirts and tights, on winter days.  The big excitement for the nuns and nurse midwives in Poplar is the advent of “air and gas” to relax women in labor, and the arrival of the X-ray machine to detect TB before it spreads.  They are just beginning to instruct on the use of prophylactics (rubbers), although birth control of any kind is not covered by national health. These particular women, the nuns and nurse mid-wives, are in charge of themselves, and seen as true caretakers and authorities by the assisting doctor and by the hundreds of residents who use their services.  

 Mainly, I think to myself – what a revolution; what a relief to live in these present days. All the greater opportunities and conveniences that we enjoy, although not necessarily such greater protections.  Creature that I am, with the degree of independence I experienced as a young woman, I could not go back to that time.  However, I can see that some things have been lost, and greatest, perhaps, is the degree of connection and interdependence, the greater intimacy of lives shared.  The narrator of the story, voiced by Vanessa Redgrave, celebrates the joys and victories, the respect and acknowledgement that she and the others receive, as well of course, the tragedies they witness – with such a clear sense of need and purpose at the most sacred and vulnerable times. 

 Most of the time, I’m thrilled and awed by how certain fundamental things have changed, and how quickly – technology, health care, women’s rights. TV and movies on demand and Iphones are what we longed for, and they are here. Yet, I feel a certain comfort in the remaining big yellow school busses, pop-up toasters, and the inches and feet of my youth. Because 1958 – the year of my birth – is now the distant past – another time – history.

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The Great Hunger

In Gaelic, it’s An Gorta Mor, the Great Hunger, what we sometimes call the Potato Famine in 19th century Ireland.  A hunger so huge it changed the course of history, killing off a million, and causing another 1-2 million to leave in a matter of short years. The proximate cause was the potato blight, a natural disaster. But some now call the famine a genocide, direct or indirect, due to the fact that Ireland continued to export other food stuffs, to the profit of landowners, while the peasants went without. I know at least one of my ancestors, a gr-gr grandmother, Mary Erwin, is a documented survivor of the Irish famine. To the best of my research efforts, she came as a teen with two siblings, destined to be servants in Vermont. She lived to marry and have children, and I wonder if she ever shared with them the memories of a place where the people she knew and loved died slowly around her from lack of food.

Recently, I volunteered a few hours for a Pay It Forward event to pack meals for people today who know hunger as a daily and life-threatening experience.  The event was sponsored by Bedford Rotarians, in partnership with an organization called, Stop Hunger Now to send food to Haiti.  From the Bedford Citizen, “the Rotary Club of Bedford accomplished its goal of packing 120,000 meals at a mammoth event held at Middlesex Community College on Saturday, April 26. Working in three shifts, Rotary members, families, scout troops, church youth groups and business people donned food service gloves and hairnets to measure and fill the six-serving packets.”

I’m sometimes leery of “do good” events for folks in far away lands that help mostly the do-ers, it seems. I prefer to help locally, and/or I’d rather give money directly to an aid organization that I think does a good job. But I had a few hours, I know how desperate the situation remains in Haiti, and one of the coordinators was a friend, Peter Colgan, so I felt pretty certain it would be well-run. It was a terrific event, set up so that participants could clearly understand the goal and purpose, following a stream-lined process to achieve maximum speed and effectiveness – with a good dose of fun and challenge. My team of five, in hairnets, unknown to each other, filled packets with rice, soy protein, dehydrated veggies, and vitamins, to be weighed, sealed and boxed to go.  Three hours on our feet, no breaks, no time for conversation, but lots of high energy music, and a gong to let us know when we’d achieved our milestones.  It wasn’t until later that I found out the inspiration for this event: “Bedford Rotarian Ralph Hammond visited Haiti several years ago and wondered why school children didn’t return after lunch. He discovered that because there was no school lunch program, afternoon classes were suspended because the children were too hungry and restless to learn.”  

We know so little of real hunger in this day in this place.  I can barely even remember the hunger of my youth, between meals, when we weren’t allowed to snack, and how fierce it could be. I married into an Armenian family with a strong food culture, and the pantry is always full, and abundant food is part of every special occasion. But, that too, is a culture shaped by memory of hunger. At the turn of the century, there was a saying, “Starving Armenians”, and one of the earliest fundraising organizations was formed for the purpose of meeting this hunger. Perhaps we have more in common than I thought.

I can’t help thinking that yes, Haiti’s hunger is a result of a natural disaster, an earthquake. But is it also true that, in a world of superabundance for some, not to share that food is a kind of genocide?  Or, not to try?  Or, not to care?  Sometimes I think there is a hunger not only for food, but for doing or being something good, meaningful, purposeful, beautiful, in the lives of others. Isn’t that the Great Hunger of the spirit? 

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Memories…the Dusty Corners of My Mind

From time to time, I’ve considered writing a memoir, since this is the age of memoir and I’ve had a pretty adventurous life:  a girl on her own, lots of ups and downs, coming of age in the 70’s and 80s, women’s liberation, sexual revolution, the advent of technology age, all that. I’ve got material: love affair with a Vietnam vet; cross-country bus ride with $24 in my pocket; frisked for drugs on the Mexican border. I’ve seen the big canvas: the California scene, the Big Apple in the 1980’s, a step back in time on the Eastern Shore, MD. Oh, right, I’ve written about those already, in my novels, and that is probably where they’re going to stay.  There’s really no danger that this memoir will be written, primarily because I have such a bad memory.  There are significant periods of time in my younger years that I can not recall much detail, not actually drug or alcohol-related.  Even now, when I write, I’m not entirely sure if a scene is entirely fiction or something that might have actually happened.

I know I’m not the only one with recall problems. In my current stage, there is the menopausal “fog” of forgetfulness. Many of my older friends keep busy doing crossword puzzles, playing cards, studying foreign languages to keep minds sharp. I have a friend who lost her house in a fire, and since then has not been able to rely on her memory as she used to. I believe my memory issues have to do with a kind of “automatic” pilot I functioned on for many years just to keep myself afloat. Being in the moment and concerned with survival, I didn’t have the opportunity to closely observe and analyze things, and so they passed like flotsam on a river, gone forever. Fortunately, there are two people who are living, breathing memory banks for certain times of life: my sister, close companion of my youth; and my husband, who can quote what I said 30 years ago when we first met as undergrads.  They are my zip drives, thumb sticks, memory devices that I can plug-in and retrieve things that are otherwise inaccessible.  Thank God for that.

 It wasn’t always so. As a student I had a terrific memory for some things, almost photogenic in some regards. In French and Spanish, I could pick up vocabulary easily on one or two passes. In literature, I could recall passages and even specific sentences. And yet, I had trouble retaining lines in a play, mostly, I think, because of anxiety that came from drawing up words from the back of my mind while the front of my mind was in coping mode, on the lookout for problems.  My younger son claims this absent-mindedness has a genetic component, and perhaps it does. As does my sons’ aptitude for foreign language. No doubt memory has a biological basis; but more and more I see that it’s shaped, too, by experience and emotion.

 The one part of memory I claim some pride in is what people tell me about themselves. It’s like having cabinets with files large and small, and I rarely throw things out.  These files are also cross-referenced with other people and events.  A fair amount of work, I assure you. And yet, I can retain that information because it’s important to me, clearly.  And that I got from my grandmother, who kept track of all the comings and goings of her large family, down to who liked vanilla and who liked chocolate.  So, it seems there is a truth to selective memory, what is kept and what is allowed to go.

The modern day is a challenge to all of our memories. It’s a busy life with a lot to remember, and a lot slips through the cracks, even with our best efforts. I have to make a list for anything over three items at the store. I’ve taken to announcing that I have x number of questions/issues at the doctors office or on the phone – alerting others that I may well forget something. But, if I have one consolation, it is that I’m already at home with a certain degree of absent-mindedness, and have learned to work around it. And, in some ways, it’s nice to let the more trivial things sift away, leaving behind mainly what I most care about.

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What Would the Butterfly Say?

The year 2013 was the year of the fox, according to a recent magazine, because of the hit song “What Does the Fox Say?”  For 2014, by process of a hip little tree of elimination, this writer lands on the leopard. Not buying this lame, and redundant, suggestion. Supposedly a fashion trend this year, but leopard print is always a fashion trend in some populations.   

Then I read the latest newsletter from my town’s garden club. The April meeting features Going Organic at Maine Coastal Botanical Gardens.  The executive director of the gardens in Boothbay, Maine, is talking about the results of adopting organic practices:  The plants are healthier, pollinators more diverse, visitors happier, and costs have remained the same or decreased. Retire the myth that organic has to be much more expensive.

The next article that caught my eye was about Monarch butterflies.  Their numbers are in serious decline; an independent study has linked the Monarchs’ decline to the use of Monsanto’s Roundup.  Roundup kills milkweed, the butterflies’ primary food source.  Losing these butterflies means wiping out insects, birds, and small mammals that are all part of this food chain.

Maybe 2014 needs to be the year of the butterfly. This article pushed an old hot button for me. Round Up is dangerous to our ecosystem and the creatures who live in it; we’ve known this for some time. We knew it when I was studying for my horticulture degree, and need I say, that was a while ago. Scientists have demonstrated that the glyphosate in Round Up can cause cell death in amounts 200 times below agriculture usage. This same chemical has also been cited as responsible for the rise of gluten intolerance and celiac disease. I have several friends and relatives who suffer from this condition; one almost died before the condition was identified. I surmise the problems that this dangerous herbicide causes to living creatures is limited only by the amount of studies undertaken to link damage to source.  

I’ve seen good friends spraying Round Up around the yard to kill the weeds—no face mask, a dog playing nearby. I’ve seen neighbors at the beach drench their stone driveways and stone “yards,” with this stuff–there is an Ultra Max version now–no face mask, dog nearby. I watch as we both stand there, on different sides of the street, at sea level, both of us, and our dogs, as this neighbor basically sprays this killer chemical mix directly into the water table.

When will we rethink leafy “pest” management? Rethink chemical herbicides across the board. There is nothing natural about monoculture. There is nothing natural about a yard that is just grass, about a gravel driveway that has no plants peeking through, about a sterile brick walk.  Some British home owners seem to get this more than we do. Think British cottage garden–over grown, diverse, wild even, but happy. These gardens read happy. Think of our American suburban clipped and manicured lawns and gardens. These landscapes read sterile, cold, and racist. Only this type of grass blade or this particular bush is permitted; everything else is not welcome, and will be killed.     

These “unwelcome” plants are not the only ones being destroyed. Not to mention that one creature’s “unwelcome” leafy volunteer is another creature’s “welcome,” or as we’ve seen with the Monarchs, critical, volunteer. The destruction wrought by this rampant use of herbicides goes way beyond, say, that single dandelion plant—with the bright yellow flower and interesting leaves that also make a snappy salad. This widespread destruction seeps into all areas of our food chain and ecosystem. We are all connected.  

Would it kill us to allow a little more natural diversity in our yards? No. But it may kill us if we don’t.  

What would the butterfly say? Stop. Please.

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