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Teachings of My Summer Toad

On a warm early morning this past summer, I opened the front door and stepped onto the porch, where I was surprised to find a toad sitting quietly. Assuming him to be as surprised as I, as well as vulnerable, and not wanting to frighten him, I passed carefully by, heading towards the yard and making it clear that I had no intention towards him. “Hullo, Toad,” I offered in a soft tone, as casually as I could, in the hope of dispelling any awkwardness. Toad remained still, unblinking. His demeanor was hard to assess. Was he watching me? Thinking about me? Was he calm or just unrevealing of his emotional state?

Though unexpected, his appearance wasn’t unprecedented. I had spotted the occasional toad in the yard, always in the summer, and always sitting quietly in whatever inward state toads may experience, simply not moving. I have never understood what they were doing here: there is no water, and I have only ever seen one at a time. Are they loners? The yard contains some mysterious small holes, but do toads squeeze themselves into them? I avoid the holes, hoping that the inhabitants, if any, won’t emerge while I’m near. There had even been a summer toad on the porch before. He appeared during the same season as a plant was passed along to me by a neighbor. The plant, a maranta, or prayer plant, was the one among all the pots which looked the most like Toad. How did he know that? He took up residence in the pot and could often be found there in the shade. If I didn’t see him and began watering, he sat patiently, perhaps even enjoying the soft shower. He stayed all summer and was called Rupert. Maybe this summer’s toad was Rupert, a resident of the neighborhood, showing himself again: perhaps he knows me, while I can’t tell one toad from another.

Recently, I heard someone use the phrase “trust the stillness.” I was delighted, especially at hearing it spoken by that particular friend. What an expression! Does he really think like that? Are those his words? I googled the words and found them used in various forms by many sources. So lots of people are trusting stillness, or at least talking about it, and I didn’t know – a popular idea existing all around me, of which I had been unaware. And I found myself thinking of Toad.

Toad arrived this summer and took up his post as my teacher. His arrival and departure, like everything about him, were unannounced. He gave me no syllabus, no reading to do, no assignment. In fact, he never spoke or acknowledged me in any way. I am not big, but I am huge compared to him; and yet, he appeared unimpressed. I don’t know what may go on in the consciousness of a toad, so I can only make human assumptions and imagine him to be like me. I liked him being here; and in my mind, he trusted me. I gave him as much space as I could and made myself quieter and slower – smaller – around him. Stillness reminds me of him, because it was stillness that we shared. I studied Toad and tried to give him the atmosphere he seemed to want. He gave me his presence.


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T(a leaf falls)ke Five

Autumn. Every autumn has always reminded me of every other autumn, probably because, for so long, my year began in September with the start of school. Crisp air, turning leaves, and I am there – everywhere I had been before (at yearly intervals), every classroom, every walk to the library, every Saturday passed in the beauty of the leaves. Apples: dipped in caramel, or as hot cider. And, as I moved into adolescence, The Poem, by e.e. cummings, of course, speaking the essence of my autumnal soul:

l(a
le
af
fa
ll
s)
one
l
iness.

That started in high school and returned to reunite with me every year since. By the time the new school year had moved from late summer days into fall, I had once again disappointed myself: all my plans and hopes for a new beginning, the childish dream of recreating myself as a new me, had failed. From the start, it was a slowly read/spoken/thought poem, brief as it is, but drawn out by me, full of all the wistfulness, longing, and inward travel that autumn evoked: an ending, as well as a beginning.

Autumn, like other times and other things, went through a faltering period after I left school and began the search for my grown self. My being was so attuned to the seasonal change, that I continued in the old atmosphere for years after the last paper was turned in, the last test taken. With no outer assignment, I unwittingly gave myself one: a yearly reading of my “autumn” novel, May Sarton’s “Kinds of Love.” A creature of habits, I have worn the same scarf – dark green and covered with colored leaves and mushrooms – from October till the end of November. An apple in any form still holds the magic.

But the poem, which hasn’t left me, has somehow managed to alter. Just when it happened, or how, I couldn’t say. It didn’t used to bring a tune with it, though it could have – “Autumn Leaves” would have worked. One day I was raking neighborhood leaves (the back yard, something of a downhill bowl, accumulates a botanist’s delight in the array of leaves which gather from who knows where, but are unrelated to the trees in this yard). Raking leaves, and including a bit of free form movement, unobserved as I believed myself to be, and I heard it. The Poem was in my mind, of course, but now it had an accompaniment: “Take Five!”

How could it be, and how could that work? Yet, it does. Embedded in The Poem I have always seen my autumnal accompanying mood: “loneliness.” Even when I’m not feeling lonely, the season itself can evoke it. After so many years, I finally saw the other word embedded: oneliness. Is it a word? It is at least a state of being, sometimes meaning, for me, that I am one person in the world, sometimes that I am one with the world, the season, the leaves, the raking dance. Suspend disbelief, and judgment, and try it. Just cautiously at first, slowly .. and listen.

What can this mean? For me, not a rejection of times remembered, nor the pleasant habits and associations I have with autumn. They don’t hurt me, and I enjoy them. And friends with a sense of occasion seem to appreciate them, as well. The music that arrived all unexpected seems to tell me, simply, take a break, a breath. Suspend the sense of world and being part of it, or not, and just dance your free form with the leaves. So I do. I take five and watch a leaf fall.

Dave Brubeck original video


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Emerson’s Weeds

It’s upon us, this part of summer, when much of the show is over, many of the brightly colored flowers have bloomed and faded, and the heat, sinking through our flesh right down to bone, makes us feel faded, too. If we counted on foliage instead of flowers, we can still gaze with confidence at the leaves that persevere, patterned or simply straightforward in their chosen shades of green, even in this part of summer growing, heightening, spreading.

If the year has been dry, many lawns have browned by now, though the one outside my window, filled with native plants (that some call weeds) remains calmly verdant. “A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered,” Emerson wrote; and I enjoy the virtue of these plants that have taken over from grass, keeping the lawn soft underfoot.

But today it’s another plant whose virtue I am especially admiring: the blue mistflower. Mistflowers flourish in the Appalachias, as well as throughout the Appalachia-adjacent South and Mid-Atlantic. They enter one’s garden world like a weed and spread like a weed, but the only state that seems to consider blue mistflower a weed is Kentucky. The rest of us are at the ready, particularly now, with full appreciation. Their foliage appeared, tiny but numerous and sudden, much earlier in the season. And so, too, their music began for me – faintly at first, but persistent, and continuing throughout the summer; inside my head it sounds like Sonnerie de Ste-Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris by Marin Marais.

When mistflowers first announced themselves in my world, I tried them under various conditions, from sunny to deep shade, and with several partners or groups. They were unknown to me then; in fact no one around here knew them or even their name. I soon learned that their nature is to spread, even take over, so it might be said they don’t play well with others – they go their own way and make a brave show. That’s where their character shines: they don’t care where they are, they do just fine, thank you. Unpleasant soil that fussier plants reject, even the truly evil spot which I suspect has construction dust mixed into it, suits the mistflowers just fine. They grow lush, and tall, multi-layered, rich plants full of pointed leaves and clouds of lavender-blue. So glorious in their garden beds that a neighbor’s drive home includes a ritual detour through my neck of the woods to stop at just the perfect vantage point and spend a few moments gazing at the bed that’s visible from the street.

Not an artist, I am grateful that they design, paint and arrange themselves. Their self-arrangement is musical to me in its repetition and swelling, and I am doubly bathed in loveliness. Vigil is kept throughout the summer until their bloom time, and this is a part of the pleasure. Bringing it back around to Emerson, “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” The blue mistflowers, repeating and swelling, filling the garden and the eye, are cause enough for quiet celebration every year about this time. In my little corner of the world, it could be argued that it doesn’t get better than this.


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Beauty Found Me

Beauty found me this week. I do not look for it, as it is everywhere. But it is not all for me, especially. So I don’t look for beauty: I wait until it finds me.

There is loveliness in grey days, certainly; the sun doesn’t have to be shining, in order to see the trees in winter silhouette. So it was not in a high mood, but in at least an even one that I strolled through the yard on the way to the compost pile in the far bottom corner. I was not on a garden ramble, for there is no garden interest now, particularly. And yet .. I felt the plants looking at me, those that are evergreen or just beginning to hint at their return. If I spoke “plant,” I imagined they would be wondering whether I would notice them now, without bushy foliage or flowers.

And then they caught me: there they were in the middle of the lawn, three wild ferns, an inch tall at most, having outlived the mowings of last year and grown enough to attract notice (knowing by experience that I would mark them with sticks and transplant them to safety when it’s warm enough). And so, my even mood elevated itself, and in a corner of my mind I joined the tiny ferns in forward-looking. When they’re in a garden bed, it is amazing how big they can grow!

Spring birds returning
Even in March winds,
Seedlings emerge


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Dance of carrots

You awaken early, and you’re the only one up
Into the kitchen
Coffee
And you lean against the sink and watch darkness turning into light-
On the window sill, in a shallow dish of water, carrot ends,
Trimmed by the seller of their ragged greens,
Patiently growing new leaves –
“Carrot lettuce” they’re called
They will grow a few inches long and add spicy crispness to salads…

It doesn’t end, the darkness, only waiting beyond the light until the quiet of evening eases back in. And as for the carrots, they too refuse to end, beginning again and again, until you have harvested as many leaves as they care to present, and the little disks of orange sun soften and return to separate liquid cells.