Maple Flowers


David and I spent the weekend in New York and the streets there are lined with flowering cherry trees, crab apples, forsythia, magnolias.  Some hardwoods had tiny leaves emerging from their buds, lighting up their crowns and making the world feel softer.  The splashs of color and blossom were delightful; the evidence of spring growth was reassuring and made me happy.

Then home, to tighter buds, grayer days and temperatures that have me wearing wool again when I sit at my desk.  But from that desk I also look out the west window to some branches of the maple tree in our front yard, and every day I notice how much bigger the buds are on the tree, how the balls of red brighten the landscape.

Two days ago I went out to examine those buds and realized what I’ve been looking at are flowers, not buds.  Really gorgeous and even trippy flowers.  Balls of fuzz puzzling enough that David and I spent a good bit of time reading online about maple buds and blossoms.   We learned a lot.

Maples have both male and female flowers on the same tree, the male with the sperm needed to pollinate the female.  As the leaves start to emerge so do the seeds, wrapped in the papery-winged helicopters I stuck on my nose as a kid, peeling open the seed pocket and using the bit of juiciness to make it stick.  The seed pods — samaras — are shaped so they spin in wind and can travel, sometimes a long way.

Yesterday we were in Portland and there were no flowering trees, though the magnolias looked ready, long flutes of bud with just a slip of blossom showing on a few.  I missed the clouds of blossoms we’d seen lining the streets in New York.  Spring in cities can be so pretty, I wanted to see it again.

We went down to the waterfront and in the parking lot saw some maples flowering.  I went to get a closer look, these flowers tamer and less flamboyant than those on my tree, fewer stamens, less fuzz.  Today it’s gray again and not particularly warm, but the maple flowers are still popping and pollinating and getting the whole spring thing going.  Here it comes.




Quantifying Spring



Yes, April can be a cruel month, with its tease of warm, sunny days followed by raw rain and wind that whips away any heat I manage to absorb from the sun.  But there’s steady evidence that the season is, indeed, changing.

A week ago I looked out the kitchen window and saw that the garlic was up, four faint lines of green in the garden bed, shoots rising from the cloves I nestled in to the soil last fall. Also a week ago my sister Chris and her husband Jon came for an unexpected visit.  It was a clear day, but the wind was strong and chilly, and when the sun shifted so the back deck was in shadow, we moved to the front porch.  The porch was too windy. We tried the bit of lawn below the stone terraces, a low spot where the wind is blocked and the sun is strong.

Sitting in a circle chatting, I noticed how much taller the chives were.  I’d raked last year’s dried foliage off the clumps on Saturday, hoping to use some snippings for the dinner I was making that night for friends.  But the shoots were too small.  Now they were tall enough to cut and I wondered how fast they were growing; it seemed like they’d sprouted inches in just days.

So I measured both the chives and the garlic, two days apart.  The garlic grew an inch and the chives grew two.  An inch a day.  Solid evidence that summer is coming.  A few gray days, a raw day, a day of hard rain, doesn’t stop the seasons from following their course. When I feel a bit off course, I look out at my bed of garlic, green growing every day. Growth I can measure.

The Grind

writing image

Grind:  To crush or pulverize; to polish, sharpen or refine by friction; to rub or bear down on harshly; to oppress or weaken gradually; to operate by turning a crank; to produce mechanically and without inspiration; to instill or teach by persistent repitition.

Or, to write every day.  I’m Grinding this month for the fourth time.  The Grind is a commitment to writing something every day for a month and sending whatever you’ve written to your co-Grinders.  You can only get into the Grind via invitation, and you can only be invited by someone who has successfully done a full month of the Grind without missing a day.

Created by poet Ross White, the Grind creates a virtual writing accountability community. You get sent a link to a website where you sign up for the coming month and choose the category of writing you want to do:  new or revised poetry, new or revised prose, or manic mix, which means write whatever you want.

But you must write!  Ross organizes writers into groups of 10 or so according to genre, then emails out the group assignments.  There are only two rules: you must write something everyday and email it to the others in your group by midnight of whatever time zone you’re in, and you must not share any writing that’s sent to you without permission. This is not a feedback group.  You don’t critique what’s sent to you, you don’t even have to read it.  It’s just about writing and sending.

Simple, and profound.  I’ve never known anyone in my Grind groups, though I do read their bios, which come with the group assignments.  But I’m responsible to them — they are expecting something from me in their inbox every day, as I expect something from them.  Someone is paying attention to whether or not I write.  Or more importantly, I’m paying attention to whether or not I write every day, because I’ve made that commitment to a group of strangers.

I don’t think Grinding is producing “mechanically and without inspiration.”  I think it’s more teaching “by persistent repitition.”  Mostly it’s “to polish, sharpen or refine by friction.”  The friction of making sure I get some words on to the screen and out in to the world everyday.  Friends I’ve invited in to the Grind talk about the value of paying attention to language and creativity for at least a tiny part of each busy day.  One friend hasn’t missed a day of Grinding since January and talks about how it’s fundamentally changed her relationship to her practice of writing.

Grinding is practice and practice is essential to any craft.  So I polish, sharpen, refine, Grind.



Artwork by Kenneth Rougeau
Artwork by Kenneth Rougeau

The first spring thing I notice is the birdsong when I step outside in the morning, going to bring in the newspaper. Sometime in late February there start to be chitters here and there.  In March, if I get up right at dawn, it starts as a single cheet, then escalates into trills and melodies and chatter.  Now the yard is wide awake and singing by the time I go out in the morning, and I listen to the background songs as I meditate, a constant chorus behind my mantra.

Because the rise in birdsong coincided with the rise in Eric’s cancer, though we were long in to spring before we realized why Eric was in so much pain and feeling so lousy, for the last nine years there’s been a tug of grief in the sound, another reminder.  But it’s also a reminder of the whole glorious mess that life is, with its cycles and renewals, pain and joy, gain and loss, despair and celebration.  “Life is so damn yin yang,” I said to David last night, as we drove home from visiting friends grappling with new grief.

All of which brings me to this poem, which opens The Truth About Death, as it should.


Now the song varies, mocking chains of notes,
the catbird flying from maple branch to fence post.
All spring I noticed the rise in birdsong
as we went out each morning, stronger chatter,
the brakes off, cells dividing and dooming themselves.
I sit in your chair, I wear your clothes, your ring.
I talk to your photographs. I watch the sky,
watch birds in the yard and realize how many flocks
I’d missed. For weeks I washed you, watched you,
lay next to you, all we could do was touch hands,
all you could do was whisper, your eyes black
morphine disks. Yet you turned back for me.