What I Can, While I Can

The afternoon was warming and the elderberries were darkening crimson and I’d gone out to collect some ahead of the birds.  If you wait too long, the ripe berries, just the size of peppercorns, cascade to the ground with a stiff breeze.  Near half of them feed the birds and I can’t begrudge that.  So you have to go out, see, when half the cyme is still green and harvest what you can, when you can.

Sirens were in the distance and the sun beat down and the mulch was damp under my feet from the morning rain.  The sirens neared.  Police cars came up our street, lights flashing, officers huffing up the street counting down house numbers, looking for a particular place, across the way, a few houses down.  A man opened his door and waved them in.  More sirens pierced the air from far off.

The man paced in the front yard as the officers brought bags in from their cars, a yard brimming with flowers and bushes.  Arms waving hopelessly I heard him tell another neighbor what was going on.  I heard snatches of his words.  My sister.  Unresponsive.  Heart attack.  Gave her mouth-to-mouth.  Just nothing.

I had laid the bowl of elderberries aside and joined a knot of neighbors on the hot sidewalk.  I watched a man’s heart being broken on a sunny afternoon.

The fire truck came and after an eternity of minutes, the ambulance.  Grim-faced paramedics sped in with more bags and a plastic gurney.  When they didn’t rush her out with speed, when the pace of it all slowed way down, when the fire truck pulled away, and the officer escorted the brother to a side yard to write down details, I knew.

I didn’t know the woman; all I know is that she was in her sixties and that they didn’t know how long she’d been in the state her brother found her in.  We all walked back to our homes; death is too sacred to be a spectator event.

The grapes are ripening next to the elderberries.  They’re a small variety, sweet with an edge of bitter.  Tougher skins than grocery store grapes that are bred to uniform perfection.  I slip some into my hands and chew them in the hot sun on a day that that man won’t forget.

Life; we don’t all get a hundred years of it and it can end swift and on a sunny day no less.  We don’t get uniform lives, predictable ones.  They’re full of sweet bits and bitter ones and the whole deal looks nothing like what’s advertised, does it?  But it’s good.

So, I can’t farm, I can’t have chickens, I can’t breathe life into our dwindling accounts, and I can’t just run back to South America where life had so much life and color and purpose.  But I can make soap.  Stay with me now.

What can I do while I can do something?

I have a hundred dreams, so I pulled one out of storage.  Making soap.  I love good soap, but unless I find a screaming deal on some goat milk or triple-milled french stuff, we can’t buy it.  I knew it would cost some money to get some equipment, but not much.  So I sold a hutch I’d refinished (that I’d picked up from a curb for free) and an antique ice crusher on craigslist.  I had ninety-five dollars to make a dream come true.

Thirty-five went for a good quality digital scale, the only precision instrument needed.  I weaseled my husband into agreeing to build me some soap molds out of scrap wood.  I plundered my cooking supplies for extra pots and measuring containers that could be dedicated to soap-making.  I watched YouTube videos and checked books out of the library.  Long gloves from the dollar store.  Safety glasses left over from fireworks.  And fifty-nine dollars left over to buy fats and lye and essential oils.

It truly is something to be able to do something.

Now it’s just a matter of deciding what kind to do first…lemon-lime-coconut shampoo bar?  Honey-oatmeal body bar?  Tea Tree-Sweet Almond?  Peppermint-Goat Milk for Christmas gifts?  Should I open an Etsy shop?  Try to sell locally?  Just make for ourselves and friends?  Or maybe slow down and see how my first batch turns out, crazy self??

But, I CAN DO SOMETHING!  That’s the joy and the hope of it.  I’m not trapped by our fences, but free to create within them.

And I realize that in the past year’s time I’ve seen many dreams come true…I am now an amateur beekeeper and supplied our household with a year’s worth of honey with extra to give away.  I got to take a pottery class and feel all that slippery clay yield to my shaping hands.  I taught myself candle dipping and have now both white and deep yellow beeswax tapers aplenty to light our way through winter.  I wrote a short story that I love; the first story I’ve ever exposed to public view without cringing.  I started this small corner for writing, for spilling words and exercising my writing muscles.

All of this happened as many of my dreams came crashing down about my ears.  Oh the irony.  Oh the grace.

So I will do what I am able, as long as I am able, and I’ll count it as joy.  Because it really doesn’t matter how wide our fences are, but how we live within them.


Perfect Toxicity And Healing Rattiness

My whole yard is full of medicine.  Plantain a-plenty, comfrey, violets, chamomile, onions, dandelions, elderberries, rose hips, and such.  Down at the stream the offerings are burdock, dock, black walnut, watercress, jewelweed, and stinging nettle.  Useful herbs for making tinctures, compresses, healthy salads, teas, and salves; they abound everywhere, naturally.  Unless you blast your yard with herbicide that is.

Then you get grass.

Unblemished wide swaths of it.  Oh, and neighbor envy.  And probably a good measure of pride.  I get it; I have this intense urge to roll around on such lawns and enjoy their carpet-like uniformity.  I would much rather play croquet there than on my own weedy turf.  Less chance of getting stung by a bee as there’s no clover about.  Wait…no bees?  No bee food?

My yard is alive.  There is a veritable ant highway across the walkway.  There is the regular helicopter-like thrum of the bumblebees.  The birds adore the wild patches and the plump grubs and worms.  The bees delight in the clover and bee balm and you should see the spiders in the fall (shudder).  The compost bin wreaks of life, earthy organic vitality being slowly wrought into rich soil.  Things grow here like mad.

“You must really have God’s ear”, says Bob, our elderly neighbor as he looks out on our gardens.  I laugh with him.  He’s lived on this block forever and had gotten used to seeing the place looking less, um, lively.  pa

The front lawn was a mat of zoysia grass, which I’ve heard works pretty great in Florida and could see works pretty miserably in Pennsylvania.  It was green for three months out of the year and promptly turned a sad brownish-yellow for the rest of the year.  Apparently a traveling salesman had come through selling a miracle grass and if you look around our town you can see who was duped by their sad, sad lawns.

Being that I’m anti-herbicide, we had to peel that zoysia grass right off with a skid loader; scalped the whole front yard.  The neighbors had a good laugh when I planted two unpromising-looking sticks in the dirt.  Now those elderberries are about fifteen feet high.  Grapes stretch across a trellis beside them, a white nectarine tree just beyond the strawberry patch.  Artichokes mingle with mints, rhubarb with the roses.

Tonight found me popping off chamomile flowers and filling a small glass jar with them.  Every diaper cream had failed poor Henrik’s irritated bottom, and the chamomile that I’d raised from seed over winter was finally ready to harvest.  My bees darted past as I worked and bugs crawled over my feet on their way to somewhere.

In the kitchen I poured olive oil over the flower heads and set it aside.  The chamomile oil wouldn’t be ready for another two weeks, but I was glad to have it started.  Some backyard medicine is fast, some slow.  Comfrey is fast; so fast indeed that if you chew a leaf up and apply it to an open wound, you’d better be sure there’s no debris inside, because it will heal shut right on top of it quickly.  Onions are fast.  As soon as a child complains of ear pain I reach for an onion.  Cutting it from roots to tip, I remove the innermost part, which is the perfect size for inserting into the ear canal without risk of it slipping in altogether.  I heat the onion piece over a burner, nestled in a spoon until I can smell it’s aroma.  Into the offended ear it goes, topped by a damp warm washcloth and a heating pad.  Within minutes they’re fine.

My comfrey patch healed a serious muscle tear in my back within one evening of alternating cold and hot compresses of comfrey tea.  My nerves have been soothed by drinking lemon balm tea which is aggressively trying to take over the tea/herb garden.  Mosquito bites are attended to with a chewed plantain leaf or a dollop of lavender oil.

I’m certain my “medicine cabinet” looks a lot different that most people’s.  There’s charcoal powder, essential oils of all types, homemade salves, witch hazel, glycerine, bentonite clay, a big chunk of beeswax.  But most of the medicine is outside, growing and contributing to the ecosystem.

Okay.  I know this won’t make you put away your herbicide/insecticide, nor will it make you forsake Neosporin and Tylenol and such.  Most of you are probably quite happy buying pharmaceuticals at Kmart and keeping your lawn pristinely uniform with neonicotinoids (present in aforementioned sprays, which happen to kill honeybees and other pollinators who are absolutely essential to our very way of life…don’t you like peaches and apples after all?).  Anywho, I realize my lifestyle holds as much appeal to some as eating a shoe.  That said, maybe this could inspire just a few nutty types to see weeds in a new light, to see in the rattiness a bit of healing, to see in the perfection a bit of toxicity?  Maybe?

No?  I need some lemon balm tea…