A Little Assistance

I had a helper in the garden last week. He’s only been on the planet for two years now, and like most modern two-year-olds he loves to play with grown-ups’ smart phones and tablets, but what he wanted that morning was to help with a grown-up pastime of much longer pedigree. And he enjoyed it so much, he asked to do it again the next day.

He was adept at pinching off ripe blueberries one by one – “no green,” he reminded us both as he reached for the blue ones and popped them into his mouth. Then we went out the garden gate, into the woods, and he showed the same excellent technique with black raspberries (“no red, only black”). I don’t know if he was surprised that berries, one of his favorite foods from the grocery store, could be found outside growing on bushes. When you’re only two years old everything might surprise you, so that in essence nothing does.

There were clearly thought processes going on, and he used the vocabulary he had at hand to express them.

“Water plants?” for instance meant, “can we play with that hose and spray water all over our bare feet like we did yesterday?”

Yes, we can. We did. It was a hot day.

We raked some lawn, cultivated flowerbeds, and dug around in a barrowful of compost. He was a full partner in these activities, each of them interesting to him, adding to his repertoire of life’s possibilities. Discovering and expanding on those possibilities is what growing up is all about. Whatever else he does as he grows up, I hope he’ll remember that cool water on a hot day and the taste of a favorite fruit, and know that gardening will always be there for him. We’ve made a good start.

The Poetry of Weeding

I enjoy weeding. I really enjoy it, the rhythm, the fresh air, the gentle physicality of kneeling on the ground and digging my fingers into the dirt, purposeful but not obsessive. It’s a good example of how humans are born gardeners: we distinguish little green growing bits from each other by sight, not scent; we have opinions about which ones we value and which should take their business elsewhere; and our opposable thumbs and index fingers are exactly suited for pinching the weeds out from among the tomatoes, leaving the tomato plants unharmed.

Weeding is also one of the most reliable things for me to do when I’m working on a poem and get stuck. Writing a blog post or essay, there’s always some part of it I can keep doing even if I’m not making progress on its substance. I can play with paragraph length, check straight-up grammar and punctuation, polish a sentence or two. Just keeping at it will yield results.

Not so for poetry. When I hit a sticking point while writing a poem, I have to stop and go do something completely unrelated for a while, something where I’m paying attention to actions but not thoughts. Weeding is a perfect activity for this. Right in the middle of it the solution for the poem will pop into my head. It’s like when you can’t remember where you put your car keys, and you rack your brain for a while, and then give up and go do something else. You are not thinking about your car keys at all, but suddenly it leaps to the front of your mind: this is where the car keys are. Clearly the wheels have been turning in your head. You haven’t planned this. You haven’t asked the weeds to help with the poem; you haven’t said okay, I’ll just leave my brain alone for a while and it will figure this out. Your brain did this for you as a gift, totally on its own. Or so it seems. Thank you, brain.


Dusk is late in Ann Arbor in July, it comes halfway between dinner and bedtime. I walk through the yard in the last light with a cup of tea, watching the fireflies’ silent calls, small lightning without thunder, across the falling evening. I can’t see them at all until they light up, and I wonder if they can see each other, if they’re aware of each other, in their dark phases. Their movements are not frenzied like moths at windows, they float in deep silence, no chirps or clicks, and they wink out in one place to reappear as a surprise in another. They dance to light, not music. It might for all I know be wild, frenzied excitement to the fireflies themselves, but to me it is peace and calm, the benediction of a summer night.

I am barefoot, and I feel the grass dampening as the air cools. It’s still light enough to see where I have weeded, planted, tidied, and where I still have more to do. It’s deeply satisfying to have finished what I’ve finished, and also that there’s more to keep on doing. A garden is always a work in progress.

It’s been another good and ordinary day, some reading, some writing, some sketching, some gardening, and now watching the fireflies like tiny angels bringing their news in flashes, bright against dark. Once, as a child, I put them in a jar, but I didn’t know what to feed them so I let them out. Stay free tonight, fireflies. Forage, and mate, and do whatever makes a good and ordinary firefly day. I don’t know how a firefly feels about that, but I will be grateful enough for both of us.



There are many things I really like about the Fourth of July. There’s picnicking with friends; potluck barbecues; decorating with flags without feeling like a Republican; and Mama woodchuck finally kicking her babies out of the den, decreasing woodchuck damage to about half. But my favorite thing is sparklers.

Sparklers have many advantages over other types of fireworks. For one thing, they are quiet: a little hiss and pop, but nothing to knock down the tiny hairs inside your inner ear. For another, you can hold them right in your hand while they are lit and sparkling, which means you can write your name in the air with them, or conduct phantom symphonies, or illustrate your best dance moves. And because they are so nearby instead of expoding high in the air, you can deploy them before dark. In Michigan, where the 4th of July sky does not go dark until ten o’clock at night, this makes it possible for children to wield them before cranky time sets in.

A lawn full of children with sparklers is a joyous sight, rather like having an entire corps de ballet of lightning bugs performing for you. A small child who has never had one before is likely to be hesitant or fearful of the sparkler at first, may take it tentatively, with one eye on the water bucket where the burnt-out sparkler sticks are collected, having been reassured the sparkler can be discarded there at any time. But when the bright, ecstatic, symmetrical arrays of glittering starpoints burst improbably from the plain grey stick now in the child’s control, delight overcomes doubt. Confidence is born. Dancing happens. Another name is written on the coming night; another masterpiece of unheard music is conducted. And when it burns out another laughing child runs to the bucket, drops in the spent stick to the sound of a deeply satisfying hissssss, smiles up at me, and asks, can I have another?

Of course.