Finishing Touches

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By Monday, December 3, it was time to decorate the house. Although a hike through the woods or onto a parking lot would have resulted in a real tree, I simply pulled an elongated box from the shelf and fit together three pieces of an eight-foot artificial tree (lights already strung). Unadorned, she is a common, plastic creature, but once dressed in ornaments, she becomes a red and silver beauty.

Some of the ornaments are easy to place. Finishing touches demand a bit more skill: candy canes and pups in socks, musical instruments and miniature wrapped presents. What is missing is the smell of real pine, but cinnamon candles offer an alternative.

The challenge is the village, which every year is situated on ten feet of book shelf surface. Not much of a task to place the buildings, but oh, those little additions that complete the scene. No question that fireman and his Dalmatian stand in front of the fire station, but where to put the people with gifts? They can’t all be coming from the train station.

And how to stack tuna and tomato paste cans underneath that white flannel so that the children slide down a snowy hill? Or place the hydrants where a dog can stop and sniff and be sure to keep the mailman moving right along to deliver letters and packages? Like the final stroke on a painting, tiny details finish the annual project and leave me with a sense, not only of satisfaction, but completion.

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Within this home enters a new spirit because my sister Mary bequeathed me her holiday banners: JOY TO THE WORLD spreads across the space above the piano, and PEACE hangs over the small ceramic tree. The Magi on one wall point to Bethlehem and the star hanging on another. The Angel floats above the village. I love my sister’s banners: exquisite designs, made perfect by curved edges, beaded crowns, and fringed garments. No need to add a final flourish to any of them.

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All the while I sing along with Sissel, James Taylor, and Rene Fleming. They sing of snow drifting on rooftops, birth in bleak midwinter, and city sidewalks dressed in holiday style.  Another weary year slips away into a new Christmas. And then comes Fleming’s haunting version of the Sandy Denny song:

Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it’s time for them to go . . .
For who knows where the time goes?
who knows where the time goes?

tree-3Turning a small skater at one angle and securing the pastor who keeps falling in front of his church, making sure that identical ornaments are spaced far apart is a metaphor, I suppose, of peace: the finishing touches I seek in folds of fabric, orbs of shining glass, and the cascade of lovely music. Winter holidays never possess that completion my heart desires, but at the end of the year when the shadows and night deepen, when the wind and rain slice the air,  rituals promise that perhaps this Christmas will be the most wondrous of all.

 

Nestling Things

Today has been one of those miraculous twelve-hour-periods for a writer: wake up in the morning with what has the potential to be a bright idea and watch in surprise as it bursts into kaleidoscopic pieces that by the end of the day nestle into place.

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The Oregon Historical Society emailed their Holiday Cheer flyer and offered, by way of a technical, personalized click, to insert my book into my media postings. I could now send news of the event with my very own Far from Home on the shelf—and quite close to best-selling author Philip Margolin. “How nice to be tucked in with other books,” I thought, and decided that maybe my next blog might explore the theme of “tucked in.”

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What a surprise to see some berries tucked under the leaves. Although most stuck their heads out on twiggy necks, the hidden ones demanded that if I wanted to snap them, I had to angle the camera, move in close, and sacrifice a clear focus on green.

Unexpected as well was seeing bushes stripped clean, their branches like a wooden bowl whose task is to collect the dying.

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Autumn’s brilliant color that burrows deep into the earth happens every year, but never ceases to amaze me. I love this little poem of Adelaide Crapsey, woman of the strange name, but whose “November Night” captures with classic simplicity what I tried to describe with the bushes:

Listen. .
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
And fall.

Since the recent death of my sister Mary, mortality is never far from my thoughts these days. I have the olivewood crucifix she held before she died, her antique rocker, and her wall plaque that holds a vigil candle. I also have a battered family Bible (copyright 1914) she kept.

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And it was in this Bible that her daughters, Andrea and Lisa, slipped a photo, taken in 2016, a photo I had not seen before. There it was, tucked into Tobias. How many scriptural stories tell of nesting thing? Moses in the bulrushes, a sleeping Jesus burrowed deep inside the boat, and Corinthians reminding us that our spirits nestle deep in earthen vessels.

The day was almost over, and still there was one more piece of the idea to fall into place. At 5:00, the world turned dark and the rains came. A walk outside with the dog, but not too long because Angel and I were eager to head back into the warmth.

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And then I remembered that this time of year remains a favorite, not just because of hot cider and flannel sheets and a comfy throw in which to burrow, but the memory of childhood, when I was bundled warm and cozy beneath the covers, listening to my mother read from Eugene Field:

Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
Is a wee one’s trundle-bed;
So shut your eyes while Mother sings
Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
As you rock in the misty sea.

Before sleep comes I want to remember how red berries hide in emerald nests and tired leaves fall into wooden bowls. I’m ready to be grateful for the day’s surprises. I am ready to discover, for a few brief moments, how to tuck myself, like a good book, into the shelf of the night.

Falling Art

The weather is colder now, the wind is up, and I know exactly where to find my WinterTrax cleats when the ice comes. I am afraid of falling. Yet there is an art to a soft tumble, as AARP tells us older folks. The safest route is to keep falling. The more we give in to the fall, the kinder it will be. Maybe that is one reason why autumn draws me, not only because of the color, but because in this season I am surrounded by lessons on fall.

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Leaves stay vibrant in oranges and reds on the branches, but they drift down in those colors as well. The grass becomes Nature’s wedding bed and the leaves like rose petals. Not the fragrance of passion and beginnings, but the deep, earthy scent of loss and endings. They slip beneath my feet and become their own nest in which children scamper and dogs romp.

Above, leaves turn color, transforming themselves into gold, holding fast against wind and rain. No question that a leaf- by-leaf tumble is still ahead. Even the squirrels take advantage. They nibble at maple seeds, like this little guy eating hungrily on the tree outside my window. Such a busy fellow, such a voracious appetite, such an eager helper for autumn’s falling season.

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A small cluster of leaves reminds me of O. Henry’s short story “The Last Leaf.” True to his gift for paradox, the author writes of  a young artist, sick with pneumonia, who knows that when the last leaf on the vine outside her window falls, she will die. But she is tricked into health because an old artist, laboring in the cold, paints a likeness on the brick. The young one lives, the old one dies. The story ends with these lines: “Didn’t you wonder why it never fluttered or moved when the wind blew? Ah, darling, he painted it there the night that the last leaf fell.”

Now this is a story that demands a willing suspension of disbelief.

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No artist’s final masterpiece can replicate autumn’s glory or keep leaves fixed to the maple outside my bedroom window. No paradox from literature can deny the barrenness and decay that follow autumn’s initial brilliant spectacle. What then is left for me? Thank the workers with leaf blowers who did not come. Practice daily the art of the soft, inevitable fall.

In the Pink

I had such plans for my new Shih Tzu puppy. Angel would be a pink fashion plate. Everything belonging to her would match: ribbons, halter, parka, toys, and bed. For our first walk, I buckled the Eastside Collection salmon-pink collar with embossed flowers and clipped on her matching leash.

“Pretty in pink,” a neighbor said.

I thought her rose-tinted life was here to stay.

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Not long after I had recycled the sales slip, Angel heaved her new pink bed left and right, pulled the inserted pillow out, ripped the lining, and then fall asleep on the taupe carpet. Disappointed, I replaced her bed with a durable beige and olive cushion, a pillow that Angel could burrow and toss, but not destroy.

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And, oh, the toys. Her fuchsia pet pig “passed” after Angel chewed its legs and straightened its curly tail. She refused to play with her rose-eared lamb, and when we checked out replacements, she preferred a bright red hound dog. Angel chewed, pounced, and attacked, but the furry creature stayed in one piece.

February and March entered and exited wet and grubby—just like Angel. After too much scrubbing, the once snazzy leash and collar began to fade and fray. Sadly, I put both in the garbage and purchased a sturdy, dark-green combination that wouldn’t show the dirt.

“What happened to her dainty leash?” another neighbor asked.

“She’s not a dainty girl,” I answered.

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Not all was lost. Two months after her first birthday, Angel still had her neon-pink Guardian Gear rain jacket. Until her teeth marks dented the Velcro.  Until putting it on her became a struggle. Dipping and dodging, she scooted away, hid under the table, and ultimately won the parka battle. When we took our afternoon walk in the rain Angel was a tog-free but drenched little Shih Tzu.

“She needs a jacket,” a neighbor said. “You don’t want her to get a cold.”

Chastened, I searched through the pet catalog, and with a sigh, bought her the Casual Canine Barn Coat advertised as the “. . . ideal covering for rugged, outdoor dogs.”

What came of my desire to synchronize Angel’s wardrobe and belongings? I surrendered any hope that Angel would be pretty in pink. On sunny days she struts in purple; on rainy days she wears a red and black plaid slicker, though, just for the fun of it, I do have a substitute pink leash with silver decorations. So far, she wears it without a fuss.

At night, after a raucous run-around (not for long, because we’re both a decade older than these Facebook, blog photos), Angel settles, not in a pink boudoir, but on a brown throw.

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Among nature’s mysteries, who really knows what motivates our animal companions? At times, especially when she gets this human look in her eye, I wonder if my eight pound, clever pup decided not to be defined merely by rosy hoodies or blush-toned hair bows.

Whatever the reasons, I’m tickled pink she’s mine.

Pen and Paper

To write a good letter, take a handful of grit,
A plenty of time and a little of wit
Take patience to set it, and stir it all up
With the ladle of energy. Then fill a cup
With kind thoughts, merry thoughts, too,
With bright words, and wise words, and words strong and true.
Then seal with a love kiss and stamp it with care
Direct it to your friend’s heart and presto ’tis there.
— Anonymous

When I walk up the two steps to my apartment complex mail boxes, I know what awaits me: mail requests for the refugee and owl and river. There are the “good-life” catalogs I did not order. And oh, so many calendars I will never use.

Over the past two weeks, though, another kind of mail has arrived: real letters with my name written in pen. They have return addresses I recognize. Inside are flowered, scrolled designs with words of love and sympathy, grief and praise—every letter focused on the life and death of my sister Mary.

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This is as it should be, for Mary Paige Kennedy Boucher was not only a woman of kindness and creativity, she was also a letter-writer. Through her cards and letters my beloved older sister made it possible for us to read and touch what is gracious and good. Her faithful messages came to us through letters and cards: birthday, sympathy, thank-you, feast day, graduation, anniversary, and holiday.

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Even on her two-week genealogy trip to Ireland in 2016, Mary took time to send postcards. When my postcards arrived, her words invited me to come share her adventure: We took the Hop On—Hop Off bus around Dublin. Tomorrow we leave for Belfast and then on to the Glens of Antrim.

And, her holiday letters—single columned, elegantly formatted—are gems. She wrote at Christmas of 2013:

I love December! It is unchanging. The trees are stripped of their foliage
And stand naked, their inner designs revealed. Lights on trees, windows, and rooftops shine clear and bright on frosty nights. The air crackles and we are energized.

Year after year, with utmost faithfulness to family and friends, Mary sent cards and letters. She let her words be fully human, arriving snail mail, finding a temporary home near a birthday cake or Christmas poinsettia or Easter basket.

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Yes, Mary was a letter writer and the pen and paper messages revealed her unselfish, openhearted spirit. I read again her words on the Celebration of Life book mark:  bright words, and wise words, and words strong and true; letters sealed with a kiss and stamped with care . . .

And before I can call out “Mary!” presto, she’s here.

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Real Estate

On a September day when my sister Mary’s home smelled of lavender and the almost-autumn light poured in through the front door, she and I talked about heaven—that mysterious place where both of us plan to land.

I thought about how much I love books, like Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest that I was reading. I leaned forward in the rocker. “Heaven better have a library.”

Mary smiled and her blue eyes twinkled. “I want an audiobook section so that I can listen to stories and do my crafts.”

How many books has she listened to over the years? Too many to count, but I can imagine her listening and at work with velvet and cotton, yarn and buttons, as her magical finger puppets and dolls, quilts and book covers, crocheted doilies and critters take shape—like this six-inch rabbit which happens to be one of my favorites:

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Later that day, riding home on MAX, I listened to the clack and rattle of metal and steel and thought how images of heaven come and go. As a child I was fascinated by sliced thunder eggs, with their rough exterior and splendid patterns and rainbow colors inside. I also knew that the Book of Revelation fit right in with stones and agates: jasper, sapphire, emerald, and carnelian adorned heaven. Once through the pearly gates, I would have jeweled surfaces upon which to skip rope and never miss a beat.

As an adult, I began to turn to nature, listening to and praying Psalm 23 and Isaiah. If I lived a good life a river would run through my home and a Tree of Life would bear luscious fruit. What was waiting for me was a landscape of verdant meadows—green bells and cockleshells everywhere.

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Right now I’m a fan of a heavenly real estate mentioned in the Gospel of John, 14: 2. Jesus tells his apostles that he is going to prepare a dwelling place for them and that this place has many rooms. Some translations use the word “mansions” for what God’s House encompasses. I’m afraid that tapestry and parlors and winding staircases do not excite me, but a library of wood and leather is a huge draw.

What estate, castle, or mansion does not have one? And libraries are so diverse, whether heavy with medieval tomes or shiny with Baroque bindings. Contemporary architecture presents another vision, like the Tianjin Library in China which catapults my imagination skyward.

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One look at China’s other-worldly building and a paraphrased quotation from scripture flares in my mind: “Eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, what is waiting for us.” I ask myself, since humans can construct such a haven for book lovers, what will the heavenly library look like?

My sister Mary and I agree that each person just might experience a completely different Great Beyond, one in keeping with desires of the heart: maybe jasper enduring clear as crystal, or meadows eternally ablaze with butterflies, or never-ending reading/listening shelves set above craft tables. Given our well-used gifts of voice and eye, Mary and I will both receive our reward: audiobooks and hard copies.

Dylan Thomas, without knowing it, described the everlasting celestial season when he wrote in “Notes on the Art of Poetry”:

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Snap Shot

In Witch of Kodakery, author Carole Glauber presents the amazing life and photography of Oregonian Myra Albert Wiggins. The word “Witch” was part of Kodak ads, alluding to photography’s magic and charm, and certainly Wiggins beguiled her national audience. Her contribution spiraled beyond the camera, to that of artist, writer, and poet. She was a fearless, ambitious pioneer who believed that photography seeks “. . . to reveal to others . . . glimpses of this world with ‘God’s great pictures hung’” (53). What a lovely image: framing nature’s light and shadow so that people pause to look.

Some days I take a walk solely to snap photos of the spaces between branches, colors that zing, and odd-angles shapes. What I also bring with me is a mind humming with snatches of songs and lines of poetry that flow out as soon as I claim a subject for my iPhone.

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Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire
Ring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.

— William Blake

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The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil . . .

— Gerard Manley Hopkins

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How warm a wind blew here about the ways!
And shadows on the hillside lay to slumber
During the long sun-sweetened summer-days.

— Trumbull Stickney

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Light takes the Tree, but who can tell us how?

— Theodore Roethke

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Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet—
One perfect rose.

— Dorothy Parker

My walks in the neighborhood (iPhone in hand) are not the adventures of an indomitable Myra Albert Wiggins, but more my curiosity with a final product. As I continue to read Witch of Kodakery, I see another dimension, very different from my need for closure. A photo, in the hands of the artist, possesses resilience. In the Foreword to Witch, Terry Toedtemeier writes that “. . . the plasticity of camera representation has been put to the fascinating task of recording, on the one hand, what the eye sees, and on the other, simulating what the mind envisions” (IX).

These words encourage me to seek out light and shadow, to focus, and to let verses spill out. What a discovery to realize that the technical image declares what I see and the poetic symbols invite me beyond.

Amen. Click.

Discards

Candles in my home, which are often lit for celebrations and intentions, center me. But not if the flames are out of control, like fires raging here in the west. Smoky air has turned the morning sun red-hued—a stark reminder to me of those who live too close to forests ablaze. I thought of that age-old dilemma: if your house was on fire, what would you take with you?

Then, that worn gold shoe appeared on the sidewalk. Why was a single slipper left behind? Would the owner be relieved or disappointed with one less item to carry? I couldn’t help but think of Grimm’s fairy tale of Cinderella and her gold (not glass) slipper. With discards, flight, and fire on my mind, I started to write about what we take and what we leave behind.

In case of emergency what would I grab? On impulse, I pulled my bed-quilt free and threw in my treasures: the photo of my siblings and my drawing of an Indian woman, my father’s elephant bell, my Franciscan Praise, and dulcimer. And, of course, room for Angel. I imagined the bundle like a hobo sack thrown across my shoulders.

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Strange the catalog of what I left behind: tunics and sweaters, jackets and shoes, books and letters, identification documents and journals, energy bars and bottled water, matches and aspirin, dog kibble and flashlight. No thought whatsoever of packing computer or iPad, phone or flash drives.

In an emergency, my decisions would have made no sense. Prepare, we are told, as though you were going on a camping trip. Looking at my selection, I realized the impracticality regarding what I left behind—maybe like the person who surrendered only one gold slipper.

Years ago, before clear cuts and diminishing salmon, when the air was clearer and the threat of flame minimal, Robert Frost wrote “Fire and Ice”:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

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Frost’s philosophical, cynical version of destruction links fire with desire and ice with hate. In the past I favored the blazing choice, but now fire terrifies me. I would run west—toward water—with my quilt of belongings. Before I ever reached the cooling ocean, my framed photos and dulcimer would be too heavy, and the bell and prayer book would drop along the way. Perhaps in the future someone would come along, follow the trail of items, take photographs, and write a book, (with a nod to Tim O’Brien) The Things They Couldn’t Carry.

Angel, precious belonging, would remain with me, bouncing safe against my heart, until I set her down to run free along that coastline—both of us cool, but stripped clean. And I would, once again, count her the most essential, and, like Grimm’s description of Cinderella’s slipper, worth her eight-and-a-half pound weight in pure gold.

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Purification

Catharsis finds its best depiction in Greek myth and Shakespeare’s tragedies, but it is never far from my experience. My eyes fill and my chest tightens each time Les Miserables’ Fantine sings, “Cosette, it’s turned so cold. Cosette, it’s past your bedtime.” And romantic that I am, catharsis can occur as I read books not quite equal to Greek tragedy, like Moyes’ Me Before You. And knowing the sad ending, I still chose to rent the movie. Catharsis—so good for my mind and heart.

Nature offers me moments of catharsis, a purification every bit as powerful as those times inside a book or theater. I have to “pull a geographical,” though, and move away from my own noise and my preoccupation with screens, big and little. What awaits me is the crunch of leaf beneath my feet, the flit of butterfly near my cheek, the feel of water cupped in my hand.

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Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

William Butler Yeats

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Two weeks ago, I traveled from Hillsboro to central Oregon and the Metolius River. The cabin that two of us shared was a small space (we washed dishes in the bathroom sink), but the setting was exactly what the sign above the door promised: serenity. No Wi-Fi and no phone service meant that the main sound came from the river, no more than thirty feet from our cabin’s picture window. How many hours did I spend mesmerized by water, marveling at its ever-changing light and shadow, listening to a lullaby, both wild and soothing, that it sang through the night?

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For three nights and four days river purified me, released me from needless anxiety and silly fretting. Not quite the catharsis of an Oedipus, Othello, or Fantine, but I had the chance to sink briefly into a nature throbbing with life; into the rush of waters, into rebirth. Next year I will return to the woods, find a cabin called “Serenity,” and let the Metolius cool the inevitable fires raging inside my head.

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Attention

Remember Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, the fable of guileless children and preoccupied, inattentive adults? Remember what the narrator (so consumed with matters of consequence) learns from the tiny prince (so consumed about tending his rose)? And it is a single rose that lives on his planet, a rose who “chose her colors with the greatest care” and who did not “wish to go out in the world all rumpled, like the field poppies.” Certainly the fable is one of friendship, love, and loss of the unique, but what makes me smile is the depiction of the rose. How vain the flower is, how she expects to be protected, and how true to life Saint-Exupéry describes the tending of a rose.

HPIM0284Six years ago, I had my own rose bush, just outside the door. I cared for it: watched the leaves burn red and green, delighted in the new buds, breathed in the fragrance of the bush, clipped the flower just about the five leaf, pruned it knee-high in November, clipped it low, shaped like a basin, in February, and waited for the apricot surprise waiting every summer.

HPIM0283Years have passed and I have not cared for a single rose. Even though I live in an apartment complex, I was sure that management would give me permission to plant one outside my patio. The answer was “No.” I do understand. Like the flower of the little prince, roses demand attention. Then, in May, a young friend who was moving offered me a plant. “It will get better care with you,” she said. And she handed me a rose twig perfectly suited to the pot and the sunlight on my patio.

Over the months I have faithfully tended this tiny plant. And little by little she has flourished. Not yet ready to bloom, but so close, so close.

You’d think I would be content. Instead, I have walked the neighborhood noting rose bushes, the healthy ones peering from inside fences, the bedraggled ones hanging limp outside the yards.

IMG_1005A neighbor lady and I met one morning, a sad rose bush between us. As she watered her potted geraniums and golden zinnias, we talked about warm weather and our dogs and summer plants.

“What about this rose bush?” I asked.

“Not mine. It’s in the neighborhood’s common space.”

“I need a rose to tend.”

“You go for it.” she answered.

I clipped old blooms just above the five-leaf marker. New leaves burned a familiar green and red. Not having been tended for a while, the leaves had suffered insect nibbling and the bush was a bit on the shabby side. Gradually, though, the buds are coming, not in apricot tones, but in lipstick red.

IMG_1043I will fuss over my tiny roses and the larger cluster just two blocks away. There is a difference, however, between me and Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince. My patio rose and I may watch sunset traces and falling stars, but I cannot drag a lawn chair down the street. My neighbor, initially gracious and generous, would probably open her curtains, observe the scene outside her window, and judge me a bit obsessed, sitting in the dark, paying too close attention to a singular rose bush.

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