Wednesday, September 1, 2010

old woman walking

This was first published in the Skagit Valley Food Co-op's newsletter, The Natural Enquirer.

Somehow the universe had managed to give me a chunk of time when my toddler was napping, the sun was out and I had some interest in attempting garden work.  The project at hand was the drawn out process of clearing out the old worm bin of the castings.  Something that seems so simple- as gardening often tricks me into thinking- and yet I usually lack some essential tool or knowledge to complete the task.  On this particular day everything seemed to click and all systems were go.

The shovel was not hiding in tall grass but was propped up and eager to dump clumps of brown richness into the five gallon bucket conveniently located in the garden shed.  Last year I had linked together several lengths of hose to be able to water our tiny kitchen garden, but that had all been coiled away during winter.  We have one water spigot at the front of our house which is a good sixty paces from where I wanted to dump my mixture of worm earth and water.

Speaking of our house.  It sits far closer to the road than it should.  This is mostly due to the long narrow nature of our shy half acre plot.  Last summer we raised our house and most likely you drove by it, slowed down, and gazed at our project.  Our house beamed in all the attention.  It was so easy to over look before.  I think that’s why it is so close to the road in the first place.

On this particular day the traffic was especially heavy due to some blooming bulbs these parts push up now and again.  Since our yard still has that construction zone look to it folks tended to slow down a bit and ponder.  And since it was nice our the neighbors were also out working on their fabulous gardens.  Spandex clad bikers, the pedaling variety, whirled past often too. So I had an audience to my task.

As I filled the bucket with water I squatted next to it and enjoyed the sun on my stretching back.  It felt like I was shedding a thin layer of dusty winter frost.  It creaked.  I groaned.  I remember thinking, “this is way better than doing yoga to that video.”  And I challenged myself to stay squatting while the bucket filled.  It took awhile.  The people may have noted this as they surveyed our gravel driveway with small ponds of mud.

When the bucket was full it was heavy and awkward.  If I carried it in my right hand I had to counter balance in a way that caused my spine to protest.  My right arm and shoulder were not in the mood to take the load either.  My body is often twisted by toting the almost-two tot.  I now know that the bucket probably weighed close to forty-two pounds- heavier than the boy.  And the boy clings to me and doesn’t slosh muddy worm water on me.

So I carried the bucket behind me with both hands on the handle.   Doing this made me forgo my normally slouching posture and to gently bend my knees.  I had filled the bucket pretty darn full and so now if I moved too quickly it splashed my backside with filth.  Good garden filth, but not something you want to wear.  If I walked very slowly, I mean very, very slowly, the water didn’t jump out at me.  So that’s what I did.

As I slowly moved toward the garden plot, every step felt intentional and well placed.  The weight of the water pulled me down to the earth.  At first I felt very foolish walking like this.  Glancing at the road, I noticed the passengers noticing me then moving their mouths in such a way that the driver and any other passengers turned their eyes towards me.  I reminded myself of various photos and video clips I have seen of people, usually women older than I am now, bringing precious water to precious plants.  I think my large colorful straw hat added to this association.

The ground is not level or uniform in most of our yard these days.  There is slippery gravel, hidden boulders, clusters of broken twigs and dried up leaves, pokey-ouchy thistles and lots of dandelions- all randomly dispersed amidst spurts of green grass.  As I navigated my way toward the square chunk of ground, I developed a very slow rhythm with my step and breath.  I would exhale as I extended my leg and inhale as I shifted the balance of the bucket forward.  Looking down at the vibrant green grass the furry buttons of dandelion blossoms created a maze to maneuver.  I stepped more carefully now, challenging myself not to step on their wide faces.  This task was taking a bit longer than I was expecting.

At this point my mind began to race a bit.  I had so much to do while he slept!  Not to mention the things people were probably thinking as they watched me.  I found myself coming up with excuses I could give to folks if they happened to question my peculiar pace and purpose.  So if I ran into someone at the Co-op and they remarked with raised eyebrow, “saw you in your yard the other day” I could offer a reasonable explanation Maybe I was looking for something I dropped in the grass?  Perhaps there was an interesting insect or animal? 

I realized then that there is a large span of time in our lives when we are supposed to move at a brisk, focused pace.  As children we dawdle and wander- following flying bugs simply for the fascination or we create elaborate walking games to keep our mother’s backs healthy.  We backtrack when we notice something new.  Our little magpies inside are drawn to the shiny curious bits of life and we treasure them.  But then we start to get ushered along a bit more.  We are told what deserves our attention, what needs it more than other things.  Maybe we start school and have bells ringing to remind us not to meander too much.  We become more efficient at managing time or vice-versa.

I used to meander a lot.  When hiking with friends I’d stop so often to take in the changing views and small sprouting moss beds I would eventually get left behind.  They’d wait at the top with tapping toes.  When did getting things done become more important than experiencing all the senses of a moment fully?  Somewhere between college and motherhood I’d gotten a wee bit crazed with Accomplishment.

I thought of my grandma then who I saw only a handful of times in my life- almost every visit at her rural Ohio home in the middle of ninety-nine acres of creek and corn.  Her name was Dorothy and she always smelled like fresh soap. Her hugs were cushy warm goodness. Her kitchen garden was probably the first I ever saw.  I still can see her bent over her tomato plants, inspecting each leaf carefully.  Her hands were already starting to crinkle from arthritis and her glasses were thick yellowing plastic.  It was tender the way she touched them the fuzzy nubs of green fruit.  Then she plucked strange bugs off of the stem and crushed them with her crooked thumb with the same nonchalant attitude that she flicked ticks off the dogs on the concrete porch to let my cousin squash them with a hammer.  No nonsense, that was her.

The last time I saw her I drove from here to there.  She didn’t remember me exactly but my aunt prompted her by introducing me as “Billy’s Girl” and then she seemed to know who I was, or who I used to be. We sat on the porch and she looked at the old photos I had found in a trunk in the hall. She knew everyone there, even girls who had crushes on my dad during high school.  I think she knew that there was a lot she didn’t know anymore and that didn’t  seem to bother her either. 

I turned my attention back to my old woman walking, wrapping the task around me like it was the most important thing I could be doing right now simply because I was doing it.  I found the textures and hues of the lawn, even the thistles, entrancing like a good book.  How many times did I walk on this and not pay much attention to it other than to add it to the list of things I needed to do something to?  As I walked I felt the way I imagine I could feel as an old woman who has lived long enough to feel and respect her body’s limitations as a way to pay tribute to all it had done for her, and others, in her life.  My aging body afforded me the right to slow down and not worry so much about checking off chores in a blur at the end of an exhausting day.  The day just glowed then like the hot sun hitting a clean sheet on a clothes line.  Fresh and bright- instantly everything was golden.

As I finally reached the cusp of my plot and dumped brown water onto the bumpy earth the simple act filled with me a sense of contentment that rarely settles on me much.  (Not to mention the extended length of time the task took left me a bit tired which always helps one feel like they’ve done something worthwhile.) I looked up as the neighbor’s rooster crowed and then walked to the fence to watch the chickens.  I still had several more trips to make before my task would be done, but those chickens were golden too.  They stepped so gracefully with a quiet determination.  The rooster had long black feathers that trailed behind him like a wedding veil.  The gals paraded about toward whatever drew their fancy with their feathers shimmering.  They scratched at grass and pecked at pebbles.

It’s hard to know what a chicken is thinking but they seemed so peacefully happy to be plucking and clucking through a sunny Skagit spot with not much to show for their effort at the end of day except a few slight changes to their landscape that no one much noticed.   Me too. 

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