Almost Heaven

Rich & Mitzy 2016

[My dad & mom in 2016]

On Saturday May 26, at about 7:45 a.m., my father Rich Johnson breathed his last breath. I was sitting beside him with my mother, and it happened very gently and quietly. My sister Julie and brother Tim had just left the room, after playing a song for my mom. Tears sprang to my chest in a sob, but they were not tears of sadness. Rather they were a spilling over of love, the primal love I feel for my dad, and the overflowing love of my family that filled his room during the preceding days as we gathered.

I can barely describe what that week was like. I had arrived in West Virginia on Monday evening, and met my sister Julie and my mom at the nursing home. Others continued to arrive through the next days. We gathered in Dad’s room–they had moved him to a private room. Dad was mostly sleeping, but would wake sometimes, not talking, but aware of us. We gave each of us time alone with Dad as we needed it, but mostly we were together, sometimes all of us, sometimes various combinations of us, and one or two people would stay the night each night. We kept in touch with our siblings who were not able to travel to be with us through texts and phone calls.

Mostly, I remember the music–so much music. At first we played CD’s he had in his room, but then folks started playing songs on their phones–country songs, God songs, sad songs, songs of love. Then my brother brought in a guitar and we started singing songs. We have such a musical family! In between, we’d remember jokes my dad would tell, and how sometimes he’d start laughing so hard that he couldn’t get to the punchline. And we’d be laughing too. For example, my dad once talked about starting a nursing home in West Virginia. He would name it “Almost Heaven.” (And we sang that John Denver song too.) We filled his room with music and laughter and tears and grace.

Raccoon – CloserOutside his window was a bird feeder (that was true of all the windows at his nursing home) and sometimes the birds would sing too. Then in the evening, a little raccoon would come to the window, totally fearless, to get his dinner at the bird feeder, and bring us more laughs. My nephew named him (or her) Bandit.

I came home on Sunday the 27th, still overflowing with tears of love. I feel grateful that my dad had a long life–87 years–a good life, and a good death, surrounded by love. I feel grateful for my family. We live far apart from each other, from Maine to Montana, from Michigan to Texas, and we have very diverse viewpoints and perspectives on the world. But we make music and laugh and love so beautifully. These days were like being in ceremony, in the presence of the holy, we were touching mystery. Maybe our time together was a last blessing from our dad, who gave us so many blessings during our lives. Or maybe the blessings just continue.

Johnson family 2013

[Johnson parents and siblings in 2013]

Critters

 

Squirrel on deckSo I was sitting on the deck, just writing in my journal, and this little being came within a few feet, just looking at me.  No fear, just curiosity.  We live together in this beautiful place, and perhaps he/she is acknowledging that?  Or saying “Thank you for the sunflower seeds, but why do you make them so hard to get in that crazy contraption?”

Meanwhile, our nocturnal digger has also returned, very politely avoiding the plants and digging up the paths.  I am assuming it is our resident nearby skunk, though it is here earlier than last summer. This year I haven’t even been trying to straighten everything back again, unless it has dug a hole close to a plant.  But as you can see, everything is getting lush and leafy–rhubarb, sea kale, turkish rocket along the back.  Every tree is surrounded by herbs and clover.Nocturnal digger back

This morning I wandered for an hour in the garden to feel the ground and do last minute care-taking before I fly to see my parents today.  I planted some lovely basil that was a gift, watered the annual bed (and discovered some other little neighbor has eaten one of the broccoli seedlings–oh well I hope you enjoyed it), put more compost on the growing asparagus plants, and also watered the summer sweet bush cuttings that are temporarily in a pile of compost as well waiting to be planted.  Margy will tend the garden while I am gone.

I am thinking of my dad today, my spirit is with his spirit during this journey.  May this day be blessed with safe and smooth travels of whatever kind.

Hoya Plant

Hoya Plant pre-blossoms

It has been many years since our hoya plant has blossomed.  It is a great and easy plant to care for.  I have had it since I lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan around 1979.  My partner at the time, Gary, and I inherited the plant from the collective who had lived in the house before passing the house along to us.  We became a Catholic Worker house, and offered hospitality to homeless families.  In 1983 we moved to Chicago and took the plant with us, and when Gary and I separated in 1985, I eventually ended up with the plant, and have moved it with me ever since.

One of the names I learned for the plant was “Widow’s Tears.”  When it blooms, the flowers have a sweet nectar that falls from their center.  That name had an emotional resonance for me when Gary died in a car accident in 1988.  Just after I learned about his death, the plant began to bloom.  That blooming became one of several signs that touched me with Gary’s presence following his death.  It is hard to explain, but it comforted me, it felt like a gift he had sent to me from beyond.

So this week, the hoya started to flower again, with two little umbrellas of florets beginning to form waxy pre-blooms.  And this week, I learned that my dad, who has been in a nursing home for almost a year and a half, has taken a turn for the worse, and has slept through the last two days.  A priest who is a friend of the family came today to pray and anoint him.  My sister Julie has been the primary support person for my mom and dad since they moved to West Virginia in 2005.  Most of us live at a distance.  A few of my siblings have visited in the last couple weeks, and I will fly out on Monday.

Life is mysterious.  They don’t really know what will happen next.  It is possible he will rally, but it is starting to seem more likely that he is preparing for the transition into death, which for him signifies going home to eternal life.  I asked my mom to hold the phone to his ear so I could speak to him, to tell him I love him, and I was coming on Monday, but I am with him in spirit, so whatever he needs to do will be okay.  Which is true.  And there is something about the hoya plant blooming that comforts me today, alerts me to the mysteries beyond life and death, and the bonds that unite us across many divides.  May all of us be held in love.Hoya Plant bloom

Yes They Did Come!

HummingbirdWe put up the hummingbird feeders five days ago, and the hummingbirds showed up within a couple days.  Today I got some photos, while sitting on the deck a few feet away. This is a male ruby-throated hummingbird, and a female came around as well.  It is rather marvelous that they can find these feeders, considering the length of their travels.

Hummingbirds migrate to and from central America where they spend the winter, usually in the same place that their ancestors did.  They fly alone, not in flocks, and instinctively know where to go.  Isn’t that incredible?  Hummingbirds have an average life span of 3-5 years, so maybe these are the same hummingbirds as those who found the feeder we put up last year, before we had the roof on the deck.  Or maybe they are descendants.  Now we have two feeders, and they’ve already used both.  Hummingbirds are very territorial, so I wonder if we’ll see others, or these two will claim it all for themselves.

Just Be

Hammock View

My birthday isn’t until the end of June, but Margy gave me a wonderful free-standing hammock as an early birthday gift.  With all of the working in the garden, it is easy to forget to just BE–to just lie there and watch the sky and the trees and the birds.  It is large enough for both of us, and on Friday afternoon Margy and I were just being in it together.  Several little birds came to check us out in the trees close by–a tufted titmouse was singing, so much louder than one might expect from its small size.  Catbirds, cardinals.  “What is this new nest in the back of the yard?” they seemed to be asking.  “What new thing are you humans doing here?”

But we weren’t doing anything.  We were just being, watching, enjoying, listening, seeing.  On Saturday, I came back and tried again.  I especially like the symbolism of this gift, since this summer I will be retiring from my work at the church.  It is a bittersweet time, because I have loved my work at the church, and I will miss the people there.  But I like to imagine that in retirement I will have more opportunity for just being.  The hammock is a reminder to take that time–to not get caught up in all the projects I might be doing in the yard or the house or out there in the wide world–but to be still and spacious, to relax, to observe, to delight.  Thank you, Margy!  I love this gift!

Hummingbirds?

Hummingbird Feeder

Margy got a new hummingbird feeder for us!  I put it up today, plus our old one too, attached to opposite sides of the beams on our new roof on the deck.  I hope we aren’t too late to catch the migration–we used to put out the feeders when the viburnum near our door (in North Yarmouth) started blossoming, the first week of May.  We’re still figuring out the best timing for here in Portland.  I’ll let you know when we see any.

In the meantime, lots of watering to do, and I also divided some comfrey and some oregano to take to the Plant Swap tomorrow at the Resilience Hub.  Last year we got all of the companion plants we needed for our cherry trees.  The comfrey and oregano seem like basically fool-proof plants, and grew abundantly in the food forest.  So I was confident enough to take some out to share.  This year, I hope to find some kale seedlings, perhaps, and just see what might be there.  Maybe elderberry starts?  It has been a beautiful day in the garden.

Hummingbird Feeder small

Trout Lilies

Trout Lilies

With all my working in the garden, I didn’t have a chance to walk by the brook for a few days.  When I came back, I found these little beauties.  The woods is absolutely carpeted with Trout Lilies.  I even thought about transplanting some for our yard, but read that they take several years to settle in and bloom.  So why not just enjoy them where they are?

There is so much beauty everywhere I walk–singing catbirds and cardinals, flowering cherries and magnolias, even just the leaves opening up on the trees are so magnificent.  The ferns are stretching out, and swamp cabbage is green along the brook.  Violets, dandelions and wild strawberries are flowering in the lawn.  Meanwhile life is busy, but I have to steal some moments to stop and enjoy it all.

Pruning

Cherry Tree prunedFriday and Saturday I pruned and trained our young fruit trees.  I did a lot of research beforehand, because it seemed so sad to actually cut them at all.  But the Holistic Orchard book, and most other resources suggest that pruning helps them to grow into a shape that gives them enough support and sunlight for fruit.

Of course, after the research, I realized it might have been better to prune the cherries more drastically last summer, when we first planted them.  But all we have is now.  Here is a photo of the Black Tartarian Cherry with its central leader cut at the top–to promote another tier of scaffolding (outward facing) branches.  The small bud near the top should grow into another central leader.   If I didn’t cut the top, the next outward facing branches would have grown too high up on the leader.

Next, I cut the ends of the first tier of scaffold branches, because they were too long and leggy and uneven.  On this cherry, they are also rather low to the ground, but the only way to remedy that would be to cut them all off, and I couldn’t do that.  I tied them back to encourage them to grow at a better angle to the central leader.  I did this for both cherry trees.  (We had also done this last summer, and took off the ties for the winter)

I also pruned our new young apple tree by making a heading cut on its central leader to promote scaffold branch growth.  For the peach, I did a more drastic cut on the central leader, to create a “vase” shape, where there is no central leader, but four or five main branches, which is the form most recommended for peaches.  Some sources recommend that for cherries too, but we had started with a central leader form last year.  After I was done with all this cutting, I said a prayer to the trees–I am so new at this, that I barely know what I am doing–so please forgive me for that, and grow and thrive anyway!

Funny to think that plants can thrive by being cut back so drastically.  Is there a message in that for humans too?  That the most difficult experiences of our life can shape us for greater beauty and fruitfulness to come?

I took a cut branch with cherry blossoms from the Lapins Cherry, and put it in a cup of water on our deck.  Maybe the bees will still want to visit them.  For now, it is a sign of the years to come, when we can let the flowers bloom and hope for fruit.Cherry Blossoms

Medicine from the Yard

Dandelion Leaves

[Dandelion leaves]

Today and the past two days, I’ve been eating these lovely gifts from our yard–dandelion leaves.  They are best to eat before the bright yellow flowers appear, so you have to search for them by their pointy leaves arranged in a starburst pattern.  I asked the plant for permission to pick them, so that they might become a good medicine for me, and then picked some of the leaves from several plants.

Dandelion leaves are a blood purifier, great spring detoxing for the liver, have a lot of vitamins and minerals, and are full of anti-oxidants. (But be sure you pick them from a place with no chemicals or road run-off.)  I am just beginning to try eating them, so I rinsed them off and chopped them up, and mixed them into some kale I was stir-frying for breakfast, after the kale was already pretty much cooked.  They have a really mild flavor, and I enjoyed them.  You can also eat them raw or in salads.

So often, we just ignore the so-called “weeds” in our yard, or worse yet, try to eradicate them.  What if we saw them as gifts sent to us from the earth, to help our bodies with what they need?  This is what I learned from herbalists–the plants appear when we need them.  So, to ignore them or not use them would be rude, wouldn’t it?

I first began to understand this when the St. John’s Wort started appearing in our yard last summer. St. John’s Wort has traditionally been understood as useful for depression and wound healing. Last summer, at the Healing the Wounds of Turtle Island ceremonies, the spiritual wound that revealed itself to me was the Great Forgetting:  first there was a great disconnection of my ancestors from their relationship with all of creation, and then there was a great forgetting so that the people would be unaware that they were wounded and disconnected, and thus never even seek to understand that they had once been connected. I heard in my mind, “St. John’s Wort can help when you remember the wound of disconnection from the earth, and when you open to the pain underneath the great forgetting.”

And the St. John’s Wort is returning to the yard this spring as well.  The flowers are best picked just after the Summer Solstice (feast of St. John the Baptist, which is where they got that name), but now the plants are starting to put forth new stems and leaves around the old stalks we picked the tops of last year.  I think picking them has helped them to grow and expand.

I like learning about the plants in this way, one by one, as they make themselves known to me here in this land I call home.

St. John's Wort

[St. John’s Wort]

May Day in Maine

Daffodils in orchard

I arrived back home in Maine Monday night, and found Spring bursting forth with flowers, including all these daffodils around the fruit trees in our orchard.  I planted the bulbs last fall because the Holistic Orchard book suggested that they could be protective of the young fruit trees.  But they also create so much beauty as the tiny trees are waking up, and look so spindly and fragile.  But guess what?  If you look closely, you can see that the new peach tree has tiny pink flowers budding out too.

I think we’ve come to that week when everything seems to wake up all at once.  In years past, this has occurred in mid-April, but this year it is aligning with May Day.  As I took a walk around the block, the forsythias were bright yellow, the grass in people’s yards was green and exuberant, and the trees were budding out. I walked along the brook and the trout lily’s spotted leaves were poking up all along the path. Back in the yard, I noticed tiny asparagus stalks emerging from the trenches where I had planted the crowns!

Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads – Version 2

Back in March, I had purchased an Ostrich Fern root at the Maine Garden Show, and kept it in the garage while it was frosty outside.  This morning I noticed that even the fern was already growing bright green, curled-up fiddleheads there in the dark, in its plastic bag, so I planted it next to the white pine tree.

Today the temperature is rising to 80 degrees, but hopefully it will even out again to the 50s and 60s that are our average for Maine in May.  I love this time of year!

May our hearts wake up, too, rising from the weariness of the long winter, into the joy and exuberance of this season of growth and life.