Havoc in the flower garden

Black-eyed Susans

I like to garden; I do, but mostly, I just dabble. Sort of a grown-up’s version of playing in the dirt.

I’ve wanted flowers in my yard since I bought this house. I had visions of fragrant, flowering vines, bushes with gorgeous blooms, summer perfume that filled the air as I walked outside.

That was more than a decade ago, and it didn’t take long to realize that most flowers are kind of allergic to shade. Their stalks turn yellow; they refuse to bloom, and they die. Early on, I dug up a front flower bed (shaded by a huge oak tree and a few spindly pecan trees, added some potting soil, and planted a variety of flowers. Some mildewed, some rotted, and others refused to grow. All died. It didn’t matter that they basked in a few hours of hot, evening sun. It was just too little, too late.

I bought a bush. A pieris japonica, which I planted close to the front door. It is a slow-grower, but it thrived, apparently not minding an abundance of shade, and eventually, I bought two more. They now take up most of that flower bed. This summer, I had to trim them back a little.

The other front flower bed – nearly all shade, all the time – was trickier. I planted a hydrangea. It protested. I moved it out back, where it eventually died. I tried a rhododendron. I moved it around, tried to make it happy, but it refused to grow, or bloom, or do anything nice that plants and bushes are supposed to do. A few years ago, I looked up shade plants online, and I found a cute little dirt-hugging one called heuchera.

I took a chance on one. It was appealing; had a nice umbrella shape and a pretty bronze color, but just sort of sat there for two years. Then, BOOM. It got huge. And bloomed. So I bought two more, from a local high school plant sale. These two are a pretty green color, and they are thriving, too. So that flower bed is doing well.

Seasoned gardeners will tell you that there are no mistakes in gardening. That you can always pull something up and start over if it doesn’t work. And that’s true. Just this week I realized that my newest flower bed down by the mailbox – the one in the sun, with flowers that actually bloom – is planted all wrong.

I tried to follow the directions: plant this one x amount of inches from the next; this one will get xx inches high, etc. But a few of the flowers have exceeded expectations.

The Indian feathers turned out to be delightfully whimsical, but I planted them in front, and they are stealing the show from my black-eyed Susans.

The black-eyed Susans apparently don’t like that, and have leaned over into the Indian feathers, giving neither plant enough breathing room.

My coreopsis, which I thought was going to be nice and willowy, instead ended up short and stout. It’s in the middle of the bed, so you can’t see it unless you’re right on top of it.

My finicky low-lying gardenia, which I have moved all over the place, should be in the front, not the back, and there’s a huge something crowding out my rosemary, which is finally doing well. I haven’t pulled this mystery plant up, in hopes it is a sunflower.

My newest flower garden is quite attractive, but in all the wrong places, sort of like a child playing dress-up in clothes that don’t quite fit. I watered it again tonight, and thought about where I should move what, but with “real feel” temps already in the low 100s, I think I should let things be. There will be time this fall to do some rearranging. It may be a little crowded, but I’ve finally got some flowers. And, that makes me smile.

Surviving the in-between

Walks to a neighborhood park rank high on my mood-boosting list

What’s on my list today? Completing and turning in the last assignment for my online class, cleaning house and filling the fridge for three active and hungry grandkids, and getting some exercise and sunshine before I talk myself out of it. For most folks, that’s probably a week-end, or at least an evening, kind of list.

What I’m trying not to do is think too much about the situation I find myself in right now, which is stuck. In-between. Not bringing in a paycheck, and not happy with what I was doing when I earned one. Wanting to move forward, and feeling like the wheels are spinning, and the car’s making lots of noise, but it’s not leaving the driveway.

I know that’s not true. I’m working on new skills, starting a new project, reconnecting with family, and enjoying hobbies I’ve long neglected. If I really think about it, the way I should think about it, I realize we’re all in transition – all the time, even when we feel like we’ve got everything coordinated in our calendars, all under control.

We’re starting a relationship, or ending one. We’re preparing for a new job, or project, or assignment, or completing one. We’re getting ready to leave a place, or an idea, or a dream, and preparing to embrace a new adventure. We’re moving away from something old, and toward something different.

We can plan all we want, but we still don’t know how things will turn out. I’m on a new journey, but I’m not sure where it’s going, or where these next few steps will take me.

Well. I’ve checked most everything I need to do off my list for today, and the weekend’s coming. A blank work week, for me, now includes an empty weekend, ready to fill, with family and fun. I won’t look at this time as in-between, but as an opportunity. The sun, the pool, and the grandkids are calling. We’ll see what this weekend holds.

Look up

Clouds over Falls Lake
Clouds over Falls Lake

I have developed a habit, I’m not sure when it started, of looking at the sky. When it’s sunny (or partly cloudy), I study the clouds. I know from taking a peek at the National Weather Service web site that there are 10 basic cloud types. I don’t know them all, but I know which ones I look for: the altocumulus, which spans across portions of the sky, their ripples reminding me of the lively tidal pools on Hilton Head Island I peered into as a child.

I recognize the cumulus, which sprout up like ballooning heads of cauliflower, changing and bulging brilliant white on the edge of the horizon. I also look for the cumulonimbus, the mighty, towering clouds that produce dazzling lightening, booming thunder, and rains down damaging hail and deadly tornadoes.

At night, the sky where I live is quite different. I live close enough in the city that on most nights, all but the brightest stars and planets are obscured, but I can pick out a few. I can usually spot Venus, the third-brightest object in the sky, and Jupiter, the “almost a star” planet, and if it’s close enough to earth, and I know where it is in the sky, I can pinpoint Mars by its tell-tale red glow. I learned to recognize Orion when I drove to and from work on my shift job; either driving home at 11 p.m., or to work at 10 p.m. Connected ethereally by Orion’s belt, I would sneak glimpses of the mighty Hunter through my windshield, or pause to stare at it when I arrived at my destination.

I’ve been acquainted with the Big and Little dippers since childhood, when my mother pointed them out. I’d look for other constellations, but the sky was often hazy and my eyesight, even with assistance, has never been that good.

Still, I remember the thrill I felt as a child, aiming my telescope toward Saturn, and seeing the clarity of the rings of that faraway world, standing out before me, through the glass instead of on the pages of a book. Seeing that helium giant, tiny but clear through the simple telescope, filled me with amazement.

I remember visiting New York City back in the 1980s. I was there to cover a medical conference, and I went out sightseeing with a newfound friend. I looked up, and up, and up. Straight up, between all of those skyscrapers, was a thin slice of sky. I loved my visit, but disliked how the heavens were obscured by all the buildings.

When I bought my first house 14 years ago, I would stand out in the driveway at night, look straight up (our house is surrounded by trees), and think, “that’s my piece of sky.”

If you’re not in the habit of looking up, there is much to be missed. That first magnolia bloom on the huge tree down the street. That sunrise or sunset, splashing the sky with fiery reds, deep oranges, and tinges of pink. A hawk, silently watching for a meal, on a power line near a busy street. One night driving home, I saw a thunderstorm to the east, and the nearly-full moon, and clear sky, to the north. It was glorious. One fall, out walking through my neighborhood, I watched a lone monarch butterfly meandering just above me, trying to find its way. I watched it until our paths diverged. At night, I ponder the planets, and those endless, brilliant stars.

The day may be long; the night may be trying. Burdens get heavy. Life gets hard. But there are still moments of wonder, if you look for them. Look up.

Sossy and Tomiris

My husband, Bill, over-wintered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, this year. It was the first time we had spent so much time apart since getting married several years ago. But he is a scientist, and must go where the jobs are. I was working in North Carolina, and as his was a contract job, it didn’t make sense for both of us to relocate.

I planned a week-long visit to see him, over Thanksgiving. We would spend a few days at the house he was renting, then travel to see his brother in Michigan for the actual holiday. I did some online research for places to visit on Monday and Tuesday, while he was at work. One of the first things that popped up on my screen was the Milwaukee County Zoo. As I flipped through the virtual pages, I gasped. The zoo had not one – but two snow leopards. A mother and baby. And tigers. How perfect. I could not believe my good fortune. The zoo was practically around the corner from where Bill was staying.

I have loved snow leopards since I first found out about them. I adore tigers, too, but snow leopards – sigh. Their heavy coats, their markings, their long, spotted tails, those huge feet! And their ability to blend into their background so as to be almost invisible in the stark Himalayas and other Asian habitats they live in, make them my favorite big cat. These endangered felines are found in 12 countries in Central Asia, and, as luck would have it, in roughly 70 zoos throughout the United States. Many of those zoos work in partnership with the Snow Leopard Trust to care for and raise awareness of the rare, majestic cats.

I was so excited. I went shopping for clothes: toasty shirts and pants, layers, and warm accessories. I made sure to remember my wool coat, a warm scarf, and my camera and its charger.

Weather was iffy up North, so I was stalled overnight in Charlotte, so it was mid-Tuesday before I made my way to Milwaukee, and into the arms of my husband. We spent that evening catching up. He had to work Wednesday, but encouraged me to visit the zoo on my own. I vacillated. It was cold. No, freezing. I’d have to go alone. But I was so close to seeing snow leopards. In the end, I decided to go.

I layered up, and made it to the zoo, extremely early, on Wednesday, way before it opened. I consulted with my smart-phone, parked myself inside a fast-food restaurant, and sipped hot coffee. It was cold, very cold, to this North Carolina girl. In the 20s, and the wind was blowing. All the better for snow leopards, though!

The zoo finally opened, and at first it seemed deserted. I consulted my map, and set out looking for cats. I found the tigers first. The family consisted of a mother and two sisters, but they had to be displayed separately, as the girls apparently had a bad case of sibling rivalry. Oh my goodness. That gorgeous she-tiger paced around the enclosure, looking out at us humans who were busy gawking and snapping photos. Although my camera is just your basic point-and-shoot digital, I took lots of pictures and attempted a short video. After walking around the cat enclosure long enough to warm up, and satisfied with my photos, I set out to see the snow leopards. I saw the sign, walked around the corner, and there they were. Blocked at first by photographers with real cameras and lenses the length of my arm, I took a breath, and squeezed in toward the window. There they were.

Sossy and Tomiris

Tomiris, curled up inside a large log, had declared it naptime. Only her face was visible. She was adorable. I could see Sossy, the cub, just barely, positioning himself behind her. My simple cameras were not created for these conditions, but I managed a few decent shots. Then Sossy, in the way of toddlers everywhere, took advantage of his sleepy mother, crawled out of the log and began to explore. What luck! I snapped photos in awe, switching from my camera to my phone. I hoped and prayed for a few good snapshots.

It was darn cold that day, and the zoo closed at 4. I stayed as long as I could, marveling at the beauty of those beautiful big cats. I did manage to get some decent pictures, and a nice video of one of the tigers. On my way out, I discovered a toasty enclosure containing towering giraffes. I let my fingers thaw, and took more pictures. The trip was over too soon.

I have so many good memories of that day. I’m not a morning person, nor a fan of cold weather, and I’m not crazy about exploring new places by myself. But by choosing to do something outside my comfort zone, I saw my favorite animals up close, met a friendly, knowledgeable woman who spends so much free time at the zoo she knows most of the big cats by name, and rekindled a love of photography.

Each day offers all of us a number of choices. Not all are comfortable, or easy, or fit into our schedules as we would like. Sometimes, though, making a different choice proves worthwhile. You just have to make it.

Sossy, an adorable snow leopard cub, resided at the Milwaukee County Zoo.

6-5-15 – Just received a Facebook notice that Sossy, who just turned 1, passed away unexpectedly today. RIP, Sossy. You will be missed.


I keep dreaming about windows. Long, wide, enclosed porches or rooms, with dozens of windows, lined up in a row. I am concerned about the locks on the doors. Or maybe it is the windows themselves. They stand naked, and bare, unadorned with curtains, or drapes, or even blinds. I see them, lined up in regimented rows, and feel unsettled. I am supposed to do something, but I don’t know what it is. I awaken, still feeling confused.

I think the windows must be a metaphor. I have been somewhat adrift for the last five or so years, trying to figure out where I fit; hoping to discover my purpose. It hasn’t been clear. I took a different career path; I tried on different shoes. They did not fit. And so I stand here, nervous and uncertain, wondering what could be on the other side of all those windows.

I know what my passions are. My family, my God, writing, photography, the wonder of nature and the glory of the Universe. I know that I am reinventing myself, day by day, and I want to be better, stronger, more at peace. And I want to be useful. I do know how to put pen to paper. (Or fingers to keyboard.) And so I will. At this moment, I choose a window. It looks small, and smudged, and I must squeeze myself through it. I don’t know, yet, what is on the other side. But it is my window, and I am jumping through.

Follow my journey on my new blog: writerdiljak.wordpress.com.