Friday, May 22, 2009

In Which I Become The Other Woman

But, but -- I take pictures of WEEDS ! I cry, as if that protestation could save me from the relentless encroachment of new botanies. I had to offer some objection. I am the woman behind the camera, the woman behind glass, after all. What was I doing with dirt beneath my fingernails ? What was I doing with crumbs of soggy, used Oasis on my shirtfront ? It was all highly improbable, and much like an alien abduction. I had been whisked up the beam, probed, and implanted with alien seed.

I have made my peace with Altar Guild floral activities. The congregation has been charitable toward my offerings, which, compared to my experienced colleagues', are humble and a little strange. A week or so ago I found a handwritten letter in a plain envelope on the mail table: my over the (pretty white picket) fence neighbor, proposing "flowers along the fence."

My back yard is a fairly random place. We tried twice to plant a lawn, and twice failed. There are scrofulous tufts and patches of official grass, mostly at the periphery, and, between them, the eventual tinny chartreuse of crabgrass. From time to time we summon Mr. Caruso to surround this "lawn" with mulch and trim back the yews, the same Mr. Caruso who, years ago, sold us a row of scraggly hemlocks which perished and required the mortuary services of Mr. Sturgis, who became our next gardener. Mr. Sturgis had big dreams for our yard, dreams we did not share, and we eventually parted ways over his strange snow-removal billing practices and strange reluctance to return phone calls. We humbled ourselves, and called Mr. Caruso, and begged him to return. Judging by the yews and the flattened weedy mulch, it's been awhile since anyone with any botanical chops had cast their eyes upon our yard.

Except L.

We met at the white picket fence. I don't know L. well. We have one or two pleasant conversations a year, and our cats have been the occasion of one anothers' Elizabethan collars from time to time. As we chatted, I was aware that my yard looked worse than usual. The Saturday before I'd tried and failed to revive the lawn mower. The front yard was a few weedy millimeters away from eyesore, and the backyard, weeks before crabgrass season, looked like a bad tonsure.

We chatted for awhile, commiserating about how our shady backyards would not support lawns; she is, it seems, quite an accomplished gardener, a self-described "flower Nazi." Her small backyard has always looked beautiful, despite being happily overrun by children. An errant Foxglove from her yard, in fact, had poked its head through the fence and was overlooking (with poisonous disapproval) my weedy mulch bed. As she enumerated the various shade-loving perennials that might look nice by the fence I suddenly realized that she was referring to my side of the fence.

I felt myself turn pale. "You mean here ?" I asked pointing at the swallow-wort and dandelion overrun mulch at my feet.

She did.

We do have some flowers in our yard. I think of them as "an other woman's flowers," planted, as they were, by a stranger's hand. I regard them with an attitude somewhere between fear and indifference. There are jonquils and crocuses and day lilies by the side of the house, two monstrous hostas and a peony by the garage, and a small blue flower in the fence's mulch bed that comes up every May. This year, overshadowed by the overgrown yew, the crocuses failed to bloom. I am a wicked stepmother.

I told this to L., but she was undaunted. She would help me. It would be fun. So we made a date for the Saturday hence.

Well, I reflected, perhaps it would be fun. Here was my neighbor, passionate and knowledgable about flowers, offering unworthy me -- who can't even keep the difference between annuals and perrenials straight -- advanced botanical teachings. After the church planting last year I'd had a fleeting vision of a row of cute little boxwood bushes along the fence, so the notion of my own cultivars was not entirely foreign.

With renewed zeal, I hauled out the mower, and, like a woman possessed, went madly at the pull cord until it sputtered awake. Undaunted by the fact that I could not find my rake, I made a pilgrimage to Home Depot for supplies -- rake, trowel, spark plug and air filter for the mower (who knew you had to service these things !) and a dandelion weeder, a tool I've secretly coveted for years since another "other woman" neighbor, had lent me hers.

I weeded the heck out of the mulch bed and waited for Saturday to arrive.

We drove across town to Wilson's, locus of my ecclesiatic poinsettia and easter lily adventures, and wandered among the dripping perennials and crowds of Saturday gardeners. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and soon we had a cart full of flowers.

I'd met some of these before. I'd photographed bleeding hearts at the Audubon Gardens, and now I was photographing my own !

Each fall I seek out the wild clematis -- both virgin's bower and old man's beard -- lsmall spiral galaxies vining high up on a tall hedge along the Watertown riverwalk. There's a fine line between flower and weed. I told L. how astonished I'd been to see tomato flowers -- a yellow twin of the purple nightshade that grows so rampantly in the Northern woods. I was not a total stranger to botany, after all. I was just from a different denomination -- more Anglican, I suppose, than Roman, but all one big Catholic Garden.

I'm not sure the learned and Tiber-swimming Cardinal Newman, whose Apologia I am reading, would entirely approve of that metaphor; an Anglican garden, I think, has more room for the comely weeds we call wildflowers than the Roman garden with its catechismally regimented, immaculately weeded and highly cultivated rows of blooms. I confess I have been staring across that river at the distant, orderly ranks of magnificent flowers with some envy. This envy overtakes me from time to time, with a secret, almost visceral longing. I succumbed a few weeks ago and attended a Saturday afternoon Mass at a local RC parish that also, Sundays, has a Latin Mass.

The service was well-attended. I sat and perused the list of music, growing excited to see many familiar and beautiful hymns. The Mass progressed, utterly familiar, with one exception.

No one sang except the choir. Which sang nicely, but the congregation just sat there. Some seemed to be looking at the hymnal -- there WERE hymnals, after all, which implied that singing was at least an option -- but most just sat, passive, oddly dispirited. My God, I reflected, I thought WE were God's frozen people ! A few voices joined in the recessional, a treacly number about May Flowers and Mothers' Day but more parishioners were getting up and preparing to leave than were singing.

I was baffled. Here they were, CATHOLICS, with all of the beauty and majesty and mystery of the Roman tradition laid out before them, and they seemed BORED ! They had ALL the goodies -- Saints, Mary, Confession, the Real Presence, the gorgeous vestments, the cathedrals, the monasteries and convents, the Carthusians ! the Latin Mass ! -- and they couldn't even make a joyful noise unto the Lord ! And, to make matters worse, they were unwilling to let me, scandalous Episcopalian divorcee, fainting with an unfathomable, inchoate Catholic desire, even lick up a crumb fallen from their table !

Yes, yes, I know. You don't have to remind me about the bits of Catholic doctrine -- mostly concerning women and GLBT's -- that are abhorrent. How I would like to dismiss those bits with a wave of the hand and a breezy Anglican "O, that's adiaphora !" and plunge into the river and swim !

This is the other other woman speaking, the woman at three or four removes from the unchurched weed papparazza of old. The woman even at some remove from the happily churched altar guild directress, diaper packager, LEM visit and Sunday chorister. The woman who sometimes can't tell whose garden she is in , a place of nightshade or love apples, Dahlias or dandelions, a place of of foxglove that either cures or kills and you won't know until you've swallowed it.

Even Merton struggled with his vow of stability. I have a row of plants to tend, a friendly neighbor who has given me a great gift, and a church, that has shown me where God and human intersect and interact, in Christ -- a place whose existence, not so long ago, I would have denied.

What more could -- do -- I want ?

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