The man at the corner bodega called me by name yesterday, and I am a little heartbroken that it’s happened three months before we’re going to move out of this neighborhood.

I’ve lived on this corner about three years. That’s not a long time relatively speaking, but a lot happened during those years.

I was informed a week again that a long-dreaded / long-awaited renovation project will be happening to the house I live in, and it will come in the form of a no-fault eviction in June.
This is, sadly, the best of all possible scenarios, but it is still a cessation, an uprooting, and those are two things I was hoping wouldn’t meet me after last year. But as we have been waiting for a long time to learn the real mechanics of this project, in some ways it’s a relief. Now it’s tangible, actionable. We can finally make plans.
Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself.
I am trying not to be totally shattered by this. I’ve been remarkably resilient in the face of death, then a near-death leading to a more complicated grieving, and other heavy things. This though, this is something like my Achilles heal. As long as I have a safe, pleasant place to come back to I can endure great bleakness — and it seems we are not even to have that.
A strange tinge is added to this as this is the very same house that my friend who died lived in, the house he and I became friends in, the house where his daughter was born. (Literally. In the bathroom.) So many key pictures that get shared around our circle were taken in this house, on our porch, in our yard. A new one I’d never seen before went around minutes before I got the notice from our landlord.
I am doing that haggard thing of inventorying everything we own and weighing all options — because really so many options are on the table right now for us. But when I walk into the bathroom and see the shelves he put up and I go to pieces. Because HE put them up, and he’s dead. And soon we’ll walk away from this place and walk away some of the last things he touched, and that will be hard.
I find a voice inside me asking heartbreaking real questions.
Will his spirit be able to find us in a new house?
They are questions that don’t have answers.
I have so many questions that don’t have answers right now.

 I’m trying to shed a brighter light of some of these things. The corner bodega for instance. I get sad to think I will leave it behind — an independent business! Run by a first-generation Asian man whose name probably isn’t “John,” but who goes by that name, whose store we refer to as “John’s”. He carries the butter I like. He sells individual batteries and postage stamps. He thankfully carries Pepto Bismol, which is the thing I always think about when I walk back from there; remember that time when I ran over here and bought some Pepto so Travis could get home? We did a good job that day. 

We’ll be leaving John’s I sigh.

Then another part of me says: remember when he was robbed at gunpoint when your in-laws were in town?

And I think…yeah. I guess leaving that isn’t so bad.

Snippets of spring are coming and the house is shining with hope and potential like everything does to a gardener this time of year.

And I find myself wanting to spend as much time as possible in this house that I love and isn’t mine.

I find myself feeling as I did last year when we knew we had weeks, not years, left with this person. Whatever we got was special, sacred, worth while. I find myself thinking the same things I did that year: make the most of this. This may be all we have.

It was bracing and exhilarating then. Now as I shop for replacements on Craigslist, finding few in our budget, wondering seriously if that’s it for Portland, for us, for everything — it doesn’t feel exhilarating. It feels exhausting.

We find one out of thousands that works for the budget and it turns out they don’t allow cats. Or there’s one with a sunroom but no yard. Or there’s one that is perfect — so perfect that if I’d encountered it a year or two down the road, when we are a bit more above water, I would offer to buy it. And it is just too expensive. Not extreamely so, but just enough. Just enough for my fingers to brush up against it. Beyond my grasp.

I prick out seedlings and prep my starts because that’s what a gardner does this time of year, knowing full well that I have no where to put mature plants in April and May. That I may never have a place to put them, and may have to put my tools in storage somewhere, or sell them.

In better times it’s a mark of hope and resilience. Sometimes right now it feels like a kind of futility, like the band playing on the deck of the Titanic. Let there be beauty and light, even in the face of the swirling inevitable. Is it brave? Is it foolhardy? It depends on how much sleep you’ve had.
However. Isn’t it all inevitable, and isn’t it all just for a brief lark in the end? When I can get truly big picture about this I can regain my three months of cancer perspective and feel it is Correct and Right and Just to tend to my little seedlings, and give them every chance they’ve got.
Then I go to the grocery store and see a man walking around with mud spattered jeans and I am shattered. What will I be doing in April or May? What will happen to us?

Greetings from the trenches

We’re six weeks into knowing about my friend with cancer, (see previous entry) and about five weeks into his 6-8 weeks prognosis.

There isn’t much to say about it. Most of the time, because I am not living with this friend nor am I that intimate with his family, life is normal — transcendent and gorgeous, even, in this heightened state where all one’s focus is on the immediate present. It is late spring and it has been a particularly beautiful one here. I find myself weeping with gratitude, not sorrow, when I see than a rose has opened, or the pea plant has a new pod plump and ready for eating.

I have been surprised to find myself more content, clear-eyed and happy than I have been in a long time. There’s just a heaviness — growing or shrinking unexpectedly and triggered by things that seem quite unrelated. The subconscious fights desperately to be heard.

We’ve had a few moments where it has been undeniably forthright.

I don’t yet want to write too freely about this here because it is a ‘developing situation’, and anyway it may not even be a story that is mine to tell in the end.

It is not because I don’t want to talk about it. Quite the contrary — it’s ALL I want to talk about. It is all I can think about, it is all I want to think about, and I can’t find anybody that will indulge me and listen to all of the gritty, morbid, irreverent, frank, unblinking things that are stirring around in the cauldron of my curiosity. Too many people I know are too involved in this to talk about it that directly, that often with me.

I am not a particularly social person and usually do not process things verbally, so this impulse to talk to people has been really interesting. It has bordered on a NEED. It’s like I’m searching for words to pin down what is going on in my own mind.

Furthermore, I like to be able to DO. And when there’s little to DO I get very restless and uneasy. I want to Help, to the extreme that I find myself doing things unasked for, bordering on becoming a nuisance.

I spend a great deal of time feeling blank, like an automaton going through the motions of a day, waiting for orders.

In this altered state of life where not much feels correct, where surfing the web is so clearly a waste of time, when Facebook and Twitter as just saturated with nonsense that I just can’t bring myself to care one iota about, because what is any of that to the pulsing, urgent need to be present when called upon, to comfort a friend who is struggling, to sit quietly with oneself and appreciate the heartbreaking majesty of clouds. Now, instead of sneaking peaks at Instagram or Tumblr in quieter moments when I’m in the bathroom or waiting for the teapot to boil, I endeavor to have a book in my hand. So I can read.

Because death is a subject that books are well versed in. And unlike people’s children, pithy memes or political travesties, death is a subject I have an unending amount of patience with, tolerance for, and interest in right now.

You’ll note the Tolstoy. Somehow, aside from directly topical items, the 19th century really gets me right now. Hard to say what I appreciate more — the slow paced thoughtful characters who seem to prioritize the proper things in life (unlike our hopelessly segmented and compartmentalized 21st century selves,) or merely the numerous instances of consumptives sliding into medically unassisted deaths. People on deathbeds and people attending to those people have obvious appeal, and take up a good portion of the books from this era. Tolstoy in particular is very, very good about writing about this, how messy it all is.

Aside from reading I have been quilting a great deal.

The first quilt I ever made was over a breathless weekend or two when I was home alone because I was working and couldn’t accompany Mom and my brother on a trip to Grandma — was I a junior in high school? Or was it Thanksgiving break my freshman year of college? I can’t remember. I just remember Mom had a pile of her old button-up shirts she’d asked me to take to Goodwill, and instead I cut them into squares and made a quilt out of them, borrowing her sewing machine.

I have made several since then, different kinds and styles, but it’s been a while and I hadn’t made one in my new sewing set-up at this house, which is essentially a little gnome’s cave in our cubby hole / storage space.

I’m making a new one, again out of old shirts and cotton clothes — ours this time, not my mother’s — as a permanent bedspread and ultra-snuggly nap blanket for our room. Most of our quilts — aside from that delicate first one — have been pressed into service throughout the rest of the house. I find them on the porch or in roommate’s rooms — filling out the corners, keeping things cozy.

This one is also in the kantha quilt style. I was delighted to learn the name of those charming, lightweight quilts that are rapidly gaining popularity; perfect for summer, and, as it turns out, genus for its reuse of old fabrics. Waste naught, want naught.

To do a kantha quilt means one spends a LOT of time hand stitching, which off and on is perfect for what I need right now. There are indeed days where I have a restless, exhausted energy, and nothing feels right but to dial up the iPod with a scene from Anna Karenina and make a running stitch again, again, again, again all up and down the soft, well loved fabrics of old shirts of ours — shirts that exhault at being pressed into service in this new way.

Quilting and reading. And messy ink drawings. That is what these weeks have consisted of, primarily.

Day job

The most helpful advice I’ve received about money is that it should not be the reason you’re doing something. And that’s very good advice.

Five years ago when I moved to Portland, I got a job at a law office. It was 2008, jobs were not that easy to find, and It was the first job to offer me an interview. I took it, because I just needed something to pay the bills while I got settled and tried to achieve lift-off with this whole illustration thing.

The problem was the law office was very difficult for me. It was divorce law, very intense in terms of work environment and the work itself. One would answer calls at the front desk from people in tears. Tension ran high, at all times. And I spent so much time removing this tension from my mind after I came home every day that there wasn’t anything left to paint with.

And even when I did manage to paint, the results weren’t really that interesting. My work was stagnant at that time, not growing or developing as it so badly needed to do. I didn’t feel free enough to explore or grow. All of my explore-and-grow neurons were all used up by the time I got back to my desk, because I’d spend all of my time fretting about my job. (Which is a gentle way of saying: I would come home every day, curl up on the couch, and sob.)

Aside from the bad fit that this specific job was, I realized something else very quickly, particularly as I saw how keen they were to promote me while I was there. A job at a law office — no matter how menial — is a career kind of job. Without meaning to I’d landed a career kind of job without realizing that what I needed was a more…day-jobby kind of day job.

Fortunately I came to this realization very quickly. I left and got a job cleaning houses.

Cleaning paid about a third of what I’d been making at the law office. So in some ways it wasn’t a smooth transition. I had to scale back big time — first eliminating the obvious extravagances like Netflix and eating out, and eventually re-thinking almost every aspect of my life. I had to learn to change the way I shopped for groceries, the way I ate, the way I went through durable goods at home. I learned to go without. I learned to be resourceful and maybe use something I already had in a new way. It was a lot of work.

However, it was good work. Looking back, I realize that I live more gently on the earth now than I ever would have dreamed possible then. And these concepts of scaling back and going without and making do lead to other concepts like learning to mend and celebrating simple things and making it myself. I learned how to make all sorts of things, from deodorant to oven mitts. This way of thinking leads to more robust things, like gardening and getting serious about recycling (it’s that nagging feeling of letting nothing go to waste).

And most important of all: settling into this way of thinking frees you from the reliance on Accidental Career Day Jobs, frees you from a life of feeling trapped.

When I tell people this story I often say: I make less than half of what I made at the law office, but I am ten times happier. 

The minute I left my law office job I was instantly filled with a contented happiness. Even when I was hungry because I hadn’t stuck to my budget properly, or when I was painting under the only working lightbulb in the apartment, I didn’t care. I was no longer trapped.

And I was painting — more than I ever had in my life, it seemed. I was making up for lost time.

And my pictures began to blossom, and take on a life of their own.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Updates on the community garden plot

This is a really trippy cell-phone-picture-collage of what my garden plot looks like right now. I regret that I didn’t take a “before” picture, because it was pretty grim. It was basically the inspiration for this:

Still MILES better than what it was when we first started last year — that was a lot of long term neglect, not new weed seedlings like this all was — but still a lot to work on. 

It’s hard for me to remember to build neat little narratives from things I see in real life sometimes, particularly when things get intense — action, not reflection, becomes the order of the day. It’s the 400 yard dash to the deadline here at Chez Kumquat, but nobody told the garden manager. Yesterday there was an email sent to everyone to say: remember, June 1st is the deadline to have your plot worked and weeded and mulched.

Community gardening is very popular here, particularly in my neighborhood where everyone is keen to make a go of it. There is at present something like a five year waiting period to get into the garden I’m in, and so they are really trying to crack down on those who don’t really work their plots much. For the next few days (and indeed for the rest of the summer) they will be monitoring the plots closely for lack of activity. Those who are clearly not putting in their 3-4 hours a week to keep things maintained will be given a five day shape-up-or-ship-out warning. Then all will be chopped up and reassigned. 

It seems severe but there are some serious jungles in some of the plots right now. (MUCH more so than what mine was.) And it has contributed to the increase of invasive weeds and pest buildup and other bad things. 

We are no where near this category of slackers but when you can’t remember the last time you worked in the plot (it’d been weeks, certainly) and you get an email like this is really turns your skin. But fate stepped in and canceled my afternoon house yesterday, so I spent the time I would have been there in my rain jacket and mud getting things tip-top. The result is very satisfying. Onions are finally separated out and ready to grow, all greens look gorgeous (in fact, need some harvesting,) blueberries are heavy and waiting for the sun. Compost worked into the soil. All we need now are seeds and starts and we are in business. 

Community Garden Wrap-up

I’ve done a terrible job of keeping you updated abut this garden adventure. It’s been a mixed bag. I was confirmed for a spot the day before I had knee surgery, which meant instead of tackling the gnarled tangle of weeds and plants left behind with the full blast of my strength and energy, I could only, when I saw my plot in mid-February for the first time, gulp and grow a bit pale at all the work I had to do. I was alone, I didn’t own any garden tools, and wouldn’t be able to get down on my knees until June. And I had no idea where to begin.

The garden manager was there when I arrived, working on his immaculate raised beds, tending to seedlings he had started indoors, from (I imagine) seeds he harvested the previous year. He saw me, and said kindly, “looks like you have your work cut out for you, huh?”

I nodded. “I just don’t know where to start.”

He looked thoughtfully over the jungle. “I’d start with debris removal.”

And that’s what I did. 

After that I had to work slowly and conquer different sections at different times. I’d received some spinach starts from a cleaning client, so I cleared a space in the top corner and placed them there. I found out what the blueberries were, so I read up about blueberries and what they need, and made sure to take care of them with a ring of found rocks and bricks, lovely mulch to protect the surface roots, and fastidiously attended to them while I attacked everything else. It helped so much to have something to visit while the rest of the plot looked bleak. To watch little flowers form and then to have fresh blueberries for the oatmeal. 

Each session in the garden was intensely satisfying. I would go in dreading it a little, wondering if I’d have the energy or if I’d get anything done, yet I would always leave feeling validated and confident. There’s no job so tangible and meaningful as pulling weeds — you can instantly see the effects of your labor. And in my case every time I went in there I’d clear a new little section, reclaiming a new section of earth from the weeds. There were a few sessions with Anthony manning the big shovel (something I was unable to do for most of the year), but for the most part it was all little steps, experiments, and lovely vegetables that mostly came from donations from generous cleaning clients or through the seed and plant exchange programs the city offers.

Just about everything I planted gave me at least a little something edible, and the plot even gave me lovely gifts like blueberries on my oatmeal for several months and beautiful flowers in the early spring and late summer. It gave considerable relief to the grocery bills and incredible lifts to the spirit. 

I cleaned up the garden last week, and I have a house full of dahlias to show for it. It was the first time everything from one end to the other was uniformly weeded, and I was terribly, terribly proud. Registration forms have been emailed to me and I am squirreling away my spartan tips so I can be ready for Spring. 


1. I was absolutely blessed to have chard all year, and it was all because of the damnable sunchoke forest — they created a blanket of shade that protected these cold-weather greens from the brutal sunshine. The happiest of accidents. Next year I would love to try and do this on purpose, but with a crop that I’d actually know how to deal with like pole beans. 

2. I will angle everything diagonally, to face the sun. 

3. I will think hard about lettuce. I made the mistake of buying something like 6 starts for myself, which is FAR too much, and we had a strange spring which meant almost all of it bolted immediately. Lettuce tastes best straight off the plant (though I found keeping leaves layered with flannel in a Tupperware in the fridge worked pretty well), and so really a single plant probably would have been fine for me. Most of the salads we eat in the summer time are actually grain based or something like it, straight up lettuce salads don’t make many appearances because I’m just not used to preparing them. It was wonderful for kissir and other bulgar-type salads, as wrapping that in a butter lettuce leaf is excellent, so probably one plant would be enough. But really when I want to eat that stuff most is when it’s far too hot for lettuce to survive. Can I sneak a plant next to my chard-scheme? Perhaps. 

4. Weeding is a big problem because it creates a lot of good compost-able stuff that I am unable to personally process. It may be different with a well-kept plot where weeds are kept at bay, but when you spend a year in reclamation as I did the sheer volume of the stuff would quickly overwhelm an on-site compost bin, at least with the little plot I have. Other plots in the garden that have attempted to compost their own weeds seem to quickly abandon the project. At a work party I spent my entire 3 hours with a couple other people dismantling a haystack surrounding one of those plastic composter things. I don’t have yard debris removal service, because I live in an apartment building, so I was having to haul away my debris, often in several trips, and throw it in the dumpster. Not ideal. 

5. I will grown onions, garlic, and maybe start an asparagus tangle. More carrots, less spinach, less tomatoes. 

I am mostly looking forward to next year because I will have access to ALL of my dirt, and I will able to get down in it with both knees. Once things calm down a little here I will do as the Portland Nursery growth charts suggest: pour myself a cup of tea, review my notes, and start planning for next year!