Raising my bonsai no easy task
I thought I knew what I was getting into. I was in love, but I took my time and didn't rush into anything. I felt certain we were companionable, that we might have a future together. There had been problems in the past, sure, but I was sure that I could get it right this time. I let some time elapse so I could make a reasoned decision and not act in the heat of the moment. Finally, I gathered up my courage, and did it.
I bought a bonsai.
Two bonsai, to be exact. Two Brush Cherries, planted in a single container. They are sitting on the window sill over my kitchen sink, where I can admire their miniature beauty, and tend to their never-ending needs. For according to the "Bonsai Survival Guide," it appears that I have entered into a difficult and demanding relationship. The salesgirl at the greenhouse gave me this little manual, produced by New England Bonsai Gardens, as I paid for my plants. I wondered why she looked at me sympathetically as she handed it over.
Now I know. I'm pretty certain I don't take care of my children as well as I am supposed to take care of these trees. There is no honeymoon period for the new bonsai owner. Counseling and therapy begins immediately. "Is your lifestyle able to accommodate a plant that needs daily attention?" asks the manual. Umm, I'm not sure. I generally manage to get some kind of dinner on the table, and the animals haven't yet died of neglect, but I didn't know I had to consider my lifestyle (or lack thereof) before purchasing a plant. The manual also tells me I need special fertilizer, extra bonsai soil, pruning shears, tweezers, a brush, training wire, and a good reference book. I feel like I have more than enough reference already, thank you.
Fear enters the picture almost immediately. "When things go wrong, they go wrong quite quickly," the book warns ominously. And, in bold: "Bonsai novices usually lose their first trees to improper watering...it is best to forget how you water other plants and learn how to water bonsai." Whoa, that's hardcore. Two lengthy sections discuss the different methods of watering--overhead vs. immersion, testing for soil dryness and the benefits of misting ("cleans and refreshes...but not a substitute for watering"). Could somebody mist me, please? It sounds great.
I also need to forget about vacations from now on. Apparently, I can't leave the house for more than a day without dire consequences: "Your bonsai dealer may be equipped to do vacation boarding...or if you are having someone visit your home, make sure you give them very specific instructions." Oh dear. I'm not sure if my pet sitter will be willing to take on this awesome responsibility. Do I really have to call Nunan's Greenhouse and ask if my plants can sleep over? I can foresee my children resenting me deeply as I show up on their doorstep yet again, trees in hand ("Mom wants me to take that #$&*@$% plant! It's your turn!" "No, I did it last time!")
The worries continue. In "Pests and diseases" I am warned about aphids, scale-type insects, mites, worms, caterpillars, snails ("they hide during the day and do their dirty work at night"), and fungus. In "Diagnosis and first aid for the declining tree," there are a series of probing questions about overwatering, underwatering, and pets using the plant for a litter box. And finally, inevitably, "Is it really dead?" Apparently a tree can lose all of its leaves as a result of any of the aforementioned "traumas," but it might not be fully dead. On life support maybe, but not completely gone. Despairing bonsai owners are urged to hang in there, keep the tree damp, fertilize lightly, and "wait for spring."
I can do that! Waiting for spring is something we New Englanders do a lot of, and we're good at it. I have the feeling that these trees are going to teach me a lot of lessons about responsibility, commitment, and the harsh realities of life. The manual says that "even seasoned hobbyists sometimes lose trees to neglect." Good heavens, a seasoned hobbyist losing a tree to neglect? How can a dunce like me possibly manage? But then the "Bonsai Survival Guide" leaves me with this: "If you give it the best care you can, even when you encounter obstacles, you will be successful." It sounds like a fortune cookie, but it's pretty good advice for both plant care and life in general, so I'm going with it.
And if the worst happens? Well, the bonsai have taught me one thing already. I'm trying to live in the moment as much as possible, so I can enjoy the undoubtedly brief time the trees and I will be together.
This column was published in the Daily News of Newburyport on March 19, 2015
Sappy and sentimental for the holidays
I love Hallmark Channel Christmas movies, and I'm not ashamed to admit it.
Hallmark Channel's "Countdown to Christmas" runs from the first weekend in November until Jan. 1, and is a no-hankies-barred throwback to the movies of yesterday, and by yesterday I mean a really long time ago. A time when "The Lawrence Welk Show" ran on network television and people other than my grandmother watched it.
I only recently discovered this treasure trove of sentimentality, and I would never have imagined I would love it. I don't read romance novels and the sarcastic wit of "The Onion" is my go-to humor. But really, who can resist movies with titles like "A Christmas Wedding Tail" (about dogs) and "A Cookie Cutter Christmas" (about cookies)?
My crew watched "A Cookie Cutter Christmas" over Thanksgiving, and the men in my family may never speak to me again for outing them on this. The plot involves two (beautiful) teachers who have been feuding with each other since they were kids (over a Christmas recital solo in elementary school!) and they are now vying to catch the eye of James, a new dad who is serious eye candy, runs a charitable shelter and is an incredible cook. Which comes in super handy as there is a Christmas cookie-baking contest going on (don't these teachers do anything but bake cookies?) judged by, among others, Alan Thicke ("That's Robin Thicke's dad!" crowed the children). The semi-evil gal secretly steals James' peppermint cookie recipe and frames our heroine. There are a few dicey moments, but all is revealed and confessed in the end, and our two gorgeous leads share their first kiss.
Everyone is beautiful in these movies, and even the poor people seem to live in Wellesley. Their hair is amazing, especially the men's. In "Christmas with Holly," Mark wins the heart of his costar with his adorably floppy, parted-in-the-middle 'do as well as because he is raising his orphaned 6-year-old niece who doesn't speak since her mother died ... Maggie, the gorgeous blond love interest, meanwhile, has moved to the tiny, beautiful Washington state town (scenery alert) to open a toy store (of course) after her fiancé leaves her at the altar ...
Will Holly speak? Will Maggie learn to love again? Will Mark ever stop flipping his hair out of his eyes? If you have to ask these questions, you have never watched a Hallmark Christmas movie. Holly speaks, Maggie opens her heart, and Mark buys several cans of styling mousse.
Right now I am halfway through "A Very Merry Mix-up," in which a (beautiful) shop owner traveling to meet her fiance's family for the first time meets who she thinks is her brother-in-law at the airport when her luggage is lost. This is confusing now, so stay with me. The families are estranged, and when Alice meets the "other" Mitchums and sees their general awesomeness, she realizes that she may have picked the wrong brother. This is confirmed when she gets to the "right" Mitchums' house and everybody is all cold and weird, and the mother feeds her a kale smoothie. Will Alice stick with her fiance, who is bad because he spends all his time on the phone doing business deals just like his father, and by the way, has just brokered an offer on Alice's store for $3.5 million?
This is where I left off, and I'm pretty sure I know where it's all going. I'm guessing that the $3.5 million will never hit Alice's bank account. I'm betting that she will realize that her heart lies with the good brother, who is a craftsman and makes benches and clocks and knows Shakespeare. I'm also betting on a reunion of the two estranged families, even though one brother has just stolen the other's girl, because that's just the way things go in Hallmark movies.
Which is why I love them. They are sappy and sentimental and very old-fashioned. They are completely unrealistic because everybody gets married at the end. But honestly, with all the bad news and Kardashians that we have to deal with on a daily basis, who doesn't need "A Boyfriend for Christmas" once in a while?
This column was published in the Daily News of Newburyport in December, 2014
California dreamin' in North Reading
The house is a low-slung expanded California ranch, and it sits on a beautiful corner lot . . . in North Reading.
It is white, faced with Alaskan marble, with a long center chimney and a courtyard enclosed by see-through masonry bricks and a graceful wrought-iron gate that I probably swung on 5,000 times when I was a kid. The house should be sitting on a Los Angeles hilltop. It should look ridiculous in New England, but it is a credit to my father and his vision that it does not.
My father had seen a similar house on a trip to California in 1961, and he decided to replicate it exactly. I'm guessing that he never even considered that it might not look right here. It was beautiful, he wanted it, and that was that. He found a lot in the Hillview Country Club area of North Reading and hired the contractors. A year or so later, we moved in - my mother, the 3-year-old me, and my infant sister. When I was growing up, I thought it was the most beautiful house in the world. I felt a little sorry for kids in more conventional houses.
The house borrowed liberally from the ideas of Frank Lloyd Wright, with an open layout and rooms that flowed naturally into one another. Entry was through the aforementioned gates into a large tiled courtyard, the walls painted a bright turquoise. The story is that my father asked me (yes, the toddler) what color to paint the courtyard, and that is what I chose. The house's main doors opened to another tiled entryway inside, with a garden along the back edge (fake plants; this was the '60s, after all) that made a perfect jungle for my stuffed animals. There was another planter, too, this one long and narrow and filled with (fake) orange and blue bird of paradise that divided the living and playrooms.
The playroom was the center of the house in all ways and one of the few rooms without wall-to-wall carpeting. My parents were early adopters of radiant heating, and we would lie on our stomachs for hours like happy lizards, soaking up the warmth from the floor while we played with our blocks and glass animals. We needed the structural stability of the linoleum for building houses, barns, and zoos.
The Alaskan marble on the front of the house was carried inside, on.with one wall taken up with a floor-to-ceiling fireplace in the living room. It had a long, wide hearth, also made of the white and gray marble, that was another excellent place to lounge and enjoy the heat when a fire was lit. But perhaps my favorite room of all was the library at the very front of the house. It had a long, multipaned window with a very wide sill. I felt like I was in the bow of a ship when I sat there.
The house still stands, and it looks exactly like it did when it was built, right down to the turquoise courtyard. I drive by and smile, because the house still feels to me like a physical extension of my mother and father, embracing me closely until it let me go, when I was ready to move
Published by the Boston Globe, November 8, 2015
Hiding in plain sight
The girl lifted her shirt to expose her back. There were dark bruises. In some places the skin was cut.
"This is what my mother did to me."
My friend and I looked at each other, eyes wide. The three of us were upstairs in her small bedroom. We had been talking about cats and horses and boys, and suddenly the conversation veered. The girl began telling us about her mother, her drinking, her temper. Then she pulled up her shirt.
I'd like to say that we told my friend's mother what we had heard, and that we went to the police. I'd like to say that the girl's mother was interrogated, arrested, sent to AA and anger management counseling. I'd like to say there was a happy ending after she showed us her injuries, and told us about her pain.
I'd like to say all that, but none of it would be true.
We did nothing. We said nothing. We went on with our lives as if it had never happened.
We kept the secret, because it didn't occur to us to do anything else.
Did other people know what was going on? It's possible. There's always that one house in every town--ramshackle, the yard littered with debris, several horses, and too many dogs and cats. The mother was mannish and heavyset, always with a cigarette hanging from her mouth. If there was a father present I never saw him.
Occasionally when the school bus went by their house in the morning I saw the girl riding one of their horses in the makeshift ring, the mother shouting instructions at her. Sometimes I thought she was lucky-staying home from school and riding her horse! Why couldn't I do that? But then, looking at the junked-up yard, the sullen house, the terrifying mother, I knew that she wasn't lucky at all.
The girl was two years older than me. We weren't close and she lived next to my friend, not me. I didn't see her frequently and she never played any significant part in my life. But I've never forgotten how painful her back looked, how she turned her head around to stare into our eyes when she showed us. She was hiding in plain sight.
* * *
In freshman year of college I lived in a two-room quad with three other girls. One of them, B, was a local, whose father taught at the school. She was small and fine boned, with wispy blond hair and sharp, pretty features.
B was a slob, her closet piled waist-high with a mishmash of clean and dirty clothing, her bed a jumbled mess of sheets and pillows. She smoked cigarettes. She drank until she blacked out. And she slept with nearly every guy who gave her a passing glance. I couldn't stand her and the feeling was mutual. Shy, nerdy, me, slutty, party-girl B--the roommates from hell.
But somehow, one night, we talked. Alcohol was probably involved. We discussed our other roommates and poetry and what we liked and hated about college. And then she told me about Nick (not his real name), the R.A. on our floor.
Nick was a senior, good-looking and aloof. I had a hopeless freshman crush on him, along with probably half the girls in the dorm. He didn't seem to have a girlfriend and appeared stern and unapproachable. B told me that Nick would sneak her into his room at odd hours for sex, always when she was very drunk.
He didn't speak to her or acknowledge her at any other time, she said, but when he called her she always came. She told me she loved him. I was stunned. Nick, who was supposed to help clueless freshman, was preying on D, just like the other boys who would use her when she was drunk.
I don't remember what I said to B as I listened to her. I know I didn't report Nick. I never felt the same about him after that, but it didn't occur to me to go someone in the administration and say that a student in a position of power was abusing a vulnerable freshman girl.
B was hiding in plain sight too.
* * *
These things happened many years ago. I try not to blame my younger self. A lot has changed since then--in society, in me. Discussion of child abuse and sexual harassment is no longer taboo. Sometimes it feels like the news is dominated every day by the likes of Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinsten-just to name the two most notorious offenders. Victims are coming out of the shadows and predators are being held to account.
But humans are still what they are. There will always be people who hurt others. There will always be those who hide in plain sight. I can only hope that now, when I recognize them, I will do whatever it takes to help them speak out loud-and that the world will listen.
This column was published in the Daily News of Newburyport in August, 2019
Summer was about...
Summer was about blueberries. I've written before about my mothers love for
blueberries, and her passion for picking, cooking and eating them. We used to visit a cultivated patch of
berries at the home of two little old ladies in North Reading near the center
of town. They lived in an old white
colonial shaded by big trees and surrounded by wild gardens. The ladies would give us plastic containers
on strings that we could hang around our necks, and send us down the grassy
overgrown path to the enclosure of berry bushes. We would pick bucketfuls of berries in the
clover-scented warmth, surrounded by birdsong and the humming of insects. When we were done the old ladies would
exclaim over the amount of berries we had picked and give us lemonade while we
waited for my mother to pick us up.
Later there would be pie, and possibly a stomachache.
Summer was about swimming with the horses. We would ride bareback to the basin of the Ipswich River in North Reading, which everyone called the Sand Pits. It was like a big beach, and we would gallop through the sand and swim the horses in the river. It's an amazing sensation when a horse's feet leave solid ground and they begin to swim, and you feel the power and flow of their muscles as they forge through the water. We would hang on to their manes and try not to fall off when they burst up onto the bank in a great lunging shower of water. Sometimes the horses would shake themselves like wet dogs, their big bodies shuddering violently and bouncing us to the ground in the process. I remember the delicious spicy smell of the sumac that grew there and the feel of warm wet hair against my legs as we rode home, the horses slowly drying in the sun. Heaven knows what the quality of the water was like back then, or what could have been lurking beneath the surface. We didn't worry about it.
Summer was about my mother's watermelon basket. She didn't carve a handle in it like people do now but the sawtooth edge she cut into the big watermelon half was amazing enough to us. We were mesmerized by the rainbow of fruit she put in it, cantelopes, strawberries, grapes, and of course, watermelon, all scooped perfectly round with her melon-baller. It was a masterpiece, and we lived for the one or two times she made it each summer.
Except in those days the milk came in bottles. Big, heavy bottles. And one time one of those bottles was slippery and I was in a hurry. The milk bottle came crashing down right on top of the newly made watermelon basket, and everything hit the floor in an explosion of milk, glass, watermelon and perfectly round fruit pieces. It was a sad moment and there was a lot of crying. After a period of recovery my mother made another one, less cheerfully this time and with a lot of stern warnings.
Summer was about biking. We went everywhere, on wide suburban streets and narrow twisting roads. Our favorite destination, a couple of hair-raising miles from my house, was Frank Mace's store. It was a package corner store of the old school variety, dark and dim, with worn wooden floors. There was the odd can of soup and a couple of stale loaves of bread, but it was booze, cigarettes, and candy that kept the place in business. Frank sold soda too (or tonic, as most everybody called it), and that's what we came for. It was kept in an old cooler filled with ice and freezing water. I would reach into the chilly depths and pull out an orange or grape Fanta in a glass bottle. The bottle was wet and the soda was icy cold and so good. We guzzled it standing on the dusty front steps. We bought Bazooka bubble gum too, hard as a rock and brutal on your teeth.
Summer was about Dairy Queen. DQ was only about a half mile down the street from Frank Mace's, but it was on Rt. 28 so we had to drive there for Dilly Bars, Strawberry Shortcakes, and dipped cones (the cherry ones!). They also had an early version of slush called Mr. Misty that was really weird. I loved the butterscotch milkshakes. Odd as that sounds, they were delicious, sweet and soothing, and I drank them often back when Dairy Queen was the only ice cream show in town.
Not along ago I stopped at the Dairy Queen in Salisbury and asked if they still had butterscotch milkshakes. The lady behind the counter said that they could make a caramel one, would that do? It would. It was sweet and soothing, just like my childhood favorite. I sipped it slowly as I sat in my car. It was cloudy and cold that spring day, but I was content--the milkshake in my hand told me that summer would soon be here.
I've got hygge,
and you can too
If not, then you need to grab a coffee, light some candles and listen up, because this Danish-inspired concept is all the rage at the moment. Pronounced HOO-ga, hygge is most often translated as cosiness and is said to be what makes the Danes the happiest people in the world, despite endless darkness and lots of crummy weather.
Danes say that hygge is a response to their challenging environment, an antidote to long dark days and stormy weather. In "The Little Book of Hygge," Danish author Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute (yes, that's a thing) describes hygge as way of taking moments of comfort throughout the day. For instance, Wiking says that taking a few moments to really savor a good cup of coffee or tea is emblematic of hygge, even more so when it is served with cake.
ell, he had me at coffee and cake. Turns out I was already doing hygge and I didn't even realize it! Archibalds bake, eat, discuss, and generally obsess over cake almost constantly, so I am already ahead of the game, hygge-wise. Wiking also recommends indulging in small amounts of good chocolate routinely. Check. Hygge is apparently not good for the waistline, but who cares? What's next?
Blankets. Wiking says that curling up in a small room under a favorite blanket or throw is hyggelig (meaning ultra hygge-ish) and the presence of pelts or reindeer hides adds an extra dimension. Hey, I am just crushing this! Every night I snuggle up in my cozy little den, on top of a long-haired sheep pelt, under an ultra-soft blanket, with a cat on top of me (extra hygge points for the cat). And in the basement we have a reindeer hide from Iceland on the wall. I don't know how much more hyggelig one person can get than that.
Okay, but here's a problem. Candles are an enormously important element of hygge for the Danes, says Wiking. The flickering, diffused light, the shadows they create-absolutely crucial to hygge. Darn, I'm going to fall short on this one. I have always considered candles small devices that may burn my house down, and the smell of them generally makes me sneeze. But all is not lost-good floor lighting (NOT overhead or fluorescent) and a fireplace are hygge too. Now I can explain to my husband why I yell at him if he turns on the overhead lights. He is killing my hygge.
I've also got these next items down cold, er, hot actually (warmth in general is a pretty big part of the hygge ethos). Soups and stews and dishes that simmer for hours, filling the house with delicious aromas are especially hyggelig. Baking bread doesn't hurt either, and sharing all of this with friends while candles burn and a storm rages outside is the ultimate. Well, my slow cooker barely get a rest during the winter months, I believe gluten is my friend, and I have had several dinner parties in recent months with my best pals, one of which featured candles. Sadly, there were no storms raging during any of them.
Wiking even goes so far as to compile a hygge emergency kit, so one is never far from hygge solace. He recommends, among other things, candles, chocolate, a blanket, your favorite book and DVD series, woolen socks, jam, and a notebook and pen for thoughtful, non-digital communication. In that spirit, my own hygge emergency kit will contain similar items, as well as a jar of Shaw's brand chunky organic peanut butter, Toasty Cheez-its, my favorite green sweat pants (the awful looking ones), all 9 seasons of 24, and both cats.
I think Hygge is sort of a Scandanavian version of our current American passion for self-care, except with less yoga and more coffee. But it expands and deepens the concept by emphasizing the importance of our connections with friends, along with its emphasis on the comfort of solitary moments, Nordic sweaters, soft blankets, and yes, chocolate. It's not about retreating from our lives, it's about taking conscious pleasure in the moments, small and large, that give our lives joy and meaning. In a recent interview with TODAY's Meena Hart Duerson, Wiking says hygge is "not (about) expecting perfection-and finding joy in the fact that sometimes this might be as good as it gets."
No wonder the Danes are happy people. Cake, chocolate, warm sweaters and snug socks, appreciation for both quiet moments and good times with friends-and gratitude for all of it. Sign me up, Danish people; show me the way. Because you obviously know that, like Carly Simon sang, these are the good old days.
Marilyn Davis Archibald (firstname.lastname@example.org) wrote this while under a blanket with a cat on her lap during a raging storm. Okay, it was only raining, but really hard. And the blanket and cat part are true, I swear. This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News. Stock photo
WARNING: People who commute into Boston from Newburyport on the train every day should not read this column. "Dilettante!" I can hear them hiss. "Fair weather rider!" And those are only the names we can print. No, regular train riders should not read this column. Everyone else should, though
So what if I didn't have to endure train travel during the snowy hell of the winter of 2015, when pack mules would have been speedier and more efficient than commuter rail? When I sing the praises of the train my husband just laughs and call me "Miss Public Transportation." Whatever. I just love taking the train into Boston, and it feels like an adventure to me because I don't do it every day. That's why I enjoy it. Familiarity hasn't had a chance to breed contempt.
I am always in awe of what a watery world we live in as the train pulls out of Newburyport and slices through the marshes. Acres of cattails, reeds and Phragmites, hummocky islands of trees, and water everywhere-in straight lines and in wide sinuous bends. Geese dot the landscape and I see a flock of turkeys dropping from the sky and landing, one by one. The sky on this day is grey and cottony. As we pass through Rowley I look for the cottages perched on the edge of the marsh, and wonder what it's like to live in the middle of that ocean of waving grass.
As we pull into Ipswich there are familiar houses and buildings, but I see them from a completely different angle than I would if I were driving. Nobody builds their house to face train tracks, so the view from the train is strangely intimate-you see backyards, not front yards. You see play sets and pools, back porches, barbecue grills, propane tanks, bicycles. You see tidy, and you see trashy, but you see real life.
Approaching Hamilton the landscape turns bucolic--horses, barns, miles of post and rail fencing, big houses, open fields. There's Patton's tank! We pass the Shoppes at Hamilton Crossing and I laugh as always at the extra 'p' and 'e'. (They aren't Shops, they are Shoppes). Before long we leave the fields behind and now we pass under route 128 and it's on to Beverly, then Salem. Salem Harbor looks cold and choppy today, with one lonely sailboat bouncing in the waves.
In Lynn the view is all red brick. The station is elevated and old mill buildings rear up on either side of the train. Now we pass the decaying hulk of Wonderland, the old greyhound track. The landscape is grittier now, and we see tank farms and transformers, power plants, smoke stacks, oil tankers, turbines. It's another kind of backyard, the infrastructure of energy and industry.
Approaching Boston, we get our first glimpse of familiar landmarks-the Bunker Hill monument, the Schraffts building, the Hood Milk smokestack. The Boston skyscrapers appear and then vanish as we pull into North Station, passing a string of graffiti-covered cars from an old Boston and Maine train parked on a siding, like something out of an apocalyptic movie. And suddenly the ride is over, and everyone is gathering their belongings and piling out. North Station is no one's idea of an elegant or sophisticated travel hub, but dank as it is, there is still activity and noise and motion.
And now, I am in Boston. I have been transported to an entirely different world. Yes, I am an absolute hick, I know-- I still get excited about being in Boston, especially when I am by myself and on foot. I feel like I'm getting away with something. I roam through Quincy Market and then head toward the Seaport District. I have a leisurely lunch with my daughter at Mario Batali's Babbo Pizzeria (Mario Batali!!). On my way back I detour through the North End, then wander into the gorgeous Boston Public Market, full of New England- grown and sourced foods. It's locavore in the extreme, and quite wonderful.
And finally, it's back on the 3:20 to Newburyport. I'm tired from the walk and it's wonderful to sit and watch the scenery. The ride is just as magical in reverse, because now we are going from city to country. The train rolls along and buildings, houses and businesses fade away, replaced by trees and fields. Now we are flashing through the marsh again. The train creaks to a halt and I get up. Most people have already gotten off at other stops. Only a few people are lucky enough to ride the train all the way from North Station to Newburyport, and I am one of them.
This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News