Vocation, avocation

Somewhere recently–was it the Sunday New York Times?–I read an opinion essay about how recent surveys of US citizens indicate that we have fewer hobbies than we have had in years past. The columnist wondered whether that lack is due to a zeal to be the best at whatever we engage in–the best jogger we can be, the most avid cyclist, the best collector, knitter, paper-crafter, woodworker, violinist, what-have-you. She suggested we’ve somehow lost the joys of being hobbyists: amateurs who do or create something because it is fun or relaxing, or because trying to learn a new skill makes us feel good. A true hobby is something we don’t have to be perfect at, because that is not the point.

As my students wrestle with the tasks of college and their concerns about their futures, the concept of vocation arises often. What to do with a life? Earn enough money to live reasonably comfortably, even if the job is not a passion? What if it’s not even satisfying? Should people choose a bearable career and find enjoyment in avocations? Or persist at what they love even if society doesn’t always reward the path they’ve chosen? Or–the options are legion.

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I believe in vocation as passion, and I also practice hobbies. My career is in higher education, and I enjoy and learn from my job. My vocation is writing, particularly writing poetry; my passion lies in that direction more than any other, but poetry has not been a career path in my case.

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My hobbies have evolved over the years. For decades, gardening has kept me happily occupied out of doors–but I have no need to become a Master Gardener, and my gardens are often minor failures in one respect or another. The garden, however, soothes me, distracts me from anxieties, helps me to become a better observer, teaches me much. When learning about plants, I got interested in botany and wild flower identification, so I am a more informed hiker and nature-saunterer than I used to be.

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garden photo: pepper, sassafras leaf © 2018 by Ann E. Michael

 

Photography’s also a hobby I pursue, an interest of mine since my late teen years (back before digital). The view through the frame has always intrigued me, as well as the opportunities that different lens lengths offer the photographer as to framing and focus. I especially enjoy macro lenses. It’s fun to zoom in closely on insects, flowers, and small areas of everyday objects. Photography encourages different types of observation.

The earliest interest I can recall having is art: painting and drawing in particular. From the time I was tiny, even before I entered kindergarten, I loved to draw and paint and to look at art in books and museums. During my teen years, I studied art at Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia and headed to college thinking I would minor in the fine arts. My talent did not match my aspirations, and a thorough self-analysis at around age 20 led me to recognize I could be creative more successfully in other ways…by that time, I was writing more seriously than I was painting.

But now? I have taken up painting in acrylics. Mostly sketches of clouds. There’s no pressure on me to do well; I can paint many mediocre pictures of clouds and feel relaxed in the process, meditative, observant, a casual learner.

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mediocre acrylic sketch of clouds, by Ann E. Michael

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As I wrap up this post, I realize that my career and my hobbies have encouraged observation from multiple and new perspectives. And my vocation? Poetry practically relies upon the writer’s ability to switch into creative and imagined points of view, as well as to have the opportunity for closely-observed objects and experiences.

Vocation, avocation, passion, career. I count myself lucky.

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Reverie, with interruption

On the first warm, sunny, not-horribly-humid day in a long time, to reward myself for marking up a pile of student essays, I lay in the hammock and looked up at the clouds. The clouds are amazing today, shifting, fast-moving, likely thanks to Hurricane Florence far to the south.

I wanted reverie, but I got spotted lanternflies instead, which interfered with my admiration for the clouds. Dozens of the creatures were aloft on this mild afternoon.

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They are a recent invasive species to our region; their appearance causes concern because they use fruit trees, mast trees, grapes, and hardwoods as host plants when they cannot find their traditional host, ailanthus. We have no ailanthus on our property, but we do have oaks, hickories, maples, beeches, and many scraggly cherry, walnut, and mulberry trees along the hedgerow and into the woodlot. Development in the valley–housing developments, business plazas, parking lots–coupled with stress from climate weirding, has been hard on trees. We already have diseases that have damaged the Pennsylvania ash, hemlocks (PA’s state tree), and dogwoods. I notice weakened bark on many trees. The droughts and the too-much-rain cycles, and unusual, high winds with storm fronts, plus road-widening, contribute to considerable loss of trees.

I lay in my hammock under the trees and worried about the lanternflies. Which accomplished nothing (I think of a James Wright poem at this point…).

What was there not to despair about? So much anxiety surrounds me. Even the damned bugs. If only starlings were to take a liking to spotted lanternflies, I mused.

A butterfly went past. I looked down at the zinnias blossoming their stems off in the garden and felt pleased to count four monarchs there. It has been a good year for monarch butterflies in my yard, and green darners and other dragonflies, and hummingbirds–which used to be quite uncommon visitors here. The little brown bats are returning each dusk, recovering slowly from the decimation of white-nose virus.

The balance may seem off in many ways. But there are restorative moments.

Even if “I have wasted my life.”

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Monarch on tithonia blossom

 

 

 

Parsing the garden

To parse is to analyze components–in linguistics, we parse a sentence, in computer science, we parse coded commands. In the literary analysis of a poem, a reader may divide a line or phrase into its parts of speech and then analyze the components (or look at an unusual expression or syntax in a line) to try to interpret meaning or to expand on possible readings or meanings…the semantics behind the tokens of image, grammar, metaphor, allusion, sound, punctuation, placement upon the white space of the page.

Today, I pushed the metaphor by parsing my garden.

The weather from July onward has been hot, humid, and unusually wet. The corn and the beans in local fields were happy; but much in my vegetable garden reveals, with parsing, specific summer details of stress and the gardener’s neglect.

IMG_5601.jpgToo much rain during ripening time led to cracked tomato skins and viruses in the vines. The zucchini did well for a time, then succumbed to powdery mildew. The beans didn’t mind the weather, but I had a plague of voles whose small depredations worked some cumulative damage–they nibbled a number of plants at the stem base, which meant a slightly less abundant yield, of course. Cucumbers offered lots of fruit initially, then downy mildew set in. I harvested one of the two cabbages with only minor slug damage, and the fat variety of carrots grew well (with no sign of whiteflies); but there were lots of bugs on the kale this summer and, given the intense heat, I had a short lettuce season.

And then, there are weeds, which offer many details about the weather conditions…and the fact that the gardener gave up and stopped pulling weeds when the soil devolved into heavy mud and who then refused to brave the task in the numerous over-95 degree F days that weren’t rainy. Today, I began a list: nutsedge; crabgrass; English plantain; pigweed; puncturevine; bindweed; galinsoga; creeping thistle; multiflora rose; horseweed; knotweed; spotted spurge; rabbitfoot clover; virginia creeper; japanese stiltgrass; wintercreeper; mugwort; solidago; wild aster; chicory; poison ivy; not to mention various sorrels and clovers and Queen Anne’s lace…and others I have yet to identify.

If I were to parse each weed, I could detail its likes and dislikes as to soil, growing conditions, root systems, pollinators & pollination strategies, seed dispersal methods, attractiveness to birds or rodents (see seed dispersal methods), and eventually could compile a meaningful ecological and environmental semantics for the little plot that is my backyard truck patch. No doubt I’d learn a great deal about the garden, but no doubt I have done so already–if less exhaustively, less “scientifically.” Would the garden then become more meaningful to me?

It’s a thought experiment; I’ve no intention of trying it, though I do think it would yield interesting results. In the many years I have worked the soil, I have written poems that, perhaps, do parse the garden. That will have to be interpretation enough for my part.

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Interesting sky above the garden.

Berrying

Each year, dill starts going to seed as the beans plump out almost overnight. It’s time to make dilly beans, if you can stand to work in the kitchen, canning–as my grandmothers always did, without the assistance of air conditioning.

No, thanks. I prefer beans fresh. I rise as early as I can and harvest them before the sun gets too high. This morning, I remembered to look for blackberries, too.

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Turns out this is a good year for blackberries. The canes are loaded with fruit and weighted with vining wild grapes and honeysuckle. The latter bloomed rather late this year and are still putting forth fragrant flowers. The marvelous scent made berry-picking quite soothing.

Soon, the catbirds and orioles and everyone else will be harvesting these berries. Despite their thorns (which didn’t deter me, either).

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It has been far too hot to work in the garden, however; so I have been writing, and submitting work to literary journals, and even painting a little–something I have not done in years. Finding ways to be both creative and relaxed. Much needed.

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The landscape’s brought colors and pollinators and all the juiciness of reproduction cycles into the season’s height. Time to take walks and breathe.

And say nothing.

And let the words subside for awhile, and percolate the way the rains percolate through the wet, warm soil and into the waiting earth.

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Today’s eft

muscariSometimes, winter feels long. When the weather fails to provide chances to get into the garden, I feel “antsy.” Something in my operating scheme malfunctions, and I lose focus–even my writing process suffers. I keep thinking of how my mother tells me she likes to get her hands in the earth, dig in the crumbly soil, plant things; and she has never been much of a gardener in the classic sense. Not the way my mother-in-law was: a perfectionist, an expert, a person who liked to plan a symphony of colors and leaf shapes, a progression of bloom times.

My mother just needs to get her hands dirty.

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Today, the weather turned unseasonably warm, a brief window on a weekend that permitted me my garden escape. So I found myself thinking of these two Beloveds while I dug in the dirt, sowed some carrot and beet seeds, and evaluated the progress of the early lettuce. When I work in the garden, my mind wanders, then empties. It’s good for my writing and good for my soul. I suppose there’s merit in it for my physical body as well, as long as I remember not to overdo things and put out my back! Then, too, I am accompanied by these two women, so many gardening memories and instruction, so much that I’ve learned in the process of growing vegetables and plants.

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Some of my friends consider me an expert in the garden, but I am merely modestly educated, mostly in the School of Experience. Expertise? I considered enrolling in the Master Gardener certification program; but frankly, I prefer to garden with beginner’s mind. I love what experts have to teach me and, being bookwormish by nature, I learn a great deal by reading books by experts.

Mostly, though, I learn from the garden–or from the hedgerow, the woodlot, the fields, the meadow, the wetlands. I’ve discovered that sometimes, the experts’ methods are not replicable in my yard; but a series of trial-and-error experiments of my own may produce the desired result. I have learned to let go of some of my “desired outcomes,” because the plant world and the weather control my stewardship of the soil more than anything I can attempt to do.

Letting go…well, that is the Zen of landscaping and raising vegetables and putting in a perennial bed. Also there is the constant, tedious maintenance–the tending and nurturing–that requires discipline. The discipline can be mindful, and it can also foster empty mind.

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And there is, awaiting at every moment, discovery.

Today’s discovery in the garden was an eft. This one was hiding, next to an earthworm (which it resembles when its feet are tucked close), under a slab of slate I’d left out near the strawberry patch.

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Hello! And may you shortly find a body of water in which to live out your amphibian days. And may no predator consume you before you mate and create further newts. And may this fine, warm-soiled spring provide us all many opportunities to dig in the soil and get our hands dirty.

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[This newt is a salamander in the subfamily Pleurodelinae, and the wiki commons info for the photo, which I have altered slightly, is here].

 

The color orange

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Late summer bouquet five days past its first blush…

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The crickets are raising their “voices” each night; the darkness lasts a little longer, and the color orange emerges from the green of midsummer to remind us of all that is beautiful in the world, despite __________________________ [insert your list of unpleasant, tragic, disheartening things].

Here is my encomium to the Mexican sunflower, tithonia rotundifolia, a favorite of bees and monarch butterflies and also a favorite of my daughter’s, so it has special aesthetic-emotional appeal for me. The poem I’d like to write to the sunflower has not yet materialized, so praise in prose will have to do for now.

mexican sunflower, bee by Ann E Michael

Autumn approaches. I like autumn, though some of my dear ones do not–but one thing universally salvages the early weeks of the season, no matter how a person feels about the encroaching cooler weather: orange. Even people who don’t care for the color in clothing or decor admit that, in nature, the color orange attracts the eye, enlivens a scene, brightens the dullest corner.

Nasturtiums, zinnias, the last hurrah of daylilies, butterflyweed, and early-turning foliage such as sumac and sassafras sport the color well. There are also pumpkins and squashes warming up fields; and in some areas, there are butterflies wearing the hue: monarchs, viceroys, fritillaries.

But nothing delights in a bright red-orange so well as the Mexican sunflower, which evokes the warm climate of its designation and likely origin (I haven’t done a great deal of research on the plant. I know that tithonia diversifolia is native to the region of Central Mexico and am merely guessing that the rotundifolia variety has its roots there, too–excuse the pun).

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It sports well with one of its showiest pollinators, the gorgeous, orange, monarch butterfly.

Tithonia likes full sun and does not mind a bit of drought–all reasons it managed well in Mexico. It’s also ridiculously happy in the American Northeast, at least in the Mid-Atlantic region where I garden. The plants grow 6-9 feet tall and are veritable fountains of pleasing, brilliant points in the late-summer garden. They attract bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and small songbirds and have few pests. Deer dislike their “hairy” leaves, and slugs and beetles seem also unimpressed with their food qualities.

Or perhaps the “pests” appreciate the blooms’ aesthetic value, as I do. [Okay, too much anthropomorphism there, I admit.] tithonia.2sm

Furthermore, as long as I get out to the garden and dead-head the plants regularly, they bloom right up until the first hard frost.

And they cut well for bouquets (see the not-excellent photo above).

When there is so much sorrow going on in the world, it may seem odd that a flowering plant can offer respite–a moment or two of awe, of joy, the discovery of a bumblebee with its legs pollen-yellow or a monarch’s slim proboscis coiled just above brilliantly golden stamens amid a red-hot orange daisy-shaped blossom…and maybe, above, an autumn-blue sky.

Not art, but nature. Both valuable to human creatures.