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Sometimes, beautiful things

mertensia virginica

have really ugly roots.

(technically, it's a rhizome.)
(It's still really ugly.)



(Reposting this, which I wrote years ago on a now-defunct blog. Still one of my favorite posts, and one of my favorite memories. I needed to read it again and hope you enjoy it too.)


Having just returned from helping teach a classroom full of fifth graders to knit, I have discovered a few things.

1. Fifth grade teachers are brave, brave souls. (Actually, all grade school teachers are. Choosing to spend the entire day week school year with a whole room full of our children? All at once? Over and over? My hat is off. It’s beyond words.)

2. Fifth grade students are…well. They’re just…they’re loud. There’s not really any other way to speak of it. They’re just loud. You can be sitting right next to a fifth grade student, and they’ll shout out to you just in case you’ve suddenly sprung far across the room from them when they weren’t looking. They want to be sure you’ll hear them.

3. Fifth grade students can learn to knit really quickly. Surprisingly quickly. Not all at once, mind you. What happens if you offer to teach fifth grade students to knit is this. First, each and every fifth grade student will crowd right up to you, so that each and every one of them can be right next to you and right in front of you and see what you’re doing. Imagine bees swarming up to a spill of honey. Now imagine you’re the honey. It’s pretty  much like that. Once they’re all buzzing around you, now you can notice that each and every one of them wants to explain to you that they don’t know how to knit, or that they want to know how to knit, or that their grandma once taught them how to knit but they forgot, except that for one of them it wasn’t her grandma, it was her cousin, but she forgot, and she wants to know how to knit. Did you know that they want to know how to knit? Did you hear the one on your left? He wants to know how to knit, too. Maybe you didn’t hear him the first time. Now notice that most of them are pushing their yarn and needles out toward you so that you can show them how to knit. The ones who aren’t doing that, are explaining to you that they don’t have yarn and needles and do you have any extras that they could borrow? And could you please hurry up and show them how to knit?

Don’t bother teaching them how to make a slipknot. They won’t notice, and they won’t remember. That can come later. For now, just make one for them when they’re not looking, and slip it on their needle. Cast on. (“What are we making?”) Just cast on. Pick an easy one, a quick one. The backward loop will do fine. These kids want to get started NOW, and they’re not worried about finesse. Get some loops on their needles.

“How many stitches do I need?” “What are we making?” “What do I do now?” “I don’t get it.” “What are we making?” Just get some loops on there. Doesn’t matter how many. We’re making a bookmark. We’re making a scarf. We’re making a headband. They probably can’t hear what you’re telling them anyway, they’re too excited about knitting.

Now comes the part where each and every fifth grade student immediately wants to be knitting, except they forgot to watch when you were showing them what to do, and they didn’t listen when you were showing the exact same thing to the person next to them, or the person on their other side, so you pretty much have to plan on going around to each person one by one and showing them what to do. A couple of times. Part way through this process, you might realize that their teacher is showing them how to knit English-style (yarn in the right hand) and you’ve been showing them Continental-style (yarn in the left hand). Switch camps. Their teacher is right. (Do you have doubts? Which one of you will be in that classroom every single day reminding those kids how to knit, not to mention teaching them the natural resources of the state of Georgia? Get over it. Their teacher is right.)

Had enough chaos yet? Hang in there just a tiny bit more. You’re almost to the good part.

Sometimes it helps to stop for the day at this point, let the kids go home and sleep on it/convince their parents to buy them thicker, smooth yarn this time (like we recommended to begin with)/get their own needles so they can return yours.

Come back, though. On the second day, you’ll still be swarmed by about half of the group (and a few more who decided to join in after seeing their classmates working on their knitting during reading time yesterday)…but maybe one or two of them will bring their knitting over to show you, and to your shock it actually looks like…knitting. A whole inch of knitting. Lavish praise on these kids. They’ve worked hard for it. They might have stayed up late working for it.

Pretty soon, you’ll notice that the kids are…wait, can it be? They’re helping each other. They’re showing each other where to wrap the yarn. They’re putting stray stitches back on each others’ needles. They’ll give a round of thunderous applause for the boy who finishes his first complete row.

This…This is the good part. They’re knitting. They’re knitting, and talking. (OK, so they’re talking loudly.) They’re excited about knitting. When they get an inch on their OWN needles, they do a little strut and preen and have to show everyone else that They Are Making A Belt. Or a scarf. Or whatever they want to make. Watch for the cool moments – when one of them finishes their first row, and says “But what do I do now?” tell them to switch hands…and wait for this: “But then what do…OOOOooooohh, I do it again!” Look around the room. Kids are knitting. Girls are knitting. Boys are knitting. Nobody, so far, has even thought to question whether boys knit – look, they’re just doing it, no big deal. One boy has proudly brought in three feet of scarf that he’s making for his mom. It is full of holes and dropped stitches and it is beautiful. Their teacher has to go around and tell them yes, they DO have to also eat lunch. “Lunch is good.” “Yeah, but knitting is better.” “Will you come every week to knit with us?” “Can we knit during reading time?” “Look, here’s how I knit: I go whoop, and then I go whoop, and then I go whoop, and then I go whoop. Look, I made a stitch!!”

Yes, I will come every week to knit with you. Yes, I’m making a sock. (Yes, it’s a lot of needles…but I only use two at a time.) Yes, that’s how you go whoop. Yes, you’re doing a great job. Yes, you still have to eat lunch.

Having just returned from helping to teach a classroom full of fifth graders to knit, I have discovered…Fifth graders are pretty cool to knit with.

The best part, though? Noticing that my own daughter isn’t at my table. She has her own group around her, and she’s teaching them from her own desk. I’m pretty darn proud of her…and I think she’s a tiny bit proud of her mama, too. I catch her eye from across the room, and we grin at each other.

I go whoop as I head home.


come on by and see.

Will be back here soon.

I miss the DR and my teammates. (and speaking Spanish.)
(oh yeah…and the food.)

Spring in my garden is wonderful. New things bloom, everything is such a welcome relief from the colorless greys and browns and and white of winter. Seeing color appear – daffodils, bluebells, tulips – is exciting as new romance. Then the days get hot again, and I’d greatly prefer to leave the garden alone to do its own thing. I do not enjoy getting sweaty and mosquito-bitten and having dirt in my shoes. I would much rather sit in an air-conditioned house and drink tea (iced, now) and knit.

But the house isn’t air-conditioned, and nobody has made iced tea, and every time I walk to the mailbox or pull in the driveway I see the weeds, and it gets so I can’t tell what’s supposed to be growing and what isn’t.

The weeds, actually, grow more quickly and vigorously than the perennials. They often bloom earlier and more often as well. Also, there are a number of perennials which we planted in one area of the garden, which now have taken it upon themselves to self-sow everywhere. I’m looking at you, aster, and you too, milkweed and hollyhock. Joe Pye Weed, you’re elbowing your way right to the front of that line as well. I used to have clustered bellflowers, I swear it. Now it’s asters and milkweed everywhere. The wild geraniums are barely holding their own.

The summer garden is a different creature than the spring garden. Nothing blooms as vigorously in summer. There are long stretches of plain green in between bursts of color and fruit. The early bloomers, so eagerly anticipated, die back. My beloved daffodils and tulips and bluebells leave yellowed, rotting carcasses behind. Cornflowers and Iris bloom and wither, so there is death and wilt and decay intermingled with the bloom and color. This goes on all season now, until finally everything will die back in winter.

Caring for the summer garden is hot, sticky, uncomfortable work. Physical work of pulling out weeds; decision work as to what stays and what gets pulled or moved. Do I let the asters take over? If I leave them this year, will I have anything besides asters next year? How much do I hate the creeping charlie groundcover?

and what are these little things? Did we plant them? Are they weeds? Pull, or let them grow? Decide now, or wait and see?

Always, there are surprises. This pot held a tomato plant last year. This year, it is inexplicably bursting with black-eyed susans. Next to it, springing up out of the weedy dirt beside the steps: Cilantro.

And this rose almost got pulled and trashed two years ago. Because it was dead.

Summer work is not so joyful, nor enticing. It is (perhaps I’ve mentioned) hot and sticky and itchy and uncomfortable and best followed by rest and a shower.
But if you’ll pardon me a moment, I’m going to go clip some roses for my kitchen window, and in a little while some of that cilantro is going in a salad to share with friends.




No longer winter in my garden. Lots of things are growing now. Daffodils, tulips, windflowers, scilla. The winter aconite has shown its sunny face and fallen back asleep. My Virginia bluebells, dearest to my heart, are in full bloom. Even the autumn-blooming asters and echinacia have sent up foliage, to soak up sunlight and feed the roots and start their long-term plans.

Also, I have dandelions, and ragweed, and garlic mustard, and thousands of tiny maple tree seedlings. These things are growing just as rapidly and lushly. The ground is warm, the rain falls, the sun shines, and all the seeds sprout and seek to grow strong and bear fruit and replicate themselves.

My garden is meant to be a place set apart. That which grows in my garden is meant to be beautiful, to serve a purpose. If the garlic mustard grows, it will crowd out everything else. It will drop seeds, some of which will grow right away, others of which could lie dormant for years waiting an opportunity to grow. Letting one garlic mustard plant grow could mean losing the entire garden. If the maple seedlings, tiny now, are allowed to grow, they will demand all of the space and water and nutrients from the soil. They will shade the garden and grow so tall and wide that they will split the walkways, crowd the house, and the garden will be unrecognizable. And each of these will drop countless more seeds, intending to grow even more maple trees or garlic mustard plants.

I’ve heard it said that the best fertilizer for the garden is the gardener’s footprint. That is, all of my best hopes and desires and intent for my garden will mean nothing, if I don’t spend time walking in it, watching it carefully, learning to recognize the differences between my returning perennials and the invasive weed and tree seedlings.

I have to get the root of the weeds. If I pull too quickly, or when the ground is hard and dry, I’ll only strip the leaves, but the root will remain. The garden might look prettier for a while, but nothing has really changed underneath. Sometimes, pulling the leaves off but leaving the root, means that the roots continue to grow deeper and broader into the dirt. I can’t always tell this from the sprouting leaves, but if I do get it pulled, I can tell that this is a weed I’ve tried and failed to eradicate before.

The best way – the only way I know – to keep my garden as a place set apart, a place for beauty and purpose, is to spend time there, watching, looking closely, keeping the ground watered and easy to work, learning the plants which grow there, and pulling the weeds. They’re so much easier to pull when they’re small. Some of the big ones, the ones I ignored or neglected or didn’t spot soon enough, get deeply enough rooted that it takes a shovel to get them out – and that also digs up the flowers which grow around them.

And so I’m going to my covenant discipleship group today.

Suddenly I have
People. I can’t just hide or
Leave. We are entwined.

This is my garden, today.

It is full of dead things. Things that used to be beautiful, used to be alive, used to give joy and fragrance and to bear bloom and seed.

Today, it does none of those things. The blooms have faded; the stalks carry no nutrients. What remains is dry, brittle, breakable.

It is buried, in snow and ice. Frozen.

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

beneath the snow, beneath the ice, beneath the ground, the roots are growing.

There are plants which cannot grow without a period of cold to prepare them. There are buds which cannot bloom without a season of rest. There are roots which cannot be eradicated, no matter the extremes of temperature, nor for that matter the efforts of a homeowner who tries to eliminate them. (Grass roots. I never understood the power of that term until I tried to dig grass out of my garden. It is impossible to get all of the roots. It’s also impossible to get rid of catnip, or lemongrass, or anything in the mint family. Or trumpet vine. We’ve tried for fifteen years to kill that trumpet vine and it keeps coming back. Tom has finally developed a love for it and just relocates clumps of it…now we have trumpet vine everywhere.)

There are also seeds which cannot burst open without fire.

The garden which can be seen in winter, is not the true garden. Spring will come, in God’s time.

(digging, planting, weeding, and watering still help.)

It is snowing.

AGAIN. Ye gods, will this winter never end??

In a valiant effort to withstand the eternal grey and white and cloudiness, I offer you this:


Because otherwise we would just have this:


Now, if someone would kindly forward me additional supplies of Noro Silk Garden (four skeins, please, in two lovely colorways, preferably involving lavender), we might just make it through another week of…winter.

In other news, there has been Spinning and we have proudly achieved



We *loves* it. It is wooly and brown and soft and yummy and it has bits of vegetable matter in it (see? don’t I sound just like a real spinner? I can say “vegetable matter”) and we just wants to eat it up. I made YARN!

I have this fantasy (no, not that one…the other one) that this can be knit up into a flower basket shawl and I will be able to wear it with everything and everyone I know will just scream with envy.

Honestly, I’m not sure whether the thickness, which varies irregularly between DK and worsted, and the actual fact of the abovementioned unevenness, will lend themselves to this becoming a FBS. But…they might. Stay tuned, and don’t give up on Spring, it’s never failed us yet.