How Careful Observation, Writing, and Gardening Create New Meaning

One week ends another begins, but both seem the same. It’s that sameness that wears on us. The near term is the same, and the future seems clearly uncertain. It’s impossible to make travel plans, not just for now but for the fall and winter. Some people have started referring to 2020 as the “Lost Year.” Imagine how those in my family feel, having lost my Dad right before “the virus” took over our lives.

I am saddened to learn that COVID-19 may be taking a toll on Americans’ heart health even if we’re not infected with the virus. According to new research, cases of ‘broken heart syndrome’ are on the rise among those without any specific illness. This occurs when part of the heart becomes enlarged and is unable to pump blood effectively, preceded by intense emotional or physical stress.

Everybody deals with this kind of stress differently. I think it’s easier for us gardeners. We have something in our lives that brings us daily joy. We can go outside each morning and enjoy the summer blooms! The fact that our plants need us, even marginally, also helps. Let’s face it, we all need to feel needed. This is why we all need to find positive distractions from this sad time in all of our lives.

I relate to these issues more than most. I sometimes pass out from lack of oxygen and am not certain if I will take my next breathe. I struggle daily to find the good in everything, like the 4th of July celebrations on TV last week. I want to feel good about my country again and positive about our future, but it isn’t easy if I watch the news too much.

So I go outside and walk around my garden. I hang out with the birds and bees, literally! I watch the birds taking a carousel ride on Mike’s great purple wind sculpture.

I sit quietly and observe the end to another glorious day, as the sun sets over Mount Mestas to our West.

Sometimes I take photos of the sunny still life developing on my bedroom wall as the sun comes up each morning. My appreciation of my eye sight is increased one hundred-fold as it diminishes with worsening cataracts.

These are the moments that sustain me… What are yours?

A Brief High Country Lesson in Lavenders

Lavandula (common name lavender) has 47 known species of flowering plants in the mint familyLamiaceae. It is native to the Old World and is found from Cape Verde and the Canary Islands, Europe across to northern and eastern Africa, the Mediterranean, southwest Asia to southeast India.

Certain cultivars of lavender do GREAT in my high (7,000 feet) and dry Colorado foothills garden. I believe they survive because they are woody plants and smell funny to critters who might want to eat them.

This is Lavendula angustifolia next to a flowering Stonecrop. This one is three years old now!

According to my favorite place to buy plants in Rye Colorado, that just quit selling retail 😦 there are two types of lavenders that are hardy in Colorado,

Lavandula angustifolia (the English lavenders-called English, but originally from the Mediterranean) and Lavandula x intermedia (the English hybrids). Other lavenders, like French, Spanish, and various cultivars you may find sold at Home Depot  are not hardy here! We have talked to so many customers who ask “Why does my lavender die?” and it turns out they planted a type that is not winter hardy.  Please don’t make that mistake. The ones we grow are all hardy to Zone 5, and some brave gardeners have had luck with them at 8000′ elevation.”

Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote Blue’: Along with Munstead, Hidcote Blue tops the list of most hardy lavenders. Hidcote has a deeper violet blue flower and tighter flower clusters and more compact habit than other English lavenders, and it’s our go-to lavender for xeriscape and rock garden plantings. Winter hardy, deer resistant, drought tolerant– this lavender is a good choice for the Front Range. 18″ tall. Zone 5.”

I believe this one is Lavendula intermedia. It’s only two years old.

Lavandula x intermedia ‘Phenomenal’: Silver foliage is covered with a cloud of lavender blue flowers for most of the summer. It’s a very tough variety, even outperforming Hidcote and Munstead in many trials. Grows to 30″ tall and 3′ wide. If you want a lavender with landscape pizazz, this is the one for you. Edible, fragrant, deer resistant, xeric….we can’t say enough good things about this one. Zone 5.”

Most of the plants sold at places like Home Depot and Lowe’s will not survive the winter here! Those plants are grown in places like Arkansas. Also, be sure not to water lavender much. It can lead to brown flowers and root rot!

Note: Can you tell I was raised by a botanist? My Dad hopes so! Much more fun to think about than Covid-19!

Penstemons are my friends!

After five years of trying to get a Colorado foothills garden going, I have discovered how much I LOVE Penstemons!

First of all, I have a very early blooming native, I believe it is Penstemon buckleyi, that volunteers as one of the earliest blooms in my garden!

Then I started some Penstemon Strictus (Rocky Mountain Penstemon) four years ago and look at them now! They also bloom quite early, in mid-May. They spread nicely too!

This year I bought two new versions that are supposed to be red. My garden is almost all purple at this point in time.

Amazingly, the Red Riding Hood variety (Schmidel?) is already in full bloom!

I also bought two Penstemon pinifolius and put them in. According to my book exclusively on Penstemons, “Penstemon pinifolius is an attractive low-growing evergreen plant with showy, scarlet flowers in June to August.” Mine are just tiny this year. I hope they bloom next year!

My point is that these are the kind of plants to grow here because they are natives! The critters don’t eat them (at least not so far…). They spread nicely and fill up their space by a foot or two, and they love it here!

Want to learn lots more about penstemons? This is a wonderful book for that purpose: Penstemons: The Beautiful Beardtongues of New Mexico.

Just Mercy: A Film That Meets This Moment in American History

I cannot think of anything I have seen in the past few years that adequately tells the story of unequal justice under the law for African-Americans like this important true story. This film tells the story behind one of the first cases Bryan Stevenson argued and won before the Alabama Supreme Court.

The story behind “Just Mercy”: After graduating from Harvard, Bryan Stevenson headed to Alabama to defend those wrongly condemned or those not afforded proper representation. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx), who was sentenced to die in 1987 for the murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite no true evidence proving his guilt. In the years that followed, Stevenson encountered constant racism and legal and political maneuverings as he tirelessly fought for McMillian’s freedom.

Mr. Stevenson has since founded and is the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama. Under his leadership, EJI has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults.

Mr. Stevenson has argued and won multiple cases at the United States Supreme Court, including a 2019 ruling protecting condemned prisoners who suffer from dementia and a landmark 2012 ruling that banned mandatory life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger. Mr. Stevenson and his staff have won reversals, relief, or release from prison for over 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row and won relief for hundreds of others wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced.

In this moment in American history, when we wish to change as a country to not be seen as the racist society we have been, this film tells true stories of unbelievable injustice, in hopes of stimulating real change that our future and our children will be proud of.

Please see this film and then give to the Equal Justice Initiative!

Exciting new wildlife sightings!

Just a few days ago Mike was out hiking when he heard a loud sound just ten feet to his left.

He glanced over to see a deer struggling with a mountain lion on top of him! Mike was so stunned he stood there for about 20 seconds and then started walking away quickly. He never made eye contact with the big cat.

Last night Mike found a five foot snake out on our patio. Snakes might be just the thing to get rid of those varmits who keep eating my flowers!

Leaving the city behind for a new, rural lifestyle – My Colorado experience

Six years after leaving the suburbs of Fort Collins (50 miles from the Wyoming border), for a new lifestyle west of Walsenburg (50 miles from the New Mexico border), I feel I have a good sense of what that kind of major change feels like.

The first thing you must do if you are considering a similar change is to let go of any romantic, idealized illusions you may have about finding pastoral perfection.

Think of this move as a complete ‘leap of faith” That’s what it felt like to me! And in case you didn’t get the memo yet, in this lifetime, perfection is a mirage… I didn’t have any delusions of grandeur, I was just plain scared. What if I hated it??? It was definitely a precipitous move on my part. I just didn’t know what to expect. On the other hand, Mike was certain this was the right move for us. So we did it anyway, with all of my anxieties and fears fully intact…

When we arrived in Walsenburg with our full-to-the-brim U-haul truck , we moved into an ancient miner’s cabin, the only ‘decent’ rental in Walsenburg or La Veta in June 2014, and yes, it was as dirty and disgusting as it sounds. Then we started to work on finding an architect and a blueprint for the passive solar home we had been planning in our heads for years. We had already bought a few acres of land twelve miles west of town on a hill overlooking the Spanish Peaks. But because there was only one building inspector for the WHOLE COUNTY…

it took over five months just to get a proper heat-absorbing slab on our land.

But after ONLY eight more months, our 1,400 square foot passive solar home was completed! Building in this rural area is DIFFICULT and agonizingly slow! Did this surprise us? Somewhat. Timing was the source of much of our frustration and stress.

Our view of the Spanish Peaks the day they put up our roof!

But we (and our relationship!) survived, and the final product was as close to perfection as I have ever experienced. We joked around about the following cartoon before we moved down here:

But, as it turns out, this is actually true for us. For months after we moved in we would sit and stare at the mountains right outside our windows, drinking in complete silence and serenity every time we looked out.

It felt like we had moved into a deluxe foothills retreat as nice as anywhere we had ever stayed before. Almost daily I experienced inexplicable fear that the resort management would be coming around soon to kick us out!

With Mount Mestas to the west.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Looking for a lot more details about my rural Colorado experience? Check out my memoir here!

Send me an e-mail and I’ll give you a great price on a copy of your own: MidlifeCrisisQueen@gmail.com

Building a Southern Colorado Foothills Garden From Nothing – Summer Solstice 2020

So we have been living in rural southern Colorado for six years now, after a precipitous (on my part!) move down south from our nice home in suburban Fort Collins in June 2014. It took over a year to build our passive solar home here, because building in this rural area is DIFFICULT and agonizingly slow! Then came the garden…

Here is where we started out in 2015. Empty ground, which quickly turned into volunteer sunflowers and weeds in our first year here.

Four years later we are here.

The reason my garden is named after my brother John is because he came up from Arizona for a few years in a row to help us finish the hardscaping. He was here when we laid concrete out there. He was here the next May to help Mike lay out the stone walls…

John & Mike (above) finally laid down the gravel last May. Mike has also put his heart and soul into this project! And I should add, none of us have good backs in our mid-60s!

What a satisfying achievement though!

Through a few years of testing out a number of different native xeriscape plants, I have narrowed my selection down to those that actually survive the winters here and that terrible wind we get regularly.

Lavender and Spanish Peaks 2018.

Now I know what type of lavender luxuriates in this climate…

I also know Penstemons LOVE it here, as well as many kinds of birds, lizards, beetles, and butterflies!

A native Showy Four O’clock, Blue Mist Spirea, Yarrow, Red Knight Knautia and Catmint thrive here!

There have certainly been a number of frustrating moments in this process, but I love my garden now. It gives me GREAT and continuous JOY, especially in the spring & summer months…

BEAUTY IS THE GARDEN WHERE HOPE GROWS!

My Salute to Caregivers Everywhere!

One thing I have learned from first caring for my husband when we first met, is that providing care for those who need extra help almost always involves guilt of some kind.

So many of us understand the importance of this work…

Back when Mike and I first met, he suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) regularly. This meant trying to find doctors who understood this generally misunderstood and mistreated illness. The worst of the docs always blamed the victim by saying that CFS was caused my mental illness and had no biological basis. Thankfully the CDC eventually showed these MDs to be quite wrong. (Description of CFS at the CDC)

But in the meantime Mike had to go on regular short-term disability from his jobs. I had no previous experience with caring for others. I found that he generally felt guilty of having this terrible illness, and I felt guilty that I was not a more patient and compassionate caregiver.

Since moving down south six years ago, Mike’s health has improved dramatically. He rarely suffers days of CFS. And it’s a good thing because my health has gone downhill quickly. My main problems now are extreme hypoxia, defined as: “deprivation of adequate oxygen supply at the tissue level,” difficulties with consciousness and balance from a previous traumatic brain injury, and quickly failing eyesight (cataracts). And, I would like to add, DEPRESSION:

because I never had any major health problems before age 60. My how quickly things can and DO change! Luckily Mike is a marvelous caregiver! No guilt involved.

In addition to all of this, my Dad recently died from a short illness right before the announcement of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown in mid-March. This meant that my Mom, who had never lived alone in her 86 years of life, was suddenly quite alone and grieving terribly. Thankfully, my sister and her husband live nearby and provide every kind of loving care for her everyday. But with my health tenuous at best, (we have 3 known cases of Covid-19 in our county and over 20,000 in the Denver metro area where my Mom lives), I haven’t been able to go help out with my Mom’s care.

This means my sister is absolutely EXHAUSTED both physically and emotionally from helping Mom out day-to-day while I sit down south feeling breathless and guilty. I’m sure you can imagine how all this feels for both of us…

She does not blame me or anyone else, she and her husband are just completely worn out! There must be so many of you who are living through similar circumstances right now, with no easy answers, but lots of difficult circumstances to deal with everyday.

That is why I feel the need to salute all of you who have put your own life on hold while you care for the millions of friends and family members who desperately need your help. I love every single one of you for your bravery and dedication!

“The Last Full Measure” is an important Vietnam War story

This is a very well-made film worth seeing if you still remember what the Vietnam War meant in our history. If you know nothing about this war, even better!

I was born in 1955 and I can honestly say, nothing in American history impacted my young life more than the war in Vietnam. Those born in 1955 were the first who did not have to deal with “the lottery”, a government program that determined by birth date whether you might soon be drafted and sent to Vietnam to fight. So many men I have known throughout my life experienced this war first hand, and none were the same afterwards.

In my generation there was a dividing line between those who believed in this war and those who abhorred it. Certainly you must have heard about or seen the protests in the 1960s and 70s. “Oh no, we won’t go!” So I wasn’t too sure I wanted to watch the 2019 film “The Last Full Measure,” but I’m very glad I did.

Remember: I HATE war movies and I also hate thinking about what happened in Vietnam… But I still highly recommend this film!

This is the true story of how William H. Pitsenbarger, an Air Force medic, personally saved over sixty men during a rescue mission over Vietnam on April 11, 1966. Pits (as he was called) willingly chose to leave the relative safety of his rescue chopper to aid men on the ground when he saw how bad the situation below had become. When the medic below was killed, he put himself at great risk to do everything he could to help his fellow soldiers. After saving many, he was ordered to escape on the last helicopter out of a combat zone, but chose to stay behind to save and defend the lives of the men of the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division, before making the ultimate sacrifice in one of the bloodiest battles of the war.

The story behind this story is the present day efforts of a Pentagon staffer to investigate why Pitsenbarger never received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Scott Huffman, who at first did not want this messy assignment, ended up putting in his best full measure to right this historical wrong. He spent months tracking down the men who were saved by Pitsenbarger’s bravery, spending the time to understand their true trauma and sacrifice.

This is a very well-made film worth seeing if you still remember what the Vietnam War meant in our history. If you know nothing about it, even better!

All of the performances by actors like William Hurt, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson and Peter Fonda’s last performance in a film, reminded me of the conflicts and contradictions we Americans experienced by being involved in Vietnam. And I must add, Christopher Plummer’s performance as the father of the hero in this story, reminded me so much of my recently deceased father.

Garden Notes – June 5th 2020

In spite of drought conditions down here in southern Colorado, my garden continues to bloom. May, usually one of our wettest months, was rough here, with a little over a half inch all month. In the past week or so we have seen Colorado Springs, two hours north of us, receive a half inch of rain as well as Trinidad to the south. We just keep getting skipped over…

But still my sky garden blooms!

The most dependable early bloomers, even in a drought, are the Walker Low Catmint, Yellow Yarrow and Rocky Mountain Penstemon, although I am also having great luck with ‘Red Knight’ Knautia Macedonica and Red Gaillardia now that they are established.

Remember Rocky Mountain Penstemon (Strictus) has to overwinter once before it will bloom.

A couple volunteers I really enjoy each year is the very early local Penstemon, Yucca flowers and…

…the Showy Four O’Clock, which grows from a taproot deep in the ground.

I am lucky enough to have one perfectly located in front of my Buddha. This was not planned, it just happened. It’s just starting to bloom now.

After the great disappointment that Perennial Favorites near Rye has closed for good, I hurried down to the nursery in Walsenburg and purchased two new plants this week. I bought a couple Echinacea ‘Mellow Yellow’ and ‘Dusty Rose’ Salvia. I’ll let you know how those two turn out later.

I’m trying to get some non-purple flowers in my garden, but it isn’t easy for a a total purple lover like me!