An Imperfect Fall Garden

I took advantage of a cool, dry day last week to finish tidying the vegetable garden and do a little planting. Mostly peas, because they are my favorite (next to tomatoes), but also lettuce, mustard greens, radishes, and leeks, which all do well in Autumn.

I topped the furrows with straw and, with my husband’s help, chicken wire to keep out leaves and critters (especially chickens). It’s not lovely but pragmatic and practical enough to provide budding seeds and vines protection through the end of the year.

This is the first fall garden I’ve planted in South Carolina and I almost didn’t make it because the season has been so wet, so hot and humid. And always, there are mosquitoes.

The idea of a garden is always a little nicer than the reality of one. Especially spring gardens, which come at a time of year when there is much energy in the air. When it’s good to be outside in the sunshine. When seed companies send emails with fantastic project ideas complete with photographs and how-to diagrams. When hardware and grocery stores display bedding plants and perennials by their entrances so as to cause a green thumb to itch for some dirt and a trowel.

The trick to spring gardens is getting through whatever weather July and August have in store, to persevere until harvest and canning season. 

In contrast, fall gardens have a quiet hope. Instead of invasions of early-spring insects that devour broccoli plants no matter how much soap is applied, the fall gardener looks forward to fewer mites, less fungi and mold. Instead of drought and extreme heat, there are cool days amid falling leaves, the appearance of fewer weeds.

In Charleston, the coming months will continue to be mild, even warm, and wet, the days cloudy and short. Frost will be uncommon and light, freezes unheard of, snow rare. Not impossible, but not major concerns — events that are mitigate-able and manageable in a small garden such as mine.

And always, there are mosquitoes.

When a garden thrives, it is impossible not to take pictures; impossible, apparently, not to share and brag about it on social media. Homemade bread seems to have the same affect on people.

But where are the photos of the July/August garden, when tomatoes have given up hope and weeds encroach even well-mulched beds? The images of stripped leaves and hollowed-out fruit, vines that bloomed but never produced, the pickle-cucumbers that swelled into round globes because they were overlooked? The plot plowed from necessity and with limited resources?

These interest me.

My own garden is built to take advantage of the short and narrow swath of available sun, which, of course, alters with the tilting of the planet, and is within steps of the back door so I can quickly grab fresh produce and herbs for cooking. I guess you could call it a kitchen garden.

It began as two square raised beds and was expanded this year to seven connected squares. The rails are vinyl because they are inexpensive at Costco and because I could put them together without tools, and I chose to fill it with dirt rather than invest in a tiller that would have to be stored and maintained. 

The yard is slanted so the raised bed is too, and the dirt it contains was brought in over the months one bag or five at a time from Lowe’s, Home Depot, Costco, and West Ashley Hardware stores when available. The seed was free and given to me by my mother’s neighbor who had accidentally bought enough for an acre of land. Each variety vacuum-sealed in a waterproof Ziplock pouch and hardy. If germination isn’t 100%, it’s certainly been in the 90% range. Even after a spring planting and a fall planting, there are still plenty of seeds left. And since the winters are mild, this year I will attempt to winter over the jalapeno, bell pepper, and one tomato plant that are still alive enough to warrant it.

Home & Gardens may never knock on my door with a camera crew in tow, and for that I am actually quite grateful. I prefer the imperfect, the experimental, the freedom to do things poorly, to make massive mistakes in privacy and solitude. I prefer authenticity and honesty, the vulnerability and satisfaction of an honest attempt.


Sustainability Not Perfection

IMG_3826Saturday night. Rain on the roof. Cats asleep on different corners of the couch. A vintage CD playing from an old boom box to provide a reprieve from A.I.-curated music, low-quality streaming. There’s nothing on TV. Rather, there’s much on TV, none of it terribly interesting. Content, content, content. Easy to tear myself away, to find in this moment a little time to write something frivolous. To create rather than consume. To consider sustainability during Covid as a way to counter the brainwashing effects of constant media, 24-hour news, politics.

I’ve been caught in a Virtue Trap all week. Doing, doing, doing for others what I should have been doing for myself. Giving to entities, to those whom know not how to give back, who don’t recognize generosity when they see it. Who are self-involved because their discipline, their career, seems to demand this from them. It’s not their fault. I am the one who gave myself away, who frittered away important time so that others might think me savvy, nice, competent, deserving. Smart. Worthy. The list continues. But I found myself again today. I wasn’t too far. Only a few hours of writing, some meditation. Yoga and Nate Bargatze videos.  I am here and I like where this is going. 

What sustains is writing in a journal. The cats that sleep on the couch. The chickens roosting for the IMG_3841night in their coop listening to the same rain I hear now drumming on the roof above my writing studio/office/yoga space/spare room; that I have a writing studio. A loving husband.

The hardest part to blogging is worrying that someone will read what has been written here and criticize. Is this because I am judgmental?

The hardest thing about blogging is that no one will read what I have written here. Is this because I fear no one cares?

The most difficult thing about blogging is obsessive perfectionism. Should I write a listicle, a thesis-driven essay, a half-finished poem? What photo most reflects the content?

Is this too long?

When I started this project I imagined spending mornings in the garden and afternoons describing the entire experience in detail, imparting useful tips and little insightful kernels of wisdom, photos of robust produce. But I love the garden so much that I spend the entire day, and then another, and then a week has gone by and before I know it all the great ideas that arrived during weeding and planting have seeped out of my fingers and in into the soil. 

IMG_3835I imagined an entertaining narrative about how the chickens, five months old now, are getting along, how their personalities are developing. Their names. But sitting in a lawn chair watching them cruise around the back yard nipping at grass while I swat at mosquitoes gathering on my shins can’t truly be conveyed to an audience. There is no “in media res,” no action. No tension.

There is cooking and baking to write about, and the change of seasons that occur in the neighborhood, how fall never quite arrives to Charleston and how it is my favorite season.

But this is what I’ve written. I’m glad it doesn’t have to be perfect.

Summer Refresher

The dog days of summer are doggier this year than most, perhaps because of the long string of consistently hot days we’ve experienced or perhaps because the monotony of staying home adds a layer of heaviness to an already sluggish time of year. Either way, hydration is more important than ever. Even when I manage to drink enough water during the day, the hot nights sap my body of water so that I wake up thirsty, sometimes even with a headache.

My favorite refresher this summer has been a concoction of filtered water to which I add a slice of cucumber, a slice of lemon, a generous sprig of mint and a basil leaf or two. This is a combination of favorite flavors that until this summer I used more or less separately, frequently adding a squeeze of lemon or a slice cucumber or a mint leaf to my water (or iced tea) but never all three at once. The recent addition of a basil leaf was inspired by the fact I planted A LOT of basil in the garden this year and was looking for ways to use it up. I also remember drinking a really delicious lavender and basil lemonade once that I found exceptionally refreshing.

I hate to admit that water alone becomes boring because saying so sounds immature, but it really is nice to add a little flavor now and then. This particular combination of flavors turns water into a beverage that doesn’t taste like water at all, at least according to my husband.

Obviously water is beneficial to our systems, but their are quite a few benefits to be gained from lemon, cucumber, mint, and basil as well.

Lemon aids in hydration while also providing vitamin c and aiding digestion, as does mint.

Mint leaves not only freshen the breath but serve as an anti-inflammatory and have been known to ease a headache.

Cucumber, like lemon, promotes hydration, aids in weight loss, and serves as a potent antioxidant.

Finally, basil helps regulate blood sugar, serves as an anti-inflammatory, and is known to support liver function.

Taking all of this into consideration, I guess my summer refresher packs quite an immunity boost and at a very low cost.

Perhaps my inspiration to combine these ingredients had more to do with intuition and listening, however subtly, to my body’s needs. Perhaps it was a result of having time and space to think creatively.

Either way, I hope you give it a try.

A Birthday in New York

The tables in the French restaurant we’d chosen for brunch were covered with white table clothes topped with folded napkins centered before each chair. Silverware-lined placemats and water goblets waited patiently for hungry patrons or anyone looking for a cool place to sit and enjoy a beverage. Our party of three was seated and given menus over which we made plans for our final full day in the city.

My husband and a friend who lives in New York had coordinated this trip for my birthday. I was the only one in the group who’d never been to the Big Apple, despite a very real desire to do so, and they wanted me to experience everything the city had to offer, or at least as much as possible in a three-day stretch.

Our adventures began in a piano bar where a talented, boldly-voiced piano player belted out song after song for a packed house of close-knit strangers who sang along regardless of their familiarity with the lyrics, an experience enhanced by a generous “free wine until 7pm” promotion that for me, the birthday girl, never expired. We walked away just before closing time, holding each others’ hands, raising others’ eyebrows, and singing “New York, New York” to tall buildings and emptied streets which echoed back our pitchy rendition as we made our way back our friend’s apartment. Our sleep was quick and deep despite the excitement and heat.

Walking through Times Square the next day, my husband and friend explained that we had to be somewhere by 2:00 PM, though they wouldn’t tell me why. I walked briskly along behind them, gawking at the sights and going with the flow. Before I knew it, we were entering a theater and finding our seats for a production of King Kong on Broadway. The cool, dark theater was a welcome reprieve from the summer heat, so inescapable in the city, and the singing, dancing, music, stage set, and a large, convincing puppet playing the part of Kong, carried me far away and made me forget my sore feet.

After the show we wandered back through Times Square and wended our way to Korea Town where we enjoyed authentic Korean BBQ and genuinely rude New Yorker-Koreans. At a grocery store, I looked for rainbow rice cake, which I’ve never been able to find since leaving South Korea in 2010, but they were sold out. I was encouraged, though, that they had it at all.

Now, our last day, there were two things I hoped to see: Central Park and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. We finished our brunch of French toast and Croque Madames drinking copious goblets of water and cups of coffee and tea to jump start our bodies, then headed out into the bustling streets.

By the time we reached the park, the energy we had borrowed from the caffeine had begun to wear off and the late morning had begun to grow hot, the need for a restroom more evident. We walked in the park only a little while before turning with determination toward the Met. We bought tickets using an automatic kiosk in the lobby and made our way past the velvet ropes. It was crowded, but cool, and the public facilities clean. The tourists were annoying, the sheer volume of artwork and antiquities overwhelming, but I could have spent another whole day exploring it. Next time, I told myself. Next time.

That evening and following morning we dedicated ourselves to completing a “bucket” list of things we wanted to try before leaving New York: bagels at a bagel spot, pizza from a corner pizzeria, and a chopped cheese sandwich from a take-out spot around the corner. We bought a few souvenirs, too, and returned to the apartment to wait for our friend’s return from work. Soon would be the inevitable cab ride to the airport, the goodbyes and promises to return again soon.

But soon will have to be later, it seems, with all that has occurred this year. Traveling, especially by air, is too much a risk for my comfort and the lights of Broadway will remain dark until there is some kind of feasible cure, vaccine, or other end to the the Coronavirus pandemic. It makes me doubly glad to have visited when I did, to have enjoyed streets filled with people, sat in a full Broadway theater, a diner, a cafe, and a piano bar shoulder to shoulder with strangers raising their voices, their hopes, their spirits, and a little hell, too.

This year, I will raise a little hell from home instead of out in the world, eat a meal cooked with love at home instead of at a Korean restaurant and do my singing in dancing in the living room instead of at a piano bar, a more yin celebration than last year’s yang experience, but no less interesting or fun.


The Sustained Writer

IMG_3785For the first time in several weeks, I took a morning walk through the neighborhood. It was quiet but for the birds singing from the trees and the few frogs still croaking after last night’s rain. Already 82 degrees with 96% humidity, I was the only one out on the streets (no sidewalks in our neighborhood). Even the joggers and dog walkers, whose presence has been pretty ubiquitous since the beginning of the pandemic, seemed to be sleeping in. I felt lucky for the solitude, lucky for the chance to stretch my legs somewhere beyond my yard. Dew gathered itself on my skin and clothes as I turned from one street to the next, settling in my hair and causing a frizz. Promise of a cool shower and breakfast urged me back to the house a little sooner than usual, though I took an ambling pace.

Stepping through the front door, the conditioned air gave me a delightful chill. I poured myself a glass of water from the pitcher in the refrigerator and took a long drink. The house was still, the cats sated from their early morning feeding, my husband still asleep, and the month-old chickens recently moved from the laundry room settled in their coop. How would I spend the rest of the day? A little yoga, a few chores, some writing? Would I finally write a post for The Sustained Writer blog I’d set up a year ago?

All signs pointed to “yes.”

Being a sustained writer is, of course, much like being a sustained person, except that writing is a very large part of the panoply and more central than, say, for a painter, a banker, a cook, or a baker.

A writer is always composing something in her head, keeping mental lists of projects and submissions and thinking about something she has read or would like to read. These embers of inspiration she must fan while also navigating meaning-neutral writing-related tasks like submitting work, self-promoting, and applying for residencies and conferences, not to mention keeping up with responsibilities related to the work she does to make a living, all energy depleting endeavors that will exhaust her if she forgets to replenish her creative reservoir.

It is the replenishing of the creative reservoir that this blog means to be about. Sort of a blend between personal and lifestyle writing including everything from recipes and writing tips to gardening and bird watching, from personal essays about the world to anecdotes about cats and chickens, and from travel logs to the documentation of significant mile markers. With luck, there will be a few surprises in the mix as well.

How often posts appear will depend on overcoming obstacles I always struggle with, IMG_3686namely perfectionism, a certain kind of procrastination, cultivating the “right” kind of mindset, settling on a subject, and worrying about criticism. Part of me hopes no one discovers this blog while another part hopes to gain a large following. What I am sure of is that I am not, as a good friend pointed out, in the business of results. My hope is to write authentically about subjects I care about and to have a little fun in the process, and I’d love to have you along for the journey.

Lisa Hase-Jackson