Skies were dreary and heaped with slate-colored clouds, but all was bright in Sandy VandenBerg's garden, near Fremont, Michigan, when I stopped by for a tour last week.
The 75- by 80-foot flower plot, criss-crossed with paths and accented with garden ornaments, is the result of a decade-long labor of love, Sandy told me. The plot started out as a vegetable garden, edged with a border of flowers. Somehow, over the years, the vegetables disappeared, and the flowers took over. Even the flower mix evolved over time, as Sandy added more and more native plants—about 50 in all—and those plants thrived alongside the 100 or so non-natives she acquired from friends and family members who helped her get the garden started.
"The natives, they just flourish, they go crazy," Sandy says. "I let them be where they want to be."
As a native plant gardener, Sandy is part of a (pardon the pun) growing trend. Many green-thumbed growers are adding native plants to their landscapes, for a variety of reasons.
Once established, native plants generally don't need to be fussed over. Because they're adapted to local conditions, they typically require less water—a big plus for gardeners accustomed to lugging around a hose or watering can.
The gardens attract some lovely visitors, too. Native bees, butterflies, moths, bats, hummingbirds, and other pollinators flock to the flowers. The seeds, nuts, and fruits of the plants offer an enticing buffet for wildlife, and the whole plants provide shelter—all important for critters whose habitats have been fragmented or destroyed by urbanization and other factors.
As natural gardening pioneer Ken Druse writes in The Natural Habitat Garden (Potter, 1994), "a habitat-style garden of native plants welcomes the whole food chain—not just flowers, birds, and butterflies, but also a magnificent decaying tree stump teeming with life, ringed by otherworldly fluted layers of fungi."
In contrast, many of the flowers and ornamental shrubs and trees sold in nurseries are exotics from other parts of the world. While wildlife may utilize some of these plants, they aren't the plants these animals evolved to use. What's more, some exotic plants become invasive, outcompeting native species and degrading remaining habitat, the Audubon Society maintains.
Sandy's interest in native plants began when her children were small. "On walks through the woods with the kids, I started noticing wildflowers, and I wanted to learn their names." As her love of local plants grew, she thought she'd like to have some in her own garden. She started shopping at the Newaygo Conservation District's annual native plant sale and attending the workshops offered during the sale each year.
Now, she not only tends her own burgeoning garden, she also shares seeds and plants with friends. It's not unusual for her to show up at our Monday morning yoga class with a carload of coneflowers, wood poppies, and other treasures.
On our recent walk through her garden, we admired wild petunias, rattlesnake master, pink coneflowers, yellow coneflowers, false sunflowers, bee balm, queen of the prairie, boneset, wild ginger, native phlox, and maidenhair ferns, as well as a few non-native perennials.
Especially impressive: a towering cluster of cup plants. The basin formed by their large leaves catches rainwater that birds, insects, and small mammals imbibe.
The garden refreshes Sandy, too, and aligns with her yoga practice.
"I practice a yoga nidra called, interesting enough, “Moving into the garden of your heart,” by Betsy Downing, one of my yoga instructor heroes," she says. "I attended Betsy's workshops for several years in Grand Rapids. On the practice tape, she asks you to visualize moving through a garden. She refers to it as the garden of your heart, and it is there to return to anytime you need peace and tranquility. When I open the gates of my actual garden, all worries are left at the gates. Sometimes the time spent there is hard physical work, and other times I'm just spending time appreciating all the beauty of nature. I always walk back out the gates a more grounded and peaceful being."
As we wrapped up our garden tour, I asked Sandy for tips to share with gardeners who'd like to give natives a try. Matching plants to soil and site type is essential, she said. Prairie plants won't prosper in a boggy area, and woodland plants will wither in a sandy, dry site.
Druse concurs. "Never have the words don't fight the site held so much meaning," he writes. "It is the habitat gardener's guiding principle."
Another thing to keep in mind: while native plants don't need a lot of pampering, they're not exactly maintenance-free. They can grow very tall and sprawly and may need to be staked or moved to roomier sites. And while they don't need fertilizer, adding compost can give a boost to plants that like rich soil. Sandy keeps four compost piles working and adds composted material periodically.
Also important: where you get your native plants. Plants that are propagated by a nearby native plant nursery or sold by a native-plant society or legitimate plant-rescue operation are all fair game. Digging up wild plants on your own is a no-no.
As a gardener who abandoned exotic perennials in favor of native plants when we moved to our woodsy setting six years ago, I can tell you that the joys of going natural far outweigh the challenges. Since I began planting and encouraging native plants, I've been delighted to see trillium, wild geranium, columbine, lupine, butterfly weed, black-eyed susans, cinquefoil, evening primrose, bee balm, horsemint, coneflowers, blazing star, prairie smoke, wild petunia, marsh marigold, blue-eyed grass, mayapple, spiderwort, and many more make themselves at home on our property. And along with them, a colorful assortment of butterflies, bees, birds, bats, and other creatures with whom I'm happy to share our space.
For more information on native plant gardening:
Wild Ones native plant organization
Michigan Native Plant Producers Association
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Landscaping with Native Plants of Michigan, by Lynn M. Steiner
Bringing Nature Home, by Douglas W. Tallamy
The Natural Habitat Garden, by Ken Druse with Margaret Roach
All photos by Nan Pokerwinski
Bea Cordle is a woman with a mission. Every morning, she wakes up inspired and ready to get going. Right after breakfast, she begins her work, continuing until evening.
Bea is, by the way, ninety-three, an age when she could be excused for doing nothing more than sitting on the porch swing, listening to the birds. Instead, she's brightening the days of children who may need a little lift.
The project that absorbs Bea every day is drawing whimsical characters on brown paper bags for the Kids' Food Basket program, which supplies "sack suppers" to children living at or near the poverty level. These free, balanced evening meals are distributed at the end of each school day and during summer programs at schools where 70% or more of the student population receives free or low-cost lunches.
Volunteers decorate the bags, and that's where Bea applies her talents. Curled up in a comfy armchair in the living room of the home she shares with daughter Sandra Bernard and granddaughter Marquita Bernard, with a rainbow of markers at hand and a pile of coloring books for inspiration, Bea draws her cheerful creations and finishes off each drawing with big "I LOVE YOU" at the bottom.
"I'm so blessed, because this gives me something to look forward to," says Bea. "I think about it before I get out of bed in the morning, and I think about it after I go to bed at night."
For Bea, the project has revived talents that took a backseat while she was raising her five children. In her youth, she enjoyed painting landscapes and cottage scenes. Then, for many years, she turned her creative energy to sewing clothes for her children (including wedding dresses, bridesmaids' dresses, and flower girls' dresses for all the family weddings) and crocheting outfits for the grandchildren that came along later. When she lost sight in one eye six years ago, she could no longer crochet.
"About a year ago, my other daughter brought me a package of the colors and some coloring books and some of the bags and said, 'I want you to try to work on this,' " Bea recalls. "And I said, 'Oh, I can't do that! I wouldn't be able to do that.' "
But she could. And once she got going, she was unstoppable. She estimates she has decorated more than 1,600 bags to date.
A social worker who visited one of the kids who receives sack suppers told Sandra the youngster's room was decorated with Bea's bags. Another little girl who cherishes the bags thanked Bea in person at a Kids Food Basket Halloween party. Sandra and Bea both get misty-eyed recounting the stories.
The bag project isn’t the only creative work underway in the big gray house in the heart of Newaygo. Bea, Sandra and Marquita recently published a children's book, I Am Never Too Me!, and Sandra and Marquita have two more books in the works: Things That Matter and Elton's Tall Tale.
"It's an exciting thing for the three of us," says Sandra, who also writes poetry and prose, in addition to singing and playing guitar professionally.
It was Bea's drawings that inspired Sandra and Marquita to collaborate on the first book and to recruit Bea to do most of the illustrations. Sandra, who used to make up stories about her son's imaginary friend when her children were small, quickly came up with an idea for the book.
"I got up in the middle of the night and wrote the story," she says. "I don't know what it is about writing, but the middle of the night, I wake up and ideas come to me, and I just get overwhelmed. I can't go back to sleep until I write the gist of it down."
The family invested in a computer, and Marquita, who has a background in design and illustration, created the front and back covers, added a few illustrations, and designed the layout.
Colorful and upbeat, the book celebrates diversity and encourages self-acceptance.
"I didn't just want to write a book with a lot of splashy colors. It's got to mean something," says Sandra. "But that's kind of the way I am with everything. If it doesn't have meat and guts to it, I just don't want to be bothered."
For Bea, Sandra and Marquita, working together on creative projects is part of a "spiritual movement" that began when they first started talking about living together.
"We decided, the three of us together, we're going to move in together and be a three-woman powerhouse. We're going to help each other, be there for each other," says Sandra. "And it's worked out really good."
I Am Never Too Me! can be found at Hit The Road Joe Coffee Café in Croton, River Stop Café in Newaygo and Studio 37 Arts & Culture Center in Newaygo and will soon be available on Amazon.
For more about Sandra Bernard's creative spirit and talented family, plus a sample of her poetry, see her April 20, 2016 guest post, Creative Thinkers.
Things were piling up. The calendar swelled with appointments, meetings, events, invitations, and activities. Household projects begged to be completed (or started), outdoor projects jostled for attention. There were errands to run, phone calls to return, e-mails to answer.
And then in the midst of all of that, the blog post I'd planned for today fizzled out.
My first impulse was to scramble to come up with another topic. Though I had plenty of ideas, all of them would take time to pull together, and time was what I didn't have. As I mentally scanned my gotta-do and wanna-do lists, it was clear I'd be pressed to make everything fit.
Then I had another thought: What if I just called time out? I'd already been planning to switch to a more leisurely blog-posting schedule for a few months over the summer, beginning in June. What if I started that a few weeks earlier than planned?
As soon as I had that thought, the space around me opened up. My breathing slowed. I felt like I could float on air.
Such a simple solution, just stepping back and saying, "Whoa, there." Yet it's crazily easy to forget that it's an option — that when things get too hectic, maybe they don't need to be. Maybe there are things that don't have to be done, or that don't have to be done quite the way you thought they did.
So with this post, I'm announcing the new, leisurely, summertime HeartWood schedule. For at least the next few months, I'll be posting only on the first and third Wednesdays of the month (see dates below). That means no Last Wednesday Wisdoms for a while. But don't worry, I'll still be gathering tidbits to share later on.
I'm grateful for the faithful readers who show up here every Wednesday, and I hope this change won't throw you all for a loop. But I'll bet you, too, have more things clamoring for your time than time to do them, so this will give you some breathing space, too.
And if you just can't stay away from HeartWood every Wednesday (or any other day), you're welcome to visit and read previous posts you've missed or re-read any you especially liked.
Here's when you can expect to find new posts:
See you in June!
Once again, it's time for our end-of-month roundup of wise words. No particular theme this month--or so I thought until I assembled all the tidbits I'd been collecting. Then I realized there were several on communication, freedom, and hope. Hmmmmm. Interesting.
Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.
-- Rabindranath Tagore
The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn't being said.
-- Peter F. Drucker
We habitually erect a barrier called blame that keeps us from communicating genuinely with others, and we fortify it with our concepts of who's right and who's wrong. We do that with the people who are closest to us, and we do it with political systems . . . It is a very common, ancient, well-perfected device for trying to feel better . . . Blaming is a way to protect our hearts, to try to protect what is soft and open and tender in ourselves. Rather than own that pain, we scramble to find some comfortable ground.
-- Pema Chödrön
Grace is beauty of form under the influence of freedom
-- Friedrich Schiller
To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.
-- Lewis B. Smedes
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places--and there are so many--where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
-- Howard Zinn
It's easy to see the good in others if that's what you decide to do.
-- Ann Patchett
Everybody on TV exercises his or her right to express dogmatic beliefs at top volume, but we almost never see a model for deep, attentive listening. The value of genuinely being in each other's presence, regardless of whether we happen to agree, seems to be almost completely lost in our social discourse. That's why we get so little meaning from all our public arguments. It seems that we don't even know how to facilitate genuine presence, the kind of authentic being with each-other that may actually bring about real, positive change.
-- Jacob Needleman, "Beyond Belief," The Sun, December 2011
We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion, The great task in life is to find reality.
-- Iris Murdoch
What we want hasn't changed for thousands of years because as far as we can tell the human template hasn't changed either. We still want the purse that will always be filled with gold, and the Fountain of Youth. We want the table that will cover itself with delicious food whenever we say the word, and that will be cleaned up afterwards by invisible servants . . . We want cute, smart children who will treat us with the respect we deserve. We want to be surrounded by music, and by ravishing scents and attractive visual objects. We don't want to be too hot or too cold. We want to dance. We want to speak with the animals. We want to be envied. We want to be immortal. We want to be as gods.
But in addition, we want wisdom and justice. We want hope. We want to be good.
-- Margaret Atwood
A few weeks ago, I issued a challenge: pick one important lesson learned in each decade of your life. If that assignment seemed too huge, here's something much smaller to try: a six-word memoir. The idea isn't to encapsulate your entire existence in a handful of words, but to capture a micro-slice or express a tiny truth.
The concept has been floating around for more than a decade, ever since Larry Smith, founder of SMITH Magazine, asked readers to describe their lives in exactly six words.
Responses poured in, giving rise to the Six-Word Memoir project. To date, more than one million of the mini-memoirs have been published on the Six Word Memoirs website, and the project has been featured in hundreds of media outlets, including NPR and The New Yorker.
The phenomenon has spawned a series of books (some with six-word titles, natch), including It All Changed in an Instant, Not Quite What I Was Planning, I Can't Keep My Own Secrets (Six-Word Memoirs by teens), and Oy! Only Six? Why Not More? (Six-Word Memoirs on Jewish life).
There's a Six-Word Memoirs card game, and live Six-Word Memoir "slams" are held at locations around the world.
For inspiration, you can check out the vast and ever-changing assortment of little life stories on the project website. You can browse through topics, such as Life, Love, Advice, Happiness, Bosses, Food, or search by keyword.
A recent visit turned up such gems as:
Life: A backflip down the stairs, by Abarooni
Baking bread helps heal broken hearts, by L2L3
Even pinhole light defeats the night, by BanjoDan
Water life; grow what is unexpected, by Poetreebook
Of course I had to try writing my own. Some of the ones I came up with are too personal to share (!), but here are a few that made it past my internal censor:
Weighing "Do better" against "Good enough."
48 years motherless. Miss her still.
Haunted by dreams of motorcycling calamities.
Unable to resist chocolate, beer, writing.
Thinking these up instead of meditating.
Finally realized introversion's not a fault.
Still limber at 69. Thanks, yoga!
Now it's your turn. You may be surprised what you come up with. I was!
Ray and I are hitting the road again—heading back to the Southwest for a few weeks. I wish I could bring you all along, but once we stash all our gear in the truck, we just don't have room. Don't feel left out, though. I'm sending you on your own site-seeing tour—a virtual visit to a few websites that I think you'll enjoy. This week's tour has four stops. We'll visit more another day.
By age 30, I had my life more or less mapped out. Then one day I looked at that map and went: Wait a minute—I'm going where?? I don't think so! The problem was, going a different way meant leaving a long-term relationship, stepping off a professional track, moving to a part of the country where I never imagined myself living—in short, heading a completely different direction with no guarantee it was the right one.
Yet some internal stirring urged me to go for it. I did, and I've never regretted it. That bold move led to a rewarding career in journalism, a new trove of treasured friendships and world-expanding experiences, and eventually, the satisfying life I'm living today.
Lesson: There's life after loss
Lesson: Stay flexible
Lesson: It's never too late
Happy Valentine's Day! I don't know if it's the memory of grade-school valentine exchanges or the connection with chocolate, but this has always been one of my favorite holidays.
In the beginning
Perhaps it was that sincerity and mutual respect that helped them develop a partnership in which they could hone their own talents while encouraging each other's. That's a key to creative coupledom, say Katie and Gay Hendricks, husband-and-wife coauthors of Conscious Loving Ever After. "When people get in deeper communication with their own individual creative essence, their relationships blossom as a direct result," they write.
Space, Skills, Support
For George and Mallory, support goes beyond encouragement; they also help each other find space and time for creative pursuits. George might move a new loom into Mallory's studio, then do the laundry and fix dinner while she sets it up. Mallory will handle other logistics to give George a chance to "dream or wander or putz around with something."
"I see the play of light in her work, the texture, shapes and colors more deeply than others might," says George. "Photographic elements."
Giving George extra encouragement at that stressful time seemed like a no-brainer to Mallory. "One wants one's lover to be happy, fulfilled and eager to go on," she says.
Passing It On
Author Lene Fogelberg is visiting today to share some tips for kick-starting a sluggish creative engine. You may remember meeting Lene (pronounced LEN-ay) when she visited HeartWood more than a year ago to talk about writing, health, and her memoir, Beautiful Affliction.
Lene's Ten Creativity Boosters
Lately, I have been thinking about creativity, especially since I recently experienced a surge in inspiration after returning from our holiday in Sydney, Australia.
Even before I had recovered from jet lag, new ideas for writing projects kept popping up into my mind. I felt compelled to examine this process further, by pondering how, why and when I have experienced bursts of creativity in my life.
Attend to Your Health
Our health has a great impact on all aspects of life, creativity included, but I also know from experience that doing something creative can be a great source of comfort and even alleviate pain. Since this post is about boosting creativity, the first step would be to do what we can to feel healthy and well-rested. But, as I told you, in the midst of jetlag and general post-holiday/travel fatigue, I still felt a surge of creativity that consequently must have been generated from other sources of inspiration.
Get Out In the World
Since we had just come back from our travel to Australia, full of new impressions, my first thought was that this must be a great booster of creativity. To experience new places, sights, sounds, scents and tastes, and to interact with new people. To marvel over the wonderfully cheerful Australian accent, to be called "love" and to "ooh" and "aah" over the fireworks next to strangers who helped us get the best viewing spot over the harbour.
Meet New People
Yes, this, to meet new people, should be its own item on the list. To talk to them, to listen to their stories, and to—just as important for a writer—observe them. Not in a stalker-ish way, but just as they go about their ordinary business. In Sydney, I couldn’t help but notice the street singer who always stood on the same corner in his washed-out jeans and blond curls, singing Hallelujah with a silky voice to the tunes from his worn guitar; the tanned, muscular woman working on the ferry, lassoing the thick ropes like a cowboy as the ferry docked; the cashier in the corner supermarket, interrupting the loud stream of words into his cell phone to look up at us with a soft "How can I help you?"
Kick Back With TV or a Book
And in the evenings, when we were sprawled out on the living room sofa after having walked all over Sydney, we enjoyed watching TV: news, series, comedy, anything that gave us an additional flavour of the Australian culture, and insights into the people and their stories. For example, we watched the miniseries called Hoges about Paul Hogan, the real life Crocodile Dundee. It was really enlightening, and helped me understand just how big a phenomenon Hogan was and still is in Australia, and how much his story helped shape the Australian brand overseas and domestically. Whenever I encounter a new place, I also enjoy to read up on people and places, to more fully understand the culture. A while back I read a lot by novelist Patrick White, and it was such a great experience to visit the country he so vividly described in his novels.
Get a Move On
I already mentioned that we walked a lot, and I mean A LOT. Wow, we got so much exercise, and even though I was very tired in the evenings, it must have done me good, since I’m having this surge in well-being and creativity. We rented a small townhouse by Barangaroo Reserve, in the heart of Sydney, with harbour views from nearly every window. I took this picture a few steps from our front door, and it was wonderful to breathe the ocean air, and watch the sun set, mirrored in the silvery water.
This, to spend time in nature, seems to always recharge my mind, body and soul in every way. Somehow I feel happier, stronger, more alive and more like myself, when I am surrounded by trees, rocks, earth and water. It seems to sharpen my senses, make me more aware of the details in every leaf of grass, flower and every ripple of the water surface.
Capture the Beauty
These beautiful views seem to urge me to capture them, when I was younger on canvas, and nowadays more often using photography. This in turn, I believe, helps me see more details, moods, shadows and shades, that I otherwise might have missed. Learning photography has turned to be a great source of inspiration in my writing. Come to think of it, the first chapter of Beautiful Affliction starts with a photograph!
Indeed, all crafts tend to cross-pollinate each other, which is why, I believe, so many writers are also artists, musicians, designers, gardeners, photographers, bakers etc. To do something crafty, seems to stimulate our creative minds in all directions.
Connect With Other Creative Types
And as we engage in our favourite crafts, we tend to gravitate to, but also attract, other creative people, who can be a great source of inspiration. These days we needn’t create in solitude, instead we can find like-minded friends on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, in the blogosphere, and of course, IRL: in real life.
Accentuate the Positive
Learning from and about other creative people can also help us cultivate positive paradigms on craft/creativity and lift our spirits when we suffer setbacks or when we feel like the well of our creativity has dried up. I love the uplifting "can-do" spirit that is often shared on Instagram, and the many tips from bloggers, and the never-ending jokes and shenanigans on Twitter. Perhaps especially for me, a Swedish writer living in Asia, social media has proven to be a valuable source of inspiration, connection and a place to find friends, now that I live so far from home.
from the heart of the woods
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.
Last Wednesday Wisdom