September 22, 2017No Comments

Possibility in a pot

Depending on the light and my mood, the potted cacti and succulents on my front porch resemble either the strange skyline of a science fiction city or the motley cast of characters in Star Wars’ Chalmun’s Cantina. A tangle of golden snake cactus, the opuntia’s sugar-dusted flat pancakes, and the meaty grey-green succulent leaves of kalanchoe all share the light and the warmth of the west-facing porch. They form a friendly welcoming committee to our visitors, even if most days, the only visitor is the postman.

I don’t pay much attention to my spiny community of survivors, relishing in their low-maintenance lifestyle and only occasionally remembering to splash them with water. Heavy winter rains did most of the work for this year anyhow.

As spring drew the sun higher and higher in the sky, the porch began to bake each afternoon in warm rays. As the soil warmed, the cacti and succulents began to grow in all directions. They grew tall, they grew wide. They began to flow over the rims of their terra cotta pots, and pips of new growth formed on nearly every cactus surface. Some pips dropped into the soil and seemed to immediately take root. The front porch burst full of joyous abundance and growth, and I grew excited. I felt like I had sprouted the greenest thumb. My cacti, some of which I had tended for five years or more, were finally thriving after years of stasis. Their green flesh swelled with stored water. The vigorous explosion felt life-affirming and miraculous.

The little mammillaria hardly kept up, allowing its cacti compadres become stars of the show. Two-and-a-half inches tall and shaped like a pincushion covered in fishhook spines, this laggard had not demonstrated the visible growth of its compatriots on the porch. Maybe it had grown a bit thicker, but I barely noticed a difference from its pre-winter form.

Until one afternoon, as I headed out of the house to run an errand, when that pincushion cactus stopped me in my tracks.

Almost overnight, the unremarkable and unchanging cactus did the unthinkable. It had burst into flower. A multitude of fuchsia flowers, each just a bit smaller than the fingernail on my pinky, had erupted from the diamond-patterned flesh in a nearly perfect ring encircling its top. The sheer surprise made me stop in my tracks, and the color and symmetry of the flowers made me fish my phone out of my purse to take a photo.

Cacti have always been the plant world’s strange cousin, able to survive great heat and drought that would kill most mammals, let alone plants. Cacti are peculiar to the Americas, with hundreds of different species growing in deserts from Canada to Patagonia. Its origins are shrouded in mystery. Some botanists theorize that the first cacti evolved from roses, basing their hypothesis on the cactus flowers that rival showy roses in shape and structure.

History aside, this little survivor on my porch had commanded my respect. While I thought it only bided its time, the cactus grew roots and conserved its energy for a display like I’d never seen before. Seeing those floral eruptions of hot pink made me think that anything could happen in nature.

I sat on the porch steps and counted the flowers while the sun warmed my face and shoulders. There were twenty-three. I counted the petals on one of the flowers. There were fourteen. Up close, I noticed a thin white line along the perimeter of the petals. From a distance, this white line the width of a straight pin vanished in the crazy hot pink pigment, but up close, it formed a pretty detail. I noticed dark brown buds forming above the flowers, and wondered if the bloom had only just begun. I felt alive with possibility, like a witness to God’s work at the cellular level.

Only four things are essential for plants to live: water, light, warmth and some minerals. It’s a modest list, even more so when you realize how little of each cacti need.

I thought about my own feet, planted in the fertile soil of graduate school and life and work and love. For two years, I’ve done little other than read, write, learn and write some more. Maybe I was due to blossom soon too. In that moment, I felt the potential of all the words I hadn’t yet written, of the people I hadn’t met, of the days, hopefully still numerous, left to live on this miracle-filled earth. An earth where one small cactus can spring into fuchsia extravagance one April afternoon without a moment’s notice.

April 17, 20141 Comment


One of my favorite Easter memories is making pysanky with my parents, sister and friends. We stood at the stove for hours, carefully applying melted candle wax in patterns on hard-boiled eggs, using a straight pin from my mother's sewing room stuck into the eraser of a wooden pencil as our stylus. In between layers of wax, we dipped the eggs in dyes, starting with the lightest yellows and proceeding through to the darkest purple.

PysankyThe art of pysanky is said to be ancient, rooted in Eastern European pagan customs of sun worship ceremonies. A symbol of life and hope in many cultures, the egg with its yellow yolk was a tangible stand-in for the sun; the white representative of the moon. Once Christianity took hold, the egg was adopted as a religious symbol of the Easter celebration and pysanky designs took on Christian significance. The ancient sun designs now stood for the Son of God, triangles stood for the Holy Trinity and stars showed God's love toward man.

The symbolism was likely lost us as kids but pysanky as an art project was plenty cool. Even cooler was the legend that making pysanky kept evil at bay.

It has been told that far away there is a very large and evil monster chained to a cliff. This monster has servants who travel in every country each year taking a tally of how many pysanky have been made. Each year that less eggs have been decorated, the monster's chains are loosened and there is more evil in the world. If ever there were no pysanky made, the evil one would be released and he would destroy the world. But, in years that more pysanky are made, the monster's chains are tightened and the power of love and the goodness that the pysanky bring is felt throughout all nations.

From "Ukrainian Easter: Traditions, Folk Customs and Recipes," compiled by Mary Ann Woloch Vaughn, Ukrainian Heritage Company, 1983

Pretty good reason to make pysanky, isn't it? Makes me want to break out the beeswax candles and the food dye. Khrystos Voskres!

April 13, 20141 Comment

Spring in SoCal

"I guess it's spring, I don't know, it's always 75 degrees with no melting snow," Jenny Lewis of Los Angeles' band Rilo Kiley sings plaintively in one of my favorite songs, Does He Love You?

And I know what she means. If it weren't for the bright floral dresses at the mall and the marshmallow peeps at the drug store, I'm not sure I'd know the seasons had changed here in LA.

You have to really be looking for spring to see it, but once I open my eyes to it, signs of the earth's annual rebirth are all around, even in a city with blue skies all year round. Thanks to last month's rain, the mountainsides turned from brown to green, bright orange poppies cover the fields outside the city, and magnolia trees are bursting with pink flowers. Spring flower-spotting in LA means looking for poppies and lupine, wildflowers that grow in unbelievably bright blankets across the Antelope and the San Jacinto Valleys.

9235682_sThe funny thing about Mediterranean climates is that fall and winter are really the growing seasons, and spring is kind of a last gasp of beauty and color and growth before summer descends and puts most of the native plants in dormancy. You're not actually supposed to plant in spring in semi-arid climates like ours -- planting time is in the late fall or early winter, before the rainy season. But old habits die hard and I have to resist buying and planting thirsty spring beauties like lilac and bearded irises and hydrangea. (The California-friendly alternatives like ceanothus and Douglas iris make me think of the a pretty girl-next-door in jeans and a tshirt standing next to Sofia Vergara in a gown on the red carpet. One overshadows the other.) This year, I'll try to appreciate spring the SoCal way, enjoying the wildflowers and the fact that it I live where it's a warm spring day most of the year.