For various reasons, Slim is no longer legally registered to vote. This is unfortunate. He continues to be a highly informed citizen and an ardent supporter of our democratic process. As a dedicated student of history, he knows how crucial it is to explore the many sides of every issue. His advice for today’s voting public: seek out multiple reputable sources, read, listen and question. Think critically. Remember that life is complicated. Be wary of anyone claiming to have a really simple answer.
And never think that your one vote, or your voice, is unimportant!
It’s been a particularly beautiful October here in Northern Virginia. I’ve been hesitant to post about the loveliness of these autumn days, considering the turmoil that currently engulfs so much of the world. Two wars rage, hostages suffer, families worry and grieve, survivors dig through neighborhoods reduced to rubble, atrocities are committed, revenge is sought, God’s name is invoked with righteous fury by rival parties, not just in battle-torn areas, but also here in the U.S., where our legislature has recently seemed more intent on sabotaging government than on governing. Under these circumstances, is it being trite and insensitive to say, “But aren’t the fall colors pretty?”
They really are, though. And maybe, because of all the ugliness that churns and boils around us, it’s even more necessary to cherish and give thanks for beauty wherever we meet it. I’d find it hard to let the season pass without a tribute.
Here, then, are some images of fall in the DC suburbs.
Early morning light shines through the leaves of maples and pin oaks, setting the field aglow.
This large flamboyant maple is a local star this time of year.
Red berries stand out on the pods of an evergreen southern magnolia.
One of the few touches of bright fall color in our front yard is provided by a small sassafras tree.
The sassafras is unusual for the variation in leaf shapes found on a single tree.
Some sassafras leaves are simple ovals; others have two lobes, making for a mitten shape, and others are symmetrical, with three lobes.
A gloriously golden tree is this towering, majestic hickory, one of my favorites in the area. It makes me smile every time I drive past it.
I love the variety of color and texture in this grouping of trees.
The word “red” seems insufficient to describe these brilliant, jewel toned leaves. Vermilion? Scarlet?
Against a cloudy sky, late afternoon light gilds the maples and white pines in our side yard.
Fall occasionally gifts us with an unexpected delight. This azalea typically blooms only in the spring, and its past blossoms have been deep, solid pink. These October flowers of variegated color are an especially pleasant surprise.
Our pale pink trellis roses continue to bloom sporadically well into the fall.
The October days are dwindling fast, and Halloween approaches. May you have access to autumn beauty while it persists, and may it bring you moments of peace and joy.
In my last post, I wrote about the industrious squirrels that have planted a lovely crop of sunflowers in our back yard. Unfortunately, most of the other plants that pop up, unbidden, untouched by human hands, are not as welcome. As the typical suburbanite knows, a dizzying number and variety of weeds grow smarter and more determined with every passing year. My husband, for example, is currently waging war against his leggy green nemesis, stiltgrass, which seeks to take over the lawn.
But there is one self-seeding flower that I’m always happy to see: the petunia.
I’ve known a few rather snooty gardeners who look down their noses at the petunia. They consider the flower to be too compliant, and therefore expected and ordinary. I’ve never felt that way. In the deep shade of old oaks and tulip poplars surrounding my childhood home in Atlanta, no sun-loving flowers ever lasted long. We tried repeatedly, but without success. I was elated to be able to grow mounds of bright, hearty petunias here in Virginia, on and around our sun-drenched back patio. They’re perfect in the big pots atop the brick pillars along the fence line. They bloom quickly and continuously, well into the fall, needing only light and fairly regular watering. I especially love this Queen of Hearts variety, above. With its red hearts separated by yellow ribbons, it pairs beautifully with a smaller red variety.
The petunias have been busy this season. They tend to choose appropriate and charming spots for self-planting. Last year I’d positioned a large clay bowl of the flowers atop the stepping stone by a gate. I used it for other plants this year, in a different location. But by June, petunias began sprouting up around the stone, never mind the thin, mulched soil. The seeds from the previous year’s spent flowers simply plant themselves, I’ve learned. And now, without any planning or care on my part, they’re flourishing.
And yes, the squirrels planted two sunflowers among the petunias. (Trying to emulate the practice of our small furry friends, I buried a number of sunflower seeds in July. None of those sprouted.)
If there’s a little room to spare, a petunia or two may move in. Easy-going, if uninvited guests, they’ll adapt to most any accommodation. This bright red petunia made herself at home with a spiky-stemmed Crown of Thorns plant, which bears small, similarly colored blooms.
Petunias are well-equipped for a challenge. Deep within each flower are those tiny seeds, seeds of hope. They’re the promise of new life that lies ahead, even when all might seem lost. The little plant above sprouted from seeds that searched out a smidgen of soil in the grout of our bluestone patio. It’s been sending forth a regular succession of fuchsia and white blossoms since July. When I’m tempted to see the world as a swirling mess of meanness, chaos and confusion, I try to think of this humble yet persistent patio petunia. Even in an inhospitable environment akin to bare, unyielding stone, seeds of hope are constantly being planted. I’ll try to look for the seeds, recognize the sprouts, and do my best to nourish them. Pay attention to the petunia. Like the sunflower, it offers powerful life lessons!
If I had no other demands on my time, I could spend an hour or so every day weeding the mulched beds in our back yard around the roses and nandina. Removing the countless maple seedlings alone would keep me occupied. A few years ago, I began noticing some small green shoots that I hadn’t seen before. At first I uprooted them. When one escaped my eye and quickly threw forth lush, fuzzy green leaves, I let it grow. Before long, an interesting bud had formed.
Cradled snugly in the center of a group of emphatically veined leaves, it looked like a small, spiky star.
The bud grew larger, a beautiful thing in itself. Covered by bristly, sharply pointed mini-leaves, it resembled a small artichoke.
Soon, the spiky leaves opened to reveal a sphere covered by yellow petals, their ends gently tucked together at the center. And then I realized: this was a sunflower.
Of course. We’ve made our yard into a haven for birds and squirrels, with multiple feeders, water sources and plenty of scattered seed. We often watch as a squirrel takes a single sunflower seed and buries it, using pointy little fingers to pat down the earth, carefully and thoroughly. According to my husband, this behavior is definitive evidence that I’m providing too much seed. Maybe. But maybe the squirrels simply take pleasure in gardening. They’ve planted pumpkins and acorn squash for us in the past, as well as a flourishing pin oak tree.
Over the past several years, the squirrel-planted sunflowers have become more plentiful, and larger. Each day brings new developments. The bright yellow petals unfold in sections, so that the flower calls to mind a child playing peek-a-boo. The stalks grow taller, thicker and stronger, the leaves bigger.
Apparently I had never examined a live sunflower. I worked from photos when I painted a field of sunflowers not long after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the late winter of 2022. I hadn’t noticed the distinctive spiral design at the flower’s center. How had I managed to live this long and yet miss such intricate floral majesty? The awesomeness of life’s little miracles continues to amaze me. (And, in a related note–that old Spirograph set I enjoyed as a kid–is it still on the basement shelves among the games? )
I wanted to learn more about these botanical beauties gifted to us by generous squirrel farmers. A sunflower, I know now, is a well-organized community of hundreds of smaller flowers, or florets. What I’ve always thought of as petals are, in fact, individual flowers, or ray florets. Their sunny flamboyance serves to attract pollinators to the many tiny disc florets that compose the center. The disc florets begin opening around the outer periphery, so that the inner spiral is surrounded by a shaggy, deep golden fringe. Each of these florets is a perfect, five-lobed tubular bloom, rather like a lily, sized for a fairy. They will, in time, grow into seeds.
It’s rare to find a sunflower not hosting a pollinator, or two. They’re favorites of these elegant swallow-tail butterflies. In the photo above, I see two friends deep in conversation, as the flower bows its head slightly to greet and accommodate the butterfly.
Carpenter and bumble bees are never far away. They often nestle in and immerse themselves in the luxurious pollen offered by the rounds of disc florets.
Sunflowers are heliotropic: they orient their faces toward the sun. The flowers turn subtly from east to west with the motion of the sun across the sky, and back to the east in the evening to await the coming dawn. Greater sun exposure yields better growth. The sun-following motion occurs in younger flowers. Older ones, heavy-laden with incipient seed, remain east-facing in order to attract more pollinators. In the photo above, the three flowers remind me of medieval and Renaissance paintings depicting the Three Ages of Man. There’s an early bloom, the small child, bursting with pent-up potential. There’s a fully developed blossom, the young adult in her golden, cheerful prime. And then there’s the older flower, an expression of seasoned maturity and a life well-lived. Its large brown seed head teems with successfully pollinated disc florets. Its yellow ray florets may be bedraggled, but that just means they’ve served their purpose.
I’m glad the sunflowers caught my attention and gave me pause. Nature’s everyday masterpieces rarely fail to brighten my day. But that’s not all. When I take the time to look, and to listen, they speak to me of something far greater. Of the marvel of ongoing creation, powered by an all-encompassing presence. A benevolent presence, both immanent and transcendent, defying words and pushing the limits of thought. If I’m quiet, I might sense the whisper of the breath of God that inhabits and flows through everything. Through the sunflower, from squirrel-planted seed, to shoot, to stalk, to flower, and back to seed. Through me. And through you.
We humans could do worse than follow the example of the sunflower. If we seek the light, we’ll have life, and have it more abundantly.
Last week, my sister-in-law sent me these photos from her Eerie Canal village of Spencerport, New York. Walking past Fairfield Cemetery in the center of town, she saw veterans placing flags on graves of the war dead. She knows I’m a big fan of her lovely little town, which has been a frequent Memorial Day destination for our family. This year, only my husband made the trip; he took advantage of the three-day weekend to spend some time with his Mom in nearby Rochester. I have pleasant memories of walking the old cemetery’s verdant paths with my furry companion, Kiko. It was good to see that Spencerport’s patriotic traditions live on.
The pictures remind me of our American tendency to temporarily lay aside our polarizing differences as Memorial Day approaches. Ever so briefly, we unite in honoring those who gave their lives in defense of our country. Around this time, we join together momentarily to acknowledge the brave men and women who paid the ultimate price.
It’s my ongoing prayer that we might keep this Memorial Day attitude alive all year long. Our military heroes deserve more than to be saluted perfunctorily on certain holidays. Let’s remember that their sacrifice was for our everyday freedoms, which should not be taken for granted. They died so that we may continue to pursue our dreams and live the lives we choose. They died so that we may be able to air our opinions and grievances without fear of bodily harm or imprisonment. Therefore, let’s honor their memory by trying to refrain from snap judgments and personal attacks. Let us not jump eagerly to accept just anything we want to believe. Let us take pains to discern the truth, even, and, indeed, especially, when it may lead us to change our minds. Let’s exercise some of that critical thinking we should have been taught in school. May we learn to recognize the sly manipulators among us, those who benefit from stirring up trouble and maximizing our differences. May we try to lecture, to talk at one another less, and to listen more comprehensively. May we practice kindness, and grow in wisdom. May we be guided toward common ground, toward a vantage point from which we might see some of our perceived differences evaporate like an early morning fog. If we make these efforts, we really might be able to work together toward that more perfect union. This great republic of ours is worth it. The sacrifice of our Memorial Day heroes begs us to do so. May they not have died in vain.
Long may our land be right with freedom’s holy light!
May the promise of Easter give you strength and courage to face the trials of this world. May it bring you inner assurance even during difficult times. May it inspire you to treat your neighbors (even the difficult ones) with kindness and love. May it guide you to find glimmers of light in the darkness, and beauty in the everyday. And may it give you a deep and abiding hope for the life to come, when trials, difficulties and darkness will be no more.
Christ is risen, Christ is living, dry your tears, be unafraid!
Death and darkness could not hold him, nor the tomb in which he lay.
Do not look among the dead for one who lives for evermore;
tell the world that Christ is risen, make it known he goes before.
If the Lord had never risen, we’d have nothing to believe;
but his promise can be trusted: “You will live, because I live.”
As we share the death of Adam, so in Christ we live again;
death has lost its sting and terror, Christ the Lord has come to reign.
Death has lost its old dominion, let the world rejoice and shout!
Christ, the firstborn of the living, gives us life and leads us out.
Let us thank our God, who causes hope to spring up from the ground.
Christ is risen, Christ is giving life eternal, life profound.
Words: Nicolas Martinez, 1960; trans. by Fred Kaan, 1972
Ash Wednesday is, indeed, about ashes. But it’s also about what lies beyond the ashes. On this day of the Christian calendar, we’re encouraged to confront and contemplate our mortality, our weakness, our tendency to get things wrong. But we’re not to stop there, wallowing in pity and self-loathing. Because we’re not left in the ashes, abandoned, alone and forlorn. Help is at hand, if we choose to accept it. God, our loving parent, our good shepherd, seeks us out. He calls us, his children, his lost lambs, by name. If we let him, he walks with us through debris and decay into a place where there are no ashes. We can’t imagine such a destination, or such a state of being. We certainly don’t deserve it. But that’s the magic and the beauty of the promise of grace.
This time last year, the darkness of Ash Wednesday felt especially pervasive, oppressive and heavy. Putin had just begun his attempted takeover of Ukraine. While the future was uncertain, it was clear that the situation would get worse before it began to improve. And the terrifying consequences would extend far beyond the boundaries of the Ukrainian state. The good news, so far, is that Russia’s tyrant didn’t get the quick victory that he had expected. The Ukrainians, defying all odds, have shown amazing grit and courage, forming an impressively effective ragtag force of small Davids battling the Russian Goliath. The bad news, of course, is that the destructive, deadly struggle continues, despite the fortitude of Ukraine and the support of the United States and many other countries.
In last year’s Ash Wednesday post, I wrote about a Ukrainian woman who was interviewed as she sheltered with her children and others in a ravaged space in downtown Kyiv. As she spoke, her infant daughter slept soundly in her arms. The baby, she said, was a vital source of hope to her and to those around her. The child offered living, breathing proof of ongoing goodness in the evils of a war-torn world. I think of that child and her family now. Have they survived? Is that baby a chattering toddler now, walking boldly with her mother and siblings through the rubble? I pray that she is, and that she continues to be a bright light in the shadows of the ruins.
The promise of Ash Wednesday is like the promise of a new baby. It reminds us not to underestimate the power and persistence of love. Let’s reach out for the hand that leads us through the ashes toward a renewal beyond the reach of death. And toward that unimaginable, but glorious, other side.
A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.