Thursday, February 22, 2024
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What Stays With Us

Cookie and Namir line up to watch me turn soil.
Cookie and Namir line up to watch me turn soil.

Looking at the photos of Cookie and Namir outside with me I can’t believe how lucky I was that the two of them were so wonderful about staying with me, staying in the yard when one whole side was not fenced, and no leashes after about a month for Namir, no complaining when we had to go back in. I remember looking at them and thinking they must really like to be with me and it was one of the best feelings I’ve ever known. The time was magic, for just a few years, but forever in my memory.

Cookie sitting in the sun considering a nap.
Cookie sitting in the sun considering a nap.

Both of them were with me on a day when I took a series of photos called “Winter Leftovers”, delicate poignant images of the dry and spent native plants in my garden from the year before, and the understated beauty of what was left, that have stayed with me. They struck me differently from “The Light in the Darkness” though it’s the same theme, the strength that’s left behind when the obvious beauty is washed away by weather and time, and what is left is unique and more beautiful than what was expected. In this case the idea was what we remember from a moment, a day, a time, an event, sometimes surprising what says imprinted in our memory.

Namir studying the potatoes I dug up.
Namir studying the potatoes I dug up.

The inspiration was finding the tiny spider in the nearly transparent web, and knowing that with her last strength she built that web, and the children she would never know would use that web to start their new life the following year, which inspired a poem a few years ago. Then just recently remembering those photos and wanting to share them again, I found there was much more to that day than I remembered, more than the poignant delicacy and inspiration of those dry plants sharing the last of their beauty. Looking at that day’s photos I discovered I had actually attended a contentious hearing with my mortgage company that morning. That memory, I guess, was washed away by the inspiration.

Cookie hiding behind some sticks.
Cookie hiding behind some sticks.

And Cookie and Namir were with me that day too. I remember keeping one eye on them while I was working in the garden and again while I was absorbed in photographing, and stepping around and over them while they checked in with what I was doing. The year was 2009, and Namir would only be with us for three months more. Sometimes it feels like they were out there with me all the years I’ve lived here when for both of them together it was only three years. But they are always there, even now with Mimi. And here they are in a few extra photos from that day I’ve never used, I was so preoccupied with the photos of weeds.

Namir with a rainbow.
Namir with a rainbow.

Here is the essay, “What Stays With Us”, along with the link to it on my writing website. Below that is a link to the poem inspired by the same event, “To Come Again in Spring”.

What Stays With Us

Tiny Foxtal
Tiny Foxtail

As the seasons change I look to nature for familiar scenes and welcome details held dear from year to year especially in my garden, my little patch of toil for the years I’ve lived here, beginning in 1990. Even though I’ve worked and planted and composted and  created raised beds and paths and the site holds probably all the memories I have from living here from all the time I’ve spent working and thinking there, I still find wonders, mostly in the spring when it all feels new again after a month or two of break, and sometimes intangible wonders as well.

This year (2017) I remembered a series of photos I’d taken in March 2009 which I called at the time “Winter Leftovers”, thinking of the ephemeral beauty of dried plants that seemed lifeless from afar but had so much character and detail when studied up close through the lens of my camera, natural sepia tones, tiny highlights, clouds of soft fluff and tiny spiky flowers, an entire universe in miniature.

The bright spring sun had shone at an angle from a faded blue sky in mid afternoon on a day just around the vernal equinox and I was late in planting for late snows and freezes. I leave the native plants standing in and around the vegetable garden for the residents of my backyard wildlife habitat to eat from, perch on, snuggle into, build tiny homes upon to weather the dark and cold season, but I was thinking of asparagus and potatoes and salad greens and time outdoors with two of my cats who always joined me in the garden, ready to work it all down and get planting.

But I didn’t. As I leaned into my spading fork the angled sun caught a sparkle on a delicate spiderweb smaller than the palm of my hand. I walked over to investigate and found a spider no larger than a grain of sand shriveled in the center. She had died long before but continued to cling there all winter long. Her web held up against any number of storms. Her eggs would have been laid on the stem adjacent to her web, and when they hatched the little spiders could have their first meal of the insects caught in their mother’s last web and use her web as a launching pad to their new life. I found the whole idea so moving, that the children the spider would never know were provided for by what she had done before she died, that on that bright March afternoon I put down the spading fork and picked up my camera and went through my garden looking for other such images. The afternoon was fading and with it the light, so we packed it up for the day and returned the next afternoon just for a session of photography.

All the other native plants had left behind skeletons that told stories as well, the asters and chicory and goldenrod and dock, and the effect of these was haunting, like finding a ghost town or a lost world. I photographed each desolate construction with attention to extreme details to capture the intrinsic, transient beauty of these empty shells, capturing the sepia tones, letting them say their last goodbye before the flush of new growth pushed them out of the way.

What was most surprising to me when I went to review the photos in 2017 was when I looked at the other photos in the folder for that day, and what else I’d done in the morning. I had photos from the 54th floor of an office building in downtown Pittsburgh, quite the different perspective from the afternoon’s warm spring sun and attention to the details of desiccated native plants in my backyard garden. I’d been there for a hearing to contest matters with my mortgage company, Countrywide Mortgage, which had acquired my tiny mortgage in 2005 and had forced me into bankruptcy protection to avoid one of their illegal foreclosures in 2006. Despite the fact they and the company that took over their mortgages, Bank of America, were charged with so much wrongdoing, they still insisted I owed them the legal fees related to my foreclosure and fines on those fees and my attorney and I never did figure out what else was included in the $16,000 they said I owed them. Just the foreclosure and bankruptcy, though I owed no other debts, had hit self-employed me hard and taken time and finances away from growing my business, and keeping house and the idea of paying another $16,000 wasn’t even something I ever fully grasped because I knew I’d never come up with it.

I did, though, just not all at once, and even more than that too. Through the years after that BOA continued working out devious ways to get more money out of me. Because of Countrywide’s illegal foreclosure, for which I received a check for $300 in a class-action lawsuit, BOA was not permitted to threaten me with foreclosure, but they threatened me with everything else they could until I was finally free of them in 2013 by moving to another mortgage company, and the mortgage itself in 2016.

It’s hard to say that a decade of financial struggle where phantom fees and charges were continually and unexpectedly added to my mortgage, and my mortgage payment, was a horrible thing because no one could really see it but me. Despite the financial issues I would not give up my home or my business and I paid everything they asked of me, taking all legal actions I could. Even if I had left this place I still would have owed the mortgage and would have had to settle it and also pay for a place to live, so I decided to stay here and just keep making a mortgage payment and somehow work it out. In the end I was offered a settlement by the new mortgage company that I could afford, and I own this house, though I paid far more than was ever planned.

But the more surprising thing was that, even though that situation lasted for a decade and really just ended the previous year, when I remembered the “winter leftovers” and that afternoon in the garden down to the details and the sun on my back and two cats who are still very dear to me, one who I would lose just a few months after that day, who were out in the garden with me, I didn’t remember anything of the hearing with my mortgage company, nothing of the struggle and hardship and paperwork and court dates that lasted a decade. I must have ridden home on the bus and looked at the perfect sunny day, and once I got home my inner voice, my inner guide, knew I needed healing. Instead of getting right back to work, I’d steal a little time for physical effort and something I loved to do, change my clothes, get my two cats and head outside and enjoy their exploration of the spring garden and work off the morning. I only remembered the poignant beauty of what was left in my garden and the beautiful story it had told me.

Aside from those who have “superior autobiographical memory”, we can’t possibly remember everything that happens in our lives. We do make choices, even if we don’t realize. Bad memories stay with us and letting them go is almost like grieving a loss, a loss of a part of our selves that was betrayed, traumatized, or somehow hurt and must heal. But somehow the beauty and inspiration of that day washed away the bad. I’ll carry that beauty forward, and build on it, and leave the bad behind.

Here is a link to a slideshow of the photos I took that day (it uses Adobe Flash): Winter Leftovers.

Poem: To Come Again in Spring

tiny spider
Tiny Spider

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3 thoughts on “What Stays With Us

  • Pingback: From the Archives: Namir and Cookie and Me, December 30, 2006 ~ The Creative Cat

  • What a beautiful, and poignant, post. This time of year makes us think of the past, and not always just the year that has it’s foot out the door. It’s good to know that you’ve surmounted that mortgage problem; I swear that I grew at least one new grey hair just reading about it! I am replanting our yard with native Michigan/Midwest plants, in the hopes of encouraging butterflies, birds, and bats. Just as long as The ‘O’ Cats don’t decide that we’ve put out a buffet for them!
    Happy ‘Mew’ Year!

    • Thanks for reading all the way through, Vicky. Something about the light today reminded me of those two and that day outdoors, and I thought the new year was a good time to talk about how we remember what’s important to us. Enjoy your native garden, it’s a wonder when it all comes together! I can lose myself in it any day of the year, it’s my refuge.


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