Personal ponderings from a natural night-owl!

Archive for April, 2010

Raising Clematis

I’ve blogged about my clematis before, but I wonder if I’m the right one to raise clematis.  Clematis defies me and exasperates me.  I like things neat, orderly, and predictable.  Clematis is messy.  In fact, clematis is disorder personified and wild in the truest sense of the word.  The shoots grow fast and in every direction possible.  They have no single minded pursuit of a goal.  They just…grow!  I like control; I like things to go – and grow – the way *I* want them to be.  Clematis defies prediction and direction.  Sure, I can make suggestions to it, kind of  … guide it the way I HOPE it will grow, make sure it has support so it can keep growing without falling over or breaking off.  But really, when it comes down to it, the clematis decides where and how it will grow.  Clematis is … FRUSTRATING

I don’t understand clematis.  I can learn about its development; I can study it in books or online; I can read about other people’s experiences with clematis.  But when it comes to tending real live plants, it’s an ENTIRELY different story.  Clematis is definitely a “learn as you grow” plant.  And every clematis, depending on where and how it’s grown, has unique personality, unique character.

Clematis does not come with instructions, not REALLY.  Descriptions like “keep the roots cool and the foliage in full sun” are laughingly insufficient.  Apparently, I’m supposed to fertilize it – like every 4 weeks.  I have never fertilized my clematis.  I’m supposed to plan other plants underneath it to keep the roots cool and the moisture in.  Uh…nope.  Oh, and I’m supposed to water it, too.  Just ask my husband how good I am about that chore. (hint: watering? what’s that?)

But apparently, clematis is incredibly resilient.  Three weeks ago, I tried to be a good gardener.  I came out with tools and determination to care for the clematis in the early spring like it should be cared for.  It didn’t go well.  I pruned a gigantic part of it down to nothingness in frustration and despair.  It was overgrown, heavy, swaying, unruly.  I couldn’t fix it, so I essentially started over, years and years of growth and training sheared away in minutes.  I was sad.  No, I was sick.  I had lead in the pit of my stomach when I did it.  I was sure I had irreparably harmed it forever, that it was going to die – there were only a few small shoots of new green growth left when I was done.

But yet, in less than a month, the clematis regrew.  In fact, it more than regrew – it THRIVED.  Where I ruthlessly pruned it, the clematis has climbed as high as it’s ever been and seems set to exceed expectations for the year.  Some days, I can literally see a difference in growth from morning to evening.  It grows whether I train it or not, whether I prune it or not, whether I water it or not.  It just. keeps. growing.

But somehow, even though it baffles my very nature (hee hee – pun intended!), this plant brings me joy.  I love how forgiving it is.  It DOES grow – no matter what I do to or with it.  Its shoots reach out like arms and its flowers smile on me even when I don’t feel like smiling.  I LOVE how my porch turns into a literal outdoor room bounded by life-affirming greenery and in time, exuberant purple flowers.  I am sitting outside on the porch now as I write this, and I am so peaceful, relaxed, and calm.  Clematis does that!

I love how the clematis draws other life to our house.  Birds nest in our clematis.  And hummingbirds flit around the vines when they are in bloom – even though the blossoms are purple.  I love it when people compliment my lovely porch in spring and summer, even though I know I had very little to do with how it looks.   I apologize for the ugly brown, dead-looking vines when people visit in the winter.  But I smile wisely inside because *I* know that the new growth comes best from the old, that appearance of death – which is simply rest and not death at all – is the price we pay for spring and summer glory.

So maybe I *am* the right one to grow clematis after all.  Maybe I’m supposed to learn life lessons from my clematis – patience, vision, foresight, acceptance, love.  Maybe things are just as they are supposed to be.

(P.S.  You probably think I just blogged about my clematis.  That’s what I thought I was doing when I started writing this post.  But replace the word “clematis” with the word “kids” and…)

The Glance

She walked in to the vet’s office as I was getting ready to walk out yesterday.  Our eyes met, briefly, but that glance told me everything I needed to know.  It was a look of anguish, embarrassment over being seen with such red-rimmed eyes full of tears.  I quickly looked down, she looked away, struggling with a large chocolate lab on a leash in one hand and a baby carrier in the other.  The person at the desk took on a hushed tone and gave her a sympathetic look as she choked out the “yes” that confirmed who she was.  But I already knew.  Why else would someone be crying as they entered a vet’s office?  I just knew.

One of the office assistants helped her through the door from the waiting room into the hallway with the examining rooms.  An older looking but happy, bouncy Labrador with a very obvious skin problem came through first, most of his belly bare and large patches of fur gone from the top of his back, too.  He greeted my dog, they touched noses for a bit, then the entourage was gone.  When they disappeared, I whispered to the person at the desk, confirming my suspicions.  Yes, that’s why they were here.  Yes, it was the skin condition, much pain and suffering, they’ve tried everything, she’s been with that dog through so much.  I could barely sign the credit card slip for the shake in my hand and the tears in my own eyes.

I went out to my car and cried with her, for her, and I waited.  I imagined her having to come out with just an empty collar and leash where only minutes before, there had been a friend.  No one should have to go through that alone, or worse, with a baby in tow. It was early in the day – was she going to be alone trying to cope all day today while her husband was at work?  I imagined just going up to her when she exited the vet’s office, giving her a hug, telling her I was so sorry for her loss, giving her some tissues.

But all my pets have died naturally, so I had no idea how long she’d be.  I started constructing other scenarios – maybe someone was meeting her here, maybe she would go to the grief counseling place immediately behind the vet’s office. Finally someone DID come out, and my heart jumped, but it wasn’t her.  I pretended to look for something on the floor of my car, just so my own red-rimmed eyes wouldn’t give me away.  10 minutes went by, then 15.  I started to feel like a stalker and it occurred to me that maybe she wouldn’t appreciate my gestures at all.  Maybe she was a private type of person who didn’t like hugs.  What complete stranger does that, anyway?  So I got embarrassed and I drove away.

I felt sad.  Not depressed – pushed down – but simply sad.  Grief over a tangible loss like that – a dog, a parent, a child, a friend – grief over those makes sense.  Is it possible to experience that same kind of sadness, of grief, over lost ideals, lost identity, lost dreams, over mistakes made unintentionally?

I paused to think of her this morning when I got up and he got up, too, stretching as he does, then coming to push his nose under my hand in greeting.  I imagined fleetingly how she had to come home to a quiet house, no sound of four feet running to greet her, no tail wagging in complete acceptance.  I felt a brief stab in my own heart for the pain in hers when she remembers to feed a friend who is no longer there except in memory.

My own will get some extra love today (but no extra snacks, because he’s got a few pounds to shed).  And I’ll put away that grief of loss for another time, hopefully far in the future, when it’s my turn to hold an empty collar and leash.

Knot. Well.

The rope was rough, the slide to the – bottom? – so gradual, I almost didn’t know it was happening.  No bloody hands, no frantic scrambles for footholds, no fear of falling.  But a very definite slide down nonetheless, the more frightening, really, for its lack of drama.

It was dark.  Very dark.  Like darkness I’d heard about but never experienced.  Not pitch black, though, not THAT dark.  There was the occasional shaft of sun that made its way through the molasses night, but it would fade and I’d wistfully watch it go, straining for the dance of dust motes I knew must be there, but was hidden from my eyes.

There was a knot.  A big knot.  So the slide stopped.  But I was never good at climbing in gym class.  I always tried – I was so determined to get to the top!  And for a while, I could navigate the knots and pretend I was climbing the rope.  But I was really climbing the knots.  So the knot below me held my feet, and all I could do was hang there.


You ok?

What’s wrong?

You can tell me.

No I can’t, because I don’t know, I don’t understand, I have no words for what’s happening. So I say yeah (-: and he believes it and I hang there.

Night comes for real.  And morning, according to the clock.  But still night.  Brilliant sun, a glorious day – but still night.  A much anticipated road trip to a place of fond memories – but still night. All day, just night.  And night again.

Then … jarringly … the rope is gone, the pit is gone.  Not forever, not for always, but for a blessed time.  There are clouds and lightness – below me?  Below me!  I feel the sun, blossoms of joy again like so many daffodils welcoming the spring.  And I remember normal. And I like it.  And I realize that the slow slide, that was NOT normal.  And it scares me.

I come through the clouds, toward the ground.  I come down.  There are spikes waiting down there – spikes everywhere.  But they AREN’T spikes – they are hands, hands reaching up to catch me, to cushion the falling, to welcome me back, to protect and to hold.

They are hands with voices that speak, that tell me, “Never forget what a wonderful person you are,” and “I’m going to tell you MY story,” and “You are not alone.”  They are loud and joyous and insistent these hands – many of whom belong to people who sometimes seem to be none of those things.  They say, “We heard, and we wondered, and we weren’t sure, but we were watching.”  They say “It can happen to anyone.”  They say, “I’m sorry,” and “It’s ok” and “Hey!” and “It’s our turn to hold you up.”  They say, “I love you,” and “I need you,” and “Be patient.”  They say, “HUGS.”  They just say.  And there are many.  So very many.

So I close my eyes and drift…down? toward reality? toward hands.  And down isn’t as scary as it was on the rope.  I know, for now, it’s ok.


I don’t know now how long we’ve had them, these clematis vines which grace our front porch.  I’ve noted with dismay that I’m further down that road than I thought, where one year turns to five to ten in a blink, where you swear you JUST did that bought that saw that – then realize it was half a decade or more ago.  So my vines are timeless to me, and somehow reflective of my life journey so far, reflective of this mid-life funk I find myself in at this moment in time.

The first summer we had them, I was captivated by the sight of gorgeous purple blossoms against white woodwork.  It was clean, neat, and magazine pretty.  Best of all, they needed no tending, no watering, no attention at all from me, yet burst forth with glorious abandon, the very definition of plant perfection!

There was a time in my life when I felt that glorious abandon.  College maybe? Luxembourg YES!  Blooming, finding my place, feeling like the growth was so natural and easy. Bursting with life and wanting more.

But then came winter for my clematis – and the vines which had been so graceful, so green, so lush turned ugly and brown and dead, so I chopped them off to nothingness.  More life parallels: the brokenness of first love, not graduating “on time,” perhaps.  The uncertainty of leaving college, starting over at life, starting at all.

The next spring, new growth replaced old, and new flowers, too.  Joy again!  Winter came again, but my motivation was fleeting, my intentions sincere but unrealized, so the ugly dead vines stayed put this time.  I’d go in and out the front door and look at the brown, lifeless vines which seemed to chide me for my laziness.  Like life after college – a few jobs, temping here and there where I could.  Not feeling like I was doing enough, being enough.  Good intentions, lack of follow-through.

But one day early the following spring, a whisper of green caught my eye.  I saw a 2 inch green growth, then another, and another, and another.  Somehow, miraculously, the old, dead vines I had neglected to cut put forth healthy, hardy new growth!  This was how I discovered that, like grape vines, clematis USE the old growth to sprout new growth.

That winter, I didn’t cut a thing – on purpose.  I gritted my teeth, apologized for the ugly, and assured all who came to visit in winter that yes, though our porch was hideous now, you should SEE it in the summer in all its purple glory.

From my temp job, came a lead to a “permanent” job with a company large enough for me to grow.  My longest job ever – 7 years!  Held a few positions, got a Master’s Degree 100% paid for, all A’s.  Short term plans giving way to accomplishment of longer term goals.

But spring came – and near disaster.  The growth was almost violent – vines furiously shoving each other aside, climbing all over each other in a mad dash for…growth.  It wasn’t neat and it wasn’t pretty.  It was unruly and chaotic – until the flowers bloomed, so thick and so lush and so vibrant that it took my breath away.  And a vision started to form for me.  My own porch-as-secret-garden-room dream, an escape, a welcome.  Could I dare try to train these vines? to guide their growth?


So the next spring, I tried selectively pruning. I snipped, paused, snipped again…so slowly, I worked.  Snip, think, snip – and discover I’d cut a vine which, 3 feet further on, had 6 inches of new growth. Sadness, frustration. FAILURE.  I cut new growth out, that I had meant to keep.  It was frustrating.  But somehow, the vines recovered, kept growing, and bloomed gorgeously.  And I got closer to having two different vines join at the top of the porch!


Another year, another chance to practice my pruning “skills” (or lack thereof).  But I was paralyzed by fear of failure, so I waited too long and  everything got tangled, bushy, unmanageable again.  Ironically, my own fear of failure CAUSED more failure, although the vines did meet at the top of one side of the porch, despite my sad, pitiful pruning.  So that brings us to this year.

This spring, I started EARLY – when the new growth was only a few inches long.  And I was actually excited about it!  And it occurred to me, instead of starting at the base of the plant, I could start at the tips of the new growth and work backward.  This method proved VERY effective for not cutting TOO much of the new growth by accident.  But after so many years, I was also able to take a step back and realize that the vines will be JUST FINE, even when I *did* cut off more growth than I intended.

As I was trimming, I also remembered how the very thick growth felt stifling somehow last summer, very much TOO much of a good thing.  So I got brave and started pruning more and more – leaving the long, healthy new growth that would be a great base toward connecting the vines at the top again, but cutting away some of the BULK of the plant.  And it felt GOOD!  And it looked – fresh, new, clean, light, right.

But then came the front.  The front went CRAZY last year.  And though I put up some twine and tried to help the plan support itself, the weight of its bulk overwhelmed it and it sagged precariously.  And it was so very tangled that I couldn’t unravel it, couldn’t figure out which vines to trim.  The technique I had used so successfully on the other two sections just wasn’t working.

So I chopped it.  Radically.  From 8 feet tall down to 2.  And I mourned the hasty destruction of years of growth.  It felt like a huge step back.  Like quitting everything, floundering, feeling directionless feels like a huge step back.  But freeing, too.  I’ve let go of everything weighing me down.  I’m now free to grow up again, to climb to the heights.

So the story isn’t finished yet, I know.  The clematis is growing wildly…still, again.  And maybe the vines will be healthier, prettier for the pruning.  It’s still early in the season.  And despite my current feelings to the contrary, it’s still early in mine.

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