Author Robert Benson tells his first Tenx9 story at February’s theme “Dates”. He takes us through a year in his life by marking the changes in the seasons.
Planting Sweet Peas
“A schedule — a calendar, a collection of dates and events and days — a schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.”
Annie Dillard wrote that before I had a chance to think of it. I have almost forgiven her.
This is an old story of some dates and days I caught long ago. An old story, a story about the rhythms of the life at the house where I once lived. Those days are still so real to me, I still read the story in present tense. They were the days where I first learned to pay attention — to anything, to everything.
On February 14 at our house, we plant sweet peas. Sometimes we have to brush the snow away to do it, but we do it just the same. My grandmother says that no matter what gardening books say, St. Valentine’s is the day to plant sweet peas in Tennessee if you want sweet peas to bloom in May. We certainly do, and so we do.
By the time we plant sweet peas I am so sick of winter I can barely be civil. The darkness of winter always gets me down, no matter what I say or do. A little girl at our house calls it ‘waiting for lamb season,’ waiting for the season after March comes in roaring like a lion.
When March does finally come we watch March Madness. For drama and excitement, it is better to me than the Olympics. For one thing, it comes every year; for another, there are no equestrian events. In the early rounds, we go to a local restaurant where they have three television sets and we watch all the games simultaneously. Folks there know us and wave at us every year when we come in, with our copy of the USA Today brackets all marked up.
When the champion is crowned, it is time to mow the lawn for the first time of the year. The proximity of that date to April Fool’s Day crosses my mind every time I get the mower out for the first cutting. It is time to pull off the winter mulch and reset the sprinkler hose. It is time to do the taxes before April 15th — April Fool’s Redux. April is seed packet month, and seeds arrive in our mailbox almost every day. We get out the garden journals and charts and little sketches of new beds we dreamed up over the winter. We wear sweaters and eat supper in the yard and watch birds scurry through the hedges, all of us glad that the earth is turning green again.
When Cecile shows up, it is Cinco de Mayo, or sometimes Cinco de Ocho. Cecile Brunner is a rambling rose planted in the wrong place in our yard but does not seem to care. She has worked her way up a corner of the house and into a plum tree. One morning you come outside to take your coffee and there are roses blooming thirty feet above you. You sit down by St. Francis, who stands in the white garden just in front of the iris bed, and whisper that it is time. The next the garden is in full regalia—coreopsis and viola and violets and spiderwort, yellows and whites and blues and purples. It is the best day of the year so far, time to pack for Chicago.
I used to live in Chicago and know the city and Memorial Day weekend is the best time to go. We go every year because there are two booksellers shows we attend because of the work we do. For about ten days we wander through an enormous bazaar of books. There are 40,000 other book people there—people who write them, read them, publish them, sell them, collect them, and love them. If there is not a book fair in heaven then I am not going, or least I am going to need a leave of absence every year in early June. When the last exhibition is closed, we go home to children waiting in their bathing suits — Independence Day, sort of.
I have two young children who live in the same town but not the same house that I do. I see them every week and talk to them on the telephone most every night, but in July they come for a long visit. We go the YMCA pool every day and to the beach for as long as we can afford. We play baseball and cards and eat peanut butter and jelly and set up the lemonade stand. When the kids go home, the grass turns brown. It is August, time to think only about baseball.
It is too hot to do anything else in Nashville in August except think about baseball. So we buy Baseball Weekly each week, watch games on television when we can, and check the pennant races every day. We go to the Sounds park every couple of days, and if the young professionals are on the road we go over the hill to the Civitans Park to see real baseball, the kind played by young dreamers who play for love and cheers, a snow cone whether you win or lose, and a trophy to cry over some day in your thirties when you come across it in your mother’s attic. One morning you hear Denise shout and whistle, and Labor Day has come and gone and it is time to go back to work.
Denise is the school crossing guard in our neighborhood and her post is at the four-way stop in front of our house. When I hear her voice, it is time for me to go back to work.
I am not a teacher but I still consider myself a student of sorts, so I keep the same hours. I write September to May, five days a week. I also take a nap every afternoon, preferring the kindergarten plan to the middle school plan. I look forward to school supplies day every year, when I get to buy new paper and pencils and erasers. Like all students, I am just getting settled into the routine again when it is time for the World Series and my favorite week of the year.
My wife and I got married on the most beautiful October 23rd in the history of the universe. We spent the night on the road on the way to a Carolina beach and celebrated our wedding with spare champagne and cold chicken from the reception and watching Joe Carter hit a home run to win the Series. Our anniversary gift to each other each year is the gift of time. We go to the beach in time for our anniversary and Game One of the World Series. When we get home, there is a telephone message waiting for us — from George, our personal Mr. November.
George is one of three brothers I came into when we got married. He is the only one who still lives in Mississippi near the old home place. About two weeks before Thanksgiving he starts laying in groceries and then he starts cooking. Then he calls everyone to see if they might like to come to his cabin by the levee for Thanksgiving dinner. He always acts as though it is the first time he ever thought of it, and we always act surprised, and almost everyone just happens to have the date free on their calendar. We eat too much and and laugh more than our fair share for about twelve hours. If the weather is warm we take a boat ride on the Mississippi. If it is cold we huddle around the wood stove. We stay until dark to watch the barges glide around the bend, searchlights blazing away in search of the channel marker that sits by his balcony rail. When we get home, there are RSVP’S in the mailbox. December is upon us, the first Sunday of Advent.
We hold a tea at our house at the beginning of Advent each year. My wife makes two or three of her legendary trifles, we decorate the house for the holidays, and set out the dessert china we found at a jumble sale to use only for this annual occasion. Our friends drop by for a few minutes and stay until midnight. The candles burn and the champagne sparkles and the smiles glow and the vigil for the coming of the Light of the world begins in earnest that very afternoon. Before we know it, the holiday trips are all taken, the gifts are all exchanged, the children are all surprised, the masses are all attended, and the weather turns cold. When it gets cold here, it is New Year’s Eve. It gets so cold in our old house in January I am sometimes willing to share the bed with the cats, just to stay warm. We read all the books we got for Christmas and work our way through the seed catalogs and dream of the spring. The only joy there is on those cold days comes from watching the birds at the feeders we fill in hope we can trick them into living in our yard if spring ever comes again.
One day I wake up in the dark and cold of an early morning and it is time to plant sweet peas. We always plant sweet peas on Valentine’s Day at our house, my grandmother told us to.
Take a week or a day or a year or a month of your life apart apart and look at its twists and turns. Are there not patterns there — some delightful and some difficult, some hopeful and some discouraging, some light, some dark? Are there not markers and moments, dates and days by which you measure the passing of your time here?
In some ways our lives are a journey without a destination; we have already arrived all the time. The question is not whether or not we get anywhere, it is whether or not we we notice we are somewhere already, we are somewhere all the time.
It is a journey upon which we embark for the sole purpose of landing at the starting points again and again. Only more aware of and more present to, more astonished and humbled and delighted by our arrival than we were the last time we noticed we are indeed already home.
Home is not where we are headed, it is where we are. Progress is measured not by the amount of ground we cover, it is measured by the amount of attention we pay.
The stories told, over and over and over, by the dates marked in our calendars can open our hearts and minds to the riches and textures our own story if we will listen. They teach us that there will be times for us when we live in the dark and the cold and times when we live in the light and the warm.
The truth is this: If I will be present and be faithful, if I will live the seasons as they come, I will see home is not where I am headed, home is where I already and always am.
One day while I was out running errands, Mary Oliver wrote this before I had a chance to. think of it and write it down. Not very happy with her either.
‘One has to say this for the rounds of life that keep coming and going,’ she wrote, ‘it has worked so far.’
So I myself will keep marking the dates, setting my nets, and plant sweet peas on St. Valentine’s Day, even if I have to brush the snow away to do it. My grandmother told us to.