DIY Landscaping

We moved to West Virginia in January, 2013. As the winter rolled into spring and then into summer last year, it was clear that our new yard needed a lot of TLC. However, we still had so much unpacking and organizing inside the house that, apart from mowing, we just closed our eyes as we walked in and out of our house, ignoring the yard-tastrophe.

A year later and there is general order inside, so this summer I was ready to improve the house’s curbside appeal. Brian and I have lived in townhouses from 1999 (our first year out of college) to January, 2013. Up to this point, our homes always have been a middle unit in a row of homes, so we’ve only had a sliver of a front yard and a sliver of a back yard to manage. Because I have little experience with landscaping, I can become overwhelmed easily during both the planning and the execution stages of revamping a yard. This is why for so many years when my mom asks me what I want for my birthday, my go-to response is: her. It’s the perfect birthday gift to have her visit to help me come up with landscaping ideas and then make them happen. She is so gifted and experienced with this; she is one with the dirt. Once she gets the ball rolling, the task at hand becomes more manageable and I’m able to contribute during both the idea and execution stages. I’ve learned so much from working on projects together with her, even during small projects like potting annuals.

Now that we have four exterior walls of a house to care for, there’s a lot more yard to manage as well. The goal this year was to tackle two sides of the house, and my (June) birthday wish from Mom was no different. Brian, my mom, and I each put in about 10-12 hours of work on both Saturday and Sunday of my birthday weekend, and Brian took the day off from work on Monday to finalize a couple of the projects.

Here’s a look at the before and after.

BEFORE.

Front Yard - Before

The abominable treeman steals the show in this picture. But did you know that trees can be trimmed? Originally, I had wanted to remove the tree because of how it dominated the yard. It never once crossed my mind to trim the tree. As you’ll see in the next photo, oh what a difference a hair cut makes. Trees can be trimmed. I have learned so much.

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I actually trimmed the branches much more than this (see below), but even this first cut substantially opened up the yard.

Here are some more before shots of that front plant bed.

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The front bed required a lot of attention. Behind the overgrown bushes – surprise! – there were more bushes. The hidden azalea bushes had lots of potential but limited opportunity given the weeds and suffocating location. The river rocks are beautiful, but they were buried underneath all of the overgrowth, and in the corners of the bed the rocks were dumped haphazardly. The solar-powered lights didn’t function, which is just as well, because I felt no need to light up and show off our patch of weeds to the neighbors.

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The side of the house and the entryway were blank slates.

In summary, there was a tree monster, massive overgrowth, and weeds. Anything that had potential (like shrubbery, rocks, and lights) looked like it was arranged by a toddler (no offense to toddlers).

AFTER.

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The plant bed was cleared and widened. The front bushes (not sure of their name) were trimmed, and the azaleas were moved to the side of the house. The rhododendron was originally next to the bushes (where the hydrangea is now), but given its height and shape we thought it’d work better in the corner. Once the rhododendron was moved, we had that open space between the bushes and the corner, which we filled with the hydrangea. Hydrangeas are a favorite of mine, so I was glad to work one into the mix.

Once we cleared the front plant bed and re-purposed the rocks from around the base of the tree, there were plenty of river rocks to frame the bed and wrap around the side of the house. The side plant bed extends about 40 feet. That side yard isn’t used or seen much, and low maintenance landscaping is my style, so we planted a dozen hostas along that strip. In creating the side bed, we excavated several flat sheet rocks, which we used as stepping stones to the faucet and as a flat surface for the hose storage container.

New, inexpensive solar-powered lights were used to line the walkway leading to the house, and an abundance of potted plants were added to the entryway.

Not shown in the above photos is our garage, which is left of the entryway. Although not quite as exciting, on the other side of the garage we added some plants around the cable/electrical boxes as well as some potted flowers.

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I’m so grateful for the help on these projects and I am excited to watch the plants mature and fill in over the coming years. Ah, West Virginia, feels like home.

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Christmas Cards

After a long hiatus from sending Christmas cards to friends and family, I am excited to report that I designed and ordered cards this year. I am 88% confident that we will get around to addressing envelopes and mailing them out as well. Just in case I live in the 12%, this is what I came up with this year:
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And this card idea was the runner-up:
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Just Right

I head directly south for most of my morning commute. This morning was like many I’ve experienced since starting my job a month ago, where the sun shines on me and the mountains in the most perfect way as it rises in the east. It’s not too far in front of me to blind me. It’s not too far behind me to blot out everything in the rear view mirror. It rides along beside me like a passenger on my commute, warming my face, not straining my eyes but softening them into an eye smile. Its rays are magnificent. Beams of light pass through the foggy, tree-filled mountains so that the entire landscape is softened too. The sun’s warmth is so cozy and inviting. I’m sure I accelerate during the brief moments when the mountainside blocks the sun so that I can get back to relishing the long stretches where it radiates the most. This morning sun is not blistering. It’s not bleakly absent. It’s present and inspiring. It’s just right.

Today I am so grateful for such a beautiful commute. Without the sun it would be drab and cool. Without the mountains the warmth and light would have less dimension.

Until we move closer to the university, I have a long drive covering over fifty miles. I am grateful that I have this time set aside to experience the glory of my surroundings, to relax my shoulders, to pause the consuming, new job-related mental exertion, and to reflect on relationships and God. Today there are no complaints about how this long of a commute is wasted time or excessively burdensome. Right now, I have this commute because it is what I need. Right now, fifty miles is just right.

Four Easy Steps to an Unsuccessful Blog

I don’t do everything well. But enough about that. Let’s focus here on my skills. One thing that I’ve done very well recently is kill the readership on my blog. It required a lot of effort and hard work on my part, and now that I have the tools in hand, I thought I’d share my wisdom with all of the people that aren’t reading my blog, which is everyone. If you follow these four easy steps, I truly believe that you can have an unsuccessful, unread blog as well. Godspeed.

You might think that a key ingredient in unsuccessful blogging is to have shoddy writing. Well, that’s just simply not true. It might help, but there’s a lot of unpolished writing out there that gets quite a bit of attention. No no, writing style alone will not plummet your page view stats. The first thing you might consider is what I did:

Step 1. Post very infrequently. I did this gradually with only a couple posts in a year’s time, and then I let an entire year pass with no posts. Of course, at first I was still updating my masthead regularly. What was I thinking? That could attract people to the site! Thus the second step in squelching a blog was born.

Step 2. Do not update your masthead or any feature of the blog. This was very effective in dropping site visits. Unfortunately, after the couple-year hiatus of little to no blog activity, I was ready to start writing again. How was I to balance the conundrum of wanting to blog with not having a successful blog? Easy.

Step 3. Don’t tell anyone that you have started writing on the blog again. Don’t put your posts on Facebook. Don’t Twitter them. Don’t tell friends about them. Mum’s the word. However, this step is not full proof, so we cannot stop here. Inevitably it will leak to a friend or two that you wrote something relating to a conversation you’ve had with them. You also have the problem of random search engine searches that land on your site. In my case, I can’t help but get hits on praying mantises and gallbladders. My blog serves as a leading source on both topics (if leading source means that I posted a couple of anecdotes about a praying mantis and my gallbladder). So there’s only one surefire way to handle friend leaks and random searches elevating your stats into the single digits.

Step 4. Have your site blocked for containing malware. You know that page you can come across online that says “Report of a possible attack!” where at first you freak out that you were attacked and your whole electronic life is going to crumble before your eyes and maybe the attack will even crawl out of the computer and give you an actual disease, but then you realize that it is actually just the internet cops saving you from such destruction with a warning page, and you’re allowed to proceed anyway, but that destruction will most definitely occur if you proceed onto the site of possible attack? Are you familiar with that message? I am! My blog had that message associated with it for two months. Expecting someone to proceed onto a site with possible malware is like asking someone to drink a cup of germs. No one is going to take that risk. I couldn’t even access my own posts, let alone have anyone else access them.

There you have it. My summit to the pinnacle of unsuccessful blogging.

Now that I have mastered the unsuccessful blogging arena, I think I’ll try my hand at having a blog that a handful of people may visit from time to time. I want to have the best mediocre blog out there. Here goes…

Annual Performance Review

Employee: Scout

Strengths: Securing the premises against canine and other feline infiltration

Areas to Improve: Serving as a curtain tie back (please let in more sunlight)

Conclusion: Renew contract for another year and then re-evaluate

Annual Goals for 2012-2013: Learning to fold laundry and empty the dishwasher

Above the Clouds

We disembarked our small plane in Mendoza, Argentina, picked up our luggage from baggage claim, and passed all of our items through a security scanner. It was 1:30 in the afternoon and gloriously sunny. As I waited for Brian on the other side of security, I began to run through the schedule for the rest of our day.

We’ll take a taxi to our bed and breakfast, quickly freshen up, and then connect with our driver who will take us on the half-day winery tour. Where do we grab a taxi or shuttle? We should take whatever is faster, we want to make sure we have plenty of time at the wineries.

I scanned the open lobby.

Look at the chauffeurs holding signs with names. Wouldn’t that be nice, both time efficient and a luxury.

Still scanning the lobby, my brain processed what my eyes saw three seconds earlier.

Wait, was that my name?

I looked back. There it was — my name spelled incorrectly and scribbled very non-luxuriously on one of those handheld signs. When the owners of the B & B had scheduled the private wine tour for us, I had given them our flight information via email. I thought this was so they had an estimate of when we’d be arriving at the B & B. Maybe I had misunderstood the intent of the request for flight information. I guess the B & B owners had arranged for our driver to pick us up from the airport.

We greeted the driver and without question loaded our luggage and ourselves into the car. Conversation was minimal. He didn’t speak English (which was odd because the owners had told us that we’d have a bilingual driver), but more than that, I was still perplexed that we were picked up at the airport and not the B & B. Ah well, I’m just grateful and relieved that I happened to read my name since my standard protocol is to ignore those signs completely.

As we drove and drove, I began to worry that I had once again miscalculated the situation. All I said to the driver was hello. Why didn’t I clarify who he was there to pick up and where we were going? How dumb will I look if, after fifteen minutes of driving, I ask him if he has the correct passengers?… Why is it even harder to ask this after twenty minutes? Why did it seem like we drove through the whole city, and now we’re on the city’s outskirts? Why isn’t anyone in the car talking?!

Eventually I interrupted the silence that I was sure was awkward, “Are we near our B & B?” (I spoke in Spanish, of course).

Our driver responded (in Spanish, of course), “Oh no, that’s way back there.”

“Oh.”

Brian and I quietly discussed what this could mean. We aren’t going to the B & B first? The email didn’t have any of these details. Oh well, it’s probably fine. Or maybe we should throw out some pointed questions to ensure we aren’t being kidnapped? Yeah, that’s what we should do. It might feel uncomfortable asking such untimely questions, but better safe than sorry.

I clear my throat. “Incredible mountains.” Whoops. Not a pointed question at all.

“Yes, they are.” And on he goes telling us about the mountains and the region. “This road we are on is the road to Chile.”

Here was a prime opportunity to get answers and finally I capitalized on it, “But we’re not going to Chile today, right?”

On a more exciting blog, this is where the story would escalate to the adventures of the couple who was unwillfully held captive and forced to shovel llama manure for some wealthy Chilean. On this blog, however, the story ends happily and somewhat anti-climatically. The driver laughed. We laughed. And a very easy conversation followed about the afternoon plans.

There are over a thousand wineries in the Mendoza region, our driver took us to two of them that day. Both experiences were lovely in their own way. The masthead from this month was taken from the first winery, Ruca Malen.

Here we sampled wines over a five-course lunch. I’m an amateur at wines; I drink in moderation on infrequent occasion. Yes, the meal was truly exquisite, but the experience was so greatly enhanced by the view. The Andes. In fact, I could hardly take my eyes off the mountains from the moment we started driving on the road to Chile. This was our vista during lunch…

I have stood at the summit of Pike’s Peak in the Colorado Rockies and I have ridden a train through the Swiss Alps. I have seen these mountain ranges stretch to over 14,000 and 15,000 feet tall, which is nothing to sneeze at. But oh, the Andes. I was so wooed by the Andes — not the relatively puny peaks but the ones that were over 20,000 feet and reached beyond the clouds. How can a mountain range overshadow the clouds like that? How can those peaks really be real? (On our second day in Mendoza we took a day trip into the Andes to hike. Those peaks are quite real).

That afternoon in Mendoza is set apart as one of the best afternoons I have had in a long time. It wasn’t because of what we were doing, it was because I somehow let go of the everyday stresses and worries and annoyances and over-planning and goal-setting and general overwhelmedness that I so often throw into a bag and carry on my shoulders. I was lighter, freer, and more present than even the vacation version of myself. I was peaceful and giddy (which was not from too much wine). I can’t help but think the Andes provided some of the inspiration in reaching this release, this freedom. Perhaps the stunningly high peaks stood as a reminder that life’s hindrances are small and rather dull when contrasted with such majesty.

I frequently stare at this last picture of the mountains high above the clouds. It reminds me to take some time to leave life’s baggage full of distractions at the foothills so that I can relish, peacefully and joyously, in all the great things that surround me.

Leap Year

I was sitting at my desk at work when lightning struck with multiple pops in varying pitches. The endless pellets of the downpour followed. Today was different from other thunderstorms in which I’m compelled to retreat indoors. Today the storm was so inviting. Our office blinds usually remain closed day and night (a horrible way to treat an office window), nevertheless I kept looking toward the window like a cat transfixed by a chirping bird just a pane of glass away. I was longing to be outside during the storm. I envisioned an escape — running to a park and collapsing in the grass. If there were a rock big and smooth enough for me to lay on it, then I would. I wanted to lay flat on my back with my arms outstretched and the rain beating at my body.

I am in transition, moving to a new state from a bigger city to a college town. Our home and church will change. Our grocery store and bank will change. I’ll look for a local doctor and hair salon. I’ll learn to navigate streets that totally confuse me right now. Hopefully we’ll find a church that fits, and in time I’ll serve there in some capacity. It may not look anything like how I’ve contributed at our church for the past seven years, or it may. And even with a great PhD program experience, the move to a tenure-track faculty position at a research university still feels like I’ve been promoted from being a sorter in the mail room to CEO. This aspect of the transition will be the most challenging new territory to navigate.

I have started to pull away from my current life but haven’t moved to my new city and new life yet. It’s that moment of time in the middle of a leap where the hind foot has left the ground but the front foot hasn’t landed. In this moment it might look like I am flying, but all I notice is that I’m not touching the ground.

I wanted so badly to be drenched by the rain today. I wanted to lay in the soaking wet grass to cry and pray and probably even smile. Mostly I just wanted reassurance from the gravity of the downpour, to feel grounded when I’m groundless.

On Marriage

I’m in a phase of updating and organizing and pitching out and cleaning. This afternoon I was going through some files on my computer in a folder titled “Journal.” The “Husband Moments” document caught me eye, so I opened it and read some conversations that Brian and I had exchanged years ago.

***

December 31, 2005

Brian and I were in the car together running several errands. We were quiet. My mind wandered as I contemplated love, life, marriage, divorce. Eventually we parked at the next stop on our list.

Walking into the department store, I asked with no pretenses attached, “Brian, have you ever thought about leaving me?”

His immediate reply, “Leaving you where?”

***

March 1, 2008

Driving home from the dessert-house in a progressive dinner organized by a church group, I reflected on an earlier conversation with another woman about wives submitting to husbands.

After a few moments of silence in the car, I asked, “Brian, do I submit enough?”

“Submit what?” was his reflex.

***

And they say that men and women approach relationships differently. Pshaw.

For His Glory

A 4-hour drive to Washington, D.C.

An 11-hour flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

A 3.5-hour flight to Ushuaia.

A 2.5-day ship expedition across the Drake Passage.

A 7am wake up call came over the intercom system from the hotel manager aboard our ship, “Good morning and welcome to Antarctica!” The ship was finally protected by land and moving slowly. The engine murmured instead of roared. The harsh beating of the waves against the ship was now just a slosh. The rhythmic motion of the cabin bed curtains opening and closing stopped. Personal items were silent in the drawers. Best of all, we crawled out of bed, stood up, and walked around the cabin as we got ready for breakfast. We stood. We walked. It had been two days since we were able to accomplish these tasks without risking injury. After so many long days of travel, we had finally arrived at one of the most remote places in the world. Why hello, Antarctica.

By 10am we had dressed in three layers of clothing, put on our waterproof boots and our self-inflatable life jackets, and stepped onto the ship’s gangway in order to board a zodiac for our first landing on Antarctica.

Antarctica is another planet, except that it’s not. I inhale its air for the first time. It reminds me of fresh, crisp mountain air that I have tasted before, but there is a purity and flavor here that is set apart. A wall of snow hundreds of feet high hides the base of the mountains in front of me. There are no rolling foothills, just peaks that dramatically burst into the sky. Nothing is gradual or subtle here. The peaks of the mountains come in and out of view as the clouds and fog shift. The weather was quite the story-teller throughout the trip, creating complex, unpredictable, mysterious stories with the sun and clouds and rain. Nothing is simple or plain here.

About ten of us load onto a zodiac. Sitting in our inflatable boat, I look up. We are a blip next to the ship. We are a speck of dirt next to Antarctica. This scale, this vastness, this incomprehensible beauty cannot possibly exist on Earth, but it does. I literally feel unworthy in its presence, insignificant and blemished by comparison. Why am I allowed to experience this?

As we head to land, my autonomic nervous system shuts down. Every breath, every swallow, every action that would otherwise occur involuntarily now needs to be cued. No words can pass my lips even if I try. Blood rushes to every capillary, drawn to Antarctica like a magnet. Not one part of my body wants to be internal in this moment. Every cell and every organ put their jobs on hold to help me process this moment, this place. This? This is what it means to be arrested. This is Antarctica.

Of course my organs resumed normal function after this first encounter with the continent, but the awe never waned throughout the trip. I never felt like I could fully absorb the grandeur of the mountains, the snow, the sky, the wildlife, and the ice.

In the past eight or so years, only thirty to forty thousand people from around the world have visited Antarctica each year. That’s about six ten-thousandths of a percent of the world’s population per year. It’s too expensive, too remote, and too harsh to draw more visitors. Our reaction to this was, “What a waste.” What a waste for such an indescribable, arresting creation to be hidden from so many.

Then I remembered the purpose of creation. Ultimately, it was made to bring glory to God. It doesn’t matter if forty million, forty thousand, or four people experience this grandeur. The mountains proclaim, the ice sculptures reveal the glory of God. “Shout for joy to God, all the earth! Sing the glory of his name; make his praise glorious” (Psalm 66: 1-2).

I am his creation, too. I was made to bring him glory. It doesn’t matter if my sphere of influence includes millions, thousands, or no one, my purpose is to be sold out for him. To love him and to praise him when everyone is watching and when no one is watching. “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (I Corinthians 10:31). When people live for God with reckless abandon, it is the most beautiful, the most mysterious, the most arresting of all creation.