This time of year, the growing plots outside our house are gone a little wild. The sunflowers are leaned and bowed, their leaves starting to dry. The second-year blue kale is about four feet in diameter, and looks like a conference of miniature storm clouds hovering just near enough together to make plans. The barberry bush has sent dozens of shoots straight up, deep red and purple spires the length of my forearm: if Moses stops by, it’s ready. Then there’s the bachelor’s buttons, still with a few little blue stars but mostly dried into crisp brown brooms that lean over the sidewalk; and there’s the rose I adopted and moved last year, whose six-foot stems I have braided.
When you visit, you’ll need to weave your way through all this vegetation, to the small cedar deck outside our door. On the left is a large wooden glider swing that I refinished last year. I intended to paint it to match the barberry bush, but when I finished I found that what I had matched was just the bush’s newest shoots, their incandescent red, so this glider swing has turned out to be the reddest swing in the entire world. The neighbors seem to like it, which is a good thing, since we’re all stuck with it – or at least they were startled enough by it to say that they liked it.
Sitting at the foot of the glider swing, at the front corner of the deck, which you’ll brush past when you come, is a blue vase. It’s about a foot tall, with an oval body, a narrowed neck, and a slightly fluted lip. It was made by a person named Jeannie a year ago, as the inscription on the bottom reports. Maybe she didn’t like how it turned out, since I found it at the local Goodwill store, but I found it perfect, having looked a long time for such a piece, just enough lopsided to feel natural, its finger imprints and cloudy glaze clearly created. It’s perfect in the sense of wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic of transience and imperfection, which “nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” (Powell, Richard R. (2004). Wabi Sabi Simple. Adams Media. Referenced in the Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabi-sabi.)
To keep the vase from blowing over in our frequent windstorms, I filled it with tamped potting soil and some miscellaneous rocks. Just inside the vase’s lip, I set two smooth-polished black river stones, oval and flat, slightly irregular, again, wabi-sabi.
The effect pleases me. But there’s something a little funny about it: the black stones keep getting out of the vase. I’ll come home from practice, and find one of the stones a little way down the sidewalk. Or both of them will be sitting outside the vase, one on the step, one on the deck, here or there, looking a little suspicious, but ever silent.
Tsvet is innocent in this case, I’m pretty sure. A squirrel?
It’s a special instance of wabi-sabi: I get to put the stones in the vase again and again.
Sometimes when I come home from practice, I’ll find outside our front door Monster Cat. — I call him Monster Cat, even though I know his name is Cosmo. He’s monstrous only in a comic way, in his startling forwardness. When we first met, he walked right up to our front door and clearly said In! I was so surprised and humored that I opened the door. In he went, rapidly making the rounds of our whole house, ’til Tsvet shooed him out.
I did for a while suspect he was schizophrenic, however. Sometimes he would come up to me and tolerate a few representative pats on the head, even walk around my legs and rub up against me; other times, he would hiss at me from under a car and slink away. I wondered about this, until one day I saw two of him. Yes, that’s right. Cosmo has a sibling who’s also got short gray fur, white boots, and a bobtail. They look alike, but only on the outside.
One day I came home and found Monster Cat staring into the flower bed. Ensconced in the tea-cozy posture, he had the stonecrop firmly in his gaze, the low-growing cover-plant’s stems about three inches from his face. — Monster Cat never tells me what he’s thinking, but I still wondered, What are you doing? He looked at that plant with such intensity, he might’ve been trying to make it spontaneously combust, or on the other hand, to keep it from some strange existential evaporation – or perhaps he was trying to make it bloom.
He looked and looked. I looked, too. Finally, Boing! a grasshopper sprang out of the stonecrop. I sensed the grasshopper more as change than as a thing I actually saw, its body pale red and green, just like the stonecrop’s late-summer leaves and stems. The grasshopper was invisible again as soon as it landed; Monster Cat set his paw back under his chest and returned to watching.
A few days after this, I heard the house finches’ twittering complaints from far down the street. I swung wide and went to lock my bike behind the house, figuring the birds must be training a youngster in the front yard, or some such thing, so I would try not to bother them. Alas, I had locked the back door from the inside, so I had to walk back around the building to go in the front, anyway. As I approached, the birds were still making their fluted ruckus. It wasn’t me that was bothering them — it was —
Monster Cat was back in his spot, driving his attention into the innermost essence of the stonecrop. The four adult house finches hung over him in the rose bush’s waving branches, intensely scolding and occasionally dive-bombing him, but he was oblivious.
“Monster Cat, the birds are really upset. Why don’t you just go home for now?”
The sheer impenetrability of his concentration was as clear a refusal as he could have made. What could be so important?
Monster Cat, what ARE you doing?
He never tells me.
Recently, I came out the front door (and I do come out of the house just as often as I go in, even though this essay may not reflect this reality clearly). I found sitting there a tomato.
This tomato was sitting in exactly the right spot – a little off to the side from the swing of the front door, so as not to be in the way, but toward the middle of the deck, so as definitely to be noticed, and yet, still, it was a modest placing – a little off to one side, as I have already said, so as not to look like it was putting itself too far forward. And what would a tomato look like, if it were smiling? This one was only smiling demurely, as it was a modest tomato, as I have suggested, but I did sense that it was quite pleased, serene, and all in its world was delightful.
“Hello, little tomato,” I said to it.
You must hear in my greeting a certain friendliness, for even stranger than the tomato’s basic presence was the fact that I recognized this tomato. (May you, too, reach that enlightened state of being able to recognize individual vegetables.) I had seen this tomato the day before, sunning on its vine in Tsvet and my part of the community garden. It was the only large tomato in the whole garden that was ripening. (I understand that tomato plants prefer weather under 80°F. When it’s warmer than that, they just shut down, not growing, their fruit not ripening – they just sit. Since it’s been in the mid 90s most of the summer, most of the tomatoes around here are still green, even though it’s now mid-August.)
Since this tomato still wasn’t quite ripe when I visited the garden, I did not bring it in. But anyway, now that you are aware of our acquaintance, and that this is a particularly bright tomato, you may not be surprised that it seemed to sit in the center of my deck and say, Here I am! Aren’t you surprised to see me? How do you think I managed to get myself here?
A couple of days later, as I carried my bike out the front door and down the steps, I saw the little neighbor boy and his mom standing next to their car.
“Sarah!” The little boy called out to me. Little Rocco, as he’s called, is two-and-a-half going on three; this was the first time he had spoken to me.
I walked my bike over to them. “Yes, Rocco?”
“I put a tomato on your front step!” he beamed.
“I wondered if that was you,” I smiled at him.
“We were picking vegetables in the garden,” his mom said with tired sheepishness, “and before I knew it, he was picking the tomatoes from the wrong plants.”
“It’s no problem,” I laughed. “I thought, tomato delivery! How nice!” We all laughed. “I see you have blackberries in front of your house.”
“It’s sort of out of control,” Rachel said. “I cut it back to the ground each spring, and as you can see, now it’s all over!”
It was true – even more than at my house, you might benefit from a machete if you wanted to get to their front door.
“Some of them are sour!” Rocco offered, his face alight.
“It’s hard to be patient and wait for them to ripen,” Rachel observed instructively. “He just wants to pick them and eat them anyway.”
“It is hard to be patient, isn’t it?” I agreed. “Well, I best be off. I’m taking Tsvetomir his lunch.”
“How nice!” Rachel smiled. “Have fun!”
“Thank you, I will! Bye!”
“Bye!” Rachel said.
A few moments later, I heard behind me a cheerful and triumphant, “Bye!” as Rocco caught up with the conversation’s dynamics.
“Bye!” I called, to confirm his developing skills.
I reflected as I biked down the street that this little Rocco had suddenly looked not so little, as we had all discussed tomatoes and raspberries, and although he occasionally buried his face shyly in his mom’s leg, suddenly I realized that he wasn’t a toddler anymore, he was a little boy, his brown, curly hair messy and his eyes sparkling, his feet planted wide apart and his shoulders square (a posture he will probably use the rest of his life), smiling and really seeing me, happy as the words he used really worked. Isn’t that mysterious!