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Out of the Blue | By R.E. Faro
| Grappling with mental and physical fog, Faro finds a metaphor for coping in his own backyard.

Ten a.m. I bring my pickup around to the passenger zone of the clinic.

"It was amazingly quick," Marty says as I snap the seat belt around him. He holds his bandaged wrist in front of him, wriggling his fingers. "I hope to God this works."

"Does it hurt?" I ask.

"It’s numb."

I want to ask how the surgery affects the distressed nerve, but the topic makes me queasy. We climb over Divisadero Street to the pharmacy to pick up pain pills. It’s blustery, one of those fogbound days in the city when you wish you had worn a parka. The light is dim, an ongoing twilight. There will probably be no midday breather, no sunny island in the waves of gray.

"I’m so sick of this wind," he says.

"How long before you can go back to work?" I ask as we pull into a parking place near the pharmacy.

"Six to eight weeks."

A long time, I think, in light of his recent battles with depression. Won’t all this extra time make it worse? Then again, maybe the time off will open something up, something to say yes to.

I want to suggest this optimistic possibility as we eat sandwiches at a small table in a nearby bistro, but I don’t trust pep talks. "Just cheer up," my neighbor used to say to her forlorn daughter, and I bet whatever I say would sound as patronizing. I vow to simply listen. But Marty has hardly been talking 30 seconds about his anguish before I jump in.

"You have to stop beating yourself up," I blurt out. "Depressed is one thing but believing you’re a piece of crap for having a feeling, or a bunch of feelings, is something else. That voice telling you you’re worthless and shameful is not your friend. Don’t listen to it. Don’t argue with it. Don’t give it one ounce of your attention." I hear my voice rising, in tandem with my queasiness. Here it is: a pep talk.

Marty nods. "I know, I know."

I want to say, you don’t know. If you knew, you wouldn’t do it, but that’s not fair. "It takes effort. Lots of effort and willingness."

What is this queasiness? My own sour soup of self-criticism. True, I don’t know how a person gets undepressed, or, at least, starts to feel that it’s possible. A pill? Snorkeling in the Andaman Sea? Good sex? Maybe all it takes is a sunny day. I know for certain self-flagellation is not a happy trail anywhere.

We finish lunch, pick up the pills, and drive to his house. I make him promise to call if he needs anything before I say goodbye and leave for home. Crossing the bridge a fanfare of sunlight plays on the gray cables, and for a minute I believe that the sun will come blazing through. Behold the conquering hero. But the fog quickly knits the breach.

A cloud swaddles my garden, the proverbial wet blanket. By the time I have unloaded my groceries, I have talked myself out of gardening, though I have a list of chores that lengthens as readily as the blackberry bush coming over the south fence. The morning has dampened my spirits too, with a drizzle of worry and self-pity. Who wants to spend precious time deadheading echium or dividing irises or fiddling with the watering system, chores that were not engaging in the first place and are less so now?

What I need is a pep talk. I consider calling Flora but she doesn’t like talking on the phone any more than I. Instead, I reprove myself. Given such lax stewardship, judgment opines, it’s a wonder the garden survives at all.

The trouble with beating yourself up is that afterward, the chores are still there. I change into my beat-up jeans, snatching two peaches on my way outdoors. A half-second from chomping down, I notice they are furred with mold. I take them straight to the compost pile, passing by the stand of echium. Here is as good a place as any to start.

Echium. Pride of Madeira. I still love these plants though they are common as dust. How gladly they inhabit this sometimes viscous, sometimes baked, shank of clay, There must be 100 flower stalks to snip, relics of the spires of pale blue and lavender towering into the paler blue of the sky. Now they’re going to seed, and chances are some will take hold, replacements for the ones declining, a stately cycle of self-perpetuation.

Across the garden something catches my eye. Is that mildew on the dahlia?

I pocket my clippers and descend the slope for a closer look. Sure enough, a powdery whiteness covers the leaves and flower stalks. This happens every summer, but usually after weeks of floral fireworks. The show is pretty much over by then, and the plant will soon be cut down, so I never do anything about it. Thus far this summer there haven’t been any flowers. One is just starting to unfurl. Depressing.

What to do? Am I too late? I won’t even think about Funginex, or sulfur. I don’t want to handle the chemicals or breathe the fumes. If it means goodbye dahlia, so be it.

There is baking soda. Do it. Wait a minute. How about the echium? Don’t you finish anything? The internal tussle is, as always, of no consequence except for momentary paralysis. Eventually, the little yellow box with its icon of determination, the rolled-up sleeve, the sinewy forearm, the fist brandishing a blunt instrument, pulls me forward.

No such box on the pantry shelf, but there is an open one in the refrigerator which is what, from the ’80s? Does soda lose its fizz?

I mix a concoction, three teaspoons soda per gallon of water, plus three tablespoons of horticultural oil for a sticking agent. I add an extra teaspoon of soda just in case, and transfer the liquid to the sprayer.

Waving the mystic wand like a wizard, I generously douse the dahlia. Sizzle, mildew. I have no hopes that the infected leaves will improve, but I hope that new growth will be clean. I’ll probably have to spray more than once. Warm days with cool humid nights are mildew heaven.

More than a half-gallon of spray remains after spraying the dahlia, and I do a mental survey of the garden for other sufferers. The Gulf Stream nandina along the walk in the lower garden, that unheavenly "heavenly bamboo," pops into mind. The plant is stranded in a desert. Its leaves are splotchy, its branches half-defoliated. Another item for the to-do list: relocate it to where it would be happier; somewhere moister, with richer soil, and not so exposed.

I trek back to the compost pile, ignoring the echium stalks strewn in the path, and procure as appeasement two five-gallon buckets of compost to spread at the base of the nandina. Then I give the leaves a soda spritz. A lick and a prayer, I can hear Aunt Dot say, with a wink of approval.

I rarely spend an hour in the garden without thinking about her. She was the most approving spirit, the most accepting. But even she, who seemed immune to the blues, had a dark period when she realized she might have to move from here. "I would hate to have to leave my house," she said, "but leaving my garden would break my heart." Maybe Marty, if he had had Aunt Dot at a critical juncture in his life instead of a maniac father, might be less canted to the downslope.

Maybe, with nurture, the nandina will improve. Clearly the quality of nurture accounts for much, but it doesn’t explain everything. Mildew spores coat the spring growth of the Gravenstein apple but the equally tender leaves of the Golden Delicious are immune. Roses like Tropicana are mildew factories while others, with similarly unshiny leaves (shine means resistance), survive unscathed.

There used to be a Tropicana rose in the upper garden. For years I tried to find some virtue in it because it was one of Aunt Dot’s darlings, though even she couldn’t keep it mildew-free. The day I chopped it into twigs and trashed it was a banner day. The same day, in a rush of resolve, I made war with Peace and assassinated the sweet Mr. Lincoln with whom rust always slept. Or was it blackspot? Three Betty Priors survived the war of the roses because these girls got the vapors for just a few weeks in summer, or perhaps because there were three of them and one of me.

To these same Betty Priors I now carry my spray can, eager to use up the mix. A few of the reddish new leaves are powdered with spores. In past years I just snipped off the worst, as I do with the afflicted leaves of the Gravenstein, a control that works well enough. They grow out of it. But I have the spray, so I use it until, finally, the nozzle sputters and coughs. By then I am feeling less like a wizard than a nurse monitoring a drip.

Which might be depressing, were there not a few feet away another rose, a midsize bush covered with flowers that range in color according to longevity from reddish purple to frosted magenta. They are deliriously fragrant. On warm days I can smell them when I step out the back door. In April, when Flora and I took a stroll around the Berkeley Rose Garden and we each chose a favorite, Outta the Blue was mine. One day, weeks later, she showed up at my door, bearing a present. The bush was covered in blooms, smaller and redder than the ones I remembered, but no matter. I was smitten even before I got it into the ground, and still am.

It boils down to that: What makes me happy is having someone (preferably) or something to love and be loved by.

I rinse out the spray can, and return it to the tool shed, and resume the deadheading of the echium, vowing at least to finish that task. As I snip and snip, the afternoon fades into evening, and, as if to give a preview of what we might see tomorrow, the sun slips momentarily beneath the fog, refurbishing with one broad stroke the gold of the Golden Gate. It couldn’t be more unsubtle, more pep-talky, a humongous, shameless cliché.

"Look here," it says. "Life is precious."

And I’m chilly. I fill the green bin with the stalks, collect and store my tools, and go indoors to see what gives with the fruit flies swarming above the kitchen sink.

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For a decade, dispatches from Faro’s garden have appeared seasonally in The Monthly. We are pleased to announce that Ithuriel’s Spear Press has just published them as a collection, entitled In Faro’s Garden, A Tour and Some Detours. The book is available at www.spdbooks.org, Amazon.com and Black Oak Books in Berkeley. R. E. Faro can be reached at farospace@sbcglobal.net.

Click here to view the Faro's garden archive.

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