Friday, September 16, 2016

Connection to nature

As I've written many times before, I go to my garden to get some peace and solitude when I need them, which is often these days. I don't mind being around people generally, or being at work or being social. But there is something about the lure of a garden, about the chance to be alone for several hours, connected to the earth--nothing beats it. Working with the earth, watching plants grow slowly, flower and produce vegetables and fruit, and then die at the end of the season--it's all a part of the cycle of nature. I am so glad to watch nature at work, so glad to not be divorced from it anymore. There is something inherently wrong, even sick, with the way we live our the major portion of our lives, cooped up in offices or workplaces that are lighted by fluorescent lights and ventilated by air-conditioning/internal air. There is often no possibility to open a window to get real fresh air in many new office buildings. I've begun to go outdoors at lunchtime when I can, just to get some fresh air and sunshine, and to be able to walk.

It's been a very warm September, so my pumpkins are almost ready to harvest. I've already harvested two of them, one that is fifteen pounds and the other eight pounds. I planted twelve pumpkin plants and each of them yielded a pumpkin; the slugs ate one, leaving eleven, of which ten have grown to maturity. I'm still getting runner beans and string beans, but all other veggies are done for the season. I plan on drying some of the runner beans so that I can get seeds for planting next year. The corn was very good, just small, so next year I'll plant corn in richer soil so that it can grow larger. The hollyhocks and daisies are still blooming. I've been working hard prepping the garden for winter--taking up dead plants, cutting dead branches, and preparing the soil for next spring. Plus mowing the lawn and raking up dead leaves and dried grass to use as soil cover.

I bought honey from the garden's beekeeper who was selling small and large jars of the honey he had collected from hives in our community garden and from the Botanical Garden here in Oslo. It's very good honey, and it's kind of cool to know that my garden contributed to the honey that the bees made. I love that idea.

ripening pumpkins

runner beans

two harvested pumpkins

honey from our community garden; soldugg means 'sundew'

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Soul-sucking exercise in futility

After a wonderful and relaxing summer, I was actually ready to go back to work. I cannot honestly say I was looking forward to the daily grind again, but my mood was positive and upbeat. You might even say I was motivated to start a new academic year. Unfortunately, those feelings never last. They are replaced by ennui, resignation and boredom once the grant application season starts or once we start to get replies from the grant organizations to which we applied before the summer months. You would think that after so many years in the business that rejection gets easier to take. It doesn’t, at least not initially. By the end of the day however, I have recovered from it, compared to perhaps several days some years ago when I actually cared more.

I did not spend much time on grant applications this year, since I and my colleagues agreed that we would spend the next year working diligently on new projects and generating data so that we could use that data in next year’s applications. Applying for grant funding at present is a soul-sucking exercise in futility. The funding situation is so brutally competitive that it makes no sense to waste precious time on writing and sending an application with preliminary data; it will not get funded, period. You need to be an established researcher in your field, and it gets harder and harder to remain in that field if you don't get funding. I sent only one grant application to a private foundation that has supported us previously with funds for a PhD position. I was hoping to get funding; I asked for about 180,000 USD to cover a two-year technical position plus costs for lab consumables and overhead. After all, the foundation knows that we can deliver the goods—their support of my PhD student was money well-spent since it led to a successful PhD defense back in 2010. However…….

The foundation’s board members were not entirely negative to my application for a technician. They agreed to give our institute one-third of the amount I applied for, with the stipulation that I come up with the remaining two-thirds. In other words, I cannot accept their 33.3 % funding unless I can guarantee them that I will obtain the remaining 66.6% from other sources. I have to find someone willing to support us with 120,000 USD or I cannot receive the 60,000 USD they are offering. It’s laughable if it didn’t make you want to cry first. The reason I am applying to this foundation is because all other sources of funding have dried up at this point. I have a snowball’s chance in hell of raising 120,000 USD. So it doesn’t look like our group is getting a research technician any time soon, which is unfortunate because a full-time technician is exactly what we need.

I will allow for the possibility that the foundation doesn’t really understand the brutality of the funding situation. But hopes get raised and dreams get smashed each year, and for each year that passes, I see less and less point in the whole process. I struggle to find meaning in such a soulless and brutal profession. Any wonder that I prefer to be alone in my garden these days, with no interference or constant rejection to deal with? I understand the laws of nature and manage to work with them--a peaceful co-existence. Sometimes things grow and sometimes they don't. Sometimes the slugs win and sometimes they don't. But there is at least some reward for the hard work. In academia, there is none.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Reclaiming the best parts of ourselves

Getting older is about reclaiming the best parts of ourselves, the parts that we discovered as teenagers but then buried for fear that they might be ridiculed or destroyed. Or possibly because we felt sure that no one would understand us if we expressed them. Because the world that we grew up in, while less intense in terms of social media pressure compared to today's world, was every bit as intense when it came to ‘fitting in’ or ‘assuming’ personalities that were acceptable to society. Some of those personalities included career woman, feminist, wife, mother, successful man, husband, and father—all of the things that we had to deal with and make choices about in our 20s and 30s. But I remember my teenage years; they were about self-discovery and about wanting to find the path inward to my soul after reading St. Teresa of Avila’s book The Interior Castle or The Mansions. She described seven different rooms that a person had to move through in order to find God. Those years were about intense emotions, strange new feelings, spiritual exploration and even an interest in the mystical; questions about life’s meaning, our purpose on this earth, and our place in the universe. But after I left those years, I entered another world, one that required that I fit in, work for a living, contribute to society in one form or another, and be responsible. I have done and do all those things still. But I long to clear the decks, to make room once again for the young woman trying to find her way in the world, discovering new areas inside herself, before responsibility, duty and work took over.

That young woman was a writer; she wrote poetry on a daily basis, as well as short stories. She was a reader; she loved sci-fi and crime novels, English literature and poetry. She wanted to be like her father and mother, both avid readers. She talked to them about what she read, and they in turn did the same with her and suggested books for her to read. She read Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure (her father was a Thomas Hardy fan and she became one too), and cried at the end of that novel when Jude died alone. She remembers wandering into the living room where she found her father to share that sadness; that memory stands out because he understood how she felt, like he understood so much of who she was when she was young. He always listened to her; that was his gift to others—the ability to listen well. Her female friends loved him as he always made them feel welcome and accepted. He understood that life was unfair (because he had experienced it himself) and that Thomas Hardy was able to write about that unfairness in a way that appealed to him and to her. Her father died when she was 29 years old; he died too young. She remembers driving home to the Bronx the evening he died, a wall of grief all around her. It almost seemed real, as though the car that she was driving would smash against it. That too is a memory that she recalls clearly all these years later. He never got a chance to see the woman she became or the woman she is now. The woman who is returning to her literary roots, planted by her parents, who were gardeners of all things literary. She is returning to her roots in other ways as well—as a proud American with a new interest in American history, trying to sort out all that makes America a great country. She loves returning to her hometown where she was born and seeing the changes as it moves on without her. She is not nostalgic for the past. Yet so much of Tarrytown remains the Tarrytown of her memories—the Tarrytown Lakes, the Hudson River estates, the river itself, Rockwood State Park—all the places that left their imprint on her heart and soul when she was a teenager. She spent a lot of time alone as a teenager, and understands only now the purpose for that. That solitude was a gift to her in the midst of much that was sad around her--her father’s illnesses, family crises, unemployment and uncertainty. It became something to seek after when she entered her 20s and 30s, knowing full well that she would not find much of it during those years. Even in her 40s, there was little in the way of solitude, because each waking minute was occupied by daily home and work routines. But when she entered her 50s, her world changed, for reasons she is still not quite clear about.  The need for solitude re-emerged, stronger than ever. Solitude became something to fight for, to defend; it became a meaning for living—a purpose. It was suddenly very important to ‘have a room of one’s own’ so that solitude could be ensured. That meant being firm about the need for that; it meant not giving in to what others wanted immediately. It meant being selfish in a good way; putting one’s ideas, dreams and wishes first, for once. It meant not sacrificing what was important to oneself. Because without solitude, there is no chance to discover or rediscover oneself, to examine one’s life, to find the special meaning in one’s life. It was Socrates who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”. She understood that as a teenager, and now again as a woman moving toward her 60s.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Photos--USA trip August 2016

Monticello, Charlottesville VA--Thomas Jefferson's home 

Springwood, Hyde Park NY--Franklin D Roosevelt's home

view from the back of Springwood, overlooking the Hudson River 

Springwood cemetery garden

Franklin D Roosevelt's grave

Tarrytown Lakes

the new Tappan Zee Bridge under construction

enjoying the Hudson River view

Friday, August 26, 2016

Making memories--two weeks in the States

This year I was lucky enough to have two whole weeks of summer vacation in my country. I planned it that way so that I could visit my two cousins, one of whom (Cathy) lives in Virginia; the other (Karen) who lives in the suburbs of Washington DC. I landed at Newark airport in early August and made my way to Washington DC by Amtrak train, where my cousin’s husband picked me up and drove me to their home in Virginia. I spent two very nice days with them; the first day we toured Monticello (in Charlottesville), the home of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a complex man, a scholar who strongly believed in public education, and a would-be scientist, as well as a military man and politician. As a landowner, he was very interested in different farming techniques and in improving crop production. He also tried his hand at making wine and beer. These are all activities that were carried out at Monticello. He is best-known as the author of the Declaration of Independence, but he also founded the University of Virginia. He was a slave-owner until his final days, although he talked about the evils of slavery and about abolishing it during his lifetime. After his wife died, he formed a relationship with the slave Sally Heming and fathered several of her children as confirmed by recent DNA testing. He is buried at Monticello in the family cemetery; on his gravestone is written the following, according to his wishes "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia."

I traveled from Charlottesville to Washington DC by Amtrak train, and visited my other cousin, and then traveled to New York City by Amtrak train. My experience with Amtrak on all three trips was very good; good service and functioning air-conditioning, the latter which was necessary given that most of the time I was in the USA, the temperatures were well over 95 degrees Fahrenheit, at least where I visited. The trains were packed, so talk of the demise of railroad travel in the USA seems rather premature, in my opinion. I find it very pleasant to travel by train.

I was together with friends from different periods in my past life on this trip: I spent an evening with two friends that I worked together with over thirty years ago at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; another evening with some women friends from high school; a day and evening with a close friend from the neighborhood where I grew up, and then some days with my close friend who lives further upstate. She and I made a list of all the things we wanted to do together on this visit, and we did them all. We have already decided to make a list next year as well. One of the things we did this year was to drive to Hyde Park New York (home to Marist College and the Culinary Institute of America) to visit Springwood, the home of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is well-worth visiting Springwood both for its beauty and its history. The library on the premises has a very moving exhibit called Day of Infamy (, about the bombing of Pearl Harbor and Roosevelt’s response to the attack; the exhibit is open to the public until the end of December. Roosevelt loved to be at Springwood, just as Jefferson loved to be at Monticello. It is not hard to understand why in either case.

Both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were impressive individuals, singly and together. They are role models for how to behave in the public eye. Visiting Springwood made that even more apparent. When I think about this summer from a purely historical perspective, I realize that I have experienced a lot of American history this year: from Normandy and the D-Day landing beaches to Monticello to Springwood. As I get older, I find myself becoming more and more interested in American history. Perhaps not so strange, now that I no longer reside in my country. No matter how many problems and turmoil the USA undergoes (and how crazy the political processes are when election time comes around), I find myself more enamored of my country and its rich history for each year that passes. But mostly, I love being together with good friends and the little family I have left, especially knowing that time marches on and we are all getting older. There are no guarantees in life, so the most important thing is spending time with people who are close to your heart. Much of the rest is just filler--jobs, material things, money--that make the spending time with loved ones that much nicer.

Tide rushing back in at Mont Saint Michel

I took a video of the tide rushing back in at Mont Saint Michel in France when we visited there in mid-July. It was a beautiful day to visit--blue skies and sunny. We had been walking on the beaches surrounding the island when the water began to come back in. It did not come all the way up to the island as happens at other times.

A peaceful place

On the last day of my recent stay in NY, I visited Sleepy Hollow cemetery where my brother and parents are buried. It was early morning on a lovely summer day, and there was a gentle breeze blowing--nice after the very hot weather we had for most of my visit. In this short video you can hear the wind in the trees and perhaps the brook rushing in the background. The cemetery is a peaceful place and I know my brother is at peace there.


Quotes about friendship

These are for my friends whom I hold close to my heart......I am blessed to know you. You light up my life and I could not imagine my life without you in it.

  • Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.   --Marcel Proust
  • A friend is what the heart needs all the time.   --Henry Van Dyke
  • A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.   --Walter Winchell
  • The greatest gift of life is friendship, and I have received it.   --Hubert H. Humphrey
  • I cannot even imagine where I would be today were it not for that handful of friends who have given me a heart full of joy. Let's face it, friends make life a lot more fun.   --Charles R. Swindoll
  • There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.   --Thomas Aquinas
  • A single rose can be my garden... a single friend, my world.   --Leo Buscaglia
  • True friendship is like sound health; the value of it is seldom known until it is lost.   --Charles Caleb Colton
  • True friendship multiplies the good in life and divides its evils. Strive to have friends, for life without friends is like life on a desert island... to find one real friend in a lifetime is good fortune; to keep him is a blessing.   --Baltasar Gracian
  • There are no strangers here; only friends you haven't yet met.   --William Butler Yeats
  • A friend is someone who gives you total freedom to be yourself.   --Jim Morrison
  • Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.  –Helen Keller

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Mid-August garden photos

my pumpkin patch

Lavatera trimestris 'Silver Cup (pink flowers)

corn plants

new grass growing


Lavatera trimestris 'Silver Cup'

a honeybee and a butterfly on the same plant

view facing the entrance to our garden

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Musings on garden life

I’ve been reflecting on my life in the garden these past few months. Who knew that I would fall in love with gardening as I have done? I have spent nearly every moment of my free time since May in the garden, with the exception of two vacations that took me away from it for three weeks. I could truly enjoy those wonderful vacations because I knew that our garden was in good hands. The nice thing about being part of a community garden is that the other gardeners will water your garden while you are away. There is always someone you can ask for help. In my case it has been the friendly Turkish women who have the neighboring garden.

One of my colleagues at work, a female pathologist who also likes to garden, told me that when she lived in England some years ago, she had visited a cemetery where there stood a gravestone with the inscription—“Here lies a gentleman and a gardener”. What a good way to be remembered. I can’t help but love it.

While I was in NY for two weeks, the pumpkin patch expanded even further, and now half of the pumpkins are large and orange. I’m guessing that by the end of September/early October, when the stems that attach them to the vines turn brown, they’ll be ready to harvest. Just in time for Halloween! In the meantime, my corn plants produced small corn cobs that I was able to harvest this past week. I learned that when the tassels turn brown, they're ready to harvest. I’m happy to say that they taste very good, even though they’re small. A friend of mine recently sent me a gardening book (a gardening bible is more like it), and I’ve been reading through it, hoping to get some tips for next year on how to get larger corn. One of the things I will ensure that the corn seedlings start off with next year is newly-composted soil. I think that will help their growth a lot. The Turkish women in the neighboring allotment garden have helped me harvest the large beans that hang from the bean plants they planted for me (more like small trees, at least in their garden). They taste very good, a bit different from the regular green string beans that we are used to. The broccoli plants are forming small broccolis, even though the plants themselves were stressed by the presence of the slugs that ate holes in their leaves.

All in all, I’ve planted and harvested string beans, Turkish beans, beets, snap peas, corn, and eventually I’ll be harvesting the pumpkins. Not bad for the first year of being a gardener. I will probably plant the same vegetables next year. As far as berries and fruit go, we’ve gotten quite a few strawberries, red currants and mulberries, and some black currants. We’ve planted raspberry and blueberry bushes so that next year we can expect a good yield of berries if we take good care of the plants. And I cannot forget the rhubarb plants; there is nothing you can do to them that will stop them from growing. I’ve cut them back twice now, and they’ve grown back each time. There is too much rhubarb and not enough rhubarb recipes!

I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to plant a lawn; there are many different types of grass seed, but all of them take root within five to seven days if the conditions are right. Once you sow the seed, you have to make sure that the ground stays moist. Luckily, that hasn’t been much of a problem this summer, since the weather has been unstable with mostly sunny days interspersed with a few rainy ones. I’m happy to report that I’ve managed to get a decent lawn, although it will be interesting to see how and if it survives the winter months.

The bees have been busy and happy this year, and the resulting honey was sold this past Sunday in the garden. It tastes very good—creamy and sweet—and I’m already using it in my tea. I love having the bees around me in the garden; they keep to themselves, buzzing about, and do not bother me at all. I’d like to think they are used to me by now. The lavender and sage (Salvia) plants that I put in for them are popular with them, as is the butterfly bush (Buddleja) with the butterflies. We don’t have Monarch butterflies, but we do have smaller varieties with lovely blue, gold and orange colors. The garden also has a resident badger; he has a mate and they now have five small badgers. I have not seen them (they are generally nocturnal animals), but apparently someone else has and word gets around. They dig up small holes in the lawn looking for worms to eat, otherwise you would not notice that they are there.

Next year we have plans to buy a small greenhouse so that we can plant tomatoes and other plants that need some protection from the elements. I won’t plant spinach or cauliflower next year, since the slugs ate them this year. I will plant more corn and the same amount of pumpkin plants. It will be interesting to see what the coming years bring. What I do know is that we were given a gift this year, and that gift has given me peace of mind and soul, a peace that was sorely needed. It’s also given my body a lot of aches and pains, but they don’t last, and in any case, they are a reminder of the hard work and love that go into a garden. I wouldn’t have it any other way. In my next post, I'll include some new photos of the garden.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Give the world the best you have--Mother Teresa

I saw this wonderful advice today and wanted to share it. I've seen it before and you probably have as well. But somehow it struck me today that we need this advice more than ever, especially when it seems as though society is spiraling out of control. When things seem bleak, when it seems as though there is no meaning in what we do, this will help us to remember what it really is all about. Today is all we have, and the only thing we can offer the world is ourselves and our good deeds. It is not about being remembered for them, only about doing them and perhaps knowing that we helped to make another person's day.

People are often unreasonable and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway. If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway. For you see in the end, it is between you and God. It never was between you and them anyway. 

–Mother Teresa

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Visit to Normandy

Our trip to France this year took us to the northwest part of France—to Normandy. I’ve been wanting to visit this historical region for several years; it played a huge part during World War II. To quote from Wikipedia, ‘the Normandy landings (codenamed Operation Neptune) were the landing operations on Tuesday, 6 June 1944 (termed D-Day) of the Allied invasion of Normandy in Operation Overlord during World War II. The largest seaborne invasion in history, the operation began the liberation of German-occupied northwestern Europe from Nazi control, and contributed to the Allied victory on the Western Front’. On June 6, 1944, the Allied troops (American, British and Canadian) stormed a handful of beaches along the coast of Normandy in order to fight the Germans and ended up turning the tides of World War II. But it did not happen without a lot of bloodshed. The Allied troops landed on five beaches—designated Omaha and Utah (American troops), Juno (Canadian troops), Gold (British troops) and Sword (Canadian and British troops). We chose to visit Omaha Beach, which saw the most casualties. From a distance, the sands look almost reddish-brown, a poignant reminder of the blood shed on this beach. It runs for a length of 8 kilometers (5 miles); at present, it’s a public beach, open for all, and lined with several small restaurants and cafes. There are also some lovely houses along the road that parallels the beach. There are signs detailing the history of the beach and a couple of memorials. We walked along it for about two miles, and then stopped for some iced tea at one of the cafes along the beach.

I found it very moving to stand on Omaha beach, looking out over the ocean, knowing that many of the American soldiers that landed here never made it home. They never had the chance to fall in love, marry, raise a family, have a career—all those things that we take for granted. Think about that, about how privileged we are, never to have known a major world war in our lifetimes (thus far). Being there made me understand why my father, who was stationed for three years in England during WWII, never wanted to talk about the war in any great depth. His job was to load bombs onto planes, which ruined his back for the rest of his life. I think he was just glad to get home to America and to move on from that experience. Sometimes he told us stories about his time in the army, but they mostly had to do with the discipline and routines that the soldiers had to follow, and were usually to illustrate a point or to help enforce the rules he and my mother set for us children.

I had a similar emotional reaction when we visited the Normandy American Cemetery afterward. This cemetery, in Colleville-sur-Mer, is situated on the cliffs above Omaha Beach and looks down onto the beach itself. It is the burial site of 9,387 American soldiers, the majority of whom lost their lives in the D-Day landings and subsequent operations. There are also Walls of the Missing, on which are inscribed 1,557 names of those who ended up missing or unidentifiable.

the reddish-brown sands of Omaha Beach

view of Omaha Beach from the American Cemetery

Our hotel was in Caen, an old and very historic city (of William the Conqueror fame). Our trip to Omaha Beach from Caen took about an hour each way, and our trip to the island of Le Mont Saint Michel took about ninety minutes each way. Caen itself was a lovely small city, easy to drive around in and to get to know. We visited the Memorial de Caen, a memorial and war museum dedicated to peace, and one of, if not the best, war history museums I’ve ever encountered. As my husband said, everyone should visit this museum because you will learn so much about WWII and the economic and social conditions in Europe that led up to it, about the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, the Jewish ghettos, the Russia front, and the Normandy invasions. It is an amazing history lesson and I highly recommend visiting it.

Le Mont Saint Michel, which is on the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, is a wonder to behold from a distance and up close. The island draws its name from the monastery at the topmost part of the island; below the monastery, there are stores and housing—nowadays those stores are tourist gift shops and restaurants. It is a steep climb to the top of the island, and a climb that one makes together with hundreds of other visitors; about three million people visit the island each year. What makes this place special are the tidal waters that both cut off and connect the island to the mainland. According to Wikipedia, ‘the tides can vary greatly, at roughly 14 metres (46 ft) between high and low water marks’. When the tide goes out, it can go out as far as 25 km, and when it comes back in, it comes rushing back in. So even though there is now a bridge that connects the island to the mainland, it can still be perilous to walk on the beaches surrounding the island because of the tide rushing in and because some of the areas on the beaches are like quicksand. It is recommended that you walk around on the beaches with an experienced guide. The Tour de France bicycle race started here this year, and it couldn’t have been a more beautiful place to start.

Mont Saint Michel from a distance showing the bridge out to the island

seagull modeling for photographers

the beaches surrounding the island 

tide coming back in 

flags at entrance to the Memorial Museum in Caen