I am constantly surprised at how easy it is to improve someone’s day.
I’ve discovered that if I listen, really listen, I’ll find all kinds of opportunities to make a difference. And you can, too.
I know what you’re thinking: ‘But I have work. And chores. And errands. And kids. And a list.’ Yes you do. And so do I. But I vowed 20 years ago the LIST would never be more important than a person.
Now, this was a bold move for me because I looooooove my lists. I thrive on lists. Sometimes I add items to a list after completion just so I can gleefully cross them off. Truth! One particularly hectic time last month, I had a list for every day of the week. And I crossed off each bullet-pointed task on those lists like a crazed list Nazi.
Oh—and I also love a detailed calendar with days broken down hourly. I document appointments and addresses and notes and phone numbers—in pencil—like I’m a dignitary’s social secretary. Tucked between those calendar pages are my lists. I checked just now and counted six lists nestled in this week’s pages. Six!
Yesterday’s list was long, but I got a last-minute request to ferry a friend from a doctor’s appointment to home. That errand came with an invitation for lunch and coffee and, undoubtedly, snorts of laughter. I put the list aside and had a delightful few hours with a wise and funny woman.
Monday’s list was even longer, but I had a hurting friend who needed some joy. So I put the list aside, loaded up my car with fall flowers, and planted every one of them in her porch pots as she sat with me and gushed over their beauty. Two hours: worth it.
Friday’s list is ridiculous, but a friend is moving. She’s excited and sad and overwhelmed and exhausted. So I will attack that list until 2:00, when the moving truck arrives at the new house, and it’s time to unload and unpack and organize. That should put a spark into the process. It will be multiple hours of hard work and immense satisfaction. Ahhh…
So I invite you to start listening more to needs, spoken and unspoken, around you—real opportunities to say “no” to the list and “yes” to people. You may discover, as I did, that a line through a completed task has nowhere near the delight as a smile of gratitude.
I don’t know how many fall chrysanthemums—45? 60?—I'd dutifully tossed when they’d bloomed out each October before someone suggested I transplant them into the landscape. Uh…what??
Yes—hardy mums are…wait for it…hardy! As in, you can move them into the ground in September, October, November each year and they will happily return each spring double or triple their original size. I kid you not.
I tested this theory a few years ago by transplanting two bright yellow mums between two deep yellow lantanas that surprised me when they returned in spring. And sure enough—it was a wash of shockingly yellow blooms that fall, greeting me each time I pulled into the driveway.
I distinctly remember thinking Southerners were ridiculous for planting fall pansies my first year in the mid-South. I may have even snorted. I mean, flowers don’t survive the winter! Hello! Uh…they actually do.
So now I’m a mum-planting, pansy-planting maniac. I mean, who can turn away from a purple pansy fighting its way through ice and snow in the short, grey days of February? Not I! And who could possibly be discouraged by seeing new growth at the base of that brittle, dead-looking mum in April? Only the Scroogiest Scrooge.
This year, I’m enjoying perennial blooms in yellow, orange, maroon, purple, and white. They even bloom at different times—like I planned that! But I didn’t. But I let people assume so. Even though I didn’t. Que será, right?
Those $5-$10 mums have more than earned their keep in my gardens. And they will in your gardens, too. So when the last blooms have shriveled up into brown or black nubs, give your potted mums a long and fruitful life in a sunny part of your landscape. Then fill those empty pots with a $10 flat of pansies. You won’t regret it. I promise you.
A friend made a last-minute popover recently and said, “Does your house always look like this?”
I looked around for something weird. “Like what?”
“Like this.” She waved her hand in a broad gesture. “Clean and tidy!”
Ah. I smiled a little. Yes. Yes it does. But only when I have a 10—(or more)—minute warning.
I usually clean the house on Mondays. Top to bottom. Change the sheets, vacuum, dust, wipe down counters, scrub toilets, and water plants. I start dinner in the crockpot. If I have extra time, I’ll try to organize the always-present pile of recipes, bills, magazines and other paperwork. It kicks off the week in a positive way. And then, all I have to do the other six days is maintain.
But you know how it goes: The tidiness starts to loosen up a bit two days later. I mean, I don’t live in a museum with a full-time cleaning crew. Real life happens! The countertops get sticky in odd places. Dirt gets tracked in. Toilet paper gets down to four squares. Spiders weave webs in the corners overnight.
So when the phone rings and a friend says, “Hey—are you home? I’m in the area and thought I’d stop by”…I go into 10-minute-cleanup mode.
Most guests are happy to stay in the open-floor-plan living/dining/kitchen area. Couch cushions, blankets, slippers, and reading material are a very quick tidy-up: 2 minutes, tops. The dark wood floors ALWAYS need a sweep: 30 seconds. After I hide the pile of paperwork in the laundry room and store away errant cups, silverware and other dishes in the dishwasher, I wipe down the counters: 1 minute. The downstairs powder room always needs something—and sometimes more than “something”—so I give that area a solid minute.
That usually leaves me about five minutes to put out coffee, cookies/pastries, fruit, napkins—whatever I have on hand—for an impromptu casual chat. Guests never turn down that hosting gesture, and are usually delighted!
You know why? Because that 10 minutes of tearing around, getting things in order and putting out refreshments makes guests feel special. And they might just stay a little longer. We might get to laugh a little harder. I might learn something important—something life-changing.
To me, that’s far more important than any errand I needed to run, any news story I needed to read, any item on my to-do list. And I hope you’ll come to the same conclusion the next time a friend calls and says, “You home? I’m in the neighborhood…”
I started seriously gardening when my friend Fran volunteered to dig up my mom’s peony bulbs at my townhouse to transplant to my new house.
I was so tired from the seemingly endless packing and moving process, I couldn’t stomach the thought of digging bulbs. So Fran took charge. She grabbed the shovel and dug up the peonies, the hostas (also from Mom’s collection), and the azalea. She put them in pots or bags or anything that would hold dirt, and then she helped me transplant them in the new beds.
And then the serious gardening began.
The back and sides of the new house were blank canvases. “What should I plant?” I asked Fran. “What do you like?” Fran countered. I liked hydrangeas. So we installed two Annabelle hydrangeas in a petite, two-foot-wide, mostly shady bed along the back of the house. They looked lonely there, so we added the hostas and azalea. It was lovely. That was Year #1.
When the spring of Year #2 approached, I was ready to attack the sloping back yard. I wanted to create a visual break between our neighbors’ yards and ours, so I ordered six Green Giant arborvitae from a local VFW sale. I didn’t know anything about planting trees, so I hired a guy. I watched him set out a trio of the trees on each side, dig the holes, amend the soil, fertilize and backfill, and thought, I can do that.
Then I started clearing out the edge of the woods. I wanted that “park” look, instead of the scrub of privet and wild vine and ragweed. It was sweaty, brutal work, but I hacked away until I had a two-foot border. “You know what would look great there?” asked Fran. “Forsythia.” So I bought three and we got them in the ground. And I learned a lot about native planting.
And then we really went wild. We added a ninebark and two burning bushes. Fran shared some ajuga, sundrops, and grasses from her gardens. Another friend shared native ferns and anemones and various perennials that quickly fill in. And I learned serious gardeners love to share plants they know do well in Tennessee’s clay soil.
Jimmy now winces a little when he sees Fran pull into the driveway with a load of plants. “I guess I’ll get the shovel,” he mumbles. Under our direction, he digs holes, unearths rocks, saws off limbs, and trims back hollies gone rogue. It’s not his favorite thing, but he beams a little when guests gasp over the lush and bountiful blooms. He’s learned that beauty matters.
In just five years, I’ve developed nine different garden beds. They take a LOT of work—weeding, watering, trimming, fertilizing, googling, treating for slugs and beetles and mildew and black spots. I’m constantly learning, constantly expanding. I’m not afraid to move things. I’m not afraid to fail.
And it all started with a friend and a shovel. Thanks, Fran. We now live in a garden oasis because of you. As you like to say, “There’s always room for more.”
A Michigan farm girl transplanted to the South offering hospitality hacks.