The other day, my neighbor proposed to help me with my gardening. Most likely, she was sick of staring at my riot of bug-chewed perennials—choked with thistles and overrun by Queen Anne’s lace.
I accepted her generous offer, knowing I could benefit from her know-how and help. She’s one of those gardeners who’s out there every morning, dutifully picking off the slugs and splicing the bulbs (do bulbs get spliced?!) regardless of how she’s feeling. She has discipline—something I crave in both my gardening and my writing life.
My husband says I’m a gardener in theory. Unlike me, my alter ego grows tidy beds of perennials, knows the names of every plant that takes up residence in her half acre, and understandsexactly what to do with bulbs. She is a diligent woman who rises with the sun and comes out before breakfast in her straw hat and gloves. She probably doesn’t have children, or books to write, but if she does, she manages it with balance, sensible aplomb, and the kind of serene wisdom garnered from spending so much time with fingers stuck in the soil. She doesn’t get bored by weeds, or discouraged by rain and Japanese beetles. She doesn’t spend hours staring into space, or dreaming up characters—imaginary people (like Tai, inOutside the Ordinary World) who actually know about gardening!
Perhaps my idealized alter ego is an inherited vision, garnered from my genetic pre-disposition toward the harvest. I come from a long line of diggers and planters: my father’s ancestors were immigrant German farmers who, during the rein of Catherine the Great, immigrated to Siberia to teach the Russians to farm. They later staked their agricultural claim in Nebraska. My father’s grandfather was known county-wide for his prize-winning roses and my sister and I, as children, would play hide-and-seek between his voluptuous rows of hydrangeas and peonies.
My mom’s dad grew up on a raisin farm in the San Joaquin valley and later cultivated a 3-acre orchard in the Lafayette hills—my favorite garden and the beloved setting for parts of my novel, and for much of my childhood play. His wife, my no-nonsense Grammy, talked to her fuchsias and went into spiritual ecstasy over the blooming of her Pacific Dogwood. My parents always carved out space for a veggie garden too, even when we moved to a gated development in the LA suburbs. Every Sunday, my workaholic doctor father would pause long enough to pamper his precious tomatoes, fuss over his pear trees, fiddle with the automatic sprinkler system…
And so, I persist, despite my lack of time, inclination or true talent. Every spring, as the New England earth softens and the crocuses poke miraculously through those last vestiges of snow, something as old as my childhood stirs, dreaming of perfect raised beds and clusters of daylilies. Unfortunately, my April enthusiasm is usually spent by July. By late August, I’ve mostly given over to crabgrass and cockleburs, and I tend my garden the way one tends a neglected elderly relative—with a mixture of reverence, resignation and extreme guilt.
But over the weekend, as my neighbor and I worked to get my poor disused garden back in shape, I remembered what I love: gardening is so physical, unlike writing. You get to be in your whole body, squatting and sweating, getting dirt under your nails and sun in your eyes. In other ways, it’s not really so different from working on a book—the way things get weeded out and transplanted; how some plants flourish and others get removed, rearranged. As my neighbor and I began to clear out the ragweed, dandelions and thistles (we left the Queen Anne’s Lace, and the wild purple Asters—a mysterious gift!) the true shape of my garden emerged, and I remembered the original, joyful impetus, back in April, that always gets me digging in the first place.
Writing is very much like this. Sometimes you have to let things go for a while, let things grow a bit wild, in order to remember what you love. Always, you must weed and prune, dig deep and reshape. So if you’ve neglected it for a while, just roll up your sleeves and get back in there, get your hands dirty again, find the shape you were after. At the end of such a day, you get to stand back, wonderfully tired, and marvel at the bounty of creation.