A hard and bitter seed

heather, brought down by winter

The first few fragments here have been knocking at the door of my attention. So I wrote them down, and then I followed one sentence with the next, the next, the next, and so on. At some point it became what we call free writing, and it ended where it did.

I hate writing.
I hate skating.
Yard work.
Teaching.
Parenting sometimes, and reading.
All of these things I supposedly love: I hate them.

That’s how I feel on the verge of doing them.

A couple of weeks ago and with enthusiasm I bought some supplies for my yard clean up. I took the afternoon off. The next day I went out there and faced what I intended to do. Tear out two old bushes and bundle them up for the town’s compost pickup. Dig up the weed patch and lay down rolled sod, heavy and awkward.  Move an azalea, in too much sun, to a shady spot, and an American cranberry bush from shade to sun.

I sat in a dirty plastic lawn chair for a while and thought how it didn’t matter, how fruitless my effort would be. Who cares, really, who will ever notice, if the azalea gets more comfort in the shade and the cranberry more berries in light? Okay, I will notice. But I won’t always live here. Some future owner will look at my non-artistic, non-modernist attempts at gardening, rip them out, and install beautifully identical boxwoods with space in between. And the old screened porch (with original and much-repaired screens), buttressed by the elderly hydrangea, will get torn down to make room for a family room. And the ferns and hostas might seem like garbage plants to a fancier owner and end up in a brown paper bag on the curb.

Still, it’s possible to begin even with a fog of pragmatic despair hanging over me, so I did.

I feel this way, too, the more and more I skate. I must be improving, right? I can look back on five years ago, and even five months ago, and say to myself, “I can do this now. I can do that.” An hour before I gather my things and car keys to leave the house for the rink, though, I say to myself, “There is no forseeable outcome to this: no contest, no show, probably no mastery.”

But then I go, because it’s on my calendar and I promised myself that I would.

And I smell the dirt, or I smell the ice, and the shovel makes a sandy, muffled sound as it connects and the hockey player over there digs in until the ice groans its particular protest which is so satisfying to the human ear, and I feel as though maybe I can begin. (Beginning is a kind of restarting.)

At first I am hating it still, but I am also giving it a chance. I say, “Jane, try ten minutes, or thirty. If nothing happens, you can stop.” I am without grace, as though I really am a beginner, yet of course I lack the utter, naive enthusiasm of the absolute beginner. I am between beginner and master, that no man’s land.

But at ten minutes or thirty minutes, depending, I am no longer trying to find my center of gravity; it has found me. I have a rhythm. The shovel has turned over the dried gray crust and found dark fecundity: graininess, moisture, and worms. The worms are like digits, aren’t they?, which is why it’s so painful to cut them with the shovel edge.

The words too accumulate and at some point an idea of, a worry about, audience disappears. It all disappears: the time, the obligations, people who are not skating or gardening or writing, the desire to drink or eat or even stop. The not wanting to stop: overcoming that can become another internal fight, a clawing back to the surface.

In yoga the other day, about halfway through the hour, Portia (teacher) said, “We’re at that moment when you’re probably stepping finally from your active thoughts to this other place, a zone where you can finally let it go.” It was as if she said something that applied to everything, and I felt repaired, not handicapped, simply human.

There is a book or an aphorism: “Do what you love, and the money will follow.” I never believed that, although it is seductive. Just do what you love.

People may misunderstand the meaning of “love” there, as if it were easy, like eating a popsicle while sitting in a swing with the sun shining behind you. No mosquitos. Just swinging, with your mouth and tongue getting colder and colder and your feet trailing in the sand. The word “somnolent” was invented for such moments.

“Love” is something that has some fight to it, a thud, and even hate or dread.

Do what you cannot stop yourself from doing, even though every day you may be tempted to stop. But then you put your feet on the floor, or lift the garage door, or take your feet out of sandals and bind them into skates, or put words down even though you are convinced your ideas deserve to be composted, or plant that naked little tree.

Do it though you hate it and though you may not believe you can do it. The glory is someday.

Or there is no glory, but at least you will have done it.

4 thoughts on “A hard and bitter seed

  1. Before reading your post, I was procrastinating whether to spend 15 minutes pulling weeds. I often think someone else who buys this property will plow under all that I have planted and relocated over the years. I also think that prospective buyers would not be interested in this property because of the carefully tended beds. Too much work. Steve often says to me, “Why are you doing this to yourself? No one will notice or care.” My reply is always, I am doing this for me. Yes I love looking at my gardens, but hate the weeding. Jane, your post is pushing me out the door for those 15 minutes. I expect 15 will expand to 45. Gardening is never ending. It’s like parenting. Planting, nurturing, and carefully tending for the remainder of the plant’s life.

  2. I like the verbs you use in your last sentence. Perhaps those convey what we do with all we care about: plant, nurture, tend. Some of us may be attracted or driven to ways of living that demand these. And we are only ourselves when we do them.

    (Thanks for the insight, mom!)

  3. Jane, you put words to my usual summer conundrums here–to do or not to do? Today or tomorrow? The option of inertia is both a luxury and a curse–one I’ll miss when it’s replaced by the “must do” stuff in a couple months. In the meantime, though, I’m going to print out your line “put words down even though you are convinced your ideas deserve to be composted” and put them over my computer. After all, sometimes the most interesting volunteer plants come up in the compost heap!

  4. The middle is always the hardest part. At the beginning you go into the studio (imagine you’re a choreographer) and you feel this idea coming, and there is this hot place for a while. Then the middle. You just go to the studio and you think, so? What’s so great about this anyway?
    A big part of talent is the something that makes a person keep going through the middle. It doesn’t matter what it is. It doesn’t even feel like talent, or creativity. It doesn’t matter what it feels like. Bad days are part of the work.

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