It is possible to deliberately make a decision and know deeply that, whichever path taken, there will be regrets.
Last fall and winter, when I was studying the idea of selling our house and moving to an apartment in another neighborhood, I anticipated the loss of the part of my life that gardens. I knew I would be putting aside not just that activity, but also that self, the me that digs, plants, weeds, waters, monitors, and tends.
And I did it: I sold the house. With it, I sold the lawnmower, the surplus fertilizers, shovels, rakes, a spade, and a hoe. We moved to a third-floor apartment. While our balcony presents the opportunity for container gardening, there is no native dirt.
I wanted this, right?
We moved in February. I was relieved at the thought of shoveling snow no more. In fact, I imagined if I lived in an apartment for the rest of my life, it would always be someone else’s job to shovel.
I miss digging. Just typing those words filled me with longing, like how remembering one’s own babies provokes a physical longing to hold them again, eat their toes, smell their shampooed hair.
Not just longing, a sadness, too, for what I willingly gave up. Usually to proceed you have to let go. So, the dirt.
In our new neighborhood, I make the rounds of the side streets three times a day with Winston the dog. Since spring began, we’ve been examining the gardens of our unfamiliar neighbors. Winston uses his nose, and I my eyes. Slowly, through March, April, and early May the plants and trees woke up. In May, all the green exploded.
Flowers came out, and so did the porch chairs, pots, garden ornaments, and hoses. Occasionally I’d see a gardener squatting in her yard, a claw in her hand. A woman instructing two little girls in how to weed. A man, pivoting in place, with his hand clenched around the trigger of a sprayer hose.
I am like a tourist in this new neighborhood. The houses are old – about a century – with front porches and what a realtor calls “mature” landscaping. These houses and gardens are established. I’m no kid, but I’m new on the block, and as a renter I may not live here long enough to make ties.
It’s weird, honestly, to like where you live, to find it interesting and beneficial, and yet to have no house or dirt to belong to. If you’ve lived in your apartment or house long enough, you know the nicks in the woodwork, the funny way the shower valve operates, the cool corner of the bare-floored room that your dog favors, and the trick to get the kitchen door to close without slamming it. The paint: you like the colors you picked. In the yard, you like to check in on the plants that came to you from the yards of people you love, admire the magnolia you tended since its sapling years, and experiment with perennials that tolerate your dry shade conditions. You get the soil tested; you file its report card away; you adjust the pH.
That you was me.
Now I’m an observer, a wallflower, or maybe I should call myself a sidewalk flower because that’s what I do, stand on the sidewalk with Winston as my excuse for loitering and keep my eye on the progress of the landscape as it comes to life in the front yards of neighbors I haven’t met.
I fantasize about passing by at just the right time and getting invited up onto the porch and into a chair to pass the evening and let someone tell me about the neighborhood, its history, and its inhabitants.
I do say hello, and I have gathered some first names. I know the people in my building. And I live with Grace and Winston, and Eli and Lydia when they’re with us.
This is home, and yet we’re not rooted in it. We live here. Most days, I’m happy about that. I like the adventure of it. A few times, though, the implication of what I have done – uprooted our lives – hovers over me like dark wings, and I think, “My god, what have I done?”
The feeling lasts only an hour or so. It helps to take the dog outside and walk the routes I am coming to favor. I remind myself that I chose this, I wanted this, and sometimes the location cure is exactly what a family needs.
2 thoughts on “Other people’s gardens”
I am drawn to metaphors of being rooted, un-rooted, and up-rooted. And living somewhere without dirt…what a concept. I think about dirt a lot because my mother grew up in the dust bowl of Oklahoma in the 1920’s/30’s. Dirt that wasn’t yours was yours because it blew around so much. 😊 Nice piece of writing, Jane. I like the idea of “spying on plots of dirt.”
Jan, thank you. And you make me think about dirt differently, with your comment on the dust bowl, and how people lived with “dirt that wasn’t yours was yours because it blew around so much.”