Garden Solace

I am not the world’s best gardener. I’ve tried growing tomatoes but they invariably end up with rot; sweet peppers provide homes for insects more than nourishment for my family; I seem always to be out of town the week that peas are ready to be picked; pumpkins spring up in random places and run wild along the back fence, dying back to reveal pumpkins grown into the wire mesh. So I stick to flowers.

Most of my gardens are grown in raised beds in an attempt to escape the hard clay soil of my yard. In one such bed, four feet by 24, a clump of oriental lilies towers. In the spring frilly irises shoot up and flop over in their top heavy glory. By midsummer, these plants are joined by annuals that managed to seed themselves. There are tall coxcomb in pink and hot red, white and yellow statice, blue bachelors buttons, all jumbled up with the asters, glads, and dahlias I intentionally planted. I tell myself it is all a cutting garden. To the eye, it is a mess.

I discovered several years ago that my dahlias grow best when my beds are raised to a full foot in depth. One long bed is devoted entirely to dahlias that grow up through vertical lengths of netting secured to fence posts. In another long bed I erected posts and cross bars to support the heavy flowers. In another bed I neglected to supply the dahlias with any support this year. The thick stems have flopped over, the flowers blooming on stalks turned upward to the sun. I try to avoid them with the lawn mower, but don’t always succeed.

I am proud of the flowers growing under our towering black walnuts. So many plants are unable to grow under these trees, I like to gloat about my day lilies and cone flowers, phlox and irises that thrive there. Those beds aren’t the most showy, the most glamorous of my yard, and often my gloating falls on deaf ears when my audience isn’t familiar with the challenges of black walnuts, but I revel in my success nonetheless.

A few years ago I took a job that required long hours working out of town. Beginning that August, and for the following year I neglected my garden completely. The weeds I never pulled grew tall and went to seed. I dug the dahlias in early November, dumping the mostly unlabeled tubers in big buckets and leaving them to shrivel in our too-warm basement. By the time I quit my job the next summer, the weeds had taken over.

So often gardening is a solitary business, by both desire and necessity. I know which plants are intentional and which are not; which are weeds and which are coddled hybrids from a specialty catalogue. And weeding can be therapeutic. Not only can you see immediate results, you can sublimate your frustrations as you cuss each evil plant you pull. Still, having weeds is an embarrassment for a proud gardener. They are signs of ineptitude, of a lack of attention and care.

When a large garden club called me to say that they wanted to tour my garden and give me an award, I agreed without thinking. But when I hung up the phone and looked out the window, I could see that the weeds had grown taller than the flowers. I had to get to business. And I had to be systematic, starting at one side of the yard and making my way all the way around, even though I risked not finishing in time. Deadlines are a marvelous motivation.

Every day for several weeks I sat in the garden, rubber trugs at the ready, as I pulled weeds. I cursed every bad boss I’d ever had, every frustration, every disappointment, as I worked. The compost pile grew, then grew some more, finally towering high in the back corner of my yard. My arms grew tan, my back ached, the mulch pile I’d had delivered to the driveway slowly shrank as I topped off each bed once the weeds were gone.

I don’t know how I did it, but when the twenty-five members of the garden club arrived for their tour the garden looked great, and I pretended it was effortless to keep it that way. The day lilies showed off their tetraploid colors; the phlox was starting to bloom; the dahlias were happy though only a few blossoms had yet emerged. The glossy greens and whites of my hostas hadn’t yet scalded from summer drought, and the black walnut garden was in good form. I stumbled through my presentation, not sure what might interest the garden club the most. They handed me a plaque and headed off to their next site on the tour. I hung the plaque on my front porch.

I should have taken photos that day, to show that there was a moment in time when my garden looked almost perfect. I wish it had halted in that perfect phase, had become a place of solace and calm where I could escape all demands. But it didn’t. A garden is nothing if not dynamic. Almost as soon as the garden club left the weeds started to take over again. I can’t look at them without seeing the failure that they represent. Every year I vow to do better. I’ll keep at the weeding, I’ll stake up all the dahlias, water more regularly, remember to actually spread the fertilizer I buy. And I hope again, as I do every year, that if I can just keep up with it all, I will be rewarded with an effusion of flowers, spilling over the beds, lighting up the neighborhood. I will have flower bouquets for every one of my friends, blue ribbons in the county fair, and lots of recognition and praise.

None of those rewards would matter, of course, if I could stop seeing my garden as a chore or a burden, or as something to be battled with and overcome. This garden doesn’t need to be perfect, no one is counting the weeds and issuing grades except myself. I need to see my garden for what it is, a source of beauty and life to be tended and nurtured. Along with the flowers, the healthy plants, the beauty, the work itself – that process of nurturing – can provide solace, too. I just have to let it.

This Writing Thing

I signed on to pursue an MFA in creative writing at Spalding University three years ago after leaving my last medical job. I had written a first draft of a novel and wanted to make it better but didn’t know how. I thought the MFA might be a good way to do that. I also thought it would help me validate my desire to be a writer, would spur me to write a lot, would provide feedback, help me improve, help me write. Now that I am heading toward graduation, and am yet again procrastinating getting my writing done, it seems like a reasonable enough time to reflect on the experience.

As far as the novel goes, I worked on parts of it with my mentor during the first semester, and, at his encouraging, wrote some new stories unrelated to the novel, part of a possible new project of interrelated short stories. A year later, before a book length manuscript workshop, I rewrote the entire novel, changing some things that needed to be changed, reorganizing the scenes, rethinking the relationships between characters. In the workshop I was given incredibly helpful feedback from five readers. I need to rewrite the book again, need to deepen the characters, need to better define the conflicts. It feels overwhelming. The linked short story project has fallen by the wayside as well. Perhaps that is something I will revisit. Some day.

For my second semester at Spalding I decided to try nonfiction, as I was interested in writing essays about medicine, and figured this would be a good opportunity. To my surprise, I started a memoir about my experiences as a patient which I’ve added to over the next two semesters. I talk about my medical training and practice, family struggles, the death of my mother.

I had expected to have the memoir done by now, but it turned out to be more difficult than I had expected. It was a challenge to find themes, to organize topics instead of just writing a timeline of my life experiences. Before the MFA program, I used to ponder for hours, days, about my writing, thinking and thinking about a subject, or fretting that I couldn’t seem to focus down on a subject. Eventually, the ideas would coalesce, I would sit down at the computer, and an essay or chapter would pour out. I had hoped that the MFA would transform my process into a daily writing official job, but that has not happened. I fret about pieces, panic about deadlines, struggle to focus on ideas, and sometimes a chapter or essay gels. More often it does not. I write because it is expected, but I really hate having my writing come out bad, rambling. I understand, and agree, with the notion that the  best writing comes in revision, yet I seem to be struggling with that, too. The issue seems to be one of focus. Why can’t I focus?

When I was practicing medicine, the pressure to focus came from outside. My focus was on my patients – connecting, trying to understand them, trying to figure out what was wrong and what to do about it, discussing my thoughts with them, and recording the encounter in the medical record. The work was intense. At the end of the day, my patients’ stories rang in my head. The images of their terrible experiences in life – childhood abuse, bad decisions, regrets, loss, grief, sickness – all haunted me. There was no room for the stories I wanted to write. Even when characters popped up in my head and tried to tell me their stories, I had no time or energy for them.

When I was teaching family practice residents in training, their stories – their traumas, struggles, desires, difficulties – along with their patients’ issues, occupied my time. I was embroiled in the struggles of the clinic, the residency program, the politics. My writing was limited to brief chart notes or presentations for the residents’ teaching sessions and grand rounds. I was tired and stressed every minute and the writing impulse faded.

So now that I have had time, now that I am not so stressed, not so fatigued, now that I have opportunity, why haven’t I burned up the computer keys with my words, my tomes? Here’s a writing opportunity on a silver platter but I haven’t finished a book, haven’t published anything except a small short story and a small essay each buried in their respective, small, online journals.

All the while I sit at the computer I am aware of the garden outside filling in with weeds, the lawn that needs to be mowed, the house that needs to be cleaned, the food that needs to be cooked, the bills that need to be paid, the husband who thinks I’m a slacker and wants me to go back to a paying job. I want to be a person who compartmentalizes her life, who is driven to write, who writes. Instead I am distracted and disorganized. Some days I get a lot of gardening done. Other days I cook or clean. Most days I fret about the writing I’m not doing. Occasionally some ideas percolate enough to become an essay, filling in some of the vacant spots of my memoir project, helping me believe I am a good writer after all. Encouraged and newly confident I sit back down at the computer, try again to force myself to write, and again I fail. I tell myself to go with the flow, relax and just think and ponder. As my anxieties rise, I wonder, again, if writing makes sense as a career. I wonder again if I am just fooling myself.