Home Grown

My younger daughter’s chubby baby fingers dug in the rich, dark soil as my older daughter’s tiny toes balanced carefully on the wooden beam that extended across our small raised garden bed. I sat watching, anxiously, as they crawled and danced and wove between delicate climbing tendrils of a cucumber plant, wide, overpowering leaves of zucchini, and bushy, fragrant tomato bushes. I wasn’t anxious about the thought of my older daughter falling from the low hovering beam, nor the certainty of my younger daughter destroying our tomato crop by kindly plucking the pre-ripened fruit. I was nervous about what was or wasn’t to come. About news from halfway across the country. My phone rang; I answered immediately, with a glance at the girls enjoying this little world we’d created. “I got the job!” My husband exclaimed, his voice excited and breathless through the hundreds of miles that stretched between us on the phone.

We had moved in haste to this little house in the suburbs of Chicago just a few months before, after being booted from our previous rental, located a mere handful of miles down the road. Our landlady had decided to move back into the house we’d been renting the previous three and a half years, the house to which we brought both of our daughters home, and so in a hustle we found a gem of a rental with a cozy floor plan, freshly painted walls, a beautiful back yard, and a 5’x5’ raised garden bed that was hidden in the corner of the yard, heaped with weeds and debris.

After years of living in this area, a Midwestern locale to which neither of us particularly wanted to move nor saw ourselves staying, this quick and unexpected move felt like a renewal. I was tired of living with one foot in and one foot out, waiting for opportunities that may never come. I wanted to put down firmer roots. My husband, on the other hand, approached this latest move with a sense of resignation. After years of investing what little time and money we could spare into pursuing a new and niche career path, it was beginning to look as if none of his dreams would take flight. We had built a good life and community in this unlikely place; it was past time to dig deeper, right where we were.

So, for Mother’s Day that year, a month after making the move and before we’d fully unpacked, I asked my husband to help me plant a vegetable garden. We tirelessly disposed of the debris and pulled up the weeds, spread new, fertile soil, and sunk our hands into the musky dirt as we untangled seedling roots and planted them in the Earth that supported the home and life we were growing together.

Then I tended and I waited. I waited while I tended to the other things growing in our lives – our children, naturally, but also our community of friends that had become it’s own beautifully diverse garden. As the first baby kale leaves emerged, a friend and I pushed our babies in strollers around the lake at our local park. While tendrils of young cucumbers wound themselves around our makeshift stakes, tendrils of deep connection wound itself into my soul with a few friends with whom I could sit, drink coffee, watch our children grow and play, and be myself. When the squash and tomatoes suddenly seemed to turn our tidy garden into a wild place, we were out exploring the wild woodlands with fellow adventurers and best friends.

My abilities as a gardener seem to echo my tendencies as a friend. I grow friendships deeply, but slowly. I’m often overwhelmed by the pressing demands of life and don’t have a much time or energy left in my introverted soul to tend to the delicate intricacies of nurturing new friendship. I pull weeds about as sporadically as I return texts. I try my hardest to remember to water, to call and make plans to gather, but, to my own disappointment, I find myself forgetful and distracted, exhausted and lazy. Yet, through all my ineptitude, as a gardener and a friend, I found myself with a small but beautiful harvest of the heartiest bunch around. The plants and people who were able to understand snd forgive my tardiness to pulling weeds or play dates, who accepted that my tending and communication (or lack thereof) was not a reflection of my connection and commitment, who, through it all, felt my deep love for and heartfelt laughter with them and allowed that to become the basis upon which our friendship thrived.

My husband’s words through the phone on that muggy, late July afternoon soaked me in a sweat of disbelief and relief – for him and this long-awaited opportunity. There was excitement at the prospect of a new adventure. Still, there was the quiet whisper in my mind, as I gazed at my small but proud garden, at my children who grow relationships equally slowly and carefully, at the budding bounty that was newly emerging – but it’s harvest time.

In this northern clime, and with the delay caused by my lazy gardening, we had just begun to reap the ripeness of a few tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchini. Meanwhile, I had watched as my hesitant and shy older girl began frolicking with a few close friends, hands clasped together. Meanwhile, I experienced the glistening beauty of the strong bonds of friendship forged in the steel furnace of new motherhood, shining in the summer sun. Meanwhile, we tasted the sweetness and ease of our slow-grown community.

As my husband and I discussed the logistics of an expedited move, I knew that we would have to leave harvest-ready fruits behind to fester on the vine. I knew that we would have to break the subtle yet strong tendrils that children’s fingers had woven together. I knew that I would be uprooted from this diverse group of women who, each in their own way, had helped me grow in this new and unfamiliar place and space in life.

We found ourselves at the farmer’s market in our new, small town in Maryland on a balmy early-October afternoon. It was the end of the market season and the local farmers were eager to offload the last of their wares – some late-season green beans and kale and enough green peppers to last us through the winter – and I was eager to make a connection to the Earth, and community, upon which we had recently planted ourselves. The previous week we closed on our first house of our own after six weeks of separation that took the girls and I through eight states as my husband settled into his new job. 

The air was rich with the fragrant possibility of fall – sweet pine in the cool breeze, earthy pumpkin patches and tangy hay bales, musky leaves that turned from green to gold to brown as they fell away and revealed barren branches stretching across the mountains that encircled our new home. Meanwhile, we set forth on the rocky but hopeful path of building a new life. We worked. We piled all our furniture in the living room and piled all our selves into a single rotating bedroom while we slowly, in stolen hours, set about cleaning and patching and painting the vacant rooms. We explored. We meandered along mountainous trails that traversed the landscape around us; we walked along the creek-side path that paved the downtown of our new locale; we checked out festivals and events, checked off seasonal stops and activities. We put ourselves out there. I toted the kids to every library class, park play date, church mom’s group, forest school, and local event in a frenzied attempt to meet new people and make new connections. I reached deep into my pockets, gathering every last seed I could find and threw them with wild abandon into the soil of this new place. Grow, I commanded. Grow, I implored. Grow, I pleaded with exhaustion and desperation.

But the ground was fallow, the air was cold, my patience was short, and my connections felt weak. I was exhausted and discouraged, busy and lonely in equal measure. What’s wrong with my seeds, I wondered, what’s wrong with me? So focused was I on the ground in front of me, the expectations of what and when and how I believed things should bloom, that I completely overlooked the impact of an unyielding environment and the necessity of time. The seasons had shifted and I fought an uphill battle against the ebb and flow of nature.

“I haven’t seen you write much recently,” a few kind friends commented throughout the fall and winter and spring. I laughed it off, claiming I had been busy. It was true – tending to the relentless needs of young children, working through the accumulating pile of projects that comes with purchasing an as-is house, and accommodating my husband’s new schedule that took him away to conferences and necessitated some weekend work was a full time job. But in reality, it was something more: my internal life felt as devoid of creativity as my external life felt of connection.

Gardeners appreciate the delicate nature of transplant shock on plants that are designed to stay in one place, where they put down roots deep and wide, and have difficulty adjusting to growth in new environments. Farmers recognize the benefit of fallow periods in their fields for the future growth of healthier crops, re-balancing and re-establishing nutrients in the absence of yield. Anyone with a basic knowledge of biological principles understands that seeds must have certain conditions to grow, and even then, first grow hidden roots in the dark safety beneath the soil before the first delicate buds boldly, tentatively, push upward into the light of the sun. Yet, it is only in hindsight that I’m able to see, and appreciate, these obvious forces of nature at work in my own life. It is only with the passage of time and renewal of seasons that I can see the truth of these forgotten words I wrote during the difficult months following our move:

Perhaps, when it comes to connection, I’m chasing the wrong thing. Maybe I’m starting at the end rather than the beginning on my journey to get where I want to be. Instead of reaching out for a stranger and merely hoping a connection will turn them into a friend, maybe I start by reaching into myself and finding that connection of inner friendship and love. Roots must grow downward and anchor into a firm foundation before branches can grow upward and outward; showing beauty to the world. 

It was already too late in the season when I dug my shovel through the scruffy, weed-speckled grass and into the rocky soil of our still-new property. Sweat soaked through my shirt as I spent more hours than seemed worthwhile digging up a small corner of our yard. Weeds yielded to my determined strength as the tilled orange soil shone in the midday sun. My daughters sunk their fingers into the warm dirt, poking tiny holes into which we gently placed seeds – cucumber and squash, tomato and zucchini, peppers and beans. 
The hard work and delayed timeline didn’t deter me, the priority of other projects and the call of daily chores didn’t distract me. I needed to dig in, to dig deeper. I needed to feel the worth and the strength of the Earth upon which we had settled ourselves. I was ready and energized and, once again, hopeful. It was time to plant and sow.

Then I tended and waited. Meanwhile, as the seeds slowly and silently stretched their roots beneath ground, I nurtured the roots of connectedness within myself. I relaxed into yoga and hiking and meditation. I carved out small moments to breathe and read and (sporadically, privately) write. I spent idle time watching the soft movement of our river birch in the breeze and felt the mirror of thoughts and emotions moving through me. I tended to those rich relationships that our move had brought us close enough to see on a regular basis – the soul sisters an hour away who never cease to make me laugh and cry and feel truly known. And somewhere deep within the buzz of creativity was finding new life. 

Ever so slowly, and somewhat surprisingly despite the work and waiting, green sprouts began to emerge from the soil. Small, hopeful buds at first. But once emerged, once they felt the warmth of sunlight upon their willowy stems, the plants seemed to be propelled towards growth. Cucumbers climbed along the fence, beans and zucchini became bushy, and poorly placed butternut squash reached it’s vining tendrils halfway across the yard. Meanwhile, I saw the buds of connectedness showing up in our new community. I went on a camping trip with our forest school group that we’ve come to adore. I invited friends over, even though I don’t love to host, because their company is joyful and genuine and worth it. I lingered with new friends by the creek as heartfelt conversations began to flow. 

A year later and hundreds of miles from where we began, it’s harvest time again. We race to pluck the bush beans before aphids devour them. We part large leaves and find overgrown zucchini. We anxiously watch tomatoes slowly turn from green to red. We taste spicy peppers and juicy cucumber. 

Meanwhile, we sit and laugh with new friends over cold beer in the afternoon sun. Meanwhile, we go to birthday parties and watch as our children play and grow together. Meanwhile, we frolic in the sun-warmed water of our local lake with the beauty of mountains and friendship encircling us. Meanwhile, I glimpse my daughter perched on a log next to a new friend, shoulders brushing, heads tilted slightly together as they look out upon the world together.

And I see – the harvest is here. The sweet taste of companionship and true connection, grown slowly and purposefully, is worth the effort and worth the wait. New beginnings, very often, must take us back to our roots, dark and quiet and full of doubt as they may be, before we’re able to fully bloom anew.

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