This is the first year I’ve planted my own garden. As a child, I helped my parents weed and water theirs, and over the years I’ve stuck my hands in dirt enough times to know that I like it, but for a variety of reasons (always traveling, living in apartments, or simply not motivated) I’ve never seen one through from start to finish, had the responsibility rest in my hands, or rather, in the hands of me and my partner.
Our garden is messy, experimental, and doesn’t get enough sun. Our garden is imperfect, as gardens should be. First, we cobbled together a raised bed with old mismatched boards and hauled in a bunch of dirt-- dirt which turned out to be filled with bark and too dense for most of the delicate roots of our greens to push through. For several months, I watered and hoped that the tiny shoots would grow, but they more or less stayed the same size until my husband finally replanted them in soil from our composted leaves. Within days, they were growing. Lesson learned.
We also had to hack down a bunch of cedar and holly branches to let in more light, but our garden is still lucky to see a few good hours a day. In the main bed we planted lettuce, kale, chard, green onions, peas, beans, and zucchini. On our deck we planted tomatoes, basil, cucumbers and peppers in pots. I walk by other people’s gardens and see giant mature vegetables already begging to be eaten, whereas the peas and a few leaves of basil are the only thing we’ve been able to harvest so far. If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to eat abundant greens throughout August and September, but for now, we’re still buying our veggies at the store.
Thankfully we are not relying on our harvest to eat or sell, but rather, our garden is a learning project, an excuse to go outside more often and watch dirt absorb water, turn into something rich and fertile, a ploy to get me to be more observant, to notice the speed and quality in which things grow, which direction the stems and leaves are reaching for sunlight, which soil is most thirsty and which is healthiest. And to notice my own distracted and aware states, the ebb and flow of my emotions, days where the watering is rushed or neglected, or days where I am a gentle, observant nurturer.
There’s also something so satisfying of course about gathering a bowl full of peas and cutting them up and putting them in my salad—from garden to stomach in minutes. There’s something so beautiful about being rooted enough in a home where I want to take the time to build and plant and cultivate. This is coming from someone who was wed to the transitory traveling life for years, someone who still longs on a regular basis to take off and live a life undistracted by too many emails or obligations, who has cultivated a love for being places where nobody knows my name.
But those longings belong more to the realm of fantasy right now. For an equally strong urge has taken hold-- the urge to stay in one place, to cultivate old friendships or new ones that have the potential to last a long time. It helps, of course, owning a home. I wonder if I didn’t, if the urge to root would be quite as strong, or if it’d be too easy to give in to the lure of someplace other, a different country, especially China which holds so many keys to my tongue and heart. A place where it is easy to stay in a state of awareness, because everything is vibrantly different and new— until it isn’t, and then you can leave.
What I love the most about traveling is the ease to which one can stay present and aware, open to unexpected encounters or invitations, meeting new people, stopping at the side of the road to take notice, as opposed to being caught up in a mind filled with anxiety about meetings or deadlines or careers or self image. When traveling, your job is to meet your own basic needs: food, shelter, water; running errands like going to the post office, bank, or market; writing letters or emails to keep ties to dear ones strong—and otherwise, to simply stay open to what the day will bring, whether you are feeling tired or energetic, whether you want to seek out another or wander alone.
I suppose I’m talking about the kind of traveling that one sinks into after you’ve been gone for weeks, or months. The kind of traveling where your destinations are only loosely plotted and where you have enough open-endedness to drift away from normal markers of time. Where you begin to forget what day it is, because it doesn’t really matter, and where you feel so utterly alive and in the moment that you wish that everyone could have this same kind of experience—risk letting go of tightly constricted tethers of your identity, risk losing old versions of yourself in order to discover new versions, a new sense of who you are emerging, transforming, changed.
As I write this, I am aware of how this longing for that kind of travel can also be a form of escapism. I’m aware of how most people think that such a lifestyle is okay for people in their twenties, but that people in their thirties or older should’ve gotten over those fantasies by now and commit to a more responsible life. And I am aware of how I still argue for either side—the longer it’s been since I’ve experienced that kind of travel, the more I remind myself that I would like to again—and hopefully in not too long. Yet the longer I was away—traveling, in China, for years apart from my family and friends and the Pacific Northwest where I was raised—the more I longed for a rooted community and home.
I am still learning how to commit myself to one place, one network of people and friends, my writing colleagues and students, my writing, my parents, my partner. And to commit means that it is not so easy to cut loose and go away. It means that I need to learn how to cultivate that same expansive awareness that I was shown while backpacking while on a walk in my own neighborhood, on a weekend camping trip, or in my own living room, in my heart and my mind. I am learning how to find balance, getting older as some might say—and yet, I don’t like feeling trapped in one possible vision of what is ‘realistic,’ never have. So I leave my heart open to the universe to bring what it will, to teach me what I need. I try to remain open to all the possibilities, to stay open to what my heart needs, and to beware of words like ‘should’—or at least to be aware of where they are coming from. You never know, you might still find me on a cheap flight to Hong Kong or a ferry to Alaska next summer. Or, more likely, you might find me here, in North Seattle, digging, watering and harvesting from a new crop of vegetables and weeds.