Rain is coming soon. I’m in the garden, rushing to fertilize, seed, re-pot, plant and organize before Saturday, when the skies will darken and burst. My six broccoli starts are getting “leggy”–a term I’d only associated with a particular brand of female until three years ago–and I need to get them in the soil before they collapse. Like everything else, I am struck by the thin line between thriving and failing when it comes to these tiny, green lives in my care.
Careful to lift from my legs and not strain my half-century-old back, I heft a bag of potting soil from the ground and carry it inside the rough cedar perimeter fence of the garden, to where six large pots sit waiting. Amanda Palmer speaks to me of art and asking and vulnerability from the speaker I’ve hung on the fence, a gentle voice keeping me company in an acre of alone. Her voice is as lush and soothing as the trees and the hum of passing bees around me. The cats come and go, as cats do—chasing moths, sunning in the grass, stalking each other for sport—and I wonder if they think we created this garden for their entertainment. Perhaps we did.
Somewhere, in an ICU, in a hospital, in a country near or far away, someone takes their last drowning breath and crosses that fine line forever. The people who love them cannot hold their hand or stroke their forehead or plant a kiss on their cheek.
I had to put on my sun hat and I’m wiping sweat from my brow with dirty garden gloves. The large section of turf that has been rototilled has finally dried and I’ll have to hurry and clear as many of the rocks and clumps of sod as I can before the impending storm turns it all to a heavy mud soup. Potatoes wait inside the shed/greenhouse that my husband lovingly constructed for me this spring. I’d always scorned the idea of planting potatoes—why go to all that work when potatoes are cheap and plentiful in the store? Now, those little tubers and their spiky sprouts speak of pragmatism and planning. I’ve seen the photos of vegetables rotting in farmers’ fields. I know the fine line includes trucks, airplanes, ships, farmers. Potatoes are nutritious and keep well in Canadian winters, a smart gardener would learn how to grow them. Soon.
Each broccoli start is planted deep into the loamy, rich potting soil and I place the pots strategically for maximum sun. I’ve never tried growing broccoli in pots before but the rest of the raised beds are full and I’m maximizing every inch of space I can. This garden won’t be enough to sustain us on its own, but it will supplement what we can buy and it will taste better and last longer in the fridge. Less waste. Money is part of the fine line too.
Amanda Palmer talks about letting fans draw on her naked body and the exhilaration and trust of crowd surfing.
Somewhere, men in vests and boots carry flags and guns up the stone steps of Very Important Buildings. They yell about freedom and rights. Women carry signs with swastikas and demand haircuts and lattes. Somewhere, a government official asks for calm and patience and peace. Somewhere, cooped up too long with an anger we allowed, a husband beats his wife until she crosses the fine line.
One of the everbearing strawberry plants has produced a cluster of small, green fruit. Time to fertilize. I am amazed at the amount of knowledge I have accumulated in just three years. It reminds me of when I was learning to fish—what lure, what depth, what speed to reel, where to find the fish. It’s detective work. I like solving nature’s puzzles. In the garden, I need to know when and were to plant, when to fertilize, how to attract the helpful bugs and keep away the destructive ones, how to get the most bounty out of a plant, how to save the dying. After I Google which combination of fertilizer to use for strawberries (10-10-10 will work), I head to the shed, where the fertilizers are stored. I catch my reflection in the glass.
Under my goofy sun hat, my fine hair sticks out at all angles. Brown smudges my face where I wiped away the sweat. My wire rimmed glasses could have belonged to my gram. A white tank top declares DREAM! in cursive swoops—it’s riddled with holes. My cut off shorts fit more snuggly than usual thanks to too much baking and two months without spin class or running. The “quarantine fifteen” my brother’s girlfriend Dianna joked once. My green rubber boots, full of sweat, complete the look. I despair.
When did I get so old and…frumpy? When did I stop dying my hair shocking colours and dancing until the sun came up? When did I start learning how to grow potatoes? When did I decide I didn’t need a career of my own? Why did I surrender my independence so willingly? When did I become irrelevant? When did I give up on all my big dreams and ambitions? Who is this woman who spends her days gardening and cleaning and cooking and helping her husband with bookkeeping and talking to cats and learning how to grow fucking potatoes? Why have I never crowd-surfed or let strangers write on my naked body?
Why have I been unable to write even a single short story for months?
Somewhere, a scientist slowly, painstakingly, methodically, works to solve one of nature’s puzzles. Somewhere, a toddler presses their sticky hand to the glass of a nursing home window and their grandfather smiles for the first time in a week. Somewhere, a doctor with eyes full of empathy, wearing a pair of shoes that are actually little works of art, stands behind a microphone and tells people to be calm, be kind, be safe, and most of those people listen and hundreds, possibly thousands, stay on the living side of the fine line because of this.
I look at my reflection and see myself through the eyes of the ones I’ve loved who’ve crossed over that line. They’re laughing because this was all a big practical joke, in the end. The artsy, selfish, overly-dramatic, foolhardy weirdo raised by kind, ordinary people, became a kind, ordinary person…and liked it. My grief, which has become a manageable, quiet background breeze, returns as a thunderstorm. My gut tightens and I sob, for my dad, my mom, my sister. I cry as I mix fertilizer, as I carefully feed the new life that will one day feed us. I cry as I scoop up my cat Serenity and she, as always, wraps her paws around my neck and licks. I cry and laugh as I waltz with my cat, spinning and twirling in rubber boots and baggy shorts, across the patch of dry dirt that will someday bear potatoes.
I cry as Amanda strums her ukulele and sings:
And in my mind
I imagine so many things
Things that aren’t really happening
And when they put me in the ground
I’ll start pounding the lid
Saying I haven’t finished yet
I still have a tattoo to get
That says I’m living in the moment
And it’s funny how I imagined
That I could win this, win this fight
But maybe it isn’t all that funny
That I’ve been fighting all my life
But maybe I have to think it’s funny
If I wanna live before I die
And maybe it’s funniest of all
To think I’ll die before I actually see
That I am exactly the person that I want to be
Somewhere, a middle-aged woman dances in the dirt that will feed her and understands that the future has always been fragile and grieves for everything and everyone that has crossed over that fine line. And though she is not who she thought she would be, she likes who she has become.
Hi Kristene, I’m so glad to see you posting again. I’ve missed your musings. Your writing reminded me of the commonality of all existence and inspired me to reply in kind from far away.
Somewhere in the middle of America an old nurse that was a farmer in a former life, is scratching in the soil of his farm. In my mid- seventies, in a body that has served me well through a full and adventurous life, but that now is breaking down in ways that can’t really be fixed, I spend increasing amounts of time figuring out how to still manage physical tasks that once came easy. The garden is smaller now than in previous years but still adequate for the two of us. The perennials we planted upon retirement (asparagus, rhubarb, raspberries, and fruit trees) represent a nice source of pleasure and nourishment without the work of the garden itself (although this years’ uncharacteristic late freeze will give the trees a years’ rest from producing fruit). The four hives of honeybees, although a lot of work at times, continue to be a source of wonderful sweetener and meditative joy.
Covid-19 appeared without changing much (for now) for me. A slight loss of social contacts that were already thinning year by year, enforced slowing down of the society around me which, from the small farm is only observed rather than experienced. Covid-19 has led me to introspective thoughts of my own mortality and the transient nature of my life and all life. Not that I wasn’t already very aware of my place in line as a member of the oldest cohort in my family.
The beauty of it is that my life has been, and continues to be good. There has been hardship and pain, the wonder of births and the grieving of deaths. But there has also been beauty and wonders and adventure. The sounds of bull elk bugling in the misty dawn of the high Rocky Mountains, the metallic shimmer of a large Pacific salmon beside the boat on the end of my line, or feeling the eerie stillness in a hidden cliff house abandoned centuries ago by a long forgotten family in the southwestern deserts of North America.
It has been said that if one is fortunate enough to live a long life the elder years will be filled with either regret or with memory. My life today is one mostly of memories that bring soft, private smiles. When my hands are in the soil or in the secret world of my bee hives I am reminded of the joy of being a part of the mystery of life and of the gratitude I feel for the experience.
Mike! It’s so good to hear from you and I LOVE your reply. Simply beautiful. I can relate to that feeling of hands in the soil. ❤ Stay well, my friend.
Wonderful reading your writings and identifying with Amanda’s lyrics I too am an old nurse with my feet and hands in the dirt wondering how I got this far, who I am and what lies ahead
Thank you, Betty! It is a time for questions, that’s for sure. ❤
Hi Kristine and fred, So glad to be in touch again. Can I reach you at this email? Love Helen
Sent from my iPad
Hi Helen! So happy to hear from you. You can reach us at email@example.com. 🙂