Summer is now unofficially over and my garden “looks tired” as my friend Lyn recently wrote. It is still producing lots of vegetables but looking at it you can tell it’s time is almost up. Every spring I promise that the mess in the picture won’t happen. Seeds will be planted in straight, properly spaced rows, cucumbers will have a sturdy trellis to climb and the tomatoes will be tied up to make for an easy harvest. Each spring I vow this will be the year that everything my garden produces will be neatly packaged into freezer bags or processed into a rainbow of mason jars lining the cellar shelves. But every year my garden looks less like a magazine picture and more like how my life is lived.
In Louise Erdrich’s novel The Master Butcher’s Singing Club (read this book), Eva Waldvogel plants her garden by tossing out seeds behind the butcher shop and taking what grows: peas climb up tomato plants to tangle with the volunteer squash vines, fertilized by blood and bone meal from the butcher shop. Much like Eva’s garden, mine is a tangle of intention and volunteers, fertilized by dirt hauled in from the neighbor’s calving lot that encourages tomato vines to reach heights of seven feet. No late summer is complete without several expeditions into the tomato vine jungle searching for ripe fruit or coaxing one of my boys to taste a tiny bit of some pepper to determine how hot it is. Plant markers stuck in the ground in spring are inevitably grown over and lost. The rows of beans have merged into a tangled mess of three varieties. The lettuce has long since out run our salad eating ability and gone to seed.
For over twenty years I deluded myself into believing that my life is the opposite of my garden. Instead of neat rows of weeded and mulched vegetables, I’ve always used the analogy of boxes. I believed my life was a carefully constructed tower of boxes. My husband and kids sat neatly tucked away while I spent long hours at work, patiently waiting for me to return home and open the box flaps to let them out. My friends were stashed in a box next to my family but they weren’t taken out at the same time and the contents didn’t mingle. My writing life was shoved into a shoebox overflowing with scribbled notebooks and scraps of paper. My family in Pennsylvania were taped securely in their box waiting for postage to travel the thousand miles for a visit. My late-in-life college experience occupied a large box and then another. The problem was when one box was pulled from the pile, the entire thing collapsed.
Slowly my boxes tumbled and the tape broke open until the contents were all mixed up and it was too much work to sift the stuff back into their proper box. My husband helped me out at work and reconnected with people he went to high school with who were “my” friends. I shuttled college friends home with me for long weekends and holidays, and they became attached to my kids, bringing them gifts from overseas trips and taking orders from my youngest daughter like the rest of us do. My kids spent some weekends commandeering my tiny college apartment an exploring the town. I gifted my professors’ books as Christmas presents to extended family. I worked on being brave enough to share my writing with people not in my close knit writing group.
My life turned into the chaos of my garden and I am working on enjoying the adventure in the mess. I tell myself that this year I made progress: the garden was weeded and mulched with grass clippings, and what vegetables I didn’t have time to use, I gave away. Next year: tomato stakes! This year, I let my husband read some of my writing. Next year maybe I’ll give him the address for my blog. Living a tangled up life is fun.