Tending a garden has helped me learn a lot about myself. In the past few years I’ve found that both gardening and novel writing require many of the same things – space, proper nourishment, dedication, patience, and a respect for time. If something isn’t working (be it plant or plot) it probably needs better light, richer ground, and another season’s growth.
When I turned thirty, I was still living on Cuyler Ave. in an apartment on the north side of Chicago. The building hadn’t been turned into condos yet and although the neighbourhood was vibrant, it was chaotic and far from settled. (cue the late-night drug deals and sirens…)
Across the street was a lonely looking sidewalk that ran the length of a hospital parking lot. Trash was strewn all along the tree row and many of the squares where trees had once been planted were empty.
For some reason, turning thirty made me want to make at least one small part of that street beautiful. So, I chose one 5X5 square with a small tree still in its centre to call my own. I didn’t ask anyone for permission, I simply started tending it, day after day after day.
I picked up all the trash that had built up in the square, uncovering layer upon layer of newspaper, flattened coffee cups, cigarette butts, used condoms and broken glass. Underneath all that I found dirt, but it was grey and lifeless and had the consistency of sand. Despite these gritty beginnings, I still had visions of making a lovely little garden, with flowers planted all around, a bird feeder hanging from one of the tree’s branches and perhaps, someday, even installing a small bench for passersby to take a rest from their busy day.
But no matter what I tried, nothing seemed to go right.
The morning after I’d made a decorative border with some old bricks I found in the back alley, I discovered that someone had taken one of the bricks and smashed the passenger side window of a nearby car. The car’s stereo was gone. The Sunday after I’d spread two bags of black earth and planted four fat mums in the corners of the square, I came down to find two of the plants had been yanked out of the ground and were no where to be found. As I stood there shaking my head, a young man lurched out from a nearby building and proceeded to piss on the remaining plants. “Long night,” he said as he zipped up his fly and headed for the Sheridan el. station.
I replaced the missing plants, only to have those disappear as well. By the time the first hard frost arrived, I felt relieved not to have to go on with my efforts. In a few short months, my garden, along with several other things in my life had failed to thrive. The next summer I would leave Chicago and start again someplace new.
Last September I went back to Chicago for the first time in years. I even went to the neighbourhood where I’d once lived, to see the old apartment and to see what had become of my tree. To my great amazement, I found a garden. There, in the place of that sad, little square was what you see pictured above.
Although I doubt anyone at the Howard Brown Health Center (it’s just around the corner) noticed my efforts way back when, I’m grateful to them for the garden and for believing in the same things that I believe in…tending to spaces that need beauty, and to lives that need care and compassion and peace.
Many things grow in the garden that were never sown there. ~Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732