This Word Is Grow

by Harmony Button

I got my first sunburn of the season while I was outside, in the back yard, tying sticks together with little pieces of twine to make an archway into the garden. It’s a yearly ritual based around the unruly growth of a neighbor’s tree, which is one of those reasonably attractive arboreal weeds that grows Hydra-like knots on the side of its trunk – there’s a big wad of living wood that continually shoots out pups and sprouts that I hack off, only to see two more branches spring up in the place of one. If I don’t stay vigilant, I look up one day to find the entire entrance to my garage has been blocked by awkwardly low-growing foliage. So I get out there with the clippers and snip off all the new limbs that spawned in the spring, leaving just enough coverage over the chain link fence to allow the boyfriend to wander around the back yard in his Jedi bathrobe, as he is wont to do, without being in the neighbor’s line of sight.

The last year’s kale is also plotting world domination, reaching never-before-seen heights of six or seven feet. It turned the herb garden into an edible hedgerow with tiny yellow flowers so thick that Jason occasionally removes the Jedi bathrobe behind the cover of dense foliage in order to enjoy a brisk outdoor shower from the spray head of the garden hose. There are certain things in life that bring us an overwhelming sense of wellbeing: my pathway to tranquility is to feel myself swing, weightless, in a sun-dappled hammock; Jason’s is through peaceful moments of outdoor nudity. Luckily, the back yard can satisfy both of these pursuits.

*

I’ve not always had the best of judgement when it comes to falling in love. Most of the time, they just were good, kind people who just weren’t that into me, and I was too young and dumb to see their polite disinterest as a sign of anything but a wonderfully slow beginning to what might be an incredibly romantic story. It shouldn’t be any surprise to me, then, that I started out my relationship with Jason in a similar way: love was something happened to me, that I found myself inside of, rather than something that I knew how to cultivate, to grow. I was the weed; he was the water. And I’m not sure Jason was much better, to be honest – he seemed like he was, all talking about what he was looking for, what he was working on personally, what he wanted from life, what he wanted from love. But from the safe and loving distance of ten years, I call bull shit on all that. He was as much of an ignorant, juvenile mess as I was.

*

The sunburn wasn’t a bad one, but it reminded me to be more careful. It seems like my worst burns are always in June, when I’m not quite in the habit of daily dosing myself with sunscreen. It’s been many years since I’ve really toasted myself – peeling skin, water blisters, the whole deal. Somehow, exiting my early twenties made the delicacy of my fair skin really sink in: no matter how much I like the bronze look of health that comes from some sun exposure, I’ve seen my parents go through too many dermatological procedures to remove precancerous spots to be that reckless with my own epidermis. I can no longer deny that I’m playing with fire – literally, a big burning ball of gas that lights the earth, warms that air and burns my flesh. At this point in my life, it seems, I have finally learned that what feels good in the moment – the kiss of the sun, the warmth on my skin – might actually be seriously damaging the largest organ of my body and making me more likely to suffer a long, painful death by melanoma.

*

From Jason’s perspective, the story goes like this: in the span of one week, he met two incredible women, both of whom expressed interest in him. One was from the wilderness therapy group that he had been working for. She helped troubled teenagers learn life skills and self sufficiency by backpacking with them through the west desert of Utah. She was roommates with some of his friends, and she fit comfortably into his social life and schedule. The other woman was a beautiful stranger who accosted him at a jukebox in a dive bar, told him to play the Doors, and gave him her number. The first was a thoughtful, generous, spiritually centered kind of woman who grounded him and made him feel valued and appreciated. The second woman took him out on a first date to a Halloween party dressed as a sexy devil, got him drunk, and then climbed on the roof of the house to make out with him by the light of the departing ambulances, which had come to take away a drunken reveler who had fallen off the porch.

I, of course, was the second woman.

*

A couple of years ago, Carol Dweck wrote the hugely successful pop psychology book, Mindset, about the significant differences between “fixed” and “growth” perspectives on the self. It’s a slim little volume that did not fundamentally alter my understanding of complexities of the human psyche, but it did organize its case in a compelling, highly readable narrative.

The idea is this: people who believe ability, intelligence, and personality traits to be essentially “fixed” since birth are people who are in for a long, hard life. They may be talented, but every success that they experience merely confirms their status as a smart or capable person, while every obstacle they face serves to challenge their “fixed” measure of natural ability – in other words, hard things can only hurt them, while victories only maintain the status quo.

Dweck writes that people who maintain a “growth” mindset, on the other hand, tend to see their performances and outcomes as linked to choices that they have made, rather than essential characteristics that they possess. In this way, hard work is a virtue, rather than a shameful recourse that kicks in only when natural talent isn’t strong enough. To those with growth mindsets, failures still suck, but they are opportunities to reevaluate choices and actions, rather than measures of identity or aptitude. In this mindset, there is little to risk in taking on a new challenge, but much to be gained – and so, ironically, it is the people who focus on the rewards of the process (the pleasure of grappling with an interesting problem, the promise of learning new things) who end up so often having the most impressive performances: they are the star athletes, the wildly successful entrepreneurs, the most influential artists and scientists and thinkers.

*

In that first week, Jason reeled from the shock of it: how could he have gone from being completely without female company of any kind to suddenly finding himself in the midst of not one, but two remarkable love stories? The first woman was gone for eight days at a time, completely out of contact in the wilderness; the second woman turned out to be a smartypants graduate student who was studying all the time and only wanted to hang out on weekends. Jason was flustered. He couldn’t choose, and he had kind of recently come out of a pretty serious relationship, anyway. Was he even ready for something new? “I’m not looking for anything serious,” he told both of the women, thinking that meant it was okay to continue to see both of them. “I don’t want to be possessive,” he said – but of course, what they heard was, “please save me from my poor sad self, show me the way of true love, and win me over with your patience and understanding.” And so, they all smiled, nodded, and agreed to keep it light – no expectations, no commitments.

*

Sometimes, it can be hard to tell the difference between the particular discomfort that comes from personal growth, and the pain that results from doing something dumb. This is what yoga teaches you: discomfort can be a signal of growth, or a sign of a mistake. Dweck would tell me that all mistakes are opportunities for growth, but what I mean is that not all opportunities for growth are mistakes – and sometimes, it can be really hard to look your pain in the eye and decide whether or not the right move is forwards, or back.

*

The archway was always made of found objects: the original version was built from twisted pine branches that had fallen out of my dying spruce trees. I paid more to have those poor, ancient, gorgeous trees removed from my yard than I did for my car, and I grieved both their loss and the financial burden of their loss. I felt like something good, something productive and forward-thinking had to come from them, so I built the archway. It was tied together with jute and lasted a year before it eventually collapsed. Version 2.0 was built of the bendy, lithe trimmings from the Hydra tree, and it has lasted much longer. Each year, I trim and build, trim and build, so that my back yard archway is becoming thicker and more nest-like with each year. Eventually, it will become a sturdy, woven structure akin to the stick-homes in Where The Wild Things Are. I’ve hung blue solar lights across it, this year. Sometimes, I go out back at night, just to see them twinkling amidst the thing that I have built. I built this thing, I think. I built it, and there it is.

*

The first woman never asked if Jason was seeing anyone else, and even long after he stopped seeing her and she moved out of state – it took him years to tell her how it had all gone down. The second woman waited until she was half a dozen dates in and firmly infatuated with him before she asked a direct question, found out about the first woman, and was promptly and appropriately heartbroken. She broke up with him, which was a non-break-up, seeing as they were never really truly together in the first place, and then because they had left his car in Park City, she had to drive him in a blinding rage through a raging snowstorm back up the canyon before she could quite literally kick him to the curb. She then made the sketchiest drive of her life back down the mountain through a blizzard that took over the whole world, outside and in. Never was winter more appropriate than that drive – never more dangerous, more powerful, more chaotic and brutal and beautiful.

*

The human body is capable of incredible weirdness. Normal, healthy humans do all kinds of bizarre things to regulate, accelerate or otherwise control the growth functions of their own bodies. We pluck, shave, peel, clip and grind away unwanted bits of our own bodies on a daily basis – and I would be lying if I didn’t say that at times I find the refuse oddly compelling. When you pull a stubbly hair directly out of the follicle, and you can see the little white root sheath attached to it – don’t tell me you haven’t looked at that with some sense of satisfaction. Or the sense of cleanliness that comes with feeling something unwanted dislodge itself from your nasal passage and land with a hefty thwack inside your tissue – we aren’t supposed to admit to it, but there’s something pleasing about that. The sight of one of those pore-cleansing strips that has just uprooted a small forest of oily little nubbins from your face? The clean rip of a toenail, the scrub of a Q-tip, the backwards glance into the toilet bowl? These things are disgusting and fascinating. These things are human. I think it comes down to an ongoing uncertainty about what makes up a self: if I am a whole person, but then I cut some of me off, am I still a whole? If I am a whole person, and then I grow more, am I more whole than I was before? Again and again, flesh defies math.

*

When I found that that Jason and I weren’t exclusive, I had never felt so stupid and so angry. I felt the hypocrisy my own words – low commitment, just for fun – come back to me. Of course that wasn’t what I wanted, was he an idiot? I was just saying those things so that I didn’t come on too strong, the way I had before, when I was in the habit of telling boys how much I liked them by, you know, maxing out their voicemail inboxes with readings from Thoreau, or writing them poems, or other really cool, totally suave things like that. I was angry, and hurt, and most of all, ashamed – because this meant that once again, I liked someone more than he liked me, and I’d acted like a naive dumbass, and I’d been so busy making him think that I was the totally chill, smart, cool girl that I forgot that I was definitely, definitely not cool. And if cool meant emotionally detached, I never wanted that, anyway. And I hated him for setting me up for that kind of fall, even though he had no way of knowing exactly how much of a tumble it would be. I was so, so angry.

*

I, like most children, was fascinated by scabs: they are so gross, and so satisfying. Think about them: fixed little crusts that tug at the flexible fleshy edges. They’re are evidence of a wound, but if you time it just right, when you peel back that crusty exterior, what is waiting for you underneath? Taut, dry, weirdly pink skin, in a spot that used to just be a hole in your epidermis. Magical.

In college, you could always pick out the rowers in a large lecture hall because they were the ones chewing on their hands. You watch them: it starts with a visual inspection of the palm, or perhaps the lower, fleshy parts of the fingers. Maybe they pinch a blister, or start by pulling at a tab of rogue callous, but inevitably the process goes awry. Eventually, the teeth are the only instrument left with the precision capabilities to trim the offending skin. I know, because I’ve done this. Being a rower was about more than just rowing. It was about being tough, and disciplined, and not giving a fuck about peripheral discomforts. It was about pushing back against a vision of femininity that wanted to make my body a passive object. If my body was to be manipulated, I wanted to be in on the plan: I wanted to grow muscle and blister and that weird heat rash that always popped up on my chest and forearms when I rowed in salt water. It was a sport about skill, for sure – but it was also about the side effects: the odd sun burns, the slide bite at the back of the calves, the abnormally awesome butt muscle that made me wonder why the hell J-Lo was a big deal. And you want to know what a women’s crew team from an elite institution of higher learning talks about on those long bus rides to regattas? Mostly rowing, along with food and poop, and sometimes sex. It was amazing. I remember laughing, and laughing, and not thinking about my eyebrows or my nose-shape or my thigh gap, like, ever.

*

Carol Dweck describes relationships as the Waterloo of the fixed mindset: not only do you have the ability to see your own qualities as fixed, but you can also assume that your partner’s qualities, and the nature of the relationship, are also fixed. This assumption, of course, is a recipe for disaster. In a fixed mindset, a relationship is either effortless, or it is bad; it is either meant-to-be or not meant-to-be. Any strife in the relationship either reflects badly on the self, or it has to be blamed on the other person: all problems are indicative of character flaws, and character, of course, is a fixed element. This is how you end up flipping from feeling giddily in love to feeling as if you have made a horrible mistake spending time with an inferior person. The fixed mindset affirms the self at the expense of others.

The growth mindset, on the other hand, sees a relationship as a project in compromise and communication; it is an ever-evolving dynamic that requires constant calibration. When you choose a relationship, you choose a set of existing problems, and you look for the potential for growth. In her section on business, Dweck writes about growth minded CEOs who hired for mindset, rather than skill set – and the same basic impulse is also her suggestion when it comes to relationships.

*

That winter, Jason shipped out to Africa. It was his dream job – first a documentary in Ghana on a non-profit promoting peace through shared playgrounds between warring factions, followed by an camera assignment embedded with UN troops in the Congo, following the illegal sale of AK-47s. But he couldn’t shake a foreboding feeling. Ever since he was a teenager, Jason had had this nagging premonition that he wouldn’t live past the age of thirty (which, really, can any teenager imagine life past thirty? I mean, you might as well be dead as middle aged, right?) and he was on schedule to spend that birthday in a strange place. And so, when he caught malaria in Ghana and couldn’t hold down any fluids for a solid week, he thought that the end was in sight. When he could stand again, instead of going to a hospital, he got on a plane to the NRC and spent his first night in Congo staring at a bullet hole in the wall of the hotel, wondering if perhaps malaria wasn’t how he was going to go, after all.

*

I always knew that skin cells shed and regrow at some astounding pace – a skin cell lives approximately two weeks – but I only recently learned that our whole bodies, with the exception of some cells in the cerebral cortex, have a pretty rapid turnover rate. There’s some kind of lining of the gut that completely regrows every five days. Some studies actually suggest that very few of the cells in my body are older than fifteen years – which means that I am living in a fleshy Ship of Theseus that is not just turning inside out every lunar cycle, but every day. I say I am myself, but what I mean is that I am a growth of myself. The self that was here yesterday is not the same self that will be here tomorrow.

Which is as it should be, right? There is a reason why zombies are more frightening than vampires: blood suckers threaten to take your life force, but the undead threaten you with a “fixed” sense of personhood. Well, that, and they want to eat your brains. But I think that the sense of never growing ever again is even more frightening.

On his birthday, finding himself not dead yet, Jason brought a chicken and a can of coke to a shaman in a hut and asked him what to do about the two women back in Utah. I don’t know what the shaman said. I didn’t really care. When I found out that Jason was so sick, I didn’t think twice. I booked a ticket to Michigan, met him at his parents’ house, and helped him drive his car back across the country.

*

We talk about kids “growing up,” which is literally true – they get taller – but we also talk about “growing old,” which is a strange and confusing kind of growth. Isn’t growth, by definition, a kind of newness? How can you then grow old? In this case, to grow means to become, to develop, to grow into or out of. I wonder if, when we talk about growing old, we intuitively understand that growth is not a predictable process: we grow tumors and cysts and planter’s warts, we grow hair where it didn’t use to be, we grow wrinkles and wobbles and sags. Still, growth is growth.

When I think about how imperfect a biological ecosystem we live in, where the continuation of our beings is based around a process of perpetual growth that can so easily be thrown out of whack – either by genetics, diseases, or random mutations – I can’t help but be a little terrified. Still, consider the alternative: if our bodies were not set to continually regrow bits and pieces, I would have fallen apart years ago. If I didn’t continually risk and shift and heal, I would be a zombie. This is true for more than bodies.

*

When I got to Michigan, I met Jason’s parents for the first time. They were a little confused about me – but so was I. I was so very obviously walking into something that wasn’t what I was looking for – my life plan was for a boyfriend, a commitment, a two year dating period and a happily-freaking-ever-after complete with house, dog, stimulating career and children to be raised under the identical worldviews and value systems of their benevolent parents. What I had, instead, was a tall, sad man who weighed 115 pounds who had to eat and sleep every two hours and was really, really in need of a hair cut. At that point, his ribs stuck out so far they poked me when I hugged him, and his goatee was long enough to braid in two little devil tongues, which, even in my sympathy for him, I found fairly appalling and appropriate. It would have been so much easier to call him an asshole and never answer his phone calls again. Instead, I had flown to Michigan and met his mom.

*

Utah is a strange and wonderful place to grow a garden. The plants here are lush, feisty, or dead. The lush ones mostly live on the benevolence of gardeners – they require water and upkeep, but respond to such care with unheard of bounties and extremities. With appropriate hydration, the unbounded sunlight makes their blossoms grow bigger, fruits taste sweeter, and leaves become thicker than their east coast counterparts. The feisty ones are hard to kill – they grow overnight, curling their way out of burning-hot sidewalk cracks or dusty piles of rocks. They have flowers, but inevitably also include hidden barbs or spikes or thorns, or else their tap roots are impossibly deep and if you break the root instead of removing it whole, you’ll wake up the next morning to a whole new plant where the old one used to be. The dead plants, all too often, are the ones you’re trying desperately to grow. They sprout, they stagnate, they shrivel, they die.

*

I wish I could say that things were simple, after the drive home from Michigan. But they weren’t. I wasn’t decisive enough to either date him or wish him good luck on his lonely path ahead, so I moped around in limbo, feeling my internal organs twist themselves around, reaching for him like leaves reach for sun, wrapping their coils around the sound of his voice, his laugh, the shape of his walk. We said we were just friends, but that was ridiculous and untrue. My roommate walked in on us making dinner together one night and we were just, like, chopping vegetables or something, but she just looked from one of us to the other and scoffed. “Oh my god have sex already!” she said, rolling her eyes and leaving the room. I was offended, and embarrassed – but I knew what she meant. The air was thick with it. There was no “just friends” mode, and the harder we tried, the more I felt like I was living in a Jane Austen novel, complete with racing hearts, witty dialogue, misguided heroes and socially repressed heroines. Every time I said goodbye to him, I tried to imagine that it was the last time – that I’d never see him again, that it was too hard, that we had to stop hanging out. But you know what they say: abstinence makes the heart grow fonder. It was terrible, and I loved every horrendous minute I spent with him. I knew, I knew in my gut that this wasn’t healthy, that the kind of growth I felt in my heart was not the garden kind, but the weeds gone wild. My heart was overgrown.

I decided to solve the problem by shipping myself off to New Hampshire to teach in a summer school – clear my head, get some distance, perhaps cleanse my palate with some new harmless crush somewhere else. I had to give myself some space, to dry out, to break the cycle of addiction.

*

The gardener’s rule of thumb around Salt Lake is if you can get it to establish, it will thrive. Second season flowers, for example, are the pretty ones. I have spinach plants that wintered over and grew back as six foot behemoths with torso-sized leaves, but every single new spinach seed that I planted this spring has resulted in nothing, nothing, nothing. It was too strangely hot this March for new seeds to germinate, and then it rained too hard. Either the seedlings didn’t sprout, or they got washed out.

In my garden, I tend to specialize in invasive species. I have a mint crop that would make a million juleps. My strawberry patch is reaching for new heights. I have an oregano bush that has become an embankment. These plants have come to crowd out others; half a dozen lavenders and a rhubarb have been strangled by the waving curtain of hops; three Japanese maples have suffered death by invasive sunflower.

Still, I’m tempted to go with what works, you know? I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on bulbs and potted plants and seeds, but the flower that grows best is some tall, leafy thing with little purple flowers. And I love it – now that I know that it’s pretty, I’ve stopped pulling it up with the thistles and the quackgrass and the prickly, viney one I just call Desert Bitch. I tried to learn the proper names of all the things that were sprouting in my backyard, but a quick google revealed that almost all of them are on the “noxious species” list, so what the hell. Most of the time, my work as a gardener is not to cultivate growth, but to contain it, limit it, or prevent it. If I want to grow a nice lilac, or a pear tree, or a bank of tomatoes, I have to fight for that space, every day. Because Virginia Creeper plays dirty, and peach trees don’t fight back.

*

New Hampshire backfired. I missed Jason with a ferocity that bordered pathological. I pined for him in a way that I have never pined for anyone or anything – the kind of long-suffering, wandering the moors, might die of consumption kind of pining of Wuthering Heights fame. Now, heretofore, my romantic experiences had been made up mostly of pining. I was an expert piner, and I knew better than anyone that there could be some pleasure in a good pine. You get a little misty eyed, do some wistful sighing, a little daydreaming… that and a cup of tea will start your day off right. But this was not like that. This feeling of longing, of pain, was not just heartbreak. This was the feeling that the world was off kilter, that setting it straight was not a matter of out-growing a crush but of growing a new self, one with slightly tougher skin and sharper wits and a good deal more backbone.

*

Sometimes, I wonder if people are mostly weeds, too: we’re tenacious, pervasive, and seem to be genetically programmed to get our hooks into the best support structures, to pull ourselves towards a little gasp of sunlight. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing – weeds are resourceful and efficient and they can survive against great odds. It also turns out that a shocking number of them are edible, and, get this, the only reason why we don’t eat them is because they are weeds. The stigma of being a tough, self-sustaining species is so strong that we can’t even take advantage of their bounty. True, a lot of them are also pretty bitter and not that tasty, but still – we pay and pay to grow crops from genetically modified seeds, while we spray and spray all sorts of herbicides on the under-utilized foods growing in our own yards. If weeds are still a metaphor for the human spirit, then what is this world coming to?

*

Often, when I find myself in moments of growth, everything seems to be about the same thing: everything is metaphorical; the whole world presents me with examples of the thing I can’t quite say. It is as if I’m standing in the middle of my own experience, watching the lesson that I most need to learn play out in a parade of model and example, analogy and cautionary tale, and yet, I can’t quite name what that lesson is, yet. It’s not that I believe that diverse elements of the universe have conspired to overcome randomness to teach me anything in particular – it’s that my own personal filter starts to pick up on something, long before my mind and heart really make sense of the universality of whatever it is I am trying to see.

*

I didn’t answer many of Jason’s phone calls, while I was in New Hampshire. Instead, I hung a list of all the things I didn’t like about him on my wall, and I did a lot of crying in the shower. I did some soul searching about what it was that I really wanted in a partner, and what kind of role I wanted that partner to have in my life. I wanted someone to challenge me, not just agree with me – but I wanted the kind of challenge that would push me into being a better person with a broader vision of the world, not a challenge that would break me down, break me in, tame me to someone else’s worldview or perspective. I wanted true love, but I didn’t know what I wanted that to look like, on a day to day basis. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that leaving Jason was wrong – that he was the kind of discomfort that I should lean into, not back away from. But when I said things like that, my friends exchanged worried glances, made references to the wall list, and/or started conversations about other cute and eligible boys. And I can understand – it was empirically stupid to want to build a future with him. After that kind of past? That’s some poison in the water that even weeds won’t drink. You can go in circles on who said what at what point – but the bottom line was, he didn’t want a girlfriend, and I didn’t want to live in the grey areas.

*

Moments of growth are thrilling, especially when you are intensely aware of that growth process – its rapidity, its promise that you will never be quite the same. The faster the growth process, the more wary I am of growing recklessly, growing boundlessly. I feel the tendrils of my mind reach into existing structures, winding themselves into habits and realities. Dweck would tell me not to worry – that as long as you remain in the growth mindset, these vines of new growth can always be redirected, that no bad habits can really take root. But I have spent too many summers in the garden to believe this, entirely. I have seen too many branches break under the weight of their own fruit; too many vines have outreached their own balance, crimped their own stems, withered, and died back to the base of the plant, where they had to start again.

*

While I was busy molting my heart’s skin in New Hampshire, Jason was back in Salt Lake, watering my garden. He could have set up a soaker hose, but he preferred to water it by hand – he said it gave him time to be quiet, and to visit with the plants, and to feel closer to me, in my space. He brought over compost and built a trellis and started the first of what would become an epic series of worm bins. He set brick around the edge of the garden and planted basil and nurtured a couple sunflowers that volunteered at the fence line. In the evening, he would sit on the little wooden bench that I had salvaged from a street clean up and he would listen to the crickets and he would think about what was important to him – in a partner, in a life. In August, I came home to find a tomato patch that was as tall as the first story of a house, and a man who had made a choice, and who wanted to see me, exclusively. It wasn’t a boombox below my bedroom window, and there weren’t any white horses, but there were some pretty amazing tomatoes and a really long conversation, so I decided to give it a try.

*

My psychiatrist friend is a good friend, and I suspect she is a good psychiatrist, too. She has a habit of naming her experiences in a way that, at first, made me think that she wasn’t as emotionally affected by them as other people. There is something a little disarming about sitting across from a smiling person who calmly explains, over delicious sushi, that she’s been experiencing some additional stress because it is the anniversary of her mother’s death. But then I realized that naming the experience is actually a way of pruning the emotional foliage: growth will happen, emotions will emote, but setting some stakes or tying some twine to guide the direction of this growth can turn the human psyche from weedy patch into a garden.

Growth will happen. Growth is not necessarily positive or negative – it can choke us as well as liberate us; it can be cancerous, it can be beautiful. The best we can do is to wear our sunscreen, water the garden, pull the weeds we want to call weeds and cultivate the ones we think are actually quite pleasing. We will grow up, we will grow old; we will grow into the selves that we cultivate for ourselves.

*

For Jason and me, these were the seeds of our story. We don’t like to talk about the beginnings, now that we’re firmly in the middle of the story, but what I have written here is not the garden, or the harvest – it was the wind storm that spread the wildfire, that burned down the scrub oak, that fertilized the earth, that shook up all the normals and supposed-tos and made room for new growth. And in the following decade of our relationship, our obstacles and habits of heart have tended to come back to re-sprout as tenacious, cyclical weeds: uncertainty, mistrust, a sense of timing always being off, a wish that someone or something else could validate our relationship, tell us that we’re meant for each other. Which is to say – that we’ll make it, that we’ll always make each other happy, that we’ll help each other grow upwards, towards the light. That we won’t hog the sun. That we won’t have to compete for nutrients. That we won’t choke each other out, stunting our plants, withering our flowers and our fruits.

The rated-G version of the story – the version without all the weeds and transplanting – is that Jason won me over with a garden. We met, we casually dated off and on, but then, when Jason was in trouble, I was there for him, and when I went out of town, he missed me terribly, and grew me a beautiful garden. Isn’t that a nice story? It’s nice the way an overnight landscape makeover looks nice – everything strategically placed, everything pruned and planted in special soil with herbicide to keep the weeds from ever sprouting. If they can’t sprout, then they can’t spread. Everything stays in its allotted space. Everything stays the same.

*

I don’t like perfect gardens. They are too pretty, too tidy and clean. I don’t like to see grass that has been severely edged, exposing the thick layer of sod and root base as it abuts the sidewalk. I don’t like prim plants, like pansies. I like wild grasses, succulents that spring up from unknown sources; I like the sunflowers that reseed themselves, year after year. I like building off of what I find in nature, pruning, pulling, understanding how to find the root, how to cut and salt the stalk to stop it from re-sprouting. I like that I have a jar of coconut oil and cinnamon sitting in the shower stall, for when I come in from the garden and need to scrub my feet before I go to bed. I like that Jason keeps a bristle brush behind the sink to scrape the dirt from underneath his fingernails, which he likes to keep clean. I like feeling like a fight is not a fight, but a good day in the garden – turning earth, pulling weeds, rebuilding support structures. I like knowing that scratches will heal but sunburns leave lasting damage; I like to feel the soreness of good work in my arms and my back and my calves. I like to feel the electricity of Jason’s touch, the kind of chemistry that sells Blockbuster tickets, the kind you expect to outgrow, over time, but thrill to find still alive, like single season crops that have declared themselves perennials. I like to wonder what will come of all this dirt. I don’t know what my garden will look like, season to season. I just know it will be work, and that it will be worth it.

*

One day, while we were digging in the garden, Jason and I unearthed a little plastic ring with a star on it. It had the vintage cut and look of something from the sixties, so we added it to the collection of artifacts that have come from the earth – mostly pottery shards, a bottle, some bits of toys. On summer evenings, the blue twinkle lights come on at dusk, lighting up my Hydra-tree archway, turning it from a ramshackle mishmash of weed and twine into an enchanting arbor. These are the moments when I have to bite my tongue, to stop myself to pulling Jason into my arms, dragging him underneath the archway, and dropping to one knee with a dirty plastic ring in my hands. I haven’t done it yet because a garden is driven by patience, by preparation – you can’t expect awesome plants if you don’t build a strong soil base. But one of these days – I tell you, I’ve kept that ring. It’s in the garden. It’s waiting.

Harmony Button is a contributing editor for Paper Tape. She has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web awards, and was awarded the Larry Levis Prize (Academy ofAmerican Poets). She attended Middlebury College and University of Utah (MFA). You can find her work in Colorado Review, Southwestern American Lit, Ithaca Lit, BlazeVOX, and other publications. She is currently English Department Chair of the Waterford School in Utah. More of her work can be found at harmonybutton.wordpress.com.

Image Credit: Seedling Planting, USFS Region 5 (flickr)

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