The last time I went through a monogamous break-up was years and years ago. (A quick Gmail search tells me it was just six years ago. I find that hard to believe. REALLY? It feels like one millennium.) It was terrible — as break-ups basically always are — and somewhat out of the blue — as break-ups both always are and never are. I cried (normal for me) and got drunk (I’d never done that before) and threw up in the street (I’d never done that before and never would again) and downed a whole season of “Gilmore Girls” (did that again just yesterday). I missed school and basically sulked like a 12-year-old for days on end. The only thing that made me feel better even remotely was when Hannah asked me if I wanted to pull weeds with her.
Keeping up with a garden is difficult. I am basing this claim on my fundamental inability to keep very simple indoor house plants alive, even with so-called “fool-proof” instructions. I spent most of my life turning my nose up at people who said that plants that came into their care instantly died; I assumed that caring for a plant would not be unlike caring for a cat. In truth, caring for a plant is more difficult. Cats bite you on your face when you are too depressed to feed them, until you are too face-bitten to not feed them anymore. Plants weather that kind of neglect with the stoic withdrawal of a hunger strike.
A day after my terrible break-up, I wanted to talk to Hannah about how totally unfair my life had been so far. She was totally up for that, but she also understands that plants can’t really just be left to their own devices, and she needed to spend some time on that day in the garden. I went out to sit and talk to her, and at some point, she asked me to pull some little sticky flowering shoots out from under the banana tree. She gave me a shovel for when the stalks broke from the roots; you have to get it all out.
Dirt smells good; plants smell good. They smell the opposite of those “New Car Smell” air fresheners that go in cars and make you immediately nauseous. And before I get to my ultimate point, a quick caveat: I have a lot of respect for weeds. At the end of time, humans — for all that we go on and on about our intelligence and our self-awareness and blah blah blah — are going to be long gone; dandelions, on the other hand, will be going strong. Weeds are stubborn and brilliant and their will to live is inspirational. Now that that’s out of the way: Gutting weeds from the soil and smashing them with shovels until they are dead dead dead is the only true known cure for pure sadness-rage.
This past Sunday, my friend Rachel and I were hanging out and she asked if I wanted to visit her garden at the Howard Red Line stop. (Howard, for those of you who don’t live in Chicago, is the last stop on the north-bound Red Line. No one is left on the train by the time you get there.) I’m trying to say “yes” more because I’m finding that really the only thing that makes me feel better these days is leaving my house. (This seems strange; my house is a nice place to be and my cats are semi-nice companions. I am introverted and all the art supplies you could dream of are in my house. And yet there is something so sad about waking up somewhere and going to sleep in the same somewhere without anywhere in between.) So I said yes, and we rode out to Howard.
Rachel’s garden had a weed problem. The weather has been perfect for Living Things in Chicago (sunny during the day, rainy at night), and the weeds all over town are taking advantage. She asked if I wanted to help her weed, and I wasn’t dressed for it, but once you’re on the “yes” train, it’s sort of full speed ahead.
The dirt smelled good; the plants smelled good. More importantly, though, I didn’t quite realize all the sadness and anger I’d been holding onto until I dug my nails into the dirt and ripped at the bottoms of those plants. The why isn’t necessarily important here — I think that most of us are usually holding onto so sadness and anger that we don’t acknowledge because the world asks us not to. But my eyes stung and my body tensed up, and I let it all go into the weeds as the sun set over north Chicago.
Kids get sandboxes and dogs get Everywhere Outside, but adults aren’t supposed to dig with their hands unless they’re hippies and they live in co-ops or are self-identified garden teachers or landscapers. This is a shame, because full-sized humans of all sorts can find invisible things in the ground — things we didn’t even quite realize we needed.* My gift to you this morning is to provide a few links to open garden work days in Chicago and New Orleans. If you don’t live in those places — well, first of all, I’m sorry; and second, Google “city + garden + volunteer.” You’ll dig something up. (See what I did there? With the word dig? Pre-tty clever.)
*I’m mostly referring to metaphysical things, but once I found a weird silver octopus pendant** while weeding, so there’s a possibility for tangible treasure, too.
**Now that I’m typing this, I realize that that pendant probably belonged to a witch, and I am most likely cursed because I kept it. C’EST la vie.
Peterson Garden Project has lots of open garden days, easy to volunteer at.
Chicago Lights Urban Farm has an open hours volunteer day every Saturday afternoon. For full disclosure, it’s attached to a Presbyterian Church. That doesn’t bother me, but it bothers some. IMO, good work is good work.
Chicago Park District hosts “Community Stewardship Days” for a lot of its big public natural areas. Luke and I did one at Montrose once and it was magical. You definitely will get to dig, pull, and plant. Plus there might be bagels.
The Edible School Yard has employed some of my favorite people on earth. They have a rigorous volunteer sign-up process, but you might get to go hang out with the goats and chickens at Langston Hughes Academy, and that would be worth whatever ordeal you had to go through to get there.
Parkway Partners encourages urban gardening, and they’ll help you adopt a plot in a community garden if you want a longer term commitment.
There are lots of work days at City Park’s Botanical Garden. And bonus: I’m getting married there in a year.