Hit the Dirt: Digging My Way Out of Loneliness
Finding purpose — and some friendly faces — in reclaiming an overgrown garden patch. (Photo provided by Kim O’Donnel)
The century-plus-old row home we’ve rented in Lancaster, PA, is newly rehabbed and renovated, with central air conditioning (woo hoo!). The light-filled kitchen is big and sparkly with new appliances, and there’s twice as much space as our shoebox of a townhouse in Seattle.
Our first night in the new place is a Sunday in July, and we collapse with the crossword on our bouncy blow-up bed. Early Monday, my husband, wasting not a second to acclimate himself to our strange surroundings, heads out on the highway to start his new job.
The lead-up to leaving Seattle was feverish and frenzied, an all-consuming race until the last dust bunny was shooed away. And just like that, you’re in an exit row, flying east to begin again. And wait.
Unlike him, I have no place to go or people to see. I’m without a plan for what’s next, without a clue about this new town in which we’ve landed.
The movers had told us upfront it could take awhile, maybe two weeks, to be reunited with our stuff. I assumed the traditional gendered roles of household manager and nurturer and made sure we had sheets and towels, pillows, and the aforementioned blow-up bed upon arrival. I shipped ahead a few boxes of kitchen items – a wok, cutting board, knives, spices, even a jar of jam from last season – so we could have a little piece of home during the weird lull without our belongings.
But I did not prepare for – nor could I have anticipated– the loneliness that set in my bones like the flu as I heard my husband shut the front door, headed off to his great, big, new adventure.
I don’t know a soul here, and yet I’m “back”—back in the state where I was born and raised and drank “wooder” (that’s water, for those of you who don’t speak Philadelphia). I’m back where a heart attack snatched my dad away when I was 16. I’m back after living in South Africa, D.C., and then New York, for cooking school. I’m back after 11 years in Seattle, where I wrote three cookbooks and ignited a home canning revival.
I’m back after 22 years, when I slept on a futon in my childhood bedroom, finishing a culinary apprenticeship and looking for work, anywhere where my past is not. I’m back where my mom, with whom I’ve had a lifetime of highs and lows, lives just an hour away, and yet she’s been slow to roll out the welcome mat.
It’s blazing hot outside, so hot there’s a high risk of plastic melting, I’m sure of it. But the alternative is the climate-controlled fortress where if I scream loud enough on the first floor, I can hear an echo.
The new place came with a fenced-in yard that was clearly overlooked during the renovation. A jungle of weeds from east to west stand a few feet tall. I do what any reasonable person would do in 98-degree weather with 189 percent humidity: I get in my black, heat-absorbent car and drive to the first garden center Google offers up.
I grab a cart and in go garden gloves, trowel, watering can, and five or so vegetable starts that are a little long in the tooth. They’re on sale, the poor things, but this feral gardener is hopeful, maybe for the first time in days.
Once home, I transfer my fledgling charges to felt containers to keep me company as I ponder our future together in the backyard jungle. No matter how much I feed and water them, the plants remain a heat-wilted, bedraggled mess, much like their foster mother.
The heat wave continues for three, six, I dunno how many days, but through the haze I have somehow found a mission: Wake up with the sun, make coffee, and yank as many weeds as possible before the blazing orb makes its way to the yard. I’m on my knees, I’m in sumo, and I’m digging with my handy dandy trowel. It’s going slowly and my clothes are drenched with sweat, but inch by inch I’m breaking ground.
As I dig, I forget that I’m without job prospects or friends. I forget how lonesome I’ve become. After a few days, a cleared patch morphs into a 5×10 plot, and I know immediately this is where wildflowers will flourish. There is direct sun, and there is so much fucking heat, and there is this feral gardener who desperately needs a purpose.
A quarter pound of wildflower seeds arrives on the same day as the movers do, 20 days after I left Seattle. It’s a new moon, and I take Mother Nature’s cue. I make rows in the dirt with my trowel, and I sprinkle and I sow and I lightly tamp and I water and I wait. I know what I’ve done is unconventional, planting seeds on July 31 and hoping for blooms before the first frost.
But I have faith in botany. And I have nothing to lose.
As the seeds morph into seedlings, I turn 53, I send out resumes, I jam and I pickle, I meet the neighborhood cat who keeps crapping perilously close to my precious patch of earth. Every morning, I make coffee and carry my cup to the yard to inspect the work Mother Nature did overnight. I sip my brew, standing in my flip flops, listening to the birds and the cicadas who’d been out clubbing all night. This patch was my altar, my refuge, my dreamscape, and it was keeping me company.
The persistent heat and humidity are kind to my wild patch. By Labor Day weekend, the plants are about 18 inches tall, maybe more, a tangle of buds popping like prepubescent nipples. The greenery stretches in between rows, and every day, it seems, they grew another inch. and I awoke wondering what color, wondering what flower would grace my presence, I wondered like a kid on Christmas morning.
And then just like that, a fleck of orange emerges in the middle row, now about three feet tall. The seed packet tells me it’s a sulfur cosmo and by morning, it’s opened its face to the sky and for me to see, and this is a very good day.
The bees show up as if it were a convention—big, little, winged, fuzzy, waspy—and so do the ladybugs, all diving in for a piece of the floral pie. They cling to open blooms like drunks or jump about like toddlers in a bouncy house.
With every passing day, two, then three, five, six flowers emerge, in shades of orange and yellow, beaming like smiley faces. A couple of grasshoppers, who appear to be lovers, have taken up residence, often lounging on the lily pad—like leaves of the sunflowers. I watch the entomological mayhem two, three times a day like it’s television and I never tire of it.
Sixty-some days since the lonely virus set in, I still don’t have a job, but I’ve got some substantial leads. I now know a few neighbors by name. The wild patch is a botanical disco inferno, and the sunflowers, now five feet tall, are about to have their fashion show. And my heart, bloom by bloom, is finding its way home.
This is both sad and hopeful but most importantly so well written. Best to you in all the aspects of your re-entry to William Penn’s Sylvania.
Kathleen, thanks for the warm wishes. Every day, it gets a little easier.
Kathlene Carroll Sullivan
Lancaster is richer by your presence and I am hoping that your life is soon filled with friendly faces beyond your reclaimed garden.
You’ve captured the intensity of the emotional journey that a cross-country move inflicts. But you also provide such good survival advice too without being too prescriptive: maintain your coffee-drinking routine, go outside, meet your neighbors, claim the land by planting something, and more. So lovely.
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