THE LONGEST journey begins with a single check. I used to make a lot of money, and as that expression goes, the more I made, the more I spent. I don’t like to shop—to spend time in stores, strolling from one to another, trying things on. Malls make me metaphysically ill, as do their parking lots. But when things got too hard at work, I became a heat-seeking binge shopper. I could blow through $5,000 in 15 or 20 minutes at Saks Fifth Avenue, a sort of fuck-you-pay-me reaction to whatever exercise in frustration the day had served up.
The good news: I did this only a few times a year (though with a ferocity that granted me a platinum Saks points card, and I might have hit diamond if I’d stuck around). The bad news: That behavior was nothing compared with how I acted out my job angst outdoors, at the weekend house that would later become my full-time home.
I survived the intensity of my “most successful” later corporate years—I was then editorial director of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia—by gardening with a vengeance on weekends (motivational Al Green CDs blaring on the boom box beside me). I’d buy any plants I craved and then spend more money hiring help to work on two of the weekdays between my own visits.
Gardening had been my refuge for decades by then, a hobby cultivated when my widowed mother, just 49, became confused and my only sister needed me to come and help sort things out. The –diagnosis—Alzheimer’s—landed me in my childhood home again for several years in my twenties; by day, I cut down the overgrown privet hedges and yews, a self-mposed occupational therapy; at night, I edited copy at the New York Times. All the while, I oversaw my mother’s increasing needs and the chaos of family ﬁnances that results whenever doctors and lawyers and social workers and caregivers converge on such a crisis.
Even then, when I had no botanical Latin or any conﬁdence in what I was doing, gardening had been my moving meditation, my yoga. Later, when my mother could stay home no longer and the house was no longer ours, the same feeling overtook me at my little house upstate: When I was weeding, I was really weeding; I was in it as if it were the motions of a yoga -vinyasa—deepening my connection to the place, to this impossible piece of lopsided land.
I admit it: I garden because I cannot help myself.
It is no wonder so much of gardening is done on one’s knees; this practice of horticulture is a wildly humbling way to pass one’s days on earth. Even the root of the word humility comes from the soil (from the Latin humus, for earth or ground), and a good soil is rich in the partially decayed plant and animal material called humus. Humbled or no, gardener was the label imprinted on me when the souls were handed out, and so be it. Gardener. The challenge: to make that cohabit inside me with “corporate publishing executive,” the persona I wasn’t born with but had taken on, I suppose, from my newspaper-executive father.
To be a gardener is to come face to face with powerlessness (not a word written anywhere in the corporate mission statements of Martha or my two previous employers) and to cultivate patience as actively as you do botanicals. In spite of following all the directions gleaned from Grandma and from garden books, despite considerable years of hands-on experiments and personal access to some of the most knowledgeable masters of the breed, I know only one thing for certain about gardening now, 30 years in.
Things will die.
Oh, and usually they will do so just when they’re really starting to look good, after heroic measures of love and many dollars spent; after you have grown very attached. Minimizing your losses isn’t part of the picture. The heavens will fail to provide manna in the form of rain, and send violent, leaf-shredding hail instead; the neighbor’s dog will piss on the treasure you grew from a cutting, and it will perish. “Where’s my vining Aconitum?” you wonder out loud, feeling vaguely ill. The mow-and-blow guys will say they thought it was a weed, lady, and therefore whacked it (and very thoroughly at that: well done). You’re ﬁred.
The garden is where there’s no pretending that living things don’t die.