It rained again last night here in Oakland, CA. We’ve had perfect spring rains, a nice shower every two to three days. Being homebound for the last two weeks, I took the opportunity to plant seeds… poppies, verbena, lavender, and things I no longer remember.
The bad gardener I hired stopped by a few days later and covered them up with the ugliest mulch possible. Big, hairy stalks of redwood are now scattered across my small garden. I doubt the seeds, many of which were merely supposed to be pressed lightly into the soil, will be able to struggle up through the stuff. If I could have remembered where I had pressed the seeds, exactly, I would have gone back and brushed away the detritus, but I don’t know where to start. I desultorily began in one corner, then thought, what’s the point.
Every gardener I hire, even the “good” ones — the ones that come well reviewed — even they come with no guarantees. Even they can be quite lazy. They sense I’m intimidated by my own garden and do what they please, then charge me a tidy sum, and all is well in the world because how would I know the difference?
So, this new gardener planted the lime tree full of thorns in the middle of my front lawn, where children and even me will surely scratch ourselves in coming years on nasty thorns. That will have to be moved. She planted the potted Gingko in a corner of my small front lawn, where it a mere couple of years it will tower over the pear tree, assuring no decent fruit. And she planted the random potted ficus that was put outside a couple of years ago because it had developed bugs of some sort right beside the struggling orange tree, where it will begin interfering in the branches of its neighbor within 12 months. And yet, of course, it’s my fault. She suggested, I assented (assuming she was the expert and would not lead me astray), and now I am left with the result. And I can see it’s not right. None of it.
The thing is, I do know. Maybe I didn’t before. Maybe I pretended not to know. But now, homebound as we are, I’m forced into my garden, this patch of earth that both draws and repels me, like so many things do, and I’m learning I do have opinions about my garden, and that it’s possible I know more than I think I do.
I always wanted to be a gardener. I made attempts over the years. But I’d invariably lose interest, become discouraged, or get swept up in working, commuting, managing, driving, cooking, dancing, and sometimes even dating, not to mention shopping and walking the dog and taking care of my dad till June of last year, and folding mountains of laundry, and well, you know: Life. Life enters and takes over. Gardening is time-consuming. It demands a commitment.
Something I’m terrible at giving.
But, then… is that true?
In these days of Covid-19, it’s clear how loyal and committed I am to my family. To my ex-. To B.
Yes, B. is here with us, a little bewildered, a little peculiar, but dear, and we love him. He’s been in the throes of a depressive episode since — wait for it — last September. About eight months, in other words, with no sign yet of it lifting.
He’s a little better than he was during the early months, but that’s not saying much.
He has a little color in his voice now. His eyes no longer bug out of his head in terror. This is the third or fourth episode since B.’s first breakdown four years ago. We’re losing track.
So, I can commit. I have committed to B., even though we are not together in any traditional sense of the word. We have not been romantically involved since our kids, now 22 and 18, were 6 and 3, respectively. That’s a lot of water under the bridge. But B. is the father of our children. He is family, and we couldn’t very well leave him stranded in his dysfunctional co-op in Berkeley during these strange days.
I spoke to the kids when I saw the lockdown coming. I said, “Guys, we should probably either go get Papi, or resign ourselves to not really seeing him at all until this blows over. What do you want to do?” This is because B. lives in a house with five other housemates, all with very different orbits in the world. Our vector load would rise exponentially if we to be were casual about it. It concerned me.
I also didn’t want B. to get sick. He’s fragile, semi-emaciated from starving himself as he’s done in each of these episodes. He stops eating, can’t cook, is afraid of fire, stoves, and bad food, suspicious, terrified if food has been on the counter longer than a few minutes, can’t eat leftovers, and so on. He hides in his room with a bag of apples and a jar of peanut butter and eats that, just that, day after day.
In fact, he’s starting to do this again here… he’s attached to his peanut butter and apples (which is also one of my favorite snacks). It’s okay. At least now he has lots of other good things to eat.
He’s still eating like a bird, but he’s eating, and at every meal. We’re over the worst. He cracks a smile from time to time. A wan sense of humor flashes now and then, but that’s far better than before when he rarely spoke — and that in no more than a flat monotone.
His brain seems burned out. Everything is too much for him. He can’t go outside alone, but will, with coaxing, venture out with one of the kids or me. He even kicked the ball a little at the park with our daughter Nina last weekend. That was amazing. I was hopeful. But then he ducks back to his shell. Since he’s been here, B. has essentially sat in the yellow armchair in the living room pretty much constantly. For the first several days, he stared at an open Steven Hawking book in his lap. I asked him if he was reading anything. He said, “No. I’m just looking at the letters.”
So there. I can commit. Sometimes.
The garden used to intimidate me, but when this Covid-19 thing began, I found myself in the garden. I began pulling weeds, something I always thought I hated to do, but am now enjoying for some reason. Over about four days, I pulled A LOT of weeds. And the garden began to respond. I planted some things. A ceanothus in the corner by the fig tree. A few poppies, two digitalis that I found at Grocery Outlet. I planted a California Gooseberry by the Japanese lantern my dad brought from Osaka on the ship in the ’50s. And a deep purple native Iris that bloomed as soon as she was situated.
I bought better mulch than the shitty gardener used — the nice small cedar chips that smell good. I spread them around on my hands and knees. I picked up dozens of pieces of Daisy’s shit from the struggling, mossy “lawn” under the English laurel. I moved the teak table to said spongy lawn, even though I’m afraid the legs will rot into the damp earth, and I bought three Adirondack chairs from Amazon to go around the fire pit on the flagstone patio by the orange and lemon trees, neither of which has looked so good the last few years. I fertilized those (I think). I spread chicken manure around their bases and “watered it in” (a gardening term I’ve picked up).
I kept busy with these things the first week in the evenings and during the first couple of weekends of this lockdown.
Starting yesterday, however, things began feeling different.
In the early days, I must admit, I was concerned, but also a little giddy. I know that sounds bad. But I have to admit, I was elated to not have to commute to the South Bay. My daughter was (and remains) elated to not be in school. It’s nice that I haven’t had to fill the gas tank for three weeks, when normally it’s filled every six days or so. It’s nice to turn in, tend to the home, focus on cooking and family and essentials.
In the early days of the pandemic, my neighbors and I gathered around in the evenings, careful to stay “six feet” away (but not quite managing that distance), having cocktails. One neighbor said, “It seems all I do now is drink and bake!” I do realize how privileged that sounds.
It’s not that we’re not working. My son and I are extremely lucky to be able to work from home, and it’s been quite busy, as a matter of fact. It’s clear our colleagues are worried… obviously they are. The economy is tanking, the stock market is vacillating wildly, people are scared. So far, we’re lucky. Our particular company is one of the engines powering the digital economy. But, obviously, if our customers stop paying us, there will be knock-on effects. So, yes, I’m working, 8–5 or so, keeping a routine for the most part. But, with no commuting, no dance, no events, no classes, no social occasions or events, no dates, no coffees with this or that person, there’s a lot of time. And like my neighbor, I was doing a lot of baking. And cocktail shaking.
Yesterday, though, things took on a different cast. A woman on the trail waved me away vigorously with both arms when she saw me and Daisy coming, even though I was already as far away from her as possible. A friend snapped at me for a misunderstanding and then dug in when I apologized. A neighbor swore at me when Daisy lunged at their dog. The level of emotion was unusual. When I greet people on the trails, some still say hello, but many ignore me or look away, as if nodding one’s head at a fellow traveler will increase risk. Many look spooked, afraid, drawn, tired. Nervous.
The grocery store annoyed me yesterday. The lines were long, and people were standing too close together. I held my breath anytime someone reached across me to grab an avocado or a can of tomatoes. People are on edge, it’s clear. They’re weirded out. Impatient. Annoyed. Afraid.
My daughter was hanging out with her best friend pretty much constantly in the early days, but when she began seeing another friend who flew in from Smith College, the first friend’s parent’s put the kabosh on Nina entering their house. They are uncomfortable that Nina is seeing one other person. They are nervous.
My son is uneasy that I am seeing and supporting a friend in his mid-80s. His granddaughter is here from Norway, stranded here in fact, turned away in Geneva when trying to continue to Turkey. Her boarding school closed down, her dad lives in Turkey. She was in limbo for 48 hours. Now, she’s here with her grandpa, and my son would like me to stop being so solicitous to them, to stop our afternoon walks.
It’s 3:14 p.m. now, and I’m scheduled to walk on the mountain. Spring is beautiful. The birds are trilling. The streets are drying. A good friend just called. I told her I’m meeting our mutual friend for a walk now. She said, “You shouldn’t. No. You shouldn’t.” She sounded rather imperious. It irked me. She said, “I’ll be in your neighborhood later. I will come say hi, but I need to stay away from you. We can sit in the driveway or something.” I said, “Yes, I know.”
But I felt touchy about it. The novelty of being homebound is wearing off. I’m tired of cakes and cookies, cocktails and movies. God, I realize how intensely privileged I sound. But it’s true. This is how I’ve been weathering this particular storm. It’s our reality for the moment.
We’re moving into a new phase now. We’re realizing it may be like this for a while. Neighbors are pulling away. Friends are pulling away. I’m feeling a need to use this time more wisely. To write, to read, to organize the photos, the house. There are many projects I could be doing. Projects I’ve been avoiding for years. Projects that would edify and improve me and my life.
Why don’t I use this time to get into better shape, for example? Yesterday I watched a young man sprint repeatedly up the hill near my house. I admired his grit and self-discipline. Now is the time to embrace a meditation and yoga practice and think about what kind of life I want. It’s the silver lining of all of this upheaval. To make fewer cupcakes and cocktails and maybe build something meaningful. Write the memoir. Write long-overdue letters. Support friends and neighbors, even if only through Zoom or FaceTime. Take on a project. Learn something new.
Last night, we watched a Jane Campion movie called An Angel at My Table. It was intense and moving, and beautifully made. I told my daughter, who was just accepted to the UCLA School of Theater, Television, and Film, that we can watch all of Jane Campion’s films. Tonight, we’ll watch The Piano.
She’s not enamored of my ideas. Not any of them.
And maybe that’s my cue, too, to do these things for me now. My kids are adults. My father is gone. My life is my own. I have it back, after ceding it for the last 22 years or so to caring for others. To putting my kids first, every time. I can make some different choices now, reclaim some privacy. I can cook a little less perhaps, or guide the “children” to do some cooking and work on becoming a gardener, a writer, a yogini, a dancer. I can return to being a reader. I used to be a voracious reader. I miss that version of me. I can stop being frenetic and calm down, ground myself. Claim myself.
That’s the work. Now, I need to do more than pay lip service to it.