As I pull weeds from the garden beds that, last year, yielded a handful of arugula and four withered peas, I tell my wife, “Maybe it will be different this time.” In the 1989 film adaptation of Pet Sematary, this is the same line the main character repeats to himself and God as he buries one body after the next in the haunted graveyard, only to finally, mercifully, be decapitated by the zombie wife of his own making.
Though I come from a long line of passionately successful gardeners, I never developed a real interest in the endeavor until I moved to Arizona where it is decidedly more difficult than in, say, Illinois or Iowa to grow tomatoes, beans and herbs.
Four years ago, when I built the garden beds, I had delusions of verdant leaves, bursting pea pods; delusions of abundance. Four years ago, after my first failed attempt at a garden, I decided to give up. Yet, every spring, when I start pulling weeds, feeling the deep roots give way, smell the upturned soil, I remember the fecund tomato plants, fat peonies and sticky raspberry bushes of my childhood. I remember possibility.
The difference between young-me and old-me is tenacity.
Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. The difference between insanity and tenacity is a matter of slight adjustments.
Young-me believed that if one couldn’t do something spectacularly well, one shouldn’t continue to do that thing at all. Lousy poet despite practice? Stop writing poetry. Lousy cook despite numerous attempts at recipes? Stop cooking. Lousy singer despite lessons? Stop singing.
What this thinking failed to take into consideration was joy.
When I was in my early 20s, I started painting. This was a hobby born of sheer curiosity and impulsiveness. I bought some canvases, some oil paints and an easel. Every night in my small apartment, after work, I would smoke cigarettes and paint. At the time, I was a proposal writer for a small nonprofit. My job felt stressful because, in retrospect, it was incredibly stressful, and painting relaxed me. I didn’t know if I was any good at painting—I only knew I enjoyed the practice.
Several months after I started painting, I decided to enroll in an oil painting class for beginners at the nearby community college. I was 23. The only other artistic endeavor I’d attempted in earnest was writing, and I was fairly certain I was good at that. I liked writing, and so it followed (in my early-20s brain) that if I liked painting I must be good at this, too.
But in the technical sense, I was not good at painting. I did not take naturally to the brush strokes, to the blending, to the spatial concepts. After three weeks, I dropped the class, threw out my paints, my canvases, and never painted again.
Life is short. Hubris is useless. I still miss painting.
Joy is a scarce resource.
I used to worry about liking the wrong things. Could I be a lesbian if I liked the music of Motörhead more than I liked that of the Indigo Girls (whose music I secretly could not countenance)? Could I be a feminist if I liked fishing and sewing? Could I envy boys their suit jackets and ties and still want my taffeta skirts? Could I like T.S. Eliot and Billy Collins simultaneously? I used to worry excessively about aligning my preferences with who I wanted to be or who I was supposed to be. I see my students navigate this terrain daily and the adults in their lives scrutinize, criticize and pathologize their respective preferences: “What does this mean? Where will this lead? Will this help them get into college? Help them get a job?”
The truth is, unless we’re incredibly lucky, what we like and what we do for a living seldom perfectly align. Our interests only sometimes predict who we are to become. Moreover, liking an activity and being proficient at said activity are, more often than not, mutually exclusive. I wish I understood this when I threw my paints in the trash at 23, but maybe joy is something we learn to value over time.
These days, I freely admit that I read Game of Thrones fan theories, that I sing made-up songs to my dog, that I really dig Toto’s “Africa” and am super invested in the survival of my sourdough starter. An episode of Queer Eye made me start experimenting with cosmetics. I enjoy Virginia Woolf as much as a trashy true-crime book, but for entirely different reasons. I like baking, I miss fishing and I still listen to Motörhead. In spring and summer, I call myself a gardener despite the fact that I seldom grow enough to constitute a small salad.
If it’s not going to ruin my life, I try to, shamelessly, make room for that which brings me joy: be it a trashy novel, heavy metal, patchouli (yes, I like that, too) or futile attempts at a garden.
My mother sends me photographs in early spring of her garden in Illinois—I will never have such a garden, but I have dirt and two garden beds and a functional body. I can try. Tenacity allows me to adjust, but it does not guarantee success. It’s not about success—rather, in the wise words of Motörhead: “You win some, lose some/ the pleasure is to play.”
Allison Gruber is an essayist and educator whose work has appeared in numerous literary journals including The Literary Review, Brevity Magazine, and The Sonora Review. Her debut collection of essays, You're Not Edith, was a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. She lives with her wife, Sarah, their menagerie of animals and teaches English and creative writing at Flagstaff Arts & Leadership Academy.
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