Most Acceptable Draft at the Moment

At some point in my writing career, I was told to write what I know. In my recent tenth grade poetry unit, I advised my struggling beginner poets to write about things that they know. One submitted a parody of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain” as “O Point Guard, My Point Guard”. Another wrote a lyric poem about writing instrumental music. A third wrote about life as a military kid. A fourth wrote three poems about her cat.

So it’s ironic to me that I write about gardening. I craft prose about grieving an old oak tree and mourning the loss of my magnolia blooms, when before this spring, I knew neither. I praise my past-blooming pink azaleas and purple irises, when I know not who planted them nor tended them before I rented this home last August. In fact, until a couple of months ago, I did not know that there were magnolias or azaleas or irises in my yard at all.

The hanging impatiens that I recently acquired are already failing. Have I watered them too much or not enough? They danced to the tune of my butterfly wind chimes only briefly. Each day I move them to a different part of the yard hoping to woo them back to vibrancy. The salvia thrives on one side of the porch and dies on the other. In fact, the wonders of nature that have prospered the most in my yard were absent my knowledge or attention until after they bore blossoms. I paid no mind to the grand old oak until its wood littered my back yard and scratched against my bedroom window. To write about nurturing a garden seems an odd choice even to me when I clearly know so little about it.

I wish I could bring Mary home with me from Home Depot to assess my little lot. For all my efforts ripping out weeds and vines, I fear the end of the summer will find all my flowers dead and evidence the inevitable conclusion that I simply lack a green thumb. Yet, far too determined to admit to failure at any new venture, I covet the opinion of an expert and continue to hope beyond hope that I’ll make something of this little garden yet.

One of my students chose to write a poem about a broken heart. While her lines lacked meter and her rhymes were predictable, her sentiment was sincere. It reminded me of my own sophomore year writing terrible poetry about my first real breakup when I sought out the guidance of Mrs. Shelton, the creative writing teacher. Under her watchful eye, I composed a dozen poems about my first heartache, each attempting to master a new tool. We focused on line breaks and repetition, cyclical writing and moving beyond rhyme. Mrs. Shelton’s endless red-inked suggestions for revision all linked to her central poetic truth: every poem is a MADAM: the Most Acceptable Draft At the Moment. “Never fall in love with a first draft, Laura Joy,” was her mantra.

Mrs. Shelton was my writing mentor. Under her tutelage, I felt safe navigating the unknown depths of my soul to put pen to paper, and, ten drafts later, uncover greatness within me. If only Mary could do the same for my front yard.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Shelton’s central truth might just bear fruit in my garden beds. Any progressive undertaking that requires time and dedication is a work in progress. My garden is simply the most acceptable garden at the moment. My first attempts at poetry weren’t masterpieces. Only after each poem had undergone a process of revision and intentional perfecting would Mrs. Shelton have awarded her earned approval. There were even times I discarded budding poems in favor of pursuing more promising ideas that emerged in the process. It is more than acceptable to try again. It’s expected. The epic failure would be to give up on my garden altogether.

As a young girl imagining my life in twenty years, I drafted a picture of myself married with children by age thirty. When I began these weekly writing nights eleven weeks ago, I faced the harsh reality that my life did not turn out the way that I’d planned. “Never fall in love with a first draft, Laura Joy,” Mrs. Shelton had preached. Yet, I had. And so in love with that childhood dream, I failed to see the multiple drafting that my own life had undergone through a progressive undertaking that required time and dedication.

Even my life is simply the most acceptable draft at the moment. This version of me has seen red-inked suggestions for change and made revisions. I wrote a book in my twenties that will never see publication because the girl who wrote that book no longer exists. She was so consumed with maintaining a persona of perfection that she couldn’t strip away the sugarcoating and find the freedom that I do now in knowing that I am far from perfect… and that no one expects me to be.   The freedom to be honest. To be real. To be genuine. To be unperfect me.

That vision of my life to come was only a first draft. Three or so drafts later, I’m divorced and living in Virginia, I have Master’s in Instructional Technology, I enjoy my weekends at the beach and my weeknights writing, gardening, and rocking my nieces to sleep. I am a work in progress. My first attempts at love weren’t masterpieces, and I’ve opted to discard some romances in pursuit of the more promising idea of a quality man to share my life with who meets a set of standards I couldn’t have known I wanted at age twenty-five. It is more than acceptable to try again. It’s expected. The epic failure would be to give up on love altogether.

At some point in my writing career, I was told to write what I know. At age sixteen, that might mean military life, basketball, and cats for some. For me, it was love and loss. Ultimately, it’s still what I write about. I may use analogies of gardening, but the irony lies not in the vehicle for unearthing my discoveries but the fact that I never wrote what I knew. I write about what I’m learning, and so gardening analogies fit flawlessly!

I’m only a few drafts into my life story, and according to Mrs. Shelton, I still have about seven more to go. No longer in love with my first draft, the “harsh” reality I faced only months ago isn’t harsh at all. Subsequent drafts of my life will reflect discovery of the things I didn’t know I would value, more magnolia trees and azaleas. They will find some plants flourishing, some wilted or replaced, some watered less or given more sun. The growth of my garden isn’t solely determined by its success, but rather by lessons learned from toiling in the soil.

Mrs. Shelton’s central truth about MADAMs is something I pass on to my students each year in poetry units; perhaps one day they too will realize the freedom that comes in a life continually revised and edited. In the pursuit of perfection that may or may not be achieved in multiple drafting. In the genuine, honest ramblings of a work in progress.

Flowers Die, Life Goes On

Last week I returned to Home Depot to purchase new hanging baskets. Mary helped me this time. “Hanging baskets that need shade, please! I’ve all but killed the last ones by failing to give them enough sunlight. I didn’t realize my front porch doesn’t get any sun,” I admitted with eyes downcast in embarrassment. There was kindness and a hint of laughter in her reply.

“First garden?” she asked. I nodded. “You might lose half the plants you put in your first time around. You learn as you go. Even if you do your research, there’s so many variables. You can watch You Tube videos on anything these days, but some factors you can’t anticipate.” Mary continued to mentor me, seeming to recognize my lack of experience and took the walk toward the back of the store as an opportunity for much-needed instruction. “You just don’t know what’s going to do well in your garden often until you plant it. So try something. Wait and see. Cut yourself some slack. Your next planting season will be better, and the one after that better still.” After thanking her, I purchased some red, pink, and purple impatiens, knowing they would thrive as the ones in my garden beds have. All four azaleas having now lost their blooms and returned to an unimpressive green, my yard welcomed the colorful additions.

So many variables. Not just the amount of sunlight but the time of planting and the distance from other plants. Not just the frequency of watering but the depth of the hole and the local climate.

From my first marriage, I learned that if the most basic needs are not meant, a relationship is not going to thrive. In my next relationship, we saw both of our needs attended to. We made the most beautiful memories. I was writing an epic love story that ended with a reality check about transplanting surprises when I faced the facts that we were at different places in our lives. This recent parting I wrote about just three weeks ago.

He sent me a dozen roses laced with lilies after the break-up to honor the love that we had shared. The thought has crossed my mind, or more accurately swam around it continually, that I made a mistake letting him go. In like manner of the previous half a dozen floral arrangements he’d given me, I dried the flowers and made them the new centerpiece on my dining room table. We’ve spoken every day since at our previously appointed date times, not quite ready to give each other up yet, substituting awkward goodbyes in place of “I love you”.

Then yesterday afternoon, out of the blue, he admitted to having committed a series of infidelities with his ex-girlfriend during our relationship, each “slip-up” corresponding with a further series of deleted text messages and verbal cover-ups. The elicit details are irrelevant. During the necessary phone call of closure across four state lines, I asked few questions. I wasn’t overly emotional. I explained that I did not love him, but rather a man that did not exist. I did not know him, but rather a version of himself that he had presented himself to be over the past year and a half. I’d questioned my decision to move on, and this was the confirmation I needed that he was not the one for me. “So I’m nothing to you now?” he asked weakly, and I could practically see his furrowed brow and teary hazel eyes.

“No. You don’t miss ‘nothing.’ You don’t grieve ‘nothing’. All of our beautiful memories are tainted. Everything was… a lie,” I gushed, the first spark of emotions entering my voice. Though he balked at my premise, there was no denying that our relationship was not just tarnished. A little polish can make silver shine again. We had been writing two different love stories, and both of them ended last night with a reality check about unanticipated factors that essentially destroyed any glimmer of life or hope.

I planted my first garden this year, but not my first relationship. There was a vague sense of déjà vu as I scoured my house last night for every remembrance of him and packed it all in a box. If I’d labeled my ex-husband box, it might have read, “Failure”. If I labeled this one, would it be “Fraud?” I was running out of room as I neatly stacked photographs, cards, golfing records, gifts of clothing, and cherished jewelry yet to have parted from my skin since receipt. The mass of dried flowers were not going to fit, and I didn’t have enough fight in me to find a larger box. Half listening nostalgically for the last time to our painstakingly nurtured Pandora station perfected for over a year with our mutually agreed upon “Thumbs up” and “Thumbs down” songs, I was grateful for my friend Angela, the gardener.

She suggested we save one rose from every bouquet and that she had a plan for the rest. A shovel in one hand and dead flowers in the other, Angela marched out the front door and into the garden. I followed her balancing a few vases of my own. She dug a hole. It was dark, but it didn’t matter. She placed the flowers on the ground and told me to start stomping. I’d kept it relatively together up until this point, but the act of participating in the physical destruction of cherished moments was heart-wrenching. Tears soaked my cheeks, and I choked back the sobs. Angela proceeded to fill the hole with my broken memories, explaining that they would give nutrients to the soil that would help my garden grow.

The hole was full, and one bouquet remained. The roses and lilies sent to honor our love. Angela pointed to the fireplace and said, “Smash away!” I hesitated only briefly before the anger of betrayal finally seized me. As I repeatedly smashed the long-stem roses against the brick, their thorns digging into my palms, the sound of fragile petals crumbling, the harsh sobs finally surfaced as well. Though it lasted only a moment, that irrational moment of grief found a most rational sense of satisfaction in closure.

As I laid awake in bed during the hour previously reserved for Skype conversations where he would read me Walt Whitman until I fell asleep, I felt the need to text him one final message. Nearly dizzy from the mental exhaustion of purging reminders of him, I typed only, “I forgive you.” It wasn’t planned or expected, but perhaps it would give him the same closure I had experienced in the dark of the garden last night.

No, this wasn’t my first relationship. I buried many plants from that first attempt because I had failed to pay attention to the tags. When the azaleas were blooming, they were so ripe with varying shades of pink that they delighted me every time I pulled in the driveway. Tonight, absent color, their dead blossoms muddy from a mixture of soil and rain, I saw him.

Mary said my next planting season would be better. Perhaps he was better. He made me feel alive and loved and cherished… while we were flourishing. But after the delicate petals have been loosed by the natural course of events after blooms die and find their end in the mud, or planted in a hole in the garden bed, or crushed against the bricks of a fireplace, what remains leaves me hanging on Mary’s last words. “And the one after that better still,” she had said.

No matter how much research you do or how many YouTube videos you watch, often you just don’t know what’s going to do well in your garden until you plant it. There are just too many variables and factors you can’t anticipate. Even when a relationship seems to be perfect, long-term viability has yet to be seen. Though he fit some criteria I searched for after my divorce, I no longer have to wonder if I made a mistake letting him go. Previously appointed date times pass with affirming silence. The vase on my dining room table is empty. I told my mother I guessed I should buy some fake flowers. Her reply?

“No. The REAL flowers are yet to come. Save their place.”

20150616_225913

Hope and Good Intentions

My sister-in-law asked me tonight how long I sit on my front porch before I think of something to write about. I’ll let that preposition end a sentence for affect and assert that I just begin writing. Most often it’s a sight that strikes a chord of inspiration, like the enormous tree stump out back, the magnolia trees in the front, or the azaleas in my garden. Tonight it’s both the hanging plants.

20150419_171247

Throughout the week past, I have attempted to nurse the failing one back to life, and only a few blossoms remain. The one that was thriving is now beginning to wilt. When I purchased the baskets at Home Depot, I noted the tag that read, “Full sun.” I remember trying to imagine my porch at different times of day and realized that I’m not normally home during daylight hours long enough to know if the porch receives full sunlight. The purple and pink blooms would be the perfect color complement, I thought, and rather distractedly dismissed the instructions, consumed instead with a mental picture of this preferred arrangement gracing my writing corner.

I continued to shelve the dismissed tag each time over the past month that I returned home to a well-shaded front yard. My magnolias are heavy with healthy, thick, green leaves which my impatiens appreciate. Now familiar with their life cycle, I have no concern for the azaleas, each bush blooming and fading in two weeks’ time, alternating bursts of color with green, though I find the color more pleasing. I mourned my magnolias’ blossoms briefly before accepting something vibrant to look forward to in a year’s time. I even grieved for the great oak until its wood had been put to purpose once again as firewood.

Each wonder of nature is unique in its needs. While my plants share the basic requirement of light and water, the amount of need varies among them. As I type, I feel the presence of this wilting arrangement hanging over my head. I look back and forth between it and the laptop screen. It taunts me with its undernourished stems rocking in the wind. It no longer dances to the tune of my wind chimes, but practically cries out, “Why didn’t you pay attention to the tag, Laura Joy?”

Because I was falling in love with the colors. Because I was dreaming of the way it would fit into my big I porch picture. Because at the store, it was flourishing and inviting and thriving.

And though I can try to convince myself these are valid excuses, I must take responsibility for condemning the hanging plants to failure for the most logical reason: because I am an inexperienced gardener. Their description was in bold print on their tags. “Full sun.” I dismissed the flower’s most basic need requirement, hoping that despite the lack of sunlight, they would remain as flourishing and inviting and thriving at home on my front porch.

Essentially, I did the same thing with my ex-husband. When we first met, he was just as inviting. I could barely sit still for a church service, but I could watch him recording in the studio for hours, enamored with his voice and songwriting talent. On the mic, his colors were magnificent. Though he came without a tag of bold print warnings, his non-existent job or bank account might well have served the same purpose. He needed only his music to survive and thrive. My big picture dreams were of marriage and a family, and it was a logical next step for us after five years together. The decision to marry me came with the shift from late nights in the studio to a nine-to-five office gig. Eventually, he stopped making music altogether. After four years of marriage, he was neither flourishing nor inviting nor thriving.

In our last argument in our bedroom before I left him, he told me that I had castrated him. Always the wordsmith, this dual-purpose admission and conviction struck a chord as intended. I had not asked him to give up his music for a career, but that was what he had done. Looking back now, he might as well have been crying out, “Why didn’t you pay attention to the tag, Laura Joy?”

Each wonder of nature has unique needs. While humanity shares the basic requirement of food and water, the inherent variation of a multitude of other needs defines our complex, higher-ordered existence. I could answer that I was falling in love with his colors or dreaming of how he fit into my big picture or how he was flourishing and inviting and thriving when I met him. But I must take responsibility for condemning him to failure for the most logical reason: because I was an inexperienced woman. I did not spite my hanging plants when I bought them, nor did I spite him when I chose him to be my husband. I had childlike hope that defied basic need.

During our divorce, my mind fixated on those needs of mine that were not met. Not until tonight did I understand why that argument in our bedroom was our last, why he did not fight for me, why he did not contest the divorce, why he never asked me to come back. I can move my hanging plants from place to place in a shaded yard, but they aren’t ever going to flourish here.

I believe it is not ill will or spite but rather good intentions and hope that create a formula for the great losses in life, the kind we regret and grieve and weep over. I’ll let that preposition end a sentence for affect yet again.   We could role reverse my analogy and weave another ill-fated tale of a girl once thriving seen to wilt and decline where her needs for security and protection were dismissed in favor of a pedestal wife, but the lesson would be the same.

I sat in my driveway tonight for a few moments thinking about what to do about the hanging plants, strongly considering trashing them. Now, though I plan to replace them with plants whose tags read, “Shade,” I realize that this divorce is a kindness. With the oak tree having fallen to internal demise of rotted core, the backyard is now full of sunlight. They might yet find themselves thriving again back there. While I will no longer get to appreciate their color and vibrancy above me on writing nights, facing the reality of their wilted blooms after only few weeks is a big improvement over four years.

Divorce was a kindness for my ex-husband if he has music in his life again. I hope that somewhere in Nashville, he is flourishing and inviting and thriving again. Soren Kierkegaard once said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Tonight, I make a silent promise to my former husband and the hanging plants that, moving forward, I will pay attention to the tags.

Beyond Nature vs. Nurture

The late setting of the sun in early May robs me of my usual solitude as I settle in to write. The birds are still chirping, the neighbor’s children are squealing as they chat on the front porch, and someone down the street is setting off fire crackers. As I drove home tonight on 64 East, the rear view mirror was filled with a red-orange sky of almost ethereal quality. I was reminded of the saying my mother taught me as a young girl: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning gives sailors a warning.” Tomorrow will be a beautiful day.

Elements of nature often speak to mankind, if we have the wisdom to pay attention. I have two hanging plants, and side by side they dance in the gentle breeze accompanied by my butterfly wind chime. They receive the same amount of direct sunlight and shade, water and plant food, and pruning kindnesses. Yet, one thrives and one dies. This weekend, I switched them in hopes of bringing the one half dead back to life, but to no avail.

20150419_162818a

As I consider the little girls’ voices echoing from across the road, full of delight and excitement as the sisters play in their pajamas in the grass, I recall two teenagers’ voices in the fitting room next to me at Macy’s on Saturday. “That dress is too childish for Marcus,” one chided. The other replied, “It wouldn’t fit for long any way. My parents are getting me a boob job for graduation.” I wasn’t trying to listen to their conversation, but it was hard not to overhear their chatter of desperation to leave childhood behind. While I attempt to pen words over one screaming sister throwing a temper tantrum at being called to bed, I make out a, “Yes, Mommy,” from the other. I can’t help but wonder what transforms innocent darlings into oversexed teens. Who will they become?

The disappearance of light signals bedtime for neighbors and birds up and down the street. While my two purple azaleas are losing their blossoms, the two shrubs framing the outside of the porch have begun to bloom the same strawberry sherbet pink as the one that appeared last week. It seems they are another type of azalea. Nature abides by laws that we cannot see, much as we do as we prepare for bed when nighttime sets in. It is not just the seasons that dominate the changing of stages but mere weeks of time that mark a bloom’s beginning and end. If the new shrubs are the same as the one that bloomed last week, what marked the delay in their shows of color?

There must be indomitable unseen laws of nature at work beneath the ground of the azaleas and my hanging plants. There must be an explanation; however, unable to see the roots, I can only guess at the cause for delayed blossoming and simultaneous thriving and dying. There must be an explanation for the eighteen year old who boasts her upcoming boob job while trying on prom dresses to please her college-aged beau. But I can’t see the roots.

Earlier this evening, I sang my niece Katarina to sleep with an off-the-cuff lullaby just for her while her mother readied her twin Theresa for bed in the next room. I stared into her blue eyes and could almost cry with the overwhelming love I have for this tiny creature. Though born on the same day, changed on the same table, dressed in the same outfits, and fed the same food at breast, bottle, and bowl, the girls have remarkably different personalities. Theresa’s long legs are constantly moving, her neck always swiveling to catch any action. She has teeth and started crawling this weekend. Katarina is more contented to sit still and play with toys within her reach. She has a full head of hair and raises her arms high as if asking to be picked up when I come within view.

On Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, I have the privilege of helping with the nighttime routine, most often putting both girls to sleep, one at a time, with the same sweet song, “In The Garden”. It was my grandmother’s favorite hymn, one I sung at my grandfather’s funeral nearly two decades ago. My mother’s younger brother died of cancer in his late twenties, and he was the apple of her eye. Both of my parents were raised in the church as pastor’s kids. To this day, my mother claims her best friend growing up was Jesus, while my father rebelled until well into his college years before transforming in heart and mind.

Is there really an answer to the question of nature verses nurture? Or is there so much more that transpires beneath the surface of one’s life that cannot be explained without being privy to roots not visible? Within the same Pentecostal upbringing, my mother faith’s blossomed long before my father’s. Something struck my uncle’s life short, some inner working cancer that claimed him for the grave while my mother’s life continued flourishing with husband, children, and grandchildren. Elements of nature speak to mankind, marking the coming of a beautiful day with red hues at night and the call to rest with darkness. Some laws are universal.

Others leave us guessing. Every night as I sing to Katarina and Theresa, I watch their eyelids fight the night. It’s in those moments when the girls are between sleep and wakefulness that I wonder who they will become. What will prevent them from becoming like the teen in the dressing room, begging to grow up too fast?   What sports will they play?   What careers will they choose? Will they end up married with children, or wishing, like me, as they hold their own nieces in their arms, that they will someday have their own babies to sing to sleep? Will they opt for faith in the Creator or a longing for meaning and purpose that finds them unfulfilled?

These questions I dare to ask. Others I cannot dwell upon, like the possibility of a fate like my uncle’s. I place stock in the insightful, careful rearing of my brother and sister-in-law and believe the girls will bloom where they are planted. I imagine Katarina and Theresa doing life together as best friends, sharing in each other’s joys and heartaches. I hope beyond hope that they will make good choices and not end up… well, like me.

Though I cannot see beneath the soil of my own life at varied seasons, I have a storehouse of journals overflowing with writing that marked my struggles as a girl, young woman, and wife. While some, like my mother, celebrated in friendships, heeded wise counsel, put stock in an omnipotent Father, and lived in the current reality, I strove always to have something else, be something else, and believe something else. All three of my brothers have thriving families. Is it nature verses nurture, or is there an element unknown at work beyond the surface that I cannot see?

Better yet, am I the late blooming azalea or the dying hanging plant?

That question I dare to ask, mostly because there is still hope. Tonight, I moved the hanging plant to the side of the house that receives full sunlight, determined to coax it to survival. Wasn’t my decision to end my relationship with Tom a similar interchange?

Though I had no desire for plastic surgery, I was eighteen going on thirty, with a mind preoccupied with finding Prince Charming and my happily-ever-after. Now past thirty, I realize how much I missed out on trying to grow up too fast. Red skies at morning were warnings I did not heed. Had I the wisdom to pay attention, elements of nature, nurture, and beyond advised different life choices. I cannot deny or regret who I was in the weeks within the seasons within my existence. But with the very acknowledgement that she was who she was, I can celebrate that I am no longer her. She would have lacked the wisdom to see the difference.

And if my life choices and experiences have brought me a moment where I can divorce former and current versions of myself, then perhaps I now have the good judgment to choose which part of my garden with which to identify.

As I watched the sisters across the street, as I sang my twin nieces to sleep, I dared to ask a question. As darkness signals sleep and red skies mark a beautiful tomorrow, I ask it again. Who will I become? No one will fault me for choosing the late blooming azalea.