Finding Therapy in Writing and Gardening

It’s the same night each week. A different love seat, but the same night. A different city, but the same night. Maybe even a different me, but the same night. Twenty nights here on this white wicker loveseat in Hampton, VA writing my way to revelation, but more than eighty Tuesday nights I spent on Dr. Bogin’s office loveseat in Syracuse, NY talking my way to sanity in the wake of my divorce. I’d kick off my shoes and curl up Indian style the way I am right now, only I’d be looking at his black rimmed glasses instead of a laptop screen.

Sometimes I’d gaze out his window at Harrison Street traffic, though I much prefer the view of my garden now. Too many months of the year it snowed there as I talked. I much prefer the blue skies darkening through sunset as I write. And though I much prefer my life as it is today, it is quite likely I wouldn’t have found this loveseat perch so inviting had it not been for the awkward, toilsome sessions on Dr. Bogin’s loveseat.

After I left my home and husband in Nashville, I encountered a disquieted lack of passion that haunted every moment that should have held joy. I remember telling Dr. Bogin in our very first session in March of 2013 that I was more alive in my dreams than I was when I was awake… and he told me that was a good sign because it meant there was still life in my subconscious. Granted those might not have been his words, but that’s my take-away looking back more than two years.

This weekend, I went back to Syracuse for my little brother’s wife’s baby shower. I waited nearly ten minutes after pulling in the driveway at that white house with black shutters before stepping out of my little Honda Fit. I’d grown up in that house, washed cars in that driveway, mowed that lawn, played basketball out back, climbed trees in the yard in Polly Flinders dresses. Those memories I cherish. I’d also returned to that home after Nashville as a woman defeated by loss, failure, and disappointed. A shell of the girl who was raised there, I watched TV with my dad, drank coffee with my mom, read psychology books gifted by my brother, and tried to get past the sense that I was merely existing.

When I pulled in my driveway back in Virginia yesterday, my first action was not to unpack the car. Instead, I watered my thirsty plants who reminded me of that shell of a girl I was in Syracuse. They were wilting, defeated by heat and lack of water. When I left less than a week ago, my garden was thriving. I complained to my friend Kyle that I was worried all my efforts for its progress had been undone in my absence, but he assured me that the garden will bounce back.

And I believe him because of Dr. Bogin. He met me at my weakest. But he saw life in me, and though he may not have said it outright, my mind can string together a dozen disconnected comments he made during our sessions over a year and a half that assure me he knew I would bounce back. He taught me that going through a divorce was akin to losing a loved one. The death of the marriage spurned the same grief cycle. I was mourning the loss of the forever I had planned long before our vows were spoken at the altar, and I was mourning the breaking of those vows.

As I write, the scent of my nieces’ baby shampoo is on my hands from their bath time earlier tonight. At one point, Tessa scooted over and knocked Katarina head first into the tepid water. Though she righted herself, my heartbeat quickened. Fear does that. Grief does the opposite.

At my sister-in-law’s baby shower this weekend, my heart raced too. I busied myself in serving, organizing, and cataloguing gifts while I could not shake this disquieted anxiety that haunted a moment that should have held joy. I’m excited for the newest Palma to be added to the growing sea of nieces and nephews and simultaneously acutely aware that there are no sons or daughters of my own. Still, the disquieted anxiety of this weekend is much preferred to the disquieted lack of passion that haunted me before. Because it means, as Dr. Bogin said, that there is still life in me.

In retrospect, the physical effect I experienced at Katarina’s face plant in the water tonight and that of the shower this weekend is actually a good sign. During my season in Dr. Bogin’s office, I went from wanting nothing to wanting everything. From dying inside to living outright. From crying myself to sleep to longing for meaning and purpose. Loss nearly sucked the life out of me, but the function of the grieving process is a bridge from death to life. That’s the bridge I crossed on his loveseat in a winter I thought would never end. But it did end. And I ended up here.

After the baby shower on Sunday, I had the privilege of spending nearly an hour and a half, off the clock, in Dr. Bogin’s backyard. Same glasses. Different day. Same city. Certainly a different me. All those nights we met in his office, I never realized that he could see my parents’ driveway from his. It wasn’t a formal session, just an opportunity for a doctor and former patient to reconnect and reflect on the year since I moved away and stopped meeting with him. The peace of the trees and manicured walkways was much preferred to the traffic on Harrison Street.

Dr. Bogin mentioned that he can hear my voice when he reads my blog. And why wouldn’t he? It occurred to me this weekend that what I do now on my weekly writing nights is just another version of the therapy we did in his office. Is it just a coincidence that it’s every Tuesday night? To be honest, there are times when I’m writing that I imagine his responses. Maybe his steady voice found a way into my subconscious as he coached me back to sanity.

When he met me, I didn’t want kids anymore. Family didn’t make sense. Teaching didn’t make sense. Shopping and cooking and cleaning and playing didn’t make sense. All the efforts and striving of the human existence seemed futile. I recall that version of me with a deep sadness coupled by overwhelming joy that somehow, not in one moment or session, but over time as I talked my way through the grief process, I righted myself like Katarina in the bath tub.

The woman Dr. Bogin saw this weekend is full of passion and desire. She has been surrounded by family, friends, and colleagues and restored to vibrancy. When I look at my garden tonight, there is no grief or fear. I bounced back. It will too. Loss did not destroy me. I am stronger in spirit and hope than I was before I experienced the grief of my divorce.

My faith is still in recovery, but I never abandoned my belief in God. Could it be that the longing ache in my soul to be a wife and a mother was instilled in me by Him? I have a second date with my eHarmony nuclear engineer this week, and in our correspondence I told him that I longed for a family because I was ready to invest in lives beyond my own. And I told Dr. Bogin about my newfound love for gardening. It’s therapeutic, undoubtedly, but I don’t think that’s why I enjoy it. Tending my garden is an opportunity to invest in life beyond my own. It’s hope in practice.

On Dr. Bogin’s love seat, I saw winter and loss. On this love seat, I see summer and hope. I crossed the bridge of grief and found the promise of a new forever with a vow to myself that I will get it right… eventually. And until I sit on the porch of a home filled with a family of my own, I’ll find joy in caring for the seeds of life in the garden before me.

From Dead Oak to New Life

I understand why Dorothy exclaimed, “There’s no place like home.” On writing night, this white wicker love seat beckons me. The crickets soothe me. The red wine relaxes me. Ever a creature of habit, I plan my day such that when I pull in the driveway at this white house with the red door, nothing interferes with the creative flow. All grown up responsibilities were attended to during the day… laundry and dishes done, trash bins returned to the back yard, wine already poured in a glass, next day’s clothes laid out. Tonight, life interfered a bit with my plan, but I won’t let that stop the urge to scratch the writing itch.

I babysat for my brother on his eighth anniversary tonight. I’d never seen Gabrielle as beautiful since her wedding day. The dress she donned was atypical attire for her, with a neckline that showed off the stunning ruby pendant P.J. had given her to celebrate the occasion. “Hair up or down?” she’d asked. It wouldn’t have mattered. She was a vision, and my brother was a blessed man to have her at his side for a night out on the town. Once they were on their way, I settled in to the typical evening routine, and it struck me that their apartment in Yorktown also feels like home. My nephew J.J. beckons me, little Katarina soothes me, and little Tessa relaxes me. Their parents’ return was delayed by a police block, so I was more than a little late getting back for writing night.

Upon entering my house, the first thing to catch my attention was the dreaded “Welcome” screen on my laptop that means my HP decided it was finally time to restart itself following my weeklong postpone update commands. Nearly a half hour passed before the updates concluded. That gave me time to re-plan my morning wardrobe with a work obligation for the morning that popped up while I was babysitting. The sundress I had laid out for my road trip to Syracuse, NY tomorrow was certainly not interview-appropriate, so there will have to be a bathroom wardrobe change after the interview before I head home. Home. That house on Cross Road was home to me for nearly twenty years of my life.

By the time my fingers started typing, nearly an hour past the scheduled time, home was on my mind. Not this home, but home in general. Syracuse was home for my upbringing. Nashville was home for ten years during the start of my professional career and my marriage. Syracuse was home again for a year and a half pit-stop before determining my new home would be in Hampton, VA near my brother’s family. Will this be my final resting place? Will this be the last place that I call home? Right now, there’s no place like it, but a decade ago or even two years ago, I could have never anticipated this is where I would be.

For the first writing night since I began, there are no remains of the hundred year old oak that fell in my backyard on Valentine’s Day. This dwelling was to the tree as Syracuse was to me. It was planted, groomed, established, grew, and flourished. The bulk of its life saw seasons change here and saw the peak of its vitality and vibrancy, like I did in academics, track, modeling, and school plays in New York.

Then, the tree became ill. This was its Nashville stage. From what was visible, the tree stood tall and strong with a thick trunk and long branches that overtook the entire yard. Like me in Nashville, working a variety of odd jobs and acquiring new skills before I began teaching and during summers, succeeding in my career, leading worship at my father-in-law’s church, completing my Master’s degree… on the outside, it appeared all was well.

Then, the great tree fell in a storm. It wasn’t until its trunk was severed that you could see the hollow decay inside that had caused the tragic downfall. This was its second Syracuse stage. My divorce drove me north to my parents’ home. I didn’t write anymore. I didn’t sing anymore. I didn’t want a career or a family anymore. I couldn’t feel. I was completely hollow inside, and though I had appeared to fare well in my Nashville home, the evidence of decay was unmistakable once the brokenness of spirit finally superseded outward appearances.

And though it was the shortest period of time in all of all places I’ve called home, it was pivotal in determining my future. Within days of its fall, the oak tree saw some immediate attention. Its branches were cut off and disposed of in the street. I identified with the tree then. That’s what the move to Syracuse was intended to be – disposing of all dead branches in my life including my failed marriage and all the entanglements tied up with it like our church and our friends.

Another month found some progress for the dead tree. A neighbor chopped up the usable parts of the trunk to give away for firewood. I identified with the tree then, too. While in Syracuse, the divorce was finalized, our assets divided, and I gave away my married name. The bulk of the tree, however, still remained in my backyard for months. It was an eyesore at first, then a barrier to mowing the lawn, then a reminder for me of my time in Syracuse when I was just waiting. Waiting for what came next. Unsure if the best of my life was in the past. Taking breaths while knowing that I wasn’t serving a purpose anymore. After four months, a man came to grind up the stump, and after five months, my landlord finally removed the last of the logs. If the tree weren’t dead, this would have been painful, like the process was for me in learning to move beyond the life that I had known, the life I had believed in that was over.

The oak tree is dead. But I won’t be convinced that during its hundred-year reign there wasn’t just one seed that found a new home in the soil in Hampton. Like I did. My first year in Hampton mirrors my time in my first childhood home in Syracuse. I said myself that this would be my fresh beginning, my clean slate, my chance to start over. In truth, I can’t say anyone in Hampton even knows that I used to sing or play the piano, but they know that I write. My desire for a family returned. My desire to know God again returned. My desire to excel in my career returned. Maybe music will, too, but that’s not the point. The point is that I have a new life in a new home, and I’m growing like a new seedling planted in the soil.

Planted here in Hampton, I am being groomed, established, and even beginning to flourish. I’ve found success in friendships and teaching and family. On Sunday night, I even found initial first date success with a nuclear engineer from eHarmony. We met at a fountain in Virginia Beach, walked and explored, and shared a romantic dinner at an Italian restaurant. He was a true gentleman; however, while I look forward to a second date at the beach after I return from my trip to New York next week, my joy tonight is reserved for the growth of the seedling over her first year truly living.

Time will tell who the man I’ll share my future with is… but time has already told the reality of new life for me. I’ve called a lot of places home, but there’s no place like this white wicker love seat and my second chance to live.

The Love Bungalow

They say home is where the heart is… but when you live alone, what makes a house a home? When I moved into this three-bedroom rental property eleven months ago, I filled it with furniture full of memories. My grandmother’s dining room table, bookshelves built by one grandfather, the desk on which my other grandfather wrote his sermons, a painting by my great-grandfather, the bedroom set I grew up with on Cross Road. In the fall, I decorated it. In the winter, I hosted parties in it. In the spring, I planted my garden in front of it.

But this summer, with my nieces’ first birthday fast approaching and their party to be hosted in my backyard, I realized I’ve made my house into a home for one. A week ago, the backyard was still full of logs and mulch remains from the hundred year old oak that fell on Valentine’s Day and contained not a single seat! I’d never spent much time out back, but surveying the land resulted in a project to do list of epic proportions. While the inside of the house and the garden are lovely (one friend says it looks like a dollhouse), there was much to be done to make it a home for the thirty some guests coming this Friday.

Wednesday, I found a patio table and chairs on sale at Lowe’s and spent several hours pressure washing six hand-me-down lawn chairs. Thursday, while I assembled the patio table and painstakingly painted the lawn chairs, my landlord and his wife brought over a tractor to haul off the last of the tree. Friday, I installed outdoor carpet atop the decaying cement back steps. Saturday, I began painting my front porch and weeding out the long-forgotten back garden bed until rain halted my plans. Sunday, I tackled the rest of the bed and the mulch that now carpets a quarter of the backyard. Yesterday, my friend Kyle surprised me by nearly finishing the porch painting project while I was gone. By one o’clock this morning, I had finished deep cleaning the house inside and out.

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Aside from the major undertakings, there were a few inspired smaller details. I added a butterfly bird bath to the front garden. Auntie Cherry embroidered burlap with my last name and gifted me with it on a metal stand for the garden bed. My friend Angela bestowed me with potted blue hydrangeas that match my front door wreath; her creative contribution allows me to move them to wherever the porch gets rays of morning sun. With Kyle’s labor, they are also a beautiful compliment to the blue-grey deck paint. It never ceases to amaze me what a fresh coat of paint can do to bring neglected things to vibrancy, like the front porch and the lawn chairs out back.

Pulling into the driveway tonight, I was greeted by beauty that begged me to walk its grounds. My garden thrives, my front porch invites, my backyard welcomes, and my little white house pleases me. The visible improvements applaud my labor and encourage my sore muscles. Even my landlord approved, saying, “The love bungalow appreciates the beautification!” The love bungalow… an odd pairing to describe a dwelling that houses only one.

If only the search for someone to share my home with was as profitable as my efforts to improve it. After another unsuccessful date on Thursday night with my fourth potential suitor, I found myself recycling a text message used to amicably part ways with my first one. Over the past several days, I have received at least a dozen notifications from eHarmony that various men are interested in getting to know me. When I first started online dating and received one of those alerts, I dropped whatever I was doing to log in and check out the potential husbands at my disposal. But this week, I found myself dismissing the notifications and continuing on in my painting, weeding, and working.

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Why? I can offer some guesses, but at best it’s a combination of the disappointment of the last four dates immediately following the excitement for what might be and the pressing party that demands the best of my attention and focus. My sister-in-law, niece, and nephew from South Carolina come tomorrow to stay with me through the milestone weekend, and my parents arrive in town on Thursday. Friday night will bring a host of friends and family together in this house to celebrate the growing lives that brought me here to Hampton in the first place. One can’t blame me for putting the unknown sea of online dating on hold for the known land of memories-in-the-making with those dearest to me.

This very moment, I’m enjoying the benefits of the beautification, and I’m struck that it’s not my own labor that brings me joy as I write. The embroidered piece from my aunt is in front of me, the hydrangeas from Angela are beside me, and the painted porch from Kyle is beneath me. When you live alone, what makes a house a home? It’s not the furniture or the garden or the fresh paint… it’s surrounding yourself with memories of the people that you love. I’m alone on the front porch of my “love bungalow”, but I don’t feel alone. My friends and family are represented in the furnishings and décor.

My garden thrives, my front porch invites, my backyard welcomes, and my house pleases me because it’s more than a dwelling. It’s home. It’s where my heart is. My grandparents, my parents, my siblings, my friends… they surround me from my first step onto this porch every time I come home. And on Friday, when those still living who are physically present get to share my home with me, we’ll make a multitude of new memories to keep me company every night that follows when I am again alone in essence but never really alone.

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My mother gave me a journal covered with butterflies and flowers, and the quote on the cover reads, “Faith plants the seed. Love makes it grow.” I assumed she chose it because of the butterflies, as anyone close to me knows my affinity for butterflies. Butterflies and flowers will be the theme of the twins’ first birthday, and it’s well-chosen. Butterflies symbolize transformation. Flowers symbolize growth. Certainly, the girls now one year into life represent these two abstract concepts perfectly, and we’ll celebrate that in three day’s time.

But tonight, I’m celebrating the faith and the love. In faith, I have planted seeds. In my garden, yes, but more importantly, in family and friendship. And those nearest to me have planted seeds in my life. What has made this house grow into a home has been their love shown to me in gifts and gestures and time. The love bungalow is a symbol of my own transformation and growth. Those eHarmony suitors can wait a few days… because this home is where my heart is, and I’m far from alone. This week, I’ll reserve my excitement entirely for a tangible affair with loved ones where disappointment knows no place.

I bought a new welcome mat with one word surrounded by butterflies and flowers: “Home”. Yes, it is.

Looking Beyond the Microscope Lens

My week and a half long road trip to Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina was an exciting adventure, but coming home to missed friends and family was heartwarming. And for the first time in my life, I returned to a missed garden as well. After seven hours on the road heading north, rocking out to Jack Johnson with my friend Kyle behind the wheel, yesterday evening brought with it some awesome surprises. Despite unsteady legs from sitting still so long, I jumped out of his SUV to inspect the state of affairs in my front yard.

Though I had entrusted a neighbor with watering duties, I had prepared myself for the worst. Nevertheless, nature had stepped in and provided healing rains nearly every day of my trip. My begonias and impatiens doubled in size in my absence. My geraniums re-sprouted their flowers. My knockout roses, which had been bare since a few days after purchase, now boast nearly a dozen perfect magenta blossoms. The evening glories reached ever higher, lacing the slats of my porch.

Though it may pale in comparison to Mrs. Washington’s little nature preserve, the increase has made the garden full. Having Kyle by my side to witness the transformation was an added bonus. During a different seven hour span rocking out to Jack Johnson, he had labored side by side with me in that garden where we built up the beds and planted seeds of hope. Now, my garden is thriving beyond hope. I didn’t need to keep adding more plants… I just needed to wait for the existing ones to grow.

I suppose that’s the novice gardener in me showing her colors, having failed to give enough merit to time and nature taking their course, focused instead on those responsibilities within my control.

After a few moments celebrating the garden’s success, I headed over to see my brother’s family. I was concerned about my garden while I was away, but more concerned that my twin nieces, nearly a year old, wouldn’t remember me. Like my begonias and impatiens, Katarina and Theresa doubled in personality in my absence. Like my evening glories, my nephew is reaching new heights in wit and imagination. And like my garden greeted me excited to show off its growth, my nieces raced crawling to their auntie… clearly not forgotten. Theresa giggled in my arms. Katarina gave me one of her famous open mouth kisses. JJ curled up in my lap to read the book I’d brought him together.

The next stop was my friend Angela’s. Waiting for me on the front step, her smile lit up the dim street. We hugged long and hard, and as she held me, I realized just how much I have come to cherish her. I thought of our first meeting several months ago, set up like a blind date by one of my students, and how nervous I was, how lonely I’d been, how I had longed for a girl friend here in Hampton. Then, we had sat on a bench overlooking the marina downtown drinking coffee and making pleasant dialogue. Last night, we sat in her fenced in patio drinking wine and making deep conversation. The growth of our friendship rivals that of my garden.

Though I long for the intimacy of a romantic relationship that will mature into marriage and blossom with children, I’ve invested so much time, effort, and attention into what I lack that I neglected to see how much growth has taken place in my life recently. A little time away has put things in perspective. In reality, had I been at home in my normal routine, daily inspecting my garden, the impressive sum of its incremental growth would have been lost on me. Would I have been impressed by the progress my nieces and nephews have made if I had been visiting regularly? Would I have recognized the heightened sentiment for Angela without that welcome home embrace?

In essence, in my own life I had failed to give enough merit to time and nature taking their course, focused instead on those responsibilities within my control. We learn the value of a microscope in grade school, amazed at what we are able to see when what is within the lens is magnified. Thank the Lord that I’ve never stopped learning, because today I see the disadvantages of the microscope. While I have been focusing all my efforts on finding a man to share my life with, its importance has been magnified beyond merit. Eyes narrowed looking through the lens, I was missing the amazing advancements taking place around me.

Last week, on Verona Beach, Kyle and I sat in the sand letting the tide ebb and flow beneath us. We were mostly silent as the world performed. Fireworks sparked in the distance to the right, lightening struck in the distance to the left, and the waves crashed together before us. There was no microscope. The grandiosity and immensity of the ocean and the sky were not lost on me. An hour passed as we watched the sky turn from indigo to black and witnessed the stars emerge through the darkness. I controlled nothing. Time and nature were taking their course.

Tonight, typing my way to revelation back on my white wicker writing perch, the grandiosity and immensity of my life surrounds my consciousness. Back in Nashville, I had worked tirelessly to advance my career, completing my master’s degree while teaching at my six year post there. When I left the state of Tennessee to my ex in the divorce, I left my career aspirations with it. I left my writing urges and my friends.

A year ago today, I was offered my teaching position at Kecoughtan High School. Moving to Hampton has proven to be the best starting-over venture of my life to date. Every visit with my brother’s family leaves me feeling an overwhelming love for those children who bring immense joy. It is through my job that I met Kyle and Angela who have satisfied every need for friendship, companionship, and top it off with fun-filled summer days at the beach. It’s this very front porch that brought the writer in me back to life, and day seventeen of my writing nights yields another set of reflective realizations. Not only has teaching again restored my sense of meaning and purpose in life, but just today I met with my assistant principal to discuss the responsibilities of my new role heading up the English department.

I saw what a week and a half could do for my perspective in my garden. Look what a year can do? Freed from the microscope, I see abundance. I see thriving beyond any hope I had a year ago. I see growth in family, friendships, and career. A year ago, I hadn’t even considered gardening. Now, I see its growth mirroring that of my own life.

Don’t worry. I’m not giving up on my search for my husband. In fact, I have a date on Thursday with a new military man I met online. I just realize that I don’t need a man to complete the current portrait. Just like I didn’t need to keep adding more plants to my garden, but instead wait for the existing ones to grow, I find that my life garden is filling out nicely. When love finds me, it will be addition to flower beds already full of beauty and color and meaning.  After all, who would look at a garden through a microscope lens?