Twenty-five springs ago, I walked barefoot out of my little cottage backing up to Route 105 in Aquebogue, with my first tray of home-grown seedlings and a belly full of hope, a new generation of my family taking shape inside of me.
The weather had just warmed to the point where you could dig up the earth, but the seedlings weren’t yet strong enough to take more than a couple hours out in nature before they had to be brought back to the shelter inside. They were a tiny little metaphor for the journey of motherhood that I was about to undertake.
At the time, it seemed like it had been a dramatic couple of seasons since I’d first found out, in the fall of 1995, that I’d be expecting a baby boy. I’d been enrolled in classes at Suffolk County Community College on the hill just south of Riverhead in the fall, but my classes were disrupted by the Sunrise Wildfires, which took off that September from just outside the grounds of the campus. They seemed like apocalyptic fires at the time, but we were all naive then.
The wildfires were followed by a wet, messy winter that seemed like it would never end, but when it did end the first thing I managed to do was dig up a bunch of poison ivy roots in the backyard and get covered in hives.
It was a learning year, but it was nothing compared with the learning year we’ve all just lived through.
That first pop of spring, the cheeriness of mid-pregnancy and those seedlings were enough hope to start a snowball of good things.
Some afternoons I’d climb up on the roof of my house and look down over the garden and out at the traffic cruising by on the highway and laugh at my good fortune to have been able to build an oasis in the midst of our crazy modern lives.
But in truth I didn’t build that oasis alone. I’d inherited it from another gardener, a friend of my family whose decision to infuse a rented piece of land with so much love and meticulous care is the kind of devotion you really only see among the terminally ill.
He’d died of AIDS the prior year, the same disease that would kill my gentlest uncle that spring as I was readying to give birth. The fear of people I’d loved dying of AIDS that had been with me throughout my adolescence culminated in their actual deaths right about that time.
After that very year brought approval of anti-retroviral treatment, people just stopped dying and the world moved on. I didn’t. How could the people I’d loved have not just held on for a few more months?
I don’t have any answers for that question now, and I certainly didn’t have the answers as I sat on that roof decades ago.
Uncle Paul had felt my baby banging his feet against the wall of my belly from his hospital bed at his 31st birthday in February, and he knew there was something feisty and beautiful coming into the world as he was leaving. He got a pretty big kick out of it and I still do too.
We owe a lot to the gardeners who have planted in the soil before us, leaving messages in the trail of life they leave behind.
There are few times in life where you are open to hearing these messages, in these timeless spaces between phases of our lives.
I don’t remember a moment of calm or reflection in all the child-rearing and working years between that blissful spring and the moment my boy, holding his girl’s hand, announced to me last fall that he is going to be a father.
He sent me right back to that hopeful place, in the garden waiting, imagining all the possibilities that life could still have in store.
Obstetricians told me that rooftop sitting wasn’t an advisable activity while pregnant, but as I sat on the roof back a quarter century ago, I was pretty sure it was safer than deploying to a combat zone, and it was really a great (and much safer) way to get some fresh perspective on life.
You don’t have to believe in the rat race to get caught up in it. One minute you think you have all you need and then suddenly your house is too small, or your mother is moving in with you, or your wife tells you there’s another baby on the way. Pets take over, and then plastic things you bought on a whim take over and before you know it, your neighbor did a massive home renovation and as you were wondering where they got the money for that renovation you called your own bank for an equity line and then the madness of construction and the new line of credit sent you driving back down to the big LIE to find another pot of gold to keep all these balls up in the air. It gets away from you quick, and before you know it, your children are grown and moved on.
It happens to all of us, especially here on Long Island, where it seems damn near impossible to keep up with everything without letting work overwhelm every minute of your day.
They tell you all the time when you are a churchgoing kid that the love of money is the root of all evil, though when you get out into the world and spend time with people who are chasing money your new friends will often misquote that statement as “money is the root of all evil,” which it isn’t. Money is just a tool.
Where you put your love is what matters, and that’s what living sustainably is all about. That was why, every time I sat on that rooftop, I had to just laugh.
I had never felt as rich as I felt when pea shoots began to spring from the earth and climb up a trellis, bursting with pods, beans following not far behind, zucchini and tomatoes bursting at the seams after a rainfall, a shock of irises shooting up around the deck, strange trumpet flowers buzzed by honeybees, tufts of clover under the clothesline and, eventually, the new breath of a young child now breathing beside mine as I pinned an acre of onesies on the line.
We can live in and as part of nature. It’s very simple. All you have to do is change your mind.