UPDATE: Marilyn is the chosen-at-random winner of this giveaway. Please feel free to keep adding your words in the comments.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about this short passage, an exchange between writer Alice Walker and her mother that appears in her memoir, The Same River Twice.
“…”You(‘re) a little mess, ain’t you.” Meaning someone selfish enough to fully express her being.”
The concept of messiness is a theme that has made repeat appearances in my life, most especially within the last year. I like this positive interpretation of a psychological and physical state of being that is typically negative and often associated with becoming unhinged, unglued, or downright filthy. Messy is an ugly crying jag in public and wearing your bra on the outside of your clothing. It’s lashing out on social media, putting your foot in your mouth in a professional meeting, and dirty dishes that have been sitting in the sink, around the sink, and possibly on the floor beneath the sink for days.
Nobody wants to be a mess or be seen as becoming a mess, and yet Alice Walker’s version is an indulgence, possibly even something to aspire to and celebrate. Our messiness is a part of being ourselves, being whole, being human. It is our vulnerability and our fallibility shown. For that reason and more, 2013 has been a year of transition, the year that I stopped fighting my mess and have (or have at least tried to) let it be. It’s the year I decided to (or at least try to) accept my imperfections and let them hang out (a little).
“The garden is growth and change and that means loss as well as constant new treasures to make up for a few disasters.” – May Sarton
These past weeks, I have been slowly, almost begrudgedly going through the motions of preparing my garden for the cold and quiet next phase. Here’s another place where I am trying to be a better, more “evolved” and accepting person — I am re-imagining winter as a phase rather than an ending. We’ll see how well this holds up when the first snow flakes fall. As I do fall’s labour in the garden: ripping out annuals, bringing the tender potted plants indoors, cutting back perennials, harvesting end of the season produce and whatnot, I’ve found my mind flipping through mental images of this past growing season. I am literally surrounded by the mess created in the garden’s unravelling, and so the question of Alice Walker’s interpretation of the word comes up, asking me to look at the garden in a new way.
When it comes to gardening, a mess is the antithesis of tidy, and a neat and tidy garden is the one that is most often aspired to. I can’t think of a time when I have looked around at my garden and thought to myself with pride, “Look at this gorgeous mess.” Orderly is what appears in the magazines. It assumes that the gardener is diligent, hard working, and has pride of place, or the money to pay someone else to make it so. Clean is high class. It keeps the neighbors happy. It says, “I have got my shit together people, and I know what I am doing.”
Margaret, I think it is safe to say that while I may make my living as a person who writes about the act of gardening my garden does not show me to be a gardener who has got their shit together. At least, not by the standards above. Yes, I obsess about plants and their care, and yes, I do have a knack for understanding their needs and keeping them alive. However, it would not be accurate or truthful to use adjectives such as neat and orderly to describe my gardens. In fact, the 2013 gardening season was, by far, my messiest yet.
First, allow me to present my excuses. Back in June we went on a ten-day trip to the desert. It was an unusually cool and wet spring, and when we returned, the garden — with the exception of the tomatoes that had hardly grown at all — had literally morphed into a jungle. It was wild. Thick. Overgrown. Unruly. It was a many-tentacled thing, spilling out all over the place, a living green replica of my brain.
I tried to tame the mess, but it fought back like a wild animal that would not be broken. A week later I lopped a small piece off of the index finger on my left hand and spent the next six weeks pointing at nothing. Unlike a certain loveable alien botanist, my special finger did not come with a magical ability to revive dead marigolds or communicate with lost extra terrestrial brethren. It didn’t even glow. But no matter, despite my neglect everything (except the tomatoes) thrived and then some, most especially the weeds. What I really needed was a magical finger to make things not grow so voraciously, and a second to do something about those hapless tomatoes.
In recalling these last months, another excuse for my unruly garden comes to mind. I tinkered. I bought a still and set to turning everything in the garden into a plant hydrosol. In some cases I let plants grow unruly on purpose because I required the wealth of plant material to distill. I also got into dyeing fabrics and threads with plants, a messy project if ever there was one. This too required letting plants go wild so that I’d have enough to use.
I have always been a dabbler, a mad scientist(ish), someone who messes about. I have long thought of my gardens as working gardens and labs in which I learn and experiment. Tinkering is serious play. It is messy, filthy work. For someone with an art degree, it seems contradictory to make aesthetics secondary and I have often criticized myself intensely when I have not been able to excel at both. This is who I am and who I am as a gardener. I have an appreciation for making things beautiful, but ultimately, I have a stronger drive to take things apart.
I make messes, on purpose, and then chastise myself for it afterward.
Margaret, the truth is I may never be a tidy gardener who maintains the sort of inspiring landscape that is shown and opened up for public viewing and scrutiny. In trying to make peace with my messiness, I have come to realize that this is a goal that I have internalized and what I believed I was supposed to be, but it is not what I desire. What I really want — what I aspire to most – is to be the sort of gardener who will invite you in and show you around happily no matter the conditions, and without apology or shame. And as a person, I want to be the selfish sort that Alice Walker describes, someone who can fully express her being, no matter the consequences. No matter how it contradicts what is expected of me.
A happy, little (big) mess.
How to Win May Sarton’s “Journal of a Solitude”
It wasn’t until my friend Margaret Roach (AWaytoGarden.com) and I set out to write this set of letters that we discovered a mutual affection for the work of writer May Sarton (here is an old post of mine and here is Margaret’s), specifically her book, Journal of a Solitude.
Margaret and I will be each be selecting 1 winner of this book at random (so that’s 2 winners total) at midnight on Thursday, November 7, 2013. The winner will be contacted by email.
All you have to do to enter is answer the following:
If my word/theme of the 2013 season is “messiness” (and Margaret’s over at A Way to Garden is “resilience”): What’s your word of the garden year? As always, you can just type in “count me in,” and that will count as an entry, too.
Disclosure: Please note that Amazon links earn me a small commission, which are put towards purchasing books as giveaway prizes. Please see my current Publication Policy for more info.