Bloom

Driving around town this morning, I was struck with a thought I’ve never had before: I love my life.

One of my favorite bosses once said to me “bloom where you’re planted.” She was hoping to encourage me to see the positive aspects of my life, to recognize that I didn’t have to have a perfect structure in order to survive. But it’s always bothered me, the idea that chance should wholly dictate who we become. To follow the plant analogy, there are plants that can adapt to any environment, but there are plenty that have very specific needs in order to thrive. The sequoia comes to mind; I can’t send sequoia seeds to my sister in Illinois and expect that she can grow this incredible tree in her backyard. It needs a certain constant temperature range, a certain amount of moisture in the air, and a specific kind of footing into which it can take root. Sequoias

Then there are plants that *can* survive in a variety of environments, but an optimal setting allows them to reach their full potential. Far more than “blooming”, they can become something spectacular.

All my adult life, I’ve struggled to find a place for myself in the world. When I lived in southern Illinois,  I hoped to make a home for my kids and myself in the university environment, where I enjoyed a fair amount of cultural activities and employment opportunities, but felt the impact of the transient population inherent in higher education. It’s hard to form lasting bonds with peers when people come in for a year or two and then move on to the next step in their education or career. I was guilty of the same behavior, moving around campus for promotions three times in one year, and eventually leaving the university altogether.

Moving to Chicagoland brought more economic and social stability, but the people in my peer group — and that particular time in my life, when I was in the midst of heavy-duty parenting — were not supportive or conducive to my creative side. I was a good mom, very stable and involved, but I wasn’t the best *me*. I could provide structure to those around me, but I couldn’t even start looking for my own potential. That wasn’t part of the deal, and I accepted that.

When I left Chicagoland, my father said “you can move, but you won’t leave behind your problems.” What he — and all the other naysayers — didn’t realize was that I wasn’t trying to leave behind my problems. I was trying to find the best place for *me* to live, the place in which my distinct personality and tendencies could breathe freely, where there was space and energy for me to explore the parameters of who I wanted to be. It is a mistake to assume that once you have become an adult — or once you have children, which happened for me before I was really an adult — you stop growing and becoming. I knew I wasn’t finished yet, and that the pain I felt at not belonging anywhere was telling me something.

And I was right.

Once I had a sense of the kind of things I wanted in my life, seeking the right place to be became much easier. I take credit for knowing myself well enough to understand that I had to be near natural beauty every day, that I needed trees and dirt and the view of mountains. And despite its reputation as the whitest city in the U.S., I am surrounded by diversity on a scale that makes my hometown look like a white supremacists’ meeting.

Think about *that* for a moment.

But I’ve always been much more comfortable in a diverse crowd than I ever was in St. Charles.

The city of Portland, and in a broader sense, the whole state of Oregon, has given me a healthy planting bed into which I have sunk my roots. Part of my freedom comes from being finished with the heavy-duty parenting, but that’s not all of it. If I were simply an empty-nester back in Illinois, I would be miserable: what would I have to explore? How far could I push my own limits in a society that allows little deviation from what they consider normal? Where would I go to escape the unmitigated pressure of beigeness?

In Oregon, I have my necessary wilderness. In Portland, I have the necessary diversity of personage, of activities, of interests and enthusiasm for the un-normal. There is no need for me to be like anyone else. I mean, there are hipsters here, whose dour demeanor trends toward their own conformity. I blame their unhappiness on hunger; in order to fit into those skinny jeans that tuck so neatly into their Han Solo boots, and wear those baggy baggy shirts that look like they were made for Hagrid, they aren’t allowed to eat much, so they’re terribly hungry.

But at my age, it’s totally okay — even encouraged — for me to avoid becoming a hipster. They can have their baggy baggy shirts and sad expressions: I choose to frolic among the forest creatures, celebrating the trees and ferns, then spend my days at the beehives of artistic activity where I work.

There is space for me here. For all of me, not just the parts that are palatable to other people. I’m able to reach into myself and discover long-lost loves like singing in the choir, or undiscovered loves like dangling my feet in a mountain brook or kayaking in one of the many rivers. No longer bound by a society tied up in appearances or expectations, I am free to reach out my tendrils in all directions, to do and be the many parts of who I am. Where I was once confined to a small planting box, held tight on all sides by a barricade, I am now free to grow naturally, the way I was intended to grow.

With the right mixture of sunlight and nutrients, who knows what I will grow up to be?

Ease

It’s October 5, and I just visited my garden to pick some produce and check its progress. Two years into my Pacific Northwest gardening experience, I have finally started moving away from the expectations I had about gardening based on my Midwest experience. Back in Illinois in October, I’d be standing in the middle of my plot staring at the carnage wrought by my tomato over-planting habits, wondering if I could borrow a flame thrower to burn the brown, shriveled bean stalks off the trellis, and contemplating the downside of just walking away from the work involved in cleaning up the mess. Surely the park district had the tools and manpower to handle this, whereas I could barely muster the willpower to look at it.

Instead, I have a basket of beans, tomatoes, basil and my late-season snow pea crop, just producing its first pods now. In October. I am awaiting some gorgeous roasting red peppers, still ripening on the vine, and holding off on harvesting the leeks until I have kitchen space to process them into cheddar leek biscuits and potato leek soup. Kitchen space must be scheduled now, in our downsized apartment with its galley kitchen and regular-sized freezer inhibiting my normally exuberant harvest.

Despite the tininess of my garden plot, I still over-plant tomatoes, although now my excuses are different. Before, I planted extra because I knew I’d lose some baby plants in late frosts, or some fruits to blossom-end rot. Something would happen to reduce my tomato harvest, and, as I wanted enough for sauce and soup, I regularly planted 50 plants and crossed my fingers that 30 would survive. Now that I have discovered the depth of tomato flavors, and have explored the spectrum of possibilities, I can’t seem to limit myself. I planted a dozen San Marzano plants, and then could not resist picking up three more varieties at the farmer’s market (a sausage, a yellow pear, and a delicious large cherry), plus I started nine more Black Prince variety plants, after having fallen in love with that tomato last summer.

And then my garden sprouted about a dozen more volunteer tomatoes, varieties unclear, that I just plucked from their spot at the west end of the plot and plunked into the tomato section at the east end of the plot, in hopes that some of them would survive. So what’s that, three dozen tomato plants?

Whatever the actual number, it’s too many for a small section of a four by eighteen raised bed. There is no way to stake that many tomatoes, and at a certain point, I’ve stopped trying. The tangle of branches is too complex and there is no way to sort out which branch goes with which stem without breaking them off. In August, I stopped trying to manage them and just waited to see how the harvest came in.

One of the volunteers turned into a yellow beefsteak variety, producing two enormous 16″ softball-sized fruits. I shudder to think how many of those bad boys I’d have if I managed the plants properly.

Oh look, bean season has started! MAKE IT STOP

On the bean front, I went from “oh, look! Bean season has started!” to “MAKE IT STOP!” fairly quickly. I simply do not have enough space for all the beans anymore. But I love having a second season in the ground, late-August plantings of peas and arugula and cilantro that promise to keep my garden lush and green for another month at least. My deck garden is overflowing with peas, another example of my overeager planting style, but I expect we’ll get a couple of dinners worth out of it.

Snot peas

In my Oregon garden, I don’t have to rush. I don’t have to get everything in the ground on a precise schedule and then wait for the season to race along, hoping I get most of my food before the first frost in the fall. And I find I don’t have to overload my garden with produce to put up for the winter, because there is so much produce available well into the “cold” months. Instead of six months without good, fresh food, we have about three, maybe four, if it’s a bad winter, and I can sustain food inside through those cold days.

My garden life has always informed my thoughts on the rest of my life. Because of the weather, the growing season, the abundance of produce and activities and opportunities, I’m less concerned about missing something, or rushing to squeeze something in before winter hits, be it vegetables or a swim in the Columbia or camping at the coast. I am starting to see the winter as an opportunity to do inside things, a chance I often forego in the sunny summer months when the rivers beckon. So in January, after a long Saturday planting trees in the rain, I’ll crack open my summer-scented frozen beans, heat up a bowl of potato leek soup, and snuggle in for an afternoon of sewing or research or organizing on a project I laid out for myself way back in September. And come February, I will start seeds that I have already bought in my sunny window overlooking the valley and renew the cycle of digging my hands into the soft earth.

Seasons change, and so did I. I am enjoying the ease and perspective Oregon has brought to my life.