In the Garden

One of the last things I did in the time I now think of only as before was to take a hike at Occonneechee Mountain State Natural Area in North Carolina with my boyfriend. It was early March, and everything was still brown, save for patches of moss alongside the path. We thought it would be nice to come back in a couple of weeks, when things would start to come alive again, lush green leaves and wildflowers peeking out from the forest floor.

It is now closed to the public, having become overcrowded after everything else shut down.

In the weeks since, instead, I’ve watched the brown branches outside my living room bud and turn green, a glimpse of the lush world from which I’m currently withdrawn for an indefinite period of time. As the park’s closing indicates, even the options for outdoor activities shrink as we try to figure out how to safely share fewer and fewer spaces, and eventually admit that we simply must stay home.

I know that I am one of the lucky ones, because I have a yard. I have a small porch with a rocking chair, a tree to look at, a 3×3’ raised garden bed, and a patch of yard where I grow herbs throughout the year. I have a flower box full of pansies. This green space, shared with my duplex neighbor and overlooking a (normally) busy street, has become an oasis, an escape. Increasingly it is also a source of food.

These days, I am seeking solace. Calm. Quiet. Peace. A place to still myself for a few moments each day, impossible though it feels, and let go of all that I cannot control. For there is so very much that I cannot control. I don’t always find what I seek, but sometimes, for a moment, I sink into it and my mind stills as I watch the late afternoon sun, that most magical hour of light, morph into cotton candy clouds before fading into dark.

The rest of the time I read breaking news updates from my local paper as the numbers climb, the curve anything but bent. I read op-eds from the New York Times about everything going wrong in the handling of this crisis. I attempt to work 40 hours in 32 because my job (and salary) has been reduced, and I attempt to be happy about it because I have not (yet) been completely laid off. I watch YouTube videos about how to sanitize groceries. Never mind that I haven’t been to a grocery store in weeks because I have asthma and I am scared that if I get sick I will end up hospitalized, occupying one of the limited number of beds, or needing one of the too-few ventilators. I’m trying to stay well for whoever else might need care, as much as for myself. I work my way through dried beans and grains and canned goods, and eagerly await my bi-weekly delivery of local vegetables. I stay home. I feel lucky to stay home, with my canned goods and vegetables, even in the moments when anxiety threatens to boil over. I keep it to a barely controlled simmer, bubbles licking at the edges, but contained. Except when it’s not.

I stay home. I plant seeds in little biodegradable pots, setting them in a sunny windowsill. I water and wait. It feels like the opposite of so much of the discourse swirling around me. Gun sales skyrocketing, fears that stay-at-home orders will become an excuse for increased policing, the language of war and violence ever present: We are fighting this virus, I’m told. Healthcare providers are on the frontlines. We will conquer this together. We will emerge victorious. We are strong and courageous and will not be defeated. As part of a peace church tradition it grates on my ears, clashes with my beliefs, but it also just feels wrong.

I am not strong. I am fragile at the best of times, and this is far from the best of times. Our society is not strong either. The already threadbare fabric of what passes for a social safety net will not hold us. The rich will get richer from this crisis, the poor will be poorer—those who manage to survive. Yet even now we cling to the narrative of the fight, trying to bend the concept to fit our reality. Be a hero by staying home. That is how we fight, now. By withdrawing, each to themselves.

As I watered my tiny pots this week, I thought about Molly McIntire, the American Girl Doll I cherished as a child. I checked out every book about her from the library, and read about her life during World War II, including her Victory Garden, fascinated. Such war gardens were planted to supplement rations, but I now assume also to boost spirits, to satiate our need to do something, anything, in a crisis. This is closer to why I began planting my own garden, in another difficult season of my life, long before people started hoarding chickens and sharing viral videos about what to grow from your kitchen scraps.

This memory of my childhood fascination with Molly’s wartime efforts made me sad, because I can see no victory here. This is not a war. You cannot shoot a virus. Hypermasculine willpower is useless. Even the best-case scenarios at this point include thousands upon thousands dead. Already friends of my friends have been hospitalized, and it is only a matter of time before this disease creeps closer, finding its way to each of our inner circles. Its economic effects have already reached all but the privileged few.

This too is violence, this capitalist death machine that requires the sacrifice, willing or not, of low wage workers nonetheless deemed essential, praised for their valor on the battlefield, if not financially well-rewarded for it. Many will get sick and struggle to access healthcare because they are uninsured, and many will experience increased financially difficulty even if they stay well, as people stop tipping, the pressure to do so eliminated along with eye contact. In the push to re-open, to return to a past version of normal that no longer exists, these same essential workers will be put at even more risk.

The homeless sleep in gridded lots while hotels sit empty. An old hospital remains closed while a millionaire tries to turn it into money he doesn’t need. The president treats us like contestants on a reality TV show. And all of us, all of us, stare down the possibility that we, or someone we love, will die alone. 

I am sick of the language of fighting. I wonder at how even something as nonviolent as a garden gets turned into a way to fight. But how can it not, when shelves are scraped bare by panicked shoppers, leaving nothing for those who cannot afford to buy extra and simply want to get enough food for the week? The empty shelves are a scarcity created by fear. This too is violence, the idea that we need Victory Gardens to supplement rations when there is more than enough to go around, if only it could get to those who truly need it.

Another reason I avoid the grocery stores, now, is because I am afraid I will brave their aisles for nothing, expose myself to the virus lurking on a shopping cart or floating in the air and emerge to slather my empty hands with sanitizer.

Nerves are so frayed that we can even argue about whether it’s good or bad for people to try to grow vegetables, if they’ve never gardened before, as if the experienced gardeners must defend ownership of the practice of growing things. As if anyone has a monopoly on caring for plants. Rather than sharing gardening advice, the impulse is to lash out. To hoard knowledge like we hoard toilet paper. Instead of nurturing one another, we collapse in on ourselves, our fears and our judgements, our ability to care. 

But what we need more than ever is precisely this: to care. For a garden plot, perhaps, and for each other. A few tomatoes from my garden will not change the course of anything on their own, though they may very well help me make one more meal before risking a trip to the store. This is a moment not to fight but to nurture. Instead of expecting our healthcare providers to fight, to be on the frontlines of a battle ground, I want to take care of them, as they do their jobs caring for the sick and the dying. I want to imagine, and create, a world in which they do not have to ask who gets the last ventilator. They are not soldiers. They are healers.

Every caregiver I know is stretched to the limits—doctors and nurses, therapists, parents, pastors, and so many others, because care is all that we have. Care, and the obvious lack of it. Who do we care for? And who cares for us? Aside from the government’s shortcomings, perhaps the difficulty of giving or receiving care is the hardest thing about the distance, as people get sicker, as people die. So many of us cannot be with those we love. We will grieve alone. We are already grieving alone, the very aloneness itself a cause of grief. For some traditions, Easter has arrived—but death has not lost its sting. Even as states move toward re-opening certain businesses and public spaces, people continue to get sick. We are trying to keep each other alive and we do not know if we will succeed. Any promise of victory cannot help but ring hollow. I cling to anything that helps me remember how to care. I dream about the possibility of an after.

As I cook meals for one with herbs from my tiny kitchen garden and dream about a day when I might set a table for two, or even a table for a crowd, my garden isn’t a victory. It is sustenance. It is enough to keep going, to keep planting seeds, waiting to see which ones grow. This is not a fight we can win, but we still plant seeds for an unseen future, whether we will survive to see it or not.

Meghan Florian is the author of The Middle of Things: Essays, available now from Cascade Books. Her work has appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Salon, Lunch Ticket, Religion Dispatches, Religion News Service, The Other Journal, and elsewhere. She earned an MTS from Duke Divinity School and an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte, and is the Managing Editor at MennoMedia and Herald Press. She lives and writes in Durham, North Carolina.