Authors: Lucinda Fleeson
IN PURSUIT OF AN IMPASSIONED LIFE ON AN IMPERILED ISLAND
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Dedicated to gardeners everywhere
who take these disasters
and improve on them
LOWLY I TURNED
the corner onto my perfect little street of stone houses and picket fences already steeped in the long shadows of early evening. I parked my Toyota, then picked a path through the tricycle and other toys left on the sidewalk by the neighbors' children. There was no hurry. I had no plans.
Inside, my reading corner waited, a lady's wing chair in wool plaid pulled close to the white brick fireplace. Passing into the narrow galley kitchen, I gathered the makings for a simple meal, a standard entry in my repertoire of Single Working Girl's Twenty-Minute Dinners. Green salad, leftover balsamic vinaigrette. I set a pot of water on to boil for angel-hair pasta, peeled garlic cloves, and chopped parsley. On second thought, I turned off the water and went upstairs. Blue and white toile papered the renovated bathroom and dressing room in an eighteenth-century pastoral scene. I switched on a brass student lamp in the darkened study. Twin green globes cast ponds of light on a wall of photographs: smiling family members and friends; vacation shots from hiking the Alps; skiing in Italy; watching the races at Saratoga Springs. All evidence of a full, happy life, right?
I kicked off high-heeled pumps and hung up my tailored suit while I drew a hot, foamy bath in the claw-footed tub, then got in for a soak. Even that didn't take the edge off an evening with too much free time. Wrapped in a silk dressing gown, I went back downstairs and launched a CD of John Coltrane's
My Favorite Things.
In a nightly ritual, I dared myself to light the fire with a single match, touching the flame to four corners of crumpled newspaper. Satisfied that it caught, I set a tray with cloth napkin and silver, then brought it back to the fireside. I studied the flames.
My God, I'm going to spend the rest of my life here.
Restoring this English-style ramshackle cottage until it was as trim as a sailboat had consumed nine years. But I had tired of playing house. A child of preppy, Connecticut suburbia, I had settled for more of the same in the happily-ever-afterdom of suburban Philadelphia. For most of my neighbors and peers, lawyer husbands and above-average children had replaced the circle pins and penny loafers we had worn with brutal conformity as teenagers.
While many women my age rushed about, drawn and quartered between big lives of child-rearing and high-powered jobs, I found myself underemployed and sliding into midlife with not much to show for it. Now forty-four, I'd been divorced for almost fifteen years. My last great love affair had died more than a year ago. I couldn't quite escape an ingrained sense that a solitary woman was a misfit, a dried-up celibate or eccentric, or worse yet, too unattractive to find a presentable mate.
I once deemed my work as a reporter for
The Philadelphia Inquirer
the apogee of existence. Now corporate profiteering and betrayal had slithered into our midst. It no longer seemed fun or noble. Healthy, over forty, either single or with children
who had flown the nest, many of my colleagues faced similar midlife angst, professional and personal. Our well-developed careers had gone flat. What to do now with our brightly educated minds, expensively toned bodies, and elongated life spans that promised another thirty or forty years of active life? Was plastic surgery to be the last frontier? Recently a recurring nightmare plagued me, waking me with a Delphic warning:
You are doomed to a life of small luxuries
. Not lavish, big spending bursts of vacation houses, big cars, and jewels, but just enough for comfort.
Roosters haunted me like the Ghost of Christmas Future. During the years when my girlfriends and I had hunted antiques stores and flea markets to fill up our newly purchased houses, we noticed rooster knickknacks everywhere. Rooster coffee mugs, rooster salt shakers, rooster napkin holders, rooster-anything-you-can-imagine. “Look, another item for the rooster shop we're going to open when we're old and retired,” we'd joke. The roosters became emblematic of all the useless junk that Americans buy and all the wasted hours middle-aged women fill with aimless shopping for more useless stuff. Opening a rooster knick-knack shop was the last thing I'd ever do, I vowed.
I had read many of the writings of psychologist Carl Jung, who devoted much of his study to the midlife crisis. He felt the suffering at that age held potential for change. Adults dedicate the first half of life to building fortune, family, and career. Jung theorized that at midlife those pursuits lose their power of attraction, and personal values shift into reverse. What was once important dims, while new pursuits and a growing spirituality loom on the horizon. Fail to pay attention to the warning lights of depression and anxiety, and you risk sinking into a quagmire
of regret and resentment. Thousands of us baby boomers are reinventing ourselves, we're told. But I had yet to find any instruction books. How to begin when you're frozen by inertia? When fear paralyzes? “We would rather be ruined than changed, We would rather die in our dread,” wrote W. H. Auden.
The telephone ring interrupted my gloomy ruminations. I rushed to the kitchen wall phone and stood listening while Dr. William Klein cheerily announced that he was coming to Philadelphia for meetings. He invited me to dinner Sunday night. “We'll go someplace fancy,” he promised. Bill Klein was an erudite botanist, one of my favorite sources. Over the years, I enjoyed our infrequent lunches that probed the realm of ideas.
I hung up the phone, went upstairs, and pulled on a pair of faded green Army fatigues and one of Dad's old sweaters with holes in the elbows. I rummaged under the sink for a flashlight, then escaped outside to the garden. With its damp scent of recent rain, the cold night air made me shiver. A nearly full moon washed the garden in light and shadow. I trained the light beam on top-heavy, wobbling daffodils. Every autumn I had dug in more bulbs, more varieties, until now hundreds lit the small yard: sunset oranges of the giant Fortissimo; creamy Ice Follies; a few collectors' pinks such as Salome, with its whisper white petals and apricot centers. I searched for perfect blooms. Not those past their prime, marred by creeping translucence along crinkling petals.
I carried an armload of flowers into the kitchen. A few dots of black dirt speckled an insouciant Las Vegas blossom. Once I watched champion daffodil grower Kathryn Andersen use the tip of her tongue to gently lap away splashes of dirt from prize
entries. Anything stronger could nick or dent the flower. I tried it. The petals felt as soft as baby skin but had a crisp taste of celery. Gardening always cheered me up.
UYING AN OLD HOUSE
had unleashed a pent-up desire. That first winter I read garden books late into night. Weekends I haunted nurseries, just to look at the plants and smell loamy earth. I signed up for a night course in landscape design at the nearby Morris Arboretum. Although a novice, I chose one of the most difficult and labor-intensive projects: an English perennial border, to match my English cottage. I lusted after towering blue delphiniums, pink snapdragons, lavenders, and heathers.
My small cottage garden occupied only about four hundred square feet. It begged to be called postage-stamp in size. Worse, a fortresslike hedge of arborvitae surrounded the perimeter. “Get rid of it,” advised the landscape instructor. I looked at him as if he were an anarchist. But I came to realize that if I was to get anywhere, I had to clear-cut the whole yard, analyze the site for light and shade, drainage and soil conditions, and then start anew.
I chopped down each tree with a hatchet. Even with goatskin gloves, my thumbs ached. A dated gardening book, a gift from my mother, advised double-digging eighteen-inch trenches, English-style, then filling the furrows with cow manure. Two truckloads of organic humus and sand added height. I liked the physical work of bending muscles to the task and learning to use a shovel. Lured by the magical alchemy of the garden that transforms manure and garbage into roses, I saved coffee grounds and vegetable peels as precious nutrients for the compost heap. The
mindless weeding and meditation on each task transformed my small plot into a place to forget daily cares. Minutes disappeared into hours without notice. Sometimes I'd garden as the moon came up, trying to squeeze in a few last tasks.