This Is What We Prune

spring-pruning-large.jpg Yesterday I did my spring pruning and, inspired by the coming season, put that beautiful new springtime header up on the blog. So of course this morning it snowed! It’s still snowing, great big-feather-flakes that make it look like it’s raining goosedown.

Yesterday started out just warm enough to work in the yard in a t-shirt, but as I stepped outside around 10PM I noticed that the night had gotten a lot colder very quickly. When I woke this morning I got quite a surprise — a light, windy, fat-flaked snow.

I had a great day yesterday working in the garden. Over the past few months I’ve come to understand that I’m burned out from overwork, from years of driving myself hard to write and do homework all week, work in the yard all Saturday, and then do hours on homework on Sunday. Typically I got only a few hours of real relaxation over the weekend and none during the week. For the first time in my life this year I felt no desire to garden. I was just too tired of driving myself so hard. Something inside me felt sad and dead, in no mood to sweat and work my ass off for hours every week just to have a garden.

Yesterday was that most magic thing — a warm winter weekend. Even the wind was warm. Without even thinking about what I thought I wanted, I found myself stepping out into the yard with pruners in hand. Late winter and early spring is when I prune the spring bloomers, and I found myself with a driving desire to Set Things to Rights.

Those that read my blog may have noticed how I love Setting Things to Rights. While I am hardly an inflexible neat freak, I do dearly love the traditional values of harmony, order and cleanliness. I’m old-school that way. My house is dusty and cat fur gathers over the week, but I always vacuum on Sunday and dust most Sundays, and do my dishes every night. My house needs a little cosmetic work but is not in disrepair, and it always smells of vanilla or coffee or hungry-making good smells of cooking food. If you came to my house, I’d have lavender oil simmering in the tiny diffuser in the living room, and my cozy couch would have pillows and a crushed velvet throw and usually a cat or two.

I like cleanliness, not sterility. I like order, not inflexibility. I like harmony, not silence. My bathroom is not antiseptic and my desk is covered in eraser shavings, cat hair and clutter.

So I went out into the yard with my weapons — the small red hand-pruner and the tall long-handled pruner that my friend Randee calls the “lopper.” And the woman who wanted to do no gardening this year fell in love with the earth and the land and the green all over again. I hope some things will change this year — that I’ll do less and be more, and learn to be idle again, and spend more time with friends. But lord I do not wish to give up my yard and garden. They are hard work, but it is good honest physical work, the kind that gives deep satisfaction, and that gives a lovely result in a beautiful garden to smell and touch and walk through, and stand in the wind and listen to the trees whisper in, and stand under the moon with a cat weaving around your legs in, hardly able to believe that life, even if for just an instant, is this good.

Spring pruning is no small task. It is hard work, with lots of bending down and lifting, scratches and pokes from thorns and sharp sticks, and much walking to and from the back yard to the road, where you stack the brush for pickup on Monday. Here at Chez Jen, this is what we prune in spring:











Some just need the removal of dead twigs and limbs; some, like the buddleias, get hacked to a fraction of their original height of over ten feet. The pile of brush at the top of my driveway at this time of year is always truly impressive, about the dimensions of an automobile. A car-sized pile of branches. It’s the result of several hours of hard, messy work that leaves me with aching feet, dead leaves down my bra and scratched-up forearms. And a pricked ring-finger and a splinter in my left index finger. Gardening is hard on the body but so good for the mind.

And so my yard was neatly barbered. I dearly love looking on a project like this when it is done, seeing the dead and damaged brush removed, the neglected osmanthus cut back hard, the autumn leaves at last mostly removed, and the garden waiting for little more than the change of season to be pretty again. Then there will be magenta blooms of rhododendron, pale blue comfrey, yellow irises, and cabbage-sized heads of the peony rose in a dark and sweet-scented pink.

As I worked, I couldn’t stop thinking of one thing: the character Nate Fisher from Alan Ball’s cable-TV masterpiece, Six Feet Under. SFU is some of the best and most meaningful series television I have ever seen, with some of the most real and believable characters. Nate is probably as close to a main character as the show got, a guy in his late 30s who has trouble figuring out what to do with his life. As the show begins, he’s the manager of the produce section in a health food market, and it’s the apex of his working life. One of the most meaningful and powerful TV storylines that I have ever seen is Nate’s journey of learning that he has found, against all indications, a job that he really has a gift for — working in the family funeral home that he suddenly and unexpectedly inherits half of. He’s good at listening to grieving people, good at comforting them, good at seeing compromises that his more rigid and strait-laced brother misses out on.

Eventually he chucks it all for no good reason, because Nate, the viewer learns, is just never satisfied.

I don’t want to be Nate Fisher.

Nate had a good job that he was good at and that paid well. He had a beautiful and accomplished wife who loved him and a child on the way. He had a family that was nuts but that loved and supported him. And he turned his back on all but the latter, again and again. He’d like something for awhile, then stop appreciating it and move on to wanting something new, exploring something new. A new job, an illicit lover… He never could be happy with what he had, and he never could explore new things with a light heart. He was always miserable, always searching, always tortured. He never took grateful ownership of his life just as it was, as something that could be enjoyed right now, today, imperfect as it was. It never occurred to him that changes could be made in a spirit of joyful discovery, as part of feeling gratitude for the now.

His life was never good enough for him.

He was a great character, and I think that he offers profound lessons. For me, anyway.

Maybe I can love what is, especially when what is, is good. For now, I’ve got the job I’ve got — one that I like, one that pays well, one that I am very good at. No, it’s not perfect. Not all of the writing that I do is exactly what I’d like to do. It’s not always as secure a job as I might like. But instead of this tortured fucking Nate Fisher crazy kamikaze journey towards the undiscovered country of Happiness that I feel I’m on sometimes, can I not just go where I am going with a smile on my face? Can I not look around me and see the goodness of a beautiful life?

With human beings, wants are endless. Is there a point where you can decide that you really do have a life that makes you happy, and that any extra happiness you manage to swing is icing?

Yet again, somehow it’s all in how you frame it. You can say: I am not happy for I am not yet satisfied; all I can do is soldier on into the unknown, hoping that change, somehow, will bring the joy I seek. Or you can say: I am so thankful for my morning coffee, my sweet house, my good cats, my breakfast, my excellent friends, my loving family, work that suits me. If college gives me the chance to make my writing into something new and better, it is a chance I take with joy. It’s the same life either way.

Hey, did you listen to Wilco last night? The new album sounds great. 11PM is bedtime Chez Jen, so I turned the speakers up and listened as I lay in bed in the darkness.

When it was over I spoke into the silent house, and I said:

Thank you, that was great.

And I was not sure exactly if I meant my day, or the music, or both.


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