Photo by dotabe at Morguefile.com
Every August, you can hear it: A thin wail of woe and lamentation, a chorus of voices bemoaning the start of the school year. I’ve sung in that chorus many times, in person and in print, and I was planning to take up its song this year as well.
Ooooweee, I was working myself into a delicious froth! Thinking back to how mad I was every August when I had to start working on my syllabi. All these folks takin’ up my time. And that damn article/dissertation/book still not done. I thought about how the slow burn of resentment faded to a sizzle of panic as the first day of class got closer, and the meetings piled up, and the writing time got slimmer and slimmer.
I thought about how I used to feel on the first day of class; how I fussed with my outfit; how I reviewed my opening over and over in my head; how I’d feel that terrible mix of optimism and dread while walking to the train. And then I thought about how I’d always run into my neighbor Norm, who’d ask the same irritating, impertinent question every day when I saw him: “Are you going to have a good day?”
And that totally threw me off my Anti-August game.
* * * * *
See, Norm was this old guy who stayed down the street from me when I lived in Chicago. He used to walk around in flip flops and baggy shorts when it was 39 degrees outside. He fed peanuts to the squirrels. When he saw you coming down the block, he’d wave you over to show you the newest plant in his garden. He was the super of a courtyard building and, unlike the other gardens on our street which had nothing more than the obligatory rhododendron, his held a lush tangle of delight and surprise, even if you weren’t that into gardens. Like, I’d never realized there was such a thing as chocolate-scented mulch.
I didn’t exactly like Norm. He commandeered you off the street to chat, but every conversation was really about what he wanted to talk about (which was always the garden). You’d try to throw in a word or two to create a little back and forth, but he’d cut you off mid-sentence and steer it back to whatever was on his mind (the garden). So, while I didn’t exactly enjoy talking with him, I appreciated how much his own person he was. I liked his apparent—not obliviousness to his own weirdness, but full awareness of it, and the Fuck You attitude that accompanied it. One he was too genteel to express with words, but which nestled just below the surface of his lack of interest in you or, well, anything other than that damn garden.
Every morning I’d see Norm on my way to the train, and every morning he’d say the same thing:
“Are you going to have a good day?”
Not, “Have a good day!” or “How’s your morning, neighbor!?” No smiles. No sunny attitude. He didn’t wish anything pleasant for you or want to know the details of how you were feeling. Just the same, straightforward, relentless inquiry into your unknown future:
“Are you going to have a good day?”
The logic, of course, was that you had some influence over how your day would go. And the first time he asked me this, I thought, how the fuck am I supposed to know that? Don’t judge. It was technically-spring-but-really-still-winter in Chicago. Our apartment had leaky, wood-framed windows that rattled in the wind, so I was always cold. I was also hopelessly ABD. And endlessly tired—though I didn’t know it, ‘cause at that time I thought perpetual fatigue was the norm. And the last thing I needed was some self-help, bright-sided bullshit from a doddering, old white guy who had no obligations except the care of his courtyard bushes.
So, I’d get kinda cranky when Norm asked me if I was going to have a good day. But because I am a people-pleaser raised with exceptional home training, I’d smile at him with false, frozen optimism and say “Of course!” as I sped toward the train. Still, I was always rankled by the question.
Then one day, on the way back home, Norm caught me in his web and reeled me toward the garden. In an attempt to steer our conversation away from his courtyard flora, I asked him how long he’d worked in the building. He actually turned away from the plants and looked at me, his version of a smile playing on his lips. “I don’t work here,” he said. “I live in that apartment right there.” He pointed up at a window, then stared neutrally at my gaping mouth. “And you do all this in the garden,” I said. “For free?!”
I was the picture of indignation (‘cause I did indignation really well in grad school), and suddenly my crotchety old neighbor became an ill-used renter exploited by his vicious landlord. Now this was something I could work with! I was steady getting on my don’t-hurt-the-working-man high horse when Norm quietly trained his gaze on me, and said, “Who else is gonna do it?”
I ignored his question, peppering him with a stream of my own, each one pitched a quarter octave above the last: Did they reimburse him? Reduce his rent? Was that even legal? What about his neighbors—did they bother to chip in? After a while, he turned back toward the garden and pointed out the Japanese maple in the corner, something about how its leaves were tilted this way instead of that, I don’t even know. He stopped listening, in other words, to my outraged interrogation, and instead turned to care for what he loved. The thing that gave him joy, and life. The thing that set him free.
At the time, I couldn’t understand why he was doing all that work for them, when they clearly didn’t appreciate it. But what he was telling me—every time he invited me into the garden—was that he wasn’t doing the work for them. He was doing it for himself.
This guy was going to make beauty in his life regardless of the circumstances. He was old, and cranky, and freezing his ass off just like I was. I thought he was just rude, but as a friend pointed out to me many years later, he might have interrupted people all the time ‘cause he was hard of hearing. And those weird winter-time flip flops? He could have had diabetes, which sometimes causes nerve damage in the feet. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t know what was going on with Norm, but it’s possible there was a fair amount that wasn’t going all that great. But still, that man made love out of that garden every day of his life.
* * * * *
I struggled with that. Still struggle with it, actually. This idea that when the forces around you won’t cooperate, when they actually seem to be conspiring to shut you down, it’s still possible to make something beautiful and precious and beloved of your life.
I struggle, yes. But when I think about the scholars I know who have consistent, satisfying writing habits—this is the thing that stands out about them: their writing is a garden, just like Norm’s. It’s something they care for and cultivate, and cling to, regardless of where they live or how much money they get for it. Or whether other people think it’s worth anything.
Of course, they’re expected to adhere to certain rules and to meet certain criteria, especially if they’ve just moved into the building, and their neighbors still need proof that they’re a worthwhile addition. They have to grow a certain kind and number of plants, and many times, the buildings these scholars live in offer little to no support for the beauty they’re trying to cultivate. But these scholars tend their garden anyway.
These writers aren’t superhuman—they get glum in winter, and wonder if the sun’s ever gonna come back out again. And they chafe against the way their plot of land limits what they can grow: not enough light for this kind of plant; too much acid in the soil for another. But still, these scholars find what they love in their work. They find the thing that makes them lose themselves in the pleasure of their gardens--and then they work that garden every damn day.
* * * * *
So, yes, absolutely. The beginning of the year can be chaotic and exhausting. Most academic institutions are actually not organized in a way that helps you do the writing that everyone insists is so vital to your success. If anything they seem to be set up to make the tending of your garden more difficult rather than less so.
But look, right outside your window. You have a garden. I don’t know what your garden is, but I know you have one. It might be the act of writing that’s your garden, that sweet, clean bubble of emptiness where it’s just you and a perfectly expressed thought. It might be the idea you’re developing that’s your plot of land, the point that everyone else has overlooked (How!? It’s so obvious to you!) that will change the shape of knowledge for years to come. Perhaps your garden is the moment when you get to share the idea with others, that heady volley back and forth that reminds you why you do this work, ‘cause talking with someone else helps you peel back a corner of your thinking, till you can actually see some of its brilliance shining through.
Whatever your garden is, search it out. ‘Cause at the end of the day, all the accountability groups and coaching and write-on-sites won’t save you if you can’t find that kernel in your writing and your work, that you love; that is yours, and yours alone. That you’d do every day, even if you weren’t trying to finish a dissertation or get promoted. That thing that gives you that lovely, weightless, sense of fulfilment, day after day, and is in itself its own reward.
This is what I like about Norm’s question now. What I can appreciate, at age 47, in a way I could not at 27. He wasn’t actually asking me if I was going to have a good day, or a bad one. What I thought was a passive aggressive insistence on happiness wasn’t that—he wasn’t asking about happiness at all.
What he was asking was whether I was doing my work in the world. Whether I was tending my garden. When I passed him by at the beginning of every school year, he didn’t tell me what to do. And he never promised me that things would end well for me. He merely asked me, everyday—without rancor, or judgement, or false sweetness—to look steadily at the work that I love.
And choose it.
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