In Bloom

From the living room I watched as the breeze ripped through the densely vegetated slopes, rattling the tree branches and tousling their fragile new leaves.

In the distance, the Space Needle glowed torch-like and I stared on until the gusts died down and the wind-bent trees rebounded into place, cluttering the view ever so slightly. Built in the early 40s, Gay Gardens had had quite a view of the growing Seattle skyline, even before the 1962 World’s Fair raised the city’s most iconic building. And gradually, the view narrowed with the enveloping canopy, and the little rotting cottage became isolated behind a nearly impenetrable green wall of blackberry bushes and aged rhododendrons.

JoJo dozed in my lap, and I focused on the mediocre movie I’d snagged from the Renton Goodwill a few weeks prior. The wind howled again, and a thud echoed across the roof, rousing JoJo who woofed and scampered around searching for the offending noisemaker.

The next morning, as I made my rounds ripping up weeds, I noticed one of the chimney caps had gotten dislodged from the windstorm. A few weeks prior, the same thing had happened, and some wee beast had made its way into the attic, startling me and JoJo awake with what could only be described as zombie-inspired guttural cleansing. So as I clawed my way up onto the roof, I worked quickly to carefully re-center the cap, ensuring there was no available point of entry. In the process, I eyed a rogue brick that’d dislodged from the chimney stack—clearly the thud-inducing culprit from the previous night. I shoved it back into place, completing the puzzle.

With the spotty clouds opening up between intermittent rain showers, I had an unobstructed view of Elliott Bay and a faint rainbow. Just below me, pale pink buds studded the branches of a gnarled tree clinging precariously to the back slope. Glutted with promising effulgence, each one dripped and glistened in the rapidly clearing grayish mist.

I took a deep breath and slowly took stock of my little home, feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude for having the opportunity to play a role in reviving this oasis.

A little slice of paradise.

And in my bones I felt something familiar—the sense that Gay Gardens will be where I celebrate many life-changing moments, each of which will become a part of this Eden, adding to the narrative of this secret long-held by time.

Coming Attractions

As the seemingly ceaseless rain halts and the clouds part just enough to reveal the thinnest rays of sunlight, I scurry outside and collect water-smoothed glass and metal bits that’ve eroded from the back terrace—the perennial midden of memories slowly being covered by a blanket of germinating grass and tiny white flowers.

With the heavy lifting of landscape remodeling complete, I’ve started to enjoy the simple task of tending the green spaces I’ve reclaimed from the bramble by slowly purifying the trash-glutted soil around Gay Gardens. Anything I find that’s in decent enough shape is recycled back into the landscape’s architecture or as part of my tiny vegetable garden.

I cobbled together the wee veggie garden enclosure out of cast-off building materials, and other bits I uncovered around the yard.

I cobbled together the wee veggie garden enclosure out of cast-off building materials, and other bits I uncovered around the yard.

During my latest pass over the grounds, I notice pavers protruding from the terrace bank. After a little dusting off, I track their path into the dense foliage below the house, and wonder where the path once led, and who strode down it.

Above me, a moss-covered tree that’d been completely obscured by English ivy has buds peppered along its branches—all on the cusp of blooming. Insects buzz impatiently around the unopened flowers, nudging them with their thrumming bodies before abandoning their attempts and retreating into the woods.

No longer covered with vines, the tree is blooming again. And grass is slowly springing to life where thick, sprawling blackberry bushes had rooted. I think the $10 vintage bird bath from an estate sale fits perfectly.

No longer covered with ivy, the tree is blooming again. Along the hill, grass and flowers are slowly springing to life where thick, sprawling blackberry bushes and invasive Japanese knotweed had rooted. I think the $10 vintage bird bath from an estate sale fits in perfectly.

Once I deposit handfuls of shredded plastic, shattered bottles, and unidentifiable, rotted building materials into my garbage can, I make a quick detour through the garden and pluck slugs off of my juvenile broccoli florets and toss them downhill.

As I tiptoe along the stepping stones leading around the house, water gurgles up from the over-saturated ground beneath them, spraying mini geysers onto the muddy, soaked grass. My circuit ends at the front door just as clouds clutter the sky and rain begins pouring down. From beneath my front overhang, I watch rivulets cascade down the warped clapboard, silently pooling and bubbling out from beneath the paint like lanced cysts.

I survey the yard and cleared beds and smile, thinking back to the tangled jungle it was before.

A view to the front terraces--all of which are now free of choking ivy, and sun can actually get through.

A view to the front terraces. Now freed from a canopy of ivy and vines, the plants can actually get sunlight.

As if to remind me of my body’s inability to deal with the onslaught of wind, rain, and perpetual dampness, my temples begin throbbing and my ears start ringing. Lately, I’ve come to realize that my body isn’t the one I once knew: I’ve started flirting with chronic pain, and it seems with every year, my joints and muscles conspire to contort my body into the frail figure I’ve always worried was in my future.

I straighten my back and wander back inside to deduct the latest grocery bill, and watch the balance dip into the double digits. I staple a wad of papers from my mechanic—an unexpectedly immense bill from my car’s broken axle—and tuck it into my accordion file folder. The past year has been pretty lean by necessity, and with the cost of living in Seattle creeping higher every year, I worry about how long I’ll be able to hold onto Gay Gardens. Until I’m pushed out, I’ll continue to make ends meet to keep this place all my own.

In the meantime, to entertain myself with cheap thrills, I’ve been ghosting through estate sales during their final hours to cherry-pick chipped pots, neglected lawn equipment, or unwanted garden gnomes. There’s a certain satisfaction with finding some long-forgotten piece of someone’s personal history—perhaps a gag gift, or a beloved treasure—and re-homing it to my little rotting oasis.

Mr. Pipps, the wee gnome, and the concrete planter were both partially buried in an overgrown garden (at an estate sale). When I expressed an interest, they just told me to dig it out and take it. So I did, flowers and all.

At an estate sale, I found Mr. Pipps, the wee gnome, and the concrete planter both partially buried in an overgrown garden. When I expressed an interest in them, the organizers just told me to dig it all out and take it. So I did, flowers and all.

Following a recent estate sale haul totaling $11, I settle in with JoJo for the evening, and treat myself to Arrival.

As a kid, I never favored sitting through the seemingly endless sequence of previews leading up to the featured presentation; I resented their temporary blockade of cinematic pleasure. But now, the previews are one of my favorite parts of movie-watching.

While JoJo dozes on my lap and I crack open a chocolate bar, I let myself melt into the film—let it reach inside me, and revel in how it resuscitates my heart and mind, and reminds me of the strength and courage it takes to brave each new day with hope, sincerity, and unabashed awe.

Lately, the sheer exhaustion of existing—of listening to the grinding and groaning of my car, pushing through the rigors of work, resisting and marching and railing against authoritarianism, and deducting the constant bills—has felt especially debilitating. But I know the only way to get through is to push onward—through the rust and jams and daily machinations.

And in the meantime, I’ll continue to surrender my mind to immersive daydreams—my own collection of coming attractions—that help fuel my creativity, and propel me toward my goals. But amid those fantastic mental wanderings, I’ve often been reminded that this—the fringe, the in-between of barely making ends meet, the rusty gears, and worn parts—is a wondrous privilege: a most luxurious life, a featured presentation all its own.

Getting Bent

Halfway into the crawl space, my flashlight flickered horror movie style, the telltale sign of imminent, consuming darkness. I’d be alone, beneath Gay Gardens, surrounded by cast-off insulation tubes filled with mummified rat remains – their long, serpentine tails hardened, their taut, paper-thin skin stretched over hollow shells.

Above me, through the floorboards, Joanna pitter-pattered anxiously; Lassie’s antithesis, she’d likely curl into a ball and lick herself had I called out for rescue. It was just me and the corpses and the fading light.

My glasses fogged from my labored breathing, and I could feel blood dribbling across my mouth. Ever the wet blanket, my immune system was having none of this. If I wasn’t opting to turn around and crawl out willingly, my body would force me to – a nosebleed would tip the scales.

Tumbling out of the unhinged, rotted access door, I unfastened my jacket hood, tossed my dirt-caked gloves to the frost-covered ground, and pulled off my bloody face mask. I gulped down the cool air, and held my glasses away from me, watching their lenses slowly clear. Around me, piles of old wood, moldy cardboard, and rusted pipe fragments lay in piles.

A replacement mask and a new flashlight battery later, I hauled out more piles of junk, along with the insulation tubes and their desiccated passengers. The most random task on my weekend to-do list was done, and I even walked away with a few unexpected prizes: a hand-painted flower pot and a 1950s milk glass mixing bowl.

As I folded the tubing into my tiny garbage can and topped it with the bag of dead rats, I could almost feel the house breathe a sigh of relief; or, maybe that was me.

***

Cleaning has always been a way for me to center – to unplug and dust away mental cobwebs – and Gay Gardens has certainly afforded plenty of opportunities to do just that. It’s been a labor of love, and an anchor as life continues to change and unfold.

And while I don’t know what the future holds for me or this little cottage, I’m thankful every morning that, for now, I’m its caretaker. Plenty of people have asked why I’m putting so much effort into a place that’s not even mine, and that’ll most likely be bulldozed at some point down the line. My response is simple: “Why not?” I, too, sometimes question the amount of blood, sweat, and tears I keep putting into this place, but then I acknowledge the importance I’ve always put on creating a home wherever I land. The process has always been a source of strength, and right now I need this place as much as it needs me.

I often need the quiet and the calm to melt into myself, to plan out my next steps. Lately, I’ve needed more time away from the hubbub, and the growing national horror. I’ve cycled the energies I’d usually expend scrolling through Facebook feeds to other hobbies that interest me more – things that actually elicit in me a drive to start that next new chapter.

While I still have a long ways to go, I’ll enjoy each moment along the way to my next great endeavor – whether I’m scaling a mountain, crossing a border, or bending into a crawl space.

Moored

The closing credits of A Little Chaos roll through the rain-streaked windows, the lamplight fuzzed by condensation forming inside the sunporch’s drafty windows.

Plumes of steam from the steel mill quietly explode into the night sky, drifting uphill with the wind and spreading around this sagging house.

I tilt my head back and exhale, my breath hanging momentarily before disappearing into the woods behind me. The makeshift door to the garden hangs open, and light from inside the house casts just enough of a glow to guide my impulsive, late-night garden cleaning.

I shove my hands into shadowy corners of the planting beds, lifting giant, drenched leaves off purplish kale starts. My lone celery plant’s neon green stalks glisten in the refracted light. Rain drizzles down the back of my hoodie, and soil grinds under my nails.

And I laugh into the darkness. 

This is what it feels like to be alive.

A train blasts its horn far downslope, fracturing the drip drip dripping from the rain spouts above. But the momentary break reminds me of why I came out here in the first place.

I feel around in the dark crevices of the wood pallet wall for the pot of chopsticks – the perfect mini stakes for training seedlings to grow upward. I snag a splintered one, its old Made in China sticker flaking away. I scrape off the rest, letting its gold flecks mix with the dirt beneath my nails.

After one last glance at the darkened garden, I amble uphill to the cottage’s bright red back door, and scuff the bottoms of my slip-ons across the doormat. Beneath the porch light, a tiny stream of rainwater drips down the weathered clapboard, breaking at the edges and pooling on the saturated wooden stoop. Ballerina-like, I sweep a large terra cotta strawberry planter over to the corner, situating it just beneath the cascading drops.

Everything in its place. 

The pot’s dried soil quickly saturates, and I will the bell pepper seeds just below the surface to germinate.

When I toss my shoes onto a rusted midcentury serving platter just inside the door – my own makeshift shoe tray – the clatter jars me unexpectedly. Water-logged leaves and twigs pepper the platter’s paint-flaked surface, and coat my shoes – barely distinguishable as the crisp, preppy pair I’d bought for my wedding. Now soggy messes, their sides fold in, giving the appearance that they’re imploding. I stoop and gather the leafy leavings, which is when I realize the scene depicted on the platter is a wedding ceremony.

Oh, Universe. You cheeky asshole.

Dusting off my hands, I switch off the light and head over to the drooping yucca plant – the weight of its opening leaves causing the stalk to bend in on itself and kink. I bury the chopstick alongside its base and gently tie it up with some stray string.

A little support

Over the past two weeks, I’ve felt more like myself than I have in a long time. I want to do everything at once, be everywhere. But I have to remember that, sometimes, I start growing so quickly, in every direction, that I lose my balance and nearly collapse in on myself.

And while I’ll keep striving to rebuild my life with purpose, I’ll be mindful to do so slowly, intentionally – reminding myself that a little mooring every now and then may just be what I need to flourish.

Growing Season

Her bouncy hair bobs up and down as she bulldozes over to the cash register.

“CHARLENE,” she booms to her counterpart three feet away, “I’M GOIN’ ON BREAK AFTER I RING THIS GENTLEMAN UP.”

Without looking up, Charlene nods – an apparent pavlovian response to her colleague’s generously full voice.

Ears ringing, I turn back to my cardboard tray sitting atop the counter as the nursery cashier rounds the high wood island and takes her position behind the cash register. She clears her throat, as if preparing to conduct an orchestral suite. Instead, she curls her arm around the entire tray and begins scanning my veggie starts, interjecting commentary regarding the growth rates of each teeny sprout. Shoving the bulk of the starts aside, she eyes two wispy asparagus plants closely – even suspiciously.

“Well, you do know that these won’t be ready for years, right?”

Fuccccck. My face flushes.

“Oh, OF COURSE. Just figured I’d get them in the ground now!”

A card swipe later, I fasten everything into the back of the car while casting intense shade at my two albatrosses and muttering, “I may just eat you out of spite.”

***

Back home, I set my full trays down inside the piecemeal garden enclosure I spent the previous afternoon methodically crafting together – using chunks of concrete as ad hoc sledgehammers, driving corroded metal stakes and rebar into the ground for structural support; wood pallets from my neighbors’ garbage for windscreens and walls; scrap fencing and old, severed wire strands for holding things together; wood paneling from a deconstructed closet for a makeshift door; and cast-off, roadside planters for additional storage.

Adding the clearance veggie starts to the mix, I halfheartedly chuckle and call up to Joanna peering out the window.

“Well, our scavenged garden isn’t going to win any beauty pageants, is it?”

JoJo sniffs the air, then disappears inside as I begin to gut bags of soil, emptying their contents into the raised bed.

Hours later, and ankle-deep in dark, rich soil, I step back and admire the hodgepodge before me: planters overflowing with half-wilted mint, parsley, basil, green onions, and shiso, and the rotting raised bed filled with rainbow chard, beets, broccoli, purple cauliflower, and kale. Mopping my brow and taking in the scene, I realize I haven’t tended a garden since I was 8 years old.

The garden

I have no clue what I’m doing. The only thing I do know is that this is more of a necessity than a hobby. I really need this to succeed.  

***

A few hours later, as the sun begins setting, I’m toting my last full watering can to my parched starts when my super hot neighbor waves from his side yard, and ventures over. Like a deer in the headlights, I stare entranced, my vocabulary quickly descending into unintelligible gibberish.

He starts chatting about the garden, and I try to play it cool, but then I notice his fly is wide open.

There is a god! 

Quickly noticing his wardrobe malfunction, he adjusts himself and zips up without the slightest bit of embarrassment. Without thinking, I sigh loudly, dejectedly – catapulting our awkwardly stilted conversation into mortifyingly tragic territory.

But as he turns to go, he calls back.

“You know, this place looks really good. You should be proud.”

My response can only be described as 40% dolphin squeak, 60% hyena shriek. I watch him walk back to his place, and then swivel around to my ramshackle garden – and then at my little rotting house.

It is something, isn’t it?

I pull open the newly secured garden door, and wander inside my little corral, nudging planters here and there, and dousing everything with water.

Tiny beads dangle at the ends of the fragile shoots, the wilted leaves. I take a deep breath, smile at this haphazard life, and whisper to myself.

Confidence. Patience. Courage.

Gay Gardens

Sweat beads on my brow, and Jimmy Eat World’s “Middle” blasts through my ear buds. Brier-pricked and cut, my gloved hands receive little in the way of protection from nature’s most annoying floral bastards. My paint-spattered, dirt-coated glasses slip and fall into the growing pile of freshly weeded detritus amassing at my feet as I bend to unhook a gargantuan, spiked vine from my pilled It Gets Better tee.

Now free of unwanted hangers-on, I step back and survey the cleared areas of the sprawling stone-laid terraces. Insects dart over the freshly uprooted soil, congregating around fractured, dewy stalks and root balls. I pause my music and sink into the morning’s natural calm. Hollow, browned stalks of Japanese knotweed clang together in the wind like bamboo chimes, and dead leaves filter down through new gaps in the overgrown canopy and settle in sun-dappled piles.

Gay Gardens, the early months

It’s an uncharacteristically hot Seattle day, and the formerly shaded earth quickly dries while I sit for a much-needed respite, feeling the worn stones warming the insides of my calves. Like Kate Winslet in A Little Chaos, I’ve been methodically unmasking mature ferns, shrubs, and trees from their brambly oppressors and mapping a new, slightly haphazard order onto the leftovers.

Metaphors for every sort of life experience drift in and out of my mind as I till the soil and pull at stubborn roots. I give each thought a little slant of limelight before letting them dissipate into mental white noise.

***

Sided with weathered, warped yellow clapboard and sloppily trimmed in faded red, the cottage sits on a shoddily cleared terrace, accessible only by a rickety wooden staircase built into a steep hill just off an arterial, hilly road in West Seattle. Its seclusion is just what we wanted – the antithesis of our small Capitol Hill apartment in the center of a growing party district of young twenty-something college students.

And while the subsequent tours with the uninformed property management company’s agents brought us vis-à-vis with the cottage’s less than stellar drawbacks, we went for it – mostly because its location, privacy, and space aligned with the most desired bullet points on our wish list.

Of course, being a post-war cottage that’d been overgrown for a few years, it needed a lot of help, which hadn’t exactly been a priority of the decade-long tenant before us, or the property management company: turd-colored, faded interior paint; an illegally enclosed back deck; a disgusting bathroom; dirty, ivy-covered windows; hole-pocked walls; and more than a fair share of creepy-crawly roommates.

But even before we fully moved in, we decided to separate. Sharing a home that feels more like a staging area isn’t easy for anyone, which is why the forgotten gardens started to play such a therapeutic role for me.

Now that we’re both in our respective nests, it’s time to move forward – to take time to celebrate the good times, focus on the future. And, for me, perform plenty of internal weeding.

***

The whir of far off traffic on the bridge melds together in a wave-like, rhythmic tide, lulling my eyelids closed. Seclusion like this is beyond rare, especially as Seattle continues to boom and rental prices soar. I’m sure at some point I’ll get priced out, the cottage will be torn down by a developer, and the carefully curated landscape will be razed asunder a bulldozer.

Until then, I’ll be channeling Kate and using the landscape both as an emotional crutch and an aesthetic treasure. And will keep slathering as much lipstick – and paint – on this cute pig as possible.

Because I’d like to keep Gay Gardens full of character and far away from descending into a moldy, waterlogged lair wherein I routinely swaddle my fro in a cashmere headdress and soft-shoe down the hallway to the applause of a ragtag crew of feisty raccoons.

As my cackling drifts up through the attic, between cracked seams, and melts into the night.

Mint Condition

Dust quietly layers the sideboard as the week-old carnations brown and droop. The apartment still smells faintly of cumin and chili powder and paprika from last night’s chickpea dish, and Toby attacks his new toy before dragging its stuffed carcass into our bedroom, his lair.

I close my eyes, sink into the reverberating sounds from the living room fan, and let my mind doze.

In two days, I start my new job. After a little over two months of applications, rejections, and interviews, I finally snagged a position that I’m actually really happy about. Even still, its imminent kickoff triggers all the typical qualms that most everyone whispers to themselves – all of which boil down to something along the lines of “Don’t cock it up.” But at least this time around, I’m not quite as fretful as I was starting over in LA – mostly because I’m not completely recreating my career. And I now know that mastering nonprofit code-switching is the key to succeeding in Nonprofit World. All that aside, it’ll be nice to get back into the swing of things, and do some good.

***

Lately, I’ve pulled back a bit from the world. Everywhere I turn – and every time I read through my Facebook feed, or peruse some news site – there’s so much ugliness and tragedy and terror that I want to curl into a ball and sleep, or throw a vase against the wall.

It seems I’m lacking a much needed groundswell of inspiration – something wholly necessary to offset the stressful annoyance of trying to bring this whole publishing-a-book goal to fruition. I’ve been hoping that the greasy sheen of oil pastels or the earthy richness of potting soil will jump-start my mind like a drained car battery.

Doodling...

More doodling...

And another doodle...

But there’re no sparks to be felt, no gears shifting around upstairs.

Usually, my recourse would involve complaining and violin-playing, and then I’d get over it. Now – whether it’s a few more years of wisdom, or a few more reality checks under my belt – I’ve found that putting a little good out into the world and having the courage to keep going are more appropriate responses. Because even if these tacks don’t spur some genius idea, or break through that writer’s block, I know that I haven’t fed into the defeatist mentality that lords over so many folks’ minds. My mind is still free.

***

Sirens howl through the afternoon heat, and I reach out and rub the tabletop geranium’s fuzzy leaves, their peppery fragrance steeping under my fingernails.

I look over at the mint plant’s new, fragile shoots bending upward toward the light – growing slowly, silently, and gracefully.

Growing, slowly but surely...