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Coloring Outside the Lines

The house is dark, save a few slants of remaining moonlight abdicating to the slowly rising sun. Pothos and philodendron leaves cascade down weathered furniture fronts, and rustle from the breeze creeping through the open doors and windows.

Rhythmic dripping from a leaky outside spigot acts as an early morning metronome while I fill the water kettle and push the windows open as far as they can extend. I feed JoJo, and slip on my battered shoes to empty the brimming, spigot-filled bucket around the bases of my tomato and pepper plants.

I pluck the yellowing leaves from my bush beans and reposition the baby eggplants so that they grow in the opposite direction of neighboring plants’ rogue, unfurling tendrils. Tomatoes are reddening and strawberries are beginning to drip down from their leafy flowers.

The garden is tiny, and was thrown together in desperation, with seeds and starts sown by a beginner.

***

My efforts to reclaim this oddly-shaped spit of land from the suffocating canopy and invasive ground cover began in the yard’s lone, rotting raised bed.

[Image description: an overgrown raised bed with trash and weeds.]
[Image description: an overgrown raised bed with trash and weeds.]
The house was hot, and we’d just decided to divorce; piles of boxes, furniture, and paint cans accreted in every corner. Nothing was finished. Everything was undone—in a state of flux. We’d been coloring within the lines for four years; and then we both strayed outside, scribbling in different directions.

But then and there, as the heat nipped the back of my neck, I annexed the raised bed—ripped out all of the weeds and bagged up the dirt-caked garbage. An hour later, it was trimmed and cleaned—the soil upturned, ready to welcome new crops.

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[Image description: same raised bed, completely cleared.]
Weeks later, I’d raised my hodgepodge garden enclosure around it—with novel expectations that it’d soon overflow with a rich vegetative bounty. But then a tremendous deep chill moved in—settling over Seattle, making it one of the coldest and wettest winters on record. Tarps and pins held the garden in place, secured my culinary cache. I naively believed I’d be rewarded for all the hours-long tending—the snow-shoveling, the pest removal.

But when the sun regained its footing and danced across my freshly exposed starts, they all bolted, leaving me to scrape off immature leaves and tiny vegetables, and YouTube multiple videos answering questions about the potential adverse health consequences of eating broccoli flowers.

All that was left to do was rip out everything I’d spent months fretting over. And start again. In gardening, there’s little room for sentimentality.

Nearly a year later, the fourth iteration of the garden has been the most successful yet.

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[Image description: garden enclosure with door open, along the back side of the house.]
IMG_3198
[Image description: inside of garden enclosure. Multiple plants in containers, with some tomatoes visible.]
By now I know not to expect every plant to fruit out at the same time; there will rarely be an instance in which I’m overwhelmed with immense yields.

But each evening my little garden provides: a few beans here, two tomatoes there, and a handful of mixed greens.

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And that’s all I need.

***

Just beyond the garden fence, the weathered bird bath stands crookedly, the tiny, placid puddle contained within it interrupted intermittently by flocks of finches. Beyond it, in the tree branches once choked by ivy, Northern Harriers sit and eye the open yard. Engorged spiders trundle down delicate silken threads anchored to newly erupted leaves.

Sun beams down and warms my dirt-covered hands, and I smile up into the welcoming warmth.

I stoop into the scraggily garden—and listen to the frenetic chirps, feel the watchful hawks’ gazes, and remind myself that I’m just another piece in this landscape.

I tend the soil, pull out browning stalks, and run my fingertips over budding fruit—their pale green, stubbly faces soaking in the light.

Preparing to fill with color.

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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.

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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.

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Bordering on Normal

Closing the front door behind me, I readjusted my crocheted shawl, and stowed the dog-walking bag. Joanna pricked up her ears, and fixated her marble-like eyes on the darkened sunporch.

Usually, that type of thing wouldn’t bother me. But whether it was the crushing weight of the holidays, the fact that George Michael had just died, or my sister reminding me hours earlier that Seattle was the serial killer capital of the country, I took more notice.

I took a step forward, and a man began speaking in an even-keeled, matter-of-fact way – exactly how I’d imagined my murderer to sound.

“It’s…”

…TIME TO DIE?

…YOUR LAST MOMENT?

…COLD IN HERE?

In one-and-a-half seconds of contemplating what he was saying, I realized two things: the sickly jade plant I grabbed was a lousy excuse for a weapon; and two, I was going to die in stained sweat pants and a moth-eaten shawl.

“…seven o’ clock.”

For a moment, I just stood still. Like the stupid friend in every horror movie, Joanna ran determinedly toward the darkened room to investigate the voice. A second later, she skittered back, sat on the rug, and stared up at me – which was when the weight of the potted plant started to register. I lowered it back onto its pedestal, and a bloated leaf broke off and fell to the floor.

Apparently, it was seven o’ clock, and the computer repair technician – in addition to downloading a Dance Dance Revolution anime video onto my desktop – configured my newly rebuilt laptop to recite the time every hour.

As my heart rate reassumed a normal rhythm, and I talked myself out of posting “YOU SHOULD WARN SINGLE PEOPLE WHO LIVE IN THE WOODS THAT THEIR REBUILT COMPUTER MIGHT TALK TO THEM” on Yelp, I pulled the shawl tighter, lit my lavender diffuser, and settled into the sofa with a mug of hot cocoa. This was it: my first Christmas as a divorcee.

The weight of it was unexpectedly heavy.

***

The day before, I’d been sitting at the Canadian border considering witty replies to the standard question: “What was your business in Canada?”

“Those dildos weren’t exactly going to deliver themselves, am I right?”

“I heard the bacon was great.”

“I was in search of some mounties.”

“Did you not see the outcome of the US election?”

After answering truthfully, however, I realized I should’ve gone with one of my alternatives. The border patrol officer’s face drew back in on itself, adding two additional chins to his third.

“Wait, so you’re telling me you came across this morning, and just went for a walk in the park, and are going back?”

I nodded.

“That’s just not normal.”

Partly stunned, I chuckled.

He screwed up his face even more, and straightened his back.

“Pop the trunk.”

“You’ll have to buy me dinner first.”

“What?”

“Certainly!”

I could tell he was eager to file away some story he could use over Christmas dinner to impress his in-laws – regale them with how he’d stopped the largest shipment of cocaine in US history.

Judging by how forcefully he slammed the trunk, my stained reusable grocery bags must’ve been a severe letdown. Without so much as a grunt, he handed back my passport and license, and dismissed me with a wave.

That evening, while eating Trader Joe’s tortellini and reading OverheardLA’s Instagram, I assured JoJo that her breath bordered on a public health hazard. She responded by timing the movements of my lips just enough to lick the roof of my mouth.

Gargling at the kitchen sink, I noticed one of my planters had blown off the back steps. I slipped on my battered Toms and stepped out into the rapidly chilling air, righting the planter and taking a walk around the house.

Remnant raindrops dripped off of my makeshift garden fence, and thrushes crashed around in the shattered Japanese knotweed rotting at the base of the terrace. Biting wind blew through a tree I’d freed from thick, choking ivy – rattling its aged, mossy branches against one another. Around the corner of the house, my rusted glider set caught the breeze and creaked awake. Beyond it, up the hill, a large holly bush’s bright red berries glistened with moisture, and a pair of robins battled over the highly sought after territory, catapulting twigs in all directions.

With my circuit nearly complete, I stopped at a tall foxglove I’d carefully extracted from a precarious niche along a neighbor’s drainage ditch. Its developed roots had cascaded down in a wispy, matted mess, and I’d worked quickly to dig a deep enough hole, and arrange it so that it was braced on two sides from the wind. Fully transplanted, it’d listed to one side, propping itself on a dying heliotrope. I’d repacked the soil around its base, and had broken off sickly, limply-hanging yellowed leaves to rebalance it – and to give the new growth beneath them room to breathe. I ran my hand along the righted, towering stalk as I turned the corner to ascend the porch stairs, and nudged one of its last pale, pink blooms.

Inside, JoJo twirled on the kitchen’s scatter rug and expected a treat for supervising my round-the-house orbit from her various window perches. I put my hands on my hips and demanded to know what should be done. She twirled again, play-growled, and ran out of the room. I kicked off my muck-caked shoes, and slipped on my flannel-patterned house slippers – necessities in the drafty, poorly-heated cottage.

For a moment, I let my eyes dart from newly-painted door frames to found objects, from brightly-colored Fiesta and stripped hardware on the built-ins to patched holes and reglazed window panes. Albeit an ice box, the cottage seemed more alive than ever.

I gave a deep, cleansing sigh – and ran toward the squeaking dog toy, into the heart of our home.

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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.

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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.

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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.