Tag Archives: gardens

Emily Dickinson Lives Upstairs

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The sun shines on a clear, warm April afternoon. Eager to be outdoors, I bound the stairs two at a time and knock on Emily’s door, waving a fragrant lilac blossom in front of me like a parade flag. She answers: “I’m nobody, come in.” Not this again.

“Emily, it’s such a pretty day. Look at the lilacs! Let’s go out and take some pictures of flowers and bees…” When she doesn’t respond, I boldly add: “We might even find friends who like to write! Then there’d be more than two of–”

“Too public,” she snaps. “Do I look like a frog to you?”

I can’t be around her when she gets like this.

*

I often invite writers to stay with me because I need the literary companionship: someone who understands what it’s like to be driven, mad, from bed at 3 in the morning to capture the words that come unbidden into my head. I thought Emily would at least mitigate the loneliness of writing… maybe even provide a forum for feedback. But she prefers solitude, thrives on it. I’m lucky to connect with her once a week.

*

Emily Dickinson hates my nickname. “Jules,” she sneers. “Jewels are cheap and common commodities that symbolize society’s base, rampant materialism.” I stare at her, willing her to stop talking, but she rambles on. “Ju-li-a, however, has three pleasing syllables. Why would you settle for less than a three-syllable name?”

“Em…” I say.

Her sherry-colored eyes flash in tight fury. “Em? Em!” Her nostrils flare. In a dark corner of her room, I see her dun pet mouse, Grief, dive and cower under its bedding. “Em is the thirteenth letter of the English alphabet! My- Name- Is- Emily!”

She retreats, sullen, into the somber shadows of her room, shutting the door between us. Her bedsprings creak. I sigh. “And stop using alliteration so loosely,” she adds. “It isn’t dignified!”

*

Pro: I live with Emily Dickinson.

Con: I live with Emily Dickinson.

Pro: She is one of America’s finest poets.

Con: Her reputation (perhaps unfair) is that of an agoraphobic recluse.

Pro: We share a love of words, a healthy disdain of death, and a beloved friend named Susan.

Con: She’s kind of judgy.

*

A postal delivery person knocks at the front door. The dog leaps off the couch in an eruption of warning barks. I pull at the curtains to seal off any light from outside and sink lower into my chair. I don’t want to answer the door. I’ve just gotten home from work and I’m exhausted. He knocks again, followed by footsteps and the sound of the postal truck driving away.

A birdlike shadow hovers at the base of the stairwell. Emily smiles slyly at me. “In my day, we considered it rude to disregard a knock on one’s door!” Her mouse nuzzles her shoulder. “Isn’t it rude, little G?” she asks the mouse, stroking its chin. Emily turns softly in woolen stocking feet, ascending the stairs, a singsong lilt to her voice: “Julia’s asocial, Julia’s asocial…”

*

The other day, after an especially long hermetic gap, I stopped by Emily’s room. She didn’t answer. I opened the door and peered inside. The mouse was running laps on its wheel, but Emily was gone. I noticed several little notebooks, spilling out from underneath her bed, and picked one up out of curiosity. Flipping through, I recognized Emily’s slanted cursive, punctuated with long dashes and exclamation points: her poetry.

The floorboards groaned behind me. “Unhand my fascicles at once!” she shrieked. Her right eyelid twitched.

I dropped the booklet immediately: “Emily! Oh my gosh, I’m so–”

She surged towards me, slapping my arms. “Wretch! Thief! Out of my room this instant!”

“Em, let me help you with this. These books are flammable and they degrade easily… I can show you how–”

She threw a dictionary at me and slammed the door.

*

Wanting to make amends for the fascicle debacle, I register Emily for an email account and teach her how to use it. Amherstgossamer1830 learns to type with astounding speed and wastes no time in resuming her prolific correspondences, or “electronic missives” as she insists on calling them. Two hours later, she rushes into the living room, grinning, her cheeks flushed.

“Success?” I ask.

“I just penned 187 missives and 15 poems!” Breathless, she inquires: “How long will it take to receive returned correspondence? Six weeks? Eight?”

I shake my head. “It really depends on the person you’ve written to. Some people reply immediately, while others take a while. You should start receiving some responses in one or two days.”

Her jaw drops.

*

Sometimes visitors ask what it’s like to live with “that intense chick who wears white all the time.” I like it. She’s feisty and she botanizes like a boss. Above all, she encourages me to write and provides inspiration during the lulls.

*

“Why is my name on your computer?” asks Emily.

“Because it’s the 130th anniversary of your death.” She looks confused. “You’re famous, Em.”

“I am not,” she says, brushing at her dress as if it’s overrun with spiders. “And please stop calling me Em.

“A random search on your name yields over 18 million results! College students recite your poetry to the tune of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’! You have a museum!”

She sniffs. “Irrelevant. Fickle.” This information, apparently news to her, sends Emily out into her “laboratory”: the garden, where she examines spherical onion blossoms and measures the alkalinity of the soil. She returns several moments later, clutching a bundle of clover and mint.

“Sing the song for me,” she says.

“Are you sure? The lyrics are, um, a little questionable.”

She smiles for the first time all day. “I love questionable!”

© 2016 Julia Moris-Hartley

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Garden Reverie

Here comes the sun.

The trees that surround our house have sprouted small leaf buds. The birds are back.  Each morning I wake to their enthusiastic trill as they scavenge in the grass hunting for their breakfasts.  The robins returned first, hopping around, determined to locate worms in the damp soil, the earth newly released from a crunchy crust of snow. Gangs of small finches with yellow and green breasts flit over my neighbor’s alfalfa fields; mountain bluebirds alight on barbed fences. The woodpeckers have returned to begin this year’s carpentry projects. Tulips and daffodils unfurl in the front yard, splashing the dirt with pops of yellow, purple, and red. Grass sprouts again.  My neighbor, Matt, has inquired if I’d like him to mow the lawn.

I refuse to allow myself the hope that spring has arrived. Where I live, snow flurries and hard frosts are common, though thankfully not frequent, until early June.  I’ve fallen sucker to springtime exhilaration too many times before.  Though the birds and flowers seem to indicate otherwise, it’s only a matter of time until that next soul-crushing snow flurry cakes the grass with sticky, wet sleet.  I think of the robins.

*

In acquiescence to the unique meteorological attributes of our high desert town, I’ve started my garden plants in the ‘cold room,’ where we keep our washer, dryer, snow pants, hats, shoes, and a large freezer that we have yet to plug in.  The cold room was added on to the house at some point in its nearly 100-year history, and, as the name implies, it is not connected to central heating and is therefore very cold.  But it is the only space with sufficient west-facing real estate to capture the sunshine.  (I have very little south-facing space, so the western aspect will have to do.)  I heat the cold room with a small space heater and try to keep my herbs and plants alive through the long, taunting winter.  I also use the cold room to start my garden.  It is imprudent to put garden plants into the soil outside until mid-June.  The risk of snow is too high.

*

Last year, my tomato plants died. We transferred healthy, little plants into the raised beds in the front of the yard, where they received the full warmth of the sun all day.  They budded small flowers, and then, despite the sunlight and copious water, the leaves yellowed and slowly withered.  I could not save the plants.  I was heartbroken.  Several people consoled me, saying that it wasn’t my fault.  It was a bad year for tomatoes. Ghosts of the tomato plants haunted me all summer.  Thank goodness for the Farmer’s Market and for a friend, whose cherry tomatoes proliferated and who graciously offered to share her bounty of yellow and red jewels.

A tomato plant is a garden’s delight.  I adore the scent of tomato leaves as I peek in search for new buds, prune the existing buds to ensure even, sustained growth, and monitor the small fruits that replace the buds.  I love the heft of the young tomatoes in my hand, the sun-warmed flesh.  I feel like I’ve won the lottery each time I pick the ripened fruits, making a basket of my shirt to squirrel them into the house.  Garden tomatoes are nothing like their cardboard counterparts at the grocery store.  Garden tomatoes are unparalleled in flavor, sweetness, and juiciness.  They provide the ultimate umami.

I’m not taking any risks this year.  I’ve planted San Marzano seeds in organic soil beds in an old egg carton.  I placed extra pots in every available sunny spot in my house.  I also bought a tray of the La Roma II variety, started at the hardware store.  Their thin stalks bow to the afternoon sun.  I planted sweet, organic large-leaf basil; rosemary; Greek pepperoncini; jalapenos; sweet peppers; cilantro; radishes; sunflowers for Rory; and, in extreme defiance of the short growing season, crimson sweet watermelons.  The sunflowers, summer’s statuesque revelers, have already started to sprout.

The proto-garden sits atop the freezer and waits for the western sun.  I whisper to the tomatoes: Please, please grow.  I can’t bear to spend another year without you.

*

The sight of the robins bolsters me.  I consider their beauty as I pull weeds from the front yard: their bold orange breasts, the pale rings that line their black eyes, the mottled flecks of their delicate blue eggs.   It’s difficult to resist the allure of anthropomorphism.  Though I know the robins hop by dint of biology, they seem so cheerful, so determined… but in an amiable way, like cheerleaders for Team Spring.

I grew up in a Brooklyn neighborhood where the buildings and streets were dirty and gray.  Green spaces thrived in the care of others: honeysuckle, fragrant and sweet, twined on fences in Seagate; tree-lined Ocean Parkway, dense with flowers and leaves in springtime; and Asser Levy Park, where my mother and I ate piroshky after long mornings of grocery shopping on Brighton Beach.  My apartment building grew no gardens, and I certainly didn’t have the opportunity to work the soil myself.  Cultivation is new to me.  This summer marks my fourth year of gardening education, and, though my firsthand knowledge has improved greatly, every year I learn more.  The plants teach me their visceral secrets.

I think of my childhood as I huddle on my knees, grasping for the renegade weeds in the farthest reach under the thorny shrub by my front door.  The younger me had no idea that this is where she would find herself: on her knees in the dirt, cursing stray branches and looming wasps, surrounded by robins rooting in the grass.  She didn’t know what it meant to provide care to other things, much less raise them.  But, as she checks the moisture in the pots, switches on the purple UV light, and peers lovingly over her plants while tucking her green babies in, she allows herself a brief moment to believe that somewhere amidst the soil sprouts a tiny seed of optimism.

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