It has been over six months since I last posted here. This astonishes me. I am trying to understand why the long delay. In honor of David Letterman’s recent leave-taking, here are the top 10 reasons I’ve come up with, in no particular order:
1. Pressing editorial deadlines
2. Verbally spent upon meeting pressing editorial deadlines
3. The holidays*
4. Family needs
5. Teaching Writing for Young Adults at Wheaton College
6. Freelance writing jobs
7. Gardening (again)
8. There was a house to clean. And then, there it was again, to clean.
9. New dog. Lots of walks.
10. Couldn’t think of what to write**
This last, #8, is probably closest to accurate, in terms of explanation.
And then one morning last week, finishing up the most recent revision of my forthcoming novel, Broken Ground, I looked up from my computer screen, and across my desk, and out my bedroom window, and saw this.
And I realized it was that time of year again. May. Delicious, luscious May, and, finally, finally, Spring like I’d never longed for it before, filled with blossoms on trees and early flowers in bloom and green, green grass, and Concilia, in her gorgeous, colorful head wraps and–for lack of a better word, though I now vow to find out the actual name of the garb–gowns. Concilia was back at work on her garden again. There was her red purse on the makeshift fence post. There were the tools, and the hose. There were the two pink flamingos, given to us by an artist and friend in honor of this garden, which we all regard with unfailing bemusement.
Concilia, along with her round-faced, bespectacled husband, Severino, have broken ground.
Concilia and Severino came to Wheaton, Illinois six or seven years ago, refugees from Burundi, one of the smallest countries in Africa, and one of the five poorest and hungriest countries in the world, by way of Tanzania, where they lived in a refugee camp for twenty-five years. I do not pretend to understand all that Concilia and Severino endured before they came to Wheaton (or since they’ve been here, for that matter), but I do know that they consistently confronted violence and dislocation.
At the time of their arrival, my son attended a public elementary school in Wheaton that was known for its large and diverse population of refugee children. Kids just like any other kids, that’s what they were and are, though not like other Wheaton kids in certain startling ways. Like they typically, and swiftly, got good at translating for their parents.
Teo played regularly that year with a boy who’s parents were also refugees, and active in a nearby church. who turned out to be friends with Concilia and Severino. The father of Teo’s friend, along with members of that church, realized that it might make some difference to certain refugees, who came from strongly agricultural backgrounds, if they could maintain gardens as they once maintained farms. And that’s how we were able to meet Concilia and Severino. Five or six years ago–I’ve lost count–they started gardening in our backyard.
Actually, there’s a little more to it than that.
My family and I moved to Wheaton approximately eleven years ago, and, as I’d been raised here, schooled here, etc.d here, I had something of an allergic reaction to this relocation. I felt more than a little haunted by my past, kind of like I’d never grown up into an adult woman at all. I got depressed (which, as I write this in conjunction with what I’ve just written about Concilia and Severino’s situation, seems suddenly pathetic). My way of dealing with my mood, besides therapy and prayer and exercise and writing and help from my family and friends, was to throw myself into gardening. I took that patch of land off the bedroom, and I turned it into some kind of combo kitchen-cloister garden, complete with four elaborate beds, a trellis and chair, and paths that formed a cross, and that basically went nowhere except to dead end in the sides of the house and the little fence I constructed from chicken wire. There was a lot of work involved, after a lot of anticipation and planning, all done by me. And it was good, or at least okay. For about two years.
Then the rains started—the great deluges of twenty o’ something. And because of some major DIY construction on the part of a neighbor, our backyard became the reservoir pond for the immediate area, off and on again for approximately two years, and the garden, along with the our recently finished basement, were washed away.
So much for all that sweat and labor and sweet reward (in tomatoes, cucumbers, and kale, among other growing things). So much for a relatively quick fix for depression. I didn’t have the heart to garden anymore, now that my garden was trashed.
(Again, I am struck by my own limitations.)
So that first spring when Concilia and Severino appeared in our driveway, I immediately said, “Take my garden, please.” And they did, with ease and graceful confidence. They grew, and still grow, legumes in the backyard—shelly beans, we call them–several rotations of this crop each season, which Concilia harvests and then carries regally down the incline of our driveway and away, in a big black Hefty bag, balanced like an enormous crown on her head. She freezes the beans, and they eat them throughout the year.
Severino, by the way, is the source of most communication. We speak to each other in French, mostly, and a little English. Severino is fluent in French. I am better at French than I am in Swahili and Kirundi, his other languages, which is to say, I remember enough from high school to get by. (Barely.) Concilia and I speak to each other mostly in gestures and facial expressions.
So they grow protein. Enough to feed a little family. Practical and filling—where I once had edible flowers and herbs, along with a few less decorous plants–the little seedlings springing up with their heart-shaped leaves in neat rows, growing vigorously, producing enough to share–for Concilia and Severino do offer us a portion, enough for a couple of pots of beans for my family, which sometimes, when we’re lucky enough, they’ll come over and cook, and then join us for dinner. (We provide the wine.)
Every year before this year, around about April, Concilia knocks on the door and asks if she can work in “her garden.” I say, yes, of course. But this year, she didn’t bother to ask, and that made me happy indeed.
I think about Concilia, working away like this, when I am working away at my writing. A neat row of seeds, a neat row of words. It’s not so different, really, at all, laying one down after the other, bowed over, step by step, working away. Concilia, when she comes to work in her garden, always kicks off her shoes. She gardens barefoot, like she’s working sacred, broken ground. It’s not so different at all, our work a lifeline to who we were and are and will be. Our work a prayer.
Concilia is much more than a little bit an inspiration to me.
*Pretty lame excuse, if you ask me. I mean, most days have the potential to be as full as any holiday, it often seems.
**This may not seem different than #2, but in fact, it is, at least for me. I can be exhausted, when it comes to language, but still have things to say. Just not the energy to say them. But this was different. This was a kind of null and void feeling. Emptiness. I could eek out social media posts now and then, and maintain conversations in real-life-time with the people I love. But. That. Was. It.