Dr. Gail Lukasik has been published in over 50 literary journals, including The Georgia Review, Carolina Quarterly, and Mississippi Valley Review. In 2002 she was awarded an Illinois Arts Council Award for her work. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she taught writing and literature. She lives in Libertyville, Illinois, with her husband and their Shetland sheepdog.
I have garden envy. It started last spring when my snowbird neighbors, Nessia and Al, returned from Florida. A place I imagined all winter, where tropical colors and warm climes sustain you through the long dark nights. It had been a particularly grey winter in the Chicago area, not a lot of snow, but endless grey days. About the time the endless grey days were firmly entrenched, my writing had stalled. I was longing for spring the way I used to long for a steady boyfriend when I was in high school. So when spring finally decided to show up, everything green sent me over the moon.
Then Nessia began working in her garden, planting flats and flats of annuals, in colors so vivid I swooned. She’d begin in the morning and work until noon. From my kitchen window I’d see her toiling away in her straw hat reminiscent of Van Gogh’s straw hat in one of his self-portraits; wearing those cool, calf-high gardening boots, a long-sleeved shirt and loose pants.
As spring warmed to itself, I was flirting with writing the next book in my seasonal mystery series—the winter book—but I didn’t know if I wanted to return to winter if only in my imagination. So I let it rest and watched my neighbor’s garden bloom. And a strange thing happened; I began working in my own garden tending to overgrown beds, ridden with too many native phlox stifling the other flowers; ivy gone crazy; wild violets blotting the lawn. What a mess of neglect.
I found an old straw hat I’d put away years ago in the back of my closet. Old sneakers, black sweatpants festooned with a bleach stain, a turquoise long sleeved shirt completed my gardening outfit. No cool boots for me. I didn’t know if this was a passing fancy or the real thing. Envy could take you only so far.
A friend suggested I start writing in my journal again to get my creative juices flowing. A practice I gave up years ago thinking it was taking away from my writing. So in the spring I made it my habit to do two things consistently: write in my journal every day for 15 minutes, and garden at least one day a week. And with each journal entry and gardening foray, I told myself to have no expectations. Just let each activity take you where it may. Be open to anything.
In one weed ridden bed, I yanked for countless hours, clearing space; clipped two shaggy evergreen bushes into strange shapes reminiscent of California cedars. I brought home bags of river rocks and cedar mulch. I discovered large rocks under low growth and harvested the rocks. I called it my Zen garden. It pleased me in a way my writing hadn’t been pleasing me.
Near the house, with my husband’s help, we weeded out the ivy that had taken over a large flowerbed. Tall grasses we planted years ago started to flourish in the cleared open space; wild rose bushes I hadn’t noticed became centerpieces. We put in a bird feeder, put down cedar mulch, and laid a path complete with slate stones and pea gravel. Another Zen garden, another area of tranquility and space. Birds showed up at the feeder in an array of colors and sizes—cardinals, sparrows, wrens, finches, chickadees. I kept an Eastern bird field guide near the window.
One day while doing my 15 minutes in the journal (And sometimes I did think of it as “doing time.”) I started to write a scene. I hadn’t planned on writing the scene. I’d been thinking about my mom now living in an assisted living facility, her dementia already erasing her short-term memory; and the scene came to me; fully fleshed out and vibrant like the garden that was blooming outside my window, like the birds who kept appearing.
Every morning I’d pull up the shade in the dining room and gaze out at the stony path, the bird feeder, the wild roses, the grasses swaying; and then at my neighbor’s splendid garden so perfectly clipped, so beautifully ordered.
By July, deep into summer, when green wavers between shades, and the cicadas sing, I was gardening with a sort of giddiness as if I’d just discovered gardening. And because I was looking, because I was present, I found a true crime story that would lend itself to my winter book and I started the book in earnest.
That scene I wrote about the woman in an assisted living center has yet to appear in the book. It might. It might not. These things can’t be known for sure until I write the book. Just like I can’t know for sure whether the discounted red Hydrangea bush I rescued from the gardening center in early August will flourish next year. But characters I hadn’t expected are showing up in the book and the book’s plot is like a stony path I’m venturing down.
My garden, though not a showpiece, like my neighbor’s, pleases me with its wild tranquility. Just yesterday I marveled at what I think was a cerulean warbler at the feeder, stoking up for her journey south before winter hits.
This winter as the grey days descend, I’ll be imagining my garden, itchy with anticipation for that first shot of green, waiting for my neighbor’s return, and writing through the winter.