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I want to start a garden, I think

staff note

July 11, 2020

This summer I haven’t gone outside much, which makes me sad, but only when I think about it. Growing up, I spent nearly every summer day at the pool. The walk was short but it was all uphill, and my ill-fitting flip flops threatened to slip away at any moment. I imagined that all the neighbors on my J-shaped street, upon hearing the slap of my sandals against the asphalt, would peek outside to see the orange towel draped around my neck and the goggles swinging from my hand and remark to themselves that this boy was going to the pool for the ninth day in a row. Even children can be practiced egotists.

In high school, I would wake up at 6:30 in the morning, carpool to cross country practice, run along roads and through golf courses, lounge in the sun with popsicles, return home, change into my bathing suit, walk to morning swim practice, swim and later clock-in for my lifeguarding shift. I’ve lived in the sun, I’ve felt the sun in every form: morning, half-shadowed, hazy, late afternoon and evening, when its rays slant horizontally and skip over the surface of the pool water. I’ve sacrificed my body to the sun, eschewing sunscreen for years, as my nose took on a rosy complexion that I liked for its rawness, and my shoulders quickly shedded rusty burns to reveal bronzed blades. 

I spent my life squinting and sweating, skin-tanned and hair-bleached. When I heard about skin cancer and aging and wrinkles; when I began to, every morning, scowl at the three stubborn lines running across my forehead; and when my mom remarked that I should wear sunglasses because wrinkles were forming at the edges of my eyes — that is when I realized the sun had not always been my friend.

Narratives make things easier to digest. They simplify the world and allow us to see it like the last book we read at the beach. I’ve just presented a narrative about my childhood, and it might not be true. Was I a child of the sun, a boy who ran barefoot through thick brush, who bounded through the woods hoping to get lost and nothing else? I also remember staying in my room, making up excuses to not play outside with the neighborhood kids so I could read books or write stories about stuffed animals. 

I’m left with two competing, starry-eyed, false narratives of my childhood: I was either the free-spirited nature-lover or the observant introvert who would one day spill his thoughts in a memoir. I still want to be both.

Today, I went to a park to read. I haven’t been outside much because I’m not a lifeguard, I don’t live where I grew up and I hardly run or swim like I used to. I tried to think like a writer while I was there — like a romantic, like the person whose room I try to imitate when I dedicate corners to large leafy plants I have yet to buy. I thought about the graffiti on the concrete walls that at points bordered the rectangle of land, I thought about the thousands of bugs crawling in the soil, I thought about the people who might see me, a shirtless boy lying in the sun in a large field by himself and I wondered what they thought. I went there to be a writer who, through thought, elevated the material into some ethereal realm, but in the end, after dutifully flipping through a few pages of an Annie Dillard essay collection, I sat back, soaked in the sun and hoped someone would see me without my knowing and silently admire me.

I want to start a garden, I think. Maybe, I just want to want to start a garden because it recalls the image of a sun-soaked childhood. It’s really quite hard to tell. All you can do, it seems, is squint despite the sun, brush the sweat off, close your eyes and hope that someday you’ll do or think or say something someone else hasn’t already done or thought or said. Or maybe, we join the culture, we lunge at the labels and narratives, we place them like candy into our bags on Halloween and what we come out with, stolen from others before us, captures, in its unique combination of borrowed origins, some different shade, some refraction of light that communicates we are special. 

I thought I wanted to lay in the sun and read all day, but before long, I was bored, and my leg started to itch. The sticky note in my book, marking my page, had hardly changed positions when I walked back into my gray-walled home and shut the door behind me. 

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