Each beginning of October, long after school begins, when football is in full swing, and piles of pumpkins greet us at the entrances to every store, New Orleanians are reminded that, down here, it’s still summer. It’s hot, dry, and with no consistent end in sight. The proof is nowhere more apparent than in our front yards—especially mine—where spring’s offerings slump, shriveled up and fried to a crisp.
I’m what you might call a wannabe green thumb: not quite rookie, definitely not seasoned player, but with the consistent dream to one day play in the big leagues. I’ve got a strong game in the fall, an even stronger one in the spring, but by August I usually slack considerably. It’s hot as hell and I watch the calendar for that one special weekend, right about now, when it’s time to try again. Home and garden centers become my weekend jam and inspo. I fill pots with mums, plant dusty millers and black-eyed susans, and then place haystacks, pumpkins, and scarecrows wherever my green thumb feels too inadequate. Historically, this is when I rethink my front patio too. Should I toss last year’s cushions or do I simply need new accent pillows? And what about an outdoor rug? Too much? Soon, harvest and all things “just so” take over and I have officially “nailed it” as a domesticated diva.
But this year was different. I didn’t just slack off in the summer heat. I pulled out and quit the game. Even my precious hydrangeas, the bulbs of which I carefully planted and nurtured three years ago like they were helpless, little babies, were completely forgotten. The only reason they haven’t withered away must be sheer dumb luck because by last week, my entire yard looked like something out of a Stephen King novel. Vines climbed up the side of my house, inhabiting my gutters. Ground crawlers took over not just flower beds, but the yard itself, starving the grass, turning it brown and brittle. And what wasn’t a weed took on a sad, saggy plea, desperate for water and affection. A hot September and drought was not at blame. It was me and my lack of interest.
I don’t have an explanation for my change in behavior other than that it’s just been a tough year during which I haven’t had the heart to beautify much of anything. As October approached, I resigned myself, saying, “The house has basically decorated itself for Halloween.” But then last Tuesday I heard the grinding motor of a hedge trimmer. My old yard man, Mr. E., the one I let go when I stopped caring, was trimming some box hedges across the street. I looked out my window at the wasteland that had become my home sweet home. There was a tangled mess, months of neglect, and last year’s dreams buried. Just as I was about to shrug another defeated shrug, something--a whisper, a nudge--made me step outside.
Mr. E. has been maintaining the lawns on my block for as long as I’ve lived in Central Carrollton, and even though I’ve been hiding from him for weeks, he didn’t seem surprised when I approached him. He must have known before I did that I’d eventually come around.
“Leave the hydrangeas, gardenias, and the Japanese magnolia sapling. Everything else can go.”
I hadn’t intended to set such aggressive conditions, and yet there I was, giving orders to toss this last year out completely.
“Everything?” he asked.
“All of it. I need it blank if I’m going to get back in the game.”
About two hours later there was a knock at my door. Mr. E.’s work was done. When I stepped outside, I sucked in my breath. My yard was bare. It was stark. It didn’t just look weeded; it was naked. And I, its prodigal owner, began to cry. Right there in front of poor Mr. E., I wept.
I’m certain he thought to himself a very understandable, “WTF, lady?”
“Um, didn’t you want it all gone?” he stammered.
I didn’t answer right away. Instead, I took in the emptiness of my yard and remembered how in years past I’d filled it with decorations and flowers and with a sense of purpose—seasons worth celebrating. I may never get everything right in this life, but home is where my heart always was, and that afternoon for the first time in a long, long time, I had the heart again. I was excited to fill it.
I lifted my eyes to poor, confused Mr. E., who had no idea that when he pulled up to my block that day, the crazy lady in the two-story, orange brick was going to unload her baggage onto him.
“I did want it all gone. Thank you,” I choked out.
Mr. E. packed up his equipment and left, scratching his head as he went, and I started an online search for outdoor seat cushions. I felt the familiar tingle atop my head that I used to get every time I’d start a new project. My creative juices flowed. It was rejuvenating. And as I narrowed my search to my preferred color palette of orange and aqua, I thought about the choice I’d made. In one command, I wiped months of neglect clean, and I wondered if in an attempt to start fresh, was I trying to erase my past altogether?
In life, it’s often unwanted events that affect our behavior most—broken relationships, doors that close, injuries, lost jobs, and the death of loved ones. These events resemble rauma and they don’t just slow us down, they often take with them elements of whom we once were--our interests, our drive, and the possibilities of tomorrow to which we used to cling. It’s as if while our pain grows, integral parts of ourselves shrink. That traumatic event joins our past, leaving everything present a mess. Our will is gone, our hope is gone, and meanwhile, this new normal sets in that feels anything but normal. Trauma is an energy zapper, and there is evidence of it all around us. My yard may be your weight gain. Your weight gain is another person’s closet, so disorganized it can’t close. It feels wrong and we desperately want to claw our way out of the mess, but where do we start? And even more, how do we possibly begin to make sense of what’s left? One day, we snap. We toss it all out and we focus on what’s left.
I’ve got four starving hydrangeas, two bushy gardenia, and one weak Japanese magnolia. What am I going to make of them? What are any of us going to make of what we’ve still got?
In a strange way, it felt comforting to ignore my unruly yard - one less worry that I granted myself each day. And maybe this is a natural reaction? After trauma, we often say that our perspectives change, and with that, our priorities. In my case, the people inside the vine-ridden, orange brick house took priority over what was out of control outside. The same could be said of anyone coping. When you’re surviving on a weakened heart there is only so much you can give to anyone, let alone anything like a yard. Something altered our course. It’s now part of our past, our story, and the makeup of our new selves. It’s changed us, mostly by starving us of whom we once were. So perhaps when we start fresh after a horrible ordeal--when we empty closets, strip walls to the studs, or completely tear apart our yard because ignoring it no longer feels comforting--we’re not erasing our past as much as we’re freeing ourselves from the constraints our unwanted past put in place.
I know enough to know that nothing I do can change my past. It is part of my story no matter how much I fight it and no matter how much I let it grow around me. It’s there. Inside. It is all at once present, past, and future. I could ignore it until it becomes more tangled and suffocating by the day. Or, I can pull it apart until I get to the bare roots, the truth of where I am and where I’ve yet to go. It’s like coming up for air, and a little fresh air always makes possibility possible again.
They say it takes 21 days to make something a habit. I don’t know how long it takes for a new normal to feel normal or for our past to not affect our present. Maybe never. But I hope that sometime within the next 21 seasons of pulling out the old and planting the new, each time I try and try again, my hands in the dirt will be that much lighter--freed from what once prevented them from doing what comes naturally.
And when all else fails, there’s always good old Mr. E. to lend an extra hand.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.