Thursday, November 5, 2015

Life as a Garden

I can feel the moisture from the damp grass seeping into the fabric of my jeans as I kneel, pulling up the sunflower seedlings that have sprouted beneath the bird feeder. I push my hair back and accidentally smear a bit of mud across my cheek. A row of house finches sits on the telephone line above my head, calling to one another as they watch me work, waiting for a chance to swoop in and scatter more seeds as they feast.  Sure enough, the moment I stand up and move away they fly in.

 It is so early that most of the neighbors are still asleep and as I work it feels as though I have the street to myself. Deadheading the roses, snipping lavender buds to dry, staking up a drooping delphinium, I am alone with my thoughts and I relish the quiet.  

 If you were to ask me if I am a gardener, I would say no. I never quite feel as though I am entitled to own the title. I don’t know enough. The evidence of my mistakes surrounds me each time I step out my back door. That phlox was planted too close to the front of the border. This rose is too shaded. That Hosta is wilting in a spot with too much sun. I am constantly planting and transplanting, adjusting to the demands of my tiny space. I do and then undo and do again. And that, I have decided, is precisely the appeal. 

The harshest lesson life teaches us is that there are few do-overs. We get one chance and then have to live with our mistakes. We make our beds and learn to lie in them. But a flower bed is another story. We make it, unmake it and then make it again. As often as we please. This, I think as I stand and survey what I have done, I can control. There is not much else in my life that I can say that about.

Another appeal of a garden is that it gives back. It returns the love we plant into the soil. A garden allows us to chart our progress. This is a rare thing in an ordinary life. Most of us work at marriages, at parenting and careers without the space and leisure to step back and take measure of what we’re doing. It’s only later, sometimes too much later, that we can see our mistakes, but by then its too late. But my garden guides me as I go. Too little water, too much sun, not enough fertilizer and I know. All I have to do is take the time to really look. And then I can make it right.

There is a spot on the patio where I can stand and trace the growth of a young tree I planted this spring , measuring its height against the back of the garage on the lot behind mine. Each day its uppermost branches stretch a but more and soon it will be as tall as the structure behind  the fence. The tree will be here long after I’m gone and it pleases me to watch it grow.

 I can’t wish away the the physical effects of the years behind me. I cannot undo the mistakes I have made in my life. But what I can do is step out the back door each morning, coffee in hand, and take a good long look at what’s in front of me. And if something isn’t right I can dig right in and start all over again.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap’s writes for The Spokesman-Review. This essay appeared in The Spokesman-Review's "Pinch" edition. Cheryl-Anne is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Doing nothing? Nothing doing.


         The plan was to do nothing. To spend a week enjoying my garden, relaxing in a quiet house and taking advantage of the solitude.
As usual, I didnt follow the plan.
For one whole week I was going to have the place to myself and I was going to enjoy my tidy little house and not lift a finger if I didnt want to. 
The problem is, I just cant sit still that long and almost immediately I was surrounded by a chaos and clutter. 
         For some reason, I cant remember what I was looking for, I went to the basement storeroom and dug around in a couple of boxes. In the process I unearthed, among other things, a package of slides that had been missing for several years and I completely lost track of time while I held paper-framed squares of film up to the light. Of course I brought the box upstairs with me and soon they were scattered across the top of the dining room table. I didnt want to put them away again until I got them marked and sorted so they're still there.
The next day I realized that this would be a good time to wash summers dust and dirt out of the slipcovers that cover the sofa and chairs in the living room. Now the room is tumbled with cushions and furniture wearing only its white muslin underwear.
The rug store called to say the old rug Id bought online and had cleaned was ready, so I picked it up and dropped the long, heavy, rolled carpet in a corner. Ill put it down after I wrestle the furniture back into the slipcovers. 
I ran a few errands one day and couldnt resist stopping by one of my favorite antiques stores. Wouldnt you know, just as I was leaving with empty hands, one of the dealers walked in with the little bedside table Id been searching for. I brought it home and put it in place, but now the old table has no place so its pushed into a corner until I can take it down to the store room. And Im afraid of what will happen if I go back down there.
I woke up one cool morning and pulled out a sweater. I decided, while I was at it, to put away all the linen and lightweight pieces and bring out the rest of my sweaters and winter clothing. It was easier to sort everything while it was all out and soon there was a big pile of giveaway items in the dining room, beside the table still littered with photographs.  
I watched a movie one night and instead of making a nest on the sofa I organized the linen closet while it played. More sorting and a stack of old towels and sheets added to the giveaway pile.
I have no one but myself to blame for this mess, but the tidy little house I was going to enjoy is now a wreck. And the book I was dying to read?  Still unopened on the (new) little table by the bed.
Why is it some of us just cant sit still? Cant leave well enough alone? I think of myself as semi-retired. Ive stopped working full time and have even cut back on my part-time writing assignments. I wanted more free time to take care of myself and the flexibility to enjoy time with my family. But for the life of me, I just cant get the knack of it. If there isnt a project, I invent one.
My solo staycation ends tomorrow. I have a dinner party coming up. And my house is a disaster.
 I have a lot of work to do, but this time I mean it. Im going to get everything straightened up, put away and organized and Im going to leave it that way. 
Right after I paint the bathroom. I hadnt noticed how drab it looks.

This essay first appeared in Spokane's "Prime" magazine and in The Spokesman-Review's "Pinch" edition. Cheryl-Anne Millsaps audio essays can be heard each week on Spokane Public Radio. She is the author of Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at