The tomatoes have toppled onto the peppers, obliterating their access to sun. Cucumber vines creep up the bean trellis; their tendrils strangle the basil. Zucchini overruns the herb garden, suffocating even the hardy mint.
It’s my own fault. Once again, I have planted too much. Like many Americans, I have never had an easy time with limits.
I remember the moment—I must have been about eleven years old—when I realized that because I was living my life, having the experiences of an eleven-year-old girl in Detroit, I would never get to have the experiences of anyone else. I would never know what it was like to grow up in Harlem. Or Hawaii. Or Vietnam. Never be the horseback rider or the ballerina. I can still recall the sense of crushing disappointment; it seemed so unfair. I wanted to live it all.
On that Sunday afternoon in early May, Rose and I were transfixed. “I love Roma tomatoes,” she announced. “We must get yellow pears!” I countered. “Oh, and these are heirlooms,” we sighed.
We were enraptured by choice and refused to choose. Golden bell peppers. Jalapeno and Anaheim chili. Blue Lake beans and lemon cucumber. Sweet Genovese basil, yes, but also purple ruffle, anise, and Thai basil.
And more herbs. Curry plant and chives. Pineapple mint. French tarragon and golden oregano and rosemary.
Rose had an excuse; she was not a vegetable gardener. She didn’t know to say, “How are you going to fit all that into a forty-square-foot plot?”
I’d had my lawn crew clear out a section of the backyard, an area neglected since I’d moved in that had sprouted a volunteer fig that bore no fruit and an unrelenting crop of four o’clocks. This small area got full sun and would be perfect for summer vegetables. About this, at least, I was right.
Rose helped me cultivate the plot of ground, digging into the soil compacted from years of absorbing sun and rain with no tending, working moist compost into the dry dirt. I handled the planting itself, peeling away the plastic nursery containers, massaging by hand the root balls, spooning organic plant food into the hole I’d dug before placing the seedling in its new home.
I ignored the printed instructions about spacing, allotting each plant about nine inches between it and its neighbors on all sides. I squeezed marigolds between the tomatoes to discourage bugs. Then I snaked a soaker hose throughout the plot, positioning it so that every plant would receive water. As the sun began to sink toward the horizon, I beamed at our day’s handiwork; it would be my first vegetable garden at this house.
Nothing disappointed. The soil nurtured the roots and the sun pulled the young plants skyward. The beans climbed their trellis; the peppers blossomed. Tomatoes hung green from their stems. Cucumber and zucchini vines began to crisscross the length of the plot, running roughshod over the mint and oregano. A thick canopy of leaves blocked the sun from reaching the marigolds. It soon looked more like forest than garden.
We enjoyed a few lemon cucumbers, a handful of Roma tomatoes, anise basil, and several dozen Blue Lake beans, but nothing did as well as it might have had everything had just a little more space. My friend Mary Linn suggested pulling out some of the plants, but I’m not cut out for such Darwinism, sacrificing some so that others might live.
At some point I began to understand that this garden was a metaphor for my life: thriving, copious yield, but overcrowded, everything jostling for space and light, and me, racing through my days, unwilling to let go of a couple of projects so I might bring more focused attention to the rest. Even as the teaching ate up my writing time, as consulting clients elbowed into my yoga schedule, as volunteer commitments eroded my time with Rose. Always I bear the nagging worry that my enterprises might be more successful if there were fewer. Would my poems be more complex, would my books be more profound, were my attention not divided and subdivided by a hundred other concerns?
“I have two speeds,” I joked to my friend Pat, “way too busy and psychotically busy.” At my worst times, I felt like eighty-nine Chihuahuas were hanging off my ankles by their teeth.
Spontaneous by nature, Rose grew frustrated with my jam-packed schedule. She was between corporate jobs then, freelancing and living off savings. Although I would plan time to be with her, she wanted to call me up on a whim and say, “Let’s drive out to the desert and see the full moon tonight,” and not hear, “I can’t; I’m teaching tonight and I have three client appointments tomorrow morning.”
“Say no,” Mary Linn would counsel when I despaired about the barrage of requests from students, clients, and complete strangers, and how this left me no quality time for reflection, for creativity, for fun. “Say no,” she’d insist. But how could I?
If the universe doesn’t give us more than we can handle, then surely I could handle everything the universe gave me.
“You keep busy so you don’t have to feel.” An acquaintance offers this facile and unasked-for diagnosis by email. But no one who knows me would call me unfeeling.
“Time is speeding up,” a spiritual counselor tells me. “Many of us feel the need to accomplish multiple lifetimes in this one.”
“Don’t complain about being busy,” my friend Julia reminds me. “You are abundant. Be grateful for that.”
Then there is that theory about the fear of the void, that all our frenetic human activity, our nonstop drive for achievement, is designed to mask the fear of death, the ego’s terror at nonbeing. And yet, I don’t think of myself of being afraid of death; it has always seemed preferable to several of the alternatives.
A woman in a self-help workshop once confessed to having not PMS, but FMS, the condition of “’Fraid I’ll Miss Something.” And perhaps, as the eleven-year-old me could attest, this comes the closest to defining my problem.
“Greedy,” is how I judge myself. An experience junkie.
But it’s more than that. I find in my character a fervent refusal to accept limits.
If I start to gain weight, I never think: I should go on a diet. Instead I think: I need to amp up my exercise routine.
When my finances come up short, I seldom think: I need to cut back on my spending. Instead I think: I’ve got to make more money!
Many years ago, in couples’ therapy with my then-girlfriend Susan, our therapist gave us each lengths of string and asked us to define our personal boundaries by positioning the string around our bodies. “I need more string,” I said immediately, “a lot more string.” When the therapist inquired how much, I first asked for string long enough to reach to the edges of the room, but that still didn’t seem enough. Then I thought about string that would encompass the building, but that wasn’t enough either. I wished for string that could encircle the city, but that too seemed insufficient. I imagined the cosmic string that could take in the entire universe, but then what of other universes? It’s not that I wanted to overrun Susan’s boundaries. But I found it impossible to imagine my energy field restricted by any limitation.
There is a romanticized element to this, to be sure. The refusal to accept limitation can sound heroic and brave, until you consider that is this also the psychology of American expansionism, an appetite we have apparently not yet exhausted. It is the mindset behind the exploding national debt. It is the reason we’re going to run out of water, of oil. It is why we build houses on flood plains and in areas prone to wildfire. Why we generate so much trash we have to dump it in the oceans or shoot it into outer space.
In astronomy, the Big Bang Theory posits that the universe, once small and hot and dense, exploded, and has been expanding throughout time and is expanding still. This is how I like to see my life, having the capacity to endlessly amplify. Researchers differ, however, about the future of the universe. In one model, the expansion continues endlessly, until all the available energy has burnt out of it. A counter theory claims that expansion will meet its maximum size and begin to contract again—the Big Crunch. I suppose that is true of the death of everything—it either burns out or shrinks to nothing. And I know which version I prefer.
When I sit down to plan next year’s garden, I don’t think: I really only have room for three tomato plants, two peppers, and one basil. I think: I should dig up that patch of lawn in the backyard, another area that gets full sun with a Southern exposure; this would double my garden space. I think: Eden’s Gem Melons. Scarlet Runner Beans. White Pumpkins. Black Aztec Sweet Corn.