I fear I’m a dabbler. I look around at all the PhDs I know who all settled long ago into their field, and focus, and research stream. They keep turning that same plot in that same field, digging it deeper and deeper, breaking up clods and clay, adding nutrients and soil amendments, organic matter and compost and manure. Yes, some add a lot of manure turning that same old tired plot and never breaking new ground. Still, they are always unearthing new bits of stone or old paving bricks, maybe a remnant of a pipe, noting how some sections are bone dry while others are moist, and mixing them in search of the perfect composition. Maybe adding sand for drainage or lime, and checking regularly on the status of the field.

Certainly working that same soil year after year gives them a deep rich knowledge. They come to know the ground as one knows the night sighs of a long-time partner or the distant sound of your child’s voice rising from the din of a busy playground. Unmistakable. Familiar. And yet always, somehow, new.

I am not that type of scholar or researcher or person, even. Once the soil is broken and turned and worked well enough at the start, which I do meticulously, I’m ready to move on into designing and planting and establishing a garden. I often overfill that garden with a surabundance of plants, but then I move on. I dig again, always a new space. I call this movement progress and development, which sounds much better than shiftlessness or lack of focus, I think. But while the surface coverage spreads and expands into beautiful landscaping, I do not understand the components of the soil deeply. If a plant dies, I rarely know why or how to avoid similar problems moving forward. I just yank it out with an Ooops! and plant something new.

I rarely worry myself with this ability to shrug away losses and move on. But when passersby stop to admire my gardens and ask questions and are dismayed by my inability to provide even the basic names of most of what now grows here, I wonder. And I wonder whether my tendency toward “mere dabbling,” as my grandmother would say with a concerned shake of her head, extends beyond my garden and my paid work to my own writing. I my writing merely a self-indulgence? No more than the precious conceit of privilege, the effort of a pampered individual to aggrandize her small traumas rather than turn toward the many opportunities that might reap real rewards?

Did I turn away first from journalism and then the law, dissatisfied by their inability to serve fully the needs of equity and justice, not because of their inherent flaws but because of my obdurate need to cling to a child’s dream that the world would become what I want and hopes it is? Is my Disneyfied vision of reality the one thing I do not dabble in or move beyond? If yes, this makes me more my mother’s child than my siblings, I think. Like her, might I have chosen happiness but instead chased a mirage? If so, my inability to be satisfied, happy even, is the product of clinging to a futile and foolish wish.

I suspect there is at least a grain of truth in that, but I doubt that it is that simple. It is too easy to blame myself and overlook the external forces that contribute to my choices and might, might, have made mine the best possible path. I don’t know. I know that it’s another gray, wet, clammy day. The air hangs thick. The world sits entombed in clouds that cling to the ground, leaden and ungainly, and my thoughts are ungenerous. Especially to me.

“Digging in the Garden” by Chiot’s Run is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

September 2009

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