A few days before I left New York, a few weeks before I understood just how much this plague was going to remake the world, my friend Kate gave me a tarot reading. I wasn’t asking about apocalypse; I was asking about the life I was moving into, a life that was by design radically different than the life I have inhabited for the last decade in a city I fell in love with but knew in my heart it was time to leave for a while. Going away had nothing to do with any illness other than the one that has settled over me in the last few years, which I can best describe as pervasive and incapacitating despair.
Now is the time, the tarot told me, for you to build the structures that will serve you best in what lies ahead.
In the early days of quarantine, like quite a lot of people, I decided on the project of a garden. I know next to nothing about gardening and the last time I tried to have a garden was twenty years ago, when I lived for a summer in a little shack on the land of a grumpy witch who rented out various dubious unplumbed structures to enterprising young people willing to forego showers for extended periods of time in exchange for romantic idealism and negligible rent. This was years and years before Airbnb and tiny houses; back then we called them sheds. NPR did a condescending segment about this practice of residence, to the great merriment of the local populace. I spent that summer bicycling around under the balmy sun and paying court to my friends in their own cosy demesnes, where we drank tea with whiskey in it and dissected the complicated love affairs everybody was having with other people who also lived in sheds, or sometimes the tourists who washed through downtown and stuck around like flotsam for a handful of weeks.
My shed-neighbor in the witch’s tiny empire was a woman called Liz, who had the most magnificent garden I have ever seen a single person produce in the span of one growing season in my entire crooked life. Liz was a pragmatic hippie a couple of years older than I was then, which is to say not very old at all, who had moved to town to go to wooden boat school. I asked her once what she learned at wooden boat school. “You can spend your whole life and all of your money working nonstop on a constantly rotting thing that will ruin all your relationships and make your lovers leave you and break your heart and at the end of it you still haven’t got a fucking finished boat,” she said. At the end of the summer she dropped out of wooden boat school, and somebody else moved into her shed with a quantity of pitbulls, and I got on my bicycle and rode to Arizona, and that’s a different story.
But for a handful of months I lived next door to a garden out of a fairytale. Liz’s chard grew waist-high, its splendid leaves as broad as my chest. Liz’s cucumbers rioted within the bounds of their allotted corner. Liz’s kale shone green as the emeralds of Oz, Liz’s companion plantings nurtured one another toward the benevolent late-June sun; Liz harvested squash and nasturtiums, dahlias and tomatoes, a wealth of tiny hot peppers I could not have named if my life depended on it, garlic and onions and scallions, majestic golden beets. The pestilential deer who devoured all the edible plants of the peninsula left her miracles alone; untouched by vermin, radiant with health, her garden was a window into a wholly different kind of life than passing whiskey bottles around with dirtbags and getting myself into trouble.
Liz had a great effect on me. I stuck some kale seeds in the dirt and waited for dinner. Whatever I tried to grow withered almost as soon as it emerged from the earth and the rest was eaten overnight by slugs. “You could try fertilizing,” Liz said, walking past me with a basket full of fresh-harvested produce as I dispiritedly poured a cup of water on my single-leaved kale plant, ratty with aphids. Liz spent the bulk of her time not at boat school in her garden, and I suppose it didn’t help that I was always bicycling off to go drink tea with whiskey in it and talk about love affairs. But also, a good lesson from this time: It doesn’t hurt to have some idea of what you’re doing when you’re trying to build a life.
The day before quarantine began here, the last day the hardware store was open, I bought a flat of baby lettuces and bags of soil with pictures of the sorts of plants I was hoping to grow on them, and a bottle of seaweed fertilizer, and some hastily selected packets of seeds: more lettuces (my victory garden might help prevent me losing my mind, but it is not going to be keeping anyone alive) and Premium Singvogel Nährpflanzen for songbirds and Bienen- und Hummelmagnet for bees. I read about hardening off starts on the internet and looked for a gardening book to order before I remembered I don’t have an address. I planted rosemary and lavender and oregano in pots reappropriated from the detritus-strewn plot of our ex-neighbor, who got kicked out of the campground last year for failing to pay his rent (which is not such a big problem for the secretly soft-hearted campingplatz landlady) and being an asshole (which is). I spent weeks pulling out years-accreted infestations of blackberries, a brutal, cathartic, and immensely satisfying labor. Now I am waiting for the nights to warm and the spring rain to come so I can plant my wildflowers.
Most days I can tell myself I am fine. It is only that I sleep too much and have trouble with my motivation, or I cry when I look at twitter for too long. Yesterday M drove into town to play drums alone in his band-practice room, unused since quarantine began. I went with him and walked by myself for a long time through the deserted industrial part of the city down to the harbor. The sky was clear, the wind off the water almost festive.
And then I looked at all the other people walking singly or in pairs at careful distances, and a huge sheeting gust of rage blew through me, a wild fury at all those sun-gilt citizens moving freely on their wholesome walks in this well-nourished corner of Germany where hardly anyone is sick and very few people have died, these fucking people with their fucking health insurance and their extra fucking hospital beds, their paid sick leave, their government-bounty unemployment, their fucking grocery stores abundant with beautiful cheap vegetables rung up by masked and gloved clerks protected behind new-built Plexiglas booths, and there I was, sobbing alone in the bright sunlight like a mad atticked wife, so angry I thought I would catch fire.
After a while I made my way back to the practice space on a long circuitous route through an unfamiliar part of the city without using my phone, because I am reading a book that describes studies showing that the hippocampus atrophies in human beings who rely exclusively on GPS to navigate. I walked past new condos and old warehouses upcycled into now-shuttered chic cafés and design firms and a fancy plant store on the façade of which was written in English, in elegant chalk script, To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow. I thought maybe German is not the language for such corny aphorisms but actually it’s an Audrey Hepburn quote. Last week I made a bed for my lettuces out of fallen branches and hardware-store dirt; I put them out too early but most of them are surviving anyway. I can have a nice salad in a few months, if I’m still here.
The little bird who fights himself in the window every morning is still at it. M named him Gregor. Gregor! I say to him every day. Gregor, go out into the world and be merry, there is no quarantine for birds.
But we’re all doing the best we can, in this endless in-between. I hope, wherever you are, something is blooming nearby.
Fig. 2: Social distance.