I was hurriedly walking up the steps into City Hall when I received a call from the Council member’s aide saying he had to cancel our meeting, as the Council and Mayor had been called into an emergency session regarding COVID-19. I could tell from her strained voice that the news they were hearing wasn't good. I returned to the office at Grassroots Gardens and told the staff to be sure to take home whatever they might need for a few weeks of working at home. We shut down 72 hours earlier than most other businesses and institutions.
By the end of that first week in the lock down, I was already worrying about the looming local impact of the pandemic and what it would mean for the already-food-insecure communities we worked with. I ordered any seeds I could still find available online. They were going quickly and I was paying up to 3x what I did the year before. While we typically relied on a vendor to grow our vegetable seedlings for 100+ community gardens, I wasn’t sure they would be able to this year. So I also ordered windowsill greenhouse trays and the next day I told our staff to go into the office by themselves and take home our seedling grow stands. A few weeks later, masked and gloved, we dropped off seeds and seed trays to dozens of volunteers who would grow for us.
I came home that night and cried, worried that our city would quickly run out of its emergency food supply. Our food pantries and hospitals were already overwhelmed. In order to console myself, I picked up one of my favorite seed catalogs and splurged on an order of heirloom seeds, selecting the bright yellow and delicately-striped Tiger Laeta Violas, described in the catalog as a "Ray of Sunshine." My garden at home is always full of heirloom vegetable varieties. This year, I knew I also needed to grow flowers.
Image via rareseeds.com
The viola seeds came a whole month later, well into the time they should have already been started indoors. I grew them anyway and they joined the hundreds of seeds I was trying to warm in every window sill and floor spot I had available. My house became a mini Grassroots Gardens greenhouse. As soon as the ground thawed, we would plant them all with the hopes that our usual supply of veggie seedlings from the commercial greenhouse would still come through. But these smallest seedlings were for me. I would plant them on my porch in pots next to my front door and in these dark days at the height of the pandemic, I knew they would bring me joy.
I tended all my seedlings carefully but was a little extra loving with the Tiger Violas. Despite my best efforts, I came in from a walk one day and found several of the trays had dried out and died. A few weeks later, I took the remaining two trays and their healthy seedlings and hardened them off on my porch. Finally, it was time to transplant them into pots. I spent a quiet, sunny morning layering them in among the tulips and daffodils I had planted in the fall. I felt grateful to be alive when so many people around the world and now in my hometown were dying and others were losing their loved ones. Gardening has always kept me tethered. I couldn't wait to see their tiny tiger-eyed flowers looking up brightly at me when I went for yet another walk to the mailbox or around the block to hopefully chat with a neighbor or two from a distance.
The next morning, I came out to the porch and found that all my bulbs and transplanted seedlings had been tossed out of the pots with complete disregard and had been half-eaten by the squirrel overlords who reign on my street. I let out a string of expletives as I cleaned up the remaining chewed stems and tried to tuck them back into the soil. They withered and died a day or two later.
A few weeks after that, I showed up alone at the Grassroots Gardens office. When not working remotely, our small staff was laboring alongside the community to try to open our gardens without volunteer groups and make sure they were planted with seedlings that would turn into food in just a few months. Spring had come in spite of the virus. That morning, I picked up a curbside donation at one of the local greenhouses on my way in. They gave me two six-packs of the last pansies they had left, among some other spring bulbs and new annuals. The pansies were nothing special and looked half-dead. Just your usual mix of purples and whites. The occasional burgundy and yellow. No striped cousins of theirs were here with their determined genes passed down from one generation of seedlings to the next. These were basic pansies. But I took them anyway and added them to the planters outside the office doors. As I put my hands into the soil, I reminded myself that I should be grateful for my health and the sun, and the flowers. "There, that doesn't look half-bad," I said to myself as I finished potting up the planters.
That night, I received a text message from one of our office neighbors. Someone walking down the street had ripped the pansies out of their planters and wrecked the pots. Our neighbors tried to scoop up the soil and put them back together but he said the flowers were ruined. I took it as a sign from the universe that I should just focus on growing food. When I went in the next day, I pulled two of the planters inside as I hauled the one that was completely destroyed to the trash. The world was in so much pain. Even a garden needed to hold someone's rage.
A week or so later, while trying to open the office's antique doors that were in a perpetual state of being stuck, I noticed a bright fleck of violet, just on the other side of where the planters should have been. I put everything down on the ground and walked over. Lo and behold, in the crack of the sidewalk, was a perfect purple and white pansy. It wasn't the tiny tiger eye but it was beautiful there, all by its lonesome. Fully formed and holding its head high, sprouting up among the shattered glass on the ground. When the planters tipped, some of the soil with this one seedling must have blown down the sidewalk a bit and filled in the crack. The pansy flourished there for weeks. Every morning, I said hello to the sole flower outside of our door and every evening, when I left my day of solitude, I checked to make sure there were no unexpected rodents who had carried it away in my absence. I felt joy every time I saw, living its best life in the sidewalk crack.
It took me a while to make the connection, but I realized why this little flower came to mean so much to me. Four years before I became Executive Director at Grassroots Gardens, my 36-year-old husband died suddenly in his sleep. His death came on the heels of the death of one of my closest friends the summer before, and just before that, the death of my mother and a loss in the second term of my third pregnancy.
The life that I am leading now is not the life I thought I would be then. The delicate heirloom antique seeds of my life had not sprouted in their metaphorical porch pots, despite all the work I had put into planning for what they would look like and how happy they would make me. The universe laughed in my face for thinking I had any control over anything. The best-laid plans of squirrels, seeds, and human hearts...
During the early years that followed, I often felt like a basic pansy. My wildest tiger-eyes dreams were swept away and dormant. I had ended up in the donation pile of life, at the end of the season of hopes and expectations. I was barely holding on. And then, just when things seemed like they might stabilize and I could grow again, my life once again, was overturned. There were times I thought I would languish and rot right there in the crack in the sidewalk.
After all of this loss, I eventually replanted myself, because what choice did I have? And as I settled into my new role at Grassroots Gardens, I grew around my grief. I realized I was not the person I used to be or thought I would someday become. It is when we are on the brink, as the leaves compost and winter preserves our energy, that the magic of spring waits to happen. We lie there in the dark, left with ourselves in the unknown, roots exposed and soil lacking, in a cold place we didn't expect to be. We barely acknowledge the minimal sun and rain that nature sends to keep us alive. First, we survive and even that surprises us. Then, one day, we sprout. Soon, we look up to the sun and hold our heads high. We breathe in deeply, knowing that not only did we make it through, but we might just be thriving. Joy can still be found and gratitude can still be given, even when trauma and loss are present in our lives. Perhaps we are not as basic as we were made to believe. We can bloom where we are planted, in spite of it all.
Besides my garden, it has been the steady hum of activism and a community of women who have kept me going when I was ready to throw in the proverbial trowel. Through my time in the nonprofit world in and around Buffalo, I've met many women (both cisgender and transgender) and non-binary folks who were like taproots - central to grounding their communities and helping them grow in many directions. I'll be featuring their stories here on Taproot, our new blog series, on the first Thursday of every month as part of #ThrivingThursdays. I hope you'll come back to look around and find a speck of brightness when you most need the inspiration to keep growing.
Wishing you joy,