Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Tomato Seedlings That Saved My Life

I was inspired by a post over at GNMParents to write about how I returned to my creative self after the death of a precious person in my life.

Ten years ago, my most beloved friend, John, committed suicide, leaving behind his beautiful wife, their newborn son, loving parents and enough friends and colleagues to overflow the chapel where his memorial was held. My anguish was unbearable and instead of dealing with it, I buried myself in software engineering studies and my new career as a technical writer. I began a relationship with a no-good loser I had previously shunned. I moved to Silicon Valley, a place I had previously swore I would never live. I invited No-Good Loser to live with me there. My life went to shit. I was massively depressed, supporting a man who had me convinced I owed him something. After three years, I reached a breaking point. The day things finally fell apart, I found myself on the floor, alternately screaming and moaning in anguish--over the loss of my friend, the loss of my self. I knew I would go insane or die if I didn't get help.

I did get a lot of help from the traditional source--a good therapist whom I still see occasionally. But what really brought me back from the brink was something quite unexpected--a pack of tomato seeds. I planted those seeds in a flat, set them under lights in a closet, and waited. I wondered, and often doubted, if I could possibly do something as extraordinary, yet ordinary, as bringing seeds to life. I did. And when those seedlings began to make leaves, their scent transported me across decades and thousands of miles, back to the greenhouse where my parents raised tomato starts when I was just five or six, back to a time of full infinite possibilities and nearly empty of responsibilities and sadness. Their scent reminded me of where I had intended to go, back before John died. I had intended to have a welcoming home with a big garden full of healthy food. I had intended to live independent of transnational corporations. I had intended to practice creative self-sufficiency wherever possible--sewing my own clothing, growing and cooking my own food, limiting my consumption, and bartering talents and goods with like-minded friends. By remaining in a codependent relationship, ignoring the origins my food, clothing, and the other "things" in my life, and working for companies that were part of the global corporate machine, I was living in denial of those intentions. My heart knew I was in the wrong place, but I couldn't get out of it until those tomato seedlings showed me the way back.

I don't beat myself up for getting lost. When John died, I had only recently moved to Portland and had no real friends here to lean on during that awful time. My friends back home were mostly in the same circle and were reeling with the loss themselves. I have had trouble with depression most of my adult life, though rarely had the resources (i.e., decent health insurance) to pay for the help I needed, so it's little wonder things got so bad.

Every spring, as I plant peas and think about which varieties of tomatoes to start, I renew my commitment to those intentions. I think that's why I feel so energized this time of year. This year, after a couple years hiatus as we brought our second child into the world, we're putting in a big garden again. Yesterday, my daughter, son, and I planted peas, staked them with branches that broke off the trees in our yard this winter. We sowed radish seeds together and created a nice sandy bed for our carrot seeds (carrots love sandy, loose soil...this is the first time I've gone to such trouble for them). I felt so connected to them, to the earth, and to myself as we spent a unseasonably glorious, sunny February afternoon planting our good intentions.

As usual, I've run out of time (the kids are awake) before finishing my thoughts, but I feel like I must explore the transformation I've undergone since sprouting those seeds and will return soon. Have you been transformed by something as unexpected and seemingly insignificant as a tomato seedling?


Meg said...

An agonizingly beautiful post.
Keep going.
Come write with us :)

rebecca said...

i'm so sorry for your loss. i don't even know you, but your pain is so palpable. :(

Chris said...

Megin--I don't know how I missed your comment. I do keep thinking of writing for GNMP, but I have a hard enough time writing regularly here!

Rebecca--Thanks for the sweet words. These days, the pain is a whole lot more bearable, ten years and what seems like a lifetime later. So much has happened--so many good life-affirming people have come into my life since then: my husband, my children, my small circle of friends in Portland. None of them has replaced John, of course, but they have helped patch the whole in my heart.