The following is an excerpt of my book-in-progress.
The house of my girlhood, the temple of my first sensations, was made of red brick and white clapboard. We lived in a small suburban town in North Jersey that bordered the wealthy neighborhood of Montclair.
My parents bought the house the year before I was born. My mother set to work cultivating a modest garden in the backyard. She knew by the rectangle of stones that there had once been a garden on that plot, but it was wild and overgrown. The raspberry patch was choked by weeds, and dandelions matted the soil where vegetables used to grow. Mom pulled the weeds, turned the soil, and planted tomatoes, green beans, and lettuce.
When I was old enough to use a trowel and watering can, I asked Mom if I could plant some seeds, and she gave me a plot of land in her garden, about three square feet. I planted lettuce seeds, but most often forgot to water them, producing a yellow, sickly yield.
But my mother toiled with that patch of earth until it brought forth food. Her crops were abundant, and she let me gather hers, handing me a metal bowl and pair of scissors to cut tomatoes from the vine to put in a salad for Sunday dinner.
As soon as my little sister, Deborah, had enough dexterity to walk and hold a cup, I took her by the hand to the raspberry patch–tamed and tidied by our mother’s faithful tending–and we picked berries, dusting off the ants and plopping the berries into a blue plastic cup.
The garden was one of the first signs that subverted the dominant teaching that permeated our evangelical Christian world.
Humans were grievously wicked and the world was destined to be burned up by the fires of God’s judgment. Our time on earth was a period of grace where God withheld judgment to give people time to repent. At best, the earth was an interim space with occasional innocent pleasures to help us endure until our final destination (heaven). At worst, it was a hotbed of sin, filled with temptations that threatened to turn our eyes from spiritual matters, to fix our gaze on the material world that was passing away.
The garden threatened all this. I find consolation in the thought and touch of gardens now. The scent of mom’s red-ripe tomatoes, the image of long, crisp green beans dangling from their vines, the carrot tops ready for picking, even my own pallid lettuce plants–the nearness of these wonders undercut the notion that heaven was not a place on earth.
I liked it here on earth and wanted to stay. If God was going to destroy the earth with fire, he could burn me along with it.
Quiet, gardens are. At least, they seem so at first, and this is why I love them. You come to the garden to sit and still yourself, to take in the purple larkspur and the bluebell. And as your body stills, the garden reveals itself as a hub of activity, a multitude of concurrent worlds that you were too loud and busy and large to perceive.
Our garden and backyard was modest, but it was enough to disrupt the status quo. The seeds planted in girlhood took root and grew deeper and stronger year by year.
I used to find pill bugs and watch them curl up into hard, gray balls. I found dozens of brown, translucent cicada shells clinging to the trunk of our red oak, their backs split mysteriously down the middle. For years, I thought this was the entirety of the cicada body, and I marveled at the wonder of a bug that lived as pure exoskeleton and kept so remarkably still.
The mysteries of our home included The Hill, a wooded area just beyond the backyard gate that sloped downward until it reached the Coleman’s backyard at the bottom. My sister, Deborah, and I spent hours hauling broken tree branches into piles to build forts.
One year, our neighbors dumped a few Christmas trees that became flat from the heavy snow, and in the springtime when they dried, they made perfect walls for our fort.
When the fort was done, we gathered food. The only edible items on The Hill were honeysuckle and clumps of wild scallions that grew like weeds. We took a basket and traversed The Hill in search of the long, green tufts we knew were too thick to be grass. Once pulled, the scallions had to be beaten free of dirt, so we swung each bundle at the nearest tree trunk, squinting to keep the dirt out of our eyes. Then we went home to our fort to make bread and scallion-venison stew.
There was no grain to be had, but I took two stones and made a rough mortar and pestle, grinding imaginary wheat and baking invisible bread in our fort’s brick oven. The inner part of the honeysuckle was sweet and succulent, so Deborah gathered these in baskets and stored them in our forest pantry. In summer, we gathered raspberries from the garden and added them to our food stores. Picking edible raspberries was more satisfying than gathering from the toxic evergreens out front, but with rumors of a harsh winter coming, we were not discriminating.
I also hunted game to add to our stockpile. My meager weaponry was so dull it could hardly slaughter a cucumber, but I took a small Swiss Army knife, carved the edge of a stick into a makeshift spear, and pretended to hunt bears and deer and spear fish from the invisible river that ran down The Hill. After a successful bear hunt, I would drag the carcass to the fort and together Deborah and I would turn it into pemmican.
All this color stood in contrast to the bleakness of heaven, the eternal home I knew I was supposed to desire with all my heart. But heaven was a world that “no eye had seen, no ear had heard, and no human heart could imagine.” So we tried very hard not to imagine it, a teeth-gritting exercise that grated against our generative impulses and produced a portrait more wilted than my lettuce plants.
Clouds, harps galore, oodles of white robes and white people. Regal gates to a city planted on puffs of clouds. If only we’d thought to pattern heaven off of one of the seven wonders of the world. But earth and heaven comparisons were off-limits. Heaven ended up pale in all senses. Heaven employed a very poor design team.
The garden was the first sign that the earth mattered, but there were many others. Mom kept a craft cabinet full of art supplies. Clay for sculpting, colored pencils, paints, brushes, markers, stencils.
I loved the color of the cooking clay and made little figurines modeled after Veggie Tales characters. Veggie Tales was considered an acceptable mythology because it was labelled ‘Christian’ and ‘wholesome.’ Ever the entrepreneur, I set up a roadside stand to sell my figurines.
Mom gave us sewing lessons and took us to a group at the library to learn to knit and crochet.
I took baking classes from a mother in our local homeschool group. We visited the Eli Crane house, a local historical site, where I learned about 18th century cooking.
Our heavenly-minded community had all manner of excuses as to why these earthly arts were acceptable. We had to eat and it glorified God to take care of our bodies because St Paul said our bodies were a temple of the Holy Spirit. Sewing and knitting were eminently practical (or at least they had been half a century ago). Culinary arts and sewing were an integral part of preparation for girls who hoped to become good and godly wives on day.
But these excuses, which we all believed with gusto, were thin veils that barely hid our terrible secret: we enjoyed food and clothes and knit caps and quilted blankets. But we didn’t want anyone to know (least of all ourselves), so we kept modest and productive and didn’t let ourselves get too giddy over a warm, crusty apple pie with caramelized sugar.
But in time the jig was up. We liked things. We liked experiences. We wanted a world where food, play, sexual desire, familial belonging, nature, our neighborhoods, our schools, our cultures, mattered. We so loved the world that we wanted to be part of it, to know that our actions had consequences in the here and now. We wanted to know that this world wasn’t the depressing foreplay to what was bound to be a shameful and disappointing marriage when at last it reached full consummation in the hereafter.
We wanted to know that our history, even the things we did not choose, mattered.