I’m a super huge fan of allegory. It’s the fundamental reason for why I love the fantasy genre of entertainment so much. The One Ring and the Urukai were said to be the allegorical coming of the Industrial Age; Palpatine‘s lust for power is often related by fans to Hitler‘s rise to power; and “winter is coming” for us, scientists tell us, in the form of climate change, but like the great families of Westeros, we’re all too busy with our own shit to realise it. Finding symbolic symmetry and making connections between things that are generally not connected helps me to make sense of and navigate life. It helps me to visualise and to compartmentalize, and that helps me cope. Because Lord of Light knows, I need my coping mechanisms.
Now, let me tell you about my front lawn. No, it’s not in any way related to Game of Thrones or Tolkienesque battles. Except that, like those two epic sagas, I’ve found a way to identify and extract life lessons from the stories being told. Yes, my lawn told me a story, and yes, I might be sound a lunatic, but bear with me.
When we moved into our house in June of 2013, the lawns were a small disaster. There were more dandelions than blades of grass, and the grass that was there was hardly clinging to life. It really was a sad story. Even still, there was in the middle a large ash tree that cast a shadow over the majority of the lawn. I suspected that had played a pretty major role in the patchy mess that was my yard, but I dealt with it. Not knowing much about maintaining a yard at that point in my life, I went to the internet. I did a little research to figure out what I could do to at least have some semblance of a green lawn in front of my house. Knowledge, they say, is power. I saw the task of bringing the lawn and yard as a whole back to life as a project, and I was going to make it my bitch.
So every rainy day, I’d try to go out to dethatch, sow seeds, fertilise, aerate, do a little song and dance (not really, but basically) and hope for the best. But my efforts were in vain. Either I had a seriously black thumb, or grass just wasn’t in the cards for me. That was essentially how that summer went. And the next summer, too. And then we received a notice at the end of the summer of 2014 that we’d have to say goodbye to the giant ash tree in front of the house. It had contracted the Ash Borer beetle, and it had to be cut down. Sad, I thought. Sadder still when I remembered reading how much grass generally doesn’t love a lot of direct sunlight. “Oh, well,” I thought. “There’s always river rock.”
The city workers came and went, taking the tree and most of my surrounding garden with them. That was in March of 2015. At that time, I was probably at my lowest I had been in my struggle with depression and anxiety. Watching what was left of my front yard be destroyed, watching a garden and lawn that I had tried tirelessly for two summers prior to breathe life into get shredded and littered with ground tree bits wasn’t exactly what the doctor had ordered. They happened to tear the tree down during the week that I had been plagued with a gnarly gastrointestinal bug, so between my insides liquefying and the pitiful stump left in the middle of my yard…nah, not really my best day.
I went into that spring with not a lot of hope or ambition for the desiccated yard. That shit was not pleasant. I had started working in garden centre that year though, so I managed to keep my little fire of garden-love burning, though barely, and I kept trying. I mean, as hard as anyone who is hardly managing to get out of bed in the morning can try. Still struggling hard with my mental health, I did what I would typically to do to cope – I bought things. A lot of things. A lot of things for my yard, a lot of plants that would never find a home beyond sitting in their packaging on my front step. I bought all manners of decorative planters, fancy tools, expensive grass seeds, fertilizers, whatever. Everything I bought was purchased with good intentions, but my lack of ambition and my malfunctioning brain left all of that sitting on my front step. It was sad. It was worse than when I’d started two summers before. I was equally angry at myself and at the stupid lawn. “Why can’t you just grow and be nice like everyone else’s lawn on the block?” To add insult to injury, the city workers returned to grind down the stump they had left months prior. The little effort I had managed had been destroyed again, and now, two giant tire marks and a gaping hole was the centerpiece of my dilapidated yard. I was defeated. I waved my white flag, and threw in the towel.
My mother-in-law, very clearly aware of my distress (from both the garden and my already broken mind) stepped in after about two months of stagnant ugliness. She brought mulch, edging, grass seed, tools, and willpower. I can’t begin to imagine how annoyed she and my husband were at my continued slack that had been piling up in the front of the house for the whole summer, but it had obviously reached a tipping point. Right now–as in today–I am so grateful she did this. That day, however, I was anything but. Watching her work the yard, the lawn, the flowerbed, was a hideous blow to my ego. It was a stark representation of how I’d failed to bring my own dream for the yard into fruition. I want to make it clear that I wasn’t mad at her. I was mad at myself. I had failed at being a gardener. I had failed at being an adult. I had failed at being a functioning human. In that moment, I hated myself and the very existence of my front yard.
She was out there for the better part of the day, and I went back and forth from sitting on the step watching her to laying in my bed upstairs in tears. It was pitiful. After I had felt like I had been sufficiently miserable for the day, I went out to see how things were going. Her cheeks were red, her clothes were dirty, but she was smiling. “Do you like it?” “Yeah, it’s really nice. It would have taken me forever. Thanks.” We talked a bit, but I was still feeling miserable.
Over the next few weeks, the seed she had laid began to sprout. The patches in the lawn were still there and they were still unsightly, but just seeing the new blades of grass was a flicker of hope. It was a miserable experience for the majority of the season though-the kind of misery that leaves you constantly exhausted. So even though I felt a small shred of satisfaction with those sprouting blades, I couldn’t do anything more. I let that be the last of my effort for the season. I cleaned up my accumulated junk, and called it quits.
Last fall and the winter leading into this year was awful. I struggled at work. I struggled with relationships. I struggled with existing. I never actively wanted to die, but I really, desperately wanted to figure out a way to just stop existing. A multitude of things played into why my mental health was a veritable rollercoaster of manic highs and extreme lows. Every week, I’d fall apart. Every week, I sewed myself back together. Each time, the stitches becoming less and less sturdy. Ruptures happened frequently. My cat passed away suddenly. Work was inconsistent. I was struggling with undiagnosed PMDD and ADHD, and I was on the wrong medication. My mistakes, great and small, felt apocalyptic to me. Any hint of confrontation would trigger a kill switch. My flaws were unforgivable, my mistakes were crimes. And then I’d find myself thinking about the lawn. How ugly it is. How dead it was. How the only life it could sustain were ugly, useless, invasive weeds.
I made it to spring. This past April, I was able to get back to the garden centre where, even through my struggles last year, I felt the most at peace. I attributed the feeling of peace and calm to working in the outdoors and with products that I genuinely loved. Immediately before I began the season in the garden centre, my psychiatrist diagnosed me with severe ADHD (along with a slew of other neuroses that are mostly related/due to long untreated ADHD) and started me on the proper medication. And what a difference. What a wake up. What clarity. I’ll talk more specifically about my experience with ADHD diagnosis and treatment in a future post, but for the purpose of this story, I need to be quick – you guys – EVERYTHING CHANGED.
At the first hint of warmer weather, I was out in the front yard raking up what the winter had left behind. Up came the undercoat of dead grass. To my amazement, the new grass from last summer had survived the winter and had already begun to come up. I was out there every other day, raking up the dead grass, digging up the dandelions, pressing holes into the soil. When it started getting warmer, I made sure to water the grass as often as possible. The one thing I employed this year that I hadn’t in previous years was consistency. I kept at it. I made a goal, and I worked towards it. And the weirdest thing happened – the grass grew. The patches disappeared. The lawn came in lush and soft. The weeds were still present, but the sight of full grass all the way up to the curb was astounding. HELLO, MY NAME IS LEAH COOKE, MOTHER OF TWO, WIFE OF ONE, OWNER OF GRASS THAT IS GREEN. I’m not going to lie, folks, that grass is an embarrassingly significant source of pride for me this year.
On the way home from work one night a few months ago, I passed a home a few blocks from our home that boasted a stunningly perfect lawn. Like, Stepford Wives perfect. I bet if you went and measured ever blade, they’d all be the same height. Dark green, soft, beautiful, not a weed in sight, not a blade out of place. And I felt a tinge of disappointment. No matter how hard I worked on my lawn, I thought, it would never look like that. Unless I dropped $1,000 for sod and hoped for the best, maybe then? I felt silly that I was so proud of my lawn that, next to this one, looked like me standing next to a Kardashian. Just… not good enough. I let the feelings of disappointment sit in the back of my mind.
After dinner that night, I went out and did my regular watering and cleaning up of my flowers and the lawn. When I was done, I took a seat on the front step. I took a second and looked around at my work. With the mental snapshot of the horror that was my front step last year–half dead plants strewn everywhere, stacks of empty planters, tools that hadn’t been put away after use–I saw a stark difference that day. One of the pots I had bought last year I had filled with a pretty purple arrangement, and it was sitting neatly at the corner of the step, watered, flourishing, healthy. A wind chime that my son had picked out from my garden centre was singing quietly in the gentle breeze. A beautiful hybrid petunia that my mentor had given me for my birthday was sitting in a quaint little decorative pot, thriving away. Then I shifted my focus to my lawn. My husband has mowed it the day before, and it was glistening from the watering I had just given it. A few small patches of buttercups had come back up, as happy as pigs in shit, yellow and healthy as can be. Small saplings from my neighbour’s sumac were popping up in two places, vibrant frond-like branches of orange and yellow. Green clover had invaded the remaining empty patches the grass had struggled to fill in.
I looked at the diversity of growth in my front lawn, and for the first time in the 3 years we’d been there, I felt a love for it. I felt the kind of love you feel for your favourite t-shirt, for your old teddy bear, for your spot on the couch, your broken-in sneakers. I felt the love you feel when you have something that is safe, something that is familiar, something that you identify as yours.
I looked at my lawn, and I saw myself. The struggle we faced together and separately. The trials of trauma outside of our own control. The welcomed help from people who truly cared about our survival. And though we’re both littered with weeds and our flaws are still apparent, we’re unapologetic. There’s still beauty in us, and we can see that now. There’s still room for growth for us, and we’re growing now. There is still a will to survive, and we’re surviving now. I saw the results of care, and now I can see a future that is alive.
“Sometimes the feelings inside of me get messy like dirt. And I like to clean things. Pretend the dirt is the feelings. This floor is my mind. That is called coping.”
– Crazy Eyes, Orange is the New Black