Hitting pause on Livin’ Thing

Gardening helped Meleah better understand the consciousness of other living things. Image by Mike Hoium
Gardening helped Meleah better understand the consciousness of other living things. Image by Mike Hoium

I was 30 years old when my dad’s mother died. He was in his early 60s, and she was in her late 80s and had only recently been forced to move into a nursing home after a bad fall down her basement stairs. Her funeral was in Indiana, where my dad grew up. I didn’t go, and I have regretted that for years. I wasn’t close to that grandmother, and I was young and busy and thinking mostly about myself. If my dad was upset that I wasn’t there for him, he’s never said so. Thanks for that, Dad. 

Once Dad got back to Phoenix, he called to tell me about the funeral. I don’t remember much about that conversation, but I do recall one line very clearly: “I’ve never really thought a lot about death,” he told me, “but when your parents die, you realize that you’re next in line.” Those words, and the memory of his exhausted, sad voice, have been with me ever since. 

And here we are: It’s 2019 and I am in my mid-50s, traveling back and forth to Phoenix routinely to help out and spend time with my 86-year-old dad. Going over Medicare paperwork, sorting out forgotten passwords and trying to help him master the software updates needed to send emails and read Fox News headlines, I look over at my dad and I’m aware that we are in a line. And when he is gone, I will step up to be the first person in it. 

It’s such a weird feeling to understand that while the Grim Reaper will likely not be coming to collect my soul anytime soon, it’s not as if I’ve got all the time in the world anymore, either. I’d be lying if I told you that I never find that thought depressing. But, mostly, I don’t. Honestly, the mid-life awareness that it’s time to focus more on my own damn to-do list feels pretty good. Finding time is the tough part because that involves letting go of some things that I enjoy, like writing this column. It’s hard for me to believe that I wrote my first Everyday Gardener column for the Southwest Journal in 2008. Back then, I was a new Hennepin County Master Gardener and I was eager to share advice, answer gardening questions and learn all I could about horticulture. 

I still love gardening, but I don’t enjoy writing about it as much as I used to. For me, the best thing about gardening has been having an up-close opportunity to observe and experience nature. Crawling around on the ground pulling weeds and talking to plants, I’ve often been mesmerized by the goings-on of ants, dragonflies, wild bees, birds, chipmunks, raccoons, squirrels, earthworms, beetles, aphids, butterflies and even possums. 

Like a lot of gardeners, I used to get pretty irked when some of those creatures took bites out of my tomatoes, pulled up seedlings to nibble on the roots and dug up potted annuals just to hide a few acorns. But watching them do their thing over the years woke me up to the forehead-slapping reality that THE OUTDOORS IS THEIR HOME. We’re just gardening in it. It’s easy for us humans to miss that. Life has existed on Earth for at least 3.5 billion years, and our species has long believed that we are separate, if not superior, to nature. Only now, as tides rise and ecosystems disappear, are some of us questioning that belief. 

I renamed my column and blog Livin’ Thing in 2018 because I wanted to write more broadly about gardening and nature. While I used to spend a lot of time reading about gardening, I’m now more drawn to books about how interesting, emotional and intelligent plants and animals can be, like Sy Montgomery’s “The Soul of an Octopus,” Monica Gagliano’s “Thus Spoke the Plant,” and Frans De Waal’s “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves” and “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?”  

Though I won’t be writing a regular Southwest Journal column anymore, I still plan to submit stories occasionally. When I have time, I also plan to keep writing about these sorts of things on my blog. Right now, though, my dad and I need to figure out the mysteries of Windows 10, devise a system of note-taking that’s helpful when your short-term memory goes on the fritz and spend evenings drinking wine on the swing in his backyard under the palm trees. We may be in a line, but there’s still time.  

Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor who blogs at Livin’ Thing.