Spring had started and I dug out my gardening tools, yesterday. I decided to plant my vegetable garden the old fashioned way this year; with my bare hands and simple tools.
The warm sun shone in the sky and the cool breeze danced along my naked arms as I ravaged the sod beneath me with a rusty spade. Tearing up the grass became difficult because the blade had been worn down from years of use. A notch on one side bent forward from the sudden jolt to a hidden stone below the soil. After shaking out most of the dirt from this root-bound slab, I dug up the grass and repositioned it into another barren spot within our yard. Ants and grub worms began to make their way out of their disturbed homes and scrambled to rebuild while flying insects swarm onto the soil for a fresh meal.
Two hours later, feeling the sensation of heat rising from my shoulders, I glanced over my would-be garden to see that I had only cleared out half of the sod. My writer’s group was calling to me and it was time to quit for the day. I would have to save the removal of the remaining turf for another day.
While we begin to cultivate our gardens, as writers we are learning to cultivate our own relationships. This group is like my garden. I have prepared the ground, planted the seeds, fed and watered them, and now I get to watch them grow. However, the success of this group is not what I bring to the table each week. The success lies in cultivating relationships among the members of this group.
As one who suffers from anxiety of crowded places, I find it a constant struggle to get myself out of the house. I somehow accomplish it each day, but the anxiety still remains. I push myself harder than most to meet new and exciting people, because it is my nature to shy away from strangers.
I blame this affect on my parents. Who wouldn’t? After all, aren’t they the ones who reinforced the notion not to talk to strangers when we were younger?
I’m not speaking ill on great advice. I still believe children shouldn’t talk to strangers. However, I became a very confused child when I grew-up in places like Detroit and Oklahoma City where talking to strangers would get you into a whole lot of trouble. Once accustomed to my surroundings, I would then be whisked off to the countryside and small little towns where no one person is a stranger.
To make matters worse, there was the mortification of my own father whose dominance left me hesitant to speak up and voice my own opinion; leaving me feeling painfully shy and extremely insecure. I would talk quiet so that others need not hear what I have to say. I would sit at the back of the classroom and struggle to see the chalkboard so that others would not point and talk about me behind my back. I would find an empty table in the corner of the cafeteria hoping that someone would invite me to their table before I reached its lonely occupancy, only to achieve my destination where I would shrink down into my seat and hope that no one would notice.
It was an elderly neighbor who helped me find my voice. We were living in the suburbs of Detroit where it was dangerous for the children to even play in the backyard. My parents attempted to send us to a public school. It was called White Public School, but once my father stepped into the building he determined that he was not going to allow his children to be “learnin’ with them niggers.”
Yep, that was Daddy. If the devil himself were to roam this earth, I believe he would have found his son in my father. He insisted that we be enrolled into a Catholic school. We weren’t even Catholic, but he remarried my mother under the Catholic way. We all converted to Catholicism and received scholarships to attend this school.
Everyday, before and after school, Mom would drive us to our destination. Most of the time we were locked-up indoors, but on the nice days, we would be allowed to play in the fenced backyard. Only two rules we had to follow; take the dogs outside with us and don’t talk to strangers.
The elderly woman next door would watch us from her window. She didn’t get along with my Uncle, whom we lived with, and we would scurry away from her out of fear. However, she managed to ask my parents if one the “nice children” would come over to visit with her.
Maybe it was the chance to go somewhere different or the offer of cookies that got me to go over there. Either way, I found myself a regular attendee in her presence. The moments were awkward for my introverted self, but she asked questions and I would answer her. Then, her questions began to pique my interests. It was like a magical wand was waving around above my head and I became a non-stop chatterbox. She encouraged me with a nod of her head and sounds escaping from her lips; I kept chattering on.
Until one day, she revealed to me that she was hard of hearing. My voice was too soft for her ears and most of the time she could not understand what I was saying. I was disappointed. I really wanted her to hear me. So I began to talk louder, and if my voice quieted down, she would signal me to speak up. I was eager to visit with her everyday.
She shed a tear on our last visit when I told her that we had to move. My young self had not noticed the single tear that wet her cheek. I was too busy chattering about how excited I was to meet new friends and being able to walk to the park without worry of the dangers that lurked beyond our yard. We said our goodbyes and I hugged her; my cheek damp from what I assumed was this woman’s sweat from the unusually hot spring day.
She taught me lessons that I could only learn from life and not within the four walls of a classroom. I learned how to raise my voice so that others could hear me. I learned to ask questions so that others knew I was interested in them, and I learned when to listen so that they may share what they were feeling. All of these are key tools in cultivating relationships; new or old.
As I move on with my writer’s group, I will continue to use these tools since I know that they are important to building lasting friendships. My hope is that this group can see beyond our flaws, accept who we are for our common passions, comfort each other in our time of need, guide us in our own writings, and continue to build upon our relationship with each other.
I don’t remember my neighbor’s name. I was only 7 years-old at the time and she may no longer be with us. I once perceived her as a mean old woman, and now I know that she was just a lady who was lonely and hard of hearing; a woman who taught me valuable lessons in speaking-up, listening, and cultivating lasting relationships.