For the last three or four months, I have been averting my eyes from the small plant box garden in front of our house. Only about 12 feet long and 5 feet deep from the roadside, it had one thing going for it. It was lush.
In January 2019, when my parents moved to Baguio after selling their 30-year-old Manila home, their gardener Leo came along to help with the move. When he was done putting every piece of furniture that would fit into their new condo into its proper place, I had him come over to my house to repair my bedraggled garden.
I’ve learned my lesson from past shopping sprees and gardening seasons. I no longer buy seasonal flowers. They’re pretty and give me endless pleasure—until the season ends. Caught up in the relentless schedule of mothering, housekeeping and writing, I would ignore my dying garden, never finding the time—or sometimes, the funds—to replace my beloved snapdragons, peonies and marigolds. (Only the margarita daisies have survived the last six years of my inconsistent gardening).
Also, the part of the street our house is located is quite shady. Just around the corner, flowers thrive in direct sunlight. I envy my neighbor her vibrant hot pink bougainvillea that enjoys a lofty perch after years of climbing a neighboring pine tree.
Armed with these insights and lessons, Leo and I set about choosing sturdy plants that grow like weeds, some of which prefer full or partial shade. Snake plants and spider plants, sturdy and growing wild in my area, made up the bulk of my central garden. At the orchidarium, we bought some shade plants (whose names I never learned, some have pink leaves and the other a light green, broad leaf) which were a bit on the pricey side but that Leo said could be further separated into several plants. Along the road, my plant box was already made lush with peanut grass I had transplanted from my parents’ house in QC several months prior. A friend who had just sold her house gave me many hanging plants, including a couple of pitcher plants.
After two days of clearing, repotting and planting, Leo went back home to QC and left me with a green, glistening garden I could be proud of. I then proceeded to neglect it for the next 14 months. I would admire and appreciate it, and made sure it was watered regularly, but since I know nothing about pruning I didn’t touch a single thing. Luckily, these plants, thoughtfully organized and chosen by Leo, thrived on my benign neglect.
But the passage of time could not help but wreak some wear and tear on some aspects of the garden. My neighbor’s sweet, amusing dogs loved breaking through my garden’s bamboo fence to forage through my tiny plant kingdom, leaving some leaves squashed under their doggie weight, and the bamboo fence in shambles. Some bamboo we had planted in the plant boxes along the house’s side stairs hadn’t survived, their stems still upright but dead brown. I let the situation deteriorate.
In the first couple of weeks of quarantine, the state of my garden festered in the back of my mind.
Five days ago, I reached out to a younger friend who is also a writer. She lives on her own in Manila, and I asked her how she was doing. She said that she thought she would be able to do some writing during quarantine, but that her output on Day 20 of Enhanced Community Quarantine was “zero.” She wondered if she was possibly undergoing some shade of anxiety or depression. When she realized that she wasn’t going to get any work done, she decided to let go of expectations and just relax, do some yoga and tidying up around the house. That made her feel and sleep better. We both agreed that we humans are so hard on ourselves, that we need to practice compassion and patience with ourselves.
After our chat, I reflected on my own behavior during quarantine. I had already noticed by then that quarantine did not make me feel more relaxed. I was just as busy and stressed as before. No, I was even more stressed, because the introvert in me wasn’t getting the solitude that pre-quarantine life afforded me. After bringing the kids to school, I usually parked myself in a café in order to write and read and work. Now, quarantine life had me on a broken record of breakfast-lunch-dinner chef duty, arts and crafts activities with the kids, bedtime routines. I didn’t write at night because all I wanted at day’s end was to blob out and watch a mindless movie. At Day 20, I had yet to bang out a painting, write a long form essay, or edit the manuscript of my first essay anthology. The cult of productivity I had been a member of decried my “laziness,” but perhaps I wasn’t lazy or procrastinating. Is it possible that what I was feeling was…fear?
I stole a couple of hours to myself, to write in my diary and meld with the nature in our backyard. I wrote, “I feel torn in pieces…so now I have run away to the sanctuary of our back wall, sun dappled forest atwitter with bird song. I let the wind wash over me, letting the gentle hush of trees whisper hush to my tired soul. The random dog barks, bees and flies buzz, vibrating the air. The sounds of nature are a balm to my soul…I let this peaceful symphony knit together my broken pieces, dry my tears. I give myself up to the life around me, to the healing green of plants and trees, the butterflies, the spider’s web strung precariously between flower stems and plucked by the wind. I will melt into this scene until I am made whole again.”
In 2004, I returned home to the Philippines after having lived in Europe and the US since 1994. I was broken from my failed first marriage and the fast life I lived to numb the pain. As I began life anew in my hometown, I had only one mantra: I choose peace. I breathed that every day, said it silently in my mind before making each decision, big or small.
This pandemic is showing me that it is time to revisit this mantra. Life pre-lockdown was a spinning merry-go-round of family, household, business, creative career, fueled by the shoulds and musts from within and without. As this situation unfolds around us, I want to listen acutely to my inner self. How shall I respond? How shall I change? Who is the new self breaking out from under the crusty rules and truisms of the old world and struggling to come into being? Who is she and how does she want to be?
There is a world being born within me, and I want to be its patient gardener.
Two days after speaking with my friend, I awoke earlier than usual and gazed at the tender newness morning light imbues upon the world. And I knew: it was finally time to tend to my garden.
We cleared out dead leaves, stems and branches. We uprooted several specimens of a handsome purple-leafed plant that was multiplying all by itself, and lined the street-side plant box with them. We repaired the bamboo fences with sturdy string. We replanted the amaryllis in the stair-side plant boxes along with some spider plants. While pottering about, I saw treasure I had been ignoring right under my nose—all the flowers were in bloom! Dancing ladies, several pots of pink impatience flowers, as well as the white bleeding heart vine that had been there even before we moved into the house nine years ago.
I was in awe of the beauty around me, my body and soul suffused with quiet pleasure. Working on the garden felt deliciously good. I could imagine the life and spirit of it coming up to meet me and work with me. When we finished, we watered our newly replanted friends. I could feel satisfaction and harmony all around.