People Who Need People
(And other ways to grow)
My parents live seven hours away in a house on a farm I was not raised on.
They bought and built up the land after their youngest (me) was off and settled into the beginnings of her new, young life. They restored the bathrooms and kitchen, built ramshackle sheds out of recycled wood, rescued and adopted dog after dog (after dog). They began to grow potatoes, flowers, tomatoes, watermelons.
My mom builds and fashions scarecrows out of thrift store clothes, makes them beautiful and whimsical with sun hats and scarves, the wood beneath made to look like her arms are outstretched and dancing. When the wind blows, from just far enough away, it looks like a woman pirouetting in the middle of a cabbage patch. My daddy prunes apple trees and citrus trees that my now deceased Aunt Debbie brought down from her greenhouse in Alabama and helped him plant years ago. They are now tall tributes to her that live in the middle of one of his fields. My daddy is tender with them. He builds chicken wire fences around them. He watches and cares for them daily - and they keep getting taller, the fruit getting fatter and sweeter as they add another season of understanding regarding their potential as a thing that grows on this planet. His care and urging does that.
My parents spend the summers and fall putting up fruit and vegetables when the crops come in. They take nightly walks with all their dogs around the property. Each day is tied to the weather and a schedule the dogs have created for them. My parents have always been dedicated to things outside of themselves, always eager to make something decent for someone else, even a dog at five a.m. who just likes to be outside as the sun is coming up. I recognize so much of that from my childhood, there are so many consistencies of spirit. But, they were not these simple farm folks - ever - in my youth. They were busy making a living, keeping us fed, driving MGB ragtops and Honda motorcycles, blaring music with the windows open every Saturday, shaking us out of bed singing along with Harry Nilsson “gotta get up, gotta get out”. They were busy with us kids and, ultimately, they stayed busy as partners keeping each other tethered to the truth of themselves. They always worked hard, were focused and dedicated to growing and being “better”, whatever that might have meant for them in various times. I have had many good examples of how to become a person with optimism and conviction and vision and how to back it all up with hard work, but no better example comes to mind than my mother and father. The probably don’t see themselves as idealists. That was a thing they accused me of. But they always did so with a shine in their eyes. Because, as it goes, it takes one to know one.
Their home, which was once just a house on a plot of land is now a well loved farm with character and spirit because of their hard work over the last nearly two decades. Tucked deep in some plain woods of northwest Florida, it takes a hundred different small, country roads - some with no names and most with just a county road number - to reach the space they have claimed, the micro-universe they have built, their little chunk of paradise as I now have the maturity to see it. On the final left turn coming from my direction, you make your way down a road that used to be all red dirt and bumpy. It had the unfortunate treatment of getting graveled over by the county a couple of years ago. My daddy says it’s a good thing, helps with erosion. I think it’s an utter disappointment. I miss the bumpy red dirt road. I miss sitting with my kids in the back of my daddy’s old black truck and taking a drive down it, just a joyride solely to feel some wind and bumps, and seeing the red billows behind us, immediately feeling the seed of nostalgia get planted as I watch my daughter’s face covered with her cycloning blonde hair, stopping her from leaning on the edge, always on the edge, and holding her shirt tail tight while my son sits ever so still, his hands in his lap, his eyes squinty and bright and happy, still finding the joy through his always present cautiousness. We only did that once, maybe twice, but it cauterized damn near everything I love about that place deep into my person. I still purse my lips when I turn and feel the gravel under my wheels. Things change. It’s just a road, after all.
Of all the roads, all the turns, all the gravel and the pavement that leads from Nashville to that farm, I don’t need a map to find my parents. I don’t need one single directive. I just drive. I know it by heart. The landmarks hardly ever change. But if they did, it wouldn’t change the reflexive yields, blinker flicks, stops or starts. My bathroom breaks are perfectly timed so that I can see familiar faces at that one gas station with no name up the hill from the It Don’t Matter restaurant where you can get some decent, not great, fried catfish and greens if you’re really hungry. I know this road by practice sure. But I’d like to imagine that I could find my parents anywhere, no matter where they might be, if I really needed to. The path to that farm feel less memorized than it feels as though I am following a string attached to my mother’s wrist which is attached to my father’s wrist which is also attached to my wrist. I’d like to think that. There are just some things that the body knows. The body writes its own maps.
One early recent morning I texted a friend that I was low, that I needed someone. My old tendencies are in a distinct collision course with some new tendencies, as I’d imagine is the case with just about every single one of us, especially as we begin to poke our heads out of our isolation holes and reacquaint ourselves with the world outside. I’m not feeling anything exceptional in the scope of things. But that text was, I can tell you, a revolution.
My friend called immediately. Not even five seconds passed after I pushed “send”, which was a relief because I wrote the text and stared at it from my closed toilet seat for ten minutes, then another fifteen minutes as it stared at me while I brushed my teeth, washed my face, cried into the sink, washed my face again, flossed, applied my face oil, cried again, and reapplied my face oil. I do not talk about my feelings. Not in that way, anyway. I am open. I write and share from a vulnerable place. I do not shy from the hard parts. But to call a friend and cry in the midst of what I know is my manic depression tilting too quickly for me to exercise it away or change my diet or get more sleep or readjust my routines? Nope. This has not been a practice I have ever wanted, needed or even valued, if I’m being honest. I will always receive those phone calls and do my best to offer what I can, to be a safe place for someone. But those phone calls from me, any one of my closest friends can tell you, do not happen. Ever.
There was immediate release, naturally. Because that is what heals humanity in so many ways, that connectivity, that recognition that one human sees and understands another. I noted to myself, and again to my friend later, how important it was for me to practice this, to give myself permission to be as I am in front of people - not just on good days, but even (and maybe especially) on the days when I feel I am sinking beneath that terrible voice that comes with depression, the one that you lose so many days to, the one that eats up the work and time you invested in building something good in the days before, the one that tells you it is all trash and worth nothing - that you are worth nothing.
I felt tended to. I felt urged toward something better. I felt like one of my daddy’s clementine trees.
It has always been a remarkable thing to witness, my daddy and his plants, his garden, his trees. How much care goes into helping something not only grow but thrive and produce something useful like food or something beautiful like a geranium flower is stupendous to me. I’ve thought about this shift for him a lot, from a buzzcut, steadfast soldier with a furrowed brow and an occasional cocky glint in his eye to a gentle coaxer of life stuff and rich, deep humanness. The look in his eyes is now soft, sometimes teary, always full of thoughtfulness. He tends to these things now, I believe, because he is finally tending to himself. The work he does is awe inspiring to me because it is the manifestation of all the good that lives inside of that one human. This farm is the true essence of my parents and that is why I now love it and know it by heart. Not because I grew up there, I didn’t. But because they are everywhere on that land and they are the things, the kind of humanity, I know best.
It takes so much, yet so little, to move yourself out of your own way. I don’t know why I am like I am. Do any of us? I look at a small text and then a subsequent phone call with a friend where I finally moved some categories around on my value chart and I realize, it takes so little. It takes so little to urge yourself toward something “better”, whatever that might mean for you in any given moment. It took so little for me to understand that so much of my own pain is tied to some false idea of steadfastness or independence, or worse, a noticeable irreverence I may have carried too long for how being seen and loved and understood by another human being might, shockaroo, make me a happier individual. None of us are alone here. None of us. Even in those moments where we feel that solitude as the most overwhelming truth. It took me an hour (and forty-three years) to send that text, to reach out in a way that seems so easy for others. But then the understanding came so quickly. I felt protected, like my friend had just put up a little chicken wire barrier between me and the elements. It’ll fall down again, that is the truth I live with. But I’ve equipped someone I trust with the tools to rebuild it with me if I ever need help in that way again. That’s freedom of some sort, isn’t it? That’s one way to go about life so that we can find our fattest fruit.
There is an irrevocable Magic that happens between two living things - whether it be two women or a man and his clementine tree - when we offer the smallest parts of ourselves to each other, when we allow the tiny voice of our humanity that so often gets buried in the noise and outrage and judgement of life to be the voice we decide to share on any given day, for whatever reason. Sometimes its a pitiful beautiful text from your bathroom. Sometimes its a scarecrow in a light blue scarf that reminds you of that sliver of your mother that is just her. Just her. And, just him wiping the waxy leaves of a tree. Just me finding my way to them. Just all of us, finding our way home.
To continue sharing my revived George Saunders obsession, please enjoy this wonderful essay about the gift of the humans around us - especially those who show us how to be braver with our humanity.
If you haven’t picked up a copy of his new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain - do yourself a favor. It is rich in humanity. It is rich in Saunderness.