I can write a character who sews beautiful clothes, or has a green thumb, or does sums in record time. I can bask, for a little while, in the reflected glow of their talent. Of course it takes research and some careful writing to make it believable, but some things you need only to hint at. Gaps give readers space to imagine.
Now it’s strange that it has taken me this long to realise, but this year, about to turn forty, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am not a person who gardens. I wish I was. I love gardens. I love to be outdoors and appreciating a beautifully laid out garden. I love the textures and smells of plants in the sun, the feeling of dirt clumps crushed between my fingers and the dappled light beneath a carefully pruned tree. But I’m no good at it. The things I plant I forget to water and eventually they die. If you’re not at my feet reminding me, like a dog or a child, I will not give you the nurturing you require.
I like people who garden. I want to be a person who gardens, but it’s just not in me. I’m lucky my family shares a garden with my sister and brother-in-law, who grow and prune things. But I’ve finally come to terms that I don’t. It’s how I picture my ideal self, but it isn’t me.
At my children’s primary school there is a gardening club, and the most wonderful school garden imaginable. There is a cohort of earthy, Birkenstock-wearing mothers who have gardening bees and sell bright orange chunks of pumpkin and pink watermelon smoothies at fundraisers. I remember visiting the school before we started there with my children, and imagining myself among them. I wear Birkenstocks too! But when it came time to volunteer, it was the reading groups I drifted towards. Luckily for the garden. And have I made it to a single bee? I hang my head in shame.
I remember the same feeling as a child and as a teenager. That intense sort of longing to be good at something I knew I wasn’t suited for. As a girl I wanted to be a ballerina, but we moved frequently and I wasn’t actually coordinated in the first place. I remember begging my mother for pointe shoes, and quitting after a few weeks because I couldn’t stand the pain. I kept the shoes in my closet for years. I would pull them out sometimes, and feel the smooth baby pink satin, the packed wool in the toes. I read novels in which ballerinas had to change the wool because it became soaked with blood. That was what I wanted: beauty from pain. But it wasn’t me.
Later, in college, I hung out among hippies. For a brief moment I sewed my own clothes, knitted, and made hemp necklaces which I sold to very stoned people at concerts. The dresses I sewed were the ugliest items of clothing ever. A burlap sack with a belt would be more becoming. My woollen hats were crooked and lumpy. My necklaces hung lopsided and limp. God, how I wanted to be crafty. How I imagined myself, industrious and self-sufficient, knitting by lamplight like a pioneer, making baby clothes for my future children. It didn’t take long for me to discover the chasm between what I imagined and reality. Besides, how do you sew, or knit, and read at the same time? You can’t. I made my choice. My children ought to thank me.
Still, I’m surprised occasionally at my own desire to be talented at things which life has shown I am not. Dancing, swimming, gardening and craft, the list is quite long. I remind myself then at the things I have chosen — which suit me. I’m lucky in that way. And so please, don’t be offended if I don’t show up to a single gardening bee over the span of my children’s primary school education.
If you were a plant you would thank me.
Her third novel, Birds & Ships is due out with Allen & Unwin in 2018. She also writes short stories, book reviews and essays, which have been published various places including in the Best Australian Stories 2015. She has a Doctorate of Creative Arts from UTS where she teaches creative writing.
Photo credit: Sarah Rowan Dahl