Planting Dill Seeds in a Garden of Grieving

In yesterday’s counseling session, I told my therapist about planting dill seeds. She paused and said after a moment, “You know, I hope you get a chance to tell other people these stories.”

Recently, I’ve started thinking of myself as a professional writer. Not because I have a lucrative career of manipulating the written word, but simply because it’s the only thing that’s making me money as I work at home and avoid contact with a world that still can’t get a handle on Covid. What else do you call it, besides a professional, when you make a living with a skill?

I know I preface with this disclaimer to tamp down the feeling of impostor-hood that bubbles up when I say it out loud or claim it in written form. To counteract it, I’ll say it plainly. I am a professional writer. Dammit.

How we came to the topic of planting dill seeds in my video therapy session is also linked with this current foray into writing “for my supper.” These stories I have are all tied to my garden… and grief. I’ve decided to share them, in the hope that others who are undergoing similar transformations may be comforted. This is where they begin.

I live in a building on a busy street with a desk view of the drivers stopped at the red light below my window. As an aside… it is horrifying just how many people let off the brakes while their eyes are still on their phone. Just something you notice while staring out the window all day.

Our building houses my husband’s business and our loft apartment, with an adjoining yard area. Until June of this year, it resembled a forgotten lot whose landlord lost the deed behind a couch somewhere. Other than a dutiful semi-weekly lawn trimming from my husband, it was left untouched. Our rich soil and frequent rain kept the grass green with no fertilizer, and the weeds and brush had free reign over the “back 40,” a rough and tumble section of the yard that no lawn tool was capable of mowing down easily.

From the beginning of work-from-home mandates for “unessential businesses,” I kept my desk in our guest room, which overlooks this tangle of vines and overgrown shrubs. While taking breaks from my marketing job, I looked out and imagined all the ways I could improve it, if I only had the time.

All these plans started with one monumental task: Tear everything out of the ground and start fresh.

My view from my work-from-home desk, May 2020

I had already made attempts at completing this project, so I knew what I was in for. The large pecan tree from a neighbor’s lot fell into our yard on July 4th weekend, 2017. The ensuing cleanup left our yard completely torn apart, our own small shade tree smashed to pieces and our neighbor’s chain link on the border of our property sagging and decrepit. The previous shrubbery, though interlaced with its own vines, had offered us a neat border between properties that could be trimmed and kept in check. If not for the storm, it would have remained prime real estate for birds, too. But after the crew was finished taking the pecan tree remains away, what grew back was an impenetrable mess. In March 2018 I had started tearing up viney plants, historic bricks, and shrubs, but quit after making progress over no more than 20 feet in 2 weeks. Once my motivation waned and obligations reclaimed my time, I relinquished control of the “back 40” to the native flora. It grew back with a vengeance.

While I stared down at the bramble and bushes from my perch in a work-from-home bubble in the Socially Distanced Spring of 2020, I could have been peering into my own mental state. Grief grew through and around my heart like the smilax vines choking the landscape outside.

Abe at graduation from University of South Carolina Aiken, May 2011 (photo credit: USCA)

Near midnight of April 12, 2020, my friend Abe took his own life.

Abe was endlessly amused by irony. So, it was only fitting that the very month that he died by suicide, I had been assigned to write a series of articles for a client’s blog that focused on suicide prevention. If I were to tell him this story about a stranger, he would have laughed at its absurdity.

On April 14, I helped his mother write his obituary.

On April 22, I signed up for my first therapy appointment through an online counseling platform. I was paired with a therapist named Cindy. She was the first person I ever cried in front of over video chat. I told her that I had been writing so much about suicide prevention and therapy that is was time I took the advice, myself. She said that it was, in fact, good advice to listen to.

By late May, it had become obvious to both of us that full-time work at a marketing agency was not an option for me. Keeping my head above water with work meant nothing when my mental state was still as raw as a downed power line. The two were leading to a dangerous combination, electrified by deep depression. Cindy, seeing the signs of an oncoming crisis, asked me, “What if you quit?”

June 9th was my last day in the office. In speaking with my boss about my departure, I was lucky the company offered for me to retain the writing project that had me crafting the monthly client blogs in the first place. Through this, I was able to keep a semblance of income so my emotional stability could be bolstered by financial stability. My other job duties that required in-office work would then be turned over to my coworkers and a future replacement.

This is how I became a professional freelance writer, at least for now. It’s not the kind of thing you hear in a college prep course. But, while it would feel like a lie to say that I intended for my career to end up this way, dismissing it as a fluke would diminish its significance. In another nod to my friend Abe, I can’t ignore that this is the exact type of position he found himself for his first job out of college.

Though he was a psychology major, fascinated by the human psyche and invested in clinical research, Abe’s true passion was writing. Throughout college, we were part of the poetry club, and worked together on the literary magazine. When I think of his poetry, I can still hear his voice from the open mics we attended. He was always inspiring, reassuring, and encouraging other creatives. For a time after we graduated, he and I swapped poems in order to stay motivated and keep our minds active.

Out of school, Abe got a job as a copywriter for an advertising company. As I listened to him tell me about it, I remember thinking that it was the perfect work for him. We were walking through Hitchcock Woods in Aiken, South Carolina, and he was telling me about the research he was doing about mundane topics, such as plumbing, for a client specializing in home construction. I’ll never forget the way he genuinely seemed to appreciate the details of simple subjects like this. It was as if everything he was learning could be worked into his writing later. I thought that with this position, it would add to his knowledge base in a way that would inform and inspire his great novel.

It’s with no illusions of grandeur for myself that I approach the work of writing, but, as I research subjects such as “Best products to maintain proper posture while working from home during Covid quarantine,” I think of the time I learned about construction from my writer friend on a hike in the woods.

So what’s the big dill?

I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. I’ve decided that to honor Abe, a lifelong fan of wordplay who gifted me the book, “The Pun Also Rises,” I am obligated to say out loud the puns that come to mind in any moment, regardless of the fallout. Considering that he has deprived me of a victim to which I can text the terrible puns to no matter the time of day or night, I think it is only fair to inflict it on the universe, instead.

Let’s resume. I wouldn’t want you to run out of thyme.

On June 19th, I started clearing the unruly portion of my yard, finally starting the landscaping project for good this time.

In the months following his passing, I would share signs that I saw from Abe with my therapist: A thunder clap in the distance when I yelled at him on a solo walk in Hitchcock Woods, a mockingbird swooping across my vision when I asked for a sign to head home during a long stop on the side of the road, a poignant mural greeting me after I pulled off the interstate in response to a spiritual nudge for a detour. Cindy allowed me the space to believe they were indeed all signs from my late friend, without trying to explain away the magic.

When I received some of his books as a gift from his mother, I thumbed through them in the car before I went home just to see if such a sign could be found in the margins, written in his handwriting. Instead, I found a packet of dill seeds used as a bookmark.

By this time, it was some months after his death. I had cleared the vine patch from the yard and was on the next phase of garden planning. It’s a stage where I have to ration my plant purchases carefully so I don’t spend what little money I make from writing on greenery. To bring my garden vision to life, I know I’ll need to rely on all of the budget hacks and tricks I can find.

The packet of dill seeds was just the sign I needed. It felt as if Abe was reminding me that it was OK to start small.

Part of my hesitation in sharing the stories of my friendship with Abe and my grief at his suicide was that it felt too enormous to put into words. Even a social media post each day wouldn’t be enough. I run out of photos to share, I run out of ways to say, “I miss you.”

Instead of attempting to capture the entirety of this journey, I will model my writing after the transformation I am seeing in my garden. I will start small, with ideas like dill seeds planted in the soil.

Through small acts each day, this blog will grow. My professional writing may be starting humbly, as well. I’ll keep writing client blogs about posture and social media posts for logistic companies . The practice will keep me inspired to share what’s really on my heart.

What creative pursuit is calling to you these days? My advice to you, by way of my good friend Abe, is to just get started.

It’s ok to start small.

Mural I saw on a roadside detour outside of South Hill, VA.

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