The excerpt here is from the beginning of the essay now, new and written at Civitella Ranieri. I’m incredibly grateful for the time I had to work there.
Previous to becoming a rose gardener, I had no talent for gardening anyone knew about, ever, and no known interest in it, either. As a child I was mostly known for spending time indoors reading, though when prompted to go out, I went into the woods alone, hunting for Lady Slippers. When I found them I only looked at them, knowing they were rare and endangered. There was one at the edge of our neighborhood, on what our neighborhood called a “nature walk”, a path that went through the woods on our horseshoe-shaped street, and I visited it like it was a friend. The kids in my neighborhood eventually nicknamed me Nature Boy for this.
And as for roses and the tending of roses, I preferred wild flowers. I found the flower-store varieties of roses sad and hopeless as a teenager, and even wondered, each Valentine’s Day, why a dozen roses were thought to be a beautiful gift. To me they looked stiff and sad, like something trying to behave itself. My mother would have me help her with hers when I was as a child, but what I recall of that is placing pine needles and styrofoam cones over them in late November, to insulate them for the long Maine winter. Sometimes, after the snow fell, I’d strike a buried cone with a shovel as I built a tunnel through the snow bank, and glimpse the darkness where the rose slept. This made me feel only guilty and afraid of making my mother sad.
I grew up, moved away to college, and after graduation, raced off to do adult versions of the bookish things I loved in childhood, first in San Francisco and then in New York, and no one who knew me well would have accused me of wanting to spend a great deal of time outdoors among living things, and this included me. And then at the beginning of the mildest winter anyone could remember, a few years into my thirties, I go to see an apartment in Brooklyn with a broker who apologizes for it as soon as she opens the door.
It’s small, she says, as we walk in. It’s a large studio and kitchen with high ceilings and a wood floor buffed to a high gloss. Beyond that sliding glass door extends a small well-made wooden deck into a yard as large as the apartment. In winter it was just a mud-slick striped through the center with a stone walkway, lined by wooden seven-foot-tall picket fences, a chain-link fence marking off the back.
I don’t respond to the broker right away.
Following her into the apartment, the sun had filled the back window, and I imagined it full of roses. Red, pink, orange, white, all lit up by the sun, blooms tossing in the air like it a parade and then gone, as if it had been painted on a curtain and drawn back. The winter mud, dead grass and snow, so evidently what is in fact here, now all seem like lies.
I follow the broker back through the sliding door into the apartment and she talks through the apartment’s qualities, a short list: The rent is cheap. So cheap that I ask why.
Too many people moved in and out, raising the rent too high, and so this lease has a rider attached giving it a 500.00 discount, she answers. She says this as I look back out to the garden, and see, to the right, a rubble-strewn yard next door, visible through three missing teeth in the wooden fence. As the broker moves me to the front door, I know that I am unwilling to go further in my search. This feels like the place I was looking for—it already feels like my apartment. I can easily afford it but also my eye is already measuring the angle of the sun at this time of day and guessing I have a south-eastern exposure.
This bit of information thrusts itself to the front of my thoughts, as if I have held on to it, waiting all this time, to be a gardener.