Green Thumb, Blue Heart

By Ken Billett

Over the years, gardening has grown into an obsession. Forgive the pun. But what started as seasonal maintenance—replanting and mulching flower beds in the spring, replacing potted summer flowers with fall and winter varieties—became a full-fledged love affair. Yes, I love plants, and I love to garden.

I love it all: the smell and feel of potting soil, mixing in organic soil nutrients, careful placement of flower pots—both for aesthetics and for sunlight coverage—developing natural habitats of flowering bushes and trees to attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, pruning our rose bushes, and feeding the Japanese boxwoods at just the right time.

It’s hard work, but I love it.

My obsession with backyard gardening is not unique. Many Mid-Southerners relish the end of winter and the beginning of spring. Come March and April, we trek to Lowe’s, or, preferably, a locally-owned garden center, and spend outrageous sums on every imaginable plant, soil additive, and garden tool in sight.

I love it!

I’m also not much different than folks who enjoy spending time outside, working in their gardens. There’s a ritual involved in tending to your flowers and plants—watering the hanging baskets, pruning old branches, deadheading spent flowers, watching out for pests. The endless frustration with squirrels digging around in pots, searching for acorns.

That ritual leads to a sense of accomplishment. Tangible results we may not see elsewhere in our lives. For some, gardening is a form of therapy—a way to recharge your batteries—and help bring a little perspective to your life.

For me, gardening is a combination of ritual and therapy, and our backyard is my sanctuary. My personal refuge.

Spending time outdoors, caring for plants, is my meditation time. My time to reflect and recharge. To have a little control over my world, which always seems to be a bit out of my control.

The ritual of gardening is personal. Success or failure measured by the health of your garden. Vibrant flowers celebrated on countless Facebook posts, reinforcing the belief that I have a green thumb. Failure, however, means countless hours scouring the internet, looking for a culprit when the snapdragons wilted and died.

Sometimes, we simply have no control.

While gardening, I tend to lose myself in self-reflection. My mind, my heart, and my soul converge, creating new ideas for my writing, recalling past triumphs or failures, carrying on fictious conversations with friends, foes, or family—living and dead.

A form of catharsis.

There’s so much to say to my loved ones, so much left to accomplish, so much to do in the yard—flower pots on the back patio should be watered everyday—and so much of my past to come to terms with. To reconcile.

I lose myself amid beautiful flowers, towering oak trees, bees humming nearby, and a ruby-throated hummingbird fluttering overhead. I’m simultaneously immersed in the past, the present, and the future.

Right now, I’m talking with my eighty-four-year-old father, who lives in Florida, reinforcing my recent admonishment that he’s too old to drive himself to the neighborhood CVS.

Apparently, twelve-packs of Pepsi were on sale that day.

Later, I mentally prepare myself for next month’s CT scan with the insufferable wait for the results. Good news, bad news, or something in-between, it doesn’t matter. I have no control over my diagnosis, or my treatment. Only questions and more questions. Some of which are never answered.

Maybe I’m having that conversation with Mom. The one we never had, years ago, before she died. A conversation I should’ve had with her several years before her death, when she was truly alive. When she still knew I was her son.

Like control, reconciliation is never be fully achieved.

I’m trapped inside an overgrown azalea bush, trying to clip-off a dead branch. My head and shoulders surrounded by light-pink flowers. Pollen, and a few ants, cover my exposed arms.

Losing myself isn’t always serious or gloomy. Sometimes, I reflect on the good things in my life—my family, obviously—and dream of good things yet to come.

Perhaps it involves a little fantasizing. How many weeks will my novel remain on the New York Times Bestseller list?

Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?

Anything to chase away the unavoidable blues of reality.

My arm extends down to the base of the azalea bush, and I position the garden shears against the dead branch. As I cut into the hard wood, I swear I hear someone call my name. My forearm tenses, squeezing together the shears’ blades.

Gayle King of CBS This Morning asks me how it feels to have bestselling author added to my name.

“I’m humbled,” I reply. “It’s been a dream come—”

“Your azaleas look great!” Shouts a neighbor standing on the sidewalk in front of my house.

I’m thrust back into reality. My mind slowly processing the immediate situation. For me, losing myself is much more elaborate than, say, being lost in thought. I really am talking with Gayle King about my bestselling book, I really am anticipating my next scan and the questions to ask my oncologist, and I really have had that intense, gut-wrenching conversation with my mother.

Losing myself is cathartic. A way to cope.

So, it’s understandable—with all this coping, reconciling, and self-reflection bouncing around in my brain—that I might not hear the neighbor walk up, call my name.

I pull myself out of the tangle of overgrown azalea branches. Staring at my neighbor, who looks a little perplexed, I realize that I’m not staring, but glaring.

He probably thinks I’m crazy, or angry, or both. So, he sheepishly says, “I was just walking by, thought I’d stop and say Hello.”

I smile, apologize for not hearing him, and wave as he makes a quick getaway.

Now, what were Gayle and I talking about?

I love gardening, and I love my time spent outdoors reflecting on who I was, who I am now, and who I hope to be someday—even as the available years decrease with time. While I can’t reconcile with everything from my past, I can continue to move forward, focusing on what matters most—the people in my life.

But if I get to feeling blue, I’ll buy some new snapdragons, plant them in good soil, and make sure they get plenty of sun on the back patio.

Feature photos by Ken Billett

Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively.

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