“Cultivate your own garden!” my high school English teacher called out as the bell rang to end our last class on Candide. The message took root and grew.
By late September, after I started my freshman year of college, I was repeating the sentence like a mantra. One morning, I woke up and decided to take it literally. From Target, then, came boxes with cheerful blue planters, colorful spades and shears. From eBay, I ordered little plastic packets of homegrown seeds and a sack of soil bright like a Doritos bag.
Rosemary, lemon balm, mint. These herbs were hardy, useful and slipped into my daydreams with ease. I saw myself plucking sprigs of rosemary to bring into the dining hall at dinner, to artfully lay on a plate — pretty, like the salmon my mother had eaten in the hospital cafeteria when my sister was born. Lemon balm was for smelling and cradling under the tongue, or tearing into pieces to infuse in cups of water. Mint for chewing and steeping in tea on hot summer days. When snow fell, I would tie bunches with ribbon and hang them upside down above the radiator to dry.
On the first day of Thanksgiving break, after my suitemates had gone home, I patted soil loosely in the planters and dug tiny furrows with a fingertip. Into them, I scattered seeds and wet the dirt. I scrolled through Pinterest boards with endless pictures of immaculate leaves. The gardening blogs boasted of how quickly the herbs grow. When nothing emerged by the fifth day, I became worried. November clouds had swept in, and I hadn’t seen the sun in almost a week.
Imagine yourself in my suitemates’ shoes: You’re returning to campus after a restful week at home. You turn the key in the lock to enter your suite, luggage heavy in the other hand. You push open the door and the first thing you see is a lamp on top of a taped cardboard box, shining artificial light onto a small pot of dirt.
But by then, minuscule shoots were rising from the soil. I counted them — seven — and researched proper etiquette for hosting tea parties. The mint and lemon balm would be more than ready by April. During reading week, I would sit on the futon with my friends, mug perched on one knee as I sucked on fresh steeped leaves to draw out the last of the flavor. I watered the shoots, picturing the graceful arch of liquid that connects spout to cup when tea is poured.
The shoots grew as tall as pushpins before they wilted, all at once. Must have overwatered, I scolded myself. The cycle repeated. I finished planting the third round of seeds just before spring break.
“Are you doing it again?” asked my suitemate, two steps short of the stairs, leaning on her suitcase. “They’ll just die in a couple of days.”
“You say that now, but it’ll be good to see something alive in the suite when finals come,” I joked. I said it without thinking. As my suitemate closed the door, I realized it actually didn’t matter. After all, early May is lovely in the Northeast, the windows were wide and open, and there was plenty of life to go around.
* * *
What I wanted to say — but didn’t quite have the words for, back then — was that Voltaire still haunts me. I have to cultivate my own garden so I can savor its fruit. And a few months ago, I learned about Rousseau’s theory of perfectibility and how Hegel believes we find ourselves through the work we do. I want to find my perfect self by tracing the veins on the underside of verdant mint leaves and dwelling on the scent of citrus after I rub lemon balm between my fingers. What do I have, if nothing is tangible? I misplace thoughts and they vanish, but dried rosemary stems will linger and crumble into sweet-smelling dust. If the seeds I planted sprout and flourish, even through gloomy days and snowstorms, can’t I — their gardener — do the same?
To grow for the harvest, to nurture for the end. I think of bitter rosemary, bland lemon balm, too-strong mint. Is it still worth it to cultivate my garden if the garden yields disappointment among its crops?
At the end of the school year, I dumped the soil outside my entryway.
It’s a month into the new semester. I’ve been eyeing the empty cheerful planters again — they are so eager, so full of what could be. And I remember the hours of staring at swollen seeds that peeped out of the soil, guessing whether this one would sprout or that one wither. The visions of chilled mint tea and rosemary-adorned plates.
Cultivate your garden, perhaps, means to cultivate the possibility of beauty one day, past all the gloomy days and snowstorms. What is there to lose? The soil is not tired yet, and neither am I. I take plastic clips off the sack of soil, and unpack the spade.