As a child, I loved seed packets. The interesting names, like calendula and alyssum. The colorful illustrations. The promise held within. Each packet contained tiny kernels of life, just sleeping, waiting for me to wake them up. It sounded like magic.
I remember going into a greenhouse one afternoon with my mother when I was 7 or 8. We had recently moved to a new house, and I had staked out a small plot in the “backyard” for a garden. (The previous owner was a single man who wanted nothing to do with yard work, so he had bricked over almost all of the property.) When we got home, I ran to the backyard with a trowel and a watering can and my precious seed packets in hand. Falling to my knees, I dug a neat grid of holes, dropped the “baby plants” in, covered them with soil, and watered the ground liberally, lovingly.
I watered again the next day. And the next. And the next. After a week, my mom asked how they were doing. I pouted and said that I couldn’t see anything yet. She assured me that this was normal and encouraged me to keep going. If I watered those seeds with patience and diligence, then they would surely grow.
So I tried, I really did. But after another few days, it became more fun to imagine the garden than to actually take care of it. I pictured the sprouts turning into stems, turning into buds, turning into soft bright petals. I pictured gorgeous arrangements of my very own flowers, and dinners made with vegetables I had grown. I thought about how proud my parents would be, about the compliments I would receive from friends.
But because I spent more time imagining and less time watering, the dirt never yielded anything more than a sickly shoot or two, and eventually I gave up on my garden.
Another thing I loved as a child was sponge animals — the kind that come in little plastic pills that dissolve when you submerge them in water. Heck, even as an adult, I love the instant gratification of watching something morph before my eyes. Red pill into pterodactyl. Yellow pill into octopus. Green pill into elephant. Blue pill into dragon.
Unfortunately, writing is not like sponge animals. Writing is a garden. And water is not a one-time magical transformation, but rather an unending discipline. Progress will not be seen in a matter of minutes, but rather over the course of weeks, months, and years.
I never have managed to grow flowers or vegetables, but I believe in the words that I have planted. After years of watering, they are sprouting through the earth. They are reaching for the sun. Some may seem sickly, but others are strong, and I will water them all until they can grow no more. Then, when they are fully blossomed and fragrant, I will snip a few to share, snip a few for myself, and snip the rest to graft. This garden will make the next one stronger. So on and so forth, till the end of time.
Meanwhile, my sponge animals will sit in the back of a bathroom drawer. Colorful and fun at first, they will turn flimsy and dry. Yes, they change quickly, but they become obsolete just as fast. They are a kind of fun that doesn’t last.
Don’t get me wrong: There is a special place in my heart for the whimsy of sponge animals, and for the eager child that I once was. But for my life’s work, I choose a garden — and the purposeful, unwavering grownup that I can become.