The Writer's Life

Cultivating Relationships Start With A Seed

Spring had started, and I dug out my gardening tools yesterday. I decided to plant my vegetable garden the old-fashioned way this year; with my bare hands and simple tools.

The warm sun shone in the sky, and the cool breeze danced along my naked arms as I ravaged the sod beneath me with a rusty spade. Tearing up the grass became problematic. A notch on one side of the blade bent forward from the sudden jolt to a hidden stone below the soil. After shaking out most of the dirt from this root-bound slab, I dug up the grass and repositioned it into another barren spot within our yard. Ants and grubworms began to make their way out of their disturbed homes and scrambled to rebuild while flying insects swarmed onto the soil for a fresh meal.

Two hours later, feeling the heat rising from my shoulders, I glanced over my would-be garden to see that I had only cleared out half of the sod. My writer’s group was calling to me, and it was time to quit for the day. But unfortunately, I would have to save the removal of the remaining turf for another day.

While we begin to cultivate our gardens, as writers, we are learning to cultivate our own relationships. This group is like my garden. I have prepared the ground, planted the seeds, fed and watered them, and now I can watch them grow. However, the success of this group is not what I bring to the table each week. Instead, the success lies in cultivating relationships among the members of this group.

As one who suffers from anxiety from crowded places, I constantly struggle to get out of the house. I somehow accomplish it each day, but the anxiety still remains. I push myself harder than most to meet new and exciting people because it is my nature to shy away from strangers.

I blame this effect on my parents. Who wouldn’t? After all, aren’t they who reinforced the notion of not talking to strangers when we were younger?

I’m not speaking ill on great advice. I still believe children shouldn’t talk to strangers. However, I became a very confused child when I grew up in places like Detroit and Oklahoma City, where talking to strangers would get you into a lot of trouble. Once accustomed to my surroundings, my parents would whisk me off to the countryside and small towns where no one person was a stranger.

To make matters worse, there was the mortification of my father, whose dominance left me hesitant to speak up and voice my own opinion, leaving me feeling painfully shy and extremely insecure. I would murmur so that others need not hear what I had to say. I would sit at the back of the classroom and struggle to see the chalkboard so that others would not point and talk about me behind my back. I would find an empty table in the corner of the cafeteria, hoping that someone would invite me to their table before I reached its lonely occupancy, only to achieve my destination where I would shrink down into my seat and hope that no one would notice.

It was an elderly neighbor who helped me find my voice. We lived in the questionable suburbs of Detroit, where it was dangerous for the children to even play in the fenced backyard. My parents attempted to send us to a public school. It was called White Public School, but once my father stepped into the building, he determined that he would not allow his children to be “learnin’ with them niggers.”

Yep, that was Daddy. If the devil himself were to roam this earth, I believe he would have found his son in my father. He insisted that we enroll in a Catholic school where the predominant skin color matched our own. We weren’t even Catholic, but he remarried my mother under the Catholic way, and we all converted to Catholicism to receive scholarships for attending this school. Of course, the Priest had a different take on our conversion, and that was how the congregation would come to know us.

Every day, before and after school, Mom would drive us to our destination. Most of the time, we were locked up indoors, but on sunny days, we would be allowed to play in the fenced backyard. Only two rules we had to follow; take the dogs outside with us and don’t talk to strangers.

The elderly woman next door would watch us from her window. She didn’t get along with my uncle, whom we lived with, and we would hurry away from her out of fear of riling her up and getting the two shaking fists at each other from across the fence. Then one day, while our uncle was away, she asked my parents if one of the “nice children” would come to her home for a visit.

Maybe it was the chance to go somewhere different than our tiny backyard or her offering of cookies that finally got me to go over there. Either way, I found myself a regular attendee in her presence. The moments were awkward for my introverted self, but she asked questions, and I would answer her. Then, her questions began to pique my interest. It was like a magic wand was waving around above my head, and I became a non-stop chatterbox. She encouraged me with a nod and non-sensical gasps escaping her lips; I kept chattering.

Until one day, she revealed to me that she was hard of hearing. My voice was too soft for her ears, and most of the time she could not understand what I was saying. I was disappointed. I really wanted her to hear me. So I began to talk louder, and if my voice quieted down, she would signal me to speak up. I was eager to visit with her every day.

She shed a tear on our last visit when I told her that we had to move. My young self had not noticed the single tear that wet her cheek. I was too busy chattering about how excited I was to meet new friends and be able to walk to the park without worrying about the dangers that lurked beyond our yard. We said our goodbyes, and I hugged her. My cheek was damp from what I assumed was this woman’s sweat from the unusually hot spring day. Now, I know it was the prospect of loneliness trailing down her cheek.

She taught me lessons I could only learn from life and not within the four walls of a classroom. I learned how to raise my voice so that others could hear me. I learned to ask questions so that others knew I was interested in them, and I learned when to listen so they could share what they were feeling. All of these are vital tools in cultivating relationships, new or old.

As I move on with my writer’s group, I will continue using these tools since they are essential to building lasting friendships. My hope is that this group can see beyond our flaws, accept who we are for our shared passions, comfort each other in our time of need, guide us in our own writings, and continue building upon our relationship.

I don’t remember my neighbor’s name. I was only seven years old then, and she may no longer be with us. I once perceived her as a mean old woman, and now I know that she was just a lady who was lonely and hard of hearing; a woman who taught me valuable lessons in speaking up, listening and cultivating lasting relationships.