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  • Ash Wickell, LMFT-T

Tending Our Gardens

My partner and I have been building a vegetable garden. I use the word "building" intentionally, here--we've done some planting and watering, of course. But the plot where we're digging has for years been a grassy lawn, not a vegetable garden. Before that, it was a house. So in addition to the usual amount of digging and tilling, breaking up the dirt enough that we can work seeds and plants into it; we've spent long weeks uprooting grass and broken pieces of the house's foundation. We've broken up the earth, then uprooted tenacious plants and jagged cement shards by hand. Our garden was thick with crabgrass, when we got started--this stuff has tough, deep, tangled roots. Pulling them out, and leaving behind enough dirt to build a plant bed, was the easy part (though, to be clear, it wasn't easy!). Even chopped to bits by shovels, even uprooted and moved around, it grows again, and again, and again. There is crabgrass scattered everywhere--sometimes, when I try to pull it up, I displace just enough dirt to find another seedling on its way out from another small remainder of the root. As I've labored in the garden--sometimes comfortably; sometimes, sweating, itchy, dirty, and with scratches on my hands from wrestling with grass roots, concrete, and the occasional broken bottle--I've felt a deep sense of recognition. This work, straightforward and physical as it is, reminds me closely of the work my clients do in therapy. On the one hand, I know the reason I'm putting in the time and energy and money and discomfort that a vegetable garden requires. I'm choosy about my produce--my family has farmed or gardened for generations, sometimes as a career; sometimes to supplement the food supply for a houseful of growing kids; and always, always, because we share a deep disdain for tomatoes ripened on a grocery store shelf. I'm also cheered and encouraged by the moments where I can see the product of my labor--when green shoots appear above the surface of the ground; when our potato plants spring upward overnight, and demand burying again. I'm carried forward by my expectation of fresh vegetables, all summer and fall--I have detailed fantasies of bowls full of cherry tomatoes, pans of zucchini bread, salads that we grew ourselves. I imagine bringing them with me, a small gift for dinners with friends and family members, a lunch-time treat for my colleagues at work. My clients, likewise, usually know what they want from therapy. They want progress; they want growth. We spend time cultivating a vision of the future--the ways things will be different, the ways they'll be better. We work together to understand what they will get from this work--what they'll take from it, for themselves; what they'll gain, to share with others who are important to them. And then there we are, in the dirt and sweat and discomfort and, yes, sometimes the pain, of the work we have to do, to get there. Often, I wonder how many of my clients are like me--because despite my family's history, despite years of tomatoes grown in the backyard, home-canned preserves as holiday gifts, bread baked in my grandmother's kitchen from zucchini my grandfather tended for months--this is my first garden. I know that my work will bear fruit--probably. I know that it will be worth it--maybe. But I still shiver at every thunderstorm, waiting for the hail (so common in Kansas, in the spring!) that will crush our plants. I wake up early, rush to the garden on hot days; I water deep; I spend hours wondering whether the sun will parch them dry. I don't quite trust this process, yet. I've never done it before. I am particularly unnerved by the ways our poor plants are beaten and battered along the way--the uprooting of most of the tiny starts, so that the strongest has more nutrients to draw on. The slow process of hardening off seedlings, setting them outside to endure sun and wind and temperature extremes. The deep burial of our tomatoes and peppers, leaves and stems mostly underground, forcing them to grow strong roots, coaxing the plants to invest in fruit over leaves. The slow interment of potatoes, so they'll spread outward and upward, so we end the season with potatoes two feet deep, instead of just a few inches. It seems cruel to me, feels unnecessary. I worry sometimes that none of them will survive--that we'll be left with nothing but deep-dug earth and a scattering of weeds. As a therapist, I know therapy works--I watch it every day. One of the great privileges of my work is to see the tremendous acts of courage and strength that clients carry out quietly, privately, sometimes with no other observer but me. For me, that courage is all the more evident, in light of the newness it entails. Therapy is nearly always a journey into the unknown. It seeks new paths forward, new solutions to old problems. It is uncomfortable, anxiety-provoking, often, but remains deeply hopeful. Most of us who seek therapy know all too well that planting in the spring is no guarantee of tomatoes in the fall--we've watched too many crops savaged by fierce sun, or leveled by unexpected storms. We wait, wonder at the signs of hope, worry when the sky darkens, curse the weeds and sweat and sharp bits of debris in the soil. The great gift of therapy, for me, is to be present throughout the darker moments--and to stand alongside my clients when the clouds lift, and we get to see the strong and beautiful things that they have grown.

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