When I first moved from West Virginia to New York City over two decades ago, I thought I had finally found where I belonged. I was greatly relieved to no longer have to say “Hello” to random passers-by on the street merely because they happened to be passing by. I also was greatly unburdened by the fact that I no longer had to pretend to be polite when I was really not so. In a word, I found moving from one of the most rural of states to the most cosmopolitan of ones to be liberating. In fact, I used to take great pride in being asked by new acquaintances if I were “originally from New York.” I think I was always an impatient, impolitic city-dweller trapped in an Appalachian body.
Yet, as time has passed, I have found that like so much else in life, going from one extreme to another – while quite common – is not as satisfying as landing somewhere in the middle. So it was that a few years back, at my urging, Melissa and I packed up the boys, the dog and both cats (one of which had to be drugged for the ride – I won’t say whether such medicated individual was two- or four-legged) and moved to the suburbs of NYC. Although hardly a reenactment of my upbringing, we went from an apartment to a house and from the subway to a two-car household. Sadly, however, we also got mice, which interestingly we never had in the City.
I adjusted well to life in the suburbs, as did the rest of the family. Melissa hardly ever goes back to New York, and although I will take the train once a week or so for the hour-long ride, I do not relish doing so. And the boys have almost no recollection of the high-density, high-altitude lives we once led. We found a comfortable middle. The area is even purple politically. One can’t get much more in-between than that.
But something changed after chemo. It had nothing to do with urban versus suburban versus rural. Instead it was a general restlessness and of course anxiety that somehow was unleashed as a result of undergoing treatment. It has given me great difficulty focusing, which of course makes many activities much more challenging. Even things that should be relaxing such as enjoying a good book – including a mindless beach read – are too much for me these days. I have, however, caught up on a great deal of television watching. (No binge-watching for me, though. It requires too much mental energy to be that engrossed in anything that pointless, and by pointless I mean a series that tries to pass off six episodes as a season after which one must wait another 18 months for the next installment of inadequate episodes. I have cancer, damnit; I can’t be waiting this long to find out who did what or when, especially if I can’t remember the who or the what.)
With pretty much any intellectual activity off-the-table – and I’m talking a pretty low table if even Netflix is too demanding – I thought that maybe I could get back on track if I started engaging in some physical labor. My rather poorly thought out notion was the following: If I am able to do something productive physically, perhaps it will lessen my anxiety about being so completely useless generally and that might help me settle into a more normal, suburban existence once again.
Thus, without any more thought to it than that, I ordered some tomato seeds. I purchased good quality heirloom variety seeds – I figured if I were to do this I should at least try and do it right. And nothing says green thumb like an ugly tomato whose name one can’t pronounce. But then I took it up a notch – I decided that I would use a long weekend to not only plant these seeds in some new plant beds I would erect but to also re-mulch our entire yard. It’s not that we live on an estate by any stretch of the imagination, but some prior owner of our home was sold a bill of goods by a crafty landscaper who convinced the aforementioned deed holder that a few enormous mulch beds would really add to the look of the property. Of course, as anyone who has any experience with mulch knows, it doesn’t last too long. Mulch is, after all, just decaying tree so the thought that it has some extended post-mortem period is a little nonsensical.
I have mulched before, both in the mountain air of my state of origin as well as the ocean breezes of the Empire State. And I have to say that it is probably among the most mindless, thankless, sweaty and back-pain-inducing tasks one can undertake. So I thought it would be perfect. Just to be certain, however, I ordered a lot of mulch. And when I say a lot of mulch, I mean a lot of mulch. So much, in fact, that the dump truck that delivered it had to drop it into two piles as the first one was already over my head.
Armed with an inadequate shovel – one really should use a snowshovel for this work – two steaming piles of dead tree taller than I and a plastic wheelbarrow (which I had to confirm was not actually a wheel-barrel, which sort of seems to make sense when one thinks about it; after all, what is a barrow?) and over-dressed to sweat the maximum amount possible, I set about my task.
The really amazing thing about mulching is how little one can accomplish with so much effort. To fill the wheelbarrow would take me about 15 or 16 shovelfuls, but when I dumped it into the desired area it barely covered any square footage at all. In fact, it would be more accurate to describe the area in square inches. Over and over and over I would be amazed – I am easily amazed – at this highly frustrating phenomenon. And the hours went by with so little progress being made that I kept cursing myself for not knowing anyone who I could force into helping me with this clear case of biting off more than one can chew. (I had thought Will and Andrew could be of use, but their zeal for mulching was quickly quashed when they realized it was actually work.)
Finally, however, after two days of non-stop mulching, I was done. (Well, mostly. As my sons so helpfully pointed out, there was a great deal of left over dead tree parts on the driveway, none of which they offered to sweep up.) I also got the seeds into the soil and did a little hedging work merely to show off my versatility.
Looking back on the experience, I realize that it was completely unhelpful from a psychological standpoint. Instead of my usual anxieties, I merely replaced those with concerns over whether I would see this job completed in my ever-decreasing remaining time on earth. Nonetheless, I did feel a sense of accomplishment, and that was a sensation I had honestly not had in some time. After reflecting on such accomplishment, I said one thing to Melissa: Don’t ever let me do this again. In three years’ time I will be nearly 50 and assuming I even have the health to theoretically do this, it just won’t be worth it. And if I am still this much adrift three years down the road, we may need to look into more serious uses of my time to help. Perhaps building model ships in tiny bottles.