In years when the solstice was just so, we planted corn in our family garden on Easter Sunday. Though I started the day in boots, I was barefooted before long. I reveled in the loose, warm dirt, feeling my feet sink in and small clumps of soil crumble over top. The day or weekend prior, my father drove the tractor down the pasture to the rectangle of land. First, he went over it with an attachment that unearthed the weeds and grass, then another that formed the tilled dirt into rows. Then, it was time to plant.
We went to the local hardware store with its paint-chipped exterior and plywood-patched floor, where a man my brother and I called Dr. Seuss took us back into the warehouse to scoop fertilizer-dusted pink corn kernels into a paper bag. He always showed us the new chicks, which were kept in a large, raised wooden box. He lifted the worn, hinged lid to reveal peeping, the red glow of the heat lamp, and a dozen or so chicks scampering around.
Back on the farm, my dad divided up the tasks. One person would drop the corn at measured intervals directly in the center of the row. Too close to the edge, and the stalk would fall over as it grew. Too close together, the corn wouldn’t be able to flourish. The next person, usually me, would come behind, pushing the corn into the ground. The part of my finger at which I was supposed to stop changed as I grew each year. At first, it was my full index finger. Today, it would be to the second knuckle of that same finger. I then covered the hole and moved on. Then someone would come behind and water.
In ensuing years, to increase efficiency and accuracy, my dad took a small plank and drove nails partially through at the allotted intervals. Instead of pushing the corn into the ground, we used this board to make the holes first. The tasks altered–one person to drop the seed in the hole, and another to come behind and cover the hole. And the watering.
Every day, there was watering, a task shared between me and my brother. Some years, raccoons or deer got into the crop, necessitating various methods of deterrence. A scarecrow, a boom box with the radio turned on at night, an electric fence. In spite of the persistence of these pests, at the end of the summer we ended up with a harvest of corn.
Not all the corn was ready at once. We walked the path each evening over the course of two to three weeks, a slotted orange bucket bouncing between me and my brother, and looked for ripe ears. We learned to spot a particular dark color in the dried silk tufting out of the top, and then to squeeze the top. If there was still plenty of space between the top of the ear and the top of the husk, it wasn’t ready.
Once the orange bucket was full, my brother and I each grabbed a handle and walked it back to the house. We then sat down on the porch and shucked. Pulling the husk off was easy-a matter of peeling down the leaves and snapping off the excess stalk. The silk was a menace. Our parents taught us to rub the corn between our hands to get the silk off. No matter how much we tried, silk remained in the grooved rows. Then, we took the husks and tossed them over the fence to the grateful cows.
We ate fresh corn on the cob all harvest, but cut the majority off the cob and froze it. And we enjoyed fresh corn that we grew all winter. With a combination of diligent, everyday work and the magic of nature, the fruits of our labor were abundant most years. And even more so, the years we spent going through the process, gave us first hand experience of what could go wrong. We saw stalks growing sideways out of a row, trying to orient itself toward the sun as it grew, then giving up, the ears thin and kernels barely peeking out of the cob. And we learned.
The stakes were low. Farming has always been more of a hobby than a money-making venture for us. But there was room to experiment. What happened when we planted zucchini? Green beans? Tomatoes? My father would determine when to plant what, then we would wait and water and watch.
Sitting in my one bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side, these days, I’m planting seeds of a different sort. The creative life seems to be a series of seeds planted, then seeing what grows. The investment of time and behind-the-scenes labor involved are not evident to many. I live alone, and so nobody, save me and Jesus, have an accurate sense of what I do all day. Still being new, I don’t have a sense of which seeds will grow and which will come out sideways and which will be gobbled up by raccoons, etc. But I think, like farming, there is the planting and the watering and weeding and doing all we can to provide the right environment for the growth to happen.
But there is also the waiting.
There is no glamour or romance in the waiting. Perhaps there is a bit of magic that I will understand better in ten years. But the practice of leaving space, the art of when and what and how much to water, the not-knowing-if-you’re-chosing-best-until-you-choose ambiguity I live with–these are the unsung and unseen heroes of the creative life, the ones I didn’t imagine in my years of school dreaming about the great things I might do and be.
When I think of the stakes that I put onto my creative life, I wonder what it would take for my overwrought brain to calm down. I wonder how to approach the process with the attitude of experimentation, like we did in the garden. I wonder at the mental shift it will take to answer the question “What would happen if…” with “Why don’t we try and see?”
Perhaps for today, remembering is enough. Recognizing that, though there isn’t another human here to see my efforts, they are not in vain, whether I get the harvest I expect or my harvest ends up being a long list of what not to do. Remembering that no matter how I strategize and plan and prepare, there is no substitute for walking to the field, taking off my shoes, and dropping some seeds. And perhaps if I remember enough times, that truth will work its way into my bones, and the process will involve less frustration and fear, and more exploration and delight. Perhaps, with time, I will learn.