How Does Your Garden Grow?
NYC rooftop as metaphor for Motherhood and Creative Life
Visiting Manhattan from my upstate hometown as a sophomore in high school confirmed for me what I already secretly knew:
I would move to New York City and live the life of “starving artist.”
I took this to mean, in the main, that I would wear a lot of vintage clothes, crushed velvet and granny boots, floppy hats, baggy jeans, ruffled blouses, trench coats, Doc Martens… a fetching composite of Edie Brickell, various Molly Ringwald characters, Annie Hall, and Patti Smith if Patti Smith had, like, no edge at all, and had maybe stumbled into a big sale at Laura Ashley. Or if I’d even known who Patti Smith was.
The point is, I was determined, from a very early age, to be an actor-writer sort. Naturally, I didn’t want to actually go hungry, but my little sheltered suburban heart coveted all the bohemian trappings. I wanted to live in a garret with no furniture, just a lot of Turkish-looking pillows, and milk crates covered with silk scarves, plants, and candles stuck in empty wine bottles. I imagined I’d spend a good deal of time sitting around dim bars smoking clove cigarettes, looking exquisitely consumptive, and holding forth on Plath, Uta Hagen, and foreign language films, and dishing about the horrible tasteless things celebrities wore to the Oscars.
This coming September will mark my 20th year in New York (with a brief hiatus for grad school in Alabama, and a few stints in Los Angeles). I’ve never starved, though there have been seriously lean times. Our first year in the city my husband and I cobbled together a grand total of $14,000, which in those days still bought ample spaghetti and apples, and very satisfying 50 cent coffees, “light and sweet,” bought from the breakfast truck on 23rd and 8th, and served in the classic blue and white "Greek" cup.
We worked intolerably dull day jobs, and spent all our “extra” money on acting class. Agentless, we scoured the trade papers for auditions that didn’t sound suspiciously like Adult Entertainment. At night we did free theater (meaning, the audience paid a pittance and the actors got paid nothing), such as “Shakespeare in the Park(ing Lot)” -- which is exactly what it sounds like, but slightly dicier, on the lower east side in the 1990s, right next door to the methadone clinic.
A lot of things about our living situation in New York City were - and still are - delightfully unlikely. Lo, these many years later, we’re holding steady as actor/writer types, living in a shared brownstone on a quiet leafy street in an upscale neighborhood – meaning that, in a real estate climate where, to afford even a postage stamp-sized apartment, one needs to have a sizable trust fund, oil well, title such as HRH, or at the very least a real job, through a bizarre string of miracles, we have a home that has evolved from a cramped studio for two, into a grown up dwelling that comfortably fits our family of four, and a frequent guest or two.
We fell into the house, through a generous friend, as 23-year olds, when the neighborhood wasn’t a fancy place at all, and could still be a little sketchy at night. These days, you could walk around our block at 3 a.m. wearing nothing but jewelry and not get mugged. Extreme gentrification has arrived all around us. It's good and bad.
Elements of our house remain charmingly ramshackle, (upkeep of an 1840s townhouse is never ending), but the shower is not in the kitchen, nor the toilet in a closet; the stairs are still safely attached to the walls in most places; we’re vermin free, and lead remediated, and that’s more than can be said for a lot of NYC apartments. AND we have that most coveted of urban commodities… outdoor space.
To clarify, I don’t mean we have a yard or swimming pool or “room for a pony” as Hyacinth Bucket would say, but we have the Manhattanite’s version of connection to nature -- Rooftop Access.
Standing on my roof, which we get to by ascending an ancient iron ladder mounted in our upstairs hallway, and climbing through a squeaky trap door, I can see the spire of the Empire State Building, the Hudson River, the water towers of London Terrace, multiple fireworks shows on the Fourth of July, and many fancy “finished” roofs around our neighborhood, sporting cedar sundecks and hot tubs, sheltered wet bars, flowering trees in giant, glazed, imported terra cotta pots, privacy fences, weekly landscape artists…
Ours is a decidedly unfinished roof. Not only does it not have a privacy fence, it has no fence of any kind, and very little privacy – just slightly raised roof edges, and the sense of solitude one has when at home in a city where everybody’s too self-involved to give a shit what you’re up to.
For years, our roof was a plain old black top that would actually bubble in the scorching summer sun. Our primary living space being on the top floor, all summer long we’d roast like chickens in the oven that it made of our apartment. A few years ago we painted the warped, sticky blacktop silver, which cools our apartment overall by approximately a single degree, and has turned the roof into something like a giant tanning bed.
Back in the day, when we were newlyweds, newcomers to New York life – the roof was ultra luxurious compared to anything any of our friends had. They could not believe our luck. We had a place to catch a cool breeze or a moment alone, to do yoga at sunrise, read the Times over coffee together; to watch the sun set over the Hudson, share a drink with friends and feel one with the skyline; to play guitar, spy on the neighbors, have sex, sneak a smoke. The roof knew all our secrets.
For a time, my sister lived in the house too, and together, we began a garden on the roof. It was a “friendship garden,” meaning we invested almost no money in it, but let it grow out of gifts and trades, from friends and family and the kindness of strangers. We picked through the trash for discarded containers -- chipped clay pots, warped bookshelves, empty joint compound buckets and gallon paint cans, and hauled them painstakingly to the roof. Our parents brought us plants and soil from their vast upstate gardens, and we scattered a few seeds from half price, end-of-season packets. A local garden center went out of business to make room for a big new apartment building on a block of 19th century brownstones (shades of things to come), and they gave us a bunch of plants they were going to throw out. We had pansies, impatiens, marigolds, celosia, dianthus, huge yellow daisies, purple foxglove, night scented stock, four o’clocks, a climbing rose and a rainbow of portulaca. We had squash and tomatoes and cucumbers. We had mint and basil. Wind chimes and bird feeders and bumblebees. We had swaths of pink lilies that reseeded themselves and came back each year.
Every day we hauled gallons of water up the ladder, a milk jug at a time. It was a sweaty labor of love that calloused our hands and buffed our biceps. We loved our little rooftop Eden. We had a wild garden…
and some wild parties, too.
In retrospect, it’s a miracle none of them ended in tragic disaster. The climax of nearly every gathering involved my husband somehow convincing people that the thing to do was take off all their clothes and go for a sky walk; in the wee hours, sometimes in the dead of winter, he would lead a convoy of inebriated, naked actors, musicians, grad students and assorted ne’er-do-wells over the rooftops of Chelsea, like Bert the Chimneysweep in a slightly pornographic “Step In Time.”
We were all young and poor, just scraping by in NYC, but cliché as it sounds, determined to live a dream. The roof was a place to feel your potential, taste your invincibility, “If I can make it here I’ll make it anywhere,” four stories up and on top of the world, throw open your arms and embrace the whole shimmering city.
Eventually my sister moved out, and for a while the house felt lonely and strange. It was early 2002, and we were all still reeling from the shock of the prior September. Though we hadn’t had a good view of the Twin Towers from our roof, after their destruction you could see the smoke rising for weeks -- the skyline permanently changed, its desolation and vulnerability visible in every direction.
As that spring turned to summer, and the time came to tend the garden, the water haul began to feel like a burden, and the replanting, the pruning, the fertilizing got away from me. I kept a few herbs going for a while, and some hardy little flowers volunteered their cheerful shoots, but it was never the same. New housemates moved in, we shuffled spaces, and the ladder belonged to them.
Two years later we all shuffled again and we moved upstairs, but by that time, I was pregnant with our first child. I didn’t make many trips up the ladder before 52 pounds of baby weight made it a really bad idea… unsafe for mother and unborn child, and pretty dodgy for the roof, too.
For ten years, we hardly used the roof at all. For obvious reasons (steep ladder, no fence, skin cancer risk from tanning bed conditions) it wasn’t a place to hang out with our young children, and in the fatigue of parenthood Eric and I gradually, unintentionally abandoned our practice of sneaking up there once in a while after the babies were sleeping to have a glass of wine. It just wasn’t part of our life. Sometimes I would almost forget it was there. The bright red ladder, formerly an escape hatch to the good life, the bohemian dream, became a rack to dry baby laundry and dishtowels that had sopped up spills. The kids learned to walk, and then to climb, by pulling themselves up on it, and the wall behind it became smeared with little fingerprints and the occasional booger.
In a vexing ironic twist, Motherhood, which by very definition is kind of the ultimate creative act, most of the time feels not at all creative, let alone romantically artsy and nonconformist. In its infernal busyness, its unending quotidian muddle, it often feels like it's actually robbing you of your creativity. In the last decade, my artistic self, like my rooftop garden, has often seemed fallow, hopeless. Like someone else’s life, a half-remembered dream. Many times I've wept and carped to my husband, “Let’s just be honest! I’m nothing but a hausfrau!”
When the kids were little, there wasn’t much I could audition for; every theater job was out of town, or if it was in New York, out of my reach status-wise. Like every actor in NYC, I booked a few lines on “Law and Order” here and there.
And then, the year the kids were 2 and 4, right before Christmas, along came an amazing audition: a prestigious NY theater, a thrilling role -- a funny, sophisticated, brassy broad with a tender heart -- opposite a big star. Oh, I wanted it. For an actor there’s rarely such thing as a game changer, it’s all just hard work and baby steps, tenacity and things that lead to other things years later and you don’t even know the connection. That said, booking this one would have been a big deal for me.
I nailed the audition and I knew it. Santa was going to bring me a big fat Broadway contract for Christmas.
Ho. Ho. Ho.
The night before the callback, my son landed in the hospital with a very serious – but initially mysterious – intestinal condition. We spent the night in the emergency room, reviewing ultrasounds, hearing about surgical options and rates of recurrence. The word “gangrenous” was spoken, which never bodes well.
I slept the night squeezed with my pale, wilted boy in a hospital bed, trying not to get tangled in the tubes giving him intravenous hydration and powerful antibiotics, and enveloped in the clouds of gas he was passing, since the procedure for healing his lethally knotted entrails had involved inflating his wracked little body like a human balloon… from the dark side of the moon, if you get my drift.
At 4 o’clock the next afternoon, with the boy having bounced back remarkably, and my husband by his side, I dragged myself home to get ready for my callback. I put on the damn fine outfit I’d worn to the original audition, and a whole lot of make-up. I may also have had a stiff drink, but only to put some color in my cheeks. I trekked through a sleet storm, arriving at the theater damp, chilled, peaked and puffy eyed. The show must go on, I told myself. I tried to seem composed, but I was shaken, fragile, maybe just a trifle needy – not the most appealing hire for fast-talkin’ 1930s comedy.
When I emerged from the audition room, a jittery actress, obviously up for the same part, said to me, “Oh my God. That outfit is so perfect. You got the part, didn’t you? I know you did.” Whereupon, I melted into a puddle of mascara and tears, and regaled this poor young woman with the whole pathetic story.
A few days later I saw a cast announcement; needless to say, I wasn’t in it.
I sat on my bed and had a full blown, kicking, screaming, pillow biting temper tantrum. And then I stared sulkily out the window for a long while, into the courtyard behind our house. The day was iron gray, barren and depressing. It didn’t feel like the holidays at all. The leafless trees were crusted with an already tired snow, and giving no sign that spring would ever return to rescue us and – the metaphor was not lost on me even in the moment - restore to me a sense of myself as an artistic being.
Who cares about a stupid job? I said to myself. Just be grateful your beloved child is alive and well, running circles around the Christmas Tree like nothing happened, like they didn’t have to pump his ass full of air to save his life. And I was grateful. So thankful, humbled and relieved, so aware that we had somehow been spared the bottomless sorrow, and so in love with my kids and with being a mom. But also, I had desperately wanted this reassurance that I was still an artist… or would blossom into one again. That I’d book the job, write the book, whatever. I felt cheated by sheer rotten timing -- traumatized that my young son had been so gravely ill, and, frankly, indignant that it had maybe cost me my "big break." I felt ashamed that I could hold those two things at once. But there it is. Motherhood is nothing if not guilt-filled.
Just then, out of the sky over a neighboring rooftop, a crimson cardinal darted past my window and alighted in the tree behind our house. A red cardinal on a snowy branch. A Christmas cliché. A greeting card. But I have to say, no amount of Hallmark piffle can diminish the vibrant surprise, the pure graphic splendor of that image.
I had to laugh. I told myself it was a sign. That every time I saw a cardinal from now on, I would take it as a promise, a reminder to keep going, keep going. There is startling beauty even in the dead of one’s creative winter. There is life, there is birdsong, there is brilliance, there is confounding paradox… there is, as William Faulkner said, “the human heart in conflict with itself,” which is the stuff of art, “the only thing worth writing about.”
One spring, a few years back, our dear friends who live downstairs put a potted plant, a little boxwood, on the front stoop. Bizzarely, after a few weeks it sprouted pink lilies. We couldn’t figure it out for the longest time. Then one day I remembered that there were still some old pots on the roof. I went up to there to check, and sure enough, a few stubborn flowers had come up in a dry cracked pot of dusty soil. Seeds must have blown off the roof and landed in the pot, four stories below.
Some things are just determined to bloom.
I read somewhere that women, especially those that are already mothers, often experience in their 40s a powerful urge to be pregnant. Just as their physical fertility begins to wane, they’re overcome with the desire to give birth. This is a good, beautiful and real thing, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they want to have an actual human baby. It’s their essential creative nature signaling them that they’re ready to bring forth something new, to give life, to grow something from seed and see it fully realized. An extension and expression of motherhood.
I had a dream one night recently that I found our house had an upstairs, an entire wing, I’d forgotten all about. It was a marvelous place, with lots of light and space, and no clutter, and also a number of cozy nooks, and a wood burning stove. There was a charming little study, with a desk and a chair, and a sunny window that looked out over a garden. And I thought, “This is mine! This is my office! My studio! A Room of One’s Own, so to speak. It’s been here all along! I just… forgot. I got so busy, I forgot."
About a month ago, we got our first truly warm day after a long, dreary winter, and I suddenly had the urge to go up to the roof. I took a glass of wine, and just walked around up there. The neighborhood is changing so fast, there’s always a new view. But our roof is the same old roof. A little crooked, a little dirty, patched-up here and there. And no barriers -- just a big empty space with nothing but sky above and around it, pure potential.
The kids are now of an age when they won’t just randomly toddle off the edge into skyline oblivion. They can respect boundaries. We can sit up there and talk, and have a snack, read a book. Play a hand of cards. We can start a garden.
I went to the Union Square farmer’s market and bought some herbs, some flowers, some strawberry plants. I rescued some pots that had long ago been relegated to the basement. My daughter and I went to Home Depot and scored a bunch of half price seed packets, just like old times. We started lettuce, kale, tomatoes, sunflowers, pole beans.
It’s a tiny garden, but a lot of work, a big commitment; sometimes I feel too busy to care for it properly. I still have to haul water up the ladder in gallon jugs every day, twice when it’s hot. But I’m thinking of contacting our next-door neighbors (who have a really swanky rooftop terrace and garden) to see if we can strike a deal and share their hose. I really want it to be something. I want colorful flowers and beautiful scents to delight our senses, delicious food to nourish our bodies. I want to take full advantage of this unusual amenity. I want it to be a place that feels peaceful, nurturing, intellectually and artistically expansive.
The last couple weeks I’ve been getting up early, taking my coffee to the roof before the sun has risen all the way over the buildings, before the family is up and getting ready for work and school. I take a deep breath, water the plants, and try to squeeze in my practice of Morning Pages -- writing three longhand, stream-of-consciousness pages upon rising, every day. (The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron. Do it. Seriously, do it.)
Morning Pages – or any ritual creative practice - is a lot like watering a garden. Doing it daily yields big results. If I skip a day, the plants don’t die -- they get a little limp and bedraggled but they’ll pop back up for me when I water. Skip a couple days though, and it’s a lot harder to get them going again. If it happens often, things may stay green for a while, but I won’t see new growth, things won’t bloom and flourish. Sometimes my Morning Pages are the only writing I get done in a day, but they make all the difference. It takes daily discipline to reap flowers and fruit.
This winter, my son, who just did his first real play at school, saw his beloved auntie, my best friend, play “The Witch” in Into the Woods, Off-Broadway. Then he watched the recent movie version. He’s fallen in love with this profound musical about growing up and confronting your Fairy Tales. He doesn’t even know why he loves it so much. He just knows “it’s so much fun!” to sing Jack’s songs, because Sondheim’s delicious words taste good to him, the tricky tunes thrill and move him. And the magic beanstalks of early adolescence, personal awakening, authentic connection to story, to art, are popping up all over his life.
When I told him the other day that the bean seeds we planted on the roof had sprouted, he sprinted to the ladder and scrambled up. Just before he reached the top, he turned around, swinging from the ladder, and sang out in his sweet boyish soprano, “There are giants in the skyyyy!!” And then he disappeared through the hatch.
The spring sun streamed down through the trapdoor and pooled on the hallway floor, where only a moment ago his shadow had been. I stood in the hall, looking up after him; there was nothing above me now but an empty hole in the roof, a glimpse of the blue, blue sky, and a ladder to climb.
Sometimes life offers an incredibly vivid snapshot of the way things really are, how it’s all intertwined, and all just… worth it. Your rooftop garden, your family, your art. Your messy, exasperating life.
Things are growing. These things take time. Every day is exhaustingly long, yet the years are whiplashingly short. Little by little the day is coming when parts of myself will awake as if from a dream to discover that there is more room in my life to be an artist, more time. I’ll go to the roof and find hours of privacy to work, to write, to cultivate flowers, pick magic beans.
A little winter will cling to that spring.
Earlier this week, while the kids were at school, I was on the roof taking photos for this post. I wanted to get some pictures of the courtyard behind our house too, because the white dogwood, and the pink tree I don’t know the name of are in eye-popping bloom right now. I had to lie down flat so I could look over the precipice and get a bird’s eye view.
As I was framing the shot, suddenly, from deep within the rosy blossoms on the tree below came a missile of pure red -- a cardinal flying straight skyward. He looped the chimney once and sailed into the cerulean sky beyond the rooftops.
Just now, I swear it: My son and I were kvetching about a bird that for the last few weeks has been waking us at the crack of dawn. The thing is driving us crazy, insisting we get up with the sun when we just want a little more time.
We both imitated the bird.
swee! swee! tsu tsu tsu tsu tsu tsu tsu!
Then I had a funny thought. I googled the sound a cardinal makes.
That’s it, alright.
YouTube link: Birding by Ear, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Macaulay Library Curator, Greg Budney, talks about the brilliant song of the Northern Cardinal.