S—Do you remember when I texted you a photo of Phoebe’s Garden (right next to the goats)? I was hiking with my dad in California; it was mid-August. So you were in St. Louis. My dad and I were having a pleasant hike—the sun was beating down, in a way that felt very real and immediate. We don’t talk just the two of us much, but that day, I felt close to him. We went through the dry paths and past the trees and got to Deer Hollow farm, with the goats and boars and Phoebe’s Garden.
The sign made me think of you—mostly because I thought of “Garden Song” by Phoebe Bridgers, and when I think of Phoebe Bridgers, I think of you. I think of the walk we took in February along the towpath late at night. The water was dark and large—unlike California, where the trails are all dry. Only evidence of the creeks’ former lives remains: divots alongside trails and bridges over dry earth. But the water by the towpath was large and held the reflection of winding tree limbs.
I remember feeling excited that you had the same specific opinions on Bright Eyes and Taylor Swift and Lorde, and since you liked Phoebe Bridgers so much, I was excited to listen to more of her music. After our walk, I went to the U-Store to buy command hooks. I listened to the Punisher album as I tied a big scarf to my wall like a tapestry. How good it was to be alone in my room, with the scarf on the wall and Phoebe, after being in the world with you. I think I was really happy that night. I was alone and my bed was warm. And when I closed my eyes, I could see the deep, endless water and hear the sound of our steps: the stillness of nature at night, and the commotion of our happiness.
E—I went to the Met and for you I chose the postcard of Van Gogh’s potted plants with a well-worn journal with thick expressive brushstrokes. I imagine the stories it holds. The vivid strokes unafraid to let consciousness stream from a brush, a pen, experience upon experience oil on oil on blues and yellows and greens.
I wrote in my journal sporadically this summer. I wanted to write more, like you, I really did, but life consumed me and I got busy living in life’s hug, sometimes a choke. I scrawled a single entry at the end of July—“today I saved a caterpillar.” I think I wanted to convey some cryptic symbolic significance. I guess I could say the caterpillar was stronger than me, but soon he would be crisped in the hot sun on the concrete. He headed toward imminent death on the road, not the grass, but still remained confident in himself. He wriggled, parched. (Maybe he will make it to a graceful, flamboyant butterfly. But I liked him just as much as a caterpillar with its purposeless freedom in incognito crawls.) I picked up a stick, he refused but soon took hold, so I dangled him, a dancing acrobat in the air, before dropping him into the cooler grass in the shade. I like to believe our small acts make a difference, or maybe I just want to be a savior.
I thought of the time we were almost back from the towpath walk, going up the hill. I didn’t even feel the elevation as the moon streamed down on the pavement below. You pointed out the worm by our feet. We admired its determination, the shiver down its spine (or lack thereof) that propelled it constantly forward, untimid and purposeful, inching confidently. At any second, we could step on it, but it pushed on, unaware of its vulnerability, its strength. (Similar to being a woman, vulnerable but we felt determined now, we made each other aware of what it means to be and doesn’t mean through stories that hinted at the essence of femininity in our collaged experiences.)
But the worm, its dance, its strength—does it forget about it like we do? Does it overthink its directions or notice the moon overhead or the dew drops on the grass? Does it remember, taste the moonlight and bask in the warmth of friendship in moments like these that echo in my mind months later? With each change of direction, it didn’t hesitate, and I appreciated that we stopped for that moment to watch the worm.
S—Today we went to the Forbes garden. I almost said I was too tired to go because I’d sat in classes all day, a bit sleepy. Things have been a bit harder these days.
But after class, sitting still, feeling the wind blow over me in the afternoon seminar we have together—we sat outside and talked about Woolf—I wanted movement. I wanted to believe in the sun and a small patch of land, an escape. I wanted to believe in new growth. To start a new chapter of life is, partly, to welcome the things that could fill it: new modes of friendship, of moving my body, of filling my days.
We pulled weeds and took a break to eat apples—we liked the imperfection of them—chatting with Edward and Maya and the other gardeners. It’s nice to think about my body intersecting with these other ones for a moment in time, a two-hour slice: our backs hunched over the earth together, the same music, bites from the same mosquitos. Implicitly, they’re reminders of the largeness of the world, the inaccessible depths of other people; we barely skim the surface, talking about our years and majors.
But I wasn’t thinking that hard in the moment. It was just nice to smile with other people and feel the same corner of the earth. We’re humans; we need each other. We need sunlight and to perceive our own voices and the shuffle of our feet. Like the ants and birds, we call to each other: one moment of connection, of seeing and being seen, holds us until the next.
E—I gardened today. The dirt sits under my nails.
We admired the imperfections of the apples, fingering the uniqueness of each. In the Forbes garden, we talked of love and ourselves and friendships and the level of similarity and reciprocity needed to be in love and what we want out of life (fuck optimization) and our ability to dream and our mothers and birth and the sex lives of cicadas. We tasted the burst of ripeness in fresh picked grape tomatoes, sweet punctures of orange pop music notes sliding down my taste buds. The loudness of our friendship and the quiet calm contentment we have intermingled as we grow together too from the seeds we planted months ago.
S—Both of us have always been popular among mosquitos. As I bend over, they attack the backs of my legs—merciless, paying no attention to the oily film of Bug Off! on my skin. I know I’ll be itchy as hell tonight, and maybe I’ll wake myself up to my own scratching. Strangely, I don’t really mind. Bug bites remind me of my aliveness; remind me of my skin, its softness and redness and need.
E—I painted yesterday. The paint sits under my nails. My hands were white and gray and I watched the water go from black to gray to clear and saw my fingers. I basked in their power to create, I’ve always loved hands, the gradient capabilities of power and extreme tenderness in the same vessel of joints, the fingerprints that make us our own that I could trace and trace and trace. I think of the hands I’ve held and that have held me.
S—I remember visiting my sister’s art studio. It was when she was still a freshman or sophomore in high school, before she got her driver’s license—my mom would pick her up, asking if I could come along so she could take the carpool lane on the highway. In the car, we passed through that big street in Cupertino—De Anza Boulevard—and I looked at all the signs for grocery stores and music classes and tea shops and test prep schools.
When we stepped inside the studio, I felt the silence of the place wash over me. It was the sound of walls covered in still-lifes and dragon paintings and figure drawings and students absorbed by their work. I loved being inside; it felt like church. I’d find my sister in the back, listening to music on earbuds, hunched over an easel: her practice, a prayer.
E—I remember the St. Louis heat enveloping me as I untangled the long grassy weeds that I hated because their roots were deep and interconnected with Grandpa’s bush; the codependency meant weeding would take some “good” life with it. And I could already see clovers showing their naive sprouts where I had weeded the Saturday before. I wonder why I do it, when they’re just gonna grow back. I like to think the moments of beauty are worth it, maybe the temporality reminds me both of my smallness and my strength to keep existing.
I thought of gardening metaphors—gotta attack it from the root, so it won’t come back. Sometimes it still does, though. But I loved that this was my chance not to think of metaphors, not to think of anything, lose myself in my Nature Hoe playlist or the breeze or the wrens that just came to my grandpa’s birdhouses in his backyard offering melody to the incohesive bass of the trash trucks driving down the potholed suburban street. I love the cool dirt that runs through my fingers, settles under my nails, the sweat that timidly traces my spine, then picks up pace, the grass imprints from kneeling, obeisance, my complete loss of perception of time.
S—The day after we went to the garden, we sat on my bed and painted on paper I brought from home. Watercolor paper—part of my sister’s bounty of art supplies—is something I always make sure to pack when I leave home; the preparation to get nice small rectangles out of the big sheets is somewhat of a ritual. I cut the sheet down with scissors, and when it’s small enough to fit into the paper cutter, I slice the sheet down.
The thought of unborn birthday cards and thank-you letters and “just saying hi” notes, always makes me smile. When I cut the paper, I think of how my mom taught me to be prepared with greeting cards in new settings—prepared to give, to say thank you, to express love. Someone I loved said I gave and expected the same in return. Maybe it’s true—maybe I shout into the world just for the echo back. I am my mother’s child, but on this, we differ—she gives for the sake of it. What if I gave to myself for the sake of it, not demanding anything back from myself?
E—More than all of that, I loved my grandpa’s memories. He shared stories that summer; they almost didn’t finish the concrete job. My dad smiled at me, we knew grandpa had told this one before. Never drink a beer before you are finished, he teased as he handed me a can, knowing it only contained sparkling water (a novelty) and the fizz bubbled on my tongue, mini explosions of coral against royal blue splattering on my tastebuds. They finished somehow, never again, my grandpa said with a laugh, hindsight makes it lighthearted, brings the twinkle to his eye he gets when telling stories he still sees, but I can only play on a second-hand film reel in my head.
I carry his echo. It feels good to write it here; maybe we’re not so impermanent in this life.
The dirt sat beneath my fingernails, I washed them in the sink that sat beneath sage-colored wallpapered walls with the scent of Japanese cherry blossom hand soap.
S—You painted my ficus plant, on the verge of a fourth leaf uncurling itself, with thin strokes. It was caught in a moment of time. I had this realization for the plant that I often have for myself: there is no going back, only forward on the axis of time. Every second we’re getting older; the leaf peeps out just a little more.
E—Can I grow a vegetable garden? Sorry, we’re moving soon, my dad said every summer for the past four years.
S—If I’m honest, I felt a bit silly, mixing colors with no destination, approximating paint-water ratios and guessing how the pigment will land on the paper. I painted bushes with red little flowers and a sun against a sky that fades into an unreal purple. I smiled a bit. I only have this painting experience: painting beside a real artist, someone who knows what they’re doing. I remember painting atop a hill in San Francisco, overlooking the Victorian houses with my sister. Or in her dorm, with candles and sweet wine and Marriage Story playing from her projector. These are the moments I’ve felt most like a little sister.
I don’t have a visual artist’s vocabulary; I am a musician. I think in movement and bodily control and the shape of sound. Music, a paradoxical space—the democracy and hierarchy of notes and moving parts, the coexisting of ease and much effort, of intuition and cognition. Painting is an expression of the self filtered through my clumsy body—my stubby and short fingers. But it was meditative, the process of building something as our conversation wandered in and out of different rooms. I felt grounded and happy to have produced something soft and colorful.
E—The scent of bug spray (what life do we choose to repel?) brought me back to a year ago in her garden far away, with purple cabbages that reminded me of kings’ plush capes and crowns. We played each other’s music and you liked mine. We stripped ferns bare to feed the fermentation, the compost perpetuating the cycle of birth, fulfillment, death, renewal. This is peace, we agreed, unaware of the future.
We had dirt beneath our fingernails. We washed our hands in buckets.
S—I had the painting sitting on my desk and I was packing mail for loved ones—a sweater too big for me for a friend in Davis, CA, and a coffee tumbler I’ll ship home for my dad’s birthday. I wrote a birthday message on the back of the painting and slipped it into the cardboard box. He’ll never know all the layers of the moment—the hike I took with him, Phoebe’s Garden, you, art, your father and stories of your childhood—the incredible web that holds us in connection and memory. But he has the painting of bushes and a purple sky. And that moment explodes into a million living, breathing things.
E—I love the feeling of creation and being a part of creation but also the simultaneous release of needing to create, a trust that it will be fruitful and something will grow from what we sow in the present. I don’t know if I believe in religion but there’s some larger hands than mine that coax the leaves up (the flowers with the weeds, gotta take the crooked with the straights my dad quotes). If there’s a God out there I like to think she appreciates having dirt under her nails.