False Identity

She made a loop, then twisted the other string around it before pushing it through that little space it made out of itself. Keeping a firm hold on the loop, she pulled on the newly emerging little one until it matched the size of its companion. If done just right, the bow would be perfect, and she could run to the car, dinosaur backpack bumping behind her. If not, her shoes would either be as floppy as the loops, or she would have to start all over until it was right.

The barren tree branches blurred together into a stream of brown outside the backseat window. The coldness clung to it as the heater of the car whirred to keep it out. It was a season that always excited her, but she wasn’t really sure why. Somehow everything seemed to slow down, and she enjoyed soaking in the calmness of it. Except for today. She could already feel the dull dread building in her little body. It grew as the car stopped and her mother helped her out. She willed the dread away with each prance up the steps, but the familiar smell of the hallway melted all that work away until a knot of conflicted feeling prickled in her stomach.

Her friends greeted her with bursts of excitement. They were wearing their fun sweaters with bright, festive colors of green and red. The red-nosed reindeers and funny character elves bobbled as they tried to contain their excitement. The classroom was decorated as if to match their clever outfits, and all of the treats were arranged in the corner wrapped in red striped paper or silver bows.

She smiled timidly in her regular clothes, clutching the little straps of the dinosaur backpack.

The class was quickly hushed and ushered to their seats for their regular morning routine. She shrugged the backpack off and pulled a reading book out before taking her seat. After the announcements were called out over the loudspeakers, they were asked to stand and face the flag that stood in the corner – stark against the otherwise festooned wall. She stood for the pledge, but the reason she stood colorless and plain was the same reason, every morning, she stood with the others but kept her hands to her sides and her mouth shut as they diligently recited.

And as the teacher proclaimed the beginning of the Christmas party, the little girl reached for the reading book and was sent to sit in the hallway. Alone. Until the party was finished.

When school would resume after the holiday break, all of the kids would reconvene to their huddles and excitedly share what presents they had delightfully unwrapped in beautifully decorated homes. She would inevitably be asked what the jolly, red-suited man had left for her to which she would answer, “Oh, we don’t do that.” Their heads would bob absently before going back to their excited chatter.

As the year when on, she would have to kindly decline the glittered invitations to birthday parties. She would be left to color empty pages as the rest of the class adorned various designs on Easter eggs. There were reasons she couldn’t ever partake. She knew there were reasons. She didn’t really understand the reasons. She just knew that she was not like the rest of the kids, and she knew the script of what to say when asked “Why not?”

Each time, she would recite “Thank you, but no. It is against my religion.” And each time the words were spoken, the gap to the black abyss between her and the world would open a little farther. And each time the abyss grew, it whispered to her: If you’re not like them, there is no space for you.

If you do not wish to partake in our way, exclude yourself. But make yourself small about it.

So, the little girl grew up learning how to be small. In that smallness, her own mind was her refuge. It provided the means to feed that insatiable desire to not be small. It provided a curious mind.

As the years went on and life changed in so many different ways, the rules of what was allowed and what was not changed as the choices of her parents changed. And then she began to decide her own changes. In the shifting, she found joy in the task that always provided her companionship in those moments when she needed to be small – she read. And reading taught her many things.

It taught her that she was not alone in her experience of not being allowed.
It taught her that she was not alone in her experience of feeling a need to be small.
It taught her that she had many, many questions.
It taught her that there were others like her. Many others. And in many different ways.
It taught her that the flag she couldn’t pledge to was symbolic of a nation that tried to tell her she was an outsider.
It taught her that she wasn’t.
It taught her that even the first President of the United States of America was not a Christian.
It taught her that what she was told wasn’t always what was true.
It taught her that there were people who were not wanting to conform.
It taught her that she was not alone.
It taught her that she no longer wanted to be small.
It taught her that she would never, ever want anyone else to feel the need to be small.

It taught her that freedom in America was a false freedom.
It taught her that American culture meant you had the freedom to choose to opt-out of the American Christian idealism, as long as you stayed small. As long as you stood quietly. As long as you stepped out instead of proclaiming your own beliefs.
It taught her that she wanted a real freedom.
It taught her she was tired of opting out meant opting into oblivion.
It taught her that if she did not comply or step in line she would be seen as little.
And that was worse than seeming small.

It taught her that her soul deeply understood the plight of the outcast and overlooked.
It taught her how to recognize privilege.
It taught her how to use her own privilege.

It taught her that America is a nation with no majority.
It taught her that she no longer needed to opt-out.
The only option was to opt-in.

It taught her that being an American had only one definition, and it was simply to be American.

And so she stood. And no longer kept her mouth shut.

My Garden: A Satirical Short Story

Every morning in summer, I accompany a steaming cup of brewed substance to the wrought iron chair in the garden. I might stretch my back with a gentle twist or bend my neck to release a cracking protest to my forced ritual, but inevitably, I set myself down on that chair’s crimson cushion, tuck my feet beneath me until I am contorted into perfect comfort, and watch the golden light of morning wake the sleepy blooms in my garden. 

I will gently sip at my brew, anxious to consume it. The sharp sting of the heat caused by my eagerness is a stark contrast to the creeping, calm, annoyingly self-paced, golden beams reaching over the fence to bring their own first touch of warmth to my petaled friends. 

This isn’t the garden I enjoyed a year ago. These elegantly, chaotically massed plot of wildflowers was once a structured, intentionally planted, staked-and-lined, pruned, proper garden. 

Just as I do now, I would come out every morning with a steaming cup of brew, the contents of which were often collected from the garden the night before. I’d sit on my cushion that sat on my chair as I watched the sun come up and list out the tasks needing done. I would see the weeds that needed pulled, the mulch that needed to be bought and laid, the plants that might need some extra care, and on and on. I was happy in my chores, because I knew that as the sun went down, I was useful to these little things – and felt worthy enough after a day’s work to clip away a small bit here and there to brew in my steaming mug the next day. 

It sounds like a lovely, balanced ecosystem, doesn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, there is a cathartic pace to the cycle of give and get. But just as there is a time for all things to grow, there is also a time for things to die.

My intentions were innocent. I wanted to grow a garden, to live from that garden, to be able to identify as a gardener and flip through gardening magazines while wearing a sunhat and say, “Ah, yes!” when a new composting technique became streamline while I had already implemented it weeks ago. I wanted to go to gardening shows with my prized hydrangeas (we’ll get to those fuckers in a minute) and be able to hold my special, secret hydrangea food concoction close to my chest as I thumbed my nose at anyone whose blooms were less full than mine. And if I never got to do any of that, I wanted to be able to wake up each morning, sit on my cushion that sat in my chair and sip my brew with a full heart. 

Most folks know about the language of flowers. Different flowers mean different things and can be given to someone to signify a message you wish to say but for some reason cannot otherwise verbalize. 

This garden had a language all of its own. It started as any good garden does – with a vague idea from some picture, a heart full of an idealist dream, and a trip to Home Depot. I bought it all in one trip. Invest fully or don’t bother, right? I got the soil, the hose, the plant food, the trowels and spades, the gloves – I already had the sunhat. I bought anything that made me feel like, and look like, a bonafide gardener. I was putting my soul on a platter, ready to transform it into anything that would make the small dirt patch in my back lawn thrive into the lusciousness I dreamed it could be. I even bought the hose nozzle that clicked nine times, and each time you clicked it, the water sprayed in a different pattern until you reached the perfect spraying proportion required by your plants – depending on their mood that day.

I get home, donned my gear, and stood hands on hips to survey the plethora of plants I unloaded from the backseat of my car. I thought I stood judging where each one should be placed according to where the sun hit in the afternoon or how much water and space they required according to the vague little tag they came with, but I think they stood with a more watchful eye and had already begun to make their judgements of me.

I can’t remember which I planted first, but I did put the little ones in the front and the big ones in the back. That felt right. The hydrangea went in the center with its blooms still small and green. Then, in went the rose bush with its blooms in the same state. I was immediately forced to learn the definition of ‘annuals’ as I broke in my garden gloves while burying the daffodil bulbs. I threw in some rosemary and mint next – all while imagining myself with long, red locks as I built herbal potions in my lavish Victorian kitchen like Gillian Owens. There was no dead body under my garden though. I’ve just always been envious of her hair. 

I had a couple lily plants that I strategically placed in a half circle around what I had already put in the ground before placing the peonies and pansies. These were the lower-growing, softer flowers who were already in bloom and showing their rich purples and pops of purity white. Oh! And marigold! I think I had a marigold plant in the back corner. I must have had one, because I remember thinking back to kindergarten when we grew marigolds from seeds as a baby science experience. Despite our tiny, uncoordinated hands, we managed to push seeds into little egg cartons of dirt one day and come back the next to find full grown plants. It definitely sugarcoated the growing process, but I remember being left with the impression that marigolds were resilient things. I pondered this and was thankful for their hopeful resilience as I clicked away at the hose nozzle until it showered a gentle rain over my newly plotted garden. 

The garden grew well the first few years. After all, all things have their seasons. Some are long, some are short. The roots grew deeper with each passing morning that I walked myself out with a mug in hand. I noticed subtle changes in my garden as the light would urge it awake. Instead of analyzing it, I focused on the growth and was satisfied enough with that. Each day, I pulled my weeds. I laid my mulch. I served by pruning and plucking and admiring. And when my head would ache from being bent over all day, I would pinch the rosemary and drink in the soothing scent in long, forceful whiffs until my headache vanished for simple fear that it would never get a normal breath of oxygen to it again should it not. 

One day, as I pulled away and rubbed my temple satisfactorily, I found myself eye-to-eye with a watchful, burning orange lily. Unyielding in the breeze, its black stigma was bent straight toward me. I self-consciously adjusted my sunhat, oddly aware at how many of my hairs were left uncovered and how my shirt was too white to be wearing while working in the garden. My crouched legs began to cramp, and my headache was returning, but I didn’t dare move. All of the lily plants seemingly had their stigma curiously, or judgingly, arched in my direction. That was the first day I felt the garden had taken a bit of me in its daily ritual of food gathering. I know because the next day my daily ritual of mug, cushion, chair, weeds, water, and prune was heavier on the latter three and a bit less satisfying. It was also the day I swore off coffee. 

At this point, I had fully invested in my education of becoming a gardener. I had read enough and even joined a ‘garden club’ to be around other enthusiasts like myself. I also resigned to the fact that I had made some rookie mistakes, but I was sure they would end up fine. So, I pressed on. I worked and worked and worked and had fun most days. 

I still dreamed of having my own prized hydrangeas. It was no easy task. Those babies needed babied. They required the most water, the most pruning, the perfect balance of sun and shade – and don’t you dare let a single ladybug near it or its leaves will throw a hissy fit and spot right up. 

I also became fond of my roses. They bloomed every year within the same week and was so full of blooms that it would sag with their weight as if it didn’t realize what its heavy burden was. But I’ll be damned if a thorn didn’t get me every time I went near the thing. 

The peonies and the pansies stayed low to the ground, and I would often have to pluck the shed lily petals from them so those poor blossoms could get their share of the sunlight. Overall, they were an obedient bunch as they happily fell in line with the ebb and flow of the seasons. They died every winter, and I had to replant them in the spring. 

Contrary to the peonies’ and pansies’ dutiful cycling, the daffodils confidently rebloomed each season, though seemed quick to burn out. 

Oh, yeah. And the marigolds. 

Now, while the hydrangeas have always been the ones who have required the most resources to grow and the most attention to thrive (I swear, it would wilt if I didn’t gaze upon it the most during my morning mug sipping), nothing could be more torturous as the mint. After first planting my garden, I read that mint should be potted and never placed in a bed with other flowers. Why? It’s a creeper. In year one, it was tame and mellow, and I was careful how much I would collect for my kitchen for fear of damaging it. By year three, I was having to pull its vines away from the foundation wall of my house. Truth! Instead of being careful with my trimmings, I would have to relentlessly hack away to keep any semblance of sanity or else that mint would have crawled through that bed and choked out every other living entity for fear it was going to starve by missing out on some secret form of sunlight just another centimeter away. If I had stayed still long enough and it grew fast enough, I’m sure it would have engulfed me too in its pursuits.

So, here I was – pruning, watering, mulching, plucking, swatting, mindful of the reach of my sunhat (I retired the white shirt) and felt like I had become a one-man band of my own making and still was as green as the day as my newly bought garden gloves. 

My back ached. My knees stained. My hands calloused. But I was still determined to become a gardener. 

Drip. Drip. I can’t remember the exact moment I noticed it. Drip. I wrote it off as being a leaky hose. Drip. Or maybe it was dew falling from the edge of the roof. A simple drip, drip isn’t cause for concern anyway, so I went about my day and found that by evening the sound had retired and so I did too. 

The next morning, it came again. Drip, drip. It wasn’t the hose. I was forced to check it as I had to water the garden before the sun came up, because it had been so dry for all the lack of dew. Drip. 

I finally sat on my cushion which sat on my chair and sipped on my lukewarm brew. Its usual tannin bitterness (when had it lost its sweetness?) now had a tint of metallic to it. Smelling burnt toast meant I might be having stroke, but what was this? I looked at my garden expecting it to reveal what ailment it was, as if it held a secret I needed to know and the gap in leaves or bend in blossoms would miraculously convey to me what a simple glance in my cup would tell me instantly. The dried leaves had all settled in the water in my mug, making way for the dark mass to swirl as it fanned out to dissipate into my daily brew. Drip. Another crimson mass plopped into my drink before expanding into nothingness. 

I was breaking. Not yet broken, thank god, I threw that mug with a shriek and ran inside to examine myself. Not a scratch, not a wound. Drip. The crimson drop skidded down the side of the sink. I must be making it up. I have to be losing my mind. As if the streak of blood gave my soul permission, all of those little moments flooded over me, weighing on me, exhausted me. All of the pruning, the watering, the feeding, the careful and tender care I gave so freely was taking its toll as the garden I dreamed of having was sucking me dry by its own desire to live. 

I could have stayed in the bathroom, had a soak in the bath and gone out the next day after a nice night’s sleep ready to do twice the work to catch up. Drip. But at what cost to myself. I didn’t know – but I was unwilling to find out. 

With my sunhat and dirt-crusted garden gloves strewn on the floor, I went out to the garden and plucked those little, self-righteous bastards up from their roots. I could have ignored them, yes. I could have deprived them of water until they shriveled and died, but that would have been too slow – and I would have had to suffer through staring at a decaying plot that constantly begged me for care and reminded me of my sadness, my failures, my desires, and about that blue ribbon from the garden fair I would never get to see. There was something about the physicalness of the ripping and witnessing the bulging roots that were warped at naked without their soil coverings that was lusciously satisfying. 

My hands were bludgeoned, and my body ached with the hunched strain, but at least I knew the source of the blood and pain. This was a wound that would be made by my own terms, and once the work was done, and the petals already began to melt in the heat of the day, I went inside to tend to myself. 

The next day, I returned to Home Depot – not in the service of the garden, but in the service of myself. All I walked out with was a new mug and single packet of wildflower seeds. They required two simple things: to be tossed with the wind over a space of fertile soil, and a bit of my own patience. Mother Nature would take care of the rest. 

The first year they bloomed happily. Then they dropped their seeds, and the next year, they flourished into a mass of applauding expansion. My garden was thick and full of the most vibrant colors and magnificent array of shapes. I now drink my brew and sit on my cushion that sits on my chair, and together we bask in the morning light.