Making space for something new

I tell Z I’m going to my garden next to our building. He doesn’t respond. So I sing to him. We have determined that he tunes me out most of the time, but he doesn’t if I sing to him. He tells me not to take it personally but regular talking is really uninteresting to him sonically.

At first I was shy, but it’s so nice that he hears everything I say that it’s worth singing. I tell him I’m surprised he wants to hear someone sing when I can’t stay in tune. He tells me this is one of the benefits of him losing his hearing.

I don’t understand how the hearing loss works. Some days he tells me he’s going deaf and other days he’ll tell me the elevator bell is an F#. Some days he plays Bach so beautifully that I feel like the luckiest person in the world to sit so close to the music. Other days he needs silence.

Then why are you playing video games all day?

Because it’s silent.

You could do Spanish vocabulary. That’s silent.

I turned Minecraft to Spanish. I’m learning the word for obsidian in Spanish.

What is it?


I have perfected the art of never living in the moment with my garden. I make big plans and when they seem too easy to execute I make them more impossible. I built four more small gardens on the sidewalk. Total: 10. There was no water source so every time I watered it took me an hour.

When the time came, in April, for the bulbs to start blooming, people noticed; they pulled their dogs away. By May, people stopped me in the streets to thank me.

And then the gardens kept changing, like fireworks. Plans I made so obsessively over the last ten months unfolded with near perfection. Only one garden didn’t bloom as expected and ended up with empty patches. But each day new people showed me pictures they took, and there were so many flowers I started giving them away as people walked by.

There has never been a water source within reasonable distance, but the watering became even slower when I had to get in between the tulips. Sometimes when I was watering Z would yell out the apartment window for me to come home, like we’re living back on the farm.

Sometimes I’d say okay, I’m coming, and then not come for a little while longer like I’m an alcoholic at the bar. A little more water. A little more picking off the dead petals. Or digging out an obstructed stem.

By June the whole neighborhood was excited with the flowers. People were bringing their friends to see. And someone said to me, “Remember the pink and orange flowers you gave me a couple of weeks ago? Did you grow any more of those? I was hoping you’d have more this week.”

That’s when I realized people were expecting the flower beds to look like this all summer. So I started digging up bulbs as they bloomed, transplanting them to my garden in the park, and replacing them with flowers for summer and fall.

It was a massive production I did mostly at night. I told Z he could only play video games at night if he didn’t sleep the entire day. “It’s not that I hate video games, but they take up all your empty space. You need something new in your life and there is nowhere for it to enter.”

“Empty space? My whole life is empty space.”

I don’t know what I did for the next five hours. Bulbs. Bone meal. Bio-char. Z caught me below our apartment and yelled out the window, “Mom! It’s midnight! Get upstairs!”

While I was shaking off dirt in the kitchen sink, Z told me, “Gardening for you is like video games for me.”

I told him he’s probably right.

Then he said, “If I spent as much time on video games as you spend on gardening you’d throw out my computer.”

“OK. I get it.”

“You need empty space. Maybe you’re scared of what you’d fill it with.”

“OK, OK!”

The next day Z told me he didn’t think I was trying hard to find a new apartment. “Mom. The building is infested with mice. Get us out of here.”

“It’s really hard to stay in this neighborhood and not be in an old building and old buildings have mice.”

“WHAT? Why are you looking only in this neighborhood?”

I froze. I told myself that I was only looking in our neighborhood because change is bad for a kid. But I couldn’t say that to him. He’d never believe it.

“Look,” he says. “Here’s a great apartment two train stops from the garden.”

Oh. He already knows.

So there are plenty of new buildings in Boston just not close to my garden.

Z picks a building that is beautiful, and because students make Boston’s rental market crazy, our mice infested building is the same price as the gorgeous luxury high-rise.

We are packing and he says, “How can you not be excited?”

“I’m in shock to move away from my garden. I just have to get used to the idea.” I know I’ll never take the train to a garden. But whatever. I know I need to stop gardening. It’s taking up all the extra time in my life — just like video games.

Z shows me this picture at lunch. He says, “Look at the plot that didn’t bloom. It looks really good. I thought you’d like that the most interesting garden was the one that had the extra space.”

25 replies
  1. Ursula
    Ursula says:

    You’re a poet. Thank you for this post. Immensely moving, unexpectedly. It went straight to my heart.

  2. harris497
    harris497 says:

    There is so much to unpack in this post, that I’ll just say thank you, and read it again several times today and tomorrow.
    Suffice it to say that your garden/s seem to be a bridge… a sort of transitory process that is taking you to your next “new thing.”
    I hope and pray that you find it soon and ease into it, and that your soul is fed by it.

  3. thatgirl
    thatgirl says:

    What a wonderful place for this subject to land: the necessity for “empty space,” and why people feel the need to always fill it—as if there’s no beauty or necessity in empty space.

    In art and design it would be referred to as negative space, and one designs or paints equally for both the positive space and negative space; they all play an important role in the overall scheme,.

    As the summer dwindles, I am pleased I engineered some negative space into my time. We used to whine about long summers off school, but now I’m grateful my parents didn’t cram mine end-to-end with planned activity. There was time for noticing small things, daydreaming—which positively informs the time we’re inundated with activity.

    Must find more negative space amid that as I re-design it.

  4. Mina
    Mina says:

    Z is wise.

    Beautiful flowers. What a delight for the neighborhood. For what it’s worth, we here in burb of Boston also have mice cohabitation, more so in winter months. Grateful our two dogs are no cats, so mostly out of sight out of mind.

    Good luck on the move and new abode. Change is hard, and can be good. Luckily in Boston everything is just about two stops away.

  5. Madelyn Lang
    Madelyn Lang says:

    Beautiful. I do the same thing on a smaller scale with house plants. I drift into working on them, tweaking them, rearranging them by default, when I have much more important things to do. I just go there without thinking. I guess it’s comforting or therapeutic.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thank you for asking! I am posting more on twitter. I thought scrolling through a feed of flowers might approximate the feel of walking through my garden.


  6. Tatianna
    Tatianna says:

    Gorgeous post, thank you for sharing this experience with us. Leaving the gardens is a tiny death. Give yourself lots of time to experience the poignant sadness of loss. Wishing you a life that blooms.

  7. Grace
    Grace says:

    Thank you for creating beauty in your neighborhood. Beautiful creations are never in vain. Negative space (like the silence between music notes) makes the other things more meaningful. Good luck in your new digs. We can’t wait to hear about it.

  8. jennifer
    jennifer says:

    You did a beautiful job, those flowers are simply amazing!! Tell us how you did it! Gardening is such a lovely hobby, bringing beauty and food to yourself and others. Video games, blech. lol

  9. Heather
    Heather says:

    Gardening is therapy, especially for Aspies and ADDers and other neurodivergents. It literally raises the endorphins and helps with SSRP uptake and the dirt has components that are good for us olfactorally… there’s a whole bunch of other physical benefits that I can’t remember from a webinar I saw. I’m so sorry you have to move. Your garden is spectacular. I live in the armpit of California, the driest, hottest, cruddiest air part of the whole state. I’d love to have a garden look like yours but I have to stick with stuff that can stand 105 degrees for days or weeks and not die. You’re a really great gardener.

  10. Amy Parmar
    Amy Parmar says:

    What a gorgeous garden! I’m sure the boxed sets you set up on your new balcony will be just as pretty!

    I feel lucky to have you worked with you. Glad you’re getting away from mice, ick!


  11. Ally Brennan
    Ally Brennan says:

    Ahhh this post is beautiful. Both the flowers and the way you conveyed so much with so little words. Good luck on your move! I hope the new empty spaces in your life will inspire beautiful things.

  12. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    This weekend I saw beauty, and I learned that I might be keeping out some powerful feelings all the time, without using substances the way nearly all my relatives do. That’s a strange thought: That I somehow habitually medicate without being an addict.

    My theory is that I had let my guard down because I was in a nice immersive Monet exhibit: changing pictures on all the walls, and music from his time, some of which (by Satie) I have on my desktop.

    I’ve also done an immersive Van Gogh, but I was with someone that time, so I was fine.

  13. Mu
    Mu says:

    I had a look at your Twitter feed. The pictures of your urban garden are wonderful. You enhanced the life of the people of your neighbourhood, and that in itself is heartwarming.
    I wouldn’t say gardening is filling an empty space because your mind is free to wander and you can grow and evolve so much when your mind is free.
    Video games, Netflix, on the contrary prevent us from thinking.
    I hope you find another garden to create in your new street.

  14. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    The second time I read this I didn’t have to attend so earnestly. I could read more lightly, at a faster speed, and pick up all the delightful humor—It’s funnier the second time around.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thank you for the really nice compliment, Sean. I clicked the link on your name, and I read some of your essays. One was about how much impact a single writer can have not being on the New York Times Bestseller list. It made me think: a single writer who writes really well reminds other writers that its so wonderful to read good writing. You did that for me today. Thank you.


  15. Tara Scherner de la Fuente
    Tara Scherner de la Fuente says:

    I used to live on Jamaicaway, just off Huntington. Mice there, too. But it was an old building. Still, looked out on the pond, and I think it might have been worth it. I only think that because I haven’t lived with mice in awhile. Occasional mice was definitely better than infested with mice. Which is to say, I hope you find the best new place with a new garden.

  16. Amy Parmenter
    Amy Parmenter says:

    Such a beautiful, revealing and reflective post. I think this is what we all do. We ‘garden’. We fill our time with activities we are good at, that serve us or we otherwise enjoy rather than explore other possibilities – even those activities or projects that we think about doing every day, but dont. So hard to stop gardening. Especially when doing so brings such joy.

    Thx P.

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