“Self Preservation”

by Jamie Lyn Smith



I moved back to my hometown in rural Ohio in the dead of winter, intent upon making the best of things at a time when only the worst things seemed to be happening.  It was a dreadful February of oxygen tanks, life-thieving coughing fits, bedside vigils, and late-night weeping in the darkened room where my grandfather lay dying. 

Afternoons, while my Grandfather slept, I took to doodling in my journal, making lists of vegetables that caught my fancy, plotting out a garden that I thought would keep me busy come summer.  I engaged my niece and nephew in the project, sitting between them while we thumbed through the pages of catalogs with names like Heirloom Seeds, Heritage Seedlery.  I can still see their chubby fingers pointing to the slick photographs of cosmic purple carrots, pink tomatoes, weird melons shaped like cartoon animals, and crow-black Cherokee beans. 

I felt guilty making a garden plan for a summer my grandfather would not live to see.  But he delighted in our plans, joking that he sent me to college so I wouldn’t have to scratch and peck at the land like a chicken. 

“I want to do this,” I said, smiling at him. “I think I can be off-grid in about a year.”

“What about graduate school?” he asked.

I shook my head and said “Next year. I promise.”

I promised him a lot of things that winter. I wanted him to know I would do everything in my power to take care of my Grandmother, to keep the family together, to make a life in the place that I had by turns scorned, fled, and longed for.

#

My family’s farmhouse in Ohio was the only home I ever knew.  “The farm” had long been my zero axis, the place I returned to rejuvenate myself, remember who I was, and reorient my heart no matter how my flailing mismanagement had bruised it.  The house on Hall Road has been in my family since 1946.  My Great-grandfather bought it with money he saved from a WPA job.  My mother grew up in that house, and raised me and my sisters there.

Visiting my family on sojourns from New York, I was able to savor the fact that we were on borrowed time. It made our hours together much sweeter, and it was neither necessary nor desirable to address significant issues of codependency, depression, addiction, and dysfunction because I was only home for the weekend.  Nearly everyone could put on their good behavior for a forty-eight hour period—even me.

When I first began to consider moving back to Ohio, I thought I would be content for the rest of my days to live surrounded by my family, roaming the gorgeous hills of the countryside that I love.  I planned to return on my own terms, buy a little house, live simply. That was not to be the case. I returned suddenly, driven by crisis and despair, terms that set the tone for the next six years. 

#

The garden anchored me that first year back in Ohio. I nursed my beloved grandfather until his death, and then stayed with my grandmother to help her adjust and grieve. 

I reunited with my childhood sweetheart, and we got engaged rather too quickly but disengaged rather too slowly.  Our demise was scandalous, public, and messy. 

I was five hundred and sixty two miles from New York, my friends, my career and my autonomy.  My cell phone only worked if I stood at the bottom of the driveway and clutched an aluminum lawn chair. 

I lived as an adult child in the fishbowl that is my family compound, chafing against the lack of privacy.

After I called off my wedding, my sole romantic prospect was a dude around the corner who sold scrap metal for a living and tinkered on cars when he wasn’t smoking weed or sleeping with his friends’ ex-wives. 

By the end of that first year, several times a day, I would break down in tears and ask: what the hell have I done coming back here?

#

I fled outdoors.  When I was enraged with grief, leveled by disappointment, and incapable of healing the rifts and infighting that plagued my family after my grandfather’s death, the garden was a great place for me to strike the ground repeatedly with a tool and be considered productive, rather than be considered criminally insane.  I do not know how many unbearably sad hours I would have been forced to confront the pinching ache of my loneliness without the occupation I made of toiling in the dirt, of uprooting foxtails from between the silky stalks of sugar snap peas. 

That first spring I bought two-hundred-and-some Daisy cups, a whole mess of potting soil, and two hundred dollars worth of overpriced seed from intensely local, organic, heirloom growers.  On a cool spring day, I paid my nieces and nephews a then-princely sum of a dollar an hour to work on my horticultural assembly line.  One child pricked drainage holes in Styrofoam cups with a skewer.  Another dropped in a grubby handful of sand.  The next kid added a scoop of potting soil.  I labeled the cups with a sharpie, enjoying a moderate amount of success in teaching the older children the lyrics to Folsom Prison Blues and less success in keeping the baby from eating very much dirt. We took turns watering the soil and dropping the seeds in, covering each tiny kernel with loam, the lot of us joyfully singing I hear the train a-comin…it’s rollin’ round the bend …

#

I squealed with delight when the first tender shoots began to unfurl from the dirt. The miracle of gardening never ceases to amaze me.  It is humbling to think how much depends on one bean plant’s sprouting; how many meals I will make of one tiny seed.

After years of living in cities, I had forgotten a great deal about gardening. I had forgotten that potatoes bloom a beautiful spray of bright lilac flowers—impossibly delicate petals with a yellow stamen at the center.  I found many sources of sweetness and succor that made all the dirt in my ear canal and the callouses on my hands worthwhile.  Strawberries, right off the vine. Eating mesclun lettuce by the handful.  The brilliant tangerine pink of sweet potatoes, beading with sugar when I  dig them from the earth.  Miracles of this caliber require sustenance, faith, care, attention, and feeding.

I made some missteps, that year and in the years that would follow: I forgot to stake beans with wire, and do it early.  I forgot that if I watered the tomatoes at night I would get blight, bugs, and mildew.  I forgot that spinach bolts in warm weather, and that raccoons will always eat your sweet corn the night before you plan to harvest it.

I learned much too: that hanging laundry soap cakes wards off the deer.  That one can make a fine bird scare from pie pans and strings of beer cans slung on twine.  I learned there are things that are pretty but that don’t pay to deal with: Artichokes. Alcoholics. Brussels sprouts.  There are things that once they take root, they are impossible to dislodge from your turf:  Spearmint.  Chamomile.  A talkative neighbor.

The garden reminded me over and again that you never fail to reap what you sow.   Seed the cantaloupes too thick, and you will grow seventy-six of them.  They will all ripen at once.  Separate things that cross-pollinate lest you yield a bitter harvest of inedible, useless hybrids.  Weigh the balance of tending and overindulgence, lest you suffer the consequences of loving something, anything too fervently.

#

The garden was my retreat; and it was not so much an honorable falling back as it was a flagrant, measured rout.  I spent far more time cultivating sunflowers and sweet peppers than I spent nurturing difficult relationships and fractures in my family.  In the garden there’s less a chance of heartbreak.  It is easier to bond with a row of basil.  Its blossoms are fragrant, silent, and sweet to the taste, freshening breath rather than souring the mouth.

There is a theory about the nature of addiction that it has less to do with chemical dependency than it does with misplaced bonding.  The idea is that people with weakened or broken interpersonal relationships transfer normal social connections– friendships, filial love, romantic fulfillment, even sibling love — to a drug, such as alcohol or heroin.  For people with obsessive-compulsive disorder or a tendency to run a bit on the manic side of depressive, the bond can be forged with a non-human agent like a hobby. A repetitive behavior.  Compulsive gardening.

What happens then is predictable- Deep hurts go untreated, or rather, are self-medicated through liquor, gambling, sex, gaming, drugs, and the soul-consuming act of canning peaches. In a garden, you expect a windstorm to flatten your crops on occasion, or for hail to pour down out of an Ohio sky turned the greenish purple of a ripening plum.  If a devastating heat wave hardens the ground to brick, and all your tender plants wither up, well, that’s just nature running its course.  There is no betrayal, no talking behind your back, no snarky aggression at Easter dinner from a failing row of eggplant. 

And with plants, there is always another season.

This is not necessarily so with people.  

#

Sometimes I don’t know if I’m preserving the food or if the food is preserving me. The first thirty-five years of my life, self-preservation involved pickling, which turned me salty, sour, and made people pucker at my approach. I don’t blame them.  Sow, reap, sow, reap a few times round again; soon enough you will understand that you cannot sow the wind without inheriting the whirlwind.

 These days, I’m happy to work in the dirt.

Over any given growing season- – a season that for me, stretches from May to October, or across six long years of toil– I will pass countless evenings babysitting the pressure canner in a steaming hot kitchen.  I will swat away flies and yellow jackets at the picnic table while I cut, dice, seed, peel, crush, and mill everything from apple to zucchini that comes from gathering, growing, picking and foraging.  I’ll use- by last year’s loose estimate, anyway- approximately two boxes of Band-Aids per week, a gallon sunscreen, twelve cans of bug spray, three tubes of Neosporin and a veritable mountain of Epsom salt to soothe my aching muscles at the end of each long endeavor. 

The work is grueling. My hands go numb the day after I trim the apple orchard and fifty yards of overgrown grapevine every spring.  Eight hour stretches of hoeing the weeds around tender new plants all through June leaves my muscles aching.  I sweat and cuss through the butchering, processing, freezing and canning twenty-five chickens every fall. I love the work, but even in the prime of my health it pushes me to near-exhaustion and makes me wonder how on earth humans survived this long, or if I really even like food that much anyway.  

But by October, the wooden shelves in my basement will bow beneath the weight of enough canned food to sustain me through the coming year. The freezers will be brimming with frozen berries, greens, and chicken, and the seed catalogs will start showing up in the mail again. Come February my neighbors will drive up and down the road at a crawl, water barrels filled with maple sap rocking gently in the beds of their pickups. When the snow melts, I’ll step outside in the mornings and turn my face south, inhaling deeply, trying to catch a scent of thawing earth, of spring.

#

Yesterday, I was sorting canned goods and found a six-year old jar of peppers.  Food preserved by canning is typically safe to eat for seven years, and if I last another season here, the jars from my first year will expire.  Seven years, a biblical season. A period of time in our lives during which each cell is said to regenerate, to regrow and refresh itself. 

I try to remind myself to look at this world every day, in every season.  I look at it in the depths of winter after the collards have turned brown, and the Brussels sprouts surrender, bending sadly in the knee-deep snow.  I remember that soon my yard will teem with migrating goldfinches and their lilting song.  There will be tiny white butterflies too, their wings soft as petals, veined in green, batting lazily as they balance on the butter-colored blossom of an okra plant.  They’ll light down on the sunflowers and nasturtiums and brilliant orange and gold and red marigolds.  They’ll remind me how beautiful, and good it is to be alive.  And I’ll remind myself, this is what you wanted. You are indeed, living the dream.

#

I didn’t so much find the house I eventually lived in, as the house found me. I was out jogging Hall Road one day when a neighbor stopped her truck and told me that the Altizer place was standing empty.  There were so many Altizers on the county road that I stopped at two wrong addresses before I figured out which house it was.  I met the landlord’s wife, Suzie there that afternoon.  It was cold that day, and the grass snapped and lay flat as if surrendering to the bitter wind that promised winter.  The house itself was two-stories, encased in a dingy greyish vinyl siding. A cinderblock garage flanked by a couple of apple trees, a cypress, and a towering oak.  I noticed that among the outbuildings, there was a shed, a corncrib, a barn, and a chickenhouse.  I noticed that there was a sun porch, and a pine tree in the front yard that would keep the house cool during hot summers.

“I’m warning you,” Suzie said, as unlocked the door, “It isn’t much.”

But once we went inside, I was smitten. 

The place bore an uncanny resemblance to my family home. It had the same gleaming oak cabinets in the kitchen.  A stairway with an exposed bannister, lovely ornamental plastering on the ceilings, lots of windows letting in the weak October light. Upstairs there were two bedrooms whose windows overlooked a sheep farm, and the fields.

The basement had dirt floors, walls of chinked fieldstone, and the support beams tree trunks, hewn down, many with the bark still on them.  Rough, sturdy shelves were built into the walls for cold cellaring, and the yard was plenty big enough for me to garden.

The farmhouse was a mile from my grandmother’s and a half-mile from my parents.  I could walk to the nature preserve or cut through the woods to the farm.

Suzie gave me leave to paint and get a dog and hunt the woods behind the house.  A few hours later I took a check to her for my first month’s rent, we shook hands on the porch, and the deal was done.

Over the past five years– the longest I’ve sustained residence at a single address since 1992—this weird, wild place has become my home. There are days that are spectacular: when I’m out tracking deer in the snow and turn my head to spot a  great horned owl perched in the greying wood of an dead tree, yellow eyes blinking at me.  From my porch, I can hear coyotes howl a chorus of piercing yips, calling in their brood to share in the bounty of a kill.

Granted, the house has its imperfections: Each fall I wage war against invading field mice.  The add-on kitchen and the entire upstairs are unheated and unbearable in winter.  If I use the microwave at the same time as the space heater, the breaker will trip, and when the weather drops below zero, the house beams snap and crack like rifle shot.

Strange noise is a constant in a 150-year-old house.  I live in a symphony of sound from the furnace, the fireplace, the water pipes, and the loose tin roof on the barn that my landlord “fixed” by placing cinder blocks on top of it.  But last winter I began to hear distorted, nearly musical sounds rising up through the air ducts, usually at night. The sound would come and go. It melody sounded a bit like someone whisper-singing into the whirring blades of an electric fan.

Was it the ghost of a previous occupant? Was I starting to hear voices?  Had I taken leave of my senses? I told no one, fearing ridicule.  I took to murmuring The Lord’s Prayer, fetching a glass of pinot noir, and turning on some Brahms to distract myself from the possibilities, which grew more and more dire as my imagination seized them. 

One evening, I had enough of it, and I raised the dog up from deep quivering sleep, resolving to get to the bottom of this nonsense.  I searched the house, spending an hour in exhaustive audit of every possible nook and cranny, including the basement, a place I avoid after dark because I once found a possum’s jawbone down there, lying in the loose dirt along the walls. 

I gave up, and decided to brush my teeth, thinking I’d call it an early night. When I cut off the water, I heard a click and whir from the spare bedroom across the hall.  I walked in, foamy toothpaste stinging the corners of my lips, and discovered that the power to the television was on. Not only was it on, but a DVD was playing—on repeat.

I pressed eject, and the noise stopped.  I ran to spit in the sink, realizing I’d found my ghost. A CD soundtrack of The Wizard of Oz had been playing at low volume, on repeat, for weeks. The speakers sat atop a furnace intake duct, sending the movie’s murmur through the house at a whisper whenever the furnace fans kicked on. For months, flying monkeys had been screaming, tornadoes roaring though the night, witches cackling, lollipop kids dancing, and Dorothy had been saying over and over again, “There’s no place like home… there’s no place like home.”

And of course, there isn’t. 

And for that I don’t know whether to be grateful or relieved, or both. 

#

The purported haunting coincided with realizing that the upcoming completion of grad school would untether me.  By Thoreau’s definition, I’d be unencumbered: free of the ghost, of memory, of a mortgage, a husband, a family, a job.   I am free to begin again elsewhere, or free to continue what I’ve started here. Free to find a home that is real, permanent, or real, and impermanent, but one where I hope I will live deliberately if that is possible. The house felt too big, too lonesome.  My neighbors bring me deer, shovel my sidewalks, clear my driveway, till the garden, and watch my house when I’m away.  I came to the Garden of Eden, and found it an unbearably lonely place.  It’s little consolation that each time I’ve had to eat dust or crawl on my belly, I’ve been able to get to my feet again, and stand.  Should I stay in the township, one day that might no longer be the case.  I can’t spare another rib.  The brokenness of that heartbreak reminds me—each time I breathe—that love is not the most important thing in the world, unless you don’t have it.

I click my heels together three times. I whisper. Nothing happens.

I listen intently. I hear ghosts singing through the furnace ducts.   The sad part of leaving will be telling all those around me that the love they have for me is not enough. Perhaps the same is true, of me, and for me.

#

In the end, I left Knox County for the same reason I had left it nearly twenty years earlier: I had completed my education, I was wildly unhappy, and I could not find a job within a hundred miles of my house.  I fought leaving. I job-searched for months, watching with increasing nervousness as my bank account and my options dwindled. I waited tables, taught music lessons, free-lanced with a literary magazine, dogsat, and tutored, cobbling together a living that let me barely eke by.

By August, I faced the prospect of getting through the winter in a house I could not afford to heat. My credit card was maxed out, my student loan payments were coming due, I had begun to dip into what paltry savings I’d set aside.  Hell, I thought. Leaving is leaving. It doesn’t matter where I go. After losing this place, everywhere is nowhere. 

I was in my garden that August when I heard what people refer to as, “the call.”

A voice spoke to me as clear as Abraham, poised to plunge his knife into Isaac, as clear as Mary, hand on her abdomen, as clear as Elijah’s fire, scorching rock. 

The voice said, It’s time to let this dream go.

I glanced around. The yard was empty but for Daisy, who lay sprawled across the porch napping in the sun. I went completely still.

“Pardon me?” I asked.

I figured if it was God I should definitely be respectful, and if it was me finally beginning to take leave of my sanity and I was going to spend the rest of my life talking to myself, we might as well be civil with one another.

It’s time to let this dream go, the voice said. 

Then, knowing me well as she does, God added, Right now. Today.

I dropped my hoe in the garden and left it where it lay. I went to the porch and sat with Daisy, thought about packing up the contents of my house: an enormous antique upright piano, eight rooms full of furniture and housewares, something like four hundred mason jars, two chest freezers, my grandmother’s china, three beds, two couches…

The dog looked up at me, cocked her head sideways. I scratched her ears.

“We’re leaving,” I promised.  I expanded my employment efforts to a national search. I had – in nine days—nine interviews. Every last one of them out of state.

#

I took a job at a small college in West Virginia.  Within four days of signing my faculty contract I was flying down I-75 towards the southern coalfields and Blue Ridge Mountains,  where I would work as an English Professor.  Daisy rode shotgun, keen on the adventure, her lips flapping in the breeze as she rested her head on the passenger window, watching Ohio fly by sideways.  I, on the other hand, burst into tears when we crossed the Ohio River.  I reminded myself that Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt because she looked back longingly on a land that she had been ordered to leave.  I fixed my eyes on the road ahead of me.  I steeled my resolve on the immediate: the GPS was barking instructions, and we were low on both gasoline and coffee.

#

I left behind most of my things. I sublet the farmhouse to my cousin. I left behind Hall Road. I left my irreparable family, the scars of my heartbreak, my beloved garden, the okra in full bloom.  I left behind the belief that I could be happy there or that I could indeed go home, and certainly the idea that both were possible at the same time, homing instinct be damned.

I don’t know what is next. I know I need to listen.

I keep praying, through it all, for direction. I know the fickle yearnings of my own heart well enough to know how quickly bright things can come to confusion.  For now, I would call myself happy.  The cabin I rent has a fireplace that makes fine light for writing.  I work long hours at the college and sleep good at night.

I have all that I need and far more than I ever wanted. 

It’s October, and the leaves are turning the mountains a glorious firestorm of bright color, the sky is bluer than I ever dreamed possible. I looked out the window of my classroom the other day, stopping mid-lecture to train my students gaze on the beauty of the fall colors splayed out in a vista before us, the blue haze above the ridge, hovering, so much like home.  

“Come February,” I asked them, “Will someone please remind me, that I once said I would never, ever tire of this view?”




Jamie Lyn Smith


Jamie Lyn Smith is a writer, teacher and editor who returned to Knox County, Ohio after fifteen years in New York and Los Angeles. She is the Fiction Editor at BreakBread Magazine, a consulting editor at The Kenyon Review, and the founding editor of Bridge. Jamie Lyn’s work has most recently appeared in The Pinch, The Mississippi Review, American Literary Review, Bayou, The Boiler, and The Kenyon Review. Jamie Lyn received a 2020 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award for Hometown, a novel about millennial crises and the rise of white nationalism in the rural Midwest.


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