I started my first garden this summer. I finally have the space to grow one. I’ve always wanted to plant, always felt the need to produce. But mostly, I want to learn from the process of gardening. I want to know what needs more water, more sun, what survives cold nights, and what clings tight or loose to the ground. I want to watch my garden grow.
I planted red leaf lettuce in late April. The lettuce started off small, and bushy and round. Unsure of where its roots might settle, it grabbed hold of the earth like a fist, slowly, waiting for the soil to hug its filaments and for its spine of a stalk to brace the ground. Now, as the temperature rises, it grows tall like a tree. Cool season crops like lettuce are coming to the end of their season and the low meandering leaflets that used to hide the soil beneath it, now spread upward and openly like the hands of a dancer, revealing a way to the lettuce’s roots. They call it “bolting,” when a plant is preparing to flower and spread more seed, innately wanting to preserve its line, biologically geared to continue its name. Stalks stand erect like monuments outside my window, pointing towards skies and the song birds that coo.
My inmate students stand tall in red. The classroom we’ve created for writing and sharing nourishes their veins with confidence, affirmation, and the encouragement to produce. When I first arrived at the jail they sat low, hunched over, and they gave off a vibe of fear, uncertain of what I would bring them. We have a joke in the class now about who is leaving and when. Initially, I’m bummed whenever someone tells me their leaving, disappointed he will no longer be in class, present in the circle, spreading seeds of support. But I’m happy he’s sprouting out of this place, happy he has the chance to go home and be with his family, happy he might choose not to come back.
I snip each lettuce leaf for dinner tonight—the ones that are a deep maroon showing their insides to me—and place them in a large stainless steel bowl. They fall with grace, still holding their form, layering each other with enough air to stay fresh. Their tips curl like coral, like a hand that’s reaching out for something to grab hold of, something to help them leave home.
As I pace behind the inmates in class, their heads still and focused on a computer screen, I bend down a little to read what they’re writing. The smell of hard white soap fills my nostrils, like a surge of fresh herbs picked from my garden before the sun has warmed them. They smell cleaner than clean. I think about how much they must scrub, how much they must lather in order to rid their bodies of the dirt and guilt, to cleanse themselves of the soiled dreams that fall like a layer of dew over the jail grounds.