As our next-door neighbor Stuart fell deeper down the rabbit hole of mental illness over the last few years, one of the manifestations of his illness was a hatred for all mess and all clutter, which for him included all flora and fauna. The diagnosis made by the neighbors (including us) who stood around in the street at dusk watching children ride bikes and nursing wine or beer was that he had obsessive compulsive personality disorder, which differs from regular obsessive compulsive disorder because the OCD person knows there is something wrong with them and the OCPD person doesn’t. The OCPD person thinks there is something wrong with everyone else who won’t get with the program. That’s a vast oversimplification but you get the point.
Stuart hated all living things in his yard, and about a year before he died, he embarked on a scorch and burn effort to remove all trees, shrubs, squirrels, birds, and flowers. He removed a holly hedge between our two yards that masked the ugly chain-link fence. He cut down a beautiful, mature crepe myrtle and actually salted the earth beneath it because he had heard they grew back easily. He dug up all the tulip bulbs and boxwoods in his front yard so that he had a perfect square of grass with no landscaping up to the brick side of his house.
One morning, Stuart asked my husband Adam if he had any ideas for reducing the bird population on our street. Adam said, “No, man, I don’t have any ideas for that, because that’s evil.”
Stuart replied, “Yeah, everybody likes birds until they’re in your yard. You gotta draw the line somewhere. You wouldn’t want vultures in your yard, right?”
Adam looked him over and said, “Let’s draw the line there. Let’s draw the line at vultures.”
Within a week after Stuart’s death (from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the head) his yard was full of bird, and shoots of things that had laid dormant underground started to come up. Skeptics might argue that it was April and would happened anyway, but I always loved the trite and simplistic symbolism. This troubled, unhappy, bird-hating, plant-hating man removes himself from his little one-fifth of an acre plot on the edge of the city, and the land starts to change enough that life comes back suddenly and completely.
I collect these little moments and tuck them away, never doing anything with them except writing the best magical realism novel ever in my head between baths and bedtimes and white papers and reports.
I met an organic dairy farmer and gourmet chef named Jake at a big, wonderful, rollicking, hippie house party (there was a drum circle, home-made kombucha, and lots of barefoot children running around chasing urban chickens). Jake has a small farm with chickens, goats, and bees, and spends Saturdays at farmers’ markets selling eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt, honey, and lots of proprietary creations dreamed up in his kitchen and made with the ingredients he raised and collected. But he had recently and gradually fallen madly in love with a vegan woman. They were both beautiful and wholesome and happy—straight out of central casting for the young, bearded, friendly organic farmer and his fresh-faced, shiny-haired, smiling lover, which somehow made it more tragic than if they’d both been ugly and unlikable.
Late into the evening after the kids had fallen asleep, I found myself next to Jake at the fire pit while he hand-rolled a cigarette and sipped on his homemade honey wine. He bemoaned that he couldn’t love this woman the way he knows best—by making her his signature vanilla-lavender-honey ice cream, by bringing her frothy cappuccinos and cheese frittata in bed, by gently washing her back with the goat’s milk soap he cured on wire trays in the barn.
I told him that an organic, small-batch dairy farmer in love with a vegan seemed like something out a novel. I said I wanted to put it in a novel someday. Perhaps a modern-day, hipster Harlequin romance with lots of wild rolls in the hay in lofts above pastured, humanely raised, free-range chickens and goats. Fights and misunderstandings on the way to farmers' markets. Eventually transitioning the farm away from animal products and over to vegetables that they could both cultivate and support.
He said, “You think that’s good?” and then told me a long and involved story about the recent theft of his car, its eventual recovery, and the exciting chase that happened in the middle. It was a good story. He finished with, “Now THAT should be in your novel.” But he missed the point entirely.
Sarah lives in Richmond and has not written even one page of her forthcoming magical realism bestseller or the hipster Harlequin romance novel.
Sarah takes classes with Valley.