Saturday, August 17, 2013

Of Crabgrass, and Letting Go

For the first time since moving upstate ten years ago, I have made peace with my crabgrass.

It spreads across our half acre of lawn like a pale dishrag, smothering any remnants of Kentucky Blue Grass. It masses against my house. Its unruly blades poke up as if Mother Earth were giving me many middle fingers. And I’m starting to be OK with that.

At the age of 51, I’m letting go.

Of the lawn. Of my precocious daughter, who is twelve going on twenty. And of my novel, acquired by a publisher early this year only after I coddled it for thirteen years, afraid to let go of trying to perfect it.

I remember the stages I passed through to get to this point. How it felt for me giving up the idea our grass should look like a golf course.

Growing up on Long Island, I learned weeds are bad — to be controlled, pulled up, and generally reviled. I think of Billy Joel’s lyrics about his suburban dad who “never lets the crabgrass grow too high.” So when my wife and daughter and I moved upstate in 2003 to our four-bedroom house on a half-acre, one of my first calls was to a lawn care company.

But the applications of herbicide, announced in cautionary yellow flags stuck in my lawn, made me nervous. As our puppy and daughter played on the lawn that first summer, I worried about liver cancer. I imagined weed poison stunting my daughter’s growth. The second season I told the lawn company to skip some treatments. Seizing the opportunity, crabgrass sprouted around the edges of our property. The next season I thought of my own slow-growing cancer, which I’ve battled for many years. I fretted over poisoning the water and earth, for the sake of aesthetics. Something snapped in me. I cancelled the lawn care company. The hell with the neighbors. The crabgrass was ecstatic.

At first I saw the spreading patch-quilt as a blemish on my reputation. I figured my neighbors were judging me. I’d return to my house under cover of darkness, when the lawn was invisible, like a criminal returning to his lair. I looked forward to fall and winter, when the crabgrass slept. I particularly liked snowstorms which blanketed everything under a carpet of sameness.

But time, and crabgrass, marches on. Today it stubbornly shimmers across our lawn, a jade-green testament to what happens when you let go. Oh sure, some patches of Kentucky Blue poke through here and there, ghosts of an old life, reminders I was once locked in battle for control of my lawn.

But no longer does it make me feel like a failure. 

I’m reminded of other areas in life. I think of my daughter, my impulse to try to control what she does and where she goes. I tell her she must practice cello and piano before her playdate. I forbid her from eating a marshmallow fifteen minutes before dinner. She reminds me she excels at music and always cleans her plate. Sometimes I flash back to her Jewish mikvah for comfort.

She was six months old, when the rabbi told me I had to submerge her in the ritualistic pool for three seconds. I had to let her go. Like God commanded Adam and Eve to go from the Garden of Eden. Like Moses beseeched Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” I held her tiny body against my bony chest. I dropped her. She gazed up at me through the water
with pale eyes. Her tiny arms flailed, seeming to wave goodbye. By some automatic reflex, my hand jerked and scooped her back up and clamped her to my chest. Through the din of her screams, the rabbi checked his stopwatch and smiled sadly, shaking his head that not enough time had passed. By the third try, though, I finally got it right. My daughter was Jewish.

Letting go of my novel, which I started when my health was in crisis, was especially hard. I could have tended to it until the day I died. But when a publisher offered me a contract early this year, I gave up the notion of perfection to someone who was not me.

I’ve learned that change comes in patches. First crabgrass appears along the edges of driveway and on lawn fronting the street, in the sunniest parts of the lawn. We try to fight it with herbicide.

But this year crabgrass has won. And in a backward sort of way, so have I.

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