Monty and Me

One of winter’s great tricks is that it can make spring seem impossibly far away, if not impossible all together. When the wind blows -35, feels like the stab of icicles on any skin you’ve dared swath in only one layer, all those fragile spring petals seem like the stuff of science fiction.

Luckily, just as my patience with winter was as thin as black ice, the right hero strode into my life: Monty Don, long-time British gardening guru. Looking for some soothing nighttime viewing, I first slipped into Monty Don’s French Gardens, which sees the lanky, sixty-ish British presenter don a straw hat, fold himself into a tiny Citroen, and drive all over France, showcasing gardens on various themes, such as those that inspired art (think Monet’s garden) or the potager (the stylized French kitchen garden). Monty’s unabashed enthusiasm won me over almost immediately. In one episode, he recounts how he first went to France as a seventeen-year-old, and he still has the gusto of someone that age. If you liked watching the irrepressible Samin Nosrat in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (and who didn’t?), there’s the same by-proxy giddiness in watching Monty bite into a giant field tomato or savour a cherry just plucked from a tree. And of course the gardens are gorgeous: lush and sunny, impeccably maintained. Surely I’ve absorbed some vitamin D through the screen.

So imagine my delight when I discovered Netflix had more Monty for me, including a show I came to love much more than Monty en France: Big Dreams, Small Spaces. This is a sort of garden makeover show, with host/expert Monty acting as a guide, but with the two families in each show tasked with creating and executing a vision, all on their own budget. Monty arrives three or four times over the year the families work on their project, ready to grab a shovel or beat back overgrown brush (he’s shockingly strong despite his wiry frame), but he’s not a designer descending with a SWAT team of handypeople (as in every American makeover program I’ve watched), he’s more of a garden therapist, asking gentle questions and pointing out potential trouble spots. He’s charmingly diplomatic in this role, trying to help people see their own missteps, “I couldn’t help but notice . . .” he might say before pointing out that someone has put their greenhouse in a shady corner.

One thing I’ve long loved about British television is that the people on it don’t seem like Hollywood prefab beauties, and that’s even truer of reality TV. These are instead regular people, wearing regular clothing, and often no makeup at all. They come in all ages and sizes (though in season one, only with white skin), their teeth have never seen a whitestrip. I find it quite arresting, sadly, which really drives home how many artificially beautiful people we look at every day and how that distorts our reality.

And part of the reason I love the show so much is that the gardens feel real too. These are not the showpiece gardens of France: they reflect a wide range of budgets (some as low as about 100 pounds) and personalities, aesthetics and time commitments. If you’ve ever fallen into a sort of HGTV coma for hours, the homes start to blur into a sort of bland parade of sameness: it’s like walking the IKEA showrooms, where the rooms may look different, but they feel almost eerily the same. On Big Dreams, that doesn’t happen: this isn’t one designer just tweaking his or her style for another location and client. These are real people, working under real conditions, with real constraints. Some of the gardens I don’t care for at all, and that’s a sign that they’ve bucked the bland inoffensiveness of so many TV makeovers that suggests a staged house, depersonalized and ready for anyone to move in.

Episodes of Big Dreams also end with a reversal of the usual script: instead of someone having their shiny new life presented to them in a dramatic reveal, the hardworking homeowners must present their handiwork to the host. Since they work most of the year unsupervised, people are invariably nervous for Monty’s final visit. They so much want to please the host, and I get it, I’d be nervous too when I saw those frizzy curls bobbing down the street, his too-big linen suit flapping behind him. But what all those people miss is that Monty really just wants them to be pleased with the results. He wants them to fall in love with gardening. And because what they do is creative and challenging and deeply personal, they often do. Take my favourite, Gary, a long-haul trucker who had an ambitious plan, including a large pond he had to dig himself. He wanted a paradise to come home to spending his workweek on the road. And in the end, this pale, buzz-cutted fellow with a Guns N Roses roadie vibe is moved to tears, because he made his dream come true, and because he’s going to keep making it.

As much as I can get sucked into a makeover show, I’m wary of their capitalist fairytale narratives that suggest our flawed, human lives can be made perfect, at least with a shiny new LG fridge, some mid-century modern chairs, and a distressed leather couch. In any reveal, I always find myself fixating on the improbable bowl of lemons, likely never to be filled again, and thinking about how long the expensive houseplants will be kept alive. Because before and after is of course an artificial concept: there’s only one endpoint, and until then life is just a series of afters.

A garden by its very nature resists the ideal of arrival: growing and changing is what they do. The gardens on this show are often very young, the slips of pear trees years from an actual pear, the hedgerows offering no privacy, the courgettes months from harvesting (and from taking over the garden). As the show concludes we get a sense not of an end, but of a beginning.

In February, every gardener has their own big dreams: this is the time of fantasy-football gardening, building a roster of plants that we imagine will all thrive, that will look just like the photos in the seed catalogues that are gardeners’ SAD lamps. The reality will be different, of course, but what Big Dreams so charmingly illustrates is that it doesn’t really matter—it’ll all come out well enough in the end. Gardens are just like our lives, a constant work-in-progress, and missteps and course corrections will happen. But with care and attention, gardens can be shockingly forgiving. It doesn’t hurt that with a show like this, we all get to have Monty on our side, to ask the right questions and provide tips, yes, but most importantly to remind us to look for joy and satisfaction right in our own backyard.

 

 

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Dig in

It snowed 31 cm over the last 18 hours or so, and this morning brought sparkling drifts high enough to swallow a Husky. I don’t mind being snowed in, generally, and luckily I can work from home and thus keep the snow as something pretty to look at and not melting in my boots. But this morning I started thinking about the sidewalks.

As renters, shovelling the sidewalks is not our responsibility. It is, in fact, one of the few things required of those who line their pockets with thousands of our dollars, year after year. It should be one of the few consolations in a housing market that has locked me out of owning my own piece of sidewalk that I do not have to shovel this one.

But guess what? My landlord rarely shovels. I can think of maybe once in 10 years. And I think that is true of a lot of landlords who do not live in the building they own. Now, I could call my lazy property manager, hassle him to come remove the snow. But that would take a while, and, to be honest, I’m always a bit nervous asking for something: I want to be the perfect tenant. I know that if I lose this apartment, we’re likely to pay at least 50% more, maybe even double. I work in a low-paying industry, and while I’m lucky a move wouldn’t mean poverty, it would have a significant impact on my quality of life, on my ability to save for the future. And while it may not be easy for the landlord to evict me, being a renter in Toronto always feels a little bit precarious.

But this morning both Metro Morning and @lindsayzv reminded me that basic sidewalk accessibility is bigger than my petty grievance. Consider the people with wheelchairs, the mothers with small children, the elderly. Do I want to make these people’s lives harder? I live on the same street as Jane Jacobs’ historic house, and I like to think of her eyes still on our street. But looking down my road, it was hard to even know where the sidewalk should be. There were a few shovelled-out paths to nowhere, a seam of mostly dropped stitches.

Sometimes I get too fixated on what I think is fair, which is to say, what feels fair to me. And when I’m so zoomed in on my square of sidewalk, I’m missing the bigger picture: I want a city people can move through. I want a city where we look out for each other, where we do things because it is right, not because we have to. I want to be a positive force. I may not want to shovel, but I want to be a shoveller. And so I did.

 

 

 

An Hour of My Own

It’s the time of year when the days get shorter, darker, colder, when waking with the sun is a weekend indulgence. Perhaps an odd time to discover the power of getting up early, but here I am, writing this with the lights of my home reflected in the windows like dark mirrors.

My partner had a change at work that means getting up at 4:30 a.m. He’s a fitful sleeper (at best) and I like going to bed together, so I decided to attempt to better synchronize our clocks. I settled on a 5:20 wakeup (though some mornings has been even earlier, others a bit later). This has given me 1-1.5 new hours in my day, which, I’ve learned, are far more productive than similar hours at night would have been. At the end of the day, I’m tired, my partner is about, my synapses more like fireflies than electricity.

I get up and, really, truly light some candles. Partially because I’m a couple years behind and feeling obsessed with hygge for this winter, and partially because I recognize the power of ritual. I want it to feel special, to keep the romance alive. I don’t turn on the news yet, and the only sounds are from the traffic outside. I write in my gratitude journal (yes, it is embarrassing to write, but also: it has really and truly changed my brain for the better, to a degree unmatched by even 1.5 years of meditating). I write in my regular journal too, which has long been neglected because I either lacked the emotional bandwith to engage with big issues or the stamina to document small ones.  But I’ve changed this a bit, to what I call a daybook, and no longer do I hold myself accountable for taking it all on or writing it all down, I simply write, point form, the things that have my attention. I’ve decided, this year, to lean into my interests, no matter how fleeting, and these are more engaging to note. Sometimes I add passages from good books I’ve reading. So far, it’s reinvigorated my journal practice and doesn’t feel taxing. Plus, it’s a reminder: your life is worthy of your attention.

And then there’s still time left over! Because time to yourself, used with intention, turns out to be more expansive than it seems. (Bigger on the inside, as Whovians would say.) Time to write here, or knock off some freelance work, or go to an early exercise class, or even just to read, a thing I find so luxurious but often have trouble prioritizing during the workweek.

I’d long read of people, often parents, who got up very early to find this very time, which I can imagine as a parent is even more enticing. A time to re-trace the borders of the self. But it feels like that even for me, like in these dark, bleary hours, I’m coming into sharper focus. And so is each day, a negative held up to the light in the darkroom of my mornings.

Getting up early still isn’t easy, but that’s because getting up isn’t easy. Or at least it isn’t for me, not yet. But now I start the day with attention, with intention, pausing before the day collapses like a row of dominoes. This is work without a distinct goal, without an endpoint or any identifiable results except that it feels good. And in winter, I’ll take as much of that as I can get.

The Long Winter

Right now we’re having some lowest temperatures in over a century, and New York and the Maritimes is about to be hit with what they’re calling a “weather bomb”—which I’ll admit sounds almost exciting, though I know that won’t be the case for those who must face it. It brings back memories of the ice storm that took out our power for several days in 2004 or 2005, when I was at university in rural Nova Scotia. It was fun at first, hanging out in the dorm halls under the emergency lights, eating bare bones meals in a mostly empty cafeteria, but after a couple of days I remember putting on all of my clothes—so many layers—and lying in the bed of my dark dorm room, cold cold bone cold. I’ve been thinking a lot about the people experiencing homelessness in these temperatures, and the man who continues to sleep outside the Ten Thousand Villages store, though the mayor says everyone has been offered an emergency bed. And I think of this good news story, of the people who paid for hotel rooms for 20 of the homeless. An action that shouldn’t be required, but warms the heart nonetheless. Imagine the luxury of not only warmth, but of a proper bed, a private space, a secure place for belongings, a warm bath with hotel soap? It shouldn’t be a luxury. But even so, I’m moved by the kindness of strangers.

Anyway, it is cold and awful outside, even for those of us with a safe, warm place to live. And now that the parade of the holidays, with all their pomp and circumstance and furious cheer, has passed, the remaining months can seem long and bleak indeed. I am not a winter person: some of the things I love most in this world are the shimmer of tiny bubbles on my skin as I dive into a cool lake, the smell of spring soil as it crumbles around my hands, crunchy strolls though the kaleidoscope of fallen leaves, the way the sun can be a warm blanket resting on your skin. I’m not into winter sports, though I did go snowshoeing for the first time the other day, and I enjoyed tramping along paths of powder snow through a forest where all the trees looked topped with white gingerbread icing. A Narnia landscape if I’ve ever seen one.

But winter is inevitable, part of life’s cycle, and a couple of years ago, I decided to stop railing against it, because why fight something that can’t be changed? Instead I’ve resold winter to myself as a time of rest. Because surely these long nights and all the bundling and nesting required are trying to tell us, Slow down. Take it easy. A simple thing, but for me a pretty revelatory mental shift that’s helped me see winter as less oppressive, as an opportunity rather than a four-month sentence. And with that shift I started to appreciate other things about this season, like sleeping under the warm weight of multiple blankets, like hearty winter foods and time to do puzzles. Even out in that stripped-bare natural world, I find little sparks of pleasure: the pinwheels and fans of desiccated seedheads, the amazing survival capabilities of kale, the way the leafless trees reveal so much shocking blue sky.

I think often about what the seasons teach us: how light follows darkness, how beauty is so much more potent after despair, how gratitude is replenished by going without, how nothing—good or bad—lasts forever. These seem trite or obvious maybe, but I think they’re easy to lose sight of, at least until that first crocus pushes through soil, until the day when all the buds explode into leaves.

This extreme cold is making this mental jiu-jitsu a little harder, I’ll admit. But still I keep telling myself, Rest easy. Winter is actually pregnant with spring.