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How a Grieving Mom Accidentally Rediscovered 'Fun'

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Written by Katie Allison Granju for

If you follow my blogging with any regularity, you may have noticed that for the past two months or so, I have been rather, ahem, preoccupied with gardening (and related, complementary outdoor-improvement, DIY pursuits). Given that I have never really been into gardening as a hobby in any notable way in the past (or any actual hobby at all in a very, very long time) this may seem slightly puzzling to readers, and also to people who actually know me in person.

But see, here's the thing; I've been just as puzzled myself. What in the WORLD is up with my sudden compulsion to dig in the dirt?

After pondering the question, I think I've come up with an an answer (or two). And I figured it out while -- you guessed it -- working in my garden.

On a recent hot, sunny Sunday afternoon in which I was once again out in my yard, pulling weeds, digging out a new patch of ground for planting, putting in new plants, and then watering and mulching the new plants, I thought about what it is that keeps drawing me back to the dirt every chance I get ever since the first winter bulb popped up in my yard back in February.

As I thrust my newly acquired, mack-daddy trowel into the dirt again and again, using my bare hands to rip out lawn and turn the soil -- a task that most people would likely use a rototiller to get done rather than digging at the ground like a human honeybadger -- I could feel the raw spot on my left palm twinging with pain every time I pushed the trowel back in, while on my right palm, I could see the newly acquired callous that has already replaced the sore spot that digging in previous weeks had rubbed raw on that hand.

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And there were other physical sensations, too, as I thought about why I was doing what I was doing. As I turned the dirt again and again, yanking out sod and ripping out roots, I could feel the muscles in my shoulders and upper arms flexing in a way that they haven't in a long time. Yes, I realized, my arms, back and shoulders were sore, clearly as the result of me having spent most of the day before painstakingly digging river rock out of our mess of a backyard,which slopes down to a creek, and then hauling them one by one around to the front, ready to define the ever-expanding patch of dirt that I am transforming into the cottage-style flower garden that I can see clearly in my mind's eye.

As I listened to my body, and thought about my motivations for being out in the dirt, I suddenly realized that while my hands and muscles were definitely complaining, it was a purely physical and deeply satisfying kind of "pain" that at the end of that day, after the sun went down and I would sit on the porch swing with my husband and children, would privately, tangibly remind me of all I'd accomplished that day.

Since my son Henry died 23 months and 20 days ago, my body has often felt disconnected from the non-physical parts of my being: my heart and my mind. When your child dies, your physical body remains intact, but your brain and your heart are left as wounded and swollen as if they'd been mauled by a terrible monster and then left that way. Tending to those acute psychic and emotional wounds in this first two years left nothing for my muscles and limbs and hands and feet -- the purely physical pieces of myself.

Plus, my body couldn't take care of what's needed to get done since Henry died. Instead, that's been like an Olympic event of endurance for my mind and spirit. Grief of the magnitude that comes with having your child die is kind of a full time job to manage all by itself. But I also have four other children who need me, plus a full time job that supports us, and a raft of freelance and "extra" work beyond that (you're reading some of it now). Cutting back on any of it after Henry died simply wasn't an option. And my work is entirely head-based, not physical.

And then there was all the thinking and writing and calling and meeting and documenting that I I did for over a year to ensure that the drug dealers who hurt my child were arrested and charged to prevent them from supplying death to any other mother's child. All three were arrested and indicted on September 20, 2011, so 15 months after Henry died. And although there's more I want to accomplish in that area, I have now discharged my final, fundamental obligation as Henry's mother in making sure that those people were arrested. But getting that done took everything I had. It took more, in fact, something that only a few people very close to me and the lead investigator whose work resulted in the arrests really understand. And once again, that task was all about mental and emotional fortitude and endurance, not about how much I can lift or whether I can run fast or jump high.

But now, through this gardening thing, I am rediscovering my body. While some mind and heart work go into reading about and choosing plants, and then caring for them, most of my gardening effort is just out and out physical. I can think about what I want my garden to look like all day, but unless I get in there and do the work with my own two hands, calling on my muscles and back and shoulders and legs and even the skin on my hands to do their parts, there won't be any garden at all.

This is what I was thinking about, as I yanked weeds and pulled up rocks that Sunday not long ago, the afternoon when I was sort of pondering this stuff. And as I pondered and dug and pondered some more, I realized that I was ready to put my body back to work. After two full years during which I've had to simultaneously try to patch my battered brain and heart back together -- at least well enough that I could survive and go forward with a life that no longer includes my firstborn baby -- while also calling on head and heart to do the hardest work they have ever or will ever do, surrendering to the garden's pull this spring means that I am finally ready to get back to a simpler kind of work -- at least for some of the hours that make up my weeks -- one that involves sweat, dirt, and muscles rather than anything more cerebral or controversial or complicated. And so that's clearly part of why gardening is suddenly the thing I want to be doing any time I get the chance. It's simple and primal and physical and very, very satisfying.

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As I had that kind of aha realization, it led me to the even bigger one. Why am I drawn back out to work in the garden evening after evening? I mean, I could be doing something that would either A: earn money or B: further one of the cause-issues that have become so meaningful to me since losing my son the way that I did. What about laundry? Decluttering the two youngests' bedroom? Why was I out here wasting my time when more important to-do tasks remained on the list I keep on my iPhone and laptop?


Oh my God! I thought to myself as this simple yet profound realization washed over me. I looked down at my filthy hands, grasping the trowel, and over at the flowers that were already planted and blooming from my previous weeks' work. I thought about how much I find myself wanting to browse around (and overspend!) in nurseries and greenhouses lately, and how excited I've been to get to be one of the people working on a new gardening blog at my job, THIS IS WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO HAVE FUN!

I suddenly became aware that it's been so long since I did anything at all that was not goal-oriented, laser-focused on achieving a greater purpose, or simply required in order to keep myself from being pulled under entirely by the grief that has at times threatened to take me out for good that I had simply lost the ability to have fun or in this case, with the gardening thing, to even recognize fun when I started having it. Instead, I was puzzled, baffled, entirely mystified by something that most people would find really simple; namely that the reason anyone keeps wanting to get more involved with a new hobby they've discovered -- one that, in the case of gardening, lots of people really love -- is because it's FUN. And when something is fun to do, human beings naturally seek to do more of it. Thus, this explains why I am digging in the dirt and writing about digging in the dirt so much in recent months.

There's no deep, complex mystery here. Instead, it turns out that I accidentally rediscovered something that most people take for granted -- the pleasure that comes with spending my free time pursuing an actual hobby. The fact that it's an entirely new hobby for me isn't that complicated or mysterious either. People find and take up fun new hobbies all the time. I'd just stopped knowing that somehow. (Hobby? What the hell is that?)

Gardening doesn't serve any higher purpose. It doesn't help other people with their problems, or solve any of my own problems. It definitely doesn't earn money that helps to support our family. In fact, what I am doing out there in the dirt week after week is pretty much entirely pointless ... except for the fact that there's a point to having fun, which is that it should be part of the human experience. A big part. I'd just completely lost touch with that.

So there you have it. That's what's up with the whole "Katie seems kind of obsessed with plants and dirt and garden design" lately thing. It's a simple explanation, but it really is an explanation. And now that I've stopped worrying that my newfound and growing interest in gardening as a hobby, and my desire to get outside among my flowers as often as possible, represents some kind of weird problem I am developing, I am having even more fun than before I realized that's what I was doing in the first place.

Photo courtesy of Katie Allison Granju.

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