The poetics of spinach

When I was a kid, I liked to sew. By “sew” I mean that I liked to attach pieces of fabric together by running them through my mom’s sewing machine. There were, of course, a lot of other things I had to do before that: choose a pattern/project, choose fabric, wash and iron the fabric, cut out pattern pieces, pin the pattern pieces to the fabric, and cut the fabric. I didn’t consider any of this to be “sewing.”

fabric swatches

Choosing fabric isn’t sewing…is it?

It’s really only been in the last few years, as I’ve taken on sewing projects for our home, that I’ve come to realize that “sewing” is all the actions necessary to get to a finished project. Running the pieces through the machine is often only a small part of the process.

I’ve been thinking of this in connection to our vegetable garden this past week. Back in March, I planted vegetable starts (which I wrote about here.)

vegetable gardenBefore I put them in the ground, there were a fair number of things I had to do. I had to clean up the beds, pull weeds, amend the soil, plan what to plant and where, dig the holes, and put the starts in. For some reason, I haven’t tended to think of this as gardening. Gardening is something one does after the plants are in the ground, right?

“Gardening” to me has meant watering, and pulling weeds, and fertilizing, and dead-heading, and that kind of thing. It has meant tending the plants. So, imagine my surprise when I stopped a week or so back to finally pay attention again to my vegetable starts and saw this:

garden in May

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been going through a challenging time, and I really haven’t done anything with the garden since I planted the starts. We’ve had days both rainy and sunny in the weeks since, and when I happened to think about the garden I knew I didn’t need to worry about watering and couldn’t help it if the plants were getting too much.

So, when I really looked at it one recent morning while letting the dogs out to pee, I was rather astonished to see that the spinach and lettuce had exploded into lush, vibrant leaves.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHonestly, it felt a bit like cheating. How could I, who really knows so little about how to make things grow, who had really done nothing after putting some starts into the ground, end up with such bounty?

spinach and lettuceWell, because letting things lie is often a vital part of the creative process. Even in sewing, where so much of the project requires me to be, literally, hands on, there can be value in walking away for a bit–so that I can come back with fresh eyes and see how I might change things a bit to make the project better.

Poems, I think, tend to grow much like my spinach. We can do all kinds of things to feed the soil of our minds–read poems, collect images (literally or figuratively), listen to poetry, write in journals, watch and listen and live in particular ways–none of which feels like writing poetry, but which is as vital to the germination of poems as my soil preparation was to my spinach.

preparing to plantSometimes, the growing conditions are largely out of our control. We cannot do much to stop the rain that falls into our days or to escape heat that blisters our lives, leaves us parched and wilted. Some conditions can only be endured, until they pass or we do.

Rather than fight it, I’m coming to think it’s best to accept it all as part of the process. There are seasons in which the poems won’t–can’t–bloom, but there are others in which they grow easily. Half the key to flourishing is knowing when to plant and when to harvest.

The broccoli still has a way to go...

The broccoli still has a way to go…

And so I’ve realized that there was no cheating in the case of my lovely spinach, and that every leaf is fruit of my own creative work. I’m realizing that whether I am growing poems or spinach, there is a vital part of the process that requires me to leave things alone. There is a part that is beyond my control, that is determined by things I cannot put my hands on.

We've hardly touched this stretch of garden in the past 8 months, and yet look at the riot of bloom.

We’ve hardly touched this stretch of garden in the past 8 months, and yet look at the riot of bloom.

There is one other important way in which my spinach is like a poem:  It is just as impractically lovely and nourishing as any poem I’ve ever written.

I planted only a few spinach, because as a gardener I am really in the beginning stages. I don’t know or understand much yet about timing–the cadence of growing and harvesting. It was progress this year to think in terms of early spring plants. This is why all of my spinach plants were ready to harvest at the same time.

If my goal were to create a garden of food we might subsist on, I’m far from victory. I don’t know how to grow things that reach maturity at different times, so that we might have a harvest that stretches over weeks, instead of days.

So, I searched spinach recipes and found one that required almost every leaf I’d grown. We picked it, and put it all into one dish. One!

spinach casserole

This required four cups of spinach.

Considering the plants, the soil amendments, the fertilizer, the time I spent before planting, well…that was one expensive casserole we ate last week. But it was a lovely casserole. It was quite satisfying to eat food I’d grown myself, to see my creative work feeding us in such a corporeal way. But it was also frivolous in the way that poems are. It was the opposite of frugal, and I could no more survive on my spinach than I could my poems.

Which is fine. Somehow, rather than taking away permission to create either, this experience is giving me permission to create both, purely for the pleasure of it. It helps me see that, perhaps, poems can feed others as much as my spinach did.

spinach casserole(My son, who is generally a fan of neither casseroles nor green vegetables, had seconds! If you’d like to try this recipe yourself, you can find it here.)

14 thoughts on “The poetics of spinach

  1. Marian says:

    I don’t think it’s cheating in the least, to end up with a bounty of spinach without having tended the garden after the initial planting had been done. Propitious, perhaps, but definitely not cheating. Some of us (/hangs head in shame/) are known to plant things and simply hope for rain that never comes!

    I always think of the “letting it lie” part of endeavours as “percolating”. When I was young and impatient I would often rail against the percolation part, which invariably led to messing up, and far too often, giving up. But the older I get, the more I see the benefits (and actual need) of the process of percolation. However (and yes, this is going to be stating the obvious), there has to be a balance between percolation and plunging (and yes, this is a comment filled with words that start with “p” 🙂 ). It’s often far easier to plan or purchase, and then to set the project aside to let things percolate, than it is to take the plunge and make the first cut (for sewing) or write the first word (for a poem or a novel). In fact, for me, too much planning and too much purchasing invariably leads to too much percolation, which in turn leads to paralysis (“where the heck to begin…?”). Thinking of all this reminds me of something I first read about on Sarah’s blog (becoming gezellig) about writers who were “plotters” vs writers who were “pantsers” (as in, flying by the seats of their pants), which of course can be used as an analogy for just about anything in life. I think perhaps the healthiest and most productive people are a mixture of the two.
    Marian recently posted…So a Meat-loving Omnivore Comes to Dinner at a Vegetarian’s House …My Profile

    • Rita says:

      Your comment made me think of Sesame Street. (This comment brought to you by the letter “P”!) 🙂

      The spinach keeps coming! I didn’t realize it would continue to grow leaves after the first harvest, which means that we’ve gotten even more from doing nothing. I know there’s a metaphor in this: Something about letting go of control, and trusting, and just letting things happen. I think percolation is more active than what I’ve been doing in the garden. Trying to think of an appropriate “p” word for it. Maybe a phrase that starts with “passive”?

    • Sarah says:

      “It’s often far easier to plan or purchase, and then to set the project aside to let things percolate, than it is to take the plunge and make the first cut (for sewing) or write the first word (for a poem or a novel).” Ooooh, I resemble that remark….to a very uncomfortable degree.
      Sarah recently posted…The Meaning of MayMy Profile

  2. Gretchen says:

    The garden’s looking good! Your spinach is much bigger than mine, but it’s starting to hit 90 here, and I’m not sure how much longer mine will make it. It always amazes me, too, how well gardens can survive the neglect that follows the initial burst of spring enthusiasm; it’s like the plants WANT to grow or something ;).
    Gretchen recently posted…More Bathroom Teasing, plus Talk about AccessoriesMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Thanks, Gretchen–I will admit I feel so pleased these days when I look out at the garden, even though I know most of the credit goes to Mother Nature. I think plants might be like kids: We like to think we can totally control how they will grow and bloom, but they really mostly do what they are programmed to do by their genes.

  3. Kate says:

    And I don’t even have anything in the ground yet!! I really need to get on that. I’m going from plants instead of seeds so that helps me a long a bit. So many projects…not enough get up and go these days!
    Kate recently posted…17/52My Profile

    • Rita says:

      Oh, I haven’t made the leap to seeds. That seems like an endeavor that takes even more timing skills than the limited ones I’ve developed. I like to buy plants, put them in, and see what sticks.

    • Rita says:

      I know they do! It really was good. The second day, it tasted kind of like spinach dip–but I didn’t have to feel guilty about eating a whole bunch of dip because it wasn’t dip, it was casserole. 🙂

  4. Shannon says:

    Great analogy, Rita! I love the lines, “I’m realizing that whether I am growing poems or spinach, there is a vital part of the process that requires me to leave things alone. There is a part that is beyond my control, that is determined by things I cannot put my hands on.”

    Every piece of writing or creative project I’ve done in my life where I’ve been especially proud of the finished product, has been one where I have started, gotten frustrated, reluctantly let it sit, and then come back with an even better perspective to finish it off. I should probably pay more attention to that pattern and make it a regular practice. 😉

    Great pictures, btw, I love the plants and those green fabrics…and anything with toasted bread on top of it!
    Shannon recently posted…Mother’s Day Without A Mother Or A Child: A Conversation On Another PlaneMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Hi Shannon–So nice to hear from you! I, too, am a fan of toasted bread. 🙂 And I think what you’ve written about the projects you are most proud of may be true for me, as well. I think the struggle makes a successful finish all the more gratifying.

  5. Sarah says:

    I love this analogy, Rita. Gardening often seems like alchemy to me — how can soil and water turn a seed into a fat, ripe tomato? I guess poetry (especially poetry, somehow, but also other creative pursuits) often seems alchemical too.

    Of course the seed already contains the whole potential for making a tomato. I wonder what are the chloroplasts of a poem? You’re also making me think about the notion of fallow-ness — I know your garden beds are not actually fallow right now, but there’s a way in which fallow time is actually seen as having an important function in farming, and that often becomes a bittersweet metaphor in literature.

    Hmm. Not sure how to tie that up in a neat little harvest bundle, but there’s certainly lots of metaphorical ground to be plowed here.
    Sarah recently posted…The Meaning of MayMy Profile

  6. May says:

    I can not tell you how satisfied I feel after reading this piece written in your strong voice—steeped in the point of view that draws the two of us to one another’s words because we see things in such similar ways. I have missed your writing so much! I am sitting alone in the dark grinning from ear to ear about poems , and gardens, and casseroles! Thank you!
    And I am totally making that btw!
    May recently posted…HappyMy Profile

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