aging in place, Caring for a parent, Retirement

Halfway to Life

Today is the first day of Lent, my favorite season. This is a time to let go of what is no longer needed, to make space for what I want to nourish. Four years ago today, I put my sweet house in Raleigh on the market; something else was calling my name. Just what, I wasn’t sure, but I was listening.

As the circle of the year marked the point halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, some of us checked CNN to see if the groundhog saw his shadow in Pennsylvania, and went back to work. Others lit candles on Imbolc or gave thanks to St. Brigid. I explored the garden for signs of emerging life.





I spent the day in the sunshine, thinning the bud-filled flowering quince, after I chased out the juncos that rest in community in its thick maze of branches before returning to their solitary work searching for bugs and seeds in the grass. It’s my third pass at this long-abandoned bush.


As I snipped off shoots, saving the longest ones to weave into my garden fence to fool the deer into thinking they can’t get in, I thought about my life as I approach the beginning of my fifth year back in my childhood home. There’s a lot of hard work to be done on these acres of land, largely neglected in the 20 years since my father died. My mother has done a stunning job of taking care of the house and garden, but her philosophy of the property beyond the parameters of the walls has been, “I don’t want it to look like a park.” Maybe that was code for, “I can’t do it all, something has to go.”

I told my friend on the yoga mat next to mine that my body was aching from Project Barnyard, clearing the plot of earth next to the barn that was our horse Scout’s corral four decades ago and had become impassable due to winter blow-downs woven with invasive holly and blackberry vines, blanketed by more branches, moss, and fir needles. I got curious what it would be like as, well, a park.

My friend’s response: “I’m so glad I don’t have any land to take care of.”

That’s what was on my mind as I pruned the quince. Will I want to stay on this land of my grandchildren’s ancestors, maybe to save it for their children to love? My mother has had an isolated life here since my father died; is that what I want? Or do I want a neighborhood to walk in, stopping to speak to neighbors on their porches. Maybe that’s a southern thing though. Should I be thinking that this will become too hard? That I should get out of here when my mother is gone and get established in a town house in an urban neighborhood?

I thought about my sister with her amazing shop she’s kept going for ten years, and how hard she works to make this town a good place to live. And what am I doing? Pruning a bush that no one will see except me…and the juncos. But something shifted in me as I pruned. The pileated woodpecker began tap-tap-tapping in the maple next to the house; the returning geese honked down the rain-flooded valley under blue skies; I could almost smell the apples that would soon begin forming on the tree down the slope.

This is who I am. I am not an apartment-in-town person. I am not content to replace last season’s pansies with this year’s impatiens, as I was doing in Raleigh after I restored the old gardens. I like the hard work of making something where there was nothing, bringing new life.

I have been stuck for years on the self-help babble to “follow your passion.” It sounds good, but I don’t always feel passionate about something—at least not for long. I learned to play the violin, and then I was done and it hasn’t been out of its case in years. I failed to follow through before I got anywhere close to good. I could give dozens more examples. Passion seems like a lot of pressure. My profile in this blog says I’m a dabbler. I’ve tried to make peace with abandonment for a long time, and be okay with dabbling. But now Elizabeth Gilbert (Big Magic) has nailed the problem. “Follow your curiosity!” she says. Don’t worry about passion. “Curiosity is the truth and the way of creative living.” Well, hell yeah. Curiosities change. And right now I’m curious about this land.

Some powerful force kept me at Project Barnyard. When I began a month ago it looked hopeless. But I kept at it, one square yard at a time, and it gives me ridiculous pleasure to have accomplished the impossible. Like re-reading papers I wrote in college, or the occasional blog post from way back, I look at it and say, “I don’t even know where that came from.”

Yes, my back aches, but as Liz says (and I will resist quoting the whole book to you, but I implore you to read it),

“Every single pursuit comes with its own brand of shit sandwich, its own lousy side effects.”—Elizabeth Gilbert

There will be days I think this decision was the dumbest ever, when my back aches and I didn’t get to my writing; and other days the sunrise will leave me without words and I will thank the Goddess I said “yes!” to my curiosity.

I’m curious now, was there trillium under all that debris? I’ve made the space; maybe I will plant some…



I’m halfway back to life. Halfway to bursting into full bloom. And in the meantime, there is a lot of growing and work to do, including caring for my mother in her end days. But I will keep at it.

“Even if your curiosity barely has a pulse, pursue it! Don’t let go of it the moment things stop being easy or rewarding. Because that moment? That’s the moment when interesting begins.” —Elizabeth Gilbert

This morning the sun split the dark sky behind the mountain and striped it pink. Really, nothing else mattered but my curiosity about what would happen next. And then it was gone and the shades of gray took over, and there was nothing left to show for it except the pictures I took, the tears I wept, my full heart.


Is it enough, this curiosity I have about what I can do with this property? Will my efforts have been for naught if my dreams, still in the bud, don’t ever come to full bloom? What if it turns out just to be one more dabbling? What if it does! It’s here now.

“You might spend your whole life following your curiosity and have absolutely nothing to show for it at the end—except one thing. You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you passed your entire existence in devotion to inquisitiveness. And that should be more than enough for anyone to say that they lived a rich and splendid life.” —Elizabeth Gilbert

My mother is one of the most curious people I know. And she has honored her inquisitiveness, not with Google, but by exploring what is around her: digging in dirt, hiking on trails, watching sunrises, dabbling in art, writing. Maybe she is my hero after all.


19 thoughts on “Halfway to Life”

  1. Gretchen, thank you for sharing. I associate with so much of what you write and love hearing your voice.


  2. It was good to have the time to talk with you and Rebecca at Elliot’s birthday party and I am now a fan of your excellent writing.

    Wynne’s dad, Marc


  3. Hi Gretchen! I loved your entry and especially the photos of the garden and property- boy, does that take me back. Dear old Scout.
    Here in the “desert” we are experiencing an early spring. The poppies are blooming and we expect a glorious wildflower season. I don’t think we can come close to that glorious sunrise that you included in your entry, though.
    Garden on!


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