My Purple Thumb

On Doing Things You’re not Very Good at

Oh to be like Uncle Harold, an exceptional doctor who also grew the best Jersey tomatoes I’ve ever had, or Uncle Zuni, a distinguished biochemist who had the most prolific vegetable garden I’ve ever seen. But alas I am a humble writer with a small plot of land I’ve toiled in for years to raise a few handfuls of beans, a half dozen tomatoes, a smattering of herbs, some years a single eggplant…the yields are laughable, if you can keep your sense of humor (which thankfully I do). I don’t go out there with unrealistic expectations: I will not suddenly be as accomplished as either of my uncles were or my across the street neighbor, who has the most bountiful garden on the block, with big gorgeous heads of kale and collards every summer that make me green with envy.

Why do I do it then? Why garden if you don’t have a green thumb? Why do things we are not especially good at? Why bother? Well, first of all, we always can improve, we can learn from mistakes and do tasks a little better. This year T rented a rototiller and turned the soil; I purchased the weed cover my neighbor swears by, and a new hose and garden snake to keep the ground moist. I plan on devoting a bit more time to upkeep because admittedly I put more effort into the planting than I do the maintenance.  I can put in the labor to minimize the weeds and maximize the yield.

Yet even when we can’t get much better at what we are doing, when we are just plain mediocre or barely competent at something, it is somehow freeing to accept where we are and enjoy what we do, sometimes more so because we aren’t burdened with unrealistic expectations or the pressure to be exceptional. Of course it can be hard to maintain that attitude in our competitive world, where people often take up new pursuits with a ferocious zeal, where hobbies can become more about achievement than the lovely process of trying: a new instrument or recipe or sport.  I fight that urge and accept that I will never be a master gardener or have a perfectly tidy yet overflowing garden like my neighbor..

Because face it, there are only so many things a person can do really well. For some of us, that’s just a couple of activities, for others perhaps a few more.   I’m a good writer and cook and I make a mean pie.  I have strong listening and analytic skills. Yet for most everything else – and that includes an awful lot! – I’m not so good and in many areas not even passable. 

I almost flunked Home Economics in grade school. It was mortifying; I had to stay after class and practice sewing a straight line over and over again. My mother was wonderful at sewing and knitting and I barely scraped by with a C ( the only one I had as a kid).  Thankfully there was no grade when I took Home Repair 101 at the adult education school in town because I would have flunked for sure. Given the course title I was expecting to learn how to screw in a light bulb or fix a leaky sink but the level of projects the excellent teacher covered felt more like a doctoral program than an introductory course. The fact is as hard as I’ve tried I’m not good at anything related to home crafts or maintenance. I really wanted to be a good seamstress at 10 and a badass fixer at 40 but it was not to be. 

And there’s no reason to do things we are actually bad at. But decent? Adequate? I have awful eye-hand coordination so I can’t play tennis but it’s one of my favorite sports. I love to watch Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams and other great athletes play. I also like watching the tennis players up the street at the public courts.  They’re mostly middling at best but they sure look like they are having fun, and isn’t that the point? To take joy in returning a serve and sparring with a partner, spending an hour or two working up a good sweat. The more you play the better you get yet there’s a point at which most of us level off at some mid-range of competent. We’re amiable amateurs.    

Which is about where I am when it comes to all the activities I enjoy, from biking to yoga and tai chi to swimming and hiking. I’m fairly slow, not terribly well-organized, I forget the sequence in tai chi and still have trouble biking up steep hills. I am a C student in most areas if grades were given out. Thankfully they’re not, and we have the freedom to be just okay, and to be okay with that. And so the garden. A happy place with modest results. (No one ever embroidered that on a pillow but if they did I’d buy it : ) I still hope for more tomatoes this year yet whether I get there or not I still love having my purple thumbs in the dirt, listening to birds sing and feeling the sun on my back.

3 thoughts on “My Purple Thumb

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