Sunday, September 2, 2012

Digging Again: Bamboo and An Essay

The Chief Lou and I decided to put the "labor" back into Labor Day weekend and finish digging up the grove of bamboo that is taking over our yard. This has been a most counter-intuitive activity. I like plants. I like pretty plants. Bamboo is pretty. It sways and it is delicate and strong and it's a survivor. It is strange to feel an overwhelming need to eradicate a plant, but it threatens the structure of our house, so it must go.

I am in the final polishing, editing, sweating phase of writing an essay for submission. The topic of the essay is "Regret". The instructions were to explore a thing I did that I regret or would like to do over and write about what I learned about myself from it. This is a counter intuitive exercise for me. I don't believe in living with regret. I pay lip service to embracing one's mistakes and learning from them, not wasting a lot of energy wishing I could do them over. I look back over bad decisions I've made and see how they've worked together to bring me closer to who I am now. I like this philosophy. It's pretty and it works for me. This essay has been giving me fits. It hasn't been about the writing. I could write a bunch of pretty tripe and send it off, but then I would regret it for its dishonesty.

When digging bamboo, you start with what you see: the shoots, the canes, the above the ground pretty plants. You trim those down so you can see the real business of the bamboo. The roots don't go all that deep. You dig around the base and you start to see that the shoots are not alone. They are connected to strong, cane-like runners or rhizomes that spring from rock-like culms. They march in a steady, persistent line along the rhizomes, connected to each other beneath the surface of the soil. I wrote about this already. You just have to get in there and dig. There is no magic spray or pruning technique that stops them. Sheet metal doesn't really stop them. You just have to dig them out.

I spent far too long spinning my mental wheels about this essay. I wrote about this already. I received such great support, encouragement and gentle chiding from this lovely blog community that it shames me a little. Time to stop whining and get to work. I started with the surface. I picked an event that was truly painful to think about. It was something that happened a long time ago, but had its hooks in a lot of emotions for me. I attacked it from the surface. I wrote my 1500 words, relieved to have done it, and shared it with some trusted critics. They kindly read and gave it back and said "Good start." Time to get the shovel.

One of the amazing adaptive qualities of bamboo is that the culms harden with age. That's why it's good construction material. Even when cut, they secrete instantly a kind of sealing sap in the new wound to keep out infection and pests. It makes them strong, and prolific. They grow easily and with abandon. They are self-protecting, durable. If you block their growth in one direction, they will send out rhizomes in another with new shoots within days, reaching for the sun.

I rewrote the essay. One friend said "Tell me how it feels." Another said, "You are protecting yourself. You are justifying. Let the truly regrettable actions show." They were right, of course. That is why they are trusted critics. I rewrote again. Here is the difference between writing and life: in life we seal off and protect the wounded places, we find new ways to grow, we harden and it helps keep us strong. We cannot stay open, gaping wounds all the time or we would wilt. In writing, however, sometimes it's necessary to peel back the protective layers, cut open that wound again and seize it, rip it up before the protective sap begins to flow. But this is where writing intersects life for me: this process of writing and digging up the roots helps rid my life of the neglected offshoots of old injury that would eventually threaten the structure of my life.

We spent the day in the sun yesterday, laughing and acting like fools. We spent the day with crowbars as long as our legs, prying stubborn culms. We spent the day sweating and dirty and digging and pulling. We spent the day with our combined weights thrust against the handles of tools and only then barely having enough leverage to rip these ancient things loose from the soil. We wanted to quit. I hit my knee so hard with a rogue crowbar that my kneecap is black and looks dirty. I dropped my iPod down my pants and as it slithered cool against my leg, I feared I'd wet myself from the exertion. We drank lots of water, we collapsed in heaps. We prized and muscled and lifted with our backs instead of our legs. We slipped on rocks and fell. We made jokes and spoke in lines from movies. We let the kids wander in and out of the house, eating random things they found in the fridge. We got it done. It took hours of back breaking work, but it's done. Those rock-hard, ancient roots have been excavated. All of their tendrils and delicate shoots have been removed. They have been officially dealt with... we think.

So this essay. I've sent it to another trusted critic. I'm unsure about it still. I am a little sketchy about the outcome. But it is in a place of honesty now, with many of the protective layers stripped away. I have not changed my general philosophy about living without regret. I have, however, exhumed it and looked at it anew. I have examined what the pretty leaves and swaying canes on the surface have distracted me from. I have pulled out the ancient roots of things I no longer needed in my soil. I have exposed the neglect with which I have treated the topic.

Our bamboo was an artifact from another time. It was neglected and allowed to run amok. We bought it with the house and knew when we bought it that it would need to be dealt with. We have done the best we could with the tools we have (and some loaned us by the neighbor) to amend this neglect and protect our home from its far-reaching roots. It is with satisfaction that we can look at the freshly dug soil, the rocks out of place and the giant pile of disembodied roots. But we wait. The rains will come, life will go on, there may be some things we missed. Their shoots will pop up and surprise us, yards away from their source. We will see them and deal with them when they come, but for now, we are satisfied, we have accomplished the task at hand.

I will send off this essay that has plagued me so unnecessarily in a couple of weeks. I will be satisfied, I will be unsure, and I will wait. Life will come and go. I will live some more and hence, write some more. But the work I've done for now is finished. I will doubtless return to the subject, both in writing and in life. But now the worst of the work is done. I will sit and I will wait on the rain. I will see what springs up again.


  1. Regret means to gret twice or more. I have no idea what it means to gret other than it only feels approximately 1/2 as bad as regret.

    1. I remember now writing about my neighbors tree that I hated, that eventually messed up my sewer line. Then a few years ago I bought the neighbor's house and moved next door. But by then tree was long gone, and now there is just a bad spot in the lawn as a reminder of an unfinished project.

  2. If only your essay topic were about finding ways to create life metaphors with discussions of plants, you'd be done at least twice over already. I do hope you'll share your regret essay here someday.

  3. We need to produce a collected works of plant metaphor essays. It would be brilliant.

  4. Will we get to read this essay? Someday? Please?

  5. Sorry I mostly got stuck laughing at your iPod making you think an accident had occurred! But I am also with Jewels and Masked Mom, do we get to see?


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