Community Garden Wrap-up

I’ve done a terrible job of keeping you updated abut this garden adventure. It’s been a mixed bag. I was confirmed for a spot the day before I had knee surgery, which meant instead of tackling the gnarled tangle of weeds and plants left behind with the full blast of my strength and energy, I could only, when I saw my plot in mid-February for the first time, gulp and grow a bit pale at all the work I had to do. I was alone, I didn’t own any garden tools, and wouldn’t be able to get down on my knees until June. And I had no idea where to begin.

The garden manager was there when I arrived, working on his immaculate raised beds, tending to seedlings he had started indoors, from (I imagine) seeds he harvested the previous year. He saw me, and said kindly, “looks like you have your work cut out for you, huh?”

I nodded. “I just don’t know where to start.”

He looked thoughtfully over the jungle. “I’d start with debris removal.”

And that’s what I did. 

After that I had to work slowly and conquer different sections at different times. I’d received some spinach starts from a cleaning client, so I cleared a space in the top corner and placed them there. I found out what the blueberries were, so I read up about blueberries and what they need, and made sure to take care of them with a ring of found rocks and bricks, lovely mulch to protect the surface roots, and fastidiously attended to them while I attacked everything else. It helped so much to have something to visit while the rest of the plot looked bleak. To watch little flowers form and then to have fresh blueberries for the oatmeal. 

Each session in the garden was intensely satisfying. I would go in dreading it a little, wondering if I’d have the energy or if I’d get anything done, yet I would always leave feeling validated and confident. There’s no job so tangible and meaningful as pulling weeds — you can instantly see the effects of your labor. And in my case every time I went in there I’d clear a new little section, reclaiming a new section of earth from the weeds. There were a few sessions with Anthony manning the big shovel (something I was unable to do for most of the year), but for the most part it was all little steps, experiments, and lovely vegetables that mostly came from donations from generous cleaning clients or through the seed and plant exchange programs the city offers.

Just about everything I planted gave me at least a little something edible, and the plot even gave me lovely gifts like blueberries on my oatmeal for several months and beautiful flowers in the early spring and late summer. It gave considerable relief to the grocery bills and incredible lifts to the spirit. 

I cleaned up the garden last week, and I have a house full of dahlias to show for it. It was the first time everything from one end to the other was uniformly weeded, and I was terribly, terribly proud. Registration forms have been emailed to me and I am squirreling away my spartan tips so I can be ready for Spring. 


1. I was absolutely blessed to have chard all year, and it was all because of the damnable sunchoke forest — they created a blanket of shade that protected these cold-weather greens from the brutal sunshine. The happiest of accidents. Next year I would love to try and do this on purpose, but with a crop that I’d actually know how to deal with like pole beans. 

2. I will angle everything diagonally, to face the sun. 

3. I will think hard about lettuce. I made the mistake of buying something like 6 starts for myself, which is FAR too much, and we had a strange spring which meant almost all of it bolted immediately. Lettuce tastes best straight off the plant (though I found keeping leaves layered with flannel in a Tupperware in the fridge worked pretty well), and so really a single plant probably would have been fine for me. Most of the salads we eat in the summer time are actually grain based or something like it, straight up lettuce salads don’t make many appearances because I’m just not used to preparing them. It was wonderful for kissir and other bulgar-type salads, as wrapping that in a butter lettuce leaf is excellent, so probably one plant would be enough. But really when I want to eat that stuff most is when it’s far too hot for lettuce to survive. Can I sneak a plant next to my chard-scheme? Perhaps. 

4. Weeding is a big problem because it creates a lot of good compost-able stuff that I am unable to personally process. It may be different with a well-kept plot where weeds are kept at bay, but when you spend a year in reclamation as I did the sheer volume of the stuff would quickly overwhelm an on-site compost bin, at least with the little plot I have. Other plots in the garden that have attempted to compost their own weeds seem to quickly abandon the project. At a work party I spent my entire 3 hours with a couple other people dismantling a haystack surrounding one of those plastic composter things. I don’t have yard debris removal service, because I live in an apartment building, so I was having to haul away my debris, often in several trips, and throw it in the dumpster. Not ideal. 

5. I will grown onions, garlic, and maybe start an asparagus tangle. More carrots, less spinach, less tomatoes. 

I am mostly looking forward to next year because I will have access to ALL of my dirt, and I will able to get down in it with both knees. Once things calm down a little here I will do as the Portland Nursery growth charts suggest: pour myself a cup of tea, review my notes, and start planning for next year!

Closing in

So my primary function in this Opera is to walk (very) slowly and smoothly. I am to follow a route, move props around, and wear a silly costume, but the most important thing is to keep things slow and smooth. Although my initial route is a long way up-stage (thus I receive less walking notes than those brave souls down-stage, who are right there in front of the choreographer and audience) I think it’s fair to say that I took to this fairly easily. I credit both my lengthy stint as an alter sever as well as, weirdly enough, knee surgery.

When they go inside to find out how you came apart, you have to learn how to go back together again. Everything you assumed you can do isn’t so easy when there’s stitches and crutches and swelling and staircases in your way. Two dozen years on this earth and I had to learn to walk all over again, asking other people to go up and down the stairs so I could watch them and try and figure out why I couldn’t do with effort something they could do without thinking. It was a minor procedure from the doctor’s point of view, but for a dreamy wanderer who could thoughtlessly walk to the ocean if given the chance, it was life changing. Surgery gave me a knee and a fuller understanding of what it means to move a body around, and in this case it means that if you tell me to walk slowly and smoothly, it turns out I can.

So I know my movement had something to do with it, but more likely it was my boldness and my smallness that inspired the director and choreographer to pull me aside after a week or to into the rehearsal schedule. They had a special job that needed doing. A job requiring smallness.

In Act III, a cake on a tongue has to glide up the center of the stage to eventually pop through a hole in a curtain. The cake-on-a-tongue lives on top of a little black box, with a pushing bar and wheels, and someone who is small yet wiry has to kneel in there and push it across the nubby floor of the stage.

When they were telling me this I began to glow with excitement. “You want me to be a cake pusher!!”

The director (who is Welsh) paused and said, “I rather like to think of it as the cake-trolley driver.

Since then “driving the cake” is what people have referred to it as in the production, and when the rest of the supers are dismissed over the intercom our minder usually says something like “…except Maggie, who needs to stay here to drive the cake.” This has led those uninvolved to assume incorrectly that there is a lot more to the job than there is.

I get a lot of imaginative questions about it, and I think I’m going to stop setting the record straight about how low-tech it actually is and just start encouraging the whimsy. Why not. Or maybe they think it’s motorized because I’m just that good at moving smoothly, and that’s no bad thing either.

Aside from being a delightful spectacle, this means that I get to spend a long time waiting to do my thing, and some of that time is spent surreptitiously gawking backstage.

It is a glorious jungle. All ropes and curtains and false walls and scaffolding. There is a rolling shelf covered in enormous wrenches on pegs. I saw baskets filled with the gingerbread children. There are television monitors at every wall and every corner showing a live image of the conductor in black and white, and one of these hangs quite artistically from the ceiling near a spindly staircase that winds so tightly on itself that it’s difficult to imagine how one could actually ascend.

Walking backstage is like walking into the back of a huge clock, with all the wheels and springs turning over to make something happen. It is dark and impossible to know how many people are back there, pulling ropes and sliding levers and carrying pieces of set around. They are quietly talking into their radios, they are dressed invisibly in blacks, and they are quick to return a smile but also hurry you out of the way if you don’t have a job to do back there. All utility, all functionality. They have a job to do, and one aspect of that job is to make your life much, much easier.

Now, instead of a director explaining to us what will be there, it is there. Now when we get off stage there are people waiting with towels so that we can wipe the raspberries off our stage-shoes. Someone from the dressing rooms will have already brought our walking-around shoes downstairs for us in a big rolling bin, so that we can leave our stage-shoes with the poor souls who must ream ground-in raspberries from the treads. One night someone fainted from the heat inside the costumes, and the next day we were all provided little handkerchiefs with cooling gel inside (that had to be labeled with our names, soaked in water, and drip-dried well ahead of our call). There are people who tell us where to stand, when to move, and how to leave, and who hold up flashlights so we don’t have any trouble getting there.

So much in life depends on the unseen superheroes that quietly move heaven and earth to make a thing happen, and I am in constant awe of them and the machine they create with their collective efforts.

I was reminded that I’m a part of this machine when I overheard some of the rope people talking to each other, saying “your cue is the tongue passing.”

I then had a brief yet vivid expansion of circumstance, a gestalt shift where I saw the thing for what it was: not as a clock run by unseen magic forces, but as a Rube-Goldberg machine. Because the tongue’s cue (my cue) is the door opening, the door’s cue is Carla with her binder and headset, whose cue is the sheet music in front of her lit by the little blue LED, the music itself, and (I assume) the notes from the director/choreographer.

Thus I cue the ropes.
Which cues Maureen and Sandy to move.
Which cues me to keep moving.
Which cues the first curtain.
Which cues someone to gallop from behind me all the way to the curtain and open the opening.
Which cues me to push through.
Which cues the black curtain just behind me.
Which cues the magicians to transform a German Expressionist forest into a gritty, cluttered witch’s kitchen.
Sandy and Maureen take cake and sing a key line.
Which cues me to withdraw.
Which cues the curtain.
Then another.
I exit, stage left.
Carla says “Maggie’s clear”
Which cues the last few walls of the kitchen.
Which cues the real curtain.
And the next scene begins.

Everyone plays a part, and if one little component is missing the thing cannot happen. Therefore during rehearsals I wait a long time to be dismissed, because while my part is relatively minor in the scene change it is essential, and if we need to run the scene again I have to be there. So doing my special job during rehearsals means a good deal of waiting through the third act. I cannot be reached via intercom in the house, so most of my off time is spent loitering near the stage entrance, or in the green room on a couch, listening for my dismissal announcement and to the music and singing which also is transmitted over the intercom. I watch snippets of the Simpsons from the locker room television. I read the State of Oregon safety regulations posted on the crew cork-board. At one point the other night I sat upstairs with our two dressers, eating candy and talking them through the various plot points of Act III as we listened, giving them a context to the goofier sounds.

They weren’t familiar with the story…because nobody bothered to tell them? Or because they haven’t bothered looked it up? Probably both. A lot of things happen at the Keller, every night, and we are just a just another thing. There’s no need for the magic of any given production. There’s just the practical aspects — what needs to be where, at what time, in order for everything to work smoothly. And that means they can produce the raw materials for the magic without letting the plot points stand in their way.

It seems like the magic is gone in a different way for one of the soloists, who spends a certain amount of the waiting time in the green room griping about things. That’s sort of a cliche, and having not been around big deal people in a while I’d sort of forgotten people do that. Most of the soloists don’t, I hasten to add. There are crabbier moments, and I imagine this was just one of those. I was surprised by it though. I hope they love what they do, it certainly seems that way to me on stage when I see them at work, or even when I hear them over the intercom. Every job has its pitfalls, I just forget that for these guys it is not an amazing new adventure with so much new stuff to take in, it’s just another gig, just another stage in just another town.

The magic is NOT gone for me, and because my tasks are fairly menial (and because I have a host of helpers to take care of the details) I am free to marvel at the Rube-Goldberg machine uninhibited. The trade off is that at the end of the night as I gather up my things and walk to the parking garage I have to refocus on all of the details back into one head, because I am not an international star and no one will take care of those things for me in life.

Walk the darkened streets without a flashlight-escort.
Find my car, drive home.
I reset my own props, placing things for tomorrow in my bag.
And I put the bag in the place it goes.
I put the coffee grounds where they go.
I put my sandals by the bed, lay out clothes for tomorrow.
I get myself in the head space for the next scene — a dream sequence?
I change costumes from “somewhat tidy artist” to “pajamas”.
I get my book and wait for my cue.

Taking it all in all, if the trade off for keeping the magic is having to work hard and take care of every department yourself, I’ll take the magic.