10/15/2013

The Other Things We Do: Gardening and the Banjolele

by Sherrie Flick

Years ago, in the first apartment I rented by myself with no housemates, I killed all of my plants. It’s true. People who know me now find this hard to believe. And I must admit, it’s getting harder for me to believe it too. I don’t know that person as well as I used to.

Fourteen years ago I bought my first house with my husband Rick. It had a tiny back yard and I was immediately (and at the time, inexplicably) drawn to putting a garden in it.

Gardening was a creative compulsion for me. I needed to garden. I didn’t know why. It felt like saving me from myself. And who’s to argue with that?

Eight years later we moved to another house with a bigger yard. This summer we expanded that garden to the point that I can just barely manage it.

I am, as it turns out, pretty good at gardening. I have a knack for it—an instinct. My style isn’t vegetables blocked out in neat rows. Instead it’s a crazy mess of everything with an underlying order that seems obvious to me.

When I look at my garden (and I look at my garden a lot), I’m seeing parts of myself out there: the zinnias next to the broccoli beside the mess of squash vines on the crooked fence beside the cosmos? That’s the inside of my head. I feel that the garden manifests the structure that I strive for in my writing. It’s my writing laid flat, so I can see it.

Gardening helps me with my writing in ways I will never be able to fully articulate. It is also essential to my emotional and physical health. So when I turned 40 I decided I needed to do something that wasn’t essential, but that was instead a bit frightening and also social and difficult.

Because I can hermit myself up like you read about, I decided to learn to play an instrument, and then I wanted to play that instrument with people. After much deliberation, I decided upon a banjolele, which is a ukulele with a banjo head. I was hesitantly playing “You Are My Sunshine” day one.

The thing is when I play my banjolele it has nothing to do with my writing. It’s nothing like gardening or baking (which I wrote about earlier in this series). It’s a time-out. And that is exciting.

I play once a month with some generous friends, who are all much better musicians than I. We call it hoot night. There are seven of us (Bob, Rick, Megan, Eric, Bill, Patty, Chris, and me) playing a variety of instruments (guitar, washboard, fiddle, bass, harmonica, mandolin, and banjo). A potluck starts it out, and there’s beer and wine and whiskey. We play easy sing-along songs (old country tunes like “Lonesome Whistle” and “Waltz Across Texas”), and I am happy.

When I play the banjolele I don’t think about writing. I don’t see myself in the music. I just play. Although lately I’ve been writing some songs. Rhyming words seems so decadent. So illicit. So…not fiction. And who knows, maybe in 5 or 6 or 10 years I’ll see a connection between music and my writing, and I’ll turn to yet another getaway obsession.

For now, music serves as the all-important stop button in my writing life.

Here’s a song: “Cecil” lyrics by Sherrie Flick; music by Bob Marion.

If the audio player embedded here doesn’t appear in your browser, the song is available directly here.

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posted by Sherrie Flick
Sherrie Flick is author of the novel Reconsidering Happiness (Bison Books) and the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting (Flume). Her fiction appears in many journals and anthologies including Norton’s Flash Fiction Forward and New Sudden Fiction. She teaches in Chatham University’s MFA and Food Studies programs and writes a regular food column for Pittsburgh Quarterly magazine. Co-founder of Out of the Forge, a writer-in-residence program in Braddock, Pa., she also serves as series editor for At Table, the food writing book list at University of Nebraska Press.

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