Today I did some yard work for the first time in a while. Several medium-sized palm trees around our rental house needed pruning. As I sawed off dead branches and piled them in the dumpster, I started thinking about how much yard work I did as a child.
My family lived in a house on a fairly large piece of property. My parents DIY’ed everything. They built a well house, a chicken coop, and a network of raised garden beds. Many of my childhood memories center around outdoor projects. My brother and I collected rocks to build a 100-foot stone wall, dug narrow trenches for an irrigation system, and helped plant fruit trees. Of course, there were always a million weeds to pull.
One summer, my brother and I decided to plant our own vegetable garden.
Wouldn’t that be a good response to the “tell me you’re homeschooled…without telling me you’re homeschooled” challenge? That summer, I was 15 years old and my brother was 13. We didn’t have phones, laptops, video games or TV. We did not see friends very often because we lived in a rural area. So how else would two teenagers pass the time, other than gardening?
The land we lived on was bordered by a creek. In the hot summers the creek trickled thinly, and during the winter rainstorms its wide banks flooded until only the tree tops were visible.
Our house was on a hill above the creek. The ground all around was solid clay which made digging a pain and planting a gamble. But down by the creek, the soil was soft. The annual deluge dumped silt and sand from upstream, which mixed with decomposing plants to form a fluffy layer of topsoil.
My brother and I carved a path so we could climb down the steep bank and access the creek’s ecosystem. Ancient sycamores and oaks provided dappled shade and kept the air a few degrees cooler. We found a flat patch of land a few dozen yards from the water, and used stakes and twine to mark out ten feet by ten feet in a square.
Our patch was entirely overgrown with blackberry brambles. Their wooden vines twisted and tangled over every inch of the ground. They were thorny and difficult to uproot, but we had to remove the whole plant from the ground or they would grow back in a heartbeat.
We stomped on shovels to fully dig up the roots as if we were transplanting the blackberry bushes. Bit by bit we cleared the land in the warming days of late May.
It was good to be out of the house and have a space to talk freely without our parents around. We were riding the high of a project that was fully ours (even if our parents were pleased with us working in the yard.)
At 15 years old, my legs and arms had rapidly grown a few inches and my brain hadn’t discovered how to move them with grace. My forehead was pimply and my hair was greasy. I was starting to feel awkward in social settings, especially when boys were around. And I remember venting to my brother about it.
“I like such and such boy,” I confided, “but he never notices me. I’m too ugly.”
“No, you’re not,” said my brother, “the problem is you aren’t confident.”
I knew he was right. We used to joke that my brother took all the confidence and left me none. Since he was a child, he glides through the world with his head held high, incredibly sure of everything he says and does. I don’t think he has an ounce of self-doubt. In contrast to him, I walked around with my shoulders slumped, constantly worried about what other people thought of me.
As we planted rows of seeds (beets, carrots, corn, melons, pumpkins), my brother came up with The Plan. A secret scheme to build my confidence. It was pretty cute actually. It all revolved around me learning to do things that he enjoyed. Handstands. Juggling. Boxing. Solving a Rubik’s cube. If he found confidence in doing this stuff, surely I would too!
My brother was excited to coach me and I took the program very seriously. After we watered and weeded our garden, we would spend hours practicing each activity.
I tried my hardest to attain the elusive coolness that these feats promised. But I wasn’t coordinated enough to juggle. I got winded after throwing a few punches. My hand “stands” remained below a measly 45° angle. I could only get one side of the Rubik’s cube to match, even with the instructions right in front of me.
As the summer days lengthened, our corn towered over us and we harvested more melons than we could eat. We were pretty proud of our garden. But like every adolescent phase, we eventually lost interest. Deer gobbled up our pumpkins. Blackberry brambles began to recapture the land. By fall, we had given up on both the garden and the elaborate plan to boost my self-esteem.
Now back to today. I was dusty and sweaty after I finished cleaning up the yard, so I took Lotus on a quick walk to the park near our house. Several people, ranging from Boomers to Millennials, were gathered at a picnic table with their dogs. I wanted Lotus to play with the dogs so I walked up and joined the conversation.
Afterword, I felt proud of myself for meeting everyone instead of shying away from a fear of embarrassment. I didn’t feel socially awkward or anxious at all. For me, that is an achievement.
It made me think about the direct correlation between confidence and how comfortable I am in my body. For me, quiet, calm self-assurance isn’t sourced from the ability to impress others with words and actions. It’s about feeling relaxed with my self.
When I feel at home in my body, I’m able to switch my focus 100% to the people around me. I shed my awkwardness like a snake slipping out of its crusty old skin. Of course, I didn’t know this trick when I was a 15-year-old with a gardening hobby. Becoming comfortable in my skin has been a long journey since then.