Finding a Role (And a Sense of Belonging) in the Park

An Excerpt from "Count Me In"

This specific passage from Count Me In takes place right after I decided that belonging to my local pool was the wrong fit: the people were lovely, but there was far too much talking involved. I’m “bandaged” in the passage because I had just been attacked by a domestic cat. The cat attack isn’t really part of the plot of Count Me In, but it was pretty dramatic.

Bandaged, I decided that I’d sort of liked the feel of a great good place: having a local spot where I was known did help with feelings of belonging. But the dolphin pod was the wrong fit. While some people might love a local place filled with conversation, I needed a place where I’d be welcomed and recognized without feeling like I had to show up every single week or that I had to talk when I did show up.

It was in this state of mind—I was actually staring at the pool from the ground-level windows—that I turned around and saw a sign saying that “worker bees” were needed for a community garden. The garden was right beside the pool—set off by just a footpath—and I’d already stopped there a few times to admire the soil beds awaiting planting and the tidy rows of saplings. The strange thing about the garden was that I’d never seen anyone in it. It was as if it were tended by sprites in the night. But the sign said that real humans appeared every Wednesday at five, so I made the decision to go.

I arrived the following Wednesday to find a whole hive of people. I wondered how it was possible that I’d never noticed any of them and whether there had been other connection opportunities I’d missed simply because I hadn’t been paying enough attention. Still feeling a bit surprised, I set out to find the group leader. An older woman in gardening gloves and a Tilley hat said the leader’s name was Heidi, and she pointed to a glamorous blonde in a cowboy hat and tight white top. I followed Heidi as she, in turn, followed an irrigation repairman. A vandal had cut several lengths of hose, and Heidi was trying to oversee volunteers while keeping up a running dialogue with the workman. I stood beside her as the workman outlined options, all of which sounded expensive since they involved running new lines in from the rec centre.

“Is there a way to just patch them?” Heidi asked. Then she turned to me and said, “Oh, hi. Did you email?”

I felt a bit sheepish. “I thought you could just show up.”

The irrigation man was now watching the two of us.

“You can! You can!” Heidi said, sounding a bit scattered. “But can you just wait a sec?”

I said I could. I walked to the hill beside the garden and surveyed the activity. There was a clutch of twenty-somethings beside an asparagus bed, and I heard the word asparagus repeated so many times, and in so many different accents, that I figured (correctly) it was an ESL conversation group. One young man was using a pitchfork to move soil between bins; another was pruning raspberry bushes; and the Tilley-hatted woman who’d greeted me was telling a teenage girl to keep watering the saplings with a jug—it was going to be a hot summer, and they needed all the water they could get.

Maybe it was the fact that the garden was out in the sunshine or that so much was happening at once, but I began to feel very much at home. I was surprised that so many of the worker bees were younger than me: somehow, I’d thought the volunteers would all be Tilley-hatted fifty-year-olds. I wasn’t sure my fellow volunteers matched with me—the ESL students were recent immigrants, and the bearded young guys looked hipper than me—but there was something about these people, or about the activity itself, that felt like a good fit.

My spot on the hill also gave me a great view of the park as a whole. It was six blocks long and three blocks wide, but it didn’t feel like a big open space. In most spots, it felt like a series of semi-connected pieces. There was the shady, more heavily treed area higher up the hill—a place where teens sat in groups and older men sat alone on benches; beyond that, the hill dipped down to the garden; then it dipped even lower to a dog-walking area where people stood chatting as their pets raced around. Then, if you kept walking north, you hit a baseball diamond, a playground, another dog park, and a soccer field.

It certainly didn’t feel bad to walk through the park and experience it in pieces, but it felt even better to do what I’d never done before: pick a spot with a good view and absorb the park as a whole. There was something kinder about it when viewed this way. People no longer seemed separated into groups, with the little kids in one area and the baseball players in another. Everyone looked like they were together, and suddenly, since I was about to be assigned a role in the park, that togetherness included me too.

When the workman finally reached for his cellphone, I saw my chance to firm up my insider status and get Heidi’s attention.

“Hi,” I said again, popping up behind her.

“Oh, have you been waiting long?” She had clearly forgotten about me but was trying to hide it.

“Not too long. Can I help?”

She looked at my bandaged hand and then at the garden. Most of the tasks seemed to be claimed, but then she pointed to the garden’s sign.

“Can you paint?” she asked.

This seemed like an unusual question to get at a garden, but I said I sort of could.

“Great,” she said, sounding relieved. “No one wants to paint.”

She led me to a wooden bench covered in backpacks and reached underneath for a plastic bag. She pulled out an impressive assortment of brushes and paints, then handed me a yogurt tub (“for water”) and a Frisbee (“for your palette”).

“The sign is completely fading,” she continued.

The prospect of painting the garden’s main sign—the one with block letters welcoming passersby—seemed like an important job. I was surprised to get it. I was even more surprised by how hard I started to work. I was using bright white paint, and I wanted every letter to look perfect. I used my fingers to wipe off any paint that fell on the backdrop, and I covered the same letters over and over again to make them vivid. This wasn’t just my usual obsessiveness coming to the fore. I was proud of the sign—maybe a bit proud of the garden—and I wanted this pride to show.

There was a composting session being held beside me, and I listened to worm trivia as I zeroed in on the letters. (I learned that worms do eat meat, but they also breathe through their skin, so if you put too much meat in a composter, the grease will suffocate them.) The worm lessons were interesting, and the sign was looking great. I didn’t want to stop, but when another worker bee arrived two hours later and asked if she could help, I had to admit I was starving.

“Try to keep the paint really neat,” I said, imposing the perfectionism Heidi hadn’t imposed on me. Then I walked back through the garden to find Heidi sitting on one of the benches, sifting through a binder.

“You headed out?” she asked. Her cowboy hat and tight clothes gave her a hint of Daisy Duke. I was a bit in awe of her—not just her looks, but her easy way of making people feel welcome. There were no forms, no membership fees, just her dimpled smile and her cheerful expectation of seeing me again.

I said I was.

“Till next week, then,” she said, touching the tip of her hat in a sort of salute.

I tapped my own forehead to return the salute, then headed into the park. The sun was starting to dip below the hill, creating a patch of shadow that stretched across the garden but left the rest of the park in full light. I’d gotten used to the shade, but as I headed down the hill, the sun hit me once again. The lawn had been cut that morning, and the air felt thick as if the grass was breathing. Dogs were running past, their owners laughing about something, and I started to think that maybe I’d been wrong, that maybe what I needed for belonging was right there—all around me and right under my feet.

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