• Posted by Kate Dwyer on September 16th, 2008, 1:44 PM
    I don’t know tomatoes, not in a spiritual sort of way. Mind you, I can praise a tomato as passionately as anyone raised in a small Midwestern town full of backyard gardens. That upbringing teaches that if you have a choice between sliced hothouse tomatoes or strips of cut-up credit cards to accent your salad, you should go with the credit cards—they are easier to pick out. Real tomatoes have a season and cannot be bought at most grocery stores, no matter what the time of year, no matter what the label claims.  For it came to pass that when God felt his energy waning, long about midweek of the Creation, he invented the insalata caprese, an exquisite layering of sliced, freshly picked and perfectly ripe tomatoes, basil, and buffalo mozzarella, drizzled with olive oil and a splash of balsamic vinegar.  One bite, and bang!, he was up and back to work, fully refreshed and re-inspired.  Yea, a perfectly ripe cherry tomato, popped into thy mouth at the edge of the garden, is a psalm unto itself.

    So, when I say I don’t know tomatoes spiritually, what I mean is I don’t practice tomato cultivation like my friend Susie does. I savor them. I have opinions about the varieties at the farm stand. I take my selections home and eat them with deep appreciation.  Susie though.  Susie is a serious and committed grower of tomatoes. For her, the growing of them is a calling. A few years back, I imagined a conversation between Susie and God that went something like this: “How shall I proceed, Oh Lord, in my spiritual path?  How can I become more whole?”  God answered, his mouth full of insalata caprese, “Garden.”  And so she did, and continues to do so, with the dedication and fervor of a missionary.

    She rises early most days, brews her cup of tea, walks out into her garden, and sits with her plants.  She fingers their leaves, strokes their bristly little stalks.  She talks with them, asks after their well-being, and in their own fashion, apparently, they respond, expressing the stresses of modern garden living.  She listens, meditates, and, when necessary, takes action.

    One day I stopped by her house, to pick something up from her husband Patrick, also a good friend.  Susie had just returned home, minutes before me, from a few days away. Her husband was in the midst of giving her an account of his brief tenure as Substitute Gardener, during her absence. He had followed her instructions to the letter, but he wondered if the tomatoes might not seem a little “peaked.” She stood, looking down at the ground, listening, nodding, a small furrow forming between her eyes. Completing his update, he turned to address my errand.  Susie excused herself and disappeared.  Some minutes later, I wandered out into the backyard, beautiful in its midsummer counterpoint of solid green lawn and colorful flowerbeds.  The vegetable garden was off to one side, edged with a low picket fence. It is modest in size, but perfect in execution.  It had an almost surgical precision to its layout:  the forethought to placement and spacing was inspiring.

    She was standing in between two rows of tomatoes, watering with a sprinkler attachment on the end of a hose.  She looked up. “Leaf curl,” she said simply. I knew there was a question I should have had, poised on the tip of my tongue, for which “leaf curl” would be the appropriate answer.  I didn’t know what that question should be, so I nodded, offering a generic “Hmm.”

    “See, down here, near the stem…See that?  I’m just not sure what the best strategy is, given conditions just now. I’ll need to do some reading tonight. Frankly, I’m a little worried.” Now I remembered.  The “peaked” tomatoes.  I had forgotten about them. Vigilant disciple that she was, she had not.

    When I stopped by the next afternoon, there was Susie, in her shorts and sun hat, beaming, as she shoveled some very black, very potent-smelling compost into neat mounds around each plant.  She had been to the nursery that morning, had asked questions, gotten answers, and had returned with 16 bags of whatever this was that she was now shoveling.  It all had something to do with this year’s weather and the proportion of stalk length to leaf stem, nitrogen, and moisture retention.  All I really understood from what she said was how determined she was.  I was reminded of the two freshly pressed Mormons who came to the door of my apartment my first year at college, over 30 years ago, offering me a free copy of the Book of Mormon. I turned them down, but I must have appeared in need of something.  They came back four more times that week, and twice the next week.  I always let them in, served them some iced tea. Their calling impressed me, even if their doctrine didn’t. Earnest and committed, they were determined to save me from my own sad case of leaf curl.

    These days I don’t really have a spiritual practice.  Not formally, anyway.  I tell those who ask that my everyday life is my spiritual practice.  But I suspect that is my broken disciple’s heart talking.  I don’t want to be caught yet again, clear in my vision, committed to my path, earnest in my efforts, only to discover I have been tricked, have been made a fool by my own bright hopes.  Susie, though, has more courage than that.  She launches herself into her garden each spring, chock full of bright hopes, and she renews her commitment to them, over and over, every day.  And as she sows, so does she reap.

    Kate Dwyer is an eccentric bohemian soul trapped in a sensible Midwestern Protestant psyche. She makes designer dog i.d. tags (Bella Tocca Tags) for a living in Nevada City, Calif., where she buys her tomatoes, seasonally and locally.

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