The Garden

I grew up in the garden. And, while the specific geographic location of the garden bounced from Lewiston, Maine to Arlington and then Gloucester, and now Rockport, Massachusetts, the garden itself, was a constant. Each one had their own unique personality, but there were three basic aspects that each one held — soil, plants, and my mother. The garden is somewhere that I didn’t just learn about the plants around me, but I learned about myself too — of what sort of values I hold as a human being on this lovely planet, of what my impact is and how I can make the most of it, and many of my own personal beliefs. No matter where I have lived, or will live, the garden is something that I know will continue to be a constant because of how much of an impact it really has had on my life.

At a young age, I could name every plant in my mother’s garden. The first that I remember was in Arlington — although I have faint recollections of the flower garden in Maine, the vegetable garden that literally took over half of our postage-stamp backyard is the first that I remember fully. It had a winding brick pathway that looped through to the back corner of the garden where the cucumbers would climb the chain-link fence and then back down towards the patio. I remember walking along the path, bending down to play with roly-poly potato bugs, and plucking cherry tomatoes and herbs off the plants and plopping them in my mouth. It was simple, small, but gave us what we needed in terms of vegetables.

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It wasn’t until we moved to Gloucester that my mother’s garden grew, and our hobbies began to include creating our own salsas, sauces, and other canned goods. And it wasn’t really until we moved to Gloucester that I began to realize how much the garden had impacted me already. I remember going to school with fresh vegetables packed in my lunch box, of pulling out containers filled with odd combinations that my mom had whipped up the night before — things to me that seemed normal, but freaked my classmates out. I had taken fresh vegetables and knowing where exactly they had come from for granted. I didn’t realize that children like me had never plucked a carrot out of the dirt or been told to grab some fresh basil off of the plant outside — I thought that was normal, not abnormal.

Then, when I became a vegetarian, I began to understand how the garden had shaped me as a person. At first, it was a contest between me and my boyfriend at the time, to see who could go the longest without eating meat — he lasted a few hours, I am still going strong over eight years later. My household was a fairly meat-free environment in the first place — opting for fish and other seafood and protein sources rather than steak-and-potato or pork chop dinners every night — so the transition to completely meat-free was easy. That same year, I decided to read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for summer reading (I should really read that again now that I’m out of middle school) and my mind was opened to the horrors of the meat industry.

Of course, it’s not nearly as bad as it was when Sinclair wrote the book back in the early 20th century, but that’s only in a strictly sterile and sanitary sense. The meat industry is one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions in the world. As the world’s population grows, and more of the world’s population take on American eating habits, more of this world’s land is put into use by the meat industry. We are clearing land for cattle and corn like its no body’s business, and destroying the world around us as we do it — clearing the land causes the loss of biodiversity, of trees that were sucking in CO2, and when the land that we cleared is no longer viable because we sucked the nutrients out of it without attempting to return any, more land is cleared and the old land is left dead, dying, and destroyed.

It was from my experience in the garden, of knowing how important it is to treat the land that you use with care and of the importance of knowing where the food on plate came from, that has shaped so much of who I am, of the hobbies I enjoy, and the beliefs I hold. I love being able to give a basket full of fresh greens and veggies to my friends and neighbors; it makes me proud of myself when I open up a jar of tomato sauce in which every ingredient came from my garden; it makes me feel good about myself and my impact on this Earth when I am able to grow all of these amazing things without relying on any chemical fertilizers.

It’s a movement that is gaining momentum around the United States —of organic gardening, in no matter how small of a space available, and not just of being organic, but of being sustainable — of being able to meet present needs and ensure that future needs can be met as well. But one needs to understand just how systemic our problem, the problem of climate change and what we do about it, to understand that having a simple, organic, summer vegetable garden is a step in the right direction. And, I am more than happy to help lead people in that direction.

Mom

Talitha Bihun has been spelling her name for the past forty years. Her name, Talitha, meaning “little girl” or “damsel” in Hebrew, is from a passage in the Bible (Mark 5:41) in which Jesus revives the daughter of a king. It also happens to be the name of an X-Files episode, a fact that I eagerly shared with my mother when I watched it. From living on a farm in rural Iowa, to a sailboat in the Carribean, to the coast of New England, Talitha has lived as interesting a life as her name.

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The second child of hippies, Laura Jean and Curly Bihun, Talitha is the third child of the family and has suffered from middle-child syndrome throughout her life. She was a troublemaker, always fighting with her younger brother or older sisters. In high school, she brought her older sister, Sadja’s, birth certificate and her younger brother as a witness to the RMV to get a fake-ID made. The ID had her photo, but her sister’s information (if only it were that easy nowadays). To this day, I still don’t think my aunt knows. Whenever I got in trouble with her as a teenager, I just reminded her that her own antics were in no comparison to my own and that she was lucky I was as good as I was—this usually worked, but also usually ended in me getting called a smart ass.

Although the family was never well off and money was tight, they made the most of what they had. When they lived in a farmhouse in Waterloo, Iowa that lacked running water, the family used an abandoned chicken coop as a bathroom. But, after a tornado ravaged across the the county and their chicken coop-bathroom was destroyed, they had to become a bit more creative. At that same house, my grandfather discovered a patch of morel mushrooms. They were in a patch of overgrowth and my mother and her brother discovered the odd looking mushrooms while trampling through the brush. My grandfather collected the mushrooms with the children and then made a soup with them that my mother still raves about. Now, we go into the woods ourselves, in search of edible mushrooms to make delicacies out of — we’ve never found morels, but remain hopeful that one day we will.

When she was about five, my mother and her family packed up their belongings and headed up to Maine. There, my grandfather had a sailboat waiting for them. The plan was to sail down to the Virgin Islands, where they would live and make a living by chartering out the boat to tourists. For a few years, this is exactly what they did. Sailing from one island to the next, my grandfather would charter out the boat and captain it while the rest of the family would work on the boat and live onshore. Some of my favorite stories of my mother’s childhood are from these years. Without getting into too many details, my grandfather was not necessarily the best guy (I personally never met him before his death). Finally having enough, my grandmother packed up the kids and headed back to Iowa. There, my mother and her family moved into my great-grandmother’s house in Cedar Rapids—the same house my grandmother grew up in, and the same house that I visit every summer.

Talitha stayed in Cedar Rapids until graduating high school. After graduating in 1992, she began her undergraduate education at the Kansas City Art Institute in Missouri. There, she majored in illustration and printmaking and met my father, Daryl. They were friends throughout their undergrad years, but were never a couple until their junior year. About a little over a year after getting together, the young couple found themselves with an unexpected surprise—me! Born the beginning of their senior year, my birth did not deter either of them from finishing their degrees. Instead, I was brought along to studio hours and critiques, sat on the laps of professors and carried through art shows and openings. I wore their graduation caps when they finished, and forced my grandmother to miss the ceremony with my incessant crying. I ask my mother about this a lot, about what it was like to have a child at such a young age and so unexpectedly. And although she and I know that she could have done things differently and made other choices, like every good mother, she always says that she would never change a thing.

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As a teenager, my mother and I would butt heads a lot. This became worse as she opened up to me about how unhappy she had been in her marriage. It was tough for me to hear this, as every child expects their parents to be together forever. But, I knew it was true. The tension between them had been building for years and was beginning to break the surface. I made her promise to wait until I was finished with high school to separate and divorce my father. Looking back on it, I know this was a selfish thing for me to do and that maybe it would have been easier if it was done sooner rather than later. But, like my mother said about my birth, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Although it wasn’t the easiest thing for them all the time, being able to share those special moments of my senior year with my parents together was important to me.

Now, my mother and sisters live together in the town next door to my father and I. I had the chance to live with my mother when I moved back home after my freshman year of college, but the physical distance between us was the best thing that we could have done for our relationship. Growing up, my mother always pushed me to try my hardest in everything I did. I think this was a result of her middle-child syndrome—always having to compete with her siblings, she strove to be the best at whatever she set her mind to. But, it made me stronger and able to stick up for myself and my beliefs—although sometimes it makes me a little too strong-headed, and that’s where we always bump heads.

My mother is my best friend. We go shopping together, I give her relationship advice, we’re each other’s work-out buddies and share recipes and vegetables from our gardens with each other. And I wouldn’t change that for anything in the world.

Conquering Writer’s Block

I used to suffer from writers block quite frequently. I would sit at my desk, looking at a blank document on my computer screen for hours, just waiting for the perfect sentence to form in my mind. Anxiety built with ever character that I typed. It needed to be perfect, a first draft with final draft material and substance. I feared putting anything down that wasn’t perfect so much so that it hindered my ability to finish any assignment. I would put it off essay and research papers until the last minute just to avoid blankly staring at a blank screen.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I conquered that fear. Every once in a while, I still get a little anxious when I have a writing assignment due. But now, instead of my anxiety stopping me from writing, it makes me write even more! I hated staring at an empty Word document so much that I began to force myself to fill it with every thought that popped into my head. Without caring about rhyme or reason, sentence order or structure, coherence and clarity, I wrote down what I wanted to say without being afraid of how I said it. Because I realized, it doesn’t have to be perfect on the first draft. That’s why we have first drafts, and second drafts, and especially, delete buttons!

No great work of writing was ever completed to perfection on the first get go (don’t quote me on that). It takes time to craft a fine work of art, and the same goes for writing — time, revisions, and editing are all integral parts of the writing process. All I needed to do was remember that and I was able to write again. When I removed the pressure of perfection off of my writing assignment, it broke down the dam that was holding back all the words in my head. Now, I can hash out an eight-page paper in one sitting. But just because I may have reached the page minimum, that doesn’t mean its even close to ready to hand in.

Of course, free writing doesn’t help everyone conquer writers block. But it sure helps me figure out what I want to say. Putting it all down on paper helps me begin to articulate what sort of message I want to relay, even if it isn’t entirely comprehensible at first.

There’s no sure-fire way of overcoming writer’s block, but here’s a few suggestions to help you out!

  • Take a step back and go for a walk
  • Read a book
  • Listen to music (I like classic rock, something I can sing along to)
  • Have a snack, drink some coffee
  • Move to a different location, change up your scenery
  • Doodle
  • Make a brainstorming web
  • Write down on paper instead of typing on a screen
  • Don’t try to start at the beginning of your paper, mix it up and start from the end or the middle
  • Talk about the assignment, to yourself or to others
  • Gather information on the topic, you could be inspired by something you find
  • Set restrictions on yourself. For example, force yourself to write for two-minutes straight or write until you’ve filled one page

I Love Reading.

Reading has always been a passion of mine.

In kindergarten there was a girl in my class that could read and I couldn’t. It angered me that this girl, a girl that was the same age as me and lived right down the street, could do something that I couldn’t do. So, being the very ambitious and slightly envious four-year-old that I was, began to teach myself to read.

My mother was enthralled and amazed, but also increasingly supportive as my hunger for words grew. She started off with the easy books. Hop on Pop and other Dr. Seuss classics began to line my shelves, but as soon as I had finished reading a few of them my need to challenge myself grew. The simple rhyming sentences were not enough. I wanted words that I didn’t know, that I had to sound out and maybe even ask about. I wanted chapter books, not picture books — something that would last me longer than fifteen minutes. We began to take weekly trips to our local library, returning home with arm-loads of books. But they would only last me a few days and then we would have to return to the library to find more new reading material.

In first grade, my teacher was surprised to hear me breeze through words that my fellow classmates struggled with — microphone, transportation, and other multisyllabic words rolled off my tongue like a car on a freshly-paved street. Although I was ahead of my classmates, I continued to challenge myself outside of the schoolyard. I read the first four Harry Potter books over the course of a winter break. Another time, I decided to try my hand out on Steinbeck — finding his stories like The Red Pony and of Mice and Men too sad for my mind, I decided to lay off the classics for a while and instead lost myself in the fantastical worlds of C.S. Lewis and Phillip Pullman.

The passion ceased to leave me and my desire to read increased exponentially as my years on this planet increased as well. Even when I was bogged down with schoolwork, I would always find a few minutes throughout the day to flip through some pages of whatever book I was reading at the moment. Summer Reading was never a problem for me because I had almost always read one of the required books and always read more than the suggested two books. Whether it was three days or three weeks, I packed more than just a single book while on vacation because I knew no matter how long the book was, if it caught my attention, it wouldn’t last the entirety of my trip.

Wary but willing, I returned to Steinbeck this summer. I took on his soap opera of a fictional drama, East of Eden and immediately fell in love with the Trask and Hamilton family despite all of their flaws. By far one of the best books I have read in a very long time, Eden’s tale of familial conflicts and successes in California’s Salinas Valley kept me up all night until I had finished it. Maybe I was too young to understand Steinbeck’s harsh reality, too afraid and naive to face it myself. Maybe I was too hopeful, unwilling to accept that life could be as cruel as the world he depicts. Either way, I was happy that I decided to give Steinbeck another try and maybe I’ll even give The Red Pony another chance.