A Predominance of Mulch / by Pam Sutherland

I never knew how much mulch mattered until I moved to the suburbs. The other day I drove home to find $900 worth of mulch spread evenly across the beds in our front yard. Absent were the seasonal inch worms that a week before had been hanging and spinning webs and defecating from our oak trees, gone were the mustard tendrils of pollen and the scattered sticks that are a daily reminder that we live in the woods. In their place was a uniform brownness framing the equally costly quilt of greenness we had paid for. It was beautiful, as if the yard had just been vacuumed. I got my new iPhone out and took a few pictures of the illusory perfection, knowing it wouldn’t last.

As a high school art teacher I often advise kids of the importance of negative space: the space around the thing they are drawing, not just the thing itself. Good photographers know this rule. When taking a picture of your friends drinking margaritas in the sunshine, or your husband proudly holding the lid of his new smoker in the air, or your nine-year old stepdaughter trying on bright red readers in a Myrtle Beach souvenir shop, try to think about the space around these assorted smiles. The space, the frame it makes, usually makes the picture better.

When I got married for the first time at 45 I thought I had finally reached the placeyears of unsuccessful dating had told me I was longing for. Within two years of meeting my husband, suddenly I was a step-mother of two, a co-owner of a four-bedroom, three and a half-bath house whose backyard could or would accommodate a soccer goal, a basketball hoop and a tree house, and a woman who would learn on a nightly basis what it meant to sleep on the couch (my husband snores). I had not lived with anyone, let alone three other people, since having a roommate in college. My existence prior to marriage had been fairly solitary—an artist living in a cute 1920’s bungalow with a detached, dilapidated garage as a studio--and dare I say it,I liked it. At least that’s how I see it now that my frame of reference has shifted.

I bought mulch at Lowe’s then, three bags at a time, and spread it myself into my crowded flowerbeds. Sometimes, when my back hurt, I would cuss the lack of a husband to help me but for the most part I felt content. When I went inside my house I was able to control the spread of top soil that came with my boots; when I swept or vacuumed it stayed clean for a while; when I had to wrap a gift I could always find my scissors; when I was sleepy I could lie down in the afternoon in front of Oprah without guilt or interruption; when I needed something beautiful to look at I could place the coil-built vase on the mantel in a precarious position and know it would not fall. When I needed to think or feel or reflect, I could. A space of one’s own is a lot like mulch.

I also went on lots of dates. I had a lot of boyfriends. One took me on a drive in a red Ferrari and three hours later showed me how to bake bread. One was married to someone else the eight years we dated but taught me how to properly eat an artichoke and laugh until I cried. One died of a heroin overdose. The last saw me through my own cancer diagnosis and death of my beloved father to the same disease. Despite dating me for four years and sharing the best and worst of ourselves with each other, he could not commit to me or to us. And commitment was the point, was it not?

What is it about being a female that presupposes marriage is the endpoint? Despite having a fulfilling career, an abundance of friendships (the true hallmark of singledom), financial independence, and a truly active social life that connected me to my community, I remember positively yelling into the phone when I was 35: why hasn’t this happened to me yet?. While I had to eventually accept the irony that my faulty breast and advanced age would preclude me from having children, I could never settle in my heart for ending up alone and partnerless. What I underestimated, and have now come to appreciate, is how much my solitude shaped me. And how much I miss it.

Which brings me back to mulch. When you are little and you see your parents working in the yard, their herculean efforts seem pointless. The yard looks fine. But when you are older and coupled and the labors of that love are endless (the dishes, the laundry, the soccer games, the in-laws), it’s then that the neat brown borders make sense. Mulch holds it all in, at least giving the illusion of control and neatly tended, perhaps even private, space.

I’m a high school art teacher who is also an artist. Before marriage my artwork was made of scraps of pale blue paper sewn together with tiny, surgical marks of pencil mimicking the threads. It was hard to tell if the compositions were struggling to stay together or celebrating falling apart. Now I work on wood, paper’s more commitment-minded sister. Where in the past there were vast expanses of emptiness and very little color, now strokes of salmon, black and ultramarine saturate the puzzle-like panels, affording the viewer a shadow box landscape of subdued chaos. My New York gallery saw this new work and promptly dropped me. Too busy they said. Where now I wondered when the shock of the loss abated. To the studio: to myself, by myself, to make. Alone or together, single or married, the rhythm of the studio is the same: it demands solitude. And space. Space to feel, space to think, space to see. Abandoning myself to the process, to the clarity that comes from a well-honed intuition, assures me of a product free of external measurement and assures me that I am exactly where I need to be, gallery, husband, family or not.

I am grateful that it took so long to find Kevin, and I have to believe his late arrival was my destiny, for I cannot be faulted for not trying. I often tell people it took losing the one truly great man in my life, my father, for me to not only recognize but require an equally great man like my husband. I cherish the way that age made me choose someone like me, not different, for both of us are fully formed adults who seem to know how to manage a partnership without sacrificing ourselves. I love the way he smells, the way he scratches the back of my arm when we watch Homeland, his complete parental competency, and the unexpected pleasure he has afforded me of being a pretend mom to Noah and Emma. The two of us can dream of retiring to our glass country house and know that when the enemy strikes again we have each other to shoulder the blow. Marriage is good, a good place to be now in my life, just as being single was a good place to be then.

I’m a high school art teacher who advocates negative space. I remind my all girl advisory when we meet for bagels on Thursday mornings that even though marriage might be their ultimate goal, that from my perspective, it’s not better than being alone, it’s just different. Both states can be wonderful, but not when you are in the one wishing for the other. It’s important to trust where life leads you. To leave a space for the unknown. To bloom where you are planted, despite the weeds. To believe.

 It rained really hard this afternoon. The new mulch ran over its borders and bled down our driveway. Our new kitten jumped up on the dining room table and broke my favorite vase. My husband has a bulging disc in his back that makes almost any household chore impossible for him at the moment. And Emma has a cold, the third one this spring. Life is messy and unpredictable. Mulch helps, albeit temporarily. But so does love. Permanently.