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  • Joanna RightToJo@gmail.com

A Fresh Start



 

Some call it a “green thumb” but that’s a description ripe with austerity. For people passionate about digging their hands into the earth, planting a seed, and then watching that tiny microcosm of life bloom into something fully alive, well, it's also an extraordinary sense of purpose. Imagine taking a packet of tiny brown pebbles, dropping them into the soil, and watching them literally grow roots and blossom towards the sky and maybe even produce food for your family’s dinner table, possibly year after year. Modern life has pulled so many of us away from the concept of harvesting our own food, or the timeline of watching a sunflower grow, that even the idea of it can feel foreign. But, not for Patrick Schlessinger. 


Growing up on his grandparent’s farm in Idaho in the mid-90s, Patrick always looked forward to planting season. His grandma would harvest acres upon acres of corn, strawberries, and yes, of course, potatoes. That part of it was grueling work. He’d be up before dawn, accompanying someone whose feet could reach the pedals while their hands steered the wheel on the enormous John Deere tractor until he turned fourteen and was allowed to till the rows himself. When lunchtime rolled around, they all gathered on the wraparound porch for sandwiches and, of course, potato salad, the family had oftentimes already put in an eight-hour workday. For the elder generations, it was the source of their livelihood. In Patrick’s head, well, it was mostly magic. 


He’d find himself whispering to the seeds as they disappeared into the earth at a dizzying pace. It was wild to him that these dried-up crumbs meant nothing without proper irrigation, care, and sunlight. But, then you added in those elements, and you got sustenance.  Life. That part of Mother Nature’s wizardry was never lost on him. 


And during those long summers on Wild Pronghorn Farm, Patrick got a little gift from his Grandma Joyce. Much like Mary Lennox in the family favorite storybook, The Secret Garden, Patrick’s grandma gifted him a “little bit of earth.”


It was a 5x10 rectangular plot next to the chicken coop. To the unappreciative eye, it was nothing more than a patch of dirt. To Patrick though, it was a sea of possibilities. He planted raspberries and corn and Hydrangeas. He tended that bit of Earth like a mother to her first child. Time would disappear as he’d spend the evenings weeding and pruning and, yeah, it’s embarrassing, but, also humming to his plants. The unmistakable clang of the porch bell would snap him out of his botany-induced trance state. He’d drop his trowel and shears and run to the farmhouse, knowing perfectly well that it would take him extra time to get the dirt out from under his fingernails and pass his grandmother’s wash-up inspection. 


These memories of the farm stayed with him throughout his college years when his family insisted upon him using his brain for something else instead of continuing the farming business. He was into his studies and excited about living in a real American city. Salt Lake was a big deal compared to the vast fields of his upbringing.


Immediately after graduation, Patrick found himself working at a large insurance company. The sprawling and light-filled offices took over the top five floors of One Utah Center, one of the most impressive skyscrapers in downtown Salt Lake City. He would chuckle to himself as he stepped into the cavernous lobby, his shiny work shoes squeaking on the freshly waxed floor, imagining what the twelve-year-old, grass-chewing, overall-wearing version of himself would think of the present one. It was the kind of side-by-side imagery that would have made an 80s film director salivate. And much like the plot of a beloved family-friendly movie, Patrick both thrived as a consultant and missed his time on the farm. But he wasn’t going to go back. He’d made that decision after hours and hours of deep thought.


He did his best thinking while going on jogs after work. It was during these runs through the city, by the lake, and through the parks, that Patrick noticed his brain coming up with his best ideas. And he knew that his life was here. He was challenged, motivated, had great friends, and hobbies, and felt energized by the city.  As much as he loved and missed Wild Pronghorn Ranch, he couldn’t imagine himself living back on the farm. Patrick was happy in the city that was once referred to as “The Crossroads Of The West.” And, it was almost by accident that he started gardening.


He found himself, without planning it, at a nursery midway through one of his after-work runs. It was an impulsive move, which was a foreign action to our hero, but he bought a handful of seed packets, stuffed them into his pockets, and ran home. And that was the beginning of what Patrick would describe as his amateur obsession with horticulture. 


It started innocuously enough, a few small pots above the kitchen sink on the windowsill. Then the windowsill wasn’t enough and a half dozen made it outside. A year later, because Patrick had both a mind and a body that didn’t like to stop moving, there was a fully functioning greenhouse in their small, fenced-in backyard, and by the end of the following summer, Patrick and Brie didn’t have to stop in the produce section of their local Kroger at all, because they grew enough fruits and vegetables to feed almost all of their growing family. Everyone that is, except for Patrick Jr who somehow managed to exist off of basically peanut butter and sunshine. It wasn’t just that Patrick enjoyed his new hobby, it was the fact that not only did he go all-in, but he clearly had that aforementioned ‘green thumb.’


On mile four of his six-mile jog along the Great Salt Lake, he saw himself focusing on one overgrown weed patch after another. Yeah, sure, these were wild(ish) parts of the city, but they looked so forlorn, so uninviting. He noticed the same issue next to the sidewalks on his jog back home and into his own neighborhood. What Patrick did next was not a meticulously thought-out plan. It was more than an afterthought. He didn’t even fully realize what he was doing until he was already doing it. But after the first time, he did it on every run- rain, shine, sleet, or even when the Utah Jazz finally made it to the Playoffs and the rest of his friends were at the sports bar watching the game. So, what was he doing? He was planting seeds.


Before he left on his evening jog, after Patrick laced up his Brooks running shoes, he would fill his shorts pockets with whatever seeds he had in the greenhouse. Daylilies, Peonies, Zinnias, and then random mixes of wildflowers and vegetable seeds. Patrick didn’t care how many of them would take root, he simply knew that tossing seeds across the ground would make his beautiful state even more so. While he ran and daydreamed, he imagined beds of flowers popping up where there had once only been neglected earth, dirt, and weeds. He imagined a kid running home from a day at the park and stumbling across a vine of cucumbers or wild raspberries and being inspired to grow their own. Or, at least, take an extra second to appreciate the beauty and necromancy of the natural world. 


It’s hard out there for everyone. And so much of life doesn’t make sense.  If you can find understanding and purpose by placing your warm hands into cold earth and willing forth life from nothing more than an apple seed, then, yes, you’ve figured out something special about human existence.  We imagine this is how real gardeners feel. Making something beautiful and nourishing out of something that looks like nothing more than a lumpy piece of dirt to the untrained eye.


This vision gave Patrick a jolt. It was almost like electricity. He briefly glanced up to the grey sky to see if he’d missed some lightning. But, no, instead, he’d been struck by inspiration.


The fences and yards and crosswalks passed by quickly as Patrick’s pace almost doubled, getting him back to his living room much sooner than Brie had anticipated.


“I have to make a video!” he called as he ran through the side door. And, make a video he did. Patrick actually made lots of videos after that. He videotaped himself teaching how to cross-pollinate, how to pick berries, and how to water daffodils. He made videos about which kind of fertilizer worked best for which plants. He created a time-lapse video of a pumpkin sprouting from the vine, and he made many, many videos about his mission to spread and plant flowers and vegetables in all the unused and overgrown spaces in the city. 


And then, something happened. And, this thing that happened? It was (and is) many, many people’s dream. Some work for years in the hopes that this happens to them. Some put themselves in insane situations. Some pay astronomical amounts of money or attempt death-defying or not-defying feats. Because that’s how big a deal this is. We’re talking, about going viral. That’s how huge it can be for a person’s life or career, for hundreds of thousands if not millions of people to see the images that you’re putting out into the world. But, that’s not what happened to our hero. For Patrick, you see, it had the opposite effect.


Because as thousands (yes, you read that right, THOUSANDS) of people commented on his TikTok, there was a common theme: that what Patrick had been so selflessly doing was actually spreading invasive species around the greater Salt Lake Area. Patrick had slept soundly the night before, like he always did after a ten-mile run, and hadn’t seen the steady stream of lights blowing up his iPhone on the nightstand next to his pillow. He hadn’t even noticed the notifications while getting dressed or putting breakfast on the table, or responding to two work emails. It wasn’t until he was showered, organized, sitting in front of his computer on the top floor of his office, drinking a large protein shake, that he saw the number next to the app. He took a triple-take. It didn’t take him long to deeply regret reading the comments.


People were mad. Like, really, really mad. And, Patrick himself, was utterly speechless. How could something so sweet, so good-natured, so, so SO good-intentioned, make people this angry? He was in utter shock and disbelief as he scrolled deeper and deeper into the rabid commenters, some so clearly out for blood. His mind was blown. He didn’t even hear his colleague come in to discuss an upcoming meeting.


You have to put this away, Patrick told himself,  You can deal with this later. He took a deep but stilted breath,  trying to slow down his now erratic heartbeat. He attempted to talk himself down.


 People are mean on the internet. And you know about plants, most of them don’t.


This craziness will be there for you later,  he tried to tell himself as he turned the phone on silent before throwing it into his desk drawer as if it were full-on radioactive. And that mantra worked for the moment. Patrick shut out the cacophony of keyboard warriors and focused on his job. An hour went by and nothing bad happened. He read reports, did his usual calculations, and corresponded with clients. It was a mostly normal morning. That is, until, Mr. Franklin C. Harris, the CEO of the insurance company, knocked on Patrick’s door.


Patrick looked up from his spreadsheet, surprised to see the big boss standing at the entrance to his small office.


“Mr. Harris, hello.” Franklin C. Harris was not a man who had any interest in small talk.


“What did you do?” he demanded in a not-exactly warm or fuzzy tone. Patrick felt his stomach drop. What did he do? He always double, if not triple-checked his work. He took his responsibilities at the firm very, very seriously. Did he press the wrong button? Change a name? Oh no, did he miss a decimal point?


“There are some guys here to see you. They say it’s not about your job. But,” Franklin C. Harris drummed his sausage-like fingers on the doorframe, “this isn’t a good look for the company.”


Patrick stood up quickly, slamming his knees into his lacquer-coated desk.


“Ow!” 


“Alright boys,” Franklin C. Harris turned over his left shoulder, “you can come on in,” he looked back at Patrick, “Do you need a lawyer?”


Patrick froze, rendered momentarily speechless. What was going on? Who were the boys his boss was growling at? Was he going to be arrested? Sent to prison? How would Brie manage with the kids? Patrick's mind raced faster than light hits the Earth, landing on not a single thought that made a shred of sense. And it certainly wasn’t faster than the three men in uniform who joined the CEO at his door. They looked angry, serious, and also like they had just polished the pins on their button-down shirts that read: Utah Deptment Of Agriculture.


Wait— What??


“Patrick Shlessinger?” The tallest of the trio stepped forward, holding a two-inch thick folder with his name on it.


Patrick couldn’t find any air in the room even though his logical brain knew that there had to be some. Air doesn’t just disappear. And, besides, there were plants in his office. There were  Christmas cacti and Ficus trees and a wild aloe plant that was threatening to take over the East window (and biggest window) of the office. Since plants create fresh oxygen, a small piece of Patrick’s anxiety was assuaged.


“Is this you?” the tallest of the Trio, yet again demanded, holding an 8x10 piece of paper in his right hand. Patrick saw the printout. It was a screenshot of his latest TikTok video. Yeah, the one that went viral. Patrick wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the entire situation. But when he saw that the two smaller officers wore very shiny handguns on their very prominent holsters, he demurred and figured that he should take this moment as seriously as the people who brought the firearms to this ‘meeting’ were.


“Sit down,” instructed the female officer. She was not going to go easy on him just because he was, well, not a criminal. 


Patrick sat back down. It was only then that he’d realized he’d been half-standing, half-sitting, just kind of awkwardly hunched over in some kind of posture purgatory, compelling his already tired quads to shake.  


So he sat, banging his knees again on that stupid desk.


The two-inch file folder was opened. Papers were laid across his desk. Again, Patrick tried not to laugh. Because these were all print-outs of his social media post. And all his social media posts were videos. So…. these still images of his short films were meant to convey….?


His thoughts were interrupted by the taller of the trio.


“We haven’t had this many calls come into the station since, well, never mind, that’s not your concern.”


Patrick tried to reposition himself in his chair but that felt close to impossible as he had effectively sweat-through every fiber of his suit. Even his tie looked like it was getting darker by the minute.


For the next hour, maybe two (who knows because it felt like ten,) poor Patrick was questioned, cross-examined, yelled at, and legitimately threatened. Of course, he agreed to stop spreading seeds. Of course, they couldn’t know for possibly years if he’d incurred any real, meaningful crime to the local environment. But, it must have been a slow work day for the Department of Agriculture. Or those phone calls had really gotten under their skin. By the time the three left the office, Patrick felt like nothing more than a seed coat crushed under a farmer’s heel. But, he got to leave to go home on his own volition. There was no warrant out for his arrest, at least not in the court of law. The social media justice system and the internet, well, that was a whole other ballgame.


The next morning, for the first time in his entire career, Patrick couldn’t get out of bed. Brie was worried.


“I’ve never seen you like this,” she told her husband and she placed the back of her hand on his forehead to check his temperature.


“I’m so embarrassed,” Patrick began, “what a just- well - what a dumb mistake. I feel like I can’t face anyone.”


Brie felt herself melt. Here was the man whom she loved so dearly, who had been on a mission to do something so genuinely good, and yeah, it had totally backfired. But Brie was a problem-solver by trade and a mother at heart. So, her advice was obvious, to her.


“So, you have to apologize,”  she said softly, gently tilting her head to one side.


“To whom?” Patrick grumbled through his pillow. “The department of agriculture? I don't think they want an apology.”


“No,” Brie smoothed out the bedsheet, “to the internet.” Then she got up and went about doing the ten thousand things that she did every day.


Patrick tossed and turned and sweated through short nightmares. Around noon, he finally dragged himself out of bed for a run.


And his brain betrayed him. Because, the harder he tried not to think about his present situation, the harder his brain pushed back, yearning to explain itself. Patrick stopped at the lake, crouched down, put his hands on his knees, and tried to catch his breath. He’d run much faster than usual. 


He heard Brie’s voice in his head. Fine, he said to himself, yes, of course I can apologize.


The mid-day sun reflecting on the water gave him a slight sense of calm. The birds chirping away in the trees and the wind rustling through the leaves made him feel, as if momentarily, and hey, sure, maybe in a totally silly and ridiculous way, that Miss Mother Nature was on his side. That thought emboldened him. So, apologize, he did.


He made another video explaining himself and his intentions to the people of TikTok, Instagram, The Department of Agriculture, and, by default, to the internet at large. And it worked, sort of. He was forgiven by many. It wasn’t easy. Because we all make mistakes. We all screw up. But, if you’re luckier than Patrick, a zillion people don’t witness it.



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