I am growing a garden and I am growing a manuscript of poems. Both are ways to quiet the mind. This manuscript is a compilation of poems written over a period of about seven years. What can seven years of keeping a garden yield?
My hands break free the coarse, veined root bulb to make it a new home.
Virginia Woolf’s garden developed over fifty years—it was one of the biggest joys of her life.
This word home. A home provides safety.
Virginia said, being in the garden is “a dialogue of the soul with the soul”.
What does a soul say to itself?
The manuscript features poems about my experience as an anorexic. Which is to say, they are poems about my mind speaking through my body. My mind trying to find safety in my body?
Maybe a garden is itself a home.
One of the articles I read is by Virginia’s niece, Emma Woolf. She is a “recovered” anorexic and has written about her own struggle with the illness. The article focuses on how after coming across a photo of her Aunt Virginia, she clearly sees an image of an anorexic. After weighing various forms of evidence (her Uncle Leonard’s autobiography, Virginia’s journals, scholarly research…) she comes to an affirmative conclusion.
Anorexia is experienced though both the mind and the body. Yet, the bodily aspects are most always the focus because the mind can’t operate without the body. Or, because women are most often seen as bodies, their minds being un-seen all the time.
There was no formal diagnosis of Virginia’s anorexia because the illness was not yet known.
What if anorexia is an illness fueled by refusal? Not of food, really, but of a world that keeps reminding us that we are not seen or safe. Rather than acquiescence or a weakness, it is a woman crafting safety from within—or it is a woman in defiance saying before you can erase me, I will erase myself.
My garden is small. A few flowers and some herbs. But I get to know them—the shape and pelt of petals, the stubborn growth of cilantro, the soft sheen of the basil leaf.
Recovered is a contradiction in terms. It perpetuates the misunderstanding.
A home can grow within oneself.
Virginia did very little of the actual work in her garden. Her husband, Leonard, was the true gardener while she relished looking on it.
One of the poems in my manuscript is titled “Starving Girl”. It was my first attempt to write about my own experience being anorexic. Once, a writing instructor told me that starving was not really an accurate word because it made one think of a girl in a third world country. She used the word hyperbolic. The word you want is hungry, she said.
It’s not merely knowing that one is anorexic, that means something. It is the question that follows.
The why can hold so much that it can be too much to hold.
Anorexia is the mental illness with the highest mortality rate because of “the strain starvation puts on the heart and other major organs”.
A word can be a world. Or a way out of it.
At the end of the nineteenth century, mental illness in women was usually classified as hysteria or neurasthenia. Virginia was diagnosed with neurasthenia, the version of mental illness more often linked to those in the middle class with outstanding intellect. There’s an irony to this, of course—the smart woman’s mental illness. Women who partook in stimulating intellectual activities were considered mad.
Hunger leads one to eat, starvation leads one to death.
The standard cure for neurasthenia developed by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell included overfeeding and avoidance of intellectual stimuli. Two things that would have been terrifying to a woman who had anxiety over food and who relied on reading and writing to keep her brain feeling balanced. Like the original rest cure, it kept the smart, questioning, progressive women contained.
One can be mad about something, as in a desire.
Each time Virginia confronted this treatment, she acquiesced—not what one would expect from a woman like her, one who so rarely conformed. But, she wanted to return to writing, back to the garden.
The idea is a woman should not want.
This summer is also the summer I start taking medication for anxiety and depression. When a friend asks me how I knew I needed the medication, I can’t say. I do know that I feel like something is closing in. I also feel something else: I have no desire to eat.
“It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me.” – VW
The question my brain—my soul—keeps asking me is why does my mind keep breaking?
My poems have multiplied into a collection of interrogations of my mind and my illness.
Virginia collected words: “Words do not live in the dictionary, they live in the mind."
The mind holds.
I start collecting things—something about the process of it—acquiring and ordering. There is a calm that floats over me when my mind can grab onto objects.
I was conditioned to say “recovered” when it came to my own anorexia because my doctors repeated it over and over.
My brain contains a long corridor of doors.
Sometimes when I talk about my anorexia, I will say it saved me.
I have begun collecting antique silhouette portraits--the kind that have been hand cut from paper. There is something about the precision of them—the skill needed to cut a person’s likeness, free-hand. The exactness of this action—this art—feels familiar, comfortable. An opening in which one could slip through.
Virginia was said to be exceptionally sensitive to her own life but also to what was occurring in society and during her time.
My mind made its own garden.
Silhouettes were first known as shadow portraits because often the likeness was traced by candlelight. They were often love tokens or a way by which to remember a loved one. My silhouettes are all, in fact, strangers. My attachment to them is based on their intricacy, the way that each one is it’s only little world cut away from this one.
In a food log, I keep for months while I am in my “recovery”, I write down everything I put into my mouth and how I feel about it. When I read it over again, I am struck by how often I wrote “I feel afraid”. Pizza—fear. Apple—fear. Cereal—fear. The concrete creates a certain clarity.
A space of safety cut from black paper.
“The very practice of Virginia’s art required her to adopt a position as a critic and outsider, even as ‘mad’, if the society she criticized defined its particular prejudices as ‘sane’.”
These 10-15 silhouettes curated on one wall are a project in themselves. Their ordering brings me order, my mind rests on each one. My sister says it's odd to have a bunch of “strangers” hanging over me. I find it comforting, the way I have brought them together to fill a space, both one inside and outside of myself.
It is a misconception that anorexia is about fear of food. Like a balloon, fear floats in some
ominous way unless it’s tied down. Food is something to tie it to, something to name.
A collection creates order, it is a naming of sorts.
Melissa tells me about a girl not much older than us who was attacked in the aqueduct behind her apartment. We are 8. We had played in that aqueduct various times and it had never occurred to me that we were in danger. Among the broken bottles and overgrown grass, something is spreading in my mind, a hollow ache. The hollow ache spreading farther—still wider. There in the grass, a sadness, more so a loss.
My brain forms such a large hook for fear.
Lisa Steinberg’s face on the TV. A child hurt to the point of death. Her brown eyes and freckled cheeks, beaten and killed.
A hook that holds and holds.
I retreat into books, into music played over and over on my record player, into the careful cutting of paper dolls, into my growing collection of porcelain babies. The making of an escape plan, a door that releases me to another place.
When I visit Lancaster, PA, I decide that I will become Amish. Just like that, a new escape plan is formed. At 10, I am so serious that I start “researching” their way of life and how I might be let in. I also begin writing a story about a friendship formed between two young girls: one Amish and one not, because for me reality can grow from books, rather than the other way around.
At fifteen, Virginia’s journals record some of the outside world in London. She describes it as “full of danger, mirroring her own vivid sense of the precariousness of life”. There were numbers of carriage accidents and people injured or killed as a result. Later, her journal would reflect the fear she felt over World War II.
On the landing of the attic stairs, there is a small alcove, just big enough for a girl like me and my treasures. At 6, 7, 8 years old I set up the space to suit my needs. Often a blanket and pillows, my dolls and books. A flashlight to read by. It’s a space carved out of the stairs--sometimes the way to leave the world is to make another.
Virginia retreated into a small garden shed away from the main house. She moved it farther out into the orchard and would call it the writing lodge because she would sleep there in in addition to writing there.
Trapdoors can be both a way to enter and exit. Most times, they are a surprise—no one sees them flush to the floor. For me, as a girl, they are a plan hatched—my own trick. The way a magician makes magic out of vanishing.
In my girlhood, I create games with paper people. I cut them and rooms and objects out of catalogues and magazines. I know what they will do and what their paper world will be.
My trap doors are a way to say no.
“Our garden is a perfect variegated chintz: asters, plumasters, zinnias, geums, nasturtiums and so on: all bright, cut from colored papers, stiff, upstanding as flowers should be.” -VW
Perhaps trap doors can be cut out. A space made from paper, a place held flat and unchanging.
After reading one of my poems, a well-known poet said, “do you know how many poems I’ve read about woman wanting to make themselves smaller?” A beat later, she instructed me to write a happy poem. It’s so simple, she said, try it now.
My garden blooms slow, a pulse of purple aster, some yellow peony. Careful, the flowers take their time testing the landscape, trusting the earth.
Anorexia often disgusts because it reads (as in the body) as a subtraction, a lessening, a powerlessness.
The true text of anorexia is written in the mind. Virginia said her mind was a machine.
Virginia’s diary reflects so many moments of appreciation for the space of the garden.
It is a space of tending and creating, …curating beauty and safety. She describes “a blaze of dahlias”, “a forest pf zinnias”. For her, the garden was powerful and alive.