Mary Lou Sanelli
Mary Lou Sanelli

Even if I consider picking dead leaves off potted succulents “gardening” these days, I have a friend who does not.

“Succulents hardly qualify,” she says. “They need no maintenance whatsoever.”

To which I reply, “Exactly.” 

She is one of my friends, and I have a few, who has sizable grounds and likes to tease me about calling my tiny balcony a garden. To her, a huge house and garden means she has arrived. But I am lost in all that space.

“Like plants,” I say, “we tend to gravitate toward people who don’t give us a hard time.”

She frowns, but her eyes smile. The first time I noticed this smile, it filled my appreciation with warm air. It has moved us along ever since.

She came by to drive me, along with three others, up to Skagit Valley, and every one of us is excited. Just the thought of traveling to farm country cancels every guilty thought I have about playing hooky on a weekday. 

Sometimes I wonder how such guilt is even possible.

“We’re ahead of the tulips,” she says. “So we’ll be anticipating the color.”

I love the idea of imagining a valley full of red and yellow, of walking through fields far from anyone, mask-less, not to mention how five of us will fit into a Mazda2. 

“You’re riding shotgun,” she says, and off we go. 

No sooner are we on the freeway when one of us lights up a little, as she put it, “non-habit-forming inducement.” 

“But you smoke that stuff every day,” I say.

“Your point being?” 

“No point.”

“It’s not like I’m addicted.”

Fortunately, we all laugh. None of us really wants to be reminded of ourselves; we simply want to be ourselves. We are middle-aged women, and thank goodness we have middle-aged acceptance of our vices. 

Of which there are a few. 

Farmland, now on both sides of the freeway, makes me remember a time, early into my marriage, when I planted a container of night blooming jasmine against my husband’s advice.

I thought that if I placed it close enough to the house, it would absorb the reflected heat and eventually trellis over the doorway.

“There are pictures,” I said, handing him a magazine. “Look.”

He thumbed through the pages, shaking his head. 

The next day I bought what he called my “potted pipe dream.” It lasted right up until our first freeze. Undaunted, I bought more and more plants, more and more seeds. Particularly, nasturtium seeds. I scattered them everywhere because this is how I like to spread seeds, a little recklessly. 

I think of that haphazard garden often. Really, the memory of living in that house is nothing without that garden.

I recall something else my husband said, how some women are turned on by strong abs, others by wealth and power, and others by flower seeds sold in small packets. 

It will never be even remotely possible that I don’t remember him saying that. 

I suppose I thought of my garden in the same way I thought of my marriage: In its possibility, I’d find protection. That garden was a metaphor for a lot of my hopes, hurts and disappointments at the time. But I hardly saw it like that. I was still so blasé about what nature has to teach us. 

We even believed that a sense of place might lie in that house. But we were sailors once — our first two homes were sailboats — and I think we were drawn to a floating lifestyle because we had always thought of home as something more fluid than four walls. After a while, the house began to feel like too heavy an anchor that tied us to something we no longer recognized as “us.” 

One last thought: Like my friends, gardening taught me a lot about acceptance. 

For instance, there is conceding acceptance, like when to listen to flower beds when they cry “let me be!” Livid acceptance when deer munch every seedling to the ground. And frustrated acceptance when tomatoes do a pretty good job of pretending they will ever ripen. Eventually came future acceptance when I had to leave that garden behind in order to dig into new possibilities.


There it is again. That word.

And why, in La Conner, I buy a succulent called, Moon Glow. The sign says the plant is well-suited for small spaces in that it likes to spread out but is not aggressive. 

I read that sign again and again.

And because I had been swept back in time for the last 40 minutes, I thought the best choice would be to choose the present. 

Where I am now.


— Mary Lou Sanelli, author, speaker and master dance teacher has written her column Falling Awake as part of The Queen Anne & Magnolia News since 2009. Her newest collection of essays, “Every Little Thing,” will be published in the fall of 2021. For more information, visit