On the Path of Life
It was an ordinary path: pavers on top of coarse sand, a nice basket weave pattern, edged by other, longer stones. The gray stones mirrored the sky, on this cold day, hardly noticeable to most everyone using it on the breaks between classes.
He’d wanted to do something special, and bring some beauty into this utilitarian place, adding his own special touch.
We found some thyme plants in an herb bed. They’d done well this past year, and the little rooted new plants in that tangle of pungent leaves and stems came out of the dirt easily. Today, his idea was happening; it was time to start.
He told me what he wanted, a little plant in each sandy triangle, where the pavers came to the edge of the path.
“Don’t we need more dirt?” he asked.
I didn’t think so. Thyme grew well in harsh conditions, and the roots still had soil attached, the sand along the path wasn’t’ very deep, and was laid on top of the dirt of the old lawn, before it became a path.
“It’s tough stuff, grown from hardy plants which can survive summer heat, drought, and getting stepped on,” I said. “Just like you.”
He grinned and nodded.
We had talked about his life, the chaos before he came here, how he endured fists and drunken rages, his soul battered by neglect and abuse, how he learned to hurt others, and ended up here.
“I’m doing great here,” he told me. “Best place I’ve ever been.”
This is prison, I thought. There’s a tall fence, with barbed wire, not a hundred feet away. Guards roam and surveillance cameras look down on our path, where we’re setting in our little thyme plants, giving them and the young men here a fresh start in what looks like a tough place to grow.
He nodded at me, looking deep into my eyes.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “Me saying prison is the best place I’ve lived.”
“But, you know, this is the first place I’ve felt safe, where I’ve been able to go to school every day, and get some good help on growing up, becoming a man,” he said.
There had been a neighbor, and a kind teacher in his life, people who’d taken an interest in him, feeding him dinner and giving him a couch to spend the night on when things at home got crazier than usual.
“They gave me hope,” he said. “A sense of feeling that I was worth something, that I could change my life, if I wanted to.”
He’d never forgotten them, and the idea that he was, deep down, a good guy, someone who could move ahead and be someone who was decent and kind.
We kept planting the little plants, each of us taking an edge of the path, working our way down to the other end, side by side.
The late winter sun took the chill out of the air, and we paused to take off our sweatshirts. A few drops of sweat ran down our faces, and we laughed about working up a sweat on this February day.
“It feels good to laugh,” he said.
I agreed, telling him I was admiring his project, that we were making the pathway a refuge from the daily routine.
“The rest of the guys, they’ll enjoy the path more,” I said. “They’ll notice the plants and smell the thyme, and they’ll have a moment of beauty in their lives as they walk along here.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’d thought about that, when I came up with this idea, and ran it by the garden teacher. She thought it was a great idea.”
“Even if the guys don’t say something about the path, it will still be part of their lives, part of their experience here,” he said.
This path, and the beauty he’s creating here, will also be part of his life, I told him. He was making a difference, changing lives, and teaching people about love.
We’d come to the end of the path, and paused, letting our muscles stretch and the sweat on our faces dry. We stood up, looking back, taking in all the new plants, and how the path looked different now, with its new design of green among the pavers, the faint smell of thyme fresh in my nose.
“You are a creator, making this corner of the world just a little better place to live and grow in,” I said.
“Thanks for doing this, for being an artist and brightening up this path for everyone,” I said.
“Thanks for helping out,” he said. “And for being a friend.”
He got quiet, looking down at the path, and the work we’d done this morning.
“It’s everything I’d hoped for,” he said.
—Neal Lemery 2/23/2016