No Place Like Home

by Maria Theresa Maggi on April 13, 2016

cob bench gatheringcob bench and roofcob bench service friendship

From the time I was a little girl, the plants and trees growing around my house have always been a part of what makes my house feel like home. In my childhood, it was my father’s pomegranate tree outside my bedroom window, and the specially grafted fruit tree in our backyard, lovingly created by Mr. Scoccia, on old Italian distant relative. It was a cherry plum tree that also grew larger plums, cherries and a few nectarines. It seemed like magic in my own backyard.

Later it was the Japanese maple my parents put in after an addition and when I was a teenager I would come home from school early on Fridays to tend my own strawberries and daisies planted in a corner designated for me. In each house I’ve owned, the garden in summer is truly like another “room” for me–a place to commune, rest, fret, laugh and hopefully reap the benefits of the harvest–and share it with a bunny or two and a few goldfinches.

So it’s not at all surprising to me that when I accepted the fact that I needed a smaller place to take care of, my heart instantly warmed to my condo when I saw the lovely little patio, beautifully landscaped with a weeping pine in a stone grotto, a huge honeysuckle vine crawling up the fence, and other treats like ground cover in the cracks between the pavement stones and a beautiful plant I would learn was called a hellebore, or lenten rose.

Even though there didn’t seem to be much room for vegetables, I insisted my tomato plants make the trip to Portland in a big pot, along with a portulaca I especially loved. I’m happy to report that in November I harvested 8 tomatoes, and the portulaca, even though it’s supposed to be annual, at least in Idaho, is “miraculously” coming back.

During escrow, I was overjoyed to tears one morning when I decided to walk over to look at the outside of the place I had made an offer on, and on the way home “accidentally” discovered the little haven known as The Emerson Street Garden. I was on the opposite side of the street from it, but something unspoken told me to cross just then, even though I didn’t need to. I opened the lovely little gate, and fell in love instantly. I took it as a sign that I could indeed live peacefully and happily in my new neighborhood.

It wasn’t that the garden was in tip top shape. As a soil reclamation project, it was still a work in progress. But someone was definitely tending the raised beds and writing colorful messages on the chalkboard, inviting neighbors to get involved. I attended a garden party there about a week after I moved in to my new place, and it’s there that I met some of the people who became my newest friends.

But after that summer party, the organization facilitating the maintenance of the garden went through a lot of changes in staff and budgeting and once the paths were cleared and the back soil was remediated, no one came around to organize or help with heavy labor. My neighbor and I each continued to stop by separately, and by good fortune we met each other one morning and discovered that we were neighbors. We spent the late fall and early winter and then early spring hearing about possible meetings or work parties that never came to be or got canceled at the last minute.

Grass has grown up high around the raised beds and the tomatoes, collards and greens were left to go to seed. I picked greens all winter off and on, and there’s still some, though the plants are now bolting in earnest. I bought a few small herb starts for the new herb spiral an intern built last summer before returning to college in the midwest–chocolate mint, lemon thyme, flat leaf parsley and marjarom–and I’ve made it my “job” to check on the spiral from time to time and do as much paramedic weeding as I can to keep the plants recognizable. On Martin Luther King’s birthday, my neighbor asked me to help her repaint the words of Martin Luther King near the garden gate that read “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” When Spring came, I bought a pansy for the small planter next to these words, and when I walk by I deadhead the spent blossoms or try to find something to water it with if it’s getting too dry.

But although some other neighbors have asked what’s going on, by and large the garden is empty of regular human visitors except for my neighbor and me. At least until about a couple of weeks ago. Romeo and I stopped in to weed the herb spiral and inside the small makeshift greenhouse where no one is starting plants I noticed a bundle of blankets. i wondered to myself if anyone was sleeping there, but I didn’t see anyone.

A few days later my neighbor told me she had been to the garden early in the morning and discovered a young man asleep on the cob bench you see in the photo at the top of this post. She said he simply lifted his head up to look at her for a moment, then put it down and went back to sleep. She wasn’t comfortable with his presence, so she left, and wasn’t sure she wanted to return. I stopped by myself one afternoon but as Romeo and I entered I saw there was someone back at the shelter. I asked if he was working in the garden. He said no, he was picking up trash. I asked if he lived in the neighborhood. No answer. So I left.

Hoping to rouse interest in the issue and find out if a work party was a possibility I messaged the people again at the non-profit that had created the garden. The next week my neighbor went by the garden to find a volunteer from groundwork Portland cleaning out the shed and planning activities for April, though he put no dates on the board for when these things would be happening.  I was so encouraged by this, I decided to stop by later that afternoon myself.

My neighbor had also found the blankets, and hoped to discourage the “camper” by leaving his blankets on the ground outside of the greenhouse.

Although I genuinely laughed at her pique, privately I wasn’t so sure it was the best tactic, or that it would even work. It turned out I was right. That late afternoon, Romeo and I walked by, and I determined I would go in and see what kind of work schedule had been written on the board. Since there is a large fig tree at the front entrance to the garden, and further down the midline of sight, a large raspberry patch, it’s nearly impossible to see the covered cob bench until you’re well into the garden.

As I walked around the raspberries I saw there was a young man settling himself in on the cob bench with his damp blankets, about to eat a red delicious apple. He had the same hat on as the guy I had spoken to from the gate a few days ago, and he gave me a sleepy look. I said hello, and so did he.

I told him I had come to see the work schedule posted on the white board just beyond the shelter. I told him people were planning on coming to work in the garden and that they probably wouldn’t let him keep staying there. I asked him if he liked to garden and invited him to come help us.

He was young. Maybe 20, but maybe younger, and certainly not over 25. As I turned to leave, I thought to introduce myself.

“My name’s Maria,” I said. “And this is Romeo. What’s yours?”

It had been raining a little and the wind was kicking up so I had this ridiculous safari type visor hat on under the hood of my rain slicker. When he answered me I couldn’t hear him properly. I asked him again and the same thing happened.

Frustrated, I made a face and a remark about having too many things covering my ears as I peeled them off, and that made him smile.

“Jeremiah.” he said.

“Nice to meet you,” I said. “I hope you’ll come back and help us with the garden.”

As Romeo and I walked on for a few blocks, the thought came to me that if I didn’t have a place to sleep or a roof over my head, I’d sure like to sleep on a bench that has things like “friendship” “peace” “support” “gathering”  and “rest” written all over it, in the middle of an overgrown garden.  At least if I knew where it was I would. And that made my heart go out to this young man, who wasn’t high on meth, who wasn’t drinking whiskey out of the bottle, who treated me with respect, and was even sheepishly afraid I was going to somehow cast him out that very minute.

I couldn’t shake the feeling, either, that he somehow looked familiar. Later that evening, the association I was making hit me: back in November, at the same time of day during our late afternoon walk, Romeo and I had come to the garden, and found 3 young people there, sitting on the cob bench and talking about the garden: two young men and a young woman. One young man, I’ll call him Adam, had been involved in the garden a few years ago and was extemporizing to the other two about what a great place it was and how much he had loved his time of involvement here. The young woman seemed to be a friend of his and joined in our conversation about the future of the garden, since I invited them to come back and help us out once things were organized (ever hopeful am I about this coming to fruition).

But the other young man was quiet, listened and watched us with silent eyes. Adam introduced him as his brother, and when we shook hands and said hello was the only time he spoke. He was a light skinned African American young man with dreamy blue eyes. His name was something biblical that started with a J. Could it have been Jeremiah? Could this be the same young man I had met in November? If so, he knew the garden was there, tucked in off the street, a safe place to crash and not be bothered. My heart went out to him. And as crazy of a long shot as it might be, I found his articulate brother’s e-mail and wrote to him, just in case it was indeed, his brother.

I don’t expect to hear back. And there are lots of other reasons someone who reminds me of that young man I met briefly could be there: a medical marijuana facility just a block away, a history with the neighborhood, good luck, or even happenstance.

In the meantime, Groundwork Portland has posted a preliminary sign listing The Emerson Street Garden Rules. This replaces a handmade notice my neighbor put up that said “No Camping–thank you, The Management,” which I loved her for thinking to write. Among the garden rules is, of course, no camping, with the added force of saying if it is reported the police station down the street will make extra patrols.

I am glad that Groundwork has begun again to help us clear the space for its intended purpose–to be a garden the neighborhood can share where people feel safe to gather and grow plants, but can also be assured there will be no camping, drinking, smoking, dumping litter, etc. Yet I can’t help but wonder where the young man with the name of the prophet Jeremiah has gone to. I’m no biblical scholar, but I did read that when Jeremiah received the call to prophecy, he complained that he was only a child and did not know how to speak. God wasn’t having any of it, and simply told him to get himself ready.

The Jeremiah I met in the Emerson Street Garden this month, and possibly back in November, was also a  youth with few words. But his power to remind me we all need to belong, to have a safe place to rest and restore ourselves, and to allow me to identify with him rather than shun him, seems a kind of prophetic gift by spontaneous example. We can keep telling people with no place to go to go elsewhere, but if we don’t try to help them find a good elsewhere, or at least have compassion that those elsewheres may be few and far between, then we need to keep being given the example again and again.

I like to imagine it was his brother I wrote to, and though he didn’t answer me, he went to find his brother and bring him home. Or that if he didn’t, that Jeremiah finds another safe place to rest even sweeter, and also warmer, than that sweet little garden. My wishes for him, and for us, are many: that he comes back, to help us, and the garden, grow; that some day we all learn the deeper meaning of the word “service” together; and that when we all get frustrated with the behavior of those we don’t understand, or who get in the way, that we also remember to do our best, however imperfectly, to live by the words of the modern day prophet Martin Luther King–the ones my neighbor and I repainted on the garden wall.


Maria (moonwatcher)


Leave a Comment

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Colleen April 14, 2016 at 9:42 am

Beautiful. My dissertation was on homelessness care and amelioration, and as it was qualitative I have several friends who do this work. I serve on the finance committee of an organization that works with young people in exactly the age range of this young man. If we lived in the same town I could have helped you find him a place that was safe and warm and dry. I am posting this on four pages. One of my friends works with families and three work with young people. Your writing will be part of how we access the heart of people to help. Bless you.


2 Maria Theresa Maggi April 14, 2016 at 10:53 am

Thank you, Colleen. YOUR beautiful comment and the work you do brought tears to my eyes. There is so much to learn, to do. I am so humbled and honored that my writing can help with this issue in any small way. Thanks for sharing it with others who do your good work. You truly made my day. Bless you back.


3 Veronica April 15, 2016 at 3:38 pm

A very touching post, Maria. And a good reminder that people are still people- regardless of their current life situation. Compassion can go a long way.
I hope your neighborhood garden becomes a wonderful place for growing things – flowers, fruits, vegetables, friendships… Nature has a funny way of calming the soul, and connecting us to others.


4 Maria Theresa Maggi April 15, 2016 at 4:25 pm

Thank you, Veronica–me too!! 🙂 Here’s to calming the soul while in the garden. xo


5 Lee April 21, 2016 at 3:38 am

Hi Maria, what a lovely post. I hope Jeremiah did indeed find a place equally welcoming to rest, or better yet, that he has found a roof to cover his head. Maybe, better yet, the person you wrote to was his brother.

Regardless, I’m glad you’ve found a garden space to tend–it’s one of life’s greatest pleasures, I agree!


6 Maria Theresa Maggi April 21, 2016 at 8:41 am

Thank you Lee! Here’s to the healing power of a garden. .:)


7 Gena April 24, 2016 at 3:48 am

Hi Maria,

I am so struck by this line,

“We can keep telling people with no place to go to go elsewhere, but if we don’t try to help them find a good elsewhere, or at least have compassion that those elsewheres may be few and far between, then we need to keep being given the example again and again.”

There’s so much packed into this statement, and all I can say is that I wis that more people everywhere could summon up this kind of compassion, this understanding that living in a society means agreeing to look after one another.

This is a beautiful post, and I love how theme of putting down roots is juxtaposed with Jeremiah’s hunt for a place to rest. Thank you!



8 Maria Theresa Maggi April 24, 2016 at 8:34 am

Thank you so much, Gena, for your notice of that particular sentence and your gracious reading of this post, which is one very close to my heart. I love, too, that you called Jeremiah by name in your comment. Although I haven’t run into him again, I did hear that he’s been back from time to time without stashing his blankets, and that for the most part, no one is minding unless there is a problem with trash or human waste. I also learned that Groundwork Portland has a non-profit to hook him up with if they see him. So for now, things are gentle, with those that stop by and those that may to need to rest for a while. That’s still very ephemeral at best, gentle though it may be, and my wishes stand. xoxo


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