I had the pleasure of meeting Margaret Roach at an event in New York right around the time I was struggling with my decision on whether or not I should stay in the city or leave with the hopes of further pursing Chapter Be. I was drawn to her story not only because she made the decision to leave a “successful” career at Martha Stewart in order to further pursue her passion for gardening, but also because she openly spoke about her decision to leave the city lights for a quiet rural life (this is what her whole second book, And I Shall Have Some Peace There, is all about). That decision isn’t always an easy one to make, so I was very curious to learn more about her process of getting to that decision. I was honored when she graciously agreed to talk with me further for this interview.
Margaret has been writing about gardening for 25+ years, but before she committed full-time to her 2.3-acre garden, which borders the Berkshires of Massachusetts, she was the garden editor at Newsday newspaper and then the first garden editor of for Martha Stewart Living. She eventually became the head of the Internet-Direct Commerce division, managing the birth of marthastewart.com, and after that editorial director of MSL’s magazines, books and Internet. But she felt unfulfilled and on the last day of 2007, she “walked away from [this] career and ‘success’ to explore personal creativity again.” She moved upstate in an effort to “lead a more authentic life by connecting with her garden and nature.”
She has authored three books, A Way to Garden (1998), And I Shall Have Some Peace There (2011) and The Backyard Parables: Lessons on Gardening, and Life (2013), currently writes on her blog where you can get everything from sage gardening advice to wonderful garden recipes, and has a weekly podcast, A Way to Garden with Margaret Roach. Margaret is clear on the fact that gardening is not her hobby, but her “spiritual practice and life partner.” She also opens her garden for tours as part of the national Garden Conservancy Open Days and for various other events.
Margaret’s Chapter Be story isn’t one of a drastic career change – but of a drastic life change with a true mission to be. The life-learnings that she has gleaned from her experience are wise, thoughtful and definitely worth a read…
Can you talk a little bit about your path into gardening? I know you didn’t start gardening seriously until your early 20’s – why did you start and how did you eventually turn that interest into a career?
I really started gardening as self-assigned occupational therapy when I was in a tough situation. My mother became ill when I was in my early to mid 20’s and she was a widow already. She became ill with early-onset Alzheimer’s in her late 40’s so I was called home by my sister (who is the only other relative) to really help figure out what was wrong and what we would do about it. In the process of that investigation and journey, I ended up living in my childhood home for about 5 years again throughout the second half of my 20’s and working at night at the New York Times. I was stuck around the house by my responsibilities there during the daytime. I thought, what am I going to do? Sit around the apartment all day every day and read books and watch TV? I thought that I had to do something. So, when there was fair weather I started this semi-consciously. It wasn’t like I thought, “Ok, I’m going to become a gardener now.” I just started doing things like ordering some flower bulbs and sticking them in the ground one Fall and then cutting down an old shrub that looked really sorry by looking it up in a book and seeing what you were supposed to do. Those experiments became the occupational therapy.
I was working in journalism in the New York Times at night and gradually I realized that I would want to some day fuse the personal interest that was developing for gardening with the professional expertise that was developing in journalism. Over a number of years then I began to realize, semi-consciously, that I wanted to do feature stuff and specifically to use my growing interest in gardening and horticulture. At the New York Times there wasn’t going to be an opening in that area but in Newsday (a newspaper that was not so far away) there was an opening for a feature thing and I ended up going there. Within the Newsday staff network I ended up moving into the garden writing job. So, I became a gardener for occupational therapy, I was growing in my journalism career at the same time, and I connected the dots in my own head semi-consciously that I wanted to do my journalism about stuff that I was interested in as opposed to my prior working on the sports desk, the finance desk, the photo desk. When you are there in the beginning you work on every job. None of those really were the thing for me. I didn’t really want to be a politics person or a science person or whatever. The Newsday opportunity allowed me to get into the feature thing and into the right general area and then, eventually, into an actual garden job.
You took a career that you were interested in and made it your own. You are a self-taught gardener who learned so much just through playing and experimentation. Was that something that had power for you or is it something you just did without thinking about it?
For me it really was more than just playing. It was the fusion of journalism and my personal interest that was kind of developing concurrently and then taking my evolving skills in journalism about researching and writing and applying them to my personal interest in plants, gardening, and horticulture. What happened is that I started acting like a journalist when I thought about my hobby. I started asking questions like when I thought about growing pumpkins I wondered how many pumpkins there are, how long pumpkins have been grown, whatever. I would think of it almost like a feature story. I’d have a million questions of who, what, when, where, and why.
Then at Newsday (even before I had that specific job) I would ask if I could contribute an extra story. I’d tell them I was really interested in pumpkins and wanted to interview a guy I had been buying seeds from and would they be interested in a feature story? So, I took my journalistic skills (I didn’t know anything about the different botanical taxonomy of pumpkins or the history of pumpkins or whatever) and called up the guy, interviewed him and did a story. It was the fusion of those two things, the passion and the professional skills that were evolving, that made me a self-taught gardener. I definitely think that the background skills that you have to have for non-fiction writing – the research, the interviews – is the stuff that helped me become a better gardener. If I had to do a front-page story about it for the New York Times tomorrow, then I had to find out that much good stuff. That is how I approached everything.
I think you can apply that to so many different things in your life. In your case it was gardening but how do we become journalists of our own life? How do we ask those questions and how do we find the right people to get the answers to help us move forward? I think it’s a really beautiful way of approaching something that we want.
My ex-boss, Martha Stewart, had a personal mantra that became a company mantra which was, “Learn something new every day.” That really speaks to the same thing. It is the curiosity. You are not going to be a journalist if you are not curious because you won’t like to ask a lot of questions. The way I garden is not so much like outdoor decorating and it’s not so visually driven as it is curiosity driven and science driven and the “why” part of the equation. I am endlessly fascinated by the botanical relationships between plants, and between plants and insects. So, for me, a lot of what I grow has to do with something other than, “Oh, that’s pretty.” Again, this curiosity thing – my garden is very different from many of my friends who are driven by different curiosities of their own. Mine has a strong science nature like animal, bird, insect, etc. – that is what got me more excited than just seeing pretty petunias and wanting to put them in pots to have a pretty patio full of Petunias. That was never what interested me.
The garden is attractive but it has this other layer. That was my thing, and I think that a good investigator, reporter, researcher has a particular type of curiosity. Some food editors that I know and have worked with know more about the science or the chemistry of food. Some just know instinctively and sensually what is good and they cook from that and create recipes from that. Some do it intellectually because they know both sides. People have strengths.
That is a beautiful analogy to human beings. The way we approach our garden or the way we approach cooking is a mirror to the fact that everyone approaches life a little bit differently. We need to allow that space for people to approach things in whatever works best for them.
Everyone has to earn money, unless they were an heiress or something. People have to survive and so they have this practical economical equation that guides 40 hours or more of their week throughout their adult life. The sooner that you can get some skills in something and then (in the meantime) know what you are really interested in with your inner life and connect those two the better. You will be a better employee, by the way, if you actually like something about what you are doing. You will be a happier person if you get to at least touch on something that means something to you in the course of your work. I don’t mean to make it sound like everybody gets to do what he or she wants because it’s not true. I did lots of bureaucratic tasks in my career. I was not out gardening all day long or anything. That was not what I was doing. I was going to endless meetings and doing business plans and whatever. The subject matter was of interest to me so I got to dip into stuff that at least was exciting.
Can you talk a little bit about how you balanced that while you worked because I think that can be really difficult for people. How did you attempt to keep that balance between the love of gardening, the reason why you were in this kind of work, and the stuff that maybe wasn’t quite as fun?
The problem is that the more successful you become (generally speaking and I think this may be true close to 80-90% of the cases) the farther away from the thrill that sent you into the thing you get. That is because the more people you manage, the more money you make, the more hours you need to be doing things for the greater good of the corporation or institution, the farther away you are from that first spark.
So, I was a writer and a gardener. You can’t manage 180 people in a publishing entity and also write all of the stories. You can’t go out on the photo shoots if you are the photo editor of the whole company. If you are the top art director then you are probably spending more time managing the other 10-20 art directors even though you are still in a very creative field. You are there more for the meetings, the planning, and the talking to other employees when they need it, than you are actually creating your own stories with your own art direction. So, it is just what it is. If you want to succeed and move up the ladder with that comes a shift in the balance of your workweek to more administrative, strategic, and supervisory tasks and that means something has got to give. What gives is that you are not doing that other stuff.
I got to the point where there was no way to reconcile it. In the middle and early years I was able to write a few stories or go to a couple of photo shoots or whatever but when it got to be where people would say I was highly successful then I had that many people working for me and that many projects that I was overseeing. There was no way I could do that other stuff any more. When it got to be zero (or close to zero) then I found I was saying the sentence, “I don’t have time for that” more than I was saying any other sentence in my life. That was my answer to everything. “I’d really like to but I don’t have time for that.” When I found I was saying that too many times and feeling self conscious every time I was saying it, and I knew that something had to give in the other direction.
Again, the equation is, more success equals less personal moments in the course of a week. Again, I loved my work, I wasn’t being tortured or anything but something had to give. Clearly I had to decide whether to step back to a different type of position or move away from a part of myself completely. I had to get back a chunk of hours and could that happen within the corporate structure I was working in? Could I make that kind of agreement to become something else and give over the reigns to somebody new and become an editor-at-large? I knew I needed to reinvent myself. I also wanted to live up here so I decided to make a drastic change.
One of the quotes on your website that resonated with me is, “You walked away from a career and success to explore personal creativity again.” I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about personal creativity and with that your decision to leave New York City.
I kept myself able to make the balance by having a weekend country garden life for many years. For 20 years I went back and forth. I would become more and more successful but I would balance it by an escape on the weekends to this place. It got to a point where the weekend escape wasn’t enough to make the balance. The geography of the situation was that there was no way within the corporate structure to work that out. I could have taken a consulting job with some big publishing company and maybe went into the city a couple of days a week and been a consultant or whatever. For me, there was no halfway measure. I either had to knuckle down and just keep at it (which was a distinct possibility), or I had to really do something wild. And my age factored into it. I didn’t just wake up one day and say, “Oh, I think I’ll lay down my job.” I was 50, and it was different. It was part of a long evolutionary trail.
I was at a certain age where I wasn’t going to get a million second chances after that one. I was in the type of job that required being present 5 days a week. It was not a job that had flex-time. So, you write it all down on a piece of paper or a white board and stare at it for a while, see what the real factors are and see how you feel about them. Write them and put them on the refrigerator. State the good, the bad, and the ugly of the situation until you decide that you can live with a decision.
Once you came to that decision, was it clear to you? Was it hard or were you very much at ease with it?
I think you have to be at a point, especially if you are considering extreme rural living (like in a tiny town) versus a corporate situation or big city living. What I did isn’t going to suit most people. People close to me were concerned that I would be lonely or isolated or whatever. I knew at some instinctive level that I wanted the creative, self-expression time so badly that I was willing to make the trade off of the social and connectedness time. Again, that is really only a decision that you can make yourself. If you have other people in your life, like maybe you have kids that live with you or a husband or whoever, then this decision has to be made by the entire group. That makes it more complicated. One of the factors was that I was in a situation (for better or worse) where I could make the decision on my own. I was at an age where I had a lot of experience. It wasn’t the first life changing decision that I had ever had to ponder. I had some wisdom or expertise with making big decisions, and I know that you need to make them slowly.
There is no real secret here. There is no one answer that one person can give to another person because of all of the factors that are different. Everyone is unique. I would say that you do want to test the waters of any wild new plan you are drumming up. I mean I had been doing this for 20 years on the weekends and dreaming all of the time that I would live here and never being ready to do it. One day I was ready. One day I was starved enough for personal creative time. One day I was lonely enough for the garden more than I would be lonely for people in the city or city structure. It didn’t happen a year before it happened, it happened that day. When it finally came I made the decision. I just don’t think you can sit down and say that you have this idea and you think you will move to Alaska tomorrow. I don’t think it’s how these things happen. I don’t think that you just walk away from being a Wall Street lawyer today and become a nurse. It probably was brewing in there for a long time. There was an impetus or catalyst for that idea long before.
That is so important to state because so often you read stories about people who went from one thing to the other and then all of the sudden they were successful. These stories make it seem so easy. Part of Chapter Be’s mission is to show that it is a process and it doesn’t just happen overnight. Even if they maybe were not vocally talking about it, they were thinking about it and processing in their own head for a while.
That is what you have to bring up to the semi-conscious level. What the heck are you thinking about when you are daydreaming? When you are in the shower, driving your car, waiting to check out at the supermarket, where are your thoughts wandering to when you dream (whether at night or during the day)? I was always daydreaming about being here. You have to bubble that stuff up or, again, put it up on the white board and stare at it. See how many more days you can live without giving it its’ due. It may be the rest of your life. Some of these things are just fantasies and others are that if we don’t do them it can be a deep source of regret. So, you have to figure out which is which. There are many other things I would have liked to do, fantasy level things I would like to do, but none of them were suitable for me.
Someone once said to me that it’s that one idea that you can’t not do. That’s the one that will end up happening.
Yes, it’s insistent and keeps coming back like a recurring dream again and again. See if you can come up with a way to experiment about implementing that dream. People tell me all of the time that they are so jealous that I got to do this and how they dream about doing something like this all of the time. Really, if I know them well enough (because I’m not in a position to give advice to people I don’t know well enough) then I try to think of a way for them to experiment with it. Maybe they can do it once or twice a week.
I got a little place 27 years ago that could have a garden and then I started making a garden and then concurrently started teaching myself about gardening. I did make room for it at least a little of the time and I still pursued my career. Think about how many hours a week we watch television or spend time browsing on the Internet. If we took those 30 minutes or 3 hours a day (or whatever) and turned some of that time into the dream thing then why not? It is really repackaging your time. Confront it. You may decide it’s just not possible because you have a family or whatever circumstances will prevent it and you are going to make peace with that, but go at it slowly, don’t make a snap decision.
In your books and on your blog, you talk about how gardens are a beautiful place for solitude. I know the garden, for you, is more of a spiritual practice than anything – I was interested in you talking a little bit about the importance of solitude in our lives.
During those years of semi-conscious experimenting of coming back and forth to the garden 2 days a week, I was also into yoga and was thinking about how I wished I were writing more. Eventually, duh, it bubbled up in my head that those were all private, contemplative pursuits: gardening, yoga and writing. I must be a contemplative person because I like all of those. If I was in the rat race and had no time budgeted for contemplation or those sorts of activities then there was something wrong with that picture.
If you can’t get far enough away from yourself for an instant, then you could get professional help to have someone else talk it through with you (which I also did). A lot of people go to coaching or career counseling therapy because sometimes it’s just so hard to see yourself. Make a list of stuff that isn’t getting enough attention and seems to be a part of the core values that you have. I definitely knew that I was sort of this hippie spirit stuck in a corporate body, wardrobe, and routine. I was born in New York City and that’s what I saw. I got to it eventually, and I don’t have regrets. It’s not bad that I didn’t get to it until a certain age, and I had a lot of other amazing experiences as a side effect of dabbling in more than one thing.
I definitely think that solitude is so undervalued. People have no quiet time and I have no idea how you are supposed to figure out these kinds of questions that we are talking about if you don’t shut up and sit quietly by yourself. You can’t do it while you are at 17 meetings in a row. You can’t do it when you are rushing and thinking how you have to text so and so and on and on. You can’t possibly have these a-ha moments when you can’t shut up, sit down, and stop it. Fortunately, the garden was a place where I was quiet and outside and it was very meditative to me. A lot of these things would come to me when I was gardening. When I did start writing again, even a little bit of the time, a lot of these subjects and thoughts surfaced there, too. It was indulging myself in those those little dream items that gradually more and more tipped the balance this way.
Once you left the corporate environment and switched over to being in the Hudson Valley full time what does your daily life look like? How do you spend a majority of your time now?
I still get up very early, and I don’t need an alarm clock. The first thing I do is start working. I make tea, but I start working right away. People always noticed that I was type AAA (busy, busy, busy,) and that hasn’t changed at all. The interesting thing is even in a dramatic shift you don’t leave yourself behind. You still have all your traits when you get to your new life. You are still yourself. I am still hyperactive and work, work, work but what is different is that there is no inherent structure. There is no infrastructure, no schedule, no nothing. There is no to-do list, no calendar, no assistant to tell me that I had to be somewhere in 15 minutes. There was nothing any more. So, it was up to me to create that infrastructure around myself from scratch. That was a little bit hard at first to know what to do.
I turn on the computer and work right away. I want to see what is going on. I want to be writing something. I want to be busy. I can’t really call it a schedule because I could sometimes work all day Sunday or sometimes work on weekdays and the weekend. Sometimes I would skip 2 days and just work out in the garden instead. It goes by the weather, the mood I’m in, what I feel like doing, what I’m ready to do. I needed to identify how much money I needed to make and ways to couple that together. I have to do some client work, freelance work. The great thing is that I have a little buffet of projects and if I wake up in the morning and I’m in the mood to write a garden story that is what I do. If I wake up in the morning and it’s a beautiful day and I want to go outside I can do my chores outside and that is productive, too. I go with the flow day-to-day but I do have a pallet of things that have to be done in the course of a week. The days I’m not writing for myself I am writing for somebody else for a living. So, I do a lot of writing.
It is wonderful that you have been able to piece together all of your different interests with the skill set that you acquired over many years, but now you can choose versus being in a corporate environment where some of that is taken away from you.
If you don’t know what your central skill set is, that could be tricky with a decision like I made. It is really individual what you should and should not do in making such a decision. I was okay with the idea of piecing it together, and I have but it’s been hard work. Six months after I left we had an enormous recession and collapse in the economy so a lot of the things that I would have done weren’t there anymore.
But – having the privilege of waking up here every day has been so wonderful for me. It has been so valuable for me on some deep level that I am willing and even happy to do stuff that I never even imagined I would do. Not every project I am doing is my most scintillating work ever, but it affords me the ability to be here and I keep the greater good in mind. I’m not doing only really dreamy garden things that I love. I do projects that aren’t necessarily my favorite subject but it is all good because it lets me be here. I get to wake up here and go to sleep here every day.
I think it is a matter of prioritizing. It is knowing what is most important to you and always keeping that in mind – then the other things don’t seem quite as bad if that main important thing is there.
So, I sat down and made another list. What do I have that is sellable? I didn’t want to go to the city three days a week. I just didn’t want to do that. That wasn’t a possibility. So, I asked myself, “Is there some way I can fit into the local businesses – what do they need? Can I charge a rate that is appropriate for local businesses, that is enough for me and not too much for them?” You have to figure that out and be willing to figure that out. You have to know what the brass ring that you are happy to get, and the value of that brass ring so that you know it’s worth doing the things to keep it. To me, it’s all very philosophical.
If someone is miserably sitting in their corporate desk right now, but they love gardening or there is something else they love, what would your advice be to them?
I think that the most important step is to not let this stuff just roll around in your head unspoken. Give it voice and paste it on the wall in front of you and stare at it. Really, when you have those thoughts of wishing you were “X “or that you hate doing “Y” and you find yourself saying that same thing over and over, write that in big magic marker letter and put it on your refrigerator or against the wall. You are not going to figure it out by sitting there and torturing yourself with these quiet, unvoiced thoughts. They just fester inside. Give them voice. Make it an exercise.
People have things like mood boards – I just have bulletin boards and white boards. If I’m in a transition stage I get one out, wipe it clean, I give it a name, and I have it out while I am sorting it out. Any time one of those thoughts comes out about the decision I am trying to make or whatever is bothering me, I just throw it up on the board. Eventually, (and it may take weeks or months) what you put on there reaches a critical mass and starts to gel. Your answer starts to shape up a little bit. You may want to get professional guidance or even talk to a colleague or a close friend. Bring that material with you. The first step is getting more concrete thoughts out and putting them together in one place so that you can look at them and go, “Oh, what is this about? What does it lead up to?”
Notes of Reflection:
- Life’s tragedies can sometimes produce things in our lives that we never could have expected or planned for if we tried. At a very young age, Margaret found herself in a position that many of us do not experience until later in life – taking care of an ill parent. While it was a time of difficulty for her, she also used it as a time to grow – both personally and plants! Instead of “sitting around the apartment all day every day and reading books and watching TV,” she took it as a chance to start exploring something new. It started very organically, but she worked to foster and cultivate something that she became passionate about during this time. It is a reminder that even when we think we are in our lowest moments, we can still make forward movement.
- There is a correlation between what happens in nature and what happens in our lives. There is growth, there is drought, there is death, there are hurtful and helpful relationships between the different organisms in the system, and there are seasons to it all. By learning how to have a relationship with nature, it allows you the opportunity to put your own life in perspective. Nature has it figured out – if we listen, there is so much to learn. It quiets our soul and forces us to slow down and see the much bigger picture.
- Margaret’s approach to her Chapter Be was slow and thought out. She did not wake up one day and move out of the city, but spent a lot of time not only thinking about it, but actively writing out her thoughts, options and ideas. She worked in a corporate position for most of her life, but she made the switch out of that life at a time that was right for her. As she states throughout the interview, each individual needs to do what works for that individual. Some people might chose to make this leap at 30, while others might not make it until they are 50. The point is that you take the time to clearly outline what it is that you need and make your decisions on that.
- While not everyone might be in a position where they can move or they have no interest in going to live a rural life, it is still extremely important to find moments of solitude. As Margaret pointed out, “I have no idea how you are supposed to figure out these kinds of questions that we are talking about if you don’t shut up and sit quietly by yourself.” The easier thing to do is to run around, keep yourself overly busy and never really make the time to think about these bigger questions – but then it will never become clear to you what you truly want. As Littlefoot’s Mother so wisely said in The Land Before Time, “Let your heart guide you. It whispers so listen closely.” If you want to know what your heart needs, then you have to make time for moments of quiet solitude.
- A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield – He is a Buddhist Teacher in California and one of the oldest American born Buddhist teachers. This is one of his earliest books and as it sounds, it asks you to ask yourself if that path you are on has heart for you. Did I love well? Did I live fully? It asks you to ask those questions. I think that it is an incredibly important book. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to read it.
- To Reach the Clouds by Philip Pettit – It was written before the movie about his high wire act. If you can get your hands on a copy of the actual book it is pretty amazing. It is just really interesting when you are talking about how someone decides to do something really different.
- Plant Dreaming Deep and Journal of the Solitude by May Sarton