In early March, I moved out of my tiny Brooklyn apartment to quarantine with my mom in Ocean City, New Jersey. As the town’s name suggests, Ocean City is, in fact, a beach town: Tourists swarm to the island every summer eager for days on the beach and nights on the boardwalk, but in the off-season (AKA now), it’s relatively quiet. Worried about the rapid spread of coronavirus in New York City, I quickly packed my bags and left to socially-distance near the sand and the sea. A week later, the beaches closed.
Thankfully, there are plenty of other open spaces to safely take advantage of when quarantine gets to be a little overwhelming. To stay active (and sane), my mom and I started taking long, meandering walks through our neighborhood. And while the fresh air is always great for resetting and getting some head space, the real serenity comes from my neighbors’ outlandish lawn ornaments.
That’s right: lawn ornaments.
Some people are choosing to soothe themselves with mindfulness apps and meditative soundscapes. Others are opting for artsier hobbies, like cross-stitching or paint-by-numbers. My mom and me? We find joy, and calm, in our neighbors’ quirky garden gnomes.
This all started when, in the middle of one of our daily strolls, I stopped dead in my tracks walking by one of my neighbors’ lawns. Peeking out from their freshly groomed mulch lay a strange, succulent baby, snuggled amongst a nest of ceramic leaves — like a cabbage patch doll, but way weirder. I was smitten, and had so many questions: Why was this child sleeping in a succulent bush? Who designed such a lawn ornament?! And what made my neighbors think, “Ah, you know what our landscaping needs? A plant baby.”
After that, my mom and I became increasingly attuned to the neighborhood’s choice of lawn décor. After Plant Baby (her birth name), we walked another 20 blocks to see what other treasures were hiding in the Ocean City’s garden beds.
And let me tell you, it did not disappoint. We found the classics — wooden lighthouses, resin mushrooms, pinwheels, the occasional skiff-shaped planter — but then we found the totally bizarre, like a headless boat captain holding his skull while standing guard on his lighthouse. They were tacky. They were ridiculous. But they were also so freakin’ delightful.
I also discovered that beyond their ridiculousness, these lawn ornaments were an opportunity to spend quality time with my mom. Quarantine aside, it’s rare she and I get to spend one-on-one time together. Here was a chance to do something entertaining and memorable, just the two of us.
Now, giggling at our neighbors’ gardens has become a part of our daily routine; Each afternoon, we’ll take a 2-mile walk to scout the strangest and silliest lawn decorations we can find. The weirder, the better — traditional garden gnomes?! Tired. A dolphin wearing a bikini top and drinking a plastic margarita?! WIRED.
The ornaments we have seen include, but are definitely not limited to:
- Seagulls and cranes
- Decorative pylons
- Sea captains (of all shapes and sizes)
- A small metal horse
- Many chunky cherubs
- A gargoyle
- A seashell covered in plastic googly eyes
- Two bulldogs
- A large, cement sailboat (?)
- A driftwood sculpture of a fish eating another fish (gross)
- Sexy mermaid
- A tiny lady peacefully reading a book
- A frog couple also reading a book
Yes, looking for these wacky lawn ornaments actually helps me keep calm. For my mom, too. Anxiety and dread and fear are all too real right now; by finding small slivers of joy in the mundane, our minds are put at ease. The world feels like it’s burning, but for an hour each day, we can relax looking for tiny wonders right in our own backyard. It’s a mother/daughter bonding ritual that’s as soothing as it is silly.
Everyone needs a distraction right now. Yoga and baking fresh loaves of sourdough certainly have their place. As for my mom and me, we’ll keep hitting the streets, losing ourselves in the strange enchantments that live right in my neighbors’ gardens.
How I Keep Calm is our series featuring different ways people manage anxiety. If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with “How I Keep Calm” in the subject line.
All images courtesy author. Image design by Grace Yagel.