A True Life Built is a living photo essay on starting over and building a truer life. It’s for anyone, at any age, who is finding the courage to begin again. Subscribe for free weekly posts.
I’d lived in the same fourth-floor apartment in Brooklyn for a decade and had barely met my neighbors. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them—my small building was filled with easygoing creatives—I had just never made the effort.
“I knew vaguely that you lived above me,” a neighbor from the third floor of my building said recently. “But you were always coming and going.”
Yes, coming and going. For years, I was on flights every few weeks, first around the country, and then around the world. I had my Tumi suitcase and my passport full of stamps and my gold airline status. I saw New York as a launch pad to the wider world, to a global life I’d been chasing since childhood.
But when I crash-landed back into Brooklyn in the summer of 2020, with international borders closed and flights grounded, I could no longer pick up and leave—and I no longer wanted to. Instead, I felt a profound need to root, to build something stable, to sink myself into the soil.
The first thing I did, in the isolated days of early Covid, was to fill my empty apartment with houseplants and join neighborhood plant groups online. I don’t know what inspired me—I hadn’t used Facebook in years—but somehow I found a lively community of neighbors who were trading plant cuttings and tips and sharing the small joys of new leaves.
I was astonished to learn that there were 2,000 people in a 10-block radius who loved the same things I loved, who would root small pieces of their plants and start seedlings to share with neighbors. Our cuttings passed from person to person, growing and blooming only to be trimmed and shared again, a life-affirming act of connection in a dark time.
One of those people, it turned out, lived right below me. “I don’t know if you know this,” my third-floor neighbor said one day as we passed in the hall, “since my handle is different online, but I’m also part of Park Slope Plant Share.”
I did not know this. We had lived 10 feet away for the better part of a decade, and I had no idea that she also enjoyed plants.
“How wonderful!” I thought, and “How much have I missed?” All this time I had been searching for a feeling of belonging abroad, what had I overlooked right here at home?
Not long after, another neighbor organized a cleanup of the street trees on our Brooklyn block. Each block has tree beds, small dirt plots scratched out of the sidewalk. The city plants the beds but then leaves the scrappy trees to eke it out alone. Our block’s trees, hemmed in by construction on three sides, were looking decidedly worse for the wear.
On a bright spring day, dozens of residents of our block fanned out to pick up trash from the beds and mulch the trees. The children followed behind, planting purple pansies in their roots. Strangers stopped to hand us water and admire our work.
“Thank you,” they said, “for making our block beautiful. It makes me proud to live here.”
I had always seen gardening as a solitary activity and this community effort was a revelation. I was stunned by how simple it was—it only took a few bags of mulch and a few hours—and yet how powerfully connective. Here we were, relative strangers, beaming at our newly tidy trees.
“You know,” the organizer of the tree cleanup said, “the sidewalks belong to all of us. Anyone can garden a tree bed.”
I knew the tree bed outside my front door was empty, a forlorn pit of dirt and bricks. It had languished since a storm took down an old oak several years before. But if I thought of it at all, it was to be irked by the trash that collected there, part of the endless tide of takeout wrappers that swept down our street.
Maybe, I thought, I should do something about that.
Inspired, my third-floor neighbor and I dug the bricks and trash out of our empty tree bed (a particularly New York exercise in gardening) and planted a baby oak twiglet we named Virginia. To keep her company while she grew, I added a $2 packet of sunflower seeds from my local hardware store, and a handful of wildflower seeds I’d been given at a neighborhood plant swap.
Finally, I tucked some leftover seeds in an abandoned tree bed down the block, a wasteland of weeds and cigarette butts across from a construction site. That’s how I learned that even construction workers love sunflowers. Everyone, it turns out, loves sunflowers.
The zinnias popped up first in Crayola-colored pom poms. Next came the cosmos and cornflowers in pale purples, and a lone nicotiana with its small fuchsia trumpets. But it was the sunflowers that ruled the sidewalk. They grew, and grew—and grew some more. Then, much to our surprise, they sprouted not one bloom but many in an exuberant cascade of gold.
The flowers towered over the couples walking their dogs, beaming at the children scooting their way to school. In the evenings, I’d see my neighbors sitting in our front bench, drinking white wine and grinning at the flowers like old friends. I could almost see the sunflowers smiling back.
All sorts of people stopped at our plot to chat, to rest, to admire.
“What are you feeding them??” said one person.
“It’s a sunflower jungle!” said another.
“There’s so much construction,” said a third, “and then also this, an oasis of joy.”
“Our building’s plant plot is THE talk of the block,” my third-floor neighbor texted. “Everybody (neighbors I know, neighbors I don’t know, the mailman, strangers who pass by when I’m out there) stops to say how much they love it and how they’ve been following the sunflowers’ progression. You’re bringing the people together.”
In those moments, I realized that the roots I craved were not just the flowers themselves but also the connections they created. By tending something beautiful, and sharing it freely, I had woven myself into the fabric of a place.
The sunflowers belonged to all of us: to the construction workers and commuters, to the teenagers making out on the stoop and the children chasing the small dogs, to my neighbors and to the total strangers who wandered by. They had become our block mascots, and we cheered them as they grew.
Last week, a neighbor walked by as I tended the plot, the late-summer sunflower jungle in full bloom.
“They’re really getting huge,” she said.
“Aren’t they crazy?” I agreed. “They’re out of control.”
“No, they’re exactly where they need to be,” she replied. “You’ll have a great crop of sunflower seeds by fall.”
Her answer caught me by surprise: Exactly where they need to be. I looked up at the blooms that had brought me, and the people around me, so much unexpected joy.
Yes, I decided, the sunflowers were exactly where they needed to be—and I was too.
One of the unexpected joys of starting over has been hearing from others on similar journeys. If something resonates with you, I’d love for you to leave a comment, drop me an email or share a post with a friend!
Liz is a writer and photographer based in Brooklyn. She’s spent her career finding the right words for others and now she’s finding her own.
This story brought a goofy grin to my face. I love it + the sunny flowers + your energy that comes across in everything you write.
I’ve watched you grow into these sunflowers 🌻 just doing what you love and connecting w/ people. Inspiring!!