31 July 2011

Cultivating Hope, Part II

We’ve spent many weekends this year preparing for our first garden. We had a fence installed, and then built beds. We hauled dirt, mulch, and compost. We set up an irrigation system including barrels to harvest rain. And of course we planted seeds and seedlings. And throughout it all, we hoped.

And just when it seemed that we had everything in place, including the timer on the irrigation system adjusted just-so… we left on a two-week vacation.

We left cosmos plants, not yet six inches tall; pumpkin and melon plants with three leaves apiece; a puny basil plant near a couple of equally small pepper plants. It seemed very much a nursery, what with all these baby plants that had just barely poked up through the soil. We did, however, enjoy our first harvest before leaving: a single tiny strawberry. I shared it with Madeleine, and it was sweet and juicy – just as we’d hoped.

And so, when I returned to my garden, which had enjoyed a couple summer thunderstorms in my absence, I was astounded at the changes in the plants. It was comparable to seeing my nephews after a long interval apart: how is it possible that they have grown this much!

And not only are most of the plants larger, the pumpkin and melon (or is it cucumber? I didn’t label well this year – a lesson for next time) threaten not only to take over their own beds, but their neighbors’ beds as well. Some plants I don’t recognize. Are they weeds? I’m willing to wait and see before I rip them out. And others I recognize but know I didn’t plant: tomatoes. They must be volunteers from the compost.

It’s gratifying to see how well the garden is doing, even if there’s a part of me that thinks: these plants did this all on their own. We gave them what we hoped was an environment in which they could thrive. We should all be so lucky in our own lives, that our proverbial soil was well-prepared for our arrival, right? And the lessons the garden teaches are of the highest magnitude. Not much teaches staying power quite like waiting for those berries to ripen, or pulling up a carrot that I think must be ready, only to find it’s about the size of a fork tine. And there is always the lesson of perseverance: next year, next season, we can try something new or do something better.

Again, I see the parallels to parenting, and life in general, and I think of Voltaire and Candide as well: Il faut cultiver notre jardin, loosely translated as “We must cultivate our garden.” This is sometimes used in the context of ‘first things first’ or ‘let’s take care of our own problems before we tackle the problems of others.’ At this point in my life, though, as a mother of two with a full-time job, I see another interpretation: Find ways to seek happiness within the confines placed upon you.

There are few hours minutes in my day that aren’t filled with responsibilities to my children, my husband, my home, or my job. I’ve made my peace with that, and I wouldn’t trade my lot with anyone. And yes, being a full-time mom / wife / teacher is sometimes difficult – but compared to what? Compared to a 19th century homesteading wife? Or compared to a medieval mother? Or how about a present-day Afghan woman? What if this garden was my family’s sole source of food? I’m grateful that it’s not, although there is something very gratifying about (the idea of) feeding my family with the literal fruits of our own labors. Putting my life in perspective helps me to realize that I do live in the best of all possible worlds.

And the garden helps me appreciate that. I’ve really been striving to carve out time for myself to write, to exercise, to learn Spanish, to read, to garden. And it is in these moments that I am capable of finding happiness in small things – and where, it seems, hope cultivates itself.

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