A Gardener Waits for Spring
I did not grow up in a church that observed Lent. “The work of Jesus is done!” was the oft-repeated message. Death has been conquered once and for all. Practicing Lent – examining my sin and eventual death as well as the death of the world, deliberating what the sufferings of Christ should mean for me as a follower, disciplining my mind and body and spirit – was considered unnecessary and ritualistic. Perhaps too much a blending of the spiritual and physical.
I did not understand then how the liturgical calendar mirrors life, how its repetitive seasons of repentance, forgiveness and tidal hope illuminate what we all experience on a regular basis. Life. Death. Longing. Guilt. Despair. Joy that runs through our fingers like water.
I was unsure what to expect the first time I attended an Ash Wednesday service. Would I feel self-conscious, phony, pious? Would I grow morbidly depressed? I was almost startled when I received the imposition of ashes. Not so much by the application of the oily charcoal smudge as by the words the minister spoke as he slowly dragged his thumb across my forehead in the shape of a cross: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Me, dust? In theory, yes, but not really, not anytime soon, I hoped.
Jump ahead a few years. I stand in line with our firstborn, a beautiful baby girl perched on my arm, her large, round eyes quietly taking everything in. I expect she will be smiled upon, receive some sort of blessing. God loves you, little one. Something like that. But the minister speaks the same dark, weighted words to her he has just spoken to me, marks her forehead the same as mine. It almost brings me to my knees. Surely, she is too young, too loved to wear such a crushing truth.
That was many years ago. Our firstborn and her siblings are now grown and busy establishing lives of their own. I grew as our children did. Learning to parent, learning to stay married, learning to be part of a community, learning when to speak, when to acquiesce, when to simply shut up – it’s all growth. And failure. A continual, sometimes dizzying cycle of life and death.
Somewhere along the way, I became a perennial gardener.
I learned gardening basics in the aching pose of all who toil the earth. Year after year, one pair of ruined gloves after another, I watched the kids out of the corner of my eye or listened to their shouts and laughter and accusatory arguments with my back turned, spade in hand, always on my knees, covered in dirt, straining. I hauled yards and yards of mulch, asked endless questions of those more experienced than I, consulted books and google, paid attention to planting guides and temperature zones and soil considerations. I was always waiting for spring to arrive and was back on my knees as soon as the ground began to warm.
I came to recognize the posture of a gardener as perhaps the best posture for contemplation. It’s hard to feel you’ve got life figured out when you labor in such a humbled position for hours on end, so sore you can barely move by day’s end. It’s impossible to feel powerful and in charge when you return annually to the same hard work of preparation, the same fears Spring will never come (and stay), the same questions about what you are doing and what has changed in your little cultivated space, what new pests and disease will threaten this season’s growth, what should be divided, what sun-loving bloomers are now too shaded by growing trees. What new plant should be added. What did not work for the umpteenth time and should be given up on.
I learned no matter how well I have planted, fed, mulched, staked and watered the peonies, poppies, coneflowers, lilies, climbing roses, daisies, and other perennials I take such delight in, it will never be enough. The flowers, or “blossoms” of each plant – that part which exists to bear seeds and reproduce – will die. Eventually, the green plant itself, the leaves and stems that nurture and support the flowers will also die. I am as powerless to stop their return to the earth as I will one day be to stop my own return to the earth. The seasons will change. Winter will come. My garden will die.
Death is not an anomaly – not in plant, animal or human life. It is all around us. (The pandemic brought this truth home like no other modern experience.) I can try to ignore it. I can celebrate only “life.” It does not change the reality: Death has rendered my heart to shreds many times in the past and will continue to do so as long as I live. You may not have experienced the pain of losing someone you doubted you could live without. You have, undoubtedly, experienced the loss of dreams and the ending of relationships. The mysterious ending of friendships that were once so right. The swan song of fulfilling careers. The flight of children you had to allow to leave the nest.
Once, when one of our children was getting ready to walk a few doors down to rewatch Bambi for the hundredeth time with a neighbor child and her friend, I received a frantic phone call.
“Does Lillie know Bambi’s mother dies?” the mother on the other end asked.
“What?” I asked. “Who?”
“Does she know Bambi’s mother is killed by a hunter? Does she understand what happens?”
“I don’t know,” I honestly answered. “She gets that Bambi’s mother is no longer around. She knows something has happened and Bambi is sad. Maybe she has figured it out, or almost has.”
“You have to tell her she can’t mention it! The other girl who will be here doesn’t know, and her mother doesn’t want her to know. She would get upset. It could ruin her childhood.”
The third mother in this triad was convinced if her daughter was kept from knowing the truth about death – that it exists and is sad, painful, and bewildering – her life would be secure. I still find myself thinking about that little girl. I wonder who she is now. What kind of darkness has she experienced since she and her family moved to another part of the country? Did her parents stay married? Has she faltered while building her dream life? Is her heart wide with hope or constricted by fear and doubt?
But I get that mother. I, too, would have liked to live there, in a land of always summer, a land free of disappointment and death. I would have liked to protect our children so well, bundle them so tightly that pain and despair, doubt and confusion could never touch them, not even as adults. I personally would have liked to always be confident, strong, moving ahead, yet warm and generous. Never jealous of the success of others. I would have liked my marriage to be free of conflict, never needing to seek or extend forgiveness toward my husband, family, friends, colleagues.
As an observer of the seasons and a participant in the liturgy, I know this is futile, wishful thinking: I have had and will always have regrets and sins to confess and holes in my soul that require mending. No matter how much I protest, no matter how much I wish it were not so.
But – and this is an amazing truth if you live as I do in a part of the country that experiences extended months of bitter cold – the roots of most perennials will survive the winter. The plants that reach skyward will die, absolutely. Nothing above ground will withstand winter’s onslaught, but the roots will live.
Who would have guessed it? We are not talking trees in winter – tall, strong, beautiful in their undress. But bee balm, foxglove, anemones. It depends a lot on how well-established the plants are before the ground freezes; how much snow falls, which blankets and protects roots through the long, dark months; if the soil has been adequately amended, etc., but usually the roots of perennials as tender as primrose, mountain bluet and Pasque flower will survive the crushing cold. Indeed, many of the most beautiful flowers require winter to produce their seasonal beauty. You would not try growing tulips on a Florida beach. You can’t grow blue poppies – with their tissue paper delphinium-blue petals – in Indiana unless you go to extravagant, manufactured lengths; unbelievably, winters there are not cold enough and summers are too hot and humid. I tried and failed, several times.
But all is not lost. That is the ongoing message of Lent. Death, winter, and waiting will end, via no work of our own. Our hemisphere will once again be face up to the sun. And because the roots survived, tiny points of green will begin poking – almost shyly – through the slowly warming soil.
We have cycled back to the penitential season. Winter still reigns outside my window, and in my heart. I have sinned. I have spoken in bitterness and judgment when I needed to remain silent. I have worn my pride like a corroded crown, wrung my hands over our children, been paralyzed by fear instead of liberated by trust. I have renewed old resentments, been petty, unkind, a name caller. I have actively held my life for myself instead of giving it away, spoken badly of others to make myself look better. There is nothing ritualistic about confessing my own darkness. It is as painful as it is necessary.
I attended last week’s Ash Wednesday service because I now see the practice of Lent as a way of physically living into the spiritual renewal I so desperately need. I was again startled to hear words foretelling my death uttered as a thumb crossed my brow. But I live in hope of forgiveness and restoration, of new life and ultimately, another life. The What I have done and what I have left undone of the liturgy will one day be obliterated by an unvanquished sun. The world will slowly grow edged with green.
I will hold the joy for as long as I can.
As an aspiring gardener, and a Catholic who grew up with, is still growing up with the goal of living Lent fully, Andrea’s words and emotions brought new and deep insight to me. I will read it again and again to really understand all the layers and nuanced sentiment, so beautifully crafted and deserving of careful consideration as I try to absorb every petal, root, stem.