My wife is a Beatrix Potter fan. I think she has collected all of her little books and many books about her. If you have ever received a thank-you card from Bonnie, you can see the influence of Beatrix Potter on her doodles and water colours. Often Bonnie will decorate with Beatrix. Sometimes she will open a book to a particular page and then mount the book on the wall. Right next to our bed on her side, she has had Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes mounted for a few weeks. She has the book open to the first half of the following nursery rhyme:
We have a little garden,
A garden of our own,
And every day we water there
The seeds that we have sown.
We love our little garden,
And tend it with such care,
You will not find a faded leaf
Or blighted blossom there.
The first half of this nursery rhyme has stuck in my head for the past few days—as if it were a bible verse or insightful saying of a holy father. To tell you the truth, I am not in much for nursery rhymes. Neither am I particularly good at riddles or sayings with double meanings. I have a pretty thick skull—I’m a ‘say-what-you-mean-and-mean-what-you-say’ sort of guy. Subtlety is wasted on me. (That may be why I married an artist. I need someone to take care of me who sees what I don’t see, someone who will gently let me know when I’m missing what is obvious to everyone else.) Nevertheless this nursery rhyme has stuck in my head and it slowly dawned on me that Beatrix Potter is not merely talking about a garden. She is talking about life.
The garden is the life God has given each of us. Every garden is different. Every region and soil type and gradient in relation to the sun has its own challenges and opportunities. Some (like us) have lots of rain and very little sun in the spring: great for berries. Others have lots of sun, but little water: great for all kinds of vegetables, if you are faithful to water them. Some have alkali soils that need lots of treatment to grow most veggies. Some gardens have lots of sand, which is great for melons. There are some things about a garden you can change, but other things you can’t change. You can change the soil, slowly over the years. You can extend the season by building greenhouses and shelters. If you work at it, you can do many things to make your garden better.
But there are lots of things you can’t change about your garden. You can’t change the location: your garden is where it is. It is just like a family. You are born somewhere in a family you didn’t choose – into circumstances, limitations and opportunities over which you have had no control whatsoever and over which you will have only little control throughout your life. Like a garden, some things you can change, some things you can ameliorate, and lots of things you just have to accept and work with or around or through. Life is a lot like a garden.
And like a garden, you get to choose what you want to plant—although it is only with experience and sage advice that you learn what grows best in your soil. Nonetheless, you get to choose some things that you will plant. And then there are other things you will plant by mistake: seeds and bits of root that have stuck to your clothing or got mixed in with the good seed. Or sometimes we plant the wrong vegetable by mistake. The beets that you thought you had planted turn out to be turnips. Life is a lot like that. And then there are the weed seeds that the birds drop on your garden as they fly over, or the seeds that the wind blows into your garden or the runners from the blackberries thirty feet away that tunnel all the way underground just to come up in the middle of your strawberries. You don’t get to choose those seeds.
But whether you choose it or not, you have to deal with it. It is your garden. The seeds you water will grow, maybe. Weeds you ignore will take over, certainly. In life, like in a garden, it is hard to grow good fruit. It is easy to grow weeds. All you have to do is nothing and the weeds will take over. Plants that bear the fruit we want, however, require attention. We must pay attention to our life, to what we sow, to what we water, to what we encourage, to what we give our time and energy and money. We have to attend.
Bonnie and I were at a coffee shop/bookstore last night and saw a book on 100 things one should do before he or she dies. I thumbed through the book full of exciting places to see and things to do. Really, none of them interested me.
“And so what is on your bucket list then?” Bonnie asked me.
“I don’t have a bucket list,” I told her. I just want to tend the garden God has given me. There are lots of beautiful and exciting things that would be interesting and fun to see or do, maybe (I really don’t like traveling much. And as for excitement, I think my life is already about as exciting as I can handle). But even if I did get a chance to jump of a cliff in Peru with a parachute on my back, how is that going to help the fruit of mercy or love or gentleness grow in my garden?
I don’t really want to do anything before I die. I want to be something. I want to be a kind person. I want to be someone who would rather be hurt than to hurt someone else. I want to be someone who knows how to love in ways that bring health and life. I want to be someone, as St. Paul puts it, whose gentleness is known to all. That’s my bucket list. That’s what I want growing in my garden when I die.
And so I water the gentleness bushes. I tend to the mercy vines. I pull the thorny thistles away from the struggling love flower—and then I tend to my fingers, pulling out thorns, stopping the blood, cleaning the wounds. Gardening is not for cowards.