I’ve been an avid gardener ever since I was a kid, when my mom and I would plant tomatoes and other vegetables in our backyard every summer. She still lives in my childhood home, and her garden is always lush and beautiful, full of lilac and roses and geraniums, dogwood, foxglove, callas, hostas, ferns, rhododendrons, and seasonal vegetables—tomatoes, cucumber, squash, beans. All flanked by an ancient apple tree that drops fruit all through the late summer, and an absolutely amazingly large avocado tree that towers over the surrounding three- and four-story homes.
I guess you could say my mom taught me to love plants and growing things.
While my yard isn’t nearly as lush as hers, I have lemon and dwarf orange, succulents, roses and other flowers, and throughout the year, I grow food: tomatoes, squash, cucumber, peppers, eggplant, collards, spinach, kale, chard, strawberries, blueberries, onions, potatoes, and herbs along with sunflowers and sweet peas. In the front yard I’ve got an olive tree and native or drought-tolerant plants that feed the local hummingbirds and bees.
As I get older (and ostensibly wiser), the parallels between gardening and friendship get clearer.
For one thing, plants need nurturing. If you don’t give them what they need to grow, they'll be stunted and sickly or they'll die. Friendships—and by friendships I mean all close relationships, including with our romantic partners if we have them—also need care, which is something I never really put much effort into when I was younger.
I would befriend people who weren’t good for me, put up with hurtful or undermining behavior, let potentially strong and positive friendships wilt because I was putting all my nurturing energy into relationships that weren’t nurturing for me, and I’d take good friends for granted, the way we used to take for granted the old orange tree in my mom’s backyard. The one that produced two crops per year of luscious, sweet fruit for decades until it got too old and sick and had to be removed. I still miss that tree.
Eventually, I started to realize I wasn’t taking care of the garden of my life. I was letting too many weeds in that were taking over and choking out the really valuable and fruitful plants. I was spending a lot of time watering the crabgrass and precious little time nurturing the flowers that provided such beauty and scent, or the fruits and vegetables that offered nutrition and flavor.
My eyes opened when I found myself in a really terrible relationship. I hated who I was in the relationship, I hated my partner, and I hated my life. To continue the gardening metaphor: my life had gotten the blight. It needed healing.
I looked around and realized that not only was this one person a noxious weed, but I had others in my life as well: “friends” who weren’t really friends. People I had around me because they gave me attention (or promised it), but who didn’t really care for me in healthy ways. It felt like when you go out into the garden that you’ve neglected for years and find everything overrun by thistle, ragweed and five seasons worth of old leaves.
I decided I wanted to be happier: I wanted my garden—both my literal garden and the garden of my life—to thrive. I was tired of looking around at crabgrass that was threatening to overwhelm the few valuable plants that still survived.
So I did some serious weeding. I added rich soil and compost. I cleaned up all the dead things and composted them. Maybe someday other plants would thrive from the waste, but not in my garden, and not for awhile.
In human terms: I chose the friends I wanted in my life—the ones who were supportive and nurturing. I walked away from the “friends” who were undermining and unsupportive. And I focused on feeding and nurturing the plants: the new friendships I had chosen to cultivate, and the old ones that had always been there but that I had neglected.
To be fair, I do call my little plot of land “Benign Neglect Farms”. I’m not the perfect gardener, as I’m not the perfect friend. But I pay more attention now: to what’s thriving, to what’s sickly, to what has leaf rust, to what has aphids.
And I bring plants into my garden—and people into my life—that will nurture me and that I feel I can nurture in return. I know not everything will grow well; maybe I just don’t know how to care for it, or maybe the conditions in my garden aren’t quite right. I can change certain conditions—the watering schedule, the soil composition—but not everything. Sometimes a plant just won’t thrive. I don’t take it personally.
Gardening takes constant attention and care, as does life. And when you bite into that sweet strawberry or smell the pungent basil as you brush past it, that’s the best reward in the world. As is knowing you’ve managed to do the hard work of clearing weeds and enriching the soil so that healthy plants grow.
What Is Joy?
Can life really be joyful, even when hard things happen? Maybe not on the surface, but below our pain and fear, below the judgment of ourselves and others, there's a kernel that's an inherent and unstoppable desire to live; to see what happens next. At JATHT, we'll explore life, love, joy, and sorrow and hopefully learn something in the process. Welcome!