Life as a Garden

On of the blogs I regularly read is Krista Tippett’s “On Being.”  She has an interesting array of writers.  One of my favorites is an old friend of mine, Parker Palmer.  Parker is a Quaker, a popular writer of books on spirituality, education, community and related themes.  He has an uncanny way of looking at an ordinary event and seeing extraordinary things.

In a recent contribution to Tippett’s blog series, Palmer wrote a piece with the title, “A Gardening Poem about Living.”  Everyone knows what a garden is and many of us either have or have had gardens.  Palmer counts on our familiarity with gardens.  He presumes we know enough about real gardens that we can “get it” when he begins to use the garden as a metaphor for life.  It is a clever approach.

Most of his blog is given to a poem by Marge Piercy.  I did not know about her, so I was glad to be introduced to her poem, “The Seven of Pentacles.”  But before looking at the poem, let’s look at the intriguing way Palmer gets us to the poem.

Palmer begins by looking at contemporary culture.  He says, “Our culture favors a ‘manufacturing model’ of life.”  He continues in an intriguing way.  “We ‘make’ money,  we ‘make’ friends, we ‘make’ time, we even ‘make’ love!”  I really like how Palmer uses ordinary language to point out how that reveals our view of reality.  And I believe he has a point.  That is the way folks use language.

Given the history of our country since the nineteenth century, it is not surprising we have a manufacturing model of life.  For nearly two hundred years, many folks did go to a factory to make things and, thereby, make a living.  Of course, things are changing some now.  In this country a big number of people are involved in the so-called service industry.  Even as a teacher, that is my mode of living.  I “make” a living by teaching/serving others.  It would be easy to conclude that simply is the way it is.  For most part humans “make” their own reality.

But Palmer offers another model.  He says, “But we are plants, not products…”  I am arrested by his claim.  Part of me wants to blurt out, “That’s right.”  Even though I have heard many times that I am a “product of my environment” and so on, I don’t fully believe that.  Let’s follow Palmer further in his analysis.  “…we need to treat ourselves and each other the way a good gardener treats green and growing things.”  I am hooked.  I want to see now how Palmer relates to the poem.

His approach again is clever.  Basically, he says no more.  He lets the poem of Piercy do his work.  You and I are metaphorically gardens.  Our lives are gardens.  What does this say about how to live?  Piercy’s poem describes the growth of a garden and from this we get tips about the growth of our lives.  I was intrigued by one particular piece of the analogy, namely, the clock.

We all know how the clock functions in the factory or the classroom.  In the factory workers typically had to “clock in.”  The classroom is often like this.  At the bell the teacher begins taking attendance and the making of products (knowledgeable students) commences!  Notice how differently Piercy articulates it when she talks about garden work.  She says all the vegetables and plants grow “if you tend them properly.”  I like her verb, “tend.”  Maybe that is a good alternative to “make.”  If we do this, she assures, “then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.”

Further into the poem, Piercy counsels us to “weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.  Live a life you can endure…”  Soon she says, “Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen.”  I love that advice.  I think that may be one of the most important things I can teach students---and myself!

The poem has an intriguing ending.  She says, “This is how we are going to live for a long time.”  But a long time is not forever.  The last line of the poem affirms, “not always, for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting, after the long season of tending an growth, the harvest comes.”

I like the garden metaphor because it inevitably leads to “harvest.”  I assume in some fashion our harvest is a good life.  It does take preparation and tending.  It takes the grace and mercy of others---God and friends and, maybe, even enemies---just like real gardens need rain and sunlight, the garden’s version of grace and mercy.  We don’t “make” our gardens grow.  I never heard anyone ever say, “I’m going to go out and make my garden!”

As I see my life now as a garden, I am going to be more conscious of my language.  I will use verbs like, “plant,” “tend,” “weed,” and others.  I will ask for and be open to mercy and grace.  I will be grateful for the mystery of growth.  And I will give thanks for the harvest of blessings and a good life.

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