Patience Learned Again

I was so proud of the roses and they looked awful: black spotted yellowed leaves, withered blossoms, twisted brown canes.

I dreaded the sight of the front garden. My wife’s happy jungle of fruits, vegetables, flowers and grasses continued to be a daily joy: what she had sown with all those fertilizers, sprays and bags of mulch and soil had yielded fabulous results.

My efforts brought the opposite. All the optimism and green thumb glories I had in the spring had sunk to a dank, dingy, grody embarrassment. A few annuals had perked up, and some strange bulbs sprouted bent green bottle washers.

But the rest of it forced me to avert my eyes. I asked garden center experts, who told me about things I should buy, scatter around the roots, spray on or attach to a hose. I tried a few. Things grew worse.

Spring had started so beautifully! Everything I put in the ground took off eagerly. Then the summer heat and humidity, so characteristic of where I live, turned everything into a wretched, wilted, buggy, fungible fungi-infested mess.

After a month of steamy sun the nights became just a bit cooler. We had a few days of breezy rain that blew the bugs away. I watched in horror as the leaves fell off the roses, leaving gnarled, twisted, thorny green stalks.

I confess that I gave up. I shook my head, opened a book about World War II’s D-Day invasion, hated the smarmy, unflappable TV garden show hosts with their dazzlingly colorful borders that had not one brown leaf, and and tried to forget about the hot green mess I saw every morning when I took the dogs for a walk, picked up the morning paper (yes, I still read news printed on paper), wheeled the trash cans (the cheery blue container sending yesterday’s news to a recycler) out and back.

At my age I should have remembered the subtle inevitability of changing seasons, of the seasons within seasons when living things other than myself take breaks, get sick, react awkwardly to hardship, or lend themselves to mysterious processes that I can’t see. I should have faith that there is more to gardening than getting dirty, putting things in the ground and admiring the results.

Because, a few weeks later, I saw on those very same spindly green stalks, a little bump of new growth. Each day the sprout grew longer. Leaves unfolded and then–a bud that just might be, could be–became a bud that became a bloom.

Of the many things we so easily, and foolishly forget, patience is high on the list. Freud said we never quite stop being infants. I have moments when I zoom back to my childhood when I wanted stuff NOW and if I didn’t get it NOW I was going to be miserable NOW and if I still didn’t get what I wanted right NOW I would do my best to make everyone else around me miserable until….

Fortunately I recognize the mood and frequently nip it in the bud, so to speak. But, with the garden, what I wanted was that feeling that, despite a blissful ignorance of horticultural science and a grudging aversion to taking advice from garden center experts, I was doing the right thing with a patch of ground in front of the house, and that earnest collaborations with nature, no matter how tentative, awkward or naive, can lead to something worthwhile.

This feeling has almost nothing to do with the plants and other living things in the soil. In truth, it has almost nothing to do with anything other than me. And like most other desirable feelings and pleasant emotional moods, it is more about what’s happening in my brain than the infinitely complicated interactions outside.

After all, there are far more blossoms blooming on this planet than human beings to see them, appreciate them or even scurrilously take credit for them.

So, once again, at an age when I thought the tremors and travails of youth had given way to hard-earned wisdom, I had to wait until a bunch of plants helped me learn, or rather, re-learn, patience, not just for processes beyond my control, but for a life that still offers subtle surprises, quiet delight and new growth, perhaps the most precious gift of all.