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Category: Life Culture

On Gardens and Guardians and Nurturing Growth

March 28, 2024

I was at the U.N. the other day, which is not a sentence I ever expected I would say, although I have been pleasantly surprised throughout my life by getting to do many things I never expected. I was in New York; I was at the U.N., or at least I was just outside, and I was walking down East 44th, just around the corner from my hotel, around the block from the U.N. flags, within sight of the East River and Roosevelt Island and down the road from Grand Central Station. If I craned my neck just right, under the shadow of the Chrysler Building, or maybe the Empire State (for at ground level it is hard to tell what shadow falls over the length of asphalt on which we walk), and I found a small courtyard, mostly brick and steel and low benches and tall arches and a few spindly trees not yet blossoming, not yet blooming, not yet budding green leaves against the city shades of concrete and ash, and in one low, forgotten flower bed of half hard soil there was a tiny spear of color, a tender stem, a tenuous, almost translucent sliver of green—a delicate crocus just barely edging out of the ground. 

This is not why I was there. Of course not. The noticing of small and tender sprouts is hardly ever a cause for travel and tourism. No, I was attending meetings and panels and forums, briefings and discussions and presentations, but it was after lunch on a day that began long before breakfast, and I needed some air, some quiet, some peace, so I walked down the street and found a courtyard and in that courtyard a flowerbed and in that flowerbed a plant just beginning to unfurl, to wake from its long winter sleep.

It stayed with me all week. 

Not just the unexpectedness of it, the bright and beautiful metaphor of color springing up in the midst of the thrum of the city, amid the ever present movement and the way the buildings themselves seem to dominate the landscape and overpower anything small or slight or silent, not only the way it was pushing its way out of the ground with no consideration for the date or the temperature or the season, not only the metaphor of something so small making such a large impact, no, but for whatever reasons the sight of grass green growth against steel gray stone lingered, an image burned bright in my mind’s eye. 

I could not help but think not only of the contrast, but also of the way it was the shelter of the buildings that made that growth possible—the warmth of the city, the light reflected off the river, the bulbs planted by some optimistic soul who lived somewhere nearby. 

I believe that our human health and our environmental health, that our spiritual and physical well being, these concepts are interconnected and interdependent. I believe that there is very little that could be called chance or happenstance, although I do believe in the miracle that is serendipity. It is like planting. No matter how well thought out the plan, you never know quite what is going to grow and bloom and thrive. 

Gardening is, for me, a hobby, but more than that, it is a dedication, an observance,and sometimes a form of worship. And as I walked the halls of the U.N. later that day, and later that week I could not help but think about that comparison, could not stop contemplating the way things grow, could not stop comparing systems for planning with those for planting. I saw in all the ideas around me metaphors for devising ways to prune, plant, harvest, and even to eradicate the weeds, for weeds will grow, there are always weeds in the places we want to see full of bounty.

There were times in some of those meetings where I felt like I could only see the potential for the weeds. But we cannot simply decide that no weeds will be found in our gardens. We cannot focus so narrowly on eradicating the negative that we leave the ground empty and barren and desolate. If we do, we sentence ourselves to a lifetime of harrowing and hoeing, to endless spans of backbreaking, sweat-inducing, blister-filled labor. 

No, it is not in the removal of what we do not want that we find success. It is not in subtraction, but in addition. It is in abundance. It is in shaping the world with all the joy filled, hope lit, love laden acts we can manage. It is in nurturing plants that will thrive, in highlighting the positive, in noticing the worthy, in holding up the virtuous, it is through countless productive actions that we fill our gardens with bounty, that we choke out the weeds which would otherwise take over our untilled earth. 

Why do we not more often hold up the good, the amazing, the blessed, the divine? 

Why do we not turn to those things that bring into our lives wonder and pride and comfort and peace? Why do we instead insist on the ever-present anxiety of fear and hunger and violence and alarm?

I cannot remember all the things that I saw and heard while at the U.N. I cannot reconcile all the legislation discussed, motions passed, and language agreed upon and debated and ultimately discarded. But let me tell you what I do recall. 

I shared an elevator with a woman with blond hair and a blue power suit, a woman with kind eyes, and with a slow sort of midwestern drawl in her voice. She was smart but also wise, she was interested and interesting. She was a home economics teacher who had taken a passion for sewing and transformed it into a movement making menstrual kits for at-risk girls, into sewing lessons for teenagers and adults.

I shared an Uber with a woman in a long green dress and a beautiful blue scarf who spends her days working with Syrian refugees, teaching at refugee camps and schools and programs to help others learn. 

I shared a desk with a woman with short gray hair and a dark brown suit, a woman who told me she was from Germany, who offered me pins for my lanyard, who offered me her card, who offered me her story, who told me she was retired with her children and her grandchildren grown and with time suddenly her own and she wanted to help, she wanted to make a difference, she wanted to work at making the world a better place. 

Over a bin of oranges at the Amish Market I shared stories with women from Nigeria and from England and from India, all gathered in the same place to achieve different things, and we talked as we handed each other the best fruit, the ripest and most perfect produce. 

I walked the halls with women who were learning about ways to build wells, to build roads, to build communities from the ground up, brick by brick and block by block, and it is a wonderful thing, I think, to see. It is a sign of hope that from the bare bones of privation and poverty there is, all over the world, a participation, a prospering, a coming forth.

I shook hands with a man, a father, there to speak to the importance of fatherhood, to the joy of parenting, to the need to connect with our children in work and in play.  

I ran into a woman who shared my last name, and when we looked, when we investigated, when we traced our family lines we found that we share a common ancestor, a mutual great-great-grandfather, although we live on opposite sides of the world. 

I am a teacher, and I often look at the way that we learn and the way we progress from that perspective, I often consider growth from that point of view, and I think that in any kind of work sometimes the best we can hope for is not learning mastery of a subject but rather in finding the habit, the skill, and the desire to improve ourselves. We can hope for the ability to learn, the ability to see, the ability to receive in and from all of the many circles and communities we enter. 

We can hope for the ability to find joy and satisfaction and possibility as we nurture not only others, but ourselves.

There is an old nursery rhyme that springs to my mind, about growing gardens and contrary maidens and creating something out of all the found things—shells and rocks and seeds and sweat, and it is not an altogether inaccurate comparison, I don’t think, for what my week at the U.N. was like. We are all of us Mary, Mary, quite contrary. We take what the world is willing to give us and we hold it close and we hold it dear and we nurture it and we multiply it—we plant it deep in the ground and then we stand together, even as we stand apart, a row of women who are determined to make something beautiful out of the cold gray earth, and we look for the tiny tender things we can stumble upon if only we learn to slow down and look.

It is hard, sometimes, to reconcile the competing influences in our lives, to remember that although we live in a world in which great poverty and hunger exists, there are also people working to feed everyone they meet, that although violence leaves a dark and dismal shadow over what it touches there are also men and women who give of themselves and their substance, who freely bestow the things that are needed and needful and help others to thrive. 

I walk into these spaces aware of the politics and the legislation and the policy and the pressure and the fear, but I walk out of them so full of hope that I often anticipate it will spill, like sunlight, all over the precious, praiseworthy plots of plants I choose to grow.