Hermann Hesse in the Imperfect Garden

Today is the birthday of German writer, Herman Hesse (1877-1962).  While many of my contemporaries were reading Siddhartha and Steppenwolf thanks to the writings of Timothy Leary and joining whatever was the counter-culture in the late 1960’s and 1970’s I was desperately trying to become a member of the Establishment, no dropping out or turning on or tuning in for me. Hesse and his works held no charm then. Life allows for the new…

It turns out that Hesse’s family was deeply involved with the Serbian Pietist church. His parents served at a mission in India. He attended seminary. While espousing a politics of detachment about Hitler’s regime, in 1933, he helped Bertold Brecht and Thomas Mann make their travel into exile from Nazi Germany. After receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946 he said, “Not the preached, but the practiced Christianity, among the powers that shaped and moulded me, has been the strongest”. .

And today’s quote from The Writer’s Almanac: “The world is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a path to perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment, every sin already carries grace in it.”

Neither the gardener or the garden is imperfect. Both are perfect at ever moment, however many weeds or straggly branches or extra pounds or unkempt beds, carrying grace within them.

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An imperfect, slightly out-of-focus, photo of a perfect flower.
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Radishes and Racism

A bouquet of radishes.
A bouquet of radishes.

The Charleston Massacre has gotten in the way. I originally intended to write about personal things using my garden and yard as a starting point and source of metaphor and meditation. The murder of nine people at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, has gotten in the way,

Yankees and Rebs was as much a part of childhood play when I was growing up as cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians.  The good guys were the Confederate Rebels because Kansas City was part of border state Missouri that was more southern than northern. There was no deep discussion but a good deal of romanticism. There were somehow still wounds from having been on the losing side; somehow the Yankees were still seen as oppressors.

Whenever any whiff of understanding about the burdens of being African-American pierced the veil of subtle white supremacy (the murder of Emmett Till, Brown v. Board of Education, Little Rock) it never really had anything to do with us. My mother had enough to worry about as a single parent and an uncertain blue collar job.

It was really only in the summer between my junior and senior years in high school that I began to understand. I went on a bus tour of the southeast United States organized by the Missouri synod of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I saw “white” and “colored” drinking fountains in Arkansas and the “white” and “colored” waiting rooms in the Montgomery, Alabama bus station. We stayed in dorms in predominantly black colleges including Tuskegee Institute and at Berea College. Even with that introduction to the segregated South I am embarrassed and ashamed to say that I never took part in any of the Civil Rights struggles. I became a Barry Goldwater conservative Republican.

Then as part of a college course I read the speeches of George Wallace and realized with sickening clarity that it was not about fiscal responsibility or small government, it was about racism. The only states right he and his followers cared about  was the right of state governments to keep Colored/Black/African-Americans in their place which meant out of white schools, neighborhoods, churches, swimming pools. It meant blaming them for the economic problems of poor whites. It meant not separate and equal but separate and inferior.

We thought the Voting Rights Act and other federal legislative and judicial and executive actions would move this country beyond that racism. Instead Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and their southern strategy made the party of Lincoln into the party Strom Thurmond and Ted Cruz. Racism became more subtle and genteel. The robes of the KKK were replaced by business suits. Voting rights protection were attacked. And many Southerners continued to see themselves as victims clinging to the Lost Cause and never looking at the reality of life in the slave-based economy that made possible their comfortable way of life and their fine mansions.

Now Mother Emanuel and the nine people martyred by a 21 year old white supremacist who wanted to start a race war. What to do? Begin by stripping away the romantic haze around the Confederate battle flag. Take it off state flags and pickup trucks and t-shirts. Let white people listen to what the emblem means to their African-American brothers and sisters. At a deeper level let us understand that racism is still alive and well and operating in our political and economic systems. How can we eliminate it if we won’t acknowledge it?

I really would have preferred to write about radishes today. For the first time I actually have a root crop that is thriving. Maybe it is the fertilizer I added or the cool, rainy weather. Whatever the reason, they are beautiful.

Today I ask God to give me the love and courage to confront my own prejudices and to not let the prejudice of others go unchallenged.

The Imperfect Gardener

This peony plant (genus Paeonia,family Paeoniaceae) suddenly appeared last spring. What an amazing gift.  It is covered in blossoms about to open. Peonies reportedly do not like to be moved. This one traveled.
This peony plant (genus Paeonia,family Paeoniaceae) suddenly appeared last spring. What an amazing gift. It is covered in blossoms about to open. Peonies reportedly do not like to be moved. This one traveled.

Gardening magazines are a snare and a delusion. I once watched photographers and set designers from a magazine set up my boss’s home for a “shoot.” They rearranged furniture, brought in flowers and vases, and put tropical plants just outside the doors and windows to make the rented house and garden look richer and fuller. Lovely yet gone once the people and the plants got in the truck and were driven away.

This spring and early summer have been wetter than normal. Some docks on the lake have floated away. Ours is partially underwater with cattails thrusting up between the planks. The grass grows luxuriantly. The dehumidifiers run nonstop. Things have gone unplanted. The clematis mingles with the strawberry vines because every time the guy who will put up the netting is scheduled to appear, it rains. There’s a truce in the war on the dandelions. No one would pay to come visit our garden. No magazine would feature it in its pages.

This small patch waits the attention of the helper to the imperfect gardener.
This small patch waits the attention of the helper to the imperfect gardener.

At the same time this is a wonderful garden. The peonies are about ready to pop including one that miraculously appeared in a bed devoted to an ornamental grass. While the rains have been beating down I’ve have been reading the daily emailed meditations of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar behind the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Rohr and St. Francis have provided solace for a gardener feeling less than diligent and dedicated.

All this week Rohr has been writing about perfection and imperfection. Yesterday he said, “If we expect or need things (including ourselves) to be perfect or even “to our liking,” we have created a certain plan for a very unhappy life.” Today he wrote, “Francis of Assisi, like Jesus, refused to exclude things from the garden of grace; there is no exclusionary instinct in either of them–except toward exclusion itself!”

The temptation of striving for perfection is one that calls to me even in the garden. “No weeds,” it says. “Everything neat,” it goes on. “If you only spend more time tidying and feeding and edging and trimming, you will have your perfect garden.” Behind that, of course, is the unspoken, “Beverly, if you only control your actions, eat properly, exercise more, you can be perfect.” Of course, even if I did all that I would still not be perfect because there are always more blanks to fill just as you can always find more work to do in a garden.

The sun is out. No rain in the forecast. Perhaps today the radishes will get thinned, the second group of gladioli planted, and bedding plants put in the window boxes. Maybe not. My imperfect garden will still be loved by its imperfect gardener.

A New Type of Bucket List for Retirement

Photo Credit: Dale Stout
Photo Credit: Dale Stout

The Bucket List (2007) “Two terminally ill men escape from a cancer ward and head off on a road trip with a wish list of to-dos before they die.” Rotten Tomatoes said that, “Not even the earnest performances of the two leads (Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson) can rescue The Bucket List from its schmaltzy script.” Schmaltzy it may have been but the phrase and the idea is now firmly planted in the culture.

It has become a topic of earnest conversation and contemplation, What would you do if you knew you were going to die? What would be on your to-do list? A kayak trip in British Columbia? Rafting through the Grand Canyon? Seeing every game of a World Series? The finals at Wimbledon? Opera in Milan? Gondola ride in Venice?

I’m developing a different kind of bucket list for this stage of my life. With paid, nine-to-five employment a thing of the past what am I going to give up, along with the salary, endless meetings and corporate backstabbing? My bucket list involves the things that I’m throwing in the bucket and pitching out of my life.

Here’s a beginning:

*  Worrying about how people think about the way I dress. In fact, worrying about how people think about whatever I do. Harder than it sounds, of course, but worth the effort.

*  The inner compulsion to say “Yes, of course” when people ask if I want to do a task or take on a job or go to a party. I’m practicing saying, “Thank you but no.”

*  Fingernail polish. It smells. It can’t be good for my nails or the environment and I have more interesting things to do with my time. Gardening for example which is hell on a manicure.

*  Regrets about what I have not done, not accomplished. Those various sins of commission or omission. I will ask for forgiveness and move on to doing what needs to be done today.

That’s my beginning. In the bucket and out the door.

No Tasks Are Simple

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This is the Renegade Spinach from High Mowing Organic Seeds that I was supposed to have planted.

Yesterday the task was to plant spinach. I knew exactly which bed it was to go into. Put the packet of fresh seeds, yard stick for measuring between rows, fertilizer (organic not petroleum-based), hoe and rake in the wheelbarrow and walked the 20 or 30 feet from the house to the raised beds that are my vegetable garden.

As soon as I got there Page called out, “Do you know where I can find the other glove?” Ready to mow the lawn, he was holding up one bedraggled garden glove. I had looked for its mate the day before with no luck. Put down my stuff and walk over to search for a pair other than the one I was wearing. Rejected two pairs of rubber kitchen gloves that I use to attack the poison ivy. We agree that we’ll need two pairs of new gloves. Back to the spinach when I spot a pair of gloves I had left there the other day. Back to Page with the gloves then back to the spinach. I had installed the plastic raised bed late last year. “Not enough dirt,” I realized after raking and hoeing. Back to Page. “I need to go to Hollande (the local garden store) for dirt and compost.” “You can’t,” he huffed. “I loaded all of the Civil War books in the trunk before I came down.” All meant the 28 volume Time-Life series on the Civil War. We decided to give them to a friend and Page had promised every day for the past week to put them in the car. Yes, I had nagged. He chose to do it today. No room for bags of dirt and compost. By the time the lawn was mowed and the books delivered (20 minute drive each way), I had dealt with PayPal and eBay, and he had sorted out a flim-flam transaction, we were both too tired to go to the garden store. This morning it is raining. The spinach seeds are still in the packet