"'That is very well put,' said Candide, 'but we must go and cultivate our garden.'"
- The final line of Voltaire's Candide
Out of all the books I read while in the Great Books program at my alma mater, Voltaire's Candide is at the top of my list of favorites. It's an odd choice, I think, compared with the ones my peers and other readers of the program might choose, and to be honest, I don't remember much of the substance of the work anymore. But every now and then, that last line comes back to haunt me. It sneaks up in my memory and finds a place in the life I'm living today, and I think that's the mark of a good book.
This spring, my dad came over to our house and helped me build a raised bed in our backyard. The end result is kind of a monstrosity -- I can't remember how many bags of dirt it wound up taking to fill -- but I'm proud of it. It's something I helped drill with my own hands, something my dad and I did together, something I spent an entire day working on without the presence of a computer or a phone. I think I'll remember that day for a long time, both for the end result and for the joy of working alongside my father.
I am not a green thumb. Most of the plants I buy wind up dying, often quickly, but sometimes in a slow, probably painful way. I start off strong, inspired, undoubtedly, by some magazine article or the success of a friend. Eventually, the excitement wanes, or worse, passes, and I throw the plants away, so content with my own mediocrity I'm satisfied if they even survived half the season.
This reputation with plants earned me a lot of well-deserved caution before embarking on my first vegetable garden. My dad checked with me over and over again to be sure I thought I'd have time to water it, cultivate it. Of course! It was spring, and everything felt new, and I had a fun job, and life was settling down. My friends were moving, and I distinctly remember saying something along the lines of, "If I can't take care of people, I might as well take care of plants."
Fast forward to this summer, when I've had anything but time. I can hardly remember this spring, when I planted flower seeds alongside my mother and vegetable plants with my father. I can barely remember what it's like to dig deep in dirt with my hands, to wait with patience for the end result. It feels like years ago instead of months, and yet, each day, I'm picking tomatoes from plants I planted.
It's a summer miracle.
Back in April, I planted strawberries and tomatoes, squash and cucumbers. I also planted zinnia and sunflower seeds, just for kicks. My strawberries were planted too late, but see that picture up there? That was my one, beautiful strawberry, and it was delicious.
The squash... Well, it's been kind of hot. And I got one abnormal looking squash before the whole thing wound up looking like that vine Jonah watched a worm eat. My cucumbers, though, are growing; they're not pretty, but the few I've had taste good, just like the prettier varieties I see at the grocery store.
And the tomatoes? Well, I've got those by the dozens, and they're all beautiful and amazing and I could bite right into them they taste so good. I can't describe how happy it makes me to pick a tomato I grew, to eat it on a sandwich or cut it up for a salad. It feels miraculous and magical, and I feel like I partnered with both my fathers to make something pretty incredible.
This summer has not at all been what I expected, intended, or planned. It has been chaotic and stressful and tearful and hard, and I almost forgot about the simple summer I had envisioned -- one filled with home-cooked meals and home-grown vegetables.
But then, last week I found out my dad was coming over to check on my garden. (I had a bug problem that needed investigating.) So when I pulled in from work, I didn't go straight to the couch or to the TV or to Netflix or to bed or to put my PJs on. I walked over to my not-exactly-well-tended garden, and I got to work. I pulled weeds and mixed up the earth and threw my long-ago-dead squash into the garbage can. I cultivated my garden, just like Voltaire and my father and his father and the Father suggested I do, and you know what? I felt better. For 30 minutes (though I never did look at a clock), I worked my little patch of land, and I forgot that my friends had moved, that my job was a mess, and that my church life was falling apart. Instead, I saw proof that God is faithful -- the garden is faithful -- even when I am not.
I looked up from my garden, and across the driveway, in another strip of dirt long forgotten -- never watered -- I saw my zinnias, popping up, one by one.
My grandfather, the greenest thumb of them all, had a metal sign propped up in his garden while I was growing up. "He who plants a garden works hand in hand with God."
I couldn't have put it better myself.