Spring reminds us of what is possible when we dig our fingers into the dirt. We don’t need much—a handful of earth, a little water, a few seeds, and a little faith in the sun.
Simple, right? Even I, an average rather than avid gardener, can make some things grow. I plant impatiens in my flower bed, and by midsummer I can step onto my porch, look over those red blossoms, and find joy on even the most mundane or stressful of days.
But it isn’t always that simple. Last summer, gardening blogs filled with warnings and advice after botanists cautioned that many supplies of impatiens carried a disease known as downy mildew. Even with the best care I can give my little flowers, I can’t always control what threatens them.
So I read everything I could about the disease, changed course a bit, relied on my next-door neighbor to help me care for both my flowers and her own, and hoped for the best. As it turns out, my garden thrived last year in spite of my anxiety. But as I pulled those plants from the bed in the fall, I knew that the results were as much a product of luck and circumstance as of anything I had done or hadn’t done.
I’ve thought about that a lot this spring as I’ve been surrounded more than usual by friends and acquaintances who are thinking of having babies, who will be having babies, who have just had babies, or who are nurturing babies who are turning into toddlers.
One woman close to me knows she wants children in a few years, but she often wonders aloud whether she will be too anxious to be a good mother. She is fearful of putting her hands into the dirt to plant those impatiens because of all the things that could go wrong.
Another woman is pregnant again after several miscarriages. She wants to hope that this baby will turn into the beautiful baby she imagines holding in her arms in a few months, but she’s already learned the heartbreaking loss of those impatiens that were just beginning to take root.
A third woman has recently given birth. She imagined more joy and fewer tears—at least from her own eyes—than reality has given her. Her hands are fully immersed in the dirt, she is watering the impatiens abundantly, knowing that the potential is there for those beautiful red blossoms. But it’s definitely more work than those carefree impatiens were supposed to be.
And another woman, who has a toddler, has learned both the agony and the ecstasy that is motherhood. But the earth has shifted under her feet as her marriage has dissolved. And she is now the gardener who must depend on the help of friends and neighbors to make those beautiful impatiens grow.
Inevitably, when our carefully nurtured lives don’t turn out as we had planned, we question ourselves and doubt our abilities and our own worth. And sometimes the world is quick to say I told you so. I told you that you should have cared for them in this way. And even I told you that you shouldn’t have planted those impatiens in the first place.
Though I’m a writer in love with words, I know that there’s very little that’s new that I could say about spring, about birth, about loss.
But because I’m a writer in love with words, I’m struck by how often a writer is able to speak those universal truths in interesting and insightful ways.
Last Sunday I heard guest minister John Bell, a pastor and musician from the Iona Community in Scotland, talk about a biblical story that anyone with even a passing familiarity with Christianity has heard—the story in John 9 about the blind man Christ heals on the Sabbath.
As I listened to the lectionary reading, I was struck anew by that description of Christ with a handful of earth, some spit, and a little faith.
Before he even put his hands into the dirt, even the disciples were asking, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Such a tragedy had to be someone’s fault. After Jesus heals the man, the church leaders chide him for the way he has done it—on the Sabbath. I imagine that there were also people in the crowd who were more than a little skeptical and maybe even a little nauseated that Jesus rubbed dirt drenched in his own spit on an unsuspecting blind man’s face.
Even before Reverend Bell finished reading the story, I was thinking about those impatiens and those women with their babies and their thoughts of babies. But then when he began to talk about the passage, I found that he gave words to what so many of us forget in the muck of our lives about the stories of God.
We may have a good life, Bell pointed out, but none of us gets it perfect. And anyone who thinks that we do just hasn’t read the Bible because every single story is about how none of us escapes pain, how none of us gets a perfect life. And it isn’t because we did something wrong or because our parents before us did something wrong. None of us has a perfect understanding of why things happen as they do.
Others before Bell have said this, of course. I think I may have even said something similar in a blog post or two. Perhaps it just sounded new to me because he delivered his message with such eloquence and passion. (And seasoning it with a dash of Scottish dialect added to the flavor, I must admit.)
Or perhaps the thought of mothers impatient with themselves made me hear the story afresh.
Or perhaps it was the thought of losing my ’patiens, as I so often do with my imperfect self and the imperfect gardeners around me.
But as I look toward spring and resurrection, I’m going to try to remember the possibilities of a few committed people who have the faith to spit into a handful of dirt.