Be the Old Man

When I shared the first roses from this year’s garden on my social media page, a dear friend posted a comment that I’ve been turning over in my head ever since. Call her a gardener. The seed she planted has germinated and is about to bloom right here on this page.

Referencing the beauty of my photographs, she said simply, “The reward for years of hard work in your garden.”

Well, yes. Hard work usually does result in a reward. In my garden, it’s roses. In my writing, it’s a book or blog that touches a reader. In my efforts to be kind, it’s a grateful smile on someone’s face.

Simple, right?

Well, it was … until my friend’s words began to mingle with a recent declaration made by someone else I know.

At the end of a rather long conversation, we got around to comparing our respective purposes in life. I explained my intent to make the world a better place by being a positive force. He thought that was nice and all. A pebble tossed in the middle of a lake eventually produces ripples that reach the opposite shore. But it wasn’t enough for my conversation mate. He has visions of making a bigger splash. Ideally, the pebble he tosses will be more like a boulder.

While cleaning out flower beds this week – an exercise that inevitably sparks rumination – I thought about the different ways each of us impacts the world. Some of us are content if our ripples encircle our family and friends. Some seek opportunities to improve their community. Some would love to see their name in the history books if only they could come back someday and take a look.

Wait.

What if we could come back someday?

Before you dismiss the possibility, here’s my disclaimer. You don’t have to believe in reincarnation or an afterlife. Or that aliens might whisk you away and later bring you home to a planet that has aged while you haven’t. Or that time travel is possible.

The theory of how it might happen doesn’t matter. All you have to do is imagine you’re here, let’s say 80 years in the future. What do you want to see? How do you hope to live? What do you envision is different?

Maybe your heart’s desire is to finally see the natural wonders of this planet. Maybe you want to live in a world where cancer doesn’t claim the people you love. Maybe you envision great leadership that brings people and nations together. Or maybe you just want everyone to have enough to eat.

Close your eyes for a minute and think about what would make life great in the 22nd Century. It doesn’t have to be something from my examples. There are a million other things you could choose. The only caveat is that your vision must be something that benefits some or all of us and harms none.

Got it? Now imagine you have the power to make it so. How? By planting the metaphorical seeds that will grow your dream.

You want to see the natural wonders of the world? Work toward preserving them. You want cancer to be curable or, better yet, nonexistent? Support cancer research. What about great leadership? Be an example of great leadership now or lend a hand to organizations that nurture future leaders. Food? The ways you can impact the availability of food are virtually endless.

Don’t spend a single second fretting that you’re just one person. Only a lucky few have ever changed the world single-handedly. Remember, in this exercise, we have 80 years for our visions to unfold. Eighty years for my ripples of kindness to merge with other ripples and become the gold standard. Eighty years for great leaders to mentor greater leaders. Eighty years for your heart’s desire to materialize.

Of course, it would be magical if all the good we collectively want could appear before our eyes right here, right now. But shouldn’t we be working toward the world we desire anyway? Shouldn’t we want future generations to enjoy the fruits of our labor?

You’ve heard the Greek proverb. “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.” The unspoken message is that someday someone else will enjoy the shade.

Imagine you’re the someone else. Then be the old man. It’s that simple.

 

You May Say I’m a Dreamer

Spring in the garden is rolling out just as Mother Nature intended.

The daffodils, crocus, and tulips were the first to emerge from their winter sleep, dotting the landscape with pastel splashes of hope. As they took their last bows, the crabapple trees and lilacs burst onstage with showy displays of pink, magenta, purple, and white. Today the moonlight and lydia broom are happily hosting honeybees in their cheerful, yellow blossoms. Perhaps tomorrow the roses will bloom.

Every year I watch this gradual awakening in amazement. Every living thing in the garden knows its purpose and its time. It’s the most harmonious thing I’ve ever seen. It reminds me of a fine orchestra playing a classic symphony. The woodwinds, strings, percussion, and brass all have unique parts in the arrangement but somehow manage to blend together in consummate crescendo.

I’d like to say that this picture brings pleasant music to my heart and my lips – perhaps Pete Seeger’s 1962 Turn, Turn, Turn or John Denver’s 1971 Sunshine on My Shoulders. Normally, I think it would. But today it makes me sad – sad that the same sweet harmony I see in my garden is not likely to ever roll across humanity and push society forward in a way that benefits all.

All the hate and fighting that has tainted our world for centuries is finding fresh, new battlegrounds every day. Whether the issue is politics, religion, disease, natural disasters, power or money, humankind uses it as fodder for more division, more blame, more discord. It seems there is no appetite in this world for peace, or at least there is not enough hunger for it.

Even I – a self-described Pollyanna – am having trouble seeing a way out of the darkness that’s enveloping every corner of the planet. Each day it gets harder to look at the bright side of life, harder to share the joy that can still be found if we care to look for it. It’s disheartening, to be sure.

And yet, I persist. Because that is my purpose. I’ve spent most of my life trying to make the world a better place by helping others, writing stories laced with lessons, and otherwise letting my light shine. When God assigned me to this Earth, He put a pen in my pocket, a smile on my face, and a kind word on my lips. This is no time to throw away my tools and give up.

Like the plants in my garden and the instruments in an orchestra, I will continue to play my part. I can only hope that what I do – and what others like me also do – brings some measure of peace to this troubled world. Even if I write only one story that inspires someone, share one smile that comforts someone, or say one kind word that encourages someone, it will be worth the effort.

Maybe I’m ready for a song now. With thanks to John Lennon … “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.”

For Opal

Winter is generally viewed as the rose garden’s season of rest and, therefore, the gardener’s.

This may be true for roses. The physiology of their purposeful hibernation reminds me of the grizzly and the groundhog. But it is not entirely true for the gardener.

In the high desert, where precipitation isn’t dependable, we keep a watchful eye on the weather. If it hasn’t rained or snowed measurably for a couple of weeks, we’re outside with the hose and watering can. If the wind scatters the mulch we so carefully spread in the fall, we’re likely to throw on a jacket and rummage around in the shed for a rake.

The roses don’t ask for this help. But they need it just as surely as they need pruning and fertilizer in other seasons. The key for the gardener is to pay attention.

The same is true for friendships.

It’s easy to respond when someone reaches out for a helping hand or a strong shoulder. How many of us have gladly sat with a friend during the grueling hours of chemotherapy, provided care for children or pets, cooked a meal, run an errand, or joined in a prayer chain at church or on social media?

But what about those friends who don’t reach out?

This month I lost a friend who I didn’t even realize was gravely ill. Oh, I knew she’d been diagnosed with cancer a couple of years ago. But the last time we talked about it, she was in remission.

Her occasional posts on social media in recent weeks didn’t hint that anything was amiss — an eagle atop a flagpole, an old photo of her and her husband on their anniversary, family memories. Not a word about her health. And I didn’t ask.

Then came the news she had passed away. On her 66th birthday.

My sadness was magnified by my unintentional neglect. In this day and age, there’s no excuse for silence even when hundreds of miles separate you. A text is as easy to send, a call as easy to make, when you don’t know someone needs you as it is when you do.

This is my apology to Opal for not paying attention, for not sending that text. It’s also my heartfelt thanks to her for living a life that reminded me and all who knew her that it is good to be cheerful and kind, calm and wise, and that hope and laughter are always in season.

Opal, your long winter is over. It’s always springtime in Heaven. See you there one day, dear friend.

One Beautiful Thing

George Burns is a lovely, striped rose my sister bought for me a decade ago during one of her visits to Nevada. At the time, she wanted one for herself as well. That is, until the owner of the local nursery said the bush wouldn’t produce the same colors in Oregon.

This past season, George Burns was among the first of my rose bushes to recover from a late freeze and produce a bloom. I almost missed it since the bud formed in a sheltered niche among some low, leafy canes. I spotted it on the 7th of June just after it burst.

To my surprise, the flower was not the splash of red and white I’ve come to expect from this bush. It was red and yellow – the colors the nursery owner predicted for Oregon growers.

It didn’t take long to figure out the reason. It was the rain – lots of it – that came to the high desert over the winter and early spring. Mother Nature changed the pigment of the petals much like an artist adjusts the pigment of watercolors by adding more paint or more water to the canvas.

I don’t presume to understand the science of how a flower reacts to moisture in such a stunning way. All I know is that it clearly does. When I looked at the same blossom after 12 days of clear skies, with only our drip system sustaining the bush, the yellow had given way to almost pure white.

Whether one prefers red paired with yellow or paired with white on a George Burns bush is of little consequence in this story. Rather, it is the simple understanding that what any living thing receives in the way of sustenance will surely color its existence.

Knowing this puts a profound burden on we humans, don’t you think?

If we understand that what we consume plays a big role in determining our health, doesn’t it follow that we should choose what we eat and drink carefully? If we understand that words and deeds make a difference in how we feel and whether we thrive, doesn’t it follow that we should be kind to ourselves and, likewise, speak and act with kindness toward others?

Yet, too often we don’t behave in a way that reflects this understanding. We don’t treat ourselves or those around us with the care we should. The upshot is that we don’t live the best life we can, and we miss opportunities to lift others up so they have a better chance of living theirs.

It’s not a failure per se. It’s human nature – especially when a thousand random things in a fast-paced, complex world affect our actions and reactions.

Still, wouldn’t it be lovely if we could slow down, if only for a little while each day, to make sure we do at least one beautiful thing for ourselves and one beautiful thing for someone else?

Like the colors of my George Burns rose, the result could be stunning.

 

 

Never Give Up – A New Perspective

About this time last year, I wrote enthusiastically about reviving a “little twig of a rosebush” that was struggling in our front yard (Never Give Up). It had responded to my attention by producing two small, yellow blossoms. I couldn’t wait to see what heights it might reach the next season.

Alas, the little twig remained a little twig throughout this past spring. It greened up when the weather warmed, but that’s all it managed to do. It didn’t sprout new growth. It didn’t create new buds. It seemed to simply be baking in the direct Nevada sun.

I don’t easily give up on roses, and I didn’t give up on this one. Carefully, I dug it up, potted it in premium soil mix, and carried it around back to my Secret Garden. Beneath the arching vines of a Lady Banks rose, I found a shady spot for it to regenerate. If magic could happen anywhere, I thought, it would be next to a statue of Little Red Riding Hood and a stepping stone stamped with the Frog Prince.

It took some time, but the magic happened. The little twig grew into a miniature version of the bush I know it aspires to be. Then, just as summer began to wane, it produced a bud.

I debated at length whether to get it back in the ground before the weather turned. Ultimately, I decided to let it winter in our guest room. There, it basks in the morning sun that streams through the east-facing window. It continues to sprout new foliage, and I’m anxiously waiting to see whether the sole bud will finally open.

As I light-heartedly wrote a year ago this month, the saga of my little yellow rosebush reminds me of the “never give up, never surrender” tagline of the cheesy Captain Jason Nesmith in the space spoof Galaxy Quest. It still does, but the passage of time has led me to another, deeper conclusion.

That little rosebush seems to know something most of us aren’t so sure of – its reason for being here. The purpose of its life. Its destiny. To produce a flower – a short-lived thing of beauty in the span of humanity but a source of joy for those lucky enough to behold it. A source of nourishment for the bees and butterflies that seek its nectar. A source of life carried on the wings of those amazing pollinators.

Am I saying that my rosebush is a sentient being capable of understanding its purpose on an intellectual level? Not necessarily but, if so, then it’s more advanced than we humans. Our intellect actually seems to get in the way of understanding our purpose. I’d like to suggest that maybe it’s not as complicated as we think.

What if our purpose, metaphorically speaking, is the same as the rose? What if we are simply here to create beauty, spread joy, and nourish each other’s minds, bodies and hearts in all the ways we need nourishment? What if our purpose is to send a life-affirming legacy into the future on the wings of the next, amazing generation?

And what if we never, for one minute, gave up our quest to fulfill that purpose?

Be Kind, Show Love

Some of the prettiest roses I’ve seen in my neck of the woods aren’t in my backyard. The Carson-Tahoe Cancer Center in nearby Carson City has dozens of bushes.

Many circling the hillside complex are polyantha roses – compact puffs of landscaping fillers that faithfully produce small blooms all summer. Because all of them are red, I like to imagine that the designer thoughtfully chose a particular variety named after the character Happy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Other bushes placed in a special garden and in beds near the main entrance comprise a pleasant mix of low-growing floribunda and taller hybrid tea and grandiflora roses. There are no name plaques but, in my walks around the complex, I’ve pondered how the different colors represent a range of warm emotions – love, sympathy, friendship, appreciation, joy.

You may think this is a surprising place to find comfort and peace – in this landscape surrounding an institution where very sick people come to receive sometimes very unpleasant treatments – but I’m not surprised at all. Every square inch of the property was intentionally designed to nurture hurting souls.

The building itself was designed that way as well. Patients receiving infusions sit by a semi-circle of picture windows looking out over the city or woodlands. Strategically hung birdfeeders provide hours of entertainment – because that’s how long some treatments take. Huge stone fireplaces in comfortable waiting rooms generate the best kind of warmth on chilly days.

And, most important of all, kindness circulates in the hallways, offices, and waiting rooms like the soothing smell of your grandmother’s kitchen on a Sunday afternoon.

I have to admit, I wasn’t particularly enamored of the place the first time I had to visit after receiving a diagnosis of early stage breast cancer. In the two years since, I’ve come to appreciate my visits and have willingly spent extra hours inside the building and wandering the grounds while supporting others on their arduous paths through cancer.

The lesson I’ve learned there is that, no matter how fundamentally dreadful the purpose of a place might be, it can still be surrounded by and filled with the best humankind has to offer. The question I’ve come to contemplate is why can’t the best of humankind be replicated in every home, every community, and every place of business on earth?

For a shining period in my 50s, I worked for an organization that was led by the most empowering leader I’ve ever known. He set an example of cooperation, teamwork, mutual support, and simply being kind to one another that was unmatched in my 37-year career. His primary rules for the office were “no mean, no loud, no negative.” His parting words (when the Governor wisely asked him to come and run his office) were “be kind, show love.” The fact that his approach worked was evident in the volume and the quality of our outcomes. Hands down, I did my best work there. I ended up transferring and then taking early retirement when his successor took the polar opposite approach to management.

Circling back to the question that sometimes keeps me awake at night, why does an inspiring environment have to be as rare as the mythical Brigadoon? What stops us from regularly bringing our best selves to our marriages, our parenting, our interactions with neighbors, and our careers? Why is it ever OK to be mean, loud, and negative? I honestly don’t know. But here’s what I do know.

If a fundamentally dreadful place like a cancer center can create an inviting atmosphere – one that exudes peace and compassion – then it can’t be that difficult anywhere else. I have the power. You have the power. We all have the power to fill our homes, communities, and businesses with the very best humankind has to offer. It’s not up to anyone else, and it’s as simple as my former leader’s parting words.

“Be kind, show love.”

The Joy of Pruning

Roses take care of themselves.

That’s what I used to tell people who admired my garden. After growing these classic flowers for 17 years, I’ve stopped saying it.

As it turns out, roses do need a helping hand to reach and maintain their full, beautiful potential.

Years ago in Portland, I watched our next-door neighbor prune his roses to the crown every fall. Every spring they came back with vigor. Perhaps I should have taken the hint but, when I began to grow roses myself, I didn’t want to start over every year. I wanted my roses to grow tall and lush and fill our backyard with color and fragrance. To that end, I shunned heavy pruning in favor of trimming off dead wood.

My approach seemingly worked just fine … until now.

This year I noticed that some of my biggest bushes generated very few blooms. Most notably, my Peace rose managed only half a dozen flowers. Its descendant, Love and Peace, struggled to produce two.

When I went hunting for reasons, neglect turned up as the likely culprit. I’ve always known that roses need air circulation. That’s why there’s plenty of room around mine. What I missed was the need for air circulation inside them.

So this week I’ve been pruning with newfound passion. I looked for old wood and for canes rubbing against each other. I created space inside the bushes by trimming in a vase shape as experts recommend. In some cases, I also pruned for height. I ended up with a truckload of debris and a joyful heart.

I won’t see the end result of my effort until next spring, but I’m confident I did the right thing. I’m sure of this not only because of the research I’ve done about roses, but because of all the relatable experiences that crossed my mind while pruning.

In every aspect of life, allowing things to get out of control brings adverse consequences. Some variation on pruning is almost always the first, most logical response.

Suppose you accumulate too much debt? Something has to give in order to pay it off. Most people go straight to their budget and start cutting discretionary expenses.

Suppose you’ve accumulated so many things that your home has become a cluttered mess? When you tire of it, you’ll likely go through the house sorting things into keep, sell, throw-away, and give-away piles.

Pruning is a must in large-scale problems, too. Plastic languishing in landfills? Reject plastic bags and take reusable ones to the grocery store. Man-made carbon upsetting the balance of nature? Reduce the emissions from fossil fuels.

Virtually everything we do in the garden and in life requires us to build and prune, rebuild and prune again. What I’ve learned this summer is that we shouldn’t be afraid to do it … and do it with the joy that comes in knowing you’re doing the right thing.

(Check with your local nursery or chapter of the American Rose Society to learn about recommended pruning times in your planting zone. Heavy fall pruning is not standard in most areas where freezing winter temperatures are common. In fact, it is not typically recommended where I live, but this year I felt the benefits outweighed the risks in my garden.)

Bloom Even If No One Is Watching

In the spring when I walk through my rose garden, I often feel overwhelmed with the abundance of blooms and explosion of color. I raise my arms in joyful awe while uttering delighted oohs and aahs that must make my neighbors wonder what’s happening on the other side of the fence.

This time of year the experience is much more placid.

The bushes are drifting off to sleep. The smattering of late buds tease me as they take their sweet time to open. I watch them daily like a mother bird waiting for eggs to hatch. Typically, I know where each and every one is incubating, and I’m poised to greet them when they burst into breathtaking splendor.

Despite my tender devotion, twice in the last week I walked right past hidden jewels.

On Monday, I was taking a second lap around the garden when a bright splash of red deep in a Sedona bush caught my eye. Two days later, as I was evaluating my George Burns for fall pruning, a white and red blossom tucked into the canes near the crown surprised me. In both cases, I whispered sweet nothings to the flowers and stroked the soft petals as though they might be the last I would touch in my lifetime.

If I had never seen them at all, it would have been a shame. But, I realized, only a shame for me. The roses may have basked in the shower of my adoration, but they quite obviously didn’t need it to bloom. They did exactly what they were born to do, and did it remarkably well, without so much as a glance from the gardener.

I wondered. Do I have as much humility? Would I spend time writing a blog and a full-length novel, growing flowers and taking pictures of them, if I didn’t expect someone to appreciate the result? Is it all about attention and approval? Or, as some say, is it really the journey that matters?

After deep reflection, I’m convinced it’s about the journey.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good pat on the back as much as the next guy or gal. I feel fulfilled when someone is moved by something I’ve written. The point is, though, I wouldn’t stop doing what I do if no one was looking.

In the hierarchy of life’s hallowed purposes, embracing our unique gifts is second only to sharing love. In fact, in its own way, exercising our gifts is an expression of love. Love for the source of the gifts – whatever you believe that source happens to be – and love for the singular soul you are.

Every word I write, rose I nurture, and picture I take contributes to my growth as an individual. I understand myself better, have more insight about the reason I’m here, and feel more at peace. With all that as the reward, I would truly be content to bloom unseen for the remainder of my days. In so doing, if I touch someone’s heart, all the better.

Thanks so much for reading.

Trust the Gardener

“My roses seemed oblivious to the drama.”

I made that observation in my last post (Keep Calm and Carry On) while describing my unfortunate encounter with fungi in the garden this summer.

Today, while continuing my work to treat the problem, I also continued to wonder why the roses were blooming so beautifully despite the attack by an enemy I’ve nicknamed unscrupulous slime balls. Unbidden, the words …

Trust the Gardener

… suddenly floated across my thoughts as if the whispering voice from Field of Dreams dropped in from Iowa. Just like the astonished Kevin Costner character, I spent the rest of my morning trying to figure out what exactly the voice meant.

Are my roses blooming because they trust me to worry about and address the nasty organisms assaulting their foliage? If so, I’d like to think they’ve put their trust in the right person. I love each and every one of those bushes in equal measure and would do just about anything to help them thrive.

But then, I thought, what if the voice was not answering my question about the roses but talking to me? Advising me?

I was raised in a Christian household, although I can’t say we consistently attended church or knew a whole lot about what’s in the Bible. I wouldn’t call our family religious then. And I’m not religious now.

What I am is someone who passionately believes in a higher power. Whether it’s the universe, the collective unconscious, the force, or the Good Lord Himself, there is a sacred, spiritual energy that connects everything. Love and goodwill run through it like currents in a river, and it grows stronger when we link into it through prayers and positive thoughts. I have faith that it’s there because I feel it.

Maybe the voice among the roses this morning was reminding me to trust this higher power that I so strongly believe in. Trust that I’m not alone in my struggle with the fungi … or in any of the struggles in my life … or even in coping with “the overwhelming level of ugliness that exists in our world today” (as I wrote in my last post).

Interestingly enough, for someone who doesn’t know a whole lot about the Bible, one verse I do know is this: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the Gardener” (John 15:1). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it came to mind this morning not long after the voice whispered in my ear.

There really is a great deal of comfort in knowing that someone’s got your back. Metaphorically speaking, I’ve got my roses’ backs. Spiritually speaking, the Gardener has my back … and yours.

Trust the Gardener

Keep Calm and Carry On

Powdery mildew. Black spot. Rust. These are not conditions a rose enthusiast wants to see in the garden. They’re all forms of fungal disease and, unfortunately, my roses were hit this year.

I’d like to say that the first thing I did after discovering there was a problem was to identify the source and fix it. You know what they say about any kind of hole you want to crawl out of. Stop digging, for crying out loud.

Alas, my first reaction was to literally cry out loud.

When I collected myself and did my due diligence, I realized we needed to reprogram the entire drip system. The roses were getting watered in the early evening along with everything else on the property that likes a little drink before bedtime. Roses prefer their brandy in the morning, thank you very much. It turns out, evening binges leave them with a nasty hangover and vulnerable to any sleazy fungi loitering around looking for an opportunity to stake their claim.

Reprogramming the drip system probably sounds easy-peasy … if you’re high-tech savvy. When I was a kid, adjusting the water meant moving a sprinkler from one side of the lawn to the other. Now it means entering numbers into something that looks like a bomb detonator. You have to know what sequence affects which drippers and whether to include said sequence in Program A, B or C. One mistake can foul up the whole thing.

For a 65-year-old who’s still trying to figure out how to stop text alerts after 9 p.m., the prospect of reprogramming the drip was paralyzing. Here’s where I pause and extend a thousand thank yous to my husband who did battle with the blasted thing for me … twice!

Arresting the source of the problem was only the first step, of course. Then I had to play surgeon and remove the diseased foliage. Next I tapped into my inner fireman and sprayed the bushes with some healing mist (an organic brand that promises not to kill bees or animals or humans along with the sleazy fungi).

All the while this was happening, I couldn’t help but notice that my roses seemed oblivious to the drama. They calmly continued to produce new foliage, grow new buds, and take my breath away with spectacular blooms. They continued to live their beautiful life despite the ugliness that threatened them. It was like they inherently knew what we humans must see repeatedly in memes and on coffee mugs, posters, and t-shirts before we realize the genuine wisdom embedded in it.

Keep calm and carry on.

It might seem impossible to live a beautiful life with the overwhelming level of ugliness that exists in our world today. I don’t need to waste space here to list the maladies. You know them by heart.

The question is, can we also teach our hearts to memorize the goodness that surrounds us? Can we still grow, learn, and bloom despite the drama? Can we spend every day spraying our personal healing mist on those around us to make their world just a little more beautiful?

I’d like to think we can.