If you follow me on Facebook you’re probably aware that our theme for April is Earth Month. My original plan was to offer some gardening-related tips and advice in today’s blog post, but to anyone who knows me well, that notion is spit-out-your-coffee laughable. To say that I do not have a green thumb is the understatement of the year. My best gardening advice is to never trust me with your plants.
Having said that, just because I seem incapable of growing things myself doesn’t mean I don’t have a deep appreciation for the things other people grow. In fact, I probably appreciate them even more because of my gardening “disability”. I enjoy having fresh cut flowers in my home while they last and like to admire other people’s gardens. Anyone who finds themselves with an over-abundance of fresh herbs or vegetables to share from their garden will find a grateful and enthusiastic taker here. I do have some azalea bushes and a rhododendron in my front yard and hydrangeas in my backyard that make me smile, partly because they remind me of my mother and partly because they seem to find a way to bloom beautifully year after year despite the fact that they live in my yard.
In any case, faced with a dearth of ideas on what to write about in this week’s blog on the topic of gardening and having some unexpected space in my daily routine yesterday, I decided to take a walk in the hopes that some sort of inspiration would jump into my path while I was admiring the fruits of other people’s labors in my neighborhood. And I did something I almost never do when going out for a walk on my own: I left my music at home and allowed the sounds around me to accompany my walk instead. It was an eye- (and ear-) opening experience.
I never realized before how much listening to music on my walks distracted me from connecting with the world around me. It sounds silly, now that I think of it, that I never noticed until now how much my music drowned out my environment and forced my focus inward. In fact, the purpose of my walks in the past has typically been more about de-stressing and processing what’s in my head and heart, whereas yesterday’s intention was to connect with my surroundings and let them lead my thoughts. It was pretty powerful.
I frankly expected this walk to be a little bit boring with all that open space in my mind, but I soon discovered how wrong I was. As I walked along the sidewalk leading up to my kids’ elementary school, I was greeted with a flood of memories...reminders of the many times I had walked my two now-teens to school as young children, of the conversations we’d had, of their joyfulness at meeting some of their friends along the way, of the worries I had often mulled over on my way home after dropping them off. Then I was drawn further back to my own childhood memories of climbing the small overgrown hill across from our bus stop to taste the honeysuckle before racing back down to the corner when the designated lookout shouted “BUS!” As I passed neighbors dutifully pruning and watering their carefully-tended gardens, I recalled my mother weeding the three round flower beds in our backyard and how my sisters and I still chuckle about the time we spotted our next door neighbor tending her garden in a white dress and high heels on her way in from church, such was her commitment to it.
As I turned the corner, I noticed the dandelions that had already turned white and remembered how we’d blow on them as kids, even though our parents told us not to...something kids still do today, and just as they no-doubt have done for centuries. There’s a comfort in knowing that we are connected down through the ages by a shared fascination with creation. When I was young, my father would take us backpacking. We’d go days at a time without seeing another living soul. I didn’t like that feeling of isolation, of separateness, of space between us and the rest of the world. But then I would imagine that we were treading upon the same land, surrounded by the same woods that native peoples and pioneers had trod upon two hundred years before us, and it reminded me that we were part of something eternal, something difficult to explain yet comforting that filled the gap between me and the rest of humanity in those lonely moments/
I took some time to appreciate the textures of the trees, which brought a smile to my lips. My father was also an avid amateur photographer when I was growing up and there were (and I assume still are) lots and lots (and lots) of photos of tree bark taken using a variety of shutter speeds and apertures among his vast slide collection. Remembering how I once stood for what seemed like hours in the snow, holding an umbrella over him and his camera equipment so that he could capture the May snow atop the fully blooming forsythia hedge in our backyard brought back warm thoughts as I continued on my breezy walk yesterday.
All these memories carried with them a tidal wave of mixed emotions that quickly filled every space within my brain. I felt love for my family and joy at recalling scenes from both childhood and young motherhood; regret over having missed out on potentially thousands of similar walks I didn’t take over the years because I was too busy, too lazy or too wrapped up in my own thoughts to pay attention; agonizing grief over the loss of loved ones now gone, opportunities missed with my children, time wasted worrying about trivial things; gratitude at the gift of this beautiful creation through which we are all connected; humility at realizing that I am but a tiny speck in this grand, great universe, yet awe that I was created with the same loving attention to detail as the itty bitty budding pinecones I had just inspected.
As I sat down to process all of these feelings, I noticed a hawk gliding through the air above the trees that circled the chain link fence surrounding a tennis court. The lack of music on this walk made space for me to discern the dichotomy of sounds I was hearing...birds chirping in the trees as well as a distant lawn mower. I turned over in my head these examples of nature contrasted with the signs of modern development and technology, coexisting in the beautiful setting of our neighborhood park. I stood up and continued down the paved path that led through the woods. The asphalt made this shortcut through a lovely secluded spot more navigable for walkers and bike-riders alike, yet there was little traffic. Again, man-made convenience and natural beauty occupying the same space. I was struck by how all these contrasting elements made my walk feel richer and more interesting somehow.
I don’t know if it’s just the organizer in me, or if it’s simply part of human nature to want to label everything we experience and put it neatly into its designated spot, leaving no spaces empty lest something uncategorized creep in there. I thought about where I’d file this walk. Does it fit most neatly under love, joy, regret, sorrow, guilt, gratitude, or humility? The answer is it was all of the above. It certainly wasn't what I expected it to be. It simultaneously made me both happy and sad. I mostly loved it but also didn't. Perhaps I can just let it be something undefinable, I thought. Why does everything have to be simplified and labeled? After all, life is complex...we are complex. Sometimes complexity is messy, but therein lies its beauty. How often do we lose out to our need to neaten it up? We ignore one thought, idea or emotion in favor of another because we feel like we can’t process both, instead of just living in that uncomfortable-yet-fascinating space in-between them? We label people, institutions, ideas and experiences as friend or foe, ally or adversary, acceptable or unacceptable, positive or negative, when the reality is that most of what we encounter in life is a mixture of both and of everything in-between.
My simple nature walk reminded me that just as the beauty of the rainbow lies in the wide range of its colors, the beauty of life is experienced through our ability to detect and savor all the subtle nuances contained within our relationships, emotions and experiences and to value each and every varying shade. I can love someone who has made me angry, be disappointed at the choices my children make and still be proud of who they are, disagree profoundly with my friend and still grow from all she continues to teach me, or recognize some positive quality in a person I find generally loathesome. I can wish for time alone yet be comforted by those constantly surrounding me. I can feel gratitude for all my blessings while working to bring about change, just as I can desire challenge while craving rest. Life is most fully lived and meaningful when we allow ourselves to exist in and experience those spaces in-between our labels.
When I was a child, I didn’t get why grownups wouldn’t want dandelions growing in their lawns:
“Because they’re weeds”, was the answer I was given.
“So?” I’d say, “They make the yard look pretty.”
“But they’re weeds,” my parents insisted.
Now I understand. We were both right. Even weeds can be pretty and even pretty things can be unwanted. Dandelions grow in the in-between spaces.
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Valerie Sheridan is a professional organizer, wife, mother of two, and Founder/Owner of EasyPeasy Living.