I wrote this last year (June 2018) in my personal blog in the midst of midsummer gardening. Its lessons still hold true for me.
My husband Chris and I joined a community garden earlier this spring. We paid a fee that covers a year of “rent” for a plot at the garden of White Rock United Methodist Church, one of Dallas’ most community-oriented churches. After my varied experiences dabbling in urban farming, gardening on windowsills/patios, and gardening small plots or spaces with church communities, it feels right to finally have a plot of dirt that is solely my (and Chris’) responsibility to care for. Caring for this little slice of creation in concert with the sun, wind, rain, and occasional “dialogues” with insects who compete for food is a kind of messy spiritual practice for me. Sometimes it’s serene. Sometimes it’s hot and sweaty and frustrating.
Like many folks I know who have been shaped by American cultural values about performing and achieving well, I have struggled with perfectionism since childhood. According to stories told by my mother, I spent many a moment in tearful fits of frustration when learning to tie my shoes. As an infant, I took two years–well beyond the average for most babies– to fully walk because I was afraid to fall or bump into things. Similar reactions happened when practicing for piano lessons in elementary and junior high school: if I couldn’t play something at least decently the second or third time after cracking open a new piece of music, I would often slam my hands on the piano and walk away in self-defeat.
Rather than moments of anger at not getting something correct the first time–though this certainly still occurs, my perfectionism since childhood often manifests more in attempts to control a situation or even a person with unreasonable or not-so-compassionate standards, or kinds of “organizational modes” where I try and plan my way out of feeling anxious about the unknown. If I’m being honest, sometimes a very patient Chris becomes the person caught in the line of fire, in the midst of the rawness that marriage can bring forth in me as I navigate my own “stuff.”
Toward my own self, perfectionism looks like subtle internal messages of “not enough”: in my relationships with work; with “life maintenance” activities like cleaning, cooking, financial management, etc.; as I work on the part of me that is an activist, attempting to respond to what I see going on in the world; and most quietly but perhaps most sharply, in my relationship with my body.
Interestingly and paradoxically enough, I currently work as a chaplain in my day-to-day living, which requires my commitment to developing a posture of care that embraces a whole lot of imperfection.
I visit with people whose bodies are imperfect and whom are deeply shaped by imperfect decisions, relationships with family, and imperfect or, in many cases, downright unjust and neglectful structures of society that affect one’s ability to live a truly whole and healthy life. One of the hardest realities of my job, driven home during weekly reflection and seminar periods with my fellow chaplains-in-training, is knowing that not only can I not fix the circumstances of the patients I interact with, but it is not my job nor is it a very compassionate thing to even want to fix someone else. I recall a well-known quote from Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach: “The human soul does not want to be fixed, it wants simply to be seen and heard.”
Circle back to the garden. In mid-March, Chris and I enthusiastically prepped the soil, purchased tomato, eggplant, pepper and other summer garden staple plants, and planted them alongside some of the seedlings we grew ourselves on our apartment patio. We watered and cared for these seedlings like babies, occasionally squealing with delight (ok, I did most of the squealing) as we watched them grow from buried seeds to sprouts between February and March. As the spring season carried on, we made weekly trips to the plot to weed, water, and watch the magic happen as the plants grew larger, spicy and sweet radishes were harvested and added to salads and tacos, strawberries began to pop out of their flowers, and the squash plants extended their green stems outward like yogis of the soil.
Since the recent onset of longer and hotter Texas summer days, however, the plot is starting to look a little less… put together. Squash bugs have chewed many of the leaves on the squash plants despite using diatomaceous earth, a natural pesticide, and attempting to squash (no cheesy garden pun intended) whatever eggs we could find. The tomato plants have crowded each other a bit. The radishes are done, and the strawberries have mostly fried from the sun’s intensity. It’s easy to feel like a crappy gardener when I stand next to it.
I see a dance we all dance, between different responses when caring for imperfect beings or imperfect natural spaces like the garden. On the one hand, it’s critically important to respond with care plans or actions that address and tend to the wounds that others and ourselves inevitably carry because of our varied circumstances. In the garden, if Chris and I we didn’t water or mulch; if we didn’t do our best to get rid of the bugs (or at least attempt some sort of a compromise), or didn’t help the plants grow in a direction that reaches the light, we would not be doing our part to support their flourishing. In my work in the hospital, If I didn’t advocate for patients who feel alienated by diagnoses they don’t understand, or who are chronically ill because they live in cities whose political and social leaders do not invest in health in the ways that they need to, or remind a doctor to inform a person of their loved one’s death with more gentleness, I would not be a good chaplain. I’d be an awful one, in fact.
But I’m also increasingly aware that I must also balance my “interventions” with humility, with letting go, and without losing sight of the divine ability that created beings including folks in the hospital and gardens already contain within them. Despite all of my efforts to control what’s happening, the plants or the people are going to do what they do, in response to the sometimes natural and sometimes not so natural processes going on within and around them. I think we sometimes have to trust that they and we will use our God-given power and internal resources to bring about greater clarity, justice, hope, and even healing. Still, even as I share this, I must admit that I often find this a maddening truth to accept. There is so much in this world that merits–no, demands–our faithful response. And yet, we cannot do or be all of it.
I think you see where I’m going with this. There may not be an exact parallel of “imperfect garden, imperfect self” that I’m attempting to draw on here, and perhaps some of you reading find yourself further down one side or the other of this metaphorical scale. But the more I care for this little piece of earth I’ve been entrusted and the longer I learn how to care for myself, those around me, those I dislike, and the world to which I am called to partner in transforming, the more I learn the necessity of a shift. This shift looks like a shift away from a striving for perfection that looks like something without flaw, to more of a kind of perfection that acknowledges and strives for all of creation to live into its flourishing and fullness in the midst of flaw. For me, it means loving myself through the tears of frustration; loving my body even as I try and care for it with more mindfulness; loving the patients I support even when I can’t fix the insurmountable hardships that they often have to cope with; and yes, the small acts of loving and caring for my squash plants, green beans, and strawberries even when their leaves are yellow, crispy, or covered with bugs.
This dance we dance, swaying this way to respond with necessary urgent care and that way to step back, listen and trust– I pray that it transforms us. As it does its hard but necessary and revealing work on me and in my life, I bow in gratitude to the soil, the vegetables, the patients, and my fellow human sojourners who show me what it means to tell the truth, to love more deeply, and to strive to become the person I am created to be, however flawed.
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