My husband Chris and I joined a community garden this spring. We paid a fee that covers a year of rent for a plot at the garden of White Rock United Methodist Church, a community-oriented church in Dallas. For all of my experience dabbling in urban farming, windowsill and patio gardening, and gardening on 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 of performance and achievement, I have struggled with perfectionism since childhood. According to the stories my mother tells, 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. When practicing the piano in elementary and junior high school, I would often slam my hands on the piano and walk away in self-defeat if I couldn’t play something at least decently the second or third time after cracking open a new piece of music.
Rather than an appearance of tearful frustration at not getting something correct, my perfectionism post-adolescence manifests itself more in attempts to control a situation or even a person with unreasonable or not-so-compassionate standards or organization. If I’m being honest, in the midst of the rawness that marriage can bring forth in me as I navigate my own “stuff,” sometimes my very patient husband is caught in the line of fire, For me, perfectionism manifests internally as messages of “not enough,” in my relationships with work, with “life maintenance” activities like cleaning, cooking, financial management, etc., and most quietly but perhaps most agonizingly, in my relationship with my body.
Interestingly and paradoxically enough, I currently work as a chaplain, 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 who are deeply shaped by imperfect decisions, imperfect relationships with family, and imperfect or, in many cases, downright unjust, neglectful structures of society that affect their ability to live truly whole and healthy lives.
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 compassionate 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.”
Back to our new garden plot. 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, occasionally squealing with delight as we watched them grow from buried seed to sprout between February and March (OK, I did most of the squealing). As the spring carried on, we made weekly trips to the plot to weed, water, and watch the magic happen as the plants grew larger. We harvested spicy and sweet radishes and added them to salads and tacos. Strawberries began to pop out of their flowers. The squash plants extended their green stems outward as if they were yogis of the garden.
Since the recent onset of longer and hotter Texas summers, the garden is starting to look a little less, well, put together. Squash bugs have chewed many of the leaves on the squash plants despite using diatomaceous earth (a natural pesticide), and our attempts to squash 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.
I see a dance we all dance, between different responses when caring for imperfect beings, or in this case, imperfect natural spaces. On the one hand, it’s critically important to respond with care plans or actions that address and tend to the wounds that we all inevitably carry because of our varied circumstances. In the garden, if Chris and I do not water or mulch, do our best to get rid of the bugs (or at least attempt some sort of a compromise), or help the plants grow in a direction that reaches the light, we are not supporting their flourishing. In my work in the hospital, If I don’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. 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. We sometimes have to trust how God works in and through creation, gifting us with internal resources to bring about greater clarity, justice, and even healing.
Still, even as I share this I must admit that it is a maddening truth to accept. There is so much in this world that merits, that 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 in my thinking. I must shift away from a striving for a version of perfection that means without flaw to a perfection that acknowledges and strives for all of creation to flourish 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 my life, I bow in gratitude to the soil, the greenery, the vegetables, the patients, and my fellow human sojourners as they teach me what it means to tell the truth, to love more deeply, and to strive to become the person I am created to be.