I don’t know anything about birds. But there are some mornings, especially in late winter and early spring, when I will go out on the front porch, cup of hot coffee in hand, and sit for long periods of time listening to the sound of the occasional passing car and the songs of birds. So many birds. Some days, I feel like there must be a hundred of them, all singing over one another, competing for attention. There is a strange peace in the raucous and it can be overwhelming sometimes, so much so that I force myself to inhale, taking in a long deep breath to relieve the emotion that grows in my chest. Sometimes, sitting on that porch and looking out through the trees across the field toward the mountains, I wonder about the existence of a higher power because the beauty in it all is beyond description. I start to ask myself what I might have done to deserve all of this, but I quickly shake that thought off, instead exhaling with gratitude that I am sitting here, taking it all in.
My son reckons there are probably 150 trees on our property, and easily a dozen different species. Most of the trees are pines and oaks, but there are also olive, almond and a few blossoms. We planted fruit trees early in the spring: orange, peach, apple, and fig. Before we moved out to the country, we lived in a smaller townhouse with a tiny garden. I loved that garden and nurtured it like it was another child. I found great peace in watering my plants at night after sundown, or replanting the occasional one when it would outgrow its pot. We discovered shortly after we moved in that there was a small rose bush hidden in the corner that hadn’t been tended to for a long time. I gave those roses tons of love for four years, and not only brought it back but helped it thrive. During our last spring in that house, we must have had hundreds of gorgeous red roses. Gardening is like having children in that it is an act of generosity, great responsibility, and tremendous hope for the future. In gardening, as in parenting, in spite of our best intentions, we sometimes make mistakes as we learn about what makes these creatures thrive. We tend to them when they are ill, we watch them grow from seedlings to full blown plants. My children have grown up watching me take care of garden after garden, so it is incredibly gratifying to see them now, young adults, finding their versions of hope as they plant and care for their own gardens.
Back in mid-March, when the country closed down for what would be a 12 week confinement, I gave my 16 year old a small gardening kit, with soil, fertilizer and seeds. He would come downstairs every morning before starting online school to check for progress. After a couple of weeks, the tiniest green stems pushed their way up through the dirt, and from that moment, he was hooked. When his older brother saw what was happening, the two of them started to dream big. The seedlings grew and needed replanting. The boys bought bigger pots, more seeds, and soil. We eventually bought a small greenhouse, and after a short while, the plants outgrew the greenhouse. Not all of the seeds they planted over the weeks took, but the survivors today include two small lemon trees, two avocados, and a large tomato orchard.
Meanwhile, my daughter bought a single, tiny 99-cent cactus at the plant store. She brought it home, put it in a bigger pot, and over time watched it grow. Several weeks later, there are now close to twenty cactus plants on our front porch. I tease the kids, telling them they are addicted to gardening. But it isn’t the plants they are addicted to… it’s the way wilting leaves will perk up when they give them water, the feel of the cool soil on their fingers as they repot a plant that is outgrowing its container, the way a cactus surprises them with a flower they weren’t expecting, or when, after months of waiting, they finally discover two tiny tomatoes growing on the vines. Gardening is love, it is optimism. In a way, it’s spiritual, and involves faith in goodness, in possibility, in continuity, recovery, and life. It is the one thing that – during the Time of COVID, when nothing else has seemed to go as planned – has kept them grounded in hope for the future.
For about three months, we had more people at home than we ever intended for the house to hold at once. It’s not a small space, with five bedrooms, and a large garden. But when we bought it last year, we never imagined that only a few months later, we would have five of our six children home for an extended time. This meant studying at the kitchen table, sleeping on the sofa bed, taking turns using the bathrooms, working from the garage. It also meant eating meals together, playing basketball and playstation together, watching movies together, and doing house chores as a family. At 16, 18, 18, 20, and 25, our children all had their own challenges and milestones to get through during this crazy time. Our youngest turned 16 in lockdown, isolated from his friends and his girlfriend for months. Our daughters finished their senior year at home with no prom, no final celebrations, and no IB exams to boot. At least they were among the few to have a live graduation. Our college-aged sons finished their freshman and junior years at home, online, during odd hours of the day. Never once did these kids moan, whine, mope, or complain about their circumstances. Instead, they took whatever they were feeling and channeled it into creating a cactus garden, planting a tomato orchard, building a handmade birdhouse and a wooden pergola, learning to bake and cook new foods, and training to be able to dunk a basketball.
See, at the end of the day, this story is not about gardening. It’s about hope, optimism, and faith. It’s about having enough confidence in the future that you can see through the challenges of today. And that confidence in turn allows you to live and breathe this moment as it is. Of course we sometimes long for a fast-forward, but we don’t waste too much energy wishing for the next thing. Instead, we try to take each day as it comes, and make it count, because we have faith in the idea that a well-lived today will invariably create a better tomorrow.
We have sat on the front porch together a lot in the last few months. Sometimes we tell stories, sometimes we dream aloud. Sometimes we sit quietly and listen to the birds. A couple of days ago, I walked outside at dusk and found our 20-year-old there, sitting on the bench just outside the front door. Surrounded by the cactuses he and his sister recently planted, he gazed out across the field toward the mountains. He seemed deep in thought, so I stood quietly by the door, taking in the stillness of the evening. Like others his age, he has endured the emotional tug of war caused by COVID, confused about whether he should start his classes online from Madrid or head back to the college and friends he loves in the US, but where unrest is prevalent and there seems to be no visible end in the near future. Gradually, my son turned toward me, nodded his head a little and said “It doesn’t get better than this.” Together we listened as a single bird sang the purest notes in agreement.