Out of the garden and into the woods

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“When do you want to retire?” the financial planner asks us, as she plugs our numbers into her retirement calculator.

Tom, the practical one, confidently gives his typical response: “I figure I’ll keep at it until I’m 67.”

I, the dreamer, have always thought I’d call it quits a few years earlier. “Um. Well. I was thinking I’d like to retire at 62. But now, I’m not sure.” I shrug my shoulders, as a wave of uncertainty courses through me.

It’s still several years off, but with that number looming closer, I’m beginning to have second thoughts.

***

When the kids were younger, I longed to stay at home, exhausted from the many hats I wore. Being wife to Tom, and mother to four active children, I served as cook, scheduler, housecleaner, homework helper, organizer, driver, shopper, counselor, vacation-planner...wearing all the usual “Mom-hats.” Add to that some type of volunteer work at church and the kids’ schools, and it’s understandable that I often wished for retirement from my “real” (i.e. only paying) job as a Speech-Language Pathologist.

But times have changed. With our nest empty most of the year, I now find myself wondering how I’ll spend my time when I do retire. My work has become a big part of my identity and it’s one of the few hats I continue to wear. It still fits me well, and gives me a sense of purpose.

Plus, I now have the extra time I longed for when the kids were young. Time for leisurely evening bike rides, curling up with a good book, and my latest passion—writing stories. Time to tend my perennial gardens, and be captivated by the change of seasons I see on display there.

Nestled in the woods, our yard fascinates me, especially in the spring. The hostas push their spikes up through the ground and unfurl their green leaves to begin the annual garden show. The astilbe, hydrangeas, pachysandra, sweet woodruff, and others join the cast.

Of course, the weeds have also made their way onto the stage. So, on a recent sunny afternoon, it becomes my mission to expel them from the premises. It’s funny how an afternoon of clearing weeds from the garden can bring clarity to one's mind.

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***

I cross the backyard, garden gloves in hand, and round the porch to the flowerbed under the bird feeders. Scanning for weeds, I notice the evergreens we planted several years ago. They’re not looking healthy, and on closer examination, I see they are no longer ever-green, but instead, their needles are brittle and brown.

“Well, there’s something that has to go,” I think, as I traipse back to the garage for the loppers and shovel. “Old dried up bushes don’t belong in my flowerbed!” Once young and lush and green, they served their purpose at the time, but they no longer add value to my garden.

I lop off a few branches, and begin the process of digging them up, which is remarkably easier than I expect since their roots only reach a few inches into the soil. Tossing the dead bushes into the woods where they’ll eventually rot, I brush the dirt off my hands and am done with them.

Next, I split some hostas and plant the young, healthy starts in the vacant spots where the bushes had been. Hostas might not be the most exciting plants, but they’ll grow anywhere in my yard, and by summer’s end will have spikes of purple blossoms. “Better than those worthless, dried-up bushes,” I think with satisfaction.  

By the time the hostas are in the ground, I am exhausted, sweaty, and my back is breaking. I grab my water bottle and plop myself down on the front porch step. I imagine many happy days to come, sipping lemonade on this front porch, which brings me back to pondering retirement. While the relaxation sounds great, I wonder: When I’m not working, what will my purpose be? Will I have anything worthwhile to offer?

I’m sure my job could be filled by any of the young grads who’ve started with me as interns. Their fresh ideas would be welcomed by my students. But what would become of me? Would I be tossed aside to waste away in my old age?

An oriole flits by and snaps me out of my melancholy mood. I look up and see with fresh eyes the beauty of my gardens. Lifting my tired body up from the porch step, I stroll down the stone path, taking in the smell of spring, and the sound of the birdsongs. The twenty-plus years of labor spent on my garden now brings a satisfaction unlike any other. It reminds me that hard work does pay off in the end. Still, there’s always more work to do...these gardens won’t tend themselves.

Plucking withered petals from a daffodil stem, I am back to work. Changes happen slowly in my garden. I lavish in each stage for a brief time before bidding it farewell and saying “hello” to the next. The daffodils are now gone and the tulips are wilting. The current “best in show” is the bleeding hearts. The perfect heart-shaped pink petals oozing their delicate white droplets, give the illusion of a heart that’s bleeding. I take in their beauty.

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Stepping off the stone path and onto the driveway, I turn back toward the house. With the flowerbeds on my left, and the woods on my right, something catches my eye a few feet into the brush. There, atop a bed of dried leaves stands a green plant. It’s arched over like an old lady from the weight of its pink and white blossoms. It’s a rogue bleeding heart!

I can’t help but marvel at her beauty, and wonder at her courage. How could this seemingly delicate plant “jump” the driveway, escape into the woods, put down her roots, and find a new place to bloom? Outside the confines of the garden, she was able to locate a new source of nourishment and an untouched spot to spread her leaves, to share her loveliness.

And the sun’s Light, that graced her in the garden, continues to shine down through the trees and provide her with a life-giving source of strength.

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As I contemplate this plant’s delicate hearts, bleeding with passion and a sense of purpose, I am filled with hope for the future. I toss aside my fears of being used up and worthless, and dream of possibilities instead. Of exploring the world, pursuing my hobbies, volunteering my time, and visiting my loved ones. Of making the world a more beautiful place.

When the time is right, I too will venture out into the woods, into wild and unpredictable parts unknown; taking risks and exploring new paths. I’ll plant my roots, dig deep for the endeavors that nourish my soul, and bathe in the Light.

But for now, I’m content in this sanctuary. This ever-changing, always-growing place that still needs me, as much as I need it. My garden.