It is tempting to want to be a builder; to work with a plan, to know what you are going to produce before you have finished, to be sure about all the details.
But better by far to be a gardener; to work with the elements, to be surprised by the things that grow and those that don’t, to be malleable and open to change, to have to adapt in order to thrive.
Builders have a level of certainty about the outcome. They plan and prepare and Are-Not-Wrong. Rarely does anything happen along the way to change what they are attempting. Sure, there might be subsidence, or planning permission might have to be attained, but everything eventually bends to the will of the builder. Everything submits to the structure.
Gardeners don’t have this luxury. Growing things in the ground is collaborative. It requires a unity of approach from weather and ground and insects and man. There is a necessary partnership. The gardener can try and force their will upon a patch of earth, but if it is not the right plant in the right place, the correct environment for the vegetables or flowers, they will not flourish, and as soon as the gardener steps back or turns away, the ground will swallow the will of the gardener. It will vanish without a trace.
To be a gardener you have to be involved in a conversation with the earth, you have to adapt and change and develop, you have to relinquish control.
So it has been with my spiritual life.
I used to be a builder. I was certain about many things.
I thought life like that was simpler. Being sure and knowing the answers seemed more straightforward. It gave me confidence, and a foundation which felt safe to build on.
Ideas like bricks were placed on top of each other.
Many great ideas; sacrifice and service, generosity and hard work.
But the cement that held these bricks together was made of my ability, my behaviour, my stamina.
To keep the build on target, I had to keep going and keep getting it right.
Building was about self-effort. The work was my own and I had to complete it. The more I behaved in the right way and stuck to my guns, the higher the walls grew, the more elaborate and seemingly permenant the structure.
Everything had to submit to the blueprint. Even, or maybe especially, things that didn’t work or make sense, had to be made to fit.
Mystery squeezed into five point plans and easy-to-understand life lessons.
Living ideas pinned, like exquisite butterflies, in a case behind glass, unchangeable, untouchable.
I justified it all because I knew it was going to be worth it for the end goal, for the final reveal.
And this was no selfless, benevolent pursuit. The curtain would be pulled back and I would be seen: right and successful and beautiful and admired. King of the castle.
I didn’t realise however, that as I built this fortress of certainty, I was on the inside and becoming trapped. I stopped being able to see out. Perspective diminished and began to lose touch with the things that made me feel alive; connection to the outside world, change and new ideas, possibility and spontaneity.
Eventually the building became a prison.
There comes a certain point when you realise you are not happy. When the fact that you are ill is unavoidable. For me, it took a while, and it wasn’t even me who noticed in the end, it was my husband. I still wanted to carry on, trying, struggling, forcing, thinking one day I would get it right and then it would all feel good again.
It was my husband who was brave enough to realise I wasn’t okay and needed help.
I don’t know where his motivation came from. Love for me I expect, but also I was a a nightmare to live with, so that may have been part of it.
It was him who gave me the keys to start figuring my way out. He started the chain of events by making me call my therapist. He forced me to get some light on the situation.
And now, years later, I sit in my garden.
This garden is hard work still, but the work is good. It is physical; my body aches and my hands are dirty. I feel connected to everything again.
This garden is evolving. There is always something new to try, a new seed to plant, a new flower to grow. It is dynamic. My curiosity is alive. Nothing is static.
This garden isn’t just toil and hard graft, it is also for relaxation and enjoyment, for my nourishment and joy. It invites and refreshes me.
This garden is teaching me. I am working with the seasons, not fighting or ignoring them. I no longer think every season is for harvest and I should be producing all the time. I am starting to hear the rhythm and music, the ebbs and flows, learning how to live in harmony with the world.
The fortress had felt safe and secure, and for a while it made me feel righteousness, as though I had it all sewn up. But it was exhausting and limiting and made me ill.
Whereas the garden is not static, it changes and develops, and although this can be daunting, it feels… right.
It is good to be here.
*This idea of being a gardener rather than a builder is not my own. I first heard life and spirituality talked about in this way in an interview for On Being between Krista Tippett and the world-renown author Paulo Coehlo.
**And, although the first picture (of Ed raking the soil) is my garden, the final photo is not. It is Kew Gardens.