Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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The Adventure of Contentment

December 1, 2021



 

The third Saturday of October dawned clear and cold, at least by the seasonal standards of the Deep South. We start shivering once temperatures dip below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. My mom and I, however, were undeterred: we’d set this day aside for getting our autumn garden in order, and as far as we were concerned, this was perfect weather.

First, we hurried to Home Depot, filling our shopping cart with cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, romaine lettuce, Brussels sprouts, and spinach plants. Then we rushed home, cleared our raised beds of a few pernicious weeds, and tucked our new plants into rich potting soil. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun in the garden. There’s nothing like working to the beat of a country music playlist while the chilly breeze and warm sun keep you quite comfortable.  

Our task, however, was far from complete. The plants now secure in their new homes, Mom and I sat down on the carport and thumbed through our seed packets. The beets and radishes, we decided, would be perfect for the smallest of the empty beds; pumpkins and winter squash could go in the larger one. Mom handed the packets to me, I turned them over to read the directions…and my heart sank.

“We should’ve planted the pumpkins and squash in July and August,” I mourned. “It does make sense. They are selling pumpkins at Home Depot.”

Disappointment washed over my mom’s face. Squashes and pumpkins go a long way in vegetable dishes and winter soups. For a family as large as ours, that’s reason enough to have plenty on hand. During these troubling times of produce shortages, their absence in our garden would be even more disheartening.

But then she took a deep breath, rifled through the packets again, and drew out the romaine, red salad bowl, and radicchio seeds.

“Then we’ll just plant more salad stuff,” she said. “We eat salads all the time, so we’ll have lettuce all winter long!”

Her reaction surprised me in the best way. I felt the loss of those hearty squashes as keenly as if a plate full of roasted, cinnamon-dusted butternut squash and a pumpkin pie had been snatched out from underneath my nose. My mom, however, had shifted her own discouraged focus so swiftly, I found myself envisioning a refrigerator full of homegrown lettuce, too. Rather than dwelling on what she lacked, she accepted what was given to her—and she had compelled me, without shaming or scolding, to do the same.

“If we are forever yearning for more, we are forever discounting what is offered,” Julia Cameron declares in her book The Right to Write. With this statement, she begins her magnificent attack on “the Time Lie,” the idea that writers need huge, uninterrupted blocks of time to write anything of value.

“The trick to finding writing time is to make writing time in the life you’ve already got,” she insists. “Stop imagining some other life as a ‘real’ writer’s life…All lives are writers’ lives because all of us are writers.” [1]

As a novelist, her passionate conviction makes me sit up a little straighter at my writing desk; as a new gardener who’s made many mistakes this year, I can even substitute the word “writer” for “gardener” and breathe a huge sigh of relief. But as myself—as “just Maribeth,” stripped of my occupations and accomplishments—I know I don’t always possess the virtue Julia Cameron is really talking about: contentment.

In many respects, I do believe I’ve become a more contented person: by the grace of God, my days of quiet satisfaction and fulfillment far outnumber my fretful, restless ones. But as an almost-30-year-old single woman, the word “contentment” has often left a bad taste in my mouth. After all, I was bombarded throughout my teens and early 20’s with problematic messages like:

“Just be patient! The Lord never gives you a desire He won’t fulfill, so if you have a desire for marriage, He’ll give it to you!”

Or, “The Lord won’t give you a husband until you learn to be content in your circumstances, so stop pining and start rejoicing!”

Or, worst of all: “‘Delight yourself in the Lord, and He’ll give you the desires of your heart’—so girl, you just serve the Lord cheerfully and He’ll bring you a good and godly man!”

But what I’ve realized over the years is that, just like the writers bemoaning their lack of time, these well-meaning admonitions dismiss and discount what is already offered. In their clarion call to contentment, they actually promote discontentment. They imply that either my desires will be fulfilled in this life, that I must yank myself up by my bootstraps, or that my happy, purposeful life has not really begun. 

But surely contentment requires neither fatalistic gloom nor self-sufficiency. What if true contentment looks instead like a spirit of adventure and a heart full of gratitude, no matter the circumstances? What if it means accepting a disappointing situation for what it is, yet making the most of it and latching onto the light and beauty that are always to be found?

Such a posture would mirror Mary’s gloriously active “Yes!” when she learned she would bear the Son of God—a timely image at Christmastide if ever there was one. Not only that, but such a posture sounds far more enjoyable than a discontentment which poses as pious, long-faced submission.

If our lives are works of art, then Madeleine L’Engle’s famous quote comparing the Christian artist with Mary’s “yes” bears some consideration here: “I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius, or something very small, comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.’ And the artist either says, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord,’ and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses.” [2]

This is not begrudging resignation. It is, instead, the joyful, courageous acceptance of God Himself, as well as the story He has written and is writing for us.

The Farmer’s Almanac promises another cold winter. I could do without a repeat of February’s ice storm, but the cauliflower, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, and cabbages are growing well as things cool down. As I write this, vibrant green shoots carpet the soil where my mom and I planted the extra lettuce, as well.

She’s right: we’ll have plenty of homegrown salads this winter, and our grocery bill will thank us for it. And if we have to buy squashes and pumpkins for all those winter soups…well, we can do that, as well!

But in the meantime, we will carefully and happily tend that which has been bestowed on us. We’ll give thanks for all our green, growing things even as we also offer wry, laughing gratitude for our poor timing. In this, we echo Mary and we say, “Yes.” And in this, we cultivate an imperfect but ever-deepening life of adventurous contentment.



  1. Cameron, Julia. The Right to Write. TarcherPerigree, 1998.
  2. L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water. Convergent Books, 2016.


Featured image by Jordan Durbin and used with her kind permission for Cultivating. 



 

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  1. JUNE CAEDMON says:

    That Julia Cameron quote and your other gentle words of reminder were well received this new year’s day. Thank you,

  2. Dear June,

    I’m so glad my article blessed you on the first day of the year! Julia Cameron is one of my favorite “writing helpers.” I don’t agree with everything she says in her book, but I would still highly recommend it to anyone who’s struggling with their creativity and/or with imposter syndrome. I hope you have a wonderful 2022!

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