There is very little that is pretty about the work I do for my day job. I work in a field that I am not natively inclined to or trained for and of my own volition I would never have chosen it. The good days are rare and cherished. The hard days are common, some of them simply brutal. In between, they are mostly just a tough, lonely slog. Spreadsheets, employment law, performance reviews, talking people through difficult situations at work, fielding questions, making decisions, trying to keep people focused, or keeping them from breaking, and trying to hold on through one more day in a long line of high stress and hard days. At the end of most of these work days, my husband Peter and I come home to quiet house still reverberating with the echoes of our children’s voices now grown up, and our grandchildren now all thousands of miles away. Sometimes we are too tired and bruised to talk. Nearly always we are too tired to cook or make a phone call. We usually go to bed early and we get up in the morning to do it all again. In the midst of this God is present and faithful. And out of this hard, dry climate grows a project about goodness, truth, and beauty.
Many years ago in another house in another time and place, I grew a rose garden out of despair and defiance. I was stronger physically then. After 10 years in that place I had planted 200 roses and countless companions for them. I cannot count how many cubic yards of stubborn clay soil I dug up with a hand spade and amended with truckloads of compost and topsoil. Nor can I count how many hundreds of aged bricks and pieces of flat stone my husband Peter and I hauled in to make walkways and paths. But those garden beds circled the entire perimeter of our property. They represented sanity to me, and they represented hope. They became a wall of beauty to defend us against all heartbreak. Those roses, and the furious digging and amending of our soil, brought more healing to me than Prozac ever did or could. They were the physical place I worked out my rage, my powerlessness, my unspeakable sorrows, my profound disappointments with life. The creation of living beauty was my wordless manifesto for the bone-deep belief that every act of Beauty is a defiance of despair, that Truth prevails over darkness, and that Goodness will overcome evil. Every time I bought and planted one of those roses, part of me was wielding not just my trowel and spade, but I was wielding a shield and sword, too. If that sounds overly dramatic, well so be it. Trowel and spade, sword and shield it was for me. It still is. A warrior~gardener I am.
We moved from that house and that garden nearly 15 years ago now. Last year we sold the property and after we finished all the work for selling the house, I made one last cutting of those roses as a final hurrah from the garden that saved my life. It was a big, lavish bouquet as only English Roses can make. Eventually, of course, those beautiful petals fell from their cut stems and the leaves all withered. The petals began to dry on my kitchen counter and I gave myself permission to keep a token of what I had once planted and now let go of. The very day the petals were completely dry, my daughter Regina was cleaning out her house and found a lidded glass jar she no longer needed. She brought it to me and, without planning it, the jar was is exactly the size to hold the exact pile of dried rose petals. I filled it and felt something rare: a sense of closure without grief. Completion. The jar of the last roses of my first garden sits on my desk to this day. It means love to me. God’s love, my husband’s love, my daughter’s love, and my own love, too, for my family and for Beauty itself in the midst of terrible ugliness, loss, and struggle.
When we moved from that house to the house we live in now, very early on my husband Peter wisely told me I could not plant another garden here like the one before. At first I was angry, but he told me what in my heart I already I knew. He told me if I gardened like that here, I would never write. I would garden and it might be beautiful indeed, but it would take all my time and all my strength. He was right, of course. And what he didn’t say was also right. I would never rest.
What followed after we moved in unfolded seemingly without any real plan. We dug in beds along the fence lines, and rototilled an existing garden bed to put in something of a planting garden for me. It was large and an act of love, mainly Peter’s. We put in an irrigation system and later doubled the size of that first garden bed. I moved wheelbarrows of grey rock, amended the soil beneath, and replaced the rock with soaker hoses and mulch. But I did not take quickly to the new places for plants. I wasn’t angry enough anymore to plant fast and furiously. I needed to see how the light fell here in its seasons. I needed to let go of the other garden. I needed to listen to what kind of garden this place was asking for. I needed to find my reason for growing another garden at all.
For next 14 years our life unfolded in ways I did not see coming. Some of it was heartbreaking and some of it was simply drenched in a grace only God could give. It was a rhythm of losing, letting go, and being given something back we didn’t know to ask for. Peter and I grew our company, planted and pastored a house church for nearly 10 years, transitioned as best we could into parenting adult children, gained son-in-laws, became grandparents, saw people come and go in and out of our house, had parties in the backyard, sat quiet on our deck on the weekend mornings and watched the golfers across the road from us. We traveled to England, Ireland, Wales, and Africa. Peter planted his endangered species Colorado butterfly plant and nurtured it into a budding nursery to help re-establish its population. I planted slowly and rather methodically, if less exuberantly than before, at least more mindfully. The garden came in charmingly.
But I planted this way not with any claim to wisdom, though I wish I could claim that. In truth it was because I was emotionally and physically tired. It was a tiredness no amount of sleep could mend. For many years I thought it was grief.
Toward the end of this period, I was traveling heavily over 3 or 4 years, so much so that almost every time I talked to my sister I was calling her from an airport. Teaching, speaking, giving workshops and photographing events. And not too surprisingly, I also became ill. Ill for so long I couldn’t garden and couldn’t travel. As I unraveled, so did the garden.
The garden became infested with a terrible kind of grass. For 3 years I weeded, I pulled, I dug. The grass took root and dug in deeper than I could. Peter was the soul of discretion. I tried to give the whole effort a spiritual allegory spin about reclaiming weed infested ground and the importance of keeping our gardens weed-free. I was too tired from weeding to write that. That’s probably just as well. My daughter Regina, a brilliant gardener and photographer herself, suggested after hearing me complain about it for the third year in a row without really changing anything, that I should just rototill the whole garden under and start over. I was not receptive. I had plants in that garden that I knew personally by then and loved. Sure, I could barely see them any more but I knew they were there and I was fighting to give them space to live. I was also fighting the change of my own seasons.
By some presence of grace the following year (and aided by more defeat than I could bear) Regina’s suggestion sprouted as a perfect seed of hope. Peter valiantly and without a word of reprisal, did what for years I could not bear to do. He took out that garden I had planted and loved. He rototilled the evil grass to shreds, saved what good soil he could for me, poured it into one deep bed against the east fence, compacted the ground, laboriously put in giant pavers, and made a beautiful patio for us. And he gave me one gloriously deep bed to plant in. Yes, I cried, but yes, I was grateful.
The gardens here are far more modest in comparison to the lavish wonder of the other one. They have given us far more enjoyment, rest, and restoration than the complicated one I grew before. One garden was grown out of despair and in defiance of it. One was grown out of rest, curiosity, and trust. Both were good, true, and beautiful. Both have had reasons for being. Both have had their seasons. One garden healed my mind. One healed my soul.
Only now in reflection do I see the tiredness I suffered during those years of travel and teaching and failing to conquer the grass in my garden came because I was growing and tending something else. A different kind of garden. I was growing a rose garden known as Cultivating. Growing Cultivating was happening simultaneously with all these other things. In 2007, I had timidly started blogging which at the time I barely understood. We had moved into this house just two years before. I started without any clear plan at all but was driven toward a single point, just as I was driven in the planting and building of that first garden. The vision was small and flickering at first, living like light on a distant horizon. It gleamed with hope and it held steady. I reached for what I barely knew or could articulate. Out these hard dry days, so often full of grief, illness, and stress, I grow Cultivating just as I had once grown a garden of 200 roses. I follow a silver thread sometimes into dark, dark places and yet unexpectedly find refuge. And in season, I am shown a way out.
Grace has painted the walls of this house, grace has planted a spacious garden and lawn that we watch from our deck. Grace has given us travel and friends, family, and a place of rest. Grace has given us a place – however humble – of benediction.
Benediction is a beautiful word. It means to speak well of, to speak good for and into, a kind of holy incantation invoking blessing on another. Benediction is a grace that in mystery works for the flourishing of the blessed and as a protection against evil. In this house with this husband and this family, with these beloved friends, I have received a benediction I could never make for myself. It was given to me in love by a God who loves me and planned for me to flourish in that which I am intended for. The benediction comes with the willingness to let go in peace of what has been, even the beautiful and beloved, and the openness to receive something new in its season. I cannot give this benediction and blessing to myself. I have received it without asking and without earning it. I see the effect and presence of it not by looking at what is tangibly around me but by following its light that invisibly shines here. In these patient seasons of being taught through gardens what the seasons of life mean, I learn to hold less tightly to what is fleeting – no matter how I love it or how beautiful it is for an appointed time. I learn to fix my eyes on something invisible, something deathless and everlasting. A beauty that does not wither with age, a love that does not perish or cease with death. In the fruit of that slow learning, I see a parting in the veil between earth and heaven. And here I offer the benediction of letting go.
The images here are (c) Lancia E. Smith and are used with glad permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Author’s note: This piece is offered with particular thanks to three men who continue to influence and encourage me. Malcolm Guite who teaches me about the significance of benediction; Roy Salmond who kindly pushed me to write something more personal and exercise my writer’s voice; and to Peter who allows me to cultivate a writer’s life.
Lancia E. Smith is an author, photographer, teacher, and business owner. A grateful lover of the Triune God, Lancia is the Founder & Executive Director of Cultivating & The Cultivating Project. She has served in executive management, church leadership, boards, and Art & Faith organizations over 30 years. She & her husband Peter have parented 7 children, & have a flock of beloved grandchildren. Lancia loves garden and website design, beautiful typography, road trips, being read aloud to by Peter, & cherishes every book she ever read by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald.