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Gardening With Unlabeled Seeds – 10/30/2011

The story is told of a young girl who decided one year that she wanted to plant a flower garden for herself. Her family didn’t have much, but there was a little scrap of dusty land that belonged to one of her neighbors, and when she asked for it he gave her permission to use it. She spent the winter saving a little bit of money here and there, in anticipation of the spring. And when the season finally came for planting, she found that she had enough for a pair of gloves, and a spade, and a watering can. But once she had purchased the tools she would need, the girl had little money left to spend on seeds to plant.

Seeing how much she had left to spend on the garden she had dreamed of all those winter months, the owner of the dry goods shop shook his head. It was not enough even for a single planting of petunias, let alone a whole garden of flowers. The girl was sad, and more than a little angry at her thwarted dream, but on her way out of the shop she paused to survey the rows of seed bags one more time. And behind the batchelor’s buttons and the sunflower seeds, she saw a basket with no marker on it. Its contents were a jumbled mix – different colors and sizes and shapes. When she asked about it, the shopkeeper explained that it wasn’t part of the display; it was his waste basket. The strange mix of seeds was just all the lost little bits he’d collected from sweeping up the floor. The girl offered him what little money she had for the lot of it, and he made the sale.

The girl planted her garden that year. Not knowing what each of the seeds might be she tried to give each of them a little bit of space, some water, but not too much, and all the attention she could.  Through the summer she watched, and worked, and waited. By the fall, people walking past her little garden were treated to a beautiful and unusual display.  At one corner of the plot there was a tall daisy, surrounded by a rough crown of bluebells and zinnias. Below that was a patchwork of foxglove and forget-me-nots, all spiraling together with hollyhocks, nasturtiums and marigolds. Here and there were single straggling poppies and morning glories, and in amongst all that were four lettuces, five broccolis, two eggplants and one zucchini that was putting forth flowers just as beautiful as any others in the garden. It was a far cry from the orderly and tasteful arrangement that the girl had dreamed of creating as she saved her pennies during the cold winter months. But it was her garden, she had planted it and tended it, and while everyone who saw it had to admit that it was pretty in a strange and funny way, to her it had a special kind of beauty, that no one else could see.

My colleague, the late. Rev. Dr. Forrest Church famously described religion as “our dual response to being alive and having to die.”[i] Each of us is only allotted so much time – the exact amount is unknowable, but the fact of the limit is never in doubt. Living in the presence of death raises hard questions, and our collective struggle with these yields some answers and an even greater abundance of questions. So it goes, on and on, as we search for purpose, seeking to understand our own finite natures, and to figure out what to do with ourselves once we possess that understanding.

But there are things that I fear more than death, and if you have ever loved another person I believe you can understand what I mean. Religion, our quest to find meaning in the forest of life, might be said also to be our response to loving those we know will die. There is a Buddhist story that touches on this.

There was, long ago, in India, a mother who suffered what no parent should suffer: the loss of her child. Wracked with grief, the woman left her home behind and began to search for anyone who could supply some potion or medicine to restore her son to life. She wandered, and she searched until she found her way to the man named Siddhartha, whom some call the Buddha. He listened to her pleas and he offered her his help, giving her a task she must first complete. The task, he explained, was to return to her city and come back with a mustard seed. But the seed would have to be given to her by a family in which no one had died. The woman thanked the teacher, and she set out on her new mission.

She went from door to door. At each house, she asked for a single mustard seed. It was a strange request, but easily met, and the people were happy enough to give her what she’d asked for. But then, each time she would ask them, “has anyone in this family died?” And the answers would come back: “My mother, my brother, my cousin, my uncle, my daughter, my son.” Sometimes the death was fresh, and strangers would begin to cry in front of the woman, right there on their own doorsteps. Other times, the person remembered had died years ago, and their family might share a memory of them. The woman met so many people whose hearts had known grief. She sat with some of them, and held some of their hands. Sometimes they were just quiet for a shared moment, and sometimes they talked about how you go on living when someone you love has died. Often, she cried along with them, before setting out again to try the next house.

Eventually, she returned to the place where she had spoken with the teacher. He asked if she had found the mustard seed, and she told him she had not, for it was not a thing that could be found. Death touches every life, and there was no medicine that would return her son to her. There was only the simple solace of other people, of knowing that she was not alone in her terrible loss. “We must help each other,” she told the teacher, “as you have helped me.”[ii]

Faced with our own mortality, and the mortality of those we care most about, we often become motivated by the hope of some lasting legacy beyond death – a way for us to honor those we remember, or to be honored by those who will remember us. There is a temptation here to want to control exactly what we leave behind, but that denies our own limitations just as much as would pretending we will never die at all. Like the great king Ozymandias in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, any great edifice that we might build can always be brought low, until, as the poet writes:

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.[iii]

I do not mean that nothing bold or ambitious is worth doing, because it may one day fade out of the world. Rather, I mean that it is beyond us to control exactly what our legacy will be. Think of Geraldine Doyle, who was a cellist and a mother, and did much with her life that was worth being proud of. And then when she was in her fifties – still with many good decades left, but at a time when she probably though she already knew what sort of things she might be remembered for, she happened to read a news item about a popular image from World War II. Its one I know you’ve seen before: a woman in a blue workshirt curls her right arm is curling her right arm and rolling up her sleeve. Her hair is tied up in a red kerchief, and above her head is the slogan “We Can Do It!”

The image wasn’t actually very well known during the war, but decades later it gained new popularity as a symbol of women’s struggle for equality, particularly in the workplace. And so people became interested in where the image came from, and this is what Geraldine Doyle happened to read an article about. The piece explained that the drawing was based on a photograph of a woman working in a metal factory during the war. There was a copy of the original picture. Geraldine recognized it immediately – it was her. She’d worked in that factory for only two weeks, leaving to find safer work that wouldn’t endanger the hands she used to play the cello. But in that tiny window, completely without knowing it, Geraldine had become a part of something that would touch millions of other people.[iv]

We cannot choose, for certain, what our legacies will be. Living, in this way, is like gardening with unlabeled seeds. We cannot be certain that each seed we plant will grow at all, and even then we cannot know with confidence everything that will sprout from its place in the ground. But what we do control is how we live – the way we care for and water the mysterious seeds we do plant. So whatever we do must be done with love; however we live it should be with compassion, and consideration for the strange and beautiful souls we share this world with. Because we truly are all in this together, no matter how different or opposed we may sometimes imagine ourselves to be.

I want to leave you with one final story. Some of you know that I was in California this past week, officiating at the funeral of my uncle, Stan. It was an honor to get to lead his memorial, and one of the great gifts of being involved was hearing all sorts of stories about Stan from my aunt Janel. This is what she told me about how they met. When Stan got out of the Marines, he lived with his parents for a little while, in a house on the street where my father and his sister, Janel, grew up. One day the family was out for a walk and met a young man washing his car in the driveway of his house – that was Stan.

Stan took notice of Janel, and Janel took notice of Stan. Stanley went around asking his neighbors – have you seen this girl who lives around here? Can you tell me anything about her? Janel was curious too, but she felt she needed some pretense to talk to him again. She figured out that the walk to the post office would take her past his house, but that led to a different problem: she couldn’t think of anyone she had a reason to write letters to. Her solution was to start writing letters to herself – the first one read, “Here goes nothing!” Somehow, Stan always managed to be washing that car whenever she walked past. I guess he was looking for an excuse too.

We cannot know all that the seeds of our living will accomplish as they sprout and grow in new and unpredictable directions. But when we are present to the potential in the moment, and as kind and as open as we can be, to the people we find ourselves with, amazing and beautiful possibilities can emerge. Soemtimes we must be willing to take a hopeful chance and say simply, “Here goes nothing!” Some few of the wonders of our living we will have the gift of knowing about; most, will always be hidden from us. But whether we see the garden or not, life gains its meaning when we trust that that strange, mixed up, and wonderful garden is there, nonetheless.

[i] This is a definition that Forrest used in much of his writing. One example can be found here:

[ii] This story comes from the Theravada branch of Buddhism; this version owes its form to Sarah Connover’s collection Kindness.

[iii] From Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley


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