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The Volunteer

Blog Post #41

mojave desert

Mojave Desert

This year, our otherwise fruitful garden looks more like the Mojave Desert. After much deliberating, my husband, Brad, chose not to plant his favored vegetable garden because of the amount of water it would require during a time of serious drought. Reluctantly, he sacrificed his annual indulgence of thick, red, juicy slices of homegrown garden tomatoes to go on his homemade bread spread with a generous layer of homemade basil pesto. We still have the bread and pesto, but let’s face it—eating a grocery store tomato is like biting into a bar of soap. I was sad when he told me his plans, because I know how he looks forward to this summer delicacy each year, often eating his healthy, tomato-y treat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all in the same day!

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A few months ago, our grandson, Max, came to do some yardwork and weed the neglected garden plot. As I was showing him what he needed to pull-up, we found a small tomato plant had pushed its way up through the soil and was competing with the weeds for sun and for the gentle showers that were the gift of Kind Providence throughout the winter and spring. I put a stake in the ground next to the little volunteer tomato plant to identify it, and told Max to pull up everything but the tomato. I was excited to show it to Brad when he got home from work!  However, it’s hard to beat “Nature’s Son” when it comes to anything having to do with the natural world. He had spotted it long before I did.

Hobble Creek

Hobble Creek Canyon, Springville, Utah

I’m not sure why I thought I could see it first. Eons ago, when we were dating, Brad would be driving up Hobble Creek Canyon in Utah at forty miles per hour, and would point to a mountainside from here to the North Pole, exclaiming, “See those deer on the side hill?” I’d strain my eyes in the general direction he pointed. I saw the mountain all right; I saw trees in abundance, but no deer. Squinting like an utterly bewildered four-year-old intently focused on the night sky at the end of her dad’s pointed finger as she tried to locate Cassiopeia, I’d say with frustration, “WHERE?”  To which he’d once again point in the general direction of Lake Erie and cry, “Those little white things—on the side hill!” “NO! I don’t see them!” I’d cry, desperate, now.  “There!” he’d announce with greater intensity and heightened pitch. Again, I’d stare wild-eyed at the mountain looking for the white things, with one eye wandering (like ‘Mad-Eye’ Moody) toward the road—since someone needed to look at it. Finally, after whizzing by that blur of mountainside, he’d back up the Ford Bronco and pull to the side of the road.

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Old Ford Bronco similar to the one Brad drove

After ten more minutes of straining, at last, I could see the teeny-tiny, spots that were deer way off in the distance, their little white tails sticking up in alarm—as if they knew Mr. Telescope Eyes had caught them in the act of bathing. I marveled each time this happened. (I came to realize his eyes were sharp enough and trained enough to spy those bitty camouflaged specks of deer on the mountain while watching the road at the same time. I don’t know how he did it, but he did it dozens and dozens of times.)

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Lone mule deer on side hill. Imagine trying to locate this deer with the state of Vermont between you and the mountainside.

And I thought he hadn’t seen the little tomato plant….

The Volunteer

 

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The Volunteer

 

As I washed dishes, I watched the little tomato plant from the kitchen window. Moved by its courageous efforts, I went out to admire its deepening red fruit. It stood there, alone, but triumphant in that deserted garden—a monument to the strength and tenacity of a lone, little seed. The thing that most touched me was that this little plant had volunteered. It hadn’t been carefully coddled as a seedling, nor had it been transplanted like a start from a nursery. Someone else had not made the decision. It had sprung up of its own accord, against the odds, amidst neglect, and among weeds that were strangers and competitors of all it required to thrive. Not only did the little tomato plant forge onward and upward, alone in the world, it spread its leaves out and gathered in the rays of the sun, amassing strength and power to benefit its fledgling roots, asking nothing of anyone, and defying naysayers. That would be enough to admire, but that’s not all. This little volunteer is producing fruit. I counted twenty-eight tomatoes in various stages of development on its branches last evening. It volunteered in order to bless others—in a sense, the ultimate sacrifice: to give its life for its friends.

 

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A second volunteer

As I walked back toward the house with my camera in hand, pondering the little tomato plant, I noticed another volunteer. Bedecked in brightly colored regalia, it called to me to notice its offering—that of beauty and cheer. I smiled as I crouched down to take its picture. Living up to its name, little Johnny Jump-up had done just that. I realize some consider this little viola a weed because it springs up readily all over the place and with very little assistance. I see it as one of those volunteers who, tiny as it is, spreads its exuberance and optimism in the least likely places—growing just as well in topsoil as in cracks in the cement. I welcome its offering and praise its purple badge of courage for forging ahead –smiling in the face of the danger presented by its location in the sidewalk.

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I walked through the rest of the yard and was surprised to discover other characters who had long been there, but whose alter egos I hadn’t discovered before.

The Encroacher

 

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The Encroacher

All along the walls of our backyard are encroachers—vines that began growing in someone else’s yard, then gradually, stealthily, snuck-up on ours. They have now climbed and spread their leafy tentacles over the wall. Repeatedly we’ve cut them back, but without regard for our wishes, they continue to march over the wall like another wave of infantry ready for combat on the field of battle. They are determined, and ruthless, weakening the fence on the east until it has taken to leaning, and creeping onto and over the ground on the south. They care not for what we think, or what we want. I resent their pushiness. It’s not as if they’re volunteers—springing up from the ground from a forgotten seed like our little tomato.  No, they’re well-established old-timers—“The Good Ol’ Boys” of the plant world—who, with their cronies, push their network of intolerant “plantism” into our yard where they’re completely unwanted.

The Fighters

 

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The Fighters

In the yard, there’s an old, cement fountain bowl that my father made four decades ago, but cast aside because it wasn’t perfectly round in shape. (I say cast aside, not threw away. There’s a difference. My parents were of the depression era mindset that you don’t throw things away.) In time, my mother filled that old fountain with dirt and planted it with succulent plants and cacti. It sat for years in the corner of the yard on the kitchen side.

When Brad and I moved home a decade after my mother’s passing, I relegated the failing fountain succulent planter to the opposite end of the yard, filled it with fresh dirt and planted it with a variety of pretty flowers and greenery. It looked beautiful that first season, but the drought and heat took their toll and all of the plants died. I thought.

I found that each spring, drought or not, up pop these lovely little purple dwarf flowers  (Nierembergia Caerula) in a corner of the ring. They pay no heed to their location on the nether side of the yard, near the basketball court where they’re bound to get pounded at times, and where water comes in small increments—especially in that old cement bowl. They stand up shouting for respect—respect for their resilience, for their determination to survive, and for their beauty. And deservedly so. They’ve fought root and stem for their right to survive and I applaud their perseverance and admire their beauty!

The Pleasers

 

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The Pleaser

My artichoke plants have really worked hard to please. It isn’t their fault that they were planted in the middle of an ant metropolis, or that they were planted just when we were learning how expensive water is in our community, or how serious the drought had become. And it certainly isn’t their fault that their husbandmen were inexperienced with artichokes and did not know how to take better care of them so their fruit would be moist and tender. They have given their all to produce. They’ve grown to enormous proportions, producing more than twenty artichokes on a single plant. They are amazing! Unfortunately, they are tough to eat, even when picked young. Artichokes can be a labor-intensive dish to prepare (the way my mother taught me is labor intensive, but delicious). After trying to cultivate, harvest and prepare them several years in a row, I have now retired our artichoke plants.

But they are Pleasers. Brad cuts them down to the ground, and they immediately begin growing back with large and flourishing leaves. Soon more artichokes appear. I look at them and sigh. Right now, with the dynamics of our lives, I don’t have the time, energy or patience to wrestle with those tough, spiky, ant-beridden buds only to be disappointed by their toughness. Being the pleasers they are, they don’t give up there. No! After growing to the size of softballs, the buds open up their pointed petals, and begin to produce the most beautiful, soft to the touch, lavender flowers related to the thistle family. Showy? Yes! Worth the wait? Absolutely! They found a way to please—if not epicuriously, then by appealing to one’s sense of mystery, beauty and art.

The Old Stalwart

 

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The Old Stalwart

Walking back toward the house, I stopped and contemplated the great, old Peruvian Peppertree casting its cooling shade umbrella-like over the patio. For close to fifty years it has stood firm and immovable, enduring years of plenty, and years of neglect (during which time my elderly father mourned the loss of my mother), as well as undergoing hefty pruning over the decades. The Old Stalwart created a beautiful canopy for our eldest daughter’s wedding reception twenty years ago, and now, protects my father’s great-grandchildren who play under its branches from the searing rays of the sun. With quiet dignity, it stands apart, a giant beacon of hope, strength, and endurance.  It is both mighty, and serene. It is friend, and grandfather, and it is beautiful to me—like an old friend.

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Each time I walk through the yard—even though relentlessly affected by drought, or maybe because of it—I see our garden in a new way. Mother Nature’s creations are not wimpy, or cowering, but endure with a strength and resilience that demand respect and inspire awe.

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Stopping once more to gaze with admiration at The Volunteer, I am flooded with gratitude to that little tomato plant. I wonder if the seedlings from which it sprang have infused within their DNA the hours of tender-loving nurturing and care Brad gave their parent plants, and are returning the favor in kind. I think Brad will relish every single bite of those precious few tomatoes this year, and they will be the sweetest, most precious ever because they were freely offered!

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“Freely ye have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8)

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Einstein Quote

The True Measure of a Man

End Piece

© June 3, 2016

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, dear Friends, for reading.

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4 Comments

Decisions! Decisions!

Blog Post #19

Decisions! Decisions! I am, at times, stricken by critically insignificant decisions (such as which shirt to wear with one of two pairs of jeans, or where to go for lunch.) These kinds of decisions weary my poor brain with their indifference.
I can guess what you’re thinking. You may think I’m being ridiculous; that I’m exaggerating. You may think I’m talking a few grains of salt, not the Great Salt Lake. These are just little  things. Not realdecisions. Not weighty, hefty matters. These are minuscule choices. Not worth mentioning.
 
Grains of Salt
Great Salt Lake
 
I think it’s the relentlessness of these little decisions—these lurking-around-every-corner-to-nag-and-exacerbate kinds of decisions—that encumber and exhaust my brain cells with unwanted clutter.
 
Neurons

 

First thing in the morning—every morning—I face an enormous decision-making obstacle: what to wear. I stand before my open closet, morning light pouring through the window casting a good-humored beam on the drowsy articles of clothing that never awake from their insurmountable sleep of death–the result of hanging in my closet. I stare vacantly at the drooping scene. When nothing screams, “I am amazing! Wear me!” I walk two steps to my dresser and open the drawers.  Again, vacant staring. Like watching the spoiler for the same mystery show every morning, there’s no need to wonder about the outcome, I know there will be no surprises in store for me. And even though I’ve repeated the same combinations of shirts and pants for decades, oddly enough, I still deliberate over what to wear with what. After wasting ten minutes, staring blankly, I finally put something on, and stand before the hall mirror. Yup. Same old, same old. Odder still is the fact that, one day, the same old thing looks okay, while the next day it looks horrible. I always think the things in my closet and drawers will transform into crisp, new, attractive, nice-fitting, flattering fashion statements while I sleep.  No wonder I am reluctant to face this decision each morning. 
 
 
Let me point out that there are other equally perplexing insignificant decisions that plague wishy-washy people like me during a typical day. For example, after many hours of resolute labor, sewing like the busy little mice in “The Tailor of Gloucester,” my daughter and I make a trip to the post office to ship orders to her customers (my daughter sews for a living—I sometimes help). 


From “The Tailor of Gloucester” by Beatrix Potter


When the order is in the mail, and on its way, our minds cry out to click up our heels, but our bodies are so weak with hunger from working through lunchtime we’re too withered to do it. Like limp and tired little herbs in need of a bit of refreshment to revive our droopiness, we drag our faint and weary selves to the little sandwich shop across the barren seedbed of the street for some nourishment.
 
 


The café is a tiny place, cluttered with pictures, handbills, flyers, and information on every wall.  Still famished and lacking mental dexterity, I find myself consumed by the information thrust at me on every side. Waiting behind the counter are voraciously happy, peppy, friendly people poised to take our order with pencil and pad, who offer a cheerful and encouraging greeting. Absentmindedly, I look up at the menu which is posted above said prodigiously peppy people—and find a mass of words that, for all their familiarity, might as well be written in Greek. Certainly, I recognize the words, but in my current state of weary confusion and inertness, they read more like an eye chart in an optometrist’s office.
From a 10th-century manuscript of Thucydides
Eye Chart in Greek
 
“May I take your order?” says the perky waiter to Cait and me. “What would you like?” I think to myself, “I’d like someone to simplify the menu for my famished neurons which are teetering on the brink of that shaky kind of hunger and mindless thinking born of going too long without eating. Will someone just circle in red the item that most appeals to me?” After standing aside letting other decisive people go ahead with their orders, I mull over the menu as if I were deciphering hieroglyphics in the Book of the Dead. 
 
Book of the Dead
 
Finally, I decide on the chicken salad. Yes, the chicken salad.  Then, I must decide if I want a full, or half order. Are we sharing (as we frequently do), or ordering separately? Remarkably, the (still smiling) waiter endures patiently as I think aloud, consulting with Cait about immediate and pressing decisions as we stand, conspicuously taking up precious space, at the ordering counter.
 
Chicken Salad Sandwich
My daughter, long ago having grown tired of my process of choosing a place to eat, as well as what to eat, turned the entire mass of decision-making over to finicky me. Cait says, “I don’t care where we go. I’ll eat anything. You decide.” I’ve heard this jaded dictum many times before. Ugh. After pleading looks, she helps me decide that we’ll share the chicken salad sandwich. “Is it for here, or to go?” says Mr. Cheerful. Again, pleading looks (not wasted on Mr. Cheerful).  Finally, the waiter decides for us. Sometimes, noting our creased eyebrows and hem hawing around about if we have or haven’t got time, he decides he should make the food to-go. Other times, calmly smiling as we try to read each other’s thoughts, we supply just enough evidence that we’re not quite ready to leave. While they make the food, we discuss whether we should sit inside, or out. It’s only 106-degrees F. outside. The heat should prompt a snap decision, but the imagined charm of sitting at a sidewalk café delays the verdict. When a girl with a computer leaves one of the few little inside tables, we quickly decide to stay inside where it’s cool, and snatch up the spot against the wall with alacrity and a sense of triumph over all other aspiring (and perspiring) customers.
 
 
 


We’ve repeated this process several times in past weeks, with varying results, but we always go through the same process of decision-making. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I enter that little shop—which I really like!—I patently reenact the same decision-making fiasco. A day or two ago, we again made a delivery and went to get a sandwich. “Mom, do you want chicken salad again?” my daughter probed with a subtle pleading in her voice, (the true meaning of which was: “Must we share chicken salad again?” Whereas I am a creature of taste bud habit, she likes a wider variety of palate pleasing tastes. Sharing with a finicky eater can be boring for the adventurous connoisseur of lunchtime cuisine.) “We don’t have to get chicken salad, Cait,” I said, explaining my apparent dyslexic confusion with the menu. I added, “To hurry things up, I always get the same thing.” (And I like the chicken salad.)  There is often a line behind us, and I don’t want to make people wait eons while I decipher the Rosetta Stone.
Rosetta Stone
 
She helped me focus on and order a turkey sandwich—the optimistic waiter sensed a breakthrough at this speedy-er decision. He hastily scribbled “to-go” on our ticket, only to have to change it to “dining-in,” as Cait pointed out during the ensuing at-the-counter-discussion about whether we should stay or take it with us that she had other errands to run before returning home. To his credit, our waiter, Mr. Cheerful, never lost his ever-jovial demeanor. While we consumed our half turkey sandwiches, I struck on a plan—I studied the menu while I ate, and decided in advance on a custom sandwich for our next visit. Yes! I will be ready for the next sandwich order. I will nip the demon decision-making weed in the bud.
 
But what of all the other critically insignificant decisions that have to be made throughout the day?  Should I put the dark clothes in the wash first, or the white clothes in to soak? Which direction should we go on our walk? Shall we take brownies or chocolate chip cookies to the potluck? (That there’s chocolate requires no decision.)  Walmart or Target? And the most infamously, critically insignificant decision of all: What shall I make for dinner?
 
 
 


Giving credence to things that really don’t matter may give one a false sense of decision-making prowess. (Either that, or make one crazy!) Although I will probably continue to puzzle over menus, chicken salad sandwiches, and my closet, these insignificant things really aren’t worth expending thoughtful energy on, so unrelated to and irrelevant are they when compared with the real, truly significant, heart-wrenching, life-altering decisions we all face from time to time.
 
 


These insignificant kinds of decisions are best summed-up in a few short sentences:
Madonna Lilies
 
And why take ye thought for raiment? *Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?  … For your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.  But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:28-33)
Madonna of the Lilies by Alfonse Mucha


 And this, my dear friends, to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, is truly a good decision, worthy of thought and energy. I know when I do this, all other decisions–great and small–fall into their proper places and I feel peace.

 

End Piece

©  October 5, 2014

 
From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, dear friends, for reading.
 
 
*I’ve included a link to a beautiful, peaceful Youtube recording of “Consider the Lilies.” Sit back, relax, and clear your mind as you enjoy this lovely song.