"An optimistic look at the magic of life." -- Kirkus Reviews
You know how when your jeans start getting tight, you tell yourself you had the dryer set too hot and they shrunk? Deep down you know you're gaining weight, but you just can't bring yourself to admit it.
That's how I was dealing with what was going on in the lives of me and my family. We had set the dryer too hot and now things didn't quite fit right anymore. I think this comes under the category of no-problem-too-big-to-ignore, a characteristic I had always joyfully embraced because it went hand-in-hand with my most defining quality.
The fact is, I was born an incurable dreamer, which is in and of itself fundamentally rebellious. No status quo for me. Waiting just around the next corner was something better, I was certain of it.
Remember what it felt like to be a kid and believe that Peter Pan could shake pixie dust on you and show you how to fly? All you had to do was think wonderful thoughts. I could do that, no problem, but I wasn't interested in waiting around for Mr. Pan to show up. Why couldn't I be Wendy and Peter Pan and Tinkerbell all rolled into one? After all, it was the 60's and anything was possible. We weren't going to accept things just because they had always been that way -- defiance was embedded in our DNA.
Like when I was in first grade and the teacher handed out our new reader, Fun with Dick and Jane. There I was, all of six years old and I was incensed! What a stupid book! Jane watches Dick have fun -- exactly how is that fun for Jane? I wasn't about to spend my life cheering the boys on while they had all the adventures. I wanted to fly off to Neverland and fight pirates with the boys, not be on the sidelines like my mother had been. Not me. Like so many other gals at the time, I intended to do something about it, we knew we could.
Along the way this incurable dreamer started believing in angels. And when I say angels, I mean actual, bona fide, flying angels that helped me out and kept me safe. I also believed in miracles. Not as some remote ethereal possibility, but as a real part of my life. To me miracles were absolutely inevitable. Life felt quite charmed.
But recently I began to feel that I might have been wrong about these things. And for someone who thought of herself as an eternal optimist, that was very jarring.
I had been intensely busy juggling so many seemingly important things, and dropping more of them than I caught, that life just wasn't magical anymore. You've probably felt that way at one time or another. Maybe you feel that way now.
Without consciously knowing it, I had taken a wrong turn in the road. And because I'm a certified road warrior who has logged over a million miles both here and abroad, if I happen to take a wrong turn, I know it almost immediately. But this time I wasn't driving and I didn't have a clue how I had gotten so far off course. And that's exactly what I needed: a clue.
All I knew was that somewhere underneath the exasperating minutia of my frazzled daily life was the twinkle in my eye, the sass in my walk and the dreams in my heart. I didn't know when I had lost them, but I had, and I missed them with an urgency that caught me off guard. It was like catching a whiff of childhood, instantly poignant. I longed for the magic.
The question was, how would I find these precious things again? Where do you go to look for a twinkle?
The answer came in the form of an unwelcome tomato plant that grew into a parable and eventually led to a spiritual journey I hadn't anticipated. Spiritual? Yes, no doubt about it, but essentially what I did was go in search of my twinkle.
I was a grown-up Nancy Drew out to solve the mystery and thought the best way to start would be to go back to the time when my sparkle had been as natural as breathing. I wanted to see my magic crystallizing in the air before me like breath on a winter's morning and experience the same sense of wonder I had when I was a child. My theory was, if there was a parable in a tomato plant, perhaps there were other parables from my life that I hadn't noticed before, waiting for me to discover the enchanting nugget buried inside. Maybe what I was looking for would be hidden in one of those nuggets.
Life had it's challenges and disappointments when I was young too, but I had managed to keep my essence intact, my own personal magic. Had it simply been youth, or was this life-force still available now? I didn't know, but I had to find that stubborn, indomitable, fearless gal I had once been. I missed her and I needed to know her secret formula for keeping her verve day after day, year after year.
For me, the outcome of this quest was no less than life changing. My twinkle wasn't as far away as I had imagined and after I found it, the problems that had once seemed insurmountable were no longer so daunting. I would love if the stories I share with you here help you uncover meaningful parables of your own. Perhaps you will also be guided to a previously unseen path full of angels and miracles and wondrous new possibilities. I hope so. The tales that follow are the stones that mark the trail.
"The Parable of the Tomato Plant"
When I was five years old I got kicked out of kindergarten. No kidding, it's true.
In the late fifties, it was common for kindergarten to be held in a church. Ours was easy walking distance from our house and I remember holding my mom's hand as she stormed back home, practically dragging me down the sidewalk.
What does she mean you can't postpone gratification? Can she even spell gratification? How old is she anyway? Nineteen? You have more brains in your little finger than she does in her whole head, Marsha, talking more to herself than to me.
That's right. I got kicked out of kindergarten because I couldn't postpone gratification. I still have a hard time with that one.
What does postponing gratification have to do with a tomato plant? Well, I'll tell you.
First off, I need to clarify something. I'm not a real gardener -- just someone who has found that rooting around in the dirt is good for the soul. Somehow when I'm pulling weeds and re-potting a dying plant, I manage to forget all the worries that normally plague my mind. Go figure. The thing is, there's that instant gratification of seeing flowers grow, blossom and flourish (under very little attention!) that has hooked me over the past several years.
There you go. The instant gratification of it was simply irresistible to me.
And then there was The Year Of The Tomato Plants. I never wanted to grow tomatoes. I wasn't interested in having a vegetable garden of any sort. But the way it all happened, I really didn't have a choice.
I guess I should back up a bit and let you know how the tomato plants came into my life in the first place. It was spring and I was relieved we had made it through the long, frigid winter. High time for the distraction of gardening.
Business troubles and financial woes had landed us in a no-matter-how-hard-you-work-you-don't-seem-to-be-able-to-solve-the-problem kind of a year. Hasn't everyone had a year like that? We've had several off and on, but it had been a while and frankly, as grown-up Baby Boomers, we thought we were past those times. Think again.
So it was April and one of the few credit cards that still worked was Home Depot. How cool is that? I bought potting soil and garden soil and flats of flowers that would bloom throughout the summer...
And then Imogene came over and propped her elbow on the top of our fence, Do you still want some of my tomato plants?'
You have to understand, I couldn't possibly say no to that question. How do I explain this delicately? Imogene was one of those neighbors that had been, let's call it tough to love ever since we moved into our house several years before. Her huge yard and garden were not just well kept, they were pristine. She did all the work herself and didn't think highly of those of us whose gardens were not exactly what you would describe as immaculate.
The previous year my husband, Bob, had casually commented on how nice her tomato plants looked as he was walking down the alley. The next day, Imogene appeared at our doorstep with a basket full of tomatoes. To say this was surprising is an understatement of massive proportions.
But the big shocker was yet to come: the tomatoes were fabulous! These scrumptious orbs were the reason tomatoes were called a fruit in the first place. The only other time I had tasted tomatoes that good had been in Italy. I didn't think you could get a tomato that delicious here -- and from Imogene? How could something so delectable, so mouth-watering, come from her?
Of course we thanked her and bragged appropriately and sincerely on said tomatoes. More tomatoes were in the offing and later on in the season she asked the crucial question, Would you like to have some tomato plants of your own next year? No way in hell could I turn her down. If I said no, my un-neighborly rudeness would have been the talk of her and her dog-walking cronies for days! So I sputtered with fake enthusiasm, Yeah, sure, that'd be great.
The following spring, with her deceptively nonchalant inquiry, Imogene had called my bluff.
The garden was my escape from the harsh reality of unrequited work. That's when you love your work and it doesn't love you back: lots of effort with no money in return. Which is the downside of working for yourself sometimes, especially when you're in the business of dreams, like we've always been. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to that particular April.
There have been phases in my life when I was terrific at managing my time. This wasn't one of them. Here I was, having discovered the perfect diversion, and somehow in my brilliant, grand scheme of planning, I found three or four hours on the hottest days in each and every week of that unusually oppressive spring to plant my garden. We're talking about 98 to 100 with 99% humidity. Basically sweltering. Sometimes you have to take what you can get, so I brought my music outside, a fan to cool off with, my dogs to follow me around asking if they could help me dig -- it was all good.
Right in the middle of sweating out the day's problems, enjoying a few stolen hours for gardening, Imogene pops up with her loaded question, Do you still want some of my tomato plants?
If you have gardened, you know how much work it is to say yes to that question. If you havent, trust me, its a lot of work to say yes to that question!
It turned out that Imogene had grown the tomato plants from seeds. Eight little pots of healthy plants nurtured into existence just for me. They were 10 tall, give or take an inch, when she proudly presented them. I tried to appear grateful. These tomato plants were, in truth, superior, in spite of my questionable attitude. They were also a present from a neighbor I never expected a gift from. But, all I could think was: Oh, this is just great. Where the heck am I going to put them? And how was I going to find the time to dig out an area large enough for them?
And for the next month I didn't find the time. I set the flat of plastic pots in a good location (where Imogene and her buddies couldn't see them when they took their twice-a-day walks down the alleyway) and watered them daily along with the rest of my garden. Nevertheless, after several weeks I could see that these fine tomato plants were going to die if they weren't put in the ground where they could grow. It was the end of May, summer was fast approaching. Memorial Day weekend was coming up, and I couldn't postpone the task any longer for fear that Imogene would discover my neglect.
I had found the perfect spot running along our side of the next door neighbor's fence, but this ground had not been touched for a very long time, which is why I hadn't incorporated that section into my garden to begin with. But, there really wasn't another suitable area that got enough sun and wasn't full of flowers already, so I picked up the shovel and started digging. It wasn't long before I changed to a pick ax. This was some seriously hard ground.
I reared back with all my strength over and over again, breaking up the soil. Then I sat down in the dirt, sifted through it, taking out the grass, rocks and weeds. My dogs Smokey and Shadow thought this was all very entertaining. Mom had finally revealed the dog within, on hands and knees, burrowing into the ground. Smokey, my floppy-eared German Shepherd mix, was satisfied to lay in the shade and watch (after carefully positioning himself where he could guard the perimeter!). But Shadow was not to be left out of this blissful endeavor. Our shaggy little version of a black lab exercised his rights as the perpetual puppy and happily joined in the digging.
This activity was obviously tremendous fun for Shadow, but not for me. In the same amount of time and with half of the effort, I could have enlarged my flower garden with newly budding plants that would reward me with color in a matter of days. Tomato plants were not instant gratification on any level. But nonetheless, I dutifully continued my assignment.
I dug some more and sifted some more all day long. By the end of the first day I had created a nice bed for the tomato plants, but the soil was in terrible shape.
The next morning it was off to Home Depot for garden soil and stakes for the tomato plants to grow on. After I unloaded the van, let the dogs out to join me, got my fan and water bottle, I had everything I needed in place just as the sun was at the peak of its heat. Perfect timing as always!
I dumped bag after bag of dark brown soil into my new little vegetable plot and used a shovel, a rake and sometimes my bare hands to work the rich soil into the hard dirt. Shadow couldn't keep his paws out of it. This fresh, fertile ground must have smelled like dog chocolate to him -- too good to resist! So when I was digging on one end, he was merrily and energetically working the other end, with his goofy grin and his nose covered in dirt.
By this time I was exhausted, but starting to feel that sense of accomplishment when you've tackled a tough job and it's almost done. Done is getting the tomato plants in the earth, which was the simplest thing of all once the soil was ready.
As the sun went down that day I was contentedly watering my new tomato garden and by the next morning you could literally see those plants respond to the attention -- all perky, lifting their fragile leaves to the sky. Oh good, a little instant gratification after all!
I water my garden every day in the summer, twice when it's real hot. And that June was a scorcher. As I walked through the backyard every morning and evening with the garden hose, an entire rainbow of vibrant flowers greeted me. I was so pleased with the colorful blossoms filling up the area that I hardly noticed the background greenery, which was in fact the tomato plants.
But I continued to faithfully water all my plants and life went on. Back to the no-matter-how-hard-you-work issues of business during that summer that kept me pre-occupied, ridiculously busy and more than a little concerned about our situation.
It was the weekend before the 4th of July, a Sunday -- I remember because my younger sister and I had a standing phone appointment on Sunday afternoons that summer. I called her on my cell phone (free weekends, you know) and to get a better connection, I sat on the shaded bench in the corner of our yard beneath the magnolia tree, which was, as it happened, right next to my tomato garden. As we gabbed, I realized that my tomato plants had grown surprisingly tall, so I stood up next to them. They were taller than I am and since I'm 5'10" the plants had to be at least 6 feet! I thought quickly about when I planted them, Memorial Day weekend, which meant it had been approximately a month since they were put in the ground. How could these plants have grown more than five feet in one month?
I signed off my phone call and sat on the bench, looking at the astonishing growth of the tomato plants with a sense of wonder. Then I heard a still, quiet voice inside of me, Marsha, if I can make a tomato plant grow this much in one month, think of what I can do in your life in the same period of time...
It's been several years since that moment. I still think about those tomato plants, those sprawling vines with their leaves reaching out to the sun and new buds ready to supply an abundance of fruit. And I'm still amazed at how fast they grew, astounded at God's handy work.
So today, as I prepare the soil of my life the best I can, I pray I can have just one thirty day period of time that I grow as much as a tomato plant.