It's two degrees outside, and my mailbox is overflowing with lilies and tomatoes. Pictures of them, that is. Seed catalogs.
They began turning up just before Christmas, sandwiched between the Visa bills, gilded Christmas cards, and letters from friends we haven't seen in years. In the midst of carols, baking, and family festivities, the seed catalogs were piled on an end table, largely forgotten. Until today.
I love how they arrive in the dead of winter, dependable as the liturgy. So much promise for just pennies a packet. Some of the catalogs are slick and polished, with an abundance of exaggerated hyperbole. "Exclusive!" "Summer Madness Hybrid Double Petunia," "Picture Perfect Salmon Pink Coleus," "A tapestry of stunning colors and textures." No shy descriptions here.
In all the catalogs, warm colors proliferate: reds, oranges, yellows. A kaleidoscope of hot peppers on one page, zinnias like fireworks on the next. I soak up colors, the butter yellows of sweet corn, the bright pinks of impatiens, the deep greens of basil.
Outside, it's difficult to think about planting anything. Fourteen inches of snow have obliterated all signs of my backyard garden. The pond is frozen solid under the drifts, leaving a slight depression, shadowed blue in the low-slanting February light. It's wreathed with tracks, ghost-signs of life, the local squirrels and coyotes checking to be sure their water hole is truly inaccessible. My bird feeders are empty and silent. Steam curls up invitingly from the heated birdbath, but there are no takers. Despite the harsh particulars, the landscape is easy on the eyes. Restful and quiet.
Meanwhile, the world's all about unrest. The newspaper flung on the kitchen counter has the same headlines as a day ago, a week ago, a month ago. The economy nose-dives. Companies lay off tens of thousands. Epidemics and starvation decimate Africa. Corruption plagues my local government. On Wall Street, those who have much want more and don't hesitate to cheat those who have little. Our youngest child just flew the nest, and I worry. What kind of world is this for my children?
I don't believe it was an accident that God began the world with a garden. Scripture brims with references to planting and tending a garden, from the parable of the sower in Mark 4:3 - "A farmer went out to sow his seed" - to the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 20:1 - "The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard" - to God's admonition to Adam in Genesis 2:15 - "The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it."
Planting a garden and caring for it is a spiritual act for me, and also a nostalgic act. When I was eight, waiting my turn at piano lessons, I leafed through my teacher's magazine rack. She was an avid gardener, and the Burpee garden catalog was her Bible. Mesmerized, I turned the pages, amazed that all the vegetables I saw at the grocery store - and more - could come from seeds you ordered from a catalog. At eight, the world is brimming with dreams and possibilities, all realizable. I begged my mother for a small corner of the yard, and she helped me place my seed order. I planted, and I waited.
Like all gardens, mine was subject to weeds. And, like all small gardeners - and some older ones - I wasn't inclined to pull them. Soon my flowers and veggies were threatened by burdock and thistle. Beneath the weeds and first up were the radishes. I didn't like them and neither did anyone else, although they decorated the family salads all spring. The carrots barely cracked the hardpan earth. I bought a few tomato plants at the hardware store to fill in the blanks.
But the morning glories, "Heavenly Blue," how beautiful they were! Despite my neglect, they twined up the chain-link fence, opening only in the morning (as the good old-fashioned ones do). Now, the seed catalogs have all sorts of hybrids that stay open "well into the day," but I still like the old-fashioned ones that only bloom a few hours. Get up early, or you'll miss them. They remind me to pay attention.
The "Heavenly Blue" morning glories are still in the Burpee catalog . . . and so much more. At 47, I still dream. I can plant flowers to attract butterflies or hummingbirds. I can conjure up a garden of herbs specifically for tea. I might recreate the tallgrass prairie or a wildflower meadow on my little plot, or grow paste tomatoes to make special Italian dishes. Each page is another possibility.
When you watch a seed crack the earth, put out leaves, then blossom and fruit into food for your family, it gives you hope. When you see a dry husk sprout and become a beautiful pinwheel of color, it prompts you to dream. A garden is an act of defiance; a determination to focus on new life and beauty in the midst of a world in crisis. It's a blow struck for believing things will change for the better.
Not to say that those newspaper headlines don't have their influence. They drag me down, they lurk, unspoken, in the back of my mind. My thoughts are sown with the seeds of cynicism, despair, and darkness. Combating the worries the best I can, I write them in my journal, then light a candle at my kitchen table and pray. I offer these worries to God, asking him to handle each one. Then I release them. They aren't gone for good, but I find it's a beginning.
When Job wondered why bad things happened, God answered his questions with a tour through the wonders of nature. "Who do you suppose carves canyons for the downpours of rain, and charts the route of thunderstorms that bring water to unvisited fields, deserts no one ever lays eyes on, drenching the useless wastelands so they're carpeted with wildflowers and grass? And who do you think is the father of rain and dew, the mother of ice and frost? You don't for a minute imagine these marvels of weather just happen, do you?" (Job 38:22-30, The Message). The God who created all these wonders is the God I can go to when I'm afraid.
I'm also reminded of Matthew 6:27: "Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?" I don't want my life to be defined by worry and fear; I don't want my garden to be choked with "weeds." I want to put down deep roots, to grow and to bloom, and to reach toward sunlight and warmth. I want to plant a garden for the future, one that is seeded with contentment, joy, and hope for what might be.
I can't control the plummeting economy, the unrest in the Middle East, the injuries and illnesses of loved ones. I don't understand the injustices and calamities of the world, trumpeted in bold newspaper headlines each morning, but I know the God who loves me - and who made all the wonders of the outdoors - is holding me close to his heart. I can choose my response: "When I am afraid, I will trust in you" (Psalm 56:3).
I make out my seed list, adding some flowers and herbs here, crossing off a few vegetables there. Drawing the outline of where the new roses will go, mentally shifting the iris to another spot by the pond. I can't shift my worries so easily, but each time I choose to plan a garden, it brings me one step closer. I dream, and I choose to believe . . . and to hope.