This made me laugh. I spent twenty years in the Navy, the last eight teaching at the Naval Academy. I retired in June and even though I was authorized ten reserved parking spaces for my ceremony at the Naval Academy, none of them had the correct names on the placards. Earlier this week, I went to West Point and facilitated a Coming Home Dialogue as a fully retired civilian…guess what I got, a parking sign with my name on it.
How’s that for irony?
We’ll come back to that sign; but first, I want to talk about something else.
On Tuesday, as I was driving north on the Garden State Parkway, I passed a series of wild-flower gardens on the median. They were quite beautiful and seeing them almost made me want to plant a wild-flower garden in my front yard next year. I thought, “That’s really nice, New Jersey. You know what, I’m retired now, maybe I should garden. I’ve got the time.” And then, as I remembered the torture of my childhood gardening experiences, the feeling quickly passed.
I don’t garden. I want to think that I would enjoy gardening, but I don’t. I’ve tried it. I grew up having to clear, plant, tend, and harvest a tomato garden for my parents. I don’t even like tomatoes. I mowed my lawn growing up and I am pretty sure I am allergic to grass. Every time I would finish mowing, despite taking two sometimes three showers, I’d spend the next three to four hours sneezing with runny-goopy eyes, itchy skin, and basically being miserable. I love the outdoors. I love being in nature. But I truly hate yard work. When we bought our house in Annapolis, I started out mowing the lawn and doing the weeds, not anymore. Getting a good lawn guy is the best money I ever spent.
I think my desire to want to like gardening comes from a deluded memory of Voltair’s Candide and the importance of “tending one’s own garden.” In my idealistic imagination, it’s a worthwhile process and time well spent. The patient and deliberate gardener blends brute force with book knowledge and cultural knowledge, has the courage to weather a series of trials and errors, and in the end, provides a dash of artistry that keeps the inevitable encroachment of nature at bay through the deft hand of human creativity.
Growing up, my two next door neighbors spent a lot of time in their yards. On the one side, Mr. Pergine had an award winning lawn. He won Upper Merion Township’s “Best Lawn of the Year” award not once, not twice, but THREE times, an unprecedented accomplishment. Mr. Pergine mowed that lawn like Cameron Fry’s father babied his Ferrari. “It’s his love. It’s his passion…It’s his fault he didn’t lock the garage.” We didn’t walk on Mr. Pergine’s lawn. We didn’t play on Mr. Pergine’s lawn. Heck, even Mrs. Pergine didn’t use Mr. Pergine’s lawn. The grass was perfect. The hedges were uniform. The flowers were always blooming in the right season. It was a testament to order and discipline – the taming of the natural world manifest in the suburban sublime.
On the other side, Mr. and Mrs. Tornetta spent just as much time cultivating their little .35 acre of paradise. The difference being that their endeavors embedded a little bit more chaos. Mr. Tornetta definitely took pride in the precision of his mowing, edging, and trimming while physically and emotionally navigating Mrs. Tornetta’s wild flower garden…and when I say garden, think a wild, suburban menagerie. The Tornetta’s lawn would always maintain a general sense of order but inevitably, usually around mid-July to early August, there would be a tenuous moment when the green weeds sprouting up between the tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, and other summer produce started to look suspiciously more like weeds gone out of control than wild-flowers. One, then two, then three weekends would pass and I could almost feel Mr. Tornetta’s patience about to break but then BOOM, a cacophony of color would explode intertwined between the late summer harvest; and it truly was beautiful.
During this most recent Coming Home Session, a program I facilitate that creates dialogues between veterans and civilians and explores the ideas of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Moral Injury, and Spiritual Injury through literature, poetry, and philosophy, one of the participants made a comment about how he sees his role as a teacher and leader as being similar to a gardener. Gardening takes follow through. It takes patience. It requires responsibility through a myriad of seasons. It also takes courage to sometimes let go of the need for control. To see what course nature will take, to let your crop fail, or to know when to step in and protect it with the help of a human touch.
In the context of our conversations concerning moral injury and military combat, we were struggling with the idea that if we present many of our topics to a younger military audience, specifically Cadets and Midshipmen, do we put them in an unnecessarily dangerous ethical position? Do we have a responsibility to lie to them, to shield them from the realities of combat? Are we complicit with creating more trauma if we toe the party line, fail to give them the full truth and let nature take its course? We couched our language in terms of planting seeds, watering ideas, and protecting the crop from vermin. Unfortunately, like all metaphors, the connection eventually breaks down and we aren’t talking about gardens anymore. But the association helped give some momentum to an already difficult conversation that struggles with the incomprehensible dilemma of ethics and morals in regards to combat trauma.
As I was driving home, I didn’t pass the same wild-flowers again because the Garden State Parkway was a parking lot with evening traffic. Instead, I found myself bouncing through some local roads in upstate New Jersey and eventually marooned on the Turnpike. Ahh, the familiar face of the New Jersey I have grown to love. I missed seeing those wild flower beds on my way south but I also noticed how perfectly practical the New Jersey turnpike is. No extraneous flowers in the medians. No extra overpasses. No beautiful stone work or murals. It’s efficiency at its best. And traffic flowed. Hundreds of cars moved south at a comfortable 60-65 miles per hour. Mission accomplished. I’m sure Mr. Pergine would have been proud.
But I pondered…now south of exit 6 and into the last few hours of my ride home…why would anyone really want to garden? In the end, none of it matters. Pave it all. Be more practical. I mean, left alone, the weeds will sprout, our manicured grass will die, nature will breach the tenuous wall of our suburban illusion. Why bother? Well, because sometimes, even without any insertion of effort, the simple act of making a space for something to grow is enough. Last year, my son Josh and my in-laws built some little garden beds on our back porch. They planted blueberries, carrots, and cucumbers. He watered and weeded it all summer but nothing worth eating grew. Since then, our golden retriever Charlie has turned that area into his own personal sun bathing, dog-siesta paradise. And the beds were a convenient little latrine. Josh didn’t touch those things for over a year, and lo and behold, Charlie’s pee is apparently magic because last month, we had a banner crop of carrots and cucumbers. Goooo nature!
So what about that parking sign? Well, if ever asked, I’d tell you that no, I don’t want a reserved parking spot; but I think deep down, I want to be one of those people who gets one. Call it pride. Call it hubris. Dammit, it felt cool. And it was truly a nice surprise. All of that aside, and more importantly, it gave me an excuse to think about how some of the most surprising accomplishments come when we stop looking for them. They sneak up on us when we’ve got our heads down, our hands buried in the process, and our minds lost in the dirty routine of simple, solid effort.
In this case, I got a nice little parking sign. I didn’t need it. My colleagues and I could have easily walked a little bit further to the building. But it set a tone for the whole time we were there. It suggested a sense of mutual respect, of gravitas for the program. It let all of us know that this was important and that we, as representatives of the program, were important. It mattered. And it took 20 years of tilling, weeding, plowing under failed crops, and dealing with some disappointing harvests to finally get some flowers. Whether it’s teaching, leading, or I dare say, doing workouts in the gym, I think there is worth in thinking about the process like gardening. It’s messy. It’s slow. It’s hard. And there’s no guarantee you are going to get the flowers you want at the end. But apparently it is worth it, so thanks Jersey, you keep on keepin’ on with those wild-flowers.
See you in the box.