Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.
Great is Thy Faithfulness
I planted bulbs today. It might be possible to plant bulbs and not wax philosophical, but I’ve never pulled off such a feat. There are few acts of faith quite like the planting of a bulb. Here, in the waning of the year, when the last brilliant burst of color paints our hills and views before the monochrome eternity of winter overtakes us, I knelt in the fading sun and dug into the mulch and compost I had laid down this summer. Even at the moment of digging, I was building on what I had already begun – the beds I had laid out, the depth of the soil loose over the hard rocks. And with the light slanting so strongly as to throw shadows at noon, I buried the bulbs and covered them – and it was as though they had never been there.
When my work was complete, the world LOOKED the same as it had before, or maybe even worse. A detritus of bulb-papers covered the ground, and the mulch and soil were irrevocably mixed. The casual observer might think nothing at all had changed. And so it will remain for the rest of the year, and well into the following. We will pass Halloween, and the election, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years. We will walk into whatever 2021 holds for us, and work well into the year. And then there will be a day where the dirty snow has receded and the warmest part of the garden, where the sun falls first, will show the first sign of my labors with a small, green glimmer. What happens next varies greatly on the year. If we get a warm spell, then maybe the bulbs race towards maturity, exploding into color and brilliance. In a cold dark spring, they’ll linger long at every phase, inching towards blossoms that they’ll hold onto with extended awe. The patches of color will spread and change as the colder, darker parts of the garden finally bask in light and warmth. And my spring self will be grateful to my fall self for her foresight and altruistic gift to the future.
These are hard times for pretty much everyone. My family is going through big challenges, and we’re not alone in that. The world is in the wearying clutch of pandemic, shut off from each other. Conflict and tumult are the order of the day. Anger and fear have become the only emotions we feed, with every news story, tweet, and interaction telling us that we should be both afraid of what is happening, and angry that it has happened. There are few – and failing – sources of hope, of joy or even of fun. It can feel irresponsible and impossible in such dire times as these dark autumn days to be cheerful, optimistic, hopeful, joyful or even just content. Those emotions feel frail – difficult to create and easy to destroy. We are in a winter of our souls, with the emotional monochrome of that fear and anger. And it doesn’t seem possible that the frail sun will ever break through the clouds or be able to melt the implacable ice of division, or that we will ever again stand bare-armed in the sun among fragrant flowers.
But there are seasons in most things. Just because this is winter, it does not mean that winter is the only truth, or the only way we will ever experience life. I don’t know whether this is the beginning of a longer season (I have been thinking a lot of Gregory of Tours – for whom my son was named – who watched the curtain close on the civilization of Rome with a lonely dread), or if we are in March and the days are already lengthening. Or perhaps we’re in February, with much left to come but none of it worse than we’ve already lived through. But I do know that we are not fools to hold on to hope.
And so we plant bulbs, knowing that we will not see flowers for a long time. We plant bulbs, knowing we are mortal but not knowing what day our mortality awaits us. We improve the soil, which will be planted with seeds of some generation of flowers to come. We create loveliness, and do not squander the loveliness left to us by the loving anticipation of the past.
Do not despair friends. The things you fear may truly be real. But they have not yet come to pass. And there is still strength in you, to either prevent those things or endure them. In this season, we strive for enough strength for today to create that bright hope, which will bloom if not tomorrow – then soon.