I had big plans for this past summer. My daughters and I were going to spend June, July, and August exploring the backcountry. Throughout the year I’d accumulated gear: hiking boots, a backpack, and three pairs of thick wool socks. A scrap of paper on my wall read “Claim the Mountains,” and I planned on cleansing my soul by skinny dipping in cold, alpine lakes.
But the reality is, I spent most of this summer at home in my yard. Instead of adding my tread mark to the trails, I stayed put, and by doing so, I found what I didn’t even know I needed.
This unexpected shift toward planting myself at my residence for the warm weather months began late last spring when my younger daughter decided she wanted to grow some vegetables. After participating in a school field trip to a local nursery, she was bitten hard by the gardening bug.
Unfortunately, I’ve never been much of a gardener. In fact, it had been a long while since I’d given any time or attention to our yard. Our flower beds were a tangled mess of weeds and neglected perennials, our garden plot was barren, and our overgrown shrubs made the whole yard look unkempt. My husband had taken to muttering “Our place looks like *&^$,” every time we pulled into the driveway. I’d learned to avert my eyes from the worst of it–my to-do list was already too long without adding any additional chores.
But Clara could not be deterred. So, she and I dusted off some old terracotta pots and filled them with dirt. Carefully, she sprinkled seeds into the soil and watered them lightly. We set the pots on our back porch where the morning sun touches first.
Each afternoon, Clara carefully watered her garden while I stood at the kitchen sink and watched. I didn’t expect the seeds to grow, but after a week or so, Clara excitedly waved me out onto the porch. With wide-eyed delight she pointed to a small green sprout emerging from the dirt. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this tiny miracle would subtly begin to alter the next several months of my life.
In her book Steering by Starlight, author Martha Beck writes, “Every time you make a choice about which objects you bring into your space, where you put them, or whether to remove them, you’re following psychological directives that also shape every other aspect of your life.”
Beck also states that “your living space is a powerful metaphor for your life.” For example, household goods hidden away in nooks and crannies might reflect buried secrets in your psyche. Obsessive neatness may point towards a rigidity or inflexibility either mentally or emotionally. I’m sure Beck would be able to take one look around my sad, neglected yard–an extension of my home–and determine that too much of my energy was being spent elsewhere. For years now, I’d been stretching myself too thin and my home, especially my yard, had suffered for it. My soul wasn’t in such good shape either.
But, according to Beck, creating a positive psychological shift is fairly simple. A method she suggests is to make one small change to your living space. Beck calls this the “butterfly effect” (based on a 1952 short story by Ray Bradbury where a time traveler goes back in time, steps on a butterfly, and returns to find the modern world completely altered). Beck claims that by making one conscious adjustment to your environment, you will ignite a string of changes that will be psychologically cleansing and realign you with a better and brighter future.
As much as I like Beck, I was skeptical.
That is, I was skeptical until my friend Jillene read Beck’s book and removed a piano from her dining room. It had been blocking access to one side of the table, a constant irritant. Almost immediately, Jillene began to see new possibilities, not only in her decor but in her personal and professional life as well. Over the next year or so, Jillene redecorated her bedroom, guest room, and living room, and converted her extra room into a crafting space. Simultaneously, she also began to exercise regularly, eat more consciously, and dropped the thirty pounds she’d been battling for over a decade. Her slimmer appearance made her feel empowered and more able to speak her mind. She used this newfound voice to gracefully step down from overwhelming commitments and to improve several personal relationships.
And it all started with removing the obstacle–the piano–from her dining room.
Without realizing it, my personal butterfly effect began with Clara’s back porch garden. As her seedlings grew, I found my heart touched by their hopefulness. The wonderment and ease I experienced from Clara’s plants created a craving within me. I wanted that same solace on a much bigger scale. I wanted to sleep, eat, and live enveloped in that sense of peace. I wanted to carry it within me wherever I went.
After a quick survey of the state of our back porch, I canceled hiking plans in favor of scrubbing patio furniture, and making trips to the nursery to buy several small maple trees and huge pots in which to plant them. I filled a hummingbird feeder I found in the garage, and sanded the peeling paint from our wooden benches. I found that the more I did, the more I felt a sense of contentment creep into my heart. As a final touch, I hung two strings of Tibetan prayer flags so our requests and thanks could be blown to the heavens. In just over a week, our back porch was transformed into a serene haven. It became a frequent meeting place for our family. While sitting in the morning sun sipping coffee, I renewed the energy I’d spent elsewhere. As writer Kathleen Norris states so simply, “Peace–that was the other name for home.”
Of course, it didn’t take long for my backyard paradise to make the neglected front yard even more disturbing and unbearable. One morning, I pulled on my new wool socks and laced up my hiking boots. But I didn’t head for the mountains. Instead, I stomped around just outside my front door, tearing out blackberry bramble and sawing off dead branches from shrubs and trees. I yanked up fistfuls of weeds and dug holes for new plants. I worked hard–harder than I had in a long time–but as I did, something within me unfurled. My own roots grew and stretched, anchoring me to my deepest self, to my home within.
Just as Beck predicted, each change to my yard was followed by minor and major shifts within other areas of my life: I received interest regarding a writing project and found some solutions for medical issues. My relationship with my parents deepened, and the mother/daughter angst between me and my preteen dissolved. The panic that I never do enough, never am enough, started to ebb.
Is this the butterfly effect that Beck described?
I contemplated this possibility as I knelt down to tug at the crabgrass that had sprung up around my new lavender plants. As I worked, I realized that I was in a traditional prayer position. It occurred to me that the changes I had made this summer, all the work I’d put into my yard, had been a prayer of sorts. A prayer of hope, a prayer for grace, and that day, as I knelt before my weeds, a prayer of gratitude. Bowing before my reclaimed garden space, I gave thanks for the summer of yard work and for all the miracles that had followed. I closed my eyes and offered my deepest gratitude for rediscovering the heart within my home and the home within my heart.
And when I opened my eyes, I kid you not, a butterfly fluttered past.