Doing for others what I don’t do for myself

My young friend needed help with her garden. I can’t work my smartphone or my computer, but suddenly I was no longer a fogey, but an authentic Elder.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

My young friend Hannah just moved into her first house and was looking forward to her first garden. There was a chicken coop and some old raised vegetable beds, but the rest was a mystery. She spun around slowly, poking at undergrowth and looking overwhelmed.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I don’t even know what anything is.” Such a kid!

“I’ll help you,” I chirped, and a few days later I showed up bright and early and bristling with rakes and choppers and clippers. I can’t work my smartphone or my computer, but suddenly I was no longer a fogey, but an authentic Elder. I knew stuff. We started with a crisp, efficient triage.

“This is ivy, and this is deadly nightshade,” I began, pointing with authority.

“Bad,” she said.

“Bad. And all this here, and there, and oh my goodness way over there, that would be your Himalayan blackberries.”


“No, bad. And this is a fig.”

“I like figs?” she ventured carefully.

“Not this one. You can plant a new one in the sun, where it might actually fruit.” 

We made a quick inventory of the vegetable beds, and I set her to work yarding out antique broccoli stumps and bushels of surplus rosemary. “I’ll take care of the rest,” I said, and I shouldered my clippers and headed for the blackberry patch with a bounce in my step. Watch this, Junior, I thought.

I was ablaze. Six sunny hours later, I had all available yard debris bags filled and had constructed a massive but tidy brush pile. Accidental shrubbery was deleted and a gratifying expanse had opened up under the trees. I was sweaty and scratched and proud. The transformation was truly tremendous, and my friend’s dewy face bloomed in admiration.

Not long after, I found myself in a corner of my yard I’d ignored for years. Nature had taken over, but not in a good way. Suddenly, I was inspired. I could open this up nicely, I thought. Is that holly? Is that ivy? Out it goes. If I can do Hannah’s whole backyard in a day, I can clean up this little patch.

Or, you know – not.

I study the holly and fetch clippers and a mattock. Mattocks naturally lend themselves to meditation. Once you have a mattock in hand, you can lean on it. And then you can squint through the hollies and right into the future.

I saw Adirondack chairs. Two of them, angled just so. My friend in Maine has some. Hers look out over her personal inlet. Wouldn’t that be nice to have your own kayak and your own shore?

Good old Maine! So much shoreline, with all those fingers of land reaching out into the ocean. Seems like everybody gets to live on the water.

Hey, that would make a good story! Everyone in Maine takes their kayaks out at the same time on a nice day, but they all end up one inlet to the north in someone else’s Adirondack chairs, and no one notices, except the northernmost kayaker, who strays into Canada and gets kidnapped by the maple syrup cartel.

It’d just take a minute to pop inside and jot this down on my computer before I forget it. I walk past a heap of laundry, which I really should wash if anyone in the house is going to have clean underwear tomorrow.

By sunset I’ve decided my story is going nowhere. Nobody has clean underwear, and I can’t see my fantasy Adirondack chairs for the shrubbery. I scowl at the holly thicket and put the mattock away.

I can probably hire a kid to do that.

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

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The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

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