How I Learned to Stop Trying So Hard & Love the Garden

How I Learned to Stop Trying So Hard & Love the Garden

Maxwell Ryan
Mar 14, 2012

The picture above was taken this past Saturday at my house in the country. In early March it's pretty bleak out on Eastern Long Island, but with the warm winter, you can already smell the earth and see the bulbs shooting up through the lawn - getting ready to pop.

In the distance is the birdhouse and close up is the outdoor dining area with the garden on either side that we built last spring. It's an amazing place to be from June through September under the summer stars. You can sit late into the night surrounded by fireflies and the smell of the garden after a long, hot day and feel very eternal and peaceful.

The view from the dining room. Everything is centered on these doors.

I spent this past weekend moving things around the house and garden; making plans for fixes and additions this spring. Doing this outdoor work has always been one of the things that makes me feel really good (take a look at where the garden was last year at this time!). I love to plan, design and make things beautiful, especially if it's a space that will be shared and others will get to enjoy the creation. I've also become sort of addicted to symmetry over the past few years, and my visions for all my outdoor landscaping work are now all tied together by balance and focal points that draw the eye into the distance.

If you look at these pictures you can see how everything is lining up and this symmetry is making order out of what was a relatively wild outdoor landscape a few years back (here's the original DIY patio at it's inception).

Step out the doors and you're on the porch... more symmetry.

From the sliding glass doors at the back of the house to the large Purple Martin bird house in the distance, there is a central line that the two lobes of garden fall on either side of, while the dining table (surrounded by wine racks and planters) sits right on it, crisscrossed with small lights overhead in the summer months. This spring, I'm planning a big push - to put in a small grill hutch beyond the garden to the left and a wood stove heated hot tub to the right - on either side of this same line.

See the birdhouse in the distance now? That's the final focal point.

Just thinking about doing all this work was making me happy this weekend, when I awoke on Sunday to realize that something about it was bothering me. I was doing it again, the same old thing .

In full disclosure, the past year has been really tough, and I've felt like I've been running into headwinds. A lot of my plans were not working out. It has been painful and disorienting. And through it all, I've slowly come to realize that aiming for and holding onto perfection was part of the problem.

And symmetry, which I love, has a lot to do with order and perfection.

Part of my sketch for the new grill hutch at the end of the garden. Note the skillful use of a ruler.

Pain when you hit those headwinds will really break you down and get you to let go of anything you hold on to too tightly. But you do begin to feel better when you hit bottom, have a cry and realize that imperfect is OK - not just OK, but probably much more real than anything else in the whole world.

When you're OK with things being imperfect you also begin to realize that you have a lot more in common with everyone and everything all around you. You can connect better. You can listen better.

And life gets richer when you are more connected to it.*

That's where I've arrived at lately.

The front of the house where I am puting in a straight path... but it has the old flagstones curving through it, saving the day.

I often think of Martha Stewart's career and Oprah's career as being good examples of two poles. Both tower over their professions and serve as role models for their generations.

While I subscribed to Martha Stewart's magazine as A MAN right out of college and admire greatly what she has done and continues to do, there's also a striving for perfection where I want to go with her, but I sometimes feel left behind. I want to do it like that, but sometimes I can't. It's too perfect. But I like the aspiration. She's like looking at a mountain that's a bit too tall and wishing to climb it.

With Oprah it's the opposite. She's not an expert at anything, she's had an imperfect life and she's been so open about her own failings, yet people are just drawn to her. They can relate, because they feel she can relate. She wears her imperfection outwardly, and she seems more human for it. She's like looking at a big, juicy puddle and wanting to stomp through it with your friends.

When you know deep down that life is full of pain, loss, suffering and imperfection and you can celebrate despite it, then you can support others in their lives and they'll feel it.

Which brings me back to the garden and my spring plans.

All of the balance and symmetry that I have so doggedly been planning is a perfect example of how I DO hold on too tightly to things being a certain way and that I am bound - as I have been in the last nine months - to be disappointed eventually if I don't relax my grip and open my eyes and ears. Trying to get everything into place, and not being happy until it is, is a sure fire way to disappoint myself in the end.

Which isn't to say that I am suddenly going to abandon symmetry, change my garden plans or that you shouldn't try to make your home as lovely as you want it to be. I'm not going to shake my inner Martha, but I'm also not going to deny my new Oprah reality. There's a middle path.

I'll keep the symmetry in my plans, but remove the rigidity that has had me obsessing over it in the past. And despite my best laid plans this spring, when things go wrong, I am going to have forgiveness for myself, the garden and everyone involved as I march towards those lovely summer nights, and then I'll get to sit out, smell the hot garden and I look up at the sky...

...feeling peaceful and eternal.

The first DIY trial patio test during the summer of 2010

* As Pema Chodron says in a book I've been reading over and over again lately:

"We think that if we just meditated enough or jogged enough or ate perfect food, everything would be perfect. But from the point of view of someone who is awake, that's death. Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self-contained and comfortable, is some kind of death. It doesn't have any fresh air...

To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest....

When we wake up, we can live fully without seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, without re-creating ourselves when we fall apart... We can give up on being perfect and experience each moment to its fullest."

Images: Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan

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