When we bought our hillside Jerusalem apartment a year ago, an adjacent triangular piece of land bordered by a low stone wall also became ours by default. Bare of bush or blossom, its sole occupant was a huge, twin-trunked olive tree growing right in the center.
Each time I passed by on my way in or out, the dusty expanse of grey, untended soil beneath the tree’s spreading branches reproached me with its unrealized potential, a reproach that only deepened at the sight of our opposite neighbor’s neatly cultivated patch.
Next week’s advent of Rosh Hashana, and with it the start of Israel’s shmita year, during which planting in the ground is forbidden by Jewish law, finally pushed me, virtually last-minute, to bring in a professional and plant a garden of our own; and what I can only describe as a joyful lifting of the spirit every time I step outside has already made the expense worthwhile.
I WAS listening gloomily to the radio news and the latest on Islamic State’s menacing creep across the globe when the gardener invited me to see the bougainvillea he had just installed in a tall pale pot next to our front door. The color I had chosen was a deep ruby red, and I happily pictured it spreading over our outer wall.
“You pulled me away from the IS horror story to show me this magnificent plant. Not a bad swap,” I told him.
He remarked that he hardly ever listened to the news, a likely reason for his air of calm equanimity.
On the ground around the olive tree, two kinds of creeper are now establishing a presence. Within a year, they will cover much of the area in a benevolent conquest.
WATCHING OUR gardener and his team painstakingly turning the long-neglected soil, fertilizing it and installing an efficient sprinkler system led me to a wider speculation about planting seeds.
Everyone knows that ground needs preparing before anything worthwhile can grow; but when it comes to human contact and cultivating relationships, that prerequisite often gets overlooked.
In the hurried modern Western world, dominated by a shallow media and glib ad industry, too many people meet and expect a meaningful relationship to spring up automatically, as a matter of course, without any investment of time or effort in finding out who the other person is and what makes him or her tick. They are then devastated and bewildered when these not-yet-relationships fall apart because their seeds were never properly planted.
“I’d like to get to know you,” a would-be Israeli suitor once told me, “but I haven’t got the patience for it.”
His blunt honesty amused as much as dismayed me at the time, and it saddens me now when I recall it because I suspect that many people in today’s society have much the same attitude, even if they don’t express it so blatantly.
I wonder how many times that impatient Israeli spun the same line before realizing that there aren’t any short cuts to genuine personal connection. Perhaps he thought his approach would get a woman sooner into bed, but too-early physical intimacy is no guarantee of corresponding emotional attachment. On the contrary, it often bypasses emotional involvement altogether, leaving one or both partners wondering about “the one that got away.”
“Next time a man tries to rush you,” an online relationship expert advised a client, “print out an ad for an escort service and carry it with you. Just give him that ad and tell him that you think it is a more suitable, convenient and faster solution to what he is looking for.”
During a former, more regulated era, society itself imposed certain behavioral rules on the meeting-mating process, and anyone embarking on that process had to follow them or risk being ostracized. In stark contrast, today’s dating arena is a confusing free-for-all, which means that people – women especially – face the tricky task of having to impose their own rules.
In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s charming novella The Little Prince – reportedly the most-read and mosttranslated book in the French language – the eponymous young hero, in love with a vain and mercurial rose, leaves his tiny home to explore other planets. On his travels, he encounters a whole row of rosebushes and falls into deep despair, having believed that his rose was “unique in the world.” Along comes a fox, who explains to the dejected little prince that what makes his rose unique and special is the time and effort he has spent in caring for her.
On one level, all men and women are the same. To discover what makes each of us unique and thus worthy of love requires a process of discovery needing time, effort and patience. These components make up the system that waters the seeds of human connection.
MANY WESTERN parents feel the absence of any real relationship with their growing children. Juggling the conflicting demands of job, home and their own social lives, they realize that they aren’t carving out quality time with their kids to get a handle on how they are doing and what they are feeling. Guilt, and the sense that they aren’t “giving their children enough” then leads to the purchase of yet another electronic gadget or money to spend in the mall.
Type the word “affluenza” into Google, and you will get over a million hits dealing with this modern malady of consumerism whose name neatly conflates “affluence” and “influenza.”
“I really don’t think our kids want the latest technology or the hottest name brand as much as they want something else,” writes a perceptive blogger. “Oh, they think they do. And they will beg and plead (and drive us crazy) for it. But deep down, they are hungry for something deeper that satisfies and lasts a lot longer than just stuff.
Giving them firm boundaries, love and perspective is exactly what we can offer them.”
Some parents only “discover” their child at around age 14, when they lament the lack of genuine contact between them. But for that contact to exist and survive the tempestuous teenage years, it needs to be nurtured from day one onwards.
Children and parents, with a few glaring exceptions, love each other. It’s a deep love, which owes a lot to biology, and it’s enduring. But that is not to say that children and parents can talk profitably to each other, or share the things that are important to them.
The umbilical cord may be cut at birth, but there is another, invisible cord via which openness and the willingness to listen and understand flows both ways, from parent to child and back again. The process is called communication and for the system to function it needs – like the watering system in my garden – to be put in place at the very beginning.
There may be occasional hiccups in the system, fluctuations here and there, but if the channel is maintained, the flow will resume.
There are lubricants for this precious communication system, and some years ago I brought home a valuable tip from a visit with my sister-in-law in England. I noticed that each time she talked to one of her children on the phone, she ended with “Love you.” I began doing this with my own daughter, and now it is automatic on both sides.
It sounds simple and even superficial, but it is the language of caring woven into the fabric of everyday life.
I THINK there will be more than one lesson to be learned from watching my garden grow.