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I may have moved to a condo in recent years, but I still have a wonderful little hanging pot of tomatoes on my back deck. I might have ventured into a few more things (I sometimes get a little carried away at greenhouses with visions–with little basis in reality– of myself as an urban gardener), but I had two visits from marauding raccoons in early summer and that made me wary of becoming too attractive of a food oasis.

In fact, my summer has been taking up with “growing” things: I taught a summer school class, full of lovely students, who were ready to engage with a big stack of books written by women that asked questions about our histories, our loves, and our futures. And I’ve been working with an all-campus team to think about how our college is going to grow into something new.

It all reminds me of this poem by Louise Glück–where the growing of tomatoes is a metaphor for all we risk in trying to cultivate things: all the joy, all the fear. The responsibility is huge, but the tomatoes taste all the more delicious because of it.

Vespers
Louise Glück
 
In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
I think I should not be encouraged to grow
tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold
the heavy rains, the cold nights that come
so often here, while other regions get
twelve weeks of summer. All this
belongs to you: on the other hand,
I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots
like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart
broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly
multiplying in the rows. I doubt
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term. You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible
for these vines.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

4 Comments

  • James Schaap says:

    Thanks. We’ve had tons of rain, and I’m worried about my tomatoes. But then, I guess, I always am.

  • John vanStaalduinen says:

    Here in the Pacific northwest we grow our tomatoes in closely guarded wire mesh cages surrounded by plastic. The tomatoes can see out, but the blights and pests and terrible fall rains never blemish the fruit while it is in our possession. When the tomatoes are shipped out to “finishing school” some fall prey to the troubles of the world. Pray that these vulnerable souls will remain faithful to the One that will save them.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    What a marvelous poem. No wonder my wife Melody loves Louise Gluck.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    My tomatoes are always stunted and sparse, but it is not my fault. I let God take care of watering them in July and August and all I can say about it is that they don’t get enough. Just sayin’. Loved the poem.

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