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We’re past the halfway mark of the summer, and I can feel myself beginning to hold on too tightly. My anxiety rises as I wake up to a darker sky, as the busyness of fall creeps closer on the calendar, and as I push my shopping cart more swiftly past the school supplies.
Perhaps this is also why, at the end of July, I’ve begun to attempt to bring the outside in. To cut stems from my flower boxes and stick them in vases all over my house, hoping they might propagate, that they might grow a root I could plant and save. To defy the seasons, to save summer, to hold on.
I can’t save everything, of course. I can’t bring all of the outside in. In a few months, my annuals will wither. The tomato plants will freeze. The leaves will change colors and fall. But I still feel compelled to try.
Of the hobbies I picked up during the pandemic, two remain: growing houseplants and baking sourdough bread. Both are about tending — both require me to slow me down, to be witness to a process that requires both my attention and my patience, to be committed to a practice that feels both scientific and miraculous.
To tend means “to incline, to move in a certain direction.” Its etymological roots are in the Old French word tendre, which means to “stretch out, hold forth, hand over, offer.”
To tend is to both hold on and to let go.
The irony is that when I tend — whether its to gardening, baking, teaching, parenting, or writing — my first instinct is to make it about my will, my determination, my resolve. But tending is an offering, an opening up rather than baring down, a stretching out rather than pulling inward.
My pastor, in a recent sermon about beauty, told us about Michelangelo and how he believed it was his job as a sculptor to uncover, to tend to, the statue in the stone. “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free,” he said. Michelangelo believed his hands were the vessels by which God used to unveil something bigger than himself.
I love this idea, but best not to idealize it. Michelangelo likely did not carve with a light shining down on his hands. Tending is far more fraught. I find moments of light get in only when I can set aside my self doubt enough to allow them. When I can get myself enough out of the way to make space for the spirit to work.
I had a very clear moment when first beginning my novel, the piece of writing I’ve been tending for a few years, when the characters suddenly felt much larger than me, when it became clear that the story wanted to be written. Other artists may describe this as enlightenment or inspiration, but I find those words too shiny. For me, it was organic and spiritual, more akin to getting my hands in the dirt. It was a loosening of my own control to accept my role as the vessel, not the wind. Like a cut stem, if I could stay steady and patient in the water, the miracle of a root might slowly begin to appear.
For the remaining weeks of summer, you will likely find me outside, cutting stems from my garden. I will bring as much of summer as I can inside and though I’ll be out of window space, I will try to save as much as I can from the cold that will inevitably come. But I also hope I’ll keep learning that I cannot force every stem to take root, that tending to one’s faith is as much about letting go as it is holding on.